1. A new, personal Los Angeles canon You Millions habitués presumably prepare for life’s big events the same way I do: by gorging yourselves on novels to do with those events, tenuously to do those events, and, well... beyond. Readying myself for a move to Los Angeles, I naturally turned to literature, but I decided to avoid the region’s richest, oldest, most beloved literary currents: its unflinching examinations of Old Hollywood, its hardscrabble outsider odysseys toward the kingdom of celebrity, its hard-boiled tales of murderous intrigue and complex deceit beneath the palm trees. Those novels became iconic for a reason, but I had to ask: given Los Angeles’ practically unfathomable size and diversity, what other kinds of literature does it offer? So I asked all the readers I could for their recommendations of “alternative,” “adventurous,” “unusual,” “non-canonical,” or just “weird” Los Angeles novels, keeping the question purposefully vague enough to ensure a wide variety of responses. These five books, mentioned by readers based in the city and elsewhere as well as by readers for the city and against it, “clicked” together in my mind to form the beginnings of a new, personal, Los Angeles canon. 2. Faltering connections and free-floaters Despite a shot of fresh currency from Tom Ford’s film, Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man still tends to keep its distance from the usual roundups of Los Angeles novels, thanks to, what, the expat author’s still thoroughgoing Englishness? The novel’s proud spot in the canon of modern gay literature? But don’t those very qualities make it just the novel-of-place to read? Seeing Los Angeles through a set of cultural and/or literary sensibilities unrelated to it allows Isherwood to approach and observe more obliquely — and thus much more interestingly. Isherwood sets the story where and when he wrote it: early-sixties Los Angeles, where he taught at Los Angeles State College and his protagonist George teaches at the fictional San Tomas State College. Just as Isherwood drove across town to this inland school from his coastal Santa Monica home, George makes his similar highway commute with the Utopian zeal of someone raised on European roads. George, in the euphemistic parlance of his time, “prefers the company of men,” and has lost Jim, the one man he especially prefers, a car wreck in distant Ohio having claimed him before the book even begins. Covering one day of George’s post-Jim existence — for mere existence it seems to have become — the novel finds him laboring under a burden of secrecy that, at least back then, still improved upon the onerous social conditions of most of the rest of the U.S. and much of Europe. Having let all but his closest friends believe Jim simply moved back to his parents’ house and feeling detached both romantically and psychologically, George criss-crosses the city as he pleases: lecturing on Aldous Huxley, arguing with colleagues, visiting the moribund woman who once attempted to steal Jim, spontaneously making an off-routine gym visit, dining with and rebuffing the boozy advances of a lady friend, and darting off to a favorite bar in the middle of the night where he runs into (and eventually goes skinny-dipping with) one of his particularly enigmatic students. After all this, George may or may not die. George also may or may not exemplify the usual generalizations about Los Angeles life. Everyone there has severed their actual roots, one generalization says, and that certainly holds true for George’s best friend (another Brit), a pontificating fellow professor (another Brit), and several of his students. Everyone there encloses themselves in personal bubbles, another generalization says, only submitting to meaningful interaction when absolutely necessary. Tooling around the freeways between faltering connections with other free-floaters, George would seem to validate that charge, but Isherwood writes his one-on-one collisions of consciousness — be they with sycophant, confidant, former enemy, or current irritant — so richly that none of the Single Man’s encounters with the loners who surround him could come off as so simple as an indictment. 3. The neighborhood allotted him The title of Marc Norman’s Bike Riding in Los Angeles reminds me that, lacking anything like the money for a car, I’ll be doing just that. Luckily, Los Angeles proves shockingly bikeable, given the stereotypes about the local hatred even of walking. The bikeability increases when you roll your wheels onto the city’s Metro trains, but those subway and light rail lines only began to open in 1990. Norman, writing this novel in the early seventies, wouldn’t have enjoyed the option; bike riding in Los Angeles, for him, meant bike riding in Los Angeles. Nor, then, does the Bike Rider enjoy the Metro option; Norman’s exuberantly cycling, novel-writing protagonist heads up a cast of slightly cartoonish characters with severely cartoonish names: the Drag Cop, Derby, Flon, Marshal T — — — —, Sunny, and the Phantom Bike Rider play out their fragmented dramas in a succession of brief chapters with titles like “Street of Worries,” “Famous Bicycle Mechanics,” “Corn in the City,” “In Ventura County,” and “In Ventura County (Again),” which blow by in 122 pages that feel like even fewer. Nothing really gets “resolved,” per se, but something about Norman’s peculiar manner of storytelling — one driven by the psychological relationship you get to a place when you make your way through it in a supposedly unconventional way — makes resolution feel unnecessary. Bike Riding in Los Angeles takes the basically familiar form of what I too grandly call a Silent Generation fever dream. Its ghostly crowd of players, passing laconically as they do on two wheels in and out of a narrative spiced with little-known regional history — extended interludes on the trials of an ill-equipped 1890 Pasadena Bicycle Club excursion provide extra comic bleakness — draw me back for further re-reading, and each trip through the book casts a brighter light on Norman’s engagement not just with questions of how to bike in Los Angeles but of how to grow a novel in the city’s supposedly arid literary soil: All this barrenness bothers him, bothers him a lot, both as a writer and as a child of the neighborhood. As a writer, selfishly he supposes, but then this is supposed to be his first-novel neighborhood. All the other writers he knows have one — some special corner in a mad city, some great soup from which they ladle all those wonderful laughing Italians and those charming drunk Irish and the candy-store ethics and the strong widows and all the lovers padding around in their socks with their shoes in their hands, all those rich chunks of things that give his friends’ novels their tang and truth. But he can’t do that, not with the neighborhood allotted him. 4. It’s making you up No matter how vaguely, broadly, or just plain poorly I described my idea, everyone I hit up for suggestions for my inquest on alternative Los Angeles novels mentioned Steve Erickson. Perhaps the living literary figure most steeped in this particular metropolis, Erickson grew up in Los Angeles, went to UCLA, studied film both formally at school and informally at his mother’s theater, has written for a variety of Los Angeles publications, teaches writing at CalArts, and enjoyed the sale of rights to his novel Zeroville to James Franco. He even pops up with some frequency at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books: long white hair, many thoughts to share, and almost implausibly laid-back. Erickson lives in Los Angeles and works on a porous stretch of the border between fiction and fact. Given the bristling interconnections and complicated exchanges between Erickson’s life, his career, his “non-fiction” books, and his novels, it makes no sense to discuss one of his works in isolation. I nonetheless feel compelled to do exactly that. In Amnesiascope, a benignly dystopian, thoroughly sexual, cinematically hazy semi-memoir (so fans say), Erickson crafts a Los Angeles where the worst has already happened: shaken down by a Big One-type earthquake, the city continues chugging along amid the rubble and the breakdown of civic order pretty much as well as always, thank you very much. The nameless narrator, a film critic working a weekly paper headquartered in the husk of Hollywood Boulevard’s Egyptian Theater, develops a fixation on what he calls “the Cinema of Hysteria.” This he defines as “movies that make no sense at all — and we understand them completely,” and he lives a life that makes just that kind of sense in this Los Angeles ringed by fire, sitting on flooded subway tunnels, and carved up into countless time zones separated by mere minutes. The narrator falls for a bisexual sculptor turned manic by an electric fence’s shock; he keeps vigilant watch for “Justine,” his Los Angeles’ own equivalent of mysteriously flamboyant billboard star Angelyne; he invents a fake film from 1925 and reviews it, only to find all of Los Angeles agreeing that it exists; he writes and shoots an avant-garde piece of television porno called White Whisper; and he somehow winds up stuck in a bathysphere (a kind of round submarine, if you don’t keep up on retro-futuristic technology). You can argue that Amnesiascope’s episodic components add up to nothing coherent, just as you can argue that all the disparate urban components of Los Angeles add up to nothing coherent, but neither claim will discourage anyone hooked on the experience of either Erickson’s novels or Erickson’s city. What, through the eyes and in the words of his protagonist, is the difference between this ruined, fantastical Los Angeles and the real, solidly standing one? Perhaps none exists: The air is filled with this odd smell the city has taken on recently, not the common smell of sandalwood and hashish but a different smell I can’t place, and as we sometimes tend to do we point things out to each other — the sites of famous suicides and old Hollywood love affairs — as though we’re tourists, which, like everyone in L.A., we are. Sometimes we even make things up, though for all we know we’re not making it up; in L.A. you think you’re making something up, but it’s making you up. 5. Some say it’s too much Behold the two-page spread preceding the main text of Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange, a grid presenting the novel’s seven main characters on the horizontal axis and the seven days it covers on the vertical. Its title? “HyperContexts.” Might as well say “The Year is 1997” — or 1996, or 1995, take your pick. The book comes out of and saturated with the mid-nineties, the years of explosive media proliferation, the Icarus flight of ethnic studies, the first wide climate-change conversations, the aftermath of the 1992 riots — an era that gives Yamashita more than enough to work with. Yamashita gets too much to work with, you could say, and indeed, this novel’s 280 pages can feel overstuffed. Its group of seven characters all on their own periodically intersecting journeys include a housecleaner guarding a child from an organ harvester; the little boy’s father, a hard-bitten Spanophone Chinese refugee; a media-worshipping, fully Americanized Japanese television reporter; a dreadlocked guardian angel of South Central who’s never not listening to the radio; a street crazy born in a Japanese internment camp conducting traffic like an orchestra atop an overpass; a Mexican-American reporter beholden to the even then-unfashionable rush of the newspaper scoop; and a leathery wandering eccentric who finds a way to move the Tropic of Cancer. Not the Henry Miller novel — the actual line on the map. Yamashita doesn’t stop there, opting to lay a couple more Hollywood disaster movie plots (Hollywood disaster movies, might I add, being quite popular in the nineties) on top. First an epidemic of poisoned oranges sweeps through the state, then one of those oranges causes freeway crashes producing gridlock so widespread and so sustained that the homeless forge a makeshift city out of the miles of immobile vehicles. Yamashita also works in kidnapping, lucha libre pro wrestling, poetry, and performance art. Is it all just too much? Depends on what you can get into; some say Los Angeles is just too much. As the nineties fall distant, so does the once-looming, fiery image of Los Angeles as the impetus for the apocalypse, as the site of the apocalypse — as the apocalypse. Yamashita preserves that overheated notion, but she also captures the Los Angeles that became a metropolis when nobody was looking, or, rather, it became a microcosm of the world, too large and varied for most to truly love but made startlingly hardy, adaptable, inventive, and enterprising by its sheer heterogeneity and freedom from the romanticizing strictures of public imagination. Or, in the words of Emi, Tropic of Orange’s young broadcaster with no time for the past: Have you ever seen an I heart L.A. sticker? People here heart everything else — Ensenada, Hussong’s, Taos, Alaskan Huskies, Guatemala, even New York. That L.A. is a desert paradise, sunshine, blond people, insipid, romantic is B.S. Nobody hearts L.A. 6. The cortex set in concrete “I had heard repeatedly that it was impossible to write a Los Angeles novel about all of Los Angeles,” said Vanessa Place, author of La Medusa. “This seemed a stupid challenge to me, and I very much like stupid challenges.” This newest, heftiest, and most ambitious alternative Los Angeles novel also looks and feels the messiest, but its messiness will only put you off if Los Angeles’ messiness does — assuming it even strikes you as messiness in the first place. Sweep your eyes across the city; now sweep them across La Medusa’s pages, their sudden format shifts; their words growing, shrinking, nearly bouncing; their wonky indentation and justification; their diagrams of the human brain. Exquisite organic order, or directionless chaos? It’s a thin line. The brain emerges as one of the book’s guiding structures. Not so outlandish or unheard-of a notion, it turns out. As science journalist Jonah Lehrer observed: L.A. is a big urban metaphor for the brain. [...] For me, L.A. is simply the cortex set in concrete, lots and lots of concrete. Those freeways are big spindle and pyramidal cells — they connect the disparate areas — and the numerous downtowns (Century City, Santa Monica, the [San Fernando] Valley, etc.) represent the many functional modules inside the mind. Everybody complains that L.A. has no center — there is no there there, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein — but isn't that the point? The brain doesn't have a center either, and it works beautifully. No wonder nobody “hearts” L.A.; it’s the wrong metaphor. Hence the need to quote Lehrer at length rather than Place’s authorial voice. Her novel might look like a shattered sheet of glass, but it reads all as a piece; no substantial section lifts out in a sensible way. Best of luck to any who dare to carve a representative sample of Place’s storm of prose, ever shifting from “the Hole where the woman’s golden belly is peopled grew dark” to “African-American male suffering from Type #1 immune-mediated diabetes mellitus” to “dude don’t look smacked, wacked, n’otherwise cracked” to “INT. FEENA’S KITCHEN/LIVING ROOM—MIDCITY.” Place builds a Tropic of Orange-style ensemble, pulling from the pool of all the ages, races, occupations, and nationalities found in Los Angeles — that is to say, from all ages, all races, all occupations, and all nationalities. But you’re on your own when keeping track of who’s who and who’s where; no HyperContexts here. Your guides to Place’s neuro-Los Angeles come in forms including a surgeon and the ice cream-vending drug dealer he picks up, a lonely elementary school girl and her blinged-out voodoo-practicing grandmother, an albino trucker and his obese lesbian wife, a hallucinating prostitute, several figures of myth, and the actual bits and pieces of neuroanatomy themselves. Those who expect to pick up every detail, trace back every reference, and track every narrative thread have, in La Medusa, a frustrating ordeal ahead. I can only recommend submerging yourself in the text — submitting to it — and making quick peace with the inevitability of not grasping everything. If you’re like me, some elements, like Place’s recurring evocations of the Beverly Hillbillies theme song and personal injury lawyer/bus ad fixture Juan Dominguez will amuse you every time; others, you’ll never get a hold on. Bookworm host Michael Silverblatt — quite possibly Los Angeles’ greatest reader — said that La Medusa is to Los Angeles as Ulysses is to Dublin. To hope for an airtight understanding of this novel is to hope for a complete understanding of Los Angeles, or of Dublin, or of Ulysses, or of every last process inside the human brain. While we can’t call these ultimate understandings unattainable, what makes us so sure they exist to attain? Image credit: hburrussiii/Flickr
1. Into the Tillmanverse You never quite realize what Lynne Tillman’s done until it’s too late. She takes formal adventures in flavors of novels that had never before welcomed them. She carefully embeds details deep in her texts that others would dutifully (and dully) trot out up front. She crafts what feels like one distinctive, coherent fictional reality without explicitly connecting any of her long-form stories to one another. Published over two decades, her five novels so far build and explore what I call the “Tillmanverse” through the eyes and ears of worldly, culturally keen women (and one man), shapen or misshapen by their undeniable compulsions, obscure fixations, and grimly complex senses of humor. The Tillmanverse now has one more extension in the form of Someday This Will Be Funny, a collection of short stories newly published by Red Lemonade. Their women (and occasional men) write copious communiqués, trust and distrust their memories, trust and distrust their imaginations, don’t quite reconnect with the cast of their past, see themselves in their relationships, move ahead at the behest of odd desires, and stake out patches of the cityscape all their own. What’s more, they do it in text that knows just what to tell and what to leave completely untold. Tillman tends to lay out her novels and stories in pieces, but with piece-curation skills like hers, who needs wholes? Indeed, the latest book’s 22 tales showcase Tillman’s abilities in microcosm; what you find in them, you find in even greater depth and quantity in her novels. What better time, then, to take a look back at all her full-length novels to date? The more detailed your map of the Tillmanverse, the richer you’ll find your own wanderings through it. 2. Would you really call it agency? Haunted Houses, Tillman’s debut novel, braids the stories of three women growing up in and around New York. The epigraph “We are all haunted houses” seems to bode ill, as if predicting for the protagonists 208 pages of playing receptacle for assorted traumas. While none of the trio endure quite so rough a time as that, they nonetheless live apparently shapeless lives pocked by impulse, inertia, and confused frustration. They display flashes of agency, whether about the places they live, the books they read, or the fellows they let in, but the book’s overall form never stops asking whether agency is really what you’d call it. Jane, constantly struggling with her weight, desperate to shed her virginity, and genuinely close only to her hokey, obese uncle Larry, ultimately loses that virginity to a dopey co-worker at Macy’s. The bookish Emily — “Why can’t you be more normal?” laments her mother — grows into a sloppy, lackadaisical culture vulture who attaches herself to English rockers and married Austrians. Grace, spooked in childhood by periodically tussles with her erratic mother and the sight of a blank-eyed farm boy tossing a bag of kittens off a bridge, drifts to Providence and becomes the spitefully reluctant muse of her gay, Oscar Wilde- and Marilyn Monroe-worshipping best friend Mark who stages plays at bars. Tillman sketches the three childhoods in gritty enough detail to let you assume that, having established the wrongs foisted upon these ladies in youth — isolation, imagined frights never corrected, groundless disapproval, dead friends, freaky dads — she’ll proceed to deterministically follow the reverberations into three disappointing adulthoods. Yet she plays it just craftily enough to throw that interpretation into question while also avoiding the obvious move of getting these three together. From start to finish, Jane, Emily, and Grace remain united mainly by the late-mid-20th century in which they come of age and the geographical territory they do it in. Even when one breaks away, as when Emily takes a proofreading job in in Amsterdam, none shake their vague existential claustrophobia. 3. What we call personality The travel bug bites Motion Sickness’ unnamed American heroine harder, so much harder that she never stops traveling — indeed, barely pauses in any one place — rendering normal whatever “motion sickness” she suffers. This twitchy peripateticism offers Tillman the chance to structure the novel both in fragments and geographically: you read a shard of narrative in Paris, then one in Istanbul, then one in Agia Galini, then one in Amsterdam, then another in Istanbul, and so on. The protagonist’s financial support? A bit of savings and a small loan from Mom — no wandering aristocrat, she. Her cultural armory? Copies of The Interpretation of Dreams, The Quiet American, and My Gun is Quick, and a love of Chantal Akerman and Luis Buñuel. Despite her intriguing taste in books and films and merciless drive toward perpetual flight, this woman reveals remarkably little about herself. Yes, we’ve all read narrators who do and say much while concealing even more, but Tillman somehow casts aside even our standard desire to get further into her interior. A swirl of secondary characters, almost all compulsive travelers with a tendency to turn up in several different nations, offers a distraction: our heroine helps an aged eccentric assemble her memoirs, signs on to a tour of aggressive sightseeing with a pair of English brothers, drinks with an ill-fated ex-cop, separately encounters a Buddhist American single mother and her runaway husband, and falls for a Yugoslavian who argues, with increasing strenuousness, for the melancholic weight of history that supposedly hunches all Europeans. But does this supporting cast counterbalance the failure to probe of the narrator’s deeper character, or do the countless, always-developing nuances of her various relationships with them constitute her deeper character? Haunting cafés with one, momentarily shacking up in a rented room with another, writing postcards to many others but tearing most of them up — these actions, and nothing else, could prove enough to make a human being. “In a sociology course I took the professor said that what we call personality doesn’t exist except in relation to others,” Tillman, with an uncharacteristic explicitness, has her protagonist say toward the book’s end. In Cast in Doubt, Tillman creates Horace, another traveler whose gender alone makes him feel at first like a stark departure. But his homosexuality emerges in the early chapters, either bringing him closer to or distancing him from his lady colleagues in the Tillman oeuvre. The relevant question: what do male homosexuality and female heterosexuality have in common — a lot, or nothing? If Horace doesn’t approach this issue directly, he at least takes on questions in its orbit when he develops a controlling aesthetic-intellectual infatuation with a girl who one day lands in his tiny Greek town. Horace, you see, has long since gone expat. At 65, shacked up on Crete with a surly twentysomething local, he tosses off crime potboilers while avoiding work on a hazy magnum opus called Household Gods. When Helen — surely the most loaded possible name, given the Greek context — enters his life, his hypertrophied fictionalist’s mind builds around her a towering mystique. Though the objective details portray Helen as nothing more than a callow, flighty psychiatrist’s daughter with a loopy scrapbook in hand, Horace looks at her and practically gets vertigo. Needless to say, her disappearance, which comes as suddenly as her arrival, only intensifies his obsession. Beneath Cast in Doubt’s stolidly un-flashy surface, Tillman uses Helen’s draw on Horace to perform a fascinating act of genre subversion. Horace funds his self-imposed exile by writing the surprisingly inventive yet still groan-inducing exploits of detective Stan Green, and Horace looks to Green as his model when he resolves to drive across the island in pursuit of his quasi-muse. But Tillman very nearly sets the issue of whereabouts entirely aside, focusing instead on who-abouts. Soon after dedicating himself to his investigation, Horace comes to realize how little he ever knew about Helen. This doesn’t stop him from speculating, sometimes wildly, which enriches the inevitable collision of his imagination and reality — reality coming in the form of that diary in which Helen scribbled so purposefully. Parts of the book play as a detective tale; other parts play as a standard psychological narrative; most parts play as a genre less easy to pin down. Horace’s way with stories, the remote setting to which he relegates himself, the hodgepodge cast that surrounds him — a South African provocateur; a black New York “scenemaker”; a former opera star, a limp, cynical aesthete; a hirsute English hermit — and the reigned scowl underlying even his happier moments all remind me of David Markson’s Going Down. What can we call this tiny genre? I suggest “oblique, vaguely menacing narratives of fictional complacent expatriate writers.” Barnes & Noble can start building that shelf any day now. 4. What every malcontent needs If it weren’t for all the jokes, No Lease on Life would read as yet another story of crushing rent-controlled New York squalor. When Tillman writes squalor, she writes squalor: layer upon layer of grime; collapsed, immobile junkies; heaping piles of human waste; slashed bags of garbage; spreading pools of milk. And that’s just inside Elizabeth Hall’s building! In the first half of the book, Tillman recounts Elizabeth’s battles to nail down an apartment in New York, to fight a minute rent increase, to get her drunken superintendent to clean anything at all, to convince the guy across the street to quite revving his car so early in the morning — all in the course of one night. Transfixed by the sweep of street chaos on her block, Elizabeth stares out the window instead of sleeping, fantasizing about taking up a crossbow to murder the “morons” and “crusties” vomiting and knocking over trashcans all night long. Tillman evokes an almost farcically shambolic New York familiar to anyone who enjoys the literature and film that came from the city in the seventies, but she sets this novel in 1994 — you can tell by the O.J. trial references — thus illustrating that the place didn’t go completely minty-fresh in the nineties. Or at least Elizabeth’s block — her world — didn’t. When I talk about No Lease on Life’s “jokes,” I don’t necessarily mean that Tillman or Elizabeth, despite the grit-toothed resolve evident in the both of them, lighten these circumstances with the cynical wit every educated lowish-class urban malcontent needs. Besides the line between the book’s two days, which bear the titles “Night and Day” and “Day and Night”, only jokes break up the text. Common, punchline-y, sometimes tired, often sexual or racial jokes, none of which, miraculously, have an explicit relationship to the narrative. I happened to laugh the loudest at this one, which also bears an unusual thematic relevance: A man who lived in New York City couldn’t stand it any more. So he moved to Montana. His closest neighbor was ten miles away. The first month was great — he didn’t see anyone. It was quiet. After three months he started to get restless. After six months he was so bored, he thought about moving back to the city. A neighbor called. He invited him to a party. The neighbor said, get ready for a lot of drinking, fighting, and fucking. Great, the man said. Who’ll be there? You and me, the neighbor said. In American Genius: A Comedy, Tillman brings strands of Elizabeth, Emily, Grace, Jane, and the others into a single consciousness, allowing us unprecedented entry. But do we enter it, or does it entrap us? Not until a hefty chunk of pages has passed does Tillman reveal the name of Helen, the novel’s central character and one who has voluntarily entrapped herself in some sort of colony or low-security institution. Though she rarely roams far from wherever it is she lives, her thoughts spread, soar, and loop — especially loop — through subjects and variations on the industrial technology of textiles, the Zulu language, former Manson acolyte Leslie van Houten, and dermatology — especially dermatology. Helen: we’ve heard that name before. Could the mind of this middle-aged American History PhD. exiled from the greater social sphere belong to the very same Helen of Cast in Doubt, thirty years on? Or to one of the now very much grown girls of Haunted Houses? Or to the traveler of Motion Sickness, who finally learned a way to stay put and then some? Tillman prevents us from firmly believing or rejecting any or all of those possibilities. I can imagine any of her main characters at home here, wrapped in this oversensitive skin and oversensitive consciousness, reacting in vast paragraphs to this community of disparate eccentrics, ready at any moment to see and build upon the patterns in the seemingly yet deceptively formless play of data, ideas, and recollections that combination sparks.
1. Excitement On a train to Beijing in the middle of the night, a man readies himself for sweet, unexpected restroom love with a Chinese girl he met just the day before. Just then, his hated cellphone rings. It’s his on-again-off-again girlfriend half a world away in Paris, calling with the news that her father has drowned, had a heart attack, or both. The man sits on the train in total darkness, listening on his phone to nothing but the sounds of a Paris gallery at midday as his semi-girlfriend runs tearfully through it, having quickly forgotten she’d made the call at all. I don’t know about you, but if an author writes a scene like that, I want to read his entire oeuvre. I heard this vignette of a man, his Chinese almost-lover, and his distraught Parisian girlfriend discussed on KCRW’s Bookworm, which at times like this feels like my own personal contemporary fiction tipster. Host Michael Silverblatt turned out to be talking to the Belgian novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint, well-known in the Francosphere (and not unheard of as far afield as East Asia) since the mid-1980s, but not an object of English-speaking readers’ attention until two decades later. That is strange. It’s not as if some native writer in North America, the United Kingdom, or anywhere else coated in the English language had already filled Toussaint’s niche. In order to fill his niche, a writer would have first had to find it when just describing it has proven a complicated task for Toussaint’s admirers, critics, and even translators. Not particularly shy about discussing the motivations behind his work, Toussaint himself has made a few statements about what’s important to him. He placed great importance on humor at the beginning of his career, and though to an extent he still does, he’s since balanced it with a certain wistfulness. He eschews shades of gray, but he places so many black and white extremes so near to one another that, if you step back, they look like gray. He believes novels have no political role, only an aesthetic one. He deals with both the little irritations and the Big Questions, usually in as close a proximity as possible. He respects no boundary between fiction and nonfiction. And as he said in that Bookworm conversation, you can perform all the experimentation, all the rigid structuring, all the nouveau roman stuff you want, but if your book isn’t first and foremost exciting, hang it up. 2. The impassive three (or two) To be sure, Toussaint nevertheless gets called a novelist fascinated by structure. In 1985’s The Bathroom, his first book, you see that impulse at its least masked. The first and last sections are both called “Paris”. The middle, longer, section, is “The Hypotenuse”. Each of those sections comprises a string of numbered — not quite paragraphs, but — chunks of text. The first “Paris” has 40 chunks; “The Hypotenuse” has 80; the second “Paris” has 50. I’m not sure that would actually make a triangle. Some describe Toussaint as a novelist fascinated by goofy situations, so fascinated that he writes them as if they’re the most normal in the world. “When I began to spend my afternoons in the bathroom, I had no intention of moving into it,” goes the narrator’s first line. Yet move into the bathroom he has. Some activity swirls around him as he settles into his lavatorial routines, though he’d rather it didn’t. He receives a letter of invitation from the Austrian embassy. Certain it came by mistake, he nonetheless fantasizes about the soirée it announces. His girlfriend Edmondsson, an art gallery employee, hires a couple of Polish painters exhibited by her workplace to paint the apartment. They don’t seem to do much painting, instead spending most of their energy on semi-successfully skinning a pile of octopuses. The entirety of “The Hypotenuse” takes place in Venice, where the narrator goes “abruptly, without telling anybody.” Edmondsson visits him there, but eventually she spends her days at various Venetian cultural attractions while the isolated protagonist spends his days running imaginary international darts tournaments. Then comes the book’s most memorable event: Edmondsson found me a bore. I let her talk and went on with my darts game. She asked me to stop and I didn’t answer. I was sending darts into the target, stepping up to pull them out again. Standing in from of the window, Edmondsson stared at me. Again, she asked me to stop. I hurled a dart at her with all my strength, and it stuck straight in her forehead. Certain English-language press materials describe Toussaint as a “comic Camus,” and with the Meursault-shooting-the-Arab flavor here, no wonder. Both characters commit their acts of violence suddenly, out of what appears to be nothing more than irritation. (“When The Bathroom’s narrator throws a dart at Edmondson’s forehead,” Toussaint said in one interview, “I understand his gesture and I find it unforgivable, all at once.”) Yet whereas Meursault’s shot lands him on the 1940s Algerian equivalent of death row, The Bathroom dude’s stray dart seems to bring no discernible major consequences at all. You can call this bad storytelling — maybe it is — or you can call this a crock of Frenchy bullshit — maybe it is — but the dart incident goes on less as a driver of the plot than as a sort of spill that seeps into the story’s very fabric. The Bathroom’s protagonist has no name, as is the case with nearly all of Toussaint’s protagonists. This makes the few exceptions striking, and the first of them would come the following year in Monsieur. Admittedly, it’s not much of a name; he’s called Monsieur. Employed in some executive position at Fiat, he displays “in all things a listless drive.” Motivating all Monsieur’s acts is a deep-seated desire not to have to do more of them. Monsieur’s carefully cultivated idleness at work somehow convinces his boss of his pure dedication. He injures his wrist playing soccer and either does or does not have it x-rayed. When his relationship with his fiancée disintegrates, he simply remains in her family home, thinking it easier than moving out. When his ex’s mother finally points Monsieur toward a new place to live, a geologist neighbor has him take dictation for the book he’s writing. Monsieur dislikes this, and comes to perceive only one way out: moving again. I struggled even to summon that short list of events to mind, partly because Toussaint’s books are so similar — “I think a real writer always writes the same book,” he’s said — but partly because his work feels engineered to make you to forget the plot. Whoever Toussaint casts as the central character, I come away thinking not about what they’ve done but how they’ve thought, how they’ve perceived. I imagine this seems too terribly Gallic, but remember, Toussaint is Belgian. World of difference. Though Toussaint’s American fan base, such as it is, has received Monsieur as a favorite, Europe treated it as a sophomore slump. They applauded 1989’s Camera as a return to form, and strictly speaking, it is, especially if you consider protagonist namelessness to be a pillar of that form. Perhaps this marks the return of The Bathroom’s “hero”; perhaps it doesn’t. The book’s also got one of the most brazenly mild openings I’ve ever read: “It was at about the same time in my life, a calm life in which ordinarily nothing happened, that two events coincided, events that, taken separately, were of hardly any interest, and that, considered together, were unfortunately not connected in any way.” Over the remaining 109 pages, the narrator hangs around the licensing office drinking tea and reading the paper, falls in with a single mother working the desk there, gets driven around by her mildly eccentric Eastern European dad, eats olives, gets a pedicure, crosses the Channel, goes around Europe, finds a camera on a boat, and throws the camera off the boat. But is there any point in plot summary here? Toussaint’s books practically exist to argue that events don’t really matter; it’s all about the consciousness interpreting them. Toussaint has mentioned in a few interviews his opinion that novels should be “infinitesimal,” that they ought to put the infinitely small right alongside the infinitely huge. Hence Camera’s celebrated passage (among Toussaint fans) analogizing the eating of an olive with a fork to nothing less than a strategy for taking on reality: I vaguely felt that the reality with which I was grappling was beginning to show some signs of fatigue; it was beginning to soften and slacken, oh yes it was, and I had no doubt that my repeated assaults, in their tranquil persistence, would end up exhausting reality little by little, as one wears out an olive with a fork, if you will, by pushing down on it lightly from time to time, and then when, weary, reality finally offers no more resistance, I knew that nothing could then stop my impetus, a furious surge that had always been in me, strengthened by everything I had accomplished. If this isn’t your bag, you could just take Camera as a love story between the protagonist and Pascale, the woman who, in a different reality, would have issued him a driver’s license. But on this inferior approach to reading Toussaint I can do no better than Tom McCarthy, a huge Toussaint fan, who compares it to student guides to Ulysses that “try to persuade us that what’s ‘really’ going on in such and such a scene is Bloom pining for Molly, for example. (‘No,’ I always want to shout out when I read accounts like these, ‘what’s really going on is tramlines vibrating, soap singing and language rioting, just like it says!’).” 3. Narratives of futility Published in French in 1991, La Réticence, alas, has yet to make it to English. Word on the street is that it represents the zenith of Toussaint’s happening-free narratives. The protagonist sets out on a holiday to the fishing village of Sasuelo, which turns out to be quiet — yes, too quiet. In Context, Warren Motte writes that “Nothing happens here. Or rather very little. Consequently, that very little assumes enormous proportions in this deliberately impoverished narrative economy. The narrator draws wild inferences from the lack of events in Sasuelo, imagining that the Biaggis are conspiring against him. Structuring his text like a detective novel, Toussaint leads us through an intrigue constructed upon axioms that prove in the end to be false.” Shaky assumptions also undergird 1997’s Television, Toussaint’s best-known and most outwardly comic novel. Its own nameless narrator ambles around Berlin, supposedly on some sort of academic sabbatical to write a book about Titian. Having just seen his wife and son off on a mini-vacation to Italy, he relegates himself to the company of his computer’s blinking cursor. Displacement? Check. Isolation? Check. Realizing how lazy his increasingly expansive television-watching schedule has made him, he’s decided to quit that habit cold-turkey, which both reduces and intensifies that isolation. Yet the task of not watching television, which almost completely eclipses the task of writing about Titian, bounces the protagonist from vignette to sedately weird Berlin vignette. He wanders a museum, stopping to intently contemplate its televisual bank of security monitors. He climbs out his neighbors’ bathroom window into their kitchen window in order to remove their fern from the refrigerator before they notice he put it there in the first place. He sits in for a psychiatrist friend, counseling his patients for same-day cash. He sees an episode of Baywatch playing in the distant window of another building while he hears its sound coming from the set in a nearby room. In a sequence of especially inexplicable beauty, he looks out at Berlin from the cramped cockpit of a small plane piloted by one of his academic buddy’s students, a sullen girl, quite possibly hung over, with a penchant for flying as closely over buildings as possible. Call this fragmentation, call it pointillism; I like stories told this way. In fact, they’re barely stories; they’re fabrics. Dalkey Archive’s press materials compare Toussaint’s novels to the films of Jim Jarmusch and Jacques Tati. I can’t call that inaccurate, in the sense that both directors’ work deals similarly with individuals drifting through, and failing to understand, complicated systems. But the filmmaker Television really gets me thinking about is Chris Marker; the detached, clear voice of Sans Soleil and the like make the world interesting in the same way Toussaint’s prose does. Speaking of the world, the travel-structured Self-Portrait Abroad came along in 2000. Despite its many resemblances physical and stylistic to Toussaint’s other books, one factor complicates everything: not only does this protagonist have a name, that name is Jean-Philippe. What’s more, his wife’s name is Madeleine. Toussaint’s wife is named Madeleine! (“I will call Madeleine Madeleine in these pages,” he declares, “to help me get my bearings.”) Both authors, Jean-Philippe and Toussaint are forever globetrotting, trying to make various speaking engagements. On top of all this, I’ve heard rumors that the pieces Self-Portrait Abroad comprises are all or mostly previously published travel writing. So jeez, I don’t really know what to say about the nature of this book, other than that it delivered to me an unpindownable sense of literary pleasure. Whether you’ll feel the same depends on if you like your plots to run in the lowest possible gear, allowing the author the time and space to make his fascinatingly detached observations before his characters reach minuscule victories or, more likely, wet-fuse fizzles. One Kyoto section ends with Jean-Philippe arriving in an ambulance at a friend’s house (he hitched a ride when it responded to the running-over of a nearby cyclist) only to find him not at home. A game of boules that Jean-Philippe wins with a particularly lucky move. “The best day of my life,” he calls it. 4. Marie “Day was dawning over Tokyo, and I plunged a finger into her asshole.” There we have, in sentence-sized microcosm, much of what I, personally, find appealing Toussaint’s work. Yet another nameless narrator finds himself in a situation he didn’t expect in a place he didn’t expect it to happen, one he wound up in by only the faintest traces of his own volition. Just as something grand and exotic happens on a large scale, a much smaller scale presents an action decidedly more, er, intimate. If all you knew about 2002’s Making Love was that it contains that quoted line and it opens with the protagonist handling his precious bottle of hydrochloric acid — “I carried it around at all times, with the idea of one day throwing it right in someone’s face” — you might assume it to be the work of one of those European “transgressives.” On the contrary; I’ve read few novelists less transgressive than Toussaint. Nobody’s numbly getting that acid dripped onto their nipples or anything. (Maybe I’ll get some of that when I write my Michel Houellebecq primer.) That plunge is by far the most sexually unconventional act on offer in the book, the first but not the last to feature Marie Madeleine Marguerite de Montalte, the owner of the orifice in question. A big-name fashion designer and the narrator’s longtime girlfriend, Marie has come to Tokyo to put on an exhibit, and she’s brought the narrator along so they can break up. As a means of decoupling, this at least beats the hell out of an SMS message. This broad aim declared, nearly every element of the plot conspires to create a state of hazy unease. The text delivers it with a curious resignation, in both senses of the word curious. The protagonist is traveling with his girlfriend, but she’s mostly occupied with professional obligations. And while she technically retains the title of girlfriend for the moment, both she and he realize the union nears its end. This all goes down in a land of whose language the protagonist is more or less ignorant; what’s more, he’s usually outside in particularly desolate wee hours. On top of that, he spends a third of the novel suffering under a disorienting fever, and let’s not forget the free-floating question of who best to splash that acid on. Running barely over 100 pages — not that any of Toussaint’s novels exceed 170 — the book operates under what seem to be stiff textual and psychological confines. Its most harrowing piece of action comes when the narrator, his head clouded with sickness, hops on a train to Kyoto to visit a mostly absent Western teacher friend. He struggles to find his pal’s house and, once there, collapses on a mat and shivers for days. This situation is as strange and outwardly unproductive as he and Marie’s last-gasp attempts at sex early in the novel or his late-night break-in to the hotel gym to swim a few laps. Yet there’s an intriguing interiority here, not just that of the Westerner bumbling through Japan, but specifically of the Francophone Westerner bumbling through Japan. I’ve long felt those cultures go well together, for sufficiently loose definitions of well. However their dynamic of mutual uncomprehending admiration really works, it aligns well with Toussaint’s idiosyncratic literary skill set. Making Love opens a trilogy united not just by a protagonist but by Marie. The second, Running Away, saw publication in 2005. Though Toussaint hasn’t been given to stylistic variation, something changes in this book’s prose. Perhaps one sentence’s worth of example: I became the person responsible for her suffering, I was the one who was tormenting her, without my even doing anything — my presence alone was making her suffer, my absence even more so — me, the one who wasn’t there when she needed me, not in Paris when she found out her father had died, not in Elba when she arrived, when all the practical details of the funeral had to be arranged, the one who, after having finally showed up, this morning, at the church, had immediately disappeared, before talking to her, before saying a single word to her, before kissing her and holding her in my arms, before sharing her pain, depriving her of my presence at the same time as making it flicker in front of her, causing her to tremble, giving her chills, just as I always did. This, I would argue, does not read smoothly. Though interesting in places, I find it primarily generates a dull throb. Did Toussaint actually write the original sentences this way, all mismatching clauses grafted together with comma after comma after unsuitable comma? If so, does that flow better in French? Is this a case of too much faith to the original, or not enough? In a way, you could call the story’s surviving clarity a transcendence of the style. The summer before the planned breakup their breakup, Marie sends the protagonist on a combined business trip and “pleasure junket” in Shanghai. Zhang Xiangzhi, a mild small-time gangster type, meets him at the airport and acts as his handler; later, a girl named Li Qi turns up and rapidly develops what seems to be a crush on our hero. Li Qi becomes, of course, the other player in that abortive sex scene discussed so tantalizingly on Bookworm. When not focused on racing over Beijing sidewalks or undressing Chinese women in train bathrooms, Running Away lays itself bare to the saddeningly common accusation that “nothing happens.” That’s not true, of course — it almost never is — but nor does the appeal of Jean-Philippe Toussaint lay in what he makes “happen.” In French, the Marie trilogy is complete. (That, or it’s on its way to becoming a quadrilogy.) La Vérité sur Marie came out in 2009. Little about it has yet been revealed to the Anglophone public, but I hear the breakup has finally gone through. Of course, Marie’s having a new boyfriend won’t put an end to she and the protagonist’s trysts. Having undergone conversion into a Toussaint fanboy while reading his entire body of translated work, I can honestly say that I can’t wait to read about the trouble they drift into. 5. The infinitesimal novel In a Q&A with Dalkey Archive’s Martin Riker, Toussaint said that “what really matters is to pay attention to what is both infinitely small and infinitely large,” that “a book must contain both darts and philosophy, bowling and metaphysics.” By some mixture of his own effort and his readers’, the applicable concept has come to be called the “infinitesimal novel,” that is to say, the novel that encompasses the infinitely large, the infinitely small, and as little as possible in between. Hence his protagonists’ consideration of vast, unanswerable moral, emotional and intellectual issues as they cut apart olives with their forks, toss pétanque balls, and stick their fingers where the sun don’t shine. I find Toussaint’s feeling of freedom to do this fantastically refreshing. In an age when even superstar authors wring their hands about the purpose of the novel, the purity of the novel, and the viability of the novel, Toussaint sees it as a flexible form full of possibilities for comedy, melancholy, the cosmic, and the mundane. He seems untroubled by his art, which itself is an increasing rarity, but if he is troubled, it’s only by the question of how to keep things exciting.
1. Telepathy on a budget If you don’t know Nicholson Baker as an intensive describer of everyday minutiae, surely you know him as an intensive describer of goofy sexual fantasy. At the very least, you might hold the broad notion that he’s very, very detail-oriented. None of those images capture the novelist in full, but if you twist them into a feedback loop by their common roots, you’ll get closer to the reality. Whatever the themes at hand, Baker adheres with utter faith to his narrators’ internal monologues, carefully following every turn, loop, and kink (as it were) in their trains of thought. He understands how often people think about sex, but he also understands that, often times, they just think about shoelaces — and he understands those thoughts of sex and shoelaces aren’t as far apart, in form or in content, as they might at first seem. This is why some find Baker’s novels uniquely dull, irritating, or repulsive, and why others place them in the small league of books that make sense. Not “sense” in that they comprise understandable sentences, paragraphs, and chapters; the existential kind of sense. So many novels exude indifference to their medium, as though they could just as easily have been — or are merely slouching around before being turned into — movies, comics, or interpretive dances. The Baker novel is long-form text on the page as well, but it’s also long-form text at its core, and on every level in between. Adapting it into anything else would be a ludicrous project at best and an inconceivable one at worst; you might as well “adapt” a boat into a goat. Baker lays out certain clues to the effectiveness — or if you’re on the other side, ineffectiveness — of his concept of the novel in the texts themselves. Brazen, perhaps, but awfully convenient. U and I: A True Story — not a novel and thus not really up for discussion here, but irresistibility is irresistibility — braids the strands of admiration, anxiety, and rivalry that, at one particular moment in time, unspooled out of Baker’s inner John Updike. This isn’t the spirit of John Updike that presumably resides deep within all writers great and small, but Baker’s own avuncular, threatening, helpful, and remote mental conception of John Updike, which he cobbled together from a half-remembered chunk of the older author’s bibliography, second- and third-hand anecdotes about his life and opinions, and a couple of fleeting encounters with the man himself. Pondering the death of Donald Barthelme, the event that ultimately motivates him to write this missive on the then-still-living Updike, Baker realizes that one of the principal aims of the novel — of his own novel, anyway — “is to capture pieces of mental life as truly as possible, as they unfold, with all the surrounding forces of circumstance that bear on a blastula of understanding allowed to intrude to the extent that they give a more accurate picture.” He has a character put it more simply and vulgarly in Vox, a novel that famously operates entirely on a phone-sex line: “I guess insofar as verbal pornography records thoughts rather than exclusively images, or at least surrounds all images with thoughts, or something, it can be the hottest medium of all. Telepathy on a budget.” 2. The earlier quotidians Stephen King called Vox a “meaningless little finger paring.” Baker’s fans have seethed about this for years, but can we really blame King for his feelings? It’s almost preposterous that King’s heaving sheaves, plainspoken and grotesque, swarming with mad scrums of characters and pumping like oil derricks of narrative suspense and release under their embossed covers, get shelved in not just the same section but the same building as anything Baker has ever published. Yet King and Baker happen to owe their literary success to startlingly similar skill sets. They have keen eyes for detail and, much more importantly, sound instincts about when and how to redeploy that detail. King’s is a balancing act, which, in theory, makes you believe in the appearances of killer clowns and demonic Plymouths by bracketing them with a crisply described, wanly recognizable America of tract houses and Cheerios boxes. Baker, who would more than likely spend half a novel on one Cheerio, zooms into these latter elements until they become as freakishly compelling as the former. If King didn’t appreciate Vox, then boy, steer him away from its predecessors, Mezzanine and Room Temperature. The tales of a young man’s post-lunch escalator ride back to the office and a slightly less young man’s pre-nap bottle-feeding session with his baby daughter, respectively, Baker’s first two novels draw their solid if slim lengths from their narrator’s ability to think, at length, about matters of no more obvious import than clipped cuticles. The brains of the first book’s Howie and the second book’s Mike are variously captured by the ever-changing buoyancy of drinking straws, the profitability of Penguin Classics, the guts of escalators, the late-night sound of cheek against teeth, the developments of jokey euphemisms for bowel movements, and the exhaustive history of the comma. Though in most respects still youthful, Howie and Mike find themselves more routinized, more domestic, and simply living smaller than the men they’d once blearily hoped to become. That they skirt this disappointment by focusing hard, long, and wide-rangingly on the stuff of life as it’s turned out for them may warm certain readerly hearts, but I swear I can taste a thin layer of paralyzing existential nightmare salt just below the surface. You’ve got to concentrate to pick it up, but it’s there. As much solace as one’s own coming-of-age memories, reflections on the nature of parenthood, and ruminations on peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches can offer, something hard, something terrible and inescapable, remains undissolved. 3. The triple-Xers Vox and The Fermata, Baker’s third and fourth novels, are his only ones routinely called “infamous.” The former drew much of its infamy second-hand — Monica Lewinsky was supposed to have passed a copy to Bill Clinton — but both are well known for their nearly singular focus on sex. Vox’s unbroken back-and-forth of hypothetical eroticism surely shook those fans still cooing over the resigned contentment which ran through its predecessors. The Fermata’s near-punishing stream of creepy voyeuristic fantasies made, er, flesh, must have pushed them right over the edge. Baker deals almost exclusively with loners. They aren’t Unabomber types who, unable to deal with society, have thrust themselves into social and intellectual exile; they’re mostly just plain souls too overwhelmed by the vastness of their own interiority to maintain many high-bandwidth interpersonal connections. It couldn’t be otherwise; hundreds upon hundreds of words on the physics of shoelace strain rarely pour from social butterflies. Taking on such a two-player game as sex when your form requires such isolated characters is thus, to put it mildly, a challenge. Vox solves this problem by happening entirely in that just-less-than-modern vortex of loneliness, the phone-sex line. At the bargain rate of 95 cents per minute, the service connects Jim and Abby, two singletons who always subconsciously suspected but never really knew that finding someone to whom they could describe their idiosyncratic fantasies would really do the trick. Abby recounts to Jim a dream involving a trio of randy, creatively roller-wielding house painters. Jim regales Abby with the details of the time he invited a crushed-on co-worker over to determine the parallel masturbatory value of a particularly hokey dubbed porno tape. These stories expand into discussions of the extremely erotic to be found within the outwardly unerotic — i.e., all the pieces of life’s detritus making up Baker’s first two novels — as well as disquisitions on the meta-eroticism of all this: is one simply turned on by the suspicion that the other is turned on by the tales one is telling of being turned on? Hence Baker’s reputation as something of a thinking man’s pornographer. But he wouldn’t go on to make the rest of his literary career out of it, opting instead to take the fusion of sexual subject matter and the Bakerian micro-examination to its limit with his very next novel. The Fermata allows the sole whiff of the supernatural into Baker’s oeuvre, but what a whiff; its protagonist and narrator, a middle-aged temp named Arno Strine, can freeze time at will. We’ve all fantasized about this superpower’s limitless possibilities, but Strine possesses the focus to explore just one, over and over again: removing the clothes of the frozen women nearby, and then perhaps masturbating. There’s no small frustration in realizing that, nope, this guy isn’t going to do anything more interesting with his gift, and doubly so since it’s Nicholson Baker doing the writing. If anybody can cast into literature the experience of altering the flow of time to more acutely examine one’s surroundings, it’s him. In a sense, all novelists do this — writing prose that slows down to describe some things and speeds up to describe others still qualifies as an avant-garde experiment — but Baker’s power is essentially Strine’s, and Strine’s Baker’s. Part of me wishes Strine could have taken the time to do something other than pleasure himself, but another part of me understands how incisive an illustration he makes of how lives get wasted when freed from two important constraints: the pressure of time’s implacable passage and the check of other human beings — other animate human beings — provide on the growth of isolation’s bizarre proclivities. 4. The escapes The Everlasting Story of Nory and Checkpoint feel like novels written from driving, undeniable desires. Whether they’re the type of driving, undeniable desires best acted upon publicly is a judgment that will vary from reader to reader. As different from Vox and The Fermata as Vox and The Fermata are from The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, Baker’s fifth and seventh novels, his longest and his shortest, are sexless forays into two minds seemingly meant to lay quite far from the average reader’s own experience. (Not that the average reader would have nodded in solidarity at Arno Strine’s chronologically arrested experiments with anuses and okra.) “Everlasting is right,” a reader unsympathetic to young Eleanor “Nory” Winslow might mutter. Though it only offers 226 of them, The Everlasting Story of Nory’s pages all spill from the consciousness of this precocious nine-year-old who attends schools with names like the International Chinese Montessori School, Small People, and The Blackwood Early Focus School. To Baker’s credit, he meticulously constructs what really do seem like the thought processes of an actual nine-year-old; in a certain pure way, it’s his most ambitious and successful telepathy-on-a-budget exercise. But Nory is like a logorrheic guest in a highbrow version of Kids Say the Darndest Things, and only so much of her near-miss conception of the world (“Virgil Reality”) is digestible in one sitting. Just as The Everlasting Story of Nory must have offered Baker a cleansing escape from the obscurantist genital symposia of Vox and The Fermata, it’s easy to see how Checkpoint could have acted as a pressure valve against that affront to every sensitive artist of the 2000s’ existence, the George W. Bush administration. A brief book-length dialogue whose strong similarities to Vox are mostly superficial, Checkpoint presents a hotel-room meeting of longtime but semi-estranged buddies Jay and Ben. Jay has called Ben to his room in order to grandly reveal what he has come to understand is his life’s mission: the assassination of the then-president. Set off for whatever reason by a newspaper story about an Iraqi family accidentally hailed with bullets at the American checkpoint of the title, Jay has formulated a host of murderous, preposterous plans involving depleted uranium, flying saws, and Bush-seeking bullets. Foreseeing the probable consequences of Jay’s actions — and perhaps sensing that Jay may have come down with a touch of the schizophrenia — Ben takes it upon himself to talk his friend down from a presidential assassination to a simple smashing of a presidential photograph. As collisions of literature and contemporary politics go, Checkpoint, is less embarrassing than it could be, but it showcases precisely none of Baker’s strengths while throwing the spotlight uncomfortably close to his weaknesses. 5. The later quotidians Recent years have seen Baker return to the kaleidoscopic view of mundanity he took in his earliest novels. A Box of Matches, widely received as a spiritual successor to Room Temperature, shares with the earlier book a household setting and, within that, the even closer confines of the mind of that household’s partially enervated patriarch. Each morning, Emmett, a medical textbook editor and family man, wakes up before anyone else in the house, brews coffee, lights a fire, and writes down his reflections about his family, about the medical textbook business, about the house itself. Sometimes his reflections are about a duck. If the years have mellowed Baker’s zeal for the mechanics, interconnections, and historical references of the common things that surround us, they’ve also given him a fascinating candor. He had candor before, it might seem — Room Temperature’s many passages concerned with bodily functions, their nature and their frequency, return to mind — but this is candor of a different order, candor about the kind of despair hinted at but never meaningfully confronted in the first two novels. It manifests in Emmett as a series of increasingly bizarre suicide fantasies, including a particularly memorable one involving a roller coaster and a sharp blade positioned just so. A Yatesian condemnation of domestic emptiness this ain’t, but the tip hints at a large, desperate iceberg indeed. This glimpse into the darkness promised much for Baker’s eighth novel, The Anthologist. I had expected, with or without license, an unflinching stare into the apathy-embattled, relevance-starved interior world of the contemporary poet. Alas, narrator Paul Chowder, an over-the-hill poet and severe procrastinator hoping to win back his fed-up girlfriend and write an introduction to an anthology of rhyme, gives one big amiable shrug instead. Despite being a reasonably rich character with many opinions to share about the history and techniques of the form to which he has, with a slight reluctance, dedicated his life, he seems to dodge most of the medium to big questions staring him down. But then, that’s his way; his life, as Baker excerpts in the novel, is a study in procrastination. Procrastinators look into the abyss too, but they don’t take long to find something else to think about. 6. Without getting bored It wouldn’t exactly be right to claim that Nicholson Baker bases his novels on tricks, and it certainly wouldn’t be right to claim that their main trick is to focus on, take apart, and then focus even closer on that which we ignore most of the time. That might be a feature of theirs, but it’s only a feature. Try this thought experiment: focus on and describe to yourself a nearby object — pen, stapler, dripping faucet — for as long as possible, in as much detail as possible. The finer-grained a level of detail you reach, the more and farther-flung external associations flood your consciousness. At least, the more and farther-flung external associations flood my consciousness, as they presumably flood Baker’s and certainly flood his narrators’. The difference is that they get entire books out of them. This all makes it into the novels because the novels, for the most part, are their characters’ consciousnesses. Only a novel can be someone’s consciousness; at least, a novel does it infinitely better than any other form. Until the day when technology allows us to tap one another’s brains directly — until we get deluxe, not budget, telepathy — books like Baker’s are the best we can do. Sure, sometimes the minds to which he grants us access irk us with their half-baked judgments, stubbornly refuse to dismount from their hobbyhorses, or come off as complacent weenies. But at least they belong to people who can exist in the world without getting bored — ever — and who can think cogently about the ceaselessly repeated micro-experiences we all have but would never have bothered articulating. Seeing that happen on the page is, itself, heartening.
1. Couplândia “I’m not saying that the bulk of novels out there aren’t art — they are — they’re just not modern art.” Douglas Coupland, “Why Write Modern Fiction?” How ironic that Douglas Coupland, the man who popularized the term “Generation X”, turns out to be one of the least ironic novelists of his generation. His novels may, on the whole, be loaded with typographical trickery, brand names of the nanosecond, slacking youngsters, and Simpsons references, but he’s also deep into a suite of timelessly, radically un-hip novelistic themes. At the lightest readerly touch, Coupland’s smirking surfaces and visual bravado give way to a landslide of questions and concerns about, as Andrew Tate put it in his book-length study of Coupland’s writing, “conviction, community, connection, and continuity.” Take Coupland’s work as a whole and his strengths become starkly apparent. He’s especially good when writing in the voice of an actual character, not a neutral, disembodied narrator. (He’s even better when writing as several of them.) Often criticized for peppering his texts with marketing detritus forgotten or best forgotten — Tae Bo, Gap, Pets.com — he deals with the timeless human problems best when discussing them in parallel with things so disposable. His penchant for suddenly dropping protagonists into bizarre scenarios also draws reviewer heat, but when he successfully mixes the very bizarre and the very mundane, there’s nothing quite like it in literature. He’ll often steer away from the norms of plotting and typesetting tradition, and when he does, the harder he cranks the wheel, the better. The less conventionally novelly a novel Coupland writes, in short, the richer it is. He appears to understand this. “It seems the more experimental my work gets,” he writes in the blog post quoted above, “the more people respond to it.” This was borne out during my own immersion in the ink-and-paper world I’ve come to call Couplândia. The author begins his literary career at the dawn of the 1990s, a healthy yen for experimentation governing his watchful eye for the moment. This slowly weakens, bottoming out in the early 2000s. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, it returns with an new intensity, allowing him to produce novels delivering the distilled, unadulterated — and to his fans, annoyingly addictive — essence of Coupland. 2. The generational books The idea and the reality of Generation X, the novel that made Coupland’s name, are surprisingly different. While generation-flavored enough to fit under this heading, it’s only just. More apt is the oft-made comparison to Boccaccio’s Decameron, in that it’s a book of fictional characters who themselves invent fictions. Lacking prospects of a fulfilling career or even a stable identity, Andy, Claire, and Dag each independently move out to a chintzy motel-ish complex of bungalows in the (then even more geriatric-geared) desert town of Palm Springs. There, they work future-free jobs and search for conviction/community/connection/continuity — a sort of makeshift family, even — by telling each other stories. Sure, they drop references to 1960s and 1970s media culture, attempt to build identities by futilely repurposing midcentury trends, and bitterly resent the Baby Boomers, but there’s more to it than that. Take the novel’s ending, in which narrator Andy speeds toward what he thinks is the mushroom cloud civilization has spent the Cold War waiting for. He approaches and realizes that it’s just smoke from farmers burning a rice field. A pure white egret flying in front of the wall of blackness catches his eye. A bus full of developmentally disabled teens stops to watch too. When the egret swoops too low and slashes Andy’s scalp, the kids swarm, all clumsily trying to hug him at once. At first he’s frightened. Then he doesn’t want them to stop. I have come to regard this as a quintessential Coupland moment. It’s also one of the elements missing from Generation X’s 1992 follow-up, Shampoo Planet. Where Coupland’s first novel portrays an age cohort that has effectively opted out of politics and the economy, his second portrays a slightly younger one that has opted out more or less out of politics but opted way in to the economy. Its main character, named and modeled closely after Andy’s clean-living, financially grasping little brother Tyler, dreams of nothing more than heavily gelling his hair, hanging out the mall, and rising through the ranks of a large defense contractor. He’s a representative of what Coupland (and Tyler himself) terms the “Global Teens”. The book satirizes them, but — and perhaps this is evident in the phrase “Global Teens” alone — I’m unsure how well it knows them. Microserfs, however, knows its subjects, and well. Published in 1995, Coupland’s third novel is ostensibly the contents of its main character’s PowerBook. Daniel Underwood, a lowly bug-catcher employed by a Microsoft at the height of its powers, finds himself at the center of a group defection from Redmond to Silicon Valley. The move is as much mental as geographical: first they’re replaceable (but comfortable) drones in a sprawling corporate hive, then frantic (but innovative) paddlers on a leaky start-up raft. Their new company, called Interiority, produces an odd combination of programming language and 3D modeling environment called Oop! Coupland cares about the Microserfs-turned-Interiorites’ relationships with technology, with one another, and how the former and the latter interact. Some find love, some gain and lose ideologies, some get sick, some finally get in touch with their sexuality, and some get really nice shiatsu massages. Yet at the same time, the book is awash in artifacts of mid-1990s technology, geek, and popular culture: laser pointers, “Stop the insanity!”, Gak, the Virtual Boy. It’s the clearest early example of one of Coupland’s primary strengths, a Beatlesque ability to combine extreme datedness and extreme timelessness. Two more strengths are also on display. The text-as-digital-document conceit lets Coupland bust out a typographical creativity that, while glimpsable in Generation X, runs relatively wild here. Some of the pages represent “subconscious files” in Daniel’s PowerBook, which are haphazardly (or so it seems) covered by disconnected phrases like “Demonize the symbolic analysis,” “Uranium and Beethoven,” “Define random,” and “You’re smarter than TV. So what?” The novel also delivers more abrupt moments of absurdist humor than its two predecessors combined. While these have multiplied in Coupland’s more recent work, I still think none beat this passage from Microserfs: Emmett has 4,000 manga comics from Japan. They're so violent and dirty! The characters all look as if they're saying unbelievably important things — talking to God and the Wizard of the Universe — but when you translate them, all they're really doing is making belching noises. Maybe you had to be there. 3. The reverse experiments To look at Generation X, with its wonky large format and artistic-informational sidebars, or Microserfs, with its words all over the place at so many different scales, you’d assume they were the work of an avant-gardist with an unusually porous mental wall between literature and visual art. You’d be right, in a sense. Though it’s unclear how much Coupland accepts the “avant-garde” label, he’s a visual artist as well as a novelist. His two personalities aren’t usually compartmentalized, except in 1998 through 2001, when Coupland’s novelistic mind seemed to endure an uncharacteristic bout of traditionalism. Though they’re pretty much devoid of geekdom or other such subcultures, the three novels published in this period don’t suffer from particularly conventional content. They do, however, suffer from conventional form. Girlfriend in a Coma, by far the strongest of the trio, explores with startling directness a few of what have become Coupland’s signature themes. Karen, the titular girlfriend, falls into her titular coma at the end of high school in late-1970s Vancouver. Her circle of friends — and especially her boyfriend Richard, who seems to do a lot of the narration — grind through life, some aimlessly and some with blinders on, until Karen wakes up in the late 1990s. A media circus erupts around the woman, who, if you think about it, is kind of a time traveler. But in the future though she may be, Karen doesn’t like the future she sees. Through her eyes, late 20th-century society is both hardened and dissolute, filled with people drifting unmoored both from absolute values and from one another. Coupland builds toward Karen’s return to the living and confession of disappointment by riding the suspense lever with almost Stephen King-like hand. When an inexplicable, fast-spreading malady kills off everyone but Karen and those close to her, comparisons to embossed-cover types are even harder to resist. But King, Koontz, Patterson, et al. probably wouldn’t have ended a book with the ghost of a notoriously horny high school football player lecturing the characters about their failure to adequately foster the communal sphere and define nobler aims for themselves and each other. Could you call Coupland a moralist? In a sense, you could, though the moralism of a book like Girlfriend in a Coma is very much his own, and thus at least more interesting than most. Unfortunately, 2000’s Miss Wyoming picks easier targets. It tells two stories, non-chronologically and in parallel, though they eventually bend and converge. One is of Susan Colgate, a floundering television actress and former professional beauty pageant entrant. Presumed dead in an airliner crash of which she was actually the sole survivor, Susan seizes the chance to escape her life and high-gloss aspirational harridan of a mother. The other is of John Johnson, a hacky Hollywood producer, sort of a Don Simpson who bottomed out, flatlined, and went on an impoverished Kerouac-style vision quest instead of just dying. Unfulfilled to say the least by his foray into humiliating modern asceticism, he starts to suspect that Susan might be the answer to his questions about existence. Both Miss Wyoming and Coupland’s next novel, 2001’s All Families Are Psychotic, suffer from a plot problem. That is to say, they’ve got too much of it. Miss Wyoming's John and Susan, incomplete searchers both, seem always to be performing the next action in a long causal chain, which itself was a result of whatever falling dominoes happened to precede it. The same goes for the troubled, partially criminal, largely AIDS-afflicted Drummond clan at the center of All Families are Psychotic. If we aren’t watching these characters’ elaborate peregrinations and collisions, we’re on a drip feed of explanatory information about their pasts. This sounds normal, and it is; that’s the problem. It’s certainly not normal by Coupland’s standards. How I longed for the freedom from these standard novel syndromes enjoyed, for instance, by the relatively plotless Generation X. It’s a shame these novels have execution troubles, because Coupland’s interests are still there, and his interests remain, er, interesting. This is mostly true of All Families Are Psychotic, which is in parts driven by cogitation about noble lies, generational incompatibility, the disintegration of the public sphere, and crippled humanistic optimism. Janet, the enervated Drummond matriarch, laments her place as a member of “a lost generation, the last generation raised to care about appearances of doing the right thing — to care about caring.” At some hard-to-define point, she simply “stopped believing in the future,” as so many Coupland characters do, not that they always understand they’ve done so, let alone state it so baldly. Where Girlfriend in a Coma debuted Coupland’s way with multiple narrating characters, Miss Wyoming and All Families Are Psychotic are told in the third person, omnisciently. That the effect is so deadening reveals the inseparability of first-person narration (especially from several persons) from what’s great about Coupland’s fiction. 4. The calm 2003’s Hey Nostradamus!, a textbook example of that most delightful literary genre, the return to form, seems conceived down to its very structure to exploit Coupland’s skill of letting the cast write the book. Its central event is a Columbine-style school shooting. (Or, given Coupland’s Canadian-ness and his proclivity to root his books firmly in his native land from this point forward, an École Polytechnique-style shooting.) Coupland interprets this massacre and its legacy through four different consciousnesses: Cheryl, a teenage victim speaking from a life-death borderland; Jason, Cheryl’s secret husband who subsequently falls into long-term chaotic isolation; Heather, the woman with whom Jason eventually finds some degree of solace; and Reg, Jason’s dogmatically religious, monstrously domineering father. As in Coupland’s other novels, families wield less of an influence than you’d expect over their members, and when they can muster any power, it tends to be of the restrictive or damaging kind. What do the real good and ill are extrafamilial bonds and social units: young Cheryl and Jason’s marriage, made official one surreptitious afternoon in Vegas; their Christian youth group, exerting tremendous pressure and sanctimony even in adulthood; an under-the-table child-fathering arrangement between Jason and his brother’s widow; the doomed, camo-clad three-man shooting squad, their motivations refreshingly never diagrammed. It’s the same way in Eleanor Rigby, Coupland’s 2005 novel and his brief return to single-character-narrated narrative. That character is Liz Dunn, a plain, overweight, middle-aged office worker who, despite having near-unlimited spending power from well-timed Microsoft stock purchases, nonetheless remains invisible to society. Her actual family, resembling a cloud of semi-benevolent mosquitoes, does her no favors. It’s not until her long-lost, terminally ill son turns up that she experiences any real human-to-human connection. Born suddenly and almost unexpectedly twenty years earlier, when Liz was a teenager, the foster-raised Jeremy brings to this near-featureless setting an embattled but enthusiastic engagement with life and a series of apocalyptic pastoral visions about “farmers [who] had lost their belief in the possibility of changing the world.” Loneliness: it’s beyond obvious in Eleanor Rigby, but it’s evident in all of Coupland’s novels so far. Despite usually enjoying each other’s company, Andy, Claire, and Dag all live their desultory lives in response to loneliness. Despite his drive, his 100-percent modern bedroom, and his vast collection of hair care products, Tyler nonetheless finds himself trapped in moments of loneliness. Daniel and his hard-coding coterie beat down their loneliness with technology, a habit they their story overcoming. Thrust into a new and unfamiliar era by her coma, Karen can’t avoid loneliness; dragged into it by time and life itself, her friends can’t avoid theirs. Desperate to fill their own emptinesses but knowing only the frameworks others have thrust them into, Susan and John walk their lonely, (mostly) separate paths. Each of the Drummonds are embroiled in their own lonely crises, until their crises merge into one big family crisis. Lost between the living and the dead, Cheryl is doubtlessly lonely; stripped at once of both wife and belief system, Jason is lonelier still; when Jason disappears, his girlfriend becomes so lonely that she falls prey to a low-class psychic; with one son missing, one dead, and everyone else in his life driven away by control-freakishness masked as religiosity, Jason’s father is lonely indeed. But in Coupland’s oeuvre, Liz is the loneliness queen. 5. The explosions But oh, how even to sketch a context for jPod? Published in 2006, it comes a bit over a decade after Microserfs and is often discussed as an update to it. In that sense, it has a logical place in Coupland lineup of novels, but in another, more immediate sense, it seems to have sprung, spontaneously and without inhibition, straight from the man’s id. It’s 447 pages of three-letter words, classic arcade machine specifics, Chinese characters for concepts like “boredom” and “pornography,” walls of text made up of not quite non sequiturs, love letters to Ronald McDonald, and random numbers. It’s Coupland’s most divisive book, and no wonder. There’s a main narrative in there, somewhere, about a cubicle cluster of misfits at a Vancouver video game firm. (None dare mention the name Electronic Arts.) This “jPod”, so dubbed because of its J-surnamed members, is assigned a thankless task: go back and insert an edgy turtle character based on the host of Survivor into a skateboarding game already in development. Buffeted by the substantial winds blown by his marijuana-growing mom, his philandering actor dad, his nonsensical workplace, his aggressively lazy co-workers, and a threatening yet amiable Chinese people-smuggler who makes his boss disappear — not to mention a spiteful, cynical version of Douglas Coupland himself — narrating jPodder Ethan just tries to cope. Compared to jPod, any book would seem subdued, especially the epistolary novel The Gum Thief which followed the next year. But in its quiet way, it’s the stranger of the two works. Taking his multiple-voice technique to its limit, Coupland composes the book as a series of letters, journal entries, short stories, and novella excerpts passed between Roger, a fortysomething alcoholic divorcée with a dead son, and Bethany, a chunky, disaffected young goth with a dumb boyfriend. Both work at the same branch of Staples. Roger writes to Bethany, Bethany writes to Roger, Roger writes his novella, Bethany reads his novella, and Roger’s wife and Bethany’s mother are contributing their own epistles as well, each small text influencing the others. It’s a hall of mirrors, at some turns: Roger’s novella itself contains a novel whose protagonist seems a lot like Roger himself. But jeez, that novella. Glove Pond is one of the most engaging fictional bad books I’ve ever read. Though at first it simply seems inept, it develops throughout The Gum Thief into a true masterpiece of deep askewness. Something’s badly wrong with this bizarre Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? pastiche’s every sentence, but, like any art rotten at its core, it’s difficult to pin down exactly what: Within minutes, all the cheese and crackers were gone, and Gloria had eaten the two pickles. Now what would they feed their guests? Steve remembered some pancake mix at the rear of their cupboard. Was the mix beweeviled? That’s okay. Heat will kill them. Switching narrators every chapter also forms the structural foundation of Generation A, Coupland’s most recent novel. It sounds like a jPod to Generation X’s Microserfs, which isn’t far from the truth. Coupland once again brings together a group of young people to tell stories for one another, except this time it’s in a slowly emerging future setting where bees have died out as a side effect, as it were, of the production of a drug that stops its users from thinking about the future or their fellow man. The kids, loosely speaking, aren’t just North American this time; they’re from New Zealand, Canada, France, the United States, and Sri Lanka. It’s a more elaborate, international, science fiction-y version of Generation X, then? The assessment sounds dismissive, but the concept that both books share, that storytelling offers the last line of defense against a barren world of social isolation — against loneliness and disconnection — is still relevant. It’s unlikely to get less so. 6. An earnest apocalypse Are we really headed for a such a bleak future? Is it really because we’re ignoring it, because of our willful information bombardment, our mass denial of absolutes, our retreat into our individual selves, and the breakdown in our ability to hear and tell stories? It’s the scenario each and every one of Douglas Coupland’s novels warns us against. Yet somehow that never ends up being the feeling I take away from any of them. I close most Douglas Coupland novels with a mind jazzed on fresh literary possibilities, not just because he breaks so well from threadbare forms and hybridizes so well with foreign ones — especially visual “pop art,” of which his novels are an equivalent — but because he does it in a way that no small quantity of people seem to actually read. Call it a victory of slickness over substance or marketing by minutiae if you must; in experimental fiction, that’s a world-saving feat.
1. Quasi-praise I laughed loud and long after coming across a retired schoolteacher’s self-published book of poetry with the wildly unappealing title Meanderings of an Aged Mind. Yet it now occurs to me that the late avant-garde novelist David Markson’s literary output eventually assumed exactly that form. And though he never quite reached the depth of being forced into self-publication, his fame seems to have peaked around 1970. Quasi-praise such as “undeserved obscurity” and “smartest novelist you’ve never heard of” would thereafter accumulate like barnacles on his hull. Markson wrote two novels that look just about like traditional novels, one that could pass for a traditional novel’s second cousin, and four that invent, develop, and refine the aggressively non-novelistic shape that would become his very own genre. Line them up, and you’ve never seen such clear stylistic progress. Final destination: books made of evenly-spaced, meticulously arranged facts from the lives of notable artists, writers, philosophers, and other intellectuals. No, not historical fiction. Not narratives of any lives in particular. Not tracings of any currents of thought. Just textual accretions, really, but textual accretions of the highest erudition and artistry. If you’re looking for grand statements about David Markson’s career, you might say the same thing that makes his novels so fascinating — and, to his fans, so endlessly engaging — also makes them so little-known. Not just steeped in but crafted from the West’s achievements in thought and aesthetics, they pay off in excitement to the extent that you know your Yeatses from your Keatses, your Kierkegaards from your Spinozas. Truly meriting the label of sui generis that otherwise gets thrown around so carelessly, his novels are fiendishly tricky to contextualize. What might you have already read that suggests you’ll like David Markson? Tough call, since, for good or ill, nothing’s like David Markson. 2. The entertainments Markson’s was a career forged in irony. Long before assembling (there may be no better word) his mature work for publication under the literary aegis of smaller-scale publishers like Dalkey Archive, he cranked out hot-boiling, pot-boiling, mass-market crime fiction. Not only that, but he seems to have excelled at it. 1959’s Epitaph for a Tramp, 1961’s Epitaph for a Dead Beat, and 1965’s Miss Doll, Go Home read, by all accounts, a cut above their equally pulpy, lurid-covered brethren. As soon as Markson gained literary currency, these three took a Graham Greene-esque demotion from novels to “entertainments,” but the craft of their language and their genre-defying allusions to the likes of Thomas Mann and William Gaddis — shades of things to come — have earned them modern reissues. Then came The Ballad of Dingus Magee, or, more faithfully, The Ballad of Dingus Magee; Being the Immortal True Saga of the Most Notorious and Desperate Bad Man of the Olden Days, His Blood-Shedding, His Ruination of Poor Helpless Females, & Cetera. Though still a traditional narrative, this slice of Old Western raucousness shows off enough of Markson’s linguistic inventiveness and referential brio that it’s usually spared the “entertainment” pin. Yet held up against the books that would follow, it looks like a transitional work, one that gave its author the credibility — and, after the dopey Frank Sinatra film adaptation Dirty Dingus Magee, the money — to bring out the real stuff over which he’d been laboring in private. 3. Going Down Markson’s first post-Magee novel bears all the marks of real stuff. A dark, dense story boldly (and often opaquely) told, 1970’s Going Down takes details Markson mined from his time in Mexico to craft a menacing rural setting in which his characters sink — in which they “go down” — into a collective fugue of angst, depression, and violence. At the book’s center is the hyperliterate yet near-catatonically impassive Steve Chance, who draws a couple of artistically inclined young women down to his cottage. As they form a grim polyamorous triangle that draws the locals’ suspicious looks, things turn unbearably ominous and very ugly indeed: cuckoldry, insanity, murder, and so on. Unlike the rest of the Markson oeuvre, almost all of which maintains good humor (even if only expressed via the weary chuckle of resignation), Going Down is one dark book. This is perhaps to be expected, given the gruesome elements on the surface: a harrowing and futile gangrene-related amputation comes early, one character gets brutally machete’d in her sleep, another vividly relives her childhood fire trauma, an apparently ghastly hand deformity is brought up over and over again. But Markson also tells the story in a way that sets up an almost oppressive atmosphere of alienation and hauntedness. Despite always hopping from one character’s consciousness to another, the narrative has an askewness, an angularity, that makes you suspect the absolute worst is inevitable. 4. Springer’s Progress How startling it must have been to read such a jaunty follow-up. For all its strengths — and it has many — Going Down resists the reader. You’ve got to fight the book to make it yield its meaning. True though that may be for all intelligent literary works, there’s a distinction: some go down reasonably easily but reward further effort, while others don’t go down at all unless you’re prepared to swallow hard. 1977’s Springer’s Progress marks a decisive shift towards the former. Markson’s novels would, from then on, be immaculately smooth reading experiences on the sentence level, but command vast, ever-expanding tracts of references that only the most knowledgeable reader could fully enjoy. Not that you’d know it from this book’s prose, which, glanced at, appears to be some sort of drunken late-midcentury neo-Joycian urban lit-dialect: There’s Springer, sauntering through the wilderness of this world. Lurking anent the maidens’ shittery, more the truth of it. Eye out for this wench who’s just ducked inside, this clodhopper Jessica Cornford. Girl’s a horse, stomps instead of walking. Most sedulously ill-dressed creature’s ever wandered into the place also. Remorseless. Blouse tonight’s all archaic frill, remnant from a misadvised Winslow Homer. Yes, the whole book is in this voice, an extreme version of what’s called “free indirect” narrative, the kind that looks like the third person but gets so close to one particular character that it’s somehow more revealing than the first person. Lucien Springer, the personage to whom this prose practically adheres, is a loutish, über-arch novelist. Or rather, he’s a novelist almost by avocation, since his vocation seems to be drinking. Between those, he makes a reasonably active sideline of womanizing. This might sound like thin gruel behind an impenetrable screen, but the intersection of the painstakingly wrought language of sloppy casualness and Springer’s distinctive persona turns out to be exhilarating. When the middle-aged Springer meets his match in the aforementioned Jessica Cornford, a 25-year-old aspiring woman of letters, the book becomes strangely pleasurable to read, more than almost any of its contemporary relatives. Springer may be a philandering, talent-squandering, impoverished lush, but he’s got the kind of flickering eternal wit few could fail to smile at. Jessica may be apocalyptically flaky, dizzyingly promiscuous, and enslaved to disastrous personal aesthetics, but the girl shows a glimmer of literary and romantic promise, give her that. With a plot, setting, dialogue, and cast of several, this is a freakish book beside those that would follow in Markson’s career, yet it nevertheless loudly and clearly introduces the qualities that would come to define his fiction. The paragraphs have gotten shorter and more prominently studded with data from the annals of art and literature, explained here by Springer’s own compulsion to think about such things. And a certain suspicion arises about how much protagonist shares with author. I know it’s supposed to be juvenile to conflate the two, but Markson more or less courts it, to the point where the novel Springer brings himself to write turns out to be Springer’s Progess itself. The book eventually catches up nearly to real time, where the writing of a page is covered on that same page. Springer dedicates his novel to his long-suffering agent-wife Dana. Markson dedicates his to his own agent-wife Elaine. (Springer’s Progress also premieres another, less savory Markson leitmotif: whaling on, and wailing about, critics. He reserves especially tiresome vitriol for Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who trashed Going Down a hundred years ago.) 5. Wittgenstein’s Mistress Markson took eleven years to follow up Springer’s Progess; at the time, he was as unprolific as that book’s star. It’s hard to say whether fans of the author’s first two “real” novels would be immediately pleased by Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which does away with most of the niceties audiences have come to expect, such as characters. And, uh, chapters. Flip through the book, and it’s all one big monologue, a stream of lines like these: Surely one cannot type a sentence saying one is not thinking about something without thinking about the very thing that one says one is not thinking about. I believe I have only now noted this. Or something very much like this. Possibly I should drop the subject. Actually, all I had been thinking about in regard to Achilles was his heel. Although I do not have any sort of limp, if I have possibly given that impression. As a single continuous (if staccato) thread of consciousness, the text isn’t easy to excerpt. Every passage grows organically from the one before and leads seamlessly into the one after. It’s really more of a braid of consciousness than a thread: it interweaves the protagonist’s various pieced-together recollections about — yes — artists and thinkers of eras past with her own experiences as the last woman on Earth. So this is, what, a sci-fi novel? Yes and no. It’s the rare case where the term “speculative fiction” applies not as insistent euphemism but accurate description. Kate, the narrator, types the text on a manual typewriter, ostensibly nude and utterly alone in a world filled only with buildings, plants, and artifacts. Problem is, we only have her testimony to go by, and it gradually becomes apparent that some of her marbles may be rolling into the distance. Lovers of the hackneyed, have no fear: Markson makes a dull explanation partially available. In it, Kate is simply insane, driven into her life-consuming delusion by, I fear, the death of her young son that may or may not have been indirectly caused by her irresponsible lifestyle. Better, I would submit, to take Kate’s words as close to face value as possible. Rarely has a novel been so much about words, and so well about them. No mistake that the title name-checks the philosopher who stared down language itself. What does it mean to name the places and things around you, as Kate obsessively does, without a community to use those names? What is the entire sweep of Western culture, its greatest works and its creators, when you’re the only one around to remember or think about them, and even you don’t quite possess the intellectual grasp to think about them with much accuracy? Has any other work of fiction confronted those questions so head-on? Kate’s 240-page communiqué to nobody uncannily emulates the way our thoughts wander from subject to subject, from concrete personal experience to distant historical fact, making associations that seem at once preposterous and immediate, looping, crossing, and doubling back on themselves. Not only is Wittgenstein’s Mistress Markson’s most highly acclaimed novel, it’s the last gasp of his remaining novelistic predilections. Though he won some acclaim for being a man yet writing what was received as a surprisingly realistic female mind, he must have known that his final style could not be achieved without getting out from behind any and all Kates. 6. Reader’s Block, This is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point and The Last Novel His first and only novel of the nineties — as Wittgenstein’s Mistress was his first and only novel of the eighties — the 1996 Reader’s Block is, in its curious way, as bracing a burst of literary air as Springer’s Progress was. There’s only one character: Reader. And Reader happens to be an author — an author a lot like David Markson. (“First and foremost,” runs an opening epigraph from Jorge Luis Borges, “I think of myself as a reader.”) Reader spends the book thinking up the mechanics for his latest novel. This novel stars Protagonist, an aging writer who lives, self-exiled, in a lonely house on a beach or in a graveyard, rent-free but for the occasional custodial duty. He lives downstairs, hearing the footsteps of the rarely seen women who live upstairs. The lines sketching Reader’s creative process (“Someone else for Protagonist’s past?” “Will Protagonist have sold any books before moving?”) are actually quite fascinating, but they’re occasional and separated. Between any two come a swarm of the same kinds of facts Kate struggled to recall in Markson’s previous novel, now presented with more clarity and presumably more veracity. “Erasmus was illegitimate.” “Kierkegaard was probably impotent.” “In the decades before his death, Ad Reinhardt painted nothing but black canvasses.” “Tolstoy thought King Lear a play so bad as to be not worth discussion.” Reader or Markson or Protagonist or whomever also call out a supposed anti-Semite every few pages. I find the motive for this unclear, but Seneca, Justinian, Philip Larkin, D.H. Lawrence, and countless others receive the label. Five years later, Markson published This is Not a Novel, which took the same basic form as Reader’s Block but introduced an overwhelmingly morbid slant to the selected data. The lines not about Writer and his weariness of writing about things — his desire to write, for once, about nothing — are still to do with the lives of creators from times past, though they’re now mostly about the very end of them. You’ll learn that Theodore Roethke died of a coronary occlusion, Grazia Deledda of breast cancer, Chardin of dropsy, Polybius of a fall from a horse (“at eighty-two”). And there’s plenty there as well about their more breathing times: the squalor they inhabited, the poverty they endured, the insults they volleyed back and forth. As the book closes, the last of Writer’s attempts to characterize the text itself suggest that it’s “simply an unconventional, generally melancholy, though sometimes even playful now-ending read,” one concerned only with “an old man’s preoccupations.” The same might well be said of the two volumes that follow. 2004’s Vanishing Point finds an author named Author struggling to convert a couple shoebox tops full of fact-bearing index cards into a book. (Does it come as a surprise that interviews have revealed a similar method of Markson’s?) Author wants to minimize his own presence into the text, and thus much is offloaded onto yet more true-life indignities of the creative existence. “Tom Paine died in poverty. Five people attended his funeral.” “T.S. Eliot was afraid of cows.” But Vanishing Point actually represents a step back from the brink of despair on which This is Not a Novel teetered. Markson’s final four novels are loaded with wit and irony, and this one isn’t an exception. But it’s also more focused on odd incidence and surprising intersection: “Dylan Thomas was asked to be best man at Vernon Watkins’ wedding. And managed not to get there.” “John Gielgud was a great-nephew of Ellen Terry.” “A cursed, conceited, wily heathen. Being Aristotle as viewed by Luther.” “The probability that James Joyce and Lenin exchanged pleasantries.” Then, in 2007, comes Markson’s last novel — The Last Novel. Health concerns, always a Markson undercurrent, now surface often and bleakly. Novelist, the lonely old wordsmith at this particular book’s center, recalls his doctor frowning at the shadows on his bone scans. More than ever, the textual barrier breaks down between Markson’s protagonist and the moribund artists whose late-life details he so carefully presents. “Old. Tired. Sick. Broke. Alone.” That comes three pages in. But this isn’t the near-feverish dissolution-and-demise fixation of This is Not a Novel. It’s more of a sigh of reconciliation. Yet as the sigh escapes over the course of 190 pages — am I seeing things, or is that a sly grim? 7. Brain on the page Whether you think Markson’s novels — “novels” — of the nineties and 2000s are his best or worst books, you’re right. You’d be forgiven for not being readily able to tell them apart. You can call them cranky if you like. Granted, few come crankier; if I never have to hear Markson’s ever-less-oblique inveighing against Tom Wolfe, Julian Schnabel, or “critics” again, would I really die unsatisfied? Certainly they’re both accessible and inaccessible; accessible always and everywhere as easily digestible, potato-chippy lists of fascinating facts — in this sense, they’re the finest example of plotless “page turners” — inaccessible without Western-canon grounding and the payment of supremely close attention on at their richest levels of pattern and allusion. What’s not so up for dispute is that Markson accomplished what, by all rights, should be a literary impossibility. Novels not “about” anything precisely definable. Novels without more than one consciousness inhabiting them, if that. Novels without narrative. Novels built of seemingly unrelated snippets of information about coincidence, connection, poverty, probability, ignominy, ignorance, excretion, expiration. Novels that, over a four-decade career, approach nothing less than the purest time spent in the brain of another found on any page. What a shame David Markson never got to write, file, shuffle, meticulously order, and manually type a line about the death of David Markson.
1. No (easy) place to turn There already exists a book called Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson. Painstakingly written over a decade by esteemed novelist Jonathan Coe, it reconstructs and examines the working and personal lives of this complex, troubled creator of poetry, novels, stories, film, theater. Rich with detail and inventiveness, it screams, whatever the subject’s remaining loose ends, “finality.”By its very existence, it dares one — taunts one — to write a single further word about Bryan Stanley Johnson. Yet here we are. Even if Coe’s book were the greatest literary biography ever written — and having just finished it moments ago, I can assure you that it’s in the running — asking somebody to tuck into a nearly 500-page tome about on a still-obscure English experimentalist remains a tall order. Coe notes several times that Johnson himself bristled at the E-word, feeling it not only marginalized his work but missed its point besides. But for good or ill, it’s how history has anointed him, and it’s the best concise description we have. Whether with form, content, sensibility, or even printing processes, Johnson performed literary experiments. The difference from so many others’ literary experiments? Johnson’s usually succeeded. While Like a Fiery Elephant might be daunting in its scope, then, Johnson’s novels themselves might be daunting in their unconventionality (not to mention the rarity and consequently forbidding price of a few of them). Where, then, should a curious reader stuck between this rock and this hard place turn? What will lessen the confusion rather than worsen it? Leaving aside issues of avant-garde importance, formal soil-tilling, and the man’s turbulent life/grim death, why should the average novel-reader take on B.S. Johnson’s? In those questions lies the the aim of this primer. 2. Against the what-happened-next brigade I myself came relatively late to B.S. Johnson’s party. Nick Hornby gave his ill-fated colleague a mention in one if the “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns he writes in the Believer. The context was Hornby’s review of the aforementioned biography by his other, seemingly less ill-fated brother in U.K. letters. I speak with some confidence about Coe’s fate, because Like a Fiery Elephant alone has won greater sales and accolades than his subject’s entire oeuvre put together. There are thus more people, possibly many more, who have read about B.S. Johnson than have read B.S. Johnson. Count no less a man of letters than Hornby in that group. He admitted that, while gripped by Johnson’s story, he’d never felt the compulsion to actually read his books. Johnson himself would perhaps have taken perverse pleasure in this, since it clusters him with two of his idols, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. All three seem to draw more engagement on the meta level than the regular one, though the earlier men attained the popularity that Johnson, increasingly embittered through his short career, felt he was denied. More to the point, Joyce, Beckett and Johnson all tried to move the novel forward, to shove it out of the 19th-century ditch its spinning wheels seemed only to dig deeper. Johnson was particularly outspoken about this, in his prime evidently never having missed an opportunity to condemn the dull complacency of his English contemporaries. To tell a story, he thought (and often said), was to tell a lie, to futilely pretend away the chaos of modern existence and pander to humanity’s base, vulgar desire to find out what happened next. He thought the author’s personal experience the only “honest” material for novels, material he believed would dictate its own most suitable form. Though they get conflated, Johnson’s novelistic Weltanschauung has two planks. The first is that the novelistic form has ossified, thus preventing closer alignment with substance. The second is that fiction is by its very nature dishonest, and to that extent immoral. While the latter seems a function of personal ethical cosmology and is thus difficult to comment on, the former rings a little true. It’s a distant ring, but a lingering, plaintive one nonetheless; once you’ve heard it, it doesn’t fade. The suspicion that he may well be at least half-right brought me to B.S. Johnson’s work. But Hornby didn’t buy Johnson’s package, even in part. Comparing Johnson and his quest to separate himself from the “what-happened-next brigade” to the school inspector in Hard Times, he writes, “Like communists and fascists, Johnson and the dismal inspector wander off in opposite directions, only to discover that the world is round. I’m glad that they both lost cultural Cold War.” But I’ve felt so often that novels do still, in the main, clutch for dear life to the forms of plodding, pandering relics. I’ve wondered if our compulsion to find out the next step in some made-up causal chain at least a little juvenile, a little squirrely, a little intellectually atrophic. Haven’t you? 3. Albert Angelo It’s a rare shelf that would offer all of Johnson’s novels side-by side. But if you came across one, you’d notice that none of the books are particularly thick. Johnson never put out a Ulysses. Chalk one point, then, in the “accessibility” column; people read embossed-cover airport novels thrice the length of the average Johnson novel. Indeed, the author strove to (and once believed he could) win the hearts and minds of that very mainstream. He didn’t, but sitting down with a brisk, blackly hilarious book like Albert Angelo makes you think that it couldn’t have been the work’s fault. Break out the chalk again and scrape it under the “funny” heading. I’m the first to claim that some, if not most literary modernists really did have senses of humor, but Johnson’s comes through so much more plainly. It feels like a difference not just in degree but in kind. When Joyce and Beckett crack an in-work joke, it’s half the time funny in the same way that an orchestra’s unconventional chord change might be considered funny. That is to say, they’re insider funny; sometimes way insider funny. Freighting his protagonist Albert with a series of dreary substitute teaching jobs, Johnson indulges in broader humor. “Well, Jeanette Parsons and Lily Stanley,” goes one of Albert’s many admonishments, “I shall report this affair to the Headmaster.” “Who will do fuck-all about it,” silently says his brain. Johnson makes these lines not just narratively but textually simultaneous by bisecting the page, the spoken words on the left and the unspoken on the right. This is but one of the book’s unusual formal techniques, each of which Johnson judged most effective to express the events they do. Certainly, it would be hard to top that double-column in the classroom. Others, like the odd punctuation marks that bracket physical descriptions or the theatrical script format that pops up, hold some fascination but aren’t clearly the best tool for the job. (Then again, they aren’t clearly not the best tool for the job.) But if you already knew the name B.S. Johnson when you started reading this, you more than likely knew Albert Angelo as “the book with the holes in the pages,” as I did, before I read it. I assumed the thing would be literary Swiss cheese, but no; there’s only one hole in the book — well, two, to be precise, but they’re cut in the same position on adjacent pages. This enables the reader to see five pages ahead to a fragment about the violent death of Christopher Marlowe, the 16th-century dramatist with whom Johnson identified since encountering his work early in life. So parallel did he feel to Marlowe that he became convinced that he, too, would die at 29, by the sort of stabbing seen through Albert Angelo’s hole or otherwise. Though the implicit statement about prophecy is perhaps interesting, I can’t entirely dismiss the book’s contemporary reviewers who deemed the cutouts gimmicky. More important is Albert Angelo’s final section, titled “Disintegration”, in which Johnson shatters the facade he’s built over the past 161 pages. A primal scream sweeps away the construction of Albert, his home in London’s Angel district (hence the title), and his demoralizing day job replacing for a teacher who put himself out of his Sisyphean educational misery: “OH, FUCK ALL THIS LYING!” The remainder of the novel, which dissolves into punctuation-free a-grammaticality before gradually reconstructing itself, serves up Johnson’s statement of purpose: no more of this roman à clef nonsense. No more stand-ins. No more invention. No more objective correlatives. No more lying. 4. The Unfortunates Albert Angelo, Johnson’s second novel (we’ll get to the first later), was published in 1964. Five years later, his fourth (we’ll get to the third later) would offer a production hook so radical as to make any number of cuttings-out seem conventional. This is the infamous “book in a box,” so called because it had to ship in one. How else to package not a sheaf of bound pages, put a pile of 27 individually stapled pamphlets, essentially? Johnson’s idea here was to emulate the all-over-the-place non-linearity of human memory. We don’t actually recall our lives as narratives, he thought, so why dishonestly write about them as if we did? Why not write the fragments, then offer them to the reader as fragments, rather than committing the fraud of lining them up in a rigid, linear sequence? Calling upon two episodes of his life, one drearily routine and another prolonged and tragic, Johnson combines and reconstituted them in a way that lets you read them — and thus experience them for yourself — in any order your shuffling happens to produce. For a time, Johnson paid the bills with sports reporting gigs. (As Coe revealed, paying the bills was even more of a burden for Johnson than for most writers, morphing from inconvenience into unyielding existential assault.) The Unfortunates chronicles, in its distinctive manner, his internal monologue during one such job. Sent to write up a distant football match he finds himself in Nottingham, the city where his best friend died of cancer. This flood of memories mixes with his concrete journey through the streets, his meals, his journalistic observation of the unremarkable game, and his composition and (literal) phoning-in of his copy. The most credible objection to Johnson’s chosen form here is that even the most linear novels wind up, by way of our mental food processor, a jumble of discrete moments, images, turns of phrase. Isn’t writing it that way in the first place tantamount to serving a fine meal as a decomposed slurry because that’s how it winds up when we’ve digested it? Yet this is not an objection I share. It wouldn’t work if every story were told in the same way, but it works hauntingly well as an exception. Something about the task of reading the novel made it, at least for me, a quietly epic, dizzyingly elegiac experience. Now, some would say it’s just dizzying, but were I pressed to name Johnson’s masterpiece, The Unfortunates would be it. 5. House Mother Normal 1971 brought an apparent breach of the strict Johnsonian code. Not only is House Mother Normal not autobiography as its predecessors were, it comprises the internal monologues of characters whose condition Johnson could not possibly have experienced. This is a novel narrated almost entirely by the aged, the infirm, the disoriented, the senile, the dying. Its author never reached the age of even its youngest player. It never leaves the confines of a rest home; in fact, it never leaves the confines of one hour in that rest home. Each of first eight chapters, all of them exactly 21 pages, interprets this hour through the mind of one of the home’s residents. The first, 74-year-old Sarah Lamson, is perfectly lucid, if creaky; the last, moribund 94-year-old Rosetta Stanton, thinks mainly in individual Welsh words scattered haphazardly across the page. Between them lies a continuum of mental and physical decrepitude, each brain and body worse than the last. This comes through not just qualitatively in Johnson’s unexpectedly protean prose — this was a man, recall, who claimed to write only himself — but quantitatively as well, in a set of statistics preceding each oldster’s chapter. The tabletop role-playing games that would appear later in the decade (and their video game descendants) have rendered readings like “sight 30%” and “movement 85%” old hat, but they were no doubt strikingly alien at the time. Johnson reportedly feared decay and death, and boy, does it show in House Mother Normal. Yet scarier still, in its way, is his depiction of the titular house mother, the cruel, self-regarding overseer of this aged bunch. Her perception of the hour comes as the final chapter, and it does much to clarify what the previous eight have only partially described. The house mother uses her charges as free labor in some sort of bottle-washing operation, forces them to play a game involving a giftwrapped dog turd, and finally — I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around this bit — demands they all watch as she employs that same loyal pooch for, er, cunnilingual purposes. I fear that Johnson, who for all his writerly virtues had an unpleasant didactic streak, intended this: we consider these old folks, their faculties ever-disintegrating faculties, “abnormal.” But look how this (relatively) young woman behaves! Who’s normal now? I couldn’t bring myself to believe this was Johnson’s aim, except that he all but states it in Like a Fiery Elephant’s relevant quotes. But can’t we overlook it for technical virtuosity? Not only does Johnson orchestrate the text so that each 21-page section covers the same hour, he has each line of every character’s chapter correspond to the same moment. Doesn’t exactly write itself, does it? 6. Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry Johnson’s last widely available novel, Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, turns out to be his most accessible by a decent stretch, though Albert Angelo isn’t too terribly far behind. Published in 1973, the writer’s last year alive, it stars a “simple” young man who, aggrieved by his entry-level bank job (“this atmosphere was acrid with frustration, boredom and jealousy, black with acrimony, pettiness and bureaucracy”) and the countless indignities inflicted by society in general, starts keeping score. In the “aggravation” column of Christie Malry’s own double-entry are such items as “Injury to left knee at school,” “General diminution of Christie’s life caused by advertising,” and “Socialism not given a chance.” In the “recompense” column, he takes his revenge: ”General removal of small items of stationery,” “Aldwych Theatre bomb hoax,” “Death of 20,479 innocent west Londoners.” The book has been called an examination of the terrorist’s mindset, not without good cause: working within a self-serving framework that with each step seems basically logical, Christie works his way from part-time petty vandal to would-be modern-day Guy Fawkes. Those who read Johnson’s other novels first will be surprised by how much like a “regular” British comic novel Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry feels. It bears some of the goofiness of the genre’s lightest offerings: “It did not take him long to realise he had not been born into money,” Johnson writes, “and that the course most likely to benefit him would be to place himself next to the money, or at least next to those who were making it. He therefore decided that he should become a bank employee. I did tell you Christie was a simple person.” But Johnson nevertheless manages to smuggle no small volume of metafictional conceits into these 20,000-ish words. The narrator and all the characters know full well that this is a novel, and they don’t hesitate to discuss that fact. In one late chapter, Christie and the narrator — who is, naturally, B.S. Johnson himself — discuss how to end the story. “The novel should now try to be Funny, Brutalist, and Short,” Christie asserts. “I could hardly have expressed it better myself,” Johnson replies. This goes down with startling smoothness, though Brechtian fourth-wall-breaking has, I suppose, always played better with the general public when couched in comedy. That Christie Malry’s comedy is charcoal black — to put it mildly — makes little difference. 7. The books that are out of print, U.K. only, cost $200 or some combination thereof Three of Johnson’s novels, all of which sound at least intriguing as the more or less available ones, are tricky to come by. Travelling People, his first and longest published effort, is by all accounts an entertainingly inventive fictionalization of the author’s youthful experiences working at a country club and trying to make it with a particularly attractive co-worker. But by Johnson’s own diktat, it hasn’t had a printing since 1963. Because of what he came to consider its immoral mixture of real life and invention, he ultimately branded it a “disaster.” The reason copies of 1968’s Trawl are still scarce enough to command a price of nearly $150 on the open market is unclear, since Johnson didn’t disown it. You can find it as one-third of something called The B.S. Johnson Omnibus, but the lack of a reprint remains a mystery. The backstory of its creation would be enough to raise anyone’s curiosity: feeling the need to get away and confront his innermost emotional and psychological depths, Johnson secured a place on a fishing boat. He rode queasily along for three weeks, mentally composing the material for a lengthy, all-revealing trawl, as it were, of his own psyche. The result is Johnson’s most probing but least (to use Geoff Dyer’s term) novelly novel. Intended as the opener of a trilogy, See the Old Lady Decently would have been followed by two volumes with titles to complete the sentence, Buried, Although and Amongst those Left are You. Johnson decided to make what he called his “Matrix trilogy” his most ambitious project ever, an epic chronicle of the rise, decline, and fall of two “old ladies”: both his recently deceased mother and nothing less grand than England itself. Despite his ostensibly forward-looking literary tendencies, he was nonetheless a nostalgic man who romanticized the working-class 1950s experience while loathing the hippified late-60s/early-70s milieu by which he found himself surrounded. Some of his peers would have pejoratively labeled him retrograde. Would the Matrices have explained his position to their satisfaction? 8. Was it our fault? We’ll never know, since, swarmed by professional, familial, and artistic troubles, Johnson took his own life at the age of 40, two books in the trilogy still to go. Having displayed a host of paranoid, depressive tendencies since youth — and this is something Jonathan Coe describes much, much more engagingly than I ever will — Johnson came to his end in perhaps the only way that he could have: on precisely his own terms. But despite whatever dark delusions, self-inflicted marginalization, or chemical imbalance he suffered in isolation, part of me still indicts the rest of humanity. We could have done better by B.S. Johnson, couldn’t we? For all the tendencies he indulged toward insecure dogmatism and the biting of the hands that fed him, he clearly had the goods. He pointed the way forward for fiction at least as often as he plowed into dead ends. When literary people didn’t listen to him then, it was as much their loss as it is ours when we don’t read him now. No matter how much they succeed or don’t, in commercial or artistic terms, we now need more, not fewer, books in boxes. More psychology-reflecting typesetting. More trawling of the depths. More holes in the pages. More double-entries.
1. Full disclosure Defending his prose, Alexander Theroux once likened it to "a Victorian attic." In an interview with the Review of Contemporary Fiction, he admitted a complete lack of interest in plot, saying, "character is plot, anyway." He once called revenge "the single most informing element of world literature." He's said, several times and in several ways, that "good writing is above all an assault on cliché." These four statements give you the keys neither to the man nor his work, but they're about as advantaged a start as you're going to get. At the very least, they arm you with a notion of what to expect: more inner life than outer, more desire for vengeance than for anything else, and more sheer stuff per page — stuff you don't expect — than in any other novels. Yet Theroux isn't just a novelist. Two interpretations of that sentence, both true: (a) he writes in other, non-novel forms as well and (b) the novels he does write are more than just novels. (Also consider the entirely possible (c), that his novels themselves contain all the other forms.) Given his longtime standing as a producer of poetry, essays, fables, critical studies and much bill-paying journalism, you'd might rightly wonder why you don't hear more about him. Of his four novels within the purview of this piece — by themselves a barely chewable bite, I assure you — only the latest remains in print. I myself was only prompted to explore Theroux's body of work by way of that latest title, 2007's Laura Warholic: Or, The Sexual Intellectual. Scanning the publishing landscape, as usual, for interesting books to feature on The Marketplace of Ideas, the public radio program I host and produce, I came upon a review of the book from Rain Taxi: Alexander Theroux's new novel, released twenty years after his previous one, is a massive, 878-page compendium of vituperation against contemporary society, jabs at pop culture, exposés of office politics, and exploration of life and love in modern times. It's what you'd expect from an encyclopedic novel: wandering, erudite, funny, opinionated, didactic, repetitive. But unlike other mega-novels of the past few decades, Laura Warholic presents a fairly straightforward tale: Eugene Eyestones, a near-blind, Bible-quoting, record-collecting Vietnam vet turned journalist, writes a sex column for a magazine called Quink, where he works in the employ of the enormous, revolting, bullying Warholic (who throughout the book is only referred to by his surname). Enter Warholic's ex-wife, Laura Warholic née Shqumb, a woman who "was never rational, brave, fastidious, exact, friendly, meticulous, cheerful, clean, precise, orderly, accurate, loyal, constant, disciplined, scrupulous, particular, kind, or faithful." Intrigued, I checked out the tome and found that not only was there even more to the text than that — so, so much more — there were three previous novels where that came from. The disclosure to be made here is thus that I have interviewed Theroux on the radio (a transcript is here) and, both in preparation and as a result, have been willingly, inexorably drawn into his sui generis literary world. 2. Three Wogs Theroux's 1972 debut isn't exactly a novel, but we can't ignore it. Is this a collection of short stories? Not exactly, since its 216 pages are divided into only three substantial sections, each of which feels as if it outweighs that label. Is it a set of novellas? Perhaps, though they're linked geographically, temporally and thematically with such closeness that they couldn't quite be such separate entities. Let's just call it a triptych. Theroux lived in London for a stretch or two of his late youth, and there seems to have tuned in to an ugly psychological frequency. Whatever its official literary form, Three Wogs is a study of the particularly foul flavor of English racism prevalent in the 1960s and 70s. The island's sudden, colorful postwar foreigner influx hits each segment's snow-white subject hard: in "Mrs. Proby Gets Hers", a blowzy widow sees in her Chinese grocer neighbor the germ of a disease destined to hollow out her fetishized repository of pride, tradition and afternoon teacakes; in "Childe Roland", complete with echoes of Browning's poem, a doltish laborer, insane with imagined challenges to his sexuality, grows more and more hostile toward the Indian engineering student with whom fate traps him in a train station; in "The Wife of God", a meek reverend finds himself thwarted but still cannot beat back his throbbing attraction to an African choirmaster. Because these hapless Englishmen and -women are steeped in a deep, pervasive fear of ethnic pollution, those on the irony hunt need look no further than Theroux's merciless elaborations of their personal qualities. To carve out a small but representative excerpt: A blocky, cuboidal head, faced in pinks and whites and ruled in a fretwork of longitudes and latitudes which showed a few orthographic traces of worry, surmounted a body that made Mrs. Proby look like a huge jar or, when shambling along as she often did, something like a prehistoric Nodosaurus. [ ... ] She was paradigmatic of those fat, gigantic women in London, all bum and elbow, who wear itchy tentlike coats, carry absurd bags of oranges, and usually wheeze down beside you on the bus, smelling of shilling perfume and cold air. She wore "sensible" shoes, had one bad foot, smoked too much, and cultivated a look as if she were always about to say no." Roland and the Reverend come out little better. The former bears "a sharp young English face: peaky, unamiable, suspicious," "spotted by a rash of comedones near the mouth which was hardly improved by a rather savage case of asymmetrical dentition." His body resembles "one continuous bone" with "a painful year-round dose of scrotitis," appearing in sum total to be "a cruel broom." The Anglican, less of a villain than his counterparts — it's his mother who comes in for the real bashing — looks "as spruce as an onion, wearing an off-white shirt of satinet with Wildean flounce at the sleeves," has a "volleyballshaped head that looked like the full, round topside of an Harrovian boater." His is "the soul of an interior decorator." These are the products of the treasured English gene pool so desperately, futilely guarded. As you'd expect from a book whose title is half ethnic slur, the "wogs" who stoke such pronounced reaction in the natives are drawn a little broadly. Though noble, in their way, they act dopey, come from comically deprived and punitive backstories and bounce from solecism to solecism in precisely the manner of a caricature assembled in Roland or Mrs. Proby's barren imaginations. But the immigrants are as classical heroes compared to the Britons, who crumple under voluminous salvos of precision-targeted satirical savagery. By the end of each tale, nothing remains. Already, Theroux's hunting eye for hundreds of minor details — cultural, social, personal and otherwise — and his linguistic ability to make them major combine to form his most powerful weapon. And in retrospect, it's no surprise that the action on which these bravura dissections and destructions of character hang is driven by spite, resentment, and revenge. 3. Darconville's Cat And yet, what in Three Wogs could have prepared readers for the book now most widely regarded by Theroux's fans as his masterpiece? To be sure, his debut showcased a drive to reclaim the English language's least-trod territories. Picric, the very first word of its main text, doubtless sent almost every reader to the dictionary, and, like many others scattered throughout the text, likely raised resentment at his "showing off." But the word, an adjective normally used to describe "a poisonous, explosive, yellow, crystalline acid" but pressed into Theroux's service to evoke the celluloid face of Fu Manchu, admits no substitutes. But every single chapter of Darconville's Cat brims with vocabulary so exotic, so idiosyncratic, so perfectly descriptive that nobody, no matter how literate, could ever grasp it all in the first pass. They'll often need to consult their reference shelf, physical or virtual, only to find that half the words in question haven't been regularly used in 400 years, and many of the rest Theroux seems to have simply made up. Picric, hell; trapfall, gibbet-high, imperscrutable, gulsar, mixt, lugubrious, obligate (as an adjective), archistrateges, unction, obol, insurrect, grimoire, sacristan, demulcents and rubefacients pop off the first five pages alone. 699 more follow, wherein Theroux crafts these words into prose, verse, list, litany, essay, dialogue and heroic couplet alike. You might fear that such diversity of interior form and not-immediately-relatable vocabulary must convey an equally inscrutable story. But the tale of Alaric Darconville, a 29-year-old English lecturer voluntarily embedded in a women's college in darkest Virginia, isn't so far out of the realm of plausible human experience. Not the first half of the narrative, anyway, whose details bear an uncanny similarity to those of Theroux's own. Both are of French and Italian extraction. Both are novelists. Both spent years under a vow of silence in a Trappist monastery. Darconville teaches at "Quinsy College" in "Quinsyburg"; Theroux taught at the identically laid-out Longwood University in Farmville. Photos from the early 1970s reveal a Theroux who, at first glance, appears to be cosplaying as Darconville at his own fan convention, long hair, full-black wardrobe, vintage Bentley and all. So, too, do both Darconville and Theroux seem to have been jilted by one of their own students, intellectual bantamweights but brimming with the loveliness of imperfection. Isabel Rawsthorne, the 18-year-old making and undoing of Alaric Darconville, comes from shoddy stock and nurtures the slightest of artistic and educational hopes. She balances her preposterously high self-regard with a preposterously low self-regard that sends her skittering back to a gawky local farm boy as soon as her wedding to the worldly professor looms too close. A 1978 profile in the New York Times Magazine hints that Theroux didn't even bother to give the fictionalized target of his desire a different name, though elsewhere in the article his lawyer brother suggests that, whatever her name, she was no more prepared for marriage to Theroux than to any given stranger. Yet as the girl's lack of seriousness doesn't stop Darconville from contemplating revenge, it didn't stop Theroux from, by literary means, taking it. The book's first half is very much a love story, drawn intimately and without apparent cynicism. But cracks begin to crawl gradually across in Darconville's mental façade of Isabel as an ideally golden, innocent object of love. After relocating from stultifying Quinsyburg to no less august an educational institution than Harvard University, Darconville is forced under the wing of Dr. Abel Crucifer, a reclusive professor emeritus who also happens to be a morbidly obese, woman-hating eunuch. His bizarre lifestyle and the ideas that undergird it allow Theroux to bust out the formal big guns. Crucifer speaks against the female in general and the two-timing Isabel in particular with towering walls of allusion-thick text. Listing the titles in his library of misogyny requires nine straight pages. His suggestions as to the means of Isabel's murder — "Pound hand-fids into her nociceptors! Tattoo her down the spine with Symmes' Abscess Knife! Rasp her around the neck with a xyster!" — demand another chapter of their own. In Isabel, we have the introduction of a type of huge importance to Theroux's three novels qua novels: the twitchy, flighty female whose half-baked aspirations, buoyed by an inflated self-image, generate just enough momentum for survival but are perpetually beaten down from higher things by a mixture of confusion, hopelessness and sheer ignorance. Theroux cannot seem to keep his sophisticatedly brutal observational powers turned away from these sorry types for long, and we readers are all the better off for it. Whether in the textual body of Isabel Rawsthorne, An Adultery's Farol Colorado or Laura Warholic's title slattern, no novelist has ever watched or created an archetype like this one with such accuracy, such sorrow, such — it must be said — sudden-public-burst-of-laughter humor. 4. An Adultery Some call language like Darconville's Cat's — or even Three Wogs' — an authorial thumb in the reader's eye, a self-indulgent unwillingness to sacrifice precision for accessibility that dares you to attempt comprehension. Whether or not those accusations hold any merit, they'd seem to be addressed by An Adultery, an insistently realistic, concretely contemporary novel whose words rarely, if ever, raise the speed-bumping supracranial question mark. In any other novelist's bibliography, An Adultery would be the weird outlier. It's the weird outlier in Theroux's, too, but it's weird by virtue of seeming "normal." This is why it's often the one I recommend when asked for the best gateway into Theroux's work. Yes, its voice is still pitched at quite a high level, and yes, the text contains countless digressions heavy with logic, psychology, intricate verbal reasoning and even essays on visual artistic technique and the history of adultery itself. But it speaks, very broadly, in the manner of the other, infinitely more prosaic novels about the sexual intrigue of thirtysomething-to-middle-aged northeastern Americans. Much of the difference has to do with the first-person narration. The novel eschews the godlike, all-knowing, all-seeing, English-language-defeating third-person voice that narrates Theroux's other three, opting instead for words straight from protagonist Christian "Kit" Ford. A painter who chose the part of art after being orphaned in childhood, Ford finds himself in adulthood precariously suspended between two ladyfriends. The young, almost imaginarily sweet Marina, still kept within the confines of her parents' home, really is everything Darconville delusionally assumed Isabel to be. Farol, a married, wheel-spinning frame shop lackey in her early thirties, is the continuation and then some of Isabel's other side, the one destructive at once to herself and, more so, to others. Ford is a more believable human being than Darconville. Given the latter's rootedness in Theroux's own character, that might sound illogical, but there it is. The author's own personality has been called everything from eccentric to a work of art in itself, so it would be hard for Ford not to seem mundane, if engagingly so, by comparison. But it's his overwhelming attraction to Farol, clearly unreasonable yet somehow not implausible, at the center of the book. Nearly every one of its 396 pages piles on to an extended indictment of Farol's manner, her character, her actions, her reactions and the hollow, posturing subculture that surrounds her. It's also our hero's indictment of himself for a fixation on her that metastasizes steadily, rapidly and seemingly against his will. This is the purest exercise of Theroux's "character is plot" mindset. It isn't much of an exaggeration to call it one long description of Farol Colorado. If that sounds unappealing, bear in mind that she's of a very particular breed — a very particularly dysfunctional breed, if you will — that's both immediately, deeply recognizable and, for whatever reason, one other writers never touch, let alone with unsurpassed incisiveness, for 70 chapters. Farol is the ultimate study of the blandly beautiful woman who, desperately afraid of her poverty of anything else to offer the world, builds around her a crystalline superstructure of self-mythology, cobbled together out of rootless thirdhand knowledge and unbridled fancy, riven with every imaginable variety of ineptitude. Here is Theroux, as Ford, recalling their "conversation" on long drives: She talked by way of remarks and in isolated phrases. I was amazed that her speech effectively allowed her to appear seemingly present while in fact she was totally absent. Since she depended on others for a voice, I thought her inability to do more than this was an indirect confession of her own failure. It was as if her mind had narrowed, congealed, to a hard ten or fifteen or so facts she lived by to get what she could. She was not often lighthearted, but that didn't stop her from telling jokes. Not jokes. Her way of trying to be funny — it is often the humor of the non-reader — was becoming fixated with and constantly repeating certain words and phrases she found odd. Mung beans. Aqua wawa. Maple surple. Yummo. This is the sort of woman Theroux has made his literary bread and butter, yes, but the words also resonate as a spot-on targeting of a certain sort of modern monster. An Adultery is a book of its time, to be sure; there's a timelessness to Theroux's writing, only less so when he's evoking this primary color-clad, white wine-sipping mid-1980s milieu. But there's got to be a certain universality in a book that contains perhaps the saddest, sharpest observations on this strain of humanity that I've ever heard: "Every time we passed a certain kind of house she would always nod and say, 'Greek Revival.' I soon realized it was the only type of architecture she knew." As with Darconville and Isabel, Kit Ford is grandly worked over by his inferior, and if the slow, inexorable shift in his monologue is anything to go by, it pushes him right up to the brink of sanity — and possibly over it. This is where Theroux's beloved revenge most visibly appears in the narrative, though humanity's eternal score-settling compulsion runs as a tense undercurrent throughout the whole. Unlike poor Darconville, he doesn't end up coughing his guts out in Venice while his beloved ties the knot with a sailor, but Ford still ultimately loses, and loses big, despite — or because of — his superior clarity of thought to the world around him, his greater precision of language. 5. Laura Warholic: Or, The Sexual Intellectual Theroux has called An Adultery a novel about "the corruption of language." I would argue that all his novels are, in their own way, about that. Look how Three Wogs' blinkered nationalists have obviously long since stopped caring about the relationship of their brash, sweaty declarations to the situation's underlying reality, how they incompetently marshal so much mangled verbiage in defense of the unblemished Britain that never existed. The doomed heroes of the novels that follow are both wordsmiths: Darconville by trade, Ford by his means of grappling with adultery's inherent paradoxes. But they're surrounded by those who unthinkingly debase the language: maleducated barflies, hard-haranguing Baptist ministers, disaffected New England blowhards, arty-crafty parochial poseurs. What's worse, their women, scratching impotently against their roiling insecurities and utter voids of identity, dismantle language actively. This brings us to Eugene Eyestones and Laura Warholic, the central pair in Laura Warholic: Or, The Sexual Intellectual's cast of what must be hundreds — or a hundred, anyway. The Rain Taxi review excerpted above actually provides a worthy synopsis, so far as it goes, and so far as it makes sense — which isn't far at all — to synopsize a book like this. Having renounced most social intercourse, the near-ascetic Eyestones spends his life contemplating humanity through the lens of sexual intercourse. His tool of understanding is — what else? — the printed word. The spent, chaotic, borderline-illiterate Laura Warholic catches his attention as both a singularly fascinating case study in raw, unsublimated Dionysian and self-preservation impulses and as a potentially salvageable symbol of the intersection of decadence and ignorance where, as Eyestones and possibly Theroux see it, civilization has landed. Here, Theroux's assault on cliché hits its apex. You might consider the release of Laura Warholic the anti-cliché nuclear option. Despite its considerable linearity, if only in the context of today's literary-fiction zeitgeist, the novel is still flamboyantly unconventional, loaded so densely with theories, observations, arguments, counterarguments, counter-counterarguments, calumny and ridicule that its 878 pages almost feel insufficient. Indeed, the book's cinder-blockish heft remains, alas, its most remarked-upon quality. Too many reviewers seem to have placed the book on a scale, glanced over the outrageous dialogue spouted incessantly by its teeming rogues' gallery of the misanthropic and/or — usually "and" — the misshapen, and written it off as a nothing but a madman's ream of racial, sexual and religious slurs. Where Darconville's Cat's language was its perceived thumb in the readerly eye, this book's sheer length and its alleged excess of extreme opinion and paucity of plot have been similarly called out. It's true that, aside from a remembered cross-country van trip with Eyestones at the wheel and his repulsive alinguistic muse in the passenger's seat and a classically tragic build to the bitter end, there aren't many events. And Theroux does indeed plop many a disquisition on Eyestones' fascinations social, sexual and cinematic right into the middles of these seas of characters' reflection and interaction. One chapter, a Darconville's Cat-reminiscent list of oddities from the history of love and sex, captivates even those disposed to hate Theroux and his work. 6. The question of misanthropy And thus the book has been called "the Moby-Dick of misanthropy" due to more than its size. Melville's tome is inseparable from whaling, especially when it's serving up technical essays on the subject; Theroux's is inseparable from man's loathing of man, examinable through sex or anything else. In my interview with him, his disappointment at Laura Warholic's apparent failure to meet his expectations for it became something of a leitmotif: My book hasn't been well-received; it's been basically ignored. I think it's a very important novel, but it's been ignored by people. I even had a hard time getting editors' attention: it's too long, it's too pyrotechnic, it's too multisyllabic, it's too opinionated, it's endless, there are longueurs, there are digressions. But one of the criticisms is that it's pitiless, even cruel and unsparing. That's what people are not used to. They're used to Tom Wolfe's jokey and affectionate lashings-out, kind of cartoon explosions. You have to look at Hunter Thompson's attacks to see real cruelty. I don't know anybody that's doing the kind of — this book is not being written by anybody, this kind of prose, this kind of writing, because it's too savage, too unflinching. People just don't want this. "Why do you have such attitudes?" people tell me. "You're so extreme! You're so opinionated! This is so savage!" But satire, my point is, is savage. I'm thinking of a remark that Nathanael West made in The Day of the Locust, when he said, "Nothing is sadder than the truly monstrous." I find that the interviews Theroux gives and the factual pieces he writes show him clearly to be a non-monster. But when the overwhelming tendency to conflate author and character meets an author who doles out easily identifiable biographical facts of his own to his characters and doesn't hesitate to push those characters well beyond monstrous under the banner of his ever-harsher, ever-bloodthirstier satire, predictable consequences ensue. But I don't think he pounds at the boundaries of satire out of his own hatred for humanity; I suspect he does it out of something more like disappointment, which requires a funny sort of optimism about our capacity for goodness. 7. Fuller disclosure Despite his evident niceness, I still can't shake the image from my mind of Alexander Theroux as a guy whose bad side you really, really don't want to get on. Maybe it's just the prospect of winding up like the real-life Isabel Rawsthorne, the real-life Farol Colorado or — the mind reels — the real-life Laura Warholic. This seems like such a danger because the man's books are so unrelentingly hilarious. I haven't emphasized this enough, and it's a quality no critic ever fully gets across, but not a day goes by when I don't think of an observation, a crack or a turn of phrase from these novels. Be it one conveyed through the erudite romanticism of Alaric Darconville, the icy cruelty of Christian Ford, the curious equanimity of Eugene Eyestones or simply the untranslatably language-crazed magpie mind of Alexander Theroux, I laugh, often hard. Theroux is the perfect example of the sort of author I'd want to befriend, yet as I feel somewhat unworthy of the art — for every allusion that delights me, I feel ten whoosh overheard — I feel somewhat unworthy of the artist. The volumes lining the interior of his head are undoubtedly more interesting than anything I could offer. You can see this in the way that, despondency over Laura Warholic's halting progress aside, he doesn't seem to care about his novels' unavailability. Literary broadcaster Michael Silverblatt once questioned Theroux's "perverse appreciation" at how inaccessible his books are thought to be. Perhaps he sees his finely-wrought works of language and their lack of purchase on the culture as an apocalyptic indictment of that culture, of the intellectually (and especially verbally) careless society that could corrupt them. Were I him, I feel as if I'd want revenge: against lazy readers, against unengaged critics, against risk-averse publishers. But maybe, given what they're all missing out on, he's already taking it.
1. Kobo Abe's misshapen world accommodates the corny tropes of thriller, adventure and detective fiction. It accommodates lengthy philosophical ruminations on identity, self-image and the loss or fragmentation thereof. It accommodates an impotent hospital director who grafts the severed lower half of a well-endowed underling to his own back in order to transform himself into a sexually superpowered centaur and thus better pleasure a blob-like thirteen-year-old girl bedridden by her slowly dissolving bones. Already, the mind reels. If Abe's body of work has room for an image like that, where exactly are its boundaries? If you're unfamiliar with the man's books, I'd forgive you for imagining the heaving epics of an undisciplined maximalist, novels where ridiculousness piles upon grotesquerie until both text and reader collapse. What's more, Abe would seem to replace the relative asexuality of those books with grim, elaborate perversion. But Abe's are relatively slim, aesthetically spare volumes, untainted by baroque language and puerile impulses toward fantasy. His novels, at least the eight currently available in English translation, mix a pinch of weirdness into a grayish medium of the mundane, the concrete and the scientific. But Abe's flavor of weirdness, which nobody has yet replicated, is pungent indeed. 2. The Nature of This Weirdness Recalling the time he read Abe's The Box Man, young lit figure Tao Lin writes: "I think after 80 pages the book becomes some kind of 'meta' thing that focuses on 'sexual fetishes'/'narrative reliability issues.'" Of a set of Abe novels that includes Secret Rendezvous, the province of that boneless girl-loving horse-man, David Auerbach writes: "They don't seem like successes, and it's not easy to say that they succeed on their own terms, because they don't appear to have their own terms. Calling them pretentious is besides the point, since the books don't have a pretense towards anything in particular. Psychological and and political intimations turn out to be complete blinds; what mostly flows out of the books is deep, total sickness." I'm no academic, but my approximation of an academic definition of the Abean sensibility would be "the realistic, rational observation of banal settings and banal personalities gradually drained of logic and thus dissolved into absurd decadence." The Typical Abe Protagonist (TAP), perhaps a shoe salesman or a schoolteacher, gets swept up, by little fault of his own, into potentially alarming circumstances. Maybe he's importuned to find an unusual missing person; maybe he misses the last bus home; maybe leaves begin growing from his flesh. Unflustered, and indeed unflusterable, he calmly formulates hypotheses meant to solve his problem. As the TAP methodically tests, rejects and reforumulates these hypotheses, the problem worsens, grows less comprehensible and forks off into a bouquet of new obstacles. By the end, he's made peace with his situation, become too psychologically fragmented and untethered to respond, found himself in a world that's lost its own bearings or experienced some combination thereof. This crude boiling-down admits exceptions — some specific Abe protagonists get themselves into trouble, for instance, or fail to take the obvious action to circumvent the whole mess — but its broad strokes align with the actual work. I can't overstate the Scientific Method rigidity of the TAP's thought process. Whether laconic hired investigator, obese survivalist or the cardboard-clad bum, Abe's narrators all possess a quasi-Aspergian attention to detail and unshakable faith in causality. Yet the mechanisms of causation in Abe's world don't merit the kind of trust we've given those in ours, though the TAP offers it, generously. "Even in the world of the absurd," David Keffer writes in his study of Abe, "the scientist persists. He attempts to make sense of his surroundings using logic and scientific reasoning. Of course, it is hopeless to think that the irrational can be described in terms of the rational, but this thought never dawns on the protagonist." 3. The Extent to Which Kobo Abe's Tone is "Wooden" Keffer points out a "heaviness intrinsic to Abe's work" which "takes the form of detailed and laborious description of the psychological mechanisms by which a brain, properly trained, perceives and reacts to the world." As Proust steps us through all the subjective details of recalling the memories evoked by that cookie, the TAP steps us through the subjective details of every major decision and observation he makes — and a lot of the minor ones, too. The effect is at once deeply familiar and pretty damned alien. Part of this could have to do with translation, conceived as all of Abe's novels were in Japanese. As such, they're almost entirely devoid of U.S.-style irony — one of the few Western innovations Japan, blessedly, never got around to replicating — and possess the simultaneous economy of words and slight excess of formality you hit in other translated texts of all well-known 20th-century Japanese novelists except maybe Kenzaburo Oe. Whether this commonality of voice comes from the mechanics of Japanese-to-English translation, the customs of Japanese fiction or the Japanese language itself I'm not equipped to determine. What I can tell is that, when you express the equanimous, analytical mindset of the TAP through such distanced language, what you get is aesthetically polarizing, writing that either compels you in a way you can't pin down or stokes discomfort somewhere deep in your viscera. Abe's detractors mutter "Something's very wrong here — but what?" Abe's fans mutter "Something's very right here — but what?" 4. Relatively Sane Works "You ever see that movie Woman in the Dunes?" asks Kenny Shopsin, the intense, foul-mouthed New York restaurateur in Matt Mahurin's I Like Killing Flies, the documentary that profiles him. He compares his own days, spent filling customers' orders that only pile up again, and the "hero" of the film's, spent shoveling sand that only piles up again. Abe's stories tend to provoke a great deal of talk about symbol, allegory, metaphor and suchlike, about which more later. This particular story has reached surprisingly far and wide, more so than anything else in his bibliography. If someone knows the name Kobo Abe, chances are they know Woman in the Dunes, published in Japanese in 1962 and English in 1964. Much of this surely owes to Hiroshi Teshigahara's 1964 film adaptation, the vehicle by which it made its way to Mr. Shopsin. Identification must also play a role: so many of its readers and viewers seem awfully quick to point out the resemblances between themselves and the hapless insect enthusiast who travels to a remote seaside village only to find himself imprisoned in a shack at the bottom of a pit, doomed to perpetually remove the ever-falling-in sand at the behest of the widow who lives there. Comparisons to modern work, marriage, etc. hang low, but the particularities — the joint on a beetle's leg, the sadistic villagers' ragged edges, the omnipresent sand grains themselves — hinder generalization by being drawn so closely and so objectively. Following two years on in the English as well as the Japanese, The Face of Another presents three notebooks — scribbling in notebooks being a very, very common pursuit among Abe narrators — of a scientist who, badly disfigured by a liquid oxygen explosion, labors over an advanced mask he believes will grant him reintroduction into society. The broader goal narrows to the specific one of using his newly unfamiliar appearance to seduce his own wife. The majority of the text comprises the scientist's thoughts, which he thinks hard and often, about his disconnect with humanity, the function of faces themselves, and what happens to identity when you alter the surface. He's not nuts, exactly; just kind of obsessive and pedantic, but you get the feeling that the intersection of his training, situation and inclinations may actually warrant it. On Japanese shelves three years before Woman in the Dunes but held until 1970 elsewhere, Inter Ice Age 4 is as close to the mainstream as the English-translated Abe gets. Ostensibly a science fiction novel about the consequences of future-prediction machines — the wider the knowledge of a prediction, the more the actual future deviates from the prediction, and thus the greater the necessity for an additional prediction, and then another, and another — it feels much more Abe-like upon introducing an emotionless race of biologically engineered aquatic human children, gills and all. As something less than a fan of sci-fi, I consider this Abean take on its clichés somewhat "above" the genre. Considered only within the Abe oeuvre, it's hard to say whether it's underappreciated or just minor. 5. Less Sane Works At first, 1967-in-Japanese and 1969-in-English's The Ruined Map seems, like Inter Ice Age 4, to be a genre exercise. It's told by a loner private eye in search of a distraught, hard-drinking dame's missing husband, and though a host of noir icons surface, it soon becomes evident that the novel will swerve, and hard, out of the well-worn grooves of detective fiction. His clues, a coffee shop's matchbook and the title's incomprehensible map, prove fabulously unhelpful. Only by coming assuming the vanished man's identity does he get on what may or may be the right track, leading straight through his grimy urban Japan into the core of a menacing sex ring. But by that point, he's well into the process of forgetting who he is or is supposed to be, let alone who he's after. Here we have two variables that, through Abe's novels, tend to rise inexorably and together: bizarre eroticism and the dissolution of identity. Though Abe is rarely topical, it makes sense that he'd seize the 1980s aftershock of Cold War panic and/or apocalyptic resignation to throw a TAP into the culture of fallout shelters, stockpiling and the post-nuclear winter Earth. The Ark Sakura's slovenly, illegitimately born central character, who goes by the equally undesirable nicknames "Pig" or "Mole" but prefers the latter, has converted an abandoned quarry into a well-supplied "ark" meant to ferry its inhabitants safely through mutually assured destruction. Lacking friends or family — he compares himself to the eupcaccia, a fictional self-contained bug that feeds on its own feces — he simply recruits a local merchant and a couple of his shills. Predictably, a power struggle develops, sublimated for one hilariously extended period into a tacit competition between the men over who can most powerfully slap the female shill's rump. By the book's final sentence, it's clear — as clear as Abe's endings get — that Pig/Mole has released his grip on reality or else never had it in the first place, but this is less the story of psychological and plain old logical breakdown than that of a high-minded mandate's bloat into farce. The later scenes of the book get Pig/Mole's leg stuck in his futuristic toilet, seemingly inextricably, as his "crew" looks on and debates just flushing him down. 6. Insane works I don't how what happened in the 1970s, but something made it the decade when Abe would write a trio of novels eccentric by even his own standards. The Box Man, published in Japanese in 1973 and English the next year, presents itself as the notebooks, natch, of a man who withdraws from proper society to live in a cardboard box, thus joining the ranks of the "box men." These aren't garden variety winos huddled inside refrigerator boxes for nighttime warmth but enterprising voluntary recluses who trick out their cardboard shells, which they remain inside at all times, with stabilization devices, equipment racks and viewing windows. What begins as a detailed how-to on the construction of an ideal box's man home and a treatise on the unique challenges and advantages box manhood subtly transforms into a disorienting narrative kaleidoscope. There might not just be one box man narrating; maybe there are a bunch. And maybe one of them is you, the reader. Whoever's doing the writing, they have strongly held, difficult-to-understand ideas about what exactly constitutes the identity of a "real" box man and what constitutes the identity of a "fake" one, and how either identity is gained, lost, stolen or bought. Like The Ruined Map, Secret Rendezvous, out in Japanese in 1977 and English in 1979, launches into a hunt for a missing spouse that, starting out futile and growing ever more so, quickly falls into irrelevance. Over the course of (what else but) several notebooks, the narrator documents his quest for his disappeared wife, snagged in the wee hours by a seemingly legitimate ambulance — except, in perfect health, she hadn't called for one. Abe is frequently compared to Kafka, and this book is Exhibit A: scouring the vast, awkwardly-constructed hospital where his wife was supposedly deposited, he's enervated by layers of meaningless regulation and thousands of hours of excessive surveillance material to sift through. Abe being Abe, the machinations of a clandestine sex-tape racket run out of the complex's hidden wings and there is a climactic, as it were, electronically-assisted orgasm contest for which I lack the word count to do justice. Also written in the 1970s but unpublished until the 1990s, Kangaroo Notebook, Abe's final complete novel, is his most thoroughgoingly surreal. The son of a doctor and a trained physician himself — though he only graduated med school by promising not to practice — Abe never wrote a character who didn't regret his decision to see a health care worker of any kind, for any reason. This was never more the case than with this novel's everyman, who, understandably, seeks medical attention for a patch of radishes found sprouting from his shins. Catheterized and IV'd up at the hospital, the poor fellow wakes up strapped into an animate gurney that propels him through a series of increasingly frightful settings, none connected in any obvious way to the last. He wends his way through locales including but by no means limited to an unsettling sulfur spring, an anxiety-producing department store, and a cabbage patch inhabited only by his mother's ghost. As a last work, it's a fitting distillation of the themes that have gone before: there's a little of The Ruined Map's urban anomie, a little of Woman in the Dunes' utter futility, a little of The Box Man's "narrative reliability issues" (as Lin put it) and a little of all the other books' deep suspicion of doctors and fixation on the loss of identity. Plus, he cranks the absurdity past eleven. Video game designer Hideo Kojima calls Kangaroo Notebook the prime inspiration for Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. Hmm. 7. What Genre Does Kobo Abe Fit Into, Anyway? Abe's some kind of hybrid between magic realist, existentialist and surrealist. That's a lot of -ists to digest in one sentence, so perhaps it's better put that he drops his characters into nightmarish, often bureaucratic scenarios which often diverge from the general nature of reality are are populated by secondary players who accept and even embrace the non sequiturs and logically-premised illogical conclusions that surround them. This sounds insufferable, but Abe practically always redeems it. He transcends the realm of incoherent nonsense with the very literal, systematic affect mentioned above. The TAP describes the otherwise inexplicable stuff found in Abe's stories in language that defines cool precision. No matter how crazy his situation, the TAP soldiers on, observing and inferring as if in laboratory conditions. More mainstream magic realism lays a similar claim: a character goes about his humdrum life in humdrum terms, but along comes a specter, faerie or supernatural phenomenon — invoked in terms just as realistic as those describing the lampposts and mailboxes lining the street. Abe takes the realism about as far as it can tolerably go, seemingly operating by the formula that every instance of the absurd, the surreal or the fantastical must be balanced by an equal amount of surrounding mundanity. 8. How This Goes on to Save Abe's Novels from the Mire of Straight-Ahead Metaphor and/or Allegory As tricky and exotic as this might sound, it's a variation on the same basic skill employed by, say, Stephen King, whose "ensouled appliances run darkly amok," as David Foster Wallace once put it, "in a world of Fritos, flatulence and trailer-park angst." But King's fabrications, no matter how grotesque or preposterous, unfailingly adhere to well-defined, if simple, internal logic. Abe's creations apparently know no such discipline, but his narrators nevertheless treat them as if they do. What's surprising is how easy it is to go along with the gag. Reviewing The Ark Sakura, Edmund White called it "a wildly improbable fable when recalled" which nevertheless "proceeds with fiendishly detailed verisimilitude when experienced from within." While not what you'd necessarily call believable, Abe's novels nevertheless deliver the kind of reality that bypasses your judgment on that level and simply forces you to process it as-is. Described as wholes, or even described in a piece like this, they sound ludicrous, like narrative stunts — maybe even like wastes of the discerning reader's time. Some enthusiasts like to read them metaphorically or allegorically, but I'd argue that's a far less interesting interpretation than simply taking them straight on. To read the works of Kobo Abe as either accretions of metaphors or of random incidents shouldn't, in my humble opinion, be possible. The amount and type of description Abe always made sure to include would seem to head that off. It's no more sensible to see in these books an archetypal drunk with an absent husband, an archetypal scarred scientist or an archetypal fallout shelter-dweller than it is to draw from them statements about the tenuousness of the individual's connection to the whole, about the dangers of medical professionals or about life's ultimate fruitlessness. These are the sort of books that are about their own particularities — or, in Abe's specific case, about his own peculiarities.