Josh Davis’s novel Vanishing Is the Last Art. Blurb:
Charlie Fell sells baseball cards with seemingly hallucinogenic properties out of his bedroom, takes road trips to places he loves (New York City) and loathes (Southern California), and trips over a series of romantic entanglements. When the young writer releases his first novel, his life begins to unravel as the fallout from his published inner-monologues drive him back inside his already frail mind
Joshua Henkin’s new novel, The World Without You, tells the story of the Frankels, a large Jewish American family who gather over the Fourth of July weekend to mourn the death of their son Leo, a journalist who was kidnapped and then murdered in Iraq. The World Without You is Henkin’s third novel after Matrimony and Swimming Across the Hudson. Henkin directs the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College. The World Without You is new in hardback from Pantheon. You can learn more about Henkin at his website. He was gracious enough to talk to me over a series of emails about writing, teaching, verb tense, sympathy, and his new novel.
Biblioklept: There’s a lot going on in The World Without You, but it seems to be essentially a novel about a family—what it means to be a family, what it means to be in a family, what it means to be in conflict with a family—where did the Frankels come from?
Josh Henkin: The most simple answer is, My imagination. The Frankels aren’t based on anyone I know, and like all characters in fiction (at least the kind of fiction I write), they developed slowly over time; I discovered them in the writing process over the course of quite a number of years. What I would say is that I think that in the same way that people speak of “rebound relationships,” I think of my novels as “rebound novels.” Matrimony took place over twenty years and focuses on a small cast of characters, and I wanted to write something different this time. So, whether consciously or not, I set out to write a book that was more compressed, on one hand (it takes place over 72 hours instead of over 20 years), and more spacious, on the other hand (there are many more characters, and we go into many points of view). If you’re asking where the inspiration for the book came from, I’d say it came mostly from the following. I had a first cousin who died of Hodgkin’s disease when he was in his late twenties. I was only a toddler at the time, but his death hung over my extended family for years. At a family reunion nearly thirty years later, my aunt, updating everyone on what was happening in her life, began by saying, “I have two sons….” Well, she’d once had two sons, but her older son had been dead for thirty years at that point. It was clear to everyone in that room that the pain was still raw for her and that it would continue to be raw for her for the rest of her life. By contrast, my cousin’s widow eventually remarried and had a family. This got me thinking how when someone loses a spouse, as awful as that is, the surviving spouse eventually moves on; but when a parent loses a child they almost never move on. That idea was the seed from which The World Without You grew. Although there are many tensions in the novel (between siblings, between couples, between parents and children), the original tension was between mother-in-law and daughter-in law, caused by the gulf between their two losses, by the different ways they grieve.
Biblioklept: You mention the compression of The World Without You, which here strikes me as form of realism. The book takes place over the July 4th holiday—why did you choose this setting? Was the Independence Day setting always part of your design?
JH: I knew I wanted a compressed period of time–mostly because Matrimony took place over twenty years and I think of books like relationships: one book is a rebound from the previous one. I also knew that I wanted the book to be told in many points of view; this, too, makes it different from Matrimony, which was told only in Julian and Mia’s points of view. In terms of Independence Day, I think that was a little more unconscious, though probably intentional as well. Part of the issue was a practical one: how do you get a large, disperse family together in one place? You need an occasion for the telling, and a holiday like July 4th provides one. Though of course the real occasion for the telling is Leo’s memorial. But I think even there Independence Day is relevant because although the book is obviously about the specific characters (I think all fiction worth its salt is always first and foremost about the particular, not the general), I do think this novel in its own indirect way is a novel about America more broadly, and certainly about a certain segment of America, of which I consider myself a part. The Frankels are a political family, with strong opinions about Bush and about the Iraq War, but they’re also privileged. They’ve really known no one who has fought in the war, have been insulated from it in their day-to-day lives–and then, with Leo’s death, it comes and touches them in the most horrific and personal way. And I wondered what that’s like–to be mourning while the rest of the country is celebrating, to be commemorating the independence of a country that has sent its young men and women to war, a country that’s responsible for their son and brother’s death.
Biblioklept: You mention the Frankels’s privileged background. They are, for the most part, liberal, secular, refined. Leo dies in Iraq, but, significantly, he’s a journalist, not a soldier. Do you worry that not all readers will connect to these characters? How do you make your characters sympathetic—or does sympathy even matter in fiction?
JH: My feeling is that people are people, and they merit as little or as much sympathy as they merit whether they’re rich or poor, healthy or sick, beautiful or ugly. There’s a strand of anti-elitism in American culture (one can see it every day, tirelessly, in our politics), and one sees it, too, in certain attitudes toward literature–the idea being that only the humble, the uneducated are worthy of our fiction. But I find the idea pretentious; it smacks of a kind of reverse snobbery. And tell it, in any case, to Fitzgerald, or Cheever, or Yates. One of the things good literature does is it humanizes people we might not otherwise be drawn to. And (this is at least as important) it allows us to enjoy the company of people on the page whose company we might not enjoy off the page. Which is another way of saying that sympathy doesn’t matter in fiction, at least not sympathy narrowly construed. In fiction, as in life, some people are likable and some people aren’t likable, and the world would be boring if everyone were likable. The fiction writer’s job is to make his characters complex, interesting, fully human, not (or at least not necessarily) likable.
Biblioklept:The World Without You is conveyed in the present tense. I’m curious what led you to compose in the present tense, or if you drafted parts of the novel in the past tense—what advantages can the present tense offer the writer and reader? What are its limitations?
JH: I think about tense a lot, probably because I teach fiction writing and, more specifically, because I direct Brooklyn College’s Fiction MFA program, and so I end up reading 500 application manuscripts a year, a good number of which are written in the present tense. It’s said that present tense makes the story feel more immediate, yet year after year I notice among our graduate applications that the present-tense stories are usually the least immediate, most inert stories in the bunch. Why is that? I think it’s because some writers use present tense as a substitute for narrative, as a way of hiding that nothing is happening in their stories. They think that if they write in present tense their stories will feel immediate.
I also think that present tense is deceptive because it’s easy in present tense to slip out of scene and into general/habitual time. In the past tense, you would write “She went to the store on Tuesday” to suggest that the character is going to the store at a specific time. If, on the other hand, you wanted to indicate repeated or habitual action, you would write, “She would go to the store on Tuesday.” But in the present tense there generally isn’t such a distinction between the specific and the habitual. “She goes to the store on Tuesday” can mean either that she’s going to the store right now on Tuesday or that she’s a habitual store-goer on Tuesdays. I think what happens in present tense is that a lot of writers end up slipping into the habitual, and so what seems immediate is actually not at all immediate.
The other thing I’d say is that it’s very hard to write a present-tense novel that takes place over ten years because it’s likely to feel artificial for all that time to be in present tense. Present tense works best, then, in novels and stories told in compressed time.
The World Without You simply came to me in present tense. That was the tense that felt right for the book. This may be true, in part, because I’d been influenced by Richard Ford’s Independence Day, another novel told over a single July 4th holiday that’s told in present tense. But I think it’s more than that. The World Without You takes place over 72 hours, so it’s ideally suited for present tense, and it’s also told in confined space; most of the book is situated in the Frankel family home and the streets that surround it in Lenox, Mass. One thing I was trying to do was balance the sprawling quality of the book (there are many characters and lots of different points of view) with the more focused time and space that I just mentioned, and I think present tense allowed me to do that. But all this is post-facto, a case of me looking back at what I did. I proceeded intuitively, which is what I always do, and present tense simply felt right (it was the right sound, the right voice) for this book.
Biblioklept: You bring up your position as Brooklyn College’s MFA fiction program director—I’m curious if reading so many manuscripts affects your own writing.
JH: I love teaching, and that’s in large part because I get to teach some of the most talented young writers out there. In the last few months alone, five of our recent MFA graduates have gotten book contracts. There are writers who wouldn’t know how to teach; for them, writing is an intuitive process and they aren’t fully conscious of what they’re doing. For me, it was the opposite. I could read someone else’s short story and figure out what wasn’t working long before I could make things work in my own stories. I needed to learn how to become a more intuitive writer, and critiquing other people’s stories helped me do that; it still helps me. I’ve been at this process longer than my students have, but we’re all struggling with the same thing—how to write convincing stories; how to make our characters comes so deeply to life they feel as real as, even realer than, the actual people in our own lives; how to use language in a way that’s precise and beautiful and utterly true. That never changes. So in a way, even though I’m the instructor, we’re all students in the room. Also, I’m a fairly social person, and writing is incredibly solitary, so teaching gives me the chance to be with other people and to talk about the work I love.
Biblioklept: Are there manuscripts that come in where you just kind of slap your forehead and go, “Not another story about ______ again!”
JH: Absolutely. Many of my graduate students are in their mid-twenties, and so they write about the concerns of people in their mid-twenties. How to find love in the big city, that kind of thing. That’s okay. If it’s done well, just about any subject matter can make for compelling fiction, and in any case, my students won’t be in their mid-twenties forever. That’s one of the nice things about being a writer. You mature; you get better over time. Writing is different from figure skating. It’s even different from playing the violin. You can be in your late forties and still be a young writer. At least that’s what I like to tell myself!
Often it’s less a similarity of subject matter that I see than a similarity of voice or sensibility. For a time I saw a lot of Lorrie Moore imitators. Then I saw a lot of George Saunders imitators. If you’re going to imitate someone, those are two pretty good choices, though in a lot of ways Moore and Saunders are inimitable. But that’s fine. Imitation is part of the maturing process. It’s how a writer achieves her own voice.
Biblioklept: Do you have any upcoming writing projects? What are you working on next?
JH: My most immediate project is a trip to Hawaii! Writing a novel takes a lot out of you. Right now, I’m trying to figure out what comes next. I promised myself I would go back to writing short stories. It’s weird, I’ve spent the last nearly twenty years writing novels, when in so many ways I think of myself as a short-story writer. It was certainly my first love, and because I teach MFA students, I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about short stories. So last fall, when I finished the final draft of The World Without You, I immediately sat down to write a short story, and what happened? The draft I wrote was 113 pages along! And then the second short story I wrote was over 200 pages long! I still think I’m capable of writing a regular old twenty-to-thirty-page short story, but we’ll have to see. In the meantime, I’m tossing around some ideas for a new novel, but it’s still in the very early, incubating stages, so I’m not saying anything more than that.
Late in Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son, the titular protagonist muses that, “In North Korea, you weren’t born, you were made.” The Orphan Master’s Son is a novel about what it means to claim agency—to literally make a self—in a totalitarian society that assigns an official narrative to each of its citizens. Our hero is Jun Do, a boy who takes on a martyr’s name like all North Korean orphans, even though he believes with absolute commitment in a narrative he’s created where he’s the son of the man who keeps him and the other orphan boys. His mother? Well, she’s a phantom in a photograph, a beautiful singer disappeared on a forgotten night.
In the orphanage, Jun Do decides which boys will eat and which ones will not, who will freeze and who will stay warm. He even chooses their names from the list of Revolutionary Martyrs. From the outset of his life, Jun Do must navigate a world where his own capacity for human feeling is always threatened, preëmpted, or outright destroyed by institutionalized suffering.
Reaching early adulthood, Jun Do joins the army where he’s trained in martial arts. He joins a tunnel unit, learning how to fight in total darkness. In the tunnels, Jun Do receives the first of many opportunities to defect (in this case to South Korea). Johnson explores the tension of such a choice again and again. In time, a special unit conscripts Jun Do to “pluck” (the official euphemism for kidnap) Japanese citizens from their own beaches and seafronts. As a reward for his skills, he’s allowed to learn English, and soon winds up as a radio spy on a North Korean fishing vessel (these are the best moments of the book). During this time, Jun Do eavesdrops on two American women who plan to row around the world, a plot point that resurfaces in the novel’s second-half. He also finds himself a decorated hero of North Korea—but almost as soon as he finds a would-be home and family in the fishing vessel and crew, he’s plucked away on a mission to Texas.
Okay: If the paragraph above seems all over the place, that’s because the first part of The Orphan Master’s Son, “The Biography of Jun Do,” is all over the place—in a good way. There’s a dazzling giddiness to the tale of Jun Do, and the swift turns of his identity read like a picaresque novel. I was repeatedly reminded of Candide or Invisible Man. It’s worth recalling Ralph Ellison’s description of Invisible Man : “it stands on its own if only as one of those pieces of writing which consists mainly of one damned thing after another sheerly happening.”
“The Biography of Jun Do” stands on its own as well, and for me it was the highlight of The Orphan Master’s Son, full of black humor, satirical venom, and genuine pathos. It also showcases some of the best prose in the novel. Let me share some, at length. Here’s the captain of the fishing boat (probably my favorite character in the novel). A bit of context: Pyongyang orders the fishing boat to obtain fresh shrimp, a mission that will take them illegally into Russian waters—an offense the captain has already been incarcerated for:
“The Russians gave me four years,” he said. “Four years on a fish-gutting ship, forever at sea, never once did we go to port. I got the Russians to let my crew go. They were young, village boys mostly. But next time? I doubt it.”
“We’ll just go out for shrimp,” the Pilot said, “and if we don’t get any, we don’t get any.”
The Captain didn’t say anything to that plan. “The trawlers were always coming,” he said. “They’d be out for weeks and then show up to transfer their catch to our prison ship. You never knew what it would be. You’d be down on the gutting floor, and you’d hear the engines of a trawler coming astern and then the hydraulic gates opening up and sometimes we’d even stand on our saw tables because down the chute, like a wave, would come thousands of fish—yellowtail, cod, snapper, even little sardines—and suddenly you were hip deep in them, and you’d fire up your pneumatic saws because nobody was getting out until you’d gutted your way out. Sometimes the fish were hoarfrosted from six weeks in a hold and sometimes they’d been caught that morning and still had the slime of life on them.
“Toward afternoon, they’d sluice the drains, and thousands of liters of guts would purge into the sea. We’d always go up top to watch that. Out of nowhere, clouds of seabirds would appear and then the topfish and sharks—believe me, a real frenzy. And then from below would rise the squid, huge ones from the Arctic, their albino color like milk in the water. When they got agitated, their flesh turned red and white, red and white, and when they struck, to stun their victims, they lanterned up, flashing bright as you could imagine. It was like watching underwater lightning to see them attack.
“One day, two trawlers decided to catch those squid. One set a drop net that hung deep in the water. The bottom of this net was tethered to the other trawler, which acted like a tug. The squid slowly surfaced, a hundred kilos some of them, and when they started to flash, the net was towed beneath them and buttoned up.
“We all watched from the deck. We cheered, if you can believe that. Then we went back to work as if hundreds of squid, electric with anger, weren’t about to come down that chute and swamp the lot of us. Send down a thousand sharks, please—they don’t have ten arms and black beaks. Sharks don’t get angry or have giant eyes or suckers with hooks on them. God, the sound of the squid tumbling down the chute, the jets of ink, their beaks against the stainless steel, the colors of them, flashing. There was this little guy on board, Vietnamese, I’ll never forget him. A nice guy for sure, kind of green, much like our young Second Mate, and I sort of took him under my wing. He was a kid, didn’t know anything about anything yet. And his wrists, if you’d seen them. They were no bigger than this.”
Jun Do heard the story as if it were being broadcast from some far-off, unknown place. Real stories like this, human ones, could get you sent to prison, and it didn’t matter what they were about. It didn’t matter if the story was about an old woman or a squid attack—if it diverted emotion from the Dear Leader, it was dangerous. Jun Do needed his typewriter, he needed to get this down, this was the whole reason he listened in the dark.
“What was his name?” he asked the Captain.
“The thing is,” the Captain said, “the Russians aren’t the ones who took her from me. All the Russians wanted was four years. After four years they let me go. But here, it never ends. Here, there is no limit to anything.”
“What’s that mean?” the Pilot asked.
“It means wheel her around,” the Captain told him. “We’re heading north again.”
The Pilot said, “You’re not going to do anything stupid, are you?”
“What I’m going to do is get us some shrimp.”
Jun Do asked him, “Were you shrimping when the Russians got you?”
But the Captain had closed his eyes. “Vu,” he said. “The boy’s name was Vu.”
I’ve quoted so much here—really more than belongs in a book review, I suppose—because I think that this little story perfectly condenses the novel’s best features. Our characters are forced into an impossible situation, one that can’t have a good end for them. We also get the sense of the deep personal loss—of disappeared persons—that haunts The Orphan Master’s Son. And: The power of story-telling, to move and motivate and thrill, but also to be yet another agent in the aforementioned disappearing.
The excerpt above is a really great stand-alone piece of writing, and I guess I feel the need to clarify that I think Johnson is a pretty good writer before I set about telling you why I didn’t like the second half of The Orphan Master’s Son.
I should probably clarify that I think many people will enjoy this novel and find it very moving and that the faults I found in its second half likely have more to do with my taste as a reader than they do Johnson’s skill as a writer, which skill, again I’ve tried to demonstrate is accomplished. I like picaresque novels, fragmentary novels, novels that let the reader do the heavy-lifting, novels that leave open spaces and gaps. The first half of The Orphan Master’s Son is such a novel. The second half, “The Confessions of Commander Ga,” settles down into a plot- and motif-driven arc that too-often overstates its case. For me, a good riff of dark, sad, occasionally hilarious tales cohered too heavily in “Confessions” into a gelatinous mess of plot strands verging on soap opera. Johnson’s admirable ambition leads him to overload the novel with unmanageable plot turns and leitmotifs.
The biggest problem though is the overwhelming suspicion that Johnson is simply out of his element in trying to inhabit the North Korean imagination. Although he’s clearly donehisresearch, North Korea is essentially closed to the rest of the world. And Johnson is a U.S. American. I mean, there’s this whole other impossible-to-digest ball of wax here that makes Johnson’s admirable intent to write a novel about “propaganda” just way too complicated to suss out in a review, and I’ll admit that I tend to read like a reviewer, and that these notions just bugged the hell out of me as the novel progressed.
Johnson’s novel repeatedly reminded me of David Mitchell’s excellent historical epic The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a book that also obsesses over storytelling and identity in a closed nation. Mitchell’s novel provides the Western reader with a European surrogate in the titular de Zoet, an obvious device that nonetheless adds to the book a richness—and frankly an authenticity—that The Orphan Master’s Son lacks. Johnson’s title character (again, reader surrogate) is North Korean, and even though Johnson takes pains to show the internal machinations of his character’s changing personality, there’s a deeply U.S. American perspective that underwrites his psychology. We’re repeatedly told that in North Korea it’s the story that’s absolute, “But in America, people’s stories change all the time. In America, it is the man who matters.” By changing his story, Jun Do emotionally, spiritually, psychologically (choose your idiom) defects to The Land of Opportunity.
If I’ve withheld summarizing or even illustrating the plot of “The Confessions of Commander of Ga,” I’ve done so to avoid spoilers. Again, many people will dig this novel, and any explication would ruin its second half. Let’s just say there’s an actress. And a second life. And those rowers come up again. And a love story. And a branding iron. And the Americans. And The Dear Leader, of course. And Casablanca. And dogs. Etc.
The Orphan Master’s Son is very much a dystopian novel, and its second half often reads like the love story from 1984 (should I point out here how dreary I often found that plot form 1984? No? Fair enough). Toward the end of The Orphan Master’s Son, I began imagining how the novel might read as a work divorced from historical or political reality, as its own dystopian blend—what would The Orphan Master’s Son be stripped of all its North Korean baggage? (This is a ridiculous question, of course, but it is the question I asked myself). I think it would be a much better book, one that would allow Johnson more breathing room to play with the big issues that he’s ultimately addressing here—what it means to tell a story, what it means to create, what it means to love a person who can not just change, but also disappear. These are the issues that Johnson tackles with aplomb; what’s missing though, I think, is a genuine take on what it means to be a North Korean in search of identity.
Writing a novel is one of those modern rites of passage, I think, that lead us from an innocent world of contentment, drunkenness, and good humor, to a state of chronic edginess and the perpetual scanning of bank statements. By the eighteenth book, one has a sense of having bricked oneself into a niche, a roosting place for other people’s pigeons. I wouldn’t recommend it.
Extract, from my typescript descriptive of Finn Mac Cool and his people, being humorous or quasi-humorous incursion into ancient mythology: Of the musics you have ever got, asked Conan, which have you found the sweetest?
I will relate, said Finn. When the seven companies of my warriors are gathered together on the one plain and the truant clean-cold loud-voiced wind goes through them, too sweet to me is that. Echo-blow of a goblet-base against the tables of the palace, sweet to me is that. I like gull-cries and the twittering together of fine cranes. I like the surf-roar at Tralee, the songs of the three sons of Meadhra and the whistle of Mac Lughaidh. These also please me, man-shouts at a parting, cuckoo-call in May. I incline to like pig-grunting in Magh Eithne, the bellowing of the stag of Ceara, the whinging of fauns in Derrynish. The low warble of water-owls in Loch Barra also, sweeter than life that. I am fond of wing-beating in dark belfries, cow-cries in pregnancy, trout-spurt in a laketop. Also the whining of small otters in nettle-beds at evening, the croaking of small-jays behind a wall, these are heart-pleasing. I am friend to the pilibeen, the red-necked chough, the parsnip land-rail, the pilibeen mona, the bottle-tailed tit, the common marsh-coot, the speckle-toed guillemot, the pilibeen sleibhe, the Mohar gannet, the peregrine plough-gull, the long-eared bush-owl, the Wicklow small-fowl, the bevil-beaked chough, the hooded tit, the pilibeen uisce, the common Corby, the fish-tailed mud-piper, the cruiskeen lawn, the carrion sea-cock, the green-lidded parakeet, the brown bog-martin, the maritime wren, the dove-tailed wheatcrake, the beaded daw, the Galway hill-bantam and the pilibeen cathrach. A satisfying ululation is the contending of a river with the sea. Good to hear is the chirping of little red-breasted men in bare winter and distant hounds giving tongue in the secrecy of fog. The lamenting of a wounded otter in a black hole, sweeter than harpstrings that. There is no torture so narrow as to be bound and beset in a dark cavern without food or music, without the bestowing of gold on bards. To be chained by night in a dark pit without company of chessmen – evil destiny! Soothing to my ear is the shout of a hidden blackbird, the squeal of a troubled mare, the complaining of wild-hogs caught in snow.
Relate further for us, said Conan.
It is true that I will not, said Finn.
A lovely early passage from Flann O’Brien’s first novel At Swim-Two-Birds.
Now, if you have even a passing acquaintance with this little blog, you know that I love novels, that Biblioklept primarily focuses on novels, and that I love books in general. I am not anti-novel or anti-giving-novels-as-gifts. Send me a novel as a gift. I will appreciate it (or trade it toward another book, which is kinda sorta a form of appreciation).
I went to my favorite bookstore today, in fact, to buy some books for Christmas presents. But I restrained myself from picking up novels as gifts.
If you love books like I do, I’m sure that some of your most favorite gifts ever have been novels. Some of my most favorite gifts have been novels. The remaindered copy of The Lord of the Rings (from the South Barwon Library that some friends of the family gave me on Dec. 5th, 1990 when we visited Melbourne (the one in Australia, not Florida)) is probably one of my all-time favorite gifts. I know the exact date because the nice lady who gave it to me wrote a kind note in book and included the date in her note.
I could never bear to get rid of an inscribed book given as a gift, but lots of people do get rid of inscribed books. This is a monstrous practice, one that attests to just how easily people will discard your oh-so-earnest gifts. If you spend a lot of time in used bookstores (I do) you will come across these sad markings. Because it’s close at hand, and I’m aware of its inscription, I’ll share the note that Jean wrote to Helen (no, of course I know neither of them) in my copy of Balthus’s memoir, Vanished Splendors:
I am aware that the memoir of a pervy artist is not the same as a novel, and that, as my first illustrating example, I already seem to be losing my metaphorical balance, but again, it was close at hand, right near the Tolkien in fact (by the bye, Vanished Splendors is pure gold).
In any case, I think Balthus’s memoir “reads” like a novel, which is to say that it’s mostly big chunks of text that require time and energy to decipher, set against the backdrop of TV, internet, movies, etc. It has some pictures, but not many. There’s no gimmick to it. I’m guessing that Helen just wasn’t into Balthus, or, if she had a passing interest in his art, it didn’t translate into wanting to read his memoir. She certainly didn’t read any of it (yes, I have a special sense that tells me when a book has been read. This baby was a virgin). Every time I look over the book, I feel sorta bad for Jean, whose gift seems to have gone unappreciated (by Helen; not by me. I was happy to pick it up used).
To return to an earlier point: yes, some of our favorite gifts ever might be novels. However, most of the life-changing novels I received were rarely given as birthday or Christmas gifts. They weren’t gifts of obligation, if you’ll forgive the ugliness of that term. Most of the great novels that were given to me were handed along free of occasion, given because the giver thought (knew) I should read them.
At Christmas though, we feel obliged to give. Sometimes we get some great novels as gifts. More often though, it seems like that relative who knows you “like to read” gives you a novel by, I dunno, Clive Cussler or Tom Clancy. The worst though are those tiny little hardback books that are designed specifically to be gifts, little faux-tomes of faux-philosophy usually connected to golf or angels or some other bullshit (I was horrified last year when DFW’s “This Is Water” speech got this treatment). Anyway, if you like books, you probably just go trade in this bullshit toward the books you like.
But this post isn’t really about the problem of getting airport novels or gimmick books as gifts. This post is about those of us who insist on giving novels we love to people who we know don’t really love reading novels. Especially really big, somewhat (or very) experimental novels. Important novels. Those novels that we read and decide that everyone needs to read this to become a fully realized human being [gags on that phrase].
I think sometimes we give our friends and relatives novels as gifts because we love them so much and we also love the book so much that we are maybe gunning for an intellectual three-way. We want them to read the novel so that we can share in it together, discuss it, rant about it, argue about it (remember though: that’s what the internet is for).
What often happens though is that these gifted novels (forgive the ambiguous, awkward modifier) tend to lurk about the giftee’s abode, brickishly unread, like dour unwanted houseguests. They skulk at the margins of bookshelves or migrate to the bottom of “to read” stacks; a lucky one might find occasional fingering above a commode. They are ugly reminders to the giftee, signals of how he or she has failed to meet your expectations (your expectations re: 9 or 15 or 25 or 30 hours of her time). (Young people, by which I mean college students in the liberal arts, are the exception here; they probably aren’t going to read the novel, but they are absolutely fine with putting it out for show).
People like books with pictures though, generally.
Even though I think novels tend to make lousy gifts, we should give them to our friends and loved ones anyway, even on those days of obligated giving. We should still offer novels up like they were somehow a part of our own selves in the deluded hope that the giftee will read them and discuss them with us, and that the novel will become an internal, virtual, shared experience. We should give them knowing that it’s likely they’ll go unread, that they may even be a point of shame for the giftee (especially when we ask, “Have you started . . . ?”). We should give them aware that they might point toward our own selfish desires.
Even if a novel may be a gift that implies a certain level of intellectual work, it also implies a sense of trust and respect toward the giftee, and in this sense, giving a loved novel is a clear way to show love.
1. If I had anything resembling a decent thesis about Michel Houellebecq’s 1998 novel The Elementary Particles, I’d try to write a proper review; but I don’t have anything approaching a thesis about it, so I’ll just riff a bit.
2. Re: item 1: there are just too many “big ideas” to hash out without a second reading. The book tackles social and cultural evolution, taking a hard aim at what the boomers hath wrought: it attacks the concepts of the free market, free love, and even free will.
3. The themes of The Elementary Particles: sex and death.
4. Les Particules élémentairesis the original French title. The book was sold with the title Atomised in its British publication. The Elementary Particles is the “American” title; it’s fine, I suppose, but Atomised strikes me as more fitting. Both titles allude to the book’s plot, which involves molecular biology as well as the “metaphysical mutations” that happen over human history. But the American title seems too positive—it connotes imagery of building blocks, of growth, of possibility. Atomised conjures disintegration, which is more in tune with the novel’s tone.
5. Frank Wynne translates.
6. Is it silly to say that I find the novel very French? I think this is a silly comment, one that says more about me than the book.
7. Still, I find the book very French.
8. The Elementary Particles isn’t a “novelly novel.” Don’t read this book if you are interested in plot arc, character development, or emotional uplift. Catharsis? Validation of the existential human drama? Not gonna happen here.
9. This isn’t a book for everyone. This is probably not a book for most people, in fact.
10. I loved it though. It was funny and mean and shocking. Bristly, brisk, engaging. Most of all, I was fascinated by Houellebecq’s intelligence.
11. It is possible that many readers will be annoyed or aggravated at Houellebecq’s artless ventriloquizing of his characters, who often deliver long, occasionally polemical, speeches on any number of subjects, including the Huxleys (Aldous and his brother Julian), problems with the French education system, the merits and tragedies of anonymous sex, the emotional cost of a culture mediated by advertising and consumerist desire, the terrors of post-boomer moral fallout (ritualized slayings and the like) . . .
12. Things that The Elementary Particles reminds me of:
The Marquis de Sade
Flat narrative voice-overs in films both foreign and domestic
Peter Greenaway’s film A Zed and Two Noughts
The late twentieth century
13. What do the two half-brothers of The Elementary Particles crave? Motherly love.
14. Sensationalism that repels more than it titillates in The Elementary Particles: group sex, voyeurism, exhibitionism, ritualistic Satanic murder.
15. A weak shot at plot summary: Michel and Bruno are half-brothers. Their mother, a selfish hippie (there can be no other kind in Houellebecq’s world), abandons them to be raised by different family members. Bruno, more or less forgotten by his father, is brutalized in boarding school. Michel, raised by his paternal grandmother, becomes emotionally isolated and withdrawn. He grows up to become a brilliant molecular biologist whose work on DNA mapping leads to a new type of cow (later he does something that changes the course of humanity forever, but hey, no spoilers). Michel cannot make human connection and finds no interest in sex. Bruno, in contrast, spends his life in arrested development, lusting after young girls like a sex-crazed maniac (which he kinda sorta technically is, I suppose). Both men reconnect with each other, connect with meaningful women, and some other stuff happens too.
16. Look, the plot isn’t really that important in The Elementary Particles. It’s an idea novel. A novel of ideas. [Shudders].
17. A lot of people hated this book; that is, they hated the ideas in this book and the presentation of those ideas.
18. Here’s Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times:
The reader of the newly translated English version can only conclude that controversy — over the book’s right-wing politics and willfully pornographic passages — accounts for the novel’s high profile. As a piece of writing, ”The Elementary Particles” feels like a bad, self-conscious pastiche of Camus, Foucault and Bret Easton Ellis. And as a philosophical tract, it evinces a fiercely nihilistic, anti-humanistic vision built upon gross generalizations and ridiculously phony logic. It is a deeply repugnant read.
19. I generally disagree with Kakutani, who is often disingenuous or lazy as a critic. I think that she completely misreads the novel.
20. I find it reassuring that Houellebecq offends Kakutani.
21. Kakutani loved Gary Shteyngart’s awful dystopian sex and death and aging novel Super Sad True Love Story; I super hated it! While reading Houellebecq’s novel, I occasionally thought about Shteyngart’s book, which I think seems not just watery and weak next to The Elementary Particles, but cowardly.
22. Is The Elementary Particles sci-fi? Maybe. Sort of. Not really.
23. Is it dystopian? I think that it posits the globalized, post-boomer world as a dystopia, as a place obsessed with aging and image, as a world of enslaved people who falsely extol their own freedom. But it works its way toward a positive vision of life.
24. Is it utopian then? No, not really. I mean, this positive vision of life doesn’t include human beings.
25. The ending of the book is a philosophical dodge, the kind of misanthropy that too easily dismisses the entirety of history, philosophy, religion, and even basic biological impulses.
26. Maybe the ending is ironic. So much of the book is blackly bleakly ironic, that, hey, yeah, it’s possible the ending is ironic.
Adam Novy’s debut novel The Avian Gospels is one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read in ages. It’s a surreal dystopian magical romance set against the backdrop of political and cultural repression, violent rebellion, torture, family, and birds. Lots and lots of birds. (Read my review).
Adam was kind enough to talk to me about his work over a month-long series of email exchanges; the interview presented below reveals much of his generous, creative energy.
Adam currently teaches writing at Scripps College, Pasadena City College, Long Beach City College and Orange Coast College.
Biblioklept: I have a lot I want to ask you about what’s in your novel, but I have to start by asking about the physical book itself. The Avian Gospels is a lovely little two volume pocket-sized monograph—textured oxblood covers, gilded pages with line numbers, inset bookmarks. Visually, it recalls a Gideon bible, I guess, only not, I don’t know, chintzy. Where did the design idea come from?
Adam Novy: My editor at Hobart, Aaron Burch, had the idea of making the book look like a Bible. He’s an excellent designer and does a wonderful job with Hobart. Some boheemith press in New York City should really snap him up.
Biblioklept: How did the idea for The Avian Gospels come about? When did you start drafting the book? How long did it take to write?
AN: After 9/11, there was a moment where I felt like all Americans were on the same team. Now I wonder if we’ll ever feel that way again. Pardon me for living in the moment, but this country is just so completely fucked. This sensation of being American swiftly curdled into panic, but by then, the coordinates of my work had all been changed. I wanted to find a voice with room for both the historical and the intimate, which led me to a kind of first-person plural officialese. It ended up creating this echo-chamber effect where the personal and political identities of each character were different, and nobody could quite be who they were supposed to be, or wanted to be.
It took months of screwing around to figure this out, and most of it, of course, was accidental. The Lord of the Rings was on TV a lot at the time, and sometimes I thought I wanted to sound like Gandalf if Gandalf was full of shit and, like, a genocider who felt sorry for himself, but still was Gandalf, all mystical and officious, bossing everyone around. I understood the characters right away, except for Jane, who was always hard to deal with. She gets in arguments a lot and she’s usually right. I think I have hard time writing characters who are right. I myself am never right, so I had trouble relating to her. Of course, now she’s my second-favorite character in the book, after Mike.
I started the book in spring of 2002 and finished it in fall of 2005. In 2006, I found an agent and Hobart took the book in 2008. I went through five apartments, three different cities, three computers, one personal trainer and three therapists in that time. And nine adjunct faculty positions.
Biblioklept: It’s interesting that you mention the LOTR movies as a kind of ambient influence, because they were pretty ubiquitous in the last decade—and there’s so much of the last decade’s zeitgeist in your book: torture, despotism, political and cultural repression, the plight of a refugee class, the idea of “green zones,” etc. You foreground these themes by crafting Gospels as a kind of dystopian novel with elements of magical realism, but it’s also very much a novel about family, and even a love story. (By sheer coincidence I watched the restored edit of Metropolis in the same time frame that I was reading Gospels, and saw so many echoes there). How conscious were you of genre conventions? I’m curious because your book sometimes blends genre tropes, sometimes blurs them, and sometimes straight-up explodes them . . .
AN: The book is quite deliberately a mash-up. I think it’s normal in conversation to try out different ways of seeing things—a fussy way of saying this might be “experiment with different hermeneutics.” For example, one might reference the NBA, The Wire, Shakespeare and Dazed and Confused in a discussion about Obama. I wanted the book to enact this kind of embeddedness, this flailing for a context that makes sense, and I wanted the narrator to sound as though its vernacular was ornate and obsolete, like it trafficked in a pleasure that justified itself as satisfaction while remaining an inadequate moral lens. That’s why I write violence like I do: I want it to be horrifying and beautiful. Unfortunately, violence is cool. I’m not immune—I always watch Kill Bill and Scarface when they’re on cable. It’s disturbing. Everyone knows that torture doesn’t work as an intelligence-gathering method, but our country did it anyway because it simply couldn’t stop. It was a kind of jacking off, the only kind that certain political parties seem to approve of.
Whenever we write about power, we should always defend the powerless, even if they’re just as bad as those in power. I think I saw that in Cioran, and did you know Cioran was a Nazi sympathizer? I just read that Gertrude Stein was, too. I don’t know what kind of paradigm can reckon with this world.
Biblioklept: I had no idea about Stein or Cioran’s Nazi sympathies, but I guess many artists and writers and intellectuals were attracted to the power of fascism, particularly in the modernists’ day (I suppose Ezra Pound and GB Shaw stand out as easy examples, and Heidegger was a member of the Nazi party). Although in our own age, I suppose we also see intellectuals and writers support terrible causes—I think of Christopher Hitchens’s aggressive support of the Iraq War and Bush administration’s policies, for, example.
I don’t want to drop spoilers, but your novel traces an arc that shows how those who are powerless might, given power, recapitulate the aggressive violence that they themselves were once subjected to. In turn, you also reveal how characters who seemed to occupy a clear power position (I’m thinking of Mike here, specifically) are perhaps doomed as well to a life without agency. I found my sympathies shift dramatically throughout the novel. How important are sympathetic characters?
AN: Every writer, including me, wants the reader to cathect to their book with their whole heart. I want my readers to utterly and helplessly engrossed. But sympathy is a means to an end and not the end itself. Technically speaking, it’s just not that hard to accomplish. It’s a skill, like dribbling in basketball is a skill, but it’s not the whole game.
In The Avian Gospels, the character named Mike Giggs is seen in only one scenario—exerting power in the manner of his father—for the first two hundred pages, so he comes off like a jerk until he encounters someone who actually loves him: Chico the band leader. Suddenly, Mike discovers a love of life, a sensitivity and a feeling of camaraderie for his fellows. Not only is he is capable of compassion, he is governed by it. This leaves him ruined in certain ways, but allows him to discover who he can be, and makes him (hopefully) sympathetic.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the book, the character named Zvominir, who was whimperingly sweet for longer than Mike was mean, is meaner than Mike. Novels are fantasies of powerlessness and power—among the zillion other things they are—and I feel like we should at least be conscious of what’s happening to our minds as we are reading. How we deal with power is a serious moral question; counting how many times that we go awwww is not.We have cats on the internet for that. Still, Chad Harbach was probably right when he said that the books that get the best reception are simply “affable.” In desperate times, a nation of New York critic types are turning to . . . Mitt Romney? Or like, Cheever without the psychosexual guilt?
I don’t mean to single out Chad Harbach, whose work I haven’t read, except for his piece on Grantland about the Brewers, which I liked. But what he said is accurate. These days, people seem to feel that art should be uplifting, like art owes it to them, in a customer-service type-way. Have you been to Kinko’s, or excuse me, FedEx Office, lately? It is not a happy place. Novels used to to give the reader the truth in ways no other social narratives would. I’m pretty sure I’m not just being sentimental. There used to be a social lie which said the world was making progress and ascending, but this reversed like fifteen years ago and now we all feel doomed. We need books to tell us how we got here, not to lie about how meaningful our journeys are or however we say it these days. Of course our lives are meaningful, but such a narrow focus on making folks feel better is superficial and disempowering. Our emptiness and dread are trying to tell us something.
Biblioklept: I think you point toward a distinction between art and entertainment here. We want entertainment to comfort us, to ease our worries. In contrast, art challenges us with what we don’t want to see, or can’t see, or can’t see that we can’t see. And yeah, there’s a kind of “literature of comfort” out there, books that simply reconfirm the tropes and tricks and forms of “literary fiction” — so that, even if the protagonists suffer, that suffering is is part and parcel of some greater telos — and not just in terms of the plot, but also in the structure of the novel itself. (Lee Siegel called this camp “Nice Writing” a decade ago, pointing to its “violent affability,” its “deadly sweetness”).
At the risk of asking one of those questions an interviewer is never supposed to ask (but, hey, I really want to know the answer and I think our readers would too), what books move you as a reader?
AN: I think I’m moved by pretty standard stuff. The Portrait of a Lady. Charlotte’s Web. To My Twenties, by Kenneth Koch. On Seeing the Elgin Marbles, by Keats. Places to Look For Your Mind, by Lorrie Moore. Testimony of Pilot and Return to Return by Barry Hannah. Antony and Cleopatra. Stone Arabia, by Dana Spiotta, which is the best new book I’ve read in 2011. Chopin in Winter by Stuart Dybek. The last paragraph of CivilWarLand In Bad Decline. The scene in American Tabloid where Ward steals the pension fund books. The Widow Aphrodissia by Marguerite Yourcenar. There must be fifty different scenes in Buffy that make me cry, and five in Battlestar Galactica. Certain scenes in Lost. This is such a conventional list, I feel like I need to start a fight. FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS SUCKS AND YOU ARE ALL A BUNCH OF SAPS. I should also say I’m moved by spectacles of massive human folly. The image of Slim Pickens riding the bomb and waving his hat in Dr. Strangelove and the scene where Kramer and his intern throw the ball of oil out the window are somehow very moving to me.
Biblioklept: I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street movement—The Avian Gospels taps into and explores this idea of civil unrest, of disenfranchised voices, of a paramilitary state coping with a populist uprising. You’ve indicated that your novel is in some ways a response to 9/11, but it also seems predictive of the fallout we’re seeing a decade after the fact.
AN: A massive, indescribable injustice was inflicted on our world by the likes of Goldman Sachs and we seem to have no recourse. Law enforcement could not possibly care less, and seeing how they cleared Zucotti Park, they seem jealous of the impunity of Wall Street. In his review of Ron Suskind’s book, Ezra Klein suggests that Washington just did not have the will to pass a stimulus that was big enough. Slavoj Žižek is right when he says this moment is a challenge to our imagination. I think that what happened at Penn State may be a better lens for the recession than Occupy Wall Street. A massive patriarchal network mobilized their resources to preserve an ongoing atrocity. No one will admit that they were wrong, especially the figurehead, Joe Paterno. The community just does not seem to give a shit. They keep telling out-of-towners we don’t get it and rioted in self-pity. I guess this is just how power acts.
Biblioklept: What’s next? What are you working on now?
AN: I’m writing a novel about the life and times of Medusa. It’s called The Gore and the Splatter.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
AN: I think the only book I ever stole was an anthology of world literature, which had a really coherent definition of French symbolist poetry. I can’t find this book now, so someone probably stole it from me. Serves me right.
Adam Novy’s novel The Avian Gospels synthesizes dystopian themes with magical realism to tell the story of an unnamed city, in an unnamed time, afflicted by plagues of birds and bands of Gypsies. The novel is marvelous, surreal and very strange, disorienting in its tones and unnerving in its subjects; it’s at once a confounding allegory of torture, suppression, and rebellion, and at the same time a study in intrafamily relationships.
There are two families at the heart of The Avian Gospels. The aristocratic Giggs are led by the Judge, a ruthless patriarch who is both inheritor and perpetrator of endless war. Judge Giggs controls the city through fear, torture, and his fascist personal guard, the RedBlacks. While Judge Giggs seems to hold illimitable power in the city, it isn’t enough to retain the love or even respect of his family. His wife veers into a manic depressive breakdown, brought on in large part by the death of her elder son, who was killed during the last (foolish) war. His second son, Mike, is a loutish ne’er-do-well, a bully who fails to win his father’s approval. The Judge’s daughter Katherine is the apple of his eye, but as she matures in her adolescence, she begins to perceive the violent disconnect between her privileged life and the suppression and poverty forced on the city’s Gypsy population.
The other family (perhaps more of a duo, really) comprises Zvominir, an immigrant claiming to hail from Sweden, and his son Morgan, a petulant teen of an age with Katherine. Routinely beaten bloody by Mike Giggs and his RedBlack goons, Morgan develops a visceral hatred of the Judge’s regime, one that leads the lad to repeatedly (and rashly) lash out against the violent injustice he perceives around him. Zvominir and Morgan live in sad, motherless squalor, separated not only from the suburban greenzoned upper-class, but also from the Gypsies; Zvominir, who leads most of his life genuflecting to or cowering from power, will not even allow his son the joy of partaking in the Gypsies vibrant customs (like rowdy ska music and barbecues).
Most of all, Zvominir tries to contain his son’s bizarre power, a power that he shares with the boy: they can telepathically control the birds. This gift becomes both blessing and curse as the city is overrun by flocks of birds that block out the sun and make roads unnavigable. Zvominir, always kowtowing to power, agrees to employ his gift to “sweep” the city (particularly the area where the rich folks live) of the bird hordes; Morgan agrees to help, but only under the condition that he be allowed to show off his talent in the public square, where eager crowds (of Gypsies and suburbanites alike) gather to marvel at the spectacle of his “birdshows.” In time, Morgan begins writing dissent into his performances:
Birdshows were generally narrative, and featured a bird-made Morgan being chased through the streets by a soldier who was torn to bits by swans, though the swans were made of pigeons, and the soldier of flesh-colored plovers, his uniform of cardinals and crows. Swans would also be pursued through ghetto canyons by flying tigers made of orioles. These were his intentions for the birdshows, at any rate, but Zvominir would censor when the images betrayed but a hint of dangerous content, obscuring Morgan’s work with birdclouds, or worse, laughing babies made of birds. The audience found these touches psychedelic, and weren’t pacified so much as confused, so their passion turned to mumbles. The elder’s power over birds was superior, and Morgan couldn’t stop his father from suppressing the transgressive. It infuriated him.
Zvominir isn’t the only authority figure prone to parental censorship; as the poor old man tries to keep his son safe by “suppressing the transgressive,” the Judge in turn does all in his power to keep his precious daughter Katherine blind and ignorant to the violence and inequality that has purchased her material comfort. However, Katherine meets and becomes fascinated by Morgan, just as the young man’s rebellious attitude comes to find definition and ideology thanks to the Gypsy rebel Jane. Jane harnesses Morgan’s raw anger, turning him into the figurehead of a Gypsy resistance against the Judge’s terrible regime. She literally ushers him into the Gypsy underworld, a surreal setting of nightplants and black markets and ecstatic ska music and donkeys, sprawling in a labyrinthine network of caves and caverns and tunnels under the unnamed city. From this subterranean site, Jane becomes mastermind of a terrorist plot to overthrow the fascist Judge:
They—we—were helpless, and we knew it. She would do to us what Hungary had done, but with stealth; this terror stuff is easy, she mused. Who needs armies? She was poor, and lived in sewers, so nothing could be taken but her life, while we had homes, jobs, children, hopes, dreams and possessions we adored, which all gave meaning to our lives. There was no end to that of which she could deprive us. Our privilege made us vulnerable.
Now seems as reasonable a time as any to remark upon the narrator of The Avian Gospels, as its pronouns color much of the passage I just cited. A first-person plural “we” tells the story, a “we” whose contours and guts alike become more evident as the book unfolds. Much of the joy (and bewilderment and occasional frustration) I felt reading The Avian Gospels came from puzzling out just who this “we” is. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that, like the collective first plural person who narrates, say, William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” the narrator is part and parcel of the story–is the story, perhaps—and that Novy’s dystopian vision is realized not just in the book’s content, but also in the telling of that content. Calling the narrator unreliable is beside the point; the narrator is the ideology itself that Novy critiques. Rebel Jane provides a very real ideological anesthesia to the narrator’s methods, the Judge’s power, and Morgan’s artistic ambitions:
. . . Jane felt suspicious of beauty, which trafficked in desire, not in justice, and left you lonelier and sadder. It made you feel worse in the guise of feeling better, and left you hungry for more beauty. Further. It enfeebled you politically, by pointing at some hypothetical catharsis, a transcendence that could not be achieved, for who could really say they had communed with a non-religious paradise of aesthetics? The beauty effect: a crescendo of nothing. Beauty distracted from things that were important—the rights of disadvantaged people—in the name of something it claimed was more important, and which didn’t actually exist. It was a cognitive conspiracy, a con that disempowered.
If Jane seems a bit shrewish—and what zealot isn’t?—it’s worth pointing out that her ideas might be the novel’s thesis, a thesis ironically couched in the very beauty that Jane would make us wary of. She’s the cold conscience in a book filled with passions. And she’s a terrorist.
While The Avian Gospels surpasses any allegorical schema we might try to impose upon it, it’s still very much a response to America’s post-9/11 zeitgeist. Novy’s Judge is a figure of malevolence glossed in benevolence. If he’s a sicko who takes dull delight in torturing Gypsies in his Boom Boom Room, he’s also a family man with problems that most of us can relate to. He’s an authoritarian who maintains order in a fractured society through violence and suppression—but he delivers what the suburban greenzoners want from a leader. So what if security comes at the expense of justice, and on the backs of a displaced population to boot?
The Gypsies, refugees from countless wars afflicting the world of The Avian Gospels, aren’t the only displaced persons in the narrative. Novy displaces the readers as well. The Avian Gospels erupts with uncanny moments where the material of our recognizable world overlaps with the crumbled reality of the narrative. Social structures, attitudes, cultural norms and ideals—these remain, more or less. But how to puzzle out a world where China, Bolivia, Angloa, and Oklahoma are among the nations that surround the unnamed city? Or where technology has regressed to the point that the automobile is a thing of the past? (Guns remain). And, uh, the birds, of course.
Novy’s dystopian novel skews more fantasy (or, more properly, magical realism) than sci-fi, but it’s the novel’s strange, shifting tones that most likely will paradoxically estrange and engage most readers. There’s a violent zaniness to The Avian Gospels, but the zaniness is never tinted with even a hint of whimsy. The first-person plural “we” that narrates the text juxtaposes dense, poetic images against the teenspeak of the street. At times, the narrator staggers into a mordant lament, only to retreat into cruel, blackly ironic prose. The effect is disorienting and compelling. Novy’s writing moves rhythmically with a complex energy that I’m faltering to describe. You should probably just read the book.
I’ve neglected thus far to comment on the actual physical books that comprise The Avian Gospels. They are beautiful, compact, oxblood volumes with gilded edges and bookmarks, reminiscent of Gideon bibles, I suppose, but more lovely. They’re also very small, the sort of thing that fits easily into a pocket or a purse. I love books like that.
The Avian Gospels deserves a place on the shelf (or in the pocket) of any fan of cult or dystopian novels. It’s a story about cyclical violence, power and powerlessness, and political and cultural repression. It’s also a story about family and parent-child relationships and what it means to love another person in the face of radical danger, a novel that foregrounds the very real stakes of rebellion, both Oedipal and political. It’s a strange book, one that offers little comfort to its readers and certainly proffers no simple answers. Deeply moving and highly original, I strongly recommend this book.
A Bad Night’s Sleep, Michael Wiley’s third detective novel, opens with protagonist PI Joe Kozmarski working what appears to be a boring job. He’s hired to investigate the repeated robberies of a Chicago construction site. Sure, it’s a glorified nightwatchman gig, but this job might get him closer to retiring in a certain north Florida fishing town he dreams about. The job gets too interesting too quickly, however, when the burglars arrive and begin stealing equipment and material. Then the police show up—and help rob the site. Kozmarski calls 911, more police arrive, and, in the firefight that ensues he shoots—and kills—one of the robber cops.
While waiting in jail to be charged—an event that never quite comes to light—Kozmarski reflects—
Every time I’d seen someone die I’d felt the world go a little quieter like I’d lost part of my hearing, and sooner or later the singing, laughing, and screaming would fade into a hushing wind of white noise. That had happened when my dad died. It had happened when Kevin, a boy I was supposed to be protecting, ended up twisted and broken on his mother’s kitchen floor. It happened. Shooting the cop felt worse. I’d ripped a little hole in the universe and I wondered what sound would fly through it.
Kozmarski’s little hole lets in more than strange sounds. The cop-shooting imperils his PI license, damages his (not exactly heretofore spotless) reputation, and leads undercover cops to threaten him (to the point of firing shots) as he leaves jail. The stress doesn’t exactly help protect his tenuous sobriety either, and Kozmarski’s soon on the sauce again (let’s not even mention that little bag of coke his “friend” sends him to help through these troubled times). Luckily (although that’s hardly an appropriate adverb here), Kozmarski’s friend on the force sets up another job for our distressed hero, one that could clear his name and clean out some of the dirty cops of the Chicago PD. Kozmarski infiltrates the corrupt gang of crooked cops, but as he plumbs deeper into the mystery, the line between good guys and bad guys becomes increasingly nebulous.
A Bad Night’s Sleep is a page turner telegraphed in terse, tense, vivid prose. Wiley’s plot and dialogue alike are hardboiled in the noir tradition of Hammett or Chandler, and his characters and pacing bristle with the gritty immediacy one might find in George V. Higgins. There’s a smart brush of black humor to A Bad Night’s Sleep that comes from Wiley’s characterization and his protagonist’s wry observations. And for all of his hard edges, we find in Kozmarski an engaged protagonist, a man of genuine pathos. Wiley delivers what readers want from an intelligent mystery—keen, suspenseful plotting, sharp action sequences, and a hero we can care about.
Lars Iyer’s first novel Spurious (Melville House) is by turns, witty, sad, and profound, and garnered serious acclaim on its release earlier this year. Spurious originated in a blog of the same name. There are two sequels on the way—Dogma should be on shelves in early 2012, and Exodus the year after. Lars teaches philosophy at Newcastle University (so it’s no wonder that Spurious reads like a discursive philosophy course by way of the Marx brothers). Lars was kind enough to talk to Biblioklept in depth about his work and writing. In addition to his teaching, writing, and blogging, you will also find Lars on Twitter.
Biblioklept: Your novel Spurious began as a blog and then was published by Melville House, a thriving indie publisher that also began life as a blog. At a recent talk you gave at the HowTheLightGetsIn philosophy and music festival, you discuss the freedom blogging allows for writers to develop their “legitimate strangeness.” Why is “legitimate strangeness” important for writers, and how does blogging help facilitate it?
Lars Iyer: Sometimes it is necessary to depart. Sometimes it is necessary to leave it all behind. That’s how I understood the act of blogging, back when I started Spurious, the blog which shares thesame name as the novel.
As someone who had made some progress as an academic – a journey which implies valuable training as well as compromise and despair – I thought a kind of exodus was necessary, from existing forms of published writing. Leave it all behind!, I told myself. Leave the Egypt of introductory books and academic journals and edited collections behind. Leave the slave-drivers behind, and the sense you have of being a slave. Leave capitalism and capitalist relations behind. Leave behind any sense of the importance of career and advancement. Leave behind those relationships that are modelled on investment and return.
Sometimes a kind of solitude is necessary. You need to be alone, to regather your forces, to marshall your strength. But what is really necessary is a solitude in community. You’re on your own, depending on your own resources. But your solitude is lightened: because you know that there are others like you, who have likewise expelled themselves from captivity; because you know that others share your sense of disgust and self-disgust, that they too have gone out to the desert to do battle with the demons sent by capitalism into each of our souls; because there are others, like you, who see writing as both scourge and liberation, others who see it as a spiritual trial, others looking to destroy who they were and be reborn, and to keep themselves in rebirth.
In the end, the desert is paradise, and the world the blogger has left behind, with its whips and fleshpots, is the real desert.
Cultivate your legitimate strangeness: that was my mantra. ‘Cultivate’, because it is a struggle, a kind of asceticism. To drive the demons out, you have to know that they are there. A kind of self-knowledge is necessary – not the petty narcissism we find in the ‘misery memoir’, but a growing awareness of those forces that have constituted you, that have made you what you are. ‘Your legitimate strangeness’: ‘Your’, because it is yours, your space, the person you are, that you have become, even as you might alter this space, remake it. ‘Legitimate’ – that part of you that is not yet subsumed by capitalism, that free part of yourself that is not a slave. ‘Strangeness’ – because it must appear strange to the slaves and their masters, to everyone around you.
Why is this important to the writer? Some of us write because of our alienation. We have had no one to speak to, no friends, no conversations. There was no one around. Thoreau went to the woods to find himself. We went to our rooms. We went to literature, and philosophy, without knowing anything of literature and philosophy. We worked on our own.
There is something pathetic about this. Shouldn’t we have been fighting the world instead? Shouldn’t we have been ready on the barricades? But there were no barricades. There was no solidarity. We belonged to nothing, and had gone a little mad, a little reclusive, from belonging to nothing.
In one sense, since we lacked education, lacked culture, since our world was not one which valued the ideas and writers that we came to, our exodus was pathetic. We were imitators, play-pretending at being what we are not. We’d come too late; the party was over. We stood in the ruins, and the ruins mocked us. What could we have achieved, that had not been achieved to a much higher level before? What could we have made, that had not already been made, and much more competently, much more measuredly? We lacked the basic skills. We lacked the ability to write – even that. We lacked the breadth of culture, the breadth of scholarship.
But seen in another light, we discovered ourselves as outsiders, like those outsider artists who practiced their vocation outside of institutions. What we made was crude and simple, true — especially when compared to what went before – but it did have a certain power to affect. It had an urgency, a desperation, which might, perhaps, appeal to others. We were capable of only scraps and fragments, to be sure – dreck – but dreck marked by a moving sincerity.
I wondered – and this was the beginning of Spurious, the novel, and of its sequels – whether there was a way of folding this sense of posthumousness, of coming too late and lacking the old skills, into the practice of writing. Maybe it was time to come back from the desert, which had taught me only the extent and depth of my stupidity. Maybe it was time to write with a new kind of writing . . .
Biblioklept: That “sense of posthumousness, of coming too late” figures heavily in Spurious. Is Spurious the “new kind of writing” you are aiming for? While the book has a fragmentary, even elliptical quality, it also reminds me of novels in the picaresque tradition. What form does this new kind of writing you invoke take?
LI: Spurious is a book on its hands and knees. For me, it feels like the last book, the last burst of laughter before the world ends. But it also feels like the first one, because it has loosened the hold of the past. It says: a whole form of literary pretence is over.
Writing to a friend, in 1916, before the composition and publication of the work that would make him famous, the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig wrote, ‘My true book will appear only as an opus posthumum: I do not want to have to defend it or know about its “influence”’. He writes something similar, a year later, in another letter: ‘I will only truly speak after my death …, I place my entire life beneath the sign of that “posthumousness”’. Rosenzweig was confident that there would be a culture to evaluate his work. He was confident that there would be a place for his posthumous work among the greats – that there would still be greats, such that he might find his place among them. He was sure, in other words, that the old world would continue as it was; that there would still be master-works, still be the geniuses who wrote them, and still be the critics whose evaluations would be trusted by a general public.
A similar confidence in an author today would be a sign of delusion. Literature is one strand among many in our multi-braided culture. True, it retains something of its prestige; it is studied at universities, reviewed in serious newspapers — but it occupies an increasingly marginal role. The ‘great names’ are, for the most part, only cultural markers, ready for commercialisation (Kafka oven gloves in the tourist shop in Prague; the Brontë Balti House in Haworth; the Pride and Prejudice fully immersive interactive environment). But it is not only marginalisation that should be feared; recognition, too, should be. I think of the stupidity of documentary ‘infotainment’ on writers and artists, and rise of the vast, say-everything biography, that says nothing at all (as Mark Fisher has written, the biography is an end of history form, making the reassuring claim that ‘it was all about people’).
Literature continues. But it does so, in contemporary literary fiction, as a kind of empty form. As the anonymous blogger of Life Unfurnished has put it: contemporary literary fiction gives ‘the appearance alone of literature’; it is a genre ‘in which, for the writer, the sense of Writing Literature is dominant, and, for the reader, the sense of Reading Literature is dominant’.
Reviewing Jean-Luc Godard’s film Every Man For Himself, Pauline Kael writes, ‘I got the feeling that Godard doesn’t believe in anything anymore; he just wants to make movies, but maybe he doesn’t really believe in movies anymore, either’. Without agreeing with Kael’s assessment of Godard, I’d like to paraphrase her formulation: I think literary writers want to write literary fiction without believing in literature – without, indeed, believing in anything at all.
It seems to me that the literary gestures are worn out – the creation of character, plot, the contrivance of high-literary language and style as much as the avoidance of high-literary language and style, and the abandonment of most elements of the creation of character and plot. The ‘short, elliptical sentences’ of which the blogger of Life Unfurnished writes, the ‘absence of fulsome description’, the ‘signs of iconoclastic casualness’, the ‘colloquialisms’, the ‘lack of trajectory’, the ‘air of the incidental’: all are likewise exhausted.
What, then, is to be done? As writers, as readers, we are posthumous. We’ve come too late. We no longer believe in literature. Once you accept this non-belief, once you affirm it in a particular way, then something may be possible.
Witold Gombrowicz seems to advocating a return to older forms of literary insouciance: ‘Where are the good old days, when Rabelais wrote as a child might pee against a tree, to relieve himself? The old days when literature took a deep breath and created itself freely, among people, for people!’ But we cannot simply return to Rabelais, as Gombrowicz knew. Too much has happened! If a kind of self-consciousness is a distinguishing mark of the contemporary literary novelist, this is not something that can be relinquished altogether. The role of centuries of writing – of the rise of the nineteenth century bourgeois novel, of modernism and so on – must be marked.
But it can be marked by portraying our distance now from the conditions in which the great works of literature and philosophy were written. W. and Lars, the characters in Spurious, revere Rosenzweig. But this is also reverence for a culture that would deem Rosenzweig and his work important – a culture that is completely different from the one which W. and Lars occupy. True, they revere contemporary masters, too – the filmmaker Béla Tarr, for example – but Tarr lives far away, in very different conditions. W. and Lars occupy the world of the present, and the world that valued the ideas they value, the world that sustained those ideas and nurtured their production, has disappeared. Much of the humour of the book comes from the fact that its characters are men out of time – gasping in awe at Rosenzweig’s work at one moment, leafing through gossip magazines at another; proclaiming a great love of Kafka one minute, playing Doom on a mobile phone the next.
It is in this sense that there might appear to be an overlap between Spurious and novels in the picaresque tradition, which extends from sixteenth century Spain to the present day. Picaresque, it has been argued, appears as a result of a tension between an old world and a new one. The Spain of the first picaresque novels was in a period of difficult transition, from the stability of the medieval order to the age of a new, self-assertive individuality. Poverty and war were all around. The picaresque is produced in a world where human solidarity is lacking, and the individual no longer has a place in the world. The episodic journeys of the picaresque novel reflect the lack of coherence of its central characters, the lack of secure identity – a kind of cosmic loneliness.
Some picaresque features can be found in Spurious. The novel is episodic, and its characters lack a place in the world, even a place in history. W. and Lars play-pretend at various roles, trying on the mantle of the religious person or the philosophical thinker. W., in particular, yearns after friendship. But the characters are not roguish, as the picaro of a picaresque novel is supposed to be. W. is perfectly sincere. And picaros do not usually come in pairs.
Biblioklept: Speaking of your pair Lars and W., there’s a strong friendship there that strikes me as very realistic and actually quite moving. Reading Spurious I was reminded strongly of one of my own friendships, which is perhaps based on equal parts degradation and love. Lars and W. evoke both extreme pathos and a kind of deep existential anxiety that manifests in humor. Parts of Spurious read almost like verbal slapstick (if that metaphor can hold any water). How important is humor—what do you think the humor in Spurious is “doing”?
LI: Humour? I’m with Gilbert Sorrentino: ‘In a country such as ours we have reached a point at which there is hardly anything left to do but laugh or cry. It’s a kind of hysterical laughter, it’s strained and unreasoning laughter, or it is a morbid, bleak sobbing. I don’t think that anything is going to get changed in this country except that it’s going to become grimmer’.
Sorrentino’s referring to the USA, but he could just as well be referring to the UK. We lack the grounds for belief, for hope, for a future. There’s economic disaster — not simply the credit crunch, but neoliberalism in general: corporatisation, unemployment, job insecurity, casualisation, the privatisation of public utilities. Beyond this, there are the effects of climate change: drought and hunger, failure of whole nations, wars, migrants. The temptation of ‘morbid, bleak sobbing’ is extreme, as is the desire to drink oneself into oblivion like the barflies in Béla Tarr films.
Sometimes, it feels that there is an imposture in the very fact of being alive. It is as though getting out of bed in these terrible conditions were already an imposture, let alone trying to think or write. What can we do, really do, about the disaster? ‘To hope is to contradict the future’, Cioran says somewhere. Better to lie down and wait for the end. Better to give up before you begin.
‘I think joy is a lack of understanding of the situation in which we find ourselves’, Andrei Tarkovsky says, with marvellous ill-temper. And, on another occasion: ‘I accept happiness only in children and the elderly, with all others I am intolerant’. It’s true that joy and happiness seem ill-suited to our times, all the more in that joy and happiness are promoted in that ideology of positivity which is everywhere today. But perhaps there is a sense in which one might legitimately laugh at the apocalypse, albeit with what Sorrentino calls a ‘hysterical laughter’.
A sage in the Ramayana tells us that there are three things which are real: god, human folly, and laughter. ‘Since the first two surpass human comprehension’, he says, ‘we must do what we can with the third’. So we must laugh at folly, laugh at greed and smugness, opportunism and corruption, as eternal flaws in the human condition; laugh, and dream of a better world, knowing that it won’t come.
But this kind of laughter is too genial for me. It treats human folly as eternal, which I’m sure in many ways it is, but ignores suffering, dying, the real hell of our globalised world. And I worry that it also spares the one who laughs. True, you can laugh retrospectively at your own stupidities. What an idiot I was when I young!, you might say. But there is a broader sense in which we are, each of us, implicated in the present state of the world. It is our responsibility, in some important way. For me, to laugh sagely at one’s own foolishness is still too little.
What is the humour of Spurious doing, then? As many reviews of the novel have shown, the ‘verbal slapstick’ of the characters is part of a whole tradition of double acts and comic routines. I wanted W.’s insults of Lars to exhibit the same virtuosity as the physical humour of the Marx Brothers or Buster Keaton. I think there is a whole art of the insult. But I think something else is going in the novel, too.
Alenka Zupančič argues that comedies are never truly intersubjective. ‘[C]omedy is above all a dialogical genre’, she grants; but comic heroes are ‘extracted, by their passion, from the world of the normal intersubjective communication’. What they are really doing is seeking ‘to converse solely with their ‘it/id”’. Dialogues, in comedy, are really monologues; the hero is really only obsessed with his basic, chaos-ridden drives. As Zupančič suggests, ‘The comedy of such dialogues does not come from witty and clever exchanges between two subjects, or from local misunderstandings that make (comic) sense on another level of dialogue, but from the fact that the character is not really present in the dialogue he is engaged in’. On this account, the cruelty of the ‘verbal slapstick’ of the friendship in Spurious, which sees W. continually berating his poor friend, would actually be directed at W. himself. W., the only candidate for being the ‘comic hero’ of Spurious, would use Lars as merely the occasion for the continuation of his monologue.
But this interpretation doesn’t quite work for me, either. The ‘it’ that drives the exchanges of the characters is not only a feature of W.’s psychic makeup, of the chaos of his drives. Both characters are mesmerised by a real disaster. And both — particularly W. — are mesmerised by their partial responsibility for this disaster. The ‘strained and unreasoning’ laughter of Spurious is a response to the grimness of the world that is of our making.
Biblioklept: For me, that “strained and unreasoning” laughter is a big part of why I enjoyed the book—I identified with the characters. Spurious isn’t really, to borrow a phrase from David Shields, a “novelly-novel,” but it does have elements of a “novelly-novel” (including characters with whom some readers will strongly identify). At the same time, its short sections, fragmentary nature, and willingness to cite entire paragraphs of other texts point to a new kind of writing, one perhaps anchored in its origins as a blog. How did you compose Spurious? How does the novel differ from the blog?
LI: ‘A page is good only when we turn it and find life urging along …’, says one of Calvino’s characters in Our Ancestors. I hope that’s what a reader can find in Spurious: life urging along. I hope readers recognise something of their own friendships in that of W. and Lars. Spurious is not, I think, a ‘novelly-novel’. It’s new in some way – it has characters, some elements of plot, but it doesn’t resemble other books. And I think this is due to its origins. Blogging, and then combining different categories of posts, allowed me to discover, through editing, a new kind of novel.
Blogging demands immediacy. Telling the story of W. and Lars, I couldn’t rely on readers having followed it from the start. Every day, with my blog posts, I had to present these characters and their situation anew, and in a manner vivid enough to engage any potential reader. In doing so, I felt rather like the writer of a strip cartoon. Charles Schultz’s Peanuts had longer narrative arcs, but each sequence he published in daily newspapers had to stand on its own. Likewise with the posts at the blog. Each post had to have its own internal drama, a kind of ‘verbal slapstick’, even as it could be contained within a larger narrative arc.
My loyalty was, for a long time, to the readers of my blog, and I produced new material for them daily. But I thought some of the thematic strands developing at the blog – the trips to Freiburg and Dundee, for example, or the reflections on Kafka and on the Messiah – were being obscured by the quantity and disparateness of W. and Lars material. A selection had to be made. This is where the work of editing began, of the practice of literary montage that would lead to Spurious.
Tarkovsky, in his book about film, narrates the long process of assembling the various fragments that comprise the finished film, Mirror. ‘I am seeking a principle of montage which would permit me to show the subjective logic — the thought, the dream, the memory — instead of the logic of the subject’, he said. He was looking for a way to combine various elements – short narrative sequences, pieces of music and poetry, etc. – into a living whole.
I was doing the same thing, in my own way. Spurious is a hybrid of many elements of the blog. There was a story about W. and Lars, but also one about damp –– a real story, which I wrote about at the blog. I added quotations, too, as well as incorporating the narratives of the lives of various thinkers. And I edited until I felt that life was urging along.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
LI: I have thousands of pages of photocopies, which I made, full of ardour, during my first jobs as an academic. I thought I’d never get a permanent job, and wanted to make my own library of knock-off books in my rented room. Perse, Trakl, Tsvetayeva, Duras, and so many others: no printed book could mean as much to me as my annotated duplicates.
The memoir-in-food is something of a cliché at this point, but Gabrielle Hamilton’s new book Blood, Bones & Butter came with enough accolades (including a glowing blurb from Anthony Bourdain) and positive early reviews (like Kakutani’s at The NYT) for me to spend a few hours thumbing through it. Much has been made of Hamilton’s writing bona fides (an MFA in fiction writing from University of Michigan), and while she can put a sentence together without relying on the stock phrases and tropes that lard most memoirs these days, that skill wouldn’t really matter if she didn’t have a tale to tell. Blood, Bones & Butter follows a strange culinary career (it’s subtitled The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef), complete with drug abuse, theft, and, of course cooking. Only I wish there was more cooking, more time in the kitchen, the butcher’s, the market. Instead, Hamilton seems to channel her (often mean-spirited) energy on her family; her parents’ divorce hangs over the narrative like a Greek tragedy, and her own attitude toward her husband is bizarre, to say the least. The results are mixed, but fans of food-writing à la Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential will likely enjoy Blood, Bones & Butter. New in hardback from Random House.
Meg Howrey’s new novel Blind Sight tells the story of Luke Prescott, a bright, introspective seventeen year old obsessed with brain biology. Raised by a hippie mother and two half-sisters, Luke gets the opportunity to the summer before college with his estranged father, a famous television star. In Los Angeles, Luke gets to know his father better, sorting out the difference between public persona and private truth; this process in turn leads Luke to re-evaluate his own sense of identity. There’s also some pot-smoking and sex. Howrey moves the narrative between Luke’s first-person voice (in the past tense) to a third person present tense narrator. At times this disjunction seems like a lazy shorthand to allow the reader to see something Luke can’t see (or doesn’t want the reader to see), but it works nicely on the whole, underlining the gaps between truth and belief that the novel seeks to explore. Blind Sight is new in hardback from Pantheon.
In The Woman Who Shot Mussolini, Frances Stonor Saunders plays historical detective, reconstructing the story of Violet Gibson, who fired on Mussolini in April of 1926 (she grazed his nose). Gibson, the daughter of the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, was 50 when she shot Mussolini, and perhaps more than a little crazy. She was almost lynched after shooting Il Duce, but the not-so-benevolent dictator pardoned her, and she was quickly returned to England, where she spent the rest of her life in an insane asylum. Saunders’s book explores whether Gibson’s attack was the motivation of an insane woman or part of a bigger conspiracy theory, illustrating her mystery with poignant black and white photos. And although Saunders focuses on the little-known Gibson, she works to draw parallels between the would-be assassin and Mussolini. Saunders’s exploration of an otherwise unremarked upon episode balances historical scholarship with the pacing and rhythm of an historical thriller. New in trade paperback edition from Picador.
“I think the historical thing is a red herring. I don’t see C as a historical novel. I see it as completely contemporary. It’s about media and our relation to media and to emerging new media and to networks.”
“It comes straight from Freud. Trauma is the condition of our identity. Trauma is the most basic condition of our existence.”
“It’s a dual trauma, Serge’s seduction by Sophie his sister and then the loss of the sister.”
“The way I got the idea with the book was I had a long-standing fascination with this movie by Jean Cocteau, Orphée, his retelling of the Orpheus myth.”
“Orpheus in this movie interfaces with the underworld via a radio and what he picks up are the voices of the dead poets.”
We’re loving Jean-Christophe Valtat‘s new book Aurorarama, a steampunk-romance-high-adventure-academic satire-etc. set in the alternaworld of New Venice, an Arctic metropolis. Check out this post at MobyLives for a chance to win a copy of the book.
Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote that “There are no facts, only interpretations.” David Mitchell takes this idea to heart in his 2004 novel Cloud Atlas,using six nested narratives to mull over Nietzschean matters of truth and perspective, the will to power, what it means to be a slave or a master, and the different methods by which one might narrativize one’s life. At its core, Cloud Atlas works to illustrate Nietzsche’s hypothesis of eternal recurrence, the idea that we live our lives again and again. To wit, each of the central characters in Cloud Atlas‘s six sections seems to be a reincarnation of a previous one. Mitchell arranges his narrative like a matryoshka doll, interrupting the first five stories with Scheherazade-style cliffhangers. Each narrative propels the book’s chronology forward a century or more until reaching a crescendo in a post-apocalyptic world, the only section that remains uninterrupted. Mitchell then resumes each narrative, working backward through time to his starting point in 1850, with The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing features a naïve American’s tour of the South Pacific, focusing roughly on his trek from New Zealand to Hawaii. The journal’s style readily and purposefully recalls Herman Melville; indeed, Ewing himself professes to be a fan of Melville. Early in Ewing’s journal–which is to say, early in the novel Cloud Atlas–we are treated to (or subjected to) a somewhat lengthy description of the enslavement and slaughter of the pacifist Moriori tribes of the Chatham Islands at the hands of the Māori. Here, Mitchell introduces his novel’s dominant theme of slavery and civilization. Again and again in Cloud Atlas, we find groups of people preying upon other people, enslaving them and decimating their cultures. The Pacific Journal reiterates this theme when Ewing helps to rescue an enslaved Moriori who has escaped his slavers by stowing away; the episode also echoes the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg, of course.
The next episode, Letters from Zedelghem, features a young bisexual composer named Frobisher; his narrative comprises letters he sends to his best-friend (and sometime lover) Rufus Sixsmith. Frobisher’s robust voice is one of the great achievements of Cloud Atlas; he finds music everywhere and in everything, and even though he repeatedly gets himself into terrible situations (which are always entirely his own fault) it’s hard not to feel for him. In debt and on the lam, he finds work as an amanuensis in Belgium, laboring under an aged, sometimes-despotic composer named Ayrs. Ayrs enlists Frobisher’s talents in creating a work named “Eternal Recurrence,” but ends up stealing most of his ideas. The Frobisher narrative is the only section to explicitly name Nietzsche and his ideas. Given the setting–Belgium, 1931, Europe precariously dangling before the precipice of another war–there’s a certain ambivalence toward Nietzsche perhaps, or at least a tacit acknowledgment that ideas like the Will to Power might be radically misapplied. Letters also most openly alludes to the structure of Cloud Atlas. In its second part–which is to say its conclusion, which is to say near the end of Cloud Atlas–Frobisher writes the following–
Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a “sextet for overlapping soloists”: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky?
Frobisher’s question perhaps reflects Mitchell’s own reticence over his complicated structure; in any case, it amounts to a post-modern wink. Frobisher’s narrative also initiates the book’s process of connecting the narratives, as each protagonist finds a copy of the earlier principal’s story. Frobisher finds Ewing’s Journal and devours it; in one of the book’s funnier moments, he scolds Ewing’s naïvety, comparing him to Captain Delano in Melville’s Benito Cereno. Frobisher’s criticism is apt. With its themes of slavery and mastery, truth and representation, and exterior and interior, there is probably no book that Cloud Atlas echoes as strongly as Benito Cereno.
Mitchell moves from a wonderful and witty approximation of the epistolary novel into a dull exercise in boilerplate fiction with the next narrative. Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery follows the adventures of a plucky newspaper reporter in the 1970s as she tries to reveal a multinational corporation’s evil doings to the public. Aided by the report of a scientist named Rufus Sixsmith (yes, that Rufus Sixsmith), Luisa plunges into a world of intrigue and mystery and blah blah blah. Half-Lives intends to comment on airport novels, but Mitchell outdoes himself with the bad writing–it’s easily the weakest section of Cloud Atlas, and although it plays with the novel’s overarching themes it does little to enlarge or invigorate them. It does, however, introduce the comet-shaped birthmark that connects the heroes of these tales as they are born and reborn.
Mitchell seems more at home in the amplified voice that propels The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish. Set in and outside of London in the near future–that is to say, our near future–The Ghastly Ordeal is probably the funniest section of Cloud Atlas. Cavendish, the aging publisher of a small vanity press, finds success (and trouble) when one of his authors openly murders a critic. A dispute over royalties finds him hitting the road and fleeing for safety outside the urbane confines of London. Soon, he’s held prison in a home for the elderly somewhere in the barbaric north. Cavendish is scowling, imperious, overeducated, and arch; his racism and classism seem to belong to a different age and he’s prone to hyperbole (scratch that–he’s all hyperbole). Cavendish’s narrative is deeply reactionary: early in, he relates being mugged by a group of school girls, and the episode seems to come from A Clockwork Orange. How honest he is here, of course, is under suspicion, but that’s kinda sorta the whole point of Cloud Atlas. Cavendish’s narrative is the hardest to place stylistically–it doesn’t immediately resonate with any of the genre tropes that characterize the other section–but I suppose that there’s something of the post-Modernist (as opposed to postmodernist, of course) white-male-reactionary flavor to his Ordeal–hints of Saul Bellow, Updike, Roth perhaps? I’m not sure. The Ghastly Ordeal is the most contemporaneous episode of Cloud Atlas, so its tropes may be harder to spot.
The dystopian tropes of An Orison of Sonmi-451 are more readily apparent. Orison jumps centuries ahead, pointing to a future where an imperial Korean dominates what’s left of the non-burned Earth. Corporations have replaced government and consumerism has replaced religion. The rigid class structure that has developed relies on a slave class of fabricants–genetically modified clones–who perform dangerous jobs and manual labor. The narrative unfolds as an interview with Sonmi-451, a fabricant who “ascends,” positioning her in a level of unprecedented self-awareness that positions her to become the signal in a revolution to end slavery. There’s more to Orison than I can possibly unpack here, an observation that cuts both ways for Cloud Atlas. On one hand, Mitchell’s dystopia is repellent and enchanting, grimy and brightly lit, a world of fascinating extrapolations that mirror and satire contemporary society. On the other hand, Orison is overstuffed; its seams show the strains of containment. One gets the sense that Mitchell’s had to restrain an entire novel here, and the frequent need to dump exposition on his readers undercuts his otherwise nimble prose. (Alternately, the clunky exposition dumping might be a reference to Philip K. Dick). Mitchell is clearly comfortable working in the idiom of Orwell and Huxley (Sonmi explicitly references both writers, by the by), but the second half of Orison–the descending half, if you will–cannot reclaim the energy of its first part. Beyond Orison, a sense of contraction rules the second half of Cloud Atlas.
Perhaps the deflation in the novel’s second half results from its triumphant middle passage, Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After. Dystopia moves to post-apocalypse, and maybe a thousand years after the time of Ewing, we are back in the Pacific, in the Hawaiian islands, where a man named Zachry spins one of the better adventure yarns I’ve heard in some time. Mitchell writes Sloosha’s Crossin’ in an invented argot that readily (and purposefully) recalls Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece Riddley Walker. Like that book, Sloosha’s Crossin’ showcases an environment removed from the apocalypse–the narrative is more about how civilizations might reform after a fall. When a woman named Meronym from a “tribe” called the Prescients comes to stay with Zachry’s family, the stress between civilization and savagery comes to a head. The Prescients seem to be the last group of people on earth with any vestige of command over prelapsarian technology. Meronym (who bears a comet-shaped birthmark) does her best not to intervene in the day-to-day life of the family, but when the Kona, an aggressive tribe of slavers attack, she finds her self unable not to act. As the central, unbroken narrative of Cloud Atlas, Sloosha’s Crossin’ must both climax the novel as well as tie its disparate ends to its organizing themes. It doesn’t disappoint, both encapsulating, repeating, and commenting on the various slave-slaver narratives that run through the rest of the text. When the Kona attack Zachry’s Valleysmen, we see eternal recurrence–Māori slaughtering Moriori, Christian colonials ousting aboriginals, corporations using their fabricants for slave labor. A dialogue between Zachry and Meronym (delivered in Zachry’s argot, of course) spells out the novel’s concerns. Zachry asks Meronym if it’s “better to be savage’n to be Civ’lized?” She replies–
What’s the naked meanin’ b’hind them two words?
Savages ain’t got no laws, I said, but Civ’lizeds got laws.
Deeper’n that it’s this. The savage sat’fies his needs now. He’s hungry, he’ll eat. He’s angry, he’ll knuckly. He’s swellin’, he’ll shoot up a woman. His master is his will, an if his will say soes “Kill” he’ll kill. Like fangy animals.
Yay, that was the Kona.
Now the Civ’lized got the same needs too, but he sees further. He’ll eat half his food now, yay, but plant half so he won’t go hungry ‘morrow. He’s angry, he’ll stop’n’ think why so he won’t get angry next time. He’s swellin’, well, he’s got sisses an’ daughters what need respectin’ so he’ll respect his bros’ sisses and daughters. his will is his slave, an’ if his will say soes, “Don’t!” he won’t, nay.
What we see here is, I believe, a subtle reading of Nietzsche’s famous, infamous, and not-so-well understood concept of the will to power. Meronym’s solution to save endangered humanity is not blind adherence to conventional morality but rather an individual’s ability to overcome his or her animal instincts to thrive. The Übermensch enslaves his own will, his id, and preserves his ego.
As Sloosha’s Crossin’ concludes and Cloud Atlas moves outward and back into the past, there’s a twin sense of deflation and redemption. Orision does not have the room it needs to breathe; although Sonmi’s inevitable martyrdom follows a narrative logic that Sloosha’s Crossin’ more than justifies, it feels undercooked. The second half of the Cavendish narrative is more fulfilling. No spoilers. Mitchell manages to shoehorn a strange missive by a physicist into the second half of Luisa Rey; it’s only a page and a half, it doesn’t really belong there, and it’s the most interesting thing about the whole narrative. Like Frobisher’s description of his sextet, it functions as one description of the book. Luisa gets to hear that sextet, by the way; she special orders one of only fifty pressings. Frobisher’s narrative I’ve remarked upon at some length, so I will leave it alone by saying that it’s one of the finer points of Cloud Atlas and noting that it ends with a specific invocation of Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence. The Journal of Adam Ewing is also very satisfying; in many ways it has to be, for it is the beginning and the end and the second end (and thus new beginning) of the novel. Ewing’s experiences–which, to leap right through the chain of protagonists, must also be Meronym’s experiences–lead him to reject the common morality of his time. As the novel concludes, he elects to return to the United States as a committed abolitionist, his stated mission in life to fight slavery in all its forms.
Cloud Atlas is a postmodern novel through and through. It riffs on genre and style with a keen awareness of textuality, an overt reliance on intertextuality, and a formally experimental schema that, as one of its principals puts it, might be “Revolutionary or gimmicky.” It lovingly pairs the high with the low, the philosophical with the vulgar, the musical with the mud, and its best moments do so seamlessly and gracefully. It’s a very good read–a fun read–and readers daunted by its structure need not be: Mitchell has created a book that they in many ways probably already know–they just don’t know that they know it like this. Highly recommended.
One of the many small vignettes that comprise Jerzy Kosinski’s 1968 book Steps begins with the narrator going to a zoo to see an octopus that is slowly killing itself by consuming its own tentacles. The piece ends with the same narrator discovering that a woman he’s picked up off the street is actually a man. In between, he experiences sexual frustration with a rich married woman. The piece is less than three pages long.
There’s force and vitality and horror in Steps, all compressed into lucid, compact little scenes. In terms of plot, some scenes connect to others, while most don’t. The book is unified by its themes of repression and alienation, its economy of rhythm, and, most especially, the consistent tone of its narrator. In the end, it doesn’t matter if it’s the same man relating all of these strange experiences because the way he relates them links them and enlarges them. At a remove, Steps is probably about a Polish man’s difficulties under the harsh Soviet regime at home played against his experiences as a new immigrant to the United States and its bizarre codes of capitalism. But this summary is pale against the sinister light of Kosinski’s prose. Consider the vignette at the top of the review, which begins with an autophagous octopus and ends with a transvestite. In the world of Steps, these are not wacky or even grotesque details, trotted out for ironic bemusement; no, they’re grim bits of sadness and horror. At the outset of another vignette, a man is pinned down while his girlfriend is gang-raped. In time he begins to resent her, and then to treat her as an object–literally–forcing other objects upon her. The vignette ends at a drunken party with the girlfriend carried away by a half dozen party guests who will likely ravage her. The narrator simply leaves. Another scene illuminates the mind of an architect who designed concentration camps. “Rats have to be removed,” one speaker says to another. “Rats aren’t murdered–we get rid of them; or, to use a better word, they are eliminated; this act of elimination is empty of all meaning. There’s no ritual in it, no symbolism. That’s why in the concentration camps my friend designed, the victim never remained individuals; they became as identical as rats. They existed only to be killed.” In another vignette, a man discovers a woman locked in a metal cage inside a barn. He alerts the authorities, but only after a sinister thought — “It occurred to me that we were alone in the barn and that she was totally defenseless. . . . I thought there was something very tempting in this situation, where one could become completely oneself with another human being.” But the woman in the cage is insane; she can’t acknowledge the absolute identification that the narrator desires. These scenes of violence, control, power, and alienation repeat throughout Steps, all underpinned by the narrator’s extreme wish to connect and communicate with another. Even when he’s asphyxiating butterflies or throwing bottles at an old man, he wishes for some attainment of beauty, some conjunction of human understanding–even if its coded in fear and pain.
In his New York Times review of Steps, Hugh Kenner rightly compared it to Céline and Kafka. It’s not just the isolation and anxiety, but also the concrete prose, the lucidity of narrative, the cohesion of what should be utterly surreal into grim reality. And there’s the humor too–shocking at times, usually mean, proof of humanity, but also at the expense of humanity. David Foster Wallace also compared Steps to Kafka in his semi-famous write-up for Salon, “Five direly underappreciated U.S. novels > 1960.” Here’s Wallace: “Steps gets called a novel but it is really a collection of unbelievably creepy little allegorical tableaux done in a terse elegant voice that’s like nothing else anywhere ever. Only Kafka’s fragments get anywhere close to where Kosinski goes in this book, which is better than everything else he ever did combined.” Where Kosinski goes in this book, of course, is not for everyone. There’s no obvious moral or aesthetic instruction here; no conventional plot; no character arcs to behold–not even character names, for that matter. Even the rewards of Steps are likely to be couched in what we generally regard as negative language: the book is disturbing, upsetting, shocking. But isn’t that why we read? To be moved, to have our patterns disrupted–fried even? Steps goes to places that many will not wish to venture, but that’s their loss. Very highly recommended.
In Hilary Mantel’s 2005 novel Beyond Black, a fat psychic named Alison endures the harrowing torment of a collective of ghosts she calls the Fiends, the spirits of cruel men from her childhood. When a young, aimless woman named Colette comes into Alison’s life and assumes managerial duties for her career, Alison’s bilious past comes to a head. Colette engineers more and better gigs for Alison (the death of Princess Diana causes a huge spike in business), who, despite her genuine psychic talents, must nonetheless run the kind of scam the “punters” in her audience crave. Colette and Alison soon move in together, buying a new house in a quiet, boring suburb outside of London; their prefab homestead is drawn in sharp contrast to the slums of Aldershot where Alison grew up–the novel’s second setting. As Beyond Black progresses, contemporary suburban Britain increasingly crumbles into Alison’s grim, greasy past in Aldershot. Alison’s chief tormentor is, ironically, her “spirit guide,” a mean little man named Morris, a one-time frequent customer for Alison’s prostitute mother. Alison, like many victims, has suppressed much of her grotesque childhood, but it’s hard to black out everything with psychic baggage like Morris weighing her down. In time, more and more of the Fiends reemerge, forcing Alison to confront her mother and the abuse they both suffered at the hands of those awful men. As the book lurches to its chilling climax, Alison asserts independence, casting out her metaphysical and psychological demons.
At its core, Beyond Black asks what it means to be haunted and how one might survive an abusive past whole and intact. A slim specter of a character named Gloria floats through the book. The Fiends, whose vile antics are sometimes compared to a gypsy circus, have dismembered Gloria with the old saw trick. In Alison’s memory, pieces of Gloria are scattered around her childhood home, parceled out, fed to dogs, transported in boxes at midnight, hidden. Alison’s awful mother frequently alludes to Alison herself being “sawed up,” a metaphor that dances on the literal as we come to realize that the old drunk has pimped out her daughter repeatedly. Mantel’s novel investigates the return of the repressed, and although she gives us something like a happy ending, the book’s central thesis seems to be that pain cannot be abandoned or hidden, but only mitigated through direct confrontation.
The book’s humor does nothing to lighten its grim subject–if anything it exacerbates and confounds the darkness at the heart of Beyond Black. Mantel’s gift for dialogue fleshes out her characters (even the spectral ones), and while the book aims for a satirical tone at times, its characters are too richly drawn to be mere cutouts in a stage production. Mantel’s satire of contemporary English life is sharp and bleak; you laugh a little and then feel bad for laughing and a page later you’re horrified. It’s a successful book in that respect. It’s one real weakness is in the character of Colette, whose voice gives way to Alison’s past by the book’s end. This is actually no problem, as Colette’s narrative life is not nearly as interesting as Alison’s psychic traumas; Colette is, however, catalyst for the changes in Alison’s life. It would’ve been nice to see more resolution here, but I suppose Beyond Black hews closer to real life here, with all its messy loose ends.
I chose to read Beyond Black because I enjoyed Mantel’s recent Booker Prize winner Wolf Hallso much. The books have little in common other than being well-written and tightly paced, and I think that anyone who wanted more Mantel after an introduction via Wolf Hall would do right to pick up Beyond Black. Recommended. Beyond Black is available in trade paperback from Picador.