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.
For couples seeking a Valentine’s Day more astringent than saccharine, I suggest the following: settle down after dinner, light some candles, and read Dan Rhodes’s Marry Me aloud to each other. Start with “Fate,” the entirety of which runs as follows:
When it comes to matters of romance, my fiancée is a firm believer in destiny. “If fate has decreed that I end up married to you,” she’ll sigh, “then there’s not much I can do about it, is there?”
If there is some uncomfortable fidgeting, take a slug of red wine, perhaps something stronger. Then flip to “Worst” and read the opening line in your sultriest voice: “My wife told me that she and her friends had voted me the worst at sex out of all their husbands.”
Cough awkwardly and mop your sweating brow if you must. Now you’re primed for the opening story, “Ex,” about a woman who won’t stop talking about her former lover and the “sun-drenched and culturally enlightening holidays they had taken together.” Lying naked in the arms of her new husband on her wedding night, she tells him: “It’s funny — if things had turned out just a little bit differently, it would have been him I’d just done that with, not you.” The story breaks off before we learn whether or not the narrator laughs.
On second thought, what’s playing on TV? Perhaps it’s best to save Marry Me to read in solitude at a later date.
In his latest collection, Rhodes sends out 79 telegraphic dispatches from the land of generally mismatched lovers. (His debut, Anthropology, covered similar terrain while adhering to Oulipo-like constraints: each of the 101 stories had 101 words.) Like the heroine of “Fate,” Rhodes is a believer in destiny. His short tales — usually a paragraph or two — bear the seed of an impending tragedy in even the most innocent of opening clauses. As the love affairs between cloying obsessives, callous monsters, oblivious saps, and determined romantics are narrated one by one, the title Marry Me becomes increasingly ominous. A hint of menace creeps in; the title seems less and less like a question or plea and more like an imperative to submit to Eros and the attendant havoc.
Marry Me’s epigraph is an opaque quote from George Bernard Shaw: “Marriage is the only legal contract which abrogates as between the parties all the laws that safeguard the particular relation to which it refers.” I confess to reading that three or four times, increasingly frustrated at my obtuseness for missing what was obviously an invaluable nugget of truth, before scanning down to a small author’s note at page’s bottom: “I have no idea what this means, but I’m sure it’s very wise.” That earned my first chuckle, but my initial befuddlement could also be thought of as a little allegory of the cluelessness, willful or otherwise, afflicting many of the lovers I’d soon meet.
Marry Me generates its humor from the disconnect between a relationship’s form — its personal, sexual, and social expectations — and that relationship’s unexpected, and often grotesque, content. Reading the scores of first-person stories straight through is a little like watching a long standup act, the comic adopting various roles but maintaining a signature voice throughout. The trick is to condense all those roles into one narrating persona, which can register as boorish, naive, ironic, cloying, poetic, wistful, or blithely cruel. Rhodes’s flat affect stays consistent even as he plays the lovesick fool or the cool ironist; no humiliation or catastrophe ruffles the calm surface of the text, not even in “Fear,” in which a skydiving marriage ceremony goes terribly wrong. When the chutes fail to open and his new wife screams in terror, he realizes it’s never too late for passive aggression: “I’m wondering whether this would be a good moment to remind her that it had been her idea.”
One of the most impressive, bizarre tales is “News,” which in the space of a couple hundred words crams in a lot: a fiancé with cold feet, a tiger mauling, an elaborate mime by a man named Demetrio, and a clinically logical abdication of personal responsibility. To explain how they fit together would ruin the fun. It’s a small wonder of constantly shifting sympathies amidst mounting absurdity.
There are some duds, especially when Rhodes goes for the overtly jokey. In “Issues,” the narrator claims not have any body image issues, prompting his fiancée to tell him that that’s precisely the problem: “Just look at yourself. You’d better get some — and fast.” And in two uncharacteristically stale satires, “Her Old Self” and “Her Self,” Rhodes belabors the nagging harridan trope. However, the virtue of the form is that these misfires (unlike some bad relationships) quickly conclude. Before long, it’s on to the next new conceit.
The best stories, like “Dress,” skillfully build up to their punch lines. Honoring his wife’s final wish to be cremated in her wedding dress, an undertaker informs him with “impeccable politeness” that it won’t be possible. Maintaining his professionalism throughout, the undertaker explains how the deceased’s very short, black leather dress would clog the machine and fill the streets with an acrid odor. Decorum finally gives way in the last line’s perfectly timed eruption: “‘Perhaps,’ he suggested, ‘madam has something in her wardrobe which was comparably whorish, but rather more likely to conform to council regulations?’”
Male anxiety supplies Rhodes with plenty of material. His world is populated by good looking, funny, and virile suitors; they sometimes gather together en masse, perhaps on a parade float (“Champions”) or on the bride’s side of a wedding (“Commitment”). The narrator is repeatedly cuckolded, the betrayals made even worse by the brutal honesty of the confessions: “Do you remember that time you told me I was way out of your league, and how you were worried that one day I would find somebody a lot more handsome than you, and much, much better in bed? Well, now I have.” Others have more tact in breaking things off. In “Mistakes,” a woman asks her new husband to proofread a letter she has written on her honeymoon to a friend; he happily corrects her grammatical and orthographic infelicities: “the most biggest mistake I have ever made;” “it feels like a life sentance [sic];” “I dont [sic] know what I did to deserve this.”
Midway through the collection, a young woman quotes Goethe to her fiancé: “One should only celebrate a happy ending; celebrations at the outset exhaust the joy and energy needed to urge us forward and sustain us in the long struggle.” Though most of Rhodes’s stories focus on that long struggle, several of the strongest tales celebrate a happy ending, or at least his unique take on a happy ending. Particularly memorable is “Perfect,” about a couple whose pricy wedding eventually leads to their eviction and homelessness.
The story pushes past its initial comic conceit to arrive at a hard-fought poignancy reminiscent of Waiting for Godot. As Vladimir thinks back on the respectable days when he and Estragon stood “hand in hand from the top of the Eiffel Tower, among the first,” so does Rhodes’s destitute pair turn their thoughts to happier days: “Now, years later, as we huddle together for warmth under whichever bridge happens to feel the safest, we reminisce about our special day.” Wishing for some boric acid to “keep the cockroaches away,” the smitten, laughing husband listens to his wife, “her eyes bright with memory,” rhapsodize about place settings, the exquisite calligraphy, the exact “shade of orchid” on the corsages and finally Uncle Desmond:
At the reception Uncle Desmond had done an amusing dance with his arms outstretched, as though he were an aeroplane, or a bird or something.
After the loving recall of every precise detail, there is something especially inspired about that concluding uncertainty over Uncle Desmond’s dance, a mystery to ponder until death do them part.
“I’m not sure that I have a social conscience,” Joan Didion once said in an interview about her 1983 book, Salvador, about the El Salvadorian civil war. “It’s more an insistence that people tell the truth. The decision to go to El Salvador came one morning at the breakfast table. I was reading the newspaper and it just didn’t make sense.”
This is what separates Joan Didion from the rest of the world. We all wake up to news that makes no sense every day. What, we wonder, is going on with all these white cops shooting black men on our streets? How can it be that we still haven’t closed the prison at Guantanamo Bay? On what planet is Donald Trump a viable candidate for president? We register the answers we receive to these questions as nonsensical, but then we click the next link and go on with our day. Didion, facing her era’s knottiest public puzzle, hopped the next flight to El Salvador.
Salvador, as it happens, was not Didion’s finest hour as a reporter. She spent just 12 days in-country, had little Spanish and less knowledge of the country’s culture and history, and the book she wrote had, by her own admission, “no impact. None. Zero.” But her reasons for writing it offer a revealing window onto her working method and provide her biographer, Tracy Daugherty, with a crucial plot point in the thematic arc for his sprawling biography, The Last Love Song, which comes out this week.
In the 1960s, as Americans battled in the streets over civil rights and the war in Vietnam, Daugherty reminds us, Didion lost faith in the defining narratives of American life. A fifth-generation Californian whose ancestors had crossed the plains in covered wagons, only narrowing missing disaster at Donner Pass, Didion found that the country she lived in had ceased to make sense to her. A popular presidential candidate was shot in a hotel kitchen just miles from where she lived. A newspaper heiress was abducted from her Berkeley apartment and weeks later strapped on an M1 carbine to help her abductors rob banks. A scrawny self-styled guru set up camps in the desert where he persuaded a loosely organized family of runaways to kill a pregnant woman and three friends with steak knives. “I was supposed to have a script and I had mislaid it,” wrote Didion in the title essay of her collection The White Album.
I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequences, images with no ‘meaning’ beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie, but a cutting room experience.
Putting her finger on the sense of dislocation felt by Americans of her generation, raised on John Wayne movies and rousing tales of America’s triumph in the Second World War, made Didion famous, but it also left her at an intellectual and emotional dead-end. This, after all, was the woman who opened The White Album with the words, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” If the stories we tell ourselves no longer make sense, if even the briefest glance at the underlying facts exposes our national and personal narratives to be transparently hollow, how are we to live with ourselves?
In the 1980s, in a series of books that began with Salvador, Daugherty argues, Didion learned to look past the official narrative and focus on the story behind the story, the one found in a close reading of trial transcripts, declassified cables, and the back pages of underground newspapers. “Increasingly, in the 1980s,” Daugherty writes, “Didion’s writing discovered the real American stories not in the scenes, but behind them, in obscure rooms in queer places with unpronounceable names, where our government’s military and economic interests coiled in dark corners.” There, “in the outposts and archives, in the safe houses and bunkers, a logical, continuous, and traceable — if findable — narrative was unfolding all along.”
Didion’s pursuit of the story behind the story lifted her out of her post-1960s malaise and set the stage for a stream of brilliant late-career reportage, much of it written for The New York Review of Books, that peeled away the façade of American political and cultural life, laying out in Didion’s distinctive flat, declarative sentences how things really work. This late run culminated in Didion’s best-selling book, The Year of Magical Thinking, her 2005 memoir of her husband’s death in which she turned her formidable powers of analysis back on her herself, exploring how the lies we tell ourselves can also save us.
The Last Love Song is far too long, devoting hundreds of pages to decades-old Hollywood gossip and exhumations of skeletons in the closets of Didion’s extended family members, but at its core it provides an indispensable guide to understanding not just the value of Didion’s contribution to American literature, but how she pulled it off. Among the pleasures of Daugherty’s portrait is the light he sheds on Didion’s literary education, first at U.C. Berkeley, where she learned the close reading skills that came in so handy later in her career, and then at Vogue in New York, where a first job writing captions for photo spreads taught her how to get the most meaning from the least number of words.
In this age of blogs and YouTube rants, when the length of a piece of prose is determined largely by the amount of time its author can afford to spend writing it for free, we forget how formative the demands of writing for a physical page were for writers of the print era. At Vogue, Didion’s photo captions were a kind of fashion-plate haiku, “blocks of text, thirty lines long, each featuring sixty-four characters.” Didion’s editor would have her write 300 to 400 words, and then, attacking the page with a blunt pencil, whittle it down to the most evocative 50. “It is easy to make light of this kind of ‘writing,’” Didion later said. “I do not make light of it at all: it was at Vogue that I learned a kind of ease with words…a way of regarding words not as mirrors of my own inadequacy, but as tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page.”
From caption writer, Didion climbed the masthead at Vogue while taking assignments from publications as varied as Mademoiselle and The National Review and writing her first novel, Run, River, at night and on weekends. These were the fat years of the Age of Print, when television was still in its infancy and the G.I. Bill had just put a generation through college. At Time, where her husband John Gregory Dunne worked when Didion was at Vogue, “waiters from the Tower Suite on top of the Time-Life Building rolled in buffet carts with beef Wellington and chicken divan and sole and assorted appetizers and vegetables and desserts.” Liquor was served in “prodigious quantities” and hotel rooms “were available for those suburbanites who had missed their last train, or would so claim to their wives when in fact all they wished was an adulterous snuggle with a back-of-the-book researcher.”
The largesse of the print-era gravy train meant that when Didion and Dunne moved to California, they not only could count on a national audience for the columns they wrote for Life and The Saturday Evening Post, but that they could afford to do so while living at the edge of an estate overlooking the sea a few miles south of Los Angeles. In fact, in the 50 years since Didion left her editor’s desk at Vogue in 1964, decades in which she and Dunne lived in some of the toniest neighborhoods in New York and L.A., neither of them ever held a job other than writer.
Of course, the economic bounty provided by glossy magazines and Hollywood script deals would have meant nothing if Didion had nothing to say, as is demonstrated, perhaps unintentionally, by Daugherty’s exhaustive chronicling of the checkered careers of John Gregory Dunne and his brother Dominick. Daugherty’s tales of the Brothers Dunne, along with that of Didion’s sad, alcoholic adopted daughter Quintana, who died of acute pancreatitis in 2005, comprise a sort of shadow narrative in The Last Love Song, one that bloats the book to more than 700 pages and occasionally threatens to overwhelm the central story.
But if Daugherty makes too much of John Gregory Dunne’s angst over his mediocrity and Dominick Dunne’s long road from cokehead movie producer to closeted bisexual celebrity crime journalist, one comes away from The Last Love Song with a renewed sense of how rare true talent is, what a gift it is — for the bearer, and for her audience. John Gregory Dunne was every bit as committed to his craft as his his wife, and Dominick Dunne far eclipsed her gift for self-reinvention, but only Didion possessed the luck of serving as a human tuning fork for the anxieties of her age and the dogged curiosity to pursue those anxieties wherever they led.
Pre-pub buzz had Shani Boianjiu’s debut novel, the intriguingly if somewhat cumbersomely titled The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, as a The Things They Carried—Mean Girls hybrid. If you are finding it just a little difficult to picture a Venn diagram where a novel-in-stories about the Vietnam War intersects with a Tina-Fey-penned movie about the travails of high school girls, consider this: both war and high school are marked by a strange blend of ennui and nearly unbearable stress, of existential dread and petty banality. (But, yes, it’s also true that only one of these makes you ponder the cruel betrayals of fame and fortune vis-à-vis a once fresh-faced, plucky, promising Lindsay Lohan.)
High school may be war, but, ultimately, if one must cast The People of Forever in pop culture terms, the book is mostly reminiscent of the Lena Dunham-created HBO show Girls. With its episodic structure, its unfolding in seemingly standalone stories actually bound together by insistent echoes, and its cast of recently-graduated young women — three, in the case of Boianjiu’s novel, to Dunham’s show’s four — pretending to a maturity, a certainty, they neither possess nor successfully imitate, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid takes as its subject rites of passage, looks at transient but fraught moments in a transitional time. And, like Dunham’s fictional(ized) stand-in Hannah Horvath, Boianjiu may well be the voice of her generation or, at least, a voice of a generation.
Boianjiu’s generation is comprised of the young women who, having completed high school, are conscripted into the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Army service provides the backdrop for much of The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, though the book has little to do with the business of war. There are, to be sure, eruptions of violence — a male soldier is very nearly decapitated, the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit and Israel’s subsequent 2006 war in Lebanon are integrated into the plot, and the novel’s third section explores the peacetime aftershocks of armed conflict, for “when the boy soldiers returned from the war they tortured the girl soldiers who waited for them” — but for the most part, the book may well be set in the Brooklyn of Girls. Yael, Avishag, and Lea, the three friends who split narratorial duties and narrative focus, are mostly bored, biding their time at checkpoints, like wasting time in dead-end internships, waiting for their real lives to begin. I don’t mean to make light of the very grave, very deadly geopolitical concerns that are necessarily the background of a novel with its gaze firmly fixed on life in Israel, on life in the Israeli army. But these concerns are mostly background in The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, which reads, above all, as a coming-of-age story.
We meet Yael, Avishag, and Lea when they are still in school, a “caravan of a classroom” in a tiny village on the Lebanese border. (Boianjiu herself grew up in such a town.) Like any students on the verge of graduation, the girls are tempted to ignore the lecture, to pass notes and fantasize about parties and crushes, to speculate about whose house might be without parental supervision long enough to host those parties and entertain those crushes. The lecture at hand is about the “PLO, SAM, IAF, RPG children,” Syrian submarines and Palestinian children trying to shoot RPG rockets at Israeli soldiers and burning each other instead, but, as a sub-chapter heading tells us, “History Is Almost Over.” These young women, like young women everywhere, believe that the past stops with their present, that their futures will be different and special and lovely. And this is of course terrifying.
Army notices are sent out. The girls prepare for service. Yael becomes a weapons instructor, responsible for training other soldiers in the art of marksmanship. (An editorial by Boianjiu in last Sunday’s New York Times revealed that this was her own position during her two years of IDF service. I mention this fact mostly by way of noting that Yael, who bears the heaviest load of the narration, seems closest to the author herself, serving as ego in the triangulated configuration of herself and the imperious Lea and the depressive, impulsive Avishag.) Lea checks documents at a West Bank checkpoint and desperately tries to enter into the history and experiences of the men trying to cross. Avishag serves as a guard overlooking the border. All three pretend at being grownups, at being tough, and all three remain vulnerable, become more vulnerable. They flash back to their childhoods, their conventionally troubled families, to which all three return, however briefly, after the completion of their service. The girls’ reunion becomes a momentarily idyllic return to the safety of childhood configurations, a respite not from war — which is after all a kind of existential truth in their lives — but from the need to pose as confident, as capable. Only about twenty when they leave the army, the girls are poised on the threshold of a world that does not seem to them quite real, and they postpone their entrance by retreating into old patterns, old games.
The author herself is still very young, only twenty-five. She is also the youngest recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award, selected for that honor by the novelist Nicole Krauss. Boianjiu has something of Krauss’s sensibility, her interest in intersecting lives, the seams where unexpected connections are exposed. In The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, Boianjiu showcases a lovely sort of simplicity, allowing the girls’ voices to ring true, to ring young and innocent and sad. In this, she strikes no false notes: Yael and Lea and Avishag are just different enough from each other to be interesting, just similar enough to be believable friends. The book falls apart near the end, asked to bear a burden it has not convincingly built to. It becomes, too suddenly, with too little warning, about war, and it loses sight of the characters who helped us make sense of all that has come before. But, for those moments when Yael and Lea and Avishag and their splendid, troubled, mundane lives are slowly developing in front of us, a strip of photo-booth pictures coming into a precision and a clarity, we fully believe in their existence and their sense of that existence.
It’s no secret that Norah Vincent can write compelling non-fiction. For her first book, Self-Made Man (2006), she transformed herself into a passable male through weight lifting, voice lessons, wardrobe, makeup and a chest-flattening bra, then set out to “infiltrate exclusive all-male environments and if possible learn their secrets.” After infiltrating a blue-collar bowling league, a strip club, a monastery, and a men’s movement group, she produced a book that is neither gimmicky nor the feminist screed you might expect. It brought to mind Black Like Me, in which the white writer John Howard Griffin dyed his skin and traveled through the deep South in the early 1960s, passing as a black man. Like Griffin, Vincent is by turns appalled and uplifted by the things she learns on the other side of a supposedly uncrossable line. She discovers little things, like the meaningful physicality of male greetings (as opposed to tepid female hugs and air kisses); and she discovers big things, like the surprising amount of rejection hetero males learn to endure from the women they pursue.
The stress of keeping up the central ruse of Self-Made Man left Vincent feeling so ragged that she checked herself into a hospital’s locked psychiatric ward. Like Ken Kesey and Frederic Exley, she discovered that the loony bin is full of something besides crazy people. “(O)nce I got in there,” she writes, “I realized that bins are pretty fertile ground for writers of my stripe, and not altogether uninteresting places to be locked away for a few days with a notebook and a crayon (or whatever other nubby stylus they’ll let you get your certifiable fist around)…I said to myself, ‘Jesus, what a freak show. All I have to do is sit there and take notes, and I’m Balzac.'” After leaving the psych ward, Vincent also did stints in a private rural hospital and an alternative treatment program, which led to her 2008 book Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin. She calls both books “immersion journalism.”
Now the talented Ms. Vincent has produced her first novel. It’s called Thy Neighbor and, like its two non-fiction predecessors, it’s built on the premise that truth is best reached by a road paved with deception. The protagonists in all three books are voyeurs, people who use deceit to make themselves invisible, literally or figuratively, so they can see people in their most unvarnished states.
Nick Walsh, the narrator of Thy Neighbor, is a mess. At 34 he’s marginally employed as a freelance writer and still living in the suburban house in the Midwest where he grew up, the house where, 13 years ago, his father shot his mother dead and then killed himself. Nick, to put it mildly, has issues. His only friend is a blubbery lecher named Dave Alders — “a dead soul in a goblin’s body” — who accompanies him on nightly tours of a bar called the Swan, where they get knee-walking drunk and try half-heartedly to get laid. Nick sleeps most of the day, then revives himself with DayQuil, Gatorade, Valium, and Xanax before repeating the nocturnal ritual. It’s almost Elvisoidally bleak.
But it gets even bleaker, and creepier. Nick has gotten a technician acquaintance to install hidden cameras and microphones in the homes of assorted neighbors, including Dave, for the simple reason that “people are only themselves when they’re alone, when there’s no one there to see it.” Nick, like any artist, is after the truth, and his rationale for spying on his neighbors is both intensely personal and emblematic of something loose in the wider culture:
I despise their hermetic normalcy too much not to violate it, and for no better reason than the sheer pleasure of hearing it pop. They don’t deserve their happiness if that’s even what it is. To me it’s fake happiness. The margarine version of what the philosophers meant. But it seems to do for the majority, and all the quirks and bland neuroses that fill it up yield surprising substance if you look with hateful enough eyes, hear with spiteful enough ears. If you take a resentful interest, you can make it more than what it is. If you want to destroy it from the minutiae out, you will see the diabolical in the detail, and savor it. A voyeur’s incriminating pointillism. Connect the dots and make the damning picture.
But then, maybe this is simply what bored people do.
And bored destroyed people pry with vengeance, then justify it by recourse to their pain.
Or maybe it’s technology that made us all so prurient, craving more of the real in our reality TV.
I think the truest reason I do it is to find out all I can about what is findable, even if it’s mostly mundane, because there’s so much I can’t find out about what matters. I’ll never know why my parents died, or any of the details. I’ll never get my mind around it. I’ll never be whole or unharmed or kind again. But I can know everything about my neighbors’ lives, and in so doing, I can ease what is unsatisfied in me.
This is dark stuff, but Vincent can also be acidly funny. Here’s Nick recalling his fraternity hazing in college, when he and 10 other pledges were locked in a bathroom for 24 hours while the theme song from Cheers played nonstop at high volume: “We nearly tore each other’s hair and teeth out. After twenty-three hours of that, I would have sucked cock for pocket change at a Shriners convention and given the proceeds to al-Qaeda, just to get my hands on the stereo.” And here’s Nick imaging what a violent neighbor would do if he found out he was being spied on: “He’d kick in the back door, throw a hood over my head, and spirit me upstate to one of his deer hunters’ goon forts, where I’d wake up in a circle of inbred Dave types feasting on muskrat and questioning my loyalty to the secessionist U.S. of A.”
Nick’s late mother was a woman with intellectual pretensions who was driven to drink by the monotony of life in this unnamed Midwestern suburb (Vincent was born in Detroit). Here’s Mrs. Walsh’s estimation of America: “This is a nation of idiots breeding more idiots, a rabble whose only useful function is to fight our foreign wars and donate organs.” As Nick puts it, “She was a highly educated woman who didn’t take tips from women’s magazines. She didn’t need the guidance of other women, or the culture, which, as she pointed out, was just a bunch of C-students with dicks sitting around a conference table trying to sell you crap you didn’t need, or trying to make you feel inferior if you balked.”
There’s wisdom tucked into this wit, but Vincent doesn’t — yet — have the appetite or, maybe, the chops to sustain it for 300 pages. Then again, how many writers do? Maybe Martin Amis, or Mark Leyner, or Gary Shteyngart, or Sam Lipsyte. At any rate, the list is short. And remember, this is Vincent’s first novel.
After Nick starts sleeping with an enigmatic woman named Monica, his quest for the truth begins to come uncomfortably close to home — to the truth about his widow neighbor, Mrs. Bloom, and the truth about his parents’ deaths and, finally, the truth about Monica. Discovering these truths doesn’t set Nick free, but it does give him the wisdom to see the rest of his life as a sentence, and it gives him the strength to make a vow: “I will do my sentence with joy and constant invention.” That’s not nothing, considering what a mess he was at the outset.
Much as Self-Made Man brought to mind Black Like Me, Thy Neighbor echoes that great John Cheever short story from 1956, “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill.” It’s the story of a seemingly well adjusted, 34-year-old suburbanite named Johnny Hake who unexpectedly loses his job, falls into financial difficulty, and tries to dig himself out by sneaking into his neighbors’ unlocked houses and stealing money in the dead of night. After their similar set-ups, though, Vincent’s novel and Cheever’s story veer apart. Unlike Nick Walsh, Johnny Hake is wracked by remorse for his deceit, and his snug suburban life begins to unravel from the stress of that unbearable remorse. But he’s saved by a tiny miracle — a rain squall that surprises him on his way to a fresh victim’s house — and his equilibrium is almost magically restored. “I wish I could say that a kindly lion had set me straight,” Johnny says, “or an innocent child, or the strains of distant music from some church, but it was no more than the rain on my head — the smell of it flying up my nose — that showed me the extent of my freedom from (my father)…and the works of a thief.”
How far we’ve come in the short half-century since that story appeared in The New Yorker! Today, thanks to technology and our prurient knack for misusing it, we don’t just remove money from our neighbors’ wallets when we get in a tight spot; now we spy on our neighbors with hidden cameras and microphones, we gaze unseen at their naked secrets. No, that’s not quite right. There are no more secrets, as Thy Neighbor so artfully demonstrates, and we know so much that it’s bound to kill someone, and deaden us. Worse, we’re beyond being redeemed by a rain squall and a renewed appreciation for the miracle of being alive.
That’s the heart-breaking truth at the heart of Norah Vincent’s dark funny debut novel.
In the summer of 2006, on a small stage in downtown Toronto, the Emperor Napoleon was facing off in a game of chess against the “Mechanical Turk.” It was 1809, continental Europe, and Malzel, who recently purchased the legendary chess-playing automaton, was transporting this curious contraption from town to town to square off against the dubious and the delighted.The automaton was an historical oddity – a contraption consisting of a carefully-constructed cabinet, out of which emerged the fabricated, human-like, upper-half of an exotically decked-out Ottoman chess master. It was a hoax, of course, the cabinet being designed in such a manner as to conceal an actual human – small in stature, but large in chess-playing talent. Magnets, a pantograph, and an elaborate, clockwork-like mechanism enabled the Turk’s hands and arms to grip and move chess pieces, eyes to roll, head to nod.The play, “Napoleon vs The Turk,” written by Tom Robertson and staged by Luke Davies as part of the 2006 Toronto Fringe Festival, was my introduction to this famous hoax.Robert Lohr’s engrossing debut novel, The Chess Machine, goes back a bit further, to 1770 and the workshop of the Turk’s actual inventor: Wolfgang von Kempelen, a Baron with connections in the court of Vienna. A work of historical fiction, The Chess Machine also introduces us to Jakob, a fictional character who Lohr imagines as Kempelen’s valuable assistant and cabinet-maker.Above all, though, The Chess Machine tells the fictional tale of Tibor, an Italian chess-playing dwarf, recruited by Kempelen to be part of the grand deception, to spend countless stifling hours inside the automaton, monitoring the opponents’ moves, and responding accordingly.In one wonderfully gripping episode, the dwarf, concealed in the automaton for an outdoor match and deprived of the candle that normally helps him see what he’s doing, is forced to move his chessmen simply by anticipating his opponent’s moves, by the sound and feel of the game being played above his head.Tibor is the heart and soul of the automaton, and also the story. Rescued from a Venetian prison by Kempelen, who knew of his talents and was searching for the missing piece to his scheme, Tibor reluctantly agrees to go with Kempelen back to his workshop is Pressburg (now Bratislava). He must remain hidden from public view, on occasion venturing out incognito with Jakob for a late-night prowl around town. The tale is a captivating one, full of dreams, schemes and spies, deception and murder, lusty, clandestine encounters with women of various levels of repute, a jealous inventor, an affronted nobleman, and at least one seriously insane sculptor.A glance, too, at audiences of the day, and their willingness to suspend disbelief. As Tibor inquires of his master: “Are they going to believe in this?” To which Kempelen responds “The world wants to be deceived. They’ll believe in it because they’ll want to believe in it.”