1. Icelandic poet, playwright, and novelist Sjón (pronounced “Shohn”) rummages through all of nature, history, and imagination in his newly translated trilogy, cobbling found fragments together. The resulting work holds up not through any logical scheme or solid foundation but through collective heat and gravity. More important than the fragments themselves, however, are the gaps between them, which open onto a larger and more sublime world, far beyond what any single book can encompass. Perhaps best known as a lyricist for Björk (he co-wrote the Oscar-nominated “I’ve Seen It All” from Dancer in the Dark, as well as many other songs), three of his books – The Blue Fox, The Whispering Muse, and From The Mouth Of The Whale – have just appeared for the first time in America, in snazzy FSG editions translated by Victoria Cribb. They’re peculiar things. Ribald, raunchy, sometimes brutal and sometimes unselfconsciously goofy (a revered 17th century Danish scholar is named Dr. Wormius; a merchant ship sets sail for Mold Bay), they combine legends and tall tales, magical realism and biblical allegory, landscape and maritime studies, arcane scientific and theological musings, YA-style swashbuckling and personal confession. Calling to mind Borges and Sebald with their cracked pseudo-scholarship and deliberately pedantic inquiries into botany, zoology, geography, and the cosmos, they’re wonder books, cabinets of curiosity, and extended riffs, not straightforwardly plotted and thematically streamlined novels. Projecting tricks of light and memory across frozen fields, lonely islands, and stormy seas, Sjón takes a distinctly human pleasure in relating how harsh and inhospitable the world can be to human habitation within it. He renders nature, which “breeds in its lap both unimaginable horrors and precious gems,” with the romantic longing of Caspar David Friedrich and the cool desolation of Nicholas Winding Refn’s film Valhalla Rising. 2. Life impacts Sjón’s characters like Forrest Gump bled of all corny uplift. Dwarfed by superstition, politics, and endless winter, they bear their torment by thinking and talking endlessly, spinning a loose narrative web out of whatever absurdity is afoot. Entering this web as a reader felt like slipping into a drawn-out encounter with an enthusiastic and linguistically agile stranger at a bar. Professing to be in no hurry, I listened to the stranger toss off boastful yarns and laments about his and the world’s younger days. As we both went on drinking and the night got deep, I found myself believing him more and more. There’s something frivolous about an exchange like this, a sense that nothing concrete can be accomplished, but there’s also a desperate import, a sense that transitory, half-coherent communication is our only recourse in a world that always gets the better of us. The truth can never be said outright, but a storyteller like this convinces you it can be stabbed at. In The Blue Fox, a priest trapped for five days under a glacier begins to fear for his sanity, “so he did what comes most naturally to an Icelander when he is in a fix. That is to recite ballads, verses, and rhymes, sing loud and clear to himself...This is a failsafe old trick, if men wish to preserve their wits.” It’s a failsafe old trick in much of world literature, but there’s something distinctive in the simultaneous lightness and heaviness of Sjón’s touch, the way in which his narrators are always both joking and not-joking. “Uncouth exclamations about endless nights, burning snow, whales the size of mountains, trumpet blasts of the dead from volcanoes and icebergs”: Jonah, the exiled scholar who narrates From The Mouth Of The Whale, lists “far-fetched tales” about his homeland. But, he concedes, “in some strange way they come close to the stories we ordinary, humble folk tell ourselves in an attempt to comprehend our existence here and make it more bearable.” 3. What is Iceland to me? As soon as my imagination strays from the clean modern streets of Reykjavik, it lapses into a medieval dreamscape of glaciers, fjords, elves, bright astral phenomena, ships emerging from or disappearing into the mist. I’m woefully ignorant when it comes to the Edda, which Sjón is surely playing with, and I quake before Halldór Laxness, Iceland’s “Nobel Prize winner who bridged the nation’s literary past and future,” their Mann or Hamsun. Sometimes I range over his books on the shelf and fantasize about having read them, but most of the time I fear I’m no longer brave or patient enough to take that plunge for real. Beyond this, of course there’s Björk, but, more crucially for me, there’s Sigur Rós. Their eerie, spacey soundscapes, built of sporadic percussion, bowed guitar, and angelic falsetto vocals, have soundtracked many a headphones-wearing bus or train trip through the dead of night, or hours spent half-sleeping in layover airports...so much so that I hear them now whenever I enter these disembodied headspaces, whether or not I’m listening to their music. They first took root in me when my freshman year roommate passive-aggressively strung a bunch of Christmas lights across our shared sleeping quarters. Instead of asking him to take them down so I could maybe sleep (I don’t think I even considered this option), I started playing Sigur Rós on repeat all night on my laptop. For that year and several thereafter, I couldn’t sleep without going to the place their music took me to, which is to say that I couldn’t sleep without going to Iceland. I’ve never been there in my waking life, but I’ve spent thousands of sleeping hours constructing a dream-version of it. 4. In a coincidence that didn’t feel like one, I read David Shields’s Reality Hunger and How Literature Saved My Life at the same time as I read Sjón. At first, Shields’s call for boundary-breaking fiction is laughably at odds with Sjón’s compendia of wonders and horrors. Almost too fittingly, from Reality Hunger: I don’t have a huge pyrotechnic imagination that luxuriates in other worlds. People say, "It was so fascinating to read this novel that took place in Iceland. I just loved living inside another world for two weeks." That doesn’t, I must say, interest me that much. But, as I thought more about it while continuing to read both, they drew unexpectedly together. What I understand Shields to be saying, beneath his supposed attack on fiction, is cut to the chase. Whatever you’re trying to do in writing, do it right away. Don’t build a house for the things that are important; just spill them naked onto the page. Sjón’s ultra-digressive style does just this. Though he relishes not getting to any particular point, soaring through stories within stories like a rogue angel of history, he makes no attempt to do anything else. His narrators aren’t dragging their feet or turning their backs on more pressing matters. They’re interested in a great many things and they leap freely and sometimes jarringly among them, but they aren’t motivated by anything other than their own genuine interest. These aren’t books designed to be filed in memory as discrete artistic units. Rather than telling any definite and delimited story, they open a tap and let out a draught of Story, formless and potent as beer. “What a symphony,” Whale’s Jonah exclaims as he tries to gather his thoughts. “It is as if the east wind is bringing me all the songs of Earth at once, bellowing out the saddest dirge together with the most joyous paean...” This is a recognition, in the mind and in nature, of the same charged collage quality that Shields hungers for in literature. 5. As if I needed any help, Shields got me thinking hard about death. He has no interest in literature that doesn’t confront it directly; he won’t invest in a writer who promises escape or treats writing like a safe haven. Without getting too Jungian here, I’ve always felt that leaving behind plot and entering Story (what John Crowley calls “The Tale” in Little, Big) is a means of subjectively overcoming the dominion of my own death, not just of ignoring it for a while. Conventional novels begin and end. Whether or not the characters you identify with die, the last page marks the death of the world the novel has labored to create, a world that has tried to impress its autonomy and uniqueness upon you. This death is singular and finite. You can read the novel again but you can’t use it to enter a place bigger than what it contains. The Story that Sjón’s books open onto is such a place. It’s a place of Life and Death, not of individual lives and deaths. When I’m truly engrossed in this realm, I feel neither alive nor soon-to-be-dead. I feel nothing but engrossment. Death becomes no less awesome, but it does not remain in ultimate opposition to everything else. It becomes part of the party rather than the infinite darkness that shuts it down. The drunken storyteller, like the 1940’s sailor in The Whispering Muse who claims to have sailed with Jason and the Argonauts, takes on a life that’s immeasurably greater than that of a single person. Both he and Jonah appreciate that “God’s tongue...pronounced the world, as if it were a tale so tremendous that no one but He Himself would live to hear it all.” Story is greater than any lifetime and yet only realized, in the moment of telling, through a living teller: somehow it houses life while housed within it. 6. Sjón’s narrators aren’t talking about other worlds; they’re talking about the real but often unseen places beneath and inside of this one. In a flight of especially poetic prose, The Whispering Muse characterizes the onset of Story thus: Once the ear has fallen asleep, the humming takes on a new form. It becomes a note, a voice sounding in the consciousness, as if a single grain of golden sand had slipped through the mesh of the sieve and, borne on the tip of the eardrum’s tongue, passed through the horn and ivory-inlaid gates that divide the tangible from the invisible world. Ships rarely get where they’re going, but this voyage away from the tangible world and into the invisible proves possible for those who sincerely attempt it. For me, it was a journey back to the Iceland I first discovered during those long nights in college, contemplating the grim relief of drifting off to the place the music was coming from and never returning. David Shields won’t place his faith in the bulwark of a novel that claims to encompass everything. He wants porous, disjointed work that makes no attempt to master all that it takes on. One way or another, the literature that saves his life has to take on everything, all of Life and all of Death, and break down in the face of that ambition, rather than living and dying in a vacuum. He doesn’t want to hang out in a place of make-believe with Death lurking just outside. Neither do I. I want to open the door, invite Death in, and take it from there.
1. A hundred years after his birth, Patrick White (1912-1990) remains Australia’s only Nobel laureate for Literature (in 1973), but he’s as unknown to most readers as his name is nondescript. Though it rightly inducted him into the company of Faulkner, Hemingway, Beckett, and Bellow, White’s Nobel has done little to ensure the longevity of the work that earned it. The centenary of his birth has seen a stirring of renewed interest, including the publication of his unfinished final novel, The Hanging Garden, and a number of events and panel discussions (including a podcasted roundtable with contemporary Australian writers called “Is Patrick White Anti-Australian?”) but the fact remains that only a few of his thirteen novels, and none of his plays and story collections, are in print in the US. Lauded by the Nobel committee for his “epic and psychological narrative art, which has introduced a new continent into literature,” White might best be described as a chronicler of the potential of the Australian imaginary. He was also a chronicler of weakness, shortcoming, and deformation, but always in pursuit of a solitary vision of the ultimate on the far side. If being a national figure requires a burden of accessibility, whereby the author’s voice sheds its idiosyncrasies to become the voice of a mass socio-historical experience in an objectively real place, his failure to achieve this status only proves the success of his actual project. It’s hard to believe that his novels appeared contemporaneously with those of Gaddis, Coover, and Pynchon. Though he takes on the instability of identity in his own way (one of his characters plumbs her “self of selves”), it always resolves or collapses into inner unity, not into the pyrotechnic fragmentation of high postmodernism. His winding streams of consciousness and sudden perspectival leaps draw from the European Modernism of the early 20th century, and his belief in the mystic potential of nature and the supremacy of Art draws from the Romanticism of the early 19th, yet neither would have accommodated him. As the 20th century finishes receding, we will have to interrogate its artistic legacies and decide which few to carry with us further into the 21st, rescuing them from the Flood that will wash the rest away. I think White should be among these few, but unpaired, able only to reproduce with himself inside the Ark. It’s right that he should be at large in time, reachable only by straining to get to where he is, ready for the discomfort of being alone with him there. To borrow a phrase from The Twyborn Affair, he is “the stranger of all time,” no more or less the voice of now than he was, or wanted to be, of then. 2. I read Voss (1957), White’s classic, about a 19th century German explorer who leads a doomed expedition into the outback; The Vivisector (1970), a long fictional biography of a merciless and egomaniacal painter patterned on Sidney Nolan, a major Australian artist in White’s day, and more loosely, if you like, on Francis Bacon; and The Twyborn Affair (1979), one of his strangest and most psychologically daunting works, which traces the life and fate of a Trinity of characters – two women and a man – incarnated, at different times, in the same body. Finally I read his memoir, Flaws in the Glass (1981), which reflects on the inner life that preceded, undergirded, and survived the novels. This body of work isn’t just challenging; it’s actively uninviting. White can be as misanthropic as Celine or Bernhard: “He found his way back to the bed and slept several ages in hells. Or was it awake in life?”; “She had powdered herself almost to death; only the patches of dry rouge on the cheekbones and the unhealed scar of a mouth reminded too vividly of life.” Nearing the end of his life, a man still sees his hunchbacked adopted sister as “a growth he had learnt to live with.” Entering White’s sanctum requires a purification ritual. You have to isolate yourself entirely within it, cutting all lifelines to the rest of literature, and pressing on, mortified, into the same estrangement that drove its maker. There are some artists you have to forgive before you can benefit from knowing them. I’ve tried to forgive White for the fact that he probably wouldn’t have liked me, and wouldn’t have cared that I like him. It’s worth it. If you weather the cold plunge, you’ll find a place riven with sudden upsurges of divinity, alive with a truth that I don’t think will grow falser with time. 3. Though he was named “Australian of the Year” in 1973, White was never integrated into his nation’s literary heritage. Branding himself “an intruder... a threat to the tradition of Australian literature,” he recalls that The Aunt’s Story, which he numbers among his three greatest books, “was considered freakish, unintelligible – a nothing. You only had to pick up a library copy to see where the honest Australian reader had given it up as a bad job.” Born in London into the fourth generation of an affluent Sydney family, White was ancestrally tied to the Australian land but educated (both as a child and again in college) in England, and came of age there and as an intelligence officer in Greece and the Middle East in WWII. He returned to “wet, boiling, superficial, brash, beautiful, ugly Sydney," as if retracing the journey of an exiled convict. Having resolved to fight for self-realization in a homeland he could neither love nor leave, he was filled with “disillusionment and despair for the wrong turning I felt my life had taken when I came back to Australia.” He assiduously turned down interviews and invitations, scorned academic attention, asked to be removed from shortlists (including the Booker, for Twyborn) and, in a gesture that seems both egalitarian and isolationist, even renounced prizes he’d won to make room for younger Australian writers. He made a defining exception for the Nobel, but still refused to travel to Stockholm for the ceremony, a decision that “must remain incomprehensible to all those who don’t understand my nature or my books.” These testaments to artistic merit would have opened a dead space between him and the confrontation at the center of what he was doing. Like Voss, who “would have repudiated kinship with other men if it had been offered,” White safeguarded his vision from a world that preferred “to cast him in bronze than to investigate his soul.” He remained in himself, rather than falling into the third-person perspective of public adulation. 4. Most importantly for the conception of Voss and all that would follow, White believed that Australians hadn’t adequately explored their continent. Laura Trevelyan, the Australian woman who will become Voss’s spirit-bride, “was afraid of the country which, for lack of any other, she supposed was hers. But this fear, like certain dreams, was something to which she would never have admitted.” Instead of facing their fear, White’s upper class Sydneysiders (in the 19th century as in the 20th) cling to a narrow strip of coastline and a set of Eurocentric affectations. A hostess “pronounced ‘Europe’ as though tasting her own party for a flavour she feared it might lack.” Working at once to represent and to overcome this culture of denial, White laments that, “Where I have gone wrong in life is in believing that total sincerity is compatible with human intercourse... my pursuit of that razor-blade truth has made me a slasher.” He slashes through euphemism and distraction to reach a linguistic plane on which he can say what things actually are, in an idiom at once poetic and acute: “She had taken off her hat, so that her head was now completely hers;” “The sea was stirring and glinting as though sharpening itself against itself;” “Two big lamps had transformed the drawing-room into a perfect, luminous egg, which soon contained all the guests. These were waiting to be hatched by some communication with one another. Or would it not occur?” When the time comes, Voss will yield gratefully to the danger of the desert. It’s the danger of “blank faces, like so many paper kites, themselves earthbound, or at most twitching in the warm shallows of atmosphere,” that he truly fears, knowing they “could prevent him soaring towards the apotheosis for which he was reserved. To what extent others had entangled him in the string of human limitation, he had grown desperate in wondering.” As he dreams of “the excruciating passage” into “that vast, expectant country,” he suspects that no one around him “had explored his own mind to the extent that would enable him to bear such experience.” White might seem elitist, fascist even, in his hatred of ordinariness and celebration of a chosen few, but you can feel the compassion and sadness underneath: it wasn’t ordinary people he hated, but the cowardice with which people turn their backs on the extraordinary potential of our shared world in order to become ordinary. 5. Voss’s journey is the crucial entry point to White’s artistic interior because it sets up Australia as a soul-geography, unmapped and fraught with inner promise and desolation. The adventurer’s dream of inland seas and buried treasure gives way without resistance to the seeker’s dream of complete aloneness, in a place so empty that the self reaches a breaking point, beyond which lies rebirth – or birth for the first time. As Voss and his men march toward “the point at which they would be offered up... to chaos or to heroism,” they look “back in amazement at their actual lives” and find the barrenness and privacy of the desert sparking up into moments of mystic illumination. White’s Australia, through Voss’s eyes, is a “disturbing country,” in which “it is possible more easily to discard the inessential and to attempt the infinite.” Near his inevitable, solitary death, Voss “attempted to count the days, but the simplest sums would swell into a calculation of universal time, so vast that it filled his mouth with one whole mealy potato, cold certainly, but of unmanageable proportions.” The flowers that bloom in this desert aren’t tangible – “Wherever their common sweat fell, the desert didn’t flower, but thorns sprang up” – but they’re perceptible, in a dying man’s vision, “in the gelatinous light throughout the upper realm of – how would the archangel name this one when he appeared for its summation?” Mystical access in White’s work is rare, occurs without warning, and doesn’t last long (“She would be carried back out of the iridescence into a congealing of life”). But, for a moment, it delivers the individual beyond the reach of compromise. 6. Hurtle Duffield, The Vivisector’s titular painter, pursues this same flowering through his art. Early in his development, he feels a tantalizing inner presence beginning to stir. He “didn’t love himself... he loved something he had inside him,” even if most of the time it’s just a “warm stool he had been nursing... as a comfort.” Just as the confrontation of individual and self in the desert gives rise to visions of God that social intercourse suppresses, White is keenly interested in forms of individual creativity that break free from the limits of sexual intercourse. Hurtle intuitively appreciates the subservience of sex to art, when he remembers how his adoptive mother, “would come into the bathroom and soap and sponge him, but his thing was less private than his drawing.” Coming into his own as an artist, “his bones almost clicked with the speed at which he rejected the flesh in favour of the one substance: paint.” By the end of his life, he finds he has, “multiplied, if not through his loins; he was no frivolous masturbator tossing his seed on to wasteland.” There is both ecstasy and torment in such multiplication, as if sex and birth could be combined into a single act. White was openly gay, and themes of gender and sexuality slip and flow through his pursuit of the divine in Art and Nature. When he wonders how he “would have turned out had I been born a so-called normal heterosexual male,” the answer, to put it mildly, is not very well. “Ambivalence has given me insights into human nature, denied, I believe, to those who are unequivocally male or female,” he declares. “I would not trade my halfway house, frail though it be.” This multifariousness, which he alludes to in the title of his novel Memoirs of Many in One, is the source of all the shifting energies that drive The Twyborn Affair. Compared to this halfway house, the entrenched family structure of father, mother, and child is a sham edifice built for the prevention of self-knowledge. Before he’s learned anything of the world, Hurtle senses that, “mothers and fathers, whoever they were, really didn’t matter: it was between you and Death or something.” His perspective grows more nuanced when he determines that, “all children... start out as yourself.” The families that matter to White are composed of adopted and surrogate children, shadow twins, “spiritual children,” and, as J.M. Coetzee puts it in his introduction to The Vivisector, “a strange kind of incestuous autogenesis.” All such conceptions, whether immaculate or downright filthy, mirror the conception of original ideas: they arise first from stillness and privacy, and then from sudden contact across metaphysical boundaries. This amounts to a total theory of Art, inextricable, as White lived it, from the loneliness of the novelist. He describes The Vivisector as the story of the painter he “was not destined to become.” Though he dreamed that “the physical act of painting would exhilarate me far more than grinding away at grey, bronchial prose,” prose is what he had to work with, and he kept working. The novel is a punishing and unspontaneous form, but it brings you face-to-face with whatever’s inside you, with no technical limitations to blame when you don’t like what you see. In this way, White approached the art form that'd chosen him like Australia itself: an arid and unwelcoming expanse, but one that kept calling him back, promising access to an unconditional truth that would both sustain and consume his life. 7. Australia has a previous significance for me. I took a gap year before college and, wanting to go somewhere I’d never been and where I didn’t know anyone, but where I could still speak English and get a work visa, I spent the first six months in Sydney. When I started planning, at the end of high school, I couldn’t imagine existential upset or loneliness following me so far from home. The idea of the place was so far-fetched I thought simply saying, “I’m in Australia!” all day would occupy me. But I got over the displacement soon enough, and questions of how to live as an individual in time and in society, and how to make a living and organize my thoughts into something expressible, not only returned but struck me with the force of being newly for real. Sydney came to be the place where I felt the first stirring of an adult creative life, as opposed to my childhood’s unbounded make-believe and my teenage theater of hazy possibility. I looked hard for a literary community in Sydney, at the university, in bookstores, in the events listings in alternative papers, but found little. I discovered that I wanted to make a go of it, whatever that would come to mean, but I didn’t discover Patrick White. Seven years later, reading him has taken me back to that search and articulated much of what and how I felt, but it’s also added a sharpness that wouldn’t have been there if I’d read him then, in his city. I took a job working at info booths in malls all over the Sydney suburbs, chatting up shoppers as they walked by. Though it exists just as much in America, my first exposure to the true vapidity and terror of mass consumer culture happened there. I felt something new stirring in me during those months, and, at the same time, I felt something else trying to choke it to death. So I started fantasizing about the outback. After I got up the funds and the resolve to actually go, I went. It was the first desert I’d ever been in. I got sunburned all over my face and neck from sleeping against a train window, and saw hues of red and orange so incredible I can’t picture them in memory; I can only remember my amazement. I shed some parts of myself, and others came to light, as if crawling up into newly freed space. You can’t ever really be alone in that desert. If you go out there, you start to feel those parts moving, back up from under the malls. This plentitude is the reward for White’s isolation, and for the isolation you’ll have to impose on yourself to receive what he has to offer. You won’t be able to forgive him if you see yourself within his view of other people. Instead, you have to experience his world vicariously, as him, or as one of his proxy artists and seekers. You have to go on that trip, believe yourself capable of that searing intensity of vision. Once you do, it’s no longer about recognizing him or his work. It’s about recognizing yourself, and what’s in you. This is all that’ll keep it alive, and all that should. Like Voss, White’s exploration discovered fertile ground deep in the “country of which he had become possessed by implicit right.” He left his “name on the land, irrevocably, his material body swallowed by what it had named.” He’s at rest there now, vanished into “some desert place, a perfect abstraction, that would rouse no feeling of tenderness in posterity.” Without any such tenderness, and without disturbing his dust, we can go there any time we want, to be alone and not alone.
1. Expanding the scope and upping the intensity of his debut story collection, 2009’s excellent Knockemstiff, Donald Ray Pollock’s debut novel, The Devil All the Time (out this week in paperback), is a descent into a cauldron of blood spilled in the name of deliverance. When the novel opens in 1957, Knockemstiff, Ohio (a real town, or “holler,” where the author was born, and near which he still resides) is a place where “four hundred or so people lived...connected by blood through one godforsaken calamity or another...” Pollock uses this setting to stage an examination of the devil’s omnipresence in life and death on earth, or at least on the back roads and in the backyards of his corner of the American interior. Roaming among several intersecting stories, The Devil All the Time is a book about the intimate side of violence, and how this is maybe the only form that true worship can take. His characters peer as far as they can into the interior of evil, in themselves and in others, desperate to catch a glimpse of something real and beautiful hidden there. Their stories aren’t about seeing through the darkness; they’re about touching the darkness and feeling how substantial it can be. Luckily for any reader who makes the trip to Knockemstiff, Pollock renders this darkness quite substantial indeed. Without ever verging into the supernatural, his brand of homespun grotesquerie achieves moments of genuinely satanic power. 2. Despite the dismal cloud that hangs over his vision of the Ohio small town, Pollock himself has recently lived out a pretty rare kind of success story. He worked as a laborer and truck driver for Mead Paper until he was fifty, then quit, got an MFA from the University of Ohio, and now, a few years later, has two books out, both garnering praise from critics as well as from more established noir authors like Chuck Palahniuk and the late William Gay. He’s even been hailed as an heir to Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews. I don’t think it’s wrong to place him near the Southern Gothic tradition, but not only is he very much from and of the Midwest and not the South, his work is also not quite Gothic. His vision shares neither O’Connor’s faith in ultimate redemption buried in the depths of apparent damnation, nor Crews’ knack for recasting every sad array of lost souls as a carnival of lusty, drunken freaks. Both are forms of levity, while Pollock’s world is sunk deep into a rock bottom that only gets deeper. 3. The Devil All the Time presents rural American Christianity in the mid-20th century as a snake pit of sadistic preachers, copious bloodletting, and displays of faith forced upon congregations of superstitious illiterates. The set pieces may hark back to O’Connor, but, here, the center is as rotten as the skin. Nevertheless, Pollock stakes out a theological center of a different kind. It is to be found in his inquiry into how people decide to do evil so as to grasp the simultaneous reality of good. Unlike in O’Connor, good is not a force that defeats evil from within, but rather a force that exists inside of evil and cannot be separated from it, nor ever reached by other means. In Knockemstiff, it’s both or neither. In the opening section, Willard Russell, a traumatized WWII vet, tries to cure his wife’s cancer by pouring sacrificial blood over a “prayer log” in the woods behind his house. He comes out here “every morning and evening to talk to God.” Thinking back on it years later, his son, Arvin, recalls the conviction with which his father “fought the Devil all the time.” Out at this log, as in the many killing chambers that the novel winds its way through, spiritual life is conducted not only in private, but in secret. When Willard feels “the urge to get right with his Maker” he knows he’s “going to need some woods to worship his way.” Only in the hushed enclosure of the woods, or in the speed and barrenness of the open road, can the soul manifest its hideous contours and admit the reality of its fear, free of the burden of declaring a kind of faith it doesn’t actually feel. By standing or pretending to stand as bastions against the devil’s incursion, the town and the church deliver themselves wholesale into the devil’s clutches. The Devil All the Time, as a novel concerned with the manifold delusions and aspirations of private spirituality, makes its way ever further from the sites of official congregation, and deeper into the wilderness. 4. Watching his father lose his lifelong fight, Arvin learns that the devil beats everyone, taking especial pleasure in punishing those who tried to resist. Pollock’s devil will not be denied, but he will cut a deal. Among those in the devil’s camp are Roy and Theodore, a spider-handling End Times preacher and his crippled sidekick. These two gleefully profane the pulpit of the Coal Creek Church of the Holy Ghost Sanctified, but they’re nothing compared to the Tennessee preacher who turns up later on and begins preying on young girls. Spiteful and morose, his only consolation is that “his mother had decided all those years ago that he was going to be a preacher. All the fresh young meat a man could stand if he played his cards right.” And then Pollock gives us Carl and Sandy Henderson, a husband and wife who cruise the Midwest and the South, “always on the hunt...in a black Ford station wagon purchased for one hundred dollars...” They pick up young male hitchhikers, drive for awhile, and then Carl asks if they’d like to have sex with his wife. Once the hitchhiker and Sandy are naked on a picnic blanket just out of view of the road, Carl interrupts them with a gun and a sharp object, hoping for the pleasure of dismembering the young man and photographing the process in loving detail before finally deigning to kill whatever’s left of him. Marking the extreme end point of the road that all the characters are heading down, Carl believes that murdering strangers is “the one true religion, the thing he’d been searching for all his life. Only in the presence of death could he feel the presence of something like God.” This need to call the devil onto the mortal plane underlies all of the novel’s expressions of cruelty and desire. The Tennessee preacher finds it by cheating on his wife, because “he needed for a woman to believe that she was doing wrong when she lay with him, that she was in imminent danger of going to hell.” By eliciting this fear in others he proves to himself that he still has “some chance of going to heaven...” Carl looks at two old bigots in a diner. As he begins to fantasize about killing them, “it was electric, the sensation that went through him just then.” He “couldn’t explain it, but he sure as hell could feel it. The mystery... ” This sensation only lasts a moment, and it’s only a sensation, not a tangible insight, but it’s enough to shock him out of the state of living death in which he is otherwise interred. 5. The novel may not be Gothic, but the grotesque is vital to both its aesthetic and its theology. In Knockemstiff and the many middles of nowhere that surround it, the degradation of the body is not a mirror for the degradation of the soul. It is, rather, a natural and simultaneous counterpart to it. Carl’s “belly was starting to hang over his belt like a peck sack of dead bullfrogs,” and “his fat, pale, unshaved face looked like some cold and distant star.” Sandy, the “bait” that lures the hitchhikers in, is “rail thin and dirty-looking. Her face was caked with too much makeup, and her teeth were stained a dark yellow...” Overhead, “the sun popped out like a big, festering boil in the sky.” Since death is so prevalent and so vivid, it’s easy to forget the role that life plays. But the grotesque, coming from the idea of the “grotto,” where entities bubble up in endless random forming and reforming, has to allow life and death to bleed together as equally mutable states of being, just like good and evil. Out at the prayer log, Arvin and his father watch as “maggots dripped from the trees and crosses like squirming drops of white fat.” This shrine doesn’t work to prevent death, but it does work to open a grotto in the Ohio woods. Unlike much of the existentialist tradition, The Devil All the Time is about fullness, not about emptiness. Throughout its engagement with murder and death, the novel’s focus is always on that which remains on earth: the murderer, the corpse, and the feeling of the devil’s presence, not of God’s absence. There is no transcendent escape from the mire, but, the deeper in you sink, the richer things become. 6. Remembering O’Connor’s statement that her stories dramatize “the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil,” I asked myself whether there’s any grace in the territory held by Pollock’s devil. I think not exactly. Rather than attesting to the stable reality or unreality of grace, Pollock attests to the reality of the human need to keep looking. The novel descends into the same conundrum as its characters, sympathizing with their plight but never claiming an overarching perspective from which to judge the efficacy of their pursuits. Pollock stands by his disdain for preachers by never becoming one. All that’s clear at the end is that if the divine cannot find its way into this world through piety and prayer, it’ll find another way, enlisting the help of anyone willing. The willing here are, of course, those who become agents of extreme violence. The Devil All the Time is not a book against or even really about violence. It’s a book of violence. So why go where it wants to take you? I don’t know if I believe in God or the devil. But I do believe in fear – fear of unseen forces, of other people, and of myself. There’s a part of me that wants nothing more than relief from this fear. It wants to read a book like this and say, “These are just bad people, doing bad things, all of it made up.” This is the part that wants to lock the door when it hears the devil knocking, and then pretend not even to have heard. But underneath this is a part of me that terrifies the other part. It’s a part that derives pleasure and even nourishment from inhabiting the minds of characters like these, granting them reality by consenting to imagine them. It’s the part of me that, like all of the monstrous people in this book, just wants to touch the mystery. It wants to believe that this mystery exists on earth, and not in some other world that can only be glimpsed in dreams, or that must be accepted on a preacher’s say-so. I don’t think I could touch it by doing the things that Pollock’s characters do – that’s why I’m driven to reading and writing – but I wouldn’t be a reader and writer at all if I couldn’t relate. It’s the part of me whose greatest fear is not of hearing the devil at my door, but of not letting him in when I do.
1. I have to admit up front that I’m an Erickson neophyte. I love delving into the hard-to-find back catalogs of cult authors who’ve gone more mainstream over the years, but in Erickson’s case I’ve only read Zeroville and These Dreams of You, his two newest and, I’ve been told, most accessible and perhaps therefore least representative novels. It’s true that neither was as surreally overwhelming as I’d expected, but there’s something else to recommend them, a kind of aching vitality, that more than makes up for their surface normalcy and lack of special effects. I discovered Erickson a few months ago when I came across an article that Brian Evenson wrote for The Believer in 2003. In a fairly complete study of Erickson’s early works, Evenson claims that the apparently longstanding expectation that Erickson would one day claim the throne held by Pynchon and DeLillo – he got a Pynchon blurb on his very first novel! – has not come to fruition. Although touted as a “secret heir,” Evenson thinks he’s actually more of a “true romantic” than his forebears ever were. He may never get the mass recognition that was promised him, but, from a reader’s perspective, his contribution has been a far less redundant one: he’s carved out territory that he doesn’t have to share. 2. Had I not found this article, I don’t know how soon Pynchon would have come to mind while reading These Dreams of You (maybe Erickson’s early works more readily beg the comparison). But, the case being what it was, I went in wondering what a true romantic who’d renounced his postmodern birthright might look like. Like Pynchon (the overlap with DeLillo is there too, but mainly as a kinship with plenty of authors who have idiosyncratic takes on modern geopolitics), Erickson is after a secret illumination buried in the dark center of the imagination. Both he and Pynchon use obscure continent-hopping quests to probe the psychic state of the world at a moment or hand-selected set of moments in history, and both pry into the hypothetical inner lives of iconic historical figures, gutting the external pop landscape and then rebuilding it inside their novels. This is where they diverge. The pleasure of Erickson over Pynchon is how warm and man-to-man his writing remains even at its most dissociative. He leaves the edges of his narrative web dangling so you can hook them up to your own heartstrings. The attendant frustration – the thing that Pynchon does that’s inimitable – is that Erickson’s web, although swarming with notions of time travel and mistaken identity, reincarnation and coincidence, never pops with the exhilarating tautness of a totalizing cosmic vision. The web of Pynchon’s vision is vaster but, because he exerts such meticulous, almost mathematical pressure on it, it’s less universal and thus more distinctive. The “Pynchonian” is more recognizable than the “Ericksonian” not only because Pynchon is more famous. Instead of rarifying a cosmic vision of his own, Erickson takes on the exoteric mysteries of self, home, and family. Even a character as endearingly strange as Zeroville’s “cineautistic” Vikar Jerome, wandering his pilgrim’s paths through Hollywood, is a plausibly real person, thinking and acting in ways that link him into larger chains of thought and action. Both Zeroville and These Dreams of You open doorways into worlds that exist before and beyond them – they offer themselves as one way into places that have other ways in. Less a magician than a psychic confidante, Erickson holds your attention not by promising a trip to somewhere you’ve never been, but by enlightening and enlivening the places you can’t escape. 3. Leading up to this collapse, Zan, a has-been LA novelist and current late nite radio host, sits down with his newly adopted Ethiopian daughter, Sheba, to watch Obama win the presidency. He gets to thinking that at last the evaporated dream of the 60s – and the guiding dream of his life – has been fulfilled. Later in the novel but more than forty years earlier in the nation’s history, Bobby Kennedy claims, either despairingly or prophetically, that “the promise of this country can’t be kept until white begs forgiveness of black... [and] who knows how such a thing can happen, the request for forgiveness and the granting of it? What historic moment can represent that?” To Zan in 2008, it looks like the moment has come. He believes he’s finally witnessed “the existence of the politically miraculous.” The rest of the novel follows the myriad ways in which this turns out not to be the case. In so doing, it becomes a novel about a midlife crisis that’s also an End Times crisis. A nation’s tenuously unified mood buckles under its own weight, and the mystery of who Zan and his family really are mirrors the mystery of what America, “a country that always has belonged to the rest of the world’s imagination more than it belongs to its own,” really is. No sooner have Zan and his wife Viv brought their daughter to live in the “end of time” that is LA, away from her orphanage in Ethiopia, “the land where God placed Adam and Eve,” than they lose their house and become orphans themselves, scattering across the Old World in search of a way to regain the citizenship of their nation, or of the world, or, failing this too, of the universe at least. 4. In full drift now, Zan gives a lecture in London on the future of the novel in which he fixates on the series of revisions that the Life of Christ underwent as each apostle took his turn telling it. He explains how the power of the Gospels comes not from safeguarding any original version but from plunging headlong into the magic of fiction. Taking his own plunge, he finds himself writing a new novel about discovering a copy of Ulysses in Berlin in 1919, three years before its publication, and indulging in the anxiety-fraught fantasy of plotting his own “authorship of the Twentieth Century” by copying out the text and beating Joyce to the punch. Riding this train of thought, he begins to wonder, “If I produce the novel first, who’s to say I’m not the author?” The way in which writing and rewriting (and hence living and reliving) converge functions in These Dreams of You on the level of the laws of physics. Events occur unexpectedly with incomprehensible results and then they occur again. Seen from another angle, they begin to take on meaning even if the nature of this meaning remains veiled. Zan can’t keep his past from being rewritten, but he can participate in the process, slowly gathering the strength to shape it for the better. Sheba’s birth grandmother wakes in the middle of the night and “already feels her womb invaded by the future,” while Viv goes to Ethiopia where she hears “a rhythm and blues from the future that’s spiraled round the sphere of time to come back up through its birth canal.” These are the moments where the old reappears as the new and wide narrative loops swing shut, sending out ripples in all directions. 5. Identity – Zan says this about Jesus, thinks it about himself, and sees it in his family and in the wavering figure of the new president – is subject to these same physics of revision. Forces that want to shape the self to their own obscure ends are locked in conflict with other forces that will never recognize these shapes. Watching in horror as legions of Americans question the validity of Obama’s birth certificate, Zan can’t “remember a president’s very identity being such a point of political contention.” He wants desperately to hold onto his personal and political messiah, but a TV image of Obama’s face horribly distorted with the word ANTICHRIST printed beneath won’t leave his thoughts. Fearing the total collapse of the presidency, Zan wonders, “Isn’t a politician who cares about who he really is doomed?” Fearing imminent personal collapse in equal measure, he wonders, “How did the determination to uncover and understand the bonds of this family lead to such a smashing of it?” As a novel that obsessively returns to the theme of abandonment, populated by characters who serially abandon one another, one question resounds in its interior: what’s the difference between a person leaving and a person staying but turning out not to be the person you thought they were and need them to be? 6. More than a novel about bodies and thoughts drifting across a visual map, it’s a novel about resonances, about the acoustic connections of voices and music. Music, for These Dreams of You, is nothing less than the carrier of myth and the portal to the eternal world within the temporal, just as film was in Zeroville. It’s not just that the prose is suffused with descriptions of music, nor just that the title comes from a Van Morrison song, nor even that David Bowie plays a major role: the very structure of the book manifests the verse-chorus-verse structure of rock and blues, or the ways in which jazz moves among interpreters, its spirit intact through constant flux. Music bridges the pitfalls in time and space that open up whenever the past rewrites itself, and whenever identity shifts. It’s the only way to get back to the beginning from the end because it’s the one thing that’s been there all along, even as it’s never stopped changing. It’s change made danceable. At the heart of the music stands the 4-year-old adopted girl, herself a radio transmitter. Nicknamed “Radio Ethiopia,” her voice resounds “like a boombox in a confessional” as her body calls out for her lost birth mother. She is living proof that songs are the sound of the universe manifested through human bodies (and not only human voices, as Sheba’s radio hum is all-pervasive and fully involuntary), connecting them across infinities of dead airspace. Snaking their circular paths through time, songs are indifferent to their authors, “as if any music belongs to anyone.” John’s “experimental” Gospel prefigures this in its determination “to banish from history those who are deaf to its music and to declare all other sins trivial compared to the sin of deafness.” In this way, music becomes a vessel for reality as dynamic as religion. The meltdown of the American political scene is finally most comprehensible to Zan as a crisis of disharmony, of people refusing to agree on what song to sing. 7. If Zan has learned anything by the end of his wanderings, it’s that the present is no easier to remain in than the past is to remember. A snatch of tune drifts in through an open window and he finds himself “whiplashed to some other place in time except it’s another present rather than the past... swept up and deposited in a warp of voices.” All that has been abandoned and replaced with longing reemerges among these voices, and suddenly the very idea of abandonment shines with an alien hue. Underneath his loose web of coincidences and recurrences, what Erickson really ends up writing about is a return to faith. It’s not the rigid zealotry of Zan’s 60s Leninist compatriots, nor that of the American fundamentalists who want to demonize Obama, but the faith of a man who knows that, even though his story is almost over and everything about it is subject to change, without faith it would have ended long ago. This story trails off into the ghostly on all sides, but Erickson keeps his vanishing points in the foreground and doesn’t let us peer beyond. He’s writing about lives lived in the midst of ghosts and nightmares, not about ghosts and nightmares themselves. The kind of faith that Zan reaches allows him to continue walking down the haunted hallways of such a life, recognizing the end up ahead as another version of the beginning far behind, and trying, as much as is possible, to hold onto his family as the ghosts swarm in. To keep walking requires more than faith in music. It requires faith as music. Bonus Link: Staff Pick: Steve Erickson’s Zeroville
Don DeLillo builds his novels and stories out of glittering set pieces. The long baseball scene that opens Underworld (reprinted in a standalone edition called Pafko at the Wall), the mass Moonie marriage in the prologue of Mao II, and the encounter with the Airborne Toxic Event in White Noise are all brilliantly conceived and expertly rendered, stretched taut between the real and the surreal. These set pieces are the most memorable parts of his work, but it’s the places between, among, and beneath them from which the transcendent and the ineffable emerge. From the abduction of a child in a park at dusk, to an earthquake ripping through sweltering Athens and two strangers meeting in a gallery of paintings depicting the fates of the Baader-Meinhof terrorists, each of the nine stories in The Angel Esmeralda (collected for the first time from original publications dating back to 1979), is wrapped tightly around its own diamond-cut set piece. Almost all of the stories privilege quiet, introspective spaces within and underneath the insane bustle of the modern city -- an art gallery, a convent, a philosophy course, a white-collar prison. In “The Starveling” (the collection’s only new story), a man spends his days haunting a network of New York movie theaters, where he ruminates on the interplay of light and dark, in life and onscreen, wondering, “was it about the universe and our remote and fleeting place as earthlings? Or was it something much more intimate, people in rooms...?” Once inside these sanctuaries, the characters seek contact with a more ancient and immutable form of existence, one that the city obscures but cannot extinguish. They find their way into these modern sanctuaries through a desire to escape from the chaos of the city outside, and yet only by opening a door to a deeper, more innate chaos, beyond the stories’ perfectionist architecture and impeccable phrasing, does the transcendent emerge palpably onto the page. In the moments when it does, the stories achieve the staggering beauty and strangeness of DeLillo’s best work. All told, The Angel Esmeralda contains three stories in which the transcendent succeeds in breaking through. In these instances, we’re right there along with the characters, in the place of apparition, watching as the secularism of modern society, and the hyper-refined veneer of DeLillo’s prose, vanish like sand blowing off a tomb in the desert. In “Human Moments in World War III” (1983), two men orbit the earth in a military satellite. As a reprieve from the job’s boredom, one of them takes to looking out the window, back at the Earth where, “The view is endlessly fulfilling...it satisfies every childlike curiosity, every muted desire, whatever there is in him of the scientist, the poet, the primitive seer, the watcher of fire and shooting stars...the neural pulse of some wilder awareness...whatever indolent and sybaritic leanings -- lotus-eater, smoker of grasses and herbs, blue-eyed gazer into space -- all these are satisfied, all collected and massed in that living body, the sight he sees from the window.” There’s nowhere to look in the satellite except out the window, and yet the character’s decision to do so and the Earth’s appearance when he does come as hard-earned and long-denied revelations. In “The Ivory Acrobat” (1988), an American woman in Athens in the aftermath of an earthquake examines a carved Minoan figure of an acrobat leaping over a bull. As she tries to reckon with this alien object, she feels the broken record of her self-consciousness slowing to a halt: “There was nothing that might connect her to the mind inside the work...[to] a knowable past, some shared theater of being. The Minoans were outside all this...lost across vales of language and magic, across dream cosmologies...her self-awareness ended where the acrobat began.” In the middle of her paranoid expat existence, she sees a void open that history and language cannot fill. In the title story (1994), the final pages of which rival any DeLillo has written, two nuns who’ve devoted themselves to what often looks like an irredeemable Bronx neighborhood see the shape of a murdered girl appear as an angel on a billboard advertising orange juice. “Her presence was a verifying force, a figure from a universal church...it had being and disposition, there was someone living in the image, a distinguishing spirit and character...a force at some deep level of lament that made [the nun] feel inseparable from...the awestruck who stood in tidal traffic..." These are rare moments when the ancient and the infinite erupt out of human production -- a spacecraft, an artifact, a billboard, and, of course, DeLillo’s own writing. He sets his stories in technological arenas that assert the victory of human reason over universal chaos, and yet, in the crucial religious moment, chaos looms back up, subverting the tools that humans have built to use against it. These appearances give way to disappearance and disappointment, but there are two kinds of disappointment here: disappointment in a reality that the story has meaningfully conveyed, and disappointment in the story for having shirked that reality’s magnitude. These three stories evoke the first and more cathartic disappointment. Leaving the place where the angel appeared, the nuns wonder, “...what do you remember, finally, when everyone has gone home and the streets are empty of devotion and hope, swept by river wind? Is the memory thin and bitter and does it shame you with its fundamental untruth...or does the power of transcendence linger, the sense of an event that violates natural forces...stand against your doubts?” In these three stories, you’re right there with the characters, shuddering with the shockwaves of impossible events, as sudden and devastating as a detonated bomb. All of the stories in this collection, even those that don’t reach these shivery highs, abound with brilliant ideas. But brilliant ideas alone are not enough to make them all work. Many feel stranded, like parts of a larger project that doesn’t exist. This is because DeLillo’s writing really comes alive not from the quality of its individual ideas, but from their shadows and echoes, the resonances of their “white noise,” magnified across a vast psychic and visual plane. In all of his novels, but not in all of his stories, these shadows and echoes mount into a chaotic force, rippling both across and underneath the surface. As it does, his vision spreads outward, encompassing ever more of the nuances and frequencies of an urbanized West that has maxed out on chatter and distraction, gorging itself on anxieties about the vanishing past, the splintering present, and the accelerating emergence of the future. It has to expand like this in order to express the burden of shepherding a lone self through a world of mass-consciousness, ruled by media and money, where terror is the only form of awe that has not been stripped and sold for parts. The novels’ plots are so all-encompassing that they send out and respond to hidden currents running through the heart of our culture, as dangerous and vital as the plots of terrorists -- as DeLillo imagines them -- have become. In Mao II, he writes, “...isn’t it the novelist...above all people, above all writers...who knows in his soul what the terrorist thinks and feels? Through history it’s the novelist who has felt affinity for the violent man who lives in the dark.” This is not to say that a great novelist like Don DeLillo shouldn’t write short stories, but I do think that his novelistic vision is ill-served by the story form, and that The Angel Esmeralda is not the product of a different, authentically story-sized vision. For all of their interest in apparitions breaking into the world, the stories permit few breaks in their own conceptual rigging, and thus often exclude the very forces they’ve summoned. What does appear, if one reads the collection in chronological order, is a portrait of DeLillo himself, as the author who most compellingly captured the mental life of the Western world in the late 20th century. In both the novels and the stories from this period, one can hear a city, maybe a whole civilization, speaking and even thinking through him. It’s no coincidence that the collection’s three best stories date from the '80s and '90s. In these stories, as in Libra, White Noise, Mao II, and Underworld (spanning the period 1985-1997), there are passages that move beyond the synthetic and into the prophetic. One gets the sense that he not only saw what was going on at that time, on an absurdly grand scale, but that he saw into it, farther in than anyone else could. These passages feel like the incarnation of something way beyond the scope of an individual mind. For all the control and precision in his language, chaos breaks through in these passages. In his famous crowd scenes -- at sports games, political rallies, fanatic religious ceremonies, and panoramas of mass squalor and degradation -- human consciousness breaks down and is overcome by something non-human, a singular psychic totality that exists beyond the infinite. In “The Ivory Acrobat,” a line of traffic in Athens “resembled some landscape in the dreaming part of us, what the city teaches us to fear.” A new state of being emerges from the mob and the traffic jam, from the novelist conjuring up ghost cities and the terrorist burning down real ones. This more primal chaos, underneath the daily chaos of the city, ends finally in unity, and perhaps also in peace. DeLillo will always be a master stylist, but this only magnifies the difference between the times when this spirit breaks through his style, and the times when it does not. As the West’s relation to terror and art, and to mass communication and solitary insight, shifts in the early 21st century, this prophetic voice has shifted away from DeLillo. In retrospect, his best work shares the billboard angel’s overwhelming but transitory power: impossible to deny when it’s there, impossible to believe when it’s gone.
1. Russell Banks’ latest novel, Lost Memory of Skin, is a descent into a netherworld of convicted sex offenders, banished to the outer edges of a seedy Florida city called Calusa, beside the primordial “Great Panzacola Swamp.” It’s a novel of the ruin and possible renewal of the Garden of Eden, where “maybe the Internet is the Snake and pornography is the forbidden fruit.” It’s a novel about the interpenetration of real and digital skin, and of self-hatred and self-gratification, in their basest and most exalted forms. Banks here is an old American master taking on a new world run not by the gossip and slander of small towns, as in many of his earlier works, but by Facebook and YouTube, Pay-per-View and the bottomless archive of online porn, coursing through communities of individuals who are at once infinitely connected, lost in some huge shared dreamscape, and, at the same time, fundamentally incapable of confronting the reality of other people. As such, Lost Memory of Skin is a pretty harrowing look at loneliness in America today, following the long path away from being “a mere loner” toward being “someone desperately lonely.” The novel leaves us with the hope that, beyond this point, reality might finally begin, even as we get deeper and deeper into the 21st century. Like most of Banks’ work, Lost Memory is about the inner turmoil of American men. It combines elements of social realism with an intense inquisition into its characters’ collapsing and regenerating inner lives. In many ways, it’s classic Russell Banks, but it’s more than the shift in setting from frozen north to sultry south, and from hushed small town to roiling big city, that sets it apart from Banks classics like Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter, and makes it a book that demands to be read, substantially enriching the already-overflowing Banks canon. Just as in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, the main character here is a young man known only as “The Kid,” a lost soul that, at the beginning, prefers the apathetic ease of being lost to the hard responsibility of being “found.” He prefers to remain a Kid, despite the fact that he is drifting into his twenties, which helps explain why he never quite accepts the guilt for the crime he was convicted of, as if he and the fourteen-year-old girl he attempted to have sex with were internally the same age, even though externally, in the eyes of society, they very much are not. Furthermore, like McCarthy’s Suttree, Lost Memory takes place on the bottom rungs of an unglamorous American city, down by the water where trash and sewage pile up and ooze away. Here, the sex offenders live like animals under a causeway because they are forbidden from residing within 2,500 feet of anywhere children might congregate. Also like McCarthy, Banks uses italicized text rather than quotation marks to set off his dialogue, giving the narrative a feverish, melting quality, as if the descriptive prose and the dialogue were all of the same essence. What his characters think and try to conceal, and what they say about themselves versus what others say about them – none of these are separable into an ordered, permanent record. On these pages, lies can take root anywhere and dissembling is the rule rather than the exception. 2. Although Banks’ world is less sweepingly Shakespearean than McCarthy’s, adopting instead a shaky conversational tone built from scraps of Facebook postings and chat room dialogue, his work, like McCarthy’s, is marked by its insight into American manhood, and its aspirations to permanence beyond time and place. Unlike McCarthy, however, and unlike Banks’ previous novels, Lost Memory of Skin is about sexual criminals rather than violent ones, and so the ways in which it thematizes manhood are different. It’s about men locked in cycles of desperate make believe, men who can only “picture having sex with... people who couldn’t reject them. Like dead people. Or little kids.” Earlier Banks novels tend to be about the ways in which men commit and get away with acts of violence, in a society that tacitly tolerates them. The sex crimes in Lost Memory are likewise products of American society, but now the tacit tolerance has been replaced with vindictive hysteria. There is a commonly held belief, I think, that violence is not something we all do, and thus, paradoxically, something we can do, when we must, because it’s already contained in its own separate category. Our understanding of sex, on the other hand, because it is such a common part of commercial and private life, cannot tolerate any such deviance. Thus, society produces sex offenders – nurturing the requisite starving loneliness, and then offering the entire pornographic and predatory infrastructure of the Internet to satiate it – while at the same time exercising extremely punitive power over them. The power of Banks’ premise comes from the volatile nature of this paradox. As Banks construes it, society’s decision to banish sex offenders into its most unseen corners is yet another form of self-deception, a vast cultural unwillingness to engage with other people, as vast as the Kid’s unwillingness to find a mature, reciprocating partner. Thus, the colony under the causeway is a hiding place for what society does not want to see: it’s a deep, police-enforced lie. 3. More than a study of societal hysteria, what Banks has written is a meditation on the cultivation of lies over time. The truth about the Kid is available online to anyone who has his real name and wants to look him up in the National Sex Offender Registry, and yet, without porn’s lies about sex, his name never would have been in that Registry in the first place. So the Kid is trapped in the midst of this network of lies. A “white guy in his early twenties,” unemployed and estranged from his single mother, he shares plenty of traits with typical Banks characters: he’s an alienated outsider, looking into society with a mixture of fear, disdain, jealousy, and longing. He’s self-taught and self-reliant, determined to maintain “strictly enforced surface relations with people.” From telling others that he’s just returned from Afghanistan, to disguising his real name like a paranoid ex-spy, the Kid hides behind smaller lies to mask the giant lie that hovers over him: that he does not know who he is, nor even how to be certain that he’s alive and not dead. It is this larger lie that recoils from the nuances and ambiguities of love and sex, and craves pornography’s static, one-sided comfort. While online, he’s connected to the outside world and everything in it, and yet, at the same time, he’s profoundly alone, lacking even his own company. He cannot imagine what to do while not watching porn, and, while watching it, he hangs suspended between worlds, imagining himself participating in the virtual sex act on his computer screen, while actually participating in a very different act just in front of it. Although in many ways “an Innocent,” he is in no way innocent. He is, rather, like all the men under the causeway, both a victim and a victimizer. He has been victimized by his mother’s indifference, by a school system that failed to reach him, by the military, which discharged him for giving away a few porn DVDs, by “brandi18,” the young girl he went to visit who told her father to ambush him when he arrived at her house, and by the justice system that sentenced him to ten years of exile for a single offense. Victimization is a common theme in Banks’ fiction, especially the victimization of children by adults, and the ways in which this both stunts moral development and also, frighteningly, stimulates it, as if the very process of passing into adulthood were necessarily one of being victimized by the adults who’d passed that way before. 4. The Kid’s fall into damnation is hard and sudden: the moment he shows up at brandi18’s house, it’s all over. After being burned on his first attempt to reach out, it will be a long time until the Kid works up the courage to try again. The process by which he begins to do so makes for a dramatic coming-of-age story, but what really fleshes out Lost Memory’s considerations of truth and falsity is the Professor, one of the most intriguing characters in all of Banks’ fiction. When he appears beneath the causeway, ostensibly to study the Kid as part of a project on homelessness, and begins to coerce him into giving candid, taped interviews, the novel shifts toward exponentially weightier mystery. Morbidly obese and colossally brilliant, the Professor’s ideal life is “one with no witnesses,” lived “at the extreme outside edge of human interaction.” Addicted to binge eating alone in the middle of the night, and unshakably convinced of his right to tyrannize everyone he encounters, the Professor introduces something grotesque, even bizarre into the novel. His disquieting effect exceeds even that of the worst and most unrepentant of the sex offenders. Like the Kid, who comes under his wing but never learns whether or not to trust him, the reader has to scramble to keep up with the Professor’s constantly changing intentions and explanations. He is not the Kid’s foil, nor his double, nor, quite, the novel’s antagonist, although he fills all of these roles. A walking “quarter ton of flesh,” he’s at once an almost unbearably physical presence, and also a specter, someone about whom so little can be known that even the fact of his existence feels tenuous and provisional. Ultimately, he becomes a kind of gross manifestation of the unknowability of absolute truth, as hard to reach in reality as the porn actresses deep in their digital lair. Like the Judge in Blood Meridian, who has a similarly threatening hand in helping or forcing McCarthy’s Kid to grow up, and like the victimizing adults in other Banks novels, the Professor serves as a highly unstable model of adulthood. Because of this, he stands as living proof of the inherent instability of being an adult, the acceptance of which may itself be the rite of passage that the Kid must undergo. Through his failed efforts to establish the truth about the Professor, the Kid begins to appreciate how maddening uncertainty can be, and to devise some rough belief system to preserve his sanity against this. 5. When real danger starts to infect this uncertainty, a sense of acceleration and impending cataclysm gathers, especially after a hurricane wrecks the colony under the causeway. As the Kid sees it, the hurricane is “like Noah and the Flood.” It is, essentially, the bottleneck through which the novel’s spirit must pass. It is also the culmination of a long series of biblical motifs that underscore the Kid’s attempts to move from guilt and willful blindness into innocence and self-recognition, aided by his discovery of a Bible in the tent of a deranged former senator. These motifs sharpen Banks’ portrait of the causeway colony as a land of lepers, or a polluted Garden of Eden (much like the snake-infested Panzacola Swamp). One could well see the Kid’s move away from porn, through the limbo of his exile, and finally toward the possibility of love, as a journey away from idol-worship and into a sturdier, harder-won religious faith, one as crucial today as ever before, but also harder than ever to arrive at. During one of their interviews, the Kid asks the Professor, “You ever wonder why they call them skin mags and skin flicks, by the way? ...I mean they’re not really skin, they’re just pictures of skin. The only skin they get you touching is your own.” Pondering this question, we come to see that the novel’s title refers not only to the Kid’s distance from reality at the moment of his crime, but also to a hope that this lost skin – his own and that of others – might not be forever lost, but might one day be “remembered,” or found for the first time. As the hurricane recedes and the Professor’s fate rushes toward him, snaring the Kid in its undertow, the novel approaches its harsh but by no means hopeless conclusion. Still under the causeway but beginning the work of climbing out, the Kid leaves us with the possibility that he may one day emerge from the Internet’s murk of avoidance, and accept the difficulty of reckoning with other people, understanding at last that the price of not doing so is more than he can pay.
After Cold Mountain, his critically and commercially beloved 1997 debut, Charles Frazier tried to conjure the same historical magic in his follow-up, Thirteen Moons. But, the second time around, written not as a first-time novelist but as a National Book Award winner with an eight million dollar advance, Frazier’s lush, swooning style failed to enchant readers the way it once did. Now, in Nightwoods, his third novel, he leaves the 19th century behind, and compresses his vision into a brutal, gorgeously cinematic 260-page thriller, set in small-town North Carolina in the 1960s, amidst bootleggers, raccoon hunters, drug-addled police officers, and divinely-inspired, knife-wielding madmen. In the midst of all this, one woman struggles to admit love into her life, and, at the same time, to keep evil from eating her alive. In every regard, Nightwoods is Frazier’s fiercest and darkest work. The violence is less glamorous and more sickening than in Cold Mountain’s sweeping battle scenes and stylized shootouts, with suffering now far outweighing glory. Nightwoods is so much shorter than Frazier’s previous novels not only because it’s tighter and more intimate, forgoing the epic grandeur that he once dredged so fruitfully from the Civil War, but also because some elemental force, an incarnation of death, perhaps, or simply silence, refuses to let it go on any longer than it does. The pressures not only within but somehow on the novel feel incredibly intense, like something malignant is crushing it down. The story begins with Luce, a young woman who’s all too happy to earn a modest stipend as caretaker of a disused Lodge on the far edge of a lake outside of town. Living here alone, with only late night radio (“Prayers pitched into the air from Nashville”) and a few elderly neighbors for company, she cultivates a hard resistance to human closeness as carefully as the few hearty vegetables that sustain her. These years of guarded tranquility, which began after she was casually raped by her high school teacher, come to an abrupt end when her murdered sister’s twin children appear on her doorstep. Mute, sullen, and prone to killing roosters and starting fires, the boy and girl usher a gust of ghostly wind into the Lodge, as if the door, once opened to admit them, can never again be closed. It’s clear, from the moment they arrive, that Luce will have to journey through some version of hell in order to save them, even as she reminds herself that her duty is only to provide shelter, not love. We never know for certain if the children are victims of evil, or agents of it, and the way that Frazier follows through the implications of this dangerous uncertainty is one of his greatest novelistic feats. Much more than helpless orphans, on the one hand, and more than stock horror story demon-children on the other, the twins, taken together as a unit, are a distinctly uncanny presence. They are capable of fighting like snakes, “real cold, like they were not even very angry at each other, just acting under some shared compulsion,” and yet they also share moments of true tenderness and vulnerability, when they cannot disguise how desperate for mothering they are, and Luce begins to waver in her resolve not to love them. When their father (and their mother’s killer) shows up in town, chasing money that he believes they have, the novel jolts even further from its hushed opening, flaring up into a showdown thriller, more than a little reminiscent of the film The Night of the Hunter. Indeed, the father, Bud, “a handsome man, at least in the retrograde style of the expired southern fifties,” is a campy, gleefully rendered stand-in for Hunter’s Robert Mitchum. Obsessed with “Christ’s wounds and Christ’s blood... the dark artery offering that covered the globe,” Bud perfectly embodies the same union of religious mania and compulsive sadism that made Mitchum’s Gospel-preaching hunter such an indelible bogeyman. The one difference, of course, is that the hunted children here are not the helpless innocents they were in the film: Frazier gets us to fear for the children, but also to fear them, never letting us forget that they are the progeny of the very murderer who has come to hunt them down. This extra variable only compounds the intensity of the hunt. Despite Nightwoods’ markedly grimmer tone, however, Frazier retains his giant crowd-pleasing appeal, and this works both for and against him. There is an undeniable greatness to his prose and the way he carves terror and romance out of the magisterial Carolina landscape, building toward an intentionally unsubtle climax, and yet some saccharine aftertaste lurks even in the novel’s roughest patches: there is always the suspicion that he’s gone too far out of his way to please, crafting a sort of backwoods-bloodbath-lite for urbanites who know nothing of this world except a few tired clichés, and are game only for a brief guided tour. As such, the prose veers too often into a nostalgic, aphoristic tone, seemingly meant to convey hard-earned country wisdom, like “ ...violence is best accomplished spur-of-the-moment. Let it happen out of nowhere... like there’s no past and no future, nothing but the red right now...” These lines are always beautiful, and often ring true, but, over time, they start to seem either demeaning toward the rural reality they come from, or else condescending toward the urban readership they will doubtlessly reach. In short, Nightwoods is not only grippingly cinematic, it’s also unabashedly movie-ready, no less so than Cold Mountain was. But none of this obscures the pleasure of reading such a scary and handsomely pared-down novel. At the very center of the woods is a “black hole filled with black water,” which “pulled at you. You stand up to it, or you go down.” As the action hurdles along toward its inevitable bloody conclusion, the magnetic attraction of this black hole grows so strong that it overwhelms or simply devours any lingering suspicions of the confectionary hollowness under Frazier’s perfectly dressed scenes. After this, I could do nothing but enjoy the accelerating ride into and finally through the dark. Almost as much, I’m sure, as I’ll enjoy the movie when it comes out.