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.
A Review of Dave Eggers’ What is the WhatOn paper, Edward P. Jones and Dave Eggers seem to have little in common. The former grew up poor in predominantly African-American Northeast D.C., made his critical reputation with a collection of deceptively understated short stories, and even after a National Book Award nomination, continued to labor in relative penury and obscurity. The latter grew up in an affluent Chicago suburb and found commercial success early, with a memoir that placed the Dave Eggers voice – inventive, flashy, ironic – front and center. And yet this literary season has found the two stars aligning in the literary firmament. First, in August, Eggers penned an appreciative and thoughtful Sunday Times review of Jones’ new collection All Aunt Hagar’s Children – a book which, at least superficially, could not be more different than Eggers’ recent collection How We Are Hungry. Then, two weeks ago, Eggers published a novel embodying the very qualities he praised to in Jones’ work: “its sweep, its humanity, the unvarnished perfection of its prose and [a] steady and unerring” narrative force. And though it may surprise critics of McSweeney’s to hear it, What is the What is the finest American novel I have read since The Known World.The novel is a gently fictionalized autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a living casualty of the ongoing Sudanese civil war. Having fled from his ruined boyhood village on foot, Deng grew up in U.N.-run camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. He settled in Atlanta in 2001, and after a series of setbacks began looking for a writer who might help him tell his story. As stories go, this one is dramatic and wrenching prima facie, and in a two-part article for The Believer, Eggers gave it respectful, even tentative journalistic treatment. But, sensing that this approach placed barriers of “objectivity” between the audience from the material, he decided, boldly and correctly (with apologies to La Kakutani) to recast Deng’s story as first-person fiction.The urgency and earnestness of Deng’s voice seem to have provided the necessary pressure to render Eggers’ prose crystalline:The moon was high when the movement in the grass began and the moon had begun to fall and dim when the shuffling finally stopped. The lion was a simple black silhouette, broad shoulders, its thick legs outstretched, its mouth open. It jumped from the grass, knocked a boy from his feet. I could not see this part, my vision obscured by the line of boys in front of me. I heard a brief wail. Then I saw the lion clearly again as it trotted to the other side of the path, the boy neatly in its jaws. The animal and its prey disappeared into the high grass and the wailing stopped in a moment. The first boy’s name was Ariath.This paragraph alone would be an extraordinary act of self-effacement for a writer given to flourishes, and an extraordinary act of trust on the part of Deng. That they sustain this voice for 475 pages is something like a miracle. The writer speaks from inside his narrator – from his heart, from his gut, from his intellect. And the distance between audience and subject narrows until we feel that we, too, are Valentino Achak Deng, in all of his complexity and contradiction.Because imperfect as a human being, he makes a perfect protagonist. He is whip-smart yet perpetually naive, generous and selfish, strong and weak, courageous and timid, full of both faith and doubt. In other words, he is a lot like the Dave Eggers of that other fictionalized autobiography, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius… not because Eggers has played ventriloquist, but because he has tapped into something universal. In the course of the novel, Achak becomes as real to us as we are to ourselves, and we feel his every loss and triumph as though they were our own.The first half of the book concerns the destruction of the tranquil Dinka homeland in Southern Sudan by agents of the Islamic government in Khartoum and his harrowing walk across the country in the company of thousands of other “Lost Boys.” The novel grounds every historical exigency in the dramatic interactions of rounded characters. If the expectation of a simple story of good vs. evil (and some of the political nuances) gets confounded in the process, we can appreciate more fully the quiet heroism of children who talk each other out of suicide, of young teachers who lead groups of boys through minefields and crocodile-infested rivers, of villagers who risk the disapproval of their elders by sharing their food with these unwanted boys. And though it feels inappropriate to render an aesthetic judgment on Deng’s experience, his quest for safety generates a narrative force to rival anything in Lord of the Rings. The difference is that there are no invisibility cloaks or magic breads here.Things get quieter in the second half, as Deng finds some measure of safety in the refugee camps. But his earlier struggles resonate poignantly in his attempts to contact the father he hasn’t heard from in a decade, and especially in a visit to the relatively prosperous and stable capital city of Kenya. Without ever editorializing, What is the What reminds us of the brutality the world’s millions of impoverished children face daily; how decadent something as simple as a grocery store can look to those who are living on U.N. rice. And calamity continues to bedevil Deng as he waits to be relocated to the U.S. – which will prove to be no promised land.In a rare instance of overt artistic license, Eggers uses the invasion and robbery of Deng’s apartment in Atlanta as a frame for his novel. We return periodically to scenes of Deng being assaulted in his apartment, or filing a police report, or waiting to be treated for his injuries in the ER. His internal monologues – his memories of Africa – are directed at the various characters he meets along the way. For the most part, this device works just fine. We are deprived of the solace of seeing Deng as exotic, someone “over there”; rather, his struggles are ours… and the injustices he faces in America are the ones we perpetrate every day with our impatience, our pettiness, our indifference. And Deng himself is guilty of these human failings. Occasionally, though, Eggers seems to overreach in his transitions between the fictional present and the fictional past, and to milk the robbery too aggressively for suspense. In almost every other particular, however, What is the What‘s formal features merge perfectly with its moral authority, until it is impossible to speak of artistic “choices.” It is equally difficult to analyze the rich relationship the reader develops with Mr. Deng. Like The Known World, and like Deng’s life, the book just is. And that’s about the highest praise I can think of.Eggers has been a fixture on the American literary scene for long enough that it’s easy to forget he’s in his mid-thirties. Like his near-contemporaries Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace, he has occasionally suffered in his writing from a kind of IQ overload, an analysis-paralysis. His second book (and first novel), You Shall Know Our Velocity was not an unqualified success, and some readers have been rubbed the wrong way by the antic quality of his fiction. They may be tempted to write off What is the What, rather than read it. But its large-heartedness is an antidote to such small-mindedness. It takes us deep inside a person we will never forget and heralds the arrival of a writer who has found himself by looking beyond himself, and who has learned the difference between intelligence and wisdom.(All proceeds from What is the What go to aiding the Sudanese in Sudan and America.)
Dogma is the second in a projected trilogy by Lars Iyer. Like its predecessor, Spurious, this book is surreal, brainy, plotless, and arguably pointless. It is also brilliantly written and very funny. The only problem is that, in wondering who else might enjoy it, I couldn’t think of anyone I know to whom I could give an unqualified recommendation. True, that might suggest something about the kind of people I hang around with, but I can’t help noticing that it suggests something about these books too. They’re certainly not for everyone. In fact, I fear that relating to these characters might be a warning — the fading canary in the mental health coalmine.
Dogma, like Spurious, is told entirely through the interactions of Lars and W., a pair of philosophy lecturers and writers locked in a strange semblance of friendship. Though they live on opposite sides of England, they have frequent phone calls, visit each other, and even travel together. Sometimes W.’s girlfriend Sal is in tow, but it’s usually just the two of them, operating like a combination between Waiting for Godot and Withnail and I.
Early on, the men embark on a lecture tour of the southern United States, and it appears for a flickering moment that the book might contain a beginning, middle, and end. Maybe character arcs too. But that plotline goes cold pretty quickly. Iyer isn’t interested in starting in one place and ending up in another. Instead of developing, his characters circle the drain — a fitting arrangement for a pair who obsess about entropy while seemingly doing their best to embody the concept.
They share an incredible inventory of obsessions: the end of the world, the connection between religion and capitalism. They love the mysterious Texan musician Jandek and the slightly less weird Texan musician Josh T. Pearson. W. can’t stop talking about Franz Rosenzweig, and frequently wonders if God’s existence can be proven through higher mathematics read in the original German. They obsess over the relationship between Kafka and Max Brod, the friend who made Kafka posthumously famous, repeatedly asking of themselves and one another which of them might be Kafka to the other’s Brod. W. can’t stop talking about the Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, and, in particular the film Werckmeister Harmonies.
This isn’t merely a list of preoccupations. They’re practically fetishes, ground to be covered again and again. Repetition is somehow key to Iyer’s project. When the men decide to start a new intellectual movement of somewhat unclear underpinnings and call it “Dogma,” W. devises the rules and then repeats them, revising and elaborating on them. The effect of so much repetition is that the sequence of the book — which is divided into many small sections of just a few pages each — is all but irrelevant. Dogma reads almost like a collage, a fitting style for a book more concerned with philosophy than narrative.
Ideas drive everything. Lars and W.’s biggest fear is that they are cursed with the ability to recognize and appreciate important intellectual contributions, but are unable to make significant contributions of their own. Or — somewhat more poignantly — they fear they’ve actually had their great ideas and forgotten them, or that their great ideas passed in conversation without either of them realizing it. The reader is put in the position of wondering the same thing as he reads. Have I missed the point in all this?
Iyer employs the first-person perspective with fantastic flair and originality. The narrator, Lars, reveals himself almost exclusively through the words of his friend and says practically nothing about himself directly. It would be challenging, if not impossible, to find a page in Dogma which does not contain the words “W. says.” This narrative choice is especially interesting given that W.’s primary mode of communication with Lars is scathing criticism, of his weight, his clothes, this apathy, his failure to do good work or to think deeply. In a late scene, W. wishes for Lars to join him at a meeting with his employers, with whom he has developed an adversarial relationship. “Why not take a lawyer, I ask him. He’s allowed to. No, he wants the equivalent of an idiot child, W. says. He wants the equivalent of a diseased ape with scabs round his mouth throwing faeces around the room….Did you see who he had with him?, they’ll say. What he had with him? My God, we shouldn’t make his life any worse: that’s what they’ll say, W. says. And perhaps then they’ll show mercy.” Relentless and very funny, the abuse never seems to bother Lars, who receives it in a state of either bemusement or agreement — it’s never clear which.
When, years ago, Roger Ebert reviewed W.’s favorite movie, Werckmeister Harmonies, he described it as “maddening if you are not in sympathy with it, mesmerizing if you are.” It’s a perfect characterization of Dogma’s protagonists. “We’ve become strange, W. says. We’ve spent too much time in each other’s company… We’re no longer fit for human society, W. says.” He’s almost right, I’m afraid. But not quite. I don’t know who else might like this strange book as much as I did, but, as for me, I can’t wait for the third.
More than once in Half of a Yellow Sun, the latest novel by the young Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a mother learns that her son has died. The causes are in plain sight and the deaths could not be a surprise. The novel is set during the brutal and lopsided civil war which rent Nigeria in the late 1960s, soon after independence from Britain, and it takes place in Biafra, the seceding state, which, we know from the start, does not appear on any map today. The Biafran soldiers fight in tattered clothes and practice with wooden guns carved on the home front. Nigerian fighters control the sky and relief planes can only land at night, without lights, on a darkened runway which is covered over with brush just before landing, and covered over again just after. Biafra’s position is precarious from the start, and while there are heady moments just after independence is declared, the nascent state descends into famine almost overnight.The novel begins, though, in brighter times, the early 1960s, in the afterglow of colonial independence, in the home of Odenigbo, a university intellectual with a taste for long dinner parties and revolutionary talk. Odenigbo has just taken in a houseboy named Ugwu, who comes from a rural village and is entranced upon arrival by the refrigerator, upholstered sofas, and the promise of eating meat everyday. Ugwu insists on calling his new master “sah,” but Odenigbo has an egalitarian streak, defined against the inequity of British rule, and asks that Ugwu call him by his name.Ugwu takes quickly to his new life, cooking pepper pot soup and scrubbing the marble floors, while also attending school and lingering around the political conversation which fires the house each night. He has just settled into a routine when Olanna moves into the house. She is Odenigbo’s lover and girlfriend, the daughter of a wealthy family from Lagos who has repudiated the oligarchic practices of her father. Ugwu is made jealous by the exclusive way Odenigbo looks into Olanna’s eyes and he is stirred by her beauty. At night he pads up to their bedroom door and listens to them make love.The novel alternates in time between the early 1960s and the domestic drama set around a pair of romances – Odenigbo’s with Olanna, and Olanna’s twin sister Kainene’s with a British expatriate named Richard – and the late 1960s when the Biafran war has shattered everything about the characters’ former lives. The two parts don’t harmonize, so much as accent each other. The descriptions of plenty in the early part of the decade, imported brandy and the latest lace from Europe, make the desolation of the war all the more stark and visceral. Soon after Biafra’s declaration of independence, Ugwu, Olanna and Odenigbo flee the advancing Nigerian army and find themselves in an increasingly desperate situation, as internal refugees in a starving land.Although Adichie devotes almost equal time to life before the war and life during it, it is the war narrative that drives the book and gives it a residual strength that I still feel more than week after finishing it. Her description of civilian suffering is so direct and real, that it’s hard to believe she never experienced it herself (Adichie is only 31, and learned about the civil war from her parents who survived it on the Biafran side). As the totality of the war grows on the page, the characters recede somewhat against the tableau of suffering. It’s not so much that they’re neglected, as they are overwhelmed by the events around them. Odenigbo, gregarious and charismatic before the war, draws in on himself as the depredations mount.Yet the net result of so much loss is not a catatonic state of unfeeling, as it often is in barren, dystopic stories like the recent movie Children of Men. Adichie does not offer the consolation of a flower sprouting amidst the rubble, but she does provide that even when we’d rather not, we cannot help but go on sensing, feeling, hurting. Late in the book, a neighbor of Olanna’s learns that her son has been killed in the army. It is just one of many such losses and when Biafran soldiers go off to fight, there is little reason to believe that they’ll come back. But when the mother hears the news, she throws herself to the ground and tosses around in a fit of anguish, cutting herself on the stones. It is a terrible moment, though also one filled with a strange kind of hope. At a time when war threatens to level everything into the ground, her suffering is vibrant.