Andrew McGahan’s The White Earth was a big deal when it came out in Australia in 2004. His previous novels had given him a following, but The White Earth was the winner of the Miles Franklin Prize, Australia’s richest literary award, catapulting him to a new level of recognition. The book is a multigenerational tale in which the generations collide. Young William and his mother are cast from their homestead in Queensland when William’s father burns to death in a farming accident. They are taken in by William’s cranky great uncle, John McIvor, who lives holed up in a decrepit mansion on what’s left of what was once a great homestead called Kuran Station. There is still enough land left at the Station to lust after though, and William’s sickly but greedy mother sets out to make sure that William will be the heir to his hermit uncle. The main action of the book takes place in 1992 and is filled with what I understand to be the political questions of that time, mostly having to do with compensating aborigines for the ancestral land that was taken from him. All of this makes old John McIvor something of a crank, obsessed with protecting his land and leader of a fringe organization whose membership has racist tendencies fueled by fears that cityfolk will allow their farms to be taken away. Luckily McGahan provides flashbacks to the life of young John McIvor so we can see how Kuran Station, taken from him when he was young and regained after middle age, became his life’s obsession. Though not as masterful as other books in this same mold and a bit heavyhanded in the use of certain images (men on fire), The White Earth is an enjoyable epic of the struggle for land Down Under.
What is not to love about a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking? If it’s Lemony Snicket’s Christmas children’s book for adults The Lump of Coal, I assure you, it is all lovable – even the copyright page (laid out concrete-poetry style in the shape of Christmas tree). The Lump of Coal tells the story of holiday miracles: not the ones you probably know (“the story of a candelabra staying lit for more than a week, or a baby born in a barn without proper medical supervision”), but the story of (you guessed it), a lump of coal, who “like many people who dress in black… was interested in becoming an artist. The lump of coal dreamed of a miracle – that one day it would get to draw rough, black lines on a canvas or, more likely, on a breast of chicken or salmon filet by participating in a barbeque.”I will hardly spoil the ending by assuring you that these dreams come true – and that the path to them is charmingly illustrated (as were the Series of Unfortunate Events) by Brett Helquist. And that the lump’s adventures are marked by Mr. Snicket’s signature narratorial interruptions of his story for cryptic personal revelations, his idiosyncratic definitions of words possibly not familiar to his audience, and his winning mix of the fantastic and the depressingly mundane. For any of you who know Tim Burton’s The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories (which includes several Christmas offerings – my favorite, “James,” features a Burton drawing a Santa-suited arm offering a teddy bear to a doubtful looking little boy who has several parallel gashes across one eye; the text reads: “Unwisely, Santa offered a teddy bear to James, unaware that he had been mauled by a grizzly bear earlier that year.”) – The Lump adds another volume to the genre of Edward Gorey-ian cynical, morbid, and eccentric illustrated works that take the form of children’s stories but are really much more for grown ups.(Oh, yes – and a final note: The Lump of Coal is elusive (which in this case means it likes to hide from employees and shoppers in bookstores). An indefatigable Vroman’s employee did managed to find it for me yesterday, but it hid from him for a good fifteen minutes, and this was the second bookstore I’d been to in search of it. At the first, The Stanford Bookstore, not one of the twenty copies in stock could be found.)
Early in Denis Johnson’s ninth novel, The Laughing Monsters, protagonist Roland Nair describes the odor of disinfectant in an African hotel room as assuring guests, “‘all that you fear, we have killed.’” As the recent Ebola panic has reaffirmed, few places are more fraught with dread in the Western imagination than this continental hot zone, a screen onto which the developed world’s most chronic apprehensions and misapprehensions are projected.
Africa in this gripping, demented novel is the ultimate “unknown unknown” of Rumsfeldian reckoning, teeming with the most virulent strains of viruses and extremism. Yet it’s also a theater of operations where the Chinese are pursuing strategic advantage and the full might of the U.S. intelligence machine has been mobilized to pursue shadows — as often as not its own.
Seven years after taking on military intelligence in the National Book Award-winning novel Tree of Smoke, Johnson returns to the subject once again. But The Laughing Monsters is a much slighter affair, a fizzy alcopop compared to that kaleidoscopic work’s dark, bitter brew. Still, it leaves a poisonous aftertaste and grapples with existential queries far above its pay grade — questions of grace, theodicy, and unknowability.
Leave it to Johnson, variously hailed as a visionary in the Blakean mold and a “junkyard angel,” to twist the slender frame of the “spy thriller” into a shape that can bear such hefty cosmic freight. Indeed, much of the novel’s charm lies in its disregard for the limitations of the genre. By breaking all the rules, The Laughing Monsters becomes something new — a seriocomic spy novel that’s both timely and universal.
Just as the novel is no conventional thriller, Nair is no conventional international man of mystery. He’s a crazy patchwork of identities, divided loyalties, and conflicts of interest, a spook expert in laying fiber-optic communication cables who’s also dabbled in drugs and diamonds. Equal parts dissipated opportunist and vulnerable coward, he’s inflamed above all with a lust for “cheap adventure,” whoring and buccaneering his way across the continent.
The book opens with his arrival in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he’s arranged to meet his friend and erstwhile partner in crime, Michael Adriko, for unspecified but likely ignoble reasons. A war orphan turned U.S. black-ops commando, Adriko is a winning, exuberant shyster, nonchalantly lethal and constitutionally incapable of straight answers. He and Nair scored big here in the wake of 9/11, and have returned in hopes of “exploiting the riches of this continent.” While Nair is ostensibly doing the bidding of NATO intelligence, he’s also selling state secrets, an act of treason involving the unwitting complicity of his fiancée.
Adriko has plans of his own. His cover story is that he’s come back to marry his fiancée in the Congo. There’s also a scheme afoot to peddle precious material in Uganda — not diamonds or gold, but uranium, the ne plus ultra of mythological anxieties in this age of global terror.
This being Africa — and a Johnson novel, no less — things rapidly fall apart. Nair drinks himself into raptures, whores with unprotected abandon, muses on the maddening idiosyncrasies of the continent, has looping, antic conversations with a psychologically unraveling Adriko, and falls into the throes of an ill-considered, all-consuming passion for Adriko’s fiancée. While Tree of Smoke described a slow, tortuous spiral from idealism into disillusion and criminality, The Laughing Monsters is a zipline that starts off in amorality and zooms straight into the maw of hell.
And yet it’s all great fun, as the characters haplessly careen through a jumble of tribal affiliations and enmities, languages and creeds, ghosts and legends, made all the more incoherent by the legacy of colonial meddling. Nothing in the setting evades Johnson’s anthropological gaze: not the clocks without hour hands, the slogans on the “huge devouring face(s) of the oncoming truck(s),” nor the 100 milliliter pocket-sized pouches in which liquor is sold. It’s a place of constant power outages, where the population is strung along on the empty promise of American-style consumer culture and a listless fatalism rules the roads, with traffic playing a game of vehicular Russian roulette “as if some superstition required it.”
Though it leavens the horror, the manic, cavalier tone in which the madness is catalogued rings the odd off-note. On the other hand, Johnson’s vision isn’t easy to dismiss as smug postcolonial rubbernecking. Having traveled widely in West Africa during the early ’90s, chronicling the Liberian civil war for Esquire and The New Yorker in all its phantasmagoric brutality — cannibalism, televised tortures and executions of heads of state, addled guerillas in blonde glamour wigs and orange floatation vests supposedly endowed with the talismanic power to stop bullets — Johnson knows of what he speaks.
His Africa is a nightmare you can no more wake up from than you can look away from, in part because its nightmarishness so precisely mirrors what outsiders have done, and continue to do, to it. Though the horrors of imperialism have given way to the lesser evils of corporate plundering and western military adventurism, the result is no less toxic: a witch’s brew of political instability and rage that breeds terrorism as surely as oil spills lead to cancer. Adriko and Nair collide head-on with this vicious circle when they bog down in the Congo, their jeep swallowed by a blood-red gumbo that’s an obvious metaphor for many a recent U.S. quagmire. Later, they come face to face with the monster the developed world’s depredations have unleashed, finding themselves in the middle of a hallucinatory uprising in a stretch of the Congolese bush devastated by oil and mining operations.
For all its apparent chaos, imperviousness to reason, and resemblance to a bad trip, however, Africa as it’s depicted in The Laughing Monsters is no match for the magical thinking and folly of the U.S. intelligence apparatus.
One of the book’s chief delights lies in the way Johnson combines a satirist’s eye for absurdity with a completist’s mastery of trade craft — the gadgetry, the jargon, the cat-and-mouse of interrogation, the cagey posturing of officialdom — to paint a withering picture of the post-9/11 intelligence complex. This is the bloated, hydra-headed monstrosity of neocon dreams, “an expanded version of the old Great Game,” waging a disinformation campaign against its own people in a bid to impose the Manichean certitudes of the Cold War on a much murkier geopolitical reality. It gins up boogeymen only to get entangled in its own lies. Everyone knows it, but no one cares because everyone is getting rich. As one U.S. official admits, “Since nine-eleven, chasing myths and fairy tales has turned into a serious business. An industry. A lucrative one.”
Nair characterizes this state of affairs as “poker-faced, soft-spoken pandemonium.” That word, “pandemonium,” with its demonic etymology, is a telling one. Johnson, a self-identified Christian writer, ever alert to parallels between the political and the religious, likens the intelligence complex to a kind of false god or demiurge that casts a spell of collective madness on the populace.
All of this is narrated at an unflagging, headlong, and often disorienting clip. Though Johnson’s prose is more pared down here than in earlier novels, a current of lyrical transcendentalism runs through even the ghastliest circumstances. Beggars seem to “look through your own eyes and down your throat.” A drunk man is described as “speaking in tongues, his feet didn’t touch the floor, he was just being lugged around by his smile.”
Such verbal flourishes are not the stock stuff of spy novels, and Johnson seems content to dispense with the realism typical of the genre in favor of a pervasive, magic-drenched atmosphere of disorientation, one that captures the whirl of the African continent. The same dervishing aesthetic carries over to the novel’s structure, which juggles first-person narration, journal entries, and letters. For the most part, Johnson is dexterous enough to handle this intertextual game gracefully. But occasionally, the story vaults forward and then has to back and fill, generating a befuddling kind of whiplash.
In the end, though, neither the novel’s eccentricities of structure, nor an outlandish climactic showdown that pulls more symbolic than narrative weight, are enough to sink this unhinged foray into the heart of darkness. Though by no means a major work, The Laughing Monsters is a deceptively ambitious novel, straining toward — and sometimes achieving — transcendence. Along the way, Johnson shows that, when it comes to killing our fear of Africa, disinfectants and covert operations might have the wrong foe in their sights. As Nair says, “there’s always something more to be rid of. Something inside.”
What if… What if you were an anonymous urbanite, going about your daily routine in, say, London, when some indescribable airborne object falls through the nothingness and crash-lands on your head, forever altering your somethingness…What if that happened, and then it’s months later. You’ve doubled back from the abyss and there you are, at home, relearning everything. Physically you’re fine, but there’s a gaping hole where your sense of connection used to be. A piece of the puzzle is missing and with it your own sense of reality. You wish you could piece together some sense of your previous self because only then, you think, you’d be complete. Occasionally you brush up against that reality – a scrap of paper, a passing word – something to tease you, to trigger the connection with your past, with your self.And then the money. You learn that your bank balance has shot through the stratosphere, the result of a settlement from the perpetrators of your condition. And now, as they say, money is no object.You think long and hard and you decide that the best use for your magical millions is to attempt to regain your reality – to rebuild, in every way, and by any means necessary, your vaguely-remembered life. This is the ultra-high concept of Tom McCarthy’s meticulously plotted and crafted Remainder.A rational search through memory doesn’t work so our hero opts for the irrational. A memory shake-up. Everything in his past would have left a mark of some sort – some kind of footprint. So he sets out to trigger these marks randomly. Though consciously implementing a random search cancels out its randomness.Eventually, he plots the few vague or triggered memories that he has and tries to rebuild his surroundings around them so that every step within this recreated environment would trigger his sense of whole. So he buys an apartment building that resembles the one in his memory, and then the surrounding buildings, alters them to match the half-remembered images in his mind. Then he auditions actors to populate his new/old world. These players would be there for him around the clock to repeatedly enact the triggered memories.You’d think all of this would be implausible, but the rendering is so painstakingly detailed that every time you think, “but what about…?”, you find that McCarthy is one step ahead of you. He’s already worked out the logical leaps. And once you wrap your mind around the notion that money can buy any service, somehow the improbable becomes possible.Our hero isn’t the most likable of heroes, and more than once I became frustrated with his obsessive, often cruel, perfectionism. But then I remember that every supporting character is on his payroll. Everyone – his long-suffering facilitators, his “actors” – they all knew what they were getting into, at first at least, and are handsomely compensated.And just how perfect does his recreated environment need to be? Partial success is abject failure. The point for him is to capture the connection, not merely an acceptable re-enactment. And once captured, it must be repeated. Realness is a state, not an isolated action. To experience it, our narrator must return to it again and again. It is only in the constant repetition of a remembered action that he finds the connection that he seeks.And until when? As the story progresses, you realize that our hero needs to do more than just re-enact his environment over and over again. He reaches a point in his obsession where he must merge with his action, slow down the motion and be one with his environment, with the increasingly hyper-real experiences that he’s manufacturing. Only then will he feel complete.Along with memory gaps, words and concepts have disappeared from our narrator’s verbal toolbox. And so we also get a complete sense of narrative process. Like the Tourette’s-affected hero of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, we’re privy to the machinations and linguistic somersaults that our narrator goes through to make himself understood.A story of obsession, then, obsessively told. A meticulously rendered tale of meticulousness itself. It’s hard not to feel simultaneously irritated at both the action and the narrator, and yet utterly compelled to see his obsession through.
Last week we remembered the death of journalist Michael Kelly four years ago near Baghdad, and examined his 1992 book, Martyr’s Day, chronicle of the first Gulf War.On to Bob Woodruff, ABC newsman, who was critically wounded on January 29, 2006, while reporting in Iraq. Exposed atop a patrolling tank, the 44 year-old Woodruff was preparing to shoot the day’s segment on the security handover supposedly taking place between U.S. and Iraqi forces. Twenty-seven days prior, Woodruff had taken over as co-anchor of ABC Nightly News, successor to the late Peter Jennings. It was not to last: a roadside bomb exploded, and Woodruff suffered multiple shrapnel wounds and a massive traumatic brain injury.Two declarations, the second more of an admission: first, I had by January of ’06 come to recognize Bob Woodruff, watching ABC Nightly News on a semi-regular basis, and I liked his reporting. Like many, I was saddened by the news of his injury and cheered by the news of his recovery. Second, when I took my first cursory looks at the book about the ordeal that he wrote with his wife, Lee Woodruff, In an Instant: A Family’s Journey of Love and Healing, I was nonplussed. For whatever reason, I didn’t trust it.A third declaration: the fact that Bob Woodruff is alive, let alone writing books, is miraculous. His personal courage and strength, along with that of Lee Woodruff and their family, and the dedication of the medical professionals who saved his life and then rebuilt him, shall not herein be diminished. But we are here to talk books, and so return to the difficulties of how to approach In an Instant.The book’s release early this year attended Woodruff’s tentative return to the ABC newsroom. Woodruff appeared on TV talk shows and other media outlets as well. Here was a man who had been forced to regain, through therapy, the ability to speak – no small thing for anyone, let alone a network news anchor. In an Instant is his story.But there was twinge of something darker hiding in the inspirational folds of the Woodruff family saga. The book seemed to validate the notion that, in this day and age, if you live to tell the tale (and sell the tale – In an Instant has been near the top of national non-fiction bestseller lists since its release), no matter how personal it is, you will do so – and right quick. It also made me think of the American men and women who have not returned from Iraq alive. Of those that have lived through injuries, many do not have what the Woodruffs are lucky enough to have, a loving, wide-ranging community of family and friends. Others have not received what Bob Woodruff received, the finest medical care money can buy.Despite these implications, the book, and its two writers, did ultimately win my trust, if not my unbounded critical admiration. As inspiration, In an Instant has infinitely greater value than your standard issue Dr. Doctor self-help schlock. It is told in the alternating voices of Lee and Bob, mostly Lee, as Bob was in a sedated state for five weeks before fully regaining consciousness. The writing is straightforward, and there is quite a lot of information packed into the pages. The Woodruffs recount concurrently both the story of recovery that followed that fateful Instant, and the story of their lives together from the instant they first met, their marriage, the birth of their four children, and Bob’s rise through the ranks of TV journalism. Woodruff bounced around a lot as a young newsman, from China in June of 1989, where he got his first taste of reporting, to San Francisco, Richmond, Phoenix, Chicago, D.C., and then London, where he was a lead foreign correspondent for ABC on 9/11/01 (Bob and Lee’s 13th wedding anniversary.)These movements mirror the rapid movements and decisive actions that immediately followed his injury. From the road outside the town of Taji, Woodruff was taken to a military hospital in the Baghdad green zone, then airlifted to a U.S. army combat field hospital in Balad that took the most severe casualties. These unnamed military doctors saved Bob Woodruff. Without hesitating, they sawed through his cranium to relieve the pressure on his brain. Woodruff was then flown by Critical Combat Air Transport to Landstuhl Germany, where an army surgeon, Dr. Guillermo Tellez, removed the shattered left half of his skull. From Landstuhl, Woodruff was flown again by CCATT plane to Andrews Air Force Base and rushed to Bethesda Naval Hospital outside D.C., where he would lie in an induced coma for over a month. The military’s impressive advances in combat triage are on full display here.Forced to perform her own family triage, Lee Woodruff describes in detail the shock of the news, and her own rapid, unflagging response. Lee’s ability to handle the immense weight of her family’s crisis, to inform but reassure her four children, and keep herself going as she attended her quiescent and disfigured husband, these efforts are just as heroic as Bob’s inner fight to survive. And there’s a fine payoff. Walking into his room at Bethesda Naval on the morning of March 6, expecting to find her husband unchanged, she instead found him awake: “‘Hey Sweetie,’ Bob said lovingly, with a little note of surprise. ‘Where’ve you been?'”For me, the most interesting aspects of the book are the details of Woodruff’s recovery, highlighted by some telling photographs. The image of this man, recognizable to so many people as a vigorous and handsome face on their TV, here smiling bravely into the camera with his two eldest kids, Cathryn and Mack, on either side, his face scarred, his head dented, says it all. Late in May, now in the care of neurosurgeons from Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, Woodruff underwent another risky procedure, a cranioplasty surgery, in which the doctors bonded an artificial skull-piece to his existing bone. His head outwardly rebuilt, Bob Woodruff then focused on the task of rebuilding what was inside. Like so many others with traumatic brain injury, he had to relearn his life, especially his speech. This process is fascinating, and the rapid progress that Woodruff made, astounding.Political opinions and philosophical conclusions are not for the TV reporter, whose job it is to present the story, an impartial witness to events. It is understandable, then, that In an Instant is a book about a family and not a war. The Woodruffs do address some of the thornier issues that lie buried in their story, if only very briefly. Bob discusses what it means to be a war correspondent putting himself in harm’s way, though his conclusions are that covering war is, for him, “a strange addiction,” and that war itself is “an affliction of the human race.” These are sterilized, apolitical, and not-so-penetrating insights.And what about the wife of the addicted war journalist? While Lee Woodruff does discuss the strain that her husband’s profession placed on their marriage before Bob was injured, she rarely reveals any crack in her facade of nurturing support and union during Bob’s recovery, other than understandable and unsurprising anxiety, depression, and fear. She frets about what might befall the family if Bob were to die or be unable to work again, and about the long-term effects that the traumatic event might have on her children, but acrimony has no place in this tale. Even in remembering the death of David Bloom, Bob’s friend and colleague who died outside Baghdad of a pulmonary embolism in April ’03 while covering the war for NBC, there is surprisingly little soul searching by the authors about the potential effect this strange addiction, embedded war reporting, can have on a family. Does Bob Woodruff have regrets? The answer will not be found in In an Instant.In an Instant carries a relentlessly positive message of triumph over adversity, and hope in the face of tragedy. Appropriately, the Woodruffs do acknowledge how lucky they are to have had the resources, both human and monetary, of a large corporation to see them through. There are many people to thank, and they thank each and every one. They have done something else, too, which is to establish a charitable trust to benefit the 1.4 million Americans a year affected by TBI, Traumatic Brain Injury. And they note that many such men and women, in the care of the U.S. military medical system, “are not receiving appropriate cognitive rehabilitation, for whatever reason.”So there you have it, and time marches on. I myself hope to see Bob Woodruff back on the air with regularity, and would consider it yet another amazing addendum to the story if he were to return to the anchor chair at ABC News. I would also understand it if he walked away from the news altogether, though it would surprise me. No matter what the future holds for Bob Woodruff, his life was nearly taken in an instant, in a war he was risking his life to cover. His is, as Tom Brokaw writes, “a book for our time.”
John McPhee books are like crack for the curious. He mines his topics, usually some slice of America or Americana, for all the minutia that the curious crave, diversions and details and especially lists. In Looking for a Ship he turns his pen to the United States Merchant Marine, already a dying institution when McPhee wrote the book in 1990. He manages to secure a spot as a PAC – Person in Addition to Crew on the Stella Lykes for a voyage from port to port down the Pacific coast of South America. The topics he dissects are many: the histories of his fellow seamen, the tribulations of the Merchant Marine, the astonishingly various contents of the hold, and the port towns they visit seen through the eyes of a sailor, to name a few. Interspersed in the story are tales of pirate attacks and boat wrecks, not to mention a discription of the ship’s engine room that will make you sweat just reading it. In this book, as in all his others, McPhee is pitch-perfect, taking the reader down any interesting digression encountered in the narrative, extracting wry humor from his observations, and digging deep into the personal history of any fascinating person he encounters. His books are biographies of a place and time.