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.
“A very American film.” That’s what John Waters called Pink Flamingos, his first movie to gain a significant distribution. “It deals with very American subjects – competitiveness and war – and concerns two groups of outcasts vying for the title ‘The Filthiest People Alive.’” A couple has sex while rubbing a live chicken between them, decapitating it. A contortionist flexes his sphincter to the beat of a pop song. In the movie’s money shot, Divine, the colossus of transvestites, eats dogshit. Every homosexual invents homosexuality for himself. Every homosexual American invents his own America. And the America of Pink Flamingos is a trailer-park carnival where violence overwhelms sex and the monstrous becomes heroic.
Waters’s camera didn’t cut away from his spectacles and Pink Flamingos has as much in common with a work of pornography as it does with a work of cinéma vérité. After I first saw the film in 1997, I walked out convinced that the entire cast had died in the 25 years since the film premiered, pursuing whatever they were pursuing on screen. I was wrong. They hadn’t all died at that point and Waters’s performers were very much performers. Divine, the John Wayne to Waters’s John Ford, was an actor who forced himself to smile for the dogshit-eating scene and later called the local hospital, freaking out that he may have done himself serious harm. Everything was scripted. Nothing was improvised.
Still, Waters’s motive in not cutting away from his spectacles has something in common with the documentarian’s desire to capture the truth with his camera. And some viewers’ assumptions suggest a subliminal knowledge of American history. Since the seventeenth century, and probably before then, this continent has been home to transvestites who eat dogshit. In the back of his mind, Mark Twain probably imagined a dogshit-eating transvestite, but couldn’t find a place for him in Huckleberry Finn. And someone somewhere during the silent era probably filmed a dogshit-eating transvestite and then showed it to his buddies in a church basement. John Waters just concentrated his attention on that dogshit-eating transvestite, stood back and said, “America!”
In the years since, Waters’s carnival became tamer and tamer. His circle of misfits expanded beyond Baltimore’s outcasts of Divine, David Lochary, Edith Massey, and Mink Stole, to include the oddballs of American pop culture and respectable actors taking a vacation in the world of camp. There’s room in his world for Sonny Bono, Willem Dafoe, Patty Hearst, Johnny Knoxville, Ricki Lake, Kathleen Turner and Sam Waterston. Like Fellini, he selects and sculpts perfect ugly faces. There’s a difference, of course. Fellini Satyricon can give you an erection. Female Trouble and Desperate Living can’t. In Waters’s carnival, Johnny Depp, Troy Donahue, and Traci Lords are virgins who can only imagine fucking as comedy.
His new book Carsick presents Waters at his absolute tamest. The book chronicles his adventures hitchhiking from Baltimore to Los Angeles playing the role of a “hobo homosexual.” It’s divided into three parts. The first two are novellas, “The Best That Could Happen” and “The Worst That Could Happen,” in which he imagines his journey playing out like one of his movies. The third part is the actual memoir, “The Real Thing,” in which Waters meets just the nicest people, some of whom recognize him with glee, some of whom have at least heard of him, and some of whom treat him as a friendly anonymous stranger. He eats at chain restaurants, including an Outback Steakhouse, which he had never heard of, and stays at a La Quinta Inn.
His novellas aren’t as funny as any of his movies. His sense of the berserk is stronger when he’s working with the moving image than when he’s working with the written word. His memoir is earnest, lacking the irony and introspection of his 1980s essay collections Shock Value and Crackpot. People who eat at Applebee’s and humble farmers exist too, his book says. No one in Carsick is a stereotype, many are lovable eccentrics, but he doesn’t turn anyone into a grotesque. He’s a kind man who meets kind people.
Waters is not the first wandering homosexual in American literature. John Rechy’s 1963 novel City of Night depicts the life of a half-Irish, half-Mexican outlaw who lives an American Satyricon in New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. Edmund White’s 1980 book States of Desire is a celebration of pre-AIDS gay America, and White’s niche celebrity as the author of The Joy of Gay Sex leads him to Hollywood’s kept boys, adorable campus activists, Cuban immigrants, celibates, pedophiles, Boston intellectuals, and an Indian who practices homosexuality as a tribal tradition.
John Waters does not travel America as an adventurous hustler or as a celebrity unknown outside gay circles, but as “John Waters”, the “Prince of Puke”. Early in the memoir he meets a 20-year-old who’s never heard of him, who happens to be the youngest City Council member in the state of Maryland, an affable Republican who picks up Waters out of grace and curiosity. While in the car the young man calls his mother and tells her what he’s doing. Waters enters panic mode, and imagines all the horrors she would discover if she did a Google search. “That I was just awarded the Outfest Gay Award and would be performing my one-man show, This Filthy World: Gayer and Filthier, in two months? Or my friendship with ex-Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten? Or the dogshit-eating scene in Pink Flamingos?” The punchline: No one is scared of his resume.
The highlights include a couple of would-be grifters setting out to take advantage of North Dakota’s oil boom and a Republican farmer who says that he’s glad Obama came out for gay marriage, thus temporarily quelling Waters’s persistent gay paranoia. He meets disabled vets and hippies. The 20-year-old boy from earlier in the book returns and they enjoy a fun night in Reno. They share a misunderstood bromance.
He likes everyone he meets and almost everything he sees, and yet he is always “John Waters”, the pervert who wants to discover new perversities. The guy who gave the world Tracy Turnblad is for some reason shocked by the fat teenagers he sees in Denver. “Four hundred pounds fat. All with giant plates of alarmingly unhealthy food piled in from of them in outdoor cafes.” He just adores the coal-mining town of Wellington, Utah with tiny houses painted in “gay pastel colors.” He eats tilapia at a Ruby Tuesday and discovers something fascinating. Ruby Tuesday serves good tilapia.
In the first novella of Carsick, John Waters imagines a meeting with Edith Massey, who was immortalized as The Egg Lady from Pink Flamingos. Massey enjoyed a camp celebrity in the late ’70s and early ’80s, appeared in a music video during the early years of MTV and died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 66. In Waters’s fantasy, Massey never died. At 94, he finds her playing a new role, running a store in the middle of nowhere which sells “toiletries out of their boxes and thrown into a 25¢ bin, makeup jars half-filled, shampoo tubes squeezed almost empty, loose Band-Aids without the paper wrappers, outdated sunblock” and an assortment of unused prescription pills. Waters is writing one final role for one of his finest muses.
It’s a touching scene, and one that upsets my immature assumption that everyone in Pink Flamingos met an untimely end doing the things they were doing on screen. It’s true that Divine’s morbid obesity probably led to the heart attack that felled him shortly after the filming of Hairspray and that David Lochary died of a drug overdose in 1977. But Waters’s camera didn’t capture Massey doing anything dangerous, just something disgusting and interesting and that’s exactly how he imagines her in advanced old age. There was nothing about Massey’s behavior onscreen that physically threatened her or anyone else. (To be fair, there was nothing about Lochary’s or Divine’s behavior onscreen that was all that dangerous either.) The puritan impulse teaches us that every eccentricity is a weapon that threatens the state and that threatens oneself. Waters’s oeuvre up to this point teaches that every eccentricity is absolutely a weapon that threatens the state but also a means of ennobling and even saving oneself. In recasting Massey in one final role, and in seeing an America he has never allowed himself to see before, John Waters finally settles into an uneasy peace.
In Juliann Garey‘s debut novel, Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See, Greyson Todd is a man on a wire. He has excelled as a studio executive in Hollywood, and has everything that one’s supposed to want: a kind and supportive spouse, a lovely child. Money, beautiful house, glamorous career. But he’s been hiding an increasingly crippling bipolar disorder for two decades, and it’s getting harder and harder to breathe. He is aware at all times that he’s coming undone, and equally aware that any display of weakness would be fatal to his career.
The best thing he can do for his wife and child, he decides, since obviously he can’t hold it together much longer, is to ensure that they’re taken care of financially and then exit the scene. He transfers funds for his own use to secret off-shore accounts, makes arrangements for his wife and daughter, puts a suitcase in the trunk of his car, drives away after dinner one evening, and doesn’t stop traveling for a decade. If he can’t control his illness, why not give it free rein? He’s made enough money to devote himself to a life of wandering, and there’s a certain freedom in letting everything — everyone — go. All that matters is velocity. The destination is unimportant.
Greyson Todd is the most fully-realized fictional character I’ve come across in a while. The terrible exuberance of his mania and the devastation of his depressive episodes are perfectly rendered. Garey doesn’t shy away from the depths of her character’s pain, but scenes that could easily become gratuitous in lesser hands are rendered with restraint and grace. She excels at leading us down the rabbit hole when Todd slips from logic into paranoia.
The writing is beautiful — “The panic spread out like a late-afternoon shadow” — and Garey creates an atmosphere of exquisite tension. We know from the outset that all of this will come to an end. The travel narrative is undercut with sections set in a New York City psychiatric ward where Todd is undergoing shock therapy after the years of traveling are over, his memories unraveling in a blaze of electricity:
The truth is technical, clinical, not well understood. Essentially, somewhere behind my overactive, often dysfunctional frontal lobe, my hippocampus is getting hot, and in the back of my brain, deep inside the little, almond-shaped amygdala, flashes of light are igniting a fire that burns through my memory like a box of random photos left for too long in a dusty firetrap of an attic.
Garey expertly juggles four separate narrative threads: there are scenes from Todd’s childhood, as he watched his father’s slow fall into mental illness; there is the decade of travel across Africa, the Middle East, South America, Asia; there is the wrenching unraveling of Todd’s marriage in Hollywood in the years before he left; there is the New York City hospital years later. The book reads as a complicated tangle of memories, which seems perfectly fitting for the narrative of a man whose own memories are being shocked into oblivion.
The pyrotechnics of Garey’s structure and the beauty of her writing are such that it takes some time to realize, amid the moments of brilliance and all the leaping about between locales and storylines, that the book as a whole is somewhat lacking in narrative drive. The decade of aimless travel is exactly that. The sections set in Todd’s childhood are interesting from the perspective of character development, but do little to move the narrative forward.
For most of the book this isn’t a problem, because the slight sense of aimlessness at the novel’s heart mirrors not just the chaos of Todd’s electro-shocked mind, but the mania from which he suffers through most of the book. The book throws itself between threads, childhood to marriage to travel to hospital to childhood to marriage to travel; in his decade of travel Todd throws himself from one place to the next, and what is mania if not one thing and then the next thing and then the next thing and then the next? It’s only in the very final stretch, when it inevitably becomes necessary to wrap things up and an attention to plotting becomes essential, that the book falters slightly and a mild awkwardness sets in.
But these seem like minor qualms. Juliann Garey is a bold and talented writer, and this is a genuinely impressive debut.
Back in January, Casey N. Cep published a delightful essay at Page-Turner, The New Yorker’s book blog. The piece was about maps–particularly, the obvious affection so many writers feel for them. She mentioned, of course, the big-book fantasy writers, J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin; but also, the map Sherwood Anderson commissioned of Winesburg, Ohio; the survey done of Walden Pond by Henry David Thoreau; and the hand-drawn map of Yoknapatawpha County signed by William Faulkner (as “sole owner and proprietor”). “Every map tells a story,” Cep wrote, “and writers yearning for new ways to tell stories are drawn to them.”
I was surprised Cep didn’t mention David Mitchell, though. In his Paris Review interview from 2010, Mitchell told this wonderful, on-point story from his childhood, as a way to account for his own beginnings as a storyteller.
[My] parents discovered they could shut me up for hours by mounting a large piece of cartridge paper on a drawing board—beautiful quality paper, a big beautiful snowy expanse—and leave me to draw, and name, maps of imaginary archipelagos and continents. Those maps, I think, were my protonovels. I was reading Tolkien, and it was the maps as much as the text that floated my boat. What was happening behind these mountains where Frodo and company never went? What about the town along the edge of the sea? What kind of people lived there?
In his sixth novel, The Bone Clocks, Mitchell has taken this fascination with the characters at the edge of the action and built a book around them. With one very important exception (which I’ll get to shortly), the six novellas that make up The Bone Clocks take place on the margins of a grand, cosmic struggle, and explore the lives of the people who reside there.
In fact, the least interesting and least moving part of the book is the one that doesn’t occupy a point of some distance from the central action. The next-to-last novella, called “An Horologist’s Labyrinth,” is set in 2024, and features the climax of a mysterious battle between good and evil, the dimensions of which have only been hinted at in previous chapters.
On the one side of this struggle stand the Horologists, an order of reincarnated immortals who have banded together to oppose the Anchorites. The Anchorites, envious of the Horologists’ natural immortality, have discovered a grisly method of obtaining their own version of everlasting life, one involving “soul-decantation,” and the murder of innocent humans.
Throughout the first four novellas, both Anchorites and Horologists beam in and out of the narrative, never taking up much time or attention (in a detail you might remember from the Men in Black movies, witnesses to horological or anchoritic phenomena find their memories curiously erased).
This fifth section, however, belongs entirely to the immortals, and the novel frankly suffers for it, particularly because Mitchell plants a stylistic belly-flop into one of the more egregious cases of Sci-Fi technobabble you are likely to witness this side of a Star Trek fan-fiction site. The immortals’ speech is full of these little idiosyncrasies and special meanings that don’t serve to make the story any more vivid–they’re more like the lumps left in a salad dressing after you’ve gotten too fancy with the spices.
“As I ingress, I hiatus her,” goes one sentence. “You could’ve suasioned me, if you cared so much,” goes another. “I’ve eaten trays of dim sum with more psychosoteric potential than you”–that’s Horology shit-talk, I suppose. And all terms of telepathic communication–the immortals can communicate telepathically, of course–for some reason are prefixed “sub.” All of them. You’ll see “subask,” “subvoice,” “subreply,” “suborder,” “substate.” “Subremark,” for Christ’s sake.
This is uncharacteristically bad, and actually pretty strange, when you consider how world-beatingly good Mitchell usually is at this sort of thing. Mitchell’s talent at using dialogue to flesh out invented worlds is unsurpassed by anyone writing today–compare the stiltedness of “An Horologist’s Labyrinth” with the science fiction portions of Cloud Atlas. And consider The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, where Mitchell had to pull off the same basic stunt, while also worrying about historical (semi-)accuracy.
What he’s done here, I think, is failed to avoid a problem he solved while writing The Thousand Autumns, of leaving off that “(semi-)” part. Mitchell has told the story in public several times, of how at first he strove for, and achieved, a truly accurate rendering of late 18th century dialogue. He showed it to his wife, who said, “It sounds like Blackadder!” (And apologies to Rowan Atkinson, but she didn’t mean this to be complimentary.) Mitchell went back in, and contrived a new version of the dialogue, written in a vernacular he nicknamed “Bygonese”–close enough that the spell is cast, not so close that it’s broken.
To put it another way, Mitchell’s failure with these telepathic immortals and their “subs” and “scansions” and “suasions” is actually just a kind of over-success. He renders the Horologists’ language too completely, and strips the threads. Perhaps if this “Horologese” had been dialed down a little, it wouldn’t be a problem; or, if the war of the immortals had taken over a larger part of the book, there’d have been more time to develop the concepts that undergird this techno-dialect.
Of course that would have been to abandon the novel’s organizational subtext, this attention to what happens “in the edges of the maps.” And Mitchell certainly didn’t want to do that. In fact, he found this subtext so important that at one point, he brings it right into the novel, through the voice of one of his characters.
That character is Crispin Hershey, a novelist, who narrates the fourth section of the book, “Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet”; and while you might roll your eyes at a novelist writing a novel about a novelist, rest assured that Crispin is pointedly nothing like Mitchell. Crispin is a former “Wild Child of British literature,” whose first novel was edgily titled Desiccated Embryos. (There’s a reference to Kingsley Amis on the first page of Crispin’s section, and Crispin has a novelist father who was a grand old man of British letters; I think we’re supposed to make of these associations what we will.) Crispin is a terrible man, a dull and vainglorious womanizer, whereas Mitchell seems (to this fanboy at least) sincerely humble, intellectually radiant, and solidly dedicated to his family.
Which makes it all the more striking when Mitchell speaks so transparently through Crispin’s voice. Again, compare this, a portion of a lecture Crispin gives on Auden, to what Mitchell told the Paris Review:
Writers don’t write in a void. We work in a physical space, a room, ideally in a house like [Halldór] Laxness’s Gljúfrasteinn [the home and workplace of the Icelandic Nobel Laureate], but also we write within an imaginative space. Amid boxes, crates, shelves and cabinets full of…junk, treasure, both cultural–nursery rhymes, mythologies, histories, what Tolkien called ‘the compost heap’; and also personal stuff–childhood TV, home-grown cosmologies, stories we hear first from our parents, or later from our children–and, crucially, maps. Mental maps. Maps with edges. And for Auden, for so many of us, it’s the edges of the maps that fascinate…
Forgive me a little digression, but there is something big going on on our planet. We’re the first generation in history for whom extinction is a problem to be solved. And this problem is so big, so all-encompassing, that not one of us can claim to live in the edge of its map.
It’s this sense of global citizenship, I think, which accounts for why The Bone Clocks marks such a change of attitude in Mitchell, a turn toward something grimmer. He’s always been drawn to elements of darkness, of course. Predacity–the animal way humans have of making prey out of each other–has been his primary theme throughout the five novels that came before this. And those novels, to be sure, are all full of monsters.
In The Bone Clocks, though, Mitchell explores a new theme: regret. Previously, if his characters had regrets, they were, for the most part, regrets about how the world had treated them, about the hand they’d been dealt: Eiji Miyake, for instance, the hero of Number9Dream, who sets off for Tokyo after the death of his beloved twin sister, to find the father they never knew; or Jacob de Zoet, the heartbreakingly persnickety clerk for the Dutch East Indies trading company, nursing a forbidden devotion to Christianity while living in the swamp of greed and brutality that was the late-colonial Pacific. (And Robert Frobisher in Cloud Atlas is not wholly to the contrary–Frobisher is so youthfully rakish, so self-absorbed and talented, that you can’t get too upset with him. He’s a charming, artistic kid hounded by money troubles largely of his own creation, and what millennial can’t sympathize with that?)
But in each of the five novellas leading up to and away from the book’s climax in “An Horologist’s Labyrinth,” Mitchell’s primary characters suffer regret for their own actions. Holly Sykes begins as a lovestruck teenage girl who runs away from home, and isn’t there to stand in the way of the horrifying tragedy that befalls her family. Ed Brubeck is a journalist who goes where the story is (in this case, Iraq), but who knows that his story, as a partner and a father, demands that he stay home with his family to tell it. Crispin Hershey commits a terrible, life-altering prank against the critic who broadsided his “comeback” novel. And the second novella, “Myrrh is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume,” brings back Hugo Lamb, the intensely charismatic (but secretly psychopathic) cousin of Black Swan Green’s Jason Taylor; he drives a friend and classmate to suicide over gambling debts.
The four characters followed in these five novellas (Holly Sykes narrates the first and last sections) suffer the consequences of their own moral failures–failures of lust and self-absorption, of ambition and envy and insecurity. Unlike the characters in earlier Mitchell novels, these people aren’t so much victims of the world as they are creators of their own little world of sorrows, which follows each of them around, reminding them how they went wrong.
This theme is partly why Mitchell made two of his choices in constructing this novel. One, he called it The Bone Clocks, and the reader quickly realizes that he means us, humans–regular-order, plain-Jane, non-immortal human beings; it’s a title meant to remind us that we’re all just stopwatches counting down to some unknowable, but inevitable, zero.
The second choice was to end this story in Ireland (where Mitchell lives with his family), in the year 2043. We are not finding so much in the current fiction any visions of the future that could be called “optimistic,” and The Bone Clocks is no different. It’s not a dystopia–not quite. But it’s a world where precious little civilization remains–and what does survive hangs by a frail and unraveling thread. A world that is, itself, one very big Bone Clock. There is a deep worry about this book; a sense of regret for a planet that may already have passed the point of redemption.
Even so, there is a moment in the very last pages–you will definitely know it when you get there–where Mitchell reaches right into your chest, puts his fingers on your heart, and presses down. The kind of moment you would choose to live inside for all eternity, if you had to pick just one. Our greatest storytellers can remind us that these moments are possible; and perhaps I’m naive, but I think the more we are reminded of this, the more likely it is that we will ultimately gather together and save our world, and ourselves, before the clock runs out.
In the aftermath of the Best Fiction of the Millennium series – given that none of my own favorite five made the list, either the “professional” list or the readers list – I am thinking about awards, recognition, popularity; and how reading (and critiquing) fiction is, on the one hand, a communal activity; but also a highly personal one.
Of the Pros’ 20 (the list to which my votes were applied): I’d read seven; two were on my serious to-read list; two were on my “if I can get to them or if a strong personal recommendation comes my way” list; three I’d heard probably way too much about, and so had decided to pass. About the remaining six, I had no particular feelings one way or another. Among the seven I’d read: two were among my favorites, though not my top five; one I found “just fine;” one I had strong negative feelings about; one I found disappointing relative to my expectations; and two I struggled to get through, for reasons I’ve yet to precisely identify.
So much of the joy of reading is, I think, what the reader brings to the work, and the particular alchemy that happens when reader and book collide. I myself would be hard pressed to ever pursue book reviewing in any serious way, because I could see each review devolving into maudlin hand-wringing and tedious qualifying, the prose overwhelmed by appositives and parentheticals, detailing how most of the reasons for why I did or did not connect with the book have to do with my station in life, my mood this week, the book I read previous to this one, the way in which the protagonist reminds me of my cousin Josephine, etc.
My Top Five works of fiction since 2000, for the record:
My #6 (a backup, because initially I didn’t know if short fiction (my Bolaño choice) would qualify) was The Tutor of History by the Nepali novelist and essayist Manjushree Thapa. Published by Penguin UK, Tutor — the first major English-language novel by a Nepali writer – was not released in the U.S.; and so not many American readers know of it. But this was a book that got me out of a reader’s slump (as described by Lydia Kiesling in an essay earlier this summer)—a slump that was composed, as it turned out, of three award-winning novels.
Why did Rachel Kushner’s Telex From Cuba, Lily Tuck’s The News From Paraguay, and Ali Smith’s The Accidental all come to feel more like required classroom reading than the vivid and continuous dream (in John Gardner’s words) we hope for when we read fiction? Here, after all, I had a triad of major award-winners – National Book Award finalist, National Book Award winner, and Whitbread Award winner (and Booker Prize shortlisted), respectively. And yet I found myself, midway through each, trudging through, sighing deeply, and saying to myself like a quarterback who’s been sacked one too many times, “Ok. I’m going back in.”
It struck me that the three books happened to share a common feature: shifting point-of-view. By my count, Telex, which takes place in the American expat community in Cuba during the years leading up to Castro’s revolution, is narrated via eight different points of view — four of which are major characters, the others minor — alternating chapter by chapter. One of these is a first-person voice, that of KC Stites, the bland younger son of a United Fruit Company executive. In Paraguay, which is also based on historical events, point-of-view shifts from paragraph to paragraph, in clipped, episodic fashion, among a wide-ranging cast of characters, including Francisco Solano Lopez (Franco), Paraguay’s heir-dictator at the middle of the 19th century; his Eva Peron-esque mistress, Ella Lynch, an Irish beauty; Ella’s wet nurses and maidservants; Franco’s fat and petty sisters; a self-righteous American minister; a disgraced American doctor; and dozens of other characters including assorted diplomats, soldiers, and Franco’s Brazilian and Argentine adversaries. Ella is the one character who comes to us in (pseudo) first-person, via her diary entries. The Accidental tells the story of the affluent, discontented Smart family, on holiday in contemporary Norfolk, England. Again, sections are narrated from alternating points of view, by each of four angst-ridden family members—two adults, two teenagers—as their lives are disrupted by Amber, a seductive hippie-girl stranger, who, in a familiar trope, shows up out of nowhere and Changes Everything. Amber is the one character (the fifth point of view) who narrates in first-person – an abstract, sinister voice that may or may not be hallucinatory.
“Ambitious” shows up frequently in reviews of these novels, along with “heady” and “inventive.” Each aims to bring to the reader not a conventional journey-through-transformation-with-protagonist, but rather a kind of collective psyche of place and time; hence, the diverse points of view on a single set of events. As readers, we’ve become accustomed to this fragmented, collaged approach to narrative (Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction arguably brought this expectation fully into the mainstream), embracing the notion that truth is relative, and thus the more versions and perspectives – i.e. the more prismatic the presentation – the closer we come to the whole truth.
But the overlay of a complex point-of-view structure onto an already thorny narrative canvas seemed to generate too much static in the reception. And by the time I came to the end of my summer reading, I was tempted to think that the plural-main-character device just doesn’t work (note: apart from my disappointment with the reading experience, this was an especially low moment, since my own forthcoming novel features an ensemble cast and shifting points of view). In each case I felt that the sort-of main character – the one first-person narrator – was the least compelling; and that there was too much competition between character-as-protagonist and setting-or-ethos-as-protagonist. Ultimately, place and time and culture wreaked havoc, while characters became mere casualties of the battle of ideas and historical forces, chewed up and spit out with marked detachment. As Joanne Omang of The Washington Post wrote in her review of Paraguay:
The sheer sprawl of Tuck’s subject matter seems to have overwhelmed her; she has put it all into her story without focus, rather than pruning away the undergrowth… We emerge with neither a grasp of the historical period nor any feeling for its shapers, real or fictional… Perhaps this frustrating approach is meant to evoke the disjointed nature of human experience, the measuring out of lives in coffee spoons, the inadequacy of memory, the sheer coquetry of chance and life and death, etc. If so, it is certainly just as frustrating as real life can be — for example, when one is hoping to sit down with a vivid story and learn a little something about how to be a full human being while yet surviving during violent and turbulent times.
A strong protagonist, I thought; that’s the bottom line. Likable, unlikable, whatever; we – emotionally-ravenous readers (which is a redundancy, really) – we need a through-line, not just a complex or dynamic set of circumstances. In stories of and about shapelessness, we need a primary shaper. Maybe, I thought, as readers, we are fundamentally monogamous.
But then. The Tutor of History raised the lid off of my airless resignation. In Tutor, Thapa has done what I had longed for Kushner, Tuck, and Smith to do—what seems deceptively simple but clearly is not, given the caliber of these writers—which is to bring us both the story of a society in chaos, i.e. the bustling Nepali town of Khareini Tar (circa late 1990s); and the beguiling individuals who people that society. She has sacrificed neither a sense of political-societal complexity, nor depth and sympathy of character. In the end, I wanted to both visit and study this obscure and politically turbulent corner of the Subcontinent, and to sit down with each character over tea.
The book blurb identifies four main characters; I would cite eight: Rishi, the eponymous tutor, a rebellious drifter and disillusioned communist who gives private lessons in history for his livelihood; Giridhar, the alcoholic chairman of the People’s Party’s district committee and an administrative man who suffers from thwarted political ambition; Om Gurung, a large-hearted former British Gurkha, who works along side Giridhar on the campaign; Binita, a reclusive young widow on the margins of society as a result of her manlessness, who runs a small tea shop where the campaign committee congregates; Binita’s beautiful and fatally prideful niece Sani, and her brother-in-law, the famous cinema actor Nayan Raj, who becomes the Party’s well-meaning if a bit misguided candidate for the local parliament seat (driving Giridhar deeper into drunken misery); Harsha Bahadur, the ugly, undernourished Khadka boy who ruins Sani’s reputation by declaring his love for her; and Chiranjibi, a successful businessman who undergoes a quiet conversion to community organizing and political idealism.
There is something here for everyone – idealism, petty corruption, personal rebellion, despair, ambition, beauty, ugliness, opportunism, loneliness, family, feminism, even romance. There are numerous characters, a slate of political parties and bureaucracies, and unfamiliar (to Westerners) cultural references to keep track of. And yet the novel never feels crowded nor impenetrable. How has Thapa accomplished this? I dare say, by keeping it simple. No stylish tricks of narrative episodism, or ambivalent structural gestures toward a sort-of main character, or experimental abstraction. The Tutor of History, while equal in ambition to these other “inventive” and “heady” novels, and sharing their broad goals, succeeds, at least partially, by virtue of fidelity to old-fashioned narrative omniscience. In a brief conversation with Thapa recently (over coffee, not tea – this was in New York, after all), she laughed at herself good-naturedly and confessed: “When I was studying fiction writing, I was doing all this avant-garde experimental stuff; and here, I ended up writing essentially a Victorian novel.”
The comparison is not far off in that Tutor imagines and renders the human experience as one of both self-determination and connection—each of the character’s fates is intimately entwined with that of the others—and in this sense is also concerned with inviting the reader into the novel’s moral world. It is, I suppose, a bit of a throwback in contemporary literary fiction to envision the reader not as detached auditor but rather as moral investor. Is it valid to evaluate books based on the writer’s awareness of the reader at all? Perhaps not. But I’ll say that I came away from my summer reading triad feeling distinctly stiff-armed by a kind of insularity of intelligence. These books seemed to me written by the writer, for the writer—more of an intense conversation with self (and, in the case of Telex and Paraguay, with history) than with reader. Stephen Elliott said recently in an interview, “Some readers read to escape; I read to connect.” My summer reading efforts afforded neither escape nor connection, but something more like chin-stroking, head-nodding reverence. Well-played; yes, indeed. Remarkable oeuvre you have there. There is certainly something to be said for heady novels written by women, when so much of “women’s fiction” is about inner emotional lives and domestic relationships. But it does make me ask the question of why we write and why we read; and what it means when a book strikes you more as an intellectual feat than an experience.
The Tutor of History is a novel I will likely revisit, again and again. And like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books, I believe that each time I read it, a different character, a different storyline, will come into relief as my protagonist and through-line; depending on what I am obsessed with or trying to understand at the time (I say it again: reading is highly personal). In the shadow of the Victorians, Thapa employs a bit of EM Forster-ism here (“only connect”), adhering to mature realism (Thapa is also a journalist who’s written extensively on Nepali society and politics and thus sees her characters and their context with unsentimental eyes), while lacking the contemporary Western novelist’s relative disregard for the enduring organism of community. An Irish mistress in Latin America, American expats in Cuba, bourgeois Londoners shuttling between city and country – they ultimately come and go at will, once upheaval has run its course. But for the townspeople of Khareini Tar, this is it; this is where their lives will be lived out. Some characters are handed their place in the community, others must make their own; societal position is no doubt a persistent source of hardship. And yet, we understand in the end that it ain’t nothing, this placeness, this connectedness. There seems even to be a place for the reader.
I’ve found myself a bit concerned, lately, with questions of place. Specifically, will it be glaringly obvious to the casual reader of my as-yet-unfinished third novel, much of which is set in the Florida suburbs, that my entire experience of the state of Florida consists of two lightning-strike maneuvers in and out of Boca Raton for the purpose of attending Bat Mitzvahs?
I’ve never been in Florida, it occurs to me, for longer than 36 hours at a stretch. Several of those hours were spent in the airport. Several other of those hours were spent watching second-cousins-by-marriage (unless those were first cousins by marriage once removed? I’ll admit to a certain haziness on the topic of genealogical terminology) read their Torah selections in brutally modern synagogues and flowery rented halls in the outer suburbs. I think I’ve built in a little leeway by virtue of the fact that the town I’m setting the book in is entirely fictional, but still: what if there’s some obvious and huge part of the Florida experience that I’m missing? What if, for example, Floridians have a secret handshake? This is the kind of thing that I fret about.
Over these past few months I’ve been working my way through John Updike’s Rabbit series, which takes place mostly in the impeccably-rendered and entirely fictional town of Brewer, PA. His papers were full of notes on the town, photographs of houses and businesses that would serve as models for the homes and establishments in the books. The place is vividly real and wholly anchored to this earth. I often think that Brewer is what novelists should aspire to: a town so completely, boringly alive in all its mundane details and bus routes and neighborhoods, a place with such specificity that you’re startled to find out later that it doesn’t exist.
Regardless of whether or not a setting exists in the real world, establishing a novel’s physical landscape is difficult. In her debut novel Orion You Came And You Took All My Marbles, Kira Henehan handles this problem quite neatly by dispensing with place altogether. Where is Orion set? I have no idea. The action transpires on a landscape as blank as a bare stage. Chapter One, quoted below in its entirety, gives us the setting:
It was all over gravel, but better than the last place. There was all over swampland and crocodiles.
There is gravel, then, apparently in great expanses, and golf carts are the chief mode of transport. Copious amounts of shrimp are consumed, which suggests that we perhaps might be somewhere near the sea or near another large body of water, but on the other hand, our narrator has traveled and there have been shrimp at all stops:I have been in swampland and gravel, sand, ocean, rain forest, and bog. Some places indescribable, having characteristics of neither swampland nor gravel, rain forest nor bog. Nor sand. Nor ocean. And so forth. Some places have been straight clean poured concrete, another entirely encased in liquid.
Orion is a mysterious book. It’s exuberant, often funny, and very strange. Our narrator, Finley, is a member of what can only described as a cell of detectives. I’m tempted to describe them as secret agents—there’s something of the sleeper cell in the group’s organization—but they do after all wear fedoras. There are three of them—Finley, Murphy, and The Lamb—living and working together under the direction of Binelli. There are Investigations. They are given Assignments. Finley’s latest Assignment involves investigating an outfit by the name of Uppal Puppets, although puppets are, as she’s informed Binelli, among her Most Hated things. They travel between landscapes of sand, fog, and gravel, but they always live together in a restaurant/bookstore/surfing memorabilia museum/inn called Tiki Ty’s Tiki Barn: “Wherever we went, wherever the concerns in need of Investigation took us, we always stayed at Tiki Ty’s Tiki Barn. And unlikely seeming as it seems, it always seemed to be exactly the same place. One learns that certain questions are unanswerable.”
Finley’s an adult, but her memories begin only a few years before her Assignment to Puppets, when she woke after a great silence with no memory of her previous life. She’s a highly trained Investigator—although the objectives of the team’s Investigations are never remotely clear—and a devotee of California noir. Henehan’s writing style is a delight: the novel is Finley’s report, and it’s written in exactly the kind of voice one might expect from a socially inept young detective who reads a lot of noir and has no memory of most of her life. Finley is self-assured, frequently wrong, and a little off.
Finley retreats into California noir novels whenever things get complicated, which is often, because very little in this book makes sense at first glance. It’s a clever book, and the book’s cleverness is in some ways its downfall: there is a plot here, and there are clues, but the clues are so extremely missable and the finer details of the plot are touched upon so lightly that both have a way of disappearing into the prose. I’ll confess that when I finished the book for the first time—standing in an interminable Canada Customs line in an airport—I was actually mostly baffled.
I can’t remember the last time I didn’t understand a novel, and there was some temptation to blame the disorienting effects of air travel and/or the inevitably Kafkaesque elements of going through Customs. There was, I’ll also confess, some comfort in turning the book over and discovering that at least one of the blurbers was somewhat baffled too—“Hilarious, severe, baffling, and sometimes so far over my head that I can see only a distant glow”—and it quickly became clear that I was going to have to read it again. Which I did, whereupon a few things fell into place and one or two other things didn’t—I may go to my grave without fully understanding what exactly happened to Kiki B. It was a pleasure to return to Henehan’s prose, but a person might reasonably wish for a more clearly-rendered plot.
But I found, in the end, after two readings and numerous spells of confusion, that I loved this book. Orion’s strangeness is mostly wonderful. Henehan is a writer of considerable grace and skill.
I have a moderate Raymond Chandler obsession, which emerged a few years back when I encountered The Simple Art of Murder, his famous essay published in the December 1944 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. His description of the archetypical hero of detective fiction is unforgettable, and I sometimes catch myself repeating the words under my breath at odd moments. “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean,” Chandler wrote, “who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”
What happens when a detective novel is lifted from the mean streets, or when the mean streets are part of an unrecognizable world? It’s not a new trick, but it’s a deeply appealing one. The prose styles are wildly different, but Orion reminds me a little of Jonathan Lethem‘s pre-Fortress of Solitude work. Lethem’s breakout novel, Motherless Brooklyn, was of course a detective story, and that novel’s Minna Men are only a few degrees removed from Orion’s traveling misfits. Motherless Brooklyn clung ever-so-tenuously to consensual reality—there was a menacing gang of Zen-trained doormen, yes, but they occupied a recognizable Manhattan—but it was preceded by a detective story that didn’t. Before Motherless Brooklyn there was Gun, with Occasional Music, which incidentally is #2 on an informal Titles I Wish I’d Thought Of First list. (#1 is The Long Goodbye. There are others.)
I liked Motherless Brooklyn, but I loved Gun, with Occasional Music. It’s a classic private-detective story, but the detective is a man born far too late. He dresses the part—fedora, trench coat, snarl—but he occupies a surrealist dystopia far from the mean streets walked by Philip Marlowe. No part of the world he moves through is conducive to being the man he wants to be. Most of the population is addicted to complicated bouquets of pharmaceuticals. There have been certain advances in genetic engineering, and now the detective’s mean streets are shared by talking animals. Dogs are employed as deliverymen. A self-conscious pig glances shyly at him from under her bonnet in an elevator. He meets a little kitten who’s learning to read. His arch-nemesis is a kangaroo.
Returning, for a moment, to the recognizable: Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, set solidly in the cities of New York and Los Angeles. “A relationship, I think, is like a shark, you know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies,” Woody Allen’s character said in that film, and I believe the same could be said of well-established genres.
I think it would be difficult at this point, although probably not impossible, to write a truly fresh detective story that is also entirely traditional. In other words, a detective story set in traditionally noir mean streets in a traditional era, an era when private eyes wore fedoras and trenchcoats without looking nostalgic in them. The innovations of experimenters like Henehan and Lethem are what keep our most beloved genres alive.
In writing about a novel like The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, I find myself in a dilemma. The bare emotion of the story makes it hard reading at times, the edge of the page quivered in my white-knuckled grip, but it’s also finely crafted, technically precise and deftly structured. I loved it. I’m tempted to make a grand claim about this book, but which should I make?
Benjamin is the youngest of four brothers in the small Nigerian town of Akure. When their father moves to another city for work, the strong, paternal family structure leaves with him. Feeling adrift and looking for adventure, the brothers get the idea to start fishing on the river. While it sounds harmless, the river is a forbidden place. It’s considered dirty and dangerous, especially for boys who are being given a Western education to become the kind of “civilized” men that their father imagines. When a neighbor catches the boys fishing and tells their mother, their life changes forever. But it’s the prophecy of a madman, shouted out as they run from the river, that seals their fate.
Part parable, part retelling of the Cain and Abel story, what follows is the tragic tale of the brothers’ undoing. The prophecy of the madman runs into the family’s mix of Igbo culture, Christian influences, and Western education in such a way that the prophecy becomes self-fulfilling. Ben is nine years old as the story opens and tells of the events as they unfold in front of his young eyes. An older, wiser Ben, interjects on occasion to add authority, “the way things always become clearer only after they have happened.” This double-edged narration gives momentum, but also deepens the layers of the story and it takes on the quality of a parable. Ben’s experience traces and explores the political upheaval of post-colonial Nigeria in the 1990s.
Anyone familiar with the work of Chinua Achebe is probably noting similarities. This is where my dilemma as a writer starts. It’s so easy to set the bait for a clickable headline: Obioma Is the Successor to Achebe.
It is often said that Things Fall Apart is the most widely read book in modern African literature. Like Obioma, Achebe, who passed away in 2013, wrote in English. Both men are Igbo and write about how their language influences culture, how Igbo beliefs have intertwined with Christianity and Western culture. By weaving the pace and energy of the oral tradition into the novel form, Obioma’s work is as vibrant and alive as Achebe’s. Crowning Obioma as a successor is an easy claim to make, but The New York Times already beat me to it: “Chigozie Obioma truly is the heir to Chinua Achebe.”
The other problem is that I can’t quite make myself commit to it. When I read The Fishermen, I kept thinking of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Another try: The Fishermen Is the Americanah of 2015.
One of the many brilliant things about Americanah is Adichie’s ability to take something ordinary, like the hair on your head, and show how it connects to the larger political climate. We get to go between the ears of the main character, test the tightness of a braid, and know how it feels. More, we come to understand the political and cultural meaning of that braid. Similarly, The Fishermen charges the simple act of fishing with meaning. The boys defiance of their father’s rules becomes a glimpse into how a belief system was lost in colonialism. Fishing is more than a rod and hook, it’s an elegy to a country.
While it could be the Americanah of 2015, I can’t quite commit to that claim either because as I read The Fishermen, I couldn’t stop thinking of NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. Both novels make use a child’s voice in a similarly effective way.
We Need New Names starts in a very different place, a shantytown in Zimbabwe. Darling, the 10-year-old narrator, is led by her senses. Through her young eyes, we taste the guava, smell the dirt, and feel the heat of the sun. Her young feelings lay a foundation for our understanding Darling’s later experiences in America, “like it’s telling you, with its snow, that you should go back to where you came from.”
The Fishermen opens with Ben at age nine. His rough and tumble life with his brothers, the experience of being the “children of a rich man” who get their copy of “Mortal Kombat” taken away, the scary stories about the forbidden river, all these are told through innocent eyes. It allows someone from another place to understand how and why Ben’s life later uproots. For example, Ben is learning why a parent switches from Igbo to English when speaking about politics as we are — English has the needed words like “administration.” Or one brother doesn’t get the meaning of an Igbo expression, so his mother switches to English and Ben understands why, “our parents most often reverted to English when angry, because being angry, they didn’t want to have to explain whatever they said.” These are just a few examples of how Darling and Ben show us their inner lives without lengthy explanations.
Which brings me back to my dilemma, should I call Obioma the next Bulawayo? Adichie or Achebe? He could be called all of these things, but The Fishermen is also none of these things. It is a novel that is all its own.
And there is a quieter truth about all of these novels that doesn’t lend itself particularly well to headlines. They remind me of why I love reading: to be shown what it might be like inside another culture; to slip between someone else’s ears; to feel a life that I won’t get to live. This is a truly clickworthy thing. But, it doesn’t happen in a headline. It takes longer than a sentence. It is a feeling that only comes over the course of many sentences that are strung together to make up a book like The Fishermen.