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.
Peel away Michael Chabon’s luminous prose, and his new novel Telegraph Avenue would be a pretty lackluster book. In the novel, two old friends, Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings, one white, the other black, run a used-record shop under threat from a gigantic new mall devoted to music and movies planned for their racially diverse neighborhood between Oakland and Berkeley, California. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Telegraph Avenue offers side plots galore, but the central engine of the plot is a direct steal from the 1998 Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks rom-com You’ve Got Mail, which was itself a remake of a 1940 Ernst Lubitsch film The Shop Around the Corner, which was itself an adaptation of an 1937 play called Parfumerie by Miklos Laszlo. You get the picture. There may not be any truly original plots left, but in this case Chabon’s seems unusually shopworn. It also feels oddly dated. The book is set in 2004, but its preoccupations with race, class, and corporate co-optation of poor people’s art seem far better suited to 1994, when identity politics were the rage and people still looked upon Borders and Tower Records as cultural hegemons and not roadkill on the information superhighway. Chabon himself seems to sense this and loses interest in the-mall-eats-the-scrappy-corner-shop tale two-thirds of the way through, returning to his old chestnuts, marriage, fatherhood, and quirky folk obsessed with popular culture, before tying the whole thing up with a treacly happy ending, which seems to suggest that all the problems the characters were worrying about for the past 460 pages could be solved if a few people just said they were sorry. Thus, to sum up: plot-wise, Telegraph Avenue is a sprawling, ungainly mess. In addition to the struggling used-record shop plot, there is a secondary plot involving Nat and Archy’s wives, Aviva and Gwen, who are themselves partners in a small, marginal business, in their case midwives to Berkeley’s fascistically right-thinking, litigationally trigger-happy professional moms. Then, too, there is the subplot involving Nat Jaffe’s gay son, Julie, who falls madly in love with Archy’s long-lost son, Titus, who is straight as a one-dollar bill but not above accepting the occasional public hand job. And that doesn’t even touch on Gwen’s troubled relationship to her own pregnancy, or Archy’s troubled relationship with his druggy father, Luther, a down-at-heels former blaxploitation film star who is trying to blackmail an Oakland city councilman over a thirty-year-old botched hit on a pimp named Popcorn Hughes who crossed Black Panther leader Huey Newton back in the day. Oh, and wait, I almost forgot another side plot involving a musician named Cochise Jones and his talking parrot, Fifty-Eight, who during one tour-de-force twelve-page, single-sentence riff, flies above the Berkeley-Oakland flatlands like some great omniscient parrot God. See what I mean? That’s just a paragraph and already your eyes are glazing over. In an interview, Chabon told Mother Jones that the novel began life as a 90-minute television pilot for TNT and that he struggled to shift from a TV pilot model, which is designed to set up a situation that other writers can riff upon for many seasons to come, to a novel, which must tell its own story. It’s obvious that as talented as Chabon is – and, sentence for sentence, he may well be the most talented American writer of his generation – he never truly made that leap, and the book remains all wind up and no follow-through. Yet until the final pages, when the meshugas that is the plot of Chabon’s novel finally falls of its own weight, Telegraph Avenue is a sparkling, mesmerizing read. As a prose stylist, Chabon possesses two great gifts in abundance: a talent for giving inanimate objects a personal identity and purpose, and an eye for the outlandish but weirdly appropriate simile. He also has a hell of a way with an adjective. These talents, along with an omnivorous intellectual curiosity and a working vocabulary that rivals Shakespeare’s, enable Chabon to create on the page a world that looks and sounds very much like the one we see every day, but is richer and more nuanced, more alive, than anything we mere mortals can see with our own eyes. Early in the novel, for instance, we find ourselves at a memorabilia convention where a scuffle breaks out requiring a pair of private security guards to escort one of the offenders off the convention floor. We have all seen these security guys. They are large men, squat-built and neckless, their hormone-pumped pecs stuffed into too-tight white shirts. Chabon knows you know all this, and so his lone physical descriptor is that the younger of the two goons has his “head shaved clean as a porn star’s testicle.” There it is, in a phrase, what makes Chabon’s books so electric, so much fun to read. The simile is apt: a private security goon’s head and a porn star’s testicle are both shaved, and both look frankly a little weird. But it’s more than that. The line is funny because it would never occur to anybody but Michael Chabon to compare a security guy’s head to a porn star’s balls, but we should have because, of course, in both cases, the men are shaving away a sign of their masculinity – their natural body hair – to better play their role as a symbol of masculinity. It’s a joke, but it’s also a lightning-quick commentary on the demeaning lengths working-class guys will go to in order to take on the only jobs left to them, that of being professional slabs of man-meat. Chabon tosses all this off in eight words and we’re back to the scene at hand. The book is filled with these brilliant little brushstrokes of language. Here’s another, taken almost at random, depicting a moment when Archy Stallings, anticipating a marriage-threatening fight, is watching his wife pull up in front of their house in her car: Daylight was taking its sweet time fading into dusk, and the street at suppertime seemed to be holding its breath, torn into patches of deep shadow and sunshine, motionless but for the little white moths stitching their loopy crewelwork in the honeysuckle. In the sandpit of the tiny playground, dozens of toy vehicles and appliances lay bleached and upended, primary-colored plastic ruins as of some toddler cataclysm. This is marvelous writing on so many levels that it by itself makes an argument why, in a digital age when no byte of information is ever out of reach and images can be frictionlessly zapped from one corner of the globe to the other, the humble printed book is still culturally relevant. Look at what Chabon has done here. At one level, it’s a pretty accurate description of how a semi-urban Berkeley street looks and feels at the moment when day slides into night. But it also captures, in its superbly rendered details, precisely what is going on inside Archy Stallings as he watches his wife pull up in her car: he is a man “holding [his] breath,” his life “torn into patches of deep shadows and sunshine,” standing “motionless” as he prepares to see the “ruins” he has made of his marriage laid out “bleached and upended,” except in this case he is the “toddler” who has created this “cataclysm.” That’s what Chabon’s books do, sentence after sentence, page after page: they force you to bring your game up to his level. Chabon is such a good noticer, and such an effortless explainer of what he’s noticed, that you, his reader, become a better noticer under his spell. For the week I was reading Telegraph Avenue, I found myself studying the world around me more closely, drawing mental similes, seeing new patterns in the avalanche of data we all are assaulted with every day. I will never write a line as smart and funny as his about the security guard’s “head shaved clean as a porn star’s testicle.” But then I don’t have to. We have Michael Chabon for that, and even when he is not at the top of his game, his writer's eye makes the world a more vivid, vital place to live.
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When publishing industry stool-pigeons started whispering last fall that Thomas Pynchon's latest would be a detective novel, I couldn't see what the fuss was about. By my count, he'd already written four. From Hubert Stencil and the Case of the Missing V. to Tryone Slothrop and the V-2 Syndrome, Pynchon has, like Dickens and Dostoevsky before him, often used the form of the mystery-story to structure his loose, baggy monsters. The difference - and it is pretty much the difference between modernity and postmodernity - is that where Bleak House and The Brothers Karamazov tend toward solutions, Pynchon's mysteries only ramify into further mysteries. What is actually novel, then, about Pynchon's new novel? Well for one thing, Inherent Vice gives us a protagonist who is even more apt than its author to digress, to space out, to lose the thread: a pint-sized pothead and sometime gumshoe named Larry "Doc" Sportello. (Don't ask.) Becalmed, circa 1970, in the surf community of Gordita Beach, Cal., Doc ekes out just enough money as the proprietor of LSD Investigations to keep himself stoned. (LSD, naturally, "standing for 'Location, Surveillance, Detection.'") When his ex-squeeze tips him off to a plot to kidnap her new old man, Doc finds himself drawn into an underworld where real-estate moguls, neo-Nazis, and dentists conspire to...uh...do something or other. Or is it when black nationalist Tariq Khalil shows up? Or when surf-rock saxophonist Coy Harlingen goes missing? Oh, who cares, man? Pass me an E-Z Wide and cue The Boards. Inherent Vice is at its best when (like this trailer, narrated by Pynchon himself) it hews to the half-baked perspective of its hero - when it uses its Raymond Chandler-ish plot as a kind of excuse for its set pieces. Nor are these set pieces merely ornamental. My favorites - the lost empire of Lemuria ("The Atlantis of the Pacific"); visits to any number of greasy spoons; Doc's acid trip - adumbrate the novel's moral vision, to the extent that it has one. Here, as elsewhere, Pynchon is on the side of the Preterite. Witness, for example, Doc's side-trip to Vegas: According to Tito, the Kismet, built just after WWII, had represented something of a gamble that the city of North Las Vegas was about to be the wave of the future. Instead, everything moved southward, and Las Vegas Boulevard South entered legend as the strip, and places like the Kismet languished. Heading up North Las Vegas Boulevard, away from the unremitting storm of light, episodes of darkness began to occur at last, like night breezes off the desert. Parked trailers and little lumberyards and air-conditioning shops went drifting by. Also new in Inherent Vice is the mellow bittersweetness that shades the last couple of sentences, the benign half-grin with which much of the book is put across. For great stretches, description retreats entirely, in favor of dialogue. Depending on the level of chemical enhancement, the results can be amusing, if inessential. "Why is there Chicken of the Sea," one character muses, "but no Tuna of the Farm?" Pynchon has done hippies before, but rarely has his writing felt so loose. Then again, this looseness, the book's great innovation, is also the source of its most glaring weaknesses. Because Pynchon is pretty much making stuff up as he goes along, Inherent Vice falls apart whenever it attempts to actually generate suspense. (Presumably, there's some play going on here with the byzantine conventions of film noir and the gaps in Doc's memory, but outside of the work of David Foster Wallace, tedium is not a legitimate aesthetic effect.) To put it another way, the book is entertaining except when it isn't. Worse: with the exception of Doc and a couple of others, Pynchon half-asses his characters. Character has always been Pynchon's weakness - too often people in his novels feel like mere linguistic events, conjunctions of syllables - but here the lack of any sense of life beyond the page makes it hard to keep track of who's speaking, much less whodunit. In the time it takes to disentangle Riggs Warbling from Adrian Prussia, one forgets what the significance of either is supposed to be. As in 2006's Against the Day, there are moments here that feel like Pynchon doing Pynchon. The songs, in particular, amount to parodies of parodies. (If you've ever wondered whether any of Pynchon's songs had any aesthetic value, compare Inherent Vice's "Just the Lasagna" to anything in Gravity's Rainbow.) The novel's ideas have a recycled quality, too. In this case, though, a quality of obsession redeems them. Pynchon's great subject has turned out to be not paranoia but history: specifically, those moments in it when the world might change, but doesn't. If Against the Day amounted to a sprawling catalogue of such moments, Inherent Vice profitably limits itself to a specific instance - one Pynchon lived through. As the novel shambles toward its conclusion, a pedal-note of genuine loss builds: Tito snored away on the other bed. Out there, all around them to the last fringes of occupancy, were . . . the Starship Enterprise, Hawaiian crime fantasies, cute kids in make-believe living rooms with invisible audiences to laugh at everything they did, baseball highlights, Vietnam footage, helicopter gunships and firefights, and midnight jokes, and talking celebrities, and a slave girl in a bottle, and Arnold the pig, and there was Doc, on the natch, caught in a low-level bummer he couldn't find a way out of, about how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness... The effect here is not nostalgia, which packages the past for bite-sized consumption, and so palliates our hunger for utopia. Rather, Pynchon seems to be trying to awaken us to the idea that things might become other than they are, by reaching back for the last time when Americans actually seemed to believe it - before, as Hunter S. Thompson wrote, the "high and beautiful wave" of the middle Sixties "finally broke and rolled back." Ultimately - perhaps regrettably - Inherent Vice is a wash. Depending on your angle, it's either a breezy Something that looks like an airy Nothing, or vice versa. Those looking for a brilliant cannabinoid caper should add The Big Lebowski, The Long Goodbye, or Pineapple Express to the Netflix queue post-haste. But those who believe (with the Buddhists and Yogi Berra) that if things were perfect, they wouldn't be probably won't regret a few hours spent in the company of...oh, crap, man. What's the guy's name again?
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