Like many kids who grew up in small towns where there wasn't much to do, I spent my adolescence going to punk rock shows. I wasn't an actual punk, mind you. While other kids bleached their hair and affixed Black Flag patches to their backpacks, I wore Wrangler jeans and ill-fitting sweaters, looking every inch the sheltered homeschooler that I was. But my complete lack of effort had the useful effect of making me appear harmless and amusing in the eyes of local gatekeepers. At least I wasn't a poser. I was an awkward kid looking for something to do, and that put me in good company. Even if I didn't dress the part, I loved going to the shows. Sure, it was fun to let loose in the mosh pit and yell along with the band, but what I loved most was the sense of meaning, the feeling that seeing this particular band on this specific night was the most important thing in the world. I may have lived in a nowhere town with no culture to speak of, but those punk shows held in park pavilions and VFW halls were our own personal TV channel, our radio station, our makeshift religion. The perfect vehicle for that mix of earnestness and pretension that defines adolescence. Jeff Jackson's new novel Destroy All Monsters dedicates itself to depicting these feelings of isolation and transcendence. It follows several different players in a local music scene that will be familiar to anyone who's hung around a merch table. But this is no nostalgia trip. You won't find wistful odes to the scene of the author's youth. Instead you'll find violence and contagion leaping from scene to scene, leaving real bodies in its real wake. Is this the dormant spirit of rock and roll, come to wreak vengeance on its halfhearted acolytes for their lack of faith? Or is some malevolent force using the music as a means of locating victims to satisfy its urges? The novel begins (for the first time, but more on that later) at a theater in Arcadia, a kind of everytown whose abandoned factories and dilapidated warehouses can be found everywhere in the country. It's the night of a concert put on by the Carmelite Rifles, local heroes who look to be on the verge of making it big. (The band's name, combining devotion with violence, is a good encapsulation of the book's style.) The Rifles do make it out of Arcadia to start playing bigger shows, which has the unintended consequence of causing the bands left behind to become grouchy and unambitious. Such a dynamic has happened before, of course. But what happens next is unexpected. The bands start dying. The first act of violence occurs in Arcadia. A local band consisting of scenesters who were present at the Carmelite Rifles is attacked by a concertgoer wielding a handgun. One of the band members dies. The assailant is captured, but he offers no explanation for his actions, as if he were a puppet being controlled by someone else. And this is just the beginning. The same scenario recurs in other towns. An obscure local band is attacked by a gunman who gives no reason for his actions. Again and again this happens, quickly being designated an epidemic. But no cause—no original virus—is discovered, to say nothing of a cure. The victims go on to relive the violence, forming new bands to play the same venues, as if they're daring the killers. Ever since Buddy Holly died in a plane crash, death and rock and roll have always gone together. Many of the greatest rock musicians played with this legacy. Perhaps most germane to Jackson's project is David Bowie, who encouraged (and possibly started) rumors that he was going to be killed onstage during his glam rock phase. But Bowie was a star and a genius, making him a plausible target for a psychopath looking to claim some meager portion of fame for himself. These are local bands whose only distinction is being targeted for violence. What is compelling the killers? One of Arcadia’s scenesters, a young woman named Xenie, has a theory. Even speaking it aloud frightens her. "The killers wanted music to matter again. They wanted to purify it. It's like they were thinning the herd, putting wounded animals out of their misery." Disturbing, yes, but also undeniably punk. Punk is the anthem of negation, of ripping it up and starting again, to paraphrase both the song by Orange Juice and the book by Simon Reynolds. But the very real violence visited upon these bands feels like an empty gesture, what happens when the spirit of punk has drained away, leaving only blood and safety pins. It reminds me of a meme that's been pinging around Twitter. Yes, Donald Trump is president, degrading our laws and culture with his every tweet, but at least he'll inspire some decent punk songs. I am struggling to prevent myself from typing "Make Punk Great Again," but it appears I'm unsuccessful. But that seems like a lousy deal right now. I don't even think it's accurate, either. Far from inspiring artists, Trump seems to be exhausting them, warping reality more quickly than they can depict it. Is this all that Destroy All Monsters has to offer? An elegy for a subculture that's run its course? Not at all, and the real clue as to what this book is up to lies in in its unique structure. Destroy All Monsters is really two books: a novel called "My Dark Ages" and a novella called "Kill City." These are Side A and Side B of the book, literally. You flip the book over to read the other story, just like a vinyl single. Expanding the universe of a story is a device that more and writers have been trying out recently. Jeff VanderMeer did this with The Strange Bird, a novella that expands on events only glimpsed at in Borne. David Mitchell's entire oeuvre takes place in the same shared universe, and eventually will cover millions of years, from the dawn of humanity to its eventual transformation. But Jackson is up to something different. "Kill City" isn't an expansion of "My Dark Ages." It's more like a retelling, or—since this is a story about music—a cover version. It takes some of the characters and events from the other story and shuffles them, changing backstories, fates, and so on, as if the story was retold by someone who heard it secondhand at a crowded bar. It transforms the story as thoroughly as Joan Jett transformed Tommy James when she covered "Crimson and Clover." But that's still just the secondary point. The main point is that stories—any story, anywhere—are being capable of being transformed. Their meanings can be altered, their contexts shifted, if you just know where to push. Perhaps that sounds hopelessly postmodern—metanarratives endlessly in flux and whatnot. But at a moment when the narratives that define our daily lives can seem inflexibly constricting, it sounds downright hopeful. It can take a while to hear it, but when punk says "no" to this world, it's a way of saying "yes" to a new one.
Corporate entities and media conglomerates have historically tended to take me for their target demographic. Representation? I’m a straight white man: I could be Walter White one day, Louis C.K. the next, and any Avenger I wanted (Tony Stark, obviously). “Everyone listens to me!” I could declaim, like Homer Simpson opening a can of Nuts and Gum. Then my wife and I became parents, and I became a stay-at-home dad. Suddenly popular culture wasn’t an endless hall of mirrors, reflecting most superficial aspects of my life and circumstances back at me. I had better luck when I turned to books. A number of writers were dwelling on parenthood and the seemingly impossible demands it made of artistic practice. But all of these writers were women. (There was one major exception, of course, which I’ll get to later.) Their subject wasn’t parenthood in a gender-neutral sense, but rather motherhood, an all-encompassing identity if ever there was one. The wisdom in these books and related commentary seems to be that the roles of mother and writer are inherently in conflict. Give attention to your child and your writing suffers; give attention to your writing and your child pounds on the door of your office like the SWAT team. A feature article in New York magazine’s The Cut examined this conflict at length; Kim Brooks surveyed these books while detailing her own struggles to finish her manuscript while cutting up apple slices. She dubbed this subgenre “the literature of domestic ambivalence,” and its paradigmatic example was Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. Brooks comes across this book, appropriately enough, in the bedroom. She writes: I first became aware of it lying beside my husband one night, our kids sleeping after the usual protracted battle. He was reading a slim book with an attractive cover. He read the last page, closed it, and extended it toward me. “Read this,” he said. “Read it now.” The book was Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, and I read it in a single gulp, loving it for the oldest and silliest reason a reader can love a book, because I saw myself on the page, heard my own, unarticulated angst in the voice. She goes on to read many more works in this vein—sister books, you could say—including Eula Biss’s On Immunity, Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness, and Elisa Albert’s After Birth. You’ll notice that Brooks collects both fiction and nonfiction under this heading; Dept of Speculation is a novel related in aphoristic bursts, On Immunity is a book-length essay about vaccination and the demands of modern society. A body of literature about individual women performing multiple, even contradictory roles has the happy result of producing books that pick and choose from a wide breadth of styles and techniques, genre boundaries be damned. I read these books and thrilled to the descriptions of quotidian tasks. Lyrical paragraphs about changing diapers! Ethnographic studies of playground moms! But there was a running theme in nearly all of these books that didn’t quite translate into my own experience. And no, it wasn’t breastfeeding. I used a bottle to feed my kids, sure, but I still recognized the semi-conscious state one falls into during that 3 a.m. feeding. What I didn’t experience was precisely that sense of domestic ambivalence, the conflict between the roles of artist and caregiver. This isn’t to say that writing while parenting is all paychecks and playdates. Far from it! I have two children under the age of five, and on a not-infrequent basis will I retreat to the kitchen, closing the childproof gate behind me, to get a few minutes’ peace and check Twitter while they watch Peppa Pig. But for me, this struggle is an issue of resources more than identity. If only my kids napped more like when they were younger, or if only we had more money to afford a babysitter or daycare, then I could write more pages per day and feed my kids something other than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Rather then being two states in opposition, I’ve found that domestic and artistic life have many parallels. Both involve shuffling around the house in sweatpants while accomplishing minor tasks: write a paragraph here, read Curious George there. Unlike Offill’s conception of the “art monster,” I discovered that the transcendent and the mundane make good partners. Is my male privilege showing yet? “Wow, sir, congratulations on navigating the demands of art and life! You must be the first person in recorded history ever to accomplish such an apparently insurmountable task!” Yes, I get it. Women have been maintaining this balance for centuries before I came along. I think that this disconnect of mine says something about the nature of contemporary parenthood, and how expectations differ depending on who does it. Back when my oldest child was first born, I experienced a burst of creative energy. I finished work that had stalled before I was a father; I did research for future projects. I wrote a complete rough draft of a novel in a couple months, then I went back and rewrote it again in a couple more months, and again, and again. In my first year as a father, I wrote more than I had in the previous five. I chalked this up to what I called the American Idol effect. Every season on the show, there was at least one contestant, if not multiple ones, who claimed that they were competing on their children’s behalf, to demonstrate that anything was possible, they should always follow their dreams, #staypositive. Supremely corny, yes, but if that’s where my motivation was coming from, I wasn’t going to question it. After a while, I grew convinced that I was able to experience that creative burst because I had chosen, consciously and deliberately, to be a stay-at-home father. Granted, it wasn’t a terribly difficult decision to make. My wife earned more than I did, and had health insurance to boot. Still, it didn’t feel like I was backed into a corner. Conversely, my wife feels that the decision to continue working has been, in some sense, made for her, as she has to provide for our family. There’s a structural conflict to her side of our domestic arrangement, sometimes making her feel that she’s doing what she has to do while I, more or less, am doing what I chose to do. Not to say that she’s unhappy with the arrangement; raising a family together has shown us that she’s more comfortable going to work and earning an income, while I’m more comfortable staying home. But the mere fact that I’ve assumed an unconventional domestic role further demonstrates that it’s a choice I made for myself. It’s one that seems to work, too. Once my daughter started sleeping through the night (at six weeks—yes, I did win the lottery on that one), I was able to establish a routine that allowed me to write for a few hours every day while still keeping her alive. Work, family, a reasonable balance between the two: it’s what I want out of life, honestly. My experience ran directly counter to much of Domestic Ambivalence Lit. The mothers writing these books often felt like the choice to care for their children wasn’t a choice at all, but an imposition foisted on them by the one-two punch of society and biology. This is, of course, one of the central struggles of modern feminism. Even if you can manage to assert yourself in a patriarchal culture and make an actual choice, is it the right one? Related, and perhaps even more salient, is the fact that it’s easier to be a stay-at-home dad than it is to be a stay-at-home mom. Not in the terms of the workload, mind you. I change as many diapers and weather as many tantrums as any mother. The biggest difference, to put it bluntly, is guilt. On a day-to-day basis, I would imagine that I experience significantly less guilt about my abilities as a caregiver than my female counterparts. Are the kids alive? Yes? Then I’m doing fine. And I’m not the only one grading myself on a curve. When I go the library, when I go to the grocery store, I am greeted with beatific smiles and congratulatory nods. Behold the stay-at-home dad, savior of civilized society! This asymmetry often means that I’m reading about the same mundane events that make up my life at the moment without sharing some of the underlying emotions. It’s an unusual experience, like reading a Wikipedia summary of a movie without ever watching the movie itself. Probably this contributed to the fact that my favorite entry in this subgenre is Little Labors by Rivka Galchen, a short book of short entries, some no longer than a sentence, whose central emotion isn’t guilt, but wonder. Staying home with my kids, in my experience, consists of long stretches of tedium and stress, punctuated by occasional moments of transcendence and general oneness of the universe. Galchen somehow resides in those moments while letting the stresses recede into the background, a trait that would make me resentful if her book weren’t so good. Still, Galchen’s book touches on the theme of the role of caregiver being imposed on those who practice it, rather than choosing it. Nor is this ambivalence new; writers of various commitments to feminist ideals have been examining it for years, from Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen in the 1970s, all the way back to Virginia Woolf, the godmother of Domestic Ambivalence. There’s a history to this sensibility, and I never considered myself a part of it. This is why I haven’t written about stay-at-home fatherhood until this essay. All those drafts I wrote when I first became a father had nothing to do with being a father. Even trying to write this short piece is difficult, and it’s because there are few models for how to depict these experiences. “But Adam,” I hear you think. “What about celebrated Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard? He writes about the quotidian nature of fatherhood at great, some would say unreadable, length!” Indeed he does! I confess to you that, after multiple attempts, I simply haven’t been able to find my footing in My Struggle. I suspect it’s a structural issue. Part of what I enjoy about the Domestic Ambivalence works is their fragmentary nature. They are, almost without exception, short books made up of small parts. For me, the chamber music approach gets closer at depicting the realities of staying home with kids than Knausgaard’s opera-cycle tactic. Plus, reading about his reliance on Norway’s free, state-mandated childcare simply makes me jealous. So where do I look for models? I’ve found one in an unusual place. Don DeLillo is one of my favorite writers. The gnomic pronouncements on technology, the pervasive paranoia, the verbose yet affectless dialogue: I love all of it. But there’s an aspect to his work that receives less attention than the postmodern pyrotechnics, and it is that he is a poet of the domestic sphere. For all the schemata of late capitalist information networks in his work, the characters themselves are frequently confined to isolated, cramped spaces. “Men in small rooms,” goes the refrain from Libra, his novel about Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination. History is made by men sitting in small rooms, waiting for the opportunity to assert themselves on the public consciousness. A number of his works feature little more than a few characters in a confined domestic setting. Great Jones Street finds rock star Bucky Wunderlick holed up in a small apartment in Lower Manhattan, staring at an unplugged phone and meditating on fame. The Body Artist tracks performance artist Lauren Hartke as she wanders around her home following the death of her husband. Perhaps most germane, Mao II gives us Bill Gray, a blocked writer who sits at his desk all day, blowing his nose and accumulating drafts. Much like a parent, you could say. This thread running through DeLillo’s work testifies to his belief that a small, single room can function as a node where one can plug into the larger forces of economics, history, and technology. Where did this computer come from? How does it change the room in which it sits, and how does it change me? These are the kinds of thoughts that cross my mind during the lulls that sometimes occur during the course of the day, when my kids are thankfully quiet for a few moments and I can let myself think. If there’s a model for how to write about the experience of a stay-at-home father, I could do worse than choosing this one. But maybe I’m kidding myself. I’m a man performing a role that gets coded as feminine, and I might be assuaging my insecurities about occupying such a marginalized position by spinning elaborate fantasies of masculine intellect and profundity. Housewives in the 1950s had soap operas and sleeping pills; I have my college reading list. But maybe doubting the validity of my own perspective is the quintessential problem of the stay-at-home parent, one that mothers have struggled with for ages—precisely the sort of trap that I shouldn’t fall into. Trust your instincts: good advice for writers and caregivers both. Image Credit: Pixabay.
“An Army Newspaper” is a story by the Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim, published in the collection The Corpse Exhibition. The narrator details his time editing the cultural section of a military newspaper, presenting his readers with stories and poems celebrating the glories of war and the bravery of the nation’s soldiers. (The war in question is presumably the Iran-Iraq war that went on for almost the entire length of the 1980s, crippling Iraqi society, though the narrator neglects to give any specifics as to the nature of the conflict.) The content of the narrator's newspaper section is rather lacking in literary quality, as it is written by soldiers who want only to valorize their nation and its leaders rather than speak truthfully about their own experiences. But the editor manages to make his section readable by adding his own rhetorical flourishes to the soldiers’ drab, dutiful prose. His superiors praise his work, stoking his dream of becoming Minister of Culture. One day, a packet arrives on his desk. It contains five stories, all by the same author, written in school notebooks. Unlike the usual fare that comes his way, these stories are astonishing. “The stories were written in a surprisingly elevated style,” he says. “In fact, I swear that the world’s finest novels, before these stories that I read, were mere drivel, vacuous stories eclipsed by the grandeur of what this soldier had written.” The editor looks into this soldier’s background and finds he was recently killed shortly after sending in the stories. He takes advantage of this unique opportunity, publishing the soldier’s work under his own name. The editor is soon the toast of the literary world, attending conferences and giving interviews. The stories, however, keep coming. Day after day, packets land on the editor’s desk, all of them containing more of the soldier’s brilliant work in the same school notebooks. Did he survive? The editor digs up the soldier’s grave and finds that he is quite dead, a single bullet wound, the handiwork of a sniper, in the center of his forehead. Just to be safe, the editor burns the body. But the stories don’t cease. Dozens of packets containing hundreds of brilliant new stories arrive daily. The editor burns these as well, purchasing an incinerator for this express purpose, but still they pile up, leaving him with only one option. I found this story to be, as they say, relatable. I’ve been following the growing body of literature on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for a few years now, and it certainly feels as if there are endless manuscripts landing on my desk every day, demanding my attention, driving me to consider unorthodox methods of disposal. They’re not all deathless works of brilliance, for sure, but they are, more often than not, urgent and impassioned, writers trying to come to grips with their experiences of war, whether they’re veterans offering firsthand accounts or civilians making meaning from what they’ve seen and read. The lapses into sentimentality and cliché seem the result of haste more than dishonesty. Roy Scranton is also familiar with the conventions of recent war literature, and from both directions. After serving in Iraq in the mid-aughts, he wrote essays and journalism about the war, and also worked with fellow veteran-writer Matt Gallagher to edit Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War. He was also working on a novel, starting it when he was still enlisted and spending the next ten years shaping the story. The result is War Porn, and it reads like a summary of this particular subgenre, underlining its shortcomings while pointing at new strategies. War Porn follows three different stories: a barbecue in Utah on Columbus Day, 2004; a young soldier serving in Iraq during the first year of the war; and an Iraqi math professor in early 2003, just before the invasion. The three timelines are arranged in an A-B-C-B-A pattern, not unlike the “nesting dolls” structure of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. At the literal and figurative center is the math professor’s story, but I’ll get to that later. The novel opens, like so many books about the war, at home. It is quite possible that the literature of this war has focused on the homefront to a greater degree than any other conflict in U.S. history. Think of Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, still one of the best novels on the subject. The entire story unfolds over a single day, as a company of soldiers is flown back home after winning a significant battle to be lauded as heroes during the halftime show of a football game. The war itself appears only in Billy’s memory, strobe-lit flashes of heat and smoke. Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You, Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days, Roxana Robinson’s Sparta -- these and others give just as much attention, if not more, to the conflicts that unfolded at home as those abroad. This is the result, I think, of having a volunteer military, one whose members move within their own world, rarely coming into contact with the wider public. The actual wars U.S. soldiers fight can feel so distant that civilian writers may be hesitant to depict warfare, opting instead to stick to more familiar territory and examine the struggles of veterans readjusting to stateside life. Indeed, the dominant trope is a vet stricken with PTSD, his journey to become whole once again. Scranton is having none of this. The veteran in the homefront section of War Porn is a psychopathic rapist, his taste for violence stoked in an Abu Ghraib-like compound where he served as a prison guard, photographing the cruelties he inflicted and storing them on a thumb drive. There is no redemption, no absolution of guilt. It’s here that the novel’s title takes on a double meaning. “War porn” usually refers to such images of violence, but there is also the emotional pornography of stories of returning soldiers learning to forgive themselves, assuaging the guilt felt by good-hearted readers, flattering them for their performative compassion. The thread about the war itself is just as terse, though much funnier. A young soldier named Wilson, rifle in hand and Noam Chomsky volume in his pack, stumbles through the initial stages of the war, witnessing the invasion harden into the occupation as democracy fails to spontaneously arise from the sands of the desert. He sees little and understands less, trying only to survive. His comrades are little more than nicknames spouting acronyms and profanities. The local factions vying for power are indistinguishable to him, their lives and values alien. Ignorant American man-children wreaking havoc both at home and abroad: is this all War Porn is? Not at all, thankfully. Nestled in the book’s center is a kind of novella about an Iraqi professor named Qasim. He’s a genuine character, torn between professional and personal responsibility. His thread is by far the most humane part of the book, and this seems by design. After dismantling those homefront and combat tropes, Scranton maps out this new path into the subject, following Qasim into entire territories of the conflict that, thus far, have largely gone unexplored in American fictional representations. It’s a different kind of Iraq War novel, for sure, but it’s not just that. It’s an expression of Scranton’s philosophy about telling new, different stories as a means of survival. Last year, Scranton published Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, a short book about climate change. After spending a couple chapters amassing more than enough evidence to persuade the reader that our civilization is royally, unavoidably fucked, Scranton wonders what we can do next. He’s not thinking about electric cars, however. His concerns are existential. Namely, when climate change is on the verge of upending life as we know it, what stories do we tell to prepare ourselves? Scranton returns to civilization’s early days, finding in ancient stories like the Epic of Gilgamesh guidance for coming to terms with decline and death, equipping oneself with wisdom and dignity. Answers to coping with this systemic problem lay, in all of places, in the humanities, that living document of what our species has thought and felt. War Porn offers a similar suggestion when it comes to the United States’s seemingly perpetual involvement in the conflicts of the Middle East. Our own soldiers and bombs will do little besides incite rival powers to offer up their own unorthodox weaponry. Studying their history, reading their stories, could uncover new strategies, new approaches we’ve resigned to thinking of as intractable.
When I worked at a bookstore, I became adept at summarizing books for readers in as few words as possible. The Great Gatsby? Rich guy tries to win girl’s heart. The Crying of Lot 49? Girl checks the mail, discovers a worldwide conspiracy. It’s likely that I would have met my match, however, had I been working as a bookseller when Mat Johnson’s Pym came out in 2011. It’s several books rolled into one, really: a literary detective story about Edgar Allan Poe’s sole novel; an action-adventure movie featuring ice-dwelling albino creatures in Antarctica; a racial satire about the vain pursuit of pure whiteness; and likely a few other obscure subgenres as well. Loving Day, Johnson’s new novel, lacks the fantastical backdrop of Pym. The whole novel takes place in Germantown, an African-American neighborhood in Philadelphia. There are no CGI monsters to speak of. (There may or may not be a ghost, however.) But it is arguably a more daring novel, and what makes it so daring is the fact that it’s so personal. Johnson has crammed as much of himself into this book as can fit. This is very affecting, as Johnson’s is a self that has immense difficulty fitting in anywhere. Like many a Victorian Gothic, Loving Day begins with a man returning to his ancestral estate, finding it empty and in disrepair. But Warren Duffy is no member of the landed gentry. The son of a black woman and a white man (Irish, specifically, that pasty shade of white), Warren was raised in Germantown by his mother while looking passably Caucasian. After she died, and after his father took a hands-off approach to parenting for the remainder of his adolescence, Warren went to art school in Wales, “where dear Lord I have never felt blacker.” He married a Welsh woman who expected him to become a successful comic book artist and/or a successful father. He failed on both counts. Divorced, broke, Warren returns to Loudin Mansion, the seven-acre estate in the midst of Germantown that was already falling apart when his father bought it in the '70s. Following his father’s death, Warren inherited it. He has dreams of his own regarding the house, ambitious though not especially noble: he wants to burn it down, claim the insurance money, then run off without even looking in the rearview mirror. Warren’s plans are soon derailed, however. When he was a teenager, he had a brief romance with a Jewish girl who lived in one of Philly’s tonier neighborhoods. Unbeknownst to him, the affair produced a child, a girl named Tal. Once Warren is back in town, Tal’s grandfather tracks him down, explaining that her mother died a few years back, and what she needs now is guidance from the father she never knew. The arson scheme goes on the back burner, so to speak, while Warren tries to find a school where Tal can finish up her senior year and thus evade delinquency. Middle-aged male, persevering through failure with the aid of alcohol and a sense of humor: it’s a setup that wouldn’t be out of place in, say, a Richard Ford novel. But where the loneliness of Ford’s men is existential in nature, Warren’s is also social, even genetic. He’s a black man who looks white, out of place wherever he goes. I am a racial optical illusion. I am as visually duplicitous as the illustration of the young beauty that’s also the illustration of the old hag. Whoever sees the beauty will always see the beauty, even if the image of the hag can be pointed out to exist in the same etching. Whoever sees the hag will be equally resolute. The people who see me as white always will, and will think it’s madness that anyone else could come to any other conclusion, holding to this falsehood regardless of learning my true identity. The people who see me as black cannot imagine how a sane, intelligent person could be so blind not to understand this, despite my pale-skinned presence. The only influence I have over this perception, if any, is in the initial encounter. Here is my chance to be categorized as black, with an asterisk. The asterisk is my whole body. It’s not saying too much, I don’t think, to detect aspects of the author within his character. Johnson is also the son of a white father and a black mother, his racial identity seemingly contingent upon the whims of whatever community he finds himself in. He’s written about it before, in Pym as well as Incognegro, a graphic novel that follows a black journalist “passing” for white in the Jim Crow south to report on lynching. But Loving Day is by far his most personal take on the matter, a statement of intent as much as a work of fiction. That is not to say that it’s some humorless screed. Anyone who follows Johnson on Twitter knows that he is incapable of being unfunny. Loving Day is a thoroughly comic novel, though the humor isn’t sugar meant to help the medicine of racial insight go down more easily. No, the humor is the medicine. There’s the seemingly white kid with dreadlocks who calls himself One Drop, appropriating the name of the miscegenation law that was on the books for much of U.S. history. There’s the mixed-race school that Tals ends up attending, the students of which are “the human equivalent of mismatched socks.” There’s even the simple matter of terminology, as when one of Tal’s teachers declares Warren to be a “sunflower.” What’s a sunflower? “Yellow on the outside, brown on the inside. A slang term for a biracial person who denies their mixed nature, only recognizing their black identity.” If that doesn’t make you squirm, there are dozens more jokes like that, and one of them is bound to make you uncomfortable. Is that what Johnson is up to, making us laugh at our discomfort at discussing race in any terms other than platitudes? As far as projects go, it’s not without merit, but there’s something deeper going on here. Indeed, part of Johnson’s aim is to reclaim the term from its pejorative associations. There’s value in this, certainly, but it’s worth pointing out how framing the “mulatto experience” as comic runs deeply against the grain of American literature. For better or worse, the work of William Faulkner remains one a touchstone when it comes to literary depictions of race. Toni Morrison counts him as an early influence; she even wrote her master’s thesis on his work. Mixed-race characters appeared often in his fiction, nearly always with a sense of doom about them. Think of Joe Christmas in Light in August, who looks white but has the “one drop” of black in him. After having an affair with a white woman, he’s accused of rape, hunted down, and killed. This trope occurs often enough that there’s even a name for it: the Tragic Mulatto. Outcast in both directions, fated to never belong. Loving Day is an entry in a small but vital subgenre: the Comic Mulatto Novel. (Fran Ross’s Oreo, soon to be reissued by New Directions, is another.) It looks to upend not just a vocabulary word, but an entire concept, one that’s been around since the Constitution was drafted. Rather than having a mixed-race character act as a metaphor, shouldering the burden of meaning, Loving Day places him in front and center, telling his own story and making his own meanings. That it does so with such nimbleness, tossing off one-liners with every turn of the page, is a testament to Johnson’s strengths. And to the strengths of the form. Is there a better opportunity for the biting power of humor than the mixed-race experience? Partaking of two different cultures with different histories, halves that each take themselves to be a whole, seems like a secret weapon when it comes to making readers of various backgrounds laugh with first discomfort, then recognition, and finally understanding. Here’s hoping that more books will come along to explore this particular facet of the human comedy.
In an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, the writer and Iraq War veteran Roy Scranton outlined what he called “the myth of the trauma hero.” It goes like this: Every true war story is a story of trauma and recovery. A boy goes to war, his head full of romantic visions of glory, courage, and sacrifice, his heart yearning to achieve heroic deeds, but on the field of battle he finds only death and horror. He sees, suffers, and causes brutal and brutalizing violence. Such violence wounds the soldier’s very soul. After the war the boy, now a veteran and a man, returns to the world of peace haunted by his experience, wracked by the central compulsion of trauma and atrocity: the struggle between the need to bear witness to his shattering encounter with violence, and the compulsion to repress it. The veteran tries to make sense of his memory but finds it all but impossible. Most people don’t want to hear the awful truths that war has taught him, the political powers that be want to cover up the shocking reality of war, and anybody who wasn’t there simply can’t understand what it was like. The truth of war, the veteran comes to learn, is a truth beyond words, a truth that can only be known by having been there, an unspeakable truth he must bear for society. So goes the myth of the trauma hero. Scranton locates the origins of this myth in the 18-century Romanticism that valued individual experience above all else. He tracks the myth through two world wars, Vietnam, and up to the United States's most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The last few years have seen an outpouring of memoirs, novels, and films about these two wars, and many of the most commercially and critically successful offer their own take on the trauma hero. Scranton, however, finds this myth dangerous, saying that it “serves a scapegoat function, discharging national bloodguilt by substituting the victim of trauma, the soldier, for the victim of violence, the enemy.” He doesn’t fault the writers of such narratives as much as their readers, eager to honor the tales told by trauma heroes, and in so doing avoid hearing stories of war that detail the victims of violence, and -- more to the point -- those responsible for it. The Infernal, a novel by Mark Doten, seeks to tell that kind of story, one that accounts for those involved in the War on Terror at nearly every level, from the grunts lugging 80-pound packs to the residents of dusty villages on the other side of the world to the highest echelons of American power. I fear that this description, however, might give the impression that the book has the dutiful, even-handed tone of an episode of Frontline. That is not the case. The Infernal is certifiably insane, a monstrous, cartoon nightmare of a book. Open up the book, and you’ll find a “Dramatis Personae” section, like in a 19th-century Russian novel. This one doesn’t track family trees and patronymics, however; characters include Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, and Mark Zuckerberg, as well as more inscrutable entries for “The Omnosyne” and “The Memex.” What is going on? Is this a postmodern swipe at American society like Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, a novelization of the Rosenberg trial that featured Richard Nixon as its protagonist? A gloss on celebrity like Bruce Wagner’s Dead Stars, in which Michael Douglas appears as a hologram of a character? The action and language of The Infernal are of the moment, but you might have to go all the way back to the novel’s namesake to get an idea of what Doten is up to. In The Inferno, Dante Alighieri placed all his enemies from 14th-century Florence in Hell, where they gave accounts of their sins while suffering elaborate, ironic punishments. Doten wants to place these historical figures in his fiction where they will be forced to explain themselves, as this is unlikely to happen in the real world. The novel begins in the Akkad Valley of Iraq, at a geological formation known as Al-Madkhanah, or the Chimney. Strange clouds appear at the peak of the Chimney. A patrol of soldiers goes to investigate. One of them climbs to the top, where he discovers a boy burned almost beyond recognition. The soldiers return the boy to a base. He cannot speak, sign, or communicate in any way. But the Commission, a shadowy organization that seems to catalog and thus control the world, needs the information that the boy has. They decide to bring the traitor Jimmy Wales out of prison so he can use his invention, the Omnosyne, to extract a confession from the boy. Jimmy Wales? Isn’t that the guy who created Wikipedia? That is indeed who he is IRL, as they say, but in the universe of The Infernal, Wales was a student at Dr. Vannevar Bush’s Institute for Youth Advances, where he helped create the Memex, a worldwide network of knowledge that served as a kind of precursor to the Internet, except it was only available to the Commission. Wales broke with Dr. Bush and the Institute, however, when he invented the Omnosyne, an information-gathering tool that is half lie detector, half torture device. To use the Omnosyne, an elaborate system of wires are inserted into the subject’s tongue and spine, extracting the essential information from his very nerves and bones. The wires are hooked up to what looks like a typewriter, printing out the subject’s confession in Omnotic Code, which only Wales can decipher. Once he created the Omnosyne, however, Wales killed a dozen instructors at the Institute for Youth Advances, at which point the Commission placed him in jail for life and mothballed the Omnosyne. The Commission is desperate for the Akkad Boy’s confession, however, so they bring Wales and his device to the Akkad Valley. Due to the invasive nature of the Omnosyne, an extraction results in the death of the subject. This is deemed acceptable, as the Akkad Boy’s confession will surely prove invaluable. When Wales hooks him up to the Omnosyne and begins the extraction, however, the pages that are printed out in Omnotic Code give not the boy’s confession, but rather the confessions of a host of different people, all involved in the War on Terror in one way or another: Osama Bin Laden, L. Paul Bremer, an Iraqi woman named Noor, and on and on. These polysyllabic confessions form the text of The Infernal, which can read as if William Faulkner were blogging about current events, as in this passage written from the perspective of Bremer, Presidential Envoy to Iraq. Not much in the way of running water, friends, mostly this here’s a porta-potty town, Jay told us, I told Condi on the cell. Meanwhile Saddam flew past . . . Meanwhile Saddam flew right past us . . . And meanwhile Saddam in statue form, poster form, some billboards, too, and murals of Saddam, that sonofabitch just kept on flying on past us, One hell, I said, one hell of an Ozymandian tribute, Jay with no idea, Florida State University, then Shippensburg, never overcame those early obstacles... Elsewhere, Osama Bin Laden, holed up in a cave, has his followers construct a new dialysis machine, which quickly devolves into violent slapstick; two drone-strike survivors named Rashid and Hakim stumble around like Laurel and Hardy; US Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez crawls through the air ducts of Guantanamo; Iraq War Veteran Tom Pally hobbles around his ranch house on an artificial leg, trying to make dinner plans for his and his wife’s anniversary, instead getting accosted by the vengeful maitre d’ of the restaurant. In the background of all this, there are intimations of a New City coming into being, a realm of pure information that the Commission plans to upload themselves into, leaving behind the corporeal world. At this point in the review, I’m guessing that you either really want to read The Infernal, or you really don’t. It seems like an ideal object for the enthusiastic scholarship of a devoted cult, and I sincerely look forward to the WikiLink page that will explain all of the book’s mysteries. But Doten has written his idiosyncratic book about events that will be familiar to many, perhaps even overly familiar, and it’s worth asking why. Part of an answer may lie in Doten’s biography. Doten is currently the literary editor at Soho Press, the publishing house whose renaissance The Millions covered last year. Before that, Doten was an associate editor at The Huffington Post, working for the site at its very beginning in 2005. (Andrew Breitbart was one of the site’s cofounders, though he soon left after a falling-out with Arianna Huffington, and The Infernal has a great, nasty joke made at his expense.) Doten is sure to have edited hundreds, maybe even thousands, of stories about the War on Terror and its many players, to the point where they very well might have seemed less like human beings and more like hallucinations, the characters in a compensatory power fantasy dreamed up by a traumatized, vengeful public. That’s not the kind of story you can tell as a journalist, however, and it’s possible Doten looked to the role of novelist as a way of telling the deeper, spiritual truth about our disastrous recent history, the kind of truth that fiction is still best-equipped to tell. Debts to postmodern fiction aside, the book that The Infernal most reminded me of was George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Packer’s book is nonfiction, drawing on extensive interviews with ordinary citizens (remember when journalists did that?) as well as secondary sources for accounts of big name movers and shakers, but it’s structured very much like a novel, using the stories of its constituent characters to tell a larger, cohesive story about our current social reality, and what led to it. In fact, Packer explicitly modeled his book on novelist John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, an account of the tumultuous events of the early part of the 20th century. Packer’s goal in the book is quixotic, using the tools of serious journalism to try and offer a diagnosis of the sickness afflicting the body politic, the reporter doing the work of the artist. Doten also thinks that 21st-century America is sick, but The Infernal isn’t a diagnosis. It’s a bloodletting. As the Omnosyne extracts the Akkad Boy’s confession and the voices of those in power and the powerless inculpate themselves with every profession of innocence, the reader has the sense that all the lies and deceit of the last dozen years, the courage shown and the suspicion that it meant little, have been brought together in one place, between the covers of a single book. Here’s hoping that people open it.  A little inside baseball: Scranton’s essay is, in part, a response to George Packer’s essay on recent books about the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars for The New Yorker. Scranton takes Packer to task for only considering works that fulfill the trauma hero myth “while ignoring works that don’t fit that frame, such as John Dos Passos’s epic U.S.A. trilogy.” Writer, read thyself.
Writing about reality television draws on two forms, the recap and the treatise. Recaps work like box scores, recounting the highlights from last night’s episode, from drinks thrown in faces to the number of occupants in a given hot tub, all of it in rat-a-tat language that any sportswriter would recognize. Treatises find their common ancestor in the Roland Barthes of Mythologies, the first word in close-reading bottle caps, laundry detergents, and other products of a consumer society as if they were poems. It is staggering to consider the thousands of commenters who, whether they realize it or not, owe a debt to a mid-century French theorist. The best writers are able to synthesize both forms. Right now, the favorite subject for these writers seems to be The Bachelor. Roxane Gay, Leigh Stein, Jennifer Weiner and many others pick apart the assumptions and nuances of this tragicomedy of contemporary mating rituals like Oxford dons parsing the meanings of King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail. (Feel free to make your own joke about Catherine’s status as a sacred object of veneration.) My favorite entry in the growing corpus of reality television literature is “Getting Down to What is Really Real,” an essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan from his 2011 collection, Pulphead. Sullivan adds a wrinkle to the recap/treatise approach by making the essay a profile. Thanks to the patronage of GQ, Sullivan visits Mike “the Miz” Mizanin, an early star of MTV’s The Real World. He meets reality in the flesh, you could say, and the encounter makes him, for lack of a better term, a believer. “Here’s the surprising truth about this shift toward greater self-consciousness, the increased awareness of complicity in the falseness of it all—it made things more real. Because, of course, people being on a reality show is precisely what these people are. Think of it this way: if you come to my office and film me doing my job (I don’t have one, but that only makes the thought experiment more rigorous) you wouldn’t really see what it was like to watch me doing my job, because you’d be there watching me (the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, interior auto-mediation, and so forth). But now add this: What if my job were to be on a reality show, being filmed, having you watch me, interior auto-mediation, and so forth? What if that were my reality, bros? Are your faces melting yet?” I often thought of Sullivan’s essay while reading Arts & Entertainments, the new novel from Christopher Beha. It’s being billed as a media satire, which is inevitable when a novelist turns his attention to the machinations of fame. Not to say that it isn’t funny; my favorite zinger is the hit single of a Miley Cyrus-like celebutante, “Gettin’ My V Worked Up.” But when it comes to reality television, it’s clear that Beha is more interested in the reality than the television. As I reached the end, I felt the novel taking on an existential, almost religious feel. Arts & Entertainments follows Eddie Hartley, a drama teacher at a Catholic prep school in his early 30s. He used to be an actor, with a few appearances in off-Broadway productions and even on Law & Order. But what he didn’t know, and what everyone else did, was that he wasn’t talented enough to be successful. His wife, Susan, works at an art gallery, and their combined salaries are just enough to keep up with the professionals of New York City. But they want a child, or at least Susan does. Conceiving doesn’t go well, thanks to Eddie’s lazy sperm, and their only chance is an in vitro treatment that they can’t afford. Opportunity comes in the form of a class reunion. Eddie meets a web impresario who asks about his relationship with a certain TV star. When he was a struggling actor, Eddie’s girlfriend was a struggling actress who, unlike Eddie, was talented. Phenomenally so, to the point that she became the star of the most popular scripted drama on the air, a medical drama show that stretches the limits of credulity every week. If Eddie were to have a video of Martha, and the video were sufficiently, ahem, noteworthy, then there might be a lot of money in it for him. Eddie does, in fact, have a video. But he doesn’t want anyone to know that it’s him. He edits himself out of the footage as best he can, lies to his wife about residuals from a horror film that’s become a cult hit in Korea, and starts making plans for the best family that science can provide. It was here that I noticed a marked difference to Beha’s previous books, which are, in the very best sense, bookish. The Whole Five Feet, a memoir, chronicles the year Beha spent reading his way through all 51 volumes of the Harvard Classics Library, along with the personal crises that rose up in his own life. What Happened to Sophie Wilder, a novel, is a story of literature and faith that is sure to send the heart of any English major a-flutter. These books portray people who think of their lives as books, and themselves as protagonists. Eddie, however, no longer wants to be a protagonist. He simply wants to no longer feel like a failure, which is a pretty good definition of adulthood at this moment. Money in hand, he visits the fertilization specialist. Ben Lerner’s forthcoming novel 10:04, excerpted in The Paris Review, also features a character making the same kind of donation. One more scene of antiseptic ejaculation in literary fiction, and we’ll have a trend piece on our hands. The procedure is successful, to the point of excess: Susan is pregnant with triplets. And it is right at this point that the Martha Martin sex tape appears, demanding the culture’s unwavering attention. Though it’s a story of the digital present, Arts & Entertainments can remind you of a noir film in the meticulous way that it catalogs the consequences of a single, monstrously stupid decision. Eddie’s identity in the video is found out almost immediately, the media being even more diligent in ferreting out the secrets of a celebrity than an elected official. Eddie loses his job. Susan kicks him out. But they are still in the orbit of Martha Martin’s fame, and this presents opportunities. Needing money to raise her triplets, Susan accepts an offer from a mysterious producer to become the star of her own reality show. Unable to appear on her show, Eddie signs a contract for his own, aided by a young woman well-versed in the kabuki of reality TV, and who poses as his girlfriend for the sake of the show. But if their relationship appears on TV, and everyone thinks they’re together, then is it truly a pose? Are your faces melting, bros? Beha, and Sullivan, are asking what reality values in humanity. Certainly not beauty, whether physical or moral. “Hotness” would be the best term for the kind of beauty found on such programs, but there are any number of shows that feature personalities whose appeal doesn’t lie in how evenly their tanning spray is applied. Reality TV values watchability, a spectacle of the self that viewers can’t look away from, like a train wreck. With no choice but to play the role of himself, Eddie becomes, in effect, his own train wreck. To his surprise, and quite possibly to the reader’s, Eddie finds that being watchable has its advantages. “He’d worried at first about losing himself in the part, but the more committed he became to showing the camera what it wanted, the more persistently he felt the presence of an unseen self.” Reality TV allows the soul to grow, not wither? What kind of novelist would make such a point? Beha and Jennifer Weiner have carried on a friendly rivalry on Twitter; maybe Beha lost a bet? Gambler or not, Beha is the kind of novelist who believes that the term soul still has descriptive value. He has written movingly about Catholicism and the fencing match he’s carried on with it throughout his life. His earlier books looked to literature to imbue life with a sense of the religious, a tradition that stretches back to Augustine, if not further. But in his new book, Beha finds people talking about God in more unexpected places. Late in the novel, Eddie meets with Moody, the mysterious producer of Susan’s reality show, trying to make an appearance in his wife’s life before she gives birth to their triplets. We learn that Moody once attended divinity school, and the experience informed the way he does his job. “In the world I used to live in, good is whatever God wants. That’s it. There’s no other measuring stick. There is no good before God. When we say that God is good, all we’re saying is that God is God. In the world I live in now, it’s the same thing. There’s only one criterion. What does the audience want? Does the audience want you to be honest? Does the audience want you to be kind? . . . The audience has only one way of expressing its interest—by watching. They might watch because they love you. They might watch because they hate you. They might watch because they’re sick. Doesn’t matter. Is that good or bad? The question doesn’t make any sense. Good is whatever the audience watches.” The popular image of the reality TV producer is Christof, played by Ed Harris in The Truman Show. The producer as God, as his name helpfully informs us. Moody is saying the exact opposite. The audience is God, and he is its servant. What could such a reversal mean? The question reminds me of theology classes that went over the attributes of God. Omniscience was on there, meaning that God is all-seeing and all-knowing, followed by omnipotence, meaning that God is all-powerful. The two were the subject of many a term paper, students wrestling earnestly with the question of why God would let terrible things happen to his creations. If humans were omniscient, we thought, maybe we could do a better job. And now, thanks to the media environment we’ve created for ourselves, we are, in some sense, omniscient. We can know everything there is to know about the people on our shows and newsfeeds. But this omniscience hasn’t come with omnipotence. I’d imagine that being more informed is leading many people to feel less powerful, as if we’re comic book heroes whose superpowers are less of a gift than a liability. The only way we feel godlike is by watching. As Moody says, there is nothing else we can do. It’s under this half-divine gaze that Eddie feels, for the first time, that half-formed soul he has within him. Arts & Entertainments is ambiguous as to whether or not this mediated soul is the most we can hope for in this age. But there is, after all, another way of watching others, one that brings us closer to the inner realities of human beings. It’s what we’ve been doing all along. We can read novels.