A few months ago, I got a poke to do one of those silly “do this now” things on Facebook. We were asked to pick up the book lying nearest to us and quote a sentence from it on a particular page–I think it was page 58. The book near me at that moment, though I’d read it sometime prior, was Junot Díaz’s The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I grabbed it, flipped open to the directed page–and found there one perfect sentence. I remember thinking, “Damn, you can flip this book open anywhere and find perfection. Wow.” This book has gotten tons of attention–major prizes, big reviews, bestselling status–but it’s nice to see that a novel so well-crafted, so funny, so idiosyncratic, so…wondrous, can still capture the imagination of large audiences. If you haven’t read it yet, you should.
Middlesex, like a girls’ locker room, is crowded and noisy, with smells. The novel combines the respective hysterias of two fraught traditions–the Greek and the mid-century American (one produced the professional lady mourner, the other produced Saul Bellow). At the center of this story, which, like many family histories, is at once tremendously unlikely and perfectly plausible, Jeffrey Eugenides has placed the two great standards of the human race: a pair of genitals, and a heart. And while the genitals of Middlesex’s intersex hero are of an unusual sort, with them Eugenides conveys not only the singular misery of gender and sexual confusion, but the universal lumpen misery of adolescence, and the pain of young love. These, and the goofy relatives, and the historical vignettes, are relayed as a kind of artful schmaltz, which doesn’t stray too far into parody. The novel seems carefully researched and written; and its numerous set pieces (Smyrna burning, Detroit burning, penis stirring) are controlled. It’s a wonderful novel. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Starting Lynne Tillman’s American Genius, A Comedy, I was led to assume by the confessional intimacy of the voice that this would be a story on a scale small enough to match the closeness its first-person narrator’s tone made me feel to her. But then I began to notice how many physical locations she was taking me to on a given page, or even in a typical supple and quicksilver sentence, and how many temporal locations, and how many of the novel’s vast range of themes and motifs she was advancing, and how many different — often contradictory — attitudes toward a given assertion she was adopting or testing out. Another way to describe this narrator’s propensity to make an assertion and then to iterate a number of alternative and mutually opposing points of view about it would be to say that the novel she inhabits, even at the level of a single sentence, is polyphonic, that its central voice contains many voices.
So, while tracking her protagonist’s mental and physical peregrinations in time and space to and from the mysterious retreat-like communal living space that is the novel’s core location, Tillman composes and arranges in syntactical harmony a great many people and places and things: mothers and fathers, dogs and cats, the Empire State Building, Eames chairs, textile mills, China and Poland, 1733 and 2006, John D. Rockefeller and Jean Genet, coumadin, lanoxin, chocolate pudding, farting, murder, the Revolution and World War II, shoes, bikes, cars, a lost brother, a City upon a Hill, worry that does not hinder exuberance or vice versa. In American Genius, a Comedy, Tillman becomes, in effect, a dozen Ellingtons conducting a monumental symphony played by an orchestra consisting of a single multifarious instrument.
That is, before colleges offered courses in “flash fiction,” Davis was patiently crafting sentences “as clean as a bone” (to crib from James Baldwin) and joining these sentences together in small, miraculous assemblages. Here’s one from Varieties of Disturbance called “Collaboration With Fly”:
I put that word on the page,
but he added the apostrophe.
Here’s another, called “Lonely”:
No one is calling me. I can’t check the answering machine because I have been here all this time. If I go out, someone may call while I’m out. Then I can check the answering machine when I come back in.
Like the color fields of Mark Rothko or the sculpture of Donald Judd, Davis’ stories give off a disarming appearance of simplicity. However, as anyone who’s ever tried to work in her manner without collapsing into mannerism will attest, there is tremendous art behind the artlessness. These assemblages are, in fact, tools, their purpose to wrench us a little bit out of our habitual ways of moving through the world. The word Disturbance is characteristically apt and elegant – le mot juste.
As is “Variety.” Like Davis’ other sterling collection of this decade, Samuel Johnson is Indignant, Varieties of Disturbance intermingles stories in the classic Davis mode with longer and more unusual experiments. Several of these – “We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders,” “Mrs. D and Her Maids,” “Cape Cod Diary” – are among my favorite pieces here.
In Davis’ hands, things are both exactly what they are and not quite what they seem, and after an hour or so, Varieties of Disturbance starts to look less like a collection of experimental fiction and more like an adventure story: there’s no telling what the next page will bring.
(It’s also worth mentioning that this book has one of the best covers of the millennium.)