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.
New York City, 1924: the Volstead Act has spawned a thriving bootlegging industry, jazz throbs from secret speakeasies, the hemlines are scandalous, and girls are bobbing their hair. The world has changed so rapidly that even some of the young are disoriented. Rose, Suzanne Rindell’s narrator, is a straitlaced young woman who was raised by nuns. She views the excesses of the jazz age from afar and with some suspicion. Rose understands that some people have the luxury of risking the wild freedoms of this new era, and others don’t. She has an orphan’s understanding of the precariousness of her place in the world. She follows the rules.
In early adulthood, she’s built a respectable life for herself: she’s employed as a typist at a police station in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where she sits in on confessions and types up reports, and goes home in the evenings to a boarding house. She is extraordinarily competent in her work — 160 WPM on a manual typewriter? Okay, fine, it’s fiction — and cautious in her day-to-day life.
The other typist is Odalie. When she appears for a job interview at the station, she exerts a magnetic pull on the others; Rose is mesmerized, as is the sergeant, the lieutenant detective, and everyone else. “There was an excitement in the air around her,” Rindell writes, “an excitement that might include you in some way, as though you were her secret collaborator.”
Rose is wary of “modern girls” like Odalie, with their bob haircuts and their casual entitlement, their way of moving through the city as if the city existed for their amusement. The Other Typist is a chronicle of a woman’s unraveling, but it’s also a subtle examination of economic privilege. The rapidly loosening mores of that time looked like freedom, but the level of risk that comes with freedom is never, of course, the same for everyone. Everyone who frequented the speakeasies of 1920s New York was taking a risk, but some had a net to catch them if they fell, and others didn’t. Rose’s impression that the new era isn’t for people like her doesn’t seem unwarranted.
But for all of Rose’s love of the rules, she has a certain weakness. She introduces herself as an orphan, but technically she isn’t, or at least she wasn’t when she was dropped off at the orphanage as an infant. Rose wasn’t orphaned, she was abandoned by her family, and Rindell expertly suggests the subtle vulnerability that lingers in her as a result. Odalie is a con artist, but in order for a con to work, the dupe has to want to believe. When Odalie turns the full force of her charms on Rose and eventually invites Rose to move in with her, Rose is flattered and grateful enough to ignore her doubts. By the time Rose discovers Odalie’s true business and what she’s doing working at the police station, it’s too late. She is enmeshed, for precisely the same reason that no one thought to ask why a woman of such obvious means as Odalie required employment as a typist in the first place: “I can only say we are all susceptible to blind spots when exposed to the right dazzling flash.”
Given the era, it’s impossible to avoid comparisons between Odalie and Jay Gatsby. Odalie is magnetic, charming, mysteriously wealthy, and engaged in shady business practices. There’s even a climactic party on Long Island. But if anything, Odalie is Gatsby’s mirror image; the trick of Fitzgerald’s character was that while Gatsby was obviously a fraud — James Gatz of North Dakota — he was in some essential sense a better and truer man than the careless and frivolous and perfectly respectable people who used their own names and their own unembellished backstories as they flitted through his life. Odalie is much darker. It isn’t that her charm and beauty and mysterious wealth conceals any malice; in order to feel malice, a person has to care.
There’s a certain amount of unnecessary exposition in the first half of the book, and the novel is hampered at times by a weakness for excessive foreshadowing; in the early chapters especially, there are a great many of those “but little did I know what would come next” asides that do little to move a story forward and that can even suggest a certain — in this case entirely unwarranted — insecurity on the part of the writer. But Rindell is a fine writer, and she’s written a suspenseful and well-executed novel. The Other Typist is an elegant debut.
Nathanael West’s classic novel The Day of the Locust, unsurpassed in the writers-writing-about-Hollywood genre, ends with West’s would-be painter protagonist Tod Hackett in the back of an L.A. police cruiser, attempting to determine whether the noise he hears is the squad car’s siren or his own voice bellowing out a plaintive, animal howl. For eighty years now, Hackett’s death-rattle screech (“tod” is German for “death”; he’s literally a dead hack) has stood as an emblem of the silent but no less maniacal inner wail of every true artist that has wound up as collateral damage in the Hollywood carpet-bombing of the ancient territories of drama and storytelling.
When I recently picked up John Domini’s Movieola!, which pitches itself as a story collection but really isn’t for reasons I will explain in a moment, I figured it would add a new wrinkle to a well-established sub-genre. Anticipatorily, I thought back on several recent additions to the HollyLit tradition. First I recalled Stuart O’Nan’s West of Sunset, which chronicles F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Zelda-less time in Tinseltown, his loneliness a triangulation on the city’s institutional mandate to suck souls. Next I thought of Woody Allen’s latest anti-film film, Café Society, which resurrects the Studio Era in all its glorious finery only to crucify it, and makes its most pointed statement when a man at a glittery soiree is introduced as a two-time Academy Award winner, but warns, “You haven’t heard of me — I’m a writer.” And last, digging back a bit this time, I recalled Charles Johnson’s “Moving Pictures,” a wonderful little meditation on books-turned-into-films that is eclipsed by several even better stories in Johnson’s much-undervalued collection, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Of these, Movieola! is closest to “Moving Pictures,” but Domini’s offering is no mere twist or turn on a trajectory you already know. Rather, it’s an amplification of Tod Hackett’s mournful scream – a new shriek for a new century.
There are two kinds of short story collections, both of which have merits. The first is simply an assemblage, a sampler plate of an author’s various experiments or momentary preoccupations (e.g., The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), and it is perhaps this sort of anthology that John Cheever was thinking of when he described his own collected stories as “a naked history of one’s struggle to receive an education in economics and love.”
The second kind of story collection — the so-called “connected” stories — may come in two versions of its own: first, stories connected by plot and characters; second, stories connected by theme. It may be a mistake to call either version a “collection,” as the word suggests an absence of an overriding book-length idea. Stories that are connected by character, however, certainly have some of the same goals as novels (e.g., Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid), and stories connected by theme can sometimes seem quite treatise- or manifesto-like (e.g., Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried — sure, there’s lots of character in there, but the book’s true purpose is its philosophical thread on truth and storytelling).
Movieola! is a volume of the latter sort, a compilation of pieces first published here and there, but which adds up to a whole lot more than the sum of its parts. Of course that was the goal all along. The book borrows its structure from its subject, launching with a meditation on movie trailers, and ending with another on closing credits. In between, Domini offers a range of visions and voices that reflect anew, each in their own way, on what Hollywood has done to storytelling and culture.
For example, there’s “Wrap Rap Two-Step,” the monologue of a weary script guru at the end of a weekend-long concept seminar (tailor-made for NPR’s “Selected Shorts,” if anyone is listening…), and this piece, along with several others, emphasizes that to write for the screen, these days, is to set up shop at the unholy intersection of Hollywood and self-help (i.e., the secret of The Secret is that you don’t have to “read” it). As well, there’s “Home’n’Homer, Portmanteau,” in which a latter day Norma Desmond, preparing for her scream rather than her close-up, wanders home to find all her anxiety and regret channeled into the vision of a creepy little bugbear sprung not from a nightmare but from something more like DreamWorks SKG. Hence, à la West, Hollywood generates madness.
These are two of the more traditional pieces in Movieola! Others include disembodied dialogues; pieces sunk so deep into the free indirect thing you sort of forget they’re in the third person; and meditations in a royal “we” that reads likes the dark twin of the critical “we” that pollutes scholarship. This last comes off almost like an intrusive narrator, the sort that long ago forsook the novel, and the suggestion of this voice — which we hear bantering about story ideas as stories unfold — is that we really, finally have become Roland Barthes’s “scriptors,” compiling readymade snippets into tales that please with familiarity rather than novelty. The deep-down message of Movieola!, then, is that stories no longer emerge from communion with a nubile muse curling her finger from the other side of a lacy partition of consciousness, but rather from a much lewder encounter with our own corrupt souls.
Introducing a mid-eighties edition of The Day of the Locust, critic Alfred Kazin noted that the truly horrific days of Hollywood were over. It was now possible to make films outside the studio system; the monopoly was ended, the trust busted. Today, they say, we’re in a golden age of television, the vast free market of cable opening up new avenues for how moving picture stories come to be. So is the crisis averted, then? No. Part of the thrust of Domini’s argument is that big screen filmmaking now finds itself threatened by its own creation, all those little screens like an army of ants taking down an elephant. One monster replaces another.
And that such a thing can even be claimed about a book pitched as a collection of stories reveals that Movieola! is much more than just that. This is made most clear in the conclusive “Closing Credits Fun & Counterforce,” an address to a movie viewer still plopped down in his seat:
You risked a doddering and fusty entertainment based on how long a person can go without having to pee. The flicks themselves have long since run out of surprises: if the assassin doesn’t fall in love, the bookish girl in black whoops it up in a candy-colored romper room. There never was much opportunity for surprise, in ninety minutes or a hundred, and there’s even less these days, when you need a multimillion-dollar urban-renewal package just to save the downtown moviehouse. The star-studded American shebang, winding up through the coming attractions and down through the credits in their grave-rows, that’s long since been squeezed dry and shoehorned into smaller screens.
There is no character here, no story at all. Thus, Movieola! is not aptly described as a gathering together of fun tales. Rather, it’s a concise and intelligent assessment of the state of modern storytelling, and its joy — it’s edge-of-your-seat, cliff-hanger thrill — stems from what it offers by way of philosophical critique.
Unless you’re inhuman or illiterate, you’ve felt the frisson of joy delivered by an instance of perfect mimesis in fiction — that moment when a writer gets something so recognizably right that the act of recognition itself seems to confer a new reality upon the experience. Yes! you might say, that’s exactly how it is, and underscoring your pleasure there might be recognition of another sort: the writer’s recognition of your own experience of the world.
Then there’s the convincing depiction of experience that’s recognizable, yet once-removed. For simplicity’s sake, for the moment let’s stick with experience or behavior rather than natural occurrence. Someone you might not have known or seen or heard firsthand becomes, through the deftness of the writer’s rendering, distinctly and convincingly familiar. Yes, you might say in this case, that’s what it must be to be someone like that. That’s how he would talk. That’s just what would happen. Reading Zadie Smith’s NW, for instance, when a distressed Natalie (Keisha) wanders the streets of her old neighborhood with Nathan, who’s never managed to escape its dire demographics, you might — if you were someone like me — never have known someone quite like Nathan, but now you do. You can hear him say, as surely as if he’d been standing next to you, “Everyone loves a bredrin when he’s ten…After that he’s a problem…That’s how it is…There’s no way to live in this country when you’re grown.”
Or another type, one you’ve observed in one form or another, might become not just credible but comprehensible, as in the work of Curtis Sittenfeld in American Wife. You might have asked yourself (again, if you’re like me, sadly), How is it possible to be Laura Bush? A smart, educated, seemingly enlightened woman as the self-affirmed conjugal flak of a spoiled, failed child of privilege turned evangelical war-mongering anti-intellectual politician on the world stage? And in Sittenfeld’s fiction you might find an answer that resonates.
Move one step further away from what you know, and you may be confronted with a character who’s conceivable even though he or she might not exist. Yes, you say in this case, it’s entirely credible that a character might be made up of such components — now I see her! — yes! — that’s what she’d say or do! She might be Oedipa Maas of The Crying of Lot 49. Or Jack Gladney, pioneering the field of Hitler Studies in White Noise. Or David Foster Wallace’s Orin Incandenza. Or Charles Dickens’s Mr. Dick.
But what about experience that’s inconceivable to most of us — an act of genius, a moment of utmost extremity, a visit to the moon, a chat with Kim Jong-un, falling to the guillotine, challenging Julius Caesar? Anyone who has read The Iliad and understood that the pouting Achilles was a hero to Homer’s audience must know that what we understand to be verisimilitude, let alone storytelling and heroism, is in some philosophical, even existential way uncommunicable across time and culture. And when we realize that nothing resembling what we understand to be a novel was written in the West before the 1600s or in the East before 11th century, we have to concede that fiction as a conveyance of experience, a depiction of reality, a connection between writer and reader is susceptible to time and interpretation.
What do we want from it anyway, aside from the oh-get-me-from-here-to-there-already of plot, a perfectly acceptable demand for the satisfactions of seeing things make sense? This was a question that — oddly, perhaps — came up for me as I was reading Ethan Canin’s new novel, A Doubter’s Almanac. Canin is, in the old-fashioned sense, as Henry James said of Nathaniel Hawthorne, “a beautiful writer.” His clear predecessor is the F. Scott Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby, as he can so perfectly capture a thought, a gesture, a look, a detail, or an event as it means something to a character whose reflections he’s so precisely and evocatively conveyed that it means something to us. In this new book, the narrator is something of a mathematical savant, son of the not-at-all-somewhat mathematical genius whose story the first half tells and the second half retells from another perspective.
This is fiction that captures reality in a way that’s quite different from what I’ve described so far, because the reality that Canin is depicting is, for the most part, philosophical. The novel is steeped in a mathematical sensibility. In his father’s mind, Hans, the narrator, tells us, “all the other academic disciplines — including the physical sciences …were irrevocably tainted by their debt to substance.” And again and again we are asked to view the world as someone like Hans’s father, Milo, might — purely, you might say, without reference to its physical coordinates, though the physical coordinates are what orient Milo and make him aware of his gift, as we see when we first witness his extraordinary “positional aptitude” — his uncanny ability to know precisely where he is on the “plane of the earth” — a “sort of intrinsic, spatial mapping.”
“Mathematics is an invented science,” Milo tells Hans. “But strangely,” he continues, “the inventions of mathematics, which are wholly constructions of the mind, are in turn able to yield other inventions. That is why they seem more like discoveries than creations. In fact the distinction remains a debate…I also believe that this is why so many mathematicians feel that they have been privy to the language of God.”
He thought for a moment. ‘Although I should also say that I’ve thought of it in other ways, too. As the language of the mind, for example. Or even’—here he turned to me more thoughtfully — ‘as the language of language. The underlier of grammar. The skeleton of cognition. The rails on which the train of human advance steams up and down, one hill after the next.’
At this point, a mulberry twig falls onto the lawn in front of father and son. “Squirrels,” Hans says, looking up. The squirrels, of course, are the point. “Mathematics,” Milo says, “is like carving a wooden doll…and then, one day, you watch as your wooden doll gives birth to another wooden doll.” In its form and its fashion, the novel raises the question: do we look to fiction for the wooden doll or the squirrel?
In A Doubter’s Almanac, Ethan Canin gives us a truly convincing picture of what it’s like to experience the world as most of us, probably, don’t. This is life in the abstract, which, predictably, doesn’t work out very well for those who are privy to this intellectually elevated existence. When Milo has failed in worldly terms: “His mind, he realized, was his only friend.”
Though Canin wants us to care about Milo and his mathematically gifted children and grandchildren, what’s far more convincing is what’s familiar: “We watched a pair of red ants pitilessly drag a thrashing inchworm across the sand. It was like the ending of a great novel.”
An inchworm or mayflies or lily pads: Canin takes us back to that moment of mimesis that reminds us of our connection to someone else’s vision or experience of the world:
My mother looked up at the cloud of wings and feelers. ‘Mayflies,’ she said.
‘They seem to be committing suicide in pairs.’
’You’re right.’ She leaned back and let out a sigh. ‘They’re mating.’
There is in this novel a strange tension that makes me, at any rate, wonder what we ask of fiction anymore. Does it, as in the work of Lydia Davis or Diane Williams or perhaps even Jenny Offill, ask us to question how we experience reality — or whether we experience it differently than others might? Or does it allow us to confirm what we think we know? In A Doubter’s Almanac we have two worlds, and two forms of fiction, in uneasy coexistence, one that psychologist Jerome Bruner says establishes “not truth but verisimilitude” and one that — in Bruner’s view not fiction but argument — “verifies by eventual appeal to procedures for establishing formal and empirical proof.”
Just as, in a world that contains photography, a painter must reconsider the value of representationalism, a fiction writer in an age of the extraordinary documentation of television and the Internet, where every last little feature of reality might be found and viewed from virtually every angle, must reevaluate the merit of capturing every detail, every moment, of a story. Is that exquisite word picture of a person, a gesture, an instant — that yes! of recognition — what we want? Or do we want something different, something new, some sense that, with the same words, in the same world, we might, through the workings of fiction, find a way to rethink reality — and to find the familiar strange, the world an ever bigger, more interesting place?
Observing his daughter, the next generation of mathematical genius, admiring the carpet of lily pads on a slow spot in the river, Canin’s narrator remarks,
I think Emmy likes the mystery of the spot, too, the way she knows from the undulation of the green that the water is there but never actually sees it. The feeling is much like the joy of mathematics itself, the original secret of the guild: that the miracle of the universe can be worshipped without actually witnessing the divine.
I also think she might be counting the lily pads.
Worship the miracle of the universe, witness the divine, count the lily pads: what do we, as readers of fiction, want to do?