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.
Bezalel Stern is a lawyer and freelance writer who lives in New York. He is currently at work on his first novel about the life and times of a Wall Street day trader.For some obvious reasons (and others not quite so obvious) around this time of year I often go back to Richard Ford's masterful novel Independence Day. Independence Day, the second book in the Frank Bascombe trilogy, revolves around the eponymous holiday. It takes place, like the other books in the trilogy, over a single weekend. Also like the other two books, it aims not just to chronicle a couple of days in the life of its narrator, but also to digest the ethos of the holiday into a concrete space.Independence Day is especially relevant, perhaps, this year, as the book's backdrop is the 1988 financial and housing slump, which, when reading Frank Bascombe's perspective of it, at least, seems awfully similar to the contemporary housing crisis. Bascombe, a former fiction writer cum sportswriter, is now a real estate agent, and one who seemed to have gotten into the gig at the worst possible time. The heady buying frenzy of the arguably irresponsible Reagan years is coming to an abrupt end, as home values are on the verge of a steep and then virtually unprecedented decline, and the economy teeters toward a freefall (history does seem to repeat itself, doesn't it). Frank Bascombe, a lonely divorcee with two children he hardly ever sees and an on again off again girlfriend, is in a sort of freefall of his own. He is simply trying, as the book begins, to remain independent, from relationships, from feelings, from everything. In a word, Bascombe is simply trying to exist. It is no surprise, then, that he terms this period in his life the "Existence Period".The problem is that, as Bascombe comes to realize, it is hard to simply exist in a world where you have to interact with others. And so, over the course of a jam-packed four day weekend during which Frank interacts with all sorts of Americans of different socio-economic, religious, and racial backgrounds (this is no accident, of course), Frank slowly learns to wean himself away from the dependencies of the Existence Period. Meanwhile, Frank's teenage son, Paul, who's meant to stand for the wrong kind of independence (but because the novel is so well written, comes across as much more than a simple metaphor), loses himself in anger and alienation. While he is free, in a sense, Paul seems adrift, unable to know what he is declaring his independence from or his allegiance to.Ford is a masterful storyteller. In my opinion, he's one of the great American novelists writing today. I find the layers of his Bascombe novels in particular - each sentence seems virtually packed with meaning and thought - just short of miraculous. Independence Day is a book that, especially in times of national instability (and, dare I say it, crisis?) bears a second (or third) read.It's amazing to me the way Ford can make simple truths not simply seem profound, but actually be profound. So, by the end of the novel, when, after having thrown around Emerson and Jefferson and revolutionary philosophy, Frank comes to the conclusion that true independence means not going it alone, but dealing with the world around you in a mature and concentrated manner, interacting with and building relationships with others; when, in other words, Frank leaves his Existence Period for a new, perhaps scarier, more challenging, but certainly more fulfilling life of personal interactions that matter, the verities Frank Bascombe professes no longer seem so simple.The book contains ideas worth thinking about, and seriously. True independence, for Ford, consists, it seems to me at least, of actually being able to understand why people who are different from yourself - perhaps incredibly so - do what they do. In being able to work with them, and to learn from them as well."The original framers" of the constitution, Frank says at one point in the novel, "wanted to be free to make new mistakes, not just to keep making the same old ones over and over as separate colonies and without showing much progress. That's why they decided to band together and be independent and were willing to sacrifice some controls they'd always had in hopes of getting something better."People who have practically nothing in common banding together to be independent. As counterproductive as it sounds, it's what made this country free. Real independence, Ford posits, is all about making connections. Independence is with people.
Literary awards please almost no one. As William Gass famously complained, “any award giving outfit is doomed to make mistakes and pass the masters by in silence.” Each year, nominees are announced and each year readers and critics love to grumble. The 2004 National Book Award Nominees for fiction, however, inspired a level of grousing rarely seen in the last decade. Each nominee for the shortlist was a woman, and each woman lived in New York City. Immediately, both the mainstream press and the literary blogosphere started throwing about terms: Elitist. Insular. Sameness. The New York Times gleefully reported that none of the women nominated had sold more than 2,000 copies of their books and quoted the literary editor of The Atlantic as saying, “I thought this was a really weak year for fiction, but I still wouldn't have guessed that any of these would have been strong contenders.'' Major newspapers that had not reviewed the books attempted one-fell-swoop pieces in which they treated the five disparate works as some sort of literary quintet, complete with facile pronouncements about their collective shortcomings. Chairman of the judges panel Rick Moody took a good deal of criticism for imposing his aesthetic with too heavy a hand. Caryn James of the Times searched (and claimed to find) common links between all the nominees, writing: “all five are built on compressed observations that easily veer into precious writers' program language, too woozy and poetic for its own good.” Of course, this was a stretch. Five books by five women from the same city of eight million souls do not make for a uniform aesthetic. Anyone who reads one sentence written by 2004 nominee Christine Schutt, a former Gordon Lish acolyte known for her attention to the sonics of language, repetition, and rhythm as well as unusual and stunning verb choice will immediately see the folly of James’ claim. Joan Silber, another one of the five nominees has a strikingly different prose style, a much more straightforward and unadorned mode that could not be further from Schutt. Lost in all the befuddlement about these relative unknowns and their supposed similarities were the actual merits of the books nominated. Among the crop of nominees was Joan Silber, nominated that year for her “ring of stories,” Ideas of Heaven, a work that explores the long-term impact that a single choice can have on a life. In every chapter/story, a Silber character is faced with a decision that takes decades to reveal its true repercussions, and often the actual impact of this decision will lie unrealized, producing subtle and destructive consequences for the rest of the character's life. Whether Silber characters inhabit 16th century Italy or contemporary America, all of them are similarly preoccupied when it comes to life-choices and whether the passage of time allows for any sort of lesson at all when it comes to reflecting on the lives they have chosen (or been forced) to live. In both Ideas of Heaven and her 2008 work, Size of the World, Silber utilizes nearly identical structures to portray the universality of this condition. Regardless of time period, Silber employs strikingly similar narrative voices for all of her characters, with few allowances for age or gender. In the same way that Silber’s characters from different countries and time periods have nearly identical emotional concerns, the consistency of voice in Ideas of Heaven and Size of the World is yet another Silber technique employed to demonstrate the shared humanity of these disparate characters in the most varied of circumstances. What, you might wonder, is the “ring of stories” referred to in Ideas of Heaven? How is the ring related to the linked short story, the novel-in-stories, and the plain old-fashioned novel? Though there is no sport more boring and useless than literary classification, when Silber’s Ideas of Heaven is paired with Size of the World, one can see how little this question matters. (Even the author may not be the most authoritative in this case. In an interview with The Millions, Silber herself calls Ideas of Heaven “a hybrid between the novel and linked stories” and refers to the structure of Size of the World as simply, “this form.”) Billed on the front as “a novel,” Size of the World utilizes almost the exact same structure as Ideas of Heaven, the “ring of stories.” In both works, Silber has pioneered a distinct form, a crowd-told tale of multiple first person narrators, each chapter building on the next, but with each narrator’s story containing a dramatic structure traditionally associated with short fiction. In fact, chapters from both Ideas of Heaven and Size of the World were published in journals and anthologies as standalone short stories. However, the Silber-applied “ring” in question likely refers to the fact that as the reader progresses through the work, the newer stories alter understanding of the earlier stories, until by the very end they have eventually circled back and all affected each other. Silber utilizes passage of time like few of her contemporaries. Most interesting is Silber’s usage of what she herself calls, “long time.” In each story or chapter in Size of the World and Ideas of Heaven, decades pass, often in one sentence. “We went through all our savings, such as they were, in those five years in Ohio,” from Ideas of Heaven, or “In the third year we were together, the band had such a long dry spell that Randy got side work with a friend’s combo that did weddings and bar mitzvahs,” from Size of the World. But Silber’s “long time” is not merely about summary and exposition. Silber herself has laid out the blueprint for how what exactly “long-time” is and how she accomplishes it in her craft book, The Art of Time in Fiction. Though ostensibly an exploration of how authors manage and explore time in their work, Silber glides over “classic time”, “slowed time” and others to get to the passage of time she clearly finds most engaging: long time. The most consistent Silber technique in long time is to utilize habitual action as though it were a single event. Examples abound in every chapter or story in both Ideas of Heaven and Size of the World as well as many of Silber’s earlier short stories. In Size of the World, Corrina, who eventually spends six years in what is then Siam, narrates her gradual comfort with the land around her: My walks got longer, along the roads going inland, with paddies and forest on either side. Often I wanted to bring back a flower or a leafy stalk, but the stem were too fleshy to break, and I had a rational fear of sticking my hand in the foliage. I knew about snakes. Silber discusses the benefits of this method in The Art of Time in Fiction, naming Flaubert and Chekhov as masters of this technique and claiming that “even in a story that leaps over long spans of time,” such a move allows for “the intimacy of the close gaze.” Though other contemporary authors often deal with extended periods of time, few do so in the manner of Silber. Alice Munro, for instance, also often chronicles decades in the lives of her characters. Munro, however, utilizes shifting perspectives and frequently jumps forwards or backwards in time. Though Silber often credits Munro as a major influence, Silber’s work is much more constrained. Once a Silber character begins narrating a chapter or story, you can be sure that she will remain the sole narrator. In Munro, this is far less likely. Additionally, Munro is much more likely to experiment with tense, with stories completely told in present tense, (“Walker Brothers Cowboy”) or alternating between past and present (“Accident”). Silber characters all narrate their past from a usually undetermined later period in life. Where for Munro, time may be elastic, for Silber, time is guaranteed to be a linear progression that is difficult to make sense of. Though sole incidents often deeply affect Silber and Munro characters for the rest of their lives, the two authors differ in their illustrations of these effects. Unlike in Munro stories, a Silber character may think about the past, but they will never do it in scene. Though the first person narrators who populate Size of the World and Ideas of Heaven are of distinct genders, nationalities, time periods, and generations, Silber uses the same technique of long time in each of the stories/chapters. Silber seems to utilize the long form in order to allow the weight of an action to fully inhabit its impact on the character. That is, time passes in Silber stories so the reader can fully understand the effect a seemingly unimportant decision or unforeseeable event (a car crash, a hurricane) can have on the rest of a character’s life. To truly demonstrate the impact of these events and how they change the character(s) in question, a good deal of time must pass. Unlike Alice Munro and other contemporary authors, Silber rarely withholds information. Before a reader begins a story/chapter in Size of the World, a heading makes the reader aware of the narrator’s name, as well as an encompassing emotion that will be present in the story (envy, lust, paradise, loyalty, etc). In addition to her titles, Silber’s beginnings ground the reader immediately. For example, “Paradise” from Size of the World, begins as follows: “We moved to Florida in 1924, just as the land boom was taking off. We were not a young family—I was already twenty-one and my parents were in their forties and fifties.” With assistance from the title, we already know from the first two sentences that our narrator’s name is Corrina, as well as her age, the time period, and geographic location. A consistent Silber sub-theme within her explorations of time and its effects is uprootedness and migration. As time passes, Silber characters tend to repeat both the process of falling in love with a new place and being upended and wishing one was back in the place that was once unfriendly. This pattern is a constant in Size of the World as well as Ideas of Heaven. Even when Silber characters are unhappy with the geographic location in which they find themselves, they rarely find the place overwhelming for very long. If they do, they soon—via Silber’s habitual time rendered as scene—become acclimated in several paragraphs that may span years. This is not to say that Silber characters are always happy where they are. Quite often, they would simply rather be elsewhere, or are visitors in the place that they call home. It is only the passage of time that dulls their sense of dislocation. Silber’s Annunziata, in Size of the World, uprooted from Sicily: “I didn’t really want to get better at knowing Hoboken, things—deep in my heart they didn’t interest me—but I learned them, inch by inch, in spite of myself.” For Silber, the decades passing allow the reader to recognize the long-term impact of decisions on the characters. In her project of exploring the devastating or healing effects of time, Silber has created a rare formula, exploring very large questions through the tiniest and most specific of lives.
The world stubbornly failed to end on Friday – again. This must have come as a disappointment to the followers of Rev. Harold Camping, who have spent the last five months waiting for God to whisk them off to Heaven, leaving the rest of us to endure earthquakes, fires, and the eventual violent destruction of the planet. Camping, a 90-year-old radio preacher, first predicted this “rapture” would occur on May 21, but when May 22 dawned and he and the rest of his morally radiant flock were still among us, he said he’d miscalculated and that the rapture would take place on October 21, the same day that God destroyed the world. And, well, here we all are. If Camping wants to revise his end-times prediction again, he’ll have to get in line. Last month, Tom Perrotta, usually a purveyor of relatively cheery tales of suburban angst, published The Leftovers, set in the gloomy aftermath of a rapture-like event. At the cineplex, moviegoers have been subjected to Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, starring Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow, which tracks the spread of a global pandemic that threatens the human race. And now, Colson Whitehead, hipster laureate of Brooklyn, has come out with Zone One, a post-apocalyptic horror tale about a mysterious plague that has turned billions of people into mindless zombies programmed to eat the flesh of the few uninfected survivors. You can tell a lot about a society from its doomsday scenarios. Fifty or sixty years ago, at the height of the Cold War, popular culture was awash in paranoid thrillers like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which evil aliens from outer space (read: Commie bastards) infiltrate the hearts and minds of good Americans. Some decades later, after the fall of the Red Menace, we began to fear our own power over the natural world and we got such Icarus tales as Waterworld, the Kevin Costner kitschfest in which global warming has sunk all the world’s land mass, and Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, in which an amusement park full of cloned dinosaurs threatens to get out of control. Today, in the wake of humbling military stalemates in Iraq and Afghanistan and the even more humbling 2008 financial crisis, one might expect to see more parables on the destructiveness of our overweening ambitions, but that would require a societal sense of ambition. Instead, as people so often do when their own ambitions get the best of them, we feel victimized. In Zuccotti Park, the unemployed blame the bankers. On Wall Street, the bankers blame the government. In Washington, politicians blame other politicians. Everyone is running around pointing fingers, claiming the other guy got us into this fix, but deep down, beneath the slick lobbying campaigns and handmade cardboard signs, I think we all have the disheartening sense that we have been judged and found wanting. That’s the common thread of these contemporary doomsday scenarios. In the case of Rev. Camping’s predicted rapture, the Judgment Day comes straight from the Book of Revelations, which Camping claimed, citing his own wacky mathematical calculations, predicted the Second Coming of Christ on May 21, 2011. But Americans, despite what they may tell pollsters, are skeptical of an overly literal reading of the Bible and prefer their morality tales to take a secular form. Thus, Perrotta’s The Leftovers simply removes God from the story, positing a mysterious, possibly “random harvest” that has culled hundreds of millions of people from the earth, among them “Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews and atheists and animists and homosexuals and Eskimos and Mormons and Zoroastrians.” Contagion and Zone One, on the other hand, rely on the metaphor of the plague. The makers of Contagion went to great lengths to make their plague “realistic,” consulting epidemiologists to get the “facts” of the highly infectious virus at the center of the film right, while Whitehead appears to have restricted his research for Zone One to obsessive viewings of zombie flicks like Night of the Living Dead. But whether your guiding authorities are prominent scientists or directors of schlocko cult classics, a metaphor is a metaphor, and in these stories, as in the original Vietnam-era Living Dead movies, the underlying message seems to be that there is something very destructive in our culture...and it’s spreading. Whitehead goes to some trouble to disabuse his reader of the notion that there might be any greater meaning to his macabre tale. Midway through, the hero, who goes by the nickname Mark Spitz, sarcastically recounts the ravings of “the divine-retribution folks” he’s met during his time on the run: The human race deserved the plague, we brought it on ourselves for poisoning the planet, for the Death of God, the calculated brutalities of the global economic system, for driving primordial species to extinction: the entire collapse of values as evidenced by everything from nuclear fission to reality television to alternate side of the street parking. Mark Spitz could only endure these harangues for a minute or two before he split. It was boring. The plague was the plague. You were wearing galoshes, or you weren’t. The author doth protest too much, methinks. How else are we supposed to read a tale set in a warzone-like sliver of the Southern tip of Manhattan, minutes from the fallen Twin Towers, in which mindless zombies, infected by a virus that turns ordinary people into flesh-eating monsters, attack one of the last bastions of civilized society? Still, if we ignore Whitehead’s diffident demurrals and assume the book is a parable, the question remains: a parable of what? The post-apocalyptic Manhattan Whitehead describes is indeed a fallen world. In the flashback-style digressions that fill much of the book, we learn that one night, while Mark Spitz was gambling in Atlantic City with a buddy, the world was engulfed by an as-yet unexplained plague that causes its sufferers to take bites out of the uninfected, thus spreading the virus. When the book begins, the spread of the plague has stalled, and a rump government of the uninfected, based in Buffalo, New York, has launched a campaign to retake Manhattan, starting at the bottom of the island in the so-called Zone One. To accomplish the mission, Mark Spitz and his fellow survivors must eliminate the remaining zombies, who are broken into two camps: the “skels,” who wander the earth in search of human flesh, and the mysterious “stragglers,” who are infected but harmless and seem to haunt places that have emotional meaning for them. Just as political philosophers dating back to Plato have created utopian worlds ruled by people just like themselves, creators of post-apocalyptic worlds always seem to spare those who are most like them. So, who then is Mark Spitz? He is a black man, though as is the case for Whitehead himself, this fact doesn’t define him (or even get mentioned) for most of the novel. Before the plague struck, he was an ordinary twenty-something living with his parents in the Long Island suburbs and commuting into Manhattan to work “in Customer Relationship Management, New Media Department,” for a large coffee-making conglomerate: He dispatched bots into the electronic ether, where they mingled among the various global sites and individual feeds, and when the bots returned with a hit or blip, he sent a message: “Thanks for coming, glad you liked the joe!” or “Next time try the Mocha Burst, you’ll thank me later.” Mark Spitz, then, is a specialist in the ersatz, a technician of corporate-sponsored caring. This expertise, if that’s the word for it, seems of a piece with his personality, which is marked by a gift for the half-hearted effort. “He staked out the B or the B chose him: it was his native land,” Whitehead writes of his hero early on, adding: “His aptitude lay in the well-executed muddle, never shining, never flunking, but gathering himself for what it took to progress past life’s next random obstacle.” Thus, in a world filled with miserable “stragglers” haunting their most emotionally resonant corners of the earth, Mark Spitz is the last slacker, saved from death by an unerring talent for never really giving a shit. Indeed, when read this way, the book can be seen as a series of incidents in which Mark Spitz tries to work up a genuine emotion about someone or something and is thwarted either by flesh-hungry zombies or his own tepid emotional temperature. I wish, then, that Whitehead’s book had made me care about something, whether it was solitary, loveless Mark Spitz, or the lost world of pre-apocalypse Manhattan, or even zombies. But the truth is it didn’t. Colson Whitehead is gifted with one of the surest prose styles in American letters, but he is, like his hero in this book, a bit too cool for his own damn good. His last book, Sag Harbor, set in the world of wealthy “black boys with beach houses,” touched for a single chapter upon the bitter rage that can come with being black and successful in this country, and then, as if it had veered too close to a consuming flame, retreated into good-natured tales of summertime high-jinks among Long Island’s moneyed resort dwellers. The last fifty pages of Zone One all but turn themselves, but the rest of the novel – which is to say its first 200 pages – are one long slog through endless digressions and flashbacks within flashbacks. If there were a PowerPoint presentation called “Do’s and Don’ts of Writing Novels,” this rule, “The Story Must Always Move Forward,” would appear on the second slide, right after “Show, Don’t Tell.” Whitehead is too talented and too experienced a writer not to grasp this basic idea, so I’m left with the troubling sense that, as with his last book, Whitehead, the walking embodiment of Brooklyn literary cool, smelled the danger in his premise and pulled back.
● ● ●
● ● ●