Wow. Sports Illustrated has just published an excerpt of Game of Shadows by SF Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams that lays out what can only be described as incontrovertible evidence that Barry Bonds has been a rampant steroid user for the last several years. This is going to rock the baseball world, and I hope it really does shake things up – I’d love to see the game get back to the way it was before wierdly beefy guys started launching home runs night after night. This is big book news too. I got a breathless “news alert” from a publicist pointing to the impact the SI excerpt is having on the book’s sales. As of this writing, yesterday’s Amazon rank for the book was 119,745 and now it’s up to 75, and climbing I’d assume. So here’s to a clean, non-chemically enhanced baseball season. Can we make it happen this year, please?
If Arthur Phillips’s fourth and latest novel, The Song Is You, were to spontaneously transmogrify into music, I’d wager a bet that it would take the form of a pop-infused iPod playlist. The two are kindred spirits for the most obvious reasons. The fortysomething Julian Donahue roams Brooklyn streets, dog runs, and subway cars always with earbuds attached. Popular song lyrics are embedded and alluded to within the text. And while music plays a constant background role, it also provides the foreground’s milieu. To begin: Julian inherits his enchantment with music from his father, who met his mother at a Billie Holidayconcert, after shouting a song request that Holiday honored – an act later immortalized on a live album. When Julian first moves to Brooklyn, his frequent walks along the Promenade are accompanied by the score on his Walkman; during one of these strolls, on an auspicious day (after directing his first television commercial), he experiences “the sensation that he might never be so happy as long as he lived. This quake of joy, inspiring and crippling, was longing, but longing for what? True Love? A wife? Wealth? Music was not so specific as that.”
Fast-forward many years, and Julian has married and separated, and has seen his young son die. His hope and vibrancy dissipated but his connection to music remains a consolation. And then one day at a local bar, he stumbles upon a band destined for larger venues and greater media attention. The singer, Cait O’Dwyer, acts a siren to Julian’s solitary soul; his fascination with her develops as he listens to her songs. While Cait’s catchy tunes play and replay in his mind, and on his Ipod, thoughts of her repeat on a loop.
Music fuels Julian’s obsession, and he attempts to woo Cait with advice, anonymously and somewhat accidentally at first, in the form of ten illustrated coasters upon which he writes tenets to enhance her rock-star persona. Julian knows nothing if not how to wield the power of an image, knowledge acquired from his work directing television commercials. He has perfected his ability to use images to evoke longing – for hair conditioner, floor cleaner, and the like – and now Cait O’Dwyer. With Cait, he’s motivated by his desire, as she is both the source of his desire and the raw material he hopes to refine.
Obsession and longing preoccupy Julian as he falls deeper into his infatuation. Cait returns the admiration, but to a lesser degree. She’s smart enough to recognize the wisdom of his advice, and to value his counsel. And yet, Julian’s desire to know her leads him into a series of escalating attempts to if not meet her at least to see her. He finds her apartment, observes from a bench as she walks her dog, and snaps candid photos that he later sends to her. By the time he lets himself into her apartment using the key she leaves under her doormat (a location she reveals in song lyrics), one would think he’s stepped over a line. He sifts through her apartment and cooks her dinner but she never shows. He thought she’d invited him with her lyrics, and it seems that she did, but all the same, by this point, how is it possible to consider the narrator entirely reliable?
Isolation also plays a role in the confusion as well. As the opening lines of the first chapter state, “Julian Donahue’s generation were the pioneers of portable headphone music, and he began carrying with him everywhere the soundtrack to his days when he was fifteen.” Much of the time he is plugged in to music, and much of the novel resides within Julian’s mind. As his obsession grows, he has a few encounters with other people, but mostly he ruminates and reflects and observes. There is a meeting with his estranged wife, Rachel, as well as conversations with his genius though socially awkward brother, Aidan. But throughout, Julian remains mum on all fronts regarding his obsession with Cait, to whom he writes notes and about whom he drafts defenses of on messages boards till the wee hours.
As a voyeur, Julian is impenetrable: he reveals his infatuation with Cait to no one, and he lurks like a stalker, watching her from afar, fantasizing about her, but never meeting her. This becomes more interesting when it seems he may be devolving into obsessive madness. Still, for all that Phillips does to lead the reader to wonder whether Julian has truly lost his mind, at the last minute there’s a quixotic save, which makes the story tie together so nicely, unbelievably so.
At times Julian’s interiority and inscrutability evokes a Proustian inwardness as well as one of Robbe-Grillet’s voyeurs, and yet these allusions are superficial; neither conceit is employed to great effect within this narrative. And so, after the contrived climax, the narrative resolves into a somewhat expected although rather abrupt end. Page-by-page the novel is immensely readable – the scenes limned of Brooklyn streets and city life are vivid, the members of Julian’s family are compelling, at times fascinating – but the sum of the parts doesn’t add up to much. This is another way the novel evokes a pop song. Phillips’s writing is descriptive, compelling, proficient, but there’s little substance anchoring the scenes. The end result is akin to the disquieting feeling I get after eating half a box of Krispy Kreme donuts – the anticipation and consumption, though delightful at points, has delivered me into a stultified malaise.
I bought Brotherly Love, a discounted, yet signed, copy from the remaindered section of the bookstore where I used to work. At the time I was enamored by Pete Dexter, whose books Train and Paris Trout I had recently read. Both of those books are spare and menacing, at times brutally violent, but done in a masterful way. Brotherly Love is like those books, but to call the book spare is an understatement. Dexter takes his time – most of the book, really – fleshing out the main characters, cousins Peter and Michael Flood from a Philadelphia gangster family. As the plot slowly develops – or comes to a boil, one might say – it becomes clear that Peter wants out. But of course, Michael and his band of hoods keep dragging him back in. In Brotherly Love, Dexter doesn’t quite plumb the emotional depths of his characters as he does so effectively in Paris Trout and Train, and the reader is left with a book that feels empty and characters that feel doomed from page one.
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.
Jamaica Kincaid is annoyed. She spent 10 years writing a novel about the passage of time and everyone seems to think it’s a roman à clef about her marriage — and a vengeful one, at that. At a recent Manhattan reading at Symphony Space, she introduced her new novel, See Now Then, by explaining (among other things) that it was not about a divorce, that none of the characters in her book obtain a divorce, nor do they talk about divorce, nor does the word “divorce” even appear in the book’s pages. Referring to a particularly exasperating review she said, “It is almost as if the person describing the book has read another book entirely.”
I feel fortunate to have read See Now Then before the press feasted on its autobiographical elements. I’ve read almost everything Kincaid has written and knew enough about her life to recognize that Mr. and Mrs. Sweet, the unhappy couple at the center of this novel, were loosely modeled on Kincaid and her ex-husband. I also assumed that the small New England village where Mr. and Mrs. Sweet live was based on Bennington, Vt., where Kincaid lived for many years. But by the time I finished See Now Then, the gossip had burned off and I wasn’t thinking much about Kincaid’s life. Instead, I was in a somewhat altered state as I considered how erratically time passes, with the big slow-moving space of childhood up front and then adulthood rushing past. See Now Then also left me thinking about how strange our conception of the past and future is, how we talk about them as if they are somehow vastly different from the present, when both are made up of the moments we are in the midst of living.
If my impressions sound vague (if not downright pretentious) that’s because See Now Then is a difficult book to write about. It has no plot, there’s nothing to summarize. In some ways it makes sense that journalists have chosen to focus on Kincaid’s biography; it was the only story available. It also makes sense that Kincaid chose to write a domestic novel; she had to anchor her abstract musings in something mundane, like the muck and mire of a failing marriage.
In a recent New York Times profile, Kincaid said See Now Then didn’t come together for her until she thought of the title. The phrase opens the novel, like the beginning of a fairy tale, “See now then, the dear Mrs. Sweet who lived with her husband Mr. Sweet and their two children, the beautiful Persephone and the young Heracles…” What follows is a long description of the view from Mrs. Sweet’s window, a view that includes “the house where the man who invented time-lapse photography lived.”
This early mention of time-lapse photography seems significant. We use time-lapse photography to witness the things we can’t see in real time — the blooming of a flower or a tree coming into leaf. Kincaid uses the form of the novel to illustrate the things that Mrs. Sweet could not see in her own life, flipping through the ordinary moments that make up Mrs. Sweet’s mostly sweet existence — moments spent gardening, moments spent nursing her son, moments spent driving her children to school, moments spent in a little room off of her kitchen, writing — to reveal the larger story: that of a disintegrating marriage.
Mr. and Mrs. Sweet are portrayed as an odd match, Mr. Sweet an aristocratic New Yorker, while Mrs. Sweet is an immigrant from a small Caribbean island, an island Kincaid describes as “so small, history now only records it as a footnote to larger events.” Mrs. Sweet fell in love with Mr. Sweet because of his knowledge and his place in world; Mr. Sweet fell in love with Mrs. Sweet for her exuberance and her long legs. Their marriage, it is suggested, was arranged in part to secure Mrs. Sweet’s citizenship in the United States. But it was the birth of their children that truly pushed them into the traditional roles of husband and wife. In her “marriage story,” Mrs. Sweet observes that “without the birth of young Heracles and the birth of the beautiful Persephone we would not be and so become: Mr. and Mrs. Sweet.”
With their primal attachments, children bring the mythic into daily life, and so Kincaid gives Mr. and Mrs. Sweet’s children mythic names. Mr. Sweet adores his beautiful Persephone but is wildly jealous of his son, Heracles, whose strength and passion outmatch his own. Mrs. Sweet dotes on her children, bringing new meaning to the term “domestic goddess” as she knits elaborate baby garments, prepares three-course meals, and grows an extravagant garden. And yet she also disappears into her home office to write, a room to which the children “had no access, not even if they took a boat or a plane or a car or a hike, not at all could they reach her when she was in that room off the kitchen, and then how they loved her, but she was apart from them and only in the world of those sentences.” That Mrs. Sweet often writes about her own childhood when she separates herself from her children is an irony that Kincaid returns to again and again.
Both Mr. and Mrs. Sweet are beholden to their childhoods — Mr. Sweet’s because his was wonderful, and Mrs. Sweet’s because hers was painful. Mrs. Sweet contends with her demons by writing autobiographical fiction; language helps her locate her “true self.” Mr. Sweet is a musician but does not find the same solace in his compositions. Instead he scores a nocturne titled This Marriage Is Dead (alternate title: This Marriage Has Been Dead For A Long Time Now) and tells Mrs. Sweet that he can’t be his “one true self” when he’s with her, that he loves someone else, someone who understands this one true self better than Mrs. Sweet does.
Do we have “a one true self?” Is “the self” the story of a person over time, a kind of narrative, or is it a like a note of music, fixed and unchanging? What effect does intimacy have on the self? What effect does time have? When the past is irretrievable and the future uncertain, how do we live comfortably in the present? These are just a few of the questions raised in See Now Then, questions that could easily come off as rarified but never do, because Kincaid’s story is so grounded in the material. She makes great use of brand names throughout the novel, but doesn’t wield them ironically. Instead she uses them to fix her characters in time and in the landscape. Mr. Sweet gets his jackets from “the Brooks Brothers outlet in Manchester;” Mrs. Sweet’s Laura Ashley nightgown is from a boutique on Madison Avenue; T-shirts for Heracles are “bought from a store called Manhattan, though it was located in a city far from Manhattan.” Kincaid also refers precisely to cultural objects, local and distant landmarks, and even celestial formations. One passage contains references to Beechnut baby food, the coast of Barbados, the Holland Tunnel, Peter Rabbit, and the Magellanic Clouds. The contrast between the names, some grand and some mundane, some strange and some familiar, is jarring and delightful.
At the Symphony Space reading I attended, Kincaid spoke of her own selfhood as something she created when she was younger “for herself.” By this she meant that the person she had become was someone she wanted to become, not someone that anyone else wanted her to become. Her interviewer was Ian Frazier, a friend who has known her for 39 years. He asked her if she could have written See Now Then when she was younger; her reply was complicated. She said that she was mulling over some of the ideas she approaches in See Now Then in her very first piece of fiction, “Girl,” but that she couldn’t express her thoughts fully because of her limitations as a younger writer. “Not to torture my poor title,” she said, “but what I was doing then in that story is the beginning of what ended up here.” She went on to describe the inspiration for “Girl,” which was Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “In The Waiting Room.”
After the reading, I came home and read “In The Waiting Room.” It’s a poem that describes a young girl’s recognition of selfhood, of having an identity that is separate from others, and one that can also be seen and recognized by others. The speaker is terrified by this revelation and reminds herself of her age — her place in time — in order to stop “the sensation of falling off/the round, turning world.” If there is a plot to See Now Then, it is the story of Mrs. Sweet’s efforts to confront her own fear of the “round, turning world” — a fear that can no longer be assuaged by incantations of age and youth. To say that Mrs. Sweet conquers her terror is too pat a summary but by the end of the novel she has reached a kind of equilibrium. It is marvelous to behold.