A few of the twentieth century Russian history books that I’ve read have touched on a detachment of Czech soldiers who were stranded in Russia after World War I. The Bolshevik Revolution soon followed and the soldiers remained stranded, thousands of miles from home. The soldiers who numbered as many as 40,000 and were stretched out along the length of the Trans-Siberian were, according to John Keegan in his history of World War I under the sway of an anti-Bolshevik officer and were “both in a position and soon in a mood to deny the use of the railway to anyone else.” In his novel, The People’s Act of Love, James Meek drops into to the town of Yazyk amongst a stranded group of these Czech soldiers. In a book of many protagonists, the point of view of Lieutenant Mutz, one of those Czech soldiers, is the most reliable. Mutz, who mostly wants to return home after years in Siberia is surrounded by a collection of eccentrics. Anna Petrovna, the woman who Mutz would like to escape with, is restive and noncommittal. Mutz’s boss Matula is a vicious young man drunk on the power he wields over the small backwater that his soldiers occupy. Yazyk is also home to mystical sect of castrati who lurk through the town like ghosts. But the catalyst for much the book’s action is Samarin, an escaped prisoner who claims he is being chased by a cannibal. Meek ably handles these characters and many others as he crafts a story that feels both otherworldly and historically accurate. The novel was longlisted for the Booker and is engagingly dense and action-filled – worthwhile for any reader but a must for anyone interested in Russian literature or history. Meek himself is not Russian. He’s British, formerly a journalist, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent for many years.
I’m a big fan of narrative-style history books, and it’s always fun to see a heavily researched piece of history that floats along like a novel. The problem with Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City is that it fails, at times, to feel like a strong account of historical events. The book follows two and a half storylines that intertwine, if only geographically, but never intersect. The backdrop is the World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893, a now forgotten event that transfixed the world at the time. Daniel Burnham is the renowned architect of the Fair, beset by meddlers and bureaucrats; H. H. Holmes, whose torturous schemes are at times hard to fathom in their cruelty, is a serial killer who haunts Chicago during the Fair; and Patrick Prendergast, to whom the book only gives over two dozen or so pages, is an increasingly delusional man whose obsession with Chicago’s showy political scene leads to tragedy. The plotlines in the book are fascinating, both because Larson lends them a cinematic flair and because there is a continual sense of wonder that history has managed to forget such vibrant characters. Despite, or perhaps because of, Larsen’s ability to craft such a readable story, the book does inspire some raised eyebrows at times. A scan through the notes at the end of the book reveals the times when Larsen speculates about his characters in the absence of hard facts. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this practice, these moments in the book tend to feel transparent. Likewise, the structure of the book is a bit flimsy as the three characters within share little but being in the same city during the same period of time, and the strenuous effort put forth by Larsen to connect these three characters tends to detract from the stories themselves, as each character is certainly worthy of his own book (even the poor, bewildered Prendergast). Despite these flaws, the book was still a delight to read, especially on my daily rides on Chicago’s elevated trains which still snake through the city as they did when the World’s Fair was held here in 1893.
If life is a novel, death is an editor. It strikes through every extraneous detail. It erases periods of divagation, inactivity, and muddle. What’s left is the stuff of obituaries and of eulogies: stories that fit together with a retrospective snap. Applied to public figures who spend their lives “on message,” this tendency to condense may even represent a kind of fulfillment. Writers are an odd subspecies of public figure, however – an expansively private one – and when a writer dies, our journalistic last rites run the risk of cutting his million-word testimony down to a stingy clutch of nouns. Thus David Foster Wallace and John Updike, the two greatest literary losses of the last year, get reduced to “difficulty” and “depression” (in the former case) and to “virtuosity” and “complacency” (in the latter).Another quirk of writers, though: they bequeath us the tools we need to reach our own conclusions, without the mediation of professionals. For those disinclined to snap judgments, the death of a novelist may invite a long – even leisurely – period of reconsideration. Meandering through the back catalogue (it’s all back catalogue now) even longtime readers may stumble on a different writer than the one they thought they knew.This spring, I found myself returning to Updike’s fiction of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and I was startled by how it diverged from my memory of it. In particular, I was bowled over by the strangeness, the reckless compassion, and the emotional power of Rabbit Redux (1971). Late in life, Updike published a slimmer novel called Terrorist, which met with distinctly mixed reviews. Reviewers found fault with Rabbit Redux, as well, Updike confesses in his introduction to the Rabbit Angstrom omnibus. But, in its ardent engagement with the revolutionary zeitgeist of Nixon-era America, Rabbit Redux now looks to be Updike’s great novel of the age of political terror.The novel, the first sequel to the celebrated Rabbit, Run, opens with Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, American Everyman, more or less reconciled with the wife he abandoned in the earlier book. Updike lovingly describes the creature comforts that surround the Angstroms in Penn Villas, a middle-class suburb of decaying Brewer, Pennsylvania: their “flagstone porchlet,” their “door with its three baby windows arranged like three steps, echoing the door-chime of three stepped tones.” Their son Nelson is on the cusp of puberty, astronauts are about to make a moon landing, and all is right with the world, or at least hunky-dory.Rabbit soon discovers, however, that his wife, Janice, is contemplating an abandonment of her own. Now a working woman, she has succumbed to the charms of her coworker, Charlie Stavros. Stavros shows her an emotional and sexual solicitude Harry has never been capable of. The hell of it is, Harry can’t bring himself to hate Janice, or even her lover, an upwardly mobile, politically progressive ethnic food aficionado who seems to hail from some distant, shag-carpeted planet. Updike – the poet laureate of infidelity – can’t bring himself to hate the adulterers either. Indeed, both author and protagonist take Janice’s sexual awakening as an opportunity to interrogate the Eisenhower-era values of which Harry Angstrom is a repository… and to find them, in their inflexibility, wanting.Updike, who openly admired many of those values, has sometimes been characterized by writers to his left as a reactionary. However, a bravura early scene in which Angstrom and Stavros debate the war in Vietnam exposes this as a caricature. We sympathize with Stavros, who “‘can’t get too turned-on about cops bopping hippies on the head and the Pentagon playing cowboys and Indians all over the globe.'” He tells Janice, of Harry, “‘See how little and tight his mouth gets when he talks about politics?'” And we sympathize with Harry, who claims not to think about politics. “‘That’s one of my Goddam precious American rights,” he says, “not to think about politics… And it really burns me up to listen to hotshot crap-car salesmen dripping with Vitalis sitting on their plumped-up asses bitching about a country that’s been stuffing goodies into their mouth ever since they were born.” To which Charlie retorts, “‘I want to follow your reasoning. Tell me about the goodies we’ve been stuffing into Vietnam.'”More than Bellow in Mr. Sammler’s Planet (that other great response to ’60s-era unrest, and surely an influence here) Updike is willing to interrogate his own biases, to exercise negative capability. He seems to conclude that politics are personal on both sides of the ideological divide. Rabbit can’t disentangle the message from the messenger; Stavros can’t see what a lousy messenger he is. Which doesn’t mean they can’t try. Stavros will eventually try to persuade Janice to return to her husband. And Harry will touchingly parrot Stavros’ point-of-view later in the book, in an attempt to enlighten Janice’s father. Indeed, by this point, Rabbit Redux has assumed a form borrowed from the counterculture Updike is supposed to have hated: the consciousness-raising session.The middle section of the book, wherein Janice moves out of the house – is a long, strange, irresponsible trip. Harry begins smoking dope and exploring the down-and-out side of Brewer. He entangles himself with a teenage runaway named Jill and a petty criminal-cum-black-nationalist named Skeeter. Updike’s willingness to hurl himself into the thicket of American race relations is remarkable. “The bus has too many Negroes,” Harry thinks, at one point.Two of the men in the shop are Negroes, Farnsworth and Buchanan, you didn’t even notice; at least they remember how to laugh. Sad business, being a Negro man, always underpaid… But against these educated tolerant thoughts leans a certain fear; [Harry] doesn’t see why they have to be so noisyThis is what the world of many white male characters in novels might look like, stripped of political correctness and bad faith. I can imagine readers who are black, or are women, or both, taking exception to Jill and Skeeter, who hover somewhere between character and symbol. But Harry’s re-education at the hands of these outcasts, his awakening to the sources of his own basic good fortune, precipitates a real change in him. Perhaps it even precipitated a change in suburban readers, circa 1971, as a novel more deferential to pieties or circumspect about stereotypes could not.A prominent critic condemned a later Updike novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, for its “theological complacency.” For all I know, he may have been right. But this verdict is far too narrow to contain the vast corpus Updike left behind. Rabbit Redux shows a writer willing as few other American novelists are (Norman Rush comes to mind) to suspend judgment on his characters’ political, philosophical, moral, and theological failings – to love them anyway. Indeed, it is characteristic of Updike that the “rhetoric of social protest and revolt… antithetical to [his] Fifties education” (as he puts it in the omnibus introduction) aroused not his defenses, but his curiosity.Agitated by the times, his limpid prose in this book approaches the visionary. Near the end, Harry thinks of Jill, now gone, and remembers “her daughterly blind grass-green looking to him for more than shelter.” We are reminded, adverbially, of the daughter Harry lost in Rabbit, Run. Yet even in his redoubled grief – that extraordinary, comma-less catharsis – there is some hopeful green stuff woven. Rilke wrote that beauty was merely the beginning of the arc of terror. Rabbit Redux suggests a corollary: that terror may sometimes be the beginning of the arc of beauty.
As the war in Iraq commenced what seems like ages ago with the frenetic coverage of embedded reporters and the televised firefights, I remember looking forward to reading some of the books that would inevitably come out of this media frenzy. In the nearly two years since there have been many of these books, some good and some bad. I recently read a couple of them. Actually I listened to Naked in Baghdad by NPR correspondent Anne Garrels on the long drive from Chicago to New York. The audiobook is read by Garrels and her husband Vint Lawrence. Garrels’ strong, familiar voice added a lot to the experience. Though Garrels was one of just a handful of American journalists to stay in Baghdad during the run-up to war, the political and military machinations going on around her are just one element of the book. The meat of the book is devoted to her personal relationships with her fellow journalists, minders, drivers, and the myraid Iraqi officials who spent the regime’s final days collecting bribe money. As an inside look into the harrowing life of a war correspondant, the book is brilliant, filled with menacing bad guys and explosions that are way too close for comfort. But Garrels is at her absolute best as she delves into the backroom politics of the world of the macho foreign correspondant. She revels in the fact that American television left Baghdad before the war, leaving only an old school contingent of print reporters to cover the invasion from the capital. She pulls no puches as she berates CNN’s arrogance and Geraldo Rivera’s foolishness. Her demand is for professionalism over sensationalism.Most journalists were forced by uncertainties in Baghdad to cover the war by embedding with American units as they invaded Iraq. Rick Atkinson was one of these embedded journalists, and his book, In the Company of Soldiers tells the story of his time with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. Aside from his duties with the Washington Post, Atkinson is also a military historian of some repute (his World War II book An Army at Dawn won a Pulitzer in 2003) and it shows. He is interested most in the tactics employed during the invasion and in the commanders who implemented them. Where Garrels delivers portraits of shady Iraqi bureaucrats and flamboyant European journalists, Atikinson’s narrative is tied to Major General David Petraeus, a no-nonesense military man. The 101st, and Atkinson along with them, saw their share of action during those early days, but much of what transpired during those first weeks feels like a footnote — or ancient history — compared to all that has happened since. The most interesting parts of the book are the most personal. Atkinson’s daily struggles against the harshness of the desert and the austerity of military life shine far more brightly than the methodical movements of the troops he travelled with. Both books take the US to task for fouling up the aftermath of the invasion, but where Garrels’ concerns seem to arise from her daily interactions with Iraqis, Atkinson’s epilogue seems hastily tacked on, an attempt to save the book from being made irrelevant by the nasty turn that this war has taken.RELATED: In October I met Anne Garrels, and I met Rick Atkinson in October 2003.
When I encounter readers who’ve read all of David Sedaris’ books and are pining for more, I often point them to Fraud by David Rakoff. I based this recommendation on his frequent and frequently amusing appearances on This American Life, and a general idea that he and Sedaris share a certain world view for whatever reason. Well, now I’ve read the book, and I think it’s fair to say that Rakoff is a reasonable substitute for Sedaris, should no Sedaris be available. But they are not the same writer. Rakoff frequently pens a sort of meta-article in which he talks about the particulars and relative merits of his assignment as he embarks on that assignment. I have no idea if the essays that appear in Fraud were published in the same form in magazines or if for every article he crafted a meta-article with which to entertain himself (and us). Either way, the reader feels invited in for a behind the scenes look at what it is like to be a disaffected, overly-qualified, under-ambitious journalist as he takes on his fluffy assignments. In this way he differs from Sedaris, who writes almost exclusively about himself, with no artifice in between him and the reader. The fluffier the assignment, the more devil-may-care Rakoff becomes. He takes jabs at Steven Segal’s new age retreat, a New Englander who walks up the same “mountain” every day, and, most often, himself. At times the persona wears thin, too much cynicism and self-awareness, as when he writes about portraying Sigmund Freud in the window of Barney’s department store. But he redeems the collection with the final two essays in which he lets the reader see his more human side. In “Tokyo Story,” he returns to the city fifteen years after being forced to leave and start over his life after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. Returning, he finds no haunting demons, but instead paints a funny and endearing portrait of a unique city.I have been so relieved to find that the city in and of itself is not enough to unlock the sadness of my younger self. To the contrary, I have been unable to wipe the smile from my face since I arrived, giddy with a sense of survival. It’s not even clear to me that that old misery is still housed in my body anymore. I have been avoiding a monster behind a door for thirteen years, only to find that it had melted away long ago, nothing more than a spun-sugar bogeyman. It’s definitely not the first time in my adulthood I have realized this, but it never fails to cheer me to have it proven yet again that almost any age is better than twenty-two. The final essay, “I Used to Bank Here, but That Was Long, Long Ago” is about Rakoff’s bout with Hodgkin’s. Here he is at is best, and his typically casual vulgarity is more important to the plot, which revolves around a long lost sperm sample from his cancer days. Ultimately, he revisits his illness, long tucked away after he beat it, and we realize that the cynical Rakoff isn’t so cynical when he’s willing to be brave.
In his other life as a filmmaker, Arthur Bradford made a fantastic documentary about the making of an episode of South Park called 6 Days to Air. The title references how quickly Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and crew are able to produce a half an hour of blistering animation, and in one particularly insightful moment, Parker offers this bit of writing advice:
I sort of always call it the rule of replacing “ands” with either “buts” or “therefores.” And so it’s always like: This happens, and then this happens, and then this happens. Whenever I can go back in the writing and change that to: This happens, therefore this happens, but this happens. Whenever you can replace your “ands” with “buts” and “therefores,” makes for better writing.
What he’s talking about is narrative economy, about figuring out the most efficient way to tell a story, but he’s also tapped into something deeper — namely, that the power of scenes is, in many ways, relational. Stories work best, in other words, when sequential action is causal or obstructive.
One can see why Bradford would make a documentary about these guys. The stories in his new collection Turtleface and Beyond are positively stuffed with “buts” and “therefores.” The stories even function almost like episodes, and, as Parker instructed, each story employs skillful economy. A young man named Georgie is our narrator, and this consistency greatly increases the impact of each story as the collection moves along: Georgie is more and more defined, so we don’t need to be reintroduced to him, leaving Bradford with the chance to move directly into his weird, funny adventures.
In the opener, “Turtleface,” Georgie watches his friend unwisely decide to run down a cliff face into a river. Amazingly the friend makes it into the water. Unfortunately, he smacks his face into a floating turtle. Georgie, tellingly, seems to care as much for the now-broken turtle as he does for his cavalier buddy, even bringing the little guy home until he’s mended. Later, in “Snakebite,” Georgie and a few friends stop to help a hitchhiker who’s been bitten by a cottonmouth. Georgie, of course, ends up being the one to suck the poison out (a doctor asks him later, “Why the hell did you do that?”). And still later, Georgie gets mixed up with a partner at a law firm who’s going through a mid-life crisis. Georgie, with nothing but the best intentions, becomes the lawyer’s middleman for drugs and prostitutes.
The point is: Georgie is a good guy who ends up in some compromising situations. But Georgie’s goodness is more than just a character trait –– it’s a narrative strategy. Through his hapless narrator, Bradford is able to push the stories into some absurd territory, because Georgie means well, and doesn’t always see where his choices will take him. In other words, Georgie grounds the stories for the reader, weighting them so they don’t float off into pure silliness.
Sometimes, Georgie should have seen the shit coming. When he gets “fired from my job for a stupid indiscretion,” (which, we readers assume, refers to the time he slept with a patient at a mental institution where he was an orderly, but could be referencing any number of other fuck-ups) he wants to “leave town.” The person with whom he finds a ride is a man named Paul O’Malley. Here is the ominous (but also very funny) preview of their trip together:
Paul was passing through town on his way to the West Coast and had announced that he would be gone in the morning. I saw him two weeks later though, right after I’d been fired from that job. He was wandering downtown, looking a little dazed and strung out.
“I haven’t slept in three days,” he told me.
“I thought you were going out west,” I said.
“But you said you were leaving two weeks ago.”
“I got hung up. Wait, two weeks? It hasn’t been that long.”
“Yes, it has.”
“Oh.” Paul scratched his head.
Most of us would probably take Paul’s sudden loss of two weeks as a sign to avoid spending hours alone and on the road with this dude, but Georgie, desperate and good-hearted, jumps right in. (Spoiler: the trip doesn’t go well).
Yet this is another part of Georgie’s charm: he’s willing to do stupid, irresponsible things — dangerous, illegal things — but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s a decent person. Take, for instance, the funny and poignant story “The LSD and the Baby.” Yes, Georgie agrees to go out into the woods with a guy named Richard to “sample a batch of LSD he recently completed.” And, yes, he doesn’t object when he learns that a woman named Sabrina and her baby are tagging along. But when both Richard and Sabrina disappear into the woods (presumably to have acid-enhanced sex), good ole Georgie takes the baby’s life into his own hands, first to a hospital (the baby eats some possibly poisonous berries) and then to his job, and all while tripping balls. Georgie only gets a quiet yet dignified catharsis at the end of the story, but it’s a lovely moment.
I was reminded of Tom Perrotta’s Bad Haircut and Junot Díaz’s Yunior stories in Drown and This Is How You Lose Her. And then, of course, going back to Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty in On the Road and even further back to Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Sad Young Men (and Keith Gessen’s Sad Young Literary Men). Essentially, these are all –– from Bradford to Hemingway, the lot of them –– often just stories about young men doing stupid shit, or young men not doing enough good shit, or young men doing good shit in the wrong way. In many cases, we assume the narrator is a stand-in for the author (or, as in Gessen’s case, he takes all the pretext of guesswork out of it by naming his narrator Keith), and we often interpret each piece as some form of self-reflection. They read easy, almost like reportage, and their authenticity is built into the voice, the rhythm and flow of the prose. Sometimes, though, the shallowness isn’t a disguise for anything more meaningful than the story itself, which places great weight on the likeability, and not to mention the humanity, of the protagonist. Sal Paradise, I can live without. And to me Dean Moriarity seems like a real asshole. Yunior, though, I adore. And Georgie, well, Georgie’s a good dude in my book. As I read, I wanted to follow along with him, so even when a story didn’t exactly work as a whole, I didn’t mind — Georgie had my back.
It’s been 14 years since Bradford’s last story collection Dogwalker. In the meantime, he hasn’t been what anyone would call prolific, but he’s been living quite a life. He worked in New York for a while, he recently wrote, and he “directed a summer camp, made several films, had two children, and currently works at a juvenile detention center in Portland, Ore.” And it’s true: the stories in Turtleface and Beyond do read like the result of someone with a multitude of absurd experiences, real, visceral familiarity with these people, this world depicted within its pages. Good for him.