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.
Dana Spiotta’s new novel, Innocents and Others, pays homage to an early form of hacking known as “phone phreaking.” Phone phreaks would break into long-distance networks by learning the language of the telephone. With their mouths, or sometimes with whistles from Cap’n Crunch cereal boxes, phreaks mimicked the tonal frequencies and sequences that would trigger network switches. They made pitch-perfect 2600 Hz shrieks into headsets, resetting the trunk lines that would allow toll-free access to virtually anywhere. Their whistles and clicks forced phone companies to develop separate channels for carrying routing info. Their hacks began the encrypting process that has led to the recent standoff between Apple and the FBI.
But Spiotta doesn’t go there. Innocents and Others is not a parable of “disruption,” nor are Spiotta’s phone phreaks the antecedents of brogrammers. Her characters phreak for love. They don’t want to exploit the system or bypass the operator. They want to find the operator. Specifically, the character known as “Jelly” wants to reach something called an “inward operator:” “People who can connect you to wherever you want to go; they are deep in the machine…they were voices, humans, somewhere in the big wide world.”
Both of the main storylines of Innocents and Others feature women influencing Hollywood from somewhere in said big wide world, specifically from Upstate New York. There’s the story of Meadow and Carrie, longtime friends who become filmmakers and slowly drift apart, and the story of Jelly, former girlfriend of a pioneer phone phreak and a proto-catfisher with a heart of gold. From a darkened room in Solvay, an economically-depressed suburb of Syracuse, Jelly cold-calls Hollywood producers and seduces them over the phone. She becomes legendary and eventually attracts the attention of Meadow, who has moved from Los Angeles to Gloversville to make artsy documentaries that feed the late-20th-century desire for confession.
A novel about this kind of urge to find the human deep in the machine is to be expected, considering our current fascination with analog technologies, with the kind of reaching out and touching others that involves the vibration of tone sequences through wires and hands along switchboards. Spiotta’s treatment of this desire is the next chapter in her career-long flirtation with nostalgia, but the nostalgia of Innocents and Others is less escapist, more radical, than other recent homages to the pre-encrypted world.
For example, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2013) turns to the art world that sprung up in the abandoned factories of SoHo in the 1970s. The novel’s masterful representation of this world participates in a recent obsession with all things New York in the 1970s, an obsession Edmund White describes in his New York Times Style Magazine essay, “Why Can’t We Stop Talking About New York in the Late 1970s?” Innocents and Others, on the other hand, does not promote longing for a super-cool era that has passed. Instead, it expresses a ruminative living with loss and longing that nurtures the kind of fellow feeling from which solidarity and renewal can grow.
The inward operators of The Flamethrowers are “China Girls,” office workers whose faces are filmed (usually alongside a color chart) and spliced onto the initial frames of film reels. Though the origin of the name “China Girl” is a bit of a mystery, their purpose is pretty straightforward: film processors used their images to calibrate color densities. In the Paris Review, Kushner says this about fascination with China Girls:
If the projectionist loaded the film correctly, you didn’t see the China girl. And if you did see her, she flashed by so quickly she was only a quick blur. They were ubiquitous and yet invisible, a thing in the margin that was central to each film, these nameless women that, as legend has it, were traded among film technicians and projectionists like baseball cards.
The China Girl does for film processing what the inward operator does for the analog telephone network. She is the requisite drop of humanity that calibrates machines that carry approximations of humanity. The China Girl highlights the role of anonymous workingwomen in the evolution of American culture. She gives us a new way of looking at what is already at the center of culture (movies). She is a reminder that if we look closely enough at, say, a length of film, we will find women trapped into standards.
Where Kushner’s China Girls represent the objectified women at the center of culture, Spiotta’s inward operators represent the radical possibilities that sound along the periphery. The voices of inward operators decentralize Jelly’s world. They signify its incredible depth and breadth. Most importantly, they carry the promise of intimate connection in a world where the means of connection are about to be encrypted. Unlike Kushner’s framed and fetishized women, Spiotta’s live beyond the reach of the subjugating dream factory. They continue to operate freely, triggering switches at the center of power — Meadow with her movies and Jelly with her phone calls.
And this interest in the radical potential of the periphery comes, I think, from the fact that Dana Spiotta has been living in Upstate New York for quite a while. Unlike such Silent-Generation writers as William Kennedy, Joyce Carol Oates, Russell Banks, or Richard Russo, whose novels preserve Upstate village life in the amber of literary realism, Spiotta understands Upstate as the living ground of revolution. It’s home to the Erie Canal, which Spiotta has called “the Internet of the nineteenth century.” It’s ground zero of the Women’s Movement, radical fundamentalist Christianity, and the back-to-the-land movement. It’s where people go change the world, not where they go to escape from it.
Meadow, who fled L.A. for Upstate, is a master dissimulator who avoids being exploited, ignored, or fetishized. She makes jury-prize-winning documentaries that eventually earn her an Errol-Morris-but-in-a-bad-way rep, which spoils her chances at a long career (only one Oscar nod). She winds up living austerely Upstate — think Nicholas Ray circa We Can’t Go Home Again (1973) minus the posse. Her friend Carrie writes empowered-woman rom-coms and pretty much lives happily ever after.
Where Meadow is the alluring, complicated trickster that we hope to find in literary fiction, Jelly is unprecedented, a woman once seduced by a giant, bald, blind-from-birth, alpha phone phreak (Oz) who names her Jelly Doughnut because “she was soft and round and even sweeter on the inside.” Where Meadow maintains the magnetism of an edgy art student who only dates sultry, eyelinered boys, Jelly is never not assertively middle-aged, unattractive, and drawn to ugliness. Granted, Spiotta gives Jelly the more fulfilling sex life. But she has to earn it. Her sensuality is in part a result of a meningitis infection that caused her to lose her sight, which increased her interest in smell and sound. (It’s also the illness that brought her and Oz together.) For Jelly, there are no “good” or “bad” smells, only “real” or “cover” ones. “And she wanted everything to smell as it was. Actually. An armpit should smell of sweat and hair and skin.” Her sight eventually recovers, but her interest in feeling around for what is actual never subsides.
Her relationship with Oz is intense, very haptic, very sexual. He teaches her how to whistle the phone into submission. Oz’s favorite thing about phreaking is reaching an electronic switching station, where he can click and whistle at crossbar and Strowger switches. Jelly’s favorite thing, other than reaching an inward operator, is reaching an “open-sleeve circuit,” a kind of proto-chat room:
Their voices hanging in space, listening and laughing and recognizing each other. She was the only — the only — woman who phone phreaked. These were shy, awkward men. They gave her lots of attention, which she enjoyed, but they were never ever nasty.
But her real passion, her art, is listening. After a friend who cleans houses steals some rolodex numbers from a mansion on Mulholland Drive, Jelly starts calling Hollywood players, “not the really famous ones…the names you don’t know.” Developing a language that does for human connection what 2600 Hz whistles do for trunk lines, Jelly triggers the switches of anonymous, powerful men.
With strategically-deployed pauses and vocalizations, circumlocutionary skills that would impress even J.L. Austin, Jelly extracts intimacy from men who are otherwise dead inside. They have money and power, but it’s Hollywood power, which is to say that it’s the kind of empty compensation that leaves a man vulnerable to an anonymous, willing female ear. Jelly is an intimacy hacker, her pauses and “wordlets” keep men confessing not their crimes or dubious morals so much as their genuine impressions of what life feels like — impressions that can be delivered over the telephone.
Spiotta’s characters want to feel the weight of self and find that the best way to do so is to submit to the precarious tissue of intimate connection, connection that is not routed along encrypted networks or filtered through predictive analytics. Desire for such connection is what draws Denise Kranis, protagonist of Stone Arabia (2011), into the kitchen of the stranger whose sad story Denise had followed instead of attending to her own life. Stone Arabia is a novel about how we compensate for failures to connect, about how we craft the covers of our not-real lives.
Innocents and Others is a novel about how intimacy works best from a distance. As is made painfully clear when Meadow coaxes Jelly into the light, direct encounter tends to dissolve what remains of the means of connection. Jelly is all but ruined, China-Girled by Meadow’s movie. This coming together of the novel’s two plots is the least compelling aspect of Innocents and Others. Its nod to narrative unity is forced, but the best part about the nod is how convincingly it suggests that we were all better off talking to each other in the dark.
It must have appealed to Roberto Bolaño’s sense of irony that novels, rather than poems, won him his place in the contemporary pantheon. For Bolaño’s protagonists, (and, we can imagine, for Bolaño himself) poetry is the art that endures. Still, to read Amulet or By Night in Chile is to find oneself immersed in verse – not because the prose is self-consciously lyrical (not in translation, anyway), but because all of the major characters are poets. Were these characters merely unheralded virtuosos, like Kerouac’s Subterraneans, the novels might take on an air of wish fulfillment. As it stands, however, Bolaño’s fictionalized Lives of the Poets are an inversion, or complication, of Kerouac’s: He seems more interested in the bad poets, the failed poets, than he is in the angelic ones.For this reason, and for several others, the recently published English edition of Nazi Literature in the Americas is an ideal introduction to the Bolaño oeuvre. The book comprises 30 short portraits of imaginary right-wing poets. The form of the fictional reference work (a subgenre close to my heart) allows for accessibility, while playing to several of Bolaño’s great strengths.The book begins in Argentina “at the dawn of the twentieth century,” with the Mendiluce clan. The matriarch, Edelmira Thompson de Mendiluce, has a long and busy life, writing books of poetry (Argentinean Hours) and autobiography (The Century as I Have Lived It) and a libretto for opera (Ana, the Peasant Redeemed), and, most significantly, founding magazines: Modern Argentina, American Letters, and The Fourth Reich in Argentina (“and, subsequently, the publishing house of the same name.”) As these inflated titles indicate, Bolaño has a lot of fun inventing his poets, and the dry humor seems to play to Chris Andrews’ strengths as a translator. One paragraph ends: “By the end of the audience Edelmira and Carozzone were committed Hitlerites.” The next begins: “1930 was a year of voyages and adventures.”After droll biographies of Edelmira’s progeny – “throughout her life, [Luz Mendiluce Thompson] treasured the famous photo of her baby self in Hitler’s arms” – the book will gradually work its way north, to the pop-inflected poets of the United States, and then south again, to end up in Bolaño’s native Chile, at the lightless dawn of the Pinochet years. Here as elsewhere, Bolaño excels in the art of ekphrasis – describing the fruits of one medium with the techniques of another. Rarely do we see an actual excerpt from the poems in question; instead, we are treated to summaries such as this one (concerning the works of Luz Mendiluce Thompson):In 1953…she published the collection Tangos of Buenos Aires, which, as well as a revised version of “I Was Happy with Hitler,” contained some of her finest poems: “Stalin,” a chaotic fable set among bottles of vodka and incomprehensible shrieks; “Self Portrait,” one of the cruelest poems written in Argentina during the fifties, which is no mean claim; “Luz Mendiluce and Love,” in the same vein as her self-portrait, but with doses of irony and black humor, which make it somewhat less grueling; and “Apocalypse at Fifty,” a promise to kill herself when she reached that age, which those who knew her regarded as optimistic.Even when Bolaño does quote from the poems in question – “[they] were free of political allusions,” we are told, “except for the odd unfortunate metaphor (such as ‘in my heart I am the last Nazi’)” – he relies on the reader to flesh out the fictional world, in Borgesian fashion.The form of the vignette means, inevitably, that certain entries are stronger than others; some, like “Luiz Fontaine da Souza,” are merely a single, extended joke. In general, though, Nazi Literature in the Americas gathers momentum as it goes on, which is perhaps a way of saying that it teaches the reader how to read it. The science-fictional leanings of several of the U.S. poets allow Bolaño to indulge in the same sort of hallucinatory symbolism that animates his finest short stories, and the final three entries, covering “The Fabulous Schiaffino Boys” and “The Infamous Ramirez Hoffman,” swell to the amplitude of bravura short stories themselves. (Indeed, Bolaño would rework the latter piece into the novel Distant Star, which is probably the next book to tackle if you’re looking to ease your way into the longer works.)It is as a whole, however, that Nazi Literature in the Americas makes its strongest statement. Beyond the humor, and the game-like pleasure of tracing the chain of influence and patronage among the various poets (abetted by an “Epilogue for Monsters”), the book offers a subtle analysis of the constituent parts of fascism: humorlessness, a longing for an imagined past, a persecution complex. They are often, Bolaño suggests, the same things that drive us to create art, and though the poems described in the book are often bad, they are not uniformly so. By the end of the book, we come to see poetry as a symbol of the broader moral universe (whereas in Kerouac’s novels it tends to represent some form of redemption from it). Bolaño muse, like the muse that spoke to Ezra Pound and Ernst Jünger, is morally and politically indiscriminate. The lives that surround the poems are where the greatest triumphs, and greatest failures, occur.Bonus link: An excerpt from Nazi Literature in the Americas, courtesy of Bookforum
This is what happens when I don’t take notes. Two months ago, I sat down to read Yesterday’s People, a collection of eight short stories by Goran Simic. Born in Bosnia, Simic was already a noted author and poet when he immigrated to Canada ten years ago. I decided to write about these spare, haunting and haunted stories, many of them about life in Sarajevo in the mid 90s. But for reasons that now completely mystify me, I wasn’t making notes, which would have been fine had I begun writing this immediately. Two months and three or four novels later, I began to write and I hit a brick wall.While I remembered the images and the tone of the stories, damned if I could remember any names, or specific details. And the images that I did remember were beginning to blend into each other. I was in a haze. I had been immersed in that world. And then I was out. I had shifted through time and space into other worlds. I was in Jonathan Lethem’s Brooklyn, then in Stephen Clarke’s contemporary Paris, and most memorably I was amongst Balzac’s characters in 1800s Loire Valley, as drunk on his words as I would be if I’d been one of his wine growers in the French countryside. The images of the Bosnian war had been overshadowed. I could never do them justice.So I began to re-read. I cracked open Simic’s collection and dove back in, revisiting the characters, and the horrors of war, and the resourcefulness and resilience of spirit that had moved me the first time.I revisited Nina. We were back in Sarajevo, during the war. A gothic wild west of thievery and morgues, where “we were all slowly going mad.” Nina and our narrator shared a past, and our narrator now spots her amongst the people lining up for water, “a shadow of what she used to be.”In “Minefield,” volunteer soldiers protect a ravine. Their initial Rambo bravado is shattered when one of them blows himself up with a grenade. They grow up fast. They begin doing deals with the other side: “as time passed and our ammunition dwindled, we shot less and swore more.” It’s trench warfare except the two sides volley benign insults and supplies. And then grim reality throws them a curve.In “The Story Of Sinan” we see the early days of the war when “we thought it all a brief private nightmare that the world had nothing to do with.” We meet Sinan whose daily routine has been inconvenienced by the war. To him, it’s an annoyance. He’s a gambler and carouser who lives by his wits. (He tells women, when he’s through with them, that his wife has been released unexpectedly from prison though she was supposed to have served five more years for murdering his ex-mistress). Then another curve, this time a sudden and unexpected act of kindness and selflessness.And as I re-read Yesterday’s People I noticed something that I hadn’t really picked up on the first time. I noticed that the stories are not just about Bosnians – then. They’re also about Canadians – now. In every story, a character either escapes to Canada or someone linked to him does. Sometimes the stories are actually written from the point of view of someone here, now, flashing back to his life there, then. There are photos throughout the stories, snapshots of the narrator’s past. The stories are about memory, about trying to remember and trying to forget. They’re about one’s tenuous link to one’s history. They’re war stories that don’t end in the trenches or in the long line-ups for water. They don’t end when the shooting stops. They’re brought up to date through the memory of the narrator. They’re immigrant stories.