There are probably scads and scads of books like 13. I’ve seen them in libraries and used book stores. They are books that take on one topic and mine it for endless anecdotes and historical curios, but they don’t claim that by looking through the prism of the topic at hand, a reader can discern the entire arc of human history. The books are about what they are about, and all you need to do as a reader is sit back and be entertained and informed. John McPhee, who is very good at this sort of thing, once wrote a book entirely about Oranges, for example. Nathaniel Lachenmeyer does this sort of thing well, too. His book is an impeccably researched look at an old superstition. With every turn of the page the reader is presented with another odd relic that Lachenmeyer has dug up for our perusal: the existence of popular superstition-defying “13 clubs” at the beginning of the 20th century, for example. And onward the book moves through Friday the 13th, the missing 13th floor, and all the rest. Taken as a whole, the book is a nifty piece of well-researched reportage bringing to light the many murky progenitors of this now commonplace superstition.
John Horne Burns’ The Gallery was his first book, a chronicle of the chaos and beauty and horror of occupied Naples in 1943 and 1944. It’s an interesting hybrid: a novel, or perhaps it’s better described as a short story collection in which the stories, all touching in some way upon a bombed-out arcade called the Galleria Umberto, alternate with an elegant travelogue in the first person. The travelogue appears to be the author’s memoir: I remember that at Casablanca it dawned on me that maybe I’d come overseas to die.
Burns did die in Italy, although not during the war. He served in Italy and North Africa, mostly in military intelligence. He returned to the United States after the war ended, but his experiences overseas had changed him forever. The behavior he’d witnessed in the army, the mistreatment of the Neapolitans at American hands, the buffoonery of officers, soldiers robbing one another blind—all of these things engendered in him a distaste for the United States, and he returned to Italy for good shortly after the war.
The Gallery was published in 1947, to considerable acclaim. Burns followed it with two more novels—Lucifer with a Book and A Cry of Children—but reviews of the first were mixed, reviews of the second disastrous. His British and American publishers declined to publish the book that followed, The Stranger’s Guise. Not only was The Stranger’s Guise rejected, but Paul Fussell’s introduction to The Gallery suggests that it was rejected in the kind of terms that authors routinely have nightmares about: Burns’ publishers apparently called the new book “trash.”
Burns—deeply shaken, alcoholic, depressed following the break-up of an affair—suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in Livorno at the age of 36. There were suggestions that he’d drank himself to death. The New York Times obituary devoted considerable space to dicussion of The Gallery, and mentioned his final two novels only in passing. He was buried in Rome.
When the Allies arrived in Naples they found a bombed-out city, the harbor in ruins and rubble on the streets. Crime was epidemic. There was very little food. The Galleria Umberto was a collection of bars and black-market restaurants and shops that functioned as a sort of unofficial heart of the desperate city.
The stories that make up the book are called Portraits; the interludes of travelogue are called Promenades. Burns wrote a hard fine prose, although there were moments when he sank into sentimentality. Each Portrait is of an individual—usually American, occasionally Italian—in or around the Galleria Umberto, and Burns’s skills in character development were remarkable. The true nature of each one arises slowly, an image sharpening on a Polaroid; the staggering first Portrait is of a young soldier recovering from trenchfoot, a crass and alcoholic young man who’s nonetheless deeply sensitive, aware of his impending death, a man who’s never had a moment of transcendence in his life except in the presence of opera.
There’s Luella, a magnificently deluded Red Cross volunteer who dresses impeccably in her uniform in order to spend the day neglecting her duties and drinking; a suave and oddly blank second lieutenant who loses his mind after a conversation with a ghost; a virtuous Italian teenager driven to the brink of starvation when the inflation that followed the Allied invasion made food unaffordable. The prose is beautiful, the plotting expert, the moments of satire razor-sharp. It’s a command performance, but not without flaws.
The book’s largest problem concerns the author’s obvious prejudices. In the final Promenade, the thoughtful officer whose first-person travelogue we’ve been following arrives finally in Naples, whereupon the spell of the book begins to waver. “For in Naples,” he writes in the final Promenade, “I and other Americans learned by a simple application of synecdoche that no one, in himself and by himself, is much better or much worse than anybody else.” And yet one can’t help but notice that this sentiment seems not to extend to the novel’s Arabs, who are referred to as “Ayrabs” and given distasteful qualities throughout. There are moments when his disgust for the United States is palpable. He spends little time with the Allied forces of other nationalities, returning again and again to the American army. With only a few notable exceptions, his Americans tend to be morally and culturally bankrupt. They don’t know how to love. They don’t know how to live. They are limited people. His Italians, by contrast, are mostly saints; if they’re corrupt, it’s because the Americans ruined them.
He goes so far as to write, in reference to the disgraceful manner in which American soldiers treated the citizens of Naples, “I don’t think the Germans could have done any better in their concentration camps.” It’s hard to know what to say to this. Perhaps he was ignorant of the workings of the concentration camps. Perhaps he was so blinded by his anti-Americanism that he couldn’t perceive a difference between bullying a population and committing a systematic genocide.
He digresses into sweeping generalizations about American artists—unsurprisingly, he finds them spiritually inferior to their Italian counterparts—and about American culture. Here he manages to completely miss the same point that certain of my non-American friends and acquaintances seem to miss sometimes, at unguarded moments when I’m outside the United States, when they’re perhaps thinking of me as a Canadian—I hold dual citizenship between the U.S. and Canada—and the United States comes up in conversation, which is that the cultural life of the United States contains such multitudes, such variations of experience, that attempts at summarizing its national culture are largely meaningless.
And yet, for all this, I found The Gallery compelling. It’s beautifully written, and it’s a portrait of a time and a city that fascinates me. I have no particular connection to the city, except in the same way that I have a connection to every city bombed in that particular war: I’ve visited Naples twice and wondered, both times, if my grandfather trained the pilots who bombed this place.
My grandfather was a flight instructor for the Royal Canadian Air Force, and his students flew above the theatres of the Second World War. Black-and-white photographs of a young man in a pilot’s uniform on the tarmac, smiling. My impression was always that he loved his work, but I did come across a notebook of his once wherein he’d recorded a list: names of his students, with killed or missing noted beside them, and I’ve thought ever since of the terrible burden of training combat pilots. He taught them how to fly the machines they disappeared in.
Impossible not to think of him when visiting an Axis country, when reading World War II narratives set in cities that were bombed. I first visited Naples ten years ago and fell in love with the city. I returned a few years later, at a vastly different point in my life, and was much less inclined to drop everything and move there, but there was a moment when I was in love with the city’s chaos. It’s a city charged with a dangerous electricity, a vivid kind of place. The drivers make New York cabbies seem sedate. The whole place functions on a razor’s edge, at moments seemingly just shy of anarchy, sordid and beautiful and terribly fast. There are buildings near the harbor that still show damage from the Second World War.
The first time, ten years ago, I descended with a guide into the underground city. It’s an immense system of ancient cisterns and waterways, began in Grecian times and expanded over the centuries, carved from the porous rock forty metres below the surface. Sections were converted into a bomb shelter during the Second World War. The steps down to the bottom are uneven, carved from stone. The air grows damper and colder as you leave the city above.
It’s hard to get a sense of the precise size of this place. There have been a couple of small internal avalanches over the centuries, and large sections are blocked off. The guide leads us through the narrowest imaginable passageways, rock pressing against my body on every side. It’s difficult to catch my breath. Passageways open into wide corridors, small rooms, and then into caverns that could house a hundred families, and once did. There is a rudimentary electrical system. Benches are carved into the walls of some rooms. A scrawled notation identifies a tiny dripping alcove as a wedding chamber.
Four thousand Neapolitans took refuge here during the bombing. Graffiti adorns the walls, a dark moment in history scratched into rock: caricatures of Hitler, Mussolini and Churchill, pin-up girls smoking cigarettes in miniskirts, fighter planes and submarines, scraps of hopeful poetic sentiment: “A life without love is a desert.” There is longing pornography. I look at sketches of airplanes and think of my grandfather. I imagine 4,000 people down here in the shadows, scared and alive, hiding and scratching hopeful graffiti, holding hands and fighting and raising children and dying in half-darkness, bombs falling above.
The tour guide stops us in a particular cavern. Poetry and caricatures are scratched into the walls. It’s hard to say where we are; there is no sense of direction in this place, no feeling of a beginning or end. If the guide were to leave, we would be utterly lost. He motions for us to sit on a stone bench, and then, unexpectedly, he turns off his flashlight.
The silence is immense. The darkness is absolute. There is a distant sound of dripping water, but there is no light. I am aware of my traveling companion sitting beside me on the bench, of the tour guide standing nearby. There are only the smallest possible sounds. Our breathing, the distant dripping of water, the sound of a shoe scuffed lightly in the dust. The silence fascinates me. I don’t want it to end. I can see absolutely nothing. There has never been any moment but this.
Some time passes before the tour guide speaks, and I hear his love for this place in his voice. He is reverent. My traveling companion, whose Italian is better than mine, whispers a translation through the darkness between us: “Absolute silence. Absolute darkness. Like death…”
And forty metres above us, the seething city, still beautifully and dangerously and chaotically alive.
The intrusion of the university into the life of the writer “is unquestionably the chief sociological fact of modern American literature,” Keith Gessen wrote in last year’s N+1 symposium on American literature. Though Gessen’s rhetoric may have been strategically hyperbolic, the facts bore him out. For better or for worse, the M.F.A. workshop has changed our conception of literary art from that of a calling to that of a profession – one with its own “skill sets,” human resources apparatus, and even (it seems at times) its own dress code.This isn’t entirely a bad thing (as both Gessen and I are in a position to know). Among other things, a graduate creative writing program provides a brief oasis of financial and social security in the hard country that is the writing life. (O, to return to the days when one could proclaim to an interlocutor, “I’m in grad school,” rather than mumbling, “I’m a writer…”) But the workshop is, as its best pedagogical theorists know, hostile to the new. At its worst, it is a machine for converting freshness into formula.Which helps to explain the durability, among students of writing, of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. For a decade and a half, this slim collection has passed from hand to hand among M.F.A. students like samizdat. Johnson’s stories are not reducible to formal principles. His plots are odd and ungainly. His sentences and dialogue, flirting with the poetic, violate the canons of understatement. Like the sentences of D.H. Lawrence, they seem to depend on the supernatural for inspiration. They may not always find it, but they are alive to the possibilities of language. My favorite Johnson story, for example, begins, “Sometimes I went during my lunch break into a big nursery across the street, a glass building full of plants and wet earth and feeling of cool dead sex.”Reading Johnson’s latest, longest, and, in my limited purview, finest novel, Tree of Smoke, I kept thinking of Jesus’ Son’s reinvention of the short story. Now, in 2007, in wartime, we find Johnson straining against the teachable conventions of the novel, in a way that does honor to the form. Though there are passages and even pages through which I itched to run my workshopper’s pencil, I would trade a dozen finely calibrated domestic comedies for a single chapter of Tree of Smoke.This is a war novel in which the war never quite arrives. Instead, the tangled plot wraps itself around a handful of intelligence operatives, relief workers, and low-level grunts who hover around the peripheries of our decade-long quagmire in Vietnam. As some commentators have noted, the novel pays homage to the conventions of Vietnam literature and film, but it’s the departure from the tropes of innocence and experience that matters. Here, as in Johnson’s stories, the characters seem to have lost their innocence at birth. Their souls are stained with something like original sin.The central figure is William “Skip” Sands, who in 1965, when the novel opens, has joined the family business – the CIA. His uncle is a vivid, Ahabian character known as “The Colonel.” In the course of the novel, The Colonel will become obsessed with an elaborate psy-ops plot to feed phony intelligence to the North Vietnamese. Meanwhile, the Agency will become obsessed with bringing down The Colonel. Amid the proliferating intrigues, then, the main plot will boil down to classical terms: a conflict in Skip’s loyalties, the family vs. the state.Along the way, we meet the tormented Kathy, who provides aid to children injured in the war; the Houston brothers, enlisted men whose experiences in Vietnam may be said to be representative; and two Vietnamese ensnared in the Colonel’s conspiracy. In lesser hands, any of these characters might have decayed into types, but Johnson invests each with a deep interiority, letting his or her mind wander at cross-purposes to the narrative. Here, for example, is Nguyen Hao, the reluctant co-conspirator, waking in the morning:”Sloth kept him in bed awhile. Restlessness drove him downstairs to the tiny court behind his kitchen, where the sun made more mist. Under its warmth everything gave off ghosts. They woke from the bricks, rose with a deep reluctance, disappeared. Hao spread his white handkerchief on the stone bench, seated himself carefully, and tried to find some quiet in his mind.”Johnson who lately has been writing plays, tends to let his dialogue run on for pages, stilted, staccato bits meant to indict the poverty of speech, to leaven the mood, and to build tension. But his real genius is for description. In a single, unassuming detail – that white handkerchief – the character of Nguyen Hao comes alive, not an Orientalist’s prop, but a flesh-and-blood character, who might be our neighbor. Johnson works similar wonders with Skip Sands’ moustache.At 600 pages, the novel is clearly up to something bigger than a mere collection of characters. With its phony intelligence and its wartime hell built on the benevolent intentions of individuals like Skip, Tree of Smoke is an attempt to write about the present through the prism of the past. But Johnson’s refusal to surrender completely to thematic and political imperatives – his remarkable ability to let his material breathe – rescues the novel from didacticism.At times, I was reminded of a parable by Kafka, another writer who flirts with, but never gives in to, allegory. In it, a dying emperor “has sent a message to you, the humble subject.” His messenger sets out on his journey, but beyond the emporer’s bed is a chamber, and beyond the chamber door is another chamber, and beyond that an outer palace, and then more chambers and palaces “and so on for thousands of years… Nobody could fight his way through here even with a message from a dead man.”War, in Tree of Smoke, is like that message. It exists, murderously, but just over the horizons. Explosions echo in the distance, flicker in the sky, waft the odor of charred flesh toward us, but we are trapped just outside it, at human scale, wrestling with the angels of our nature. In this way, the novel speaks eloquently to our condition here in the U.S, circa 2007. It’s the kind of eloquence they don’t teach you in school. I guess you have to earn it.[an excerpt from Tree of Smoke]
We are a society of consumers. In any of America’s 4,135 Walmart locations, you may find us observing our grotesque sacrament of consumption, enrobed in Duck Dynasty apparel and attended by trains of resource-gobbling offspring whose ominous chants for Monster Energy Drink and Despicable Me talking figurines can be heard halfway to the parking lot. We buy it; we break it, tire of it, or allow it to spoil; and we discard it. We are hell-bent on destroying the planet, and Black Friday is, as it were, our Black Mass. So, at any rate runs a popular line of self-flagellation — but to what degree is it true?
Jonathan Miles’s new novel, Want Not, hopes to make us think long and hard about this question. The book opens on Thanksgiving Day, 2008. Its three narratives, which cohere thematically but don’t much intersect in the contrived manner familiar to moviegoers, follow freegan squatters in Manhattan; the loathsome owner of a collection agency, his troubled wife, and his stepdaughter; and a middle-aged liguististics professor grappling with his failed marriage, his father’s Alzheimer’s disease, and a difficult project drawing on his knowledge of dead and dying languages.
The squatter plot recalls Justin Taylor’s The Gospel of Anarchy (2011), a novel about a Florida anarchist collective. There is, if not quite a love triangle, an odd domestic arrangement: Micah and Talmadge take on Matty, Talmadge’s childhood friend and fresh out of prison in Oregon. They lecture him about freeganism in a way that is also for the reader’s instruction, just as one Dan Brown character might explain the Priory of Sion to another. Gradually, these characters do assume real depth; a flashback to Micah’s own off-the-grid childhood and subsequent wanderings (as far as India) furnish the book’s most exotic, poetic passages, as in this description of Indian poverty:
It wasn’t the makeshift blue shanties and lean-tos, or the women thrashing clothes on rocks, the men squatting to defecate in the shade of Peepal trees, or the naked, cinnamon-colored children cooling themselves in puddles — all this was too familiar, even nostalgically comforting, to faze her. What wrenched her, instead, was the unnatural landscape of the poverty: the scale, the density, all the degraded details. The coolant-green, battery-acid-yellow swirls in the puddle those children were cooling in. The mustardy burning-trash haze that strangled the breeze those women were sucking into their lungs as they paused between thrashings.
Matty goes through the motions of learning to scavenge, to salvage — in one very effective nail-biter of a scene, he is nearly flattened in a trash compactor — but his eye is on the main chance, and what he comes to find in his friends’ lifestyle is not salvation so much as criminal opportunity. Endowing Matty with this mercenary streak was a canny move on Miles’s part. It reveals a mature understanding that not everyone can be brought sincerely into the fold, that people will want what they want no matter how fully they may try to engage with the arguments of the pious.
As for Elwin Cross Jr., the linguist, we encounter him just as he’s killed a deer with his Jeep Cherokee. There was, conveniently, a time in Cross’s youth when he pored over “the Foxfire books as if they were Talmudic scrolls,” and under the influence of wine and nostalgia he decides to take the kill home and butcher it. Waste not, want not. Miles describes this process so vividly and in so dignified a manner that, rather than making the reader squeamish, it may have him clicking over to the Cabela’s website. Other things that Elwin refuses to discard include his technically totaled Jeep; Christopher, the drunken, buffoonish son of his abusive neighbor; his father’s memories; the endangered languages of micro-ethnic groups.
This may sound a bit too elegant, even pat, but it is mild in comparison with Dave Masoli, Miles’s laziest creation. Masoli is a Frankenstein’s monster of stereotypes. “An hour after eating Thanksgiving dinner,” Miles writes, Dave “was staring into the toilet with wide-eyed awe and admiration.” Yes, we are in for a bathetic rhapsody to a bowel movement — in Dave’s view, a whole bowel symphony — and like the scatological tableau in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, it doesn’t rise above the level of Tucker Max gross-out merely by being in an upper-middlebrow novel. It takes the book’s kitchen-sink approach to waste too literally and too far.
Dave is obnoxious, greedy, unscrupulous, homophobic, racist, a cigar aficionado, and, of course, a Republican. Ostentatiously humanizing a caricature like this, as Miles ultimately does, may be worse than having drawn the caricature in the first place. It suggests that Miles believes he is being imaginative, or insightful, or even shocking in proposing that a person such as Dave might also possess a soul. That most people are walking contradictions should cease to astonish around the time one’s history teacher reveals that Hitler was a vegetarian and Stalin wrote love poetry.
Miles’s plot, his superflux of character and incident, is at times as bloated as the America it examines. Want Not seems to crave pride of place with such “sprawling” books as Infinite Jest and Freedom. Miles includes an unsubtle advertisement for his own simile-laden prose style on the first page: One of his characters is “an inveterate analogizer who couldn’t help viewing the world as a matrix of interconnected references in which everything was related to everything else through the associative, magnetizing impulses of his brain. Back in college he’d read that this trait was an indicator of genius.”
Want Not isn’t a work of genius, but it is a triumph of careful planning. It is a book designed for book clubs and high school classrooms. Its themes and morals are, like one of those barn-owl-pellet science kits, both easy to unpack and, if considered in the right frame of mind, fascinating. Its reach may exceed its grasp, but it earns that oft-abused adjective ambitious. With the lone exception of Dave Masoli, Miles’s characters are well drawn, convincing, and easy to care about; his prose is intricate but reads at a good clip. But the greatest compliment one can pay Want Not is that it turns out not to be a didactic novel about reducing, reusing, and recycling. It may be just the opposite, a subversive argument that we are focusing our attention on the wrong sort of waste.
Elwin’s project is to help prepare a warning for a New Mexico HAZMAT dump, a message that will be intelligible to a civiliation of 10,000 years hence. It is an exercise in deep-time communication, and based on a real-life project at the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository. For all that well-educated Americans enjoy trash-talking themselves and their consumption habits, the deep-time warning makes us seem optimistically conscientous. Man, if by some miracle he endures another 10,000 years, may face far more serious threats than the presence of a radioactive junkyard. Yet he insists on making an effort to protect our children’s children’s children, ad infinitum. Good for him.
Call it love or humanity or something like it. But let’s not forget our actual children. The book describes one heartbreaking miscarriage, one live birth consigned to and rescued from a dumpster. Miles’s main characters are people who need to be picked up, dusted off, and repaired. Sometimes one suspects that Miles is instructing us not to worry so much about abstractions. “[G]arbage was the only truthful thing civilization produced,” Matty thinks, “because that’s where all the dirty secrets went.” Ask any archaeologist: We are that garbage. We’re all headed for the same scrap heap, as is our species, as far as deep time is concerned. It’s to our great credit that we look to the future, but we shouldn’t let our very fleeting present go to waste, either.