Anyone who enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point or Blink or Steven D. Levitt’s Freakonomics, will likely be interested in The Wisdom of Crowds by the New Yorker’s business columnist, James Surowiecki. Surowiecki’s premise is that groups of diverse people can collectively come to a better conclusion than even the smartest individual. Like other books of pop economics, Surowiecki employs dozens of real world examples. Among the most interesting was a discussion of why “groupthink” led to the crash of the space shuttle Columbia. Another was Surowiecki’s persuasive argument that a “market” where the probability of terrorist attacks (or other threats) could be bought and sold, would be better at predicting those attacks than our current system of intelligence. Unlike Gladwell, however, Surowiecki fails to make his examples sing. Crowds is weighed down by long stretches of prose in which Surowiecki touches on one academic study after another, continually referring back to his premise, “the wisdom of crowds,” as if trying to drill it into his readers’ heads. Certainly, though, anyone with a passing interest in economics – and especially the behavioral aspects of economics – will enjoy the book, but it fails to compete with the genre’s better examples.
Of the novels selected as National Book Award finalists in the Young People’s Literature category, Patricia McCormick’s Never Fall Down is the title that my high school students would reach for. McCormick’s latest novel is based on the life of Arn Chorn-Pond, a survivor of the Cambodian genocide. It is a story of a young boy who grows into a teenager on the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge, a young boy who endures unspeakable trauma, and survives. My students are drawn to books that feature violence and drama and tragedy, in part because they crave perspective: a way to understand the small and large tragedies of their lives, to appreciate the bounty of resources and freedoms available to them, and to feel grateful rather than burdened.
They want to read about kids like them, dealing with hardships both familiar and alien, encountering struggles and learning perseverance. Patricia McCormick must have a keen awareness of how compelling such topics are to young readers: her earlier novel Sold deals with a young Nepali girl who is sold in to sex slavery, Cut with a protagonist who self-harms. Both books are widely read among my students. A few kids actively avoid what they label as “depressing books,” but many more reach for McCormick’s titles and others: Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father, Dave Eggers’s What is the What, Lewis Alsamari’s Escape from Saddam. And through these stories of remarkable young people, my students grow in their capacity for empathy and in their knowledge of the world.
So if Never Fall Down would be their first choice from the selection of National Book Award finalists, Out of Reach by Carrie Arcos would be their second — a book not about a nation wracked by genocide, but a family broken by addiction. In both books we find a young protagonist clinging to hope in the face of pain and loss. Young readers open books and hope to find some piece of themselves reflected in the pages. And while it is easy to dismiss this urge as the notorious ego-centricity of teenagers, and true that they are often ignorant of national and international affairs, it doesn’t follow that exposure to diverse topics of great depth leaves them apathetic. On the contrary, as evidenced by the Kony 2012 social media explosion, teenagers have the capacity to care a great deal, even if they are often under-informed, or unsure of how to best direct their compassion to action.
What they can do, is read. And you cannot read books like these, hear a story like Arn Chorn-Pond’s, without feeling a sense of incredulity at the fortune of your life. And when you are young, as you construct your identity and determine your place in your world, you must grapple with the disparity of experience determined by the time and place of one’s birth, with the suffering that abounds near and far, with the resilience of the human spirit which allows for hope in the face of this suffering. For my students, reading a book like Never Fall Down will forever change the way they see the world.
In April of 1975, Arn Chorn-Pond’s hometown of Battambang, Cambodia is full of life. “At night in our town, it’s music everywhere,” Patricia McCormick begins Never Fall Down, in the voice of Arn. “Rich house. Poor house. Doesn’t matter. Everyone has music.” Arn is nine years old, and the other sounds of his nighttime village, the whistles of bombs falling in the distance, serve as little more to him than the authenticating backdrop to the make-believe battles he and his younger brother play, taking turns flying the plane, being the hero: “We shoot probably a hundred bullet, die a hundred time.”
When the real war comes to Arn’s city, it is the Khmer Rouge who bring it. These soldiers in their “black pajamas,” many no older than Arn, force the people of Battambang out of their homes and into the street, where they are told that they must leave their town, but only for three days. Their forced exodus is replicated across Cambodia, as the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot’s guerrilla Communist regime, evacuate whole cities into the countryside, and attempt to build a radical agrarian society. Thousands of Cambodians die during these first forced marches, and it is during his evacuation from his home that Arn first realizes the astonishing human capacity to become desensitized: “In just one day a person can get use to seeing dead body.”
Three days pass, but the people of Battambang are not allowed to return home. Over the next four years, Arn will be subjected to starvation and torture, will watch helplessly as his friends and family are killed and displaced, will learn to do whatever is necessary to survive. As is the terrible fate of children soldiers across the globe, and all the powerless held captive by violent and criminal regimes, Arn must hide his humanity, must hide it so well that he risks losing it forever. “I make my eyes blank,” McCormick writes of Arn’s tactic for avoiding the wrath of the Khmer Rouge. “You show you care, you die. You show fear, you die. You show nothing, maybe you live.”
There are other rules of survival. When the Khmer Rouge first invade his city, Arn’s aunt and caregiver gathers him and his siblings in her arms and instructs them, “Do whatever they say…Be like the grass. Bend low, bend low, then bend lower. The wind blow one way, you bow that way. It blow you the other way, you do, too. That is the way to survive.” Bend, but do not fall. Arn sees too many fall: some cut down by the Khmer Rouge, some who fall as they walk, as they stand, even as they sit, like the girl who dies sitting next to him as they eat the bowls of dirt and water that pass for dinner. And though he sometimes dreams of falling down too, he resolves to stay alive:
So hungry all the time now, my stomach eat itself, a pain like never I had before in my life. And so tire, I think sometime I sleep standing up. Other time I think maybe I will just lie down in the field; the ground, it call my name. I see some kids die in the field. They just fall down. Maybe it’s malaria. Or maybe they starve. They fall down, they never get up. Over and over I tell myself one thing: never fall down.
As a child, as a teenager, Arn Chorn-Pond did not have the luxury of exploring human suffering in the abstract, as many of my students do. His story, as told by Patricia McCormick, is one of bravery, of fierce resilience, of compassion and hope in the face of ineffable evil. It is the story of how music saved his life, how friends and strangers saved his life, how his personal strength saved his life, how luck saved his life. It is the story of his determination never to fall down, but to bend, and survive. As he crosses the border to Thailand, four years after first being driven from his home, Arn is a whole lifetime in one young man, but he is alive. “And me, a soldier who kill every day, me, with body, with heart like old man, I crawl like baby.”
I finally finished my piece about Frank O’Hara. It’s good, but of course it’s not good enough. It makes me want to write pieces about all my friends before they die. It’s so awful to have to say someone was this or was that. As opposed to is. Because was is so final. I mean, it carries too much authority.
—Joe Brainard to Ron Padgett, October 1969
When the artist Joe Brainard died of AIDS-related pneumonia on May 25, 1994, he hadn’t put on an exhibition of new work in nearly 15 years. He had barely made anything in that time, only a few covers for friends’ chapbooks and occasional collaborative projects. It was enough for this once-lauded collagist and painter to nearly drop from the public view, and Brainard’s closest friends, particularly the poet Ron Padgett, who met him in the first grade, began rectifying that situation immediately. Since the mid-1990s, Brainard’s most noteworthy prose collection, I Remember, has come back into print; his work was the subject of a long article in ArtForum and multiple retrospective exhibitions in New York and elsewhere; and Padgett published a hybrid biography and memoir, Joe, in 2004.
A new collection from the Library of America, The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard, is the latest and most assertive effort in the quest for the man’s canonization. At first glance it looks overly familiar. Edited by Padgett, it comes accompanied by blurbs from some of the same friends who blurbed Joe, including Edmund White and John Ashbery. It reprints many letters and journal entries that appeared in Padgett’s earlier book. And the same cast of characters — Anne Waldman, Kenward Elmslie, Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Ted Berrigan — are all here once more, vacationing in Vermont, giving group readings, and pairing up for strange little one-off collaborations. Brainard had his first solo show in 1964 and was more or less retired by 1981, which means that his friends have now spent as many years commemorating the man’s art as he spent making it. Both Joe and The Collected Writings are filled with diary jottings and journal entries, meaning the day-to-day comings and goings of Joe Brainard have now been documented almost as scrupulously as Samuel Pepys’. Even though he was a central figure in one of the most vibrant periods in New York artistic history, the repetitiveness of these panegyrics ironically begs the question of whether Brainard was really all that important to begin with. Since the man’s biggest boosters are all people who knew him intimately, I couldn’t help wondering whether the work could still speak for itself. Perhaps you had to be there.
But then I opened the book, and found that to read Joe Brainard is to befriend him. I’ll leave it to his loved ones to make the case for his near-holiness, as Edmund White did in a 1997 essay, “Saint Joe”; I think his work’s greatest assets are its casualness and humor. The Collected Writings is like a manual for how to live more creatively. It bubbles over with deeply personal vision and a contagious passion for the smallest things in life — what Brainard calls “my faith that everything is interesting, sooner or later.”
The Collected Writings of course opens with I Remember, the simplicity of which still beggars belief more than 40 years after it was published. It’s literally 134 pages of free-floating statements all beginning with the title phrase. And don’t be misled by the fact that Brainard grew up gay in less-than-enlightened Tulsa, Okla., in the 1950s, or that he lived through Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement — nearly all of his remembrances are about food, personal hygiene, sexual fantasies, and ritualistic tactile experiences. The observations aren’t grouped chronologically or substantively, though sometimes a memory-association game appears to play out in real time:
I remember that my father scratched his balls a lot.
I remember very thin belts.
I remember James Dean in his red nylon jacket.
I remember thinking how embarrassing it must be for men in Scotland to have to wear skirts.
I remember when Scotch tape wasn’t very transparent.
Brainard manages to concoct a deeply personal autobiography without ever really revealing anything about his life. His father barely appears beyond that one sentence, and no other family members come up even that often. There are no insinuations that Brainard’s childhood was uniquely difficult; he’s an American boy through and through, his mind ingrained with brand names and the initiations of pre-adulthood: “I remember my first cigarette. It was a Kent. Up on a hill. In Tulsa, Oklahoma. With Ron Padgett.”
He was born in Arkansas and moved to New York when he was only 18, but Tulsa arguably had the biggest effect on Brainard’s personal sensibility. Even his charmingly flat prose style sounds like the prairie looks, a distillation of the region that fellow Oklahoman Woody Guthrie described as “Peace, pretty weather. Spring turning things green. Summer staining it all brown.” In a letter to Padgett from 1965, Brainard explained, “I find myself with a certain talent that Frank O’Hara has, and that is to say something quite simple so absolutely that one, without even thinking, assumes you are of course right.”
In his own book, Padgett claims that Brainard’s confidence and talent were obvious from a very early age. The two boys formally met in high school, and even founded a literary magazine, The White Dove Review, that published work by Allen Ginsberg and LeRoi Jones. (They knew Ted Berrigan, eight years their senior, while he was still teaching in Tulsa at the time.) Nevertheless, it’s clear that Brainard needed to leave Oklahoma in order to find the personal comfort and self-awareness that informed his art.
Brainard first left to go to art school in Dayton, Ohio, but he dropped out after only a few months. He then went to New York, where Padgett was studying at Columbia. He shared an apartment with Berrigan, subsisted on an alarmingly small diet, got the occasional cash gift from back home, and generally experienced the quintessential starving-artist lifestyle. He also had his first significant sexual experiences and finally came to accept his homosexuality. Many of his new friends — O’Hara, Ashbery, Elmslie, Joe LeSueur — were the first openly gay people he knew, to say nothing of their being committed to artistic careers. These men and the other artists he met, including Anne Waldman and Kenneth Koch, surely inspired Brainard to pursue his own idiosyncratic artwork, which never settled into a single medium or style. He created a constantly evolving jumble of collages, nature paintings, cartoons, sketches, book covers, portraits, and sculptures. He was similarly prolific and resistant to classification in his prose work, but it was all, as he put it in the wonderful mixed-media Bolinas Journal, “this ‘trying to be honest’ kind of writing.”
His New York friends were the first people that inspired him to be so honest, and the first people to celebrate the work that resulted from that honesty. In a 1977 interview with Tim Dlugoss, quoted in Joe, Brainard insists,
I had no intentions of being a writer. Everything was against me. I had no vocabulary. I can’t spell. I’m inarticulate. I have sort of learned to use that. But this happened because all my friends are writers. I wrote a short story, the first thing I remember writing, and I showed it to Ted [Berrigan] and he said, “It’s very good.” So I kept at it.
He experienced a joyful, if belated, reconnection with his younger brother, John, who came to New York in 1976 and found a box of Brainard’s autobiographical writings in his apartment. The two became very close, bonding over their shared secret of the older brother’s homosexuality. But so far as Joe and The Collected Writings convey, his parents never learned the truth about Brainard’s personal life while he lived.
Brainard had a couple great romances, particularly with Kenward Elmslie, whose house in Calais, Vt., was a cherished retreat for their New York crowd. But Ron Padgett was the only person who watched Brainard’s transition from shy, skinny teenage Okie to accomplished, beloved artist. More importantly, Padgett watched his friend evolve as a man. His tone in Joe is nearly befuddled, like he still, 10 years after the death of a person he knew for four decades, can’t quite believe that he had the good fortune to know the guy at all:
His draftsmanship had a magical effect on me. Watching him draw always elicited a pleasant tingling in the back of my head and down my neck, as if someone were gently tickling me, and I would start to feel drowsy, like a child drifting off into an afternoon nap…When I look at Joe’s best drawings…[m]y eyes are experiencing something too happy for thinking, and somewhere inside me there is an onrush of gratitude, for once again I feel as if I am in touch with how amazing and beautiful the world looks.
Padgett writes that Brainard possessed a “seemingly natural ability to say the most perceptive things in the simplest way,” and a “gentle manner.” He was “kind, generous, loving, and compassionate,” with a “spirit [that] moved continually toward honesty, openness, and clarity.” He had the qualities, in other words, that reveal themselves most fully to close acquaintances and deepen over time. Padgett and Brainard’s relationship encompassed years of personal and artistic turmoil and triumph. They reinvented themselves, Brainard most dramatically, by seeking and finding a vibrant artistic community far away from home. They watched each other’s work grow and their most important relationships blossom. Padgett had a child in the late 1960s with his wife Pat, who was nearly as close to Brainard as her husband was. Brainard was ever-present for little Wayne’s childhood, acting as a combination surrogate parent and older brother. Padgett’s book is not simply a case for an undervalued artist; it required years of archive-searching and interviews, all in the service of commemorating an inspiring personality that Padgett witnessed in its youth, maturity, and early death. Joe is a record of profound fraternal devotion, one that The Collected Writings brings to a presumable close.
The two books beg to be read together, since Padgett’s adoration is even more powerful in light of Brainard’s obvious love for intimacy and friendly communication. Even the journals that he presumably didn’t intend to publish are addressed to an unidentified “you.” He often worries about boring this phantom reader or about being too self-indulgent. It’s an unfair criticism, since even his most mundane and “uninteresting” pieces are funny, short, and utterly charming. His work performs the same magic act that all good memoir does, achieving such individual specificity that it becomes universal. In his journal on March 27, 1973, Brainard writes,
Reading Isherwood — I am thinking about the difference — the possibility of the difference — of writing about yourself as “me” as opposed to “a human being.” And I suspect that yes, there is a difference. And that, tho I pretend to write about “me,” I am secretly more aware of myself (writing-wise) as “a human being.” And that this may well be my salvation!
As I write this, there’s a wedding invitation from two dear friends perched on my desk. John and Mollie will say their vows in May at John’s family farm, where our group of friends all grew close during high school. Another wedding, for friends I’ve known nearly as long, will take place after Labor Day. As my friend Ian quipped two summers ago, we’re in the thick part of the bell curve as far as these big adjustments are concerned. People are moving and settling down all at once. Meaningful decisions are getting made, kids are being born — the concrete is drying all around us. With hindsight, this may end up looking like a particularly active and meaningful chapter in our friendships, even though we see each other less and less. A few of my closest friends will meet my 10-month-old son for the first time at these upcoming weddings. Others will see my five-year-old daughter for the first time in years. These are people whose music I’ve been hearing since before I could drive, people who are now scattered across California, Chicago, New York, and Utah but who I knew when they were still pimply. The emotional vertigo of watching them play with my kids has yet to wear off.
I’ll admit that Joe’s procession of mundane details often bored me early on. But when I think about one of these friends dying young, Ron Padgett’s compulsive attention to Joe Brainard’s short life seems only appropriate. I can barely remember key details of relationships that have lasted a third as long as theirs did. Joe and The Collected Writings were like cold splashes of water to my face, reminders to pay more attention to the people who somehow manage to remain in my life despite mutual changes in geography, careers, and interests. It’s not pure narcissism that animates Brainard’s obsession with sex and food and friends and other ostensible non-literary banalities — it’s his ongoing attempt to find meaning and beauty in every moment he can.
The Collected Writings is above all a welcome document of a sui generis talent. Brainard was a colloquially profound writer who in the same journal entry (August 29, 1967) could write, “One thing about me, I really am a nice person. At least I think I am,” as well as, “You know what I’d like to have? I’d like to have a giant dick,” without ever coming off as self-absorbed. But the book is also a testimony. It’s another thank-you note from a grateful man who can’t believe how lucky he was to meet the right guy in 10th grade. We all have relationships like this, and Ron Padgett has done us a dual service: he’s resuscitated an accomplished career, and given us two guidebooks for how to be more appreciative and loving friends.
“Don’t read this book if you are depressed. Yikes.”–Amazon.com reader review of Paint It BlackJanet Fitch has a new book out, Paint It Black, and so that this dark etching might be properly framed, and hopefully some light then cast in its direction, some background information will prove useful. Fitch’s first book, White Oleander, was selected for Oprah’s Book Club shortly after it was published in 1999 (a movie followed in 2002.) This after Fitch had labored in relative obscurity for years in her home town, Los Angeles.Oprah Winfrey, TV’s well-read matriarch-cum-regent, has anointed more than a few deserving authors over the years.Jonathan Franzen is a member of some standing, though he has openly discussed the stigma of being a Book Club boy or girl. Oprah has moved mountains by moving Americans to read more, more Faulkner, more Garcia Marquez, more Carol Oates, Steinbeck, and – Sydney Poitier? In any case, Oprah has also moved a few books for hucksters like James Frey, a few more for the good people at, oh, Amazon.com. A writer would be right to wonder about the implications of being in The Club, because they are probably not all as easy to recognize and identify as the sudden affirmative media attention – and the accompanying thunderclap of fall-off-your-chair sales figures. For instance, what if the follow-up to your breakout book just isn’t very good? Franzen has had less to say on that subject.Without discernible irony, Janet Fitch once professed to maintain a shrine to Oprah in her home, something besides a television. And why should she not? After all, Oprah’s induction of White Oleander into The Club made Janet Fitch an overnight success, validating years of work. The question is, what reader has a shrine to Janet Fitch, whether the devout Oprah acolyte, or, like me, just someone who picked up White Oleander at the sincere urging of a non-televised friend? And how many of the Fitch faithful will keep the candles burning for her now that Paint It Black is out?It is hard to imagine that, with Paint It Black, support from the Oprah camp – surely the rock on which Fitch’s wing of her publishing house, Little, Brown, rests – will not to some degree erode. More pointedly, Paint It Black will confound the serious reader engaged in a comparison of the book to its predecessor. It’s not just that Paint It Black is a weak sophomore effort. It’s that what preceded it was of such quality, and soared to such great heights.White Oleander does run before some powerful winds. It is written with a soulful savagery, the language never failing to try to capture both the broadest sweep of earthly beauty and the innermost essence of personal pain. The narrator, Astrid Magnussen, is fourteen when she begins her journey down a twisted chain of ever more fantastic and frightening L.A.-area foster homes. Astrid’s mother, Ingrid, a noted poet, is sent to prison for poisoning a man who was her lover. Yet even in prison, where her notoriety and artistic standing seem only to grow, Ingrid Magnussen maintains a profound, almost malevolent influence over Astrid’s life. Central to the book’s success is Fitch’s inspired evocation of the psychological connection between this mother and daughter, in all its complex, contradictory, and adversarial intensity. So, White Oleander not only floats, it slices over water into which other books sink.Of course, White Oleander has its little leaks, and its leaks hint at some of the problems that sink its successor. It is too long – too much ballast, as it were, in the form of at times achingly florid, fulsome prose. In this passage, Astrid’s voice rings with a concise clarity: “Niki and Yvonne had pierced my ears one day when they were bored. I let them do it. It pleased them to shape me. I’d learned, whatever you hung from my earlobes or put on my back, I was insoluble, like sand in water. Stir me up, I always came to rest on the bottom.” But it keeps going, so on the same page: “I had been in foster care almost six years now, I had starved, wept, begged, my body was a battlefield, my spirit scarred and cratered as a city under siege.” Fitch trips herself up when she indulges in such passages, running on (literally) with these broadest of brushstrokes. Then, maybe an author deserves to be spared the criticism of reaching a bit too far if she proves, as Janet Fitch has with White Oleander, that she is capable of rendering a nuanced beauty, and a dignity, out of the often pitiable human condition.Enter Josie Tyrell, protagonist of Paint It Black. She is a humble Bakersfield bean sprout transplanted in the big, bad city. Josie’s Harvard rich kid-turned-artist boyfriend, Michael, has a problem: he has just killed himself. Now Josie must struggle to find out who he really was. It’s tough. Along the way, Josie forms an unlikely bond with Michael’s overbearing, patrician mother, while occasionally navigating her way through the cemetery at Griffith Park, and the wilds of the 1980 L.A. punk scene, as it were, as it was, as it may have been. The book opens with Josie observing how an artist friend of hers, whom she poses for, becomes misty-eyed while listening to a John Lennon album in his studio, Lennon having just been killed. Josie’s take: “people were playing the same fucking Beatles songs until you wanted to throw up.” This is her disposition before she learns of the death of the love of her own life, but in any case, we’re off.The trade winds that propelled White Oleander to welcoming shores have somehow conflated into a perfect storm of literary peril, and Paint It Black is a balky boat. Like that of the former, the tone of the latter is heavy, yet somehow hollow, so that a passage such as the following: “How right that the body changed over time, becoming a gallery of scars, a canvas of experience, a testament to life and one’s capacity to endure it,” which so closely echoes the passages from W.O. cited above, here seems so painfully self-conscious, more of a glance behind the curtain than into the heart of the character on the stage. Fitch relies so heavily on this sort of weight-of-the-world internal monologue; it quickly becomes redundant, like slapping a corpse. Part of the comparative problem is the use of third person in Paint It Black, where White Oleander was told in the voice of Astrid Magnussen, who is, after all, a teenager, not to mention an extraordinarily compelling character. Josie Tyrell, not so much, though Fitch seems literally to want to crawl inside her skin, and maybe should have. It’s tempting to judge third person narration more of a challenge because, unlike first person where the story is one big stream of monologue, the protagonist’s voice does not automatically set the tone. To borrow a hackneyed writer’s workshop phrase, the omniscient narrator must rely more on show than tell.Fitch still shows a lot, a lot of Los Angeles, between Josie’s two spheres, the jaded punk-rock bohemia, slowly choking on its own vomit; and the coldly cultured upper-crust, slowly, well, choking on its own vomit. There’s vomit and excrement in every corner of this town. Witness this exchange between Josie and an exiled German punk rock hellion, Lola Lola:”Americans insist on the superior shit, consuming acres of bran cereal, the better to have big attractive ones. Did you know that all the best perfume has a little bit of shit in it?”Josie shook her head. A little turd floating in the Chanel No. 5.Still with us? Okay then; moving on.Fitch does know L.A. and, like a Joan Didion or a Mike Davis with a novelist’s elan, she reaches yet again for something lofty: a description of the cultural anthropology of Los Angeles itself. White Oleander accomplished this feat so thoroughly that the book could be required reading in such a course of study. But in Paint It Black, the vision, the spheres, never coalesce into something true, or even plausible. Paint It Black is never quite dull, though, and therein lies perhaps the best evidence that the soulful savagery Fitch conjured in White Oleander still burns.At bottom, what awaits people who read and enjoyed White Oleander when they pick up Paint It Black is perhaps just a letdown. This idea has something to do with the reason why White Oleander was chosen by Oprah for The Club, now 55 books strong, or thereabouts. The letdown has to do with confronting a character, a young female protagonist, Josie Tyrell, who, though outwardly similar in some ways to Astrid Magnussen, is in fact fundamentally her opposite. There may come a moment when the reader realizes that Josie Tyrell is categorically unstable, the anti-Astrid. The book as farce is an interesting way to read it. And maybe, just maybe, this is where Fitch jumps the mic on what was almost certain to be labeled an Oprah letdown, a sophomore slump, or what have you, this second novel of hers. Perhaps, shrine notwithstanding, Fitch was discerning when it came to confronting the curse of The Club, and set out to create the anti-Oleander, something cunningly irredeemable. Something for critics to crow about – or not, as the unfortunate case may be. And something for Oprah to ignore.These two books are black and white, and there are exhausted homunculi out there for whom they may someday be read all over.