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.
There is a kind of Turkish music called Arabesk. I'm not an expert, but by rough definition it is very sad and melodramatic, the kind of music to which old men sit and drink a booze called rakı (lion's milk, to the Arabesk crowd) and wave their hands and sing along and get teary-eyed and feel sad. Arabesk songs have titles like "God Hates a Lie," "Woman in Pain," "Am I not a Human Being?," and "I Have the Suffering, You Have the Cure" (Dert Bende, my personal favorite, by Ajda Pekkan). Sometimes Turkish people laugh at me when I say I like this kind of music, but I think it's the most beautiful music alive. I can't understand all of it (maybe that's why I like it so much), but in the right mood, it makes my heart crack in a thousand pieces. (I'm not kidding about the booze, by the way. On YouTube, under songs by the famous Arabesk singer Bergen, there are comments like "I'm listening and drinking rakı," to which someone will respond "Drink, brother, drink. I'm having a beer.") Arabesk is music for indoors smoking and lost love and breaking up or knocking up or beating up. Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence is like an Arabesk song, as written by Marcel Proust. It opens like this: It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn't know it. Had I known, had I cherished this gift, would everything have turned out differently? Yes, if I had recognized this instant of perfect happiness, I would have held it fast and never let it slip away... Someone get me a drink. In the streets in Beyoğlu, close to where the novel takes place, there are lots of shops selling postcards and posters and old magazines and all manner of stuff. Once I bought an Efes beer advertisement from the seventies showing a lively technicolored family around the kitchen table--Mom and Dad enjoying a glass of the national brew. These were the triumphant modern citizens of Atatürk's Turkey! Look how bright and forward-thinking! Examine Ma's stylish permanent wave. Of course, what you can't see in the ad is the perpetual struggle between the ultra-nationalists, the leftists, the Islamists, the fascists, and other Ists, a struggle punctuated by the military, which every ten years or so marched in and told everyone to fuck right off. Nor do you see the eternal struggle between secularity and religion, the eternal embarrassment of the rich and urbane for the poor and benighted, or the eternal wrangling over virginity. Orhan Pamuk, of course, can see all this, although his central character is a citizen of that swinging, modern Turkey, for whom the nation's sociopolitical struggles are not a primary concern. Kemal, the novel's protagonist, is one of the sophisticated rich who gets imported liquor for parties at the Hilton (rather than the provincial rich, who gape at uncovered women and get fruit sodas). By chance or destiny or whatever, Kemal, engaged to a fellow bright young thing, starts an affair with an unpedigreed relative, Füsun. There has been big talk on the dearth of sex in the writing of contemporary men--this book has sex, by God. Right from the get-go, there are big pear breasts and honey skin and nipples like strawberries and trysts in an airless apartment. The affair (and Kemal's engagement) end rather quickly, but the ensuing anguish and thwarted desire and inscrutable looks stretch on almost a decade. In an effort to win back the unsophisticated relative, Kemal spurns the trendy restaurants and cafes of his peers, going instead to her family's shabby home to sit, night after night after night. The beloved Füsun, an aspiring actress whose emotional depths are for the most part unplumbable, appears to be happy with her chubby husband, a screenwriter and director. Cousin Kemal, they are all agreed, will finance the film that will propel her to success, and in the meantime they drink in seedy film hangouts (probably with Ajda Pekkan) and smoke an obscene number of cigarettes. All the while, everyone behaves as though brooding Kemal isn't dying of love, and brooding Kemal, displaying markedly kleptomaniac traits, pockets everything his beloved touches. One day, these objects will populate his museum. At about year six of the family sitting, you're not sure whether Kemal is a crazy as a loon, if this woman wants anything to do with him, if she's a moron, if she's a victim, if he's one of the world's great lovers, or if he's just an asshole. I can't say more, for fear of spoilers. Meanwhile, Istanbul is happening all around, the sounds and the smells and the politics and the writhing humanity. It's no secret that Orhan Pamuk knows and loves his city, and it is a character here as in his other books. Beyond Kemal and his Arabesk yearning, the story is about Turkey, about the collective life of the Turks, sitting in their living rooms, smoking their cigarettes, watching the state channel, and soothing themselves with food and drink and china dogs. In the streets, the politically-minded thrash around and exchange bullets toward an obscure purpose. Essays about Turkish literature and criticism often seem obsessed with the idea of "belatedness." Even those scholars who wish to protest this characterization seem to reify it through constant iteration--that Turkey is always behind. Pamuk's novel engages this idea in a comic way, describing the wounds sustained by Kemal and his hip cohort as they attempt to use another mysterious gadget imported from the West (can openers and the like). Of an evening in Paris, Kemal writes: I caught myself asking the questions that occur to every Turk who goes abroad (if he has some education and a bit of money): What did these Europeans think about me? What did they think about us all? (I've always felt that the United States and Turkey have a number of things in common, especially in this regard, but that's another essay). Even as Pamuk writes of a country running to catch up, he writes of a country that is so unlike anywhere else, and so much itself and as a consequence so desirable, that the rest of the us find ourselves scratching at its door like puppies hoping to be let in. For all that Pamuk the citizen has been embroiled in legal struggles with the Turkish state, he strikes me in one sense as an elemental patriot. To chronicle something obsessively is a form of love, and Pamuk documents the details of his Istanbul obsessively, just as his character Kemal creates his museum of innocence out of the universe of meaningless bric-a-brac surrounding his beloved. The last Orhan Pamuk novel I read was The Black Book, which was so esoteric that I found it a struggle. This book seems more straightforward, but that's in style only. Its themes run deep and dark, even if they mirror the preoccupations of a seventies crooner. The style's simplicity is, of course, deceptive; it's not easy to write hundreds of pages of sitting, smoking, drinking, brooding. Nor has Pamuk abandoned his solemn post-modern playfulness. Deliberately, I believe (particularly since he mentions them), he invokes Nabokov (especially Ada and The Gift) and Proust. Furthermore, the extraordinary man is actually creating a real Museum of Innocence, in which he will display the various knick-knacks and impedimenta of daily life. That's so many posts past modern, I don't know what it is. One day I hope to be able to read this in Turkish. I'm on page 8 of Kar (Snow), which I bought in 2006, so I have a lot of work to do. But The Museum of Innocence is not a novel that seems to suffer in translation, which is beautifully executed by Maureen Freely. I was spellbound for four days. It's really a remarkable book. Read it, and bring your rakı and your nicorette. Bring your sad songs and your broken heart. If you have the suffering, I have the cure.
There is a certain type of writer whose books loom especially large as targets for hatchet jobs. A lot of critics are inclined toward gladiatorial showboating when reviewing a flawed book, and find that the temptation to indulge this tendency is exacerbated when it happens to have been written by an author of major significance or universal renown. The problem of the book’s failure is compounded by its being positioned within the broader context of its creator’s success. Here the question shifts from that of whether the book is any good to that of whether its author has any right to his or her exalted position in the first place. What’s really being asked, in other words, is something like “who is this person, and how do they keep getting away with this sort of carry-on?” Martin Amis probably gets more of these “playing-the-man-not-the-ball” type reviews than any other living English-language writer. In fact, the Amis Hatchet Job is, at this point, a sort of minor literary genre in its own right. And, like any genre, it has its formal peculiarities and idiosyncratic requirements. As a rule, the reviewer will mention at least one (but preferably many more) of the following list of topics: misogyny; Islamophobia; dentistry; patrician contempt for the working classes; sonship of Kingsley; mentorship of Bellow; friendship of Hitchens; enmity of Barnes and/or Eagleton; comparability with Jagger; earliness of success; velvetness of trousers; greatness of Money; misapprehension of nature of own talent; distinctiveness of style; disproportionate presence of style in relation to substance; tendency of style’s distinctiveness to degenerate into self-parody. The reviewer will, before trashing this latest novel, often mention that they’ve been a fan of Amis for as long as they can remember, and that they have stuck up for him in the past when others groan at the very mention of his name. The animating question of the Amis Hatchet Job – the “whodunnit?” of the form – is usually either “How come nobody stopped him?” or “Why does he even bother?” Partly because of its inherent tendency towards exhibitionism, it can be a pretty entertaining genre, but it’s one that’s started to become a little predictable. The reason I’ve been thinking about the AHJ as a genre is that I’ve been reading Lionel Asbo: State of England and feeling intermittently obliged to try my hand at it. Is Lionel Asbo a bad book? Well, it’s certainly a book with quite a lot of bad stuff in it. Every ten pages or so something happens, either at the level of prose or plot, that makes you want to hurl the thing across the room. (I read it on a Kindle, and the experience got me thinking about whether it might be a good idea for e-readers to come with a Wii remote-style adjustable wrist strap, so that this vestigial book-flinging instinct doesn’t result in domestic disaster. Those things are a lot more aerodynamic, and a lot harder, than your traditional ink-and-paper set-up.) Firstly there’s the story itself, which, like most of its predecessors in the Amis bibliography, is all set-up and very little plot. Our protagonist is a mixed-race teenager named Des Pepperdine who lives in a council flat with his white uncle Lionel in the fictional London borough of Diston. Lionel is one of Amis’s most thorough sociopaths: someone for whom violence is both a means to various professional ends (he works as a “debt collector” of some sort, taking two apoplectic pit bulls with him wherever he goes), and a pleasurable end in itself. Des, in all but one crucial respect, is an exceptionally good kid, despite being raised by Lionel – his “anti-dad,” his “counterfather.” He’s hardworking, smart, and fundamentally decent. The one crucial respect in which he’s not a good kid, though, will probably be a deal-breaker for a lot of readers: at age 15, he frequently has full penetrative sex with his own grandmother, Lionel’s mum. If the reason why Des would want to do this is never adequately established (the whole question of statutory rape is more or less glossed over), the reason why he wants to keep it a secret is plain. What little plot there is, then, is largely concerned with the business of Des’s efforts to hide the incest from his beloved girlfriend Dawn and, more pressingly, from the eminently murder-capable Lionel. When the gran succumbs to Alzheimer’s – she’s barely into her forties, but it’s that kind of novel – she starts raving in lurid detail about all her former lovers, and this becomes an increasing cause of concern for Des. Meanwhile, Lionel wins the lotto and becomes instantaneously, farcically wealthy. He begins a relationship with a glamor model named “Threnody,” and thereby ascends to the peculiarly English status of tabloid folk anti-hero. Amis has a great deal of fun with Lionel; in fact, he’s often clearly having more fun than the reader. He never makes the mistake of trying to mitigate Lionel’s horribleness, but it’s nonetheless obvious that he is powerfully endeared to his creation. At one point, Des is questioned by Dawn as to how he can love such a “truly dreadful person,” and it’s difficult to see his reply as anything other than Amis’s own baffled explanation for his attraction to the Lionel Asbos of the world: “‘Dawn, he’s worse than you know. But I can’t help it. It’s like you and Horace [Dawn’s racist father]. He’s a truly dreadful person too – and you love him. You can’t help it either.’” Some UK reviewers have seen Lionel as a vicious reactionary attack on the English working classes – as a kind of straw chav – but Amis’s misguided, conflicted affection for him is always puzzlingly apparent, and it’s always much more complicated, much messier, than these critics allow for. It can be difficult to differentiate such affection from a kind of fascinated disdain, but this has often been part of what has made Amis, in the past, such a compelling and troubling satirist. One of the things that bothered me about the novel – and which led me to suspect that those who have accused Amis of a kind of patrician-anthropologist attitude toward the lower social orders might have a point – was the matter of Lionel’s speech. There are certainly some moments of linguistic brilliance here, where the cadences and rhythms of working-class Londonese are captured and subtly Amis-ized. Here, for example, is Lionel working his way into a best man’s speech at the wedding of his friend Marlon Welkway: “‘Now I always thought, Marl? Marlon Welkway? He’s not the marrying kind. Marl? No danger. Ladies’ man. Confirmed bachelor if you like ...” I chuckled at this perfect presentation of Lionel’s voice, with its implied dialogic preemptions and forestallings. I didn’t need to be told what this voice sounded like, because I was already hearing it. But this was a rare moment, because throughout the novel Amis insists on interceding between Lionel and the reader, and telling the latter exactly what the former sounds like. So we’re informed that he pronounces the name “Cynthia” as “Cymfia,” and that he pronounces “myth” as “miff,” and “hyposthesis” as “hypoffesis.” We’re told that “pathetic” is pronounced “puffeh-ic-uh,” that “paddock” is delivered “with the full plosive on the terminal k,” and that “truck” is pronounced “truc-kuh (with a glottal stop on the terminal plosive).” This goes on and on, and it becomes exponentially antagonizing. It’s like trying to read while Amis looms over your shoulder, briskly clearing his throat and saying, “Now remember what I said about Lionel’s terminal plosives, all right? Let’s not forget that this is how he talks, substituting the ‘f’s for ‘th’s and so on.” (These were the moments when an adjustable Kindle wrist strap would have been most welcome.) His lack of trust in his own ability to adequately evoke Lionel’s speech, and in the reader’s competence to imagine it without these constant intercessions, is ultimately mystifying. Amis is a notoriously riff-based writer; his signature style is one of comic accretion, and he’s at his exhilarating best when he’s exploiting the comic possibilities of elaboration and repetition. But the riffs in Lionel Asbo are often desiccated, drained of their venom, to the point where they’re in danger of sounding like harping. For a comic novel, in other words, the comedy falls too flat too often. And yet, as always with Amis, there are enough fleeting glimpses of brilliance to keep you turning the pages in anticipation of the next one. Like Lionel and Des flying into “an unserious little airport” on their way to visit Grace in Scotland. Or the description of a cat listening to a conversation “with independently twitching ears – one ear listening right, one ear listening left.” Or the reference to “parking” (i.e., burying) a deceased loved one. The strongest example of how the experience of reading Amis can vacillate so wildly between intoxication and frustration came at the end of an uncharacteristically touching section in which Des and Dawn fall helplessly in love with their new-born daughter, and with the elations and anxieties of parenthood. I was enjoying this stretch of the novel more than I had any that preceded it, and so the abrupt way in which Amis pulled the plug on it felt like a particularly reckless kind of self-sabotage: “If it’s true what they say, if it’s true that happiness writes white, then decency insists that we withdraw, passing over to the three of them a quire – no, a ream – of blank pages.” Well, I disagree with this particular authorial intervention: decency insists no such thing. If anything, it insists something like the opposite. The writing he abandons here is actually some of the least white in the whole novel. So is Lionel Asbo a bad book? It’s certainly nowhere near Amis’s best (I see it languishing somewhere down around the lower quartile of the bibliography), and there are frequent moments when you wonder what the hell he can possibly have been thinking. But even when the riffing sounds like harping and the jokes fail to hit their marks, it’s not an unenjoyable experience. Reading Amis, I am often reminded of something my father used to say about the late Spanish golfer Seve Ballesteros, who was as wildly uneven as he was wildly talented: “Even when he’s bad, he’s a lot more fun to watch than pretty much anyone else.” Amis is all over the shop here, but even when he hits his tee shots into the car park, there’s always a significant chance that he’ll wind up with a birdie. It’s frustrating and disappointing, and frequently maddening to watch, but it’s rarely boring.
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Peel away Michael Chabon’s luminous prose, and his new novel Telegraph Avenue would be a pretty lackluster book. In the novel, two old friends, Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings, one white, the other black, run a used-record shop under threat from a gigantic new mall devoted to music and movies planned for their racially diverse neighborhood between Oakland and Berkeley, California. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Telegraph Avenue offers side plots galore, but the central engine of the plot is a direct steal from the 1998 Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks rom-com You’ve Got Mail, which was itself a remake of a 1940 Ernst Lubitsch film The Shop Around the Corner, which was itself an adaptation of an 1937 play called Parfumerie by Miklos Laszlo. You get the picture. There may not be any truly original plots left, but in this case Chabon’s seems unusually shopworn. It also feels oddly dated. The book is set in 2004, but its preoccupations with race, class, and corporate co-optation of poor people’s art seem far better suited to 1994, when identity politics were the rage and people still looked upon Borders and Tower Records as cultural hegemons and not roadkill on the information superhighway. Chabon himself seems to sense this and loses interest in the-mall-eats-the-scrappy-corner-shop tale two-thirds of the way through, returning to his old chestnuts, marriage, fatherhood, and quirky folk obsessed with popular culture, before tying the whole thing up with a treacly happy ending, which seems to suggest that all the problems the characters were worrying about for the past 460 pages could be solved if a few people just said they were sorry. Thus, to sum up: plot-wise, Telegraph Avenue is a sprawling, ungainly mess. In addition to the struggling used-record shop plot, there is a secondary plot involving Nat and Archy’s wives, Aviva and Gwen, who are themselves partners in a small, marginal business, in their case midwives to Berkeley’s fascistically right-thinking, litigationally trigger-happy professional moms. Then, too, there is the subplot involving Nat Jaffe’s gay son, Julie, who falls madly in love with Archy’s long-lost son, Titus, who is straight as a one-dollar bill but not above accepting the occasional public hand job. And that doesn’t even touch on Gwen’s troubled relationship to her own pregnancy, or Archy’s troubled relationship with his druggy father, Luther, a down-at-heels former blaxploitation film star who is trying to blackmail an Oakland city councilman over a thirty-year-old botched hit on a pimp named Popcorn Hughes who crossed Black Panther leader Huey Newton back in the day. Oh, and wait, I almost forgot another side plot involving a musician named Cochise Jones and his talking parrot, Fifty-Eight, who during one tour-de-force twelve-page, single-sentence riff, flies above the Berkeley-Oakland flatlands like some great omniscient parrot God. See what I mean? That’s just a paragraph and already your eyes are glazing over. In an interview, Chabon told Mother Jones that the novel began life as a 90-minute television pilot for TNT and that he struggled to shift from a TV pilot model, which is designed to set up a situation that other writers can riff upon for many seasons to come, to a novel, which must tell its own story. It’s obvious that as talented as Chabon is – and, sentence for sentence, he may well be the most talented American writer of his generation – he never truly made that leap, and the book remains all wind up and no follow-through. Yet until the final pages, when the meshugas that is the plot of Chabon’s novel finally falls of its own weight, Telegraph Avenue is a sparkling, mesmerizing read. As a prose stylist, Chabon possesses two great gifts in abundance: a talent for giving inanimate objects a personal identity and purpose, and an eye for the outlandish but weirdly appropriate simile. He also has a hell of a way with an adjective. These talents, along with an omnivorous intellectual curiosity and a working vocabulary that rivals Shakespeare’s, enable Chabon to create on the page a world that looks and sounds very much like the one we see every day, but is richer and more nuanced, more alive, than anything we mere mortals can see with our own eyes. Early in the novel, for instance, we find ourselves at a memorabilia convention where a scuffle breaks out requiring a pair of private security guards to escort one of the offenders off the convention floor. We have all seen these security guys. They are large men, squat-built and neckless, their hormone-pumped pecs stuffed into too-tight white shirts. Chabon knows you know all this, and so his lone physical descriptor is that the younger of the two goons has his “head shaved clean as a porn star’s testicle.” There it is, in a phrase, what makes Chabon’s books so electric, so much fun to read. The simile is apt: a private security goon’s head and a porn star’s testicle are both shaved, and both look frankly a little weird. But it’s more than that. The line is funny because it would never occur to anybody but Michael Chabon to compare a security guy’s head to a porn star’s balls, but we should have because, of course, in both cases, the men are shaving away a sign of their masculinity – their natural body hair – to better play their role as a symbol of masculinity. It’s a joke, but it’s also a lightning-quick commentary on the demeaning lengths working-class guys will go to in order to take on the only jobs left to them, that of being professional slabs of man-meat. Chabon tosses all this off in eight words and we’re back to the scene at hand. The book is filled with these brilliant little brushstrokes of language. Here’s another, taken almost at random, depicting a moment when Archy Stallings, anticipating a marriage-threatening fight, is watching his wife pull up in front of their house in her car: Daylight was taking its sweet time fading into dusk, and the street at suppertime seemed to be holding its breath, torn into patches of deep shadow and sunshine, motionless but for the little white moths stitching their loopy crewelwork in the honeysuckle. In the sandpit of the tiny playground, dozens of toy vehicles and appliances lay bleached and upended, primary-colored plastic ruins as of some toddler cataclysm. This is marvelous writing on so many levels that it by itself makes an argument why, in a digital age when no byte of information is ever out of reach and images can be frictionlessly zapped from one corner of the globe to the other, the humble printed book is still culturally relevant. Look at what Chabon has done here. At one level, it’s a pretty accurate description of how a semi-urban Berkeley street looks and feels at the moment when day slides into night. But it also captures, in its superbly rendered details, precisely what is going on inside Archy Stallings as he watches his wife pull up in her car: he is a man “holding [his] breath,” his life “torn into patches of deep shadows and sunshine,” standing “motionless” as he prepares to see the “ruins” he has made of his marriage laid out “bleached and upended,” except in this case he is the “toddler” who has created this “cataclysm.” That’s what Chabon’s books do, sentence after sentence, page after page: they force you to bring your game up to his level. Chabon is such a good noticer, and such an effortless explainer of what he’s noticed, that you, his reader, become a better noticer under his spell. For the week I was reading Telegraph Avenue, I found myself studying the world around me more closely, drawing mental similes, seeing new patterns in the avalanche of data we all are assaulted with every day. I will never write a line as smart and funny as his about the security guard’s “head shaved clean as a porn star’s testicle.” But then I don’t have to. We have Michael Chabon for that, and even when he is not at the top of his game, his writer's eye makes the world a more vivid, vital place to live.
In a much-quoted Guardian interview, the British novelist Rachel Cusk said that following the publication of her divorce’s chronicle, Aftermath, she was unable to write memoir. Trying instead to write a novel she found herself, additionally, “embarrassed by fiction.” “Once you have suffered sufficiently,” she said, “the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous.” Where does that leave a writer, when you can neither invent, nor tell the truth? Transit, along with its predecessor, Outline, seems to be an attempt to solve this problem -- and I suspect that whether or not a reader responds to this book ultimately depends on whether she finds Cusk’s solution successful. Transit pursues Outline’s unusual formal strategy, in which a cagey first-person narrator relates the stories of people she encounters during the novel’s plot, or “plot.” As with Outline, the story is, at best, wispy -- our interlocutor, Faye (like Cusk, a divorced writer), has returned to London and bought a run-down apartment in a fashionable neighborhood. She has two children, though we never meet them. They are installed with the former husband while she gets the flooring replaced and deals with unpleasant downstairs neighbors -- the central problem of the book. She also has a haircut, goes to a literary festival, tutors an annoying woman, teaches a class, and attends a dinner party. If this sounds slight, it is. The story serves only to bring the narrator into contact with other characters, all of whom have a story to tell, related in chunks of dialog and third-person exposition. The effect of these stories, essentially novelized dramatic monologues, is both interesting and tiresome. There is interest in what they replace, the silence they fill, as the narrator’s reticence communicates a traumatic past that is finally -- though incompletely -- revealed by novel’s end. There is also a voyeuristic interest in hearing these voices speak. We have no real reason to care, for instance, about the abusive youth of Julian, the voluble festival co-attendee, yet it is compelling, the same way overhearing a stranger talking on a flight or train ride can be compelling. But just as that chattering voice behind you can become dull, even maddening, so it sometimes is here with these reported anecdotes. Though Cusk has a good feel for how long to linger before moving on to the next talkative stranger, the book is necessarily hemmed in by its own rules. The book is told from her perspective, yet the narrator cannot or will not divulge too much of herself; the interesting walk-ons quickly walk off stage again, eliminating any conventional narrative drive. For me, the experience of reading Transit was largely the experience of wondering about these constraints -- mainly, what purpose do they serve? For one thing, perhaps, they allow Cusk to write quasi-memoir without any personal shame. By creating a narrator of such fuzzy reluctance, she offloads the confessionality onto these peripheral voices, emboldened to speak precisely by not bearing the burden of the novel’s focus. At the same time, by promoting these extras and crafting the book from their summarized stories, she dodges the embarrassing task of “having them do things.” In one representative section, the narrator, teaching a creative writing workshop, thinks while gazing out the window at a cloud: “I heard the students speaking and wondered how they could believe in human reality sufficiently to construct fantasies about it.” The workshop continues without her instruction, digressing from a student’s appreciation of his dog, a Saluki, to a several page biographical account of the breeder from whom he purchased his dog, to a history of Saluki breeding and dog training, culminating in an philosophical riff regarding “the unitary self being broken down, of consciousness not as an imprisonment in one’s perceptions, but rather as something more intimate and less divided, a universality that could come from shared experience at the highest level.” Here, our narrator turns away from the window and asks another question that occasions two pages of reported introspection. This is extraneity elevated to art, an aesthetic choice that strikes me as perverse in several senses. It is perverse in its effect, in the engrossing alienation it creates. It also seems grandly perverse for an author reportedly hostile to fiction, and the artificial demands of invention it imposes on writer and inflicts on reader, to create a book from marginal anecdotes. Read in this light, Transit can, at times, feel like an expression of this hostility, alerting the reader to the arbitrariness of story by telling dozens of arbitrary stories. It is also surprisingly effective. The accumulation of peripherality works as both a critique of narrative, and as narrative in its own right. Though perhaps narrative isn’t the word, exactly -- it’s more of a thematic scaffolding, as experienced by the exquisitely inert and receptive character at the center of the novel. Her receptiveness is sincere, and in the end, I don’t believe that Transit is fundamentally an exercise in formal cleverness. There is a generous spirit behind this storytelling mode, articulated elegantly in the last scene of the book: What mattered was to learn how to…see the forms and patterns in the things that happened, to study their truth. It was hard to do that while still believing in identity…just as it was hard to listen while you were talking. I had found out more, I said, by listening than I had ever thought possible. And through this listening, what a reader hears, in the end, is philosophy. I find these novels (a third in this loose trilogy is slated for release in 2018 or 2019) best appreciated as philosophical tracts, full of mini-disquisitions on subjects like representation, literature, authenticity, modernity, hate, anger, and love, among many others. By the end, my reader’s copy was full of little colored flags marking places where I’d admired the clarity of Cusk’s perceptions, trains of thought worked fully through in her smooth and stylish prose. Try this: “The idea -- of one’s own life as something that had already been dictated -- was strangely seductive, until you realized that it reduced other people to the moral status of characters and camouflaged their capacity to destroy.” Or: He had come to the conclusion…that up to a certain point his whole life had been driven by needing things rather than liking them, and that once he had started interrogating it on this basis, the whole thing had faltered and collapsed…He was used to being with [his wife]: once she was gone he was left with a need that could not satisfy itself because the cycle of repetition had been broken. But he had started to realise that what he called need was actually something else, was more a question of surfeit, of the desire to have something in limitless supply. And by its nature that thing would have to be relatively worthless, like [a] cheese sandwich, of which there was an infinite and easily accessible number. The peripheral narrative construction of Transit -- the feints and evasions and elisions -- is finally peripheral to the central pleasure: spending time with the book’s animating intelligence. The slipperiness of this intelligence -- the refusal to express itself in banalities like plot and conflict -- can be frustrating at times, but is also integral to its character. It is a perceptual mode that is necessarily elusive, and it builds something up into the air like a tower that is all crossbeams, a tree that is all branches.
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