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.
The short story was but one of many writing genres embraced by author Paul Bowles, known also for his novels, travel essays and poems. The influential American writer drew the admiration of other literary giants such as Tobias Wolff and Norman Mailer, who said Bowles “let in the murder, the drugs, the incest, the death of the Square… the call of the orgy, the end of civilization.” That aptly describes the content of the dozen short stories found in Too Far From Home: Selected Writings of Paul Bowles. The selected stories were written over a span of approximately 25 years, beginning in 1950.As an expatriate who lived for many years in Tangier, Bowles’s writing not only demonstrates a keen understanding of the Western traveler (“A Distant Episode”), it also shows how he comprehended the varied inhabitants of Morocco (“The Delicate Prey”) more than any other American or European writer of his time. From the dunes of the Sahara desert to the peaks of the Atlas Mountains, Bowles effortlessly enters the minds of a people living in the French Protectorate (1912-1956).Bowles masters a range of narrative techniques in a variety of settings. While he’s perhaps best known for The Sheltering Sky – a novel adapted for the screen, starring John Malkovich and Debra Winger – Bowles is also at ease with stories set in the Caribbean (“Pages from Cold Point”) and elsewhere. In one story (“The Circular Valley”) he even adopts a type of meta-narrative by giving voice to a spirit that moves in and out of the consciousness of birds, fish, humans and reptiles to experience emotions in different forms of life.Bowles’s short stories are indeed very brief. The longest in this collection is 28 pages (“The Time of Friendship”), and most are less than half that. The brevity is a testament to his word economy. Characters are developed quickly and fully in the opening pages, and in each tale the protagonist is faced with nothing short of a profound, life-altering event – emotional, physical or both. When necessary, Bowles does not shy away from the harsh realities of life outside “civilization.”The man moved and surveyed the young body lying on the stones. He ran his finger along the razor’s blade; a pleasant excitement took possession of him. He stepped over, looked down, and saw the sex that sprouted from the base of the belly. Not entirely conscious of what he was doing, he took it in one hand and brought his other arm down with the motion of a reaper wielding a sickle. It was swiftly severed. A round, dark hole was left, flush with the skin; he stared for a moment, blankly. Driss was screaming. The muscles all over his body stood out, moved.Some readers may find it frustrating how Bowles often uses foreign words – Arabic, French and Spanish – when the English translation is insufficient. But not only are such occurrences sporadic, they also lend a certain authenticity to conversations between a melange of characters.
If you have more than one copy of a beloved book, you can be the charming, laissez-fair book owner who lends freely and says “return it never,” instead of the saturnine turd who continues to brood over a two-dollar copy of Lonesome Dove which someone may have, but probably did not, fail to return in 2003.With this in mind, I was glad recently to find a paperback “twofer” (or whatever it is called), with Lucky Jim (Kingsley) on one side and The Rachel Papers (Martin son of Kingsley) upside down on the other. Lucky Jim is, of course, one of the most wonderful books every written, and thus in perpetual danger (in my mind) of theft disguised as borrowing. I am sort of dubious about this two-in-one format, but the price was unbeatable, and the Lucky Jim cover reproduces the delightful Edward Gorey illustration from the dust jacket of the first American edition (which, as Edan’s poignant last post reminded me, was the first nice book I ever bought, and which I bought for someone as a gift, and which I sort of wish I had kept for myself. That’s me, a real peach). [Ed. Note: That same Gorey illustration now graces the cover of the new Penguin classics edition pictured above]Anyway, the bonus of purchasing this Lucky Jim insurance policy was that I got to read The Rachel Papers. I haven’t read much Martin Amis, only Time’s Arrow, which I thought was painfully great (painful because of subject and painful because demonstrative of real live contemporary virtuosity, and not the non-threatening dead sort). The Rachel Papers, his first novel (written when he was 24, the bastard), is not, understandably, in the same class as Time’s Arrow, but it is retro and foul and a lot of fun to read.It is similar in its theme to Lucky Jim (which explains the cutesy father-son edition): there’s an obsessive, ostensibly relatable comic Everyman, who outwits frauds and gets the girl. But The Rachel Papers is a post-Sexual Revolution fairy tale – Jim Dixon thinks about putting his hand on a breast, while Charles Highway (the the younger Amis’s protagonist, just out of high school), masturbates furiously to his sister and talks about genitals smelling like wounds. Unlike Jim, Charles inspires rather less admiration than he does pity and mild horror. But he’s precocious, and he’s got a way with words, and I like any book that can make me laugh aloud.Here’s Charles in his room, preparing for seduction:”Not knowing her views on music I decided to play it safe; I stacked the records upright in two parallel rows; at the head of the first I put 2001: A Space Odyssey (can’t be wrong); at the head of the second I put, after some thought, a selection of Dylan Thomas’s verse, read by the poet. Kleenex well away from the bed: having them actually on the bedside chair was tantamount to a poster reading “The big thing about me is that I wank a devil of a lot.”In other passages, I was reminded of Nabokov, and also Günter Grass. Charles has a distinctly Oskar Matzerath quality, smart and disgusting. Here’s Charles with his tutor:Twenty-minute Maths lesson with Mr Greenchurch. Vacuum-chamber office redolent of dead man’s feet; hairless, cysty-eared octogenarian sucking noisily and ceaselessly on his greying false teeth (I thought at first he had a mouthful of boiled sweets; on the Wednesday he allows the coltish dentures to spew out half-way down his chin before drinking them back into place); mind like a broken cuckoo-clock, often forgets you’re there). Ten minutes in the hall, talking to Sarah, the less ugly girl.The novel also recalled a dim memory of a book I read years ago called Wilt, written by Tom Sharpe in 1976. Wilt (and its sequels) came after The Rachel Papers, but they seem born of a similar raunchy zeitgeist, although I seem to recall the eponymous hero being a grown-up, and thus significantly more pathetic than young Charles.Ultimately, The Rachel Papers’ snazzy style could only elevate its lacklustre plot so far. Nearing the end I was the slightest bit bored with Charles and the lessons he learns about girls and love (here’s a hint: the main lesson is skidmarks). I prefer old-fashioned Lucky Jim, where we relish only the triumph, and don’t have to hear about Jim breaking up with Christine because her slightly imperfect teeth and large breasts begin to try his nerves. That said, I think even if you didn’t know that Martin Amis would become one of the bigger deals in living novelists, when you finish the book you suspect that both he and Charles (still vile, but Oxford-bound and one year older), have extraordinary things in store.
Sometimes, I’m forced to read a book. That’s right. Utterly forced. Even as I try to open my mind to more and more books, I get pigeonholed into reading something specific, a “required read” that – because of it’s non-organic nature – feels more like a high school book report project. As long time readers know, I like the fluid motion that comes from going between books on a whim.This September, downtown Sioux Falls will be hosting the Fourth Annual South Dakota Festival of Books, which means South Dakota will be heading full swing into a grand display of oneness as we join together to read this year’s One Book South Dakota: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.Which means that by the end of September, there’s a good chance that many of us South Dakotans will be sitting stunned, not by any grand force of action, but by the wordplay Robinson engages in her story of an elderly priest coming to terms with his age, his son, and his vocation. Yeah, that’s right – I enjoyed this required read. Very much. And I had no problem writing the book report to go along with it.This month’s Book of the Month was easy to choose – I mean, no offense to John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, or Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (two books that I finally got around to reading and enjoyed, though their legend and mystique far outweigh the true nature of their stories), but the Pulitzer spoke, and it forced my hand. Gilead it is.Gilead is a basic story with an inventive style, employing an old pastor’s journal to dictate its pace and breadth. In doing this, Robinson is able to dive into the feelings of a man, John Ames, who was raised to be as pious as life will allow. Inner struggles with his own interpretations of faith and the differences between his father and grandfather’s views on sin serve as a primer to theological thinking, while the prospect of explaining himself – his legacy and theology included – seems daunting, yet necessary.Robinson presents Ames as a man who has won and lost so many times in his life that he’s filled with a melancholy happiness, one that grasps the failure of life and holds it up as triumph. He celebrates everything as a grand experiment in “experience,” and his narrative serves a double track; he’s both telling the reader about his life and preparing his son – a seven-year-old boy from a second marriage – for the death of a father.There is a certain sadness in reading someone’s final words. Ames uses this narrative to connect with his son from beyond the grave, to try to make up for years of unwanted separation. Through his comments, he reveals the frustration in becoming a father with so few years left to give. In fact, Ames has already conceded that he will have little chance to watch his boy grow up. And from this stems an incredible outpouring of experience; pages after pages of his life story, his thoughts, and his feelings.Robinson’s writing brilliantly captures every desire of Ames’ life, though there is an incredible, solemn nature floating just below the surface. It punctuates the idea that we all die, but that we cannot forget to live. There’s no reason to fear the end. We should still try to live what’s left of our storied and vast existence.Ultimately, Gilead presents itself as an incredibly heartbreaking masterpiece, pitting the laws of time against the power of hope and the sheer wall of nostalgic history, forcing each of us to take a long time in thinking about what it takes to be remembered. It underlines the thought process in throwing life away a sliver at a time and remembering the cold, calculated truth: we’re all mortal, and regardless of how important we are, we’re all destined to be swept away in the throes of time.September isn’t just a month. It’s a bridge between the life-bearing summer and the slow decline of fall, when animals and plants disappear, leaving the trees bare and the ground piled with dead leaves. We all feel a little bit more mortal in the fall, and though we celebrate the past summer with gusto on Labor Day, we all know what we’re in for as the coming months begin to freeze over and become stagnant.With that in mind, a certain bit of parallelism can be found in autumn’s return and in Gilead. We all need to celebrate our lives while they’re still in bloom. But the ultimate freedom might be found when we realize we’re merely here for a short amount of time, in knowing someday we’ll be gone, and that our thoughts and actions dictate a great deal about what we’ll be remembered for. In John Ames’ case, we’re left with a picture of a grand man; a caring father who took great pains to strengthen his son’s life before it was too late.Life’s too short to live in the past. Preparing for the future might be the only way to really live forever. In Gilead, that might be the most important piece of advice to remember.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, June, July
My experience of narrative — particularly in New York City, where every approaching train cuts off every approaching thought, where the constant abrasion of the unknown with the insane desensitizes, so that I’m often left with white noise, and jagged notes from the digital world seep further into reality — is piecemeal. I had a friend who assured me that it was impossible to read certain books in the 21st-century city. Henry James, for instance. You need a quiet nook, she said. Otherwise, “before you’ve even finished one sentence” — but she was cut off. I became fascinated with this idea of a patchwork approach. Certainly, it’s nothing new, but who did it well?
When I asked three very different kinds of readers — one young psychologist with a soft spot for the traditional narrative, one writer with a penchant for the avant-garde, and one professor rubberbanding somewhere in between — what was the best example of an American piecemeal novel, each answered immediately: Speedboat by Renata Adler. Well, that did it. I had my triangulation.
Trouble is, Adler’s 1976 novel written in brief vignettes had been out of print for decades. The title struck a chord. I had remembered it mentioned in David Shields’s recent meditation Reality Hunger, itself a piecemeal work, but if Adler’s Speedboat was so vital to the history of the American novel, why was it out of print?
After a survey of which books the members would like to see republished, the National Book Critics Circle wondered the same thing. Again and again, the answer was Speedboat. And in 2010, they called for the book to be put back into print, and so, this month, NYRB Classics has reissued Speedboat with an insightful afterword by Guy Trebay.
Speedboat combines brief anecdotes, braided themes, flashes of urban images, and whimsical musings from the 35-year-old journalist narrator, Jen Fain, to create a novel that foxtrots around the idea of observation. One could say that, as a journalist, Jen is trained in observation. But what to do with that observation? The book lacks any kind of conventional plot in favor of these flashes of life from an over-worked, often-drinking collector of stories. In fact, toward the end of the novel, Jen addresses the issue of plot head-on:
There are only so many plots. There are insights, prose flights, rhythms, felicities. But only so many plots…Maybe there are stories, even, like solitaire or canasta; they are shuffled and dealt then they do or they do not come out. Or the deck falls on the floor.
Adler does this exactly. Her collection of New York observations — often among strangers, but sometimes invoking recurring characters — are shuffled and dealt. And often they do not “come out,” but I’m not sure that’s the point. Rambling narratives come to a slant conclusion. What appear to be insightful allegories twist into pitiful jokes. After each anecdote, my head was nearly always at a tilted angle. Nothing quite adds up, and nothing is quite what it seems. What narrative strategy is more accurate in portraying a country in the wake of Watergate, of Vietnam?
Though Adler includes these historical touchstones — the Kent State shootings, to give another example — her observations eerily waft with ease into our own era. In one particularly memorable episode, Jen boards a plane, and the stewardess clears the first three rows “for security reasons.” In the bustle and argument among obstinate passengers, one elderly woman, oblivious, remains in the front row as the plane takes off. No one demands that she move. Jen notes the fear among the passengers that there has been some breach of security:
She required her bag. There was another ripple of apprehension that she might be, after all, the world’s most improbable terrorist, with a weapon hidden, after all, in that enormous bag. She spent the rest of the flight, though, staring, doddering, holding on to the bag by its string.
Fear, we sometimes forget, follows us into every decade. This passage uncannily describes the post-9/11 atmosphere in airports, aboard the planes themselves. Everyone became, instantly, an astute observer of the minutiae around them.
Adler’s brief, punchy wit reads, perhaps, better today than it did 35 years ago. Scrolling through news bits and status updates between passages of Speedboat, I’m floored by how the novel reads as a somewhat verbose Twitter feed. That is, verbose for Twitter. Succinct for anything else.
Where others might end a passage, Adler adds one more sentence that upends the whole episode. For instance, Jen narrates one anecdote about two grandmothers: one rich, one poor. The rich grandmother buys the children presents that they never appreciate. An antique pocket watch, a fragile 18th-century doll, a strand of pearls. The poor grandmother, however, takes the children to the convenience store and buys them cheap toys, which they love immediately, and the poor grandmother is “perhaps unfairly, far the more popular grandparent of their early years.” Adler follows, and ends, this juxtaposition with three words: “Twenty years passed.”
Adler does allow us into Jen’s life at times, though in the same, scattered glimpses as the rest of the novel. Toward the beginning, Jen seems to be romantically involved with a man named Will, though she confides, in an underhanded way, that he is “married to his work.” Many anecdotes, self-contained stories about strangers, and what might be Jen’s dates with other men elapse. Forty pages later, while relating a bizarre night out with an obituary writer, Jen writes, as an afterthought, “Anyway, Will’s gone.” Like the parenthetical death of Mrs. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a man who had appeared to be a central character of the story vanishes. Adler implies that, in a similar way, we can never predict the major players of our own life.
What also strikes me about Speedboat are its varied layers of resonance. This is an accurate portrait of a functioning alcoholic, an uncertain reporter, a lonely mind on fire in a city of strangers, and a woman ambivalent about her own sex or the prospects of motherhood — simultaneously. Jen Fain seems to portray many of the archetypal city-dwellers all at once, and Adler’s deft writing positions the archipelagoes of narrative just so. You will find what you are looking for.
Undoubtedly, Speedboat presents an impressionistic landscape of New York. “…there are moments in this place,” Jen says, “when everything becomes a show of force.” Classes, races, cultures, occupations, sexes, politics, all pitted against each other in a game that is unknown to everyone. But rather than trace various characters at odds, Adler is at her best when she lets the city speak for itself, as in this self-contained section:
“The score,” the megaphone on the ferry around Manhattan said, from time to time, without further explanation, “is one to nothing.” To the foreigners, unaware perhaps that a World Series was in progress, this may have seemed an obscure instruction, or a commentary on the sights. “In the top of the fifth,” it said, with some excitement, as we rounded Wall Street, “the score is five to one.”
It’s interesting to me that I set out to find an exemplary novel-in-vignettes in response to the city, and stumbled upon a novel that uses vignettes to define the urban experience. Full circle. After 200 pages of short, loosely linked text, Speedboat can run the mind down. But perhaps Adler’s oblique way around her character’s story is the most accurate way to maneuver a city. Speedboat certainly influenced Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, also written in short sections, and also centered around New York, which Hardwick calls “A woman’s city…” Ivan Vladislavic’s Portrait with Keys also comes to mind, dealing the same structure in an attempt to make sense of Johannesburg. Perhaps the city cannot be strangled into a grid. Thankfully, this reissue won’t let us forget that.