I finished the book yesterday during a long afternoon spent in bed recovering from my illness. It was an especially fitting setting. The Great Fire is full of languid afternoons and young men beset by obscure diseases and weary from the war. I enjoyed the setting; the sense of war nearby, war recently ended and perhaps soon to be reignited. It was like a less bleary version of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises it also reminded me a lot of the film Casablanca, but maybe just because I happened to watch it around when I started reading the book. The book revolves around a couple of former soldiers, Aldred Leith and Peter Exley, who have been cast far and wide, to Japan and Hong Kong respectively, in the aftermath of World War II. They are surrounded on all sides by others, women and older folks, whose lives have been similarly touched by the war, and all of whom seem to be searching in vain for normalcy in the aftermath of shattering conflict. The central drama of the book concerns a budding love affair between Leith and a student of his, Helen Driscoll. Helen’s dull and menacing parents as well as the vast age difference between Aldred and Helen set up what turns out to be a fairly filmic love story. The chief drama for the reader lies both in wending one’s way through Hazzard’s elliptical, lyrical prose and in wondering whether or not the May – December romance will ever be consummated.
It’s been a long time between drinks for William Kennedy fans – nine years and nine months, to be exact, since he published Roscoe, the seventh installment in his bewitching cycle of Albany novels. The long dry season has now come to a splashy end with Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, which travels far beyond the city limits of Kennedy’s beloved, corrupt, and corrupting Albany, all the way to Cuba in the early days of a revolution that will topple the reptilian Fulgencio Batista and bring to power a charismatic young Communist named Fidel Castro. The story then returns to Albany a decade later for a flaming finale that showcases Kennedy’s abundant gifts and a few of his weaknesses.
Chango opens with a brief overture. In the middle of a summer night in 1936, a boy named Daniel Quinn is awakened by the sound of a man singing in the parlor downstairs. When the boy goes to investigate, he discovers that his father, George Quinn, and some “Negro” musicians have dragged a piano into the parlor to accommodate a guest, a horn player down from nearby Saratoga. It’s Bing Crosby. Accompanied by a piano player named Cody, Bing warbles and scats his way through the old coon song, “Shine,” while the boy looks on, delighted and amazed by his initiation to the tortured place where racism, showbiz, and celebrity collide. It’s a place he will revisit.
Cut to Havana in the spring of 1957. Daniel Quinn, recently retired as a reporter with the Miami Herald and now an aspiring novelist, is drinking alone at El Floridita, regular hangout of a fellow lover of declarative sentences, Ernest Hemingway. Quinn has come to Cuba to complete, in fictional form, the work begun by his grandfather, who’d come here to write about the Cuban uprising against the Spanish in the 1870s. Quinn soon strikes up a conversation with Hemingway. They hit it off. The master then offers the tyro some advice: “Remove the colon and semi-colon keys from your typewriter.” And: “Shun adverbs, strenuously.” After they’re introduced to a beautiful brunette named Renata Suarez Otero, Hemingway, fueled by double daiquiris, decks an obnoxious salesman from Baltimore with a wicked two-punch combination.
From this promising beginning the story takes off, as Quinn woos Renata and gets sucked into the intrigue and bloodshed of the blooming revolution. Along the way there will be a duel, a failed assassination attempt on Batista, gun-running, Santeria rituals (Chango is a powerful deity), kidnapping, torture, scorching sex, and, finally, Quinn’s coveted interview with Fidel at the rebels’ mountain hideout. The storytelling has the irresistible pull of a riptide.
But problems, little doubts, begin to pop up. For all of Kennedy’s renown as a maker of sentences, there are some stone clunkers in this book. Here’s an example: “Felipe’s sister Natalia, who had grown plump since Renata last saw her, she is eating for her pleasure instead of having sex, met them in the foyer, the only family member in the house, her parents en route to Mexico.” This sentence points straight toward a vexing question, one familiar to many writers of historical fiction: how much research is enough, and how much is too much? As his Acknowledgments page reveals, Kennedy did prodigious research for this novel, talking to such luminaries as Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Fidel himself, reading “too many books to list,” including Hugh Thomas’ magisterial history of Cuba along with memoirs, fiction, and biographies by the likes of Che Guevara, Norberto Fuentes, Tad Szulc, and Darryl Pinckney. Too often, unfortunately, this diligence leads to meandering asides about Renata’s family history and the history of Cuba that interrupt the story’s brisk flow. A shame, because the Cuba section of the novel is otherwise like getting a pleasurable case of whiplash.
Cut back to Albany in the summer of 1968, when the racially divided city is digesting the news that Bobby Kennedy has been shot in Los Angeles moments after winning the California presidential primary. Back on his home turf, Kennedy breezily unspools a trademark cast of characters – Daniel Quinn, now a hardened newspaper reporter, young Black Power agitators, neighborhood activists, vicious cops, winos, a defrocked priest, corrupt politicians (including Mayor Alex Fitzgibbon from Roscoe), madams and their working girls, Molotov cocktail-wielding white racists, and, problematically, Daniel’s father George, now deep in the arms of senile dementia.
As the story builds toward its racially charged climax, two unfortunate things happen. Renata, who had been such an electric presence in the Cuba section when Quinn courted and married her, virtually vanishes for 150 pages; and, far more distressing, much of the action is framed by the senile ramblings of George Quinn, who quickly grows tiresome as a tour guide through a nighttime city on the brink of self-immolation. The problem is that George’s dementia is revealed entirely through his words and actions. Compare this with Alfred Lambert’s mad tussle with Parkinson’s disease in Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections, an illness we experience, in all its harrowing hilarity, from inside Alfred’s addled mind. In that case, a much bigger gamble by the writer delivers a much richer payoff for the reader.
There is one moment in Chango that lays bare both Kennedy’s enduring appeal and his abiding Achilles heel. After witnessing a racial skirmish that nearly turns into a full-blown riot, Daniel Quinn hurries back to the newsroom to file his story, his brain boiling with the role his wino friend, Tremont, played in defusing the violence. As Quinn begins hammering his typewriter, the city editor, Markson, walks up to his desk and says:
“Tell me again about the riot. You don’t have a riot story?”
“It’s part of Tremont’s story,” Quinn said. “I can do a separate riot story if you want one, but Tremont’s the main story… I’ll get the action of the riot up high, don’t worry. But the riot isn’t the story, it’s Tremont. He’s central to what’s happening in this town tonight, and Matt Daugherty (the defrocked priest) is his white counterpart, the pair of them on an odyssey of Franciscan politics and leftover jazz. If you can stand it I’ll work in Trixie’s (the madam’s) stilettos and her fire extinguisher. I also want to underpin the political culture of the twenties with Big Jimmy the floating ward leader and his progressive coon anthem from 1911, and tie in the McCall-Fitzgibbon machine’s bulldozer politics as manifested tonight by the faux assassination plot, with Tremont as its victim, a wild man with an AR-15 given to him by a provocateur who wanted him busted with it to prove the Brothers were urban terrorists, and that’s the FBI’s work and I know you won’t print that, but that’s what it has to be. But we don’t need it. The victim foiled that plot, coming out of the alley where he’d hidden the gun and calming the riot with his shooting.”
Markson nodded, obviously rattled by the complexity of the story;
but he’d get it when he read it.
“I need the riot,” he said, and he went back to the city desk.
This exchange brought to mind a story about the time C.S. Lewis delivered a lecture on Shakespeare at Oxford. Afterward, a student groused that “no one talks like Romeo and Juliet.” To which Lewis replied, “They would if they could.” Well, I’ve worked for a lot of newspapers and I’ve never met a reporter who would deliver a soliloquy like Daniel Quinn’s, even if he could.
Which is not to say that such windy verbal flights make this a bad book. I don’t think Kennedy is capable of producing such a thing. Rather, it’s to say that Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes doesn’t quite measure up to some of the earlier Albany novels. My personal favorite is Legs, not the more highly acclaimed Ironweed, which won the Pulitzer Prize and got made into an overly gloomy movie starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. For me, three things set Legs apart: the pitch-perfect tone that’s at once exuberant and world-weary, the magnetic psychopath at the center of the book, the gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond, and, best of all, the brilliant framing device. The book opens with four broken-down old friends drinking at a faded Albany bar, reminiscing about their adventures with Jack Diamond forty years earlier. One of the four is Marcus Gorman, who was Jack’s lawyer and is now writing Jack’s story, which is the story he proceeds to tell his three drinking companions, which is the novel. Joseph Conrad would have been jealous.
It’s a tough act to follow, and even if Chango falls short, I join Kennedy’s fans in hoping that the master, now 83 years old, doesn’t wait another decade to give us the next installment of his sprawling, bewitching Albany cycle. May it continue to spin for all time.
I planned to review The Original of Laura back when it first came out last year, but I found that I didn’t have much to say. The book was marketed as the final unfinished novel of Vladimir Nabokov, and as a “masterwork that was nearly destroyed.” Really, though, it’s just a jumble of disconnected fragments, in such rough form that they can’t be evaluated.
Still, some reviewers have been extraordinarily hostile to The Original of Laura, and have given Nabokov absurdly harsh treatment for this batch of handwritten index cards that he specifically insisted should never be published. It seems only decent to remind everyone that this isn’t the volume to use as proof of much of anything about Nabokov’s writing. The Original of Laura doesn’t show a falling-off in Nabokov’s powers as a novelist. It shows little except that he died before he could put the novel on paper in anything even hazily resembling publishable form.
Reading some of the reviews, you can come away with a sense that the text is far closer to completion than it actually is. Not a single sustained sequence, not a single fully developed character, not a single clear line of narrative emerges from these short, disjointed scraps of writing. Nabokov is one of the least straightforward novelists in history, and his books can’t really be understood in isolated or incomplete pieces. Imagine evaluating Pale Fire on the basis of, say, early drafts of Nabokov’s handwritten index cards from thirty or forty pages of the least revealing parts of Kinbote’s commentary, without even a single index card from the main poem.
The fragments of The Original of Laura have something to do with someone named Flora and someone named Wild, and something to do with some book called My Laura, and something to do with Wild’s notion of mentally dismembering his body as a form of death-by-willpower. Yet since this is Nabokov, it’s not only possible but probable that the relationships among these elements are far from obvious. Even the most seemingly clear aspects of the fragments are part of larger patterns that we will simply never recover, and that it’s irresponsible for us to pretend we can examine.
I understand why some of the reviews have been so nasty. The book has been brought out in an expensive, ornate edition, accompanied by a lot of off-putting pre-publication hype. Yet Nabokov isn’t responsible for that hype, and his son Dmitri Nabokov has acted with integrity by insisting that the book appear in a form where its incompleteness can be seen and instantly grasped.
Indeed, Dmitri Nabokov has taken some weirdly disproportionate hits for the aspect of the book that deserves the greatest praise. He hasn’t hidden the unpolished, provisional state of the text. Instead, he has heightened it, reproducing the handwritten index cards so we can inspect for ourselves just how far the book is from being done. Critics who have attacked him for his textual decisions should lighten up (and should keep in mind that he’s a first-rate translator who has earned his place as the protector of his father’s legacy). Besides, would we really be happier with an edition of the novel where a team of editors had quietly cleaned up the prose and attempted to pull everything together into a falsely unified story?
Whether the fragments should have been published at all is a harder question. I think Nabokov’s last wishes should have trumped our curiosity, even if the writing had been in a more nearly finished form and had amounted to a great final work. Again, though, Dmitri Nabokov has been savaged for his open, decades-long struggle with a decision that many other literary estates have made much more secretively, often ignoring or downplaying the author’s desires in an attempt to avoid criticism. Outsiders might not agree with Dmitri Nabokov’s decision to publish, but it was his choice to make, and he had the courage to make it without trying to minimize the difficulties of his position. It seems to me he’s being punished mainly for his honesty, for doing in a straightforward and honorable manner what many literary estates do with cynical, calculating furtiveness.
This isn’t a minor point. With the publishing world’s old standards and traditions dissolving all around us, why should we go out of our way to rip into people who make a special effort to take their literary duties seriously? Dmitri Nabokov is, after all, responsible for bringing out, among many other books, The Enchanter and The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov—two valuable posthumous Nabokov works where the son’s editing and translating are exemplary. Indeed, Dmitri Nabokov’s lifelong dedication to his father’s writing deserves a far more appreciative assessment than it has lately generated. This will be corrected in the long run, but why not just go ahead and correct it today? Vladimir Nabokov has every reason to be grateful for his son’s devotion.
Anyway, The Original of Laura is out now, and we can see that Nabokov was right to believe his final fragments weren’t yet ready for publication. This knowledge should remind us how high Nabokov’s standards were for his craft. It should also free us to turn back to the books that he actually saw into print. From The Eye to Lolita and Pnin, from Glory and Laughter in the Dark to Speak, Memory and Pale Fire, Nabokov’s best writing will last long after The Original of Laura is properly forgotten.
Over the course of eight novels, four short story collections, and a series of graphic novels, Neil Gaiman’s greatest work of invention has been himself. The author has 2.42 million Twitter followers, with whom he shares everything from exhortations about human rights to bored airport musings. His messy-haired, leather-jacketed figure appears at Amanda Palmer concerts, on Guardian comment pages, and even at the 2010 Oscars. He is ubiquitous enough to transcend the genre section of bookstores and accessible enough to retweet fans’ Kickstarter pages. Inviting his fans into his life like this takes the mystique out of writing and creates a sense of community, similar to the fandom of John Green. But fans want more: we want to be confided in — we want to make it real.
Gaiman has made himself familiar and friendly without forging any real intimacy. One advantage of writing in the genres that Gaiman does is that no one ever expects the work to be autobiographical. The 50-something Englishman has never jumped a magical wall in pursuit of a fallen star or come home to find parents with buttons for eyes. Throughout his fiction, only small biographical details have snuck in: the tiny lakeside town that Shadow moves to in American Gods is reminiscent of Gaiman’s Wisconsin home, and the quiet boy who lives vicariously through the books he reads in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Gaiman as a child — he’s said so himself. Gaiman controls the narrative, not just of his characters, but of himself, limiting revelations about the latter to the mundanities of daily life and charming childhood anecdotes about reading. But he has been sprinkling breadcrumbs for years in the form of speeches, introductions for anthologies, and newspaper editorials, all of which have been compiled in the 544-page The View from the Cheap Seats.
The book is Gaiman’s first collection of nonfiction, containing everything he’s written from 1990 to the present day, from his now-famous 2012 “Make Good Art” commencement speech to text on the nature of cities from SimCity 2000. Some of the entries might’ve been better left to time, like an odd 1990 piece for Time Out about wandering London after dark that never amounts to much; we might not need two, back-to-back essays on Harlan Ellison. Yet taken as a whole, The View from the Cheap Seats is more than just an assemblage of a man’s clips; it’s Gaiman’s welcome entry into another popular genre: the writing memoir.
Stephen King’s On Writing pulls in people who would never pick up a horror novel; Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a cross between a writing memoir and a self-help book with last year’s Big Magic. It’s not a coincidence that these titles are from well-known and prolific authors, whose writing memoirs offer a rare form of intimacy. King, aside from being a master of the macabre, is an astute grammarian, as revealed by a hilarious rant against passive voice in a memoir that also explores his childhood and addiction. Gilbert may have made her name on a deeply personal memoir, but it had the consequence of making her persona larger than life; Big Magic allows her to peel back the Oprah Winfrey-approved brand to expose the diligent and occasionally frustrated writer behind it all. These books are a way for the bestselling author to remind the reader they were once like them. And even if Gaiman didn’t set out to compile a writing memoir, that’s what Seats is.
For Gaiman, the writing memoir is less about how to write and more about why we need writing. The sections are divided thematically, from music to movies to personal musings. The first is titled, “Some Things I Believe” and includes several pieces in defense of threatened literary entities: libraries, children’s literature, bookshops, and genre fiction. Most of these defenses boil down to one thing. “Somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person,” he writes in his Newbery Medal acceptance speech in this section. Even the sections devoted to things and people he loves — G.K. Chesterton, Dr. Who, comics, Tori Amos — transcend pure fandom; they are sharp analyses both of what makes the work so good and why Gaiman needed them in his life when he did. In one of the collection’s most striking pieces, Gaiman interviews Lou Reed right before a 1992 concert, asking questions about his creative process, like “So does the subject of the lyric change for you in retrospect?”
Words are inherently political to Gaiman, and writing and reading are a political act; the book features several defenses of reading as a way to teach empathy and build a better society. As this belief builds throughout the book, it’s not surprising when we come to Gaiman’s first-person account of a Syrian refugee camp in the final section. Why wouldn’t a man who has been writing for 30-some years because he believes words can facilitate change not write about one of the most pressing international humanitarian crises of our time?
This is a writing memoir about why ideas matter, and sharing this with his readers is the ultimate intimacy — building a connection that is more than a shared fantasy of a boy in a graveyard or underground London. By the end, the biographical details scattered throughout the book don’t say nearly as much about the author as do his influences, motivations, and beliefs. After all, fans fall in love with authors for the worlds they create, and by inviting readers into his own fandoms, Gaiman reminds readers he is just like them. In one sense, The View from the Cheap Seats is Gaiman’s most personal work to date.
Alexander Maksik told Dwyer Murphy of Guernica in a recent interview, “I’m terrified of writing the same novels over and over again.” It’s an admirable sentiment given the reception critics afforded his first novel, You Deserve Nothing. He might easily have returned to the same furrow, made adjustments, perhaps even improvements, and savored another round of approval. Instead his new book, A Marker to Measure Drift, stands at a great remove from his debut and suggests Maksik’s stance on rewriting the same book repeatedly was more than an idle remark.
In A Marker, Maksik gives us Jacqueline, a young woman who is the only survivor of a privileged Liberian family, now displaced by the country’s civil war. We encounter her on a Greek island, in need of food and shelter, and at pains to confront the terrible events not so far behind her. It’s a risky proposition for Maksik, an American writer whose first book centered on an affair between a teacher and a student at an international high school in Paris. He welcomes another layer of risk by opting for a pared-down prose, often far from the lyrical style he employed in You Deserve Nothing, a choice evident from the outset:
Now it was night.
Jacqueline hadn’t eaten since the flattened chocolate bar she’d found on the step outside the pharmacy.
God’s will, her mother said.
The fortune of finding food when it was most needed. Just when she didn’t think she could stay upright any longer, here was food.
The writing is clear and economical, and to Maksik’s credit it never competes with Jacqueline’s ongoing plight. Add a plot so tightly focused on her immediate hardships and the unbreakable link to her mother, whose voice comes to her in memory with advice both wanted and unwanted, and Maksik seems to have set up an absolute gauntlet for himself.
James Salter — a writer Maksik admires and who at times seems to be one of his literary forbears — has noted his love for short novels, “books which were brief but every page of which was exalted…It is like the middle distances for a runner. The pace is unforgiving and must be kept up to the end.” A Marker to Measure Drift aspires to inclusion in this rarefied category. In the same Guernica interview, Maksik mentions cutting 30,000 or 40,000 words about a French-American couple on the way to isolating Jacqueline as the heart of the novel. His initial hesitance to strip away this layer of narration is understandable: it leaves only a young refugee woman, isolated amid tourists. Improbable as it sounds, Maksik works within these strictures and emerges with something stark and essential.
An effort to render the horrors of a civil war, moment by moment and page after page, could easily feel gratuitous and numbing to readers. A Marker to Measure Drift is built instead around the day-to-day realities of Jacqueline’s physical needs, a choice that at first glance appears ill-considered, but Maksik is playing the long game here. The intimacy with Jacqueline’s many small decisions, everything from where to sleep to how she might go about making even a pittance with no legal documentation, gradually pushes all other concerns to the margins. She begins giving foot massages to tourists on the beach — a pound per five minutes at first, later two pounds per. It’s a skill she honed at her sister’s whim, over the span of their childhood together. A nearby cave is home for a time. Later she finds abandoned structures, unfinished construction, and claims them briefly. We remain aware that something awful happened to Jacqueline’s family in Liberia, but Maksik withholds the particulars, releasing hints and glimmers at well-timed intervals. He introduces a few carefully chosen incidents and images, some of them repeatedly. When Jacqueline is on her way out of the country, the car she’s traveling in is stopped by a group of rebels, a ragtag bunch of young men. The smell of their cologne stays with her in memory: “She thought of them passing the bottle around, shaking it onto their palms, slapping it onto the backs of their necks, smoothing it over their cheeks. Like boys preparing for a dance.” These same boys have stretched a man’s intestines across the road to block traffic.
Much is revealed via Jacqueline’s imagined conversations with her mother. The episodes betray tension between the two of them, but her mother generally offers well-intentioned advice. When Jacqueline is studying in England, her mother makes her promise to never return home. When she graduates, her father arranges a job for her in the government, a tourist liaison role, and she accepts it, to her mother’s chagrin. Her father is charismatic and handsome but not, it transpires, such a benign figure. His work as a minister to then-President Charles Taylor and his denial of the seriousness of conditions in the country, of the implications of power changing hands, prove fatal to all in the family but Jacqueline. He maintains a rosy view of the situation even as danger draws near, joking with Jacqueline’s sister:
They are listening to the news of their country in chaos. Government soldiers terrorizing Gbah. Executing men refusing conscription, raping girls as young as eleven, the BBC reports. The LURD rebels closer and closer to Monrovia.
When the power goes out for the fourth time in an hour the sound vanishes and her mother says, “Plug it into Saifa.”
Her father hands her the cord and Saifa fits the plugs into her nostrils.
“Still doesn’t work,” he says. “Must be something wrong with the radio.”
The civil war in Liberia spanned 14 years. It claimed something on the order of a quarter of a million lives. In the aftermath, Charles Taylor was charged with human rights violations by the International Criminal Court in the Hague and sentenced to 50 years in prison. A Marker to Measure Drift stays well clear of these particulars, perhaps because engaging too fully with them would overwhelm any one individual’s story. That is to say, paraphrasing the old saw, that the focus remains on a single tragedy and its consequences rather than a sterile body of statistics.
In fact, Jacqueline’s family tragedy remains an untold story much of the way, to both the reader and the people around her in the novel. By suppressing the details of this one crushing narrative, Maksik foregrounds the power and purpose of storytelling. It’s this great repression that finally drives home how fully Jacqueline is cut off from other people. She’s marginalized due to her refugee status, and a number of interactions demonstrate how far removed her experiences are from those of the people she meets. The name Liberia often meets with blank looks. One couple believes it’s in East Africa, and Jacqueline has to correct them. For a long while, she is wary and resentful of people she encounters, even those who might help her. She lies to them in an effort to save face and maintain distance, but eventually we see her halting progress toward some small familiarity with the waitress who serves her breakfast each day. It’s a poignant sequence, and it builds to a series of tense, startling moments in which Jacqueline bears witness to the horrors her family and her country endured, a retelling which feels harsher still for the fact she unfolds the tale in idyllic surroundings. To say more would be a disservice to Maksik and the reader alike.
Recently Maksik has served as guest editor for Afterword in Canada’s National Post, a task for which he composed four short pieces about different places he lived on the way to establishing himself as a writer. Among his few hundred words about Paris, he points to the period when he first gained confidence in his work. “I discovered what it meant to believe deeply that I was capable of something,” he writes, “without ever once succeeding in doing that thing.” No doubt he still faces obstacles in his work, missteps and uncertainty from day to day. A book in print doesn’t cure all ills. With A Marker to Measure Drift, though, Alexander Maksik’s deep belief proves warranted: he has succeeded.