Thanks to our friend Edan, who is well-connected in the world of audio books, Mrs. Millions and I had a 6 cd, seven and half hour, unabridged work of literature to keep us company on our recent trip from Chicago to New York, where we’re picking up the dog, and various of our far flung possessions. The Outlaw Sea was a riveting work of non-fiction by an accomplished reporter. Langewiesche is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and has written several books that combine hard reportage with the more ephemeral qualities of a travel writer. In this case, Langewiesche’s goal is to illustrate with bold examples the ungovernability of the sea. For him, this is a law of nature, but it is also a consequence of the inability of the laws of men to deal with sea’s expanses. His case studies, if you will, are many, but he spends the most time on a few memorable stories: the modern day pirate attack on the Alondra Rainbow in 1999; the post-apocalyptic landscape of the world’s most heavily trafficked ship graveyard, the beaches of Alang, India; and the wreck of the ferry Estonia on which at least 852 people died when it went down in a storm in the Baltic Sea in 1994. The subtext in all of these stories is that the tragedies contained within are, at least partly, a result of the inability of modern societies to govern the seas. The greater implication, as Langewiesche makes clear, is that such lawlessness and statelessness make the sea fertile for the operations of lawless, stateless terrorists. The sea is everywhere, but it is nowhere in the eyes of the law. These timely concerns, and Langewiesche’s sturdy prose elevate a book of riveting tales of disasters at sea to a book of more weighty importance.
A Review of Dave Eggers’ What is the WhatOn paper, Edward P. Jones and Dave Eggers seem to have little in common. The former grew up poor in predominantly African-American Northeast D.C., made his critical reputation with a collection of deceptively understated short stories, and even after a National Book Award nomination, continued to labor in relative penury and obscurity. The latter grew up in an affluent Chicago suburb and found commercial success early, with a memoir that placed the Dave Eggers voice – inventive, flashy, ironic – front and center. And yet this literary season has found the two stars aligning in the literary firmament. First, in August, Eggers penned an appreciative and thoughtful Sunday Times review of Jones’ new collection All Aunt Hagar’s Children – a book which, at least superficially, could not be more different than Eggers’ recent collection How We Are Hungry. Then, two weeks ago, Eggers published a novel embodying the very qualities he praised to in Jones’ work: “its sweep, its humanity, the unvarnished perfection of its prose and [a] steady and unerring” narrative force. And though it may surprise critics of McSweeney’s to hear it, What is the What is the finest American novel I have read since The Known World.The novel is a gently fictionalized autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a living casualty of the ongoing Sudanese civil war. Having fled from his ruined boyhood village on foot, Deng grew up in U.N.-run camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. He settled in Atlanta in 2001, and after a series of setbacks began looking for a writer who might help him tell his story. As stories go, this one is dramatic and wrenching prima facie, and in a two-part article for The Believer, Eggers gave it respectful, even tentative journalistic treatment. But, sensing that this approach placed barriers of “objectivity” between the audience from the material, he decided, boldly and correctly (with apologies to La Kakutani) to recast Deng’s story as first-person fiction.The urgency and earnestness of Deng’s voice seem to have provided the necessary pressure to render Eggers’ prose crystalline:The moon was high when the movement in the grass began and the moon had begun to fall and dim when the shuffling finally stopped. The lion was a simple black silhouette, broad shoulders, its thick legs outstretched, its mouth open. It jumped from the grass, knocked a boy from his feet. I could not see this part, my vision obscured by the line of boys in front of me. I heard a brief wail. Then I saw the lion clearly again as it trotted to the other side of the path, the boy neatly in its jaws. The animal and its prey disappeared into the high grass and the wailing stopped in a moment. The first boy’s name was Ariath.This paragraph alone would be an extraordinary act of self-effacement for a writer given to flourishes, and an extraordinary act of trust on the part of Deng. That they sustain this voice for 475 pages is something like a miracle. The writer speaks from inside his narrator – from his heart, from his gut, from his intellect. And the distance between audience and subject narrows until we feel that we, too, are Valentino Achak Deng, in all of his complexity and contradiction.Because imperfect as a human being, he makes a perfect protagonist. He is whip-smart yet perpetually naive, generous and selfish, strong and weak, courageous and timid, full of both faith and doubt. In other words, he is a lot like the Dave Eggers of that other fictionalized autobiography, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius… not because Eggers has played ventriloquist, but because he has tapped into something universal. In the course of the novel, Achak becomes as real to us as we are to ourselves, and we feel his every loss and triumph as though they were our own.The first half of the book concerns the destruction of the tranquil Dinka homeland in Southern Sudan by agents of the Islamic government in Khartoum and his harrowing walk across the country in the company of thousands of other “Lost Boys.” The novel grounds every historical exigency in the dramatic interactions of rounded characters. If the expectation of a simple story of good vs. evil (and some of the political nuances) gets confounded in the process, we can appreciate more fully the quiet heroism of children who talk each other out of suicide, of young teachers who lead groups of boys through minefields and crocodile-infested rivers, of villagers who risk the disapproval of their elders by sharing their food with these unwanted boys. And though it feels inappropriate to render an aesthetic judgment on Deng’s experience, his quest for safety generates a narrative force to rival anything in Lord of the Rings. The difference is that there are no invisibility cloaks or magic breads here.Things get quieter in the second half, as Deng finds some measure of safety in the refugee camps. But his earlier struggles resonate poignantly in his attempts to contact the father he hasn’t heard from in a decade, and especially in a visit to the relatively prosperous and stable capital city of Kenya. Without ever editorializing, What is the What reminds us of the brutality the world’s millions of impoverished children face daily; how decadent something as simple as a grocery store can look to those who are living on U.N. rice. And calamity continues to bedevil Deng as he waits to be relocated to the U.S. – which will prove to be no promised land.In a rare instance of overt artistic license, Eggers uses the invasion and robbery of Deng’s apartment in Atlanta as a frame for his novel. We return periodically to scenes of Deng being assaulted in his apartment, or filing a police report, or waiting to be treated for his injuries in the ER. His internal monologues – his memories of Africa – are directed at the various characters he meets along the way. For the most part, this device works just fine. We are deprived of the solace of seeing Deng as exotic, someone “over there”; rather, his struggles are ours… and the injustices he faces in America are the ones we perpetrate every day with our impatience, our pettiness, our indifference. And Deng himself is guilty of these human failings. Occasionally, though, Eggers seems to overreach in his transitions between the fictional present and the fictional past, and to milk the robbery too aggressively for suspense. In almost every other particular, however, What is the What‘s formal features merge perfectly with its moral authority, until it is impossible to speak of artistic “choices.” It is equally difficult to analyze the rich relationship the reader develops with Mr. Deng. Like The Known World, and like Deng’s life, the book just is. And that’s about the highest praise I can think of.Eggers has been a fixture on the American literary scene for long enough that it’s easy to forget he’s in his mid-thirties. Like his near-contemporaries Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace, he has occasionally suffered in his writing from a kind of IQ overload, an analysis-paralysis. His second book (and first novel), You Shall Know Our Velocity was not an unqualified success, and some readers have been rubbed the wrong way by the antic quality of his fiction. They may be tempted to write off What is the What, rather than read it. But its large-heartedness is an antidote to such small-mindedness. It takes us deep inside a person we will never forget and heralds the arrival of a writer who has found himself by looking beyond himself, and who has learned the difference between intelligence and wisdom.(All proceeds from What is the What go to aiding the Sudanese in Sudan and America.)
It seems likely to me that a few readers will not get past the introduction of Pete Dexter’s new book, a collection of newspaper columns and magazine articles called Paper Trails. In it he lets us know that he had little interest in collecting his columns in the first place. He tells us that the 82 columns and articles we are about to read will lack dates and any indication as to where they first appeared because, basically, he and his editor Rob Fleder didn’t want to dig them up. He also calls the venerable Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley a “worn-out old whore.”The people who don’t appreciate any of this, of course, are probably the same people who wrote to him over the years outraged by the way he treated his wife. For those who get Dexter, however, all of this is brilliant. Dexter is adamantly self-deprecating and willing to step on plenty of toes. He also used thousands of column inches to mercilessly tease his wife, as any reader of this collection will quickly discover. Naturally, to those with a sense of humor, it’s clear that Mrs. Dexter is just the foil for his antics.Though Dexter the newspaperman often comes off as brash and insensitive, compassion is Dexter’s most irrepressible quality in this collection of columns. Written primarily for newspapers in Philadelphia and Sacramento, Dexter’s columns evince a keen eye for people wronged by the system, and in them he slays corrupt cops, sleazy lawyers, and crooked politicians deftly with his pen. However, and this was a surprise to me, he also devotes plenty of ink to animals, his cats and dogs mostly, but there was also his memorable encounter with a peahen.Columns like these, 1000-word missives shot out of a cannon, are not seen much these days. Nowadays, local newspaper columnists aren’t the advocates they once were, instead getting caught up commenting on whatever was featured on CNN that day or hammering on petty controversies. It seems less likely that Dexter fell prey to those temptations during his newspaper career, and these 82 columns, stripped of their context and years or decades old, are no less affecting for it. It is a book that will make you laugh and cry nearly 82 times over.The central thread running through the collection, of course, is Dexter himself, sometimes the comic hero, other times carrying the weight of human depravity – the murders, the missing bodies, the broken families, and the drunks – on his shoulders. The urban decay of the 1970s, in Philadelphia and elsewhere, is the backdrop to this book. He wrote about the violent city, and violence would help end his newspaper career when he was beaten nearly to death by a mob in South Philly in 1981. As Pete Hamill explains in the forward to Paper Trails, Dexter had gone that day to make peace with brother of a man who had died in a drug deal and who Dexter had written about, but the man turned on him. Dexter would move on and wrote novels and screenplays – and this collection includes some of Dexter’s writing from that era, too – but even if Dexter hadn’t achieved his late career success, one suspects he would not have been bitter about it.Bonus Links: My review of Paris Trout; My review of Train; My review of Brotherly Love; The day I met Dexter.
Constraints in writing have a way of helpfully containing possibilities. Speaking to the role of constraints in poetry, Anne Sexton once said, “You could let some extraordinary animals out if you had the right cage.” Take the sonnet, a strict poetic form that consists of 14 lines of iambic pentameter that has endured for more than seven centuries. Take Pale Fire, which presents itself as an explication of a single poem, yet digressively explicates an entire life. Or, take Green Eggs and Ham, which Dr. Seuss wrote after his editor challenged him to create a book using no more than 50 different words.
One of the major constraints of Matías Celedón’s The Subsidiary is a technical one. He wrote this book with a now discontinued stamp set called a Trodat 4253 that he found at an office supply sale. The device allows one to arrange characters on a stamp any way he likes, but limits the output to the size of the stamp. The result feels as much like an art exhibit, as it does a novel. Most of the 200 pages in the book are constrained to less than five lines of text, and fewer than 90 characters. This is a book that can be read as fast as the reader can turn the page, and that momentum elevates the unsettling effect of the nightmare.
The Subsidiary tells the story of a worker trapped in the offices of a Latin American corporation, who uses the materials at his desk to give testimony of his experience. The book begins with a loudspeaker announcement that the power supply will be interrupted between 8:30 and 20:00. The exits are closed off. The phone lines go down. There’s shouting outside.
The jailers treat the office captives — THE SUBSIDIARY, LAME MAN, ONE-EYED MAN, and ONE-ARMED MAN; THE MUTE GIRL, BLIND GIRL, and DEAF GIRL — with an attitude that alternates between indifferent and threatening. Sometimes they let them work. Sometimes they chase them with bloodthirsty dogs.
The Subsidiary is Bartleby the Scrivener meets Cujo as imagined by David Lynch (in Chile). The book contains banal reports, like “MY SKILLS ARE MANUAL,” and “I STAMP THE ORDERS, THE INSTRUCTIONS, THE MANDATES-.” Yet it also transports the reader to frightening places. Many pages have a snapshot-in-the-dark quality to them, and what we see during those flashes is scary. “IT’S THE HOWLING OF A PACK OF HOUNDS BEFORE THE VIOLENCE BEGINS,” Celedón stamps. “THE BLIND GIRL KEEPS STILL WHILE THE DOGS SNIFF AT HER,” and, “SHE’S IN HEAT.”
In the spirit of Franz Kafka, Matías Celedón evokes a bureaucratic nightmare that is terrifying in its banality and in its menace. The power remains off for 12 days, and nobody resists the instructions to remain at their stations. Despite its near pointlessness, the narrator maintains an unwavering commitment to his job.
Celedón’s dedication to his farcically technical method stabilizes this harrowing story. He wrote The Subsidiary by taking it on like a clerk — by showing up every day, and selecting and placing individual letters with tweezers. From its technical construction to its tormenting delivery, The Subsidiary enacts the tension between reason and futility in doing work.
You shouldn’t just read The Subsidiary for its eccentric context or its chilling story. You shouldn’t just read this book because of its painstaking commitment to forming words. All of these pieces — each spectacular on their own terms — fix together to create a remarkable reading experience. The Subsidiary releases an extraordinary beast.