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.)
Expanding the scope and upping the intensity of his debut story collection, 2009’s excellent Knockemstiff, Donald Ray Pollock’s debut novel, The Devil All the Time (out this week in paperback), is a descent into a cauldron of blood spilled in the name of deliverance.
When the novel opens in 1957, Knockemstiff, Ohio (a real town, or “holler,” where the author was born, and near which he still resides) is a place where “four hundred or so people lived…connected by blood through one godforsaken calamity or another…” Pollock uses this setting to stage an examination of the devil’s omnipresence in life and death on earth, or at least on the back roads and in the backyards of his corner of the American interior.
Roaming among several intersecting stories, The Devil All the Time is a book about the intimate side of violence, and how this is maybe the only form that true worship can take. His characters peer as far as they can into the interior of evil, in themselves and in others, desperate to catch a glimpse of something real and beautiful hidden there.
Their stories aren’t about seeing through the darkness; they’re about touching the darkness and feeling how substantial it can be. Luckily for any reader who makes the trip to Knockemstiff, Pollock renders this darkness quite substantial indeed. Without ever verging into the supernatural, his brand of homespun grotesquerie achieves moments of genuinely satanic power.
Despite the dismal cloud that hangs over his vision of the Ohio small town, Pollock himself has recently lived out a pretty rare kind of success story. He worked as a laborer and truck driver for Mead Paper until he was fifty, then quit, got an MFA from the University of Ohio, and now, a few years later, has two books out, both garnering praise from critics as well as from more established noir authors like Chuck Palahniuk and the late William Gay. He’s even been hailed as an heir to Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews.
I don’t think it’s wrong to place him near the Southern Gothic tradition, but not only is he very much from and of the Midwest and not the South, his work is also not quite Gothic. His vision shares neither O’Connor’s faith in ultimate redemption buried in the depths of apparent damnation, nor Crews’ knack for recasting every sad array of lost souls as a carnival of lusty, drunken freaks. Both are forms of levity, while Pollock’s world is sunk deep into a rock bottom that only gets deeper.
The Devil All the Time presents rural American Christianity in the mid-20th century as a snake pit of sadistic preachers, copious bloodletting, and displays of faith forced upon congregations of superstitious illiterates. The set pieces may hark back to O’Connor, but, here, the center is as rotten as the skin.
Nevertheless, Pollock stakes out a theological center of a different kind. It is to be found in his inquiry into how people decide to do evil so as to grasp the simultaneous reality of good. Unlike in O’Connor, good is not a force that defeats evil from within, but rather a force that exists inside of evil and cannot be separated from it, nor ever reached by other means.
In Knockemstiff, it’s both or neither.
In the opening section, Willard Russell, a traumatized WWII vet, tries to cure his wife’s cancer by pouring sacrificial blood over a “prayer log” in the woods behind his house. He comes out here “every morning and evening to talk to God.” Thinking back on it years later, his son, Arvin, recalls the conviction with which his father “fought the Devil all the time.”
Out at this log, as in the many killing chambers that the novel winds its way through, spiritual life is conducted not only in private, but in secret. When Willard feels “the urge to get right with his Maker” he knows he’s “going to need some woods to worship his way.”
Only in the hushed enclosure of the woods, or in the speed and barrenness of the open road, can the soul manifest its hideous contours and admit the reality of its fear, free of the burden of declaring a kind of faith it doesn’t actually feel.
By standing or pretending to stand as bastions against the devil’s incursion, the town and the church deliver themselves wholesale into the devil’s clutches. The Devil All the Time, as a novel concerned with the manifold delusions and aspirations of private spirituality, makes its way ever further from the sites of official congregation, and deeper into the wilderness.
Watching his father lose his lifelong fight, Arvin learns that the devil beats everyone, taking especial pleasure in punishing those who tried to resist. Pollock’s devil will not be denied, but he will cut a deal.
Among those in the devil’s camp are Roy and Theodore, a spider-handling End Times preacher and his crippled sidekick. These two gleefully profane the pulpit of the Coal Creek Church of the Holy Ghost Sanctified, but they’re nothing compared to the Tennessee preacher who turns up later on and begins preying on young girls. Spiteful and morose, his only consolation is that “his mother had decided all those years ago that he was going to be a preacher. All the fresh young meat a man could stand if he played his cards right.”
And then Pollock gives us Carl and Sandy Henderson, a husband and wife who cruise the Midwest and the South, “always on the hunt…in a black Ford station wagon purchased for one hundred dollars…” They pick up young male hitchhikers, drive for awhile, and then Carl asks if they’d like to have sex with his wife.
Once the hitchhiker and Sandy are naked on a picnic blanket just out of view of the road, Carl interrupts them with a gun and a sharp object, hoping for the pleasure of dismembering the young man and photographing the process in loving detail before finally deigning to kill whatever’s left of him.
Marking the extreme end point of the road that all the characters are heading down, Carl believes that murdering strangers is “the one true religion, the thing he’d been searching for all his life. Only in the presence of death could he feel the presence of something like God.”
This need to call the devil onto the mortal plane underlies all of the novel’s expressions of cruelty and desire. The Tennessee preacher finds it by cheating on his wife, because “he needed for a woman to believe that she was doing wrong when she lay with him, that she was in imminent danger of going to hell.” By eliciting this fear in others he proves to himself that he still has “some chance of going to heaven…”
Carl looks at two old bigots in a diner. As he begins to fantasize about killing them, “it was electric, the sensation that went through him just then.” He “couldn’t explain it, but he sure as hell could feel it. The mystery… ”
This sensation only lasts a moment, and it’s only a sensation, not a tangible insight, but it’s enough to shock him out of the state of living death in which he is otherwise interred.
The novel may not be Gothic, but the grotesque is vital to both its aesthetic and its theology.
In Knockemstiff and the many middles of nowhere that surround it, the degradation of the body is not a mirror for the degradation of the soul. It is, rather, a natural and simultaneous counterpart to it.
Carl’s “belly was starting to hang over his belt like a peck sack of dead bullfrogs,” and “his fat, pale, unshaved face looked like some cold and distant star.” Sandy, the “bait” that lures the hitchhikers in, is “rail thin and dirty-looking. Her face was caked with too much makeup, and her teeth were stained a dark yellow…” Overhead, “the sun popped out like a big, festering boil in the sky.”
Since death is so prevalent and so vivid, it’s easy to forget the role that life plays. But the grotesque, coming from the idea of the “grotto,” where entities bubble up in endless random forming and reforming, has to allow life and death to bleed together as equally mutable states of being, just like good and evil.
Out at the prayer log, Arvin and his father watch as “maggots dripped from the trees and crosses like squirming drops of white fat.” This shrine doesn’t work to prevent death, but it does work to open a grotto in the Ohio woods.
Unlike much of the existentialist tradition, The Devil All the Time is about fullness, not about emptiness. Throughout its engagement with murder and death, the novel’s focus is always on that which remains on earth: the murderer, the corpse, and the feeling of the devil’s presence, not of God’s absence. There is no transcendent escape from the mire, but, the deeper in you sink, the richer things become.
Remembering O’Connor’s statement that her stories dramatize “the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil,” I asked myself whether there’s any grace in the territory held by Pollock’s devil.
I think not exactly. Rather than attesting to the stable reality or unreality of grace, Pollock attests to the reality of the human need to keep looking. The novel descends into the same conundrum as its characters, sympathizing with their plight but never claiming an overarching perspective from which to judge the efficacy of their pursuits. Pollock stands by his disdain for preachers by never becoming one.
All that’s clear at the end is that if the divine cannot find its way into this world through piety and prayer, it’ll find another way, enlisting the help of anyone willing.
The willing here are, of course, those who become agents of extreme violence. The Devil All the Time is not a book against or even really about violence. It’s a book of violence.
So why go where it wants to take you?
I don’t know if I believe in God or the devil. But I do believe in fear – fear of unseen forces, of other people, and of myself.
There’s a part of me that wants nothing more than relief from this fear. It wants to read a book like this and say, “These are just bad people, doing bad things, all of it made up.” This is the part that wants to lock the door when it hears the devil knocking, and then pretend not even to have heard.
But underneath this is a part of me that terrifies the other part. It’s a part that derives pleasure and even nourishment from inhabiting the minds of characters like these, granting them reality by consenting to imagine them.
It’s the part of me that, like all of the monstrous people in this book, just wants to touch the mystery. It wants to believe that this mystery exists on earth, and not in some other world that can only be glimpsed in dreams, or that must be accepted on a preacher’s say-so.
I don’t think I could touch it by doing the things that Pollock’s characters do – that’s why I’m driven to reading and writing – but I wouldn’t be a reader and writer at all if I couldn’t relate.
It’s the part of me whose greatest fear is not of hearing the devil at my door, but of not letting him in when I do.
My ears perk up when people begin to apologize for using a particular word. For the past few years, that word has been “authentic.” As in, “I know this is cliché to say, but the pizza is just like the pizza in Rome, very authentic.” Or: “You’ll really like this guy’s music; it’s very simple and authentic.” Or: “She’s so down-to-earth, so authentic.” Meanwhile, the pizza is made by a gluten-intolerant chemist who has never been to Rome; the bare bones musician obsessively records everything he plays so that he can perfect his simplicity; and the down-to-earth woman is obsessed with her “personal brand.”
Nothing I’m writing here is particularly revelatory. We’re all aware of the cult of authenticity, yet we can’t stop looking for it. We want our beauties to be natural, an icon’s personal style to be effortless. We accuse music of being overproduced, fiction of being overwritten, and films of being overacted. We hate being made aware of presentation even as we tailor our Instagram feeds to reflect our most “relatable” selves. As Wallace Stevens once wrote of New York City, social media can sometimes feel like “a field of tireless and antagonistic interests, undoubtedly fascinating but horribly unreal. Everybody is looking at everybody else — a foolish crowd walking on mirrors.”
Dan Fox’s book-length essay, Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, speaks to the folly of authenticity by defending its opposite: pretentiousness. Fox argues that one reason people are so attached to the word authentic is that they are afraid of seeming pretentious. To be pretentious is to be phony, arrogant, obnoxious, too big for one’s britches. People cling to the idea of authenticity because “it’s a form of authority; a legitimacy of speech, dress, action.” Being authentic is a way of staying within the bounds of your experience. Calling someone pretentious is a way of saying that someone is out of bounds. But who decides what is in and out of bounds? And what harm is there in going out of bounds? In failing? Fox believes that the dangers of pretentiousness have been greatly exaggerated:
Being pretentious is rarely harmful to anyone. Accusing others of it is. You can use the word ‘pretentious’ as a weapon with which to bludgeon other people’s creative efforts, but in shutting them down the accusation will shatter in your hand and out will bleed your own insecurities, prejudices and unquestioned assumptions. And that is why pretentiousness matters. It is a false note of objective judgment and when it rings we can hear what society values in culture, hear how we perceive our individual selves.
I’m jumping ahead to the end of Fox’s essay, and if you read only one part of this bracing, lively, espresso shot of a book, I’d probably choose the final chapter. But there’s so much good stuff in this essay: insights about art, fashion, acting, music, film, culture, as well as urban and small-town life. I read it in one sitting and it spoke to so much of my life experience that it felt like I’d been waiting for it for years.
Pretentious has always been a live word for me. As a teenager, growing up in a small town, I feared being labeled pretentious, and yet I was drawn to the people, places, fashions, and behaviors that were assigned that label. A partial list of things labeled pretentious: indie rock, foreign films, mobile phones, vegetarian diets, keeping one’s maiden name, carrying bottled water, wearing all black, drinking wine, reading The New York Times, dressing androgynously, taking self-portraits, drinking Starbucks, practicing yoga. It’s a funny list in retrospect — the result, more than anything, of people reacting negatively to cultural change. With the exception, maybe, of keeping one’s maiden name, I would be surprised if any of these things are still considered pretentious in the town where I grew up — if they were ever pretentious in the first place. One of the problems with the word pretentious is that people often mean something else when they use it as an insult: “Pretension gets sticky with a mess of unpleasant traits; narcissism, lying, ostentation, presumption, snobbery, selfish individualism. These are not synonyms for each other. The pretentious are those who brave being different.”
Fox is around my age, and like me, hails from a small town. In a charming postscript to his essay, he describes his “oddball middle-class upbringing” in Wheatley, England, the profound influence of his older brothers who introduced him to The Velvet Underground and David Bowie, his day trips to London, and his obsessive reading of The Face. Thanks to the encouragement of his parents and teachers, he ended up in art school. He’s now based in New York City, where he is a writer, musician, filmmaker, and the co-editor of Frieze, a magazine of contemporary art and culture. As an art critic, he’s well aware of the baggage people bring to contemporary art: “For many people, contemporary art epitomizes elitism and affectation much more than it does creative experimentation and freedom of thought.” At the same time, he’s the kid from a small place whose fascination with Andy Warhol led him to art school, London, New York, adulthood: “I understood pretension as permission for the imagination.”
Fox is able to put pretentiousness in a relatively positive light because he sees it as part of the creative process. It’s what happens when a person’s ambitions are greater than their abilities. It’s a failure of overreach. Failure is not always easy to stomach; pretentious works can be cringe-inducing and even infuriating, and it can feel like a waste of time to apply your intelligence to a piece of artwork or literature, trusting that it will be worth the effort, only to discover that it’s actually quite flimsy and has very little to say. The first part of Fox’s argument is that it’s important to work through these feelings of discomfort and anger to find out what motivates them. The second part is that if it turns out that a work of art is genuinely pretentious — i.e., a creative failure — then we owe it to ourselves to be generous to its creators:
Failure is one mechanism by which the arts move forward — just as it is in science. Not every artist can make a masterpiece, yet it’s the experiments that quietly stumble forward that lead to them. There’s an altogether more generous view of pretentiousness that understands the gap between expectation and actuality as a productive necessity rather than a flaw.
For me, this is where Fox’s argument is most interesting. It makes sense to me to see pretentiousness as part of the creative process, especially since “being pretentious” is a phase that most of us go through as teenagers when we begin to create our own identities. There is simply no way to grow up without pretending, at some point, to know more than you do. And if you wish to adopt an identity that is even slightly different from what’s expected of you, then there is also a period of trying on different roles and behaviors and figuring out what fits. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to do this without being a little bit insufferable. And if you have artistic aspirations? Forget it! Just go ahead and put on the black beret. One of my favorite quotes about the creative process comes from Steve Martin: “Through the years, I have learned there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration.”
As a critic, I also appreciate Fox’s defense of pretension. His essay helped me to think through the struggle I’ve had as a sometime reviewer of books and movies. First, there’s the fact I sometimes feel pretentious as a critic, as if I’m taking on an unearned sense of authority. (And, if I’m honest, some of my critical writing, especially my first forays into the genre, were pretentious; the essays were written to prove myself rather than to engage in conversation.) Second, I’ve never been comfortable diagnosing novels as “pretentious.” Even when I encounter writing that is all style and no substance (the most common form of literary pretension) I hesitate to use the p-word, mainly because I don’t necessarily feel the negative connotation that goes with it. As in my teens, I find myself curious about writers who are described as pretentious. More often than not, that writer turns out to be someone who is up to something interesting — something authentic — a few years later.
I have a dark and abiding love for the electronic dance music of the nineties and aughts. If it shows up on the “Faithless” Pandora station; if it has been compiled in a collection like “I Love Ibiza” or “Ultimate Trance Vol. 18”; if it has the seductive hooting of indigenous pipes and angelic female voices over a thumping beat; chances are I like it. They have machines that pulse a beam of sound and cause you to fall down shitting; I hear this kind of music and compulsively yearn. I first heard it when I was a cooped-up teenager watching MTV Europe in a hot Athenian apartment, and it has always seemed to represent all of the sexy, free, mystical things that are expressly forbidden the adolescent. None of my experiences with this music in the wild have approached its promise when it vibrates in that apartment or in my headphones, while I vacuum the house or write this review. Of all this genre’s notes, the plaintive thumps the loudest.
I tell you this now only because something about the experience of reading J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence recreated this feeling so profoundly that I felt compelled to break out the Faithless and examine the component parts of my enthusiasm. I learned about Submergence on Twitter (never say that Twitter never gave me anything). The novel is, variously, a love story, martyrology, heresiography, science book, and spy novel. Like its Twitter supporters, who spoke in rapturous terms, I was sucked into the novel right away, from its commanding first line — “It was a bathroom in an unfinished house in Somalia in the year 2012″ — to its final epigraph from Horace: “Plunge it in deep water: it comes up more beautiful.”
The plaintive is alive in this novel. It is largely the story of a James More, a British spy who is being held by Somali Jihadists. The latter are beleaguered and ineffectual in the scheme of their own ambitions, but deadly effective for people in “a very dark and specific place” — like James More in his unfinished bathroom, like the fourteen-year-old Somali girl who is hooded with burlap before her stoning. As More is taken out and mock-executed, as he is worked over and then marginally repaired by a marginally sympathetic doctor, as he is taken to a desolate waterless part of Somalia and then to a mangrove forest, he contemplates damp England, and his forebear Thomas More, and, most importantly, a romantic week during which he met and fell in love with a dazzling scientist based in London. The scholarship of this woman, Danny Flinders, forms the leitmotif of the novel: she is interested in the patterns and mysteries of the deepest ocean, the least known part of the world. The novel follows More in his dark and specific place and Danny in hers — a submersible in a near-mythological section of the ocean called the Hadal deep. Submergence flirts both with what is called Big History, a an all-inclusive discipline of which the human experience forms a miniscule part, and with the genre of “CliFi.” As Danny tells James during their interlude:
Let’s say the Atlantic is 160 million years old…We appeared less than one million years ago. We walked in yesterday. It’s not much of a claim. Yet somewhere in the Atlantic right now and in other oceans…some man is smashing up a seamount more ancient than any greenwood on land, which he can’t see and refuses to value.
I have a weakness for bizarre analogies, but I think this novel aligns with my secretly cherished dance music, both its content and its praxis. Thematically, the novel shares many of the same elements with electronic dance music — the erotic, the foreboding, the melancholy, the mystical, the vaguely orientalist. There are reasons that electronic dance music and club culture has been cited in scholarly articles about modern forms of religious or spiritual practice. James himself thinks along these lines — one of his dreams in captivity describes:
…a Lenten carnival. A Christ-like figure on a carnival float was leading a crowd of young people in a dance. The music was techno. The street was narrow. Bodies were pressed up against old buildings…the Christ and the crowd repeated over and over with their hands a thousand years of love, a thousand year of peace.
(The bacchanal is cut short by a suicide bomber.)
Electronic dance music invokes mystical themes, with lines like “This is my church” or nonsense about the ocean: “Open my eyes/ Bigger/ Listen to us/ Swimming in Saltwater.” Its beats are structured for maximum epiphany and release. It is culturally affiliated with mind-expanding drugs that promise vast sensation and awareness that will be lost in the morning. Submergence too encourages spiritual-philosophical meditations about things you don’t really understand. The novel is full of information about the most mysterious parts of the planet and its inhabitants; never before have I heard about a Cuvier’s Beaked Whale, let alone pondered the romance of its liminal existence. Ledgard concludes an unforgettable description of decomposition and reanimation at the bottom of the ocean thus: “Hades is evolved to the highest state of simplicity. It is stable. Whereas you are a tottering tower, so young in evolutionary terms, and addicted to consciousness.” Submergence offers up a similar, if headier and wetter, line of inquiry than the bio-mathematics of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia: “We exist only as a film on the water,” Danny tells James. Whoa.
(This novel encourages you to look for the meaning of things. I learned later that “Hadal” is also the term for “word, “speech,” or “expression” in Somali. I don’t know what this means, but it just seems important. After all, the Angel Gabriel told Mohammed, “Recite”; the miracle Qu’ran was his recitation. For better or worse, this is the mode that Ledgard puts you into.)
Some of my interest in techno music is rooted in that yearning teenage place, trapped in a parental apartment and wishing to be out among the European youth, to whom everything, I erroneously believed, was permitted. The novel is finally calibrated to exploit yearning for the world. Danny and James embody the infinitely attractive versions of statelessness. She is a brilliant and great-looking woman of Australian and Martiniquan descent, with a cabin in Italy, an apartment in London, at home in Switzerland and the bottom of the ocean. James is both personally and professionally tied to his particular state, but he is still at home in the world, a speaker of Arabic. In his normal life you can find him among the Jacaranda trees, wearing linen shirts and eating breakfasts of “papaya and scrambled eggs, toast, and Kenyan tea.” These are cosmopolitans.
Americans are sensitive to the very existence of people this cosmopolitan, and they show poorly in the novel. They are the CIA guy in a food court talking over a terrorist’s errant appendage: “We think it’s an Arab hand, don’t we Bob?” They are on the boat with Danny, the un-fun ones who spend the voyage “sipping iced water,” who “purchase ugly expedition t-shirts.” The women “covered themselves in such loose-hanging cotton garbs…seldom wore high heels in their lives, and…felt [Danny] was a snob and an ice maiden.” Their hotels are “prefabricated, with piped music, airless corridors, tinted windows that would not open, circulated air that could not be shut off, a small plastic bathtub, chlorinated water…” Meanwhile, the British have “Chaucer to Dickens, the First World War poets, Graham Greene typing through the smog and drizzle” (and lots of club hits). The American reader is left feeling a bit resentful: Just you wait, motherfucker — our uniformity is contagious. And then Ledgard has the last laugh, because he shows the very American-ness of that instinct — the blind, obliterating force of American reaction:
It glinted. It burned from its tail. It was an astonishing creation. Entirely human, wholly American…It was impossible in the final moment not to see the missile as something more.
There are several versions of statelessness. In addition to Danny and James, there is the decidedly nasty kind, the men who leave home turf of Saudi, or Pakistan, or Afghanistan, or the United States, to come to Somalia and build a frontier of Jihad, a sad inversion of the roving Muslim scholars of centuries past. Jihadists are often described as harboring a medieval view of things, but this is in many ways an affront to medieval Islam, when the practice of religion and the pursuit of knowledge in the sciences and humanities were often the same thing. I think Ledgard knows, although one is never sure whether James More does, that without these Muslim scholars and their translations from Greek to Arabic and back to Greek, James More’s ancestor Thomas, his beloved Francis Bacon, might never have known their Classical philosophers. (Ironically, a real-life “Thomas More Law Center” exists, in benighted America of course, to forestall those “Radical Muslims and Islamic organizations in America” who “take advantage of our legal system and are waging a ‘Stealth Jihad’ within our borders.”) I disliked how little room the novel made for the non-Jihadi varieties of Islam, but why should it, I suppose, when More’s captors make even less?
Many critics have made passing reference to John le Carré as a point of departure for Submergence, since this novel, because of all the mythical deep and so forth, is so much more than just a spy novel. But some of its success, I think, lies in the dexterous deployment of elements of genre fiction. John le Carré is himself a departure and elaboration of genre. And while he is not poetic in the Ledgard mode, like Ledgard he is so observant, so fond of characterizations, and makes them in such a way — with the dangerous seduction of erudite British public servants — that you are certain they are true. Like the novels of John le Carré, who has a conscience and is often concerned with dark matters, Submergence thrums at the level of high genre from which wonderful novels emerge. Lonesome Dove (the ne plus ultra). Neuromancer. Charlie Smith’s Men in Miami Hotels.
High genre is fiction that allows you to investigate an individual text, because it is full of its own traits and merits, whether in its characterizations, its plot, or its prose. Regular genre, I suppose, is something you can only talk about as a family — tracing the themes shared collectively among its members. High genre will always be vulnerable to the taint of its lower peers, because it shares the equipment, the same beats. This is why people are drawn to True Detective, and yet can accept assertions that it is just another dead naked lady show. I mentioned the praxis of electronic dance music. Detractors would have it that this music is derivative noise, the artless patching together of beats at just the right frequency to make the ladies tear off their cardigans in the middle of the dance hall. These are the same kinds of things that people say about genre novels. But DJs (like medieval Islamic poets, in fact), demonstrate their mastery through use of the material of their peers and predecessors. You don’t always need to reinvent the wheel. You just need to be really good at spinning it.
There is some less-high genre at play in Ledgard’s novel, too. Rand Richards Cooper’s New York Times review of The Constant Gardener called le Carré “the writer who rescued the spy novel from the clutches of Ian Fleming by creating an anti-James Bond — the spy as brooding skeptic, whose freedom from conventional mores conferred not playboy romance but the loneliness of exile.” This was 2001, several years before the Bond franchise was reanimated in a darker key, with all the visual pleasures of earlier Bonds but decidedly more brooding. I’m thinking of the film Casino Royale, which, like Submergence and techno music, is sexy, sad, and possessing of high production values.
Ledgard wrote a scholastic hero and turns your head with trippy descriptions of oceans and molecular life, but some of his pleasures are carnal in the Bond tradition. Consider here, when Danny and James meet over Christmas at the Hotel Atlantic, a Ritz hotel on the French coast, which, with its copper bathtubs and Turcoman rugs, its lobster bisque and suckling pig, is probably the best approximation of one version of heaven in modern fiction. (The ceiling beams have been “soaked in milk for a year to harden them.”) In rustic French country splendor, as the snow blankets the world outside and the wind howls across the Atlantic, these sexy people meet for dinner. She, who will be described as both “a Persian and an alley cat,” is looking spectacular: “Her dress shimmered purple and brown and in and out of those colors, showing off her breasts and hips.” He wore “a blue suit with suede shoes and a gray Turnbull & Asser shirt. He had only his regimental cufflinks with him. A silver parachute on maroon.” As the snow pours, they eat:
…servings of duck foie gras with a peach wine jelly, Scottish scallops, ham, deboned saddle of lamb from the Auvergne, white beans with truffles, sea bream, poached apricots, bay leaf panna cotta, cheese and chocolates. They drank champagne, a house white wine, Rothschild Bordeaux, Chateau Villefranche dessert wine…
And more. They smoke cigarettes. They go upstairs and do it on the rug. By the middle of the novel I was Googling the hotel to see if it existed and if it were possible to get a room. It is now my single greatest material aspiration to stay in a hotel like this.
The Bond element resurfaces in funny little ways, as here, when James travels to a small island to track down the family of a terrorist. A sister cooperates, and after their interview, James has another request.
“You’ve been very kind,” he said. “Might I ask one more favor?”
“But of course.”
“I need a haircut. Do you think you could cut my hair?”
“I’ve never cut gold hair!”
They took a communal taxi across the town. They were squeezed in the back with another woman. He was buttock to buttock between the two…[she] rested her head absently on his knee.”
It’s such a pointless, comparatively light-hearted, pseudo-sexual, weirdly colonialist interlude, right out of Bond. I’ll cut your hair, I murmured to myself, picturing Daniel Craig.
Some people interpret the invocation of genre as a way to temper enthusiasm, which is not my goal here. I am very enthusiastic about this novel, because I found it transporting. Those dinners, those Bondian wine lists, those Condé Nast interiors, are so materially exciting that they do not necessarily detract. If the novel’s national and civilizational categories are shallow, its ecological meditations are deep, its imagery sublime. How can I forget the ship Challenger trawling an unexplored trench, its nets bringing up “slime that covered the inside of the dredge…all that remained of the most exquisite forms of millions of sea squirts, salp, and jellies, whose diaphanous musculature — more remarkable than any alien species yet conceived — had lost its form in air”? Like the dance music of my teens, Submergence takes me to another plane. I’m so young in evolutionary terms, after all, and addicted to consciousness.
Tom Perrotta occupies a rare and privileged place in American letters: the literary writer with popular appeal. He writes serious, thoughtful realism, but his stories have mass appeal: his novels Election and Little Children have both become Academy Award-nominated films, the film version of The Abstinence Teacher is in production, and The Leftovers has recently been picked up as an HBO series. Nine Inches is Perrotta’s first book of short stories since 1994’s Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies, and it is being publicized as his first true short story collection (the stories of Bad Haircut are all linked by the same protagonist, making it something of a novel-in-stories). The dark suburban tales of Nine Inches are compelling and likely to appeal even to many Americans with no special interest in the short story, a form that has notoriously become the province of the ivory tower. But taken as a collection, Nine Inches reveals a fatal flaw that undermines the skilled artistry: Perrotta’s heavy hand.
Perrotta’s strengths as a writer are clear, and they are remarkable: narrative efficiency and unity of vision. Perrotta’s narrators tell the reader what they need to know, when they need to know it. Details, whether internal or external, serve the development of character motivations and narrative tension. Nothing is wasted on, say, removed rumination or subtle texturizing. Our subject is always clear: these people in these places, with these problems, inevitably driven toward these game-changing epiphanies. Nowhere is this clearer than in Perrotta’s tightly-constructed opening sentences: “The Superior Wallcoverings Wildcats were playing in the Little League championship game, and I wanted them to lose”; “Ethan didn’t want to go to the middle school dance, but the vice principal twisted his arm”; “In the turbulent, lonely months that followed the collapse of his marriage, Dr. Rick Sims became obsessed with the blues.” Instantly, we have the narrative skeleton: character, conflict, and — perhaps just as essentially for Perrotta’s way of storytelling — the quirk. Passion inspired by a Little league game, coercion into middle school dance attendance, a divorced doctor taking up the blues: there’s a taste of the intriguing in the ordinary, inviting us to watch the drama unfold.
As for unity of vision: first of all, Perrotta’s standard setting is no secret. In fact, it’s his calling card. The blurbs on the back of Nine Inches proclaim it: Perrotta is, according to Time, the “Steinbeck of suburbia,” while USA Today has called him an “astute student of twenty-first-century suburban life.” It is no surprise, then, that Nine Inches’ milieus are without exception suburban, while its concerns are affluent, white, suburban concerns. These concerns frame and underscore the collection’s coherent existential outlook: cynical, exhausted, and oppressed.
As a theme, marital strife dominates. In fact, every one of the marriages at the stories’ forefront is plagued by divorce, adultery, or a medley of the two. Two stories deal with the college application grind: one from the perspective of a good student who ended up somehow rejected from even his “safeties,” the other with a professional SAT-taker. The stories inhabit the same psychic as well as socioeconomic space: they could conceivably take place in the same area code. In fact, they read like various inflections on the same attitude. Life is unfair, this attitude holds. Hard work, good intentions, and a sensitive soul go unrewarded. Institutions will inevitably betray you. And life’s sweetest, most profound moments are to be snatched lustily and illicitly, like the nerd’s revenge in “The Test-Taker” and the adulterous kiss in the title story.
And here we begin to see how Perrotta’s strengths collapse into a flaw. This thematic, geographic, and socioeconomic coherence is what Nine Inches stands on to give it the look of a proper collection, and it is what lets us hear Perrotta’s voice as a voice. It is this unity that earned Nine Inches a comparison to James Joyce’s Dubliners in The Boston Globe. But this well-intentioned coherence also betrays Perrotta’s authenticity as an artist in revealing his heavy hand. Perrotta’s voice, as manifest in these stories, is neither dynamic nor complex. Rather, it is resolute, heavy, and oppressive. It lacks nuance. The comparison to Dubliners turns out to be superficial and lazy; while Joyce’s masterwork illuminates the complexities of human life through its distinctive milieu and voice, Perrotta’s collection elides subtleties in favor of unquestioned certainty: this is how stories work; this is what life is like.
This flaw only becomes clear as the collection unfolds. Though some stories are stronger than others, each piece taken on its own is far more compelling than the collection as a whole. “The Test-Taker,” which I had the pleasure of hearing Perrotta read at an event this past summer, is clever in concept and darkly convincing in execution as it unveils the seemingly cosmically tragic interactions of aspirational high schoolers. But read as the penultimate story in the collection, the perspective and the narrative devices employed to convey it have become monotonous. Nine Inches ends up being less than the sum of its parts. The stories begin to fade from their superficial distinctions into a drone. At times it seems that a new story will offer a truly unique perspective, as in “The Chosen Girl,” which leaves the settings of high school and troubled marriage to consider the difficulties of having one’s son grow up and grow distant. But these rare moments become lost in the flood of sameness. By the collection’s end, the reader is struck by the sense that, however strong Perrotta’s eye for narrative structure, the content of the vision is not only unified, but bleakly unvaried and simple.
Amidst the book’s too-coherent vision, each story’s structure begins to seem too intentional, too pointed, too constructed. The seams start to show. Perrotta is an efficient writer. Perrotta, as Aristotle said of nature, does nothing in vain. But as the collection’s outlook grows increasingly tiring, Perrotta’s tricks start to seem more like tricks. An attentive reader can reliably predict when a flashback is coming, when a scene is going to fade into character exposition, and of what the climax will consist. This is not to say that Perrotta ought to be an experimentalist (which he certainly is not), or that there is anything inherently wrong in sticking to tried and true narrative structures and strategies. But without a rich breadth of perspective, the artistic architecture is bound to start showing. Perrotta would do well to loosen his grip, and to reconsider the way his own attitude overpowers his characters’. He could take a cue from classic collections like Dubliners or Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help, or even Jim Gavin’s recent and masterful Middle Men, and see that stories need not be univocal for a collection to be coherent: better that they harmonize instead.