I picked up Balkan Ghosts because I was interested in the subject matter, and I hadn’t read anything by Robert D. Kaplan before this. It’s interesting that this book was published in the “Vintage Departures” series because it might not have occurred to me that this book is a travelogue, even though Kaplan does spend much of the book on rickety trains and in decrepit hotels throughout the Balkans. So unmethodical are his travels that “travelogue” seems a misnomer. Nonetheless, Kaplan’s descriptions of the Balkans just months after the fall of Communism are illuminating. At every turn, he is digging up hidden details unseen by Western eyes during the decades of communism. Through the shattered republics of Yugoslavia he travels, then on to Romania, Bulgaria and Greece. Kaplan imbues the book with an impressive amount of historical context, going to great lengths to avoid the generalizations that are more typically employed to explain the seemingly perpetual strife of the Balkans. The book was published in 1995, the mid-point of a bloody decade in the Balkans, and it contains a good deal of forewarning of what was to come to pass in the region in the coming years. In this sense the book is impressive in a third way. Beyond a travelogue, beyond a regional history, Balkan Ghosts is the rare “current events” book that will not soon become obsolete.
“Oh, dear diary. My youth has passed, but the wisdom of age hardly beckons. Why is it so hard to be a grown-up man in this world?” Bemoaning his fate thus is 39-year-old lovable loser Lenny Abramov, the bookish and neurotic Russian-Jewish-American protagonist of Gary Shteyngart’s feverish, boisterous, wildly funny yet also contrived and histrionic new novel: Super Sad True Love Story. And Lenny’s philosophical lament, equal parts rueful and self-deprecating, does not begin to encapsulate his troubles. The not-too-distant future world in which he feels himself an anachronism is a place generally negotiated with the aid of an äppärät, an electronic communication and data-collecting device with which Lenny hardly feels comfortable. His need for genuine human interaction instead of the äppärät-generated classification of humans according to everything from their credit to their “Fuckability” ratings, not to mention his preference for books over text-scanning—again courtesy of those infernal all-purpose äppäräts—sets him apart.
And another thing: the world teeters on the brink of financial ruin. Which is too bad, not least because Lenny has just met the woman of his dreams, fellow confused American Eunice, during a sojourn in Rome, Italy. And he knows it: “For me to fall in love with Eunice Park just as the world fell apart would be a tragedy beyond the Greeks.”
Super Sad True Love Story comprises Lenny’s diary entries alongside Eunice’s text-messages, sent via her äppärät to family members and friends. Intriguingly, such a format enables Shteyngart (who is about Abramov’s age, was born in Leningrad to a Russian Jewish family that immigrated to the United States when he was a child, and has written the acclaimed novels The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan) to explore the versatility of language, whether masterfully employed or scandalously abused. Shteyngart clearly savors the adventuresome possibilities of English, possibilities made nearly infinite in this book by the profusion of infectiously silly youth argot, pompous and pseudo-scientific technical jargon, grammatically convoluted but always colorful dialects, and self-pitying meditations—sometimes uproarious, other times poignant—on the mystery of love and the evanescence of life. Indeed, aside from satirizing the corruption of American society by consumerism and its subversion by militarism, Super Sad True Love Story celebrates the power and beauty of words. Shteyngart endows Lenny—who finds himself in a world considerably more illiterate than our own—with an innocent, almost primordial logophilia: “I relished hearing language actually being spoken by children. Overblown verbs, explosive nouns, beautifully bungled prepositions. Language, not data.”
Back in New York City after his sabbatical in Rome, Lenny resumes work at the Post-Human Services division of a huge and—unbeknown to him—possibly sinister company. His department’s ambitious task is to make eternal human life possible. For Lenny, who suffers from an acute fear of mortality, his work is also very personal. He desperately hopes to qualify for the dechronification and cell-regeneration treatments necessary for immortality, thereby joining his visionary boss Joshie on the road to foreverdom. He may never prove eligible; his credit’s pretty good, but he hasn’t been fanatically monitoring and tweaking his triglycerides and pH levels and whatnot. Still, he has an unrelated reason to rejoice; Eunice unexpectedly moves in with him despite being unsure as to whether to pursue a relationship after their dalliance in Rome. Eunice is 24, Korean American, pretty and petite, and alternately grossed out by and drawn to the shambolic, technologically inept, emotionally cloying, and physically unimpressive guy who’s nuts about her and quite willing to put her up for as long as she likes while she avoids moving back in with her family and abusive father in New Jersey.
It’s in the States that the reader becomes exposed to the full measure of madness hinted at by Lenny’s ordeal at the US embassy in Rome. America, where television seems limited to Fox Liberty-Prime and Fox Liberty-Ultra, has become virtually a police state. The country is governed by the Bipartisan Party, with soldiers of something called the American Restoration Authority patrolling the streets, ready to quell unrest by Low Net Worth Individuals (so-designated because of their poor credit ratings and meager assets) as well as disgruntled members of the National Guard, who are fed up with official neglect at home after having served in a disastrous invasion of Venezuela.
Readers of George Saunders’s novellas and short stories may find the socio-economic landscape of Super Sad True Love Story somewhat familiar, what with the hegemony of corporations and the crazed consumerism of citizens. But Shteyngart charts his own course. The economy, run by gargantuan corporations such as LandO’LakesGMFordCredit, is being bought out by China, itself run by the Chinese People’s Capitalist Party, at whose head sits the all-powerful Chinese Central Banker. Already, yuan-pegged dollars are worth a lot more than the plain old kind. Meanwhile, sexuality has become so commercialized that one can watch a political commentary show the gay host of which interrupts his observations to engage in live sex. And while the United Nations no longer exists, in its place can be found the United Nations Retail Corridor, which features stores such as JuicyPussy (and JuicyPussy4Men) selling transparent onionskin jeans and nippleless bras.
Much of this is quite funny—if over-the-top—in addition to being scathing. Ironically, however, the source of its humor is also the book’s greatest weakness. The broader the satire—and Super Sad True Love Story is pretty broad, even when compared to Shteyngart’s earlier two novels—the more one-dimensional and artificial many of its characters. For example, Lenny’s youth-obsessed boss Joshie, his media-crazed friends Noah and Amy, and, to a lesser extent, his and Eunice’s fathers—his rabidly right-wing, hers motivated almost solely by shame and status—embody societal phenomena rather than the complexities of real people. To be sure, Lenny and Eunice do not fit this mold, what with their delightfully complicated personalities, together with the fact that Shteyngart has neither completely dissociated them from nor submerged them in the respective cultures of their origin. But, to the detriment of the story, they remain surrounded by caricatures.
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, for someone given to frenzied social parody, whatever drama is conscripted for the sake of ballast will be similarly overwrought. Shteyngart’s sense of humor largely abandons him and he begins to take himself much too seriously when, two-thirds of the way through, the story veers toward violence and socio-politico-economic breakdown. Forget dystopia; what we have here is much closer to Armageddon than the atomization of humankind Lenny previously found so soul-destroying. This time, though, it’s the avarice of a privileged and blithely murderous section of humanity, rather than the retribution of a vengeful god, that sets everything ablaze.
Make no mistake. Super Sad True Love Story boasts two tormented but appealing protagonists locked in a deliciously tortuous love affair. It is indeed super sad, though thankfully untrue and difficult to imagine as prescient, while proving by turns incisive and hilariously exaggerated in its skewering of American society’s excesses. But its own excesses, the product of a willfully cynical attitude on Shteyngart’s part toward the future trajectory of American culture and politics, prevent the story from transcending the restrictive confines of satire, and eventually madden and exhaust even the most amenable and patient reader.
We are living in a Hesiodic golden age for biographies. Name your favorite dead person, and I will give you the ISBN of a good biography of him written in the last 20 years. The obscurity of your enthusiasms be damned: I assure you that someone has written at least a short, competent life. Even the quixotic British parliamentarians Enoch Powell and Michael Foot, two of my favorite post-war politicians, have received the deluxe, 600-plus page treatment. (As I write this, a sly rogue named Rory Stewart is working on a joint biography of both men, having doubtless figured out that there are enough of us Powellite cum Footians to ensure that a few thousand copies get moved.) We now even have biographies sans bios, lives of non-living things: cities, chemical compounds, sex organs. For whatever reason people seem to read — or least purchase — biographies.
Unfortunately the biography boom has also proven the occasion of some very mean hack-work. People familiar with the facts who cannot write, and people unfamiliar with the facts who can, sign on with major publishers every day. The rise of the authorized or official biography, in which the subject or the subject’s estate cooperate, and I suspect in some cases even collaborate, with the writer producing the book, has seen a parallel phenomenon emerge: the unauthorized life. This is something like the shabby adjunct instructor to the authorized biography’s professor emeritus: it achieves what it can with it’s got, and considering the low pay, sometimes does a damn sight better than anyone would have expected. See Lord Jenkins’s 2001 biography of Churchill, which makes for much better reading than the single book abridgment of Sir Martin Gilbert’s eight-volume official epic. There are, of course, reasons (in some ways I am continuing my academic analogy here) why most unauthorized biographers never find better gigs: lack of requisite qualifications, impoverished Rolodexes, and, above all, a flooded job market.
Richard Bradford is a good example of an unauthorized biographer. He has found a sort of cottage industry writing unofficially about the lives of major figures in 20th-century British literature. Certainly one cannot blame him for having wished to improve upon Eric Jacobs’s dreadful Kingsley Amis biography, but the publication of Zachary Leader’s excellent (and authorized) life has made Bradford’s 2001 book superfluous. As for his more recent go at Philip Larkin, I can only say that, dissatisfied as I am with Andrew Motion’s sprawling (but authorized!) hatchet-job, it remains in many ways the better book, and that it is unlikely that a more successful biography of a man as private as Larkin shall ever be produced without further help from his estate.
I admit then to opening Bradford’s new biography of Martin Amis fils with some apprehension. Biographies about living people are always very suspicious affairs, especially when the subject is a writer. Amis may live to write many more novels. (Much of the preface to the American edition of Martin Amis: The Biography is devoted to Lionel Asbo, which was published shortly after Bradford’s book came out in England.) A living writer’s reputation is often far from settled. (Matt Novak recently dug up a 1936 poll that named James Truslow Adams and James Branch Cabell among the American writers we were all supposed to be reading in 2000.) Besides, the subject’s death and obsequies are usually among the most memorable parts of a great biography: see Michael Shelden’s Orwell or Churchill’s own Marlborough: His Life and Times.
Literary biographies published when their subjects are alive tend to be either hostile or overindulgent. In this case, Bradford is adulatory throughout Martin Amis: The Biography, even to the point of defending Yellow Dog (“The book is not flawless or unimprovable — nothing is — yet it is none the less ambitious and original.”) and The Information (“a novel of extraordinary complexity”), books that virtually no one liked. This is unfortunate. Amis’s reputation will eventually require sorting out, and it would be nice if The Biography (notice the authorized-sounding definite article?) offered us some kind of reasonable starting point.
While there is some excellent new material here (I was intrigued, for example, to learn that Amis did not read his father’s Lucky Jim until he was 18 years old), there is also a great deal, especially in the first half of the book, that has been handled much better elsewhere, particularly in Zachary Leader’s The Life of Kingsley Amis, in Kingsley’s Memoirs, and Martin’s Experience. Bradford also writes very badly. His first two sentences —
What makes a writer? Being born into what would strike most as a scenario suitable only for fiction might play some part.
— do an excellent job of establishing his book’s tone: awkward, overblown, imprecise. He has a strong ear for mixed metaphor (“someone whose magnetic amusing social persona belied a well-protected seam of hapless despondency”), tautology (“He was promiscuous and unfaithful”), and he tends to choose very strange adverbs (reviews of The Rachel Papers are “unflinchingly complimentary,” Northrop Frye is “quixotically impressionistic”). Even selecting the right conjunction gives him trouble: “The parallels between Martin’s and Kingsley’s first novels are tempting and misleading [italics mine].”
He is also very lazy. Paragraph after paragraph appears seemingly unaltered from conversations with Hitchens and Amis, who at one point cannot recall the name of a Kafka story. On page 63, Bradford quotes a letter from Amis to his father in which the 17 year old suggests that Gerard Manley Hopkins “doesn’t stand up to analysis” and calls Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” “almost my favourite poem”; on page 64 he tells us that “Martin at least thought ‘La Belle Dame’ a redeeming piece and enjoyed reading Hopkins despite the fact that under analysis he seemed incomprehensible.” At least a quarter of the book is given over to plot summaries, which should at least make it useful for reviewers who want to pretend that they have read all of Amis.
Bad writing often gets dressed up rather prettily: attractive cover art, “deckle edge,” a nice crisp font. A bit more work on this front might have gone a long way for Martin Amis: The Biography. First, there’s the cover. Here something is clearly wrong with Amis’s skin: either the picture was taken under a 15,000 watt lamp or the subject of this biography has a severe case of sunburn. The quote from The Spectator that appears on the back of the dust jacket has been lifted out of context from a negative review, and almost all the other blurbs refer not to Bradford’s biographical achievements but to Christopher Hitchens’s conversational prowess. (Hitchens, by the way, is mentioned as if he were still living throughout.) The paper on which the book has been printed is too thick for me to roll Gambler cigarettes out of but far too thin (and foul smelling) for a hardcover book. Type 50 or so spaces: that’s how many appear inexplicably between the words “terms” and “of” on the seventh line from the bottom of page 35. The Spectator review contains a catalogue of misspellings which I won’t bother to repeat here.
“My biography of Martin is not a hagiography,” Bradford told an interviewer. True enough, one thinks, but then again he didn’t set out to write a saint’s life, did he? Martin certainly comes across as a sort of smug jerk. But he is also treated as the author of a half-dozen great novels when one great (Money)and two very good (Time’s Arrow and Night Train) novels would be a more accurate figure. Oh, well. Better, I suppose, for Bradford to love Amis than nothing to have loved.
Don DeLillo builds his novels and stories out of glittering set pieces. The long baseball scene that opens Underworld (reprinted in a standalone edition called Pafko at the Wall), the mass Moonie marriage in the prologue of Mao II, and the encounter with the Airborne Toxic Event in White Noise are all brilliantly conceived and expertly rendered, stretched taut between the real and the surreal. These set pieces are the most memorable parts of his work, but it’s the places between, among, and beneath them from which the transcendent and the ineffable emerge.
From the abduction of a child in a park at dusk, to an earthquake ripping through sweltering Athens and two strangers meeting in a gallery of paintings depicting the fates of the Baader-Meinhof terrorists, each of the nine stories in The Angel Esmeralda (collected for the first time from original publications dating back to 1979), is wrapped tightly around its own diamond-cut set piece.
Almost all of the stories privilege quiet, introspective spaces within and underneath the insane bustle of the modern city — an art gallery, a convent, a philosophy course, a white-collar prison. In “The Starveling” (the collection’s only new story), a man spends his days haunting a network of New York movie theaters, where he ruminates on the interplay of light and dark, in life and onscreen, wondering, “was it about the universe and our remote and fleeting place as earthlings? Or was it something much more intimate, people in rooms…?” Once inside these sanctuaries, the characters seek contact with a more ancient and immutable form of existence, one that the city obscures but cannot extinguish.
They find their way into these modern sanctuaries through a desire to escape from the chaos of the city outside, and yet only by opening a door to a deeper, more innate chaos, beyond the stories’ perfectionist architecture and impeccable phrasing, does the transcendent emerge palpably onto the page. In the moments when it does, the stories achieve the staggering beauty and strangeness of DeLillo’s best work.
All told, The Angel Esmeralda contains three stories in which the transcendent succeeds in breaking through. In these instances, we’re right there along with the characters, in the place of apparition, watching as the secularism of modern society, and the hyper-refined veneer of DeLillo’s prose, vanish like sand blowing off a tomb in the desert.
In “Human Moments in World War III” (1983), two men orbit the earth in a military satellite. As a reprieve from the job’s boredom, one of them takes to looking out the window, back at the Earth where, “The view is endlessly fulfilling…it satisfies every childlike curiosity, every muted desire, whatever there is in him of the scientist, the poet, the primitive seer, the watcher of fire and shooting stars…the neural pulse of some wilder awareness…whatever indolent and sybaritic leanings — lotus-eater, smoker of grasses and herbs, blue-eyed gazer into space — all these are satisfied, all collected and massed in that living body, the sight he sees from the window.” There’s nowhere to look in the satellite except out the window, and yet the character’s decision to do so and the Earth’s appearance when he does come as hard-earned and long-denied revelations.
In “The Ivory Acrobat” (1988), an American woman in Athens in the aftermath of an earthquake examines a carved Minoan figure of an acrobat leaping over a bull. As she tries to reckon with this alien object, she feels the broken record of her self-consciousness slowing to a halt: “There was nothing that might connect her to the mind inside the work…[to] a knowable past, some shared theater of being. The Minoans were outside all this…lost across vales of language and magic, across dream cosmologies…her self-awareness ended where the acrobat began.” In the middle of her paranoid expat existence, she sees a void open that history and language cannot fill.
In the title story (1994), the final pages of which rival any DeLillo has written, two nuns who’ve devoted themselves to what often looks like an irredeemable Bronx neighborhood see the shape of a murdered girl appear as an angel on a billboard advertising orange juice. “Her presence was a verifying force, a figure from a universal church…it had being and disposition, there was someone living in the image, a distinguishing spirit and character…a force at some deep level of lament that made [the nun] feel inseparable from…the awestruck who stood in tidal traffic…”
These are rare moments when the ancient and the infinite erupt out of human production — a spacecraft, an artifact, a billboard, and, of course, DeLillo’s own writing. He sets his stories in technological arenas that assert the victory of human reason over universal chaos, and yet, in the crucial religious moment, chaos looms back up, subverting the tools that humans have built to use against it.
These appearances give way to disappearance and disappointment, but there are two kinds of disappointment here: disappointment in a reality that the story has meaningfully conveyed, and disappointment in the story for having shirked that reality’s magnitude. These three stories evoke the first and more cathartic disappointment. Leaving the place where the angel appeared, the nuns wonder, “…what do you remember, finally, when everyone has gone home and the streets are empty of devotion and hope, swept by river wind? Is the memory thin and bitter and does it shame you with its fundamental untruth…or does the power of transcendence linger, the sense of an event that violates natural forces…stand against your doubts?”
In these three stories, you’re right there with the characters, shuddering with the shockwaves of impossible events, as sudden and devastating as a detonated bomb.
All of the stories in this collection, even those that don’t reach these shivery highs, abound with brilliant ideas. But brilliant ideas alone are not enough to make them all work. Many feel stranded, like parts of a larger project that doesn’t exist.
This is because DeLillo’s writing really comes alive not from the quality of its individual ideas, but from their shadows and echoes, the resonances of their “white noise,” magnified across a vast psychic and visual plane. In all of his novels, but not in all of his stories, these shadows and echoes mount into a chaotic force, rippling both across and underneath the surface.
As it does, his vision spreads outward, encompassing ever more of the nuances and frequencies of an urbanized West that has maxed out on chatter and distraction, gorging itself on anxieties about the vanishing past, the splintering present, and the accelerating emergence of the future. It has to expand like this in order to express the burden of shepherding a lone self through a world of mass-consciousness, ruled by media and money, where terror is the only form of awe that has not been stripped and sold for parts.
The novels’ plots are so all-encompassing that they send out and respond to hidden currents running through the heart of our culture, as dangerous and vital as the plots of terrorists — as DeLillo imagines them — have become. In Mao II, he writes, “…isn’t it the novelist…above all people, above all writers…who knows in his soul what the terrorist thinks and feels? Through history it’s the novelist who has felt affinity for the violent man who lives in the dark.”
This is not to say that a great novelist like Don DeLillo shouldn’t write short stories, but I do think that his novelistic vision is ill-served by the story form, and that The Angel Esmeralda is not the product of a different, authentically story-sized vision. For all of their interest in apparitions breaking into the world, the stories permit few breaks in their own conceptual rigging, and thus often exclude the very forces they’ve summoned.
What does appear, if one reads the collection in chronological order, is a portrait of DeLillo himself, as the author who most compellingly captured the mental life of the Western world in the late 20th century. In both the novels and the stories from this period, one can hear a city, maybe a whole civilization, speaking and even thinking through him.
It’s no coincidence that the collection’s three best stories date from the ’80s and ’90s. In these stories, as in Libra, White Noise, Mao II, and Underworld (spanning the period 1985-1997), there are passages that move beyond the synthetic and into the prophetic. One gets the sense that he not only saw what was going on at that time, on an absurdly grand scale, but that he saw into it, farther in than anyone else could. These passages feel like the incarnation of something way beyond the scope of an individual mind.
For all the control and precision in his language, chaos breaks through in these passages. In his famous crowd scenes — at sports games, political rallies, fanatic religious ceremonies, and panoramas of mass squalor and degradation — human consciousness breaks down and is overcome by something non-human, a singular psychic totality that exists beyond the infinite. In “The Ivory Acrobat,” a line of traffic in Athens “resembled some landscape in the dreaming part of us, what the city teaches us to fear.” A new state of being emerges from the mob and the traffic jam, from the novelist conjuring up ghost cities and the terrorist burning down real ones.
This more primal chaos, underneath the daily chaos of the city, ends finally in unity, and perhaps also in peace.
DeLillo will always be a master stylist, but this only magnifies the difference between the times when this spirit breaks through his style, and the times when it does not. As the West’s relation to terror and art, and to mass communication and solitary insight, shifts in the early 21st century, this prophetic voice has shifted away from DeLillo. In retrospect, his best work shares the billboard angel’s overwhelming but transitory power: impossible to deny when it’s there, impossible to believe when it’s gone.
In his new collection, Ben Greenman obsesses over the self-referential terrain of old-fashioned paper correspondence. Greenman is a life-long letter-writer—apparently he sent his college girlfriend three or four letters each day—and the stories in What He’s Poised to Do reflect on the ways in which people communicate, or fail to do so, in addition to the self-revelatory benefits of letter writing and the growing importance of the hand-written word after “the death of words as possessions and the birth of words as currency.” There’s some kitsch appeal to the epistolary, but these stories engage a surprising amount of thematic and philosophic depth within the frame, retaining much of the strict form’s charm while jettisoning its artificiality. It’s a delicate balance these stories stake, between high-art and pop-art, between precise formalism and an almost folksy authenticity. These are stories about marriage “infected” with restlessness, about a Plains housewife trying to mitigate the trouble caused by overlapping small town love triangles, about a Nineteenth Century munitions inventor who hopes his own sorrow does not “poison” his daughter’s life. What He’s Poised to Do reveals the great potential letter-writing has to give a “fuller account” of our experience and emotions while compelling us to better understand the motives of those around us.
Greenman has previously published three short fiction collections and the novel Please Step Back, with nearly half of this collection released in 2008 as a limited edition, handcrafted letterpress package—Correspondences from Hotel St. George Press. His earlier work is largely humorous, with a focus on creativity, originality, and novelty, especially in relation to pop culture and its audiences. And what else would you expect from a ghost-writer to the stars (for both Gene Simmons’ Kiss and Make-up and Simon Cowell’s I Don’t Mean to be Rude, But…) who dallies in musical farce in order to, according to his web site, “puncture the famous for their peccadillos” by penning musicals about “famous buffoons and hypocrites” like O.J. Simpson, Sarah Palin, and Balloon Boy, and who dreamt up the Conceptual Art Registry, in which he would spawn ideas for conceptual art and then license the proposals to artists. Much of this comic work has been produced on behalf of McSweeney’s and the New Yorker, where Greenman is an editor. His fiction has also appeared in top-shelf literary venues like Zoetrope: All Story, One Story, and the Paris Review. Yet, while his work is certainly well-regarded, after reading What He’s Poised to Do, it’s almost baffling that Ben Greenman isn’t a full-fledged star. He exhibits such compelling mastery over the form and engages readers with compact, electrifying prose. Furthermore, the stories in this collection show an author reaching creative maturity. They are serious pieces treated with reserve and a self-deprecating melancholy. Things still get a little goofy at times—there are stories set on a suburban lunar settlement and a fictional borderland between Australia and India—but the focus remains on the characters and their desires and frustrations, rather than solely highlighting the author’s ability to create new and bizarre worlds from thin air.
In the title story, a man runs out on his family, off to a city where “he sometimes does business,” and is in the process of accepting the notion of himself as a betrayer. He writes postcards to keep his wife apprised of his emotional state—although he doesn’t always send them—and drinks at a hotel lounge. It’s here that he meets a young bartender with whom he initiates an affair, and, much to his exhilarated surprise, the bartender also communicates via postcards, leaving them on his pillowcase in lieu of enduring an awkward good-bye. When these two speak, their conversations are stilted and awkward, their voices “stiffly formal.” It’s as if the postcards provide a barrier that allows them to be comfortable with what they’re doing.
The stories in this collection often dwell on the distance between letter-writers and those who receive them, and that much of the correspondence isn’t received by its addressee seems somewhat beside the point. What matters is the letter-writing itself, that which gives sanction to the pen-holder’s yearning. The mail is official, it’s real.
At the end of “What He’s Poised to Do,” as the man waits in his hotel room for the bartender to return, he wonders if “he should greet her at the door with a postcard that lists all the things he expects her to do for him.” It’s clear by now that he could never verbalize his desire in this way. He also thinks that “he owes his wife another call, or at least another postcard.” The story stops with him sitting at the hotel room desk, pen held over a blank postcard, “uncertain exactly what he’s poised to do.” This story isn’t among the best of the collection but it does hit the right thematic notes in preparing us for what comes after. These are characters, after all, who need buffer zones. They write things like, “I’m not writing to you. I am writing to your letter.” These are people who require an extra distance from their emotions and the dark possibilities relationships hold. People like the narrator of “What He’s Poised to Do,” who are cheered by the fact that everyone has either betrayed or been betrayed by someone they love, and enjoy this “not for any reason other than the fact that it locates [them].”
In “Against Samantha,” a man falls in love with his future mother-in-law, Edith, via correspondence. Edith “liked to make witty remarks that seemed like mere decoration but gained substance under scrutiny,” and it’s her elocution that puts the narrator under a spell. “She was the smartest woman I had ever met,” he says, aroused by her immaculate letters, “and she was the mother of the woman I was to marry.” Even as his fiancée, Samantha, arranges a secret coupling with him, he cannot stop thinking of the girl’s mother, “who was at that moment sitting in her drawing room in London, innocently considering the recent declaration of Malta as a British dominion, entirely unaware of the fact that I was accessioning her daughter.” (The collection offers many knock-out lines like this.) He wakes gripped by a great fear the next morning—Samantha sleeping next to him—and allows himself to drift into what becomes a more comfortable reverie. He dreams of making love with Samantha, a pleasant fantasy that transforms the idea of marriage into something suddenly “less odious,” despite their actual sex having the opposite effect. Earlier in the story, the narrator admits that he anticipates his fiancée will turn into her mother one day, and in his dream she does exactly this. As he imagines sex with Edith, the narrator says, “I thanked Edith, and she threw back her head and delivered a laugh I can describe only as godly. I matched her laugh, there in the dream. Did I laugh outside it? Did I disturb the sleeping Samantha? I did not know and I was not about to surface and find out.” It’s the self-referential world that matters, after all. One that’s both comforting and revealing in surprising ways.
There’s a remove to these stories, this sense of maturity I refer to above. It’s an appreciation that the tough times, the indiscretions and temptations, are what make life memorable and worthwhile. As it’s said in “What We Believe but Cannot Praise,” “life is a bell with a crack in it, and yet its tone when struck is the nearest to perfection man will ever know.” These are not solely stories of misspent youth, although these are well-represented here, nor merely domestic stories of marriage and family, although there are these as well. In standout stories like “Barn” and “From the Front” and “To Kill the Pink,” and others, Greenman takes us from contemporary Boston to Forties Havana, from Nebraska in the 1960s to North Africa in the 1850s, and from the surface of the moon in the Eighties to suburban Atlanta five years from now. All the while, he crafts well-rounded and wise stories that never grow stale.
If you haven’t read Ben Greenman before, you should start. And do it soon. His is a dazzling, addicting talent that will draw you in and seduce you into experiencing a particularly odd sensation of belonging that only a traveler or émigré can know, one who is simultaneously comfortable and uncomfortable with a place, one who is there and not there at the same time. It’s as if you’d heard of these stories growing up, or actually lived in these places, and now can’t quite escape how those times have changed you in intractable ways.
Some of you may know that I’m currently up to my ears in grad school applications. Luckily, posting on The Millions has a salutary effect on me, and also, I just finished a book, so I need to write about it. Jamesland opens with Alice, great-granddaughter of philosopher William James, having an odd waking dream of a deer in her house. Alice fixates on the deer as a portent of a coming change in her life, and the very next day her life begins to change slowly and inexorably. The book does not dwell on the supernatural, though it does have a bemused dialogue with the otherworldly throughout. Mostly it is about three forty-somethings whose social and professional lives are deteriorating and reconfiguring. I’d call it a mid-life crisis, but these characters have that quality, peculiar to Californians, of being youthful, unserious adults. The book is mostly set on the East Side of Los Angeles in neighborhoods that I know well. It was great to read a book that addresses a somewhat larger Los Angeles than usual. Movie stars are around, and Hollywood is nearby, but they are just parts of the great stew of the city, things that are noticed but after a while not accorded any greater importance than things like Griffith Park or the LA River. The only other book that I have read that successfully turns LA’s flashy side into just another bit of peripheral scenery is T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Huneven is well-known in Los Angeles as the food critic for the LA Weekly, and the way she writes about food in this book is magnificent. Pete (who along with Helen, a modern sort of minister, are the other two wayward adults) is a former near-celebrity chef who is recovering from a nervous breakdown, suicide attempt combo. His character is both abrasive and charming, the type of person who makes you nervous the moment he steps into the room. As he coaxes himself back into the functioning world, he takes up cooking again, and this is the venue for Huneven’s descriptions of foods. It was nice to see that Huneven did not place this book firmly in the world of food and restaurants in the way that many writers tend to crib from their day jobs. Instead, Huneven manages to weave her knowledge skillfully into the larger narrative. The book itself is a rather satisfying meal, best taken over a few languorous days on a sunny balcony or sitting on a park bench.