“Outside Alma, a fount of flame burned atop a pencil-thin smokestack. The smokestack marked the invisible boundary between northern and southern Michigan. South of Alma, the days were counted in an order that never varied.”—Scott Sparling, Wire to Wire| Tin House 06.11
[S]o much happened in the 20th century and things moved so fast, and you had this enormous capitalist engine generating all these toys and gadgets and things that became rapidly obsolescent. It’s all piled up, hasn’t it? And you think of the sheer amount of recording that went on. It always blows my mind whenever I go record shopping how many records I’ve never seen before. I’ve been in record stores forever, decades I’ve been looking through them, and I still see things I’ve never seen, artists I’ve never heard of. The sheer amount of recording that was done, it is almost like this universe of music. Daniel Lopatin in the book actually says it’s a period of digestion, we’re digesting and processing all this stuff that happened musically and in other senses in this really runaway, fast period of time of production. And perhaps that’s fine. Perhaps that’s what we need.
Never mind the “slopping pop of a bursting pumpkin;” the onomatopoeia is nice, but not a normal thing here. More important is the image of the martinet as a boy, raised by donut people in Ohio — mind you, a beautiful and regionally specific image. As is West Michigan’s dedication to polka, weirdly enough:
Sparling goes on, in the next paragraph: “The ball-cap guys reminded him of that. Not the trap builders, but the bucks.” Which, yeah, is probably overstating it, although the other side of that would be just leaving that bit of detail dangling, and Sparling is enough of a small-R realist that the anecdote needs a reason to appear in the narrative. Anyway.
But: this is a significant, specific sort of detail, a great writing-class example of the tangential bit of shopcraft or esoterica at work. And I don’t think this works only because I grew up in a place where the first day of deer season is a school holiday; it’s not about relatability, at least not in that way. Instead, it’s an indication of the way Sparling uses detail, as a means to create atmosphere and immerse the reader in the texture of place. Wire to Wire is a long heavy brick of a book, especially for its size, and that’s because of the density of detail and anecdote Sparling shoehorns in to his narrative to implicate us in his world.
“Sometimes in Northern Michigan, when the cherries were being harvested, a truck stacked high with crates would take a corner too fast and spill some of its load. He remembered dirt roads the color of coffee with a sprinkling of cherries at the corner. There’d be a summer shower, a slender girl, a flannel shirt open under the trees. The scent of sex and the smell of grass — not grass being cut, but living grass, down close to the ground where you could smell it next to the soil.
“That’s where he wanted to go. But that wasn’t Northern Michigan. That was his youth. And there was no way you could get there in a broken-down Ford.”—Scott Sparling, Wire to Wire | Tin House 06.11
Well — mostly with verve. The trouble with the audacity of Ballard’s imagination is that — at least here, but often enough in the others of his I’ve read — his ideas get repeated, near-verbatim, multiple times. This is an interesting idea, if a little bit undergraduate and roach-clippy; but this version of it is at least the third time around in the 300-odd pages of a near-future thriller.
Of course, it’s Ballard, so it’s an interesting hash of ideas, almost as if he’d picked three very suggestive phrases out of his hat and yoked them together into a thoroughly-functional day-after-tomorrow narrative. In this case, it’s the revolt of the middle classes as they imagine themselves an opiated proletariat, with dashes of terrorism and demonstration culture, disability, and weak-tea psychology. But pulled off quickly, and well, and with verve.
This is one of the points where the scales fall from our werewolf’s eyes, and he realizes he’s part of a larger game; it’s also where we get to finally understand how he’s managed to survive so very long while being so bad at evading his hunters. This makes for an excellent point about something — the subaltern and the need for the other, the master / slave binary, whatever — but it kind of shoves the character into the background; we’ve established already that he lives at second hand, an approximation of movies and cultural referents, but now he’s second-hand to his author’s cultural-critical notions.
Duncan — and Marlowe, his werewolf — are very aware of how werewolves have been talked about through history. And of how Marlowe’s story is sometimes like a movie. Or a thesis. And you will know this, because they will point out each of the plot beats that might possibly be familiar, as if acknowledging that inoculates it against actually being unoriginal.
Vague and imprecise, mopey and navel-gazey; this is not particularly promising, especially when the voice of the monster is the important thing, the prominent feature distinguishing the novel. It’s good that, in very little time, Glen Duncan is able to turn things around:
Because Duncan really can write — or, at least, based on the one other book of his I’ve read, the extreme-rendition-based A Day and A Night and A Day, he really can, and that means that The Last Werewolf should be that perfect thing, a genre story executed with the care and attention of a literary novelist. And sometimes, it is.
That’s not entirely accurate, though: the periodization of the story, or of its setting, isn’t strictly necessary to the way the plot works, or to the way the main character deals with the women in his life and the different kinds of needs he has for them. On the other hand, this particular kind of book, with the lonely, male, suburban businessman at its center, alienated with his doled-out measure of worldly success and luxury, stuck in Connecticut and riding a commuter train to the office — this is a book out of an old-fashioned mold, that late-century mode of Cheever and Roth and Updike and Richard Ford, and Neil Fox’s author would seem to be much more comfortable in their company than in the company of his contemporaries.
Reading this during the same week I watched Adventureland (and, mind you, much more enjoying the fact of being able to watch a movie that’s been gathering dust in its little red Netflix envelope since May)(which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy Adventureland, because I did, but that it’s immaterial, really) and found the recent-history period settings a little strange, a little unnecessary, in both. I mean, this sentence is dead-on, a nice description of something that will never happen again — the phone you leave to ring, in the time before voicemail. But The Arriviste doesn’t require its setting in time, which seems to act as a photographic filter over the story, distancing and altering just a little (and especially — not that jacket copy should be held against the book it covers — when Matthew Sharpe’s blurb on the back points out the topicality of a book about bad business deals), just like Adventureland seems to use its setting to excuse the centrality of Lou Reed to the story.
This is not an easy thing to do, especially not convincingly: Pollock’s instinct for weird takes him from religious fanaticism and revival-tent preaching all the way out the other side, to wheelchair-bound carny pedophiles and serial killers picking up hitchers. This gets lurid, in a way somewhere between Nick Cave and Dennis Cooper. But Pollock pulls this off, makes good on it, because he locates the squirmy stuff within a place, a plotline, and a southern Gothic tradition; and he’s so strong a writer that he knows when to be explicit (there’s a description of a photograph of the eyes of a man shot in the head that sticks with you) and when to be allusive (“cotton balls and a funnel in some way”) unlike some other writers working in this territory (Matthew Stokoe, for instance).
“She was always coming home with another bullshit story some drunk had fed her. Last week she had talked to someone who was in on the Kennedy assassination. Sometimes it irritated the shit out of Carl that she could be so gullible, but then again, he knew that was probably one of the reasons she had stuck with him all this time.”—Donald Ray Pollock, The Devil All the Time | Doubleday 07.12.11
This is nice, a little cute, as is the description of the supernatural threat (to a Jewish boy in 1940) as the “hollowghast.” It’s always nice to see someone who’s able to — rather than stacking up a common metaphor — unpack it and literalize each half, Nazi and ghoul, making a multiple threat rather than a single, layered one; splitting apart and enriching the rationalization Riggs has Jacob’s father start off with.
This is a common-enough point in a book like this — where the adolescent hero discovers another world where he feels he belongs better, which carries more excitement for him, and so debates whether he can stay there for good, rather than returning to the quotidian world of his parents and family, the world he comes from — and Riggs pulls it off a little better than others. There’s actually a sense that Jacob could go either way, which is what that passage should allow for, so for Riggs it works.
A weird note; we’ve established, from the first page, that Jacob is a poor little rich kid, privileged but friendless, but this is the first bit of contempt for those less fortunate than him. It comes through, differently and more successfully later, from the Peculiar Children, who maintain a certain fascination / repulsion with nonpeculiar ‘commons.’ But the snobbery doesn’t carry through into Jacob’s actions, and only comes out in occasional asides like this one. If anything, this highlights Riggs’s underdevelopment of his characters, while confirming that sometimes — and this is one of those times — it’s actually OK to underdevelop and underdetermine characters.
The gothic tone, the teenaged protagonist, and the illustrations mean that — whatever the intention — this book will be marketed as a YA story. Which isn’t the worst thing; it’s a really nicely-produced book, which Quirk has the knowhow to do, and there’s an excellent chance that it’ll get a broader readership out of that marketing plan than as an oddball, hard-to-categorize novel. And even if it allows us to excuse some problems, like some sketchy character development, or the way that certain scenes come out of the writing-exercise crutch of the photography — there’s plenty that Riggs does very well, YA or not, like opening with Jacob’s grandfather’s stories about ghosts and haunts and supernatural children, and immediately rationalizing them:
After all, we’re in the land of things that go bump in the night here; less the territory of Steven King, more in the neighborhood of some of those early-70s sinister-village stories. Like Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home, or the good parts of The Wicker Man. There’s a lot of interesting, smart stuff that Nickle is dealing with in his setting and his background, and there’s some clumsy stuff in the foreground and the exposition, but fundamentally (and please take this the right way) horror needs to be dumb, and strike at nerve endings and muscle memory and not get too cerebral, and this is a story able to get out of its own way and do that.
Our two main characters, in their first meeting; a little wooden banter, a little functional information. This is the sort of thing that wouldn’t fly in a different setting — but Nickle does so well, both in developing and pushing along the business of plot and event, and couching it in the larger ideas of class, race, and eugenics that background the monster story, that a little woodenness fits in nicely.
Heini again, the despairing anti-Nazi journalist and the mouthpiece for the author’s (more-)sophisticated ideas. This time, obviously, on exile, which he decides against while his author writes from it. Not a moveable feast.
This is excellent, slim and clear and pointed, with little touches of absurdity (like the little girl who dies after reciting a maudlin little panegyric to Hitler one time too many) but overwhelmingly a bright realist picture of prewar, post-Weimar Germany. And the voice of Sanna, the narrator and central character, is the best part of this, more effective than any of the more acute pronouncements she transmits, recognizable and relatable, able to show both a critique of the nation and its course while making the individual’s life and choices make sense, read clearly.
“Heini once said, ‘People either buy a book and don’t read it. Or they borrow a book and don’t give it back, and still don’t read it. Or they give it back without reading it. But they’ve heard so much about the book, and gone to all that trouble buying it or remembering to return it, they really do feel they know it inside out. So they’re familiar with the book without ever having read it.’ This way, he said, thousands of Germans had read Goethe and Nietzsche and other poets and philosophers without going to the bother of really reading them. Look at it like that, and our Führer has something in common with Goethe.”—Irmgard Keun, After Midnight | Melville House 05.31.11
“She had told me once of her suspicion that when she walked out of the sight and hearing of others she ceased to exist. Or, conversely — alternatively, but not exclusively — that whatever was out of her range of sensation ceased to exist. She knew the name for this. They call it solipsism, or sometimes, simply, self-interest, and they try to cure it with psychology and medicine and politics, with philosophy when all else fails.”—Rebecca Wolff, The Beginners | Riverhead 06.30.11
This closes one chapter. Note that, as pretty as “the ghost of our utility” is, the scramble in the first couple of sentences, as pronouns switch off clumsily: this isn’t the fifteen-year-old’s precocity anymore, but an author’s imprecision. The next chapter closes with:
The thing is, between all of this heavyhanded foreboding, there’s a sharply-drawn little vignette, where the quiet jock walks the teenaged waitress home from the diner, that’s much stronger than any of this self-dramatizing spooky stuff. That scene’s the clearest Wolff’s been for many many chapters, and probably clearer than anything that comes after. And that’s a pity; whether one chooses to read The Beginners as a ghost story, or as an unreliable narrator using a ghost story as an excuse for her own behavior, the actual evidence, the events portrayed in the book, are contradictory. This isn’t The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects, where the keys to the plot twist exist from the start; instead, the events are a muddle with a dream sequence or two thrown in. Which makes all the effort put into menace and portent a poor investment, with nothing concrete coming in return.
Right down to the endearing clunkiness that this starts off with, this is a great paragraph, an excellent beginning for something spooky and a little supernatural. It’s got the precocious knowingness of the fifteen-year-old girl that’s read more than she’s experienced, who isn’t able to view herself as anything other than fully capable, fully mature. In fact, bits like this make the long last stretch of The Beginners more difficult, as the character breaks down in a way that thoroughly cheats the promise here; but that doesn’t mean that this ain’t delightful.
Jessa Crispin, of Bookslut: “I would like to nominate the opening line to Rebecca Wolff’s The Beginners as the best first sentence of 2011. I talk to Wolff over at Kirkus about being named after a woman hanged in the Salem witch trials, her various roles as editor, poet, publisher, and now novelist, and why teenage girls are natural black magicians.”
Crispin’s completely right about this here first line.
“The perfect crime consists of randomness: you happen to be passing a table on which a diamond necklace is lying; everyone has momentarily turned away; you snatch the necklace and continue; you are now the possessor of a diamond necklace. Having randomly arrived there, you had every reason to be in that place at that time, as part of your routine. You only ceased, in the moment of the crime, to be a thing apart from the background, and immediately thereafter, you returned to it.”—Jesse Ball, The Curfew| Vintage 06.14.11