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.
Empathy in fiction is a strange thing. It is possible to experience an imaginative connection with a character in a novel that would almost certainly be beyond us were that character a real human being in the world. A character’s actions, no matter how terrible, are often secondary to the way in which he or she is presented, particularly when that character is a first-person narrator. Lolita’s Humbert Humbert is an extremely obvious — and an obviously extreme — example of this. He’s a murderer, a kidnapper, a pedophile and, in a way that manages to seem somehow independent of these attributes, a fundamentally distasteful person. And yet we want to spend time with him. We want to hear what he has to say, and not just because it’s so horrible, or because of the famously fancy prose style in which he says it. There’s a part of us that connects with him, even as we recognize that we would never, or could never, do the ugly things he does. He is, as a fictional creature, more human to us than any of his countless real-world counterparts.
If we’re talking in purely utilitarian terms — if we stick to the basic moral spreadsheet of his actions — Eli Sisters, the narrator of Canadian novelist Patrick deWitt’s Booker-shortlisted The Sisters Brothers, is probably a worse guy than Humbert Humbert. As a professional hit man in the gold-rush era American West, he has, in partnership with his older brother, Charlie, killed an awful lot of people. And he doesn’t seem to have any particular inclination to conceal the unpleasantness of his actions from the reader (he is not, as far as it’s possible to tell, a remotely unreliable narrator). He lives an ugly life in an ugly world. About a third of the way into the novel, for instance, we see him perform an astonishingly unpleasant sequence of actions. Charlie has just shot a prospector who had been holding Eli at gunpoint. The bullet having relieved him of the back of his skull “like a cap in the wind,” the presumably (but not explicitly) dead prospector’s brain is now exposed. Eli then informs us that he “raised up my boot and dropped my heel into the hole with all my weight behind it, caving in what was left of the skull and flattening it in general so that it was no longer recognizable as the head of a man.” His rage still unsubdued, he disappears into a forest and lowers his trousers, ostensibly to check the state of his leg after its being prodded by the barrel of the prospector’s rifle. He briefly considers returning to the body to mutilate it further, but decides against it. “My pants were still down,” he recalls, “and after collecting my emotions I took up my organ to compromise myself.” This, we are informed, is a technique suggested to him many years previously by his mother as a means of dealing with his sometimes unmanageably violent temper.
The remarkable thing about the scene is the way in which deWitt makes this horrible stuff seem as though it were happening to Eli. We see him not so much as the perpetrator, but as the victim, first of the prospector’s aggression, then of his own rage. When he stamps on the man’s already adequately traumatized cranium, we wince not so much for the sickening brutality of the act he commits as we do for Eli’s own sake — out of sympathy for someone who is not nearly as cool a customer as he needs to be in his line of work, and for someone whose propensity toward savage violence might reveal a deeply scarred psyche. The prospector himself barely enters into the emotional equation; he is merely the cause, and then the focus, of Eli’s rage. Empathy in fiction, as I’ve said, is a strange thing. And the fact is that Eli is an extremely likeable character. We want him to get along, even when getting along involves murdering people for no other reason than that he’s being employed to do so.
The plot is an extremely simple one: Eli and Charlie have been instructed by their boss, a ruthless businessman referred to as the Commodore, to travel from Oregon to San Francisco in order to assassinate a former associate with the delightful name of Herman Kermit Warm. They don’t know why Warm has to die, and neither do they express any real interest in the question; they simply know they have to find him via a go-between named Henry Morris and murder him. Eli wants to stop killing. It’s not that he feels any particular guilt about it, so much as that he’s just sick of the blood and the suffering and constant danger. He has little natural aptitude for or attachment to the art of murder. Eli has vague plans to open a drapery shop once the Warm assassination is complete, but Charlie — by far the more accomplished and enthusiastic killer, and the dominant brother — dismisses and ridicules Eli’s plans to settle down and go straight. We’re in familiar territory, in other words; deWitt doesn’t have much apparent interest in subverting his chosen genre.
The novel’s structure is episodic, with each short chapter detailing a tightly delineated incident, and advancing the brothers further along their trajectory towards San Francisco and the doomed, mysterious Warm. There are countless diverting episodes along the way. The brothers spend the night in an abandoned house with an old woman who appears to be a witch; the portly Eli falls for a hotel manageress who bluntly informs him she prefers less bulky men, and so he tortures himself with a 19th-century version of a crash diet; Charlie inflicts a series of debilitating hangovers upon himself and overdoes it on the curative laudanum. They meet an impressive array of vividly drawn characters on their travels, whom they as often as not rob, murder, or in some other way mistreat. DeWitt’s exploitations of the picaresque form are striking, and he has a wonderful way of exercising his comic gifts without ever compromising the novel’s gradual accumulation of darkness, disgust, and foreboding. Much of this has to do with Eli’s narration, which is a strange and lovely linguistic artifact, curiously formal in its delivery and yet intimate and unguarded. Early on, Eli suffers a grotesque swelling of his head and visits an amateur dentist who, after inflicting a series of minor atrocities on his oral cavity, introduces him to the new concept of oral hygiene. He shows Eli “a dainty, wooden-handled brush with a rectangular head of gray-white bristles” and demonstrates “the proper use of the tool, then blew mint-smelling air on my face.” Eli’s evangelical conversion to this new “method” provides a running joke throughout the book, but it is also one of the countless wonderful ways in which deWitt humanizes a narrator who would otherwise be in danger of seeming, if not quite monstrous, then certainly a very bad person. Later, he bonds with the hotel manageress through their shared enthusiasm for the newfangled brush and paste. It’s one of the novel’s many moments of quiet, restrained absurdity:
I elected to show the woman my new toothbrush and powder, which I had in my vest pocket. She became excited by the suggestion, for she was also a recent convert to this method, and she hurried to fetch her equipment that we might brush simultaneously. So it was that we stood side by side at the wash basin, our mouths filling with foam, smiling as we worked. After we finished there was an awkward moment where neither of us knew what to say; and when I sat upon her bed she began looking at the door as if wishing to leave.
The scene appears to be playing coy; the shared vigour of the tooth-brushing seems like an obvious stand-in for a more erotic intimacy. But we already suspect, and will soon find out for certain, that the woman is nowhere near as chaste as Eli wants to portray her here (she’s already had a grubby commercio-sexual exchange with Charlie upstairs), and neither is the novel itself. The scene is a sort of reverse feint, in other words, in that it seems to be doing more than it is, as opposed to doing more than it seems. It really is about Eli’s enthusiasm for the toothbrush, and his delight in sharing his enthusiasm with a woman to whom he has taken a shine. Even when he’s involved in much grimmer activities, he is a curiously innocent man. The stiff-backed composure of his language, though, is the major source of his charm. It’s hard not to smile at words like “equipment” and “method” being applied to the accoutrements of tooth brushing, and it’s impossible not to like Eli for the childlike joy he takes in them.
Eli may be a likeable guide, but the territory he takes us through is bleak and nightmarish, teeming with malice and greed, with violent lusts and blank antipathies. Comparisons to Cormac McCarthy have inevitably been made, and it’s a reasonably fair point of reference, but the connection finally has more to do with subject matter than style. It’s hard not to think of Heart of Darkness, too, what with the mounting sense of dread, the confrontation of the bestial forces beneath the veneer of civilization, and the apparently Kurtzian figure of Warm. There are moments of fierce visual potency that seem like a gift to whoever might end up directing the seemingly predestined film adaptation (I wouldn’t be surprised if the Coen Brothers were already mustering their forces). There’s a particularly chilling descriptive passage, for instance, where Eli is skinning a bear he is forced to shoot when it attacks his beloved horse, Tub. His observation of the skinned animal amounts to an eerie vision of nature as an engine of death and ruthless, unceasing assimilation. “The carcass lay on its side before me,” he tells us, “no longer male or female, only a pile of ribboned meat, alive with an ecstatic and ever-growing community of fat-bottomed flies. Their number grew so that I could hardly see the bear’s flesh, and I could not hear myself thinking, so clamorous was their buzzing.” DeWitt then inserts a visual detail which is both beautiful and utterly grotesque, and which caused me to put down the book and pause for a moment in order to savor its inspired creepiness. “When the buzzing suddenly and completely ceased,” Eli recalls, “I looked up from my washing, expecting to find the flies gone and some larger predator close by, but the insects had remained atop the she-bear, all of them quiet and still save for their wings, which folded and unfolded as they pleased.” There is something unaccountably horrible about that moment of silence and, in particular, the wings folding and unfolding “as they pleased.” It’s entirely peripheral to the narrative, and to the scene in which it takes place, and yet it somehow encapsulates the stark and singular malice of the world the novel portrays.
The book becomes incrementally darker the closer the Sisters boys get to tracking down Warm, but it never comes close to being overwhelming, or even, finally, all that disturbing. For all that Eli’s narrative is beautifully composed, and for all the vividness of deWitt’s depictions of mid-19th-century California as a hellish chaos of gold-rush greed, the novel feels, in the best sense, like a high-grade entertainment. The darkness it conjures is closer to Frank Miller than Cormac McCarthy. Even its most troubling moments have a cartoonish aspect to them. The depiction of the removal of Tub’s infected eye by a spoon-wielding stable hand, for instance, is unflinchingly graphic, but there’s a sly preposterousness to the scene in the first place, a knowing gratuitousness, that makes it more gross than genuinely harrowing. Similarly, the passage in which Warm dictates the words to be inscribed on a friend’s tombstone refuses to be fully serious even as it stares down life with seemingly Nietzschean intensity. “Most people,” he intones, “are chained to their own fear and stupidity and haven’t the sense to level a cold eye at just what is wrong with their lives. Most people will continue on, dissatisfied but never attempting to understand why, or how they might change their lives for the better, and they die with nothing in their hearts but dirt and old, thin blood — weak blood, diluted — and their memories aren’t worth a goddamned thing.” By the time Warm’s dictation reaches its bombastic conclusion (“There is no God”), it has long since been tipped over into absurdity by its sheer length and grandiosity, both of which attributes render it comically ill-suited to tombstone inscription. A comparable effect is achieved elsewhere, when Warm recalls his sociopathic father, a German inventor who was forced to flee to America due to his “specific area of deviancy” (presumably sexual, although never actually identified). The elder Warm’s inventions are insane, but strangely believable. One of them provides a disturbing distillation of the desires for power, wealth, and primacy that fuel the savage economy the novel portrays. “He invented,” Warm tells Eli, “a gun with five barrels that fired simultaneously and covered three hundred degrees in one blast. A hail of bullets, with a slim part, or what he called Das Dreieck des Wohlstands — The Triangle of Prosperity — inside of which stood the triggerman himself.” There are many moments of genuine humour in The Sisters Brothers, but deWitt is also very good at this kind of queasily unfunny joke. The kind of joke, in other words, which is in no more or less terrible taste than history itself.
There is a sense, toward the end of the novel, that deWitt has not done quite as much with his endearing narrator and his compelling narrative style as he could have. The a-to-b of the plot is a little too straightforward to be satisfying, and there’s not much to be had in the way of an emotional pay-off in the jarringly sweet final pages. Despite the depravity and violence he depicts (and is responsible for), Eli never gets much beyond establishing that the world is a dark and unpleasant place, and that he vainly wishes it could be otherwise; there’s not, in this sense, ultimately a whole lot of moral heft. But perhaps that doesn’t matter all that much when a book is so consistently enjoyable as this. The Sisters Brothers is as entertaining a novel as I have read in a long time, and there’s always a lot to be said for entertainment, even on the Booker shortlist.
Colson Whitehead’s novel John Henry Days opens with differing versions of the same story, told by witnesses and observers, all recounting John Henry’s famous battle with the steam-powered hammer. No story is the same. For men wagering on whether John Henry would defeat the machine, Whitehead writes, “[e]ach wager was a glimpse into the man who made it;” just the same, each story — the details remembered or who won the contest, for example — is a glimpse into the storyteller. The power of the folk hero, it becomes quickly evident, lies not in what actually happened; John Henry Days is not after the real story, but what it means that America keeps telling the story of the black steel-driving man.
With his new novel, Whitehead has picked another well-known story often retold: the secret transportation network of slaves before the Civil War. Frederick Douglass (who famously escaped via a literal railroad) and Harriet Jacobs both wrote popular accounts of their slavery. Slave escapes play a large part in the plot of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, about the same time The Underground Railroad is set. Numerous accounts of slaves and escapes were later collected and preserved by the Works Progress Administration.
Whitehead has said that he relied upon many of these narratives, particularly the Works Progress Administration accounts, in writing The Underground Railroad, and many actual advertisements for catching runaway slaves preface the book’s chapters. But for this story — probably Whitehead’s finest — history is a stepping-stone.
The Underground Railroad’s prologue summarizes the life of Ajarry. Kidnapped from her home, she is transported across the Atlantic. Standing naked on a platform, her breasts are pinched by an agent, who acquires her for $226.00. She’s eventually sold and re-sold, from southern plantation to plantation, bondage to bondage, price rising with each transaction, “appraised and re-appraised, each day waking upon the pan of a new scale.” She births five children, one of whom, Mabel, survives into adulthood, and has a child of her own, Cora. Ajarry dies in bondage, “[a]s if it could have been anywhere else.”
The bulk of the novel then follows Cora, Ajarry’s granddaughter, a slave by birth on the Randall Plantation in Georgia, owned by the (respectively) cruel and distracted Randall Brothers. Mabel escaped the plantation when Cora was 10 or 11, only leaving her daughter a three-yard plot of okra and yams. As a result, Cora grows up bitter at having been left behind. But she also emerges as clever and conscientious, someone who “cursed herself for her smallmindedness.”
From her early days she suffers greatly, including as a victim of gang rape by her fellow slaves. When she is approached by Caesar, another slave on the plantation, to escape, she is at first reluctant (channeling her grandmother), eventually willing (channeling her mother). During their escape, they spar with and kill a white boy who tries to return them to the plantation, and are relentlessly tracked by Ridgeway, a slavecatcher who had never been able to successfully apprehend Mabel. They flee through South Carolina and beyond. Either outcome seems possible: that Cora will die a slave in the “ruthless mechanism of the world,” like Ajarry, or experience the “eddy of liberation,” like her mother.
By now, if you have read anything about this novel — perhaps that it was on President Obama’s Summer Reading List, or that it has been blessed by Oprah Winfrey, or that it has become a #1 New York Times Bestseller — you know its central conceit. For Cora’s escape, the Underground Railroad is an actual underground network of trains, schedules, handcars with pumps, and tunnels that gradually lead north. Some of the stations are elaborate constructions, with comfortable waiting areas and refreshments, and some are rundown holes with boxcars. The tunnels and conductors are under a repeat threat of discovery. For something fantastic (imagine the engineering feat), not a bit of it is lacking in verisimilitude; it possesses its own history and myth, spliced with just the right amount of mystery.
Whitehead’s brilliance is on constant display here. After five previous novels, each very different, this is the only thing we can count on. It’s hard to imagine a new novel farther from Whitehead’s last, the zombie thriller Zone One. The Underground Railroad shares some features with his debut work, The Intuitionist, and his second novel, John Henry Days; both novels confront issues of race and American history through less-than-straightforward methods — a Whitehead signature.
The Underground Railroad is a more frank confrontation, albeit with a dose of magical realism. As he did in John Henry Days, Whitehead has taken something emblematic of a period in American history and pulled a nifty trick: he has made it simultaneously real and ahistorical. In The Intuitionist, Whitehead freely played with elevators, which obtained the weight of metaphor but not the heft of a symbol. Every American schoolchild learns about the Underground Railroad. As Kathryn Schultz recently wrote, the story of the Underground Railroad that Americans know was “not quite wrong, but simplified; not quite a myth, but mythologized.” It assuages the national guilt; it reminds us of the noble struggle for freedom, and not the astounding moral failing that kept such an institution legal for more than a century. (In Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, slavery is often simply, and appropriately, talked of as “the law.”)
When, here, Whitehead revisits the greatest crime in American history, he thus also revisits its greatest attempt at commutation, the “mythologized” Underground Railroad, and all the compromises that made it necessary. As one character says, slavery produced “scars [that] will never fade.” America “[i]s a delusion, too, the grandest one of all,” built on “murder, theft and cruelty” — best personified by a slave boy on the Randall Plantation, who has been taught to memorize the Declaration of Independence but has no grasp of its meaning.
Toward the end of The Underground Railroad, Cora receives some advice. As she rides the railroad, she is instructed thusly: “Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.” Of course, there is nothing to see from an underground track — only the dim of the subterranean world. Whitehead’s book asks: How can a country ever put such a period behind it? Putting the famous Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill won’t change the fact that American money was used to purchase people. “This isn’t Mississippi in the fifties, J.,” one character in John Henry Days tells the protagonist. “It’s always Mississippi in the fifties,” J. answers.
Besides the underground locomotives, Whitehead has sprinkled other touches of magical realism, or anachronisms, throughout this book, including ghosts, a skyscraper in 1850s South Carolina, and the Museum of Natural Wonders, which, among its exhibits, re-creates anodyne living dioramas of the human trafficking trade. For a time, Cora, believing she has found her freedom in South Carolina, works in the museum, participating in the slave ship display. She quickly finds out that, even in her freedom, “[t]ruth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.” These purposefully absurd sections are perhaps the closest thing to Whitehead’s older work, and his jocular tone; the rest of The Underground Railroad, rather, is sober and measured. “[I]t is a serious subject that didn’t seem to warrant my usual satire and joking,” Whitehead told Vulture.
The ironies are cruel ones, taken from life: the doctors who sterilize black people in South Carolina, where Cora first emerges after her travel on the railroad, and justify the procedure to black women as “a chance for you to take control over your own destiny.” In a one-off chapter, a grave robber reflects on stealing black bodies for the medical schools, observing, based on the obviously identical anatomy between whites and blacks: “In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man’s equal.”
The plotting is deft and sure-handed. But the story slows for poignant moments, like Cora’s frisson when she finally puts on a soft cotton dress in South Carolina. There, she guiltily enjoys one of the keys product that drove the entire system of bondage.
The inventiveness that characterizes elements of his plot extends to his voice in this novel. In interviews he has said it emerged complete from just writing the first section on Ajarry, and the resulting omniscient narrator’s words prove lapidary, perhaps including some of the best writing Whitehead has done. The prose, in short, is spectacular. Few books have demanded so much tabbing, so many bookmarks, and so many marginal notes — so often do crystalline turns of phrase and aphorisms materialize. Take this: “Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close, but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Or this: “In liberty or bondage, the African could not be separated from the American.”
The Underground Railroad is ultimately a story about a motherless girl searching for some kind of protection and love, but often finding only exploitation. It is ruthless in its depiction of the antebellum world, but threads of hope also emerge from the bravery of many characters, and from the feat of the railroad itself: “The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath,” the book goes.
As for Cora, as for America, the scars of slavery won’t fade:
Once Mabel ran, Cora thought of her as little as possible…[S]he realized she banished her mother not from sadness, but rage. She hated her. Having tasted freedom’s bounty, it was incomprehensible to Cora that Mabel had abandoned her to that hell.
Even if she finds her way out of hell, it’s clear that freedom doesn’t mean heaven. “The Declaration [of Independence] is like a map,” one character tells Cora. “You trust that it’s right, but you only know by going out and testing it yourself.”
Mrs. Millions sent me a nice email yesterday (from the other room – funny how we communicate) that she thought I might want to share on the blog. It touches on the many things that reading can offer beyond just the story itself.And since Mrs. Millions puts up with all the time I spend on the blog, she gets to post here as much as she likes. Here’s what she wrote:I recently started a full-time job. Prior to this I had relished a very irregular schedule, taking on projects, doing freelance design work, and teaching on the side. It was a juggling act but gave me many different avenues to pursue. Now I am getting accustomed to a more regular schedule. My life is a busy sequence of days, and will remain so until I adapt. Because I am continuing a couple of projects I had begun prior to taking this job, it feels as though I am unable to complete anything. Things which remain undone are very troubling – I think about them when I am not working on them, spending time worrying when I could otherwise be productive. And so, each day, I head to work, knowing that I will return home tired, and be unable to complete the other things that, at times, I would much rather be doing.Last night, however, I accomplished something. I finished reading The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux. For me, finishing a book is usually a little sad. I don’t have a queue of books staring at me, and once I get to know a character or a place, I don’t like to leave them behind. When I get to the end of a book, well, I’ll read only a single page in a sitting, just to keep it from ending. I’ll even reread the last page or two over and over. So, there I was, awake late a couple of nights ago, giving in to reading the last few sentences, thinking about the journey that is The Old Patagonian Express, trying to keep the story from ending.The Old Patagonian Express is a wonderful story, without a moral or a murder or a message, other than having a definite path and destination. For Theroux, it’s Patagonia via railroad starting in Boston and traveling far far south through cities, villages and past singular train stations that are nothing more than a wooden platform in the middle of seemingly nothing. Theroux is true to his goal, and is enviably determined and able to achieve it. His sticks to the course, deviating only for Borges (but who wouldn’t change their plans to have the chance to read to Borges?). Time is a major theme in the book – train schedules, waiting, rushing, riding. Time, for me, is so finite when I set goals for myself. And it’s so easy to fail when all I look at is the time. But life isn’t about time, it’s about all the things that come and go and make life interesting and exciting.So, after finishing the book, I realized that I needed to be less time-obsessed. This I can claim to attribute to Theroux, but that would be false. My husband, Max, is the person who gave me this book to read. And in reading it dutifully a few pages each night, I finished it, felt satisfied, happy, and knew that my day had been a good one because I had completed something. Thank you, Max, for helping me to slow down and be successful. I’m ready for my next book.Thanks, Mrs. Millions! Ain’t she a sweetheart! I’ve given her A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin to read next. Hopefully, it can offer a similarly sublime experience.I should have also mentioned: I was inspired to get this book in the first place by Andrew’s post, Travel Writing by Train.
In Sexual Personae, a landmark work in the field of pseudo-intellectual posturing, Camille Paglia claims that Da Vinci carried the Mona Lisa with him everywhere he went. To DaVinci, the painting was more than just a pretty smile, it was a power object, an “apotropaion,” a totem with the power to protect its bearer from harm. This sort of fetishization is hardly unique to Italian artists. Rather, it seems almost fundamental to human nature, perhaps even that which, in the final analysis, separates us from the animals. After all, what member of the animal kingdom would ever display the same unflagging devotion to an object as a child to its security blanket or would seek to define itself by its clothes? Perhaps the fact that dogs and monkeys don’t wear Armani (at least not consentingly) is definitive proof that they have no sense of self.Roger Morris’s Taking Comfort could easily be titled “Apotropian.” The protagonist is a marketing man (shades of Morris himself) who, after witnessing a suicide, begins to collect objects associated with tragedy in the belief that they have the power to protect him from disaster in his own life. A novel about materialism may sound, at first, cliche, but it’s carried off with a deft touch, the material presented in a way that is at once fresh and familiar. Morris plays a dangerous game with his narrative, constantly switching perspectives and focusing the action in each chapter on the relationship between a character and an object. The gambit pays off, as we’re shown the inner life of a multitude of characters, both incidental and essential to the main action of the story, a tactic that allows Morris a hard-to-achieve combination of introspection and brisk pacing. Inevitably, the objects the book fetishizes become part of the characters, even characters themselves. Everything from birth control pills to a coffee mug exert a powerful influence over their owners/users, contributing to identities that possess, in their reliance on the things with which they surround themselves, an alarming malleability.Whether these relationships are good or bad, Morris never makes clear. What is unavoidable, though, is his thesis that our relationships to things are meaningful, whether we like it or not. Although other authors, notably Brett Easton Ellis have sought to comment on the moral emptiness of modern life by describing their characters with brand names and designer goods, Morris’s characters’ relationships with their possessions rise above cynical manipulations, achieving something like poetry. Morris has a gift for spare, vital prose, and both characters and objects are described with the loving precision of a man who makes his living selling things. The book is written in the language of the marketplace, and it possesses an odd lyricism, ripped off of billboards and television spots, that in some ways predicts the future, a time when the low culture of advertising, god help us, merges with the high culture of literature (much to the delight of the late Andy Warhol, no doubt).Perhaps this is Morris’s greatest accomplishment, one that could have only been carried off by a marketing man: he makes us believe in things, not as mere manifestations of our material culture, but as incarnations of hope, desire, and courage. He makes us believe they’re important. By the sex scene in the middle of the book, even the body is, inevitably and with great power, reduced to nothing more than an object, over which the main protagonist’s girlfriend floats observing. With this epiphanic out of body experience, one of the book’s most stirring images, Morris makes it clear that our bodies themselves are nothing more than things, our possessions mere extensions of ourselves.Although the ending lacks the feeling of inevitability that distinguishes a truly masterful novel, Morris’s book is as good as, if not better than, most of the Booker and Whitbread (now Costa) winning novels I’ve read over the last few years (Life of Pi, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Vernon God Little come to mind) and deserves all of the attention that has been heaped on those projects.With his soon to be released second book, The Gentle Axe, a high concept thriller starring Inspector Porfiry Petrovich of Crime and Punishment, already garnering praise, Morris is a name to keep an eye on.
I have read only a very few graphic novels, but the ones I have read all seem to tread the same emotional ground. Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World and now I Never Liked You by Chester Brown. Their stories center on a sort of teenage emptiness that inspires a combination of pity and fascination in me. Visually, however, the three are quite distinct with Brown’s artwork being far more spare than the other two. Brown’s jagged panels placed asymmetrically on the page are surrounded by black, drawing the eye to his simple lines. (Unfortunately, later editions of the book have replaced the black pages with white.) His panels are devoid of details and instead focusing of the setting, the reader dwells on the characters, primarily young Chester himself. Brown’s picture of himself is both funny and sad, and while the book touches on his mother’s death, the focus is on his interaction with girls. He tells his friend Sky that he loves her but doesn’t know what to do next. His neighbor Carrie has a crush on him and they engage in this strange wrestling ritual as a stand in for actual communication. Girls are drawn to the odd, artistic boy but they are also repulsed by him. In the end, the book is about Brown’s inability to engage emotionally – with these girls, with his mother, with the rest of his family. It’s a poignant and quick read (it took me about an hour), but Brown’s dreamy artwork will stay with you.