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 Francine Prose’s introduction to BOMB: The Author Interviews, a collection of 35 interviews spanning 30 years, she repeats the word “conversation.” “Interview” suggests an uneven exchange, but “conversation” implies interaction between participants. Whether interview or conversation, the idea that two writers would sit and talk shop, and allow us to listen, is enticing. The art of literary conversation, by whatever name, is certainly not new. Hannah Rosefield opened her review of John Freeman’s How to Read a Novelist to a larger discussion of our cultural obsession with the interview as a way to look behind the authorial mask. Rosefield is dismissive of Freeman’s collection of 55 profiles of novelists, calling them “weirdly artificial...as if the writer is sitting alone in a restaurant or, sometimes, in her glamorous apartment, addressing occasional comments to the atmosphere.” Literary hero worship. Rosefield isn’t enthralled with interviews as a whole, but her discussion is insightful. Many contemporary writers are known for their disinterest in the form -- ranging from the prolific and visible Joyce Carol Oates to the prolific and invisible Thomas Pynchon -- but she traces the displeasure back to Henry James, who gave his first interview in 1904, nearly 30 years after he published his first novel. The magazine that has become synonymous with interviews is The Paris Review, which, as Rosefield notes, published a long interview with E.M. Forster in their first issue, Spring 1953. John Rodden, author of Performing the Literary Interview: How Writers Craft Their Public Selves, the first book-length examination of the literary interview genre, thinks George Plimpton “virtually invented” the literary interview as a genre for the “little magazine.” The magazine’s “Paris editorial office on the legendary Left Bank and [Plimpton’s] talented group of young expatriate co-editors gave the magazine cachet with both the American literary intelligentsia and with European writers.” Plimpton “became the bridge figure linking the ‘highbrow’ French and the journalistic or ‘Hollywoodized’ American interview traditions.” In practical terms, the form was perfect and inexpensive (free) for an ambitious little magazine. For authors, interviews were faster and easier to complete than original essays. Plimpton didn’t care much for capturing unrehearsed moments. He “was the first editor to work on revision after revision of an interview, making it into a sculpted artwork.” Only an unrealistic purist would scoff at such editing. Rodden considers interviews performance art, simply another, very public genre for writers to play within. He offers a useful, provisional taxonomy of five interview types. Traditionalists “put their work in the foreground.” Their interviews are plain, direct, and marked by “self-effacement.” They “eschew all inquires into their private lives, and sometimes even questions about the relation between their lives and their work.” In contrast, raconteurs are storytellers who thrive on anecdotes, digressions, and asides: “traditionalists downplay their personalities, however, raconteurs display them.” They are performers. (Plimpton was pure raconteur). Advertisers are self-promoters who “exploit interviews...to make their personae into objects of interest and contention equal to or greater than their work.” Provocateurs manipulate the form even further by defying the conventions of typical exchanges. Finally, prevaricators are liars, whose contradictory selves muddle any sense of their conversational words holding worth beyond artistic performances. Whereas the collected interviews from The Paris Review lean heavily on the single author as authority, the pieces in BOMB: The Author Interviews are entirely different beasts. Francine Prose is correct that these are conversations, and they become quite fluid. I do not think it is reductive to agree with Rosefield that interviews are written for writers; in fact, I think interviews are more useful to writers than craft essays or lectures that are chiseled toward theses: “What people really want to know is what it is that the writer does that enables her to transform ordinary words -- the same ones non-writers use all day, every day -- into art.” In that way, writer interviews serve a strangely utilitarian purpose. They open the writer. They disarm her. The BOMB interviews evolve into meditations on art and action. “Inspire” might be a thin word in our cynical literary present, but dare I say that reading these conversations made me want to handwrite excerpts on index cards and lean them against books on my shelves. Rather than dismiss interviews for their performative components, I am more drawn to them as literary duets. A great interview as conversation reaches the sentiment Wallace Stevens dramatized in “Of Modern Poetry,” that moment when a poem performs for an “an invisible audience [that] listens, / Not to the play, but to itself, expressed / In an emotion as of two people, as of two / Emotions becoming one.” The conversations in BOMB: The Author Interviews are like “metaphysician[s] in the dark,” stripped of introductory context or description of body language. There are only words. Here are snapshots of some of my favorite exchanges from this worthwhile anthology. Patrick McGrath and Martin Amis McGrath: Do you see [literature] decaying alongside everything else? Amis: Literature? No. I mean, they say the novel is dead. Well, try and stop people writing novels. Or poems. There’s no stopping people. I suppose it’s conceivable that no one will know how to spell in 50 years’ time, but not while the books are still there. You don’t need a structure. The autodidact is omnipresent in fiction. Roberto Bolaño and Carmen Boullosa Boullosa: Women writers are constantly annoyed by this question, but I can’t help inflicting it on you -- if only because after being asked it so many times, I regard it as an inevitable, though unpleasant ritual: How much autobiographical material is there in your work? To what extent is it a self-portrait? Bolaño: A self-portrait? Not much. A self-portrait requires a certain kind of ego, a willingness to look at yourself over and over again, a manifest interest in what you are or have been. Literature is full of autobiographies, some very good, but self-portraits tend to be very bad, including self-portraits in poetry, which at first would seem to be a more suitable genre for self-portraiture than prose. Is my work autobiographical? In a sense, how could it not be? Every work, including the epic, is in some way autobiographical. In The Iliad we consider the destiny of two alliances, of a city, of two armies, but we also consider the destiny of Achilles and Priam and Hector, and all these characters, these individual voices, reflect the voice, the solitude, of the author. Dennis Cooper and Benjamin Weissman Weissman: How do you find the language for your books? Everything echoes everything else in a particular way. You’re able to make the most intense things happen in a single, seemingly nondescript sentence. Cooper: It’s a combination of things. The writing has a very strong rhythm. It seems half of what I do is maintain rhythms and fuck with them. I choose words partially based on syllable count and on sound. You don’t notice all this reading it necessarily, but it’s structured like music. Every sentence length, the way it moves, sounds...it’s all calculated to create an effect. In Try, I was working with a hyper-real version of how I talk or the way inarticulate Californian kids speak. The way you might start to say something clearly then wander, confused, and you’ll stall, then you’ll take it back and rush forward in a different direction, then step back, and try to sum up your thought...all that movement is so beautiful. I try to mimic that a lot, make it recognizable, but brewing it up with a kind of poetry. Junot Díaz and Edwidge Danticat Danticat: I think most folks would want me to ask you, those of us who’ve been waiting with bated breath for this book: What the heck took you so long? Díaz: What, really, can one say? I’m a slow writer. Which is bad enough but given that I’m in a world where it’s considered abnormal if a writer doesn’t produce a book every year or two -- it makes me look even worse. Ultimately the novel wouldn’t have it any other way. This book wanted x number of years out of my life. Perhaps I could have written a book in a shorter time but it wouldn’t have been this book and this was the book I wanted to write. Other reasons? I’m a crazy perfectionist. I suffer from crippling bouts of depression. I write two score pages for every one I keep. I hear this question and want to laugh and cry because there’s no answer. What I always want to ask other writers (and what I’ll ask you) is how can you write about something so soon after it’s happened? What’s to be gained by writing about something -- say, the death of a father and uncle, as you do in your new book, Brother, I’m Dying -- when the moment is close? Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Safran Foer Safran Foer: What wouldn’t you sacrifice for your writing? Eugenides: I used to be scared of that line from Yeats, “perfection of the life or of the work.” I thought I’d never be able to make that choice, that I wasn’t disciplined enough, or committed enough. It sounded so painfully ascetic. But now I find that my work pretty much is my life. I don’t think I could operate without it. The lucky thing is that writing has only made me sacrifice things I can get along without: a frisky social life, a manly feeling of being “out in the world,” office gossip, teammates. You can be married and write. You can have a family and write. So you do have a life, after all. It’s waiting for you just outside your studio. Brian Evenson and Blake Butler Butler: Do you feel haunted by the things you delete? Evenson: It’s starting to sound like that. I mean, all these possibilities of fiction accumulate. One way that a lot of my stories start is from reading something and seeing it go in one direction and thinking, Hey, I could take this in another direction. In fact, “The Second Boy” originated with a passage from Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives in which a boy falls down “a shaft or pit or chasm up the mountain.” The ambiguity of that phrasing opened something up for me. A lot of my stories come from the path that another story could have taken but didn’t take. They attempt to animate these moments that could have existed but didn’t. Rachel Kushner and Hari Kunzru Kushner: The polemical work is not a work of art; it’s something lower. It doesn’t transcend its objective to influence and explain. Kunzru: It’s instrumentalized writing. Kushner: Precisely. The novel ideally is not reducible to the political. It’s a journey toward meaning that transcends the frame of politics. Blood Meridian -- just to think of a great novel that traverses the political -- is not simply a book about the violent policies of the American government paying out for scalps on the Western frontier. It takes up subject matter that is inescapably political, but it builds of systemic violence a work that comes to rest only in the territory of art, where the thing built is so elegant and strange that it cannot be justified or even really explained. Kunzru: I always get muddled between intention and effect. The author’s intention is never visible in a text -- we know this as good poststructuralists. Also, we can read anything politically; we can read things that are silent about political issues against the grain. Maybe engagé is a useful word. I think the novel has to hold things open rather than close things down or collapse things onto a single polemic point of view. Ben Marcus and Courtney Eldridge Eldridge: Which brings me to teaching. Where do you begin with your graduate students at Columbia? What do you say on the first day? Marcus: I try to stress how important it is, when you’re asking for the attention of a reader, that you’re doing the most intense, interesting, compelling, fascinating thing that you could possibly do. I focus on getting writers to recognize when they become bored while reading other people and why. And then why they might allow themselves that boredom when they’re writing. Students want to give themselves permission that as readers they won’t give to another writer. Graduate students in fiction are some of the least forgiving readers I have ever met. They tend to be very critical of almost everything. Sharon Olds and Amy Hempel Hempel: You also said one purpose of a poem is to cause another poem to be written. Does that work for you and for somebody reading your work? Olds: I would think so. I often write poems after I’ve read poems. What I was thinking was that if you have a story all ready to be written and you don’t write it, maybe the next one won’t come down the chute. Was it Bill Matthews who said that we need to write our bad poems, because if we don’t write them, how will we get to the next one, which might be a good one? But of course, what you say is also true, that we inspire each other. Tobias Wolff and A.M. Homes Homes: How do you know when you’re finished with a story? Wolff: When everything necessary is done, and I feel as if even another word would be superfluous -- would, in a manner of speaking, break the camel’s back. That sense of completion comes about in different ways, and plot is only the most obvious of them. You should feel, when you’ve finished a story, that it has achieved a life independent of yours, that it has somehow gathered up the golden chain that connected you. This feeling is not always reliable. I often go back and revise endings that I was pretty sure about when I set the last period to the page. In writing, of course, everything is subject to revision. But I am guided, however roughly, by inexplicable instincts like the one I have just attempted to describe.
This is what happens when I don't take notes. Two months ago, I sat down to read Yesterday's People, a collection of eight short stories by Goran Simic. Born in Bosnia, Simic was already a noted author and poet when he immigrated to Canada ten years ago. I decided to write about these spare, haunting and haunted stories, many of them about life in Sarajevo in the mid 90s. But for reasons that now completely mystify me, I wasn't making notes, which would have been fine had I begun writing this immediately. Two months and three or four novels later, I began to write and I hit a brick wall.While I remembered the images and the tone of the stories, damned if I could remember any names, or specific details. And the images that I did remember were beginning to blend into each other. I was in a haze. I had been immersed in that world. And then I was out. I had shifted through time and space into other worlds. I was in Jonathan Lethem's Brooklyn, then in Stephen Clarke's contemporary Paris, and most memorably I was amongst Balzac's characters in 1800s Loire Valley, as drunk on his words as I would be if I'd been one of his wine growers in the French countryside. The images of the Bosnian war had been overshadowed. I could never do them justice.So I began to re-read. I cracked open Simic's collection and dove back in, revisiting the characters, and the horrors of war, and the resourcefulness and resilience of spirit that had moved me the first time.I revisited Nina. We were back in Sarajevo, during the war. A gothic wild west of thievery and morgues, where "we were all slowly going mad." Nina and our narrator shared a past, and our narrator now spots her amongst the people lining up for water, "a shadow of what she used to be."In "Minefield," volunteer soldiers protect a ravine. Their initial Rambo bravado is shattered when one of them blows himself up with a grenade. They grow up fast. They begin doing deals with the other side: "as time passed and our ammunition dwindled, we shot less and swore more." It's trench warfare except the two sides volley benign insults and supplies. And then grim reality throws them a curve.In "The Story Of Sinan" we see the early days of the war when "we thought it all a brief private nightmare that the world had nothing to do with." We meet Sinan whose daily routine has been inconvenienced by the war. To him, it's an annoyance. He's a gambler and carouser who lives by his wits. (He tells women, when he's through with them, that his wife has been released unexpectedly from prison though she was supposed to have served five more years for murdering his ex-mistress). Then another curve, this time a sudden and unexpected act of kindness and selflessness.And as I re-read Yesterday's People I noticed something that I hadn't really picked up on the first time. I noticed that the stories are not just about Bosnians - then. They're also about Canadians - now. In every story, a character either escapes to Canada or someone linked to him does. Sometimes the stories are actually written from the point of view of someone here, now, flashing back to his life there, then. There are photos throughout the stories, snapshots of the narrator's past. The stories are about memory, about trying to remember and trying to forget. They're about one's tenuous link to one's history. They're war stories that don't end in the trenches or in the long line-ups for water. They don't end when the shooting stops. They're brought up to date through the memory of the narrator. They're immigrant stories.
“I embrace the frightful and the beautiful.”--Al-Bayati Great war poetry has a profound tension between two fundamental sets of drives; the creative and empathetic drives of poetry and the destructive and divisive drives of war; it has a parallelism with the beauty and lyricism of the language and poetic structure existing with but never becoming one with the gore and horror of being in a WWI trench, for example. As the romanticizing of war faded in Western culture, so did this tension and more often than not when poetry dealt with war, it only condemned war. But war is not totally composed of atrocity, and to understand war and eventually eradicate it, means grappling with the complex effects of strife on human relationships and emotions and poetry has the conceptual flexibility needed to contain all those concepts and contradictions. Furthermore, the experience of American war has changed and Brian Turner, who served in Iraq, is our first poetic chronicler of the new American war. His previous book, Here, Bullet, (one of the finest collections in recent memory) dealt exclusively with his time in Iraq. Phantom Noise is a broader examination of the new American war. Soldiers now spend much more time identifying enemies than fighting enemies, they are on patrol through marketplaces more than they are on point in combat, and their mistakes lead to the deaths of innocents instead of themselves and their comrades. Death is still the primary experience but American soldiers have a new relationship with it. Contemporary war, in America at least, is now defined as much by coming home as it is by shipping out. In Phantom Noise, Turner creates a technical definition of the “embrace” in his epigraph included above, by showing the impossible, yet constant, juxtaposition of “frightful” memories of war with “beautiful” experiences of human existence. As in war poetry in general, the two are present but parallel. In “The Inventory From a Year Lived Sleeping with Bullets;” Turner twists that parallelism, “The conceptual and the physical given parallel structure,” to create another pair constantly present without intersecting. Phantom Noise is both the first collection of poetry dealing with the soldier returning from Iraq to a life constantly between the parallel forces of war and domesticity, and Turner's creation of an embrace that encloses them both. The embrace begins with the brilliant “At Lowe's Home Improvement Center.” This poem is the most direct exploration of those impossible juxtapositions as “a 50 pound box of double-headed nails” turns into “...firing pins/ from M-4s and M-16s,” “Wounded Iraqis with IVs/ sit propped against boxes as 92 sample Paradiso fans,” and “Dead soldiers are laid out at the registers.” Though the images share physical space with the home improvement center, their concepts never mix; the ideas of a home improvement center and a war are kept separate. One never becomes a metaphor for the other. In poem after poem, Turner sets the memories that give him nightmares against the present that gives him comfort. Along with poems of war and poems of returning from war, Turner bravely includes poems without the specter and spectacle of war. With the assertive visuality of short art films, Turner shows a series of formative moments; a young boy caught asleep next to the daughter of his baby sitter in “Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon,” “...the old man strangling the dishes,” and “...a boy of four with a pot of tea/ for an old woman buried in afghans, lit by Chinese lanterns,” in “Lucky Money,” and the closing image of “The Whale;” “and I remember everyone smiling/ afterward, laughing, each of us amazed/ the day a god was blown to pieces on the beach/ and we walked away from it, unscathed.” Though these poems are naturally overshadowed by the poems of war, they are all excellent works that reward scrutiny. The politics in this collection is subtle, culminating in “Al-A'Imma Bridge;” a mini-epic of war death in Iraq. It is a scene of Iraqis falling off a bridge while, “years unravel like filaments of straw.” Iraqis die from the efforts of “Alexander the Great,” “F-16s,” “the German Luftwaffe,” and others. Turner's collection is filled with dead Iraqis; poem after poem in a catalog of slain enemies. But there is nothing victorious in this catalog. Turner sees not thousands of war deaths, but one war death shared by all, American and Iraqi, soldier and civilian, endlessly iterated. He writes, “Gilgamesh can do nothing, knows that each life is the world/ dying anew,” and concludes with resignation, “..give daisies and hyacinths/ to this impossible moment, flowers to stand for the lips/ unable to kiss them, each in their own bright beauty, flowers/ that may light the darkness, as they march deeper into the earth.” The collection's political statement is one of empathy; a declaration that death, regardless of nationality, ethnicity belief, or anything else, is always death. In “Phantom Noise,” Turner comes the closest in anything I've ever read to transferring an experience of the soldier to the civilian; to telling us in a way we can meaningful empathize with, what it feels like to be a soldier coming home. The “Noise” is a “ringing” created by “bullet-borne language ringing,” “shell-fall and static,” “brake pad gone useless this muzzle-flash singing,” and other sounds. In a brilliant display of sophisticated poetics, Turner recreates that “ringing” in the ears of the reader; a “ringing” that reappears whenever the poem is read or remembered. The effect is powerful enough that I can almost see “Sgt. Rampley walk[ing] through--/ carrying someone's blown-off arm cradled like an infant,” at my local hardware store parallel to the grills and gardening supplies and enclosed by Brian Turner's embrace.
1. I’ve found myself a bit concerned, lately, with questions of place. Specifically, will it be glaringly obvious to the casual reader of my as-yet-unfinished third novel, much of which is set in the Florida suburbs, that my entire experience of the state of Florida consists of two lightning-strike maneuvers in and out of Boca Raton for the purpose of attending Bat Mitzvahs? I’ve never been in Florida, it occurs to me, for longer than 36 hours at a stretch. Several of those hours were spent in the airport. Several other of those hours were spent watching second-cousins-by-marriage (unless those were first cousins by marriage once removed? I’ll admit to a certain haziness on the topic of genealogical terminology) read their Torah selections in brutally modern synagogues and flowery rented halls in the outer suburbs. I think I’ve built in a little leeway by virtue of the fact that the town I’m setting the book in is entirely fictional, but still: what if there’s some obvious and huge part of the Florida experience that I’m missing? What if, for example, Floridians have a secret handshake? This is the kind of thing that I fret about. Over these past few months I’ve been working my way through John Updike’s Rabbit series, which takes place mostly in the impeccably-rendered and entirely fictional town of Brewer, PA. His papers were full of notes on the town, photographs of houses and businesses that would serve as models for the homes and establishments in the books. The place is vividly real and wholly anchored to this earth. I often think that Brewer is what novelists should aspire to: a town so completely, boringly alive in all its mundane details and bus routes and neighborhoods, a place with such specificity that you’re startled to find out later that it doesn’t exist. Regardless of whether or not a setting exists in the real world, establishing a novel’s physical landscape is difficult. In her debut novel Orion You Came And You Took All My Marbles, Kira Henehan handles this problem quite neatly by dispensing with place altogether. Where is Orion set? I have no idea. The action transpires on a landscape as blank as a bare stage. Chapter One, quoted below in its entirety, gives us the setting: It was all over gravel, but better than the last place. There was all over swampland and crocodiles. There is gravel, then, apparently in great expanses, and golf carts are the chief mode of transport. Copious amounts of shrimp are consumed, which suggests that we perhaps might be somewhere near the sea or near another large body of water, but on the other hand, our narrator has traveled and there have been shrimp at all stops:I have been in swampland and gravel, sand, ocean, rain forest, and bog. Some places indescribable, having characteristics of neither swampland nor gravel, rain forest nor bog. Nor sand. Nor ocean. And so forth. Some places have been straight clean poured concrete, another entirely encased in liquid. 2. Orion is a mysterious book. It’s exuberant, often funny, and very strange. Our narrator, Finley, is a member of what can only described as a cell of detectives. I’m tempted to describe them as secret agents—there’s something of the sleeper cell in the group’s organization—but they do after all wear fedoras. There are three of them—Finley, Murphy, and The Lamb—living and working together under the direction of Binelli. There are Investigations. They are given Assignments. Finley’s latest Assignment involves investigating an outfit by the name of Uppal Puppets, although puppets are, as she’s informed Binelli, among her Most Hated things. They travel between landscapes of sand, fog, and gravel, but they always live together in a restaurant/bookstore/surfing memorabilia museum/inn called Tiki Ty’s Tiki Barn: “Wherever we went, wherever the concerns in need of Investigation took us, we always stayed at Tiki Ty’s Tiki Barn. And unlikely seeming as it seems, it always seemed to be exactly the same place. One learns that certain questions are unanswerable.” Finley’s an adult, but her memories begin only a few years before her Assignment to Puppets, when she woke after a great silence with no memory of her previous life. She’s a highly trained Investigator—although the objectives of the team’s Investigations are never remotely clear—and a devotee of California noir. Henehan’s writing style is a delight: the novel is Finley’s report, and it’s written in exactly the kind of voice one might expect from a socially inept young detective who reads a lot of noir and has no memory of most of her life. Finley is self-assured, frequently wrong, and a little off. Finley retreats into California noir novels whenever things get complicated, which is often, because very little in this book makes sense at first glance. It’s a clever book, and the book’s cleverness is in some ways its downfall: there is a plot here, and there are clues, but the clues are so extremely missable and the finer details of the plot are touched upon so lightly that both have a way of disappearing into the prose. I’ll confess that when I finished the book for the first time—standing in an interminable Canada Customs line in an airport—I was actually mostly baffled. I can’t remember the last time I didn't understand a novel, and there was some temptation to blame the disorienting effects of air travel and/or the inevitably Kafkaesque elements of going through Customs. There was, I’ll also confess, some comfort in turning the book over and discovering that at least one of the blurbers was somewhat baffled too—“Hilarious, severe, baffling, and sometimes so far over my head that I can see only a distant glow”—and it quickly became clear that I was going to have to read it again. Which I did, whereupon a few things fell into place and one or two other things didn’t—I may go to my grave without fully understanding what exactly happened to Kiki B. It was a pleasure to return to Henehan’s prose, but a person might reasonably wish for a more clearly-rendered plot. But I found, in the end, after two readings and numerous spells of confusion, that I loved this book. Orion’s strangeness is mostly wonderful. Henehan is a writer of considerable grace and skill. 3. I have a moderate Raymond Chandler obsession, which emerged a few years back when I encountered The Simple Art of Murder, his famous essay published in the December 1944 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. His description of the archetypical hero of detective fiction is unforgettable, and I sometimes catch myself repeating the words under my breath at odd moments. “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean,” Chandler wrote, “who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” What happens when a detective novel is lifted from the mean streets, or when the mean streets are part of an unrecognizable world? It’s not a new trick, but it’s a deeply appealing one. The prose styles are wildly different, but Orion reminds me a little of Jonathan Lethem's pre-Fortress of Solitude work. Lethem’s breakout novel, Motherless Brooklyn, was of course a detective story, and that novel’s Minna Men are only a few degrees removed from Orion’s traveling misfits. Motherless Brooklyn clung ever-so-tenuously to consensual reality—there was a menacing gang of Zen-trained doormen, yes, but they occupied a recognizable Manhattan—but it was preceded by a detective story that didn't. Before Motherless Brooklyn there was Gun, with Occasional Music, which incidentally is #2 on an informal Titles I Wish I'd Thought Of First list. (#1 is The Long Goodbye. There are others.) I liked Motherless Brooklyn, but I loved Gun, with Occasional Music. It's a classic private-detective story, but the detective is a man born far too late. He dresses the part—fedora, trench coat, snarl—but he occupies a surrealist dystopia far from the mean streets walked by Philip Marlowe. No part of the world he moves through is conducive to being the man he wants to be. Most of the population is addicted to complicated bouquets of pharmaceuticals. There have been certain advances in genetic engineering, and now the detective’s mean streets are shared by talking animals. Dogs are employed as deliverymen. A self-conscious pig glances shyly at him from under her bonnet in an elevator. He meets a little kitten who's learning to read. His arch-nemesis is a kangaroo. 4. Returning, for a moment, to the recognizable: Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, set solidly in the cities of New York and Los Angeles. “A relationship, I think, is like a shark, you know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies,” Woody Allen’s character said in that film, and I believe the same could be said of well-established genres. I think it would be difficult at this point, although probably not impossible, to write a truly fresh detective story that is also entirely traditional. In other words, a detective story set in traditionally noir mean streets in a traditional era, an era when private eyes wore fedoras and trenchcoats without looking nostalgic in them. The innovations of experimenters like Henehan and Lethem are what keep our most beloved genres alive.
Gone are the days of mutually assured destruction, when - at the push of a red button - one of the nuclear giants could initiate a worldwide fallout, inevitably bringing about the widely feared doomsday. It is different now: the rogues are in the game.The bomb scare is not what it used to be. Scaremongers nowadays point to the potential of a nuclear-armed North Korea or Iran, and not at the risk of MAD when things get a little tense between, say, the U.S. and Russia. True, guns at the hands of the "peerless leader" Kim Jong-il or mullah-led Iran with its fierce, controversial and rhetoric-driven president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, could be intimidating - but the real danger does not lie in so-called rogue states owning nukes; it lies in truly rougue groups' ability to get their hands on these weapons.William Langewiesche's The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor, an incredibly well-researched, 175 page firestorm that explores a nuke's power, moves from the laxly maintained Soviet-era nuclear facilities to Pakistan and its acquisition of the bomb and illustrates the who, when, where, what and why - not to mention the how - of developing the world's most coveted weapon. Parts of the periodically disturbing Atomic Bazaar were published in The Atlantic Monthly in 2006. Langewiesche has augmented the story with more details in the book, animating his breathtaking sources, and bolstering his claim that state-level proliferation is almost impossible to stop. The Atomic Bazaar is narrated in two parts and four sections. The first half is a how-to guide for a terrorist interested in developing a nuke and exploding it somewhere in the Western hemisphere. Now, some might find it outrageous to publicize this information, but the journalist's ability to collect all the facts by talking with locals and officials, and consulting with public documents should override that concern. After all, the instructions were probably already available to interested parties.It is not so much the availability of the information - or the drunken Russian security guards, or the fact that radiation detectors in the Urals are turned off because they only catch fish from radioactive lakes - but the West's loss of street smarts that arms a seeker, according to Langewiesche. A terrorist can someday attack the U.S. with nukes, he writes, "because of Washington's discomfort with informal realms - because of a blindness to the street, amply demonstrated in recent times, which will have allowed some bomb-builder the maneuvering room necessary to get the job done."But despite America and the West's arrogant ignorance regarding the work, life and authority of a wide range of people - from residents of Soviet-era "secret towns" with their corrupt and decrepit social structure to the local sheiks in eastern Turkey, who run the country's porous borders with Iran, Iraq, Syria, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia - stealing enough bomb-grade uranium, or developing bomb fuel, is still a long shot even for a sophisticated terrorist, Langewiesche writes, citing operational and cultural complexities.The Atomic Bazaar does point to a recent lesson, however: the West's gross underestimation of Pakistan's nuclear ambitions. For a country that had next to nothing in terms of both financial and intellectual resources, Pakistan developed the "Muslim bomb" with relative expediency - about 20 years - right under the nose of American intelligence agencies and the United Nation's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and with technology from Holland and parts from all across Europe - particularly Germany and Switzerland.Pakistan's nuclear genius, Abdul Qadeer Khan, was not only a firm nationalist who wanted to put his country on equal military footing with India, but also an egotist who sought fame and recognition - and who, to achieve that end, acted on the belief that the bomb was not exclusive to the original five (China, France, the UK, Russia and the US) and the "undeclared" few (India and Israel) but available to any sovereign who sought it.The story of A.Q. Khan arming his nation is intriguing and disturbing. As Langewiesche repeatedly points out, Khan ran an operation much like the one Iran is running today: pompous and convinced that no one would or could do anything about it. Langewiesche also reports that that nuclear technology in Libya, Iraq, Iran and North Korea was provided by Khan; naturally, he charged a hefty premium.It was easy for Khan to flout the West and enrich himself as long as the U.S. placed "greater importance on propping up the various Pakistani regimes than stopping the spread of nuclear weapons." Next he presents reporter Mark Hibbs, a "spy's spy" who shocked intelligence and nuclear agencies throughout the West with his step by step coverage of Pakistani and Iraqi efforts to build the bomb - as well as reporting on the methods by which technology and parts were flowing to these countries from the West.Back then, as today, nuclear powers did not act. Yes, legislators and prosecutors eventually took action against exports and companies in the U.S., Germany and Switzerland - much like the IAEA actions against Iran today. But Western efforts to curb nuclear ambitions did not pay off in the past, and there is no indication they will now.The Atomic Bazaar carefully acknowledges that during the last 60 years nukes may have spread to other countries, but they did not drop anywhere; i.e., as long as nation-states hold the bombs, they can be expected to remain in arsenals.But, as Langewiesche points out, with likes of Khan running around the globe, and the West's self-imposed, politically driven complacency, it is becoming harder to trust governments and international organizations with stopping nuclear proliferation. So, I stopped worrying. Or, as one source told Langewiesche: "The best way to fight proliferation is to pursue global disarmament. Fine, great, sure - if you expect that to happen... It is simply not going to work."