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.
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table…
Teddy Wayne is drawn to loners. His debut novel, Kapitoil, chronicled a brilliant young immigrant’s attempts to penetrate the lingual and interpersonal density of New York’s Financial District. Wayne’s next book, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, followed an 11-year-old pop star on tour as his manager/mom slipped him pills and arranged publicity-driven “dates” with other fun-sized celebs. Each narrator failed (for the most part) to burst through his respective bubble and connect with others. Each book pulled double duty as amusing character study and troubling social commentary.
Which brings us to Loner (Simon & Schuster), Wayne’s latest first person, voice-driven, cautionary tale of societal ill. Like Love Song, the specter of J. Alfred Prufrock looms over this story — but this time Prufrock heralds more doom than gloom.
Harvard freshman David Alan Federman seems harmless enough at first, flipping words around in his head (e.g., David becomes Divad) and flopping conversationally. He bemoans his “blandly all-purpose name” and his no-purpose body — “a rectangular vacuum of charisma.” He checks his jacket for pee because he was bullied as a kid, which affords him some sympathy. David’s voice is off-putting (“quite a fancy prose style,” says a teacher; “Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse,” says T.S. Eliot), but in the early going his quirks seem like comic relief. His fashion sense comes to mind:
Earlier that week my mother had dragged me to the mall, where I’d decided to adhere, for now, to my usual sartorial neutrality of innocuous colors and materials. It would socially serve me these first few weeks to look as benign as possible, the type of person who could be friends with anyone.
(Or no one.)
David just seems like a lowly nerd with an inflated sense of academic and romantic prowess, which he may have inherited from his mother. Her advice on move-in day? Just be yourself. “You can’t go wrong being yourself,” she says, like a guidance counselor telling a student he can’t go wrong becoming a bathroom attendant, or a coach telling Andre Drummond he can’t go wrong getting to the free throw line.
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create…
Mrs. Federman’s naivete will prove bottomless, plummeting alongside David’s depravity. A beautiful classmate reveals David’s true colors, and they are far from innocuous.
Veronica Morgan Wells is a wealthy pill-popping fox with a chip on her shoulder. David and other men fight and drool over her as if she’s prey: a thing to catch, possess, devour. His feelings for Veronica ferment overnight into a toxic obsession that drives the book, crushing any remaining hope that Loner will be a dramedy, or that David will redeem himself.
David Facestalks, he shadows Veronica around campus, he enrolls in her Prufrock class. He starts seeing Veronica’s roommate, Sara, only for her proximity to his prize. (Which stings even more given how real Sara feels as a character, and the many small ways she endears herself to the reader.) He piles lies on top of lies and commits academic fraud. He imagines Sara is Veronica while fooling around with the former. Later, “unbidden,” he pictures pushing Sara into oncoming traffic. At which point I wrote in my notes, “Is he going to MURDER HER?” (I meant Veronica, but Sara wouldn’t have surprised.)
David is in fact a psychopath, as made plain in his breakup with Sara, which lands a little too squarely on the nose:
“No,” she said stoically. “You don’t care about me. I don’t think you’re capable of caring about anyone besides yourself.”
“I’m not sure where you’re getting that,” I said.
“You’re missing whatever it is that makes you feel things for other people,” Sara said.
If that’s not confirmation enough: David also gets off on making girls cry. When Sara weeps, he rises. Not sure that’s how psychopathy works (I’m sure it’s how something works, for someone), but it is an effective way to peck away at those last few bits of sympathy for the narrator.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me…
Like Seung-Hui Cho, Dylan Klebold, and Eric Harris, David Alan Federman is a victim of bullying with a disdain for jocks. (He describes a pair of baseball players as “entitled athletes who chased openmouthed after fly balls like Labrador retrievers.”) And like that axis of evildoers, he deeply resents his anonymity.
Perhaps even more than he wants to capture Veronica and inhabit her world, David wants to be known. (At one point he whimpers, “A fictional character had left more of a mark on this place than I ever would.” He means Harvard, but could just as easily mean Earth.) It’s hard to separate David’s twin desires because a large part of Veronica’s allure for him is that, if they dated, she would pull him into her apex orbit:
My parents made good salaries practicing law, but didn’t come close to the assets of your families, where a crack about tuition and parking would never even come to mind, let alone be verbalized…You had traveled widely, dined at Michelin-starred restaurants without parental supervision, matriculated at schools with single-name national reputations, ingested designer drugs and maybe had a cushy stint in rehab.
But it wasn’t just your financial capital that set you apart; it was your worldliness, your taste, your social capital. What my respectable, professional parents had deprived me of by their conventional ambitions and absence of imagination.
David wants Veronica for all the wrong reasons, and we know he will never have her. The only question is how exactly — and how terribly — he will exact his revenge. The title, Loner, suggests a killer’s profile: “Kept to himself,” “He was always really quiet,” etc. David doesn’t own a gun or don a trench coat, but as the story morphs into a page-turner, the reader senses a deadly trajectory.
But [spoiler alert] red herrings abound. For all the talk of murdering poor Sara (it’s a running joke) — and all Wayne’s sprinkled hints that David has written this 200-page letter pre-suicide, post-massacre, and/or behind bars (“A lifetime on the inside of a jail cell flashed before my eyes. (Ha.)”) — there won’t be blood. David is not Seung-Hui Cho, or Dylan Klebold, or Eric Harris (or at least, he’s not only them). A more apt parallel is Brock Turner.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
Loner is not about bullying’s bloody aftermath, or how Mental Health Services can do more to thwart shootings on school campuses. It’s about men — in particular, white men of privilege — feeling entitled to women’s bodies, and how that is heinous and psychopathic, and how these particular men are immune to remorse and repercussion.
David Federman does not kill anyone, but (on separate occasions) he rapes Sara and tries to rape Veronica. From his warped perspective, these women have teased and manipulated him, and he will reap what he is “owed.”
Sara is too drunk to fight back, and Veronica’s struggles only power David’s conviction, “my legs doubling in size, my body lengthening and massing as you shrank in direct proportion under me. But this is how you wanted me to act all along, isn’t it.” The implication is clear: You’re saying no, but you mean yes. You want me to take this. You’ve wanted this all along.
(A year after Kobe Bryant’s accuser dropped the rape charges against him, Bryant penned an apology: “I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way…I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.” Please read and consider “The Legacy of the Kobe Bryant Rape Case.”)
As the police cuff him and stuff him into the back of a squad car, David basks in his newfound infamy while the “cinematic montage of [his] future” unspools before him:
…A British tabloid would give me the libelous sobriquet “the Harvard Rapist”; the Parisian press would speculate about a ménage a trois gone wrong. The frozen, lopsided smile from my Freshman Register photo would fuel their fascination. The white male with whom everyone would become obsessed.
I would listen, deadpan, as the foreman read the jury’s decision in my televised trial for attempted rape. A verdict of guilty for the Harvard Rapist, David Alan Federman. Famous David.
But — as with the real-life cases of Brock Turner (the Stanford Rapist) and 18-year-old David Becker—justice is not forthcoming. David’s parents are attorneys, after all, and he’s a man of privilege. His lawyer says Veronica consented, and there is little physical evidence to dispute him. If the case goes to trial, Veronica’s name will leak and the media will pounce, shredding her character (as they did Bryant’s victim’s, among others’). David pleads to a lesser offense, agrees to stay away from Veronica for five years, and gets off scot-free.
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas…
By establishing David as a psychopath and giving him the markings of a killer, Teddy Wayne elevates (or lowers) the crime of rape to murder’s level. By the end, David’s actions seem no less dreadful for their lack of fatality.
In the case of Brock Turner, both the judge and Turner’s father painted the accused as a normal college kid who simply got carried away after one too many beers — the Boys Will Be Boys defense. Dan Turner despicably called his son’s six-month sentence “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.” Judge Aaron Perksy, who attended Stanford, claimed a prison sentence “would have a severe impact” on the guilty party (which is kind of the point?) and said, “I think he will not be a danger to others.”
In his apology to the victim and the Court, Turner himself blamed peer pressure and binge-drinking, stating, “I’ve been shattered by the party culture and risk taking behavior that I briefly experienced in my four months at school.” He’s been shattered? That is not remorse. That is not empathy. That is the apology of a psychopath — someone who very much will be a danger to others. (A wisp of a silver lining: Judge Persky no longer hears criminal cases, and a petition to impeach him has amassed 1.3 million signatures.)
Loner highlights the outsize influence of class on justice, but it’s also a chilling commentary on gender politics. Veronica (who is from an even higher class than David) can afford a top attorney, and she has an eyewitness (female) who saw David try to rape her. Yet she can’t hold him — or her possessive ex, or the sleazy TA with whom she’s having an affair — accountable because he is a man and she is a girl. She must have misunderstood a consensual encounter, or forgotten to take her pills that day, or taken too many. She must crave money (she has plenty) or attention (of the worst possible kind).
Teddy Wayne holds up the Ivy White Male card as the ultimate trump. He means to slap awake a country that glorifies wealth; deifies men; objectifies women; and treats victims of sexual assault like sluts, kooks, and gold-diggers. The story barely qualifies as fiction, and it arrives on our shelves just in time.
When my friend John moved to Philadelphia recently, I considered bringing a bag of rice to his new apartment. At the time I was in the middle of my second consecutive Nigerian novel, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart after Half of a Yellow Sun (which I wrote about last week), and it seemed like the kind of thing that would have happened in Okonkwo’s village, tagged to a parable about a frog and an eagle, and bearing the sentiment “may hunger never sleep beneath your roof.” My fiance, who is used to my flights of cultural longing, counseled against the idea, and reminded me that we have traditions of our own for this sort of thing. A bottle of wine might be more appropriate, she suggested (if my friend John is reading this, he’ll note that he ended up with neither the rice nor the wine).
In an early review of Things Fall Apart, released in 1958, The New York Times lamented the disappearance of “primitive” society as among its primary responses to the novel. Reading this in a profile of Achebe that appeared in the May 26 issue of The New Yorker, I couldn’t immediately tell if I was supposed to object to the lament or the lamented, whether the Times’ error was in wistfully recalling a culture that was never its own, or in characterizing that culture as “primitive.” Thinking about my own experience reading Things Fall Apart, I recognized the phantom nostalgia with which I read about the life of the Igbo people. I don’t know if culture is always opaque to those living in it, or if Igbo life really was richer in that way, but regardless, I found myself hungering for a time when there were fewer choices to be made and stronger reasons for making them.
Things Fall Apart is set on the eve of the colonial encounter between British missionaries and a group of Igbo villages called Umuofia. The book tells the story of Okonkwo, a village leader, who became famous as a young man for his wrestling prowess and ferocity in war, and later enjoys high status owing to the abundance of his yam harvests. Okonkwo is proud of what he’s achieved, but also afraid that he’ll be perceived as weak and lazy like his father, which leads him often to brutal acts of overcompensation.
When the missionaries arrive late in the book, it is with the slyness of a stranger sneaking ashore at night. They take advantage of local superstition to gain a foothold in the village, building a church in the forest of Evil Spirits, and their first converts are the villagers who suffered from the cruel side of Igbo culture, mothers forced to abandon newborn twins into the bush, and other varietals of outcast. Although he clearly has no patience for the progress narratives of colonialism, Achebe renders the first celebrations of the Sabbath, with gospel songs spilling out of a pristine church, as a kind of reprieve from the intolerance and arbitrariness which gather over time in tradition. But the end of Things Fall Apart is as inevitable and tragic as the history of colonial conquest. There are moments of hope, but the circumstances are inexorable and there are not enough good men around to hold them back.
There is a tantalizing moment in the book, though, when the first missionaries arrive and innocuously ask to build a church on the outskirts of the village. If the village leaders had known the ruse, could they have prevented the British from taking root? Even more to the point, how should the Igbo have reacted to an outsider come along, bearing a different culture, and asking to live right next door? Set aside the nefarious motives of the British, and it’s the same question of pluralism which we face a million ways over in America, in everything from gay marriage to immigration and assimilation. At most junctures, we have answered the question affirmatively, expanding the boundaries of how people live in our country. But pluralism necessarily comes at the expense of tradition and when you move too far along that curve, you end up with the quandary of an American staring at a supermarket aisle full of cereal. So many options, and no compelling reason to choose any of them.
In his Brenner and God, recently issued in translation by Melville House, Wolf Haas presents us with one of the most thoroughly likeable characters I’ve come across in a very long while. Simon Brenner is an ex-detective, a man in middle age who has decided after trying out more than 50 professions that he was born to be a chauffeur. Although actually, “chauffeur” doesn’t seem exactly the right word for his current employment: he’s almost, when you come right down to it, a sort of Autobahn-based nanny. His job involves ferrying a two-year-old, Helena, over the 300 miles that separate her parents’ respective businesses.
Helena’s father is a wildly successful construction magnate — a Lion of Construction, in the parlance of the book — with headquarters in Munich. Her mother is a physician with a small clinic in downtown Vienna. Both have any number of enemies, the father because Construction Lions always have enemies and the mother because she performs abortions. A permanent crowd of protestors menaces patients by the clinic’s front door. They feel safer having their small daughter in the care of a former detective.
Brenner is devoted to his charge. He feels that he can tell Helena anything, and keeps the car impeccable for her benefit. He runs the windshield wipers ever so often in perfectly clear weather, because the windshield wipers delight her so. As for Helena, her first word: “Not ‘Mama,’ not ‘Papa’ — ‘Driver.’” Theirs is a perfectly happy friendship.
Former Detective Brenner is on a calmer keel than he used to be. He used to have some inclination toward flying off the handle, the book’s unnamed narrator tells us, but that’s all changed since he took a less stressful job and started on the anti-depressants. He takes his pills, maintains his car, and carefully ferries his charge 300 miles each way up and down the Autobahn. He likes his life. His employers are delighted. Until the day when he stops at a gas station — he always gases up the car the night before but this one time he forgot — and decides to dash in quickly to get Helena a chocolate bar, even though chocolate bars are specifically forbidden by her parents on the grounds that they’re bad for her teeth, because she does after all love chocolate and those are after all only her baby teeth.
But while he’s on the gas station, the girl disappears from the car. He’s dismissed from his job and loses his chauffeur’s apartment above the garage. And just like that, ex-detective Brenner is a detective again.
There are, at least, no shortage of leads. Given the parents’ respective professions, the main problem lies not in finding someone with a motive, but in narrowing down the list of plausible suspects. There’s a questionable congressman whose phone number is unaccountably programmed into Helena’s mother’s cell phone, a somewhat shady bank director who works with Helena’s father, and Knoll, a fanatical abortion-clinic protestor who once obliquely threatened the child.
There’s something Brenner should know, Knoll tells him: Helena’s mother once performed an abortion on a 12-year-old girl. He has a blurry picture of the girl entering the clinic, and there’s 10,000 euros in it if Brenner can find her. Who was the 12-year-old, and is she connected in some way with Helena’s disappearance?
The story is told by a narrator who is never named, but who manages nonetheless to be curiously intrusive. Mostly it’s charming, a narrator who continually hectors us to pay attention (literally, as in “Pay attention: I’m only going to say so much”) and who conversationally drops in his opinions every so often (“By this point…Brenner himself wasn’t placing any large bets on his life. And me neither, to be honest.”) It has to be said, though, that you can only be extorted to pay attention by your narrator so many times before the novelty starts to wear off, and by the three-quarter mark the device has gotten a little cute.
And yet, stylistic flaws notwithstanding, the book is a meticulously plotted, dark, and often very funny ride.
In her essay “Fail Better,” Zadie Smith suggests that writing style is not so much a matter of syntax and word choice, but the expression of a writer’s personality, their soul even, a reflection of how he or she interacts with the world. Smith writes of how, when we’ve spent the morning reading Chekhov, we find that by the afternoon, our world “has turned Chekhovian; the waitress in the cafe offers a non-sequitur, a dog dances in the street.”
I love this essay, but I always wonder what Smith might say about first-person narrators who are different from the writers who create them. I wonder what happens to style in those cases, and how it might be defined. Is every fictional consciousness a mere variation, an extension, of the writer’s consciousness? Can a writer’s consciousness, his true style, emerge when the words on the page are the words of some imagined person? If the self is a pesky, slippery thing that can only be revealed in glimpses, what happens when a writer chooses to subsume that self in another, fictional, self?
I thought often of Zadie Smith’s essay and these questions as I read Emma Donoghue’s Room, for Donoghue has nimbly captured another person’s consciousness in this tale, and it feels utterly true. Her narrator is Jack, a five-year-old boy who was born in an eleven-by-eleven foot room and has remained there with his mother (Ma), both of them held captive, for his entire life. The first few lines of Room plop you right into Jack’s mind, and you never get outside of it:
Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero.
Of course, for a child whose world is far from being pluralized, every object would be singular and personified. There is only one Bed, just as there is only one Ma, and one Jack, and one Old Nick, the man who brings them food and extra things for “Sundaytreat” (and who, the reader quickly comes to understand, is their captor–and Jack’s father).
The great wonder of this novel is that Jack’s perspective feels accurate but also fresh; in a sense, Room is speculative fiction (though cases like this do exist in the real world): what would a little boy be like if he’d never gone outside? How would his language reflect the confines of his existence? From one of my old graduate school notebooks, I’ve saved this note: “Character is enclosed in the language of the text.” Who said that, and when, I have no idea, but it seems to explain perfectly the thrill and the genius of Room, where “enclosure” provides not only a narrative pressure and drive, but a textual one as well.
The novel also speculates on what a mother would explain to her son in this kind of situation, and how she would order the universe. These choices are at the heart of the novel. Beyond the drama of seeing around Jack, of both absorbing his consciousness and translating it to understand what is actually going on, Room asks us to consider Ma’s survival tactics and the way she’s coped with being not only a prisoner, but the mother of a prisoner. She must keep Jack safe, but also entertained. And it’s not easy keeping a five-year-old entertained! Donoghue has taken the stay-at-home mom role to its most sickening and terrifying conclusion.
Ma is just as compelling as Jack is, and I marveled at the deft ways she was revealed through her son’s perspective. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but let’s just say, with the change of setting, so came a change in my perception of Ma. She felt almost archetypal in the beginning, but out in the world, she’s placed in context, she’s given a personality, she’s allowed to react and rebel. She isn’t just Ma. Her choices are scrutinized. Where does being protective end, and being selfish begin? Perhaps my questions of consciousness at the opening are also questions of parenting. How intertwined is the self of the writer (parent), and the self of the character (child)?
Where Room is most engaging on these questions, it also falls a touch short. I agree with Aimee Bender’s review of the novel for the New York Times Book Review, particularly regarding Donoghue’s treatment of Ma breastfeeding Jack. Bender writes that this intimacy causes “a flicker of unease” for the reader, but that the novel doesn’t fully wrestle with the implications of this mother-son bond: how it’s maintained, strained, and complicated when their two-person world ends. The last third of the novel is more interested in depicting how Jack copes with the expansion of his experiences, rather than examining fully the beauty and muck of Jack and Ma’s relationship–how he needs her, and she needs him. The way Jack interacts with the larger world is wonderful, but I wish the novel would have explored further its messier aspects as well. For instance, Jack doesn’t name breast-feeding, though he’s keen on classifying everything else he and Ma do. I wanted this namelessness to return and double back and discomfort not only me, but Jack and Ma. It did, but only briefly, and lightly. I felt let down.
Apart from that one small disappointment, this was one hell of a read. Just as my world is turned Chekhovian after a day of reading his stories, it didn’t take long for my world to turn Jack-ian. I began to see everything as he might; I reconsidered the smallest spaces. At one point, I caught myself speaking to my husband in a strange, child-like, world-cataloging way; at another, I apologized for reading at the dinner table. There were some scenes that had me crying out with alarm, my heart in my throat, and others where my concern and tenderness for the characters made me wonder how in the world I would ever become a parent. How would I be able to shoulder that responsibility and love?
I inhaled this book whole, let it affect my whole life. Emma Donoghue had me spellbound. I don’t know if her self is on the page, but someone’s is, and this novel’s got soul for days.