Michael Lewis launched his successful career as an author with his book Liar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street, which is both a youthful memoir and a journalistic look at the inner workings of Salomon Brothers, a Wall Street firm that grew fat trading bonds and then crashed and burned. The book takes place, roughly, between the years 1984 and 1987, and so I wasn’t surprised that the book reminded me of the movie Wall Street – just replace Gordon Gecko with Salomon’s head John Gutfreund. At the beginning of the book, Lewis has just been hired, quite unexpectedly, by Salomon, and he takes us through his trajectory at the company, from the cut-throat training process to his days as a bond trader in London. From this vantage point, Lewis was able to watch the company, emboldened by spectacular success in the 1980s, become a symbol of corporate gluttony. Along the way, Lewis profiles many of the company’s outsized personalities. He also delves into the intricacies of the bond market in such a way that the arcane becomes pretty readable. The book is also filled with anecdotes about the conspicuous consumption of those times and the raucous, inelegant trading floor, filled with foul-mouthed traders who threw phones and insults and reveled in their gluttony. Lewis’ revelation was that the company (and its competitors) made profits at the expense of its customers, and, while the period that Lewis chronicles is interesting in its own right, its impact is somewhat diminished by the many corporate scandals and Wall Street improprieties that have occurred since the book was first published. Against this backdrop, Liar’s Poker is no longer an exceptional story that defined an era, it is merely another moment in the cycle of Wall Street corruption and ensuing retribution that continues today.
I’m not ready this month.Seriously. I’ve only had 28 days of reading, a good number of which I spent failing to write a short story and traveling to Minneapolis. I’ve only read two books. And one of them took me three weeks. I’m just not ready for February to be over.I shouldn’t complain, though – both books I read were fantastic and both dealt with much stronger versions of my current problem: running out of time and being dropped into situations without the proper preparation.Of course, in both What is the What (David Eggers) and The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood) this lack of preparation was life altering. My problem is that my simple blog post isn’t being started until the eleventh hour. Big difference.What’s intense about both of these books is the idea that there are authors who can so perfectly get inside the head of someone and spell out the anxieties involved in being relocated – in being thrown into a new situation with little, if any, warning, forced to live life under the gun, subservient because they don’t know any different and are afraid to do otherwise. Who knows what lies outside of their life? Who knows if they’d even live to find out.In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood creates a dystopian masterpiece – a country so frightened of itself that it has no choice but to obey. It’s a breakdown of the social hierarchy, a primer into what could happen with information control and women’s rights in a future that doesn’t respect either ideal. It’s frightening in its own right – women forced to be subservient because that’s the only way they can figure out to keep lust on the backburner. The Handmaids are there to have their wombs occupied, but not to enjoy any second of it. It’s scary.And, at times, it seems so real. But the brilliance of the story isn’t the science fiction aspect – it’s the loss that the protagonist feels. It’s a powerless struggle against an old life – a women’s lib upbringing filled with lesbian friends and understanding husbands. Imagine being stripped of all identity, separated from your spouse and child, forced to watch as people were sent away for not obeying, struggling to understand how to escape, how to continue living. How things got this bad.That’s what Atwood really does in this book – she illustrates the internal struggle, between a physical life and a mental stability – the mind and the shell, the womb and the woman.Of course, not all displacement is fiction. David Eggers’ What is the What chronicles the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee who experiences his own type of sudden movement, from the gentle village he grew up in to the front lines of the war to the confusing spectacle of the United States.This is real. The story has been fictionalized to a slight extent, but for the most part Valentino’s Sudan is real – a true to life picture of what can happen when the wrong people are in power. It’s vividly recounted but not flowingly so. It’s written in Valentino’s voice, using Valentino’s visions and painting Valentino’s picture.What a picture it is. A young boy is forced to flee his village, his mother, his father, and join a walking group of other young boys – the Lost Boys of Sudanese lore. He’s brought in as a soon-to-be Army boy. He’s placed alongside the resistance forces. He’s forced to find his place in a refugee camp, living in temporary shelters for a permanent amount of time. He’s miserable. And he’s got no escape. After all, where could he go?The story is interspersed with quips from his current American life. He eventually makes it to the United States, so you know the ending will be somewhat happy. But he finds the U.S. to be just as difficult, just as dangerous – just as utterly confusing as any war torn village outside of Kenya.I’d call it a coming of age story, but Valentino never had a chance to come of age. He was forced to grow up at the age of eight.So when I complain about not being prepared to write a simple book article, I can’t really be taken seriously. Especially when my month of reading was filled with the type of stories that create cold chills and boiling blood – words that piece together the horrors of uncertainty and unfamiliarity. Sure, I had to jump head first to meet deadline. But my consequences were slight – an e-mail from Mr. Magee, a personal disappointment, a rushed article that’s a few days late.I mean, my life wasn’t on the line. That’s pressure. That’s displacement.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC 2006, 2007: Jan, Feb.
I’ve been using John Le Carré for a while now. This is how it goes: I’ll be on a panel somewhere, in one city or another, or in front of a crowd in a bookstore — I’m using the word “crowd” in the loosest possible sense — and the genre question will come up. It comes up because I write the kind of novels that are sometimes called crime fiction and sometimes called literary fiction, whatever that is.
It’s no doubt lazy of me to use more or less the same answer every time, but in all fairness, it’s always more or less the same question and my opinion on the matter hasn’t changed. Someone will ask whether I consider myself a crime writer, or if I consciously set out to write crime fiction, or if I think people who don’t usually read crime fiction will like my books, or some variation thereof, and I’ll trot out the response, refined over several bookstores and festivals.
I’ll talk about the permeability of the borders between genre, the subjectivity of it all, the way my books are literary fiction in North America but thrillers in France, and at some point I always find myself citing Le Carré’s The Russia House. The Russia House is a straight-up Cold War spy novel. It’s also a beautifully written story about love and loyalty. It’s my opinion that it’s as literary — whatever that means — as anything out there. My belief is that if we put up an arbitrary wall between books like The Russia House and books that are more traditionally thought of as literary fiction, we do so to our detriment. Le Carré is worth reading whether you think you like genre fiction or not.
In A Delicate Truth, Le Carré skirts the shadows of the military-industrial complex. The plot concerns a top-secret counter-terrorism operation mounted on Gibraltar. A terrorist — or “high-value target,” in the euphemistic language of the modern age — is meeting a contact in a house by the beach. The plan, code-named Operation Wildlife, involves a two-pronged approach: a small force of British soldiers out of uniform will approach by land and seize the target. They’ll deliver the target to American mercenaries waiting on the beach, who will spirit him to a ship waiting just off shore and out into international waters.
In other words, extraordinary rendition. The plan is so foul that it can only be sold by means of gymnastic moral contortions and assurances of non-responsibility. As the newly appointed Junior Foreign Office minister Fergus Quinn puts it, in an explanation to one of the men who will shortly be on the ground, the British team will merely be apprehending a criminal on British territory, at which point the British team’s orders will require handing over the criminal to the non-British force waiting on the beach, and “[S]hould this non-British seaborne team,” Quinn explains:
of its own volition, elect to abstract or exfiltrate that target and remove him from the jurisdiction — i.e., out of British territorial waters — neither you personally, nor any member of your team, will be complicit in that act. To recapitulate… you are a landborne protection force exercising its duty of defending sovereign British territory in a totally legal and legitimate manner under international law, and you have no further responsibility whatsoever for the outcome of the operation, be you clad in military uniform or civilian attire.
You don’t know that the target is going to be tortured, in other words, or at least you can tell yourself you don’t know, and this sliver of uncertainty should be enough — just barely — to allow you to sleep at night. You’re just doing your duty.
This sort of sales pitch is sometimes all it takes to get more-or-less decent people to slip into morally questionable territory, and the territory here is very questionable indeed. Fergus Quinn has aligned himself with a shady private defense contractor, Jay Crispin, and his companion, Maisie Hardy of Houston, Texas, a CIA agent with ties to the American far right.
The plan unfolds under extraordinary secrecy. Even Toby Bell, Quinn’s private secretary, is not cleared for it. Quinn recruits a reliable has-been of a Foreign Office agent, the decent but not terribly sharp Kit Probyn, and dispatches him to Gibraltar to be the Foreign Office’s man on the ground. On the night of the operation, Probyn waits alone on a hillside while the British team approaches the target. Here as everywhere in this book, ambiguity reigns, and even on the ground it’s difficult to be certain what, exactly, is going on:
Above the clatter of the wind came a clicking sound like dominoes collapsing: two sets of clicks, then nothing. He thought he heard a yell but he was listening too hard to know for sure. It was the wind. It was the nightingale. No, it was the owl.
Probyn doesn’t see the British team again. He is told that everything went according to plan and whisked out of Gibraltar. He moves on to a cushy posting in the Caribbean, while Toby Bell is assigned on short notice to Beirut.
Three years later, one of the ex-soldiers involved in the Gibraltar operation appears in Probyn’s village. Not only did Operation Wildlife not go at all according to plan, the ex-soldier insists, but innocent people were killed.
It’s possible that this ex-soldier is mentally ill and delusional, as the defense contractor Jay Crispin insists. It’s also possible that the ex-soldier’s telling the truth, that the intelligence was flawed and the operation went terribly wrong. Or perhaps the success or failure of the mission was never the point. Whether the mission went exactly according to plan or didn’t, Jay Crispin would presumably have made a great deal of money as a private contractor on an operation of this scale.
In the post-Cold War era, Le Carré has found a reliable cast of villains in the men who deal privately in weaponry and war. Jay Crispin isn’t terribly far removed from Richard Onslow Roper, the arms dealer who stalks through The Night Manager. These are men of a certain class and education, well-dressed and impeccably mannered predators, the beauty of their possessions matched only by their disinterest in the human cost of their products and services. It’s just business.
A Delicate Truth presents an exceedingly dark vision of an increasingly privatized world of intelligence and warfare. Toby Bell has always been troubled by the shadiness of the Gibraltar affair. When Kit Probyn contacts him, disturbed by the ex-soldier’s revelations and eager to figure out what happened, Bell decides to help.
There are moments when the machinery of plot grinds a little too loudly — if you’re on a mission to uncover the truth, it’s nice when a knowledgeable veteran of the British Foreign Service rises out of the woodwork to offer helpful slivers of background information, but having this happen two or three times seems unusually lucky — but Le Carré remains formidable. Here, as elsewhere in his body of work, Le Carré proves himself a master of character development.
Bell and Probyn are flawed but essentially decent men, trying to do the right thing in a landscape where it’s not at all clear what the right thing to do might be. There is a sketchiness at the heart of this novel, a sense of unobtainable information, the truth always just out of sight. Every answer leads to more questions. It’s all shadow and suggestion, but the shadows are the point.
Late in Brightfellow, Rikki Ducornet’s new novel, the protagonist and titular “fellow” takes two eight-year-old girls to see Rear Window. Unsurprisingly, for those readers familiar with Ducornet, the impropriety of this outing is never discussed. Rather, the children are more upset by Jimmy Stewart’s nipples than Raymond Burr’s murder and dismemberment of his wife, “Men should not have nipples!” they insist, “no one should have nipples!.”
This absurd and illogical world, here as in all of Ducornet’s novels, is not exactly magical realist — there is no intrusion of the fantastic into the otherwise normal here. It is also not a postmodernist world of artifice and simulacrum. Rather, her worlds are all surface and texture. Brightfellow refuses to conform to a narrative logic in which events have meaning. While Ducornet is, here and everywhere in her work, expansively erudite, her use of citation and reference does not take the form of clues, or gestures toward meaning. Her Borgesian meta- and intertexts aren’t to be interpreted; they are to be experienced. Ducornet even makes a joke of the kind of embodiment her prose evokes, when the eight-year-olds debate the logistics of body dismemberment, “They suppose the thighs look like hams and that there would have only been room for two in the suitcase. They wonder if the knees would have been attached to the thighs.”
This image: grotesque and gustatory, also silly and beautiful, distills all of Brightfellow. It also evokes Ducornet’s earlier novels Phosphor in Dreamland and The Fountains of Neptune more than her last, Netsuke, which Michael Cunningham described in The New York Times as a malignant and malicious story of “soul-murder.” Brightfellow flirts with childish eroticism and terrible violence, yet, despite the Alfred Hitchcock, in it Ducornet follows Lewis Carroll and Jorge Luis Borges, more than her sometime-precursors Vladimir Nabokov or the Marquis de Sade.
This novel, Ducornet’s ninth, follows its bright fellow, who we meet as a boy called “Stub,” and rejoin later as a young man calling himself Charter Chase. Stub/Charter, abandoned by his mother and then abandoning his father, winds up a feral young man on the campus of an unnamed university. His first entry into the world of the college is through the library, where he obsessively reads the works of the reclusive anthropologist Werner Vanderloon. Eventually, Stub becomes a secret resident, sleeping in a specimen cabinet in the biology lab and pilfering the left-behind contents of gym lockers and dorm rooms for an appropriately preppy wardrobe that enables him to pass as a student.
The inevitable Giles Goat-Boy comparisons are already made by Ducornet’s blurbers, and while, in some sense, this book may resemble John Barth’s feral-boy-on-campus novel, Stub/Charter’s self-invention is a red herring. This is a coming-of-age story in a looking-glass universe, in which familiar categories are meaningless. Charter presents himself as a scholar studying Vanderloon’s papers, and so gains entry into Faculty Circle, where he eventually takes a room in the home of a lonely emeritus professor. While there, Charter conceives an obsession with a child, Asthma, who lives next door (and who, in a bit of heady referentiality, he observed through the window, and who he will take to see Rear Window). Observing Asthma, Charter muses on Vanderloon’s anthropological system:
Vanderloon divides mankind into two constants: the ones who know how to play, are full of mirth and fellow feeling and the ones who are killjoys and combustible. Play, he writes, is a powerful form of magic — sometimes white, sometimes black. But always it is born of invention and intuition. Play is about becoming a human, just as it is about becoming a lion, a tugboat, a galloping stallion. The hallway that leads away from the child’s room and into the depths of the house is a river, a glacier, a bridge to the moon.
This anthropological treatise recapitulates Charter’s own experience, when, as Stub, he imagined a linoleum floor as”
an archipelago that begins under his bed and goes all the way to his door. It shines with beauty and danger. There are flowers that have voices and sing to children. There is a poisonous toad that speaks in riddles, and the wrong sort of snake, thick as a chimney, concealed in the dappled light.
For Ducornet, the point of this description is its sensation. She wants you to feel “tugboat” and “galloping stallion” in your mouth when you read. Rear Window makes the act of viewing a film dangerously close to voyeurism.
Brightfellow suggests that the artifice of the words on the page and the voyeurism of a girl playing in a window, or an anthropologist observing some hitherto unknown society, are all there is. Ducornet’s is a world of surfaces so rich and textured that notions of meaning and interpretation are subsumed under a lush and seductive prose that eventually inhabits readers minds. Her writing inevitably gets described in a vocabulary of her creation: “decadent,” “anarchic,” and “fragrant.”
In Brightfellow, Ducornet forces readers to experience the physicality of reading, to feel and taste the act of storytelling. Every character perpetually self-invents. When Charter creates a fictive Vanderloon book about an obscure and isolated island culture, it is indistinguishable from the “real” Vanderloon texts. Vanderloon’s account of play both is and is not apt in the novel’s reading of Rear Window, which forces the viewer to share Jimmy Stewart’s voyeurism. As the film’s audience sees the film through the eyes — and the lens — of its protagonists, readers of Brightfellow feel Ducornet’s prose as Charter invents the cultures of Vanderloonian anthropology.
Ducornet has said that everything she writes is “informed by experience, experience not limited to the street, bathroom, kitchen.” This is a novel to be experienced, not simply read. Yet to say this novel refuses meaning is not to say that it lacks event. Its celebration of the texture and contours of storytelling, of the unruly expansiveness of language, and of the relative ease with which the borders of the world are permeated by fabulation offers a rebuke to a kind of fiction in which the imagination is increasingly constricted. As ever, Ducornet wants you to feel and taste her story more than to say what it is about. Like Vanderloon’s notion of play, it is about becoming human, or a tugboat.