John Feinstein is one of the big names in sports journalism. He’s written books on a number of headline-getting sports stories and consequently can be heard often on sports radio as an expert guest. Feinstein’s background is as a newspaper guy, writing for the Washington Post among others. The Last Amateurs is about college basketball in the Patriot League, a (mostly) non-scholarship league that struggles to survive in the world of big time college ball. To Feinstein, this is one of the last bastions of unadulterated amateur basketball in the United States. These kids play for little more than the love of the game and the glory of winning the league’s one berth to the NCAA Tournament. He follows the seven teams from schools like Holy Cross, Lehigh, and Navy through a whole season, focusing on the personalities, on the struggles peculiar to this one of a kind league, and on the great basketball games that never came close to showing up on a Sportscenter highlight reel. Feinstein’s newsy writing and copious background anecdotes keep the book moving at a fast pace. It isn’t, however, the transcendent sports writing of a Roger Angell. Instead, the book reads like a dozen Sports Illustrated articles strung end to end. As such, this is a fantastic book for fans of college basketball, as it really captures what is best about that game.
In meme parlance: life comes at you fast. Perhaps that sentiment is so retweeted and relatable because it always feels true. Time is elastic, defiant of the order we pretend to impose, the past simultaneously whispering in our ear and calling long-distance, a continent away. Joan Didion wrote that we are “well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” I have ghosts that visit every time I taste tequila or enter a room with faux-wood paneling, whose reappearances often coincide with tales of bad sex or bad choices or a sort of drunken, desperate ambition I often see in women between 18 and 25 with artistic temperaments.
It’s uncanny to slip as thoroughly into a character as I did with Jaracaranda Leven in Eve Babitz’s Sex and Rage, published in 1979 and reissued this summer by Counterpoint Press. The novel follows a young Angeleno, progeny of the Hollywood relatively-elite, as she fumbles with varying degrees of elegance through relationships and self-discovery, art-making and rent-paying. It is the story, really, of one’s 20s, or at least the kind I’ve had, wherein the clashes of reality and desire can lead to spectacular and terrifying confrontations with the chasm that divides them.
It would be foolish to ignore the differences—her West Coast upbringing vs. my North Carolina one, where I was more prone to encounter a screened porch than a screenwriter; her inherent ease with boys and men, which I feigned (poorly) until I could hide in my room with a notebook to exorcise my insecurities. We share more superficial things in common, though: an interest in books, a dicey relationship with alcohol, a scramble throughout our 20s to find meaning and fulfillment in unconventional, often fruitless ways. By the time I finished the online synopsis, I was already sniffing out the novel like a bloodhound, eager to meet a character that felt so particular but could be a stand-in for many young and reckless women like me, members of the Church of Reformed Libertines.
I picked up the novel just when I’d reached an odd détente with the city of San Francisco, about 390 miles north of Jacaranda’s native bars and surf breaks. I’d resigned myself to spending 46 percent of my take-home pay to live in an apartment two hours by train and bus from work in academic publishing. I’d effortfully carved out a niche of people who didn’t ask to meet for $15 cocktails, who read Clarice Lispector, and occasionally fed me at our Dungeons & Dragons games. I had the perilous sense that I had built a life for myself, but that it could shift with the next mass exodus of good friends, the price of the incumbent repairs on the car with the failing brakes. Unwilling to work in tech, tired of being hamstrung by the intermittent medical bill, I applied for a few gigs in a place I’d rejected for its West Coast opposite: New York.
Sex & Rage’s Jacaranda, reckoning with her alcoholism, exudes a similar reticence when faced with a voyage east. Recently launched from “the barge,” a cluster of high-rolling partiers who slept with, shit-talked, and enabled one another, she writes, “There seemed no place to go, after fourteen [gin, lemon, and egg-white] White Ladies, but into a spin that fell out of the sky, a smashed victim of impending gravity.” I thought of a particular summer, a night with cocaine and a blood ritual and the bruises I accrued by morning, outward tattoos that weren’t so different from the smashed way I felt inside, writing down my sins in the wood-paneled room. “She was lucky,” Babitz writes. “…because most of the girls they used for local color died before they were thirty.” A fateful encounter with an East Coast literary agent named Janet Wilton accelerates Jacaranda’s writing career from piecemeal freelance work to a book deal, and she’s faced with potential that’s almost as terrifying as its wanton, boozy opposite.
Babitz structures the novel such that its bulk occurs on Jacaranda’s sun-drenched home turf, in which she’s imagining the numerous ways her departure could end in tragedy. Live in coastal California long enough (about three years, personally) and it imprints on you—its languor and the subtlety of its seasons, the tendency towards liberality and the fringes. Even if Jacaranda and I spent most of our nights in bed with wine and cats, often both, I feel I know her enough to say that she, like me, felt she belonged on that furthest edge. What would a “Goodbye to All That” look like in reverse? Probably a long toke in Dolores or Griffith Park, and then a “meh” when someone asked what you thought of all that hustle & bustle, the concrete and steel. Maybe something more stringent. “She began feeling an even finer-tuned rage against material East Coast diamondy objects,” Babitz writes, and as soon as I read it, I thought about the visceral nausea I felt on a visit to Times Square.
This is a façade, though, especially in a place that contains multitudes. There are wide swaths of the western-most state that would rather ship out the homeless than care for them; rent is cheaper in Brooklyn than it is in San Francisco, and I have the anecdotal evidence to prove it. Who are we not to allow ourselves success, even if there is a part of us that bucks the conventional way, the one that would bring us less grief? “Up until this point,” Babitz writes, “it didn’t seem as though she was debauched at all, but the truth was that while she believed in being a washed-up piece of driftwood on the shore, she also believed in bold adventuresses, cigarettes, and suffered from one too many of anything.”
The novel’s most interesting section takes place when Jacaranda boards the plane, when she goes from spinning her wheels in a rut to launching herself forward, full speed. Babitz’s prose mirrors her new sobriety, both clear-eyed and frenzied. When she runs into Max, a beloved member of the barge with whom her romantic involvement was both vague and intense, Jacaranda has a revelation. “And once again [she] felt the aching waves roll over her from wanting what she couldn’t have. She couldn’t afford Max,” Babitz writes. “That much truth cost too much.” She doesn’t fall for the city like she fell for Max—she admires its glitter and lets herself feel simultaneously exhausted and enamored. She acknowledges its faults and sees its winsomeness, her affair with Manhattan an ember in contrast to roman candles like Max, like Colman or Gilbert or Etienne or Shelby before him.
Jacaranda and I were and are privileged white women with the bailouts and resources to fuck up many times between the achievements that buoyed us from year to year. Self-destruction can seem sexy until you’ve sobered up and seen how much easier it is to lay low—pay your rent on time, spend less on ibuprofen, allow yourself the simple pleasure of being good and thorough at your work. I think Jacaranda learned that, by the end of Sex and Rage, when she boards the plane back to L.A., having proven to herself that she could take a leap of faith, bet on her own will. I’m sitting in the July heat in Crown Heights, a black cat who’s the analogue of Jacaranda’s beloved Emilio splayed on the wood floor, with no return ticket to the place I thought suited me best. Finding your fictional parallel can be uncanny, but it can also be a reflection that brings your blemishes and beauty into a different relief. The future isn’t clear, it stands on shaky, sober legs, but here is the money I did not spend on rent. I’m placing my bets.
Haruki Murakami, perennial favorite for the Nobel Prize in Literature, eccentric juggernaut with a penchant for classical music, cats, and the quotidian lameness of life in the modern world, has returned with yet another occasionally charming, often frustrating novel. Unlike Kafka on the Shore (2002), arguably Murakami’s most accomplished realization of his aesthetic, however, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is considerably flawed, even when judged within the strange and disjointed context of the author’s previous work.
We meet Tsukuru Tazaki when he is in the throes of suicidal depression. He had been an integral member of a group of five creepily close friends, each of whose names contained a color except Tsukuru’s. One day, without warning or explanation, he is banished from this group. None of his former companions so much as answers a phone call for the next 16 years. Alongside this, a separate narrative of Tsukuru’s life in the present as an engineer of train stations follows our bland hero as he gets to know Sara, an efficient, sensible professional who, like most of the women in Murakami’s fiction, possesses a beauty that strains metaphor and breasts worth remarking upon. Sara, like any reasonable person, is amazed that Tsukuru has never once tried to discover why his friends exiled him. She refuses to sleep with him until he does so. “You mean you can’t make love with me?…Because I have some — emotional issues?” Tsukuru asks her over dinner during one of the novel’s many exasperating conversations. She responds, “That’s right…But I think they’re the kind of problems you can overcome, if you really make up your mind to do so. Just like you’d set about repairing a defect in a station.”
That remarkably short-sighted idea — that everything from impotence to “deep-seated emotional issues” (variously described as feeling like “a sudden, stabbing pain,” “swallow[ing] a hard lump of cloud,” and a “silent silver pain”), can be solved like a black and white Rubik’s Cube — is how Murakami initiates the quest structure in his narratives. It is a good trick, too. There is something relentlessly compelling about following a sympathetic character on a journey to find the missing pieces to the jigsaw puzzle du jour, whether those pieces are lost relatives, unuttered truths, or, I don’t know, horcruxes. The object itself does not matter so much as its status as an answer, both to the literal questions posed by the plot and to the narrative as a whole, an answer that resolves the suspension that the book comprises and allows it to end.
This structure (problem + answer = resolution) is distinctly at odds with the inordinate violence that Murakami often employs, and Colorless Tsukuru is no exception. We are supposed to believe that the world of the novel is a charming one in which adults say things to each other like, “If you had told me then how you felt, of course I would have loved for you to be my girlfriend,” and, “Thinking freely about things means…letting pure logic soar free, giving a natural life to logic,” but also a graphic place filled with “pubic hair as wet as a rain forest,” “modestly sized breasts,” and the occasional brutal rape. The fundamental problem of desire — its unpredictably, its curious tendency to resist satisfaction — does not disrupt Murakami’s world of kindly old people and ancient magic and beige dialogue about the nature of reality. “Like me, his favorite thing is mulling over abstract ideas,” one character says at Tsukuru, and we get the impression that that may be the author’s inclination as well.
All of the hallmarks of Murakami’s style — the supernatural, the uncanny, the grotesque, music (this time, it’s “Le mal du pays,” from Franz Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage), metaphor, sex, philosophy — all are present in Colorless Tsukuru, but for perhaps the first time in his work, they seem flat and uninteresting, almost overused, as if the novel is a parody of his earlier work. There is nothing intrinsically bad about each of those elements, but at this point anyone who has read an article about the author will expect them. If they were employed in the novel to some effect, they would seem more like load-bearing columns than filigrees. As it stands, however, they largely serve to alienate.
It is hard to sympathize with a character like Tsukuru, who seems to have arisen out of a writing prompt that challenges the writer to create someone with no personality at all. He is the hero, our eyes and ears, but he is mostly hidden from the reader. We never learn too much about what really went on in the group of friends from which he was banished (“They just hung out someplace, and talked for hours.”), so the life-ending misery his expulsion causes seems incongruous. As a result, the redemption he finds on his quest does not ring particularly true either.
This is not to mention the problem of femininity, which is surely the greatest weakness in Colorless Tsukuru. Women are either utterly inscrutable, fabulously beautiful, stunningly efficient, or insane. The female body stuns the narrative and resists analysis. As the novel progresses, Tsukuru’s search for answers, his “pilgrimage,” turns into a hunt for the source and reason for one female character’s hysteria. The most that can be said without revealing too much is that this character falsely claims to have been raped. The best explanation Murakami’s shamanic wizardry can give for this is that it was a product of “hysteric confusion.”
That is, of course, not to say that Colorless Tsukuru is without merit. Several paragraphs are downright beautiful, filled with prose that is both delicate and strong. Murakami is certainly at his best when he composes the novel’s metafictional sections. The story a character tells to Tsukuru about his father’s time at a spa in the mountains is effective and memorable. These strengths are finally not enough to save the novel from the jarring elements that dominate its pages, however. Like the melody that begins “Le mal du pays,” Colorless Tsukuru is aloof, quiet, and finally, dissonant.
Understanding how people live with disabilities has engaged me since my father had a stroke. I grew curious about the gap between me and my father, and my father and his old self. I began exploring this gap through writing essays for a disability rights newspaper about my father’s, and my family’s experiences. I had the chance to snuggle close to another physical change when my husband had a bad work accident and almost lost his hand. I wrote about that until I felt my words were too invasive, and asked my editor for other assignments. He suggested I interview people, and I’ve had the chance to profile a number of people with brain injuries, an English teacher with MS, and a blind man who climbed Kilimanjaro and kayaked the English Channel. This month my assignment is to write about a deaf drummer, Dame Evelyn Glennie.
Reading is another way I try to bridge the human canyon between my temporarily able-bodied self and this broadly defined other. I’m not well-versed in the growing field of disability literature, but I am growing familiar with pockets of writers who tackle the subject of their disabilities. Poet Peggy Shumaker wrote a captivating and lyrical memoir, Just Breathe Normally that touches on moments from a nearly fatal bicycle accident and the slow process of recovering her physical and mental functions, including the very act of writing.
I fell for Anne Finger’s flat, frank self-examination when I read Elegy for a Disease: A Personal and Cultural History of Polio. Her assessment of her life with a disease, and the life of that disease, written in a very immediate present tense, brought me right into her experiences.
This same quick personal style grabbed me at the beginning of Anne Finger’s collection of short stories, Call Me Ahab. Her fifth title and the winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in fiction, the book imagines disability in the lives of many real and literary figures. As readers we know of Helen Keller from her teacher’s perspective, of Captain Ahab’s monomania from Ishmael. Finger serves these stories, and those of other disability icons, from the eye of the beholder, confronting ideas we are spoon-fed as a culture, that Frida Kahlo is sexy, but Helen Keller is a tamed animal.
Finger is a talented storyteller, delivering voices and situations with smooth conviction. The scenes she creates jump time and place without jarring the reader. An imagined Vincent Van Gogh, the lead character in “Vincent” traipses between Van Gogh’s lifetime and a modern New York City, where the painter’s brother Theo leaves him to the whims of the social services system. “Goliath” recasts the biblical tale of David and Goliath in a post-apocalyptic manner, dotted with habits and phrases from our present; a renewed medievalism carries its own odd language and realm, peppered with remnants of our destroyed civilization, like announcements of the weather mixed with ancient habits of studying dead animals to understand a person’s disease.
Vincent’s mental illness and Goliath’s gigantism are central to these stories but also incidental; the disabilities sit in the stories as elements that render and support each fiction’s emotional truth. The author is intent on carefully inhabiting her characters. Thus we get to speculate what Goliath might physically feel, and wonder how an artistic genius might have weathered a society with a hostile approach to the package of his person, deficits and gifts.
Graceful sentences, often with awkward or shocking subjects, flow throughout the book, such as this thought the narrator places in Helen Keller’s mind in the first story, “Helen and Frida.”
Her ardent young circle of socialists wants to do away with the sordid marketplace of prostitution – bourgeois marriage – where women barter their hymens and throw in their souls to sweeten the deal.
Later in the same story the narrator states, “When I was a kid I thought being a grown up would be like living in the movies…” The placement of such a universal line in the mouth of someone who deconstructs representations of people who use wheelchairs or are blind takes this story about identity politics and puts the question of identity, which is very much on the tip of the narrator’s tongue, into the reader’s lap.
While elements of some of the stories feel slightly obvious and forced, like the member of a Boston Brahmin family dying of AIDS, and Ahab waxing homosexual in his thoughts, these flaws do not reduce the weight and charm of the collection. Writers manufacture stories, and some parts of even the most deftly written stories will feel manufactured. On the balance, Finger has strength in her storytelling, and hopefully that strength will reach a wide audience.
Lauren Karwoski-Magee teaches architecture at Drexel University, runs her own architecture and design firm The Drafted Line, and reads a lot.1. Cover art and a book’s spine are important. The spine of this book does something that I refer to in class as “drawing the viewer in,” making a person look closer and become more intimate with a work. The intriguing spine coupled with a cover that is a series of thin thresholds draws me in immediately.2. Thin thresholds: a threshold, according to dictionary.com, is “any new place or point of entering or beginning.” Often thresholds are spoken of as zones or spaces, rather than simply a line or a point, beyond which starts a different condition. This suggests that the slightest of variables could evince the beginning of something new and doesn’t always require a threshold as dramatic as a door or a wood saddle.2a. If a variable can be minuscule, must we recognize the variable or only the outcome to realize we’ve reached a turning point?2b. New: what is new, really? Is life a succession of interconnected elements, one feeding into the next, however abruptly?2c. Dramatic doors and saddles made of wood…3. I happen to enjoy thinking about the interconnectedness of things. In fact, I sometimes sit and daydream about it. It’s like the Kevin Bacon game for inanimate objects and life events (with a dash of whimsy) to help see things in new ways, paired unexpectedly, like multi-dimensional puzzles.4. Puzzles can become unexpectedly intricate, especially when new variables (even if minuscule) are involved. Variables keep life interesting, making us think about what it is that we really believe (remember, want) to be true.5. Memory and truth. The storytelling in The Way Through Doors relies on train of thought in which the characters may have multiple identities and versions of experiences with the end result of helping to restore memory. The narrative takes a path wherein the pieces of story overlap but don’t necessarily grow as more information becomes known. It progresses linearly as if you were to take a spring, stretch it out a bit, and then flatten it.
I have a dark and abiding love for the electronic dance music of the nineties and aughts. If it shows up on the “Faithless” Pandora station; if it has been compiled in a collection like “I Love Ibiza” or “Ultimate Trance Vol. 18”; if it has the seductive hooting of indigenous pipes and angelic female voices over a thumping beat; chances are I like it. They have machines that pulse a beam of sound and cause you to fall down shitting; I hear this kind of music and compulsively yearn. I first heard it when I was a cooped-up teenager watching MTV Europe in a hot Athenian apartment, and it has always seemed to represent all of the sexy, free, mystical things that are expressly forbidden the adolescent. None of my experiences with this music in the wild have approached its promise when it vibrates in that apartment or in my headphones, while I vacuum the house or write this review. Of all this genre’s notes, the plaintive thumps the loudest.
I tell you this now only because something about the experience of reading J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence recreated this feeling so profoundly that I felt compelled to break out the Faithless and examine the component parts of my enthusiasm. I learned about Submergence on Twitter (never say that Twitter never gave me anything). The novel is, variously, a love story, martyrology, heresiography, science book, and spy novel. Like its Twitter supporters, who spoke in rapturous terms, I was sucked into the novel right away, from its commanding first line — “It was a bathroom in an unfinished house in Somalia in the year 2012″ — to its final epigraph from Horace: “Plunge it in deep water: it comes up more beautiful.”
The plaintive is alive in this novel. It is largely the story of a James More, a British spy who is being held by Somali Jihadists. The latter are beleaguered and ineffectual in the scheme of their own ambitions, but deadly effective for people in “a very dark and specific place” — like James More in his unfinished bathroom, like the fourteen-year-old Somali girl who is hooded with burlap before her stoning. As More is taken out and mock-executed, as he is worked over and then marginally repaired by a marginally sympathetic doctor, as he is taken to a desolate waterless part of Somalia and then to a mangrove forest, he contemplates damp England, and his forebear Thomas More, and, most importantly, a romantic week during which he met and fell in love with a dazzling scientist based in London. The scholarship of this woman, Danny Flinders, forms the leitmotif of the novel: she is interested in the patterns and mysteries of the deepest ocean, the least known part of the world. The novel follows More in his dark and specific place and Danny in hers — a submersible in a near-mythological section of the ocean called the Hadal deep. Submergence flirts both with what is called Big History, a an all-inclusive discipline of which the human experience forms a miniscule part, and with the genre of “CliFi.” As Danny tells James during their interlude:
Let’s say the Atlantic is 160 million years old…We appeared less than one million years ago. We walked in yesterday. It’s not much of a claim. Yet somewhere in the Atlantic right now and in other oceans…some man is smashing up a seamount more ancient than any greenwood on land, which he can’t see and refuses to value.
I have a weakness for bizarre analogies, but I think this novel aligns with my secretly cherished dance music, both its content and its praxis. Thematically, the novel shares many of the same elements with electronic dance music — the erotic, the foreboding, the melancholy, the mystical, the vaguely orientalist. There are reasons that electronic dance music and club culture has been cited in scholarly articles about modern forms of religious or spiritual practice. James himself thinks along these lines — one of his dreams in captivity describes:
…a Lenten carnival. A Christ-like figure on a carnival float was leading a crowd of young people in a dance. The music was techno. The street was narrow. Bodies were pressed up against old buildings…the Christ and the crowd repeated over and over with their hands a thousand years of love, a thousand year of peace.
(The bacchanal is cut short by a suicide bomber.)
Electronic dance music invokes mystical themes, with lines like “This is my church” or nonsense about the ocean: “Open my eyes/ Bigger/ Listen to us/ Swimming in Saltwater.” Its beats are structured for maximum epiphany and release. It is culturally affiliated with mind-expanding drugs that promise vast sensation and awareness that will be lost in the morning. Submergence too encourages spiritual-philosophical meditations about things you don’t really understand. The novel is full of information about the most mysterious parts of the planet and its inhabitants; never before have I heard about a Cuvier’s Beaked Whale, let alone pondered the romance of its liminal existence. Ledgard concludes an unforgettable description of decomposition and reanimation at the bottom of the ocean thus: “Hades is evolved to the highest state of simplicity. It is stable. Whereas you are a tottering tower, so young in evolutionary terms, and addicted to consciousness.” Submergence offers up a similar, if headier and wetter, line of inquiry than the bio-mathematics of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia: “We exist only as a film on the water,” Danny tells James. Whoa.
(This novel encourages you to look for the meaning of things. I learned later that “Hadal” is also the term for “word, “speech,” or “expression” in Somali. I don’t know what this means, but it just seems important. After all, the Angel Gabriel told Mohammed, “Recite”; the miracle Qu’ran was his recitation. For better or worse, this is the mode that Ledgard puts you into.)
Some of my interest in techno music is rooted in that yearning teenage place, trapped in a parental apartment and wishing to be out among the European youth, to whom everything, I erroneously believed, was permitted. The novel is finally calibrated to exploit yearning for the world. Danny and James embody the infinitely attractive versions of statelessness. She is a brilliant and great-looking woman of Australian and Martiniquan descent, with a cabin in Italy, an apartment in London, at home in Switzerland and the bottom of the ocean. James is both personally and professionally tied to his particular state, but he is still at home in the world, a speaker of Arabic. In his normal life you can find him among the Jacaranda trees, wearing linen shirts and eating breakfasts of “papaya and scrambled eggs, toast, and Kenyan tea.” These are cosmopolitans.
Americans are sensitive to the very existence of people this cosmopolitan, and they show poorly in the novel. They are the CIA guy in a food court talking over a terrorist’s errant appendage: “We think it’s an Arab hand, don’t we Bob?” They are on the boat with Danny, the un-fun ones who spend the voyage “sipping iced water,” who “purchase ugly expedition t-shirts.” The women “covered themselves in such loose-hanging cotton garbs…seldom wore high heels in their lives, and…felt [Danny] was a snob and an ice maiden.” Their hotels are “prefabricated, with piped music, airless corridors, tinted windows that would not open, circulated air that could not be shut off, a small plastic bathtub, chlorinated water…” Meanwhile, the British have “Chaucer to Dickens, the First World War poets, Graham Greene typing through the smog and drizzle” (and lots of club hits). The American reader is left feeling a bit resentful: Just you wait, motherfucker — our uniformity is contagious. And then Ledgard has the last laugh, because he shows the very American-ness of that instinct — the blind, obliterating force of American reaction:
It glinted. It burned from its tail. It was an astonishing creation. Entirely human, wholly American…It was impossible in the final moment not to see the missile as something more.
There are several versions of statelessness. In addition to Danny and James, there is the decidedly nasty kind, the men who leave home turf of Saudi, or Pakistan, or Afghanistan, or the United States, to come to Somalia and build a frontier of Jihad, a sad inversion of the roving Muslim scholars of centuries past. Jihadists are often described as harboring a medieval view of things, but this is in many ways an affront to medieval Islam, when the practice of religion and the pursuit of knowledge in the sciences and humanities were often the same thing. I think Ledgard knows, although one is never sure whether James More does, that without these Muslim scholars and their translations from Greek to Arabic and back to Greek, James More’s ancestor Thomas, his beloved Francis Bacon, might never have known their Classical philosophers. (Ironically, a real-life “Thomas More Law Center” exists, in benighted America of course, to forestall those “Radical Muslims and Islamic organizations in America” who “take advantage of our legal system and are waging a ‘Stealth Jihad’ within our borders.”) I disliked how little room the novel made for the non-Jihadi varieties of Islam, but why should it, I suppose, when More’s captors make even less?
Many critics have made passing reference to John le Carré as a point of departure for Submergence, since this novel, because of all the mythical deep and so forth, is so much more than just a spy novel. But some of its success, I think, lies in the dexterous deployment of elements of genre fiction. John le Carré is himself a departure and elaboration of genre. And while he is not poetic in the Ledgard mode, like Ledgard he is so observant, so fond of characterizations, and makes them in such a way — with the dangerous seduction of erudite British public servants — that you are certain they are true. Like the novels of John le Carré, who has a conscience and is often concerned with dark matters, Submergence thrums at the level of high genre from which wonderful novels emerge. Lonesome Dove (the ne plus ultra). Neuromancer. Charlie Smith’s Men in Miami Hotels.
High genre is fiction that allows you to investigate an individual text, because it is full of its own traits and merits, whether in its characterizations, its plot, or its prose. Regular genre, I suppose, is something you can only talk about as a family — tracing the themes shared collectively among its members. High genre will always be vulnerable to the taint of its lower peers, because it shares the equipment, the same beats. This is why people are drawn to True Detective, and yet can accept assertions that it is just another dead naked lady show. I mentioned the praxis of electronic dance music. Detractors would have it that this music is derivative noise, the artless patching together of beats at just the right frequency to make the ladies tear off their cardigans in the middle of the dance hall. These are the same kinds of things that people say about genre novels. But DJs (like medieval Islamic poets, in fact), demonstrate their mastery through use of the material of their peers and predecessors. You don’t always need to reinvent the wheel. You just need to be really good at spinning it.
There is some less-high genre at play in Ledgard’s novel, too. Rand Richards Cooper’s New York Times review of The Constant Gardener called le Carré “the writer who rescued the spy novel from the clutches of Ian Fleming by creating an anti-James Bond — the spy as brooding skeptic, whose freedom from conventional mores conferred not playboy romance but the loneliness of exile.” This was 2001, several years before the Bond franchise was reanimated in a darker key, with all the visual pleasures of earlier Bonds but decidedly more brooding. I’m thinking of the film Casino Royale, which, like Submergence and techno music, is sexy, sad, and possessing of high production values.
Ledgard wrote a scholastic hero and turns your head with trippy descriptions of oceans and molecular life, but some of his pleasures are carnal in the Bond tradition. Consider here, when Danny and James meet over Christmas at the Hotel Atlantic, a Ritz hotel on the French coast, which, with its copper bathtubs and Turcoman rugs, its lobster bisque and suckling pig, is probably the best approximation of one version of heaven in modern fiction. (The ceiling beams have been “soaked in milk for a year to harden them.”) In rustic French country splendor, as the snow blankets the world outside and the wind howls across the Atlantic, these sexy people meet for dinner. She, who will be described as both “a Persian and an alley cat,” is looking spectacular: “Her dress shimmered purple and brown and in and out of those colors, showing off her breasts and hips.” He wore “a blue suit with suede shoes and a gray Turnbull & Asser shirt. He had only his regimental cufflinks with him. A silver parachute on maroon.” As the snow pours, they eat:
…servings of duck foie gras with a peach wine jelly, Scottish scallops, ham, deboned saddle of lamb from the Auvergne, white beans with truffles, sea bream, poached apricots, bay leaf panna cotta, cheese and chocolates. They drank champagne, a house white wine, Rothschild Bordeaux, Chateau Villefranche dessert wine…
And more. They smoke cigarettes. They go upstairs and do it on the rug. By the middle of the novel I was Googling the hotel to see if it existed and if it were possible to get a room. It is now my single greatest material aspiration to stay in a hotel like this.
The Bond element resurfaces in funny little ways, as here, when James travels to a small island to track down the family of a terrorist. A sister cooperates, and after their interview, James has another request.
“You’ve been very kind,” he said. “Might I ask one more favor?”
“But of course.”
“I need a haircut. Do you think you could cut my hair?”
“I’ve never cut gold hair!”
They took a communal taxi across the town. They were squeezed in the back with another woman. He was buttock to buttock between the two…[she] rested her head absently on his knee.”
It’s such a pointless, comparatively light-hearted, pseudo-sexual, weirdly colonialist interlude, right out of Bond. I’ll cut your hair, I murmured to myself, picturing Daniel Craig.
Some people interpret the invocation of genre as a way to temper enthusiasm, which is not my goal here. I am very enthusiastic about this novel, because I found it transporting. Those dinners, those Bondian wine lists, those Condé Nast interiors, are so materially exciting that they do not necessarily detract. If the novel’s national and civilizational categories are shallow, its ecological meditations are deep, its imagery sublime. How can I forget the ship Challenger trawling an unexplored trench, its nets bringing up “slime that covered the inside of the dredge…all that remained of the most exquisite forms of millions of sea squirts, salp, and jellies, whose diaphanous musculature — more remarkable than any alien species yet conceived — had lost its form in air”? Like the dance music of my teens, Submergence takes me to another plane. I’m so young in evolutionary terms, after all, and addicted to consciousness.