The Known World feels like a book that took a long time to write. The writing proceeds at a slow but churning pace. Jones meticulously ties each character to one another, to the land, to the curious circumstances of the “peculiar institution” of slavery. We are taught in school that slavery was a black and white affair, but Jones takes great pains to describe a human landscape where such distinctions are blurry: the most powerful man in Manchester County, William Robbins, dotes upon the two children he has fathered with his slave, Philomena; Oden, the Indian, exaggerates his cruelty towards blacks to maintain his tenuous superiority; and Henry Townsend, the gifted young black man at the center of this novel, acquires a plantation full of slaves from which discord flows, imperceptibly at first. The lesson is the messiness of slavery made real by the vivid lives of each character. Over the course of the novel, Jones sketches out each character, from birth to death, using deft flashbacks and flash-forwards that are scattered throughout like crumbs and give the book a marvelous depth. In this sense, the book reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The book ends before the Civil War begins, and so the triumph of good over evil is not allowed to mitigate the brutal picture of slavery that Jones paints. Perhaps because it was so assiduously researched, this novel feels like history and it feels like life. Here’s hoping that Jones’ next one doesn’t take ten years to write.
The salient aspect of Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet, is that by the end each character has found his and her level. It’s quite something: of the seven or so characters there are no winners and no losers. The author’s conscientious diplomacy imbues a basically playful book with a certain airy dignity.Hard to deny that Lethem is a virtuoso prose writer. He is a prize fighter sparring with plot lines in a ring of words. Like the best boxers, Lethem masters the ring – makes it his home – and approaches his craft without fear of getting hurt. Language is for him a sweet science. But just as interesting as the stick and move of the words in You Don’t Love Me Yet is the nature of the story. I was impressed with the way in which Lethem approached the complexities and complications inherent to crafting a female lead character, one who comes across as rather emotionally ambiguous – as opposed to Good. Or maybe Lucinda, 29, is simply young.Lucinda is the bass player in the band, Monster Eyes, a position she relishes for good reason: she’s good at it, self-taught and attuned to the varied musical voices that comprise the group. But she is impulsive, indulgent, and easily taken in by The Complainer, a man she meets over what is meant to be an anonymous call-line for which she is an operator. The implication is that Lucinda is both the creative catalyst of the band and also its Yoko Ono. Although her bass playing is the glue that ties the band’s songs together, and The Complainer’s words the inspiration for the lyrics in the band’s most popular number, her lusty infatuation with the seductive older man corrupts the band’s artistic integrity. But along the way Monster Eyes does get a moment in the sun.I “read” this book by listening to it on 5 CDs, performed by the author, unabridged. I use the word performed for good reason. Lethem has innate ability in this area too. He is able to read his work without self-consciousness and with a satisfying definitiveness, a pitch-perfect and distinct voice for each character. Bedwin, the band’s guitar player and musical soul, phrases everything he says as a question. It’s funny, but it also adds depth to the character, who is shy and introverted. Meanwhile The Complainer speaks in lugubrious platitudes. Because we hear The Complainer’s words through Lucinda’s ear, one trained for catchiness and not so much profundity, they initially come across as penetrating. But as the book goes on, insights such as “You can’t be deep without a surface,” in some ways the tart and tangy center of the book’s social wisdom, seem trite and tedious. The act of listening to Lethem read his book seemed appropriate because the book is based around sound, the sound of people making music, both literally and, yes, figuratively. I highly recommend the audio version of You Don’t Love Me Yet, while wondering if I would have gotten as much out of it if I had merely read it off the page.The book contains one or two very fine descriptions of ensemble music-making (and a not-inconsiderable dose of sexual steaminess, mm). And yet, one provocative suggestion in Lethem’s construct is that rock and roll lyrics are often shallow, transparent. The implication is that the resonance of rock lyrics depends not so much on objective quality – complexity, poetic feeling – so much as indelibility, the rhythmic imprint of the words on the mind, a pattern, a universally recognizable hook. And indeed, Lethem isolates and describes exactly that quality of good rock and roll lyrics that appeals to individuals: a song you connect with is “about you.” The irony is that those lyrics actually capture a colloquial value that is meant to appeal to many. Rock lyrics are rarely lyrical, but when they’re good, you know it. Twist and Shout; Fake Plastic Trees – same principle.My resolution, the turnaround if you will, is that Jon Lethem has written another very readable (and perfectly listenable) book. I could expound on the L.A.-ness of it all, but will instead assume that this setting is an aberrant and tangential element of the story. It really could be New York. And I think no matter where your heart is, it is an appealing kind of tale, made for you, me, the cool kids in Silverlake who play in the band, and everybody else.
“Don’t read this book if you are depressed. Yikes.”–Amazon.com reader review of Paint It BlackJanet Fitch has a new book out, Paint It Black, and so that this dark etching might be properly framed, and hopefully some light then cast in its direction, some background information will prove useful. Fitch’s first book, White Oleander, was selected for Oprah’s Book Club shortly after it was published in 1999 (a movie followed in 2002.) This after Fitch had labored in relative obscurity for years in her home town, Los Angeles.Oprah Winfrey, TV’s well-read matriarch-cum-regent, has anointed more than a few deserving authors over the years.Jonathan Franzen is a member of some standing, though he has openly discussed the stigma of being a Book Club boy or girl. Oprah has moved mountains by moving Americans to read more, more Faulkner, more Garcia Marquez, more Carol Oates, Steinbeck, and – Sydney Poitier? In any case, Oprah has also moved a few books for hucksters like James Frey, a few more for the good people at, oh, Amazon.com. A writer would be right to wonder about the implications of being in The Club, because they are probably not all as easy to recognize and identify as the sudden affirmative media attention – and the accompanying thunderclap of fall-off-your-chair sales figures. For instance, what if the follow-up to your breakout book just isn’t very good? Franzen has had less to say on that subject.Without discernible irony, Janet Fitch once professed to maintain a shrine to Oprah in her home, something besides a television. And why should she not? After all, Oprah’s induction of White Oleander into The Club made Janet Fitch an overnight success, validating years of work. The question is, what reader has a shrine to Janet Fitch, whether the devout Oprah acolyte, or, like me, just someone who picked up White Oleander at the sincere urging of a non-televised friend? And how many of the Fitch faithful will keep the candles burning for her now that Paint It Black is out?It is hard to imagine that, with Paint It Black, support from the Oprah camp – surely the rock on which Fitch’s wing of her publishing house, Little, Brown, rests – will not to some degree erode. More pointedly, Paint It Black will confound the serious reader engaged in a comparison of the book to its predecessor. It’s not just that Paint It Black is a weak sophomore effort. It’s that what preceded it was of such quality, and soared to such great heights.White Oleander does run before some powerful winds. It is written with a soulful savagery, the language never failing to try to capture both the broadest sweep of earthly beauty and the innermost essence of personal pain. The narrator, Astrid Magnussen, is fourteen when she begins her journey down a twisted chain of ever more fantastic and frightening L.A.-area foster homes. Astrid’s mother, Ingrid, a noted poet, is sent to prison for poisoning a man who was her lover. Yet even in prison, where her notoriety and artistic standing seem only to grow, Ingrid Magnussen maintains a profound, almost malevolent influence over Astrid’s life. Central to the book’s success is Fitch’s inspired evocation of the psychological connection between this mother and daughter, in all its complex, contradictory, and adversarial intensity. So, White Oleander not only floats, it slices over water into which other books sink.Of course, White Oleander has its little leaks, and its leaks hint at some of the problems that sink its successor. It is too long – too much ballast, as it were, in the form of at times achingly florid, fulsome prose. In this passage, Astrid’s voice rings with a concise clarity: “Niki and Yvonne had pierced my ears one day when they were bored. I let them do it. It pleased them to shape me. I’d learned, whatever you hung from my earlobes or put on my back, I was insoluble, like sand in water. Stir me up, I always came to rest on the bottom.” But it keeps going, so on the same page: “I had been in foster care almost six years now, I had starved, wept, begged, my body was a battlefield, my spirit scarred and cratered as a city under siege.” Fitch trips herself up when she indulges in such passages, running on (literally) with these broadest of brushstrokes. Then, maybe an author deserves to be spared the criticism of reaching a bit too far if she proves, as Janet Fitch has with White Oleander, that she is capable of rendering a nuanced beauty, and a dignity, out of the often pitiable human condition.Enter Josie Tyrell, protagonist of Paint It Black. She is a humble Bakersfield bean sprout transplanted in the big, bad city. Josie’s Harvard rich kid-turned-artist boyfriend, Michael, has a problem: he has just killed himself. Now Josie must struggle to find out who he really was. It’s tough. Along the way, Josie forms an unlikely bond with Michael’s overbearing, patrician mother, while occasionally navigating her way through the cemetery at Griffith Park, and the wilds of the 1980 L.A. punk scene, as it were, as it was, as it may have been. The book opens with Josie observing how an artist friend of hers, whom she poses for, becomes misty-eyed while listening to a John Lennon album in his studio, Lennon having just been killed. Josie’s take: “people were playing the same fucking Beatles songs until you wanted to throw up.” This is her disposition before she learns of the death of the love of her own life, but in any case, we’re off.The trade winds that propelled White Oleander to welcoming shores have somehow conflated into a perfect storm of literary peril, and Paint It Black is a balky boat. Like that of the former, the tone of the latter is heavy, yet somehow hollow, so that a passage such as the following: “How right that the body changed over time, becoming a gallery of scars, a canvas of experience, a testament to life and one’s capacity to endure it,” which so closely echoes the passages from W.O. cited above, here seems so painfully self-conscious, more of a glance behind the curtain than into the heart of the character on the stage. Fitch relies so heavily on this sort of weight-of-the-world internal monologue; it quickly becomes redundant, like slapping a corpse. Part of the comparative problem is the use of third person in Paint It Black, where White Oleander was told in the voice of Astrid Magnussen, who is, after all, a teenager, not to mention an extraordinarily compelling character. Josie Tyrell, not so much, though Fitch seems literally to want to crawl inside her skin, and maybe should have. It’s tempting to judge third person narration more of a challenge because, unlike first person where the story is one big stream of monologue, the protagonist’s voice does not automatically set the tone. To borrow a hackneyed writer’s workshop phrase, the omniscient narrator must rely more on show than tell.Fitch still shows a lot, a lot of Los Angeles, between Josie’s two spheres, the jaded punk-rock bohemia, slowly choking on its own vomit; and the coldly cultured upper-crust, slowly, well, choking on its own vomit. There’s vomit and excrement in every corner of this town. Witness this exchange between Josie and an exiled German punk rock hellion, Lola Lola:”Americans insist on the superior shit, consuming acres of bran cereal, the better to have big attractive ones. Did you know that all the best perfume has a little bit of shit in it?”Josie shook her head. A little turd floating in the Chanel No. 5.Still with us? Okay then; moving on.Fitch does know L.A. and, like a Joan Didion or a Mike Davis with a novelist’s elan, she reaches yet again for something lofty: a description of the cultural anthropology of Los Angeles itself. White Oleander accomplished this feat so thoroughly that the book could be required reading in such a course of study. But in Paint It Black, the vision, the spheres, never coalesce into something true, or even plausible. Paint It Black is never quite dull, though, and therein lies perhaps the best evidence that the soulful savagery Fitch conjured in White Oleander still burns.At bottom, what awaits people who read and enjoyed White Oleander when they pick up Paint It Black is perhaps just a letdown. This idea has something to do with the reason why White Oleander was chosen by Oprah for The Club, now 55 books strong, or thereabouts. The letdown has to do with confronting a character, a young female protagonist, Josie Tyrell, who, though outwardly similar in some ways to Astrid Magnussen, is in fact fundamentally her opposite. There may come a moment when the reader realizes that Josie Tyrell is categorically unstable, the anti-Astrid. The book as farce is an interesting way to read it. And maybe, just maybe, this is where Fitch jumps the mic on what was almost certain to be labeled an Oprah letdown, a sophomore slump, or what have you, this second novel of hers. Perhaps, shrine notwithstanding, Fitch was discerning when it came to confronting the curse of The Club, and set out to create the anti-Oleander, something cunningly irredeemable. Something for critics to crow about – or not, as the unfortunate case may be. And something for Oprah to ignore.These two books are black and white, and there are exhausted homunculi out there for whom they may someday be read all over.