I’m a big fan of narrative-style history books, and it’s always fun to see a heavily researched piece of history that floats along like a novel. The problem with Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City is that it fails, at times, to feel like a strong account of historical events. The book follows two and a half storylines that intertwine, if only geographically, but never intersect. The backdrop is the World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893, a now forgotten event that transfixed the world at the time. Daniel Burnham is the renowned architect of the Fair, beset by meddlers and bureaucrats; H. H. Holmes, whose torturous schemes are at times hard to fathom in their cruelty, is a serial killer who haunts Chicago during the Fair; and Patrick Prendergast, to whom the book only gives over two dozen or so pages, is an increasingly delusional man whose obsession with Chicago’s showy political scene leads to tragedy. The plotlines in the book are fascinating, both because Larson lends them a cinematic flair and because there is a continual sense of wonder that history has managed to forget such vibrant characters. Despite, or perhaps because of, Larsen’s ability to craft such a readable story, the book does inspire some raised eyebrows at times. A scan through the notes at the end of the book reveals the times when Larsen speculates about his characters in the absence of hard facts. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this practice, these moments in the book tend to feel transparent. Likewise, the structure of the book is a bit flimsy as the three characters within share little but being in the same city during the same period of time, and the strenuous effort put forth by Larsen to connect these three characters tends to detract from the stories themselves, as each character is certainly worthy of his own book (even the poor, bewildered Prendergast). Despite these flaws, the book was still a delight to read, especially on my daily rides on Chicago’s elevated trains which still snake through the city as they did when the World’s Fair was held here in 1893.
Like Rachel Kushner earlier this year, Marisha Pessl faced a nightmare known to only the luckiest novelists. Pessl’s debut, 2006’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, was a smash critical and popular success that fetched a six-figure advance, and now she needed to produce a follow-up that somehow topped it. Like Kushner before her, Pessl resisted the temptation to stick with a winning formula; instead she used a broad canvas to produce a novel that is in every way bigger, more ambitious, and more satisfying than her splashy debut.
Pessl’s new novel is called Night Film. People who require categories for their fiction should probably shelve it in the “literary thriller” section, though a genre label is as pointless as a plot summary for a novel as ectoplasmic and slippery as this one. On its base level, Night Film is an exoneration quest by Scott McGrath, the book’s narrator, a disgraced investigative journalist who once tried to penetrate the shell of a reclusive filmmaker named Stanislav Cordova — only to get sued by Cordova and lose everything, including job, wife, daughter, and a fair chunk of his life’s savings and self-esteem. Cordova’s disturbing films, which give the novel its title, have developed a cult following that is literally underground: the movies are so shocking that they’re shown only at secret screenings in tunnels under cities. McGrath describes Cordova as “a crevice, a black hole, an unspecified danger, a relentless outbreak of the unknown in our overexposed world…He’s down under the railway bridge in the river with all the missing evidence, and the answers that will never see the light of day.”
When Cordova’s brilliant daughter, Ashley, dies of an apparent suicide in a shabby warehouse in downtown Manhattan, McGrath feels the old tug: “I could feel it starting again — the dark undertow toward Cordova. Forget my fury toward him, which still simmered — this was a chance for absolution. If I went for him again and proved he was a predator — what I’d believed in my gut — all I’d lost might come back.”
McGrath enlists two young assistants for his investigation — Hopper Cole, a scruffy drug dealer and one-time boyfriend of Ashley’s, and Nora Halliday, a coat check girl/actress who was one of the last people to see Ashley alive. So, on the face of it, we have a good old-fashioned journalistic investigation. That’s like saying Moby-Dick was a fish story.
What sets Night Film apart is that the telling of the story — the quest for an elusive truth — becomes the story. It’s a deft act of authorial legerdemain that could have backfired, but in Pessl’s hands the story whips along even as it becomes increasingly unclear what the story is, or where it’s heading. As the investigation unfolds, we meet a string of Cordova’s assistants, neighbors, actors, and ex-wives, as well as security guards, tattoo artists, hotel maids, and clerks, shopkeepers, landladies, anyone who had contact with the family. There are intimations of black magic, secret rituals, child sacrifice. The more McGrath and his cohorts learn about Ashley’s life, the less certain they are about the circumstances of her death. It doesn’t help that her invisible father appears to be pulling strings to thwart their investigation.
Pessl embroiders her prose with a grab bag of visual effects that attempt to give the novel documentary heft, including police reports, typed transcripts of telephone calls, photographs, newspaper clippings, text messages, e-mails, online news articles, psychiatric evaluations, and postings from a highly secretive fan website known as The Blackboards. For me, these visuals feel gimmicky and rote, more meta-smoke than actual fire.
But Pessl’s writing has done a lot of growing up in the seven years since Calamity Physics was published. That novel, the story of a precocious teenage girl and her peripatetic professor dad, had a hyperventilated prose style that struck me as too cute by at least half. At 600 pages, it was also way too long. The book’s privileged teenagers, known as the Bluebloods, exuded none of the anomie of the young things in Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, none of the darkness of Donna Tartt’s undergrads in The Secret History. Now Pessl’s cleverness and bloat have given way to assurance. Her writing is frequently deft and insightful. Here’s a bombastic Cordova scholar: “There were two things Beckman truly loathed in life: sitting in the first three rows of a movie theater and the Catholic Church.” And here’s a mousy piano salesman: “You could spot these Mahler-loving men within a ten-block radius of Carnegie Hall. They tended to wear earth tones, have on DVD all of public television’s Great Performances series, live alone in apartments on the Upper West Side, and have potted plants they spoke to daily.”
Marlowe Hughes, a faded actress, delivers a delicious evisceration of McGrath and his two assistants when they show up to interview her, beginning with Hopper:
“This must be Tarzan, Greystoke, Lord of the Apes. You’re missing a grunt and a club. Can’t wait to see you in your loincloth. Now, who else do we have here?” Enunciating this acidly, she leaned forward to survey Nora. “A chorus girl. You won’t be able to fuck your way to the middle, Debbie. And you.” She turned to me. “A wannabe Warren, straight from Reds. Every one of you, the farting demeanor of the artfully clueless. You people demand to know about Cordova?” She scoffed dramatically, though it sounded like a handful of pebbles rasping in her throat. “And so fleas look up at the sky and wonder why stars.”
As good as such passages are, the writing is not flawless. Pessl has a lazy way with adverbs. People sweat “profusely,” winds howl “punitively,” matches blow out “abruptly,” hair is cropped “hastily.” After a while I found myself wishing Pessl had read Stephen King’s 20 Rules for Writing, including Rule #3: Avoid adverbs. Her heavy use of italics is also unsettling, especially in the trite koans sprinkled throughout the text: Within every elaborate lie, a kernel of truth…Astonishing how quickly money jogged a man’s memory… Everyone smiles for a photograph… Even worse are passages like this dubious bit of social analysis:
In the age of the Internet, pianos, like physical books, were fast becoming culturally extinct. They’d probably stay that way unless Apple invented the iPiano, which fit inside your pocket and could be mastered via text message. With the iPiano you can be an iMozart. Then, you could compose your own iRequiem for your own iFuneral attended by millions of your iFriends who iLoved you.
At first I took such italics as a form of shorthand, a clumsy way of telegraphing meaning. But by the end of the book I had come to see the italics as an effective way of revealing McGrath as a relentless pile-driver, pounding away at his quest for the truth. The italics contribute to McGrath’s portrayal as a driven and annoying character. Which is to say he’s just like most journalists.
To return to the comparison with Rachel Kushner, I would argue that Kushner’s debut novel, Telex from Cuba, was an even tougher act to follow than Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Telex was a first novel that didn’t behave like one. It had nothing to do with its young creator’s erudition or deft wordplay; it had everything to do with history, politics, and social hierarchies in the lost world of an American enclave in pre-Castro Cuba. There was nothing solipsistic about it. Unlike Special Topics, it felt like the work of a fully formed talent.
But that’s not to diminish Pessl’s achievement in Night Film. For me, the book’s finest passage is when the trio penetrates Cordova’s remote estate, The Peak, and then get separated. Chased by dogs and guards, McGrath eludes them by submerging himself in a muck-filled swimming pool, hiding in a greenhouse full of hallucinogenic plants, and wandering through Cordova’s elaborate soundstage. The episode plays out like an extended drug trip — McGrath believes he has become part of a Cordova film — and it leaves him shaken and baffled.
That, to Pessl’s credit, is how McGrath — and the reader — wind up at the end of the book. The mystery is not tied up with a tidy bow, the big questions remain unanswered. But when McGrath finally comes face-to-face with his prey, he has the good sense to be willing to shut up, for once, and listen to Cordova’s version of the truth. It’s the smartest move he makes.
A man shaves off his mustache and, consequently, his life. A boy gets lost within his dilemmas and insecurities, echoing downfalls of a mature man. Where does Emmanuel Carrere want the reader to end up? I’m unsure, but you can read Class Trip & The Mustache for yourself and try to figure it out.Both stories are unforgiving, that is for sure. The reader faces two dilemmas (which I will attempt to convey in reverse order, having read The Mustache first). There is a man. He is convinced that he had a mustache for years. He jokes about shaving it off. And, in the first five pages of the short novel, he shaves off the mustache. And with it, his life – or what one can only presume to be his life.Next, the reader is entangled in a series of existentialist debates. Did the unnamed protagonist really have a mustache? (OK, that one is a bit practical, but bear with me.) If yes, what does it mean – in terms of character – that he shaved it? If not, then what fuels his obsession with the belief?Carrere takes the reader through an unsolvable quest of insecurities in The Mustache. The distinct, single-voice narrative – which is definitive of the author’s voice in Class Trip as well – runs, simultaneously, through both the protagonist’s and the reader’s mind. One cannot disconnect from the voice.The narrative constitutes an integral part of Carrere’s mission: to draw the reader in to the story. One has the opportunity to see all the wrong turns the protagonist takes, yet the reader is helpless in dissociating with the narrative. Hence, it is easy to sympathize with the protagonist, his search of peace of mind, his comfort in the repetitive, and his focus on the mundane – even if he does it just to get grounded.Class Trip presents much of the same dilemmas. Despite its publication nine years after The Mustache, the story carries and presents the same self-centered debates. Nicholas – a protected, shy middle-school student who still wets his bed, is enamored with his father, and has considerable paranoid tendencies – goes off to the ski school with all of his classmates.The plague sets in at the get go: his father refuses to let Nicholas ride in the school bus due to safety concerns; once Nicholas arrives at the chalet the father forgets to unload his bag; and the kid becomes the laughing stock of his class because someone refusing to lend him pajamas makes the comment that “he’ll pee in them.”Events lead Nicholas to form a bond with the class bully, Hodkann, and the charismatic instructor, Patrick. The latter accentuates Nicholas’s hopes and bright side. Hodkann only contributes to Nicholas’ insecurities and wish to prove himself, however. Nicholas’ life at the chalet gets darker as events unfold, and he succeeds in daydreaming certain sequences that even a most paranoid person would have a hard time imagining.What is fascinating about Carrere’s two novels is that despite the unforgiving self pity and pain the protagonists and readers endure – not to mention obvious salvations presented in both stories, which both the protagonists and reader avoid – and the parallel frustrations put forth (and lived through), the characters are very real. And they represent a part of everyone’s dark, self-doubting, paranoid side.Note: If you have read either novel, or do end up reading them, and want to get into discussions as to WTF it all means, please leave a comment or email me. I am looking, desperately, for answers.
The title of Nathan Englander’s new collection of short stories unmistakably references Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (on which: more later), but it is the question articulated by that title, the matter of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank that I want to take up first. The subject of Anne Frank — if we may take her somewhat unnerving appearances as a fictional character as a form of evidence — is, for certain writers, a singularly tempting one. Part-muse, part-rival, she storms the late-twentieth, early-twenty-first century novel, an improbable survivor testifying to human cruelty and human resilience, the full range of human experience borne on her shoulders. There she is, posing as Amy Bellette, the intriguingly-accented, large-eyed seductress of Nathan Zuckerman’s wildest erotic dreams and fantasies of filial duty in Philip Roth’s Ghost Writer. And here she is, again, holed up in an upstate-New York attic, foul-mouthed, decrepit, toiling on a novel and making a neurotic man’s life hell in Shalom Auslander’s recent debut novel Hope: A Tragedy. What do these manifestations of the paradigmatic child-martyr tell us about her and about us? If these fictional examples are anything to go by, it is mostly that when we talk about Anne Frank we are not talking about Anne Frank at all.
When we — and by “we” here I naturally mean Next-Big-Thing Jewish authors, men reaching for the height of their creative powers — talk about Anne Frank, we seem to be invoking a wide swath of anxieties, a whole megillah of insecurities, real and imagined angst that has everything and nothing to do with Anne Frank herself. Still, she has the tendency to lend gravitas to the proceedings at hand, to signal that whatever else is being discussed, it is serious indeed. In the title story of Englander’s collection, for example, when the narrator and his wife and their guests, a Hasidic couple visiting from Jerusalem, decide, after smoking some pot, to play “the Anne Frank game,” the reader knows that something portentous, something Terribly Significant, is coming. That game, a.k.a. “the Righteous Gentile Game,” a.k.a. “Who Will Hide Me?,” involves ascertaining, “in the event of an American Holocaust, …which of our Christian friends would hide us.” (Curiously, Solomon Kugel, the hapless hero of Hope, enjoys a one-player version of the game, his thoughts on the topic of who might hide him and his family — and what he ought to bring along to the business of sitting out a genocide — forming a sort of refrain through the novel.) In “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” the two couples — our narrator and his wife Deb, her former schoolmate Shoshana and her husband Mark — decide to up the ante, to imagine each other as the (possibly Righteous) Gentiles, and the “Anne Frank Game” becomes a dubious session of marital therapy, a process for working through neuroses by forming new neuroses still.
Like Raymond Carver, to whom he is admittedly, unabashedly indebted, Englander mines the intersection of the stunningly obvious and the subtly but potently implied. The tension of his best stories, as in Carver’s best stories, resides in the fissures that slowly open up in the fabric of what had been assumed with little thought, with no reservation. Invoking Anne Frank — her innocence, her belief in the fundamental goodness of people — heightens the tension to a nearly unbearable degree; that Englander walks the fine, fine line between manipulation and genuineness, that he manages the strain of his material, positions him as Carver’s rightful heir.
Such genealogy matters. Anne Frank, I would wager, resonates with writers because she is a writer, the author of one of the twentieth-century’s most indelible works. It is her voice — uncalculated, authentic, a voice on the cusp of learning something significant about itself — her ability to command our attention, her power over us, that we are talking about when we talk about Anne Frank. (It is no coincidence, surely, that both Roth and Auslander imagine their respective Anne Franks as writers.) Anne Frank — at least the idealized Anne Frank — speaks to our better selves, and she speaks to our writers’ desire to say something meaningful, something immortal. (This last concern is explored in “The Reader,” one of the more opaque stories in the collection, a perhaps-too-literal allegory about the relationship that exists between the portentously identified Author and the sole determined reader who appears, angel-like, at stops on the Author’s promotional tour for his latest.)
Englander announced himself as the Great Practitioner of the Short Story with his first collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. At once profoundly sad and terribly funny — amusingly despondent? dejectedly comical? — the stories in Urges considered the absurdities and indignities of contemporary life at an empathetic remove. In Anne Frank, Englander builds on his earlier accomplishment, masterfully honing in on the tiny details and producing a finely drawn vision of lives colored by shame and despair and longing and the barely concealed, terrifying capacity for impotent rage. Neither wallowing nor fleeing, Englander suggests that none of us is truly “righteous.” Which is perhaps why we talk — and talk and talk — about Anne Frank, endlessly hoping to satisfy some unbearable urge.