Paul Auster’s 1985 novel City of Glass explores doubling, shadowing, and what it means to wear another person’s skin, so it’s fitting that the book has its own doppelgänger in the form of a graphic novel by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli (maestro Art Spiegelman served as catalyst and counselor). I should admit upfront that although I’ve read a few of Auster’s books, I haven’t read City of Glass, considered by many to be his masterpiece. I have read Mazzucchelli’s excellent novel Asterios Polyp (and plenty of stuff by overseer Spiegelman), so the adaptation intrigued me. I wasn’t disappointed. I read Karasik and Mazzucchelli’s City of Glass in one brisk sitting and thoroughly enjoyed it. What’s it about?
Okay, so there’s this novelist, Quinn (“rhymes with twin”), who, after the death of his wife and son, takes up writing boilerplate detective novels under the pseudonym William Wilson. Late in the book, Quinn (if he’s still Quinn at that point, which I’ll get to) identifies the pseudonym with the “real” name of NY Mets center fielder (and future coach) Mookie Wilson—but savvy readers will also recognize “William Wilson” as the name of an Edgar Allan Poe story about a man haunted by a doppelgänger of himself to the point that he goes insane. In the Poe story, Wilson and his doppelgänger (whose name is, of course, William Wilson as well) share the same birthday, January 19th, which also happens to be E.A. Poe’s birthday (and my brother’s too, although that is not germane to this review). Auster is clearly working from Poe’s story, although he never announces this explicitly (at least not in the comic-bookization). Arthur Hobson Quinn, for example, wrote an exhaustive biography of Poe (published in 1941). Crossing from the real to the fictional, from authorial to character, Auster inserts himself into the story from its outset. At the beginning of the book, protagonist Quinn gets a mysterious call, like something out of the noir novels he writes:
Bored, or perhaps ventriloquized by a force he doesn’t understand, Quinn takes up the identity of detective Paul Auster and agrees to take on a case for Peter Stillman, a man who, as a boy, suffered feralization at the hands of his insane father, who hoped to discover the Ur-language of god through the boy. Stillman’s monologue is one of the highlights of the book, showcasing the malleability of language—and also, significantly, the malleability of speakers:
Stillman hires Quinn/Auster to track his father, also named Peter Stillman (Peter is also the name of Quinn’s dead son). Actually, it’s Stillman the Younger”s wife/speech pathologist who hires Quinn/Auster; she’s certain that Stillman the Elder, freshly released from a mental asylum, will return to harm his son.
Quinn/Auster slides into the role of Max Work, his noir novel protagonist—or, perhaps more accurately, William Wilson’s noir protagonist—and begins tracking Stillman the Elder (or a version of Stillman the Elder—I won’t spoil the novel’s strangest, most maddening metaphysical gambit here). And, predictably, as Quinn/Auster/Wilson/Work shadows Stillman Sr., he morphs into yet another doppelgänger:
Quinn/Auster/Wilson/Work eventually confronts Stillman, and the pair have a series of fascinating conversations about language, Milton, Humpty Dumpty, and the Tower of Babel. The motifs and themes are telegraphed fairly straightforward here, but also communicated through a lens of madness that comes to dominate the book’s third act—an act that initiates in a meeting between Q/A/W/W and the “real” Paul Auster, a writer who’s working on an essay about the authorship of Don Quixote. The Don Quixote conversation is perhaps too overt, the sort of postmodern cleverness that I increasingly find a big turnoff, but it’s not clumsy or awkward. Still, there’s something mildly irritating about an author tipping his hand and then showing you how he’s tipping his hand.
The third act of City of Glass feels compressed, rushed even, and will definitely disappoint readers who wandered in for a detective stories, hoping for concrete answers and a neat and tidy plot. However, the book’s themes of fantasy and reality, play and work, sanity and madness, and character and author are rich if frustrating in their circuitousness. Mazzucchelli’s art is evocative and fitting, recalling at times the rough-hewn pop art of Raymond Pettibon and the traditional prowess of masters like Kirby and Eisner. (I’ll bring up Spiegelman again too, who introduces the volume. A friend of Auster’s, he brokered the project and oversaw its development, and his work as a creative director here is evident in the book’s cohesion). I imagine fans of Auster’s New York Trilogy, of which City of Glass is the first book, will be interested in checking this one out. Having come first to the graphic novel, I now look forward to reading its doppelgänger, Paul Auster’s City of Glass. Good stuff.
The kind people at Picador sent me a box of books, including a memoir (Margaux Fragoso’s Tiger, Tiger), a few novels (The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan; Ralph Sassone’s The Intimates; Alan Glynn’s noir thriller Bloodland; Dieter Schlesak’s The Druggist of Auschwitz, which purports to be a “documentary novel”; and Zoë Heller’s first novel, Everything You Know), and a work of political science (Ari Berman’s Herding Donkeys).
A box of books is a bit overwhelming, but I make it a point to spend some time with every book that comes into Biblioklept World Headquarters. Here’s some thoughts on these.
I actually ended up reading almost all of The Lover’s Dictionary, despite it having the word “lover” in the title, which, jeez. When my wife picked it up, she said something like, “How can they call this a novel?” — fair question, because the book is structured like a dictionary. In point of illustration:
I’ve got a bigger post on Levithan’s book coming up, one that tries to situate it in the context of other non-novelly novels—but in short it is a novel, a very contemporary one that tells the oldest story in the proverbial book (boy meets girl) in an elliptical way that suits our post-information age. Like I said more to come, but for now: The Lover’s Dictionary is funny, occasionally cruel, too-often saccharine, awfully real, sometimes deeply flawed, but consistently engaging (sorry for all the adverbs).
I imagine Margaux Fragoso’s memoir Tiger, Tiger will capture the fascination of a large audience, but half an hour of the book was almost more than I could bear. Not because Fragoso can’t write—far from it, in fact—but her subject matter, which is to say her stolen childhood, is rendered too raw, too real for me; there’s nothing pulpy or lurid about Fragoso’s work, nor is there the aesthetic sheen of Lolita to gloss any of the ugly, sordid details. Kathryn Harrison ponders the question of Tiger, Tiger’s audience in her favorable review at The New York Times:
So who — other than voyeurs looking for a sustained close-up of a pedophile in action — will want to read this book? To bear witness to a numbingly long series of violations of a child by a man who has honed his wickedness for decades is not more pleasant than it sounds. As a society we energetically oppose sexual abuse; as individuals most of us shy away from investigating a relationship characterized by creepy kisses and inappropriate fondling. Worse, we defend cowardice by calling it discretion — minding our own business. Maybe a book like “Tiger, Tiger” can help us be a little braver. Certainly, it took courage to write.
Ralph Sassone’s The Intimates: sex scenes (straight and gay); lots of notations about parents; lots of characters.
Dieter Schlesak’s The Druggist of Auschwitz: This “documentary novel” blends actual testimony from the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial, interviews with camp guards and prisoners, and fictional narrative to tell the true story of Dr. Victor Capesius, an SS officer who worked with Mengele. The book is less gimmicky than it sounds in this description, and if its documentary elements are blunter and less ambiguous than W.G. Sebald’s historical fragments, I suppose that’s what the subject matter merits.
Alan Glynn’s new novel Bloodland (a Picador paperback original) is a noirish thriller set against the backdrop of political and corporate intrigue. Glynn writes with terse immediacy, telegraphing the plot in short punchy sentences that recall James Ellroy (without the finnicky slang). The book reads almost like a movie script, vivid and concrete. It’s a fast-paced page turner with a smart plot, just the sort of thing one wants from a thriller.
Herding Donkeys by Ari Berman: Honestly not my thing, but if you want to read about the DNC from the time of Howard Dean to the rise of Barrack Obama, this is probably a book for you.
Zoë Heller’s Everything You Know: This is new in paperback again after over a decade. The story focuses on a cantankerous, unlikable son-of-a-bitch named Willy Muller. Things aren’t going well for him: he’s just suffered a heart attack, his daughter’s committed suicide, and the public still believes he murdered his wife. No wonder he hates humanity. Heller is probably most famous for her novel Notes on a Scandal, which was adapted into an excellent film in 2006.
Biblioklept’s picks: The Lover’s Dictionary; Tiger, Tiger; Bloodland.
Online auctions allow book-lovers to engage in what could be labeled “biblio-sharking.” Some poor sap needs to clear out his basement to make room for a foosball table or a Jacuzzi, and readers take his books for an extraordinary profit. While the seller may hesitate to dispose of their treasures, I’ll readily pay negligible sums to compensate him for his losses. So, if your rumpus room means more to you than fiction, please please please place your ads on Ebay.
Some poor mug did just that last week, allowing me to take home 18 detective novels for five clams and nominal shipping and handling charges. Because anthologies were included in the package, I scored twenty-four books for about thirty cents apiece. Ed Biblioklept, kept busy for weeks at a time supervising hooligans and future delinquents of America, has granted me permission to review one of my purchases, the New American Library’s collection of Mickey Spillane’s first three Mike Hammer novels–I, the Jury, My Gun is Quick, and Vengeance is Mine.
Spillane sold hundreds of millions of detective and spy stories during a long career, and the Hammer stories guaranteed him an interested and rabid following. Although private dick Mike Hammer finds himself in any number of slippery situations, Spillane’s central character, rather than any individual plot twist, is what makes these stories both convincing and compelling.
Hammer is the archetypal square-jawed detective, but he demands that you listen to his recollections of a case because he’s clever, resourceful, and vulgar. Although indelicate by today’s standards, Hammer is a tough guy for his times, beguiling dames who are used to getting just what they want, burning through decks of unfiltered Luckies, and drinking brandy for breakfast. What’s timeless, though, is his belief that bad guys are afforded too many protections by an impotent system of justice and that once all the pieces are put together, one extraordinary man performs a public service by putting a few slugs in the guts of murderers. In each of these stories Hammer begins unraveling the mysteries only after someone close to him has been killed.
This was the first collection of detective stories I’ve ever finished, and each page dragged me further into a black and white world filled with villains, vixens, and corrupt politicians. The reader becomes an unpaid extra in a B-level film noir.
Hammer explained to me, a snob, the enduring popularity of the literary detective: “You’ve forgotten that I’ve been in business because I stayed alive longer than some guys who didn’t want me that way. You’ve forgotten that I’ve had some punks tougher than you’ll ever be on the end of a gun and I pulled the trigger just to watch their expressions change.” Mind what you think.
There are two distinct ironies in the title of George V. Higgins’s landmark 1970 novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle. The first is the word “friends” to describe the collection of folks on both sides of the law who Coyle tries to get over on in order to get out of an upcoming prison sentence (of course, most of these folks are looking to use or set up Coyle in turn). The second irony is that Eddie Coyle (aka Eddie Fingers aka “the stocky man”) is not so much the headliner here as he is the catalyst in a sharp and gritty tale of Boston gangsters, gunrunners, student radicals, cops, state police, and federal agents.
Like David Simon did three decades later in his Baltimore opus The Wire, Higgins throws his audience into the deep end. Coyle features almost no exposition. Instead Higgins, a former U.S. Attorney, forwards his intricate and fast-paced plot using machine-gun dialogue. While many crime writers fall for the lure of hyperbolic argot, Higgins’s dialogue rings very true and very raw. He trusts the reader to sort out the complex relationships between hustlers and dupes, cops and finks from their conversations alone; the rest of the prose is reserved for tight, cinematic descriptions of gritty urban Boston at the end of the 1960s. The imagery is straight out of a Scorcese film, and like that director, Higgins has a wonderful gift for showing his audience action without getting in the way. Coyle features a description of a bank robbery that is so clean, precise, and sharp that I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that someone somewhere had used it as a how-to manual.
Higgins also spares authorial intrusion when it comes to a moral voice in his novel. There are certainly bad guys here, to be sure, but they are complex and human, just like the cops and feds who hunt them. In this sense, Coyle is the prototype of a type of crime fiction that came to rise in the cinema of the ’70s–gritty actioners that viewed crime and punishment through a lens of absolute ambiguity. At the same time, Coyle doesn’t unravel into a mere shaggy dog story–there’s a definite conclusion to the story here, even if it doesn’t satisfy the district attorney who tries to make sense of it all (like, in a metaphysical sense) at the end.
I’ve read more crime fiction in the past year than I ever have before, inspired perhaps by “The Part About the Crimes” in Bolaño’s 2666 or Jonathan Lethem’s forays into noir. I wrote a little bit about this the other week when I praised Denis Johnson’s noveau-noir exercise Nobody Move for its purity and its “willingness to be what it is” (whatever that means). (The tone of Nobody Move is downright lighthearted next to Coyle. Not that they need to be compared–I enjoyed both very much). What I did not directly address in that post is my own prejudice against genre fiction, a prejudice that inflamed me in my early teens to such a degree that I probably outright disregarded a lot of great writing. But there’s always more great writing out there than one can read in a lifetime, so why dwell on the past? Suffice to say that The Friends of Eddie Coyle should correct any prejudicial notions of the limits of crime fiction. Highly recommended.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle 40th Anniversary Edition with a new introduction by Dennis Lehane is new this month from Picador.
There’s an admirable precision to Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move, a dark and funny crime caper originally serialized in Playboy over four months in 2008, now available in trade paperback from Picador. Johnson limits himself to a handful of characters, a span of a few days, and four fifty-page segments to tell his story. Johnson’s economy resonates from his tight plotting and structure down to his cool, concise sentences. He works in noir archetypes, to be sure–there’s the hard-luck loser in over his head, the femme fatale with a troubled past (and present), the sadistic thug and his moll, and the sinister mastermind. Johnson’s feat here is to present all of this in a manner that’s simultaneously invigorating to the genre but also a confirmation of its pleasures.
Consider Johnson’s erstwhile protagonist, Jimmy Luntz. The name alone seems to tell us everything about this guy, a lousy gambler who spends much of his time on the run. He owes money to the wrong guys, and when a gorilla appropriately named Gambol comes to collect, Luntz makes the mistake of shooting but not killing him. Johnson traffics in immediacy in Nobody Move–there’s not a lot of backstory or dwelling on psychological motivation, thankfully–but he does offer up the occasional nugget, like this one:
Early in his teens Luntz had fought Golden Gloves. Clumsy in the ring, he’d distinguished himself the wrong way–the only boy to get knocked out twice. He’d spent two years at it. His secret was that he’d never, before or since, felt so comfortable or so at home as when lying on his back listening to the far-off music of the referee’s ten-count.
And that’s all the personal history we really need about Luntz. It’s the gaps in the story that are so engaging, that force the reader to play the role of detective in this crime story. To this end, Johnson starts the story in media res, with Luntz leaving a disappointing competition performance of his barbershop chorus. He spends much of the novel’s first half still in his white tux. The novel’s end — well, I won’t spoil the end, of course — but let’s just say that the end of the novel finds our characters poised for further nefarious adventures. But there I go, getting ahead of myself. A little more on plot: Gambol, wounded by Jimmy, finds himself being nursed by a woman named Mary. Their nascent relationship is one of the highlights of the book, funny and cruel, a bizarre study in unlikely romance. Meanwhile, Jimmy hooks up with Anita Desilvera, a dark-eyed bombshell with a serious drinking problem and a series of upcoming court dates. They complicate their problems by going on the lam together. Gambol eventually comes looking for Jimmy (he wants to literally eat his testicles) and drama and danger ensue.
Denis Johnson is arguably among the best living American writers today, having produces no fewer than two masterpieces (Tree of Smoke, one of my favorite books of the past ten years, and Jesus’ Son, one of my favorite books ever). So when he wrote a genre fiction piece under a deadline for Playboy, many critics and readers wondered what he was up to. Was he serious? How serious were we supposed to take the work? Did he need the money? The book itself offers some answers. Nobody Move is fantastic as a genre exercise, witty, dark, lean, and hard-boiled, transcending the bad or formulaic writing that can plague the genre’s novels but never trying to transcend its tropes. Put another way, Johnson here demonstrates that he can master a genre that is not his, and that he can do it under the constraints of space and time. That’s quite a feat, if you think about it, especially if you compare Nobody Move to Thomas Pynchon’s recent genre exercise, Inherent Vice, or the detective-centered works of Jonathan Lethem like Motherless Brooklyn and Gun, With Occasional Music. Pynchon’s work is in many ways a covert, loving goof on the genre, but it’s still more or less a “Thomas Pynchon” book. Lethem likes the idea of writing crime noir, but he wants to subvert it, mash it up with sci-fi, see it as a form of post-modern allegory. Roberto Bolaño is almost painfully aware of this in his fiction–his narrator in Distant Star gets to play at being a detective for a bit, but finds that it’s not nearly as fun as he would like it to be. The Savage Detectives views literature and art as a crime scene to puzzle out. And 2666 . . . well, you know about 2666 (hang on wait, you don’t know about 2666? You should really get that taken care of). Or take James Ellroy’s postmoderinst crime fiction, which owes, unwittingly or not, as much to Don DeLillo as it does to Raymond Chandler. These are all great writers, of course. But I think contrasting what they are trying to do with what Johnson is trying to do is instructive.
There’s a purity to Nobody Move, to its utter willingness to simply be what it is–and many folks won’t like that; they may even accuse Johnson of slumming. Perhaps they think it’s easy to write a tight, funny crime novel. Perhaps they know it’s not, and they think that Johnson is being solipsistic, or even mercenary. In any case, Nobody Move will probably stand outside of Johnson’s canon. And that’s unfair. Cinematic and highly visual, it recalls some of the Coen brothers’ finest work, like Blood Simple and The Man Who Wasn’t There, and even Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (minus the messy sprawl). Perhaps the best thing about Nobody Move–other than the sheer pleasure of reading it over a few afternoons, of course–is that it might motivate readers to pick up Jesus’ Son or even Tree of Smoke. For many readers, especially young readers, genre is a vital gateway to what many of us prejudicially call “more serious” literature. So pick up Nobody Move, read it, love it, and then pass it on to someone who needs to know about Denis Johnson. Recommended.
Nobody Move is available in trade paperback from Picador on April 24, 2010.
Got a great little gang of new noir (or at least noirish) novels from Picador last week. These handsome trade paperbacks are all available April 27, 2010. Full reviews all around forthcoming, but until then–
Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move is a tight snare drum of a comedy crime novel. Jimmy Luntz, still decked out in his white barbershop chorus tux (don’t ask) gets into trouble with a big gorilla he owns money too. On the run, he meets smoldering bombshell Anita. More trouble ensues. Nobody Move, originally serialized in Playboy, is a dark, funny genre exercise propelled by Johnson’s sharp dialogue and keen eye for detail. Johnson’s restraint and economy demonstrate writerly chops, but its his story and his characters that made me stay up too late reading last night.
I’m kind of embarrassed that I’d never heard of George V. Higgins’s seminal crime novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the story of a down-on-his luck gunrunner trying to get a break on a three-year sentence. Picador’s new edition celebrates the book’s 40th anniversary. Higgins’s electric dialogue thrusts the reader right into the action, trading narrative clarity for a smoky milieu of backroom deals and gritty alleys. But my phrasing here sounds way too corny and trite. Forgive me, I don’t really know how to write about good crime fiction because I’m so unused to it. I’ll lazily favorably compare The Friends of Eddie Coyle to David Simon’s Baltimore crime epic The Wire.
I’ve been too engrossed with Coyle and Nobody Move the past few days to do more than skim over Clancy Martin’s How to Sell, a novel about grifters and scam artists in the jewelery world, but I did read and very much enjoy its first chapter, where the protagonist pawns his mother’s wedding ring (“the only precious thing she had left”) and yet still manages to keep reader sympathy (mine, at least). Martin worked for years in the fine jewelery business. He also translates Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Zadie Smith says of How to Sell: “It’s a little like Dennis Cooper with a philosophical intelligence, or Raymond Carver without hope. But mostly it’s like itself.” I like that.
If you’re still not in a noirish mood, I’ll make one more attempt to piqué your interest. In what has to be one of the greatest opening shots in the history of cinema, Orson Welles begins his dark crime thriller Touch of Evil with a continuous tracking shot of a car that . . . hang on, I shouldn’t tell you what happens if you don’t know yet. Just watch the scene. It mines the same border-horror that those other noir-masters Roberto Bolaño and David Lynch also evoke so well.
The film adaptations of David Peace‘s Red Riding quartet make their American debut this weekend. The films look pretty cool — kinda like Zodiac. The screen adaptations drop the 1977 segment of Peace’s original quartet, opting instead for the trilogy treatment. You can read Manohla Dargis’s detailed review for The New York Times here and Keith Phipps favorable review at the AV Club here. Trailer:
We’re currently reading–and really enjoying–David Peace’s Occupied City, a dark and bewildering account of the 1948 Teikoku Bank Massacre in Tokyo. Peace’s book gets its American debut later this week from Knopf. We’ll run a proper review then. For now, here’s Peace discussing the project, his difficulty in writing it, the crime’s contemporary resonance in modern Japan, and how he stole from Rashomon:
A few things up front: this can’t really be a proper review of James Ellroy’s Blood’s a Rover as I’m less than a 100 pages into it and its over a 600 pages long. So far though, the book is fantastic, and has completely ameliorated my mistaken impression of what, exactly, Ellroy is doing. You see, I had long thought of Ellroy, author of L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia, as a writer of potboiler genre-fiction–which is to say I never considered him a “serious” writer. But when advanced press for Blood’s a Rover came out, I couldn’t help but ask for a review copy. The idea of an alternate history of the late sixties/early seventies, set to a backdrop of black militant movements, Cuban revolution, and heroin dealing, complete with historical figures like Howard Hughes and J. Edgar Hoover seemed pretty cool.
The opening scene of Blood’s a Rover, a breathtaking armored car robbery, quickly establishes the book’s tense, terse pacing telegraphed through Ellroy’s signature simple sentences (his style: subject-verb-object, repeat–with the occasional clause or adjective thrown in for flair). Ellroy’s rhetorical style perfectly matches his plot, as sentence after sentence hammers away depictions of lurid, unrelenting violence. In a sense, Blood’s comes across as the evil twin of Thomas Pynchon’s recent novel Inherent Vice. Both novels threaten to crush the reader under the densities of their plots, yet, where Pynchon allows his hippie detective Doc Sportello’s marijuana haze to infiltrate (and thus lighten) the novel’s discourse, Ellroy’s technique simply compounds and confounds in its ugliness. But don’t be mistaken–Blood’s is a thrilling book, with tightly-drawn characters doing really mean and interesting things. There’s even a sardonic sense of humor under the punchy grisliness of it all. If Pynchon’s universe propels on the paranoia of not knowing but sensing that the Powers That Be are conspiring against you, Ellroy makes it expressly clear that, yes, a sinister cabal of underworld agents are running the show. And not for the better. Even the novel’s hero Wayne Tedrow Jr. is pretty much a creep (or whatever word you want to pick for a heroin runner who kills his dad in a bid for his step mom’s affection)–but he’s a fascinating creep, and in Ellroy’s plotting, one you want to root for.
So, if you’ve had any passing interest in this book, you probably want to go ahead and pick it up. I’ll do a full, proper review when I finish it, but for now, I want to repent for my erstwhile (and unfounded) prejudices against Ellroy. Makes me wonder what other writers I’ve dismissed out of genre prejudice.
Blood’s a Rover is now available in hardback from Knopf.