Anyone who has made a living sitting in a cubicle has at one time or another wondered if there is more to life than pushing the proverbial pencils. These second thoughts are central to our existence as working folk. Often, when that meeting has dragged on an hour to long or when the boss is peppering you with inane suggestions, you wonder what it would be like to do something that really matters. Absolutely American by David Lipsky is about a group of people, West Point cadets, who have decided to or been thrust into a profession that, in the eyes of the government and much of the population, really matters. Their concerns are not the cubicle but of hewing to countless regulations, eight-mile road marches in full gear, and ultimately sending people into battle one day. According to Lipsky’s introduction, he went to West Point, the military academy that trains army officers, to write an article for Rolling Stone, and he eventually found himself fascinated by the enthusiasm he found there. Lipsky ended up spending four years following the cadets. The book reads like a magazine article, and Lipsky’s writing rarely falters. He presents a West Point that is infinitely more complicated than the typical stereotype of the army. It is an Army that is at war with itself internally, as it tries to become more diverse and progressive. The book covers the years 1998 to 2002, so we get to see the transformation that September 11 causes in both the cadets and the army itself. Lipsky’s greatest feat is to make the reader realize that behind the “high and tight” haircuts, the uniform, and the stern demeanor, those who are called to the military are as complicated and conflicted as the rest of us.
César Aira’s novels are the narrative equivalent of the Exquisite Corpse, that Surrealist parlor game in which players add to drawings or stories without knowledge of previous or subsequent additions. Wildly heterogeneous elements are thrown together, and the final result never fails to surprise and amuse. Aira is wacky enough to play the game by himself, but the reader isn’t left out either. Instead, Aira conditions his readers, writing so that devotees — what Aira calls his “deluxe” readers — can recognize the ingenious repetitions that connect his vast and bizarre body of work.
The author of more than 80 books, most of them short novels, Aira tells interviewers that he writes a page and a half each day in neighborhood cafés of Buenos Aires. He also famously denies revising anything he writes. Instead, as he explained to María Moreno in BOMB magazine, he allows real-life distractions and interruptions around him to appear in his narratives and push them along: “If a little bird enters into the café where I’m writing — it did happen once — it also enters into what I’m writing. Even if a priori it doesn’t relate to anything, a posteriori I make it relate.”
This a posteriori technique of “making it relate” is a modified Surrealist technique that Aira sometimes calls his “flight forward.” It’s a creative process favored not only by Aira himself, but also by some of his characters: the title character of The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira and the Mad Scientist protagonist of The Literary Conference both mention “flight forward” as an element of their respective modes of invention. “Deluxe” readers with more extended immersion in Aira’s zany brain take delight in the metaphysical fugues that result from this madcap method: it is not uncommon for Aira’s unhinged narratives to devolve into delirious flights of reason capable of overthrowing the entire plot, just when the reader least expects it. As Dr. Aira believes: “Reason is one mode of action, nothing more, and it has no special privileges…In order to be effective, one had to depart from the purely reasonable, which would always be an abstract way of thinking devoid of any truly practical use.” Here we have César Aira’s philosophy of fiction, thinly disguised as the professional opinion of “Dr. Aira.”
On a narrative level, “a posteriori” narration seems to work in at least two different ways. Sometimes Aira begins a novel by placing ambitious distance between its starting point and putative end: this is the case in How I Became a Nun, which begins with a male child narrator called César describing his first visit to an ice cream parlor with his father. Other novels begin with a highly improbable combination which Aira then relates, a posteriori, as he goes along. This is the case with The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, which tells the story of a blundering middle-aged miracle worker beleaguered by his nemesis Dr. Actyn, a conventional MD bent on ruining Dr. Aira’s reputation by using hidden cameras to expose him as a fraud. Employing hordes of extras and elaborately staged verité snares, Actyn has made Dr. Aira’s life a living hell by subjecting him to the constant suspicion that he’s being duped. Miracle work and hidden-camera reality TV shows are far from peanut butter and jelly, but Aira’s flair for a posteriori plotting is seventy-something novels in the making. He pulls it off.
There isn’t much else to the plot. Even if I revealed whether or not Dr. Actyn succeeds, I wouldn’t haven’t spoiled anything. Like most of Aira’s novels, the plot of The Miracle Cures is scaffolding. The book is mostly an erratic hodgepodge of digressive interior monologue, and the tale of the persecuted miracle worker playfully flirts at being nothing more than a metaphor for Aira’s flighty methods of literary creation. For instance, when Dr. Aira gets talked into granting another Miracle Cure after swearing them off, the narrator observes:
Dr. Aira could have gotten out of it by telling them that there had been a mistake, a misunderstanding; he was a theoretician, one could almost say a “writer,” and the only thing that linked him to the Miracle Cures was a kind of metaphor…
Such blunt meta-referentiality may appear tedious, but it’s actually hilarious. The joke will be half-lost on novice, non-deluxe readers, so those new to Aira ought to begin by reading a few of the other novels available in translation. This kind of readerly “training” will reveal that enjoyment of Aira’s novels has much less to do with what happens than with the digressive commentary on and acrobatic connections between what few plot elements there are. As he told María Moreno,
In spite of all my admiration for Surrealism and Dadaism I never liked the mere accumulation of incongruous things. For me, everything has to be sewn together in a very conventional fashion…That sinuous thread in my novels is more interesting to me, more writeable, than a linear plot.
To extend the sewing metaphor: Aira is like Penelope at the loom, but a sort of Penelope on speed. Instead of unraveling his creations in order to avoid completing them, Aira hurtles forward, churning out finished texts that seem to unravel themselves as they’re read.
Over the last twenty years, Aira has made a trademark of writing at a rate that seems intended to prevent readers from ever catching up with him, a superproductivity that has also earned him criticism as a dilettante obsessed with lowbrow genre-fiction. Even for native Spanish readers in Latin America, access to Aira’s total catalog is difficult. He does this on purpose, requiring readers to search him out by favoring what he calls “those independent, almost clandestine publishers” that produce artisanal editions of his novels. This includes the cartonera presses in Latin America, which publish handmade books on recycled cardboard and paper collected by underemployed urbanites. Some of his novels, snatched up by collectors and foreign libraries, are hard to find. This means that Aira’s own method for reading — “when I start on an author I read him completely” — is unavailable to his own readers.
Catching up with Aira in English translation will take even longer. Although he has been publishing steadily since the early 1980s — several novels annually in nearly every year since 1991 — English translations have lagged. The Miracle Cures is only the seventh of Aira’s books to be translated to English. This might have less to do with Aira than with vagaries of the North American publishing industry. New Directions is of course responsible for Anglophone readers’ access to Aira’s work, having published six of the seven available translations. For this we must be grateful. But they also appear to have delayed a more ambitious translation schedule for Aira until they have squeezed every last story and novel out of the desk stuffed with manuscripts that Roberto Bolaño seems to have left behind when he died in 2003. In any case, readers smitten with Aira’s whimsical philosophizing and swerving narratives need not fear further delay: Aira’s star is now on the rise among the Anglophone literati. Varamo, the most recent Aira translation, received praise from The Nation, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and the ever-hip Patti Smith.
Bolaño nevertheless remains a looming presence — he is often mentioned when likenesses to Aira are sought. The comparison is perplexing, though, as the two writers have little in common from a stylistic standpoint. Descriptions of Aira as a 21st-century Borges are also inevitable; comparisons of the two Argentines are instructive, but remain inadequate. A closer resemblance might be Peruvian-Mexican writer Mario Bellatin, whose work remains untranslated but for his novel Beauty Salon and the three others collected in Chinese Checkers. Like Aira, he publishes at a frenetic rate (more than 15 books since 2001), having abandoned the modernist prerogative of the masterpiece novel in favor of larger, complex novel-systems composed of dozens of short novels that intersect and recycle characters and plot elements. Both writers also indulge in a habit of styling their protagonists after themselves, with many a “César” and “Mario” — and the occasional “Dr. Aira” — between them.
These personalized novelistic universes have exploded with a Big Bang in Latin America, where writers struggled for decades to emerge from the long shadow of “Boom” generation writers like Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez. Now that the reverberations are finally getting across the language barrier — and getting hyped by Patti Smith — we can anticipate an accelerated explosion of César Aira’s universe in English.
Early in Barack Obama: The Story, David Maraniss defines an African word, jadak, that will weave its way through his biography of our 44th president. “Pronounced juh-DAK,” Maraniss writes, “it meant ‘foreigner,’ ‘immigrant,’ ‘alien,’ and was delivered and received as an insult.” The word is first applied to the president’s paternal grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, whose family only went back four generations in Luoland, a region of western Kenya bordering Lake Victoria, and thus were still considered outsiders.
This outsider status applies to nearly every major figure in the biography, including Hussein Obama’s grandson, Barack Hussein Obama II. As Maraniss details in this exhaustive, and at times exhausting, biography, Obama has been an outsider – a jadak – in every world he has ever entered. With his dark skin and kinky hair, he looks black to most Americans, but having been raised in Hawaii by his white grandparents, he wasn’t fully accepted by the black community until well into adulthood. In college, some of his closest friends were Pakistani and Indian, and until he met his wife, Michelle, he mostly dated white women. Even after he took a job as a community organizer on Chicago’s desperately poor, black South Side, he lived and socialized during his non-work hours in the racially diverse Hyde Park area around the University of Chicago.
There is no precedent for a figure like Barack Obama in mainstream American politics. While we have had presidents who raised themselves up from poverty and more than a few raised amid great inherited wealth, for more than two centuries our leaders have been primarily card-carrying members of the white, Protestant, upper-middle class. Then, in 2008, we elected a half-white, half-Kenyan president, who was born in Hawaii a year after it was made a state, and spent years of his childhood in Indonesia.
These facts may help explain the right wing’s obsessive belief in the myth of Obama’s foreign birth. The birthers, as they are called, cannot be dissuaded by the undeniable fact of Obama’s American birth certificate because they aren’t really talking about facts. Nor are they being racist, at least not in the classic American sense. After all, black people have been a part of this country’s fabric since the first African slaves stepped off a Dutch ship in 1619. But Obama isn’t that kind of black. None of his forebears were American slaves. He is a wholly new kind of American president, part white, part African, who wears sarongs and is fluent in Hawaiian pidgin. He is, in a word, a jadak.
Until now, those who have written about Obama, including Obama himself in his memoirs Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope, have viewed the president primarily through the narrow prism of race. Dreams from My Father, written in the early 1990s before Obama embarked on his political career, is a tale of the author’s search for an authentic self, which he quite plainly discovers on the black streets of South Side Chicago and in the African villages of his Kenyan father.
Obama’s best known previous biographer, New Yorker editor David Remnick, also places him firmly within the African-American tradition, titling his 2010 biography The Bridge to signify Obama’s place as a human bridge between the Civil Rights generation of black leaders and a presumably post-racial American society to come. Remnick’s book, which is excellent, is nevertheless a product of the euphoric early days of the Obama presidency when Americans of all races cried along with Jesse Jackson at the thought that we as a nation had finally overcome our racial differences. Three and a half years into the Obama presidency, after the bruising partisan battles over health care and the budget deficit and the public outrage over the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida, few Americans still believe Obama can heal our differences, much less lead us into anything approaching a post-racial future.
Thus, Barack Obama: The Story is perfectly poised for its political moment. Where Remnick seemed to place the president many Americans thought they had elected as the latest in a line of charismatic black leaders who inspire through eloquent speeches and moral integrity, Maraniss captures the president Americans have actually come to know: the inveterate outsider capable of seeing all sides of any question, but emotionally aloof, cool in all senses of the word, almost to a fault.
In Maraniss’ telling, the teenage Obama yearned for the stable identity being a member of the black community could have offered him, but in fact was a product of a mélange of cultures, white and Asian, Polynesian and American, Kenyan and Kansan. Barack Obama, Sr., a Kenyan foreign exchange student, sired the president during a brief affair with seventeen-year-old University of Hawaii freshman, Stanley Ann Dunham, and then promptly left for graduate school at Harvard a few months after his son’s birth. He only reappeared in young Barack’s life once, when he visited Hawaii for a month during his son’s fifth grade year, by which time the elder Obama was a broken man, an alcoholic who had already burned through three marriages and drank himself out of the kinds of leadership positions his intelligence and education entitled him to.
Without a father, Obama lived a lonely and peripatetic childhood, bouncing between Jakarta, where his mother moved to live with her second husband, Lolo Soetoro, and Honolulu, where he lived with his grandparents after that marriage broke up and his mother remained in Indonesia. In Hawaii, where Obama attended the academically rigorous Punahou School along with the island’s mostly white elite, he joined the self-styled Choom Gang (“Choom is a verb,” Maraniss explains, “meaning ‘to smoke marijuana.’”) and spent his teen years getting high and trying to make the school’s varsity basketball team.
Still, for all the work Maraniss does to place Obama in America’s cultural tapestry, his book is a chore to read. Maraniss, author of an excellent biography of Bill Clinton, First in His Class, is a first-rate reporter, but here he seems incapable of sorting the wheat from the chaff. Barack Obama: The Story spends its first 160 pages telling the stories of Obama’s ancestors in Kansas and in Kenya before the future president is even born. Even after Obama appears, Maraniss keeps getting sidetracked by digressions into the later careers of Obama’s relatives and laboriously detailed descriptions of people Obama knew and places he lived. Take this description of a dormitory, the Haines Hall Annex, where Obama lived while he attended Occidental College in California:
Seventy feet from back to front, with six rooms down the left, four down the right. Three students to a room, rectangles that were more deep than wide, but designed for two, and without partitions, making for a more barrackslike atmosphere. Beige and blue-gray checkered linoleum floors. Three desks, Smith Corona and IBM Selectric typewriters from home, carbon paper, and Wite-Out; three beds, some rooms with bunks, others with twins.
It is a weird fact, but true, that I attended Occidental College two years after Obama was there (like the president, I found the place way too full of sheltered suburban white kids and finished my education in New York). I lived in Haines Hall, and spent hours in the Annex, and I can attest that Maraniss’ description of Occidental, both physically and culturally, is dead on. But, really, who cares what color the tiles were? What more do I understand about Obama’s life if I know that for a year in college he had to live in a triple?
In some ways worse than this obvious padding, which one can simply skip, is the skewed time frame of the book, which begins decades before Obama’s birth and ends just as he is about to begin at Harvard Law School. Maraniss digs up a few worthwhile nuggets in the previously untilled soil of Obama’s family history, but not near enough to justify the seven long chapters he spends excavating them. More importantly, by skipping Obama’s rise in Chicago politics, which Remnick covers in fascinating detail in The Bridge, Maraniss misses a key element of the political phenomenon that is Barack Obama.
What is most interesting, and most admirable, about our current president is not the hand he was dealt at birth, but how he played that hand. Obama not only raised himself; he invented himself. He took this mishmash of cultural influences, this big bag of differentiated Othernesses, and through deep reading and thought, along with some daring grassroots work in one of America’s most impoverished ghettos, he created himself as something Americans could understand: a moderate black politician with crossover appeal to white voters.
In this way, Obama is a kind of Elvis Presley of politics. Elvis changed American popular culture by being a handsome white guy who sounded black. Obama has tried to change American political culture by being a handsome white guy who looks black. Of course, it is far more complicated than that. Obama is white by virtue of his white mother and his upbringing by his white grandparents. He is also Kenyan, through his sad, smart, destructive father, and Asian by virtue of his years in Indonesia and his chosen circle of college friends. He has a laid-back Western outlook, thanks to his formative years in Hawaii and California, and East Coast intellectual rigor, due to his years at Columbia University and Harvard Law. The one thing he isn’t is a black guy from Chicago, and yet when he appeared before the cheering, sobbing crowd in Lincoln Park to celebrate his victory over John McCain, that’s exactly who we thought we had elected.
“No life could have been more the product of randomness than his,” Maraniss writes on the final page of Barack Obama: The Story, and at the moment in Obama’s life where Maraniss leaves him this could fairly be said. The circumstances of his birth were a fluke of the Cold War politics that brought his father to an American university, and the youthful naivete that led his seventeen-year-old mother to sleep with him without birth control. Obama’s youth was a jumble of hastily improvised cultural influences. But what Obama made of all that wasn’t random. At some point between the time he left Hawaii as a mixed up half-white kid who looked black and the night twenty-five years later when he gave the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention that launched his national career, he positioned himself both as an inheritor of a recognizable political and cultural tradition and also as an avatar of new, blended America – a nation of jadaks.
Some day, perhaps, a biographer – perhaps even Obama himself – will explain how he pulled off this complex, history-making transformation. For now we can only watch… and wonder.
In his new collection, Ben Greenman obsesses over the self-referential terrain of old-fashioned paper correspondence. Greenman is a life-long letter-writer—apparently he sent his college girlfriend three or four letters each day—and the stories in What He’s Poised to Do reflect on the ways in which people communicate, or fail to do so, in addition to the self-revelatory benefits of letter writing and the growing importance of the hand-written word after “the death of words as possessions and the birth of words as currency.” There’s some kitsch appeal to the epistolary, but these stories engage a surprising amount of thematic and philosophic depth within the frame, retaining much of the strict form’s charm while jettisoning its artificiality. It’s a delicate balance these stories stake, between high-art and pop-art, between precise formalism and an almost folksy authenticity. These are stories about marriage “infected” with restlessness, about a Plains housewife trying to mitigate the trouble caused by overlapping small town love triangles, about a Nineteenth Century munitions inventor who hopes his own sorrow does not “poison” his daughter’s life. What He’s Poised to Do reveals the great potential letter-writing has to give a “fuller account” of our experience and emotions while compelling us to better understand the motives of those around us.
Greenman has previously published three short fiction collections and the novel Please Step Back, with nearly half of this collection released in 2008 as a limited edition, handcrafted letterpress package—Correspondences from Hotel St. George Press. His earlier work is largely humorous, with a focus on creativity, originality, and novelty, especially in relation to pop culture and its audiences. And what else would you expect from a ghost-writer to the stars (for both Gene Simmons’ Kiss and Make-up and Simon Cowell’s I Don’t Mean to be Rude, But…) who dallies in musical farce in order to, according to his web site, “puncture the famous for their peccadillos” by penning musicals about “famous buffoons and hypocrites” like O.J. Simpson, Sarah Palin, and Balloon Boy, and who dreamt up the Conceptual Art Registry, in which he would spawn ideas for conceptual art and then license the proposals to artists. Much of this comic work has been produced on behalf of McSweeney’s and the New Yorker, where Greenman is an editor. His fiction has also appeared in top-shelf literary venues like Zoetrope: All Story, One Story, and the Paris Review. Yet, while his work is certainly well-regarded, after reading What He’s Poised to Do, it’s almost baffling that Ben Greenman isn’t a full-fledged star. He exhibits such compelling mastery over the form and engages readers with compact, electrifying prose. Furthermore, the stories in this collection show an author reaching creative maturity. They are serious pieces treated with reserve and a self-deprecating melancholy. Things still get a little goofy at times—there are stories set on a suburban lunar settlement and a fictional borderland between Australia and India—but the focus remains on the characters and their desires and frustrations, rather than solely highlighting the author’s ability to create new and bizarre worlds from thin air.
In the title story, a man runs out on his family, off to a city where “he sometimes does business,” and is in the process of accepting the notion of himself as a betrayer. He writes postcards to keep his wife apprised of his emotional state—although he doesn’t always send them—and drinks at a hotel lounge. It’s here that he meets a young bartender with whom he initiates an affair, and, much to his exhilarated surprise, the bartender also communicates via postcards, leaving them on his pillowcase in lieu of enduring an awkward good-bye. When these two speak, their conversations are stilted and awkward, their voices “stiffly formal.” It’s as if the postcards provide a barrier that allows them to be comfortable with what they’re doing.
The stories in this collection often dwell on the distance between letter-writers and those who receive them, and that much of the correspondence isn’t received by its addressee seems somewhat beside the point. What matters is the letter-writing itself, that which gives sanction to the pen-holder’s yearning. The mail is official, it’s real.
At the end of “What He’s Poised to Do,” as the man waits in his hotel room for the bartender to return, he wonders if “he should greet her at the door with a postcard that lists all the things he expects her to do for him.” It’s clear by now that he could never verbalize his desire in this way. He also thinks that “he owes his wife another call, or at least another postcard.” The story stops with him sitting at the hotel room desk, pen held over a blank postcard, “uncertain exactly what he’s poised to do.” This story isn’t among the best of the collection but it does hit the right thematic notes in preparing us for what comes after. These are characters, after all, who need buffer zones. They write things like, “I’m not writing to you. I am writing to your letter.” These are people who require an extra distance from their emotions and the dark possibilities relationships hold. People like the narrator of “What He’s Poised to Do,” who are cheered by the fact that everyone has either betrayed or been betrayed by someone they love, and enjoy this “not for any reason other than the fact that it locates [them].”
In “Against Samantha,” a man falls in love with his future mother-in-law, Edith, via correspondence. Edith “liked to make witty remarks that seemed like mere decoration but gained substance under scrutiny,” and it’s her elocution that puts the narrator under a spell. “She was the smartest woman I had ever met,” he says, aroused by her immaculate letters, “and she was the mother of the woman I was to marry.” Even as his fiancée, Samantha, arranges a secret coupling with him, he cannot stop thinking of the girl’s mother, “who was at that moment sitting in her drawing room in London, innocently considering the recent declaration of Malta as a British dominion, entirely unaware of the fact that I was accessioning her daughter.” (The collection offers many knock-out lines like this.) He wakes gripped by a great fear the next morning—Samantha sleeping next to him—and allows himself to drift into what becomes a more comfortable reverie. He dreams of making love with Samantha, a pleasant fantasy that transforms the idea of marriage into something suddenly “less odious,” despite their actual sex having the opposite effect. Earlier in the story, the narrator admits that he anticipates his fiancée will turn into her mother one day, and in his dream she does exactly this. As he imagines sex with Edith, the narrator says, “I thanked Edith, and she threw back her head and delivered a laugh I can describe only as godly. I matched her laugh, there in the dream. Did I laugh outside it? Did I disturb the sleeping Samantha? I did not know and I was not about to surface and find out.” It’s the self-referential world that matters, after all. One that’s both comforting and revealing in surprising ways.
There’s a remove to these stories, this sense of maturity I refer to above. It’s an appreciation that the tough times, the indiscretions and temptations, are what make life memorable and worthwhile. As it’s said in “What We Believe but Cannot Praise,” “life is a bell with a crack in it, and yet its tone when struck is the nearest to perfection man will ever know.” These are not solely stories of misspent youth, although these are well-represented here, nor merely domestic stories of marriage and family, although there are these as well. In standout stories like “Barn” and “From the Front” and “To Kill the Pink,” and others, Greenman takes us from contemporary Boston to Forties Havana, from Nebraska in the 1960s to North Africa in the 1850s, and from the surface of the moon in the Eighties to suburban Atlanta five years from now. All the while, he crafts well-rounded and wise stories that never grow stale.
If you haven’t read Ben Greenman before, you should start. And do it soon. His is a dazzling, addicting talent that will draw you in and seduce you into experiencing a particularly odd sensation of belonging that only a traveler or émigré can know, one who is simultaneously comfortable and uncomfortable with a place, one who is there and not there at the same time. It’s as if you’d heard of these stories growing up, or actually lived in these places, and now can’t quite escape how those times have changed you in intractable ways.