At the center of Martin Clark’s comic legal thriller Plain Heathen Mischief is Joel King, a fallen preacher from Roanoke, Virginia, who got in a little too deep with a young female parishioner. After a stint in jail, and facing a broken marriage and a life gone to shambles, Joel is taken under the wing of Edmund Brooks, one of Joel’s former flock, a mysterious man whose dealings we quickly learn are rarely on the level. “I work the sag,” Edmund explains, “Sag’s the sneaky tax and the holdback and the cushion and the reserve and the contingency and the ‘ol thumb on the scale.” It’s a whole lot of other things, too, but we soon discover that for Edmund, “working the sag” is mostly insurance fraud. Joel relocates to his sister’s in Missoula, Montana, but by then, vulnerable and destitute, he has already been roped into Edmund’s schemes. Edmund’s co-conspirator is a Las Vegas lawyer of the slickest sort, Sa’ad X. Sa’ad, a smooth-talking con-man. Mischief would have been mundane as a straight thriller, but there’s a comic aspect to the book that keeps it entertaining. The three co-conspirators play tough, each in his own way, but to certain degree they’re each doing little more than playing the part of gangster, and part of the fun of reading this book is seeing through their big talk. Eventually the schemes and scams pile on top of one another and things spiral out of control, and while he has written Joel as an, at times, infuriatingly delusional character, Clark does a great job of untangling the Mischief in the end.
“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.
Reading can be rewarding.I’m late to this party. Everyone has been expounding on their love for this month’s book – Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But before Oprah, and before the Tournament of Books, and especially before the hype and praise and high expectations, I decided I’d better give this book a shot. So, essentially, I read The Road just a few weeks before it went from hidden gem to full-out media blitz.I read it nearly straight through, in three sleepless nights. I couldn’t put it down. I didn’t want to put it down.While following The Road’s main characters – a father and his son – down into the horrible world of post-apocalyptic wasteland, I felt I owed these characters something – that I needed to continue reading to make their sacrifices pertinent. To make their suffering worthwhile.I was left wordless. I couldn’t think of anything but the book. The tortured landscape. The bands of wild rebels, roaming along the roads, searching and hiding and turning everything they could into a viable source of nutrition. Fighting for their lives in the most terrible ways.Reading The Road leaves nothing but thought. It spells out the special bond between father and son, especially when put to the test. It shows survival like no other. How hard it is to break a spirit. How long it takes a man to die inside, and what that does to the body outside.It leaves you wondering why the world has, for the most part, ended? We barely know. For our own protection, I assume. Could we take the truth? Isn’t it enough to walk alongside these vacant, hollowed out corpses, slumming from camp to camp, fearful of not just death, but of how death can come; armed with enough to make it quick – dying being the only escape from capture.Think of everything we take for granted.Think about brushing your teeth. About drinking a Coke. Shaving. Wearing clean socks. Living in the same place every day, sleeping in the same bed. Sleeping in a bed at all.About hearing birds. About seeing the green buds of the forthcoming spring, the dying leaves of the passing autumn.Think about having friends. Think about remembering the face of those you love. Think about knowing where they are. About where you’re going.And think about your dreams. Because in The Road, there aren’t any. There’s no time for dreaming – no time for considering what lies ahead, what the people you used to know could be doing or where they ended up. Instead, all you see ahead is dark. The only faces you remember are blurred. The only tie to your former life is a child that was born after the destruction, after the killing, after the world slowly spun away, leaving nothing but a charred remain, a zone of impossibility.Who needs to wait for death when Hell has already made itself known?After reading The Road, I thought long and hard about what I would do. I thought about the events that led up to this destruction. I considered the role of global warming, of nuclear war, of driving wedges into every peace-deprived location on this ever warring earth. How far are we from total annihilation? How far are we from turning this dystopian wasteland – one under rigid social control not from a group or government, but from nature, specifically human nature’s will to survive – into a true life prophesy?The Road is a masterpiece. I say that without hyperbole. It’s the best book I’ve read in the past five years. I love the mystery and the subtle reminders of a former life. I love every time McCarthy sends us back a few years, to when people had just begun dying; trying to give us clues as to what really happened.Really, I’m not sure we could handle what happened. Just like the two lonely souls walking along that road couldn’t bear to look back.Why would you want to? Maybe that’s something else we take for granted – the idea that memories don’t disappear, and that sometimes looking back can be more harmful than anything we could do to ourselves. When your only way is forward, and your only reprise is death – why would you ever want to look back down the road. Why would it matter where you came from?The Road. It reaffirms the art of writing fiction. What else can we say about it?Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC 2006, 2007: Jan, Feb, Mar.
In one of my favorite sequences of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, you see an editor splicing film offset with shots from the footage being cut. Normally, when we watch films, we take a series of unrelated shots and project causality between the images. Vertov, along with other montage theorists like Sergei Eisenstein, wanted to interrupt this process, forcing us to come to an overarching picture out of conflict and collisions. Simple narrative just couldn’t be revolutionary.
In The Revolutionaries Try Again, debut novelist Mauro Javier Cardenas writes renegade political fiction that would have made Vertov proud. Stream-of-consciousness and meta-fiction meet radio plays, phone conversations, and spliced up pop-lyrics. The tone varies as often as technique: pages and pages of interior monologue with no punctuation, enough em-dashes to look like line divides, sections entirely in Spanish, references to ABBA and The Exorcist alongside Pablo Neruda and Julio Cortázar. You’re never directly informed about what counts as revolution and who in particular is trying to achieve it. Instead, The Revolutionaries Try Again dissects a decade of Ecuadorian austerity and idealism through often jarring and always stunning literary montage.
Cardenas’s novel centers on three alumni of a Jesuit school in Guayaquil: a writer, a bureaucrat, and a playwright. Antonio left Ecuador over a decade ago for Stanford and is writing a memoir about a crying baby Jesus. His best friend Leopoldo, left behind in Guayaquil, takes a job with the pro-austerity government. As the novel begins, Leo has just persuaded Antonio to return to the city, and together they’re supposed to help a friend run for office, which never really happens. Meanwhile, we get oblique connections to their poor classmate, Rolando, who with his girlfriend Eva attempts to rouse people to action by staging a series of radio plays.
But all of this feels like an aside, and whatever revolution we thought would be staged isn’t.
No political campaign, no people taking to the streets. But The Revolutionaries Try Again is just as much an attempt to sort out why telling feels so futile: as a writer, as an undocumented migrant, as a person. Rolando never tells Eva that his sister was almost raped while working as a fifteen-year-old maid. Eva never tells Rolando about how her brother was abducted during her youth. Instead they have imaginary dialogues with the siblings they love but don’t speak to, replaying conversations that can’t, and won’t, happen. Nor are they alone. Leopoldo and Antonio are extremely close friends, but don’t have an easy emotional intimacy. Antonio dreams up, time and time again, what it will be like to see Leopoldo for the first time in over a decade, thinking about what he might like to say but won’t. What’s the point, the suggestion is, of recounting things when things can’t be adequately characterized by words?
To search for the source of his impulse to return to Ecuador by revisiting the night the baby christ cried was pointless, Antonio thinks, just as it’s pointless for him to teach English to immigrant women at El Centro Legal for one measly hour a week, photocopying pages from an ESL book at the last minute and hoping they would smile at him in gratitude, knowing he was fooling himself into believing he was being useful— if all the NGOS and nonprofits of the world ceased their activities, Antonio had asked a British art critic during their first date, would anyone notice?
Many things in the book are described as pointless: Antonio’s baby Jesus story and his tutoring, but also Rolando’s radio plays, Jesuits serving the poor (and, for that matter, the very existence of the lord above), and the unrealized political campaign that brings Antonio back to Guayaquil.
But what Cardenas does so adeptly in his debut novel is highlight conditions against which feelings of pointlessness emerge in the first place. Economic, political and social violence are senseless, and render us unable to tell neat linear narratives about injustice and protest. We’re left with montage, one that resists neat stories about revolutionaries taking on their oppressors, left with weeping statues of baby Jesus, rape, false accusations, and economic sanctions.
Amidst violence, one worries that words too will be twisted and appropriated to serve other ends. But silence is too easy, as Alma reminds Antonio: “I did say you’re an imbecile of course everything’s pointless we’re all going to die doesn’t matter we’re still here/ I’m still here.” That injustice may be here for a long time, is all the more reason that Cardenas’s book should too.
At one point as I was reading Aimee Bender’s remarkable new novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, I was eating the food that is, to me, more delicious and comforting than almost anything else in the world: shredded cheddar-jack cheese melted on Tostitos tortilla chips. I stick a pan of them under the broiler and let the cheese bubble and harden a bit; the chips get just a little burnt so the whole thing is a crunchy, salty miracle. That same week, I devoured the very first lobster roll I’ve ever had, crisp buttery bread butting up against the cool, liberally spiced meat. Later, there was a batch of sangria made to salvage an overly sweet bottle of red wine, saved by some fresh lemon juice, tart nectarines and the strawberries that have just come into season. There were frozen pierogies. There were overcooked eggs cloaked with Kraft singles.
What I ate while absorbed in the pages of this book seemed to matter more than with most others, because Bender’s latest is really about the intimate experience of food. Her protagonist, Rose Edelstein, has an excruciatingly sensitive palate. When her mother bakes her the titular lemon cake (with chocolate frosting) for her ninth birthday, Rose realizes she has the burdensome ability to taste people’s feelings in the food they cook. Behind her mother’s whirling energy and loving gestures, Rose tastes her emptiness, so bitter she can barely choke it down:
[T]he goodness of the ingredients—the fine chocolate, the freshest lemons—seemed like a cover over something larger and darker, and the taste of what was underneath was beginning to push up from the bite. I could absolutely taste the chocolate, but in drifts and traces, in an unfurling, or an opening, it seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother, tasting a crowded sense of her thinking, a spiral, like I could almost taste the grit in her jaw that had created the headache that meant she had to take as many aspirins as were necessary…
On the surface, it’s a natural premise for an author whose odd, twisty stories have featured a man with a giant hole in his stomach, people who have pumpkins for heads, and a husband who returns home from war without his lips. But it seemed to me at first more like the seed of one of those fantastical tales than a premise that could sustain a longer narrative. But actually, it does even more than that: Attached to a gorgeous, devastating coming-of-age story, Bender’s descriptions of how feelings and flavors mingle manages to be some of the most sumptuous, original—and really, personal—food writing I’ve ever read.
Ultimately, it was food writing—mouth-watering restaurant reviews, travelogues, narrative recipes, profiles of dishes and the chefs responsible for them—along with (somewhat embarrassingly) the televised insistence of Anthony Bourdain, that made me reverse thirteen years of vegetarianism last summer. I’m still not used to looking over a menu and understanding that the whole thing is open to me. I didn’t change my diet as part of any kind of manifesto or major ethical shift; I did it because I got addicted to reading and learning about food, and I wanted to know what it was like to eat an oyster. I wanted to taste the foods whose aromas that taunted me. Having grown up in a kosher home before I cut out meat entirely, there was a long list of things I’d never even tried. Changing my rules changed my sense of the world, and of my place in it.
So maybe I was particularly good audience for a story so invested in the secret life of food. But as so many of us become obsessed with the story and singularity of what’s on our plates, the literalness of Rose’s tastes really speaks to the complicated life of a human appetite. Read with a certain mindset, the book can seem to portray a sort of locavore dystopia, subtly pointing out that we might not really want to know everything about everything we put in our mouths. Thankfully, Bender only hints at this ethical dimension of Rose’s abilities. She’s also not really interested in the rather fascinating implications of what could be understood as an eating disorder, barely describing the state of Rose’s body, or the character’s own sense of it. Instead, Bender cares about how we live with food, and through it: the subtle dramas behind a toasted bagel overwhelmed by cream cheese, the mind-bending Neapolitan pizza from the swanky new restaurant, a stale bag of chips, a berry crisp warm from the oven.
I couldn’t help thinking: If I was like Rose, the juicy earthiness of the organic heirloom tomatoes I excitedly bought at the farmer’s market would matter less than the fact that they ended up tossed in some pasta thrown together by a frazzled, underemployed writer. I’m happy not to know the precise taste of disillusionment, but weeks after reading this novel, I’m finding Bender’s rendering of the possibility hard to shake.
While I’m obsessed with food, I don’t really cook. For years, I didn’t even have a working oven. I love the idea of cooking: I bookmark recipes regularly and with optimism, and whenever I get it together to actually make something—peanut butter brownies for my boyfriend’s birthday, gnocchi with summer vegetables, a simple sauce made from cream, vegetable stock, lemon zest and capers—I’m overly impressed with myself. Mostly I eat overpriced takeout, and otherwise rely on jarred sauce, frozen burritos from Trader Joe’s, Indian food that comes in a little silver pouch and like magic, needs only two minutes in the microwave. While I eat, I watch the Food Network. I read the articles and passionate blogs about how cooking is so easy—and so worth the pay-off!—and I nod my head in agreement. I mean to do it. I aspire to do it. And then I order Thai.
To avoid ingesting insights along with her meals, Rose learns to get by mostly on vending machine food, snacks produced on mechanized assembly lines and “made by no one.” But her powerful taste buds can still suss out the distinct essences imbued by different factories. As for produce, “[B]y the time I was twelve, I could distinguish an orange slice from California from an orange slice from Florida in under five seconds because California’s was rounder-tasting.” A few minor characters in the novel recognize Rose’s usefulness: a conniving high school pal has her over to taste things she cooks, in the hopes that Rose can decode feelings she can’t identify for herself (mostly, she wants to know if her affection for a particular boy is the real thing). Later, a woman offers to hire her to decipher the emotions of troubled children. But Rose isn’t interested in parlaying her skill into a career as some kind of food psychic, handy as that might be. She doesn’t feel superior or special; mostly, she’s just jealous of other people’s obliviousness.
The food that tastes good to Rose has less to do with perfection than honesty. One cafeteria worker at her school makes pizza she can tolerate: “She was sad, true, but the sadness was so real and so known in it that I found the tomato sauce and the melted cheese highly edible, even good.” After she graduates high school, Rose starts eating with more focus, searching beyond quality for what can only be called authenticity. At an Iranian restaurant, she finds “such a rich grief in the lamb shank” that it “was like having a good cry, the clearing of the air after weight has been held.” A dim-sum place “knew its rage in a real way, and I ate bao after bao and left that one tanked up and energized.” And terrifically, “An Ethiopian place on Fairfax near Olympic made me laugh, like the chef had a private joke with the food, one that had something to do with trains, and baldness. I didn’t even get the joke, but the waitress kept refilling my water and asking if I was okay.” It’s not until late in the book that she confronts her fear of eating food she’s made herself—and when she does, her life begins to change.
Certainly, despite her expertise in these pages, Bender doesn’t have the final word on which emotions translate to food and why. You can argue with the range of Rose’s perceptions: Why, for instance, does she taste people’s feelings, but not those of the animals she eats? When it comes to flavor, why is there such a difference between authentic sadness and superficial misery? But perhaps the most striking thing about Rose’s relationship to food is that it is intensely, almost unbearably, current. She tastes the way people are feeling in the moment, the sentiments absorbed by what their hands touch. Meanwhile, in the world outside the book, the emotion of food is mostly related to memories, and to the past: moments and people and whole seasons can be conjured by the taste of pancakes, chicken soup, or even just a thin film of blueberry jam on toast.
Soon after I finished the book, I went to Toronto for my grandmother’s unveiling. At my aunt’s house after we returned from the cemetery, people milled around a table covered with platters of cookies and cakes and fruit, and drank icy pink lemonade of an unnervingly electric shade. As I stood next to my mother and talked to family and friends who were still in shock from my grandmother’s sudden death last summer, I picked at a slice of moist blueberry coffee cake my mother had made in a spate of focused, likely fraught baking for this gathering. In at least that case, I didn’t need to taste what went into the cake to know what did.