“At a stoplight, a man in the backseat of a cab, a cigarette hanging from his lips, rolled down his window and complimented the bike. He wasn’t coming on to me. He was envious. He wanted what I had like a man might want something another man has.”—
She describes, in the previous paragraph, the pope with “a huge ornamental headdress that looked like a brushed-metal bullet, a large pointed dome with a row of twinkling stones low around its girth, underneath a spiky gold base.” And one of the things that this book does so well is set up and pick up resonances: there are images of popes throughout, here a motorcycle brand, there a wistful dream, elsewhere a ceiling fresco of popes drowning; there are a couple of bullets, each freighted with significance; there is the futurist dream early in the book, of mechanized speed and half-human half-machine hybrids, which this resembles. None of which is, needs to be, remarked on, in the middle of this tossed-off story, which is one of the chief reasons this book is so good. It has invented a world, a coherent and consistent set of symbols and images and icons, that taken on their own might be heightened or hyperrealistic or hysterical even, but capture the moment they’re intended to more completely than stricter verisimilitude might.
Which is great, and apt, and we’ve all been in that bar, right? But even better, a little down the page: “She shone like something wet, a piece of candy that had been in someone’s mouth.” Which winds up just being glitter and sweat, but is beautiful and cruel and ominous. So much of this book is so very good at sentence level.
“The thing about news was that it never touched you. You could turn off the radio mid-urgent warning and know the escapee was not going to be in your bushes, not going to be peeping in on you in your shower. The news never reached anybody in a real way.”—
From a minor anecdote, in a book that increasingly trucks in anecdotes and observations (and, actually, does a marvellous job shifting between action and passivity, speed and its absence: the first several chapters are excellent at managing pace and interest, at least were for me, varied and absorbing; this comes when the book has begun to settle down and the flashy stuff is more often restricted to stories, reported speech). This one is about a housewife hit by a meteorite: “All the world’s uncanniness in that thing that came crashing in from deep, unknowable space, and the proof it left on her, a tremendous bruise (if only it had lasted!).”
One of the earliest and best period-piece-y bits in this period piece. And it’s probably important that this book be a period piece: it’d be hard to balance the need for abstraction and concreteness that The Flamethrowers needs without the distancing of history (and maybe it would be difficult for Reno to be as passive a receiver in a different set of cultural markers, able to be in so many places while also not participating or belonging, which is the most salient and probably most frustrating thing about the character).
“It meant there was already a ground charge. It meant one of those lightning bolts had met the mountain. They were connected now, earth to sky, and Hannah and Connor in between. They were almost to the rim of the glacier that lay between the peaks. Far below them the crimson and scarlet ribbons of the fire still glowed, but that wasn’t the light that concerned her anymore.”—
This—and a couple of other passages about forest fires, bits of description—are as flowery as Koryta gets, as intrusive as he allows his prose to be. I just read something with the opposite mix, which will show up here a little later, something where the muscularity of the prose washes everything else out a little, so that the two main characters sound identical, are narrated identically. And this marks out what Kortya does as pretty transparently genre-novel rather than literary-novel: the plot is what guides everything here, and the book succeeds or fails on the merits of the plot, and it forces the book to be tight and unified and consistent. I’d read one of Koryta’s books previously; that one tracked toward eerie and supernatural, blending horror and thriller in ways that didn’t entirely work. This one is pure enough to work, and complicated enough by the middle to be convincing, or at least to encourage suspension of disbelief.
“The Swedish corner! You’ll waste your bonus. Come to us. We’ve already merged with the French. And the Albanians are with us, the Romanian, and three Macedonians. The Greeks want to join too. It’ll be the coolest corner of all!”—
23,000 is a case of diminishing returns, generally—a third book in a trilogy, it has to do all the thankless stuff the first two books get to put off. Bro is weird, unsettling, and sets all Sorokin’s balls in motion; Ice is more focused if no less weird, splitting its time between characters at the ragged bottom edge of 90s Russia and an extended single-voice bio. 23,000 has to wrap things up, and does so with much more predictable thriller patterns, except for a couple of left turns, like this dream sequence (which is, um, transparently allegorical, but also a nightmare nested in another nightmare, and a virtuoso bit that distracts from the inevitable loose-thread-tying plod of the general plot).
Part of the feeling of being at sea in Sorokin is understanding that one is not getting a lot of the references; this is a very Russian book, the kind that would require extensive footnotes to unpack allusions and a clefs and layers of meaning—or at least that is the feeling one gets from reading about Sorokin, anyway. And it’s borne out here and there by the translation; I can’t imagine this is a literal translation, or if there is a literal translation of no-goodnik, I can’t imagine that that would be something put in a Stalinist general’s mouth, and it’s the occasional hitch in translation that brings the lack of grounding to the forefront.
“The entire city consisted of tiny stone caves. In each cave lived a family of meat machines. The caves were firmly locked against other meat machines, although none of them differed structurally from one another. But the meat machines were afraid of one another because some of them had big caves and others had small ones.”—
And then, finally, to complete estrangement, adopting the perspective of its alien protagonist, who is increasingly unable to comprehend the humanity he was born into; this is Walter Tevis doing a Brecht impersonation.
“After the awakening of our hearts each of us had become a genuine Proteus: each discovered within a not only a capacity for transformation but also an incredible flexibility in dealing with the stern, unpredictable world. Having thrown off the stone armor or our past, dead life and broken kinship ties, it was as though we had become boneless and were able to easily bend and penetrate the crevices of the world.”—
But then there’s the ice, and all the italics, and the kind of familiar strangeness (or maybe estrangement-effect) of postmodernism gives way to stuff that’s weirder, makes less sense, is subject to the rules and rhythms of obsession rather than narrative drive: the science fiction becomes new-age-y, the logic of character and action get muddy or oversimplified. Whether it’s a lack of context on my part, or an essential idiosyncrasy of Sorokin’s book, this seems to move from playing with genre to slipping outside of it entirely.
“Money provided power in the world of people. But in Soviet Russia money didn’t play the same role as in the rest of the world. In a country living under the red flag with the hammer and sickle, only the state wielded absolute power. In order to achieve success in Russia, we would have to become part of the state machine, take cover under it, and wearing the uniforms of officialdom, go about achieving our goal. There was no other way. Any secret society existing outside of the totalitarian state was doomed.”—
Bro starts very comfortably: pre-Revolution Russia, patronyms, rich people unaware of the catastrophe of history about to swallow them; then grimness and privation and Reds and Whites, all very midcentury middlebrow historical novel, almost certainly excellent pastiche. Good enough to make you wonder whether in the original Russian it sounds more like Tolstoy or Michener, or whether Tolstoy in Russian sounds like Michener in English (I suspect it does not). And it shifts here and there into other familiar genres, from bildungsroman to wartime-espionage-ish here, to a main current of science fiction centered on a meteorite strike in Siberia. All very pleasant and postmodern, at least once we leave the comfort of the realist Russian novel.
“Chet Atkins, a 1967 book by Red O’Donnell of the Nashville Banner, is a series of bizarrely truncated paragraphs; reading it is like watching Cheez-Whiz slowly coagulate on someone’s chin during lunch.”—
For all the power of Tosches’s style—and I can go on picking sentences out, perfect little sneers—I’m glad to have gotten the revised version, with the foreword that gives background on the book. He writes that he got the contract in 1975, and by the time he was ready to deliver the book (to a different editor) Willie and Waylon and Dolly had happened, and the urban cowboy was a thing: suddenly there was a market for a book about country music, but this was not that book. And so there’s a lot of Tosches in this book doing exactly what he wants, following a thread in the carpet to its end, haphazardly; I would have liked better work on minstrelsy than the chapter of bile and barbs Country has, and I’d trade a couple of the later, time-serving chapters, like the one charting record companies’ genealogies that boils down to seven-inch titles and credits and details of business deals long-dead, for a couple more Jerry Lee stories. But still: this is the end of the Seventies, which means that Dolly’s still a floozy and Willie hasn’t been canonized, and even if a bunch of the prose reads like the end of the Seventies, in its post-Bangs wordsmithing, casual attention to logic and completeness, and even its attitudes, it’s fighting a different, stronger Nashville piety than exists anymore.
“Elvis had turned his back on the Church of the Almost-Here End, sold his soul to MOR, but Jerry Lee kept pumping—Holiness! Tongues!—and with each new clawsome, wild wife, with every new midnight violence, every extravagance of face, he slid further from grace. The King and The Killer: This was their desert.”—
And the other best thing, which has more to do with the journalism than the style, are the Jerry Lee stories, although those are just as much bound up in style and delivery as anything else in this book.
A couple of paragraphs later, the president plays a demo acetate for a couple of musicians, and when the tone arm of the record player skips, the rhythm guitarist hands him a coin, which he regards with “feral hesitance” before sticking it in his pocket. Another of the musicians tells him to use the coin to stop the record skipping, which he still does wrong.
I am not sure who these people are, in Tosches’s vignette, or whether they’re real; there are a couple of these two-three page things in this book. They might be real, it doesn’t matter. This is, absolutely, the best part of the book, though, and the sentence that tells you the most about Tosches’s style, which is by far his most important attribute, even more so than anything he might know or have found out about music.
It’s jarring, a little later, to actually be hit with a date for this story: there’s a trial that takes place concerning a business deal from 2006 and 2007. Jarring because, with the exception of a little bit of window dressing—a pack ‘n’ play mentioned early on, stuff like that—the story seems to exist in a timeless quasi-Fifties. Hard Case does this: the book design, the cover art; also, though, this story’s landscape of gender roles, and more than anything else the structure and feel of the genre, noir with an edge of titillation and then submission. So the inclusion of contemporary markers pulls you out of its spell. On the other hand: a payphone in the lobby of the movie theater?
“Suddenly it was as if I could see this scene as it unfolded on a stage or screen: the vast house, lit from within but surrounded by darkness. The troubled wife treading lightly on the kitchen floorboards, whispering to her husband. And the workman beneath her feet, beneath the house, staring overhead: all knotted muscle and clenched teeth, mythical and bristling. A member of the underworld, bent on mutiny.”—
Hard Case doesn’t always deliver on its promise: their stuff tends a little toward the faults of pulp, as it should; mechanical plotting, functional characterization, thin and predictable if lurid psychology, velocity over all else. They are, after all, unrepentantly a pulp house, even if they do very nice stuff with their pulp. But every once in a while there’s something that reaches outside its class—or, in this case, so entirely captures and crystallizes it that you just have to tip your hat.
And of course its romantic denouement takes place AT PROM, which comes as a surprise to the heroine (and the little bit of self-consciousness gets well offset by the use of “festooning,” but what else do crepe paper garlands do to walls, I guess). The thing is, though? Even though Twilight moves slower than The Circle, the two books are much more alike than not: plot over style, empty-vessel heroines as reader stand-ins, gradual revelation of seemingly-benevolent superpowered vampirism (only barely metaphorical, in The Circle’s case: check out that ghost shark eating the seahorses), stock or single-feature characters shuffled around for convenience. And especially what struck me, reading the two in sequence, is how rushed the climactic action is in each, and really in the same way: the final crisis is introduced and overcome in no time, at least when compared to the effort the world-building and setup that came before has taken. Of course, only one of the two has a bleak, existential ending, and it’s not the one that ends at prom.
I don’t expect to say anything critical that hasn’t been said over and over; the book is almost ten years old, and has had more than its share of attacks and defenses. And this one is nowhere near as bad, even with Mike’s tidy golden spikes, as I had expected: there’s not (yet?) a huge Mormon abstinence agenda, there’s a totally genre-appropriate attention to plot and function rather than style, and Bella isn’t nearly as passive and conflicted in her emotions (again: yet?) as Katniss. On the other hand, her salient personality markers seem to be really really good-smelling blood and extreme clumsiness, neither of which necessarily aid a writer in the depiction of a rich inner life.
Then again, even context won’t make this fair: at the close of a novel that very comfortably reconstructs and extrapolates conversations and events outside of its narrator’s knowledge, and acknowledges that it does so, the crucial meeting of its denouement gets a coy little Thackeray-style curtain-pull.
The opening sequence of Before I Burn is excellent, amazing—the account of a house burning, in close third person, from the perspective of the older woman as she realizes she’s about to lose everything she has. It’s a great chapter, a great piece of writing, a great beginning to a book about a small-town arsonist, that apparently comes from a real event. On the other hand, this is not exactly the book Heivoll has written: the identity of the arsonist is pretty quickly revealed to the reader; the crimes are historical, taking place right around the time of the narrator’s birth; and the novel focuses as much on its narrator’s decision to become a writer as his father dies as it does on the town and the fires. Which leaves me feeling as if I need context to make this make sense—not the decision to steer clear of genre or mystery or even true-crime; but the choice to take a situation with this much drama and interest (which Heivoll shows he can pull off!) and turn it into a semiautobiographical kunstlerroman, so that the question is not about the town or the arsonist or the aftermath of crime, but is instead ‘who am I?’
“As he crosses from this abandoned corner of the waterside back over to the Houses he becomes aware of the layers that form the Hook—the projects built over the frame houses, the pavement laid over the cobblestones, the lofts overtaking the factories, the grocery stores overlapping the warehouses. The new bars cannibalizing the old ones. The skeletons of forgotten buildings—the sugar refinery and the dry dock—surviving among the new concrete bunkers being passed off as luxury living.”—
Also probably a point where Pochoda over-eggs just a little, distilling too much into a single paragraph—but only because she’s done so well to this point making this point without saying it. Although, to be fair, I don’t think I’d willingly pass up the sentence about the new bars cannibalizing the old ones, even if I had already written the scene that carries the image.
To be entirely fair, this is one of Pochoda’s few missteps—she’s occasionally uneven, but Visitation Street stands up well to the Lehane/Price/Pelecanos school of local noir—but can we please claim a moratorium on the second person?
“People arrive with candles, flowers, and photographs of June taped to poster board. Fadi worries that it will appear as if a crime was committed in his store, but he allows the shrine to build. He hands out cookies. The owners of the bodega across the street eye him. They’ve put out lawn chairs and are blasting pop music.”—
Fadi’s wonderful, and is a wonderful choice for a chorus, the bodega owner as witness to the life of the neighborhood. Which strikes me as a very Richard Price kind of thing to do, and Pochoda manages to both use Fadi functionally while filling in the edges of his personality to make him a strong, round character—as here, where his desire for his shop to be the crossroads of his neighborhood rubs up against his wariness of his competition and his insecurity about the role he wants.
“Below the picture of Ana Maria was a blurry photo of a group of men in mismatched military garb, walking through dense jungle. Next to the photo was a frown button that said ‘We denounce the Central Guatemalan Security Forces.’ Mae hesitated briefly, knowing the gravity of what she was about to do—to come out against these rapists and murderers—but she needed to make a stand. She pushed the button.”—
Mae is part of the problem, too—trusting and naive to the point of being an archetype or a convenience for the plot. She’s supposed to be a focal point for us to identify with, at least at the outset, but her responses and her actions are too often mystifying or nonsensical. Even ceding that The Circle isn’t realism, or anything close (weren’t there criticisms of the book that ran something like ‘Google HQ isn’t really like that?’), the Mae that not only believes that hitting a smile button to support a rape victim constitutes a positive contribution, but that hitting a frown button next to a picture of Latin American paramilitaries courts real-world danger doesn’t offer much to latch on to. Especially in the isolated world of the novel, she becomes too easy to dismiss, less a character than a function to extend the plot.
“Dan turned to look into the hills to the east, covered in mohair and patches of green. ‘I hate hearing that kind of thing. With the technology available, communication should never be in doubt. Understanding should never be out of reach or anything but clear. It’s what we do here. You might say it’s the mission of the company—it’s an obsession of mine, anyway. Communication. Understanding. Clarity.’”—
This is—maybe not the most pointed satire? It does capture a certain kind of corporate language, a buy-in to technological optimism that’s totally recognizable, and it also makes Eggers’s viewpoint on his characters and his subject very clear. And the absolute mildness of this, both the milquetoast corporate language and the author’s distaste, fits the subject matter I suppose, the consensual signing-over of civil liberties and freedoms for convenience. I can’t help but think, though, that the toothlessness of this comes from the fact that we already know this, and that even the escalating absurdity of the surveillance plot never quite gets sinister as a result.
Which is a shame, because Eggers is a very good writer; he’s able to switch styles, and can especially in his nonfiction put himself at the service of his subject. The blandness of The Circle’s prose does this well, I think: clarity and language as another vehicle for critique. I’m just not sure that his gifts as a writer are identical with his gifts as a novelist; he gets stronger ideas and characters from the real world. The Circle just gives us another version of the Jello Biafra smiley-faced California nightmare, thirtysome years on, nicer and with more irritating typography.
“My favourite is the mangled wreckage of a truck engine embedded in the sludge of a dried-up irrigation pond, framed by grape vines shrivelled from the temperature rise none of the farmers wanted to believe in. It’s the result of a car bomb set off by a bunch of right-wing students in Stellenbosch, who thought they could do a better job than government inc. with the drought and the superdemic. The only thing they managed to accomplish was blowing themselves up.”—
That selection is interesting here especially because aesthetics (and, well, art) is secondary, subsumed in a larger category of media that runs from advertising to agitprop; Moxyland is near-future dystopia (corporate government, multiple catastrophes) that bears and acknowledges a strong debt to the William Gibson of “the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” The cynical-paranoid style, though, is the most comfortable and conventional thing Beukes does, and the dressing around it, both the details of artistic practice and especially the specifics of Moxyland’s Cape Town setting, carry much more interest and estrangement. It’s hardly more than cliche to realize, as one character does at the end, that a short-cut to coercing consent is that “you just have to create your own terrorists.” More interesting and more resonant is the discussion, jumping between audio reproduction and camera technique, of introducing noise to avoid uncanny cleanness: “You can do the same thing in photography. Apply effects, lock-out the autofocus, click up for exposure, all to re-create the manual.”
“Commercials really get to him. He says you used to be able to skip them, just prog them right out of your recording, but it’s hard to imagine that now. Then he’ll launch into a rant on how the world has evolved for the worst, even though crime is down. But the truth of it is he likes to yell at the television, and I should just leave an old grouch in peace.”—
Sometimes reading in this way—that is, in close-read pull-quotes, which is of course not the sum and total of my reading habits, but is something that I do and have done for a while—gives interesting results, shows pretty clearly that what I think is interesting about a particular book is not necessarily what the book itself thinks is interesting about itself. This is the case with Moxyland; all the quotes I pulled came from one of the four narrators, and not even the one I thought was most successful, and they all line up around photography.
“At other times Juleson tried to picture the animal he would imagine if he didn’t know these sounds were made by a man, and he saw a small—the big voice was obvious camouflage—sorrowing, cowardly creature the color of sunbaked mud, crouched in the far corner of its cage, its feet soiled with its own filth, but its eyes hopeful in spite of their manifest stupidity. Large, round, dull eyes, stained with hope, while its bell-shaped muzzle throbbed and quivered with a frustrated need to communicate.”—
Music-practice time on the cell block. Paul is listening to someone a ways away trying to learn the saxophone. Please think back to middle school: this is in fact what it sounds like when someone tries to learn to play the saxophone.
“Mendoza was a tall elegant Mexican with graying hair and distant black eyes. He carried himself with extreme coolness and the natural remoteness of his handsome face aided the illusion of poise. He communicated almost exclusively in the set phrases of the hipster, and it was a while before one realized Mendoza was a fool, but when the realization came it was with the force of revelation. Seemingly in an instant, like the shift of an optical illusion, his air of elegance deteriorated into dumb farce.”—
But where Kesey is sometimes mystical and sometimes goofy, Braly is remarkably level, deadpan. His cons have some great one-liners, sometimes in spite of themselves but not really always. There’s the scene in the group therapy circle where the fellow in jail for murdering his wife and two children protests it’s unfair to keep him imprisoned, because his crime would never happen again; another con points out that he’s run out of children. But Braly’s narration as well performs this deadpan, wised-up and sharp-eyed.
“He watched the men walking in the rain—nuts, exercise freaks, claustrophobes—they dug their chins into their upturned collars, and plunged their hands into their pockets. The wind whipped the bottoms of their pants around their ankles. Chilly noted scornfully that a good third of these aggressive outdoorsmen wore sunglasses.”—
Published originally in 1967, set behind the walls of San Quentin, and kind of fascinating both as a tragedy (in the sense of inexorable flaws in character and situation driving its people to bad ends, inside and outside the walls) and as a document, a critical idea of the prison that is, at this distance, shot through with the ideals and the idealism of the late ‘60s. I mean, at the end, one character escapes in a homemade hot-air balloon. There’s no mention in the foreword of whether Braly, who was a career inmate when (or shortly before) he wrote the book, read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; in its setting, its humor, and its disposition of its characters, though, the two books resemble each other, beyond just doing the work of trying to comprehend a huge disciplinary institution through a ‘60s humanist lens. Also: what a perfect bit of observation, classification: nuts, exercise freaks, claustrophobes.
“David’s book of Greek myths, meanwhile, was the same size and color as a collection of poetry nearby, and he would sometimes pull out the poems instead of the myths. Some of the poems weren’t too bad, once he gave them a chance. One was about a kind of knight—except in the poem he was called a ‘Childe’—and his search for a dark tower and whatever secret it contained. The poem didn’t really seem to end properly, though. The knight reached the tower and, well, that was it. David wanted to know what was in the tower, and what happened to the knight now that he’d reached it, but the poet obviously didn’t think that was important. It made David wonder about the kinds of people who wrote poems.”—
Don’t we all. This is one of those books where one suspects that the writer is having more fun than his reader—not that I didn’t enjoy the book enough, but Connolly structures the book so that he can rewrite and twist as many fairy tales as possible, while still holding on to his hero’s quest. And this is a little bit of a departure for Connolly, who ordinarily does mass-market series-character supernatural mystery (I think I read one of his once, The White Road, which I strongly did not care for). But the things that Connolly does especially well here—I’m thinking primarily about the tone of the prose, how it edges into fairytale flatness without losing all its realist definition—calls to mind Joe Hill’s more successful twisting of tales, and his more flexible touch in moving from recognizable reality to dreamspace.
“As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer.”—
From the first paragraph of the book — and this is something you see, occasionally, and if I had the tools to search through my archives right I’m sure I could pull up at least one other post about this, the unfairness of judging the first paragraph when it shows this much strain, rewriting and overwriting nearly to the point of mannerism. But grass greens and weather warms in a falsely parallel structure, while soldiers knead growth like pioneers: distanced verbs, metaphors, a final simile on top of it all make for an aesthetic effect different from what Powers, or at least his narrator, might intend for “the spoiled cities of America.”
“When the first round snapped by my head, I was still thinking that the only shadows I had seen in the war had been made of angles: hard blurs of light falling on masses of buildings, antennas, and the shapes of weapons in tangles of alleys.”—
Hard blurs. One of the (generally acknowledged, often emphasized) tensions of war writing is the unknowability of the soldier’s experience, especially since Vietnam, and probably in direct contrast to a broader shared experience of the second world war: the soldier’s experience is different from, unavailable to, much of his audience. So the novel, the tool of fiction, becomes a mechanism to bridge that gap, with the insanity of Catch-22 or the surrealism of Meditations in Green. The Yellow Birds is much more straightforward than those two, at least — but there’s something in its language that’s uncomfortable, weirdly imprecise, that sits wrong. Hard blurs here — it took a few readings to parse out the sentence, to figure out the blurs precede the sharp angles of shadows, but the image doesn’t snap together right. Elsewhere, we hear “last echoes” “ringing through the evening heat.” Powers often uses his prose style very well — he’s excellent with using sentence length and structure for focus, pointed syntax in the moment of combat and long impacted run-ons in post-traumatic aftermath. But metaphors mix, and images hang unresolved, in his diction.
Specifically in response to the objection that it’s irrelevant to figure out just how much larger a dam an enormous beaver would make than an ordinary one (given the difficulty of locating enormous real-world beavers); but really generally almost universally applicable.
“Fifteen years of war had ended with a baby boom, and these babies had not only revived a dead industry but become the arbiters of musical success. Bands had no choice but to reinvent themselves for the preverbal; even Biggie had released yet another posthumous album whose title song was a remix of a Biggie standard, “Fuck You, Bitch,” to sound like “You’re Big, Chief!” with an accompanying picture of Biggie dandling a toddler in Native American headdress.”—
Unfortunately, the concluding story was the one that struck me as most grating. Goon Squad runs through a bunch of formal changes (yes, the powerpoint chapter, which kind of works, but also a second-person bit that ends in death, which, y’know, doesn’t quite, alongside other chunks of reference and pastiche). There are a couple of near-futures, too, and this one is the most distant, and the most bitterly nostalgic, with an unfortunately fogeyish picture of decline. Which is fine for satire, but sits uncomfortably alongside the intent of the final vignette, the moment of engineered but authentic connection.
“I was working for the city as a janitor in a neighborhood elementary school and, in summers, collecting litter in a park alongside the East River near the Williamsburg Bridge. I felt no shame whatsoever in these activities, because I understood what almost no one else seemed to grasp: that there was only an infinitesimal difference, a difference so small that it barely existed except as a figment of the human imagination, between working in a tall green glass building on Park Avenue and collecting litter in a park. In fact, there may have been no difference at all.”—
Egan hits her characters at points of near-disintegration, as they circle around near rock bottom; she’s actually very good at this, and even while we’re aware that she’s playing with a stacked deck (or a custom-made little universe) the inner crises of her characters manage to keep each of the linked stories’ stakes high. And the flip-side of this, that we see these characters recur in different stories, told by different narrators disintegrating in different ways, giving glimpses of them often having survived moments at rock bottom and come out more or less intact, doesn’t detract from the immediate crisis, actually conveys a certain amount of hard-won experience and understanding that it’s possible and necessary to go on. This bit, which is one of three moments between Scotty and Benny — high-school bandmates previously; here about to meet again as adults for the first time, with Benny a success and Scotty decidedly not; later concluding the novel together at some near-future point — repeats that, undermines it a little through articulation. It also, I think, emphasizes the insularity of the world of the novel, its dependence on an idea of New York that enables scenes like this, with all things magnetized to Manhattan as the center of the world and serendipity expected rather than rare.
“Thirty-five years from now, in 2008, this warrior will be caught in the tribal violence between the Kikuyu and the Luo and will die in a fire. He’ll have had four wives and sixty-three grandchildren by then, one of whom, a boy named Joe, will inherit his lalema: the iron hunting dagger in a leather scabbard now hanging at his side. Joe will go to college at Columbia and study engineering, becoming an expert in visual robotic technology that detects the slightest hint of irregular movement (the legacy of a childhood spent scanning the grass for lions).”—Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad
Tangentially a novel about rock and roll, more clearly a novel about the tenuous connections among a bunch of people over a rather long period of time in New York (with other settings, but it’s a New York story), and overtly a novel about time — “time’s a goon” says one of the minor characters — this is the point where the novel lost me. The moment is supposed to be tossed-off and magical: time unfurls and we get to see its workings, in this foreshadow, a spiral out of a moment into the majestic possibilities of the future. Instead, though, by the way the book works, by the way this scope of time and apparent randomness circles around the same people, you know you’re just waiting for Joe to show up (and Lulu, his American wife, who actually emerges as another slightly less minor character): and instead of apprehending the random unspooling of time, I wind up feeling the heavy hand of the author on my shoulder, and instead appreciate the way she orchestrates her cast and their movements. This is a moment meant to take you out of the stream of the story, the safari in the ‘70s or whenever, which it does; it just winds up taking me to the wrong place.
I feel like this is correct in diagnosis of a particular phenomenon, mainly transacted in English and for Anglo-American publishing, but — especially in the dichotomy between “thorny internationalism opposed to the smoothly global” at the end of the very long editorial — it fails to ring true to my own reading in translation, the best of which (while plausibly internationalist, in their terms) is simply different from the university-driven stuff rather than polemically oppositional.
“Mr. McGurk was a plastic leprechaun attached to the dashboard on a spring and he bobbed along comically as the Hitachi sped. How he had ended up being called Mr. McGurk neither of them could remember. Both brothers would do Mr. McGurk’s voice but Tee-J did it brilliant. He did Mr. McGurk as a cranky old farmer who was always giving out. Mr. McGurk was six inches of green plastic but entirely alive. He was made alive by their love for each other.”—
And here, pace Brad Leithauser’s piece from last week, is the one-sentence story, and maybe an example of how it serves a writer poorly. Because this one, “White Hitachi,” about a pair of ne’er-do-well brothers (and the elder realizing the younger is even less well-equipped than he to make it in the world) pulls itself up to this point, from a squabble and a bit of danger, to reveal the actual affection between its main characters: to the sentence at the end of the paragraph, where that’s the one sentence that encapsulates the turn in the story, expresses the beauty in the squalor. The paragraph’s a beauty, too: with the humor Barry’s very good at throughout this collection, the detail, even the broguey cadence; this might be the best image in the book. At the same time, the one-sentence sentence seems entirely unnecessary following the sentence before, a slight little slip into mawkishness, spelling things out just a little too much. A hair in the soup.
And maybe my favorite of the bunch, which upon having read in the New Yorker convinced me that Barry could do more than prosy Irish myth, two sinister old aunties out on a drive; here it’s Barry doing character (or, probably, caricature, although that’s actually the fun of it) through dialogue that’s the charm.
“This is the story of a happy marriage but before you throw up and turn the page let me say that it will end with my face pressed hard into the cold metal of the Volvo’s bonnet, my hands cuffed behind my back, and my rights droned into my ear — this will occur in the car park of a big-box retail unit on the Naas Road in Dublin.”—
I was, apparently, one of the few people not entirely charmed by Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane, a comprehensive and cohesive sealed little world of blarney-drunk style; and so Dark Lies the Island spent a bunch of time sitting on a shelf waiting for me to get to it. That, and I tend to avoid story collections, which seem to me to tend toward either functional or formulaic, working out an idea or fitting it into a pattern, tied up into a bow at the end. And the first story — a slight mood piece on a rooftop that ends with the girl slipping through a Velux window — and this opening paragraph of the second story, “Wifey Redux,” don’t do much to dispel that suspicion. We know where this story is going, especially when we establish the narrator’s bourgie bonafides; we settle comfortably into the gentle swoop of the story arc, as it takes us from this opening graf back and around to the car park again. The only trouble is that the story’s actually very funny, and funny in its observation of details, the occasional off-pitch note or highlighted grotesquerie. The arc is comfortable, but what happens within it is much better than its container.
But concentrating only on cleft chins is unfairly reductive, even if we are in the realm of, I think, paranormal romance (because Bristol House goes all over the place, with apparitions of Tudor ghosts and hints at right-wing Israeli conspiracy theories filling in the edges around the central romance between an academic and a TV journalist); this is the second part of a nice, not-overdone parallel between Annie’s allegiance to AA (which she takes whole and without reservations, in a way that she insists outsiders can’t understand) and the ghostly monk (in direct address from Purgatory, but whatever).
Lest you think that this is all you need to judge Bristol House, let me add that this is at least the third mention of a cleft in a chin, which may or may not belong to the same character, depending on how you look at things.
Brad Leithauser, writing mainly about novels that hang on single sentences, a question about which I am agnostic (despite being a person who tends to pull a sentence or two from a novel and read the whole work into it); while his overall reading, say, of Lord of the Flies is dead-on, I’m more convinced by the scope of his four-sentence read of Thackeray. But the opening, with this bit about the one-sentence short story, is absolutely correct — if a little ironic coming from the New Yorker.
“Five years ago, she had, like Hepzibah, like Euphemia and Beulah and all the sixteen wives before her, seen a whaleboat one morning—the same long slim hull, oars flashing in unison against a bright sky. She had, like her predecessors, reached for a boy’s hand and stepped in and glided away. But unlike so many previous wives, she had felt no irresistible urge. She was compelled not by fresh boys in blue middies, bright ties flying, but by necessity.”—
Katurah, Moses’s final wife; one of the points where there seems to be the possibility for this book to break out of its fairytale flatness and into something more touched by realism, which doesn’t happen. But which is enough to make you wonder what it would become, if more of the characters had this kind of agency, and weren’t simply subservient to the family saga playing out above and around them.
“Though Mordecai could name any fish or seabird’s rank in phylum or species in a flash, I was beginning to understand that he knew nothing of what they swam in and flew over. He did not account for those things that could not be mapped: the vagaries of wind or a sudden storm that might force a pod of whales deeper, slower; a freak of cold threading up from the deep to send a school of squid spiraling away from the whales, the whales hurrying after, away from Mordecai’s precious route. Having lived indoors his whole life, he was so untuned to the sea and its ways.”—
From the files of too-easy-to-take-advantage-of: despite a stack of juicy subject matter (incest! whaling! serial wife-abduction! a guest appearance by Circe!) this tends toward timid and equivocal; the frame story seems insufficient to carry the weight of the history Mercy wants to discover, as she and Mordecai move from revelation to revelation with very little friction, and the tone, which teeters somewhere between magical realism and full-on fairytale, smooths things out too, making the book into a series of linked set-pieces. The set pieces are often nice, with nicely poetic language and images pulled through, from one to the next — but the soft frame and the soft tone don’t give enough of a skeleton for the pretty bits to stick to.
“Yes, they still make TV shows somewhere. The rest of the country is still pretty shiny, from what I hear. Apparently the West Coast is more or less the same. Sunshine. Palm trees. Beautiful women in drop-top convertibles. Singing surfers. Moral rot. The whole enchilada, in the shape of California.”—
If I’ve not been clear enough, and I’m never sure I am, another comparison that’s probably worthwhile is to the last few William Gibson books — because the kind of stuff Sternbergh is doing (near future, semi-dystopian, deadpan cool, genre conventions; even and especially the virtual-reality layer of plotting and action) comes out of, has membership in, the world Gibson’s created. Shovel Ready is much, much tighter than (especially) any of the Blue Ant books: surface is perfect, plot never bogs down, manages its dumps of exposition gracefully, which is one of Gibson’s great failings. But Gibson’s flaws, especially in terms of exposition, put across the author’s sense of enthusiasm, his excitement at how strange things (increasingly actual contemporary things, too) really are: they’re glitches. By being glitch-free, Shovel Ready is better entertainment, probably, but entirely, completely low-cal.