Belly is a book about a man named Belly. Belly aka William O’Leary is a grandfather now, just out of jail after four years in for illegal bookkeeping, but he used to be a real big shot in Saratoga Springs. He was also a drunk, cruelly dismissive of his family and torn up by the death of his third daughter. When he arrives back home he finds that his old stomping grounds have changed and that his three surviving daughters are wary of his presence. The book encompasses Belly’s first week of freedom and is more a character study of this difficult man than a plot-driven novel. Because Belly is so stubborn and belligerent, it is difficult to commiserate with his bitterness about the incursion of WalMart and fancy chain coffee shops. In fact, I found Belly, the man, to be so repugnant that I thought that Lisa Selin Davis was trying to point out that he was wrong, that those chain stores aren’t so bad, but based on this interview, I can see that that is not the case. Belly is an admirable debut, with a handful of well-crafted characters, especially Belly and his oldest daughter Nora, but I would have more enjoyed reading about these characters in a more dynamic plot.
Yet another book about World War II may seem like a yawner. Because, seriously, what hasn’t been written about the subject already? With the history side of things well-documented, most new books delve into personal accounts of the war years. In Never Surrender, British author Michael Dobbs does just that, but with a twist. The result is, according to the cover, “A novel of Winston Churchill.”Historical fiction can bring out the best or worst in a writer. Sometimes the author is an academic with nothing but names, dates and the question: What if? That approach often manifests itself in hundreds of pages consisting of too much history and not enough fiction. Other times the perfect balance is achieved, as with Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, a novel about the Civil War battle at Gettysburg.After reading this 316-page novel, it’s clear the historical fiction genre suits Dobbs well. Never Surrender strikes the right balance.The book is set primarily in 1940, in the weeks leading up to and including Great Britain’s desperate retreat from the European mainland and Adolf Hitler’s advancing Nazi army. Churchill’s leadership was still in its infancy, and he had few allies, both in England and beyond. The book serves as a vivid reminder of just how close the island nation came to striking a deal with Germany, and how reluctant the United States was to offer military aid to its weakened ally.But Churchill is not the only character in this book engaged in battle. Across the channel in France, a young medic and conscientious objector named Don Chichester witnesses the horrors of war as the dead and wounded are brought before him.They laid him on the kitchen floor – the table was occupied – and a doctor slowly unwrapped the sodden cloth. Two terrified eyes stared out, but of the rest of the face there was almost nothing. No lower jaw, no tongue, no cheek, only those two staring eyes which understood it all. Fingers clutched Don’s sleeve with the force of a man under siege from pain he was incapable of resisting.Such descriptions are used sparingly, making them all the more powerful, and realistic, for Don is soon separated from his unit and joined by a wounded French soldier in search of safety back in England.By giving an equal amount of attention, and text, to the realities on the ground and to the decision-makers back in London, the novel deftly moves back and forth between the historical and the fictional. Churchill’s survival is certain; Don’s fate is less so.Yet the two men share a similar handicap: Both are crippled by feelings of unfulfilled expectations set by their fathers. And it takes the unsolicited counsel of a foreigner for each to gain perspective.Dobbs, who is a former advisor to prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, is no armchair historian. His proximity to England’s leaders has made him privy to the psychological burdens carried by those at the top. Furthermore, his experience as a newspaper reporter on both sides of the Atlantic is demonstrated by a fluid writing style full of English subtlety and wit.While the 2003 book, rereleased in paperback this September, is the second in a series – Winston’s War (2002), Churchill’s Hour (2004) and Churchill’s Triumph (2005) – about events before, during and after World War II, it is undoubtedly capable of standing alone. Some readers may desire to see what comes next, but reading what comes before will require a 704-page commitment.Of course, any piece of historical fiction opens itself up to sins of omission. Certain events are left unmentioned, meaning readers who have studied the second World War in depth might feel like moviegoers who watch a film adaptation of their favorite book.At the same time, the opposite can be true for those not steeped in the history of World War II. Questions may linger throughout about whether certain characters are historical or fictional. Fear not, all is explained in the epilogue. But it’s safe to say that those who appear fictional are just that. So trust your literary instincts.
Google Joshua Cohen and you’re immediately faced with a question: which Joshua Cohen do you want? Is it a) The political philosopher? b) The guy who started the website tubefilter, “Online video’s daily must-read”? Or c) the American novelist and writer of stories? In my case, the answer was c), but the process of choosing a person from multiple options, of pulling an identity from ten trillion lines of code, is at the core of Four New Messages. In Joshua Cohen’s new collection of long stories, the characters struggle to reconcile their physical existences with their online selves — struggle to cope with the effect the Internet has on their experience of the world.
The first story, “Emission,” which appeared in a recent issue of The Paris Review, is the best of the collection. (At a recent reading in San Francisco, Cohen himself suggested that “Emission” is in fact the worst story in the book because it is the safest, and that readers might want to skip it altogether. I respectfully disagree.) The plot follows a young drug dealer, Mono, who, one night, after delivering cocaine to some Princeton students, decides to snort a few rails himself. While under the influence, he makes the mistake of relating a very shameful sex story involving him and a girl he once found sleeping at a party. Later Mono learns he has been rejected for a job because of his reputation, and when he asks what’s wrong with his reputation, the employer tells him, “The internet…are you aware of the internet?” Mono Googles himself — a practice he generally avoids since he deems it “too depressing a venture” — and finds his sex story, with his full name attached to it, posted on the blog of one of the girls from the party. The post quickly goes viral and Mono’s name because synonymous with masturbating on a sleeping stranger. He spends the rest of “Emission” trying to get the story removed, which he tragically learns is a futile endeavor. As one character puts it, “the web’s like sweaty footwear — stuff lives in there forever.”
“Emission” not only features an exciting and somewhat sickening plot, but it is also a very heavily (and effectively) framed story. Mono is not the narrator — instead we get the viewpoint of a young businessman recounting the time he met Mono at a biergarten in Berlin. At one point we see the narrator relating how Mono told him about the time Mono read a blog post in which the blogger recounts the story of when she went to a party and heard her drug dealer tell a story about the time he masturbated on a sleeping girl. (You may have to draw a diagram to calculate the number of devices separating the reader from the action.) The frame here is used to create ambiguity: Was Mono’s name really ruined by a blogger? Or did he himself haplessly post the story on the Internet — he does seem like that kind of guy — and later reconstruct his life’s narrative to give it a villain? Because of the distance between the protagonist and the telling of the story, we’re left with doubt, a condition that ravages characters throughout the collection.
Cohen is an incredibly intelligent and prolific author (at the age of thirty-one, Four New Messages is his seventh book) who is frequently compared to David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon. As part of the last generation to grow up before the popularization of the Internet, but to go to college post-.com, he seems well equipped to write about the anxieties of net-surfing information junkies. Throughout the book, his characters make assertions that feel nauseatingly familiar. One woman experiences “nervousness at traveling to an unknown, possibly even an undatabased restaurant.” It’s as if after spending so much time online, these people are afraid of uncharted human experience. As one character says, “That’s the problem with the screen…You’re always one step, but the crucial step, removed.” It’s also the advantage: you’re never too close to danger.
But despite Cohen’s wonderful ability to articulate the anxieties of the internet age, sometimes he gets so deep into syntactic and structural experiments that he forgets about the physical world altogether. Given the preoccupations of his characters, this is almost certainly an intentional choice, but it’s still, at times, a frustrating one. “McDonald’s” follows an indecisive writer as he agonizes over whether or not to include the word “McDonald’s” in a story he’s writing. The piece has half-page long sentences that feature very little but obsessive chronicling of Internet searches like “What’s wrong with my story?” and while this discursive portrayal of writerly interiority is incredibly realistic, it also makes for tedious reading.
The last and longest story of the collection, “Sent,” is a perplexing part-folktale, part-fictional reportage about a young man who goes to eastern Europe to write about girls from small villages who are being used in American pornography. The narrator reflects, “We all grew up with this crap, we didn’t know anything else — like Dad did, who masturbated to paper, to brownpaperwrapped magazines.” For the narrator’s generation, “We can just press a button and, naked lady…Point, click, penetration, it penetrates, it rewires your brain.” While the story is filled with Cohen’s trademark awareness of the effects of the Internet on our consciousness, the plot is obscured by constant point of view shifts: “I am a woodsman. A forester. No. You are a woodsman. You are a forester. No. Shake the tree. Uproot the roots. He, yes, he is a woodsman.” The confusion of reading “Sent” probably mirrors the confusion of the young narrator as he travels through real villages and interviews real people he’s seen having sex through the protective lens of the Internet. But it’s still a trying, and in the end, not very satisfying read.
Charles Baxter once wrote in an afterword to a collection of flash fiction, “These are tunes for the end of time, for those in an information age who are sick of data.” This was in 1986. I wonder what he would have to say about the characters in Four New Messages.
This guest contribution comes from Kevin Hartnett. Hartnett lives in Philadelphia with his fiance. After graduating from college in 2003, he joined Teach For America and taught sixth grade in the Bronx for two years. He enjoys politics and travel and writing about both.Snow, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s 2004 novel, opens as Ka, a stranger come to town, steps off a bus into the first flurries of a gathering snowstorm. He has arrived in Kars, a remote border city in eastern Turkey and a place, like much of his native country, that is foreign to him. For the last eight years Ka has lived as an exiled poet in Hamburg, shifting anonymously between the public library and the cheap porn shops near his apartment. In Kars, his bourgeois Istanbul accent and department store coat mark him as an outsider.The city appears muffled at first, its citizens dispirited by poverty and forced inside by the cold. Kars is a place of former glory, once a haunt of the Ottomans and the Russian tsars, now crumbling and forgotten as the rest of Turkey looks west to Europe. Ka, however, feels revitalized in Kars.He has come ostensibly as a journalist, to report on an epidemic of suicides among the “headscarf girls,” a group of young women who killed themselves after a law prohibited women from participating in public life with their heads covered. It is soon evident, though, that Ka has little interest in the story, or politics generally. Even his exile was prompted simply by a case of mistaken identity, an apt fate for a man whose own apparent weightlessness would have caused him to suffer the misfortune with little objection.Ka has not had sex in four years or written a poem in nearly that long and he feels the promise of a dual rebirth in Kars. His real reason for making the trip is Ipek, an acquaintance from high school whom he remembers only for her beauty. Ka takes a room at the Snow Palace Hotel where she lives, and wastes little time pressing his intentions. Ipek appears amenable, yet cautions that she could never make love while her father is under the same roof, and her father almost never leaves the hotel. Thus left to bide his time, Ka wanders the streets of Kars, finding creative inspiration in the rapidly falling snow, and learning, by chance encounter, about the political rifts and personal aspirations which rend Kars.He is approached by boys from the local religious high school, who interrogate Ka about his belief in God. One of the boys, Mesut, asks him, “do you or don’t you believe that God Almighty created the universe and everything in it, even the snow that is falling from the sky?” Ka replies only that, “The snow reminds me of God.” It is the type of elision by which Snow frequently works. Characters, their views and their motivations are elusive and unknown, often even to themselves.The boys’ interest in Ka turns out to be more than mere curiosity or defiance. Fazil, a particularly earnest boy, was in love with Teslime, a headscarf girl who committed suicide. He says to Ka, “We could not believe that a Muslim girl ready to sacrifice everything for her faith could be capable of suicide” (which is forbidden by the Koran). Fazil fears that Teslime’s suicide reveals her to have been an atheist, and even worse, he has begun to worry that it marks him by association. He seeks Ka’s reassurance. “‘Are you an atheist” asked Fazil with imploring eyes. ‘If you are an atheist, do you want to kill yourself?'”Pamuk began writing Snow before 9/11 and the book presages the lines of conflict which have erupted since. The religious boys are poor, provincial, and wary of “The West,” for mocking their faith. Their counterpoint is Sunay Zaim, an effete, secular actor, whose traveling theater troupe comes to Kars to perform an intentionally provocative version of the Turkish play “My Country or My Headscarf.” Zaim uses the performance to launch a coup when, mid-scene, prop guns turn out to have been loaded with real bullets.Ka’s confused beliefs about God and his mixed identity, as a Turk, an exile, and an outsider in Kars (an accurate description of Pamuk as well), inspire leaders on both sides of the coup to promote their cause to him. Ka is secreted to a meeting with Blue, a charismatic Islamist leader and possible terrorist, who is repulsed by Ka’s mealy convictions, but nevertheless wants his help getting a statement out to Western newspapers. Zaim likewise beckons Ka, hoping that he could secure the participation of Ipek’s sister Kadife, an outspoken headscarf girl, in the dramatic final act of the coup.For his part, Ka would rather simply pursue the affections of Ipek and the reinvigorated direction of his muse. He admits to feeling “so ashamed of his wish for happiness” yet after years of austere loneliness abroad that is all he wants. Such pretensions to happiness are not well accommodated in Kars, however. The falling snow evokes God to Ka and inspires an eponymous poem, but it also has a more practical role in the story. It abets the coup by blocking the roads into the city.Snow is haunted by the specter of religious suicide and rife with the political strife that defines our time. Pamuk handles both thoughtfully and subtly, but his final concern is happiness, and whether such a thing is possible in a world where ideological pressure and cultural change confuse an individual looking for his own path towards belief. If Ka is an emblematic figure, than our prospects seem dim, though Pamuk does offer the possibility of redemption in the story itself, well told and beautifully written as it is.