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.
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.)
Recently, while re-reading Out Stealing Horses, I also happened to be rereading Hemingway, and it occurred to me that the two are similar. In Per Petterson’s novel, as in many of Hemingway’s, characters’ lives – like real lives – are deeply rooted in the physical world. Even the narrator echoes Hemingway’s narrators, saying at one point, “No one can touch you unless you yourself want them to.”
Yet unlike many American novels with fully drawn-out dramas, Out Stealing Horses is written in a quiet, controlled manner that offers glimpses of W.G. Sebald. If resonating with the work of either Hemingway or Sebald is enough to make a novel good, Out Stealing Horses, with its echoes of both, is a rare book indeed.