I bought Brotherly Love, a discounted, yet signed, copy from the remaindered section of the bookstore where I used to work. At the time I was enamored by Pete Dexter, whose books Train and Paris Trout I had recently read. Both of those books are spare and menacing, at times brutally violent, but done in a masterful way. Brotherly Love is like those books, but to call the book spare is an understatement. Dexter takes his time – most of the book, really – fleshing out the main characters, cousins Peter and Michael Flood from a Philadelphia gangster family. As the plot slowly develops – or comes to a boil, one might say – it becomes clear that Peter wants out. But of course, Michael and his band of hoods keep dragging him back in. In Brotherly Love, Dexter doesn’t quite plumb the emotional depths of his characters as he does so effectively in Paris Trout and Train, and the reader is left with a book that feels empty and characters that feel doomed from page one.
Justin Taylor has been called “a master of the modern snapshot,” and in his new collection of short stories, Flings, he lives up to the label. That’s good news and bad news.
Taylor, who previously published the story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy, made a bold pronouncement on the eve of his new collection’s publication: “I don’t want to always write stories about the same kind of disaffected, angsty, youngish dude.”
At this he has succeeded, mightily. Flings has its share of disaffected, angsty, youngish dudes — those generic characters we’ve come to expect from youngish Brooklyn writers like Taylor — but to his great credit he has stretched himself in these new stories. In “Carol, Alone,” for example, we follow a grieving widow through her robotic daily routines in a middling south Florida retirement community. It’s told in the first person, which is one of Taylor’s strongest suits, but unfortunately it’s also told in the present tense, which is one of his weakest tics. Yet the story gets at something deep about the nature of grief. Here’s the insomniac widow, Carol, visiting her husband’s grave:
When Gerald first died I used to talk to him when I came here, bring him up to speed about our children and friends, the neighborhood – anything I could think of. But whatever this was supposed to make me feel, it didn’t, besides which I hated doing it. If Gerald is anywhere he can hear me, I figure then he probably already knows what little news I have to bring…And if he’s not anywhere, which is, after all, what we both always expected would be the case, then what am I doing recapping TV shows and mah-jongg winnings to a patch of earth?
The story includes a pair of vivid, linked snapshots: a 7-foot-long alligator slithers out of the canal and falls asleep in Carol’s back yard; and late one night she interrupts two teenagers making out on the spot where the alligator recently dozed. Like all the stories in this book, “Carol, Alone” ends without any major epiphanies or breakthroughs, just a lonely widow’s quiet resolve to remain connected to life. She does this by spreading food in her back yard, hoping to lure back her alligator, a presence so unexpected it hardly occurred to her to be afraid, a welcome shock. It’s a beautiful ending.
Taylor can be funny, too. “Sungold” is one of the strongest stories here, even though it’s about a disaffected, angsty, youngish, callow dude named Brian who manages an organic vegetarian pizza restaurant, a job that requires him to stand in front of the place wearing a gigantic fur mushroom suit to attract customers. The view from inside the sweltering suit “is like peering through the hair catch in a shower drain.” He notices that black teenage boys will cross the street to avoid coming near the giant mushroom, which inspires this riff:
Now I’ll grant you, a guy wearing a full-body fur mushroom suit to promote an organic vegetarian pizza pub is arguably the whitest thing to have occurred in the history of whiteness, but it’s not as though it’s going to rub off on them. It’s not like it’s contagious, like breathing the air around me will result in sudden loss of pigmentation, cravings for old Friends episodes, and, I don’t know, a Dave Matthews box set.
The owner of the restaurant is Ethan, a trust-fund fuckup, a blackout alcoholic cokehead smokehound who’s also bipolar. “Whenever I see a light on in the restaurant after hours,” Brian reports, “I knock on the kitchen window, find him rolling blunts at the salad station or deep-throating the spigot on the Jagerator.” He adds that “Ethan has the memory of an infant or a goldfish, which is why he’s such a shitty capitalist and such an amazing boss.” And when a sweat-drenched Brian is liberated from the mushroom suit and forced to wear a waitress’s plunging V-neck shirt, he fixes himself a stiff drink, “the logic being that if I’m stuck dressed like a sorority girl at a Phish show then I might as well drink like one.” Taylor must have been channeling Sam Lipsyte when he wrote this story, and, as with Lipsyte, the story leads to a small shred of realization that helps make Brian a more complicated and interesting person. And that’s enough.
The variety of characters in these stories is proof that Taylor has lived up to his pre-publication proclamation. We get college kids, teenagers, widows, single parents, grad students, waitresses, and 20-somethings with too much education, or not enough. Most of these characters are unmoored somehow, adrift, seeking something they can’t quite name. They’re also stuck.
In the collection’s title story, a group of college friends in Ohio relocate to Oregon for dubious reasons, with dubious results. Their driftiness and lack of grounding in the physical world makes them mere types, not fleshed-out characters. In “Mike’s Song,” a divorced father goes to a Phish concert with his two grown children while furtively texting his new lover, a story so creepy and uneventful that it’ll make you swear off the band forever. “The Happy Valley” is less a story than a diagram, and the prose describing Hong Kong fails to rise above the level of the Fodor’s guide the protagonist carries with her. The story doesn’t live and breathe on the page. Worse yet is “A Night Out,” which reverts to the annoying present tense and, for good measure, is narrated in the tricky second person. This story is everything Taylor claimed he was trying to rise above — a catalog of the predictable nighttime antics of a bunch of disaffected, angsty, youngish New Yorkers with too much money and too little direction. It reads like Jay McInerney Lite, and it’s a reminder just what a remarkable achievement Bright Lights, Big City was.
These stories are loaded with memorable snapshots, and that’s not a bad thing. But for a writer of Taylor’s wit and intelligence, it’s no longer enough. Here’s hoping he uses his many gifts to move beyond the snapshot and create something full-blown and grand, a panorama teeming with all kinds of characters who owe nothing to the world’s legion of disaffected, angsty, youngish dudes. With Flings, he’s moving in that direction. If he keeps pushing, I’m sure he’ll eventually deliver a big vibrant novel. I’m waiting, eagerly.
Don DeLillo has said that his mammoth Underworld emerged from the juxtaposition of two headlines on the front page of a 1954 New York Times. One trumpeted a pennant-winning home run by the Giants’ Bobby Thomson. The other announced that the Russians had tested their first atomic bomb. Each, in its own way, was a shot heard ’round the world.For anyone paying attention, the International section of this Saturday’s Times offered a similarly suggestive juxtaposition: three articles on a single page reported suspicious events in and around Vladimir Putin’s Russia. To wit: The Kremlin informed a group of dissident journalists that they were going to be evicted from their offices. Leaders of an opposition party, detained by police on thin pretenses, were forced to miss a protest rally. And the government of Estonia, which had offended Russian nationalists by taking down a monument to Soviet soldiers, had its Internet service disrupted by a ferocious denial-of-service attack (which originated from Russian servers). In each case, the reporter hesitated to blame Putin directly, but the overall picture is grim. And this is not even to mention the radiation poisoning plots, or the Chechen conflict. Basically, the man our president once certified as “a good soul” is consolidating power with a kommissarial zeal. The mystery is why the Russian people, after seven decades of totalitarian misrule and centuries of feudalism, are putting up with it.A quick answer might be that, after the economic deprivations of the Communist era, they’re willing to trade freedom for a little prosperity. A more complicated one (not unrelated to the rise of ethnic gangs in Iraq) might involve the psychological toll totalitarianism exacts on its masses. Call it The Captive Mind, or Stockholm Syndrome, but it’s basically a protection racket: authority seems to offer insurance against violence, where freedom seems to leave one exposed. Give a kid enough bruises, and he’s likely to get in line behind the schoolyard bully. The problem comes when the bully runs out of other victims.But a reading of Tatyana Tolstaya’s splendid contemporary novel The Slynx reminds us that the thirst for freedom and the hunger for authority are not merely the byproducts of Russia’s recent history. Rather, they are the reacting agents in much of the finest Russian literature. They lend the novels of Tolstaya’s great-uncle Leo – and the poems quoted by her characters in The Slynx – their signature phosphorescence. In the great American novel, the imperative to submit to something larger than oneself – tradition, law, religion – is usually an obstacle. Our Augies and Ishmaels and Rabbits set out to find their freedom. In Tolstoy’s Levin and Dostoevsky’s Karamazovs, individualism alternates – sometimes on the same page – with a sense that a greater freedom comes in accepting one’s duty and place in the world.Is this a radical simplification? Of course. But I feel licensed to make it. No one likes to speculate about the Russian soul more than the Russians. I want to emphasize here that The Slynx succeeds, radiantly, as a self-contained work of art. But a view to Russia’s literary and political history can only enrich one’s reading.The protagonist of The Slynx is a “golubchik” named Benedikt – born a century after a nuclear catastrophe has leveled Moscow and erased most cultural memory. Benedikt is a simple fellow, subsisting on mice and eking out an existence as a scrivener. He unquestioningly copies the decrees and poems written by Fyodor Kuzmich, the chief Murza of the village – even when those poems seem suspiciously Pushkinesque. Benedikt’s life strikes us as a nightmare of deprivation, but because he has nothing to compare it to, he doesn’t know it. His only inkling is a melancholy feeling that comes over him from time to time, which he blames on a mythical predator said to live in the forest… The Slynx.Like a Russian George Saunders, Tolstaya creates a sci-fi bizarro world seemingly without effort – the details are there when she reaches for them. And, like Saunders, she renders her world in an entirely original idiom. Her depictions of life in the village of Fyodor-Kuzmichsk (natch) leaven poetic stream of consciousness with a salty and frequently hilarious orality. The effect Tolstaya creates, hovering between second- and third-person narration, is like nothing I’ve ever read. The narrator both is and isn’t Benedikt. Benedikt both is and isn’t us. Here’s a little taste, in Jamey Gambrell’s supple translation:In the summer the Scribe is like an ordinary Golubchik – a sickle on his shoulder and into the fields and glades to cut goosefoot, horsetail. Bring in the sheaves. You tie them up – lug them to the shed, and go back again, another time, once more, all over, run, run, run. While he’s gone the neighbors or a stranger will filch a couple of sheaves for sure, sometimes from the field, sometimes straight from the shed. But that’s all right: they steal from me, and I’ll get good and mad and steal from them, those guys will steal from these guys – and so it goes in a circle. It comes out fair. Everyone steals, but everyone ends up with their own. More or less.For the first half of the book, we keep rooting for him to awaken, like his Anglo counterparts in 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, to the dystopia he’s living in. As he discovers the source of Fyodor Kuzmich’s poems, and develops an appetite for books, consciousness-raising starts to seem inevitable. But – spoiler alert – consciousness will not prove to be synonymous with freedom. In fact, after aiding a putsch, Benedikt will become “Deputy for Defense and Marine and Oceanic Affairs.” Rather than living out his books, he seems content to live in them. More Bovary than Quixote.Tolstaya is well-known in Russia as a television personality and an outspoken critic. She began her first and only novel under Gorbachev and finished it under Putin. In the West, where knowledge is seen as a path to freedom, the plot trajectory she arrived at may strike some readers as perverse. What at first seems an allegory of Communism becomes something more unsettling: an examination of our universal frailty.In light of what’s happening in Moscow right now, the final pages of The Slynx take on a resonance almost too painful to countenance. History is not only a nightmare… in Russia, it seems to be a recurring one. Tolstaya preserves the possibility of an awakening, of a more personal socialism or a more collective freedom. But she’s not optimistic.
The central characters of the first season of The Returned, an addictive and deeply unnerving French television drama available on Netflix, are identical twins, Camille and Léna. When we first meet Camille, she walks briskly up the road to her parents’ house in a polished town in the high Alps. Léna, meanwhile, is doing shots at the town’s rather youthful bar, the Lake Pub, named for the massive hydroelectric dam down below.
Léna drinks and drinks some more, apparently chasing a demon. Ravenous, Camille devours a sandwich. What’s to account for the intensity of their behavior? Four years earlier, at the end of a school field trip that Léna should also have attended, Camille was killed when the tour bus went over a cliff as it returned to town.
Soon, we are to realize, Camille isn’t alone among the confused and hungry dead who have just returned to walk among the living. A retired schoolteacher, Mr. Costa, has hidden his wife, who died in 1978, in the kitchen. She stuffs herself with spaghetti. Simon, who died on his wedding day, desperately searches for Adèle, his fiancée. Victor, a seven-year-old boy, lurks near a bus stop. He attaches himself to a woman with distant eyes. Indeed, the living here are as lonely as the orphan dead. And the dead feel their betrayal and exile as powerfully as do the living. “I lost my sister too,” insists Camille, when their father reminds her of Léna’s emotional wounds. Compounding the viewer’s discomfort: the script suggests that to execute the lie that allowed Léna to stay home on the day of the accident, the sisters had switched identities. Who exactly is living and who is dead?
The question seems gaudy, but it isn’t just a throwaway logline for a zombie show. Not at least to the French writer Hadrien Larouche, Derrida disciple, Sebaldian investigator, playful and meticulous prober of contemporary life, whose first novel, the 2005 Orphans has just been brought out in the English translation by Jan Steyn and Caite Dolan-Leach. In this season of Patrick Modiano, Larouche is another French writer of intense and insistent vision — in one place in this novel, he gives us Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, in another a man plugging his nostrils with cigarettes to keep off the stench of Serbian war dead. He is hot after the sense of personal spiritual identity in contemporary Europe, where the scars of the Second World War still bleed. He wants to know, in this meeting ground of living and dead, can anyone find comfort? “Death,” he writes, “held the living between its fingers. The dead finger kept the others prisoner.” In Orphans, the living likewise can’t let the dead be.
The narrator of Orphans, a man named Hadrien, lives in self-made exile, writing, collecting fragments of others’ lives. “I, someone who was determined to never become a collector have seen the most troubling, obscure, and subtle of collections,” he writes, in a voice that seems determined to beckon W.G. Sebald, the novelist of collected memory and material who died in a tragic accident in 2001. Hadrien’s specialty is “living apparitions,” women, mostly, “a vision of the living body from birth to death,” but, of course, who here, among the observer and the observed, is really alive? Larouche, a writer of precise and palpable sensation, wants the reader to feel the writer’s characteristic isolation, a kind of solitary death, even as he tries to immerse himself in the real lives of others. This tension frames his approach to Jean Genet in The Last Genet: A Writer in Revolt, his only other book to be published in English. “I’ve always felt well-placed in a room equipped with a bed, a table, and a stool, in someone else’s home,” observes Hadrien. “Of course, I am no longer living in my own home in any permanent fashion.”
Cut loose and yet not quite trying to connect intimately with others, Hadrien finds himself in the different houses of three people, each of them an orphan of sorts. Two of the orphans he visits in the real time of the narration itself; the third is a recollection from childhood. Larouche employs various devices to move us from one place to the next, but these are transparent — he isn’t concerned with narrative. Rather Orphans is a work of observation and inquiry.
Hadrien’s second visit — we’ll return to the first momentarily — is to the home of a friend, Helianthe née Bouttetruie, who has recently married and along with her husband purchased an old farmhouse they have to renovate. The house is located in the Swiss Alps, in a village that at first seems appealing and bright. “In truth,” says Hadrien, “it slowly worked on the bodies of its inhabitants, gently annihilating them, rendering them unrecognizable, and, finally, plunging them into despair.” This doesn’t seem far from zombie television, after all.
Helianthe’s house is a mess. Her father, an architect, has drawn up an impossible plan. Her husband, Hector — every name here starts with H, as if to reinforce the author’s own sense of exile — keeps getting injured. Worse still, she suffers from a degenerative disease, an orphan disease, according to Larouche for the way its pathology isn’t connected to any other syndrome. “One day, out of the blue, the orphan disease takes shelter under a man’s or woman’s roof, and suddenly, his or her body harbors a new creature,” he says. Helianthe is short of breath, often off balance, and prone to falling down. Her left leg is three and half centimeters shorter than the right.
In spite of the disease, Helianthe wants a child. The not yet born, Larouche would say, perhaps like the dead, have a handle on the living. But what of this prospective child? Helianthe’s doctor warns her that pregnancy and birth will kill her or the baby or both. She desires an orphan.
Larouche is a post-modern writer of considerable feeling; Helianthe, essentially a subject of exploration, stands up — crookedly, for sure — for her sense of humanity. He’s best in this space, close up to the living — here where contemporary people struggle, sometimes with the dead, for identity. At times, this puts him in conversation with Zadie Smith and Elena Ferrante, two quite different European writers. Helianthe, for example, speaks at least 14 languages and regional dialects. “Arriving in a foreign country meant at once a new life and a new language,” says Hadrien, of Helianthe’s global exile. “She experienced the joy of feeling foreign to herself.”
After Hector’s latest accident, Hadrien, walking in the mountains, sees an old man that must be his cousin, Henry né Berg. This jars his memory. As a child, Hadrien had once visited Henry’s family. Henry’s father, a sadistic banker, forced Henry to use the servant’s entrance to the house. The exiled boy rejects his father’s world until at some point the desire for his own power consumes him. Now, “becoming a man exactly like his father,” he embodies the old man, who lives on inside him. In this story, the least interesting of the three for Hadrien’s lack of personal connection, Larouche echoes the tone of Portuguese writer Gonçalo M. Tavares, whose novels often explore themes of father-son domination and revenge.
Those themes play out differently in the book’s first chapter, which takes place in the uncomfortable city apartment of Hannah née Bloch, a middle aged woman whose family was put in a Nazi camp in German-occupied Poland and was later exiled to France.
Hannah’s story, of a Jew in the diaspora, is the most familiar here. By type, from birth, she lives in exile. Hannah suffers. She pinches pennies; she rarely leaves her run-down apartment. She is a kind of walking dead. But certain tactile things trigger her heart to swell, if only momentarily. In these moments, she touches her childhood, before the war — the last time she saw her father. She cleanses herself according to Jewish custom, she prepares a Sabbath meal, she lights candles and the light filters through the fingers she holds in front of her face. Once, she traveled to Israel, and in the Old City of Jerusalem allowed herself to become intoxicated by the bazaar. The sensations, smells, and visions carried her to Poland, which she couldn’t otherwise remember, and she fainted. She tells this to Hadrien while they travel on a city bus.
When they return to the apartment, they eat pistachios and Hannah recalls her childhood. Her father died in the work camp, but her mother, who she argues with every day on the phone, endlessly, wouldn’t ever admit he was dead. “Everyone in this family lived on the back of the disappeared man,” she tells Hadrien, “on the ruins of his death and, finally, on the spot occupied by a living person we couldn’t bury.” She’d never forgiven the betrayal. Her mother, she says, failed to teach her how to “face up to death, to affirm life.”
At some point, as an adult, she forced herself to stop believing her father would return. This was her only revenge against her mother. Hadrien watches her pray in the light of the candle, “an infinite grievance between her teeth.” She tells herself to gaze forward, there’s more to live. But, Larouche reminds us, our thoughts, like the dead, are restless. They badger us into isolation and then they never let us alone.
“Obliged to admit that for the first time in my life I feel myself in the middle of a psychological collapse.”Albert Camus was in Montevideo, nearing the end of a lecture tour of South America, when he entered those words into his diary. American Journals, chronicling Camus’ 1946 voyage to North America and his 1949 visit to South America, shows a humane soul with a sharp mind who’s teetering on the brink, one minute penning astute observations on human suffering; the next – perfunctory, and seemingly overwhelmed almost to the point of paralysis by the simplest, most mundane, obstacles.The North American trip in spring of 1946 came four years after publication of The Stranger, and mere months before Camus would complete The Plague. The diary begins on board a ship as Camus struggles with an ocean voyage and girds himself against odd and intrusive fellow passengers. By the end of the crossing, he’s figured them out.”Everyone prides himself on being elegant and knowing how to live. The performing dog aspect. But some of them are opening up.”On such extended voyages as these, false fronts fade after a while and forced impressions begin to wear away. One’s fellow-passengers begin to reveal their true nature, or at the very least one catches on to their facades.Once in New York, Camus observes the many sides of the American character. After noting how funeral homes and private cemeteries operate (“you die and we do the rest”), Camus comments that “one way to know a country is to know how people die there. Here, everything is anticipated.”Of American generosity, Camus has nothing but admiration. While he was giving a lecture, someone had made off with the box office takings which were to have gone to a children’s charity. When the audience finds out, a spectator proposes that everyone give the same amount upon exiting as they gave upon entering. In fact, they gave much more.”Typical of American generosity,”Camus lauds. “Their hospitality, their cordiality are like that too, spontaneous and without affectation. It’s what’s best in them.”Camus travels through New England and on up to Quebec. He also visits Philadelphia and Washington D.C. By the time he’s back on ship for the return voyage, he’s begun to lose interest in his fellow passengers, and his musings reveal his frustration and hopelessness:”Sad to still feel so vulnerable. In 25 years I’ll be 57. 25 years then to create a body of work and to find what I’m looking for. After that: old age and death.”In fact, Albert Camus would die 14 years later in a car crash. But not before yet again braving the Atlantic – this time for a lecture tour of Brazil, Argentina and Chile.Amusingly, Camus provides loose sketches of fellow shipboard passengers. It seems like a mystery or intrigue novel or film noir just waiting to be written – especially as this was 1949. If anything is frustrating about the journals, it is simply that one wishes that Camus would flesh out his often skeletal thoughts.”Woke up with a fever.” I tried to calculate just how many of Camus’ shipboard entries began with “Woke up with a fever” or some variation. But I lost count. I’m now wondering whether a shipboard memoir could even exist without that sentence. Still, despite his physiological reaction to the voyage, or perhaps even because of it, Camus is deeply enamored of the sea in all its raging power – often remaining transfixed by it. It is “a call to life and an invitation to death,” and leaves him with “inexplicably profound sadness.”His exhaustion and his ocean fixation clash on one occasion, when he enters this into his diary: “Too tired to describe the sea today.”Arriving in Rio, Camus notes: “Never have I seen wealth and poverty so insolently intertwined.” Finding himself in the company of a Brazilian poet, Camus offers this scathing assessment:”Enormous, indolent, folds of flesh around his eyes, his mouth hanging open, the poet arrives. Anxieties, a sudden movement, then he spills himself into an easy chair and stays there a little while, panting. He gets up, does a pirouette and falls back down into the easy chair.”The corpulent poet later points out “a character from one of your novels” – a thin, gun-toting government minister. But Camus silently decides that it is the poet himself who is in fact a “character.”In the hills outside of Rio, Camus is taken to a macumba – a trance-inducing spiritual dance where the dancers attempt to arrive at a state of ecstasy. Camus, hanging back and observing with his arms crossed, was told to uncross his arms so as not to impede the descent of the spirits. In the end, Camus yearns for fresh air rather than heat, dust, smoke and writhing bodies: “I like the night and sky better than the gods of men.”After Rio, Camus travels to Recife (A map somewhere in the book would be nice. My edition has none). He describes it as Florence of the tropics. (Although while in Recife, he did “wake up with the grippe and a fever.”)Then it was off to Bahia: “In bed. Fever. Only the mind works on, obstinately. Hideous thought. Unbearable feeling of advancing step by step toward an unknown catastrophe which will destroy everything around me and in me.”For every journal entry soaked in fever and depression, there’s one that lifts you up. Camus writes of a radio program in Sao Paulo where people can go on air to make a public entreaty. An unemployed man went on the air one day and said that since his wife had abandoned him, he was looking for someone to temporarily take care of his child. Five minutes after the program ended, another man came into the station, half-asleep, half-dressed. His wife had heard the plea, woke her husband, and dispatched him to go get the child.After Sao Paulo, it was off to Montevideo, then Buenos Aires, across to Santiago, Chile, then back to Brazil and then home.A slight volume, American Journals nevertheless reveals a fragile man at the height of his fame, who can still, through all of his medical and psychological problems, offer observations which are astute and often amusing, and it offers some personal context to the ideas that would show up in his later works of fiction.