I’ve crossed another classic off of my “to read” list, and boy am I happy I read this one. This was pure satisfaction from start to finish. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is an amazing book that embodies the intersection of literary weightiness and readability. There are plenty of epics out there that span generations: Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds or Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, for example. Those books are a joy to read and you can luxuriate in the authors’ virtuosity as characters are added to weaving storylines, but East of Eden seemed to have more weight to it. Unlike many epics, which seem to thrive on love, unrequited or forbidden, Steinbeck’s book focuses on the struggles of brothers seeking their father’s admirmation. From the title alone, it is obvious that this notion is Biblical, and the book’s Biblical quality becomes its center. For the first time in a very long time, I did not rush through the book’s last chapters, eager to get to my next conquest. I felt that pang that you sometimes get when you finish a truly magnificent book, the pang that is part sadness at the experience of reading the book being over and part a feeling of that book permanently lodging itself in your memory to be drawn from and remembered with reverence. There are, I think, very few books that can produce this sublime reading experience, but East of Eden is on that short list.
On its surface, Kristen Radtke’s Imagine Wanting Only This is a book about grief. When Radtke was in college, her uncle, a man whose presence in her life is something between a father’s and a brother’s, dies from a rare genetic heart condition. The sudden death of uncle Dan and the possibility that the same condition could be present in her own DNA create in Radtke a desire to explore ruins and abandoned cities, to explore, physically and philosophically, life’s impermanence.
Illustrated in stark and often-gorgeous shades of gray, the book looks the way Radtke feels: at once benumbed and dreamy. The cleanliness of the linework augments the melancholy of the narrative, a technique that calls to mind Adrian Tomine, another significant chronicler of urban solitude. The simplicity of the people in the book is contrasted with the staggering complexity of the environments. In one stunning two-page spread, Radtke looks out at an Icelandic vista; Radtke is small, occupying only the bottom-right corner of the page, with the sky large and enveloping. Despite the book’s compositional wizardry, however, Radtke remains committed to understatement.
In a work otherwise characterized by subtlety, the connection between the body’s deterioration (her uncle’s, but also, potentially, hers) and the expeditions to and excavation of desolate places is far from subtle. “Every few months I found myself looking again into the inscrutable heart defect that threaded through my family,” she writes. “I couldn’t comprehend why the dead couldn’t be made undead. Why a heart that caved couldn’t be filled out again.” Later, Radtke imagines parting her uncle’s chest cavity only to find the interior of an abandoned cathedral.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, her grief propels her to travel, though Radtke deftly avoids ascribing too much meaning to her excursions. Indeed, in the end her trips mean nothing — not in the sense that they don’t mean anything, but that they mean a further inching towards oblivion. In a handwritten note composed on top of an image of a child’s balloons, Radtke writes, “My friends are all writing to me, jealous, asking about the town, and the wine, and the men. All I want to say is that I’m lonely as hell.” She concludes the note by saying, “There are so many expectations what this is all supposed to look like — being happy, having an adventure.”
Yes, Imagine Wanting Only This is about grief and loneliness and mortality, but what makes the book so vital, what elevates it beyond its travelogue-meets-grief-memoir trappings is its incisive examination of female restlessness, of the difficulty of reconciling what she wants (to be an explorer and a creator of art) and what, as a woman, she’s told to want (to be a creator of life).
Before the release of Imagine Wanting Only This, Radtke published a series of illustrations in The New Yorker about the loneliness of life in New York. In “The Loneliness of Longing for Other People’s Apartments,” Radtke draws a succession of drab buildings, the only excitement coming from faraway glimpses of the tenants in the windows. “What continues to surprise me when I walk down a street at night and catch the corner of a bedroom beyond a window’s curtain, or someone flipping through TV channels from the couch,” Radtke writes, “is the longing I feel for these homes I’ll never be invited into — or, maybe more accurately, for the lives I’ll never live.” As artists we imagine the lives of other people all the time, so much so that it can be hard not to desire those lives.
For Radtke, “having it all” does not mean having a job, a marriage, and children. For Radtke, as she illustrates in both her New Yorker work and her new book, “having it all” means amassing as many experiences — stories, sights, sounds — as she can. Family is how many people understand the world, and that’s okay, but for many women, art is the key to unlocking the mysteries of life.
This desire to experience comes with the realization that perhaps it is possible only by being lonely. In “The Loneliness of the Solitary Job,” another of her New Yorker pieces, Radtke sketches a series of people who work from behind a counter or a glass window. Of these workers of solitary jobs she writes, “though they’re often physically removed from those around them, separated by glass or a counter’s edge, engaging with others for only brief moments, they’re also well positioned to observe the city moving around them.” Like the man behind the counter of a food truck, an artist must be able to observe the world around her, and this can sometimes only be done through separation.
This notion of alienation as a way of seeing the world animates much of Imagine Wanting Only This, particularly in Radtke’s treatment of her relationship with Andrew. The two met while Radtke was attending an art school in Chicago, where the classes were held mostly at night. “I liked the simple fact of filling a space,” Radtke writes, “the comfort of sitting with spotlights and worn easels in a quiet room before being released into dark, empty streets.” Near the art school was a basement theater that held puppet shows. “I really appreciated how the puppets represent humanity’s fabricated relationships,” Andrew says.
On a tip from a classmate, Radtke takes Andrew to Gary, Ind., a town whose main attraction was an abandoned cathedral near the city’s center — the same cathedral Radtke sees when she imagines opening her uncle’s chest. The spread in which Radtke and Andrew stroll through the cathedral is the first page in the book to not have any panels, as if being among the ruins is liberating for Radtke. The prose too becomes more poetic, more unfettered: “Ivy overtook the corroding walls as it does in storybooks, covering the slated stone with spindles of earthy web.”
The two lovers are framed in the middle of the decaying church, and it’s easy to read that as Radtke finding comfort in Andrew while ruination surrounds them. After returning home from Indiana, Radtke expresses hope for the future together: “The future felt like an infinite and hazy concept, a space we’d undoubtedly occupy and conquer together.” It’s then that Radtke finds out her uncle has died. Grief, of course, has a way of changing one’s conception of the future.
The apartment Radtke and Andrew share goes from fixer-upper to prison cell. There is a claustrophobic two-page sequence that shows a bird’s-eye view of their bedroom, with each panel the same size as the next one. Radtke laments “how unprepared [they’d] been to pretend [they] were adults.” In another panel Radtke says that she feels like Joan Didion at the beginning of “Goodbye to All That.”
In “Goodbye to All That,” Didion writes that it “never occurred” to her that she was “living a real life” in New York. “In my imagination,” she says, “I was always there for just another few months, just until Christmas or Easter or the first warm day in May.” Didion relates herself to the Southerners who reside in Manhattan: “They seemed to be in New York as I was, on some indefinitely extended leave from wherever they belonged, disinclined to consider the future, temporary exiles who always knew when the flights left for New Orleans or Memphis or Richmond or, in my case, California. Someone who lives always with a plane schedule in the drawer lives on a slightly different calendar.”
Like Didion, Radtke begins to feel the same restlessness, the same disinclination towards the future. She tells Andrew that she’s going to Italy and when Andrew calls her out for the abruptness of her departure — “You have a life here” — Radtke responds, “I just feel like I have to go see something else for a while.” Their separation does not last long, however, and Andrew soon visits Radtke in Italy and proposes to her. In celebration, or what seems like celebration, they take a tour of Europe together. In one of the standout pages of the book, Radtke imagines the photographs of their trip hanging on the wall of their future home next to photographs of their wedding and their children. The pictures of Europe are fully rendered, while the pictures of their future show Radtke as an empty outline. The future that she should want — the one in which she’s married with children — feels indistinct, unreal.
The engagement unsurprisingly falls apart, and soon Radtke finds herself on the island of Siquijor in the Philippines, with her friend Mary Helen. During a tour of the island, they stop at the home of the island’s faith healer. Mary Helen suggests Radtke ask the healer about her heart condition, and when Radtme gestures towards her heart, the healer says, “the only cure for that is a man.” The healer prescribes “tagihumok,” a love potion that will “soften [her] heart.” But as she says as she leaves the healer’s house, “I wasn’t just some heartbroken girl.”
Towards the end of the book, over images of an open road and a snowy landscape and a power line against the vast sky, Radtke writes, “if the genes in my heart hold, if they stay in their shape and function, I worry for what will be used up with age. I want to consume everything while there is still more to be had, leftovers in the periphery I can concern myself with later. Am I supposed to want children who will mourn me or husbands I will watch lowered into the ground or houses I will endure in their emptiness?” The whole endeavor of Imagine Wanting Only This is to examine the well-trod philosophical ground of how we live on after our deaths, and while Radtke avoids answering that question in any definitive way, the implication is that, for Radtke and many women like her, being a wife and mother is not the only way to endure.
Although it will be talked about within the context of other grief memoirs, Imagine Wanting Only This is also part of a lineage of books about restless women. One of the books it is most reminiscent of is Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Edna Pontellier, Chopin’s protagonist, liked “to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested.” Like Edna, Radtke too likes to wander into strange and unfamiliar places, places that appear made “to dream in.” Also like Edna, Radtke finds this dreaming only to be possible when she’s “alone and unmolested.”
A much more recent novel with which Radtke’s memoir shares its spirit is Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, a keen and salient work of feminist autofiction. “My plan was to never get married,” Offill’s narrator says. “I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things.” To be a monster is to be abnormal and ravenous, and to be a woman concerned solely with art is regarded the same way. Towards the end of the novel, the narrator, nameless but sometimes referred to only as “the wife,” decides to teach creation myths in her writing class. In some creation myths, she muses, “God is portrayed as a father, in others, as a mother. When God is a father, he is said to be elsewhere. When God is a mother, she is said to be everywhere. It’s different, of course, with the art monsters. They are always elsewhere.” A woman who is “elsewhere,” or who even desires to be “elsewhere,” is not successfully performing the roles and behaviors expected of her gender.
Radtke definitely desires to be everywhere, but just as pressing is the desire to be elsewhere. She wants more: more sights, more sounds, more stories, more life, more time. For many women who want to create art, it’s all too easy to imagine wanting only what we’re supposed to want.
When I picked up Restless, I expected the usual array of smart, twisted, unfortunate and hilarious characters that traditionally abound in William Boyd novels. I was pleasantly surprised at what I saw instead.Boyd, it seems, opted for a new genre in his last novel. Restless is a mystery that unfolds in a series of letters provided by an aging mother to a confused daughter. Ruth, a single mom and struggling PhD candidate at Oxford, is in a rut. Her inability to make decisions affecting her life and desire to be a good mother create an inescapable conflict and further plunge her to despair.Now, imagine for a second that you are 28 years old and your mother, a frail old British woman who lives in peace tending her garden at a countryside home, sits you down and says: “I used to be a spy, someone is trying to kill me on unfinished business, you will help me get that person.” That’s what happens to Ruth.And thus the reader is drawn into a historic journey beginning in the 1930s and ending in the late 1970s. Intertwined with Ruth’s thesis and her professors is the beginnings of her mother Sally Gilmartin’s career. And while the daughter struggles to find emotional satisfaction, the mother’s emotions are being abused. Whereas Ruth battles modern day evils attacking the individual, Sally is busy spreading misinformation in New York to draw the U.S. into World War II, being chased by Nazi spies and suspecting her own comrades in the fight against Hitler and communists.And of course there are the Boyd antics: Ruth’s son Jochen’s German father’s brother settles in her house announced; his anarchist girl follows; a student of hers falls in love with her and she fails to handle the situation delicately, and so on. In the meantime, the young Sally is hopping from France to England, Belgium, the U.S. and Canada.Boyd’s spy world makes for a read accurately captured in the title: restless. And although I missed the absurd histrionics of the writer in his latest work, a trace of wry humor lingers in the book and the piecemeal narrative tying past and future is, simply put, entertaining and gripping. As with all other Boyd novels I read, Restless left me thinking, really, is this the end, can’t I have some more, please?
Walker Percy was a big Elmore Leonard fan. Way back in 1987, during the high noon of a career that has now reached its rich and plummy twilight, Percy asked: “Why is Elmore Leonard so good?” Percy answered: “He doesn’t stick to the same guy in the same place.” And: “You begin to notice his prose, the way he moves people around. People get shot in dependent clauses.” And: “The snap and crackle of the dialogue is something to hear.” To wit: “(Leonard) often drops the word ‘if’ in dialogue – and uses hardly any conjunctions. ‘I had a tire iron we could find out in ten minutes.’ This sentence could use an ‘if’ and a comma and would be worse for it. Yes, Mr. Leonard knows what he’s doing.”
Indeed he does. And he proves it yet again with his new novel, Djibouti, which takes us from more familiar Leonard haunts – Detroit, Miami, Las Vegas, Hollywood, Atlantic City, New Orleans – all the way to that charming open sewer of a city on the Gulf of Aden that gives the book its title. Leonard’s two heroes, film-maker Dara Barr and her 6-foot-6, 72-year-old black cameraman Xavier LeBo, have come here for a little change of pace. After winning major awards, including an Oscar, for documentaries about Bosnia, white supremacists and post-Katrina New Orleans, Dara wants to try her hand at filming some Somali pirates doing what they do so well – hijacking humongous freighters and holding them for humongous ransoms.
Xavier, a street-smart former merchant seaman, has sailed these treacherous waters many times, and he wastes no time giving Dara the lay of the land and introducing her to a cast of characters who, in time-honored Leonard style, are rarely what they appear to be. There’s a loose cannon of a Texas billionaire named Billy Wynn, who may or may not be CIA but who is definitely sailing around the world with a knockout named Helene, a Paris runway model who will become Mrs. Wynn if she can make the trip without whining or getting seasick. There’s Idris Mohammed, an American-educated Somali pirate who drives a Mercedes and doesn’t see himself or his crew as villains: “I think of us as the Coast Guard giving out fines to ships that contaminate our seas, thousands of them leaving their waste in the waters we once fished.”
Then there’s Ari Ahmed Sheikh Bakar, “known as Harry in England,” one of the “good” guys who tries to dissuade pirates from being pirates but isn’t above selling them AK-47s so they can sell them at double the price to local gangsters and warlords. And finally there’s Jama Raisuli, born James Russell, a black Al Qaeda terrorist from Miami who has come here looking to blow up something big. Like maybe that tanker full of Liquid Natural Gas parked offshore.
All of the virtues listed by Walker Percy are on display here, along with several he neglected to mention, most notably the moral ambiguity of all the characters and all their causes, which is the tool Leonard uses to make his points while he makes us laugh. Billy sums up this pervasive moral ambiguity: “There’s no way to tell who’s good and who’s bad in this fucked-up Mohammedan world.” This is neither politically incorrect nor insensitive because Leonard is an equal-opportunity satirist; he skewers not only religious zealots but the CIA, pirates, rich Republicans, Hollywood phonies and jihadists, in no particular order.
And when Billy gets wound up on his beverage of choice, $150 bottles of champagne, and starts waxing patriotic, Helene, the funniest character in the book, thinks to herself: “He was the guy Sterling Hayden played in Dr. Strangelove, General Jack D. Ripper. How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the subtitle. Sterling Hayden was so serious he was weird. Calm, talking about the Communist conspiracy to put fluoridation in our drinking water to fuck up our precious bodily fluids.”
When Helene confides to Dara that Billy wants to blow up the LNG tanker here so that Al Qaeda won’t be able to blow it up once it reaches Louisiana, Dara muses: “I’m guessing. He’d like to be known as a war hero who got the Medal of Honor posthumously without dying.”
After shooting a lot of footage of pirates, Dara and Xavier begin to wonder if they should be making a feature film instead of a documentary. While this allows Leonard to do some clever riffing on the inanity of Hollywood, it also points up the book’s main flaw, and it’s not a small one. For a hundred pages or so, Dara and Xavier sit in her hotel room in Djibouti watching the footage they shot while at sea, reliving adventures that have already happened. It makes for a choppy narrative. Only when Jama Raisula takes center stage and the dead bodies start piling up does the story take flight. Sometimes it’s good for a crime novel when the bad guys are just plain bad.
And Jama’s the goods. In a single scene he shoots five men, including his Al Qaeda mentor. In another he shoots a lovely prostitute through the brain. He shoots a former Navy SEAL hired by Billy. And when Dara and Xavier finish shooting their movie, Jama goes to New Orleans looking to shoot them.
As is the case with the dozen other Elmore Leonard novels I’ve read, Djibouti succeeds largely because of the things that got left out. Back story, exposition, physical descriptions of characters and scenery, weather, exclamation points, adverbs – all are in short supply here. And Leonard always stays behind the scenes, where he belongs.
“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” he once said. Elsewhere he has said that when he was learning to write fiction he became a great admirer of Hemingway. “You study him closely,” Leonard said, “and you realize all the stuff he leaves out that you think is in the story. That’s always interested me.”
It still interests him. And that may be the main reason why, at the ripe age of 85, Elmore Leonard is still so good.
I will tell you a secret. If you ask a bookseller about a novel and they say, “It’s really funny,” you needn’t read that book. It’s bookseller-speak for “this book has little else going for it,” the literary equivalent of a good personality. Same goes for “I’ve heard good things,” “People really like it,” and “It’s been popular with book clubs.” At least, these were my code words for mediocre books during my 10 years as a bookseller.
On the rare occasion that literary fiction is deeply moving and hysterically funny (Skippy Dies), I find myself leaving the funny part out of my description, or saving it for last, once I have convinced someone of the book’s extreme literary merit. “It’s also really funny,” I say, hastening to add, “but mostly it’s just really moving and wise.”
Of course, in the case of non-fiction, “it’s really funny” is high praise, a sure way to sell a book. Such are the vagaries of bookselling.
What I’m saying is that when I got a copy of Where’d You Go, Bernadette I set it aside. Funny books are not for me, you see, because I’ve read War and Peace three times, and the publicity for Bernadette is adamant about how funny it is. Its author, Maria Semple, has written for Arrested Development and Mad About You, and this is her second book. I turn to TV and movies for comedy and romance and reserve my reading for deep sad people like Per Petterson.
I eventually did pick up Bernadette because a few trusted reviewers had told me it had its merits and because I was tired of reading about young British men losing their virginity between the wars, which is another story. Lo and behold, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is really, really funny, and not in the usual way that suggests the author is trying to be funny to cover up their deficiencies in plot or styling. As it turns out, Maria Semple is both a good writer and a funny writer, but she prefers to be the latter.
It may be those TV instincts — which, for better or worse, I was endlessly picking out in her work — but given the choice Semple will almost always make a scene ridiculous. The book as a whole is, intentionally, a farce.
Elgin Branch and his wife Bernadette Fox live in Seattle with their fifteen-year-old daughter, Bee. Elgin heads up a classified robotics division at Microsoft. Bernadette is a once-famous and revolutionary architect who hasn’t worked in years, and is going a little nuts. Bee is an ideal child. Over the course of three months, their lives fall apart, and the story is told through a collection of documents, mostly emails, between the characters.
The main problem is that Bernadette hates Seattle. She hates the parking meters, she hates the rain, she really hates the other moms. This has made her unbalanced, and she unburdens herself in long emails to a virtual assistant in India. Lucky for us, the moms hate her back. The email correspondence between two of the moms at Bee’s school (one of whom is their next-door neighbor, one of whom is Elgin’s secretary) are the treasures of the book. These two ladies are so awash in pop psychology, upper-class entitlement, and defensive parenting as to result in a combination of self-awareness and self-delusion that is at once unbelievable and immediately recognizable. Consider:
Today at Whole Foods, a woman I didn’t even recognize recognized me and said she was looking forward to my brunch. Judging from the contents of her shopping cart — imported cheese, organic raspberries, fruit wash spray — she is the exact quality of parent we need at Galer Street. I saw her in the parking lot. She was driving a Lexus. Not a Mercedes, but close enough!
Via their emails, school memos, Bernadette’s exchanges with her virtual assistant, police reports, ER bills, and interjections by Bee, we are told a story of rumor, miscommunication, and distrust that pushes Bernadette to skip town. All this manic action is well-plotted and masterfully satirical, which is obviously Semple’s TV-trained forte. She’s never not playing to her strengths, introducing absurdist comedy into the most somber of situations. There are times when she’s having such fun making fun of the secondary characters that the primary characters get ignored. It’s hard to believe that absolutely everyone the Branch-Fox family comes into contact with is that kooky, but then this isn’t a believable story, it’s a comedy.
After Bernadette disappears and Elgin and Bee are left to uncover her whereabouts, the secondary characters and their wacky emails all fade away and the story becomes, in the end, about the family. It may seem too late if you were hoping for an earnest family story all along, but if you’re willing to enjoy it as a parody of first-world life then you’ll like this book. It’s really funny.