Some of you may know that I’m currently up to my ears in grad school applications. Luckily, posting on The Millions has a salutary effect on me, and also, I just finished a book, so I need to write about it. Jamesland opens with Alice, great-granddaughter of philosopher William James, having an odd waking dream of a deer in her house. Alice fixates on the deer as a portent of a coming change in her life, and the very next day her life begins to change slowly and inexorably. The book does not dwell on the supernatural, though it does have a bemused dialogue with the otherworldly throughout. Mostly it is about three forty-somethings whose social and professional lives are deteriorating and reconfiguring. I’d call it a mid-life crisis, but these characters have that quality, peculiar to Californians, of being youthful, unserious adults. The book is mostly set on the East Side of Los Angeles in neighborhoods that I know well. It was great to read a book that addresses a somewhat larger Los Angeles than usual. Movie stars are around, and Hollywood is nearby, but they are just parts of the great stew of the city, things that are noticed but after a while not accorded any greater importance than things like Griffith Park or the LA River. The only other book that I have read that successfully turns LA’s flashy side into just another bit of peripheral scenery is T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Huneven is well-known in Los Angeles as the food critic for the LA Weekly, and the way she writes about food in this book is magnificent. Pete (who along with Helen, a modern sort of minister, are the other two wayward adults) is a former near-celebrity chef who is recovering from a nervous breakdown, suicide attempt combo. His character is both abrasive and charming, the type of person who makes you nervous the moment he steps into the room. As he coaxes himself back into the functioning world, he takes up cooking again, and this is the venue for Huneven’s descriptions of foods. It was nice to see that Huneven did not place this book firmly in the world of food and restaurants in the way that many writers tend to crib from their day jobs. Instead, Huneven manages to weave her knowledge skillfully into the larger narrative. The book itself is a rather satisfying meal, best taken over a few languorous days on a sunny balcony or sitting on a park bench.
In the last few months, Alaska has been brutal to people I know. A friend who’s so knowledgeable about the wilderness he teaches college classes on the subject got mauled by a bear on a mountain outside Haines. The outdoors-savvy boyfriend of a friend disappeared while running or hiking outside Nome. A bush pilot I flew with last year crashed into Admiralty Island; he and all but one of the passengers died.
But if Alaska can be brutal, it can also be transcendent. Another friend recently caught a beautiful king salmon with a fly she tied herself; the photo of her holding it conveys a form of worship. Earlier this summer, I traveled to Admiralty Island — Kootznoowoo, or “fortress of the bears” in Lingít, the indigenous language of the area. For hours, we watched male and female brown bears court — running away, snarling, following each other as if they were connected by an ever-shortening rope. For the last few years, my boyfriend and I have packed inflatable boats, food, and our tent and floated down a different river in Alaska or the Yukon — the Pelly, the Big Salmon, the Nisutlin, the Stikine. We’ve listened to a dozen wolves howl and bark on each side of the river around us long into the night. We’ve watched a pack of them ghost in and out of the trees, barely visible as they run. We’ve seen kingfishers beat in place above the water, ravens chase ospreys, a cow moose sheltering her two calves as she watched us float by, black and brown bears eating sedges.
Many fiction writers get wilderness wrong.
I recently received a copy of Dave Eggers’s newest book, Heroes of the Frontier, which is set in Alaska. I like Eggers’s books. I first read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius in high school, when my love for it verged on the babbling. I appreciate the generous, expansive nature of his writing, and because he’s Dave Eggers, I really enjoyed everything about the new book that relates to people. Josie, the protagonist, is complicated, believable, moving, frequently hilarious — so is the way she interacts with others. The towns, and their quirky, touristy craziness, ring true.
This is not the case for the wilderness. At one point in the book, Josie watches a water snake emerge from a river and eat a snail. The only problem? There are no snakes in Alaska. In a later section, Josie and her two children pause to watch “a ten point buck.” Only problem? There are no “ten point bucks” in interior Alaska. Every now and then mule deer stray over from Canada, but when they do they’re so unusual people write newspaper articles about them. A “ten-point buck?” No.
In the first ten pages, Josie and the kids drive through an animal park that advertises its Alaskan mammals. They see “a pair of moose, and their new calf, none of them stirring.” I realize this is a zoo, but male moose do not hang around with their calves. They saw “an antelope, spindly and stupid; it walked a few feet before stopping to look forlornly into the grey mountains beyond. Its eyes said, Take me, Lord. I am now broken.” Again, a zoo, but there are no antelope in Alaska. If it wanted to flee into the Alaskan mountains it would find itself just as lonely and would die of cold, wolves, or starvation come winter. When they’re finished with the zoo, a ranger points “to a mountain range nearby, where, he said, there was a rare thing: a small group of bighorn sheep, cutting a horizontal line across the ridge, east to west.” Bighorn sheep do not live in Alaska. Alaska has Dall sheep, which are a different species.
To most Alaskans, these are big mistakes. But when reading Heroes of the Frontier, I was also thinking about something more intangible — the nature of a place versus the nature of a story set in that place.
Much of the novel is set on the road, but at the end Josie and her two children, Paul and Ana, decide to go for a hike. It ends up taking much longer than they anticipated, and they’re unprepared. There is lightning. It begins to rain; they get soaked. They decide not to go back the way they’ve come, but to run from copse of trees to copse of trees, somehow staying on the trail. If there’s one thing indicated by the very large number of people that get lost and die or have to be rescued in the Alaskan wilderness every year, it’s that it is very easy to accidentally veer off-trail, especially if the trail is not well traveled or near a city, especially if it’s not the best of circumstances. But somehow, despite the fact that they’re literally running for their lives during a massive storm, Josie and the kids keep finding clues as to where they’re going.
There’s something described as “an avalanche,” though its only elements seem to be rock and shale — Josie slides across it on her back with her upper body clad in only a bra, but Eggers never mentions snow, ice or cold. Somehow, Josie and her children make it to a cabin she didn’t realize was there when they began the hike. It is decked out with balloons and a feast for the “Stromberg Family Reunion.” I can get with a cabin; a cabin can be the deus ex machina of real-life salvation. But a cabin decorated and then abandoned, miles and an arduous hike into the wilderness, containing a table “overflowing with juices and sodas, chips, fruit and a glorious chocolate cake under a plastic canopy?” I wanted to believe in this cabin — I hope there is a cabin like that out there for all of us — but I could think of too many people for whom this cabin didn’t exist.
I am by no means immune to the perils of writing wilderness myself. I recently showed a new chapter in my novel-in-revision to my boyfriend Bjorn, a life-long Alaskan. In it, a young girl wanders around lost on Chichagof Island. It was the chapter he liked least.
“She would be afraid,” he said. “When does she start feeling like prey?”
My problem was that I wanted my character to be challenged, but like Eggers, I hadn’t accounted for the reality of the place that would challenge her.
A few years ago, Bjorn and I hiked the 33-mile Chilkoot Trail, the route many would-be miners took to the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush. It was before the official start of the season, and except for a very fit German guy in his mid-twenties, we were the only hikers. We spent the first night at Sheep Camp, the last stop before the pass; the German guy woke before us, and we followed his tracks the rest of the day. We summited the pass in a late-May snowstorm on steps Bjorn cut with his ice ax and emerged from the clouds into what a Canadian ranger we’d passed called “a bluebird day.” It was surreal. We were still using our snowshoes, but bumblebees buzzed around us and landed on the snow. We started steaming. We followed the route the snowshoe-wearing rangers had flagged…right over a half-frozen pond. The German guy hadn’t brought snowshoes, and we could see the hole where he’d fallen through up to his waist, the drag marks where he’d pulled himself out. As we walked, we saw his footsteps — he’d been post-holing, sinking through the deep snow up to his crotch with each step. Post-holing makes for incredibly miserable walking. A few miles later, we saw a tiny figure waving to us frantically. The German guy hadn’t brought sunglasses, and his eyes were hurting; he was going snow-blind. Bjorn gave him an extra pair. The rangers had told him they’d marked the trail to Happy Camp, and he was wondering if he’d taken a wrong turn. We got out our GPS and figured out we were on the snow-covered trail, but the rangers had stopped flagging two or three miles short.
That is what happens in wilderness when you are unprepared — even with a flagged route on a trail thousands have walked before, even if you are experienced. You don’t magically find a party-food-filled abandoned cabin decorated for a family reunion, complete with a sheet cake under a protective dome. You end up miserable and wet and exhausted and snow-blind and far from where you’ve tried to be, and if you’re lucky, it’s a sunny day and there are other people around who can help you. It’s a transformative experience to realize how vulnerable, and how lucky, you are.
The idea of owing more to luck than courage, however, contradicts one of the basic themes of Heroes of the Frontier — that through acting bravely and persevering, you and those around you (in Josie’s case, Paul and Ana) can become the “heroes” of the title. That conflict is one of the difficulties of writing wilderness in fiction. Wilderness is what it is, not what a book requires it to be. The Alaskan wilderness challenges people in ways they don’t anticipate, and it is not kind to the inexperienced and underprepared, no matter how “brave” they might be.
Last year, I went to a panel in which Juneau writer Ernestine Hayes, author of Blonde Indian, said “A sense of place arises from the place itself… it is (not) a panorama to be conquered.” I thought of this as I read these lines, after Josie and company arrive at the cabin: “Every part of their being was awake. Their minds were screaming in triumph, their arms and legs wanted more challenge, more conquest, more glory.” At the end of Heroes of the Frontier, Alaska is a panorama conquered.
Ultimately, the novel is about a woman escaping the fears, restrictions and regrets of her life and trying to shape her children into good, brave people, like those she imagines live in Alaska. It’s an admirable goal. But both in towns and out of them, Josie, Paul and Ana seem charmed. In the wild, that means Eggers’s Alaska loses something essential to itself.
So here are some questions. Where is the line between artistic license and error? If we take liberties with the character of a place and we are aware of it, should we acknowledge that we’ve done so? This isn’t nonfiction, after all, and in spite of its bighorn sheep, Heroes of the Frontier is an enjoyable story.
Writers who write wilderness have a responsibility to it, partly because so many of us are disconnected from it, and partly because it’s been misrepresented so often. We’ve now constructed so much of the world — even in our national parks — that most of us never experience real wilderness, a place you can’t see from the road. It exists with or without us. It means only and incredibly itself, and when we are there, we become a part of it — something that can be terrifying, or exhilarating, or both.
There is lots of insightful, beautiful writing about Alaskan and northern wilderness, both fiction and nonfiction — see Seth Kantner, Sherry Simpson, Velma Wallis, a vast array of others. There are people who write wilderness gorgeously outside the context of Alaska as well — Louise Erdrich, Cormac McCarthy. If there’s anything wilderness can teach you, it’s the dizzying breadth of what you do not know, and if what you write is to resonate as true there is no lesson more important. So if you’re going to write wilderness, experience it. Respect it. Be prepared and scared and awestruck and relieved. Research. Fact check. Then represent the place you are writing as honestly as you can. You owe it to a world that has lost a sense of true wild.
Image courtesy of the author.
Not long after the nine-page sex scene between a dolphin and a man who resembles Jesus, it clicks: Alissa Nutting’s Made for Love is all about power. Obviously, there’s nature’s power over man, as in the case of the porpoise initiating coitus, but the dynamic works the other way, too. Behold Byron, Gogol Industries’s wunderkind founder, wholly focused on prolonging our lifespans, making physical existence frictionless, and obliterating the line between human and artificial intelligence. Byron wields power over the world. See also Herbert, the 76-year-old widower who recently purchased a lifelike sex doll for companionship. Herbert wields power over loneliness, and the natural arc of his love life. Stuck between both is Hazel, Herbert’s daughter, who’s just run out on her loveless marriage with Byron, seeking refuge in the trailer park where her father lives. Presently, Hazel is powerless.
It becomes clear over the course of Nutting’s second novel that technology can and does warp the established order of these power relationships. With Gogol’s boundless capabilities, everything is permitted. Diseases can be cured, brains can be hacked, and the pain of spousal loss can be mitigated. This has brought Byron enormous personal wealth, and with limitless resources, estranged wives can be tracked down no matter how far they run.
But let’s get back to the dolphin.
On a beach one day, we find Jasper, a conman who finesses women out of their money by faking relationships with them. He’s out for a swim when, suddenly, a dolphin attacks. Quickly, it’s apparent that this dolphin is interested in Jasper’s body, but not for consumption. The two wrestle, and ultimately Jasper escapes with only small abrasions and a minor bite mark, yet forever after he’s sexually attracted to dolphins. (Don’t you hate it when that happens?) Immediately, this poses a problem for the conman. No longer is Jasper able to seduce human women; instead, he fantasizes about the whistles, groans, and creaking door squeaks of bottlenose beauties. Jasper’s solution to this problem is logical: he abandons his trade, and in order to spend more time with his paramours, he trains as a dolphin handler at a SeaWorld-like amusement park, saving up money for an expensive neurological procedure offered by Gogol Industries. Using brain implantation and experimental technologies, Gogol scientists promise to fix Jasper’s ailment. He’ll remain attracted to the aquatic mammals, of course, but now when he’s intimate with a human woman, his mind will trick him into believing she’s actually a dolphin. Problem solved!
Isn’t it just like modern technology to treat the symptoms instead of the cause? To reorient the world in such a way that it accommodates quirks and defects – however harmful or unhealthy – instead of encouraging people to solve their own problems, or organize to solve society’s?
Although Made for Love takes place in the not-too-distant future, it’s easy to find parallels right now. Attracted to animals? Jasper’s found an experimental neurological procedure for that. Too lazy to walk outside to get lunch? There’s an app for that. Too busy working to do something as fundamentally human as eat a meal? There’s a porridge-like gruel for that. Cut off from the places you need to go because of dilapidated, unreliable, or altogether nonexistent public transportation? There’s a fleet of underpaid indentured servants here to help. Too constipated from being over-prescribed opioids? There’s another medication for that. We’ve never been more “connected,” but we’ve also never been more miserable. We’ve never been more prosperous, but we’ve rarely been so unequal. The powerful have never been more so, but instead of real solutions to all problems they’ve developed profitable band-aids for some. The “move fast and break things” ethos presupposes that things aren’t structurally broken already. Why fix anything when you can profit off dysfunction? While great power brings great responsibility, nothing seriously compels the powerful to act responsibly.
Nutting is the perfect writer to examine this absurdity, and what she’s done in Made for Love is remarkable. Let’s just put it out there: go read this book. In twenty-three chapters, which advance in a page-turner style reminiscent of another Florida powerhouse named Carl Hiaasen, Nutting covers a lot of ground: technology’s promises, limitations, and the enduring – though often forgotten – allure of natural life and love. And although her writing shares superficial similarities with Hiaasen’s, Nutting is consistently funnier, and she has a more careful eye for literary flourishes. For every punchline, Nutting also renders her characters’ most intricate neuroses in vivid, memorable detail. While some characters speak in dialogue that could work for both authors – “If you want, we can wrap ourselves up in mosquito netting while we have sex” – Nutting sets herself apart by getting way darker than Hiaasen ever would. There’s a scene in which Hazel’s mother effectively cancels Christmas one year because she believes they’ve watched the spirit of a deceased friend dissipate out of a meatloaf.
At her best, Nutting’s humor would fit in one of America’s great comedic masterpieces, King of the Hill: the way Herbert’s eyes tear up joyously when he says “I drink for the both of us” after his daughter jokingly asks if the sex doll imbibes; how the manager of a fleabag restaurant tells a down-on-her-luck Hazel:
I can pay you cash but I’ll pay you a lot less. It’s nothing personal. I’m running a business. If you’re that desperate it would be irresponsible of me, from an economic standpoint, not to take advantage.
It’s impressive that a man attracted to dolphins isn’t even the book’s main character, nor is he a distraction. This is Nutting’s second novel in which she’s brought readers uncomfortably close to topics they rarely examine seriously, and after Tampa and now Made for Love, she’s officially made a career out of writing books impossible to explain to coworkers and parents. It’s a credit to Nutting’s dexterity that she can examine something as large and unwieldy as technology’s influence over our lives while also plotting a relatable story about falling out of love in one place, and looking for it in another.
Because who hasn’t fantasized about ditching their devices and returning to a more natural existence? After Hazel runs out on Byron, she ponders the same weary thought we all think after too much time in front of our screens.
Little things like physical keys made Hazel feel as if she were going back in time, which she realized was exactly what she wanted to do. Get away from the futureworld she’d lived in with Byron, away even from the technological present. From now on she wanted no part of what Byron and his cohorts liked to call the Bionic Revolution, though they frequently slipped–was it a slip?–and said Byronic.
The more she could live a strictly manual and basic life, the more distant she’d be from him, and that was a hopeful thought: there was a way to feel like she was reclaiming herself.
Essentially, this is a thought shared by some subjects in Emily Witt’s Future Sex, an investigation of the Silicon Valley, modern romance, and the ways the two awkwardly interact. It makes for an incredibly interesting companion to Made for Love, and it’s even got an essay on sex dolls, but the most telling parallel comes later on, when Witt joins a group of young Google and Facebook employees who attend Burning Man each year in search of an “autonomous zone” in which they’re safe to exercise their hedonistic and sexual fantasies, unbridled from traditional societal constraints. Reflecting on how these festival attendees will probably not bring the values they exhibit at Burning Man back to the “real world,” Witt writes:
If I had to predict a future, it would be that Burning Man would last only as long as we did, the last generation that lived some part of life without the Internet, who were trying to adjust our reality to our technology. Younger people, I hoped, would not need autonomous zones. Their lives would be free of timidity. They would do their new drugs and have their new sex. They wouldn’t think of themselves as women or men. They would meld their bodies seamlessly with their machines, without our embarrassment, without our notions of authenticity.
This is the future Byron and Jasper want, optimistically rendered. Yet it’s also the future Hazel fears, for she’s witnessed its limitations and drawbacks. For men like Byron and Jasper, technology brings convenience, and bends reality to meet their needs. (Even Hazel’s father, Herbert, benefits from this dynamic when he satisfies himself with advancements in sex doll technology.) All the while, Hazel’s left out. For her, technology is an imposition, a threat. When it feels like everybody on earth is using technology to pursue their deepest desires, who’s allowed to opt out?
Walter Benjamin would have loved this guy Tom Knox. In our age of mechanical reproduction, for starters, Tom Knox is an immaculate work of artifice. He keeps cranking out books even though he doesn’t exist. Tom Knox, you see, is the pen name for Sean Thomas, a peripatetic British novelist, journalist, blogger, and travel writer. What’s more, The Babylon Rite, the fourth novel by “Tom Knox,” works overtime to live up to Benjamin’s dictum that all great works of literature must either dissolve a genre or invent one.
Actually, The Babylon Rite doesn’t just dissolve a genre. It pours half a dozen genres into a literary Waring blender, hits the puree button, and serves up something that can only be called the first archaeological Knights Templar Meso-American whodunit Dan-Brown-send-up international drug-cartel Mafia splatter-fest of a cult thriller.
There’s hair on the walls of this novel, to quote one of the killers in Truman Capote’s genre-dissolving “non-fiction novel,” In Cold Blood, which may be the ur-text of the trend Walter Benjamin yearned for back in the 1930s. In fact, there’s so much blood gurgling through the pages of The Babylon Rite that it seems almost beside the point to say that the novel is a three-headed beast. Three groups – a journalist and a grieving woman in England; a team of archaeologists in Peru; and a pair of overworked London homicide cops – are all trying to unlock the secret ceremony of the medieval Knights Templar, the so-called Babylon Rite, that turned them into crazed, fearsome warriors and now, apparently, is causing corpses to pile up on two continents. Since the beating heart of this novel is the ingenious ways Tom Knox kills off his darlings, maybe the best way to understand this new genre is simply to catalog the slaughter. Here, then, is the coroner’s report, including victims and means of dispatch:
1. Museum curator, killed by truckful of gasoline ramming into a gas station that sits over a secret underground archaeological museum. Apparent murder.
2. World’s foremost authority on the Knights Templar, killed by driving his car into a brick wall at high speed. Apparent suicide, possible murder.
3. Russian ambassador’s nephew, killed by severing his own feet and one hand, then trying to cut off his own head, all with a very expensive kitchen knife. Apparent suicide, assisted by gay porn videos and, possibly, drugs.
4. Heir to a German fortune, killed by self-decapitation with chainsaw. Stone cold suicide, no doubt about this one.
5. Journalist’s lover, killed when crushed by a car while riding her bicycle at night in Australia under the influence of alcohol. Apparent accidental homicide.
6. London party girl, dies after slicing off her own lips, nostrils, earlobes and cheeks. Apparent suicide.
7. American archaeologist in Peru, shot twice outside a tomb of the pre-Colombian Moche civilization. Murder, possibly by members of a Mexican drug cartel.
8. Daughter of world’s foremost authority on the Knights Templar, dies after slitting her own throat during drug-induced sexual frenzy. Apparent multi-orgasmic suicide.
9. Murderous Italian mafioso, shot by police sharpshooter. Justifiable homicide.
10. London homicide cop garrotted during stake-out. Murder, no known suspect.
11. One Amazon riverboat captain and one deck hand, decapitated by drug cartel bad guys. Double homicide.
12. Amazon guide, killed when a drug cartel leader slices open his thigh and inserts a carnivorous “vampire fish” in the wound, which proceeds to devour the hapless Amazon guide from the inside. Murder.
13. Mexican drug cartel boss killed when his intended rape victim slits his throat with a razor blade concealed in her mouth. Justifiable homicide, self-defense.
14. Cartel bodyguard, killed by single gunshot. Homicide, but nobody will miss this dirtbag.
15. Zeta cartel thug, shot by a journalist. Justifiable homicide, leaving artsy spray of blood and innards on wall.
16. Archaeologist heroine, killed by self-inflicted throat slashing. Drug-induced suicide, partly explained because she realizes she is suffering from terminal Huntington’s Disease.
So there you have it, well over a dozen dead bodies killed by the whole arsenal – explosives, kitchen knife, chainsaw, gun, motor vehicle, piano wire, straight razor, hit-and-run, machete, and intestine-eating fish. If this book were a movie, it’d be a shoo-in for the Joe Bob Briggs Drive-In Hall of Fame.
For all this rococo violence, though, the prose is generally pedestrian and frequently downright laughable. Here’s Dan, the head of the team of archaeologists examining pre-Colombian ceramics in Peru, in conversation with his lover/understudy Jessica:
(Dan) gazed right back at her. “Of course, if your theory is in any way correct it means virtually all the erotic practices of the ceramicas, the cermicas eroticas, must depict sexual acts the Moche actually performed. Rather incredible, no?”
“Not incredible. That’s my perception. They did it.”
“Sex with animals?” Dan was half-laughing, yet his expression was sickened. “Women masturbating dying men, men who had been half-flayed?
Sex with skeletons, foreplay with mutilated corpses? Christ.”
“Bestiality and necrophilia, in fervent variety. Yep, I reckon that’s what they did.”
Yep, I reckon that’s what they did – coming after such a litany of kinky death, that sentence is all the proof you need that “Tom Knox” has ears made of pure tin. I thought it was impossible to top that line, but I thought wrong. Here’s the Aussie journalist Adam, zonked on a sex- and violence-inducing drug, gunning down a Mexican drug cartel thug, (killing #15 from the above list):
The urge was orgasmic. And irresistible. Adam lifted the gun, and he fired, exultantly. He had never shot a gun in his life: but this was so good. The bullet slammed the man to the wall, silhouetting him with a corona of his own blood, another Jackson Pollock on the wall, the abstract expressionism of death.
This writing is so bad. But people don’t read books like this for the lambent and lyrical prose found in most literary fiction about emperors or maladies or the incredible lightness of splendid suns; people read such books for the storytelling, period. And while it’s often possible to hear the gears of the plot groaning, there’s no denying that the pages fly by as The Babylon Rite races toward its drug-fueled, hyperventilated blood bath of a climax. That, in all fairness, is not nothing.
There has been a lot of giddy talk lately about the crumbling of the walls that once divided literary genres into tidy fiefs. In our brave and blurry new world, categories matter far less than the quality of the writing. Cross-pollination is king. Elmore Leonard’s crime novels have drawn raves from highbrows, including Walker Percy. To the delight of many readers, myself included, writers as diverse as Patricia Highsmith, Neal Stephenson, China Miéville, William Gibson, John le Carré, and Philip K. Dick have busted out of the ghettos of their various genres and attracted readers who once steered clear of literature’s shadowy precincts. As Emily St. John Mandel put it here recently, “Le Carré is worth reading whether you like genre fiction or not.” The literary novelist Kate Atkinson is now rubbing shoulders on the bestseller lists with that prolific corporation known as James Patterson, with no apparent discomfort to either party. Claire Messud’s new novel, The Woman Upstairs, is literary fiction that owes a large debt to such psychological horror films as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Everything is fair game for the novelist today – horror, thrillers, porn, fairy tales, pulp, splatter, comics, text messages, vampires, computer games, e-mail, tabloid headlines, sit-coms, spies, zombies, and, yes, such conventionally lofty sources as Shakespeare and Jane Austen and the Bible. And readers are richer for it.
It turns out that Capote’s “non-fiction novel” did more than blend two forms. It stretched the way we categorize and think about books, inspiring other hybrids that would have once seemed oxymoronic, even sacrilegious, but are now perfectly acceptable. One such book is The Roadmap by the former Burmese political prisoner Ma Thida (writing under the pseudonym Suragamika), which bills itself as “documentary fiction.” In a very real sense, In Cold Blood made The Roadmap possible.
In addition to genre-dissolvers, -creators, and -blenders, there is also a new crop of genre-jumpers. John Banville writes literary fiction with his right hand, then shifts gears and writes noirish crime novels, as Benjamin Black, with his left. Banville has called Black “my dark twin and brother.” The two appear to get along famously.
Which doesn’t mean that all writers who mix, dissolve or create genres automatically produce great literature. Sometimes, quite the opposite. Bad writing is still bad writing, no matter what the label says. With The Babylon Rite, Tom Knox has proved this beyond any doubt. Yep, that’s what he did.
Suicide is a funny thing. At least, it is in Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down. Unlike his earlier pop-culture riffs, High Fidelity and About A Boy, Hornby’s glance into the lives of four suicidal characters takes a broader look at life, transcending issues such as relationships and maturity in an attempt to portray a multidimensional struggle that revolves around life and death.The novel has a fluid narrative, thanks to short passages told from the points of view of the main characters – Martin, Jess, JJ and Maureen – in rotating fashion. The style not only moves the story along in a quick pace, it also keeps one interested in the characters by providing bits of information about why each one ended up on top of Toppers’ House on New Year’s Eve. That is, why they picked the most stereotypical night and the most popular building to jump off of in London to end their lives.The gang, which forms rather organically with a little push from Jess, is a most unlikely one. Martin is a washed-up TV presenter, estranged from his wife and daughters after sleeping with a 15-year-old and landing in jail; Maureen is a middle-aged woman with a disabled – “vegetable” – son, Matty. She has withdrawn from life to take care of Matty and talks only to God; Jess is an 18-year-old with a propensity for getting smashed on drugs and booze, an inclination to abuse her parents and a loathing of long words and complicated sentences – as well as literature; and, JJ is an American rock-star-wanna-be whose failed band and relationship left him reminiscing about the not-so-good, good old days and delivering pizzas.It’s hard to see why any of the characters, minus Martin, would want to hurl themselves off a building. A Long Way Down is funny like that, it gets one contemplating what circumstances could/should/would justify or call for a seemingly quick and easy end to life. It’s also funny because Hornby masterfully groups together four potentially stereotypical and boring, yet in their own right odd and interesting, characters. With their self- and outward-loathing stance on life, they are incompatible from the first moment.Yet they get along. And they need each other like a comatose patient needs life support. Hidden in their interactions and sarcastic humor are hints of despair – of the same vein that any ordinary person might go through at one point or another in life. And though Martin, Jess, Maureen and JJ may be not be alike at all, one is apt to identify with parts of each character. Be it total financial, social and emotional ruin as with Martin, a completely unselfish life lived with remorse as with Maureen, teenage angst borne from a troubled family as with Jess, or plain, downright self-pity and denial as with JJ, one has been there.Hornby gives his audience a chance to reflect on moments of doubt and despair through his characters. And, not to worry, just because the subject is rather grave does not mean you are spared Hornby’s brilliant modern-culture observations or his penchant for showing off his knowledge of rock music and contemporary literature. Reading A Long Way Down will make you laugh, and, who knows, maybe you’ll be laughing at yourself.
I am consistently drawn in, and consistently disappointed, by bio-novels about women made unhappy by famous men. I read The Paris Wife, about Hadley Hemingway. I read Loving Frank, about Frank Lloyd Wright’s mistress. I read the diaries of Sofya Tolstoy. And now I’ve read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. I put each of them aside a heavy sigh when I’ve finished. I’m not disappointed in the books, but in the lives of the women. The point of these books is to tell their side of the story, but in reality, and definitely in Zelda’s case, they didn’t get their own side of the story.
Z follows Scott and Zelda from their courtship in Zelda’s native Montgomery, Ala., to their newlywed years in New York and then the long spiral into unhappiness via Paris, the Riviera, Hollywood, Maryland, and a few mental institutions. Although there are sweet moments in the beginning, the narrative quickly devolves into a “party, fight, repress, repeat” structure. The only thing that changes is the subject of the fight, but even that doesn’t vary widely.
On its own, it’s not a compelling story. What makes it noteworthy is that these are the parties and fights experienced by the man who wrote The Great Gatsby, and this is the woman he made unhappy. Zelda had aspirations in painting, dancing, and writing, and showed promise in each. Scott prevented her from pursuing painting and dance beyond hobbies, and when she did write short stories or essays, they were published under his name (to ensure acceptance and higher payment). When she finally published a novel, Save Me the Waltz, under her own name, Scott edited out all the parts that made him look bad, and the novel failed.
In the book, Zelda refers to her novel as “another failed endeavour.” In Therese Anne Fowler’s eyes, it’s another “what if?” What if she hadn’t let Scott edit her novel? What if she had become a professional dancer? What if she didn’t have to move every time Scott alienated another group of their friends? What if she hadn’t married him at all? Would her life have been easier, more fulfilled?
Fowler’s novel asks these questions, but can’t answer them. Nothing can, because we only have the story of what actually happened. These books about Hadley and Sofya and Zelda ask us to imagine how much easier their lives would have been if they’d had their own stories. At one point in the book Zelda asks herself, “Whose life is this anyway?” Not hers, is the answer.
There’s a lingering myth that even if it’s stormy, it’s something of a privilege to be married to greatness, that letting your life be subsumed by an artist’s is a beautiful sacrifice to what he creates and a chance to be immortal. It is true that without Zelda, we wouldn’t have Gatsby, Tender is the Night, and The Beautiful and Damned — after all, she’s in those books — but it’s another matter to assume that she was content to sacrifice her happiness for three great novels.
Fitzgerald and Zelda were a complicated couple, and Fowler illustrates how they could love each other, make each other crazy (sometimes literally), and despite the turmoil stay together. Fowler doesn’t show Zelda simply as a miserable wife, or as someone who was happy to live in service to Fitzgerald’s work, but rather as a wife who “was fighting for my right to exist independently in the world, to realize myself, to steer my own boat if I felt like it.”
Paradoxically, this is the reason to write and read about Zelda, because she deserved a life much more interesting than the one that she got. Interesting to her, that is, a life she could have given her energy and talents to, not just a life made interesting by famous friends and European capitals. Fowler’s intricately drawn portrait of Zelda is less a titillating story than a museum of untapped potential. We can never know what that potential might have lead to, but we can look on as she carries it with her through life, as it slowly becomes too late.
What disappoints me about the lives of Zelda, Hadley, and Sofya is that they’re museums of untold stories rather than legitimately good stories. They were all remarkable women who thought that marrying remarkable men would, naturally, make their lives remarkable. But repeatedly anything great in their husbands’ lives came at their expense. I am continually drawn to them out of a sense of responsibility, or penance, a feeling that someone should look and appreciate what they gave up.
It takes close to 1,300 pages of Richard Ford’s critically acclaimed Frank Bascombe novels to reach the stories’ philosophical rub. Halfway through Let Me Be Frank With You, the latest and fourth installment in the series, Frank is visiting his ex-wife Ann in hospital. “Being an essentialist, Ann believes we all have selves,” he thinks, mulling over why he still fails to connect with her. “Character to me, is one more lie of history and the dramatic arts. In my view, we have only what we did yesterday, what we do today, and what we might still do.”
For fans of these painstakingly crafted books – beginning with The Sportswriter (1986), and moving through its sequels Independence Day (1995), and The Lay of the Land (2006) – the revelation that Frank is existentially adrift might not be news, but it’s rare to see both Ford’s literary approach and Frank’s disconnection laid out with such brevity. Since we first met him 28 years ago – “My name is Frank Bascombe. I am a sportswriter,” reads the tetralogy’s opening line – Frank has defined himself by roles he’s played, whether it’s jobs (journalist, realtor) or periods of his life (the Default Period, the Existence Period). However it’s always been implicit that there is an associated void, an attraction to “mystery” ahead of facts, a detachment exacerbated by the uncontrollable nature of life and partly explained by it. To see this relinquishment to contingency spelled out so clearly goes to the heart of why Let Me Be Frank With You succeeds. Such clarity also complements the novel’s unconventional structure – the book is molded as four separate stories instead of the complete written through novel we have seen previously.
To recount the details of Frank’s life, as is usual in a review, seems somehow a betrayal of his character, since classifiers and summaries of his relationships and homes don’t quite define him the way his actions do. For the sake of context, though: Bascombe lives in New Jersey; he has variously been a short story writer, a failed novelist, a teacher, before turning to real estate; his first marriage to Ann hit the rocks when Frank indulged in serial affairs, prompted by the death of their young son, Ralph; he has two other children, the wayward Paul, who goes into the gift cards business, and the stentorian Clarissa, a vet. Frank survives prostrate cancer and is now, at the age of 68, back with his once estranged second wife, Sally.
These events, and Frank’s submission to them, have always loosely been built around set-pieces. The Sportswriter features a meal Frank has with the family of a young nurse he’s dating, Vicki, and an interview he conducts with Herb, a wheelchair-bound former footballer. Independence Day’s climax occurs after Frank spends a disastrous trip away with Paul during the titular holiday, and The Lay of the Land has him preparing for Thanksgiving. However all of them also see Frank adrift on a sea of characters, places and events that meander away from solid structural ground: Independence Day’s father-son bonding session kicks off over halfway through its 400 pages and The Lay of the Land’s ruminative digressions saw Michiko Kakutani criticize it for its “pages and pages of self-indulgent self-analysis.”
Now, in Let Me Be Frank, Ford writes just four loosely connected set-piece stories to get to the heart of what Frank is — four different events, all of them out of his control (hurricane, stranger appearing, wife’s illness, friend’s death) doing what he’s doing yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and dealing with them as best he can (there’s also a certain irony here, as Frank himself abandoned novels early in his career because he had, he says, “no talent” for the “longer form”). If there is anything essential to Frank’s character, it’s that he’s simply responding to what life throws his way. Ford heightens this by throwing in anecdotes not seen in the previous novels. There is also incredibly little about Frank’s childhood ever highlighted, something unthinkable, say, in Updike’s Rabbit books, where we feel like we have been living with Rabbit for several decades by the end of the saga. Frank, however, stays continually slippery, even if he becomes more comfortable in his discomfort.
The length of the book also gives Ford’s prose welcome precision. We still have the hallmark descriptive passages, mimetic dialogue and quotidian obsessions, but not so much in bulk. The beginning of the book’s first story, “I’m Here,” ventures into Updikean alliterative fury with its account of “fresh-cut lumber, clean white PVC, the lye-sniff of Sakrete, stinging sealants, sweet tar paper, and denatured spirits” but is mostly a detached take on the aftermath of a hurricane, a neat device for the sloughing off of previous identities. As he approaches death, Frank says he’s also “stripping back words,” which in his view “should no longer be usable”, as an aid to clearer thinking. He’s equally, he says, getting rid of old friends. “Since time invested determines the quality of a friendship, having more than five genuine friends is pretty much impossible.” Links to the past come through Proustian involuntary memory, when a Peter, Paul and Mary song heard over the phone leads to a musical potted history. “My mind fled back to the face of ultra-sensual Mary — cruel-mouthed, earthy, blond hair slashing…”
We have a persistence of the paradoxes that defined Ford’s earlier writing (“Sometimes things can seem worse just by not being better,” Frank tells Walter in The Sportswriter) as the character trudges into guilt-ridden fatalism. “I’m ready to cease and desist,” he says. “Yet somehow I feel implicated by everything’s dilapidation.” History comes to haunt him in the book’s second story, “Everything Could be Worse,” which recalls Joyce Carol Oates’s 1992 short story “Where Is Here?” when a former resident of Frank’s house in Haddam, who left in bloody circumstances, pays him a visit. This is the most formulaic narrative here, ending as it does with a momentary epiphany for Frank, and showcases the character’s obsession with phatic communication, the difference between what we say and what we really mean.
All the Frank novels have this: what he wishes he’d said instead, what he could have offered which would have achieved the same objective, the statements he considers to be lies. “It’s not that difficult to counsel the grieving,” he says. “I could’ve said, ‘Roosevelt was a far better choice than Willkie back in ‘40.’ Which would be as grief neutralizing as ‘What a friend we have in Jesus.’”
The remaining two stories zero in on Frank’s long-term adversary Ann, his first wife, who is now suffering from Parkinson’s. Most intriguingly, he has at last realized what led to the breakdown of his marriage, “what is unquenchable and absent in her,” several decades too late. Their combativeness has reached a nihilistic stalemate, where Frank dutifully visits his ex in her medically serviced apartment and the pair rehearse the same old arguments, though without the attendant wistfulness on Frank’s part that once gave frisson to their meeting. “Deaths of Others“ relives the suicide of Walter in The Sportswriter with the failing health of Eddie Medley, another former member of the beleaguered, ever depleting Divorced Men’s Club. It ends with a shoehorned denouement, not unwelcome if a reduced shadow of the more nuanced treatment of Walter’s death.
To finish, it is worth dwelling where we are with Frank with respect to Rabbit Angstrom, since the former’s rise came just as the latter dwindled, and the similarities — the obsession with property, the Emersonian rhetoric, the philanderer destroyed by the trauma of a child’s death, Haddam’s copper beech replacing Brewer’s cherry blossom — should not detract from the major differences.
Updike claimed to want to structure the Rabbit novels around a Joycean Odyssey, whereas Frank is tossed on life’s tide, the significant physical events that define him transpiring as if to someone else. Partly, this is because of his estrangement from Ann, and his children, but he also lacks a spiritual anchor, any lasting moment of transcendence that elevates him above the mire. Ironically it is Updike, a lifelong agnostic towards Emerson, who channels the latter’s “transparent eyeball” much more through his fiction (though it is Frank who is always quoting Emerson). Frank views the world as if he’s in a cinema, staring at the screen, preoccupied by something else. He’s also a greatly cleverer character than Rabbit and is a lifelong Democrat, a champion of the downtrodden, and is considerably less lucky. Ann never forgives Frank in the way Janice seems to with Rabbit, though the latter is far less contrite for his misdeeds.
Both men are Emersonian in their ability to reinvent themselves, “like a cat falls on his feet” as Emerson would say, and united in their absences and angst, a void Rabbit partway fills with Updike’s spirituality. With Frank, there’s no such luck. He’s cast adrift with only that which he can carry, without the lies of history and character to shoehorn him into unreality, and all the more truthful for it. Ford has only paid passing heed to his own rules in his Frank series, and in doing so pays tribute to his character’s protean nature. Where Ford attempts to contrive epiphanies, neat metaphors and acts of God, he does Frank a disservice.