With every inane word a little nearer to the last. And how the fable too. The fable of one fabling of one with you in the dark. And how better in the end labour lost and silence. And you as you were always were. Alone.Image Credit: Flickr/rich_f28
It’s not hard to see the newspaper comic strip is dying. While the superhero comic eats Hollywood, and the Maus–like graphic novel wins awards that used to go to straight fiction, the unfussy, once-a-day comic strip wastes away in pop cultural exile. Partly, this is due to the sad state of newsprint, which checked into hospice a long time ago. Partly it’s a consequence of old strips being available for free. Yet if comic books and graphic novels were somehow able to adapt — even though up until recently they were just as tied to the page — it stands to reason that comic strips can do the same thing. For a while it seemed that webcomics might revive their ubiquity. But in spite of their successes, no one has figured out how to replicate the security of the old syndicates.
For me, as a guy whose vocabulary came largely from Calvin and Hobbes, it’s been painful to watch comic books, graphic novels, and video games — all of which were once seen as mainly for teenagers and children — accrue new popular relevance while comic strips wither away. In the ’80s and early-’90s, comic strips went through a renaissance, showing their readers what was possible at seemingly the last time they could do so. Iconic series like Doonesbury, formerly unique in their roles, got real competition in the sphere of political satire, while offbeat peers like The Far Side netted fans like Robin Williams and Jane Goodall. I can still remember hearing jokes about academics who needed cutouts on their doors to get tenure. In line with new free-market ethics, licensing multiplied tenfold, inundating America with stuffed animals, calendars, and toys. You saw just as much comic strip fandom as you did more traditional geekery. The nation, it seemed, could not get enough of the funny pages.
So when I found out, via coverage in The Times, that all-new Bloom County strips had suddenly popped up on Facebook, I felt ecstatic in a manner best associated with lost sleds. On the first new post, old fans like me got nigh-messianic in the comments, implying through over-the-top praise that reviving Bloom County is a public service. In its last couple of years in the papers, you see, the strip featured lots of Donald Trump, which has led many people to suggest that creator Berkeley Breathed is a psychic. I can’t say I endorse this theory (though I do think it can’t be ruled out). What I can say is that it feels necessary in a way its competitors don’t. Regardless of how interesting Doonesbury can be at its best, its impact has always been curbed by a bone-deep Yalie dryness. Only Bloom County offered real succor from the garbage in the news.
Why is Bloom County so loved in comparison to its peers? Why is it immune to the decades-old baggage of its medium? I believe the answer has to do with its treatment of whimsy. In the marketer’s argot, “whimsy” is a vague, weaselly term, one that hints at a childish quality adults are expected to pine for. In its normal, most common form, it means a brand (or at least a person operating like one) is attempting, ironically or not, to reproduce in a subject a time of structured ignorance, to co-opt a memory of trust and naiveté. Because it’s usually easy to spot when someone does this, most of us find it jarring to see, for example, cartoons in SSRI ads, or to hear great songs from our childhood repurposed to sell expensive cars. Few react well to the knowledge that someone wants you to know less. Because of that, it’s easy to think of whimsy as inherently patronizing, as a quality that drains whatever it touches of all value.
That’s a shame, because there’s no reason an artist can’t use it effectively. To get whimsy right — to harness its mood as an asset — an artist must accomplish two things: one, make sure her aesthetic is appealing, and two, show respect for her audience. She needs to conjure up a sense of basic silliness while never treating her readers like easy marks. To strike this balance with any degree of consistency, every joke or moment of humor — no matter how dumb or juvenile it appears on the surface — must clearly rest on a bedrock of genuine gravity. The artist cannot be childish without bringing some pathos into the mix.
I can’t think of a better example of success in this regard than Bloom County. Although it took zaniness to new heights, it always showed that political madness has consequences, and it never left its readers in the dark about the stakes. In what may have foreshadowed certain recent White House Correspondents Dinners, it showed its worth, again and again, by angering the right people at the right times.
You see this clearly in a plot line aimed at televangelism. When the slobbering, mute Bill the Cat — a character designed as an outright spoof of Garfield — suddenly finds himself infused with born-again fervor, he transforms into the clean-cut pastor Oral Bill. He gets a show on national TV, develops a large local following, and soon infuses the residents of the town with odd, fake smiles and canned lines. Then, with no impetus apart from divine revelation, Oral Bill takes issue with the presence of penguins in Bloom County. He declares that “penguin lust” is a threat to the morals of the nation. In the space of a few days, Opus discovers that he’s been abandoned by his friends, and that, amongst his new enemies, most want to send him into exile. He leaves town on a Greyhound bus with no destination in mind. The fallout of bigotry is palpable here — Opus wouldn’t come back for months. Anyone who reads this understands immediately what a person like Jim Bakker was selling.
Throughout its run, Bloom County stayed abreast of petty, Washingtonian scandals, and there were even a few times when its critics bolstered its own points. The most well-known example of this was a 1987 brouhaha in which the Miami Herald pulled a strip with the phrase “Reagan sucks!” In the eyes of many readers, Bloom County diehards or no, the Herald’s unpopular decision was a form of Pravda-like censorship, a view the paper rebutted in a long back-and-forth on its letters page. Yet few people now remember the in-strip context of the quote. In the ’80s, New Deal labor was going the way of New Coke, and the characters in Bloom County illustrated this by going on strike for a pay raise. The in-world publisher, W.A. Thornhump, brings in ersatz replacements, one of whom goes on to crassly denigrate the President. The in-world reason why “Reagan sucks!” happened is that the country’s unions were dying.
Which brings us (inevitably) to Trump. It’s not just that Bloom County was prescient in seeing his trajectory. Nor is it just that it sussed out the void in his soul. No, what’s so frightening to see now, 30 years after Trump’s turn as Bill the Cat’s brain, is just how precisely it pegged why he shouldn’t have power. The Donald gets into an accident — of a kind that no person would ever survive in real life — and his brain gets transplanted and stuck in his feline host. Without his fortune, business, or wives, Trump has to learn to live humbly, and the strip gives him opportunities to redeem himself which all fail. His final act is to buy out the strip and immediately fire all the characters. The firing supplied Berkeley Breathed with an in-world reason to retire it. Yet what’s notable about this now — beyond how well it captured Trump’s essential robber baron nature — is how it displayed his cruelty in terms of the apocalypse. In its last few weeks in existence, in other words, Bloom County had Trump end the world.
That makes his plot line frankly uncanny these days. But I think it also shows why the strip is worth reading. Although its gags were occasionally silly to a fault, its caricatures made clear why its targets were honestly worrying. In Trump, Bloom County saw a crass, nigh-psychopathic loon, as likely in his way to cause mayhem as a capitalist in Soviet propaganda. When Oliver North went on trial, he showed up in the strip as an alien puppy, whose big, soft eyes and grand rhetoric scuttled his conviction for war crimes. All this metastasizing weirdness bolstered the insight at its core. At heart, Bloom County was not an escape, and that’s why so many felt they needed it.
I can’t think of a better way to spend a weekend than reading it all. Failing that, you can just go on Facebook and start reading the new version for free. As with anything that’s whimsical in the way I’ve laid out, it may strike you as off-puttingly juvenile at first glance. It may seem no different than its fellow classic funnies. But if you keep reading, you’ll come across its takes on devastating scandals, or else its many references to the specter of nuclear war. You’ll see a comic strip that isn’t afraid to show genuine horror at its edges. Based on the number of people who cheered its revival, I think it’s obvious it offered something worth saving.
1. “Two Paths for the Novel”
It was late October, 2008, and Robert Silvers had earned a victory lap. The New York Review of Books, which he’d co-founded with the late Barbara Epstein during the New York printers’ strike of 1963, was about to observe its 45th anniversary. And equally improbably, after the tumultuous reign of Bush fils, the country seemed poised to elect a president aligned with the social-democratic politics for which the New York Review had provided life support. Interviewed by a reporter at a San Francisco restaurant, though, Silvers, 78, sounded less like an eminence grise dining out on past accomplishments than a hungry young editor on the make…or maybe the cat who ate the canary. The end of the conversation found him talking up “‘an ambitious essay’” slated to appear in the Review’s anniversary edition, “‘a daring and original piece by a brilliant mind’”—a “dismantl[ing]” (in the reporter’s paraphrase) of the literary “status quo.” “‘Some people will be slightly shaken,’ Silvers said with delight,” before “grabbing a handful of smoked almonds and making a dash for the door.”
The mind in question was the English novelist Zadie Smith‘s, and the dismantling turned out to be a 9,000-word essay on two well-received recent novels: Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. Or perhaps “essay” isn’t the right word; as the title “Two Paths for the Novel” suggested, it was closer in spirit to a polemic. The rhetorical embroidery was dazzlingly multiform, but the gravamen ultimately rested on that old workhorse, compare/contrast. As Smith saw it, Netherland—at that point well on its way to bestsellerdom and President Obama’s nightstand—represented the excesses, the exhaustion, of “a breed of lyrical Realism [that] has had freedom of the highway for some time now.” McCarthy’s Remainder, meanwhile, was “one of the great English novels of the past ten years,” “an avant-garde challenge” meant to
shake the novel out of its present complacency. It clears away a little of the dead wood, offering a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward.
In the event, I’m not sure anyone apart from Joseph O’Neill was actually “shaken.” Manifestos are a dime a dozen these days—to borrow a line from Dale Peck’s manifesto-infected Hatchet Jobs, “that and $2.50 . . . will buy you a skinny mochaccino” (with adjustment for inflation)—and even before David Shields’ Reality Hunger, obsequies for “lyrical Realism” had been performed at length by Ben Marcus, the editors of N+1, David Foster Wallace, William T. Vollmann…not to mention a whole host of Continental theoreticians.
Then again, to measure the success of a literary manifesto by whether or not the status quo stays mantled is fundamentally to misapprehend the genre. Its prime object and beneficiary is not “the novel” but the critic herself, and in this sense “Two Paths for the Novel” was a triumph. To other polemically minded reviewers (particularly the vicar of capital-R Realism whose name Smith had worked into an uncharacteristically juvenile pun (see above)), the essay served notice: Your boy’s club’s been breached. “Two Paths for the Novel” (with a slight adjustment of title) would constitute the longest piece but one in Smith’s first essay collection, Changing My Mind, published in 2009.
Now ascended (or condemned) to the post of New Books columnist at Harper’s, Zadie Smith will no doubt have discovered the limited and erratic scope of the authority to which she’s laid claim. On one hand, her elegant dressing-down of Netherland seems to have had approximately zero effect on the novel’s reception, aside from giving people who didn’t like it something to point to. On the other, “Two Paths for the Novel” does appear, several years out, to have shifted the literary landscape in one very particular way: it’s positioned Tom McCarthy, who as late as 2005 couldn’t find a publisher for Remainder, as the English language’s leading avant-gardist. Indeed, so subtle were its powers of persuasion that no one seems to remember he was ever anything but.
This was most visible last summer, when Knopf published with great fanfare McCarthy’s third novel, C. Jonathan Dee, writing in Harper’s, adjudged it “an avant-garde epic” (adding, somewhat bewilderingly: “the first I can think of since Ulysses.”) “An avant-garde masterpiece,” proclaimed Meehan Crist, in The Los Angeles Times. The redoubtable Adam Kirsch went so far as to borrow Smith’s technique, putting C. in conversation with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. “[McCarthy] is the standard-bearer of the avant-garde novel,” he decided, “of fiction consumed by its own status as fiction, and of the avant-garde writer as an unassailable provocateur.” Aside from eagle-eyed Scott Esposito, who posted a sharp take on these reviews at Conversational Reading, no one seemed to question the idea of McCarthy as the keeper of the avant-garde flame.
The “Two Paths” effect even persists, albeit subtly, in the long McCarthy retrospect Amanda Claybaugh, an English professor at Harvard, published last month in N+1. Claybaugh seeks explicitly to engage with “the claims made on behalf of McCarthy: that the problem facing the contemporary novel is the persistence of realism, and that the solution is to be found, with McCarthy, among the avant-garde.” As that last phrase suggests, though, Claybaugh leaves mostly intact the claim that underpins the others: that McCarthy himself is to be found among the avant-garde. This hints at both the brilliance and the weakness of “Two Paths for the Novel”: several of its conclusions are actually smuggled in as premises, which become ours as well. Accepting “the violence of the rejection Remainder represents to a novel like Netherland” is the price of admission.
This is probably the place to declare for the record that I’m half in love with Zadie Smith’s critical voice. Also that I think Remainder is a terrific novel. But, thanks in no small part to Smith’s advocacy, what’s at stake in assessing McCarthy’s burgeoning reputation is something much more than that: “the future of the avant-garde novel.” The artistic avant-garde is, Adorno would remind us, one of the few free spaces we’ve got left. (That’s assuming there is one.) And because its future is so important—and because, if we’re lucky, we’re going to be reading Smith’s criticism for a long time to come—I think it’s worth revisiting her premises and treating them as open questions. How, specifically, is Remainder avant-garde? And also: how avant is it?
2. Language + Matter = Death…Or Something.
To the first question—how is it avant?—Smith offers one clear answer. Remainder challenges “the essential fullness and continuity of the self” that is the soul of Realism. McCarthy’s unnamed protagonist is literally discontinuous; he awakens at midlife from an unspecified accident unsure of who he’s been. This might, in run-of-the-mill amnesia fiction, inaugurate a quest: Hero Seeks to Recover Past. Remainder’s “hero,” though, mostly shrugs off concerns about identity, to subversive comic effect. Here, the comparison with Netherland is illuminating. Joseph O’Neill, too, knows better than to present his hero as a unitary psyche; one of his chief effects is the subtle altering and re-altering of perception that attend the passage of time, and the narrator, Hans van den Broek, seems troubled by a nagging lack of “fullness” in his character. Still, the debt is more to Fitzgerald and Hemingway than to Deleuze & Guattari, and so the difference between the two novels’ approach to the “self” is one more of kind than of degree. Hans van den Broek seeks communion; Remainder’s “Enactor” (as Smith calls him) seeks to secure for himself, through industry and cash on the barrelhead, those depthless sensations Frederic Jameson calls “intensities.”
Here we encounter a wrinkle, though. Jameson’s essay “Postmodernism” dates to 1984, and even then, the deposition of the Realist self was well underway. Smith’s essay is liberally sprinkled with examples from the field of literature. Just the B’s: Blanchot, Bataille, Ballard, Burroughs…. In the “Two Paths” schematic, they populate a “skewed side road.” But think of another B: Beckett. Hasn’t the postwar period more or less widened the side-road of “self”-sabotage to a superhighway?
Two novelists in particular, Alain Robbe-Grillet (whom Smith names) and Peter Handke (whom she doesn’t), seem to have anticipated Remainder’s characteristic “intensities.” Even decades on, though, each seems more genuinely “violent” in his rejection of the Realist “self” than does McCarthy. Robbe-Grillet is willing, unlike Remainder, to sacrifice the continuity and escalation of plot on the altar of a philosophical apprehension. And The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick finds Handke strategically discarding the continuity of language for the same reason. Of course, Handke himself has umlaut-ed antecedents in Döblin and Büchner, and I wouldn’t want to define “avant-gardism” as “that child which has no parents.” Instead, it might help to think of the avant-garde as what still has the power to disturb the settled order of things. At which point it becomes apparent that the schizoid depthlessness of postmodernism ain’t it. Think of Bret Easton Ellis. Play it as it Lays. Tao Lin. As with the Realist plenitude Netherland draws on, “our receptive pathways” for the discontinuous self “are solidly established.”
There’s another way in which Smith believes Remainder to be avant-garde. It’s apparent in the word “trace,” which is to “Two Paths for the Novel” what descriptions of clouds are to Netherland: almost a nervous tic. In short, Smith feels McCarthy to have assimilated the destabilizing linguistic insights of Jacques Derrida in a way O’Neill hasn’t. (Isn’t “remainder” just a synonym for “trace?”) But whenever she turns to theory as such, Smith’s native lucidity gives way to an undergraduate overeagerness. Critiques of Realism, we are told,
blossomed out into a phenomenology skeptical of Realism’s metaphysical tendencies, demanding, with Husserl, that we eschew the transcendental, the metaphorical, and go “back to the things themselves!”; they peaked in that radical deconstructive doubt which questions the capacity of language itself to describe the world with accuracy.
The novel is made out of language, the smallest units of which still convey meaning, and so they will always carry the trace of the real.
Remainder’s way turns out to be an extreme form of dialectical materialism—it’s a book about a man who builds in order to feel.
[Remainder] tries always to acknowledge the void that is not ours, the messy remainder we can’t understand or control—the ultimate marker of which is Death itself. We need not ever read a word of Heidegger to step in these murky waters.
Smith seems to be following the pronouncements McCarthy has promulgated as General Secretary of a “semi-fictitious” avant-garde network, the International Necronautical Society (INS). She offers an excerpt:
“If form…is perfection itself, then how does one explain the obvious imperfection of the world, for the world is not perfect, n’est-ce pas? This is where matter—our undoing—enters the picture. For the Greeks, the principle of imperfection was matter, hyle. Matter was the source of the corruption of form…. In short, against idealism in philosophy and idealist or transcendent conceptions of art, of art as pure and perfect form, we set a doctrine of…materialism.”
The syntax of these sentences is easy enough to follow, but, in their mingling of metaphysics, materialism, and aesthetics, these are, I think, far murkier waters than Smith realizes. I confess to being on shaky ground with Derrida; the failure to find rigor in Smith’s use of the “trace” may well be my own. But the materialism here is “dialectical” in only the loosest sense, and Smith’s gloss on being-towards-death seems reductive, even hedged. At any rate, we’d do well to read more than a word of Heidegger, for whom the kind of being “the things” have – especially in the broken, obtrusive, or useless state Remainder finds them in (e.g., the “gnarled, dirty and irregular” carrot) is most important in adumbrating the kind of Being we have…which is precisely where the Necronauts are at their glibbest.
Moreover, it’s difficult, reading Remainder’s handling of things qua things, to find anything more disruptive than what Viktor Shklovsky was doing in 1925, or William Carlos Williams in 1935, or Georges Perec, quite differently, in 1975. In fact, the hospitality of Remainder to allegorical readings might just as easily be read as a failure of its ability to resist metaphor, or to foreground language’s inability to do so—to capture materiality in the sense of “thingness.” And again, notwithstanding the artful stammerings, elisions, and self-corrections of the first-person narrator, the linguistic subject these objects encounter is still a consistent, confessional, Cartesian (if unusually estranged) “I.”
In general, then, Remainder’s formal choices seem less troubled by its theoretical convictions than Smith makes them out to be. The novel’s ideas may be novel enough, but McCarthy dramatizes them the way Cervantes did it: embody them in a character, launch him into a plot (albeit one that ends in a Borgesian loop). We might, if so inclined, read this as a conscious rejection of another of Realism’s credos: “the transcendent importance of form.” More likely, though, Remainder, like Netherland, is simply drawing on the formal vocabulary of Realism to “enact” the philosophical agenda Smith can’t quite pin down. (C. may well be another matter. I haven’t yet read it, but in Claybaugh’s account, it seems to go a step further toward assimilating theory into language and, especially, structure, with mixed results.)
That philosophical agenda may itself be somewhat incoherent; even Claybaugh doesn’t entirely clarify it. I’m struck by the possibility, which Smith only glances at, that the garbled quality of the INS’ transmissions is intentional—that the avant-garde to which McCarthy is authentically the heir is not Existentio-Deconstructo-Dialectico-Materialism, but the Situationism of Guy DeBord. As I’ve got it from Lipstick Traces, the Situationists (who their mark on the near-revolution in France in 1968) sought to expose the gaps in the seemingly solid bourgeois political and aesthetic order through acts of play and imposture—of “détournement.” You can see their legacy in attenuated form in flash mobs and Improv Everywhere and Exit Through the Gift Shop.
I don’t want to suggest that McCarthy isn’t thinking in earnest about “the melancholy impasse out of which the…novel has yet to work its way”; this weekend’s New York Times Book Review cover story on The Pale King was lucid and engaged, and, notably, offered no answers. But the iron-fisted theorizing of the General Secretary may be less a way forward for the novel than a way of having us on for the baggage we bring to it—and for the ease with which even the messiest “remainder” gets assimilated into the cultural order (Remainder the novel having been picked up for a movie deal by the U.K.’s Film4.) McCarthy alluded to these slippery possibilities in a recent essay on the Belgian novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint: “Will he turn out, ultimately, to have been deconstructing literary sentimentalism or sentimentalizing literary deconstruction?” It’s likewise possible to see Remainder‘s avant-gardism as purposefully “semi-fictitious.” By positioning his novel as a work of violent rejection, rather than of pop accomplishment, McCarthy may have insinuated into the bookshop a kind of Trojan-cum-Morse horse—a container that encodes something quite different from what it is.
3. I’ll Be Your Mirror
Internally, though, Remainder is less the “antipode” of Netherland than its photo-negative. That is, each stands in exactly the same relation to its respective tradition as does the other. This is not to accuse either of mannerism, exactly, but in each case, “the obvious imperfection of the world” is brought under the government of a familiar aesthetic reflex. In Netherland’s case, the potentially meaningless gets redeemed by fine writing, in the mode of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. In Remainder, the potentially meaningful gets reduced to the narcotic flatness we enjoyed in the nouveau roman. Each is exactly as “aestheticized” as the other; it’s just that Smith likes one aesthetic better.
Borrowing her own key terms, “identity,” “authenticity,” and “anxiety,” it’s possible to reconstruct why this might be so. The “identity” reading points to the evident seduction Continental Philosophy holds for a Cambridge alum. In the heady world of literary theorizing, Derrida opens doors. But Smith thinks like a novelist, not like a philosopher. (Indeed, she may think more purely like a novelist than any other writer we have.) Consequently, her keen attunement to the nuances of Forster and Woolf, the playfulness with which she approaches Kafka and Hurston, go rigid whenever her thoughts tend toward academe. The false notes in Changing My Mind—I’m thinking here of the essay on Nabokov and Barthes, and parts of the essay on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men—are almost always a product of her desire to force the play of her intelligence into some theoretical scheme.
The “anxiety” reading points elsewhere. Smith’s shadowboxing with a certain unnamed “lapsed high Anglican,” and the NYRB’s positioning of her essay hard on the heels of a review of How Fiction Works, would seem to suggest that “Two Paths” grows out of what one blogger has called “the James Wood neurosis.” Certainly, Smith is entitled to feel that she acceded too quickly and too publicly to Wood’s criticisms from the pulpit of Realism of her own first book, the multiethnic social novel White Teeth. And it was Wood whose rapt review launched Netherland, unbothered by the considerably more conventional uses to which it put its multiethnic milieu.
But the “authenticity” reading is the most revealing. In her mid-30s, Smith is still “changing her mind,” working through what kind of novelist she wants to—and can authentically—be. As she herself has suggested, here and elsewhere, her considerable gifts for characterization, irony, description, and dialogue fall squarely within the Realist tradition. But perhaps she feels, rightly or wrongly, that even her most accomplished novel, On Beauty, sits too tidily on the bourgeois bookshelf. She channels E.M. Forster, but wants to be David Foster Wallace. “Anything, anything at all, that doesn’t sound like me,” she wrote in her response to Wood’s “Hysterical Realism.” “Sick of sound of own voice. Sick of trying to make own voice appear on that white screen. Sick of trying to pretend, for sake of agent and family, that idea of putting words on blank page feels important.” It’s as though the “existential crisis” or “nervous breakdown” she sees O’Neill’s “perfectly done” novel inflicting on “what we have been taught to value in fiction” is her own.
Fortunately for her and for us, Smith labors under a misapprehension about what it means to be avant-garde. To borrow a metaphor, she can’t quite see the forest for the “dead wood.” Here are the rhetorical questions she throws at the feet of Netherland:
Is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past?
These are, of course, the very mimetic questions that animate canonical Realism, from Austen to Dostoevsky to Proust. Smith’s avant-garde is a gradual convergence on what she insists doesn’t exist: the one true and transcendent Real. But look at the “disturb and disrupt” mandate I sketched above—hell, look at Smith’s essay—and you’ll instantly see that avant-gardism, like its dark twin kitsch, is always situational. In the mid-Nineteenth Century, Wagner’s innovations are disruptive; by the mid-Twentieth, they’re the soundtrack for Triumph of the Will.
The enemy to be rebelled against today is hardly “the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.” Rather, it is a world order that reduces form, language, and selfhood to mere options in the supermarket of aesthetic choices. And insofar as it presents an aesthetic binary—write like this tradition, rather than this other tradition, and you’re on the right path—Smith’s conception of the avant-garde is woefully insufficient. Coke or Pepsi? Mac or PC? It amounts to a game of Distinction, whose logical end is to deny that the kind of avant-garde Adorno champions is even possible.
Then again, in a less theoretical mood, Smith once wrote these sentences: “We can only be who we are…. Writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.” What we need, as readers and writers, is not to side with some particular “team,” and thus to be liberated from the burden of further thinking. Rather, we need ways of evaluating a novel’s form and language and ideas in light of, for lack of a more precise term, the novelist’s own burning. We need to look beyond the superfices and cultural hoopla that mark books as mainstream as Netherland and Remainder as “violent rejections” of each other, and to examine the deep places where private sensibility and the world as we find it collide. A true path forward for the novel—Zadie Smith’s or Tom McCarthy’s or anyone else’s—will run through those trackless spaces, and we must follow it there. Otherwise, we give the status quo the victory, no matter how ardently we might wish to dismantle it.
Vive la différance.
From Our Archives:
“Obsession, Obsessively Told: A Review of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder.”
“The Great New York Novel?: A Review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland.”
“Bulletin: Interview with Tom McCarthy, General Secretary, INS.”
At the end of May 2015, during the first stirrings of the summer, I drove out to Bromley with my son, Dylan, in search of something to read. For some five miles, the road runs through the grey monotony of London’s southernmost suburbs, past stone-clad, semi-detached family homes, beneath drooping silver elms planted kerbside generations ago, past The Crooked Billet, now a Harvester family restaurant, once the site of wartime disaster. The large structure stands in a car park that is never more than half-full of hatchbacks, and, on a sandwich board perched half-on and half-off the path leading up the front door, the all-you-can-eat salad buffet is celebrated in garish lettering. On November 19th, 1944, the original Crooked Billet pub was destroyed when a V2 rocket struck. 27 drinkers died. I imagine them as elderly men in drab colours, leaning against the bar, knocking spent tobacco from their pipes, finishing off the dregs of Kentish pints, blinking obliviously as the silver rocket explodes. The Harvester restaurant, taking its name from its destroyed predecessor, now hosts families attracted by the promise of cheap burgers and the surf ‘n’ turf special, all sure to hold their faces above the sneeze screen at the salad bar, the Perspex roof sheltering the tired lettuce and dumb-cut onion. I once asked a teenage waiter, whose purple acne rose above his collar and across his Adam’s apple, if he knew any detail of the rocket attack. He narrowed his eyes as if I were mocking him. He cleared his throat, shook his head, took my drinks order.
W.G. Sebald was born in the same year that the V2 rocket struck this South London pub. In 1929, his father joined the Reichswehr. It was Ernest Röhm’s desire to merge his Sturmabteilung (SA) with the smaller Reichswehr, its troop numbers limited by the Treaty of Versailles, that provoked the Night of the Long Knives (1934), during which the Nazi regime murdered Röhm, the leadership of the SA, and many other political figures considered a threat to Adolf Hitler’s newly gained power. Arriving in Bromley, I parked the car, a silver Ford Escort, in the South Street car park. A row of tired trees screened the lot from the adjoining road. Having forgotten to bring change, I attempted to pay for the parking ticket using my mobile phone. A bright poster, stuck to the side of the silver parking meter, promised easy electronic payment through a variety of online media. I attempted to download the iOS app, but forgot my password. I was given three chances before my account was locked. There is an absence of technology in Sebald’s work. He wrote in a world coming to terms with the Internet. His first “novel,” After Nature, was published in 1988. His last, Austerlitz, in 2001, the year of his death. Sebald described the impact of dogs on his writing:
But I never liked doing things systematically. Not even my Ph.D. research was done systematically. It was done in a random, haphazard fashion. The more I got on, the more I felt that, really, one can find something only in that way — in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field. If you look at a dog following the advice of his nose, he traverses a patch of land in a completely unplottable manner. And he invariably finds what he is looking for. I think that, as I’ve always had dogs, I’ve learned from them how to do this.
His books are as strange as his analogy, as charming too. Ostensibly, they are a mixture of fiction, recollection, anecdote, and factual writing. Can we trust Sebald’s words? It doesn’t matter. The fragmented motifs, repeated images, are scattered throughout the texts and sweep you along to a conclusion, at which there magically appears sense to the whole. Verily, the field has been thoroughly sniffed out. I imagine it’s something like listening to a piece of classical music, if I were to listen to classical music. I didn’t sniff my way to Bromley Waterstones, one of the few bookshops in this, the largest of London boroughs. I used Google Maps. From the car park, we walked up South Street and turned right at the larger Tweedy Road. I thought of the album released the previous year by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and his son. It’s an album written for Tweedy’s wife, suffering from lymphoma. I can only listen to it when happy. I don’t want my three year old to ask why Daddy is crying, not least because I would struggle to answer the question. On Tweedy Road is the old council building, a cut-price version of Wren’s Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. There is a stone cupola over the entrance porch. The brickwork, stone quoins and window dressings stick like a fishbone in Bromley’s throat. Its appearance is out of keeping with the corporate iron and glass of the town centre’s commercial units. I try to corral Dylan to stand on the stone steps, thinking of taking a picture. He refuses, pointing to the black grill tight and padlocked across the front doors. This was once the town hall, opened in 1906. It is derelict now, put up for sale 10 years ago. Its listing states that it could be easily converted into a conference centre or split into a series of apartment units. It was Dylan who pointed out Sebald’s name in the fiction section of Bromley Waterstones. That morning, I’d seen Sebald’s name in a review of The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century.
Thomas Browne is a figure that appears in Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. He was a rural doctor and essayist in the 17th century. He invented the words “medical,” “precarious,” “insecurity,” and “hallucination.” In his writing, Browne asks questions such as ‘Did Jesus laugh?’ I’d mistakenly thought Sebald to be spelt ‘Sibald.’ I’m unsure why. Perhaps I had in mind the character Siward from Macbeth. Unable to find any of Sibald’s books, I was inured to the inevitability of disappointment. Dylan, thick hands full with his Peep Inside The Zoo not yet paid for but quickly granted as it meant ignoring books with rockets or rifles on their covers, said,
I traced my finger across book spines. Definitely no Sibald.
Dylan nodded to a book that sat facing forward, at his eye-level, positioned above a “bookseller’s selection” index card. Sebald’s books are full of such happy coincidences. This one was Austerlitz, the winner of many literary prizes, and, as with all of the man’s books, difficult to describe in a single sentence. I pulled out The Rings of Saturn and ushered my son away. Wikipedia describes this 1995 novel as “the account by a nameless narrator…on a walking tour of Suffolk.” And, when insisting friends read it, I compare its structure to clicking through a series of Wikipedia links. Sebald discusses the cultivation of silkworm, he discusses the Boxer Rebellion, he discusses Thomas Browne, he describes searching for Thomas Browne’s skull. He describes eating fish and chips in an empty coastal hotel. It’s compelling in a way that clicking through Wikipedia hyperlinks is not. It’s literary in a way that most “serious” novels aren’t, for Sebald feels no obligation to impress upon the reader his literary ability. Robert McCrum calls Sebald “a wonderful vindication of literary culture in all its subtle and entrancing complexity.” “JimtheRim,” on Amazon, gives the book a one star review, stating “I’ve never read such self-important words. It’s for pseuds. The bok is an intangible mess of nonsense.” Whatever anyone else thinks, I enjoy the time spent with Sebald, a man who insisted upon being called Max because he worried that “Winfried” sounded too much like a woman’s name.
My son fell asleep as I drove us home from Bromley. Peep Inside the Zoo fell from his fingers. Its heavy cardboard banged into the footwell and the sound made me start. It began to rain, the drops drumming against the car’s roof. It wasn’t until I’d finished reading The Rings of Saturn, a couple of days later, that I Googled Sebald and read of his life. He died aged 57. His car, a Peugeot 306, collided with a lorry while negotiating a left-hand bend. His daughter, Anna, was a passenger. She survived the crash with minor injuries. Her father did not. The Norfolk coroner reported that Sebald probably died from an aneurysm before his car struck the oncoming lorry. I felt a strange dissonance on reading all this. Did I remember his death being reported? Had I read of it subsequently? I think the reason for the almost uncanny (unheimlich in German, meaning “un-homely”) sensation is that I’d never read a book so full of life as The Rings of Saturn. It felt a cosmic injustice that a writer who’d invested so much soul in his writing should die so young. Thomas Browne, living in the 17th century, when doctors (such as Browne himself) were as likely to kill you as heal you, lived until 77. I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln, whose death, some say, was aided by the unsterilized fingers of “surgeons” attempting to extract the assassin’s bullet from the president’s brain. I clicked from Wikipedia to Amazon and I bought the rest of W.G. Sebald’s novels. Much as when Netflix releases an entire series of episodes at once, I am resisting the temptation to read Sebald’s books all the way through, pausing only to eat, sleep, and visit the toilet. As long as there remains a sentence, a word, unread Sebald must remain alive. To me, at least. In The Rings of Saturn, Sebald describes how the reader of Browne “is overcome by a sense of levitation.” The same can be said of the reader of Sebald.
In Paolo Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty, a louche writer named Jep Gambardella, spends much of his time strolling through the cobble-stone streets of Rome and soaking up impressions and experience, that will figure, we assume, in a long-delayed follow-up to his first acclaimed novel. He reflects on the ineffable qualities that mark good writing.
“I was destined for sensibility. I was destined to become a writer. I was destined to become Jep Gambardella.”
At another point, while responding to the flattery of a beautiful, young female admirer, who quotes from his book, Jep says the sentiment he was expressing had been better written by the Italian prose master Alberto Moravia.
Born in 1907, Alberto Moravia achieved at 21 critical and commercial success with his first novel, The Time of Indifference, a cause célèbre eschewing middle-class mores. Before his death in 1990, he would publish over 40 novels, including The Conformist (1951), the adaptation of which in 1970 by Bernardo Bertolucci has the unusual distinction of being both a classic of post-war Italian cinema and of early-1970s zeitgeist.
In his recollections to the Paris Review, after Mussolini came to power, he struggled to get his books published (though Mussolini himself approved the 1940 publication of The Dream of the Lazy) and eventually fled for refuge to the Apennine mountains in 1943. He spent the war years trying to get his scandalous novels past Fascist censors:
I sent Agostino to them two months before the fall of Fascism, two months before the end. While all about them everything was toppling, falling to ruin, the Ministry of Popular Culture was doing business as usual. Approval looked not to be forthcoming; so one day I went up there, to Via Veneto — you know the place; they’re still there, incidentally; I know them all — to see what the trouble was. They told me that they were afraid that they wouldn’t be able to give approval to the book. My dossier was lying open on the desk, and when the secretary left the room for a moment I glanced at it. There was a letter from the Brazilian cultural attaché in it, some poet, informing the Minister that in Brazil I was considered a subversive. In Brazil of all places! But that letter, that alone, was enough to prevent the book’s publication.
Moravia himself spent most of the second half of the 20th century strolling along the Via dell’Oca (which means “Street of the Goose”). Anna Maria de Dominicis and Ben Johnson, in the introduction to his Paris Review interview, describe the street as “houses of working-class people: a line of narrow doorways with dark, dank little stairs, cramped windows, a string of tiny shops; the smells of candied fruit, repair shops, wines of the Castelli, engine exhaust” on one side and on the other side “the serene imperiousness of unchipped cornices and balconies overspilling with potted vines, tended creepers: homes of the well-to-do.” His fiction would explore both sides of Italy.
In an introduction to Moravia’s Boredom, William Weaver says, “Moravia was a great friend to walk with: a born Roman, he knew every brick of the city; even the most drab apartment block or the scruffiest little church could set a sparkling train of associations and memories. But, on encountering him, I would first, automatically, ask him how he was.
“’Mi annoio,’ he would usually reply, in his clipped telegraphic way.
NYRB Classics has recently republished Moravia’s early novella Agostino, in a fine translation by Michael F. Moore. Agostino is a young boy who has an unusually close attachment to his widowed mother, and the novel takes place during their extended stay at a beach resort. His sensitivity and jealousy drive them apart in the first chapters of the book, a closely reworked Swann’s Way:
Agostino’s mother was a big and beautiful woman still in her prime, and Agostino was filled with pride every time he got in the boat with her for one of their morning rides.
The novel, though, soon plunges from Proust into the hard-knock fringes of the beach resort. Driven away by his mother’s interest in a “tanned, dark-haired” young man, Agostino falls in with a group of working-class boys who are inarticulate, violent, inscrutable. He is drawn to them, as a kind of foil to his predictable upper-middle-class universe:
For a moment Agostino felt happy as he swam while the cold powerful stream tugged at his legs, and he forgot every hurt and every wrong. The boys were swimming in all directions, their heads and arms breaking through the smooth green surface. Their voices echoed clearly in the still air. Through the glassy transparency of the water, their bodies looked like white offshoots of plants that, rising to the surface from the darkness below, moved whichever way the current took them.
Eventually, the privileged Agostino whose home has 20 bedrooms (an unimaginable number for the other boys) begins to beg for change. He encounters a father and son, and the father unadvisedly takes the opportunity to teach his son about the have’s and have-not’s.
“And how old are you?” the man inquired.
“Thirteen,” said Agostino.
“You see,” said the man to his son, “this boy is almost the same age as you and he’s already working.” Then to Agostino, “Do you go to school?”
“I wish…but how can I?” replied Agostino, taking on the deceitful tone he had often heard the boys in the gang adopt to address similar questions. “I gotta make a living, mister.”
“You see,” the father turned to his son again, “this boy can’t go to school because he has to work, and you have the nerve to complain because you have to study?”
Moravia maintained an interest in intellectuals who rationalize their own impulsive behaviors and others’. In stark contrast to Agostino, his later novel, Contempt, rereleased a decade ago by NYRB Classics, features a first-person narrator, a screenwriter whose disgust for movie-writing is matched only by his wife’s inexplicable contempt for him. Throughout, the narrator interrogates his wife, and by extension the mystery of attraction itself:
Suddenly, the suspicion that she no longer loved me sprang into my mind again, in an abrupt, haunting sort of way, as a feeling of the impossibility of contact and communion between my body and hers…And I, like a person who suddenly realizes he is hanging over an abyss, felt a kind of painful nausea at the thought that our intimacy had turned for no reason at all, into estrangement, absence, separation.
Since so many of his themes touch on the unconscious and taboo sexuality, it might be surprising how skeptical his novels are to psychoanalytic techniques. Throughout Contempt, Moravia satirizes a character who has embraced a very schematic version of Freudianism.
Moravia suggests that ratiocination is a poor substitute for taste. One of his great themes is how sensibility is wrecked by negotiations with other people, other classes, other individuals, and thereby reinvigorated. As the screenwriter-narrator of Contempt says of his wife when she tells him she despises him, “It was the tone of the virgin word that springs directly from the thing itself and pronounced by someone who had perhaps never spoken that word before, and who, urged on by necessity, had fished it up from the ancestral depths of the language, without searching for it, almost involuntarily.”
Both Contempt and Agostino have an almost Neoclassical form, unlike, say, The Leopard. Lampedusa and Moravia point toward two very different directions for Italian fiction, though Contempt, a bracingly austere book that harkens back to naturalism, was published in 1954, and Lampedusa’s inventive, comic experiment was published in 1958.
Though his work deeply engaged with early-20th-century social and intellectual concerns, he claimed his fiction was informed most by the big “C” Canon. In his conversation with the Paris Review, he comes across as alternately fusty and cantankerous in his observations on the Moderns. He rejects O’Neill and Shaw as major dramatists because they “resorted to everyday language and, in consequence, by my definition failed to create true drama.”
If the first chapter takes off from Proust, the last movement of Agostino is a poignant revision of the ending of Sentimental Education. In Flaubert’s novel, Frédéric and Deslauriers, after several intervening years of disillusionment and disappointment, reminisce about a youthful visit to a brothel. During the visit, Frédéric becomes embarrassed and flees into the street, and his friend follows him. They are both seen coming out, and it causes a “local scandal which was still remembered three years later.” The novel ends with the two failed romantics remarking on the story:
“That was the happiest time we ever had,” said Frédéric.
“Yes, perhaps you’re right. That was the happiest time we ever had,” Deslauriers says.
In the final pages of his novella, Moravia has the prepubescent Agostino visit a brothel with his piggybank savings. When the encounter at the brothel predictably ends badly, he goes back home and demands of his mother that he be treated like a man. It is a moving depiction of a young person’s thwarted autonomy.
“But he wasn’t a man,” Moravia writes, “and many unhappy days would pass before he became one.”
The watershed moment for Texas hold’em and its oldest and most prestigious tournament, the World Series of Poker, can be traced back to 2003, when online qualifier and self-described poker amateur Chris Moneymaker – his real name – became World Champion. Moneymaker inspired a legion of online amateurs with his Cinderella story. Since then, hold’em – as played virtually – has transformed into a cultural and commercial phenomenon. Poker websites are veritable training grounds for the World Series of Poker, as well as other less high-profile tournaments, whose number of contestants and purse money continue to rise in tandem.
Proof of the game’s current popularity is the marketability of hold’em strategy books, as any google search for related titles will confirm. Decidedly less marketable, but also part of hold’em’s history, is the World Series of Poker as covered by a novelist turned sportswriter. In this canon there are but few titles, the most notable of which are The Biggest Game in Town by A. Alvarez and Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion’s World Series of Poker by James McManus. Colson Whitehead has now added his own contribution to this sparse and rather obscure list with his new book, The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death.
Back in the spring of 1981, when the World Series of Poker was in its twelfth year, English writer A. Alvarez flew from London to Las Vegas to cover the Main Event for The New Yorker. For the next twenty-seven nights, he took up residence in the Golden Nugget hotel on Fremont Street in the downtown section of Vegas known as Glitter Gulch. Today, as was the case in 1981, the neon lights of Glitter Gulch are eclipsed by those of the Strip. Ask any recent Vegas visitor if they happened to check out downtown Fremont during their trip and they will likely look at you mysteriously, as if you asked them whether or not they checked out a bunch of shrubs nearby the Grand Canyon. When Alvarez was interned there, however, Glitter Gulch was home to what he called “the real action.” By action he meant gambling, of course, and by real he meant absolute, or not diluted by additional entertainments famously offered by the Strip.
More to the point, Glitter Gulch in 1981 was also home to the World Series of Poker, then called Binion’s World Series Championship of Poker, trademarked by its founder, Benny Binion, a Vegas pioneer from the Lone Star State, at whose relatively humble Horseshoe Casino the tournament took place. That year, seventy-five contestants competed in the No Limit Texas hold’em Main Event, the winner of which is crowned World Champion of Poker. It was Stu Unger who won the title along with less than half a million dollars. Last year, at the not-so humble Rio Hotel and Casino on the Strip, the tournament venue since 2005 after its purchase by Caesars, the number of Main Event contestants exceeded six thousand; the winner claimed over eight million dollars.
The story Alvarez filed for The New Yorker he expanded into a book sharing the same title, The Biggest Game in Town, itself a golden nugget about Vegas and American ingenuity. But mostly it’s about poker and the people who at that time earned a living playing it for high-stakes. Many of them, like Doyle Brunson, Jack Straus, Johnny Moss, Amarillo Slim Preston, and Crandell Addington, all inductees in the Poker Hall of Fame and some still active even today, are or were quintessential Texans. Alvarez’s portraits of these cowboys are carefully drawn, reverent, and unobtrusive. His reverence for them comes from his understanding that these men, who live by their wits and ride out their losses almost as casually as they do their victories, are simply cut from a different cloth. He lets them speak for themselves in their identical drawls, which is smart, since each is well-supplied with hard-earned, no-nonsense insights into their profession, and some, notably Jack Straus, are consummate raconteurs.
Alvarez’s unobtrusiveness is part of his provenance, I’d wager. Our reporter at large is as English as Amarillo Slim Preston is southern. The unrelenting heat of Nevada affects Alvarez acutely. When I wrote that he was interned in Glitter Gulch, I did so because Alvarez himself likens his stay to a sentence in a penitentiary. After only a week, he claims to “exhibit symptoms of physical deprivation – nervous tension, disorientation, insomnia, loss of appetite.” A morning stroll leaves him feeling faint. He is clearly not a cowboy. Which is what makes The Biggest Game in Town so powerfully observed – Alvarez’s status as stranger or foreigner, not only to Vegas but to America as well. It affords him a critical distance. During the taxi ride from the airport to his hotel, for example, he’s struck by what he deems a uniquely American phenomenon, “the utter lack of continuity between large towns and their surrounding countryside.” For Alvarez, Vegas is an example of this discontinuity par excellence: the city pops up in the desert like a mirage, as redundant a simile as that is.
Alvarez is also a stranger to high-stakes poker. The first game he observes, he overhears the players betting two dollars, a nickel, and five dollars, which confuses him into thinking he’s watching a small-stakes game until he peers at the numerical values on the chips. As he is informed later, “serious gamblers always leave off the zeroes when they announce their bets.” It must say something about Alvarez’s journalistic approach that he won the confidences of so many of these serious players over the course of his stay in spite of his relative greenness; that he was welcomed into their fold must also say something about the magnanimous personalities of the players themselves.
The contradiction between their big-heartedness away from the table and their aggressive, cutthroat tactics at the table is never lost on Alvarez, either. They’re made up of other contradictions too, these poker professionals or “mental athletes”: they compete tirelessly for big-money prizes and yet are willing to gamble away their winnings almost immediately; they harbor lofty notions of personal liberty that a life outside the system – and inside the gambling hall – services and yet some of them remain slightly wounded by the stigma attached to their vocation by those in the system. By the tournament’s end, Alvarez is as in awe of his subjects as he was when he first arrived.
In 2000, James McManus found himself in circumstances similar to A. Alvarez in 1981 when McManus was sent to Vegas on assignment from Harper’s to cover the Main Event. The story he filed he really expanded into the memoir Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion’s World Series of Poker. Like Alvarez, McManus was a poker player by hobby, uninitiated to the world of high-stakes competition. This did not stop him from spending a quarter of his expenses and advance money from Harper’s on the buy-in to a satellite table in an attempt to play his way into the tournament. The format of the Main Event of the World Series of Poker has not changed since 1972. A player can either pay the steep ten thousand dollar buy-in, thereby paying his or her way into the tournament, or compete at the variously priced satellite tables beforehand in the hopes of clinching a berth. “Satellites,” McManus writes, “are…thought by many players to be the most legitimate route to the final, since they reward poker skill instead of deep pockets.”
McManus’ shallow pockets went a long way in 2000 and at 385 pages, with a glossary, bibliography and an index, Positively Fifth Street is a comprehensive account of his improbable run. Whereas Alvarez remained a railbird or poker spectator throughout his twenty-seven nights in Glitter Gulch, McManus became an unwitting contender for the title in the very tournament he was being paid to report on. His use of the present tense to describe key hands makes it feel as if the action is unfolding as we read it, and his shock and exhilaration after each favorable turn of the card is registered at the same time as ours. We are with McManus as he advances. His total recall for bets, hole cards, and flop cards made me wonder if he was relying on memory alone or if the tournament organizers keep records of every hand played. Either way, the very entertaining play-by-play passages in the book may explain why poker has turned into such a stalwart ratings performer for sports broadcasters these days.
From 1981 to 2000, the number of Main Event contestants rose steadily from seventy-five to 512. During McManus’s run, the tournament was held at Binion’s Horseshoe and still very much a family affair, as it was during Alvarez’s stay. Alvarez distinguishes Binion’s from other Strip casinos not just geographically but also on the basis of it being a family-run operation, uncorrupted by corporate bureaucracy. In 1981, Binion’s did not put a limit on the size of a gambler’s bet, making it the single exception to all other Vegas casinos. This laxity with respect to a prevalent rule that the corporate casinos impose on high-rollers in order to protect themselves against big losses epitomized, for Alvarez, the more exceptional experience a gambler had at Binion’s back then. Alvarez is charmed by its “down-home” atmosphere, as are the serious players who win and lose there, many of whom, according to Alvarez, are friends of the Binion clan.
Reading Positively Fifth Street today, one can sense the imminent corporatization of the World Series of Poker. McManus mentions how the playing field is populated by younger players schooled on computer programs; some wear hats – baseball hats, not Stetsons – emblazoned with the names of corporate sponsors. With its patriarch dead for over a decade, the Binion empire appears to be crumbling too. McManus uses the trial of the murder of Ted Binion, the family’s youngest and wildest, as a backdrop. One of the accused, his live-in girlfriend, claims in court that Ted had once put a hit out on his sister Becky, then president of the Horseshoe. It is a claim Becky does not dispute.
Recent telecasts of the World Series of Poker reveal players who are mostly young and sartorially-challenged. The proven ones are almost as covered in corporate logos as NASCAR drivers. So it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for the humble beginnings of the World Series of Poker while reading The Biggest Game in Town, when hold’em was not well-known and thus the Main Event retained a certain exclusive air despite its rising popularity. Positively Fifth Street represents a transitional period in the tournament’s and hold’em’s corresponding histories. It would be just three years before Chris Moneymaker claimed the title, effectively breaking the tournament and the game wide open. The following year, the World Series of Poker had a new home and sponsor, and the number of Main Event contestants tripled. Hold’em is now ubiquitous and the World Series of Poker continues to determine its best player.
It makes perfect sense, then, that in 2011 the sports and entertainment website Grantland felt the time was ripe to send a reporter of its own to cover the tournament as it exists today, thereby adding its name to the short list of estimable publications who also recognized the literary merit of the assignment. The result is Colson Whitehead’s The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death. Minus a flashback about the author’s first trip to Vegas, originally published in Harper’s, the book more or less exists online in the Grantland archives under the non-self-explanatory title of Occasional Dispatches from the Republic of Anhedonia. The Republic of Anhedonia is our reporter’s imaginary nationality, which suggests he may suffer from depression. Whether or not it’s clinical, and therefore deadly serious, he does not say; in fact, anhedonia’s relevance to The Noble Hustle remains frustratingly unclear in spite of how often Whitehead brings it up.
Grantland didn’t just send Whitehead to cover the event, they paid his ten-thousand dollar buy-in to compete in the tournament, which does not get him very far. In this sense, The Noble Hustle is like Positively Fifth Street without the improbable and exhilarating run by its author. If Whitehead didn’t spend so much time warming us up to his tournament appearance, perhaps his early exit would have felt less anticlimactic, even if he coyly prepares us for what happens to him. For a memoir, The Noble Hustle is remarkably aloof as well. Whitehead doesn’t tell us the name of his daughter, instead referring to her as “the kid” throughout. In contrast, McManus’s 385 page poker memoir includes a disquisition on his family tree and ends with his cringe-worthy confession to his wife that he received a lap dance during his Vegas stay.
There are several missed opportunities in The Noble Hustle. In 2011, the Feds shut down the major American online poker sites; known as Black Friday among poker insiders, the shutdown had major financial implications on the game and its players. Whitehead refers to Black Friday only offhandedly and fails to explore its impact on the 2011 tournament. We also don’t get any real insight into the type of people who make a living off poker, as we do in McManus’s and Alvarez’s books.
As a breezy and sarcasm-soaked account of one man’s very unsuccessful attempt to repeat what McManus accomplished in 2000, The Noble Hustle does not earn a rightful place in a tradition begun by Alvarez and continued by McManus. Whitehead is as capable a writer as they are. But his forerunners had a more probing and contagious interest in the game and the people who play it.
Image credit: Joo0ey/Flickr