I love finding old pocket paperbacks in thrift stores. That’s how I ended up with a 1960s-era British pocket Penguin edition of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. On the cover, the price is listed as “3’6” which, though I’ve been to England, I can’t decipher. On the first page, in pencil is the price – 50p – wanted by some British used book dealer years ago, and in pen, the name of one of the book’s former owners. I myself got the book for around fifty cents or a dollar from one of the neighborhood secondhand shops, and though I’d love to keep it on my shelf, I’m tempted to release it back into the wild so it may continue on its journey. The book does indeed fit in my pocket and so was a good one to take on my recent trip to Los Angeles. I read the book in its entirety on the plane ride home. I love reading books like that, in one sitting while in transit, because it feeds into a romantic notion I have of what I might spend my days doing if I had no other responsibilities. But, of course, I have responsibilities and so does Tommy Wilhelm, the protagonist of Bellow’s book. Wilhelm, a failed Hollywood actor living in a New York hotel a few floors removed from his father, appears to be nearing the low ebb of a long downward slide. He has lost his job, owes money to his wife (who won’t give him a divorce), rarely sees his children, fell out with his mistress, and is so nearly penniless that he must ask his father to cover the rent. Tommy’s father, Dr. Adler (Tommy changed his name in Hollywood), sees his son as a big baby. Seize the Day reminded me of both Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. All the books of ruminating, somewhat pathetic male protagonists who appear to live their lives mostly in their heads. Wilhelm ruminates mostly on sorrows of lost opportunities, yet the book is shot through with humor as well, especially as Wilhelm gets more and more wrapped up in a stock market scheme. Bellow’s book is sad and funny and deserves to be read far more than it is. (Special thanks to Millions contributor Patrick who first pointed me to this book years ago – it just took a little while for me to get to it.)
There was a time some years ago when it began to rain in my apartment. I was eighteen, living alone in a large city, going to school all day and working all evening; distracted, in other words, and perhaps not as on-the-ball as I should have been when the shower started dripping. The drip turned into a permanent stream of scathingly hot water, and then the bathroom, being small and virtually airtight—neither of the apartment’s windows opened—filled with steam.
Steam, of course, condenses into water, and within a day or two the bathroom had turned almost subtropical. Raindrops fell gently from the ceiling; paint bubbled; water slid down the walls and pooled in the corners; a mushroom appeared in an unreachable corner. I imagined the damage being done to the paint job was irreparable, but this struck me as a reasonable trade-off for the landlord’s failure to do anything about the cockroaches.
All this to say that I feel some kinship with Lars, the narrator of Lars Iyer’s Spurious, a debut novel and a meditation on friendship, failure, the apocalypse, messianism, and mold. Lars’ apartment is being overtaken by a mysterious damp, something altogether darker and more sinister than the indoor rain I dealt with in Toronto all those years ago, originating from somewhere within his kitchen wall. Brown waves of damp spread over the plaster. The wall is wet to the touch. Florid mold blooms in patches and spores drift through the air. Water can be heard rushing somewhere behind the bricks. Experts in the field are baffled.
The damp, it seems, might be symptomatic of larger problems. Specifically, the world is coming to an end. Lars is a writer, as is his “slightly more successful” friend W., and they’re united by, among other things, the certainty that we’re living in the End of Times. It isn’t the easiest of friendships—“One of us is dragging the other down, W. and I decide, but which one? Is it him or me?”—but there’s a certain amount of shared history. They’ve been friends for a while now:
W. remembers when I was up and coming, he tells me. He remembers the questions I used to ask, and how they would resound beneath the vaulted ceilings. —‘You seemed so intelligent then’, he says. I shrug. ‘But when any of us read your work…’, he says, without finishing the sentence.
Lars and W. are oddly inseparable, despite W.’s fondness for peppering Lars with verbal abuse. He does it out of love, he says. (“‘Yes, I love you’, says W. ‘You see, I can talk about love. I can express my feelings. Not like you’.”)
They are somewhat obsessed with Kafka, although since theirs is a literary friendship, considerations of Kafka raise an unsettling question: which one of them is Kafka, and which one of them is Max Brod? They might both be Brods. It’s a possibility. Actually, it seems increasingly probable. They’re stuck in the End of Times, and they are neither the men nor the intellectuals whom they’d like to be. “’Compare our friendship,’
says W., ‘to that of Levinas and Blanchot’. Of their correspondence, only a handful of letters survive. Of ours, which takes the form of obscenities and drawings of cocks exchanged on Microsoft Messenger, everything survives, although it shouldn’t. Of their near daily exchanges, nothing is known; of our friendship, everything is known, since I, like an idiot, put it all on the internet.
It’s true, he did put it all on the internet. Spurious originated as a blog.
They aspire to think truly original thoughts, Lars and W., but also, they want to be led. They long for meaning, for direction, for better gin. They are mentorless, and they would like to find a guide through the intellectual wilderness. It isn’t that they’ve been unable to find one—they’ve gone through three leaders so far—but Lars and W. make the same misstep each time. Each time they find a leader they go and tell him that he’s their leader, at which point the leaders understandably distance themselves.
They suspect that if one of them were to have a truly original thought, just one, that might elevate them and change everything. This hasn’t happened yet, and they’re adrift and painfully aware of their shortcomings in a world that seems to them to have come undone; despite this, they’re “essentially joyful,” and the book has a marvelous lightness of touch. In the meantime, something terrible is happening in Lars’ apartment. If the world’s moving toward the end of days, the apartment’s headed there even faster.
The book’s flaw is its insistence on repetition. Several things are mentioned two or three times, and it’s not at all clear to me that the repetition serves the work. We know that W.’s friends prefer W.’s girlfriend Sal to W., for instance, because we’re told this twice. On the same page.
But the repetition is a minor qualm. Iyer has a remarkable control of tone. It’s the End of Times, the narrator and the only other character in the book ache with self-disgust, most of the text is concerned with Lars and W.’s endless yammering, there are chapters about mold. The kind of book, in other words, that sounds like it ought to be unreadable, but manages to be intelligent, wildly entertaining, and unexpectedly moving instead.
In Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, Sarah Manguso writes of what compelled her to keep a diary, an exhaustive, exhausting project she undertook for 25 years:
I didn’t want to lose anything. That was my main problem. I couldn’t face the end of the day without a record of everything that had ever happened.
Although the project was impossible — capturing every moment is like making a map at one-to-one scale — the effort seems crucial. “I couldn’t think of any way to avoid getting lost in time.” Manguso writes of a fear of endings, of rushing her life to each new beginning. Yet this is not only the story of Manguso’s diary-keeping but, rather, of its end.
After a quarter century of meticulous recording, Manguso becomes pregnant and becomes a mother. At first, the fog of pregnancy-brain brings on a temporary amnesia that interferes with the practice. But it is the birth of her son that disentangles Manguso from her diary for good. It is not her cloudy mind or busy life, but the way motherhood transmutes her sense of time and memory and her place in that terrain:
In my experience nursing is waiting. The mother becomes the background against which the baby lives, becomes time.
I used to exist against the continuity of time. Then I became the baby’s continuity, a background of ongoing time for him to live against. I was the warmth and milk that was always there for him, the agent of comfort that was always there for him.
Manguso’s anxiety in the face of endless moments is superseded by a timelessness in which “My body, my life, became the landscape of my son’s life.” The extraordinary moments of Manguso’s life are now, she finds, the extraordinary moments of her son’s life. And her memories of him defy the rules of memories she had known before: “The memory should already be fading, but when I bring it up I almost choke—an incapacitating sweetness.” She records these memories dutifully in her diary for a while. And then she stops.
The diary itself, Manguso tells us, is 800,000 words long. (In an afterward she explains the pragmatic, and wise, decision not to excerpt any of its text.) Ongoingness is contrastingly spare, built of fragments or moments no longer than a page. Most are much shorter, a few brief paragraphs with white space between them to breathe. You can read the book all at once even if you pause to absorb between moments, as the white space invites you to do. I finished it in one sitting, and as soon as I did I felt sure I would read it again.
There is a remarkable sureness to this book, a calm hush like that of a person who speaks softly so that you lean in to listen. When Manguso writes things like, “My students still don’t know what they will never be. Their hope is so bright I can almost see it,” her earlier gentleness with her younger self saves her from condescension. Her son, in a way, solidified her life: “Now I am old enough to know what I’ll never accomplish.” She writes that she is relieved to never again have to wonder if she’ll have a child, to know the things — “a soldier, a physicist” — she’ll never be. Manguso’s diary entries not only recorded what had happened, they also, in effect, delineated what hadn’t — a constraint of possibility. But motherhood and the simple progress of life limit possibilities on their own. This seems to be a relief. Manguso’s electric questing settles down into a kind of sureness or calm.
If the engine of the essay is doubt, then where is the place for certainty in this form? Essai is to ask; Michel de Montaigne’s motto was “What do I know?” Doubt, not-knowing, and the driving force of questions are the currency and engine of the essay.
Essayists celebrate this not-knowing. In the introduction to his collection, Loitering, Charles D’Ambrosio writes of essay-writing:
Seeking faith with doubt, that’s definition enough for me. Or strike faith, if you must, and leave it at seeking with doubt. And longing. And not-knowing.
D’Ambrosio’s questing takes him, often, out into the world, the reported story a sounding board or tuning fork to resonate the writer’s life and questions. In order to understand the fear of vaccination, Eula Biss in On Immunity calls on Susan Sontag, Voltaire, Bram Stoker, Rachel Carson, and a host of other sources, not least of which is her own conflicted heart. The writer and the reported story intertwine and spiral, resonating and amplifying and juxtaposing. There are rarely solid answers. Perhaps we learn to ask new questions. The essay’s questions are often ravenous. Ongoingness, in contrast, feels sated.
Manguso’s certainty pulls some of her statements toward aphorism:
Then I came to understand that the forgotten moments are the price of continued participation in life, a force indifferent to time.
Left alone in time, memories harden into summaries.
Yet for the most part her declarations are certain, self-contained, but not pat: “even before my body was an instrument for language it had been an instrument for memory.” These feel like essential truths and revelations at the same time. Should we fault a woman her wisdom? How many writers, especially women under retirement age, are willing to baldly be wise? No equivocation, no apologies.
Manguso writes a quest through doubt, but she writes from the other side. Perhaps this is the essayist’s equivalent of the redemptive memoir: a tale of doubts and questions all resolved. Yet this book raises questions even where it doesn’t ask them. If it were so pat and settled it wouldn’t hum in your mind for days after you put it down. What can writing’s purpose be without an audience? How are we to be present in the world? Can we experience everything fully and also remember?
In the essay that I have read on either the first or last day of every writing class I’ve ever taught, “The Essay, an Exercise in Doubt,” Philip Lopate offers a variation on the essayist’s doubt: self-questioning rather than ambivalent. The landscape for interrogation is the writer’s own mind. He calls the essay “a meadow inviting contradiction, paradox, irresolution and self-doubt. The essay’s job is to track consciousness; if you are fully aware of your mind you will find your thoughts doubling back, registering little peeps of ambivalence or disbelief.”
Usually this tracking of consciousness is what Lopate calls “the mind at work on the page,” the essayist’s thoughts enacted and performed. But Manguso tracks her consciousness on a greater scale of time, through the iterations of self that add up to a lifetime. She does not inhabit doubt of herself, because she finds no single self to write from. She writes of the urgency of her diary-keeping practice as well as its obsolesence. She writes, “for twenty years, every day, I wrote down what happened. After I finish writing this sentence I’ll do it again,” and that this is no longer a thing that she does.
Both are true because each page of Ongoingness is its own moment, and although some come chronologically later, this doesn’t make them more right than the others. It’s not an act of doubt but of generosity toward one’s past selves and their passions, fears, and compulsions. As Manguso writes near the end of Ongoingness (if ends are a concept that still apply), “I’ve never understood so clearly that linear time is a summary of actual time, of All Time, of the forever that has always been happening.” In that ongoingness, all our selves are present, not in conflict or doubt but in chorus.
Manguso describes this book within itself. As she comes though the exhaustion of her first trimester, she writes, “I began to see the work I might do next — this, an assemblage of already exploded bits that cohere anyway, a reminder that what seems a violent interruption, seldom is.”
Indeed, in many ways, Ongoingness is a reassurance. Reassurance that life coheres despite gaps in remembrance or narration: continuity is not the same as cohesion. Reassurance that beginnings and endings are traversable. Each “exploded bit” is a beginning and an end on the page — each is punctuated by an end mark, a little coda of finality — yet each flows into the next, the very ongoingness Manguso fears and seeks in this book: moments that are discreet but flow and the aspect of time that is more than a succession of beats. Moments no less discernible from one another than lives.
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms is a novel richly rooted in its conservative northern Nigerian context, yet it is a novel that asks universal questions — is it possible to change someone you love, possible even to challenge the rules of who can be loved and why? On the surface, the novel is the story of Hajiya Binta, a 55-year-old widow, and her affair with a man 30 years her junior — Reza, the so-called “Lord of San Siro.” Reza is a drug dealer who longs for a better life, but is kept back by his flaws, despite Binta’s best efforts to bring him up out of the criminal underworld. But the novel goes beyond a tragic love story and proves not just a biting critique of Nigeria’s political structures but also of its cultural, religious, and gendered norms, challenging what a woman can and can’t do within a conservative society.
The novel unfolds with its focus on Binta, whom we discover has lost her domineering husband to the violent battles between Christians and Muslims in Jos. She longs for a love she has never had in all her years, for unmet desires both sexual as much as relational. With her husband, she “had always wanted it to be different;” she had always wanted “a license to be licentious.” When she makes advances toward her husband and tries to take control of the bedroom, she is punished — “He pinned her down and without further rituals, lifted her wrapper. She turned her face to the wall and started counting. The tears slipped down the side of her closed eyes before she got to twenty.” The moment Binta attempts to stretch the boundaries of female agency in her society is the moment she is pushed back into her supposedly proper place.
In many senses, the novel is a cycle of transgressions and consequences for Binta, and as we follow her affair with the young Reza — a thief who appears in Binta’s home and nearly assaults her, and with whom she falls in love — we are left with a desire to see her circumstances change, and yet we feel a sense of dread knowing that the norms she fights against are too entrenched.
Perhaps it is this common bond of transgression that unites the two lovers — Binta and Reza. But it is the desire for bettering their circumstances that works against their relationship and ultimately pulls them apart. Binta wants to take Reza, the gang leader and fixer for a local politician, and turn him into the man she hoped her deceased son, Yaro, would have become had he not been gunned down by police years before: “She was inching closer to his redemption — her redemption, to making him a better person.”
Reza, at the same time, is trying his hardest to distance himself from his mother, who abandoned him in childhood and left his father to become the “whore of Arabia.” When Binta begins to remind Reza of his mother, he meets his lover’s motherly interventions — when she pays his school admission fees, when she quells his temper — with indifference (Freudians really would have a field day with this novel). And it is only when Binta and Reza free themselves from the attachments of who they want each other to be, that they enter the full throes of their sexual relationship. But these moments are only fleeting bits of passion before relational expectations re-enter their lives, exerting force once more over their attempted subversions.
If the characterization of Binta and Reza at times stalls — when Binta becomes an embittered observer of the scenes around her and Reza a temperamental, ineffectual leader obsessed with his own jaded outlook on life — it is the characterization of many of the side characters that carries the novel through some of its slowest parts. Among these characters is Fa’iza, Binta’s niece who lives with her aunt after losing her entire family to the Jos religious riots. Fa’iza’s struggle to overcome this trauma, years later, is a major subplot in the novel, including a riveting moment when Fa’iza confesses that she can no longer remember the face of her deceased brother. Ironically, Fa’iza is more prepared than her aunt to face the further trauma that occurs toward the end of the novel, and her “disquieting” calm helps Binta realize there is “nothing quite like fighting against loss and, despite one’s best efforts, losing all the same.”
Other strong side characters include Mallam Haruna, a suitor who perpetually invades Binta’s home life to sit near her, listening to his radio and providing a running commentary on the presidential campaign of Muhammadu Buhari as it plays out. The author wisely uses this character to weave in some of the strongest political criticism in the novel, a place where fact and fiction merge. At the same time, Haruna becomes a character the reader learns to hate because of his social maneuvering and rumormongering that ironically prove crucial to the plot of the novel. It is Mallam Haruna after all who first notices Binta and Reza’s trysts, and it is the same man who weasels his way into the presences of certain people of power who prove the catalysts for the novel’s climactic trauma.
And it is also with Haruna that Binta exerts her strongest resistance to the gendered norms of her society. When Binta is repeatedly subjected to criticisms by neighbor women responding to rumors spread by the jealous Haruna, Binta shuts down her suitor’s advances with a bold declaration: “Just allow me to whore myself to whomever I please.”
Sure, Ibrahim’s novel has all the tropes of a romance novel — forbidden love, suppressed desire, sexual exploration (Danielle Steel even gets a mention in the novel) — but what makes this novel so special is its rootedness and resistance to a place the author clearly loves and knows and yet feels frustrated by. Season of Crimson Blossoms is a novel that questions the conditions of African women within an Islamic context just as Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter does while maintaining the same riveting plot points that could be found in a novel by Helon Habila, Ibrahim’s compatriot. We will be reading Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and his future work not only for what he teaches us about place, but for the ways in which the norms of that place are challenged, and the ways we create expectations for one other — expectations that may prove helpful or tragic, or paradoxically the same.
When publishing industry stool-pigeons started whispering last fall that Thomas Pynchon‘s latest would be a detective novel, I couldn’t see what the fuss was about. By my count, he’d already written four. From Hubert Stencil and the Case of the Missing V. to Tryone Slothrop and the V-2 Syndrome, Pynchon has, like Dickens and Dostoevsky before him, often used the form of the mystery-story to structure his loose, baggy monsters. The difference – and it is pretty much the difference between modernity and postmodernity – is that where Bleak House and The Brothers Karamazov tend toward solutions, Pynchon’s mysteries only ramify into further mysteries.
What is actually novel, then, about Pynchon’s new novel? Well for one thing, Inherent Vice gives us a protagonist who is even more apt than its author to digress, to space out, to lose the thread: a pint-sized pothead and sometime gumshoe named Larry “Doc” Sportello. (Don’t ask.) Becalmed, circa 1970, in the surf community of Gordita Beach, Cal., Doc ekes out just enough money as the proprietor of LSD Investigations to keep himself stoned. (LSD, naturally, “standing for ‘Location, Surveillance, Detection.'”) When his ex-squeeze tips him off to a plot to kidnap her new old man, Doc finds himself drawn into an underworld where real-estate moguls, neo-Nazis, and dentists conspire to…uh…do something or other. Or is it when black nationalist Tariq Khalil shows up? Or when surf-rock saxophonist Coy Harlingen goes missing? Oh, who cares, man? Pass me an E-Z Wide and cue The Boards.
Inherent Vice is at its best when (like this trailer, narrated by Pynchon himself) it hews to the half-baked perspective of its hero – when it uses its Raymond Chandler-ish plot as a kind of excuse for its set pieces. Nor are these set pieces merely ornamental. My favorites – the lost empire of Lemuria (“The Atlantis of the Pacific”); visits to any number of greasy spoons; Doc’s acid trip – adumbrate the novel’s moral vision, to the extent that it has one. Here, as elsewhere, Pynchon is on the side of the Preterite. Witness, for example, Doc’s side-trip to Vegas:
According to Tito, the Kismet, built just after WWII, had represented something of a gamble that the city of North Las Vegas was about to be the wave of the future. Instead, everything moved southward, and Las Vegas Boulevard South entered legend as the strip, and places like the Kismet languished. Heading up North Las Vegas Boulevard, away from the unremitting storm of light, episodes of darkness began to occur at last, like night breezes off the desert. Parked trailers and little lumberyards and air-conditioning shops went drifting by.
Also new in Inherent Vice is the mellow bittersweetness that shades the last couple of sentences, the benign half-grin with which much of the book is put across. For great stretches, description retreats entirely, in favor of dialogue. Depending on the level of chemical enhancement, the results can be amusing, if inessential. “Why is there Chicken of the Sea,” one character muses, “but no Tuna of the Farm?” Pynchon has done hippies before, but rarely has his writing felt so loose.
Then again, this looseness, the book’s great innovation, is also the source of its most glaring weaknesses. Because Pynchon is pretty much making stuff up as he goes along, Inherent Vice falls apart whenever it attempts to actually generate suspense. (Presumably, there’s some play going on here with the byzantine conventions of film noir and the gaps in Doc’s memory, but outside of the work of David Foster Wallace, tedium is not a legitimate aesthetic effect.) To put it another way, the book is entertaining except when it isn’t.
Worse: with the exception of Doc and a couple of others, Pynchon half-asses his characters. Character has always been Pynchon’s weakness – too often people in his novels feel like mere linguistic events, conjunctions of syllables – but here the lack of any sense of life beyond the page makes it hard to keep track of who’s speaking, much less whodunit. In the time it takes to disentangle Riggs Warbling from Adrian Prussia, one forgets what the significance of either is supposed to be.
As in 2006’s Against the Day, there are moments here that feel like Pynchon doing Pynchon. The songs, in particular, amount to parodies of parodies. (If you’ve ever wondered whether any of Pynchon’s songs had any aesthetic value, compare Inherent Vice‘s “Just the Lasagna” to anything in Gravity’s Rainbow.)
The novel’s ideas have a recycled quality, too. In this case, though, a quality of obsession redeems them. Pynchon’s great subject has turned out to be not paranoia but history: specifically, those moments in it when the world might change, but doesn’t. If Against the Day amounted to a sprawling catalogue of such moments, Inherent Vice profitably limits itself to a specific instance – one Pynchon lived through. As the novel shambles toward its conclusion, a pedal-note of genuine loss builds:
Tito snored away on the other bed. Out there, all around them to the last fringes of occupancy, were . . . the Starship Enterprise, Hawaiian crime fantasies, cute kids in make-believe living rooms with invisible audiences to laugh at everything they did, baseball highlights, Vietnam footage, helicopter gunships and firefights, and midnight jokes, and talking celebrities, and a slave girl in a bottle, and Arnold the pig, and there was Doc, on the natch, caught in a low-level bummer he couldn’t find a way out of, about how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness…
The effect here is not nostalgia, which packages the past for bite-sized consumption, and so palliates our hunger for utopia. Rather, Pynchon seems to be trying to awaken us to the idea that things might become other than they are, by reaching back for the last time when Americans actually seemed to believe it – before, as Hunter S. Thompson wrote, the “high and beautiful wave” of the middle Sixties “finally broke and rolled back.”
Ultimately – perhaps regrettably – Inherent Vice is a wash. Depending on your angle, it’s either a breezy Something that looks like an airy Nothing, or vice versa. Those looking for a brilliant cannabinoid caper should add The Big Lebowski, The Long Goodbye, or Pineapple Express to the Netflix queue post-haste. But those who believe (with the Buddhists and Yogi Berra) that if things were perfect, they wouldn’t be probably won’t regret a few hours spent in the company of…oh, crap, man. What’s the guy’s name again?