There’s some of that here, but it’s mainly restricted to incidents; it’s here in the sympathetic B-story, where Patrick sorts out which of his buddy’s employees is cheating him, every now and again just brushing against the ways in which people get squeezed into situations they can’t get out of. But that’s the B story.
This is a project that’s pretty well doomed to be cast as either a return to form or a shameless cash-in: after a couple of volumes experimenting with new forms (psychological thriller, a little tepid; historical novel, not well-received) an urban crime-fiction guy returns to his roots. Of course, they’re roots that Ben Affleck made a movie out of, and the crime-fiction guy has had his last decade’s work at least optioned if not put on film. A decade ago, maybe a little more? This was a guy who was using the thriller form as a lens to magnify character, psychology, society, environment; part of the reason something like Mystic River was so rich on the screen was the superstructure of myth (the overtones of Lady Macbeth, especially) grounded, rooted in the life and history of the city: a density of experience and reference.
I’m happy to go on record suspecting that Barnum’s called Barnum, actually, only because “Oz” was already taken, or maybe sounded a little too Semitic.
Not surprisingly, in a book so invested in scriptural allegory, Barnum figures as Goliath of Gath (and plays the five on the varsity basketball team), but also as the tempter in the garden (or the tempter in the desert; after all, the Catholic / Christian reading of the Goliath story casts the Church / believer in the role of David, in an eternal struggle with Satan), and most likely carries a half-dozen other resonances I can’t pick up on with it. This scene, where the hero learns the true name of his antagonist, and by learning that name gains power over him, comes on the heels of Gurion’s best friend, a goy, wounding himself in the hand, and then piercing himself in the side with a ballpoint pen (whereupon he bleeds purple, his blood and the ink commingled). Not that anyone but Satan would invoke Salinger as an argument for grasping easy popularity:
A case in point, if you will. The scene is a schoolyard conversation among junior-high students; the topic is great comics. The subtext is whether to admit the new kid to the group — he’s Orthodox, they’re a melting-pot. And the conclusion that they come to, and riff off on, is a preference for Jewish comedians, which derails into a debate about action and goodness, and then culminates in a mishearing:
Which is at once a joke about Neil Sedaka, comma comma down do-be do down down, and a Borscht-belt setup. Which is sophisticated for such a dumb joke, and very funny in the flow of the scene, and takes off with an energy. It’s also an example of Gurion’s fascination with words that enact what they are, the conversation about comedy becoming shtick itself.
From a footnote, (fake) Philip Roth anticipates criticism. Not that this doesn’t absolutely fall in line with, even frontload, the issue of self-critique below. But, like Gurion himself would say, it’s snakey: it’s relying on the further metafiction of fake Philip Roth to naturalize the metafiction it’s nestled within, and it throws even more weight onto the performance of the author. Which is not to say that The Instructions operates in bad faith, or that it’s trying to pull something over on its reader; quite the contrary, the book is funny and earnest in an almost childlike way. But it’s Levin ultimately that’s funny and childlike, more crucially than his characters.
I expect that it says as much about me as a reader as it does about Levin as a writer (or Gurion as a very self-aware narrator) that this is a quote that gets pulled — but only, at most, as much. I understand that this is the kind of thing I was trained to identify — antinomies, dialectic, points at which the text interrogates and reveals itself. But that doesn’t mean that Levin’s not encouraging the same kind of reading, tossing out metatext and signposting intention just as hard as he possibly can. I’m not sure that anyone could pull off a thousand-page novel without it.
“Flowers said, ‘Forget the pathetic fallacy. There’s what you write and there’s what you write about. Even if what you write about is boring, you can’t be writing boring. Seem to me you want to write about you wang, anyhow. Now you wang — that’s a good example because it’s boring to me. You wang is boring to most people. Half the world’s got wangs and half all writers already written about em. Only thing ain’t boring to me about you wang is how you’re callin it wang. You’re a creative little boy, know some Yiddish slang like shvontz or schmuck or pizzle, could call it anything you want, and you call it you wang. Wang outlandish. I mean: wang. Wang nuts. As it were.’”—Adam Levin, The Instructions| McSweeney’s 11.01.10
And when another voice creeps through (mediated, of course, by the fact that the book is narrated, in direct address, by Gurion) it’s no less delightful than his, enthusiastic and ecstatic. This is Scott Mookus, called My Main Man Scott Mookus, or Main Man, who apparently suffers from Williams Cocktail Party Syndrome and is both pitied by and belongs to Gurion’s inner circle. But whatever Main Man’s disorder actually is, the terms he expresses it in, when Gurion has explicitly pointed out his lack of membership in the Israelite tribe, circle back to Gurion’s, or perhaps Levin’s, frame of reference.
Because, you see, Gurion’s a pragmatist, able to deal with the facts on the ground (as he here prepares to sneak into the locked teachers’ lounge, trespassing after failing at an earlier act of vandalism); but I’m uncertain whether, in the same way that my own Christian upbringing ensures that I’m only getting half of the scriptural complexity of the book, Levin means to invoke the Rumsfeldian flavor that this passage, and that Gurion’s belligerence, implies. We’re early in the book; it’s possible that Levin takes Gurion less seriously than Gurion takes himself. But it’s difficult to detect the double perspective of satire in this book, which is so thoroughly dominated by the particular voice of its main character, certain in his ability to detect and act upon the facts on the ground.
At 933 pages, the fourteenth was comparable in size to the heralded omnium-gatherums of its era (1996’s Infinite Jest, 1997’s Mason & Dixon and Underworld). For sheer head-scratching postmodern tricksterism, though, Messrs. Wallace, Pynchon, and DeLillo had nothing on the collaborative deadpan master jam that was the fourteenth. Infinite Jest’s reams of endnotes were distinctive but hardly as radical as Chicago’s editorial comments for a text that was essentially invisible. “Millicent Cliff was Norton Westermont’s first cousin, although to the very last she denied it,” 15.47 tells us—but who was Norton Westermont? In this sense, much of Chicago reads like Pale Fire without the poem. On the very next page, 15.51’s directions on how to style acknowledgments delivers both a name right out of Pynchonland and a DeLillo-esque consortium: “The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Dr. Oscar J. Blunk of the National Cyanide Laboratory in the preparation of this chapter.”
The story that the fourteenth edition tells, underneath its scaffolding of instructions, is at once clear and murky. The tone morphs from page to page, a mixture of low humor and highbrow allusion. The effect is unsettling, as genuine scholarly works (Virgil Thomson’s “Cage and the Collage of Noises,” chapter 8 in American Music Since 1910) sit alongside bogus, anything-for-a-laugh ones (Irma Tweeksbury’s If Only We Had Known! Confessions of a Regretter). The blitheness is disorienting. If the manual’s authors seem to be having a lark, can their instructions be taken seriously?
Ten-year-old Gurion Maccabee, exceptional child, hero and sole voice of a thousand-page novel, and a bit of a linguist to boot: on the one hand, we’re grateful not to be stuck in the sensorium of an ordinary ten-year-old throughout this brick of a book, and we are amused, very; on the other, the preternatural precocity of the narrator’s voice makes the kid behind it hard to pin down, difficult to picture.
This is how you include balance, which we all know is necessary, in a review:
I know that a few tender souls will feel that there must be something good in everything, and that I really shouldn’t be so negative. So I will say one favorable thing about the book. Holding it in my hands did not make my skin erupt in a horrible disfiguring disease. There. I’m done. Don’t tell me I don’t know how to be fair and balanced.
This is maybe the thing this book does best, transporting a reader into memory, a lived past experience of adolescence. And the mark of its completeness, Murray’s skill at creating a sympathy with his incomplete and damaged characters, is that despite the title of the book, and its opening (where Skippy indeed dies on the first page) his death, when the media res returns us to it, comes with the surprise of a tragedy: inevitable in its occurrence, horrible in its circumstance.
“That’s one of the great puzzles of every American generation to come along since the Baby Boomers: what does it mean to be a grown-up, anymore? Grown-ups play video games now. They fool around on the computer. It’s a happier kind of adulthood, or maybe just a more pleasantly deluded one. When people Gibson’s age read the first sentence of Neuromancer, they picture a gray, stormy sky, because that’s what a dead channel was when they were growing up. People my age–I’m 32–picture a flat blue sky, because that’s what a dead channel looks like when you have a cable hookup. The sky of an easy summer day.”—Shaenon Garrity, on Scott Pilgrim, via jonathanbogart
Murray does a really excellent job with his supporting cast. They may exist primarily as backdrop, foils, comic relief for titular Skippy and teacher Howard — but Murray shapes each of them independently, differentiates one from the other, and shows them as plausibly partial people, each growing into something different, and all together able to assemble into a complete whole. Ruprecht casts more of a shadow than the others, as the most major of these minor characters; his particular incompleteness, his personal melancholy, is a two-dimensional sketch that could well be better than the three-dimensional protagonists.
“The thing is, though both explanations are, as far as we can work out, right, neither one works on its own. The curved space account goes to pieces when it runs into subatomic particles. The Standard Model is too chaotic and confused to get us to the big elegant symmetries of spacetime. So neither one is complete, and when you need to use both at the same time, like when you’re trying to describe the Big Bang, they won’t fit together. It’s the same thing you’re talking about — you know, on a quotidian level, it’s difficult to find any evidence of a narrative arc or a larger meaning in your life, but at the same time, if you try and give your life a meaning — like live according to a principle or a mission or an ideal or whatever — then inevitably you distort the details. The small things keep agitating against it and popping out of place.”—Paul Murray, Skippy Dies | Faber & Faber 08.31.10
For a book that’s about the inmates of an Irish parochial boarding school, the best character thus far is one of the teachers, Howard, who was once a student but has returned in ambivalent failure to teach history at his alma mater; the children thus far are ciphers or caricatures, very funny one-note performances (with plenty of time to deepen, mind you, as it’s a six-hundred-page novel). But Howard’s doubled perspective, the poignancy of not escaping, gives all the larking a melancholic pedal note.
This, from the scene where the older gentlemen attend a Bright Eyes show, in the vague hope of getting some face-to-face time with Conor Oberst for their philanthropic campaign. The interesting thing here, to me at least, isn’t that they’re fish out of water, in a crowd the same age as Walter’s children; it’s that the generational difference that this crowd brings home to these characters is a matter of dress and attitude, and even though Richard is a lifelong professional musician, there’s very little attention paid to the music. Not here, at the show; not in its leadup, where Richard’s ignorance of Bright Eyes’s work is contrasted against Walter’s knowledge of them from NPR, and the music is a signifier; not even in Richard’s world, as it’s related, where music as occupation or product seems equivalent with something like accountancy, some opaque thing done offstage for money, and certainly less lovingly or fully described than the deck-building he does to escape music.
I feel a little strange making this complaint, because it’s very often the opposite that gets to me — novels that feature the figure of the writer at their center, the creator of the ineffable, struggling against an earthbound world, all full of special pleading for the artist. But this is almost precisely the opposite, an earthbound world where there’s nothing worth the special pleading.
It actually reminds me of the cautions of my oldest professors from grad school, slow careful dinosaurs who still taught Cleanth Brooks and did their best to inculcate fifties-style close reading, much to their credit; when faced with a glib poststructural argument, some bit of Foucault or Derrida, they’d mumble something about ‘knowingness.’ Which at the time seemed like a defense against quick-witted intellectual precocity, but instead understood the problem with a totalizing system, a theory of everything — they get predictable and reductive very quickly, and tend to only illuminate those things they already know they’ll find.
“You cannot see that her family loves American movies like she does and that they’ve maybe even vacationed here, themselves visiting Snoqualmie, Washington, where Twin Peaks was filmed, or maybe they looked for Anarene, Texas, where they think The Last Picture Show was supposed to take place, not finding it because it is really called Archer City, but they do not realize what Fargo is to their girl, and you cannot see how they let her leave, not to visit the city but to find the ransom. You cannot see how they could not think this was like going to Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, hoping to find a giant spaceship. You can see, though, the way she was willing to deal with terrible environments to get those things she dreamed of. You can see it was not really about money, at all, because though she didn’t have a million, she had plenty enough to be comfortable. You can see she didn’t want that last criminal to get out of prison and get it, and you can see she didn’t want the cheating husband to get it, either.”—Eric Gansworth, Extra Indians| Milkweed 11.01.10
Tommy Jack’s voice — which this is, and which most of Extra Indians is related in — is one of the great benefits Gansworth brings to his story: lived-in, commonsensical, and grounded, while also being sensitive to the damage others carry because of his own damage. It’s a fine instrument. And, especially when judging from the author’s note at the end, Tommy Jack’s story wasn’t the impetus for the book, nor does it fill the foreground, it’s commendable that Gansworth chooses the correct vehicle for the tale he really wants to tell.
Hardly a new reading of the millennial generation, but interesting because of its setting. This is the case a young creative team makes to their boss, in a competitive bid for an advertising account; the ad firm, though, is Israeli, and the boss is former Mossad, former spy, former assassin: much closer in experience to our American notion of our Greatest Generation. The account is international, as is the audience, and apparently shares an international youthful entitlement, but the case that that generation makes for its entitlements must cross a very different generational boundary, must annex authority from a much tougher audience than me-generation boomers.
But the sense of straddling two worlds runs throughout the book, much more dominant than the vestigal fragmented spy-plot. It’s not just (or even primarily) generational or political; it even emerges, incidentally, economically:
And, well, that’s your early-on statement of the situation, delivered by way of an especially shopworn cliche, only very slightly mitigated by the fact that our hero’s just been served a drink by a struggling scriptwriter-cum-bartender. The novel gets better than this; the translation, with its awkward phrasing and unidiomatic writing, stays gawky.
I’ll apologize for the length of the clip, but it’s a fine illustration of how things go down here. Part of Franzen’s point is, and always has been, that the internal and the external lives, or the public and the private, follow from the same influences and determining factors — an elaborate version of “wherever you go, there you are.” Which makes perfect sense, and is not a difficult thing to grasp: if one is a miserable person, one will have a miserable private life and a miserable public life; substitute whatever other adjective, competitive or wrathful or epicene, for miserable. And this is how he goes about making the point. After a conversation or two, where the contentious wife willfully misreads the subjects of his discussion (the relationship; mountaintop removal mining) to score cheap points on him, the author has Walter turn into internal monologue. But not, really — the whole essay imparting the facts of the coal-sludge problem are for the reader’s benefit, not (plausibly) Walter’s, and the analogy between environmental and emotional damage is so thoroughly established by this point (in the chapter, in the novel) that this paragraph (which goes on for at least this long again, flipping back to repeat the pattern of personal-political-personal) is gratuitous, not only for the ungainliness of the strained metaphor, but for the understaning of the parallel. It’s a Stephen King paragraph, really — a bit of writing that shows the author’s considered every possible facet of a situation, and that the author wasn’t encouraged to edit out.
As a development professional, like Walter and Lalitha: too too true.
Of course, if you throw in a couple of dick jokes, this turns into The Ask.
But seriously, folks: so very much of the first half of Freedom is tied up in questions of compromise; nonprofit development is only a glancing, if very clear, example. And I’m speaking only from memory here, because I haven’t been able to turn up a copy of anything I wrote about The Corrections when it came out — and I liked it, loved it, thought it was a great American realist novel — but it seems that a key difference between that book and this one is one of tone. The earlier book carried with it a deep sadness, a mature apprehension of loss. But in this book’s assemblage of raw deals and bad compromises, rendered for the most part with exquisite tasteful irony, there’s something altogether different — a taste of ressentiment.