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.
Driving south into Miami-Dade County is less scenic than you might expect. Decades of Floridian sprawl have resulted in long, sun-bleached stretches of asphalt punctuated by industrial supply centers, physical therapy clinics, outlet malls, Waffle Houses, Pollo Tropicals, and strip clubs. The anticipated visuals – palm trees, beaches, flashy hotels, and the ocean – are blocked all along I-95 by tall concrete embankments that keep cars away from oak-less subdivisions called Highland Oaks, Rolling Oaks, or Woodlands. Long are the miles spent enduring such non-views; longer still in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
For this reason, I recommend flying into the city at night. As your plane descends from the West, you can peer out your window. What you’ll see at first is nothing: endless blackness in every direction, a sight so rare in some parts of this country that its effect at first is jarring. Am I over the ocean? You aren’t. This is the Everglades, the swamp so gnarly it dissuaded four centuries of settlers from staying put. It’s the defining geography of South Florida, the subtropical “River of Grass” stretched like a permanent, slow-moving membrane over half the state’s limestone shelf. [To see for yourself, click the “left” arrow a couple times on this map.]
After a few moments, the darkness abruptly gives way to a line of neon city lights, a literal demarcation of where wilderness was beaten back by the Army Corps of Engineers. Now your airplane is a few hundred feet above well-lit and densely populated ground – ground that a mile previous was nothing more than mud and mangrove. From no other vantage point can someone as quickly realize that Miami is a city that shouldn’t be here, an enclave carved out from Mother Nature and cut off from its surroundings. Truly, it’s the Magic City.
Culturally, Miami also exists as a world apart from the rest of its own state, the rest of its own nation. The further south one travels in Florida, the further north one feels politically. After all, it’s in the northern regions where you’ll find Quran-burning pastors, pro-abortion billboards, xenophobes, and megachurches. The north gave us Tim Tebow. By contrast, the southern regions are where international relations matter more than American elections, where most residents actually know the difference between “socialism” and “Communism,” where gay pride is evident, and where you probably won’t get that promotion if you can’t speak Spanish. Early in Tom Wolfe’s new novel Back to Blood, a bout of road rage lays bare this separatist feel. “SPEAK ENGLISH, YOU PATHETIC IDIOT! YOU’RE IN AMERICA NOW!” shouts an exasperated “anglo” who’s just been cut off on the road. “No, mía malhablada puta gorda,” replies her Cuban adversary. “We een Mee-ah-mee now! You een Mee-ah-mee now!”
Back to Blood is obsessed with cultural abrasion, with the way different classes and races vie for power in a city whose largest demographic is composed not so much of a single nationality as, instead, confederations of “non-Americans” pitted against an eroding white hegemony. Dionisio Cruz, the city’s fictive Cuban mayor, sums it up nicely:
“Miami is the only city in the world, as far as I can tell — in the world — whose population is more than fifty percent recent immigrants…recent immigrants, immigrants from over the past fifty years…and that’s a hell of a thing, when you think about it. […] I was talking to a woman about this the other day, a Haitian lady, and she says to me, ‘Dio, if you really want to understand Miami, you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody.’”
Dutifully, Wolfe does his best to display these conflicts. In the novel’s first chapter, we meet our hero, Nestor Camacho, a strapping Cuban cop working as a marine patrolman. On this day, he’s tasked with arresting a Cuban refugee who’s boarded a party yacht in Biscayne Bay. Real federal legislation dictates that Cuban refugees are granted admission and amnesty in the United States if and only if they reach dry land before being captured; if accosted at sea, they’re sent packing. (For Haitians, Nicaraguans, Dominicans, and other groups — all of which are deported no matter how long they’ve been here — this is, justifiably, a touchy source of resentment.)
Unfortunately for Nestor, the arrest becomes a citywide cause célèbre, and the next day he finds himself on the front page of both the English-language Miami Herald (favorably) and the Spanish-language Nuevo Herald (unfavorably). His family is none too pleased. For most Cubans residing in South Florida, there is only one thing more reprehensible than Fidel Castro’s regime: prohibiting escape from it. (Miami’s Cuban demographics have traditionally voted Republican ever since John F. Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco.) As a result, Nestor’s family and peers, sympathetic with the will to flee their native island, all but disown the young cop and brand him a traidor.
But that’s not all. In the subsequent seven hundred pages — for which, reportedly, Wolfe was paid about $10,000 per — readers get glimpses of many more racial imbroglios. Nestor himself hits another racial flashpoint when a de-contextualized YouTube video emerges of him choking out a black drug dealer. We get glimpses of the love/hate relationship between the Haitian and African-American communities; the way corruption and wealth buy access to the upper echelons of “legitimate” society; the way white social strivers manipulate one another to attain superficial status; and, finally, how Miami exists for the privileged as a Will Smith video and for the poor as anything but.
This is “a book on immigration,” Wolfe told The New York Times in 2008, but that’s not really true. This is a book on belonging, and each character seeks it in a different way. Nestor wants his family to accept the fact that he was merely taking orders on that boat. His ex-girlfriend, Magdalena Otero, a psychiatric nurse who’s dating her upper-crust “anglo” boss, wants to belong anywhere but her hometown of Hialeah. Her boss, Dr. Norman Lewis, wants desperately to belong atop Miami’s money-based status pyramid. John Smith, the whitest white dude ever conceived, wants his boat-shoe-wearing, Yale Eli self to be accepted in the Miami Herald newsroom, where his boss, Edward Topping IV, a fellow Eli, wants nothing more than to belong to the Miami in-crowd of socialites and rich men. The Haitian-born Lantier, a French literature professor at Florida International University — err, “Everglades Global University” — wants badly for his children to belong to any culture except for one that speaks Creole.
At 81 years old, Wolfe still practices the on-the-ground reporting he’s always prescribed. I was twenty-two months old when he published his Harper’s essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast (PDF),” an entreaty for American novelists to emphasize realism. In The Bonfire of the Vanities, when Wolfe was on top of his game, he incisively depicted a sliver of New York City’s 1980s decadence with the nostalgic accuracy of a Polaroid snapshot. However since then total immersion has proved more and more elusive and his recent novels have been marred by generational misunderstandings, clueless errors, political prejudices, and unfortunate, altogether creepy portrayals of women and youth. This descent is evidenced by his latest imitations of rap lyrics. I Am Charlotte Simmons subjected us to: “Short’s Johnson, he go roamin’ / Homey’s jeans a his is packin’ heat / Inside that cracker jack’s own home, an’ / Bottom lady wants ‘at sweet dark meat.”
Fortunately, Wolfe has done some more homework this time. While his rap lyrics haven’t improved (“Caliente! Caliente, baby. / Got plenty fuego in yo caja china / Means you needs a length a Hose put in it, / Ain’ no maybe —”), he has apparently grasped Miami more firmly than he could grasp the American university system. Real places and legitimate commentary are sprinkled throughout the novel like cocaine in a South Beach bathroom. One of Wolfe’s Cuban characters correctly describes Hialeah and its vicinity (Dade County’s most overwhelmingly Latin neighborhoods) as being similar to “Singapore or Taiwan or Hong Kong” in that it’s a sort of free enclave within another country. Other actual Miami institutions are depicted satirically and accurately, such as the trendy and porn-soaked Wynwood Art Walk, the decadent Art Basel festival, and the orgiastic Columbus Day Regatta. (Don’t Google image search that last one if you’re at work.) Wolfe nails the power structure that keeps Miami mired in inertia: the political reality that, just as too many cooks can spoil a broth, too many interest groups can stall a city.
As for his exhortation to emphasize the real over the imagined: Wolfe demonstrates his abilities here as well. In a refreshing bit of contemporary insight – and as a contrast to Jonathan Franzen’s improbably technophobic college students in Freedom – the young people in this novel send one another texts, tweets, and “Instagrams” on their iPhones. Real musicians like Pitbull, Shakira, Rihanna, and, hysterically, LMFAO are name-checked. Somebody said to be getting “white boy wasted” (!!!) has “Wild Ones” as their cell’s ring tone. At one point, a police boat is described as “the Ugly Betty of boatbuilding.”
However despite these superficial accuracies, the novel is ultimately tripped up by the banal. Compared to their vibrant setting, Wolfe’s characters and plot details are predictable and flat. We learn scarcely anything about Nestor’s motivations and interests, only that he likes to tinker with cell phone ringtones. Magdalena is an enigma: a college-educated psychiatric nurse who doesn’t know the difference between a “logotherapist” and a “pill therapist,” and who doesn’t understand the words “cutting-edge,” “invests,” “extortionist,” or “penthouse,” yet does somehow know the word “czar.” Some characters are introduced (like Edward Topping’s wife) only to be completely forgotten later on. Almost every male character is a hulking, powerful wall of muscle. Almost every female character is a vivacious Latina in tight clothes. One of them even refers to doing the deed as “giving [the guy] some papaya.” (Ugh.)
What’s worse, though, is that the city Wolfe depicts isn’t the full Miami. It’s instead limited by Wolfe’s own perspective: that of a wealthy, conservative anglo. It was T. D. Allman, author of Miami: City of the Future, who wrote that “practically everything everyone says about [Miami], both good and bad, is true.” But is it still true to depict a Miami with only one African-American character? Is it still true if you set only one scene in Overtown, a black neighborhood once known as “Colored Town” but renamed following the construction of the Dolphin Expressway literally “over” the entire area? (That scene, by the way, takes place in a crack house.) Is it still true if you set the novel during the tail end of hurricane season, but fail to mention any rainfall?
It shouldn’t have to be this way. In other American cities, like Burlington or Austin, residents implore one another to “Keep [City Name] Weird.” In South Florida, these calls would be superfluous. Perhaps it’s the lack of a state income tax, or perhaps it’s to be expected from a state founded by hustlers, degenerates, and outlaws, but this place is a veritable treasure chest of weird. Hell, they eat people’s faces here. They overdose on bugs. They alternately molest and cockblock manatees. Wolfe, who loves realism, should’ve been able to uncover these things and more. He should’ve been able to build his novel on the framework of real weird (real interesting) details instead of on things that could take place anywhere: art forgeries, love triangles, and social apprehension. He should’ve been able to give us the Miami you’d encounter if you actually lived here, not the Miami you’d encounter only if your research consisted of Scarface and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which is surprising because his guides seem like they were totally capable and qualified. Instead, I suspect Wolfe was caught up in the same trap as the writers of Treme. He seems compelled to check off the boxes of Miami sightseeing without ever delving into what created those sights; he seems to favor the granular detail in place of the overarching narrative, the historical context.
Perhaps one reason for this superficiality is the author’s apparent distraction. Distracted by what? Let this series of rhapsodies – off-putting on their own, but doubly so when you think of the “on-the-ground” reporting that went into this book – answer that question:
Wolfe on women in shorts: “‘Attractive’ barely began to describe the way he felt! Such nice tender legs the two girls had! Such short little short shorts! So short, they could shed them just like that. In an instant they could lay bare their juicy little loins and perfect little cupcake bottoms!”
Wolfe on women in jeans: “Their jeans hugged their declivities fore and aft, entered every crevice, explored every hill and dale of their lower abdomens, climbed their montes veneris.”
Wolfe on women in bathing suits: “Wisps of thong bikini bottoms that didn’t even cover the mons pubis…Tops consisting of two triangles of cloth that hid the nipples but left the rest of the breasts bulging on either side and beckoning, Want more?”
Wolfe on a female stripper: “Her tail is thrust up like a bonobo’s or a chimpanzee’s toward John Smith, offering a full view of the perineum and its forbidden folds, crevices, cracks, clefts, cloven melons, alluring labia, gonophores — the entire fleshy arc.”
The novel’s only actual sex scene: “But then the tips of her breasts became erect on their own, and the flood in her loins washed morals, despair, and all other abstract assessments away in a cloud of some sort of divine cologne of his. Now his big generative jockey was inside her pelvic saddle, riding, riding, riding, and she was eagerly swallowing it swallowing it swallowing it with the saddle’s own lips and maw — all without a word.”
The phrases “lissome legs” and “lubricous loins” are repeated more times than I cared to count. Some of them even take place on my alma mater’s campus, and I shudder at the thought of Wolfe’s gaze stalking the UC Breezeway. I could go on, but you get the idea. It’s disappointing when these bits are so vivid and yet the Miami sun is described as a “big heat lamp in the sky” more than four times.
I dislike savage reviews, and I did not set out to write one about this book, which I genuinely looked forward to reading. I remember loving The Pump-House Gang when I read it in high school. To this day I can recall Wolfe’s description of the door to the Playboy Mansion, how its Latin inscription read, “Si Non Oscillas, Noli Tintinnare” (“if you don’t swing, don’t ring”). But now part of me wonders, were I to reread that book, would I enjoy it as much? Is Wolfe’s writing only appealing to young boys – or perhaps older boys with the minds of young boys? Is there really any shame in liking this style of writing, or is it just a matter of personal taste? I cannot say for certain, but I can say that those seeking a deeper understanding or an accurate depiction of the city of Miami would be better-served by books different from this one.
As a starting point, and because when it comes to Miami, truth is better than fiction, I would recommend John Rothchild’s Up For Grabs, a personal memoir as much as a rollicking trip through South Florida’s outrageous history. Rothchild recounts the way the state’s first American settlers evolved from a cavalcade of land and mineral speculators into mobsters, rumrunners, “pot haulers,” escaped Latin American political players and Cocaine Cowboys. This is the book I wanted to read when I started Wolfe’s novel.
I would also recommend, for a more flatly historical perspective, a double shot of Michael Grunwald’s The Swamp and Arva Moore Parks’s Miami: The Magic City. Both books cover the geological and human histories that make South Florida and Miami unique. Neither one dwells on its inhabitants’ “declivities.”
When I was a kid, I read People magazine. I mean read it. As in every week. A couple of years into my subscription, I could name the husbands of Elizabeth Taylor, the number of cars owned by Jay Leno, the blood-type of every member of the house of Windsor. Weirdly, People also taught me a lot about serial killers.This was during the era of Jeffrey Dahmer and Hannibal Lecter, and in between its celebrity puff pieces and heartwarming tales of uplift, People lingered voyeuristically over every lurid detail of every serial killing, real or imaginary, from Florida to Alaska. Even now the names are coming back to me. Ted Bundy. Aileen Wuornos. You know: People. Especially compelling, for a ten-year-old (and, apparently, for everyone else who read People) was any whiff of weird sex. Of course, from a ten-year-old’s point of view, all sex is weird sex. As all violence and loneliness and pathology seem obscurely familiar. But anyway, I gobbled this serial-killer stuff up like Halloween candy, though I knew I shouldn’t. And, as with the candy I’d stashed throughout my room, my People binges would leave me feeling sick to my stomach and rotten inside.I was doing a pretty good job repressing this, my brief and shameful fascination with serial killers, until last week, when I read Robert Graysmith’s Zodiac Unmasked. I had just seen David Fincher’s scrupulous movie about the Zodiac killer who terrorized Northern California in the early 70s. My engagement with this movie was (I thought) deep, thoughtful, moral… not at all voyeuristic or creepy or weird. Then on the way home I had to go and buy Graysmith’s book, one of the sources for the movie. I read 450 pages in just over 24 hours.I cannot with any confidence say that this is not the worst book I’ve ever read. Line by line, paragraph by paragraph, Robert Graysmith’s sequel to his bestselling Zodiac is itself a crime-scene: missing transitions, felony-grade solecisms, metaphors even more overwrought than this one, interspersed with anxious self-congratulation. It is the anti-In Cold Blood. Which makes it all the more mysterious that I couldn’t put it down.One explanation is that Graysmith essentially turns the killings into a dime detective novel, gaming the material for suspense.Another possible explanation lies in all the ways the Zodiac killings do not resemble detective novels. The clues do not line up to point in a single direction (despite Graysmith’s best efforts). Every pattern is broken. The puzzle-solving part of the mind, frustrated, cannot let go of the crime, even if the moral sense longs to. Thus we run over the facts again and again, hoping that this time, they will yield some proof and we can relax again.The brilliance of Fincher’s movie is that it dramatizes this compulsion onscreen. Jake Gyllenhaal, as cartoonist-cum-gumshoe Graysmith, offers an objective portrait of our corrosive fascination with violence. In the grip of his obsession, he resembles a ten-year old (which may explain why Graysmith writes like one). In the book, by contrast, the real Graysmith effaces himself; we are left to feel the sickly fascination ourselves. Maybe this is the more honest approach. Still, I prefer the clinical lens to the pornographic one. Fincher himself, in a couple of early scenes (as in much of his earlier work), stoops to aestheticism. But if a distressingly well-crafted murder scene lowers a veil between the audience and the victim, what can we say about a sentence like “Only the most extreme adversity could prevent this prophet of death from gloating over the proliferation of his obscene word?”Ultimately, the movie Zodiac felt more like an adaptation of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song than of Graysmith’s Zodiac writings. Like Mailer, Fincher is interested in murder as a window into human nature. And like Mailer, Fincher is as interested in the traumatized bystanders as he is in his killer. It may not be easy, watching Zodiac or reading The Executioner’s Song, to get over the creepy feeling of being compelled by the suffering of others. But at least these made me think about that feeling. Zodiac Unmasked just let me feel it.
There are three worlds in The Curfew: the unsettling police state in which William and his 8-year-old daughter Molly live, the shared world of games, riddles, and sadness that William and Molly create together, and the world through Molly’s eyes as she tries to reconcile the first two.
That first world was formed when the government was overthrown, quietly, overnight. “An ordinary nation… had gone to sleep one night and woken the next morning to find in the place of the old government an invisible state, with its own concerns, difficulties, cruelties, injustices. Everything was strictly controlled and maintained, so much so that it was possible, within certain bounds, to pretend nothing had changed at all.” In this new state, the government and the police were unseen. The mysterious disappearances of suspected rebels are the chief proof of their existence. In return, those suspected of being the secret police, or police informers, are in danger of being killed in broad daylight – shot on the sidewalk, pushed in front of a bus – by a seething citizenry.
Brief, unremarked-upon episodes of violence are therefore frequent, as the government and its resistors wage anonymous war on the street, and the rest of the population try to stay out of the way. The book opens with the sound of a gunshot outside William and Molly’s home, which they sleep through.
William is a former violinist, now an epitaphorist, employed by a mason to visit families of the dead and collaborate on the epitaph for the gravestone. He is no longer a violinist because music is forbidden, and because his wife mysteriously disappeared, and there’s no point in inviting more trouble when he’s the only one left to take care of Molly.
Their life together is William’s attempt at an antidote to Molly’s bleak childhood — motherless, a student at a school where she is “told repeatedly to repeat things,” and increasingly aware of the bizarre violence around her. It’s a familiar tale — a parent trying to shelter their child from the harshest reality, knowing that everything they want for their child’s life is unavailable, and having to compensate. William is Molly’s guardian, teacher, and only friend. They spend their evenings playing logic games and solving riddles. In this world bereft of any candor, even this feels subversive. “Is it possible, wonders Molly, for the finest things to be hidden? To be hidden and never shared?”
Much of Ball’s writing takes place in worlds that are slightly off, where the rules of society have been changed, and both the characters in these worlds and we, the readers, aren’t entirely clear what the new rules are. I’ve never felt oriented in one of Ball’s novels, but I’m quite sure I’m not meant to. When you’re in one of these muddled worlds, and something authentic happens – a daughter solves her father’s riddle, or two friends meet on the street – it shines like a beacon.
Ball cultivates these quiet moments for us to see. When William asks bereaved families what they want as their loved one’s epitaph, he always ignores their first suggestion, like “rest in peace” or “dutiful son.” If he sits and waits, the unique details and talents come out, and he’ll eventually add “friend of cats” or “could skin a pig in the dark.” (N.B. One of the men he visits, who wants to decide on his own epitaph before his death, is named Stan Milgram. Stanley Milgram was a noted social psychologist who conducted a famous experiment on people’s ability to torture each other.)
One day, as William is walking from one appointment to the next, he “passed through several alleys, which were themselves connected to other alleys. Here, the backs of things could be seen, unrepaired, unconstructed, unrepentant. Still, one was watched.” In The Curfew, everything and everyone has a hidden life incongruous with the conformity of the police state. One assumes that this is their sustenance, and they’ll make do with it. But one day William runs into someone who claims to have information about the disappearance of his wife. William can meet him later, to collect this information, but he’d be leaving Molly alone, and breaking the curfew.
At this point in the novel, the narration shifts to Molly’s point of view. As William risks his and Molly’s existence in order to learn the truth, we are re-introduced to their lives through her eyes, emphasizing the fact that if William’s risk turns foul, hers will be the only perspective left.
The Curfew is a refracted book, showing that each person is several different stories, depending on who’s looking. As such, it’s a book that evades rational conclusion. But, as someone says to Molly, “The effect of irrational beliefs on your art is invaluable. You must shepherd and protect them.”
See Also: The Millions Interview: Jesse Ball
It’s not surprising that it took more than 50 years after his death, for the works of the Dutch writer Nescio to be translated and published in America. It wasn’t until after WWII that he gained any notoriety in the Netherlands and he only became a beloved member of the Dutch canon posthumously. As Joseph O’Neill, author of Netherland, writes in his introduction to Amsterdam Stories, the first collection of Nescio’s work to appear in America, “[Nescio] wrote very little, and he wrote small.” His longest work is 42 pages long. His entire published oeuvre, including editor’s notes and some unpublished fragments, fits in this 161 page volume. Nescio wrote in a handful of years between 1909 and 1942 and almost nothing in the 1920s and 1930s.
Nescio (Latin for “I don’t know”) was the pen name of Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh. After briefly falling in with a circle of ambitious artistic youths and applying to join a colony in the Dutch countryside founded by psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden, Grönloh committed himself to a business career in 1904. He married in 1906 and immediately began fathering children, eventually having four daughters. After a series of minor office jobs, he ended up working for the Holland-Bombay Trading company, becoming its director in 1926 and, O’Neill points out, “a notably demanding and severe boss.” Grönloh was as bourgeoisie as could be. What little he published, he published under a pen name to protect his career as a proper Dutch businessman.
Conventional Dutch life wasn’t the only drain on Nescio’s writing time. His first love was not writing, but walking. O’Neill writes, “At a very early age he fell in love with taking walks and as a nine-year old began to go on solitary outings, making written records of his impressions.” In 1899 alone, he walked 522 kilometers. He maintained this relationship with the Dutch landscape for the rest of his life and it became a center of gravity in his work. Remove the time at the office, on a walk, attending one of the social engagements directors of major trading firms were expected to attend, and fulfilling familial obligations, and there just wasn’t much time to write. That J.H.F. Grönloh, the successful businessman, had a writing hobby is not surprising; that Nescio is a brilliant writer is shocking. As O’Neill asks, “How many important artists have been such slight practitioners?” Given how few works in translation are read in America, in general, it is a miracle Nescio got here at all.
Nescio should have gotten here long ago. His work converged with many aspects of American literature and culture. The ragtag circle of artists at the center of his stories could have hung out with Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty. His eco-spirituality could have inspired the hippies and early environmentalists. Fans of our great walker Thoreau would have found a kindred spirit. Whenever Rimbaud showed up in coffee shops, clubs, and cocktail parties, Nescio could have been his shadow. But Nescio’s absence from our literature is most surprising because of the crushing beauty of his work.
Many of you have been waiting for Amsterdam Stories; those of you who reread “For Esmé – with Love and Squalor,” who had (or have) world changing dreams and no longer know what to do or believe or feel about them, who aren’t sure what to think when sitting in coffee shops watching people walk by, who don’t know what to say when you see an old friend for the first time in years and realize how much you have changed by how much your friend has changed. Who love long walks. Who love sitting by lakes, ponds, and rivers. Who want brave and beautiful stories. Who want fiction to remind us why this is important.
Nescio examines painters, writers, poets, and thinkers at various stages of their lives. We see them full of the irrational passion of youth, crippled by the frustration of middle age in a world that refused to change, conflicted about the success of their bitterest work, and settling into the spiritual acceptance only available to those who can reflect on an entire life. Though there is a sense of longing when he looks back on youth, Nescio celebrates the exuberance and naïveté without being nostalgic. He is Romantic without romanticizing. And even as daily life slowly squeezes the revolution from these characters, even as they give up painting and writing, even as some fall away to madness or complacency, Nescio argues for the artist’s perspective, for the idea that even if you are unable to create, you can still see the world as an endless source of potential.
For me, reading Amsterdam Stories was like watching Casablanca. Much of Casablanca has become cliché. The famous lines are quoted so often, and the famous scenes are such a part of our culture, we’ve seen the movie before we’ve actually seen it. And yet, even though we’ve heard them a hundred times, even though we know they’re coming, the famous lines are still powerful. They are surrounded by such inherent and integral beauty, that what should make us roll our eyes, takes our breath away. In Casablanca we hear “a hill of beans” and “here’s looking at you, kid.” In Amsterdam Stories we read “And I puff on my pipe in all humility, and feel like God himself, who is infinity itself. I sit there aimlessly. God’s aim is aimlessness. But to keep this awareness always is granted to no man.” — from the story “Young Titans.” “Then she stretched out her arms but there was no one to answer her. Then she didn’t know if she wanted to live or die and she slowly rode her bike home, where Mother sat yawning over her Daily News under the gas lamp with her glasses on the tip of her nose,” from “The Little Poet.” “But the Lord is in the great silence and emptiness and in this wondrous end to a monumental day. The day has become mine once more and mine the enchanted world. The sun stands still, there will be no night. Time stands still; pitiless eternity takes pity,” from “Insula Dei.” In other contexts, these passages with their “God” and “live or die” and “eternity” might be overwrought bombast, but, as in Casablanca, the beauty in the fabric of the stories makes the passages transcendent.
Amsterdam Stories is a book of landscape. It is about what words the mind hears when the eyes are truly open, seeing the world as a reason to create. “And the sky got bluer and bluer and the sun shone until it seemed like flowers would have to start sprouting out of the country bumpkins. And the red roofs in the villages and the black trees and the fields…And the road lay there, white and smarting, it couldn’t bear the sunlight, and the glass panes of the village streetlamps flashed, they had trouble withstanding the glare too,” from “Young Titans.” “A stately row of Canadian poplars, a copse here and there. A striking emptiness and silence…And then there’s a fantastic golden cloud above the grain fields, climbing up out of the grain fields, shining and spreading up and to the right…And then something looms up out of the golden matter…And a moment later it’s a wagon piled high with hay,” from “Insula Dei.” It makes me feel the time has come to set out on my “journey westward.”
Finally, Nescio is not afraid to be vague. He lets moments for which language is an ineffective communicator hang on the thinnest scaffolding of words. In “Out Along the Ij,” “[h]is world came in through our eyes and lived in our heads, and our thoughts went wordlessly out across the world, far beyond the horizon they went.” In “Insula Dei,” we see Flip smile “not pathetically anymore but the way you smile at someone who has done you a real favor.” As readers and writers we are taught to seek and strive for precision; an exactness from which individual interpretations can flow. But much of life is vague, inexact, and diffuse. Like the indistinct details in a Van Gogh landscape, Nescio can be meaningful and beautiful without being specific.
Amsterdam Stories easily merged with my own canon, like a flood born stream joining the river. I’ve mentioned “For Esmé – with Love and Squalor,” but Nescio also reminded me of “The Hunger Artist,” “White Nights,” and the last few pages of The Great Gatsby. Stories like epic landscape paintings. Stories like a quiet chat on a river bank with a confidant. Stories like the foggy joyous hangover after a long night of tobacco-infused, coffee-fueled poetry. Beautiful stories. Love poems to life. Grönloh did not live the life of an artist, but Nescio has written one of the great apologies for art. We all struggle through the challenges of life; all the good mothers and fathers, all the diligent businessmen, all the fastidious bureaucrats, all the revolutionaries, all the mainstream politicians, all the over-read students, all the exhausted laborers, all of us. We rely on artists to remind us why that struggle is worth it.
If in The Last Lover, Can Xue’s Best Translated Book Award-winning novel from 2014, characters seem to be wandering in and out of each other’s dreams, in Frontier, the author’s latest work to be published in English, experience has almost become detached from bodies entirely. It floats as if through the air of Pebble Town, a settlement of uncertain size on an unspecified, but presumably northern, Chinese border, attaching itself by turns to the town’s various human and animal inhabitants. Several unrelated characters share a memory of “standing on the ocean floor,” while others recognize their fathers or lovers in the form of geckoes and wagtails; mysterious shadows in one woman’s house are said to belong both to “invisible people” and to wolves. Just as the human effortlessly fades into the non-human, so do the boundaries between inner and outer life, between life and death themselves, lose their solidness. When one character is shocked by the beauty of a woman’s red skirt among a herd of sheep uttering “sorrowful cries,” Can Xue writes, “It was wondrous,” and indeed, all of Frontier is.
One of the best-known experimental writers in China, Can Xue (the pseudonym of Deng Xiaohua) has found increasing success in the West for her strange but luminous work. Frontier, originally written in 2008 and now published in Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping’s translation, is perhaps the best and most beautiful of her novels yet to reach English readers. Plot never dominates Can Xue’s work; rather, her novels build upon images and affects that repeat, vary, and recombine, giving rise to patterns at once original and tinglingly familiar. While readers approaching Frontier as a cipher to be decoded are therefore likely to grow frustrated, those who allow themselves to be immersed in it as in music or painting will begin to perceive the novel’s complex harmonies. Something of Frontier’s lush and perilous landscape may resonate particularly with American readers, who will sense in it a counterpart to their own mythology of a sublime internal frontier.
“Where there is desire,” Can Xue wrote in The Last Lover, “there is a wilderness.” Frontier develops the equivalence even further, until Pebble Town’s magical terrain is just as much the manifestation of its inhabitants’ desires as it is the backdrop for them. Whether it is the vastness of the Gobi Desert (which Pebble Town is said to border) or the floating garden that sometimes appears miraculously in midair, the landscape of the frontier, as one character observes, exerts “tremendous pressure on people.” A man named Lee, who, gazing at the “scenery outside,” feels his heart, “long covered with dust, bubble over with joy,” has the following conversation with his wife:
“Nothing you see here is actually what it appears to be.”
Grace raised her left eyebrow, as if thinking of something.
“Do you think this is like our ailments?” she asked him.
“Do you mean the thing inside us and the thing outside us are the same thing?” Lee was perplexed.
“Lee, Lee, we’ve finally broken out!”
The ecstasy at this apparent unity of interior and exterior life implies that a threshold far beyond the geographical has been crossed. Pebble Town is repeatedly described as a utopia, but it may also be something like a utopian purgatory. Hardly anyone does much of anything—most of the town’s residents are employed by the enigmatic Design Institute, though no one ever works—yet they are all caught up in barely-articulable processes of metamorphosis, as if straining to break into another type of existence of which Pebble Town is the premonition. Moreover, some of them have a whiff of death about them: one man is told outright that he smells “a little” like a “dead person,” and another, plagued by dreams of being chased, blurts out, “The dead are struggling for territory against the living people.” The Design Institute itself is said to look like “a giant grave,” and its director’s adopted relative Ying, who wanders the grounds of the Institute like a “timekeeper,” recalls a god of death, counting down everyone’s seconds.
For all its supernatural suggestions, however, Pebble Town also belongs undeniably to contemporary China. There are allusions to a surveillance state (“Everyone’s movements are tracked!”) and an ominous reference to “execution reform.” A young man named Marco, whose identity is one of the least stable in the book (“in a split second he became a different person”), was adopted by a Dutch family as a child and later sent back. He longs to return to Holland (which Pebble Town also supposedly borders), and undertakes a dangerous journey across a river and through a desert attempting to reach his idealized Western past. Liujin, a woman characterized as a true “daughter of the frontier,” was born in Pebble Town because her parents fled “Smoke City” for the “clean” borderlands, “where no air pollution existed;” Liujin and her father, listening “to birds singing outside the window,” in or near the Gobi Desert, feel they are in a “utopia.” While Frontier is much more than a wistful social fantasy, this sense of injustice—surveillance and oppression, exploitative adoption practices, the destruction of the natural world—courses beneath the book’s brilliant landscapes like the mysterious waters said to flow under Pebble Town itself.
There are books that seem to expand ever outward, so that upon finishing them, readers see the world anew through the author’s eyes. Others expand inward, leaving behind a glow to be carried for days like a secret. Frontier’s “bright, shining,” shapeshifting town, “a paradise for vagrants,” lovers, and wolves, offers, like poetry, what Can Xue says each of her characters already possesses: “a pattern of freedom.”
Midway through his new book, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, Brian Greene pauses to consider what he calls “the soul of science.” That phrase (also a chapter subheading) is the clearest signal yet that this is no ordinary work of popular physics. It is, of course, an extraordinary example of that genre, thanks to the detailed analogies, careful contextualizing, and friendly, encouraging voice that Greene is known for. But The Hidden Reality, we begin to realize, is also a manifesto for a particular conception of science—one in which the possibility of other universes is worth investigating to the fullest, even if we can never experimentally detect, let alone visit, those realms. Not everyone agrees, to put it mildly.
Up to this point in the book, Greene’s been showing us why the existence of multiple universes is anything but wild speculation. Over decades, researchers in the theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, and superstrings have repeatedly found their calculations pointing toward a perhaps infinite number of universes. The “multiverse” comes in a variety of configurations, depending on how one arrives at it. Assuming our own universe is infinite, for example, gives us the “Quilted Multiverse,” as conditions in an infinite space-time expanse will inevitably repeat themselves. The “Inflationary Multiverse” posits an eternally expanding universe, which in turn produces an infinite network of “bubble” universes. The “Brane Multiverse,” derived from string theory, suggests our universe exists on a three-dimensional “membrane,” one of many occupying a higher-dimensional expanse. The “Landscape Multiverse” combines string theory and inflation to give us bubble universes in many dimensions. There are other versions, each more jaw-dropping than the last. The “Holographic Multiverse,” in which worlds are, essentially, projections of fundamental laws existing elsewhere, is probably the most unsettling. The Matrix (though, one hopes, in a less gruesome form) might just be real.
“Might,” however, is the operative word. As of now, there’s no experimental confirmation for any of these propositions. In fact, direct confirmation of some aspects may never be possible. Yet the mathematics tells us (or tells Greene, who tells us) that this mind-blowing notion is likely to be true. All of which leads to a fundamental question: “Is this science?” Attempts to come to an answer have turned the multiverse into “a battleground for the very soul of science.”
Is it scientifically justifiable to speak of a multiverse, an approach that invokes realms inaccessible not just in practice but, in many cases, even in principle? Is the notion of a multiverse testable or falsifiable? Can invoking a multiverse provide explanatory power of which we’d otherwise be deprived?
If the answer to these questions is no, as detractors insist is the case, then multiverse proponents are assuming an unusual stance. Nontestable, nonfalsifiable proposals, invoking hidden realms beyond our capacity to access – these seem a far cry from what most of us would call science. And therein lies the spark that makes passions flare.
Greene, a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia, is well versed in defending the scientific pursuit of the inaccessible. He is an influential contributor to string theory, a vastly ambitious attempt to find a unified explanation of the cosmos; The Hidden Reality includes a helpful overview of the theory’s progress according to various measures. Mathematically, it has succeeded in bringing together the previously inimical theories of relativity (which governs the very large, e.g. stars and galaxies) and quantum mechanics (whose purview is the very small, e.g. quarks and gluons). But in its 30-some years of existence—including the 12 years since Greene’s bestselling first book on the subject, The Elegant Universe—string theory has yet to yield a prediction that can be tested experimentally. This may well change with the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, which has had some famous problems of its own, but some predictions will still lie beyond its capacity. That’s why many scientists have come out vociferously against string theory, and the multiverse(s) to which it gives rise—going so far as to compare the theory to a religion.
Greene spends the rest of the central chapter answering specific objections to the multiverse as legitimate science. However, his overall point, here and throughout the book, is that you never know where the pursuit of any mystery is going to take you. “[Q]uestions aren’t floating in some preexisting realm in which the role of science is to pick them off one by one. Instead, today’s questions are very often shaped by yesterday’s insights. Breakthroughs generally answer some questions but then give rise to a host of others that previously could not even have been imagined.” In other words, questions—all kinds of questions—are good. Questions that beget more questions, especially about the nature of science itself, are even better. If this isn’t science, Greene seems to say, I don’t want to be a scientist.
Still, it’s audacious to invoke a “soul” to make this particular case. In doing so, Greene is obviously tweaking those who call his approach religious. He’s confident enough in his own view of science’s mandate—to follow mysteries wherever they may lead—that he can borrow an especially nebulous religious term to characterize it. As a scientist he rejects the substitution of faith for rigorous method, the hallmark of religion in general; but his use of “soul” is not merely ironic. Rather, he’s reminding us that science is first and last a human endeavor. And the most human endeavors of all are those in which our reach exceeds our grasp.
Let me now say that by this definition, I am being very human in undertaking this review. Though I’m enthralled by the many possible multiverses Greene describes, as I believe you will be, I have nowhere near the training to evaluate their scientific merits. I’m a writer, reader, and erstwhile scholar of literature—what is sometimes called a humanist. But this does qualify me, I think, to state that the humanity of The Hidden Reality is its most compelling aspect.
In his 2004 book, The Fabric of the Cosmos, Greene describes a game he and his father played when he was little:
One of us would look around, secretly fix on something that was happening—a bus rushing by, a pigeon landing on a windowsill, a man accidentally dropping a coin—and describe how it would look from an unusual perspective such as the wheel of the bus, the pigeon in flight, or the quarter falling earthward. The challenge was to take an unfamiliar description like “I’m walking on a dark, cylindrical surface surrounded by low, textured walls, and an unruly bunch of thick white tendrils is descending from the sky,” and figure out that it was the view of an ant walking on a hot dog that a street vendor was garnishing with sauerkraut.
What a great game this is to play with a kid—or an adult, for that matter. It obviously affected Greene profoundly, encouraging him to consider the everyday world from radically different perspectives. It also, I suspect, helped make him a writer. The challenge he undertakes in all his books is to explain something very familiar to him—string theory, the probable existence of other universes—to someone completely unfamiliar with those concepts. It even seems to me (all right, this is a leap) that the voice in these books is some version of the father’s voice in this game. It’s enthusiastic, often playful, encouraging, and never condescending. It’s the way Greene was introduced to scientific thinking, and he wants us, whatever our age or background, to have that same experience.
Greene never forgets that as writer and reader, we are in this thing together. In The Hidden Reality, he makes frequent asides like this one (regarding string theory’s many-dimensional “braneworld”): “You may find it difficult to picture this. I certainly do.” Or: “I’ll now explain [the] final step, but in case you’re reaching saturation and just want the punch line, here’s a three-sentence summary.” This is not just a scientist explaining complicated ideas to a lay person, but a human being talking to another, through the rather marvelous medium of the printed word. It’s true that humans are limited; we get tired and confused, and our minds are hopelessly mired in three dimensions. Yet by considering these theoretical accounts of parallel universes, we prove to ourselves that, like our universe, we’re not as limited as we might think.
It may turn out that the multiverse is the true story of reality. But if it’s proven wrong, or its realms are permanently inaccessible, it may be a species of fiction. Still, let’s not call it “mere” fiction. As humanists know, great fiction builds new worlds that help us ask new questions. It shakes us up, making us rethink the world we build for ourselves every day—which is to say, our assumptions. It makes us pause, not because we’ve reached saturation, but in wonder.
In Helene Cixous’s book, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, she speaks of three sources from which narratives take form: the school of death, the school of roots, and the school of dreams. Dreams must be followed but not over-analyzed, she cautions: “We must know how to dream as a dream, to leave it free, and to distrust all the exterior and interior demons that destroy dreams. We all have a demon, there is one hidden in a dream.” Later, when speaking to roots, she describes the place to which the writer must descend to unearth another form of demon. “Some call it hell: it is of course a good, a desirable hell.” The barrier between the writer and this hell, according to Cixous, is fear of uncovering something dangerous within.
However, some writers will descend. A form of hell is precisely what Grace Krilanovich writes to, and animates, in her novel The Orange Eats Creeps.
Although Krilanovich’s characters call themselves “vampires” they may or may not be vampires in the ghoulish sense the word usually brings to mind. And yet they certainly have their share of demons. Her vampires are not the surly, menacing Balkan variety that Téa Obreht chases after and chronicles in her recent Harper’s essay, “Twilight of the Vampires,” nor are they the ethically conflicted, more toothsome strain that dominate Western narratives like Twilight and True Blood. Obreht theorizes that the kinder, gentler American vampire “is the ultimate fantasy for a nation in decline.” While Krilanovich’s vampires, of the slutty hobo teenage junkie variety, are somewhat in line with Obreht’s assessment, instead of perpetuating fantasy they introduce a mythology of suburban decay.
The Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies take shelter in Safeways, 7-11s, and gas station bathrooms of the Pacific Northwest. They roam a countryside populated by meth houses, railways, gravel pits, and decrepit strip malls. There is a Highway That Eats People, which like the volcano of ages past, must be fed by young bodies (in their parents’ cars) in order to be pacified. Their kind are former foster children, runaways, outsiders who, by choice or not, slip beyond society. “Vampire” could as easily be called gutterpunk or street urchin. In a way, they’re just angry teenage misfits who act out, who wreak havoc for no reason. These vampires may not even be ageless, but they are still young enough that life seems interminable and its weight overwhelming, as if their lives will never end, no matter what destructive forces they encounter. They are restless, wandering souls.
The narrator’s initial foray into vampirism is prompted by her sister running away from their foster home. She “started sneaking out every night to suck men’s blood… I kept it up and eventually got caught with my mouth on some guy’s neck in a Safeway breakroom.” The vampires devour each other, sucking blood and sucking dick; and they devour themselves with their self-destructive tendencies, consuming at least as much meth and Robitussin as they do blood.
Krilanovich’s misfits join a vast list of literary protagonists and authors, like de Quincey, Balzac, Baudelaire, and Bourroughs, who sustain themselves on a cornucopia of drugs: uppers, white pills, Quaaludes, cough syrup, meth, alcohol, you name it. They have preferences of course, but they’re rather undiscriminating in their choices. Avital Ronell writes of addiction to drugs and literature, as well as within literature, in her book Crack Wars. Of addicted authors and addled literary characters, she writes:
…they tried to nourish themselves without properly eating. Whether injecting themselves or smoking a cigarette or merely kissing someone, they rerouted the hunting grounds of the cannibalistic libido. In a certain manner of conscious monitoring, they refused to eat–and yet they were always only devouring, or drinking up the toxic spill of the Other. Drugs make us ask what it means to consume anything, anything at all.
The narrator in The Orange Eats Creeps and her band of Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies are sustaining themselves with their addictions. The narrator hasn’t consumed any food except her gnawed fingernails, and at another point she notices the legs of her friend and lover, Seth, that buckle from malnourishment. As the narrator says of her companions (and this could be their mantra): “Our cause is nothing; we believe in nothing. Actually, we believe in Methamphetamine. I’ve been living off crank, cough syrup, and blood for a year now.” At times the vampirism and addiction merge and they imbibe Robitussin directly from veins. Blood is merely another substance they need and crave, no different than meth or bottles of cough syrup except for its source.
However, as vampires, their cannibalistic libido is still very much alive. As in Claire Denis’ erotic vampire film, Trouble Every Day, the vampiric desire for blood is conflated with sex and lust. In Denis’ film, Vincent Gallo’s character, Shane, refuses to have sex with his new wife, for fear that he’ll consume her, and Coré devours her victims during sex, biting off their lips, tearing their flesh with her teeth, lapping up their blood. For the narrator in The Orange Eats Creeps, sucking blood also has a sexually destructive edge. She first gets caught with her mouth on a man’s neck, and she starts turning tricks. When she awakens with little recollection of how she ended up in a waterbed, a man threatens to either “eat” her or to cut off her limbs. In turn she unleashes “blood-sucking rage” at these men who lay claim to her body. Almost in retaliation she wishes in a similar way to destroy them: “I seek prey out of the endless night, fog shrouding my knives, my secrets. I will rummage around in your soul–don’t let me! Don’t let me too close, I will bite you, I will tear at you, I want to eat you!”
At times Krilanovich’s vampires also ingest on a metaphysical level. The narrator speaks of a Laura Palmer-esque woman who was murdered, her body wrapped in a bundle and dumped. Her death was captured on videotape. The narrator watches this tape, and speaks of this woman, who is a vampire in her own way:
She will then kiss him full on the mouth, dropping breathless lips onto his, drawing back saliva to a place strange and wonderful in her brain and with it his thoughts, his being, a fluid transfer which has no more materiality than a kiss. It is this way she can know him, have him truly within her, to know his thoughts, to dream his dreams for him; to, in an abstract capacity, inhabit his way of being in this way–to not penetrate his core, but to take it into her so it becomes her core. All her life she had been amassing cores inside her body, to insert one more would not be a difficult task, and it would hardly be the last.
The narrator, in turn, ingests this woman’s core, filled with others like a Russian doll, by kissing the screen. This mix of blood, saliva, and desire–this is sex, and the narrator has devoured countless cores. She too is vulnerable, and decaying, morphing like one of the diseased characters in Charles Burns’ Black Hole. She loses track of the men she sleeps with, and also of herself: “More than once I found myself in the deli of the nearest Safeway going Who the fuck are you? over and over again. Who the fuck is this guy? I asked looking around. Later I found myself under a drunk guy and I was drunk too.” Even the narrative construction and the sense of time collapses towards the end.
The narrator’s dissipation of mind and body are intertwined. She falls asleep along a highway, and when she wakes she notices her “body had been moved several yards down the road. I noticed this only after raising my half-worm-eaten face from the pavement, heavy and winey, glancing back to where I had been several hours/days before.” At another point, too drunk and high to have sex, she naps in a tub, where she “noticed pieces of flesh sloughing off in grey sheets, plunging into sticky bathwater, each dissolving into a layer of ash on the surface of the anonymous liquid.”
This too parallels Black Hole, the illustrations of the woods, where the diseased teenagers’ skin sloughs and hangs from tree limbs. Burns’ characters also live in self-imposed exile in the Pacific Northwest. The teenagers band together after contracting a sexually transmitted disease that causes their skin to shed, their bodies to grow tails and new orifices; they become mutated forms of their previous selves. If Black Hole is a mythology of adolescence in Seattle in the 1970s, then Krilanovich’s book picks up the reins twenty years later, only slightly to the south in central Oregon.
“Every time I breathe out my skin flakes off in a puff of crepe dust, this means my body gets smaller and smaller every time I breathe. Someday I’ll blow away.” The insults on the narrator’s body gradually destroy her, and yet she keeps on. She will keep on until she disintegrates, as all of us will until our bodies break. By the end, Krilanovich’s narrator has encountered and embraced her own personal form of hell, which in its horror also contains a great beauty. Cixous’s book on writing also ends with the idea of disintegration, of writing to one’s death, of pushing limits until we are destroyed: “We must work. The earth of writing. To the point of becoming the earth.”