Which involves meeting a guy for pizza and picking up the new Radiohead album. It’s interesting that the clearest parts of this book are the introduction and the conclusion, both of which take place outside of the anarchists’ collective house, and both of which are single-narrator solitary-character things; the opening is a solitary masturbatory deadended dropout’s story, and this is a girl slipping into normalcy, on a November Tuesday, twenty years old and in college in central Florida. Here the details are clear, and they shape the progression the girl is setting out on: not a complete selling-out, but stepping away from the total commitment of the other characters.
But here’s the problem with Taylor’s book, or maybe the two central problems, both stemming from a certain kind of woolly-headed-ness. The narrative focus, the sense of precisely whose head the third-person limited-omniscient narrator is peering into, is never particularly clear because all the characters sound the same, the mystics and the materialists. They have differing thoughts, but express them in the same cadences (which, actually, could work for one set of characters, a menage a trois, for a while; and can even be justified by the fact that all the characters are in the first half of their twenties; but that’s not the point Taylor is making with his story). And the stoned philosophy-major register of the mystical writing only emphasizes this — the drift from Katy’s head to Liz’s is matched by the imprecision of all the repeated ‘knows.’ And even the best bits of the scriptural writings are more poetry or koan than anything else, doubled in their meaning and implication and showing the ironic distances between writer and narrator and character:
This is nice, right? Not just the imagery, the gutter at the castle wall, repeated in the armor of faith, but also in the allegiance of Christianity and anarchism. Especially within the book’s time and place — ‘99 into 2000, crust-punk fringes of a big southern college town — this is a plausible vision, a combination that makes sense as the basis of a mythology.
And I think this is a very interesting point in an excellent book — but also the point at which the book breaks down. Because there’s a little much going on: it’s a book with a half-dozen narrators, who pass the story from one to the next (and then disappear, or are just briefly glimpsed in the subsequent narrator’s eye at handoff), a broad unexplained conceit in the Illumination, and a McGuffin that gets exchanged in the form of a dead character’s diary.
But here, at this point, Brockmeier reaches a climax. Ryan lives a life of faith without having faith, does good without the love or fear of God, so can speculate about a God who values pain for its aesthetics. And Brockmeier gives him a fitting story, one which tapers out over a long life; in doing this, though, he passes the McGuffin early and invisibly (breaking the plot of the novel-of-exchange) and he extends the narrator’s story far beyond where we see any change in the conceit, any movement in other people. The story that follows, compact and mythic, is at least as good, in an entirely different way — but this is when Brockmeier casts off the scaffolding holding this book together, and abandons its structure to one of successive short stories.
“He could have put together a book sorting their traumas into two separate lists on the basis of where they lived, one for the city and one for the country. A Comparative Taxonomy of Wounds. On any city street you could spot the pulse flares of impacted heels, in any city hospital the elongated V’s of stab wounds, while at any country fair, any minor-league baseball game, you would find skin cancer pocks like small clusters of stars, sprained knees like forks of lightning, dislocated shoulders like the torchlit rooms of ancient houses.”—Kevin Brockmeier, The Illumination | Pantheon 02.01.11
One of the excellent things that Brockmeier does with his conceit comes from its development over time in the book: the Illumination is at first an amazement, and then an enticement to good, but very quickly leads to awkwardness or embarrassment, forced indifference and artificial etiquette, ultimately making people into objects defined by their pain. This is not what Chuck sees here, necessarily — he’s got a closer sympathy with objects than with people, really — but Brockmeier so clearly renders the internalized not-seeing that manners depends upon.
It’s almost (but not quite) immaterial that the song is REM’s “You Are the Everything,” which doesn’t get specifically named in the passage, but instead just has its first couple of lines related. Because this is an excellent description of a moment, one of those points where something familiar and known becomes something treacherous and unknown. And because for this reader in particular those opening couplets are immediately identifiable, about my own mind when I was fourteen.
“The real issue is that there are at least a dozen things I worry about in my reading schedule—and whether or not the author is a woman is only one of them… I worry that I don’t read enough Canadian books. I worry that I don’t read enough non-fiction. I worry about books in translation, and I worry about short story collections. I worry that I only read books post-1970. I worry about the classics. Small presses. Prize winners. What about authors of colour, or queer writers? And, at the end of the day, am I not allowed to read another Nicholson Baker novel, if that’s what I feel like reading?”—
And I don’t know enough about book publishing to say for sure, but I suspect bias begins at the publishing stage (if not earlier), particularly in the marketing department. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve initially passed on a book while browsing because its packaging screamed Chick Lit or Book Club, only to later read it and find that it’s no such thing and is actually the kind of book that many serious readers would enjoy—female and male. These pink blankets are a disservice to readers and writers.
Now, one of the hallmarks and glories of the Lee Child style is its self-evident simplicity. SVO sentences. When things get exciting, he drops the subject. But when the guy slaps the side of the van “like van people do” you see the self-evident hardening into something dangerously close to self-parody.
Part of the joy of Life — even at this point, somewhere between Exile and Some Girls, when Keith’s at his least functional but not yet irrelevant, as he becomes somewhere in the ’80s — is that the persona he presents in this narrative is self-mocking and self-aware. I mean, there are a lot of the kind of nudge-and-wink drug stories that anyone who’s been around drugs is familiar with, the ‘I was so wild, but I’m glad I’m OK, but I was so wild and it was kind of cool’ half-brag. He’s unreliable, conflicted, self-mythologizing. But the self-awareness and the voice help him carry off a perspective that could easily be arrogant or dry.
“Our thing was playing Chicago blues; that was where we took everything that we knew, that was our kickoff point, Chicago. Look at that Mississippi River. Where does it come from? Where does it go? Follow that river all the way up and you’ll end up in Chicago.”—Keith Richards, Life | Little Brown 10.26.10
While this isn’t the only mention of Spanish Tony, it is the only mention of this incident, which for damn near anyone else would merit more than a sub-hundred-word paragraph: I mean, being gulled into serving as a getaway driver in a smash-and-grab jewel theft? Is something that just gets mentioned in passing?
Then again, this is not to say that this episode, expanded some, would not still hold more interest than some of the variations on the quality or effects of Keith’s heroin habit.
This is the tone: a combination of the grandiosely self-confident (mind you, not unearned; this is Keith Richards, after all) with a garrulous colloquial onrush. However much the book is co-authored, its creation of a particular voice for its central character must be recognized. Also fascinating, the voice, as it’s so different from its author’s more famous playing, which is lean and coiled and controlled, all sketched riffs and emphatic stabs.
“There was a story that traveled around the islands about a woman named Mama Weeds. A swamp witch. But now Kiwi saw that there were witches everywhere in the world. Witches lining up for free grocery bags of battered tuna cans and half-rotted carrots at the downtown Loomis Army of Mercy. At the bus station, witches telling spells to walls. Only the luckiest ones got to live inside stories. The rest were homeless, pushing carts like this one. They sank out of sight, like the European witches clutching their stones.”—Karen Russell, Swamplandia! | Knopf 02.01.11
And this is another point that’s so very well-managed, like the Dredgeman’s Revelation or the Bird Man’s menace; this time it crystallizes the movement that each of Russell’s characters take — all of them differently, but all tending to the same place — not only from innocence to experience or idealistic magical childhood to realist adulthood, but toward a very specific sort of disenchantment, the kind that happens when you realize that what you thought was unique and magical is merely different in its particulars.
The point at which one realizes that it’s not worthwhile to passively follow along, or to even hope against hope for the happy ending, but that your final option is just to hold your breath and wait to see if things actually do turn out as bad as you fear.
Perhaps the most perfect bit of this book, and certainly an apposite little point in the most perfect stretch, “The Dredgeman’s Revelation.” But even if it is the high point here, it’s also an excellent example of how good Russell is at the level of image and sentence, always keeping in mind that she’s working in a rather old-fashioned adventure-quest mode and she’s set herself in the middle of the country’s biggest swamp: everything’s humid, overripe, threateningly atrophied.
But not the novelist. The thing is, Murakami’s implicit argument here — that death, specifically the act of murder, is the only solution for deep cultural problems (the kind that produce useless, unambitious, entitled young men and unattractive aging unmarried surplus women) — is hardly new enough to be shocking. Perhaps for Bataille or Celine or the existentialists and the surrealists; the randomness and violence here, while clearly spectacular (in a J-horror way, and this book provided the basis for something called Karaoke Terror; actually Murakami also wrote the novel that Takashi Miike’s Audition was based on, and that’s an authentically troubling thing to watch) winds up much closer to smirking Palahniuk in translation.
Another minor character, later on, explains a different wrinkle on his distaste for the Oba-san — which is, I think, literally ‘auntie,’ but in this case refers rather narrowly to a particular sort of middle-aged single woman — by explaining that they’re Darwinian mistakes because they don’t evolve. Instead, they persist, unchanging. The upshot, of course — and a part of the point of the book — is that by pursuing revenge, undertaking careful planning and training, and sharing the secret of murder, the band of Oba-sans do evolve, becoming accomplished and self-actualized and desirable. Becoming something other than Oba-sans.