Andrea Levy’s Small Island is a post-colonial novel told from four points of view. Queenie and Bernard, separated by war, are a British couple with a tepid relationship and Hortense and Gilbert are Jamaican, married out of convenience and lured to England by opportunity. The book explores British racism in the 1950s. It’s less overtly ugly than its American cousin, but it nonetheless dictates the borders of the lives of Gilbert, Hortense and their fellow immigrants. Britain, long the colonizer, renowned for her Empire, in Small Island has reached a point where it would like to forget about the past and start from scratch. This time all these people of different colors can stay in their own lands. But, of course, this is not an option. Instructed by centuries of colonialism to believe they are British subjects and stirred up by the global tumult of World War II, immigrants from all over the world resettle in their “Mother Country.” Nearly all of the white folks in the book are like Bernard, dismissive and even affronted by the arrival of darker people on their shores. They stare, heckle, slam doors and on occasion take a swing at these people. It matters not that thousands of Jamaicans fought along side the British during the war. It is telling that most of the British folks Gilbert interacts with think that Jamaica is in Africa. Queenie, however, is the anomaly and perhaps even a cliche since so often these novels of race relations have at their center an enlightened white person. But luckily Levy gives her sufficient depth to carry a large chunk of the novel. What sets this book apart, and what probably helped Levy win awards for it – the Orange prize in 2004 and then this year’s Orange “Best of the Best” – was her ability to imbue each of the four narrators with his or her own voice. Gilbert and Hortense speak with the native rhythm of their home island, Bernard’s voice is pinched and fidgety, and Queenie is the voice of hope and happiness. Though the chapter headings indicate who will narrate each chapter, the voices are so distinctive that this touch is unnecessary.
In meme parlance: life comes at you fast. Perhaps that sentiment is so retweeted and relatable because it always feels true. Time is elastic, defiant of the order we pretend to impose, the past simultaneously whispering in our ear and calling long-distance, a continent away. Joan Didion wrote that we are “well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” I have ghosts that visit every time I taste tequila or enter a room with faux-wood paneling, whose reappearances often coincide with tales of bad sex or bad choices or a sort of drunken, desperate ambition I often see in women between 18 and 25 with artistic temperaments.
It’s uncanny to slip as thoroughly into a character as I did with Jaracaranda Leven in Eve Babitz’s Sex and Rage, published in 1979 and reissued this summer by Counterpoint Press. The novel follows a young Angeleno, progeny of the Hollywood relatively-elite, as she fumbles with varying degrees of elegance through relationships and self-discovery, art-making and rent-paying. It is the story, really, of one’s 20s, or at least the kind I’ve had, wherein the clashes of reality and desire can lead to spectacular and terrifying confrontations with the chasm that divides them.
It would be foolish to ignore the differences—her West Coast upbringing vs. my North Carolina one, where I was more prone to encounter a screened porch than a screenwriter; her inherent ease with boys and men, which I feigned (poorly) until I could hide in my room with a notebook to exorcise my insecurities. We share more superficial things in common, though: an interest in books, a dicey relationship with alcohol, a scramble throughout our 20s to find meaning and fulfillment in unconventional, often fruitless ways. By the time I finished the online synopsis, I was already sniffing out the novel like a bloodhound, eager to meet a character that felt so particular but could be a stand-in for many young and reckless women like me, members of the Church of Reformed Libertines.
I picked up the novel just when I’d reached an odd détente with the city of San Francisco, about 390 miles north of Jacaranda’s native bars and surf breaks. I’d resigned myself to spending 46 percent of my take-home pay to live in an apartment two hours by train and bus from work in academic publishing. I’d effortfully carved out a niche of people who didn’t ask to meet for $15 cocktails, who read Clarice Lispector, and occasionally fed me at our Dungeons & Dragons games. I had the perilous sense that I had built a life for myself, but that it could shift with the next mass exodus of good friends, the price of the incumbent repairs on the car with the failing brakes. Unwilling to work in tech, tired of being hamstrung by the intermittent medical bill, I applied for a few gigs in a place I’d rejected for its West Coast opposite: New York.
Sex & Rage’s Jacaranda, reckoning with her alcoholism, exudes a similar reticence when faced with a voyage east. Recently launched from “the barge,” a cluster of high-rolling partiers who slept with, shit-talked, and enabled one another, she writes, “There seemed no place to go, after fourteen [gin, lemon, and egg-white] White Ladies, but into a spin that fell out of the sky, a smashed victim of impending gravity.” I thought of a particular summer, a night with cocaine and a blood ritual and the bruises I accrued by morning, outward tattoos that weren’t so different from the smashed way I felt inside, writing down my sins in the wood-paneled room. “She was lucky,” Babitz writes. “…because most of the girls they used for local color died before they were thirty.” A fateful encounter with an East Coast literary agent named Janet Wilton accelerates Jacaranda’s writing career from piecemeal freelance work to a book deal, and she’s faced with potential that’s almost as terrifying as its wanton, boozy opposite.
Babitz structures the novel such that its bulk occurs on Jacaranda’s sun-drenched home turf, in which she’s imagining the numerous ways her departure could end in tragedy. Live in coastal California long enough (about three years, personally) and it imprints on you—its languor and the subtlety of its seasons, the tendency towards liberality and the fringes. Even if Jacaranda and I spent most of our nights in bed with wine and cats, often both, I feel I know her enough to say that she, like me, felt she belonged on that furthest edge. What would a “Goodbye to All That” look like in reverse? Probably a long toke in Dolores or Griffith Park, and then a “meh” when someone asked what you thought of all that hustle & bustle, the concrete and steel. Maybe something more stringent. “She began feeling an even finer-tuned rage against material East Coast diamondy objects,” Babitz writes, and as soon as I read it, I thought about the visceral nausea I felt on a visit to Times Square.
This is a façade, though, especially in a place that contains multitudes. There are wide swaths of the western-most state that would rather ship out the homeless than care for them; rent is cheaper in Brooklyn than it is in San Francisco, and I have the anecdotal evidence to prove it. Who are we not to allow ourselves success, even if there is a part of us that bucks the conventional way, the one that would bring us less grief? “Up until this point,” Babitz writes, “it didn’t seem as though she was debauched at all, but the truth was that while she believed in being a washed-up piece of driftwood on the shore, she also believed in bold adventuresses, cigarettes, and suffered from one too many of anything.”
The novel’s most interesting section takes place when Jacaranda boards the plane, when she goes from spinning her wheels in a rut to launching herself forward, full speed. Babitz’s prose mirrors her new sobriety, both clear-eyed and frenzied. When she runs into Max, a beloved member of the barge with whom her romantic involvement was both vague and intense, Jacaranda has a revelation. “And once again [she] felt the aching waves roll over her from wanting what she couldn’t have. She couldn’t afford Max,” Babitz writes. “That much truth cost too much.” She doesn’t fall for the city like she fell for Max—she admires its glitter and lets herself feel simultaneously exhausted and enamored. She acknowledges its faults and sees its winsomeness, her affair with Manhattan an ember in contrast to roman candles like Max, like Colman or Gilbert or Etienne or Shelby before him.
Jacaranda and I were and are privileged white women with the bailouts and resources to fuck up many times between the achievements that buoyed us from year to year. Self-destruction can seem sexy until you’ve sobered up and seen how much easier it is to lay low—pay your rent on time, spend less on ibuprofen, allow yourself the simple pleasure of being good and thorough at your work. I think Jacaranda learned that, by the end of Sex and Rage, when she boards the plane back to L.A., having proven to herself that she could take a leap of faith, bet on her own will. I’m sitting in the July heat in Crown Heights, a black cat who’s the analogue of Jacaranda’s beloved Emilio splayed on the wood floor, with no return ticket to the place I thought suited me best. Finding your fictional parallel can be uncanny, but it can also be a reflection that brings your blemishes and beauty into a different relief. The future isn’t clear, it stands on shaky, sober legs, but here is the money I did not spend on rent. I’m placing my bets.
It’s the opposition that defines our age: Wall Street vs. Main Street. In the first presidential debate of the 2008 election, Senators Obama and McCain invoked it five times in as many minutes. A few days earlier, another Senator had publicly suggested that Wall Street owed Main Street an apology. Soon, Governor Sarah Palin would get in on the action, declaring that it was “a toxic mess, really, on Main Street that [was] affecting Wall Street.” Though maybe it was vice versa? No matter: we knew whose side this self-identified “hockey mom” was on. Wall Street was the province of Gordon Gekko and Bernie Madoff, bad guys selling bad investments. Whereas Main Street was the home of the God-fearing consumer. In other words, of you and me.This Manichean view of American business – of predatory salesmen and guileless buyers – dates back at least as far as Dreiser. At times of widespread guilt, it assures us of our own innocence. But a story is itself a kind of transaction – if it seems too good to be true, it probably is – and our current tale of two Streets, parallel lines that never meet, obscures what actually happens in a marketplace, which is, by definition, the place where buyer and seller converge.Onto this shadowy realm, Clancy Martin’s debut novel, How to Sell, shines a clarifying light. The book, an unholy amalgam of Nietzsche and Horatio Alger, tells us what it was like to come of age as a luxury jeweler at the end of the 20th Century. The author, now a professor of philosophy and business ethics, knows whereof he speaks; he sold watches and diamonds during the Clinton-era boom. Nonetheless, his novel lets neither salesmen nor customers off the hook. Indeed, it mounts a sustained attack on the distinction between the two. In this way, it represents an important correction to our understanding of the bust.How to Sell opens with its narrator, 16-year-old Bobby Clark, preparing to move from Calgary to Dallas to join his big brother, Jim, in the jewelry business. (His father, a charismatic but pathologically unreliable raconteur, warns him against this move, but since when does a 16-year-old listen to his old man?) The lights are bright, and the city is big: minutes after stepping off the plane, Bobby is sampling cocaine in the back of a white Cadillac and lolling with his head on the lap of a beautiful woman. “She looked like a woman in a magazine,” he muses. “She didn’t look like an everyday normal woman who might be sitting in a car with you.” The book’s plot will turn on Bobby’s ingenuous attraction to this woman, and, more generally, to whatever attracts Jim. He seems willing to go to any length to emulate his brother.But Bobby’s first-person voice – naïve, colloquial, and appealingly impolitic – turns out to be a canny suspension. Behind the teenager’s wide-eyed sense of discovery hovers a retrospective reevaluation, as if an older Bobby is looking over his own shoulder. “Next time bring the customer a mirror,” he thinks, after selling his first Rolex. Then he starts to amend himselfEspecially a black customer, I knew. The more you serve them the better. Later I found out that this, too, was false. In fact just the opposite is the case. But it takes years to learn how to sell.It is the unstable interaction between the two Bobbys that propels the novel beyond easy satire. Bobby the narrator wants to stage the novel as a bildungsroman. Meanwhile, Bobby the character refuses to grow up. Instead, he descends deeper into the glossy moral morass into which Jim has enthusiastically plunged.The Clark brothers’ incorrigible nature turns out to be a boon to readers. Much of the pleasure of the novel’s first half derives from its anthropological immersion in the world behind the jewelry cases. We learn, for example, that a watch looks best with its hands at ten and two; that a repeat customer is called a “crow;” that the Gemological Institute of America’s ratings system for diamonds “would discombobulate the average Texan.” And gradually, we learn with Bobby that his employer’s empire is built on fraud. Items sold by phone are never delivered. Rolexes are appraised at three to four times their value, boosting insurance payouts. Jewels are pilfered, customers misled. The store’s own gem ratings are invented. Everybody, from customer to salesman, is swimming in money.The historical backdrop here is the fall of 1987, and though the stock market crash of that year gets nary a mention, it is difficult, circa 2009, not to see How to Sell as a commentary on American business in general. For watches, read mortgages. For Gemological Institute of America, read Moody’s. It took Alan Greenspan 60 years in finance to uncover a flaw in the model of the self-regulating free market, where price reflects value. It takes Bobby Clark a few weeks. “It’s the silliest damn thing,” his boss, Mr. Popper, tells him. “There ain’t no intrinsic value to a diamond except in a drill bit.” Nor does Bobby find himself improved by this knowledge. Instead, a decade after the collapse of Mr. Popper’s jewelry store, which concludes the novel’s first act, Bobby doubles down.The second half of How to Sell, tracing the quick but spectacular flame-out of the store the Clark brothers open together, is more depraved than the first half, and less fun. Glitter gives way to rot. Bobby’s brother and father appear in various states of psychological deterioration. In their ever-more-elaborate manipulations of each other and of Bobby, they start to resemble each other. Bobby himself seems disoriented and paranoid. (Serial adultery and chronic abuse of stimulants will do that to you.) In one of the novel’s most horripilating moments, he discovers a crab louse on the head of his infant daughter. But like the ace salesman he is, he’s always ready with a great line of patter. The morning after sleeping with a hooker, he tells us, “I didn’t have a hangover. My first appointment wasn’t until one. What a good day.” Indeed, Bobby seems to believe that he can not only convince a “crow” that black is white and bad is good, but that the terms are therefore meaningless. Thus Martin, the philosophy professor, makes Bobby a kind of test case for Mr. Popper’s theory of value, carried to its logical end.It bears saying that every novelist is himself a sort of salesman, and the goods Martin is offering in How to Sell are not without flaws – or, as gem dealers apparently call them, “inclusions.” The father’s mental decline, which should be the book’s emotional center of gravity, happens largely offstage. The tragic fate of the aforementioned Lisa, which triggers the book’s final reckoning, doesn’t hold up under inspection. Martin’s way of concealing his weaknesses with frequent page breaks and wry elisions is both technically deft and, circa 2009, somewhat mannered. But, with a jeweler’s eye, he polishes what remains to a high shine. And so we stick with Bobby as he learns his final lesson. Every salesman, it turns out, is also a customer, and every customer a salesman. That is: Bobby has been buying his own bullshit.What makes Bobby’s story such natural (and, in retrospect, inevitable) material for a first novel is the way eager sellers and bullish buyers and young men in novels resemble each other: they are innocents. In America, we tend to view “innocence” as a synonym for guiltlessness, but it also carries Old World connotations of gullibility, of stubborn resistance to facts. Our greatest literary salesmen, from Willy Loman to Jay Gatsby, have it in spades.In addition to its rather straightforward philosophy lesson, then (Values: can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em), How to Sell also offers us some novel perspective on our current economic and cultural situation. Perhaps the Wall Streeters who sold each other on subprime fool’s gold are “innocent” after all, though not quite in the sense their lawyers would want to maintain. And perhaps we innocents are a little guilty. Whether through floating interest rates or NINJA loans or the incredible expanding 401Ks that depended on them, we have allowed ourselves to be seduced, like Bobby Clark, by the old huckster’s promise of something for nothing.In March of this year, just after the AIG bonus scandal, outraged populists rode charter-buses to Greenwich, Connecticut, to ogle the mansions of the company’s executives (an act of protest befitting the zeitgeist). “It makes me absolutely sick,” the neighbor of one AIG worker told The New York Times. “It’s disgusting what these people have done.” The neighbor had lived down the street from “these people” for years – had presumably watched her fortune grow along with theirs – but it hadn’t stopped her from assimilating the most relentlessly marketed truth of our time: those rich, they’re not like you and me. How to Sell, which may just be the first great novel of the current economic crisis, suggests a harder truth: in buying into the promise of our own innocence, perhaps we on Main Street have been selling ourselves short.[Image credits: specialkrb, Aaron Jacobs, jurvetson]
Drafted into teaching Sunday school, the whole congregation praying for her chastity, a younger Tracy K. Smith wrote “God is not that small” over and over, killing time (or something else) until class ended. A prayer asks; an invocation summons. This seems to have belonged to the second category of religious gesture: a ritual description, loosing God from the mean beliefs of prudes. Reproduced only once in her new memoir Ordinary Light, the words leave an impression of certainty armed by clarity. It also leaves ambiguous what Smith felt — cool defiance? hot recrimination? — while setting about this task, of inscribing a schoolhouse penance with rebel energies.
God is not that small; emphasis hers. For all its elegance as a rejoinder, the sentence only draws a lower bound. Questions pour into the space left by negative definition: how large, then, is God? For that matter, what? Where does this presence fit into an adult life just starting to take shape? And God isn’t the only unknown: for x, substitute the soul, substitute death. At this point in her story, Smith has only the religion she’s grown out of — a shelter built of prohibitions, watched by an omnipotent, father-shaped deity — and the impulse to put pen to paper.
Her searching stitches together the memories collected in Ordinary Light. It threads through the discrete, self-contained episodes of the first half — she visits her grandmother in Alabama, hatches quail chicks, watches wide-eyed as a cousin traces “motherfuck” into the dust — and binds them to the narrative of the second. As Smith leaves her Christian, Californian upbringing for university on the East Coast, her mother is diagnosed with cancer. Discovering literature, politics, sex, the college-aged Smith averts her eyes from the specter of impending tragedy; it swells; she and her siblings are called home for their goodbyes.
“Sometimes,” Smith writes, “I tried to work it out in my head like a riddle: I am not a soul, but I possess one. When I die, I become what I possess.” The sneaky, oblique determinism of a logic game renders the form inadequate to loss — but then, there’s poetry, the grace of which lies in its ability to hold difficult ideas in equipoise; it can keep a conundrum’s walls from collapsing. After her mother dies, she finds herself returning to Seamus Heaney’s “Clearances:” “I thought of walking round and round a space / Utterly empty, utterly a source.” She wonders aloud, “What did it mean to be both empty and a source? Was there something I housed or might one day house?” Smith teaches at Princeton; in these passages, she retraces her steps toward the center of the sonnet’s mysterious power, its resonance beyond reason. It’s a kind of reenactment for our benefit, and one of the book’s many gifts: she parses these lines such that we grow with her, as a reader.
In those years, of course, she was also growing into the poet who would win a Pulitzer for Life on Mars, in part an elegy for her father, an engineer who worked for the air force, in 1980s Silicon Valley, and on the Hubble Telescope — in an era when, as she describes it, “Technology was public.” From the central lyric dedicated to him, “The Speed of Belief,” the poems expand outward. They map their subjects — outer space, God, current events — as public, pop ideas, vintage postcards from the collective imagination. The opening poem, “The Weather in Space,” asks, “Is God being or pure force? The wind/ Or what commands it?” Later, “Cathedral Kitsch” gives the interrogative an ironic edge: “Does God love gold?/ Does He shine back/ at Himself from walls/ Like these, leafed/ In the earth’s softest wealth?” But the questions are no less real for being rhetorical. These poems say: leave the devil his details. God lives comfortably in line breaks and double-spacing, in enjambments, between if/ands, neither/nors — even in, as “It & Co.” suggests, a failed shorthand: “How can It be anything but an idea,/ Something teetering on the spine/ Of the number i?” Smith concludes, “It is like some novels:/ Vast and unreadable.” Smith nominates Charlton Heston and Ziggy Stardust as emissaries of the beyond, and they descend, puckish and melancholy, as embodied spoofs of man’s need to view Creator as character.
As it too becomes a meditation on the lapses in language, Ordinary Light takes up the other end of the telescope; its concerns are personal rather than public. Combing through her coming-of-age, Smith sorts the unexpressed from the inexpressible, the blank space on the page from the quiet across the dinner table. She assembles a field guide to silences and their keeping — “an articulate variety of wordlessness” that avoids confrontation. The children sidestep topics that might expose political difference, and hide their romantic relationships and broken hearts. Their parents don’t admit to the seriousness of the disease. Craving reassurance, Smith never asks the most direct and difficult questions about how her mother feels. Only when she commits the reality to paper, writing “My mother is dying” in a letter petitioning the dean for permission to drop a literary theory course, does she accept it.
It’s not surprising that Smith writes about how, after the funeral, she took shelter in those she calls her “necessary poets” — but family and friends, her fellow bereaved, have a more immediate and urgent presence. Smith fights with her father, and confides in her sister, Jean; she walks with old friends, other motherless women, and together they try to articulate their hopes about heaven. We get only glimpses of these moments — the exact exchanges either have been lost, or are deliberately obscured. Instead, she charts the wake left by the words. She seems most interested in talk: a genre without form or discipline, that can match the mess of grief. Through sentences slung and stuttered, forced to double back and revise, people give and receive solace.
She admits: “I’d never spoken so freely or honestly with my mother.” That she never engaged with her mother about religion, never sounded out the dimensions of her changing faith together, is one of Smith’s enduring regrets. As with her read of the Heaney’s sonnet, each of her religious queries, taken alone, seems deceptively straightforward: “Is God each of the many different things we seek in the course of a life?” Smith asks. “Does God become an armament we leverage for the ones we love, the ones we have committed to nurture and protect?”
These questions, when laid out in prose, have none of the irradiated rigor of the poems in Life on Mars. They give way to each other effortlessly; there’s always room for one more. Poetry might be depthless; prose’s gift, it turns out, lies in plentitude, in creating a sense of ampleness. With Ordinary Light, Smith has written a book that speaks into past silence, one in which language is more than careful; it’s a form of caretaking.
If I were using affairs as a measuring-stick to classify books, Emily St. John Mandel’s Last Night in Montreal would be a savory one-night stand, which turns into a lingering dalliance that’s later hastily broken off. The novel is an enticing read; the narration is hypnotic, intelligent, and embracing. The suspense takes the form of a disappearance: Lilia, the girlfriend of Eli, announces she is going out to purchase a paper and never returns to their Brooklyn apartment. Although Eli is aware of Lilia’s itinerant past, her abrupt exit catches him off-guard. In her wake, Eli loses his footing, and after receiving mysterious letters from a woman named Michaela, beckoning him to come to Montreal to find Lilia, he leaves New York to do just that.Sometimes when I’m reading a book, cracking the spine triggers a spell. The characters emerge fully formed when they are transported from their parallel world. In this case, it wasn’t the characters but the narration that struck me as vibrant and whole, providing guidance through Lilia’s disappearances, from Eli’s life and from her mother’s home long ago. The narrative voice is a siren’s call that recounts the stories of Eli and Lilia, and intersperses them with scenes from Lilia’s childhood on the road. Abducted by her father at the age of seven, Lilia came of age while barreling through the nexus of American highways, spending nights in nondescript hotels and taking dinners at local diners and off-the-interstate restaurants. She and her father made lengthier stays, but they never laid roost long enough for her to feel at home. Now that she’s older, she finds constancy uncomfortable.The strength of the narration is also the novel’s Achilles’ heel. The distinct voice resonates with greater clarity and assurance than those of the characters, whose voices seem muted in comparison. Part of this derives from the difficulties of conveying absence. Lilia is pieced together in fragments: we enter in media res as Eli withers with the aftershock of her absence. She is his central obsession, and so we learn of Lilia through Eli, and yet she’s still once removed.Of Lilia, Eli remarks, “you can skate over the surface of the world for your entire life, visiting, leaving, without ever falling through. But you can’t do that, it isn’t good enough. You have to be able to fall through.” He accuses Lilia of always removing herself to avoid emotional risks. This is also an apt critique of the novel and the way we come to know Eli, Lilia, and later, though to a lesser extent, Michaela. Lilia never becomes comfortable with staying, so she always goes. Eli is dominated by inertia in both his writing and his obsession for Lilia. Michaela is slightly more complicated – she is envious of Lilia and suffers from her parents’ abandonment. The layered story adds to our understanding, but the characters rarely stray from these roles. Mandel begins to delve into the greater issues of love, art, and life – there are urban dilettantes who talk creativity, truth, and beauty, but do little to actually to create; the isolated central characters long for connection but often fail miserably in their attempts. And yet these central ideas aren’t developed as carefully as the plot points of the story. Eli accuses Lilia of forever remaining on the surface, and yet she was the one person he knew who was actually living a life of truth and beauty. Was her detachment necessary to cultivate her artwork? Can one create a balance that allows for both?Mandel leaves me wondering, and wanting, and yet this is as much a criticism as a remark on my involvement, the result of being drawn in. The careful depictions and graceful writing beckoned me to keep reading even when the characters lacked dynamism and the plot became slightly contrived. The voice was enough to string me along, to overlook the blemishes, at least for a time.