“Caleb and Camille liked two kinds of music — esoteric, impenetrable things like John Cage and the apocalyptic folk of Current 93, and then the dumbest, loudest music possible, punk rock. When they were little children, their parents had sung Black Flag’s ‘Six Pack’ to them before bed as if it were a lullaby. ‘I was born with a bottle in my mouth,’ their mother would sing, and then their father would chime in, ‘Six Pack!’ At the end, before kissing Annie and Buster on their foreheads, Caleb and Camille would whisper, ‘Six Pack! Six Pack! Six Pack!’ and then turn off the light.”—Kevin Wilson, The Family Fang | Ecco 08.09.11
Now, faithful readers, I expect that it will surprise none of you that I’m not a big Wes Anderson guy (nor will it surprise you when I follow that with the exception for Bottle Rocket). Which makes it kind of surprising how much I like The Family Fang, because there’s certainly the impulse to preciousness and zaniness here, not to mention the jewelbox family dynamic on display, the tendency towards familial airlessness. There’s even a Wes Anderson comparison on the back cover, in the jacket copy. But the stuff that could be airless here — the careful plotting, the telegraphing, the long-setup jokes — reads differently, more like I’m being solicitously looked-after rather than treated to the capering of someone smarter than me. And the dry, witty bits that leaven the situational comedy are charming, too.
Of course, when you write a book like this, and name the hapless son ‘Buster,’ it’s hard for your reader to not picture Tony Hale. Really, really hard.
Page 223. Yes, of course, this was inevitable; we all knew it, right from the epigraph page. Thing is, Kevin Wilson knew it, too, and kept that card in the hole for as long as he needed to. And this is how Wilson works, here, and how this works so well — the punch lines are not surprising, really, but they’re so well-executed as to be delightful. You wind up laughing not out of surprise or outrage or discomfort, but because your expectations have been fulfilled so carefully and attentively. It’s dry and Evelyn Waugh-y, and refreshingly well-crafted when it’s set alongside the wet, angry stuff that we make comedy out of usually.
The only thing I’ve got to add to the earlier comment about the very similar passage is this: this paragraph comes out of somebody else’s mouth entirely, the voice of the wised-up and fully amoral walk-on that our hero has to reject before he can achieve happiness — the false father. Even though it sounds pretty much the same as our hero’s voice and perspective.
The asterisk is no typo; this statement (‘I needn’t say much’) is followed by an explanatory footnote, which of course is the joke, both that he’d violate the sanctity of the cubicle and that he’d feel the need to say more in a footnote. Which is a funny joke, the first time you see it, in David Foster Wallace (or in Laurence Sterne, depending on where you went to school).
Kind of nice. Also the kind of thing that this is chockablock full of — the rush of one character’s thoughts and philosophies, in his notebook, as he talks about killing himself. It’s meant to be, and largely reads like, the writing of a smart kid. But as such, it’s difficult to separate the artifice (the author’s skill in writing like a smart but unpleasant adolescent) and the experience (of being trapped for a couple hundred pages in the head of a smart but unpleasant adolescent; mind you, something I did in my own head when I was an adolescent).
“Annie Oakley’s mother had not wanted her to come home at first; she had wanted to send her daughter back to the Wolves. Annie won her way into her mother’s home through the hard work of hunting and trapping, by being able to support the whole family, including her mother’s new husband. There was no wood to chop here, though, no food to kill and gut, nothing to repair that Margo could see. Margo was missing the weight of her gun, and had to lift the tension out of her shoulders.”—Bonnie Jo Campbell, Once Upon A River| WW Norton 07.11
Which is a nice turn of phrase, but follows the flaw in Margo’s character. Her isolation is as much chosen as it is imposed — she doesn’t want anything more than to live on the river, to hunt and swim and fish; that she’s 18 and a dropout means that she might not have taken sex ed, but as a hunter you’d expect some familiarity with the birds and the bees, right?
There are a lot of things that Once Upon A River does very well, and a few that are interesting in a rough or sometimes bad way; but there’s one central flaw that dominates the book. And that flaw is its heroine’s one-dimensionality. As much as River is about Margo as isolated individual, at the mercy of her class and her opportunities, removed from family or money, it doesn’t move much past the immediate business of sensation and action. This could be a statement about the bourgeois luxury of emotions and reflection, or about Margo’s incapacity to place her experience in a larger framework; I don’t think it is. And, while I really really like the fact that Campbell has written a heroine with enough agency to make mistakes serially, accept them, own them and move forward, she’s also created a heroine particularly suited to (and interested in?) serving as a backstop, a screen for the projections of other people, mostly men, who mostly sleep with her.
Claire decides to disguise herself, to find someone in Congo Square, and she goes as “Elmyra Catalone, African-Italian American recovering addict from Memphis Tennessee, raised Baptist, now occasionally Pentecostal, occasional sex worker,” et cetera, et cetera.
Delightfully, coming out of the same misty space as Paul Auster’sCity of Glass and especially Jedediah Barry’s The Manual of Detection. Not actually all that impressive as a whodunit, per se, but the stuff built on that framework, all cod-French philosophy, a little hardboiled wit, and a very sympathetic post-Katrina New Orleans, work together very well. If Gran isn’t quite Barry, that’s not really her fault, is it?
Then again, Giraldi knows this, and — even though Busy Monsters is composed largely of a voice and a series of set pieces — a bunch of the set pieces are good, and the voice eventually works in them. Which means that, for a reader enamored of (say) Sam Lipsyte, I’d imagine this to be great, or at least safely worth an if-you-liked-then-you’ll-like. Because, after 300 pages, even the stingiest version of me is won-over-enough to stop nitpicking.
Yep, a comic novel, and one that’s gone all-in on the over-the-top quirky voice of a direct-address sad sack. Which, in general, is no way to appeal to me (and which I know is a matter of taste; other people love this kind of stuff, and I’ve always been a hard audience for comedy). In order to take a character that’s already weak and flawed and a little contemptible and put him at the center of the book — and even make him the conduit for the reader’s experience of his world — takes a lot of talent. And so Giraldi winds up having to work very hard to get me (again, specifically, acknowledging my own limitations) to a neutral place, after periodically muttering things about Ignatius Reilly to myself.
And I’m not sure whether this is fair or not. Virginia Heffernan, a little while ago, makes the argument that the elimination of proofreading in publishing brings us closer to the idiosyncratic voice of the author — a claim I’m pretty sure I disagree with, really — but in this case, I’d rather believe that this is intentional, and something of a commentary on the ex-Marine coach being described.
Perhaps a slightly unfair context-free quote-pull, but only because the football / war / ancient Greek metaphor is not the clunkiest thing in the paragraph. I’ll have you know that the person doing the caressing and the book-selection is the football player’s English teacher, and that I’m pretty sure that this isn’t meant to be a seduction scene.