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.
Jeet Thayil’s debut novel Narcopolis opens in the late ‘70s. The narrator has fallen into trouble in New York City, caught with drugs in his pockets after running from a police officer, shipped to Bombay “to straighten out.” It’s difficult to imagine a place less conducive to straightening out than the 1970s Bombay of this novel, however, and the narrator quickly becomes a regular at Rashid’s opium den, a place where it’s possible to lie still and dream for hours or talk quietly with his fellow addicts. The city is frenetic, but in the opium den time moves very slowly.
There is a certain elegance in the preparation of the pipes, the ceremony of it, and Rashid’s seems for a while to be the ideal place to disappear. “After a while of this,” the narrator says, speaking at a much later point in the book of splashing after someone half-glimpsed on the street during a monsoon, “I lost track of time, I lost myself, which is the reason people like me get into drugs in the first place.”
There are echoes of Roberto Bolaño in the book’s early pages, especially a memorable scene where the narrator attends a talk given by the extravagantly drunk painter Newton Xavier and ends up escorting him back to Rashid’s. Rashid’s is the axle around which Narcopolis revolves, the lens through which Thayil considers the city. Newton Xavier is the hand-off; he arrives in the story from the perspective of the narrator, and then goes off alone with someone else as the story shifts into the third person and Thayil begins to follow the stories of the other denizens of Rashid’s.
To my eye, the most captivating of these is the unfortunately-named Dimple, a young eunuch who identifies mostly as a woman and wears women’s clothing. Her mother gave her to a priest when she was still a boy, and the priest sold her to a brothel. She works at the opium den part-time, at first; evenings are given over to the brothel. She is on an endless search for knowledge and beauty. She has taught herself to speak English, and is teaching herself to read. When she takes over the story, the shift is so gentle that it takes some time for the reader to realize that the narrator has faded into the background and hasn’t been seen in some time. The book is that structural oddity, a first-person narration with a (mostly) absent narrator, a story that switches quickly to the third person and stays there for most of the duration.
Narcopolis is concerned largely with Dimple and her unlikely friendship with the elderly Mr. Lee, a refugee whose upbringing in Maoist China is described in some of the book’s most harrowing chapters. Mr. Lee gives Dimple her first hit of opium when she’s brought to him suffering from back pain. The predictable addiction sets in—in the immortal words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you” — and in the years and decades following the day when the narrator first meets Dimple, opium is replaced by garad heroin from Pakistan and the scene grows exponentially darker. The drugs change, the city changes, and through a span of several decades Thayil follows his characters’ marginalized lives. His characters, he wrote in an author’s note, “were the marginalized, the poor, the degraded, the crushed, whose voices were unheard or forgotten, but whose lives were as deserving of honor as anyone else’s.” He never looks down on his characters.
There were moments when I found myself wishing for more story told from the perspective of the narrator, or at least a clearer understanding of who he was. The story isn’t really his and it doesn’t need to be, and yet, who was this man? He’s a bit of a ghost. He’s less interesting than the other characters, but only, I suspect, because we never know him very well.
Thayil is a poet, and it shows in the prose, which contains countless moments of great beauty. His debut is an unsettling portrait of a seething city, a beautifully-written meditation on addiction, sex, friendship, dreams, and murder. It’s a simultaneously brutal and beautiful work, dreamlike without ever being sentimental or vague or soft-hearted. Narcopolis is a truly impressive achievement.
I.A man is condemned to a small room in a castle in a land that is not his own. A thousand typewritten pages cover the desk before him. Each of the thousand pages recounts two hundred murders. The man will not be released until he has read every word of every cold-blooded killing, and has made sure that every comma and period is in place.For the average North American, this scenario probably reads like a Kafkan parable, or one of Stanislav Lem’s thought-experiments. In Central America, however (where, the joke goes, “magical realism” is just called “realism”), it might pass for a news item. Indeed, in the cathedral of Guatemala City in 1998, a thousand-page document very much like the one above was presented to the public. It was the work of the church-backed Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica (REMHI) project, and it recorded in meticulous detail the Guatemalan Army’s reign of terror during a 30-year Civil War. Two days after its release, Bishop Juan Gerardi, who spearheaded the effort, was found beaten to death in his own garage.Now two of our most talented writers – the Guatemalan-American Francisco Goldman and the Salvadoran Horacio Castellanos Moya – have trained their sights on this singular event. The resulting books are, in many ways, a study in contrasts: one is long where the other is short; one is factual where the other is fictional. Taken together, though, they offer a contour map of Central American politics, a shadowland where the borders between the state and the individual, between the nightmarish and the quotidian, and between narrative and truth threaten to disappear entirely.II.Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed The Bishop? takes a journalistic approach to the slaying of Bishop Gerardi. Through eight years of painstaking reporting, Goldman confirms that Gerardi’s murder was in fact an assassination, and he reconstructs the plot in forensic detail. Unlike Goldman’s three novels, The Art of Political Murder takes a meat-and-potatoes approach to language; the book’s real art lies in its narrative structure. It builds its case in widening circles, implicating layer upon layer of bureaucracy. The cumulative effect is like Rashomon – every time we return to the central murder, we see it from a new angle – except that, with each reiteration, Goldman is bringing us closer to the truth.He is also, not incidentally, taking us on a tour of Guatemalan history. It turns out that the horrors documented in the REMHI report were not as remote from the metropole as they seem. They were facilitated, like parallel campaigns in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras, by funds and personnel from the U.S. government. We learn here of the United Fruit Company’s machinations in the Kennedy cabinet, and of the double-dealing of later presidents. We learn of the bureaucratic intricacies of Guatemala’s security apparatus, which persisted even after the negotiated peace of 1996. Really, Goldman concludes, the military campaign never ended.In many ways, the legal battle over the Gerardi case turns out to be a proxy war, a struggle for control of the historical record that pits the people of Guatemala against the Army’s powerful officer corps. Goldman’s political sympathies are clear: he stands with the supporters of REMHI; the military men who plot against them are portrayed as soulless killers. But confined to the hothouse of Guatemalan politics, this struggle between good and evil takes on the urgency of a thriller, and the moral grandeur of opera.III.Like Goldman, Horacio Castellanos Moya writes about the REMHI report from first-hand experience; unlike Goldman’s, his experience predates the Gerardi murder. The months he spent editing human rights documents in Guatemala might have made for an interesting memoir, but in Senselessness, Castellanos Moya is apparently after something more. In 140 trenchant pages, he crafts an intimate first-person account of the psychological toll state-sponsored terror exacts on witnesses as well as victims.Like the late Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard (at least in Castellanos Moya’s memorable formulation), the narrator of Senselessness “is a snake. He has rattles. He has poison.” But here Castellanos Moya bends the long Bernhardian prose line to his own purposes. His sentences (in Katharine Silver’s sinuous translation) coil through registers and tenses:Life is marvelous, I exclaimed to myself, about three hours later, marveling at the sight of [a girl]… about whom I knew so little until that moment and who was about to become the object of my attentions but also those of half a dozen indolent beasts drinking beer in the Modelo Cevichería, a kind of food kiosk with a few plastic chairs squeezed onto one side of the small plaza in front of the Conservatory, half a dozen beasts among whom I ought to include myself a bit shamefacedly and who were stupefied and drooling as they stared at the two girls crossing the street in front of the Conservatory and approaching down the sidewalk toward the cevichería. It also registers the uncertainty and insecurity (“a bit shamefacedly”) behind the imperious voice.The narrator’s emotional and syntactical excesses are in constant tension with the novel’s spare architecture: we get a setting scrubbed of identifying markers – it could be any Central American capital – and very few actual characters. In place of any real plot, Castellanos Moya gives us a growing sense that the narrator is losing his mind.The proximate cause of his breakdown is the haunting language of the report he is editing. Phrases from the testimony of the war’s survivors lodge in his mind like burrs, but he is unable to communicate their poetic power to the Guatemalans around him, who appear inured to horror. As he meditates privately on his lines of found poetry – “That is my brother, he’s gone crazy from all the fear he has said“; “For me remembering, it feels like I am living it once more” – his sexual frustration, misanthropy, and paranoia converge and threaten to engulf him. And then, in an unnerving conclusion we come to see that the narrator’s blackest intimations may in fact be evidence of sanity.North of the border, we now tend to confuse literary gravity with literal weight. Our most serious novels are doorstoppers. But Senselessness, like Roberto Bolaño’s Distant Star (or, from the 1980s, Humberto Constantini’s The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis), reminds us that the short novel has a heft of its own. It will be interesting to see in the coming years what North American writers can learn from their colleagues south of the border. The region’s recent history may be a kind of charnel-house, but it has forged a generation of writers who synthesize political conviction and aesthetic bravura, on canvases small and large.
There is so much I wish I could unknow about Emma Cline and her debut novel The Girls. I wish, for instance, that I didn’t know Cline was 25 when she sold the book, or that Random House paid a reported $2 million-plus for it as part of a three-book deal. I wish, too, that it weren’t so obvious that the cult that Cline’s narrator, Evie Boyd, joins in the novel is based on the Manson Family, whose senseless 1969 rampage at the home of Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate has been the subject of countless books and documentaries. Finally, I wish Cline hadn’t chosen to tell the story in the retrospective first person, both because the heavy-handed foreshadowing in the framing story kills any lingering doubt over what’s going to happen, but also because Cline’s narrative voice is so much smarter and more emotionally aware than the girl she’s writing about that it’s often hard to believe they’re the same person.
Cline is a gifted stylist, and her subject is a sensational one, which is no doubt why her editors saw in The Girls the potential for a breakout literary thriller like Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics or Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. But I fear New York publishing has jumped the gun here. The weight of expectation that comes with the headline-grabbing book advance combined with Cline’s inexperience as novelist cancels out the many flashes of fine writing in The Girls, leaving the reader wishing this talented young writer had been allowed to develop slowly, under the radar, instead of being showered with cash and pre-publicity before her craft had caught up to her prodigious gifts.
Those gifts are on display in the novel’s perfectly realized opening scene when Evie first sees the female acolytes of the Charlie Manson stand-in, here called Russell Hadrick, in the summer of 1969. The scene unfolds like the opening shot of a 1970s art-house thriller, all saturated color and sinuous slow-motion, as Evie watches the scruffy, long-haired girls saunter through a suburban picnic, seeming to “glide above all that was happening around them, tragic and separate. Like royalty in exile.”
Evie, a lonely 14-year-old whose parents are divorcing, is mesmerized by the girls’ mix of grunginess and hauteur, noticing how “a ripple of awareness followed them through the park.
The sun spiked through the trees like always — the drowsy willows, the hot wind gusting over the picnic blankets — but the familiarity of the day was disturbed by the path the girls cut across the regular world. Sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water.
The novel begins to sag soon after this bravura start, though it takes a while to figure that out because Cline writes so well even when there isn’t much going on. Cline sometimes tries too hard and she might want to dial down the reflexive sentence fragments, but she has a natural’s eye for the telling detail, the single image that makes a character indelible: a girl with a “face as blank as a spoon,” a smarmy young drug runner whose “upper-class upbringing kicked in like a first language.” A few pages later, Cline nails the look of the late-1960s Haight-Ashbury in one pitch-perfect sentence: “Everyone was healthy, tan, and heavy with decoration, and if you weren’t, that was a thing, too — you could be some moon creature, chiffon over lamp shades, on a kitchari cleanse that stained all your dishes with turmeric.”
But whatever they may say in MFA programs these days, a novel is more than the sum of its sentences. For much of the first 100 pages, before Evie gets caught up in Russell’s cult, The Girls is a glacially slow tale of a lonely teenager struggling to come to terms with her parents’ divorce. Here and there the social and political freakiness of the Vietnam-era 1960s penetrates Evie’s cocoon-like suburban existence, but for far too long the book reads like a well-written but underplotted Judy Blume novel.
One plods through this familiar territory waiting for the shock of Evie’s immersion into the cult, only to find oneself once again dropped into a world that all too neatly matches one’s expectations. Cline has combined a few of the real-life characters for narrative simplicity, and moved the group’s base of operations from a ranch north of Los Angeles to a ranch north of San Francisco, but in every other way she has simply inserted the fictional Evie as a minor player in the true-crime story of the Manson Family.
Here we have Russell/Charlie, a scuzzy Flower Power Wizard of Oz in buckskins and bare feet yammering on about free love and emancipation from straight-world hangups while dreaming of being a rock star. Here we have an actual rock star, Mitch Lewis, based on Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, who befriended Manson and introduced him to music producers that Manson thought would make him a star. And most important of all, we have the teenage girls who idolize Russell/Charlie, sleep with him, cook and clean up after him — and ultimately kill for him.
Cline is very good on the heady concoction of big-sister admiration and suppressed sexual longing that draws Evie to one of these girls, Suzanne Parker. If she had distilled the relationship between these two — one a lost, love-hungry suburban teen, the other a knowing, manipulative would-be murderer — into a taut short story, or else deviated from the Manson Family script to carry Evie and Suzanne’s relationship to its logical conclusion, perhaps Cline could have added some fresh perspective on one of the most exhaustively documented crimes in American history. As it is, by hewing to the history of the Manson murders, and tossing in Evie as an innocent bystander, Cline manages only a pallid fictional retelling of a famous story that readers can get in more vivid form in Jeff Guinn’s excellent 2013 biography Manson or prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 true-crime classic Helter Skelter.
Younger readers, for whom the turbulent ’60s are as distant and exotic as World War II is to a Gen Xer like me, may not be as put off by the second-hand quality of the historical material in The Girls. But even readers who know nothing about the Manson murders and the period that gave rise to them may wonder whether Evie’s decisions make emotional sense. Why would this bright, ordinary kid run off to a commune where the girls scavenge trash out of dumpsters and where on her first night she’s forced to give a blow job to the filthy little twerp who runs the place?
This, of course, is one of the enduring mysteries of the real Manson story. Many of Manson’s followers were ordinary suburban kids, and one, Leslie Van Houten, who was recently cleared for parole after 47 years in prison for the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, was famously a homecoming queen. But beneath this veneer of ordinariness, according to Guinn’s Manson, Van Houten was, like most of Manson’s followers, caught up in the madness of the ’60s, dropping acid in high school and running away at age 17 to the Haight.
This ultimately is what is most glaringly absent from The Girls, the deep gash in the societal fabric that swallowed up a generation of troubled kids. In 1969, America was losing a bloody war in Vietnam. The inner cities were exploding. Drugs and sex were everywhere. College kids were going underground to declare war on the United States, and high school kids were burning their draft cards and heading to San Francisco. In that atmosphere, which is curiously missing from Cline’s much-hyped debut, Manson’s apocalyptic ravings about a coming race war that would cleanse the planet of everyone but his followers could sound almost mainstream.
I bought Brotherly Love, a discounted, yet signed, copy from the remaindered section of the bookstore where I used to work. At the time I was enamored by Pete Dexter, whose books Train and Paris Trout I had recently read. Both of those books are spare and menacing, at times brutally violent, but done in a masterful way. Brotherly Love is like those books, but to call the book spare is an understatement. Dexter takes his time – most of the book, really – fleshing out the main characters, cousins Peter and Michael Flood from a Philadelphia gangster family. As the plot slowly develops – or comes to a boil, one might say – it becomes clear that Peter wants out. But of course, Michael and his band of hoods keep dragging him back in. In Brotherly Love, Dexter doesn’t quite plumb the emotional depths of his characters as he does so effectively in Paris Trout and Train, and the reader is left with a book that feels empty and characters that feel doomed from page one.