With the news of Simon & Schuster’s conservative Threshold imprint acquiring — via $250,000 advance — a memoir by “that person” (whom I’m declining to name, or even describe, because why give him more free publicity?), the outcry was swift, accusing Simon & Schuster of cynically capitalizing on and rewarding hate speech and normalizing white supremacy.
I don’t disagree with those sentiments, but I didn’t jump into the fray because, quite honestly, I didn’t know how I felt. There are a lot of issues at play: hate, misogyny, capitalism (i.e., publishing as a business), coexisting with my reality as a writer fortunate enough to have a supportive publisher. And that publisher is Simon & Schuster.
I had an 800-page manuscript that I had taken 10 years to finish; literary fiction is never a clear moneymaker, long novels are problematic from, if anything, a production point of view (all that paper, all that ink, the increased shipping costs), and yet my editor took me on for a nice five, not six-figure, advance. Even better, she had also just taken on a prizewinning Korean American author whom I admired, whose first book had also come out with an independent press. My editing process at Beacon Press was fairly straightforward because the novel was ready to go. With the current novel, there are structural issues, and a team of editors have rolled up their sleeves, put the tome on a metaphorical lift, and gotten just as sweaty and dirty tinkering with its guts as I have. I’m relieved that, even as the years slide by, they talk only about getting the book right, rather than pushing out “product.” In short, I’m living a dream I’d had as a child banging out stories on my hand-me-down typewriter and selling them — to my parents.
Like many, I was horrified that a person who Twitter had deemed so odious/dangerous it banned him from the platform was being given another platform, a paid one, in short order.
Protest is often the only way to get a company’s attention. And it can have results. But it’s not always the results that were intended, or wanted. For instance, after the outcry over the “sadistic contents” of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, three months before the book’s publication, it was dropped by the publishing house….Simon & Schuster. CEO Richard Snyder explained, “It was an error of judgment to put our name on a book of such questionable taste.”
But the book was just as quickly picked up by esteemed editor Sonny Mehta and published by Random House’s prestigious Vintage imprint.
Irrespective of the nature and quality of these two books, it’s instructive to examine these unintended consequences. Books are indeed published by corporations, which need to sell to stay in business. But as much was we like to treat books as “widgets,” they aren’t interchangeable goods or services. Each one is written by an author or co-author.
In an overcrowded publishing market, bad attention can be just as valuable, perhaps more so, as good attention. The brouhaha over American Psycho certainly branded it into America’s cultural consciousness; the book is still robustly with us, it recently turned 25 and just appeared on Broadway as a musical (!), i.e., trying to kill it with bad publicity may have done exactly the opposite.
The second thing to consider is unintended collateral damage. Many people objected to the content of Fifty Shades of Grey, but it not only helped keep Random House (now Penguin Random House) in the black, it brought in so much revenue that every employee, from “top editors to warehouse workers,” received a $5,000 bonus.
So what’s the opposite of a rising tide?
When I heard the calls to boycott Simon & Schuster, that reviewers were going to refuse to review, authors were vowing not to blurb S&S authors’ books, a bookstore tweeted that it wasn’t even going to stock any S&S books, I felt a bit of a chill. I had no urge to write my editors, because they had zero to do with the decision to acquire that book. Publishing firms are “houses” with huge family trees, divided into specialized groups called imprints. While imprints are not wholly autonomous, they each have their own eco-systems. I write literary fiction and publish with the Simon & Schuster imprint. Simon & Schuster also has several other general interest imprints, specialized imprints, and several children’s book imprints, as well as Howard Books, which publishes for the Christian marketplace. Should its Folger Shakespeare Library imprint be penalized for an acquisition by Threshold Editions, a conservative writers’ imprint (that has also published Donald Trump and bona fide war criminal Dick Cheney — with no outcry)?
The calls to boycott are continuing after Simon & Schuster (the company) has stated it intends to go ahead and publish the book in question. So what, then, is the endgame?
Professor Matthew Garcia, who wrote From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement and who has studied boycotts for years told me that “The boycott of S&S will be tricky. It requires a campaign and a set of goals. First, is there an organization willing to put the time in to organize and pursue the campaign the way the United Farm Workers did?”
Good question. I personally feel that protecting healthcare, especially Medicaid and Medicare, is one of the most important things we need to do right now.
“Second, that organization needs to do what UFW did with grapes — identify what percentage of the product’s delivery to market they need to effect in order to have S&S respond,” Garcia said. “In the UFW case, they did not hit all sellers of grapes equally. They targeted the biggest sellers, and set as their goal to reduce sales by 10 percent in 10 of the top markets. They did that by knowing what amount would hurt their bottom line, and produce the biggest seller’s capitulation. I imagine the organization that pursues a boycott of S&S would have to identify the same profit margins for the company and what it would take to tip them in order to identify effective goals.”
Books, though, aren’t an undifferentiated product like grapes. There’s a lot of untethered anger that’s much more than about one guy, one book deal, one company. People are mad as hell (rightly so) about the rise of the so-called “alt-right” (a.k.a. white supremacists). But how do we try to harness this anger productively? Successfully boycotting S&S is not going achieve what many of us really want — which is to boycott 2016.
But if we’re going to try to get Simon & Schuster (and CBS, its parent company) to listen, what books should boycotters target to get to the United Farmworkers’ 10 percent threshold? Probably the big ones like…the Bruce Springsteen memoir. Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See. Maybe Shonda Rhimes’s bestselling memoir, Stephen King’s latest? How about Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything — cited as one of the “Seven Books You Need to Understand (and Fight) the Age of Trump“?
Even if such a boycott was successful in harming the bottom line of a publisher, how do we know in a capitalist society that the publisher wouldn’t then make up the difference by publishing even worse things or being less inclined to take risks? S&S started Salaam Reads, a imprint for Muslim-themed children’s books. Why not starve “that person’s book” financially and publicity-wise, and instead buy two books from Salaam Reads?
Bookstore owners and buyers, who are the most direct link in all of this, are starting to formulate statements and implementing plans. Kathy Crowley, co-owner of Belmont Books, a Boston-area store set to open this spring, is a writer herself, and she told me that she and her husband have decided “Belmont Books won’t sell this book.” She adds, “Though I do want S&S to feel the heat for this decision, boycotting all S&S authors seems neither fair nor likely to be effective. More likely, the boycott generates lots of publicity for the book, raises the hackles of the anti-PC, pro-[‘that person’], pro-Trump crowd, and, in the end, rewards S&S and [‘that person’].”
On the other coast, Christin Evans, owner of The Booksmith, a 40-year-old institution, which is, she said “specifically located in the historic Haight Ashbury” section of San Francisco will skip over “that person’s” book (and anything from the Threshold Editions imprint), cut the number of S&S books, and, of the remainder, donate any profits from S&S books to the ACLU “for the foreseeable future.”
The extremity of what’s coming requires we actually lay out on the table what we stand for. If we stand for a free exchange of ideas, we have to support publishing. Can we instead reject this person’s ideas and collectively stop giving him a platform? If publishing is a business, can we vote with our dollars and our attention (cultural capital)? Store owners can decide whether to stock this title or not, reviewers can review or not. But a blanket boycott of any publisher’s books makes no sense. It’s burning down the house because you saw a spider.
On a recent foray into the deepest, dankest corners of my basement, I came across a box of college mementoes — old photographs, bottlecaps, blue-book exams. As I dug through the strata, I uncovered a largely-forgotten treasure: a stack of novels that I’d read and loved as an idealistic, horny, often hungover student. These books helped usher me from my teens into adulthood — and opened my eyes to the breadth, and often the harshness, of the surrounding world. I’d adored these books. So why had I left them in this box, like discarded memories? Looking through them again, I may have found the answer.
Dancing Soup with Coyote Girl • Tom Robbins
As a sophomore, I discovered Robbins’s Another Roadside Attraction and was blown back by his sentences’ studied freedom and his generous worldview. I quickly read Still Life With Woodpecker and enjoyed it slightly less; Skinny Legs and All, less still. By the time I got to Jitterbug Perfume, I was openly annoyed by the patchouli miasma that hovered over everything. The last Robbins book I read was Dancing Soup With Coyote Girl, published in 1992. The more Coyote Girl I read, the more I felt almost physically ill, as if a sketchy-bearded hippie was talking me through a brown-acid trip. I couldn’t finish the book. And when I saw Dancing Soup With Coyote Girl’s long-forgotten cover — a purple can of mushroom soup hovering above a desert mesa — I had a sweaty flashback that left me shivering under the utility sink.
Monsters of Privilege • Bret Easton Ellis
Of all the Ellis novels I ripped through in college — American Psycho, Glamorama, Less Than Zero — I remember very little about Monsters of Privilege aside from the fact that it featured hard drugs, an anorexic girl seeming to die without anyone caring, and lots of dead-eyed sex. As I flipped through my copy — the cover shows a backlit silhouette of a high-cheeked young man and a bold san-serif font — my eye landed on a passage that seemed representative: “Derek looked around, blood draining from the wound. The glass vase lay smashed on the Italian marble. ‘I need some coke,’ Derek muttered to the empty foyer. Out by the pool, someone had put on a Tears for Fears cassette.”
Garbageman • Charles Bukowski
Bukowski’s third novel, the autobiographical Garbageman, is about Los Angeles trash collector Henry Chinaski, who, when not working for the city’s Public Works Authority, writes short stories on a broken typewriter in his grimy cold-water flat. Chinaski rages against his circumscribed lot with a steady, heroic intake of hard booze and cheap women, unconcerned by the bleakness of it all. While some have criticized Garbageman as a carbon-copy of much of his other work — Post Office and Factotum come to mind — the differences are obvious. In Post Office, he’s a postal worker, and in Factotum, he’s a factotum (or handyman). In Garbageman, he’s a…well, I won’t ruin it for you.
The Gutter • Hubert Selby, Jr.
What I’d consider to be Selby’s lightest, frothiest novel, The Gutter follows the exploits of a heroin-addicted gigolo named Bunny. At the book’s outset, we find Bunny writhing in a flophouse basement, covered in blood and vomit while scratching at infected boils. Two hundred forty-seven pages later, Bunny is near death, “bad skag” spreading through his veins, spittle at his purple lips, as he moans in the titular gutter. “I always wanted to write a comedy,” Selby said to The New York Review of Books in 1987, upon The Gutter’s publication. “This is my Without Feathers.”
Ishmael 3: Going Ape • Daniel Quinn
I read the gorilla-philosophy classic Ishmael at the precise moment I should have, when I was about 19 and, like its narrator, had “an earnest desire to save the world.” Its message — basically, that we’re a species of selfish bastards, and we need to stop hacking everything to pieces — seemed sound, and I became a vegetarian not long after reading it. A sequel, My Ishmael, offered more of the same, and I responded in kind, cutting dairy from my diet and riding my 10-speed everywhere, no matter the distance. I was nearly at my limit — and the Gaia-minded self-sacrifice urged in Ishmael 3: Going Ape pushed me over the edge. After reading it, I sought out a remote yurt-based community, where we drank home-brewed scallionmilk and fashioned socks from dryer lint. It was a rough period, to say the least (it was the year of the Great Eastern Chigger Invasion), and as the memories flooded back, I shoved Ishmael 3: Going Ape into the deepest recesses of the box, along with its companions: the Selby, the Ellis, the Bukowski, the Robbins. I sealed it with fresh tape, hurried up the basement steps, and shut off the light. Upstairs, slightly shaken, I laid on my living-room couch and continued reading a book that, I’m positive, will never seem embarrassing in retrospect.
Image Credit: Flickr/Angelo Yap.
Patrick Bateman as internet troll? I could see it. Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho, stopped by Town and Country to muse over how an early-twentieth century Patrick Bateman might behave a bit differently: “I check in with Patrick every now and then—as with this article you’re reading—but he has been living his own life for some time now, and I rarely feel as if I have guardianship over him, or any right to tell him where he would or would not be today, decades after his birth.”
My wife carries the distinction of being, among many other things, the world’s most ardent fan of the southern California folk-rock band Dawes. If they’re playing a show within 100 miles of our home, she will unquestionably be there; when they announce the release of a new recording, she pre-orders it as soon as she can. And if they offer a book club — in which, every other month, a member of Dawes sends out a paperback, along with an explanation of why he chose that book — she will become a member, excessive cost be damned. Since she joined in August, we’ve received three Dawes-approved titles: Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, and, most recently, Henry Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. “[Miller] leans heavily on some of the pre-existing tenets of eastern religion,” drummer Griffin Goldsmith writes in his “Dawes Book Report,” “particularly the idea that an individual’s happiness is not only contingent upon where they are in the world, but also upon a confluence of internal emotions.”
To put it mildly, such knottiness is not what my wife expected from her fluffy-haired purveyors of golden-hued singalongs. (And I can’t really blame her; in college, I abandoned Sometimes a Great Notion after 15 flummoxing, headache-inducing pages.) All I can do is clear out shelf space for her new and difficult books — and suggest, politely, that she join one of the following competing rock ‘n’ roll reading clubs, which, of course, include their own book reports.
Ozzy Osbourne: Of Mice and Men
So, Of Mice and Men, it’s got this big dumb wanker, Christ, I can’t remember his name — wait, wait, it’s Denny, no, Lenny, that’s it — and his mate, this teensy little shitter, George. This George fellow is like the Oates to Lenny’s Hall, if that makes any sense. I don’t think it does. Fucking “Maneater,” innit. Anyway, they’re all kinda walking around and what, like, camping? And the big one, he’s always killing the animals ‘cos he’s so fucking big. Like, you ever see that guy, whatsit, Joey Ramone? I met him once in Boston, or like Tokyo? He was fuckin’ huge, and that’s who I kept thinking of when I was reading this book. At the end of the book, the guy from the Ramones kills this kind of hooker-type bird in a barn, and that was pretty much that. Christ, I don’t know what this book was on about.
Bob Dylan: Twilight
Twilight is a book about a girl who falls in love with a boy who, I’ll tell you right now, just happens to be a vampire. Life is funny like that sometimes. But this girl, her name is Bella. And she can’t do anything about this love of hers; she just can’t put it through. Some hoodoo about magic powers, is what I’m gathering. Young love is like that, I’ve found — untrustworthy at its heart and cold where it shouldn’t be. The book asks a certain kind of question, one that the wise men have been wrestling since the days of Plato, since the days of Little Richard, banging out his mystic sounds: is true love possible? And if not, how about vampire love? Now, I don’t know if it is or not, since I never was able to finish the book. I couldn’t make hide nor hair of it, to be honest on all fronts. It’s really long — longer than the mighty Mississippi, where you can hear that steam whistle blow, far off into the night. Out beyond them sycamore trees standing out in the dark. A sound to scare the vampires, if there are any vampires around to scare.
Jimmy Buffett: American Psycho
Maybe you weren’t expecting Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho to be the first selection of my book club. Jimmy, I hear you plead, you’re the bard of the beachfront, the Wordsworth of the waves. You once released an album called License to Chill; you write songs about delicious cheeseburgers. Why kick things off with a harrowing, full-bore descent into the savage, blood-spattered heart of our long-dead modern dream? Why confront us with this jagged, debauched journey into a pornographic, torturous vision? Why not give us something easy, something by Carl Hiaasen or, you know, Dave Barry — or better yet, one of your own books, like the lounge-chair-ready A Salty Piece of Land or Where is Joe Merchant?
My response is this, my faithful Parrotheads: beneath every placid exterior lies a festering, maggot-ridden core, a hellish pit of snakes and raw-boned, scalding pain. Stare into those waves lapping gently against the shore long enough, and soon enough you’ll see the nihilism in their relentless pounding; that water at your sunburned feet should remind us all of the steady encroachment of death.
Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes — I hope you dig the book! Up next after this one: The Lincoln Lawyer, by Michael Connelly!
Adam Levine: Ulysses
Hey, Maroon 5 Book Clubbers! This month’s super-cool novel is James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is hugely important to me, and not just because it’s the most prominent landmark in modernist literature — or that in 1998 the Modern Library named it the best English-language novel of the 20th Century! I chose Ulysses because it’s a work in which life’s complexities are depicted with unprecedented, and unequalled, linguistic and stylistic virtuosity. (Seriously, guys, it is!) But that’s not all: in its characters we see, according to some lex eterna, an ineluctable condition of their very existence! Isn’t that rad? All right now, Fivers, get to it — I hope you love it as much as I did! ‘Cause I totally read it — and other books, too! I didn’t just have my assistant cut and paste lines from Wikipedia to make it seem like I had read Joyce’s sublime masterpiece, which, I have to say, depicts life’s complexities with unprecedented, and unequalled, linguistic and stylistic virtuosity!
Image Credit: Wikipedia/jon rubin.
Self-styled music critic Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel American Psycho, certainly had a lot to say about 80s mainstays like Genesis and Huey Lewis and the News. Over at The New Inquiry, J. Temperance argues for Steve Winwood as Patrick Bateman’s musical doppelgänger. Go ahead and take a look at this essay by Bill Morris of The Millions on The Canyons, a film for which Ellis wrote the screenplay.
Feeling overwhelmed by a profound sense of inadequacy brought on by the growing list of “Before You Die” lists, I recently hunted down a book that I suspect may have started it all – one that, at least, surely inspired the authors of books like A Lifetime Reading Plan and Book Lust.
The List of Books: A library of over 3,000 works was published in 1981 by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish. It’s a slim volume with an unusual page configuration — more than twice as tall as it is wide. In a scant 159 pages, Raphael and McLeish list more than 3,000 titles grouped into 44 categories, mostly non-fiction, with allowances made for drama, poetry, and novels. The intent, in their own words, was to design “an imaginary library … in which a reasonably literate person can hope to find both instruction and inspiration, art and amusement.”
Back in the 1980s, I borrowed this book from the library a lot. I always meant to buy it. For whatever reason, the book never saw a third printing, so it disappeared from brick and mortar bookstores (dozens are available on Amazon for a penny) and I forgot about it. It last rolled off the press in 1988 — so long ago that one could read the “newest” titles recommended by the authors and likely not find a single reference to the Internet.
What sets The List apart from its younger cousins are the thirteen Michelin Guide-type symbols (a magnifying glass, an American flag, an armchair, etc.) that Raphael and McLeish used to flag titles as (for example) a “major masterpiece,” a “seminal work that changed our thinking,” “a particular pleasure to read,” and so on. Some are “recommended for beginners on the subject” while more advanced volumes are deemed “difficult, worth preserving.”
These symbols of literary merit are liberally scattered throughout. Many titles have none; some boast as many as half a dozen — like Plato’s Phaedo, which is: 1) a particular pleasure to read, 2) a seminal book that changed our thinking, 3) a standard work on the subject, 4) recommended for beginners in the subject, 5) a major masterpiece that is 6) not to be missed.
As a teenager, the titles that most interested me were those flagged by a magnifying glass or an asterisk, with the former denoting “difficult; worth preserving” and the latter “infuriating; possibly illuminating.” This second category was particularly exciting. I figured an “infuriating” book demanded more of a reader than one that was merely “difficult.” A book so supremely difficult that it was … infuriating! Yet, with sufficient intellectual energy brought to bear, the serious reader might crack the code and bask in the glow of illumination. Honestly, these were not books I was likely to read, but they were books I wanted to know about.
Recently, I found The List of Books at the library — the same library, in fact, where I first encountered it a quarter of a century ago, raising the delightful possibility that it was the same copy that I held in my hands so long ago. Once again, I drifted toward “difficult” and “infuriating,” curious to know how decades had colored my perceptions and whether my original interpretation was correct.
Sixty-one titles, clustered mostly in history and politics, are ranked as “infuriating.” The subjectivity of the entire enterprise became clear, and I found myself slipping into the same indignant space late 20th century critics occupied when demanded to know why this or that title was excluded from a “Best Books of the 20th Century” list. I haven’t actually read Lewis Morgan’s Ancient Society, for example, but I know enough about it (and that counts for something, doesn’t it?) to know that excluding it from the list is an abomination. Questions abound. How can Peter Brooks’s 1968 treatise on dramatic theory be termed a seminal work that is both difficult and recommended for beginners? Why in the world is Ulysses not flagged as difficult?
Initially, my first hunch seemed correct. Reviewing these 61 titles, one gets the impression that Raphael and McLeish were highlighting books they believed were extremely difficult to read. Studies in Ethnomethodology, after all, can’t be a book you fly through. And the reader comments section on Amazon.com for Roland Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero includes a telling remark: Writing Degree Zero is one of those 100-page books you need a 500-page book to really understand,” writes Mark Nadja. “You know you’re in trouble when, like me, you find yourself having a problem fully comprehending even the `explanatory’ preface.”
So it makes sense that Marx’s Das Capital is in the club, because — his brilliance notwithstanding — the man’s prose was frequently impregnable. But the exception to that rule complicates matters: The Communist Manifesto, a slim volume that happens to be very readable (thanks largely to the fact, one suspects, that Engels was there from the get-go to help). The Book of Lists would have you believe that it, like Capital, is also infuriating. Why?
At this point, it’s helpful to recall that the root of “infuriate” is fury, which begs the question: Do the bourgeoisie authors consider Marx, regardless of the difficulty of his prose, infuriating because he enraged their mid-19th century cousins? How could anyone have been infuriated by Capital, when few people likely even understood what the hell he was talking about?
The implication here seems to be that “infuriating” means “controversial.” It makes sense, then, to include Richard Aldington’s scandalous biography, Lawrence of Arabia — one so hostile toward its subject that one Amazon reviewer has said reading it is “like standing under a waterfall of venom.” But if Aldington gets to be infuriating for throwing darts at T.E. Lawrence, why does Jerzy Kosinski get a pass for screwing around with the Holocaust? His controversial 1965 novel The Painted Bird appears in the list, but it didn’t make the “infuriating” cut. Curious, since many readers were infuriated to learn that Kosinski may not even have written it.
“Infuriating” clearly works both ways. I cannot believe, for example, that Robert Graves retelling of The Greek Myths is infuriating for any of the same reasons that Jean Paul-Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is. I haven’t read the latter, but I’ll bet it’s a sonofabitch to get through.
Consider William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (which doesn’t appear in the list), the book Allen Ginsberg famously predicted would “drive everybody mad.” An obvious reference to the fact that the novel is incomprehensible. Naked Lunch is a notoriously difficult text – one might say infuriatingly so. I actually have read it, but it didn’t make me angry. I can understand, however, why June and Ward Cleaver would have been appalled if they’d found a dog-eared copy and a flashlight stuffed under Beaver’s pillow.
It seems to me that if we’re considering a book’s capacity to illicit genuine fury, it cannot merely ruffle feathers within a community of specialists. Sigfried Gideon’s Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition is deemed “infuriating,” but who, other than architects, becomes infuriated by a 960-page book about architecture? This seems insufficient. In my lifetime, the publication of a book that infuriates the general population has been a rare event. The Satanic Verses comes to mind, although that presents a different problem: The vast majority of those angered by Salman Rushdie’s book never actually read it.
Isn’t that the case, really, with most “infuriating” books? How many people actually finished (or even started) American Psycho? I’m no different when it comes to judging books by the covers. While perusing the history shelf at a bookstore recently, I saw a book called Being George Washington, by Glenn Beck, and immediately felt a sensation that approximated fury. The history shelf! A low-grade fury, to be sure; it wasn’t what I’d feel if someone harmed my child. But having observed the Beck phenomenon closely over the years, I feel justified saying that the man has no more business writing authoritatively and insightfully about George Washington than I do writing a book called Space, Time and Architecture. And yet, I never picked it up; its very existence enrages me.
But I’m neglecting the rest of the phrase denoted by an asterisk: These books are not only infuriating, but “possibly illuminating.” What does that mean? Possibly illuminating? The author may sound like he’s on crack, but we concede he may be on to something! Or: If you’re not a complete imbecile, you may learn something by reading this book.
This is a minor matter, to be sure. One reader’s “infuriating” is another’s “exhilarating.” The bigger problem with The List of Books, of course, is that it’s horribly outdated. It has a science and technology section devoid of Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Ernst Mayer, David Quammen, Brian Greene, Stephen Jay Gould or even Carl Sagan. A current “paranormal and occult” section without Whitley Strieber’s Communion books is like a list of best fantasy novels that excludes The Lord of the Rings. Speaking of fantasy, a similar problem looms over in children’s literature: No Harry Potter. Also, since 1981, graphic novels have evolved light years beyond the cheap paper they were once printed on. Consequently, those relying on The List of Books to decide which titles to scrape together in anticipation of the Zombie Apocalypse would remain oblivious to the work of Art Spiegelman, Joe Sacco, Neil Gaiman, and Craig Thompson. Not to mention The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman. Which might come in handy.
Three decades on, The List of Books highlights better than its many predecessors the ephemeral quality of all lists of books and other artistic works. It’s a simple – and perhaps even instinctive – matter to argue about or even dismiss a list of the “best” (although perhaps not “favorite”) books because of this or that inclusion/exclusion. What, after all, is wrong with debate? Ultimately, the lesson we ought to take from Raphael and McLeish is the importance of embracing our Amazon- and Goodreads- and Riffle-fed obsession with listography. The sheer number and availability of our book lists may be infuriating, but they are often a pleasure to read. And even possibly illuminating.
One night in the early 1980s, Jay McInerney, then a twenty-something wannabe writer, stumbled home after an epic evening of partying and heard an insistent voice in his head saying, “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.” He dashed off a quick paragraph about the night he’d just spent at a club talking with a girl with a shaved head and wishing he could get his hands on some more “Bolivian Marching Powder.” A short time later, editor George Plimpton called him to say he’d liked a story McInerney had sent to The Paris Review and hoped McInerney had something else he might want to submit. Rooting through his old notebooks, McInerney found the scrawled paragraph about his night at the club, and in the space of a few hours, wrote an entire story in that angry, ironical, self-disgusted second-person voice.
Plimpton published the story, “It’s Six A.M., Do You Know Where You Are?” in The Paris Review, and in 1984, with the help of his best friend from college, Random House editor Gary Fisketjon, McInerney turned it into a 182-page novel, Bright Lights, Big City, which became an instant bestseller, making McInerney at once among the most popular and most vilified writers in America. Three years later, the Village Voice labeled McInerney, along with Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz, as part of the Literary Brat Pack, setting off an orgy of media hype that continues to dog these authors to this day.
Even now, as the novel marks its 30th anniversary, it is nearly impossible to separate one’s opinion of Bright Lights from one’s opinion of its author. This is in no small part McInerney’s fault. At the height of his fame, he partied hard and publicly; he dated models, said inane things in magazine profiles, and earned a rightful place in untold numbers of nasty gossip columns. He has married four times and written six more novels, many of them bad, one or two of them truly execrable. In latter years, McInerney has become almost a parody of his younger self: a red-faced dandy with presidential hair, married to a Hearst heiress, who writes wine columns for the Wall Street Journal.
But forget all that. Forget, too, the unwatchable screen version of Bright Lights starring a painfully miscast Michael J. Fox. Forget the later books. Forget the careers of McInerney’s fellow Brat Packers, none of whom has written a good novel in the last twenty years. Set all of that aside, and just read the book. If you do, you may well find that, pried loose from the perpetual noise machine that surrounds its author and the lore of its publication, Bright Lights, Big City appears, hidden in plain sight, as one of the great undiscovered gems of post-World War II American literature.
Put simply, Bright Lights, Big City is the story of a young, handsome man-child very much like Jay McInerney, who works in the Department of Factual Verification of a famous magazine very much like The New Yorker. Abandoned by his fashion-model wife, Amanda, and mourning a private sorrow, the novel’s narrator snorts enough cocaine to float a South American junta, gets fired from the famous magazine, and nearly has his hand bitten off by enraged ferret. In the end, he reunites with his family, meets a nice Princeton girl with freckles, and in a direct steal from the short story “A Small Good Thing” by McInerney’s mentor Raymond Carver, he finishes the book gorging on fresh bread, resolving “to learn everything all over again.”
But, really, nothing about Bright Lights, Big City is as simple as it seems. Start with those autobiographical details. McInerney was in fact fired from a job as a fact-checker at the New Yorker. He had also been briefly married to a fashion model, Linda Rossiter, before he met a fresh-faced graduate student named Merry Reymond, to whom he dedicated the book. He was also, by his own admission, partying pretty hard and putting a good deal of Bolivia’s finest up his nose.
But it’s a hall of mirrors, these connections between the novel’s protagonist and its author, making it hard to pass judgment on the fictional character without running headlong into his real-life doppelgänger, who has spent the last thirty years looking more fashion-plate-ish and sounding more pompously self-involved than any ordinary reader can be expected to endure. Perusing three decades of magazine-profile McInerniana, one longs to suggest he please stop with the preciously self-conscious comparisons to F. Scott Fitzgerald. One yearns to slip him a note suggesting he try getting his picture taken in something other than a black turtleneck or J. Press sport coat. He might also try being linked to a woman who is neither a model nor a scion to a great newspaper fortune. And would it kill him to go to Supercuts? One $19.95 haircut would do wonders for his literary reputation.
The problem is, of course, that, with some crucial elisions and exaggerations for effect, the unnamed protagonist of Bright Lights, Big City is Jay McInerney, and to fully appreciate his book, we have to see past that to the boldness and prescience of his literary achievement. We live in an age of memoir. Today, every ambitious young person with a problem and a prose style is writing a memoir of his or her misspent youth to the bestseller list, and it isn’t going out on much of a limb to suggest that if McInerney had had that cocaine-fueled moment of clarity today, he would have written a bestselling addiction memoir rather than a bestselling literary novel. In fact, it isn’t much of a stretch to suggest that if the other Brat Packers were starting out today they would be writing memoir rather than fiction – Janowitz about her freaky Lower East Side friends, Ellis about his monstrously vacuous early years in L.A. This may help answer the perennial question: “Whatever happened to the 1980s Literary Brat Pack?” What happened to them is what eventually happens to all young memoirists: they ran out of source material.
But the secret to Bright Lights, Big City, what makes it feel so fresh thirty years later, is that it’s not a memoir. In 1984, the addiction memoir didn’t exist as a popular form the way it does today, so McInerney drew his stylistic guidance from an older tradition of voice-driven American literature that runs through J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The voice at the center of Bright Lights may be spoiled and petulant, but it also is unmistakably American: fatally romantic, distrustful of authority, and democratic to a fault, even as it sounds its barbaric yawp over the rooftop parties of the world.
It may sound strange to call McInerney’s narrator, so famously obsessed with status and designer goods, democratic, but one of the things that emerges from a rereading of Bright Lights is how deeply middle American his voice sounds. For all his velvet-rope hopping and faux French phrases, deep down the narrator is just a wide-eyed kid gawking at the passing parade of humanity called New York City, and one of the pleasures of the book is how effortlessly it allows you to gawk along with him.
The New York of Bright Lights, Big City is a city poised on the knife-edge of change. For decades, upwardly mobile young white people like McInerney’s narrator had been fleeing to the suburbs, where John Updike’s and John Cheever’s protagonists lived, leaving the five boroughs a cauldron of poverty, crime, and ethnic unrest. But in the years after the city nearly went bankrupt in the 1970s, the poles abruptly reversed. Knowledge industries like banking, media, and fashion design, which had stayed in New York even as its manufacturing base evaporated, hit their stride again, and upwardly mobile young white people – the adventurous ones, anyway – started beating a track back to the city, snapping up cheap apartments in formerly industrial and working-class neighborhoods like SoHo and the West Village.
Bright Lights, Big City puts you at the heart of this historic shift, riding the subways where Hasidic Jews – “gnomes in black with briefcases full of diamonds” – study scripture beside Rastafarians reeking “of sweat and reefer”; and walking the streets where vendors sell everything from drugs and fake watches to real, live wild ferrets. The daily clash between this rougher, more tribal New York and the new college-educated elite flooding the city gives the novel its vivid backdrop and hastens the narrator toward his drug-fueled self-immolation.
McInerney reports it all with great humor and a raptor’s eye for squirming detail, but it’s the second-person voice that makes it lasting literature. By telling his own story through a fictional avatar called “you,” McInerney manages the trick of creating three characters from one protagonist. On the one hand, the character is Jay McInerney, a real person who experienced misadventures very similar to those described in the book and who thus possesses the credibility granted to any memoirist. At the same time, he is a fictional construct for whom all the traditional rules of narrative apply: we can laugh at his foibles and voyeuristically feel his pain, all the while knowing he isn’t real.
But finally – this is the magic part – he is literally “you,” each and every one of McInerney’s readers, the thousands of suburban-bred Americans who yearned to be this essentially decent, right-thinking guy who is also a wildly self-destructive drug addict. This was the substance of McInerney’s flash of insight when he turned that scrawled paragraph into a work of fiction: that thousands of readers secretly wanted to be like him. So he let them. In his book, you marry a fashion model. You work at The New Yorker and stay out partying every night till dawn. You own an Aston-Martin sports car that a friend has smashed up and know the waitress by name at the Lion’s Head bar. And when you let it all slip through your fingers, thanks to your unquenchable thirst for the edge, you are saved by the love of a good woman, who is prettier than the fashion model and a doctoral student at Princeton.
The second-person voice performed one last magic act on McInerney himself: it opened him up. Throughout his career, in good books and bad, McInerney’s subject has been beauty and what it masks. Whether he’s writing about socialites or fashion models, writers or investment bankers, the engine of the plot is a dazzling surface that hides an ugly truth. Some books are better than others. His 1992 novel Brightness Falls is a smart, sharply observed take on the go-go Eighties. The Last of the Savages, published in 1997 and set in part in the American South, occasionally manages to rise above McInerney’s general cluelessness about the American South to deliver some moving scenes.
More often than not, though, McInerney’s later novels fail because he is too in love with the surfaces in his characters. Only in Bright Lights, Big City does McInerney truly peel back the mask. What he reveals is not, in the great scheme of things, so awful. The novel’s hero isn’t a sadistic mass murderer like Patrick Bateman from Ellis’s American Psycho. He is merely needy and socially insecure. For this man, the primal scene isn’t catching his parents having sex, but “a ring of schoolchildren, like Indians surrounding a wagon train, laughing with malice, pointing their vicious little fingers to insist on your otherness.” He has since learned the art of appearing to belong, but he has “never quite lost the fear that you eventually would be discovered a fraud, an imposter in the social circle.”
For a man obsessed with belonging – whose girlfriend must always be the prettiest in the room, who must always know the name of the waitress at the Lion’s Head – this is as ugly a truth as it is possible for him to admit. Indeed, his hunger to belong, to have the sexiest wife, the most prestigious job, the best vial of blow south of Fourteenth Street, nearly kills him. In the end, he is saved, but thirty years later, we know how that story turned out. He married the girl from Princeton – actually, she was teaching at Syracuse – and then they divorced, and two wives later, he is the red-faced man in a J. Press sport coat, condemned in every interview to talk about his first, best work.
The suburban Dick and Jane characters of A.M. Homes’s oeuvre smoke crack, set their homes ablaze, lust for Barbie dolls, and teach teenage girls the art of perversion. In her new novel, the trend continues with a duplicitous protagonist whose actions take us straight to the divided heart of human consciousness.
Spineless college professor and Nixon scholar Harold Silver is wearing his brother’s pants. He’s using his brother’s driver’s license, living in his brother’s home, and taking care of his brother’s kids. Younger taller brother George, a successful TV executive and the more charming, more mercurial half of the pair, has killed wife Jane after finding her in bed with brother Harry. Within the first few pages of the novel, Jane is dead and George has been exiled to The Lodge, an in-patient facility for wealthy murderers with good insurance, leaving Harry to pick up the pieces of his brother’s dramatically disaggregating life. A year later, Harry will reminisce on the night he stood pressed against Jane over the greasy carcass of a Thanksgiving turkey and he’ll ask the question that serves as the title of the book: “May We Be Forgiven?”
Wait. Rewind. May who be forgiven?
We’ll get to that, but first let’s talk about the plot. The twists and turns in May We Be Forgiven are classic A.M. Homes. At first glance, Harry is a bumbling everyday man who imagines himself, much like his unlikely hero Richard Nixon, an unassuming salt-of-the-earth kind of guy who just happens to find himself in one compromising situation after another. He stumbles onto his brother’s internet porn where people advertise their bare bits like a pride of lions on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Then, as if there’s no other option, he drives across town for a real-time tryst with a woman who insists on paying for sex because she wants a man who can feel both the pleasure and the degradation. Later, we find Harry seeking redemption at a church meeting where, under the alias Nit, he divulges his darkest secrets to a group of people who respond by asking if he has a drinking problem (oops, wrong meeting). After several visits to The Lodge, things get even stranger when George is transferred to The Woodsman, a “low-cost survival-of-the-fittest penal colony” where micro-chipped prisoners police themselves under constant satellite surveillance, also Wild Kingdom-style.
Somewhere amidst murder, kinky sex, and Harry’s budding relationships with a collection of random strangers, is a nested story about impeached President Richard Nixon. Homes’s satire on the troubled history of the American Presidency not only adds a layer of complexity to Harry’s character, it also raises questions about our ignorance of American institutions of government. But, as with the rest of the novel, she administers this medicine with a dose of scintillating humor. For instance, in Harry’s theory of Presidential politics, there are two types of Presidents: one type has a lot of sex and the other type starts wars. In short, says Harry, and “don’t quote me because this is an incomplete expression of a more complex premise — I believe blow jobs prevent wars.”
One can certainly follow the advice of the dust jacket and read the novel as a darkly comic tale about a family reinventing itself after a series of blunders and tragedies. But wouldn’t it be more fun to pay attention to the book’s duplicity, its cornucopia of references to history, culture and authors like John Cheever, who appears in the novel as an apparition, and Robert Louis Stevenson, who shows up indirectly when George tells Harry to mind the black spot on his Gertrude Jekyll roses? Wouldn’t it be more interesting, in other words, to read Harry as a man who doesn’t know he’s gone mad and whose brother George, like the ghost of Cheever, is also an apparition? Scenes where Harry asks George if “we screw[ed]…the neighbor lady” leave the impression that there’s more going on here than pathologically blurred boundaries. Similarly, when Harry looks in the mirror and watches his face divide and fall in half, when he considers himself as much a murderer as George, and asks himself why he’s out of context as if he doesn’t really exist, we feel a sense of vertigo.
This does beg the question, who is the “we” asking to be forgiven in the opening paragraph of the novel? Certainly readers will find in Harry echoes of the adulterer, John the Baptist, praying for us all to be forgiven our sins. Homes repeatedly plays upon religious irony, including one of my favorite scenes at a Yom Kippur service in which Harry joyously proclaims, “I am guilty. I am guilty of even more than I realized I could be guilty of…,” while a rabbi recites a litany of familiar sins. Beneath the surface, Harry never really connects his guilt with his actions. He’s a multifaceted character who projects everything dark and desirous onto a brother he can’t distinguish from himself, suggesting that the “we” is a beastly side of Harry, personified in George. But this remains an open question because Homes is a novelist who immerses readers in the world of her characters and keeps them there from beginning to end. May We Be Forgiven is a novel that never breaks that pact.
This, friends, is the crowning achievement of the novel. As unreliable narrators go, Homes’s fraternal doppelgänger outdoes both that of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho and the unnamed insomniac putz who fights with his alter-ego in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. The difference is that there’s a certain rationality in the two wildly popular precursors, which allows the reader to sit back and watch the character’s insanity unfold. James Wood calls this kind of narration “reliably unreliable.” Referencing seminal examples of unreliable first-person narration like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Nabokov’s Lolita, Wood argues that these novels teach us how to read the character’s instability because their authors alert us to it and show us how to plug the holes.
In May We Be Forgiven, the reader doesn’t have the luxury of distance. From page one, she is inside Harry’s head, inside his body, feeling his dizzying confusion, perhaps even hallucinating up a whole makeshift family, unable to distinguish reality from a dream in one moment and just a regular guy in the next. This places Harry Silver in the far more rare category of “unreliably unreliable” narrators, a category populated by only a handful of novels, most notably the underground man of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground.
David Foster Wallace said that good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. This book may not be the first choice for those who want to be comfortable. Its point of view is unsettling, even outright disturbing. At times, I felt like I was sitting on the weighted bob of Foucault’s pendulum (also noted in the book), the background shifting constantly and characters appear and disappear as the pendulum swings from one context to the next. Other times, I felt as though I was inside an Escher piece, from one angle viewing a perfect portrait of a mad man; from another, a world that looked frighteningly familiar, Harry’s madness a symptom of the fragmented, dissociated, techno-happy culture we live in.
While Homes’s tragicomedy may trouble some readers, it meets and far exceeds Wallace’s criteria for good fiction. For readers like me who choose Homes’s work because it reminds us to be courageous and shows us how to do it, May We Be Forgiven does not disappoint: it gives us a rare journey inside the divided heart of human consciousness, not a brief visit from a safe distance.
A.M. Homes remains the most daring voice of her generation and May We Be Forgiven is her magnum opus.
The author, in earlier years.
There was an era of malls—golden age or dark, I couldn’t say—when they were one-story and off-white in color and anchored by outfits such as Sears and Montgomery Ward and were swarmed by shiftless teenagers in baggy garb rather than fashionable teenagers in snug garb. Okay, dark age. The food court had no sushi. Each and every mall, even if you went on vacation to Memphis or Washington DC, had an Orange Julius. Spencer Gifts and Chess King. Remember? Macy’s was still a tourist attraction in New York City. Nordstrom we’d never heard of at all. Instead of a Cheesecake Factory, there was a Piccadilly. Usually a Regis hair place and an arcade and a Ritz Camera. And instead of a cavernous, luxurious, afternoon-sucking Borders or Barnes & Noble, there was a drab bookshop tucked away in a deserted corner of the mall that bore one of two names, either Waldenbooks or Bookland, and in the mall I grew up near in New Port Richey, Florida it was Waldenbooks. I can still smell the place, like permanent dust and spanking new magazines. In the back of the store there was a hint of break-room odor, and at the front you could whiff the German food from the Schnicklefritz next door. And I can remember what it felt like to lurk in the aisles, HUMOR, SELF-HELP, too tall to stay fully hidden, wanting to be ignored and usually succeeding, wanting to be a common ill-natured loiterer like every other kid at Gulf View Square Mall.
It was around 10th grade that I fell out of love with playing sports. I suffered a loss of competitive vigor. Part of it must’ve been that I was getting lankier while the other guys were getting quicker, but I’d also gotten everything I could out of camaraderie, was all teamed out, spiritless. Since I could walk, I’d been winning big and losing big and settling for ties and each of those results now seemed as good as the others. I was getting beaten out for starting spots on multiple rosters and it wasn’t bothering me near to the degree it should’ve. I started wandering off by myself for lunch, which was a fairly dramatic move. I’d sit against a wall in a quiet courtyard, missing news and jokes and the births of nicknames, and occasionally an assistant coach from one of the teams I’d recently quit would wander by and shake his head at me. I worked up to going missing from my friends for whole weekends. I began to enjoy being a loner, the practice of it and the theory. I could see myself in the role, like an actor getting excited about a script. Without wholesome, scorching afternoon practices to weary me, I began staying up later and later at night, and since these were the days before kids had flat-screen TVs and laptops and gaming systems, what happened was I wound up reading. I don’t remember what. I stopped exercising and stopped laughing and started reading. Maybe the Bible. Every house had one, full of the best stories ever written. Whatever it was, it kept me up long enough that I would sleep during my first couple classes the next morning, forehead against the slick wood of the desk. When the teachers got onto me I didn’t know what to say. It was better to let everyone think I’d smoked a fat bowl before morning bell than to let on that I was wiped from bookworming till the wee hours. I’d never thought one way or another about reading, but now I wanted words rushing through my mind, wanted flipping pages. I relished slipping the bookmark into the middle of a hefty volume. I enjoyed looking up from a passage and squinting pensively. Reading was always something I’d done because it was assigned, something to be rushed through, to be tolerated, much like long-division or mowing the lawn. As was being alone. As was thinking. Now I saw the intrigue. And hey, I had thoughts. Some of them were even my own. And hey, reading helped me have better thoughts. And that had to be valuable for some reason, didn’t it, the ability to conjure high-quality thoughts?
It was sudden. In a couple months I went from gregarious athlete to surly insomniac scholar. That can happen at that age, a persona that’s been simmering under the surface can all of a sudden boil over, but where I was from the standard shift went from athlete to delinquent, from nerd to delinquent, from conceited prep to delinquent, from aspiring redneck to delinquent, etc. People read to children. Old people read newspapers. Middle-aged women probably read tales of romance. But for able-bodied young men, seeking obscure knowledge for the hell of it didn’t really compute. Delinquency computed in a way reading for pleasure never could—vandalism for instance, it made sense. Still does. Worse, what I was doing didn’t, to me, feel like pleasure. I enjoyed it, but not exactly. It was more than that. I wasn’t reading for a diversion. It was a compulsion.
In time I ran through everything in the Brandon house, which wasn’t a whole lot, leaving me, what, the library at the high school? 1) I wanted to have less to do with school, not more. 2) There must’ve been books too dark or vulgar to be included in River Ridge High School’s paltry collection. 3) Like all teenagers, I had trouble keeping up with and returning things I borrowed. 4) I hardly wanted people to know I was reading at all, much less have a record of what I was reading. Last) I found that I wanted to own the books. I wanted the bound, physical objects. I wanted to hide them away in my closet. I liked how they felt in my hands. I’d stack them up like flat trophies and then I’d pull them all out and handle them and restack them in a different configuration. I’d get right down there on the floor with them. It calmed me, when I was away from home, to think of them. Only problem was, I didn’t have enough. They had to come from somewhere, books, and if you weren’t going to borrow them then you had to buy them. Or did you?
The first time was nerve-racking, a rush, but by the third book I was already settling in. My browsing time shortened. My forehead didn’t sweat. I feared getting caught not because I was committing a punishable crime, but because I was committing a strange and possibly subversive act, because getting caught would force me to explain, to divulge my secret self. But the fear didn’t last. I saw pretty quickly that Waldenbooks had not sprung for a security system and that the junior college kid messing with his empty chain wallet behind the counter had precious little interest in protecting his employer’s stock. Nobody expected anyone to steal books. The books were needed to take up the rest of the retail space, because there weren’t enough magazines. The books weren’t expected to move. So I would drift about and zero in on a title, selecting based on God-knows-what and sometimes not even taking a glance inside, slip the volume down the front of my pants, billow my T-shirt a bit so no sharp corners would show, then stroll stiffly out of the Waldenbooks, my blood perking as I passed into the mall proper. Fifty yards to get outside, sometimes with a lethargic but continually suspicious mall cop nearby, then fifty more yards and I was lost in the steamy parking lot, traipsing through drifts of dead palm fronds. The hardbacks were tougher, and the thick old classics, but nobody was watching. Nobody cared. I could’ve walked out with the books balanced on my head. There were kids in other parts of the mall swiping watches, peddling drugs, setting things ablaze, beating other kids up.
I had no dependable system for choosing a book and no one to ask. Sometimes, naturally, the ones with dashing covers. Sometimes sports books; I didn’t want to participate anymore, but I didn’t mind reading about sports. Stand-up comedians were big then, and a lot of those guys had books out, but I always felt empty returning to the seclusion of my room with nothing but a bunch of jokes. I didn’t have the wherewithal to consider that I might be a budding writer, that I might be swallowing up all available prose in order to learn to produce it, but I knew I wanted to read things I couldn’t fully comprehend. I wanted my head to swim. I wanted to aspire to grasp. And if that’s what you want, to be mired, Nietzsche is a great place to start. I ran through old Friedrich’s whole catalog, because Waldenbooks carried it right there in the one-shelf PHILOSOPHY section and because he was from another country and another time and had a mustache to prove it. I understood a tenth of what he was getting at, but I read every word. I read Cormac McCarthy and couldn’t get into it and now I see I was too green to appreciate him. I read Dickens and I couldn’t believe a person could make up such wonderful lies and I still can’t believe how good Dickens is. I burned through Kerouac, planting the seeds of a wanderlust that would, years later, burst up into the light and run my life. I took down Hemingway one famously terse page at a time and was refreshed and was pleased to be male. I stole American Psycho because of the title and saw that anything went, so long as you didn’t flinch. And there were an equal number of duds. The books on Satanism, for instance, which taught me that matters of the dark underworld generally lose their nefarious mystique when systemized into chapters and paragraphs and sentences and sold as a trade paperback. Also liable to be boring when read about instead of participated in: brewing beer, city planning, massage. Even lesbianism, if you get hold of the wrong sort of book. But I kept every single one. The books took up more and more of my closet and my parents, who I assumed appraised my room from time to time when I wasn’t home, were polite enough not to ask about them.
Predictably, when I got to college I started stealing more than books. I started stealing groceries and cigarettes and whatever else I needed. Clothes. CDs. I stole a full bottle of booze out from behind a crowded bar—no shit. Still the books too, but college was different. Other people were reading. It didn’t set you apart. There were circles in which reading was cool even. I was becoming aware that one could write as a career, that I could, and was identifying myself publicly as someone who wished to do so. I declared as an English major and all. I put my books on shelves, prominently displayed in my apartment. Big, soft reading chair. A relationship with coffee. There existed girl English majors, and they liked to read. I got glasses, though I barely needed them. I had always known things would be better once I left New Port Richey, and I was right. And if things were this good here in Gainesville, imagine Atlanta or, say, New York City.
The time came to write, to go ahead and attempt to create original fiction rather than to settle for owning books and wearing think-framed spectacles and a long coat and projecting a diffuse and unfounded superiority. So stealing, at that point, became something I did only to avoid paying for things. It was annoying, parting with the little spare cash I had, and hey, I’d developed a skill. I couldn’t write yet but I could steal. The old story: I got too cocky and comfortable and ended up getting caught. I was trying to lift some sort of phone accessory that’s likely obsolete by now, a $6 item. Wal-Mart. They don’t mess around. A real cop with a real gun. Cuffs. Read my rights. They took me down to the county lockup where I had to wait a couple hours in a crowded holding tank and then a couple hours in a cell by my lonesome. They gave me that shot that tests for TB and served me a meal I didn’t eat. I had to pay to get bailed out. So much for saving money.
Maybe I wasn’t wise but I wasn’t hardheaded. I knew getting arrested spelled the end of my stealing days. It was good I’d been thrown in jail for the afternoon. It worked, scared me straight. I started cooking at home, which was cheaper than eating subs and chicken wings. I didn’t need any more clothes. I could borrow music. My classes were piling on all the reading I could handle, and my scholarship paid for those books. My girlfriend at the time was thoroughly, thoroughly unimpressed with my getting nabbed for petty theft at a big-box discount store, and her firm and disgusted declaration that I would no longer be shoplifting anything from anywhere on penalty of losing her also helped seal the decision to give up my old hobby.
One thing, though. I had to go out with a victory. Here came that competitiveness that had abandoned me in 10th grade. I could not stand being chased off by the retail establishment without even a parting shot. I decided to go back to my roots: books. I made a special trip to the Barnes & Noble on Archer Road and said hey to the sharp-haired clerks and browsed the sale books and the audio books and even the blank journals with their felt and paisleys. I took a pass out of habit at LITERATURE and then drifted into the center of the store, MUSIC, and I chose a three-inch-thick biography of Beethoven, the composer’s outsized and wild head on the cover, and I shoved that sucker down under my waistband and walked straight-backed and breezily out the front doors. I felt a comfort in all I’d gotten for free, but also a sadness at the battle ending. I was grateful for how broad the world had become due to those hundreds upon hundreds of books, grateful even to have come from a world small enough that I’d had no choice but to push it open, grateful to have been steeled by all those long nights spent with ill-gotten bestsellers and treatises and ghost-written autobiographies and religious narratives and horror anthologies and Victorian epics and even works of German philosophy, reading in what felt like secret—reading, it seemed, against something.
For seven years, during my late twenties and early thirties, all my books sat with stoicism in a storage unit in Spring Hill, Florida, under desk chairs and VCRs and a fake Christmas tree, in a metallic building pumped with conditioned air. The books had to wait for me to live in one place long enough that I’d retrieve them and creak them open once more. That place turned out to be Oxford, Mississippi. I’ve been here for two years, one of countless writers the town has collected. I finally drove down to Florida last month and hauled my literary possessions in faded green bins up to my apartment under the Dixie sun and a little unconvincing Dixie rain too, then I sat in my office and picked each book up and looked it over and tried to remember which store it had come from. I didn’t feel much for the books, just garden-variety nostalgia. No way to tell if the feeling was pleasant or demoralizing; that’s the way with nostalgia. I set each book in one of two stacks based solely on the merit of its content, one for keepers and one for books to be liquidated. It had once felt like rebellion to acquire the books and now it felt like rebellion to get rid of them. Just last week I took the lot to be sold up to our local bookstore, Square Books, and just this morning I received my cash. I opted for the lesser amount of cash over the greater amount of store credit because cash is cash and credit, in this case, is more books. And I plan to spend the cash this weekend on baby supplies and office supplies and oysters and beer.
End of story.
Herman Melville wrote, “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many have tried it.” The realm of great literature covers death, love, religion, war, sex, and politics, but rarely economics. There are novels that tackle money and greed, but usually not from an insider’s perspective. Peter Mountford hopes to change that with his debut novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism. Mountford’s views are formed not by cursory glances at Paul Krugman and Noam Chomsky, but with acuity worthy of The Black Swan author Nassim Taleb.
Mountford, whose father worked for the International Monetary Fund, studied international relations and became the “token liberal” at a think tank. He has lived in Sri Lanka and spent time in Ecuador researching the country’s development. He understands how markets function. Mountford weaves his knowledge into a captivating tale about an American in La Paz, Bolivia, during Evo Morales’s rise to the presidency and offers a twist to the conventional “love or money” saga. Mountford and I recently met at the Tin Hat, a great dive bar in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. We took advantage of cheap beer and eats, and talked about the pros and cons of wealth and romance.
The Millions: Why do literary works generally avoid economics?
Peter Mountford: Finance and economics are complicated and often poorly understood, for one thing, and they’re not thought of as sexy, for another. People, especially of an “artistic” inclination, are proudly dismissive of economics– they paint it as boring – it’s either viewed as nerdy, in the unattractive way, or it’s associated with these cartoonish preppy monsters – like in The Bonfire of the Vanities or American Psycho.
This is nonsense. A cursory glance at our recent history reveals that economics and finance are not just the engines of our era, not just what defines virtually everything about our time, but they’re also spectacularly dramatic. It’s not abstract. Not just a guy with a calculator. It’s very emotional and makes and breaks the lives of – well, everyone.
One example: Bernie Madoff’s son put his kid to sleep and then went to the next room and tried to hang himself. But his noose broke. So, he picked himself up off the floor and scoured the apartment until he found a stronger implement, something that would hold his weight better, but the second one broke, as well. Finally, he found a sturdy enough object, a dog leash. And that’s how he killed himself. Broken nooses scattered around the apartment, his child sleeping twenty feet away, it was like slapstick, except that it’s unimaginably horrific.
Think about the bailout negotiations that happened between the Greek finance minister and the IMF team. They sat down in a room for a few days to figure out how they were going to solve that problem. Those people have lives: children, spouses, friends – and they’re in this ludicrous situation together. I’ve never read a book that attempts to comprehend that kind of material.
When I was in college, I took a class on 20th Century Mexican history. We got up to about 1970 and then the professor halted class, and basically said, “Look, if you haven’t studied macroeconomics or international economics, you’re not going to be able to follow much of the rest of Mexican history…best of luck.”
TM: Without giving too much of your novel away, your protagonist’s moral ambiguities might make him difficult to embrace. Do you think there’s a commercial interest, even in higher literary circles, for books to have “happy” or “noble” characters and an upbeat conclusion?
PM: Yes, there’s no question that such a bias exists – and it’s not even just to do with the end of a book, but the very fabric of it. It’s no different than what you find in the film business, where financial success requires the product to be marketable to a known audience of book buyers and also…entertaining. An editor who rejected my book said she wanted the character to be more like James Bond. Then she backed away, fearing that she sounded like an idiot, which she did, but the point had been made. You can’t blame publishers for wanting to remain in business. The fact is, 95% of books bomb. A certain kind of reader, a very common kind, reads literature to get away from the world. Even when they read something artistically ambitious, they want to escape from the world. It’s a difficult contradiction for writers to address.
That’s why there’s so much fantasy and historical fiction. Even among more straightforward literary fiction, a lot seems willfully antique. The world most people live in has more in common with The Office than, say, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!. But think of how uncommon it is to read a book about someone’s office job. Then count how often a debut author gets compared to Faulkner. One book that I think did a superb job of satisfying the escapist need and the desire to provide more than re-heated Sherwood Anderson was Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City. It was a deeply escapist fantasy of this beguiling and cushy life in Manhattan, a very fun place to frolic in while you’re reading, but beneath that seductive veneer the book became a savage critique of that very escapism, of our blinkered philistinism. I loved that book.
TM: You mention Che briefly in the novel, alluding to why he failed in Bolivia, leading to his eventual death. How should history look at Che?
PM: He was an incredibly interesting guy…a passionate idealist who got distracted by the adventure of war. After Cuba, he went looking for that feeling, building up ragtag bands of revolutionaries and heading off to the mountains to wage a guerrilla war.
You know, when he went to Bolivia, I think he sort of knew he was going to die. What happened, though, was quite instructive about the limits of rigid ideology. He thought Bolivia had all the elements that Cuba had: disenfranchised poor people in a small country, lots of hills and jungle, a long history of wanton exploitation. But Bolivia had undergone a different revolution not long before, they felt like they’d done that, they’d already ousted the fuckers. So, when Che came along telling them it was time to get rid of their oppressors, the Bolivian peasants called the cops. The cops called the CIA and then he was dead.
TM: Distracted by the “adventure of war”? I hope that’s a euphemism. Che has been romanticized. I lived in Argentina, traveled through Bolivia, and while there bought and read a copy of Che’s Bolivian Diary. Che’s ideology evolved into one reminiscent of Abimael Guzman of the Shining Path. In Havana, he oversaw executions. He lost most of his humanity by the time he reached Bolivia. Why does literature insist on ennobling him?
PM: Yes, that’s a euphemism. What I mean is that, like you say, he became a warrior, a person who lived for battle. Of course he believed in what he was fighting for, but the fight became the main thing. People ennoble him because he’s like William Wallace, or any doomed crusader for justice. Plus, it’s easy to hate the CIA, and when you find out that they sawed the hands off his cadaver and sent them along to Argentina and then Cuba, basically as a warning – well, that’s ghastly. Still, that doesn’t mean Che was a good guy and the CIA were bad guys. Life does not provide actual heroes or villains, unfortunately.
TM: Developing countries don’t react well to infusions of money… corruption is rampant and often increases, benefiting the oligarchy and not the common person. How should wealthier nations appropriate aid, and how important and effective are microloans?
PM: Indeed, corruption has been the ruin of an amazing number of would-be success stories. The aid organizations have a hell of a time working with and against those forces, from what I gather. In Sri Lanka, I heard a story about a project, partially financed by a major aid institution. The plan was to get cell-phone towers into rural areas, but they found they had to bribe a complex and changing array of officials in each zone, and the officials had different expectations, different limitations. It took years and years and people were getting replaced, so they’d have to bribe the new guy. Finally, they bribed someone higher up in the government, who then got the lesser officials on board and the project was finished in a few months.
Microloans are fantastic. There are different models: the not-for-profit microloans and the for-profit microloans and there’s a healthy argument underway about which is better. I’m not sure, personally. I did a research project once on a for-profit micro-bank that was administering a subsidy for housing in Ecuador. People were to get cheap houses and the bank would make money, and it should have been wonderful. The subsidy was financed by USAID in a soft loan, but the architects of the project in DC hadn’t done enough research. In order to qualify for the loan you had to have saved five thousand dollars, and you had to earn less than a certain amount, and it was a ludicrous combination of criteria. The bank had zero applications for the subsidy in the month that I worked on it.
TM: What countries’ development would you point to as success stories?
PM: Chile is my example. In the 1990s they taxed any foreigner who invested in the country and then yanked it out in under a year, safeguarding against speculative foreign investment. As a result, they didn’t enjoy the wild bonanza a lot of other countries had, but they also didn’t get demolished during the Asian crisis. Once the bubble burst, the emerging markets started reeling as capital fled back to Wall Street, and Chile removed that tax since it was no longer necessary. It was a modest policy to limit exposure to frenetic hedge fund activity, and it worked: they didn’t implode.
TM: Your novel follows Gabriel as he decides whether or not to forsake “love” for money. What’s more important? Money or love?
PM: Love is better, unless you’re in sub-Saharan Africa, then money trumps. Also, if your lack of money ruins your love…since money problems are the number one source of fights between married couples, then that’s a problem. I think Gabriel’s question is a bit more complicated. He’s in his mid-twenties, you know, so love will probably come along again, but financial opportunities like his don’t grow on trees.
TM: I think that’s one of the things about Gabriel that made him genuine, his take on the fleetingness of love…that it’s easy come easy go. People in love can suffer, but people with money rarely suffer, although they seem less happy. Your novel concludes with a powerful statement about money and the…er, soul. What are your own personal desires for wealth?
PM: You know that Liz Phair song “Shitloads of Money?” The chorus goes: “It’s nice to be liked / But it’s better by far to get paid / I know that most of the friends that I have / Don’t really see it that way / But if you can give ’em each one wish / How much do you wanna bet? / They’d wish success for themselves and their friends / And that would include lots of money.”
Personally, I’d like to be on the next financial plateau. I think all my problems would be solved if I could just get there. But I know once I got there I’d just want to be up one more step. It would be nice to get away from that paradigm, somehow. Any suggestions?
It’s always difficult to play the sheepish part of the converted hater.
The novels of Paul Auster blend into one another. The same tropes emerge time and again, and after a few reads, the inevitable attitude becomes, “Okay, pal, I get it, I get it.” Every time there’s a new Auster novel out, I think it may be different, and I give him a chance, and soon find I’m back in the usual territory: identity puzzles, murky timelines, ominous danger. And I’ve given the guy so many chances.
The New York Trilogy was taut and thrilling, and seems to be Auster’s most lauded work to date, but the novellas are so terse in language that I often felt frustrated, wanting more. Granted, this is coming from a reader who champions maximalists like Wallace and Vollmann, but I’ve also liked the spare prose of writers like Coetzee. There’s just something missing for me in the Trilogy, a sort of isolative quality.
I gave it another shot with The Brooklyn Follies, and enjoyed myself more. Of course, it isn’t by any means a perfect book (Walter Kirn, he of Up in the Air fame, called it an “amateurish novel”). I found elements in it that I’d later come to recognize as the tired techniques to which Auster returns in nearly every outing. The narrator is old and busted, and begins the story by telling us, morosely, that he moved to Brooklyn to die. His name is Nathan Glass (get it, glass? Auster can’t refrain from name-dropping his own book, City of Glass, from The New York Trilogy). Glass is compiling anecdotes to write a book about human foolishness. Another predictable subplot involves an illegal caper that fails due to betrayal and greed. All that being said, the book is easy to get through—breezy and kind of pleasant. The second protagonist, Glass’ nephew Tom, is bumbling and likeable, easy to root for. I felt happy after finishing it—not bowled over, but amused.
Timbuktu, my third Auster choice, shattered my good graces. The book is silly, even childish. He pulls off the dog-as-narrator feat, sure, but the thing is so short and flat it feels completely unnecessary. “Mr. Bones,” really? And his friend is a homeless guy named Willy G. Christmas? Oy. I couldn’t even feel charmed by what I can only imagine is an animal hero that Auster lovers adore. Instead, I was bored and annoyed. Sections are introduced with hokey phrases like, “Thus began an exemplary friendship between man and boy.” Characters speak like they’re on an episode of Leave it to Beaver. “We’ve just got to keep him, Mama,” a girl begs her mother when Mr. Bones shows up at their door. Sure, Auster is mocking such spoiled American Dream families, but overall, it more often feels like he is trading in clichés, rather than sending them up.
It got worse from there. The book that would kill my interest for good (I thought) was Travels in the Scriptorium. It begins with an unnamed man, in an unnamed location, confused about—shocker, here—his identity (cue up Tony Soprano in his coma: “Who am I? Where am I going?”). Finally we get a name: Mr. Blank. The room is filled with post-its on objects: LAMP. DESK. It’s like a game of Clue. Did Mr. Blank kill his cousin, Mr. Doppelganger, in the ROOM with a RUSTY KNIFE? I finished the book in a few hours’ time and felt cheated. Paul Auster had become, for me, the literary equivalent of Weezer—an artist I respected and had once loved, but could no longer continue supporting and feel good about myself.
That was where I stood when he came out with Invisible. I wouldn’t have picked it up if I hadn’t accidentally attended a reading of his in Manhattan just days after the book’s release. I had gone there with the roundabout purpose of meeting Rick Moody, who would be introducing him (you can read my full “report” on the experience here), but in so doing I had to stay for the reading.
Auster strolled out confidently and launched into a vivid, unapologetic scene of incest between a biological brother and sister. He stepped on stage and belted it out, reading quickly and almost angrily. It was in second person narration so it felt, creepily, like he was telling you about the time you had sex with your sister. And boy, it was graphic. “As your sister gently put her hand around your rejuvenated penis (sublime transport, inexpressible joy), you forged on with your anatomy lesson,” he read. “When Gwyn came for the first time (rubbing her clitoris with the middle finger of her left hand), the sound of air surging in and out of her nostrils…” Oh my God.
He didn’t even make some self-deprecating joke after finishing, the way you’d expect an author to do (something to lighten the mood, perhaps, like “Well, hope that wasn’t too awkward!”). Instead, he shut the book dramatically and walked off the stage.
Such a move was fitting of the work. Invisible is not funny. And sure, Auster isn’t especially known to be a funny writer, but there is a fair wealth of light humor in Brooklyn Follies (albeit not always adult humor—a page-long fart joke comes to mind). Invisible has no interest in that territory; it’s a very serious story.
It is also a terrific read. It’s different from his others—or at least, it’s a better presentation of those same tricks. Clancy Martin, in his Times review of the book, nails it: “As soon as you finish… you want to read it again.”
Our protagonist is Adam Walker, who is likable in a very ordinary, easy way. He’s a student at Columbia, works in the school library (Auster calls it the “Castle of Yawns”), nurses a wound from an old family tragedy—a typical character. Where the book shines is in its narrative structure. It’s divided into four different sections, with three different narrators. The passing of time is gorgeously handled. The first section, told in the first-person, provides the bulk of the narrative at Columbia in 1967 and covers Adam’s friendship and conflict with Rudolph Born, the story’s cartoonish villain.
In the second section, which begins in 2007, an old friend of Adam’s (an author and clear Auster stand-in) receives a manuscript, which provides the content of the section—it’s Adam’s patchy attempt at a memoir, and it tells the story of Adam’s history with his sister, before he ever met Born. It’s written entirely in the second person.
In the third section, the friend, James, has received the second half of Adam’s manuscript, which now brings us back to 1967 and describes Adam’s time in Paris, in traditional third person narration. During this section Adam spends most of his time with two women. Neither is as important as the book’s central female figure, his sister Gwyn, but one of the two, Celine, is the young daughter of a woman Born is set to marry. Adam befriends the girl, but they have a falling out and he leaves Paris.
In the final section, we are back in the present of 2007, with James as he tracks down Gwyn and then Celine. The section ends, of all things, with a series of entries from Celine’s journal, describing a spontaneous, strange trip she took as a grown woman to visit Born, her would-be father-in-law. She flies to see Born at his remote, Moreau-like island home, and, as they say, hilarity ensues. By hilarity, I mean the Auster variety: surprising dramatic tension that can be darkly funny, but is really quite serious and usually not funny at all.
The different narrators provide fresh voices and insights, and the shifting narrative style (first, second, and third person are all used) keeps us intrigued. Yet the tone of each section is never so radical as to feel jarring.
Everything flows and fits nicely to create a reading experience that is exciting, but also simple. This ain’t Melville, but obviously it isn’t Stieg Larsson, either. Even though Auster has churned out some duds, he has the ability to write simply and intelligently, and he really knows how to move a plot along. He might be the least technically challenging writer of those revered by the high literary establishment, but nonetheless, he has always been perceived as part of it.
Invisible has its flaws. It has its fair share of Austerian (can I coin that phrase right here and now?) language—overt, tactless, groan-inducing. After Adam first meets Rudolph Born at a party, he is hesitant to get to know him more, and reflects to himself, “There is much to be explored in this hesitation, I believe, for it seems to suggest that I already understood… that allowing myself to get involved with him could possibly lead to trouble.” Oh, gee, okay. I suppose if this were a fifth-grade exercise the teacher would circle that and use it to define foreshadowing.
Above all else, the “bad guy” at the center of its plot, Born, is something of a joke. He spouts off cheesy idioms like a movie character (“your ass will be so cooked,” he threatens at one point, and at another, warns, “not a word, young Walker, not a word”). Recently, a nice piece on The Millions that discussed the influence of Shakespeare’s Iago on modern fiction did not mention Born, which seemed to me a surprising omission at first. But in fact, it’s only natural that Born wouldn’t come to mind in a discussion that includes characters like Barbara from Notes on a Scandal or American Psycho’s Pat Bateman. Rudolph Born just isn’t the cool, calculating emotional menace that other great villains have been.
But poor dialogue and a one-dimensional “bad guy” do nothing to ruin the novel. No one reads Auster to find beautiful prose, and Born’s role as a thorn in Adam’s side, though a bit contrived, is necessary. The book’s final scene castrates his power, anyway.
Born isn’t even the biggest obstacle to Adam’s happiness. That title belongs to Gwyn. It is their volatile sibling relationship that makes Invisible a compelling story, and leaves its troubling questions still lingering after you’ve put the book down.
Auster’s next novel, already up on Amazon for all to see, is called Sunset Park; it’s another New York story. According to a Booklist plot synopsis: “four flat-broke twentysomething searchers end up squatting in a funky abandoned house in Sunset Park.” Characters include such stock types as a guitarist, a struggling artist, and a grad student, as well as a fugitive “poisoned by guilt over his stepbrother’s death.” Another character plagued by a tragic event in his past? Uh-oh.
This one could go either way; it may be standard genre fare, or perhaps it’s something new and exciting. After Invisible, I’m at least willing to give it a shot. I guess I’m back on the Paul Auster bandwagon, for now.
Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays famously opens with the question, “What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.”
I’m one of the people who asks. Samuel Coleridge might have called the search for Iago “the motive hunting of motiveless malignity,” but I lack the capacity to accept that certain truths are just inscrutable. I reason that because fictional characters are born in the mind of the author, their actions must necessarily stem from something resembling Kantian categorical imperatives. Within the confines of their own logic, their actions make perfect sense. There is internal consistency and cause and effect. The system is governed by rules; the game is to discern exactly what those rules are.
It’s a cliché that nothing is more interesting to people than other people, but in essence, those of us who ask about Iago do so because he is not so different a puzzle from human beings. He is only a more tantalizing one, because his author has deliberately controlled what we see and know of him, as though dispensing clues. But the prize for solving a literary conundrum is the same as for solving a human one: if I can figure out Iago, I can figure out Hamlet, I can figure out anyone and I can figure out you.
1. As An Aside
Having searched for Iago predominantly throughout other works of fiction, I think it is worth pointing out that I’m aware of the tenuous merit of this project. It’s considered fairly dubious practice to explain the motivations of real people via fictional characters. But what about explaining the motivations of fictional characters via other fictional characters? Let alone fictional characters created long after the fictional characters in question? Won’t that turn into something of an analytical Ponzi scheme?
It may also be worth noting that real world psychology, if not always an exact science, is farther along than any such fictional goose chase. Iago might simply be found in the entry under “Antisocial Personality Disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV for demonstrating “a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.” Real world sociopaths have been described in detail in nonfiction, from Charles Manson in Helter Skelter to Dick Hickock in In Cold Blood. Dick Hickock has “one of those smiles that really work,” an IQ of 130 and the sort of toughness that “existed solely in situations where he unarguably had the upper hand.” Dick even looks exactly how Iago should look: “his own face enthralled him. Each angle of it induced a different impression. It was a changeling’s face, and mirror-guided experiments had taught him how to ring the changes, how to look now ominous, now impish, now soulful …”
But I’m not interested in diagnosing Iago, per se. I’m not trying to discern what he looks like, or what his childhood practices might have been. I am searching for the emotional truth of his nature, which (as Tim O’Brien famously opined) may be better found in another fictional story than in facts.
2. Excerpts From A Guide To Literary Sociopaths
The sort of villains in popular fiction that enjoy the same level of celebrity as Iago include the likes of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector, Cormac McCarthy’s Anton Chigurh and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty. The common thread through many a literary sociopath is, as you may have noticed, that they have extremely evil-sounding names. Sociopaths in fiction are often intended to either appeal to readers’ fantasies that good and bad could be so easy to identify in real life, or are so absurdly riddled with diabolical clichés that they are parodies of themselves (like the pantheon of villains in Pynchon’s and Heller’s comic masterpieces, or Jasper Fforde’s Acheron Hades, who explains in his memoir, “Degeneracy for Pleasure and Profit,” that the “best reason for committing loathsome and detestable acts – and let’s face it, I am considered something of an expert in the field – is purely for their own sake.”)
But there is something far more understated, and sinister, about Iago as a villain. Like Zoe Heller’s Barbara Covett from Notes on a Scandal, Daphne Du Maurier’s Mrs. Danvers, or perhaps even Brontë’s Heathcliff, the real evil that Iago inflicts is upon the people to whom he is closest. He is the godfather of villains who rot from the inside out.
Destroying those to whom one is closest reeks of a certain sort of motivelessness. Kevin Frazier, in his excellent essay on A.C. Bradley here at The Millions, points to the following discussion of Iago from Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy:
To ‘plume up the will’, to heighten the sense of power or superiority—this seems to be the unconscious motive of many acts of cruelty which evidently do not spring chiefly from ill-will, and which therefore puzzle and sometimes horrify us most. It is often this that makes a man bully the wife or children of whom he is fond. The boy who torments another boy, as we say, ‘for no reason’, or who without any hatred for frogs tortures a frog … So it is with Iago. His thwarted sense of superiority wants satisfaction.
What strikes me most about this passage is that the examples chosen for being akin to Iago’s cruelty suggest that Iagoesque cruelty is almost commonplace. Horrifying though it is, there is nothing particularly rare or exotic about a man bullying a wife or child, or about thwarted superiority craving satisfaction. The implication is that it might not be such a mystery why Iago’s victims line up so willingly to be abused. Likewise, there might be nothing so superhuman about Iago’s power to abuse them. From Katherine Dunn’s sublime novel Geek Love, the following description of Arturo Binewski, the book’s megalomaniacal villain, struck me as pure, undifferentiated Iago: “He seems to have no sympathy for anyone, but total empathy.”
Empathy is a curious source of power. Relatively speaking, it is unglamorous in the extreme – it is of the sort best suited to Dostoevsky’s contention in Crime and Punishment that “Power is only given to those who dare to lower themselves and pick it up.” Far more than any sheer irresistibility, the ingratiating, servile role Iago must steadfastly play for both Desdemona and Othello is the key to his seductiveness. Othello the Venetian general might be a natural leader, but Iago cannot be puppet master without being puppet himself. He succeeds as long as he does solely because the near-sightedness of his victims prevent them from asking – not “why would he lie?” but – “why doesn’t he have any life of his own?”
3. How I Picture Iago When He Is Off-Stage
In Geek Love, while attempting to gain total control over his family, Arturo Binewski starts bugging the room of his sisters Iphy and Elly. Reports his documentarian Norval:
I find this depressing. The idea of Arty sitting and listening to hour after hour of footsteps, pages turning, toilet flushing, comb running through hair. Elly’s conversation has been reduced to the syllable mmmmmm and Iphy is not in the mood for song. Her piano is covered with dust … and Arty is listening to her file her nails.
4. A Comic Detour
That villainy can be pathetic is a well-explored contradiction in fiction. Brett Easton Ellis’ oddly beloved misanthrope and American Psycho Patrick Bateman and his ilk suffer from the incurable disadvantage of being impossible to take seriously. Their particular breed of literary sociopath consists, perhaps naturally, of comic characters, because there is something so pathetic about hating absolutely everyone. Grandiose ambitions aside, these characters are as paralyzed by issues as Phillip Roth’s Portnoy, and just about as menacing. In Sartre’s darkly funny “Erostratus,” the narrator sends out over a hundred letters announcing the following:
I suppose you might be curious to know what a man can be like who does not love men. Very well, I am such a man, and I love them so little that soon I am going out and killing half a dozen of them; perhaps you might wonder why only half a dozen? Because my revolver only has six cartridges. A monstrosity, isn’t it? And moreover, an act strictly impolitic?
Now, there is a relationship between the extent to which someone declares themselves to be a particular thing, and the extent to which he or she actually is that thing – and that relationship is plainly inverse. The comic sociopaths are so desperate to be taken seriously that they can never be taken seriously, and so fumbling and impotent in their attempts that you know they will only get themselves into trouble.
Returning now to Othello and the genre of tragedy, if you subtract the comedic element from being pathetic, who are you left with?
5. The Regular Joe
I suppose I always knew I’d arrive here at the end.
Dunn gets here first, of course. In one of Geek Love’s final notes on Arturo, his documentarian writes:
General opinion about Arty varies, from those who see him as a profound humanitarian to those who view him as a ruthless reptile. I myself have held most of the opinions in this spectrum at one time or another … however, I come to see him as just a regular Joe – jealous, bitter, possessive, competitive, in a constant frenzy to disguise his lack of self-esteem, drowning in deadly love, and utterly unable to prevent himself from gorging on the coals of hell in his search for revenge.
What Dunn so evocatively indicates is that the trick to the complexity of characters such as Arturo is that there is no complexity. The documentarian’s final notes on him ring of disgust upon making this discovery – self-disgust, and perhaps even a little disgust for his subject.
Likewise, we build a labyrinth of motive and mythology around Iago because for all of his manipulation and the epic destruction it causes, we believe – or hope – he must be a monster. We are wont to compare him to the vilest of both real world and fictional sociopaths. We resist stripping away at him, knowing we will be sorely disappointed by what we find underneath.
Vampires figure the anxieties of their cultural moment. They come out at night—and during periods of social and political turmoil, and their habits and looks mutate to personify the fears of the age in which they appear. Bram Stoker’s Dracula dramatized Victorian fears of sex as morally corrupting and fears of English culture as threatened by invading foreigners. The vampires of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, published primarily in the 1980’s, shared a certain kinship with the ruthless, amoral financier characters of the age, Gordon Gekko of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and Patrick Batemen of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, but their most striking feature was their homosexuality. Rice’s vampirism as blood-borne pathogen also came to seem a metaphor for AIDS—a taunting metaphor, since her beautiful men could not die.
So what about our vampires—the vampires of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels or those of Stephenie Meyer’s ubiquitous Twilight? Our vampires seem a domesticated, morally evolved breed. Meyer’s vampires have been defanged altogether (Meyer only agreed to sell the film rights with the caveat that the Cullens could not be depicted with fangs in any film version), while the vampires of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels (better known as HBO’s True Blood) have discretely retractable fangs. Both authors’ vampires are committed to humane, sustainable diets. Indeed, if Michael Pollan wrote for vampires, he might recommend the diet devised by the vampires of Meyer’s Twilight. The members of the Cullen household, the forward-thinking vampire “family” at the center of the series, forswear feeding on humans. “I don’t want to be a monster,” Edward Cullen, Meyer’s teenage vampire hero explains to his human beloved, Bella Swan, when she asks him about his diet.
Turning from the gruesome practices of most of the rest of the vampire community in Meyer’s alternate version of contemporary America, the Cullens feed only on wild animals they hunt in the woods around their home on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. And even in this (by some standards) less murderous diet, they take a sustainable approach, carefully alternating their hunting grounds so as not to decimate the local populations of deer and cougars. Carlisle, the patriarch of the Cullen clan and the originator of what they refer to as their vampire “vegetarianism,” goes even further in his determination to be good. Through hundreds of years of practicing this vegetarianism, Carlisle has perfected his self-control to such a degree that he remains seemingly unmoved in the presence of human blood. His control is so great that he can practice human medicine. Not only does he not kill human beings—he heals them and saves their lives.
The vampires of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels, which are also known as the Southern Vampire Mysteries and are the basis of Alan Ball’s hit HBO series True Blood, share with Meyer’s Twilight a kinder, gentler vampire whose physical beauty seems the outward sign of his moral improvement. Gone are the days of the repulsive and remorseless Count Dracula, with his hairy palms and rank breath, his insatiable hunger for blood. Like Twilight, Harris’ series presents a morally enlightened vampire. Set in an alternate version of the contemporary American South, the Sookie novels depict a world in which vampires have declared themselves publicly, sought and won some civil rights, and live openly amongst humans. Their emancipation from the shadowy world of myth and legend is possible because a synthetic blood developed by the Japanese allows them to refrain from feeding on humans.
Living only on bottled blood, however, doesn’t satisfy like organic warm-from-the-body human blood. Fortunately for the vampires and humans who occupy the Sookieverse, Harris’ mythology also revises the nature of the vampire bite. Unlike Meyer’s vegetarian Cullens, Harris’ vampires still feed on humans, but do so more considerately and in moderation. In the Sookie novels, being bitten by a vampire isn’t normally lethal, nor does it turn one into a vampire. In fact, the vampire’s bite, a quintessential symbol of sex (penetration, exchange of fluids), becomes pleasurable for human and vampire alike rather than damning or damaging: “I felt Bill’s teeth against my neck, and I said “Yes!” I felt his fangs penetrate, but it was a small pain, an exciting pain,” Sookie says of her first bite, given to her by the prosaically named vampire Bill Compton. (“I thought it might be Antoine, or Basil, or Langford!” Sookie responds, laughing, when Bill first tells her his name.) But the point of vampire Bill’s prosaic name is that he’s one of us—that vampires are people too.
Harris’ and Ball’s versions of Sookie’s world are full of such prosaic details of modern vampire life. Their vampires play Wii Golf, serve Fresca to guests, shop at the mall, wash their hair with Herbal Essence shampoo, wear Dockers, renovate their homes. For Ball and Harris, vampires are people too, both materially and morally. And while the melodramatic pitch of Twilight makes Edward and his kin seem like they couldn’t possibly do such grubbily vulgar things as shopping or styling their hair, their artfully tousled locks and well-cut leather jackets tell another tale. These vampires, our vampires (whether we like it or not), do and feel human things: They attend high school, practice abstinence and medicine, tend bar, go to the prom, get married, create computer databases, lobby for civil rights. They cry, fall in love, feel guilty, worry about whether they have souls and what state those souls might be in. Which is why they’ve gone vegetarian—or at least Whole Foods sustainable.
Our vegetarian vampires, I think, are afflicted with the same crises of conscience that we are as first-world twenty-first century humans. We eat too much, we shop too much, we use too much fuel, water, land; we mistreat the animals on which we depend for food and the other peoples whose labor produces for us the cheap abundant goods we have all grown so used to. The vampire’s insatiable hunger for blood mirrors our insatiable hungers for food, wealth, property, and possessions. Contemporary vampire fiction mirrors our collective anxiety about our need for self-discipline and a return to a more humane approach to our fellow beings: Now, the vampire, the most appetitive and unrepentantly murderous of our culture’s mythic archetypes, restrains himself in our popular fiction. He has become a “vegetarian” of sorts, the vampire version of a Whole Foods shopper, who prefers humanely raised meat, free range eggs, sustainably farmed produce. From the shimmering pâleur of the vampire radiates something new and hardly otherworldly: an aura of white liberal guilt.
But being kinder to your food, whatever it might be, isn’t the be all and end all of ethical living, nor does it mean you’re not a vampire. Harris and Ball’s versions of the Sookieverse acknowledge this: that even as we try mightily to live ethically, the dangerous, cruel, and illicit—the side of human character that the vampire has always represented—cannot be vanquished altogether. Vampire Bill, born and raised in the antebellum South, may be an attentive suitor and a perfect gentleman whom Sookie can take home to her grandmother, but he’s also a self-professed murderer and his sexual appetite can turn terrifying. All of the characters in Sookie’s world, both human and vampire, have this same moral ambivalence.
Harris/Ball’s vampire is not all bad, but their human, in turn, is not all good. The world of Meyer’s Twilight, on the other hand, embraces Stoker’s basically strict segregation of good and evil. The heroes and heroines of Twilight are all understood to be morally exemplary. Meyer often has Bella compare Edward’s body and soul to that of an “angel” (and Stephenie Meyer doesn’t offer a single sly wink to let you know that she knows it’s all a bit over the top—which is really impressive in a way. I certainly couldn’t get through 2000+ pages of treacly teenage melodrama without a single devious aside to my audience).
So, in both Twilight and the Southern Vampire Mysteries, vampires do and feel human things–but a crucial philosophical difference between Harris’ books (and Ball’s series) and Meyer’s remains. Harris insists, as Meyer does not, that people are vampires—that people do and feel vampiric things—rape, murder, illicit and subversive sexual desire, manipulation, betrayal. After all, the first vampires, the sadistic historical figures out of whose strange cruelties the idea of the vampire came, were human beings: the fifteenth-century Romanian prince Vlad Dracul (meaning “dragon” or “devil”), whose name Bram Stoker immortalized in Dracula, and Erzébet Báthory (known as the Beast of Csejthe), the sixteenth-century Hungarian countess sometimes referred to as the first female serial killer. Báthory tortured and killed hundreds of young serving girls and bathed in their blood, believing that the blood of virgins had powerful restorative and magical properties. Prince Vlad was known for torturing his enemies and citizens alike, often en masse—usually by impaling them on stakes. He liked to make public spectacles of these executions, sometimes eating meals while watching them. He was also, more mundanely, known for unscrupulous labor practices such as working his peasant laborers to death. Karl Marx refers to this exploitative cruelty of Vlad’s in Capital and uses the figure of the vampire repeatedly to describe the behavior of the capitalist—though he never makes the connection between the vampire and his historical forebear (nor does Marx to Vlad by name; he refers to him “a Wallachian boyar,” but the practices he describes are Vlad’s).
This basic connection between human monstrosity and the vampire is explicit in the Harris novels. Harris’ vampires have gotten a little nicer, but her humans have picked up the slack. As her vampire characters limit their consumption of human blood, her human characters drink vampire blood in a tidy little economy of gore. Vampire blood heals humans with extraordinary speed, makes them more attractive, sharpens their senses, and enhances their libidos. It is the recreational drug of choice in Harris’ fictional world. In the first two scenes of blood drinking in the first Sookie novel, Dead Until Dark, Harris reverses the traditional roles of human and vampire: vampire becomes victim, human becomes blood drinker. In the first, an unsavory trailer trash couple, the Ratrays, begin draining the vampire Bill Compton using needles and medical tubing. They plan to sell his blood as a recreational drug. In the second scene of blood taking, human Sookie, who has been beaten almost to death by the Ratrays for preventing their attempted draining/murder, drinks vampire Bill’s blood at his insistence. At first, Sookie gags on the blood, but as she forces herself to swallow, knowing it’s her only chance of survival, she begins to enjoy it: “Suddenly, the blood tasted good, salty, the stuff of life . . . my hand clamped the vampire’s wrist to my mouth. I felt better with every swallow.”
This human taste for blood becomes the emblem of other vampiric traits. Harris’ and Ball’s human characters can be arrogant, chilly, and race-proud: murderers, rapists, self-righteous hate mongers, child molesters. Harris’ vampires may inevitably have a detached, cool demeanor, an unnerving lack of human emotional response, a disregard for laws and a disdain for human lives, but on balance the people in her books are little better. Her heroine’s most potentially devastating encounters come more often at the hands of humans, rather than vampires. Sookie’s great uncle molests her as a child; a local man revolted by relationships between human women and vampires attempts to kill her when she starts dating vampire Bill; an anti-vampire church called The Fellowship of the Sun blows up a hotel during a massive vampire conference killing scores of humans and vampires and nearly killing Sookie.
Alan Ball’s version of the Sookieverse also inverts the traditional structure of the vampire genre (vampires = bad; humans = good) to expose human moral failings, cruelties, abuses of power. In one of True Blood’s most socially canny plots, a young woman addicted to vampire blood coerces her boyfriend into kidnapping a gentle, paunchy middle-aged vampire. They tie him up with silver chains and keep him in the basement, thereby assuring themselves of an unlimited supply of V or V-juice, as vampire blood is called in Ball’s series. The vampire starves and becomes weakened in his captivity and his hunger causes him excruciating pain. He senses that his female captor is going to kill him and confronts her about it, as she’s milking blood from his tender, weakened arm. She punches him savagely and commands him angrily: “Don’t you dare get morally superior on me.” She tells him that she gave up a full scholarship to Vassar to work in an impoverished village in Guatamala, helping to bring clean water to the village. She continues, “I am an organic vegan and my carbon footprint is miniscule ’cause I know that ultimately we’re all just a single living being. But you are not.”
The scene indicts Whole Foods piety as morally insufficient—as a frail ethical blind that can obscure and justify monstrous selfishness and cruelty. By reversing the roles of human and vampire, turning the human into the torturer, the scene suggests that we humans are the vampires now—that we have always been. For Ball and Harris, the essence of the vampire is a ruthless, violent selfishness that characterizes fanged and unfanged characters—humans and vampires—alike. The Sookie Stackhouse novels and True Blood continually pose the question, “Who’s the vampire now?” They repeatedly refuse easy distinctions between good and bad, right and wrong, vampire and human.
In another such equivocal scene, an ancient vampire saves Sookie from an aspiring human rapist. This vampire, it turns out, believes himself damned and intends to destroy himself by walking out into daylight (where the sun’s rays will burn him to death). “We take the blood of innocents,” he explains, when Sookie asks why he thinks himself an abomination. She counters his claim with the question, “Who is innocent?” He says simply, “children”—the vampire fed exclusively on children for centuries. But Sookie, in gratefulness for his kindness, still decides to bear witness to his self-destruction, a decision that the vampire doesn’t understand. “I am an evil creature,” he tells her. (A confession that might seem more noble and poignant in light of the Catholic Church’s failures this week to take such responsibility for crimes against children.) “But you did a good thing, saving me,” Sookie responds. To her own surprise, she cries when the vampire steps into sunlight and begins to disintegrate.
Meyer’s fiction, on the other hand, scrupulously avoids such subtle moral shading, favoring instead the stark good/evil duality of Victorian vampire fiction—more on this in Part II.
“You couldn’t tell that story in the same words that Americans used to order pizzas, let alone in little pictures.” – Jay Cantor, Great NeckI.Last fall, a preview for a movie called The Boy in The Striped Pajamas began running in American theaters. The film’s marketing team had no doubt noticed that October offered their picture a bit of an open market: the summer blockbusters had just blasted 2008 Oscar-winner The Counterfeiters from collective memory, and 2009 contenders The Reader and Defiance (and Good and Valkyrie and Adam Resurrected) had yet to be released. What bound The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to these competitors was its historical backdrop: the near-extinction of the European Jews. Harder to assess, from the preview, was the use to which that backdrop was being put.Exterior: CONCENTRATION CAMP. A YOUNG GERMAN stumbles upon a JEWISH BOY, who sits behind a barbed-wire fence. JEWISH BOY is gaunt, shaven-headed.JEWISH BOY: “The soldiers…they took all our clothes away.”GERMAN BOY: “My dad’s a soldier, but not the sort that takes peoples’ clothes away.”Cut to: David Thewlis, looking every inch the Nazi officer.Cut to: Montage of the two boys, the child of Nazis and the child of Jews, chatting and playing chess, forging a FORBIDDEN FRIENDSHIP from opposite sides of barbed wire.The solemn dialogue and sumptuous cinematography suggested noble cinematic aspirations. And yet it was hard not to see The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, compressed to two minutes and sandwiched almost parenthetically between teasers for the latest James Bond and the latest Judd Apatow, as merely a variation on an equally generic Hollywood product: the redemption flick. By the time it appeared on the marquee of my local theater, the movie’s title had been shortened to BOY IN PJs (to fit between Saw 5 and The Secret Life of Bees), and every time I walked past the marquee, it nagged at me, as the preview did. People died, I thought – real people – and this is the best you could do?I can see now that I was overreacting; film is itself, of necessity, a form of abbreviation. Even Claude Lanzmann’s 9-hour documentary, Shoah, left things out. BOY IN PJs was merely the next logical step in the journey that begins whenever we put history onto the screen or onto the page: a metonymic drift in which pajamas stand for prisoner’s garb, which stands for the loss of freedom, which stands for the loss of life.Then again, the theater was less than a block from the synagogue. And so, though it seemed a little late in the day to protest the muffling of history under the dead hand of costume drama, I waited in vain for someone at least to ask the theater owners to restore the missing letters to the movie’s title. Didn’t anyone care about this stuff anymore?II.After the Holocaust, the philosopher Theodor Adorno declared in 1949, writing poetry became “barbaric.” Like many of Adorno’s pronouncements, this one was best understood as a provocation to think, rather than as a doctrine demanding fealty. A generation of writers including Primo Levi and Paul Celan found ways to violate the letter of Adorno’s law, and seemed more like heroes than barbarians as they did so. Still, in the second half of the Twentieth Century, those who would represent the Holocaust – and those who would consume those representations – at least had to contend with Adorno’s spirit. For fifty years, almost instinctively, we extended to the 6 million dead a reverence that was disappearing from the rest of the culture.Among the constituent gestures of this reverence – among its rituals – was an effort to hold the Holocaust separate – separate from language, separate from cliché, separate from the always already compromised field of aesthetics, separate from other mass murders. Or to connect it only to very specific historical narratives: about the sufferings of the Chosen People, about the evils of appeasement. Those who failed in their observances were widely condemned. In 1963, for example, when Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem portrayed its subject not as a transhistorical and theological monster, but as a morally deficient human being, the Anti-Defamation League asked American rabbis to decry the book before their congregations. A group of touring intellectuals-for-hire dubbed Arendt “The Rosa Luxembourg of Nothingness.” Three decades later, when Roberto Begnini’s Life is Beautiful inaugurated the genre of Holocaust kitsch, the Cahiers du Cinema refused to review it.For committed free-thinkers, the limitations of reverence as a philosophical position appeared obvious. (“Piety,” once a virtue, tends to carry exclusively negative connotations among those who don’t like to be told what to do.) But, on balance, it created a productive anxiety for the arts. The supreme difficulty of doing justice to so much suffering and so much death before such a tough audience inspired more than one writer’s finest work; anxiety is what gave productions as reticent as W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and as scabrous as Mel Brooks’ The Producers their ethical charge. (Not, anxiety compels me to add, that it was any consolation.)That anxiety endures to this day… at least in the pages of our leading periodicals. In The New York Times and The New Republic and The New York Review of Books and Slate, bright and engaged critics such as Jacob Heilbrunn, Ruth Franklin, Daniel Mendelsohn, and Ron Rosenbaum regularly consider whether new novels and memoirs and movies about the Holocaust are worthy of their grave subject. But the current superabundance of aestheticized Holocausts beggars our capacity for judgment, to say nothing of our capacity for outrage. The controversy over Angel At The Fence – a concentration-camp memoir revealed last December to be fraudulent – burned itself out in a week.In fact, in 2009, reality has again outrun the intellectuals, as it tends periodically to do. As the youngest survivors of the Nazi era enter their eighth decade, the apposite question is no longer the ethical one – how should we represent the Holocaust – but the anthropological one – how do we. And it appears that, for better or worse, we have begun to represent the Holocaust the way we do everything else.Jonathan Littell’s mammoth new novel The Kindly Ones, is not only a case in point; it is an apotheosis. In a single coup, the book erases the lines that held the Holocaust apart from other literary subjects and bound it to its own standards of representation. And so, more than any other recent cultural event – more than The Reader, more than BOY IN PJs – it affords us a measure of what we gain, and what we lose, when we drag the supreme example of human suffering into contact with the great muddy stream of mass culture.It may seem unfair to front-load a reading of a single novel with so much historical baggage. Upon the book’s publication in French, Littell himself reminded Pierre Nora in Le Débat that his main concern was that the book “work… as a literary vehicle.” But it is Littell who, by writing a 975-page novel from the point-of-view of a sexually damaged S.S. officer, has invited the burdens he must now carry. His work can achieve its totalizing ambitions only to the extent that it exhausts every facet of its monstrous subject. That Littell manages to embody so completely the difficulties of finding a new literary approach to his subject thus testifies, perversely, to some degree of success. For The Kindly Ones, which seeks to drag readers through the heart of historical darkness, does us at least this kindness: it brings us valuable news about the way we live now.III.Some of the The Kindly Ones’ success in France can be attributed to the sheer improbability of its existence. Written from the point-of-view of an S.S. officer, in French, by the retiring, American-born son of the spy novelist Robert Littell – a descendent of European Jews – the book offered the press a multiplicity of hooks and angles. And there was the matter of its sheer size. If Moby-Dick represents the exhaustive aspirations of a certain strain of American fiction, contemporary French writers have tended to labor in the more streamlined shadows of Duras and Camus. French readers received Littell’s 2.5-pound book with the ecstasy of liberated prisoners, snapping up something like 750,000 copies and awarding him the 2006 Prix Goncourt.For all of its idiosyncrasies, however, The Kindly Ones is, in its narrative arc, an almost archetypal first novel. It traces four years in the life of a young man named Dr. Maximilian Aue, who in that time journeys from innocence (of a sort) to experience. While still in law school, Aue is pressured to join the S.S. As an officer, he becomes a kind of Zelig figure, managing to get himself entangled in many of the war’s most significant events. Flashbacks recording Aue’s growing up, and his early ambivalence about his military career, are at first apportioned sparingly. In the main, narrative time marches arm-in-arm with history. Aue is attached to the einsatzkommandos that conduct mass shootings at Babi Yar and elsewhere; gets transferred to the Caucasus at the apex of Hitler’s Russian campaign; is injured in the Battle of Stalingrad; travels on leave to Vichy Paris; inspects Auschwitz; dines with Eichmann; takes orders from Himmler; and ultimately fulfills his destiny in a bunker as the Allies take Berlin.Compacted into a single paragraph, this synopsis tests the bounds of credulity. Yet one of the book’s remarkable achievements – likely its finest – is the way it re-connects the most thoroughly documented pieces of the Holocaust to an almost incomprehensibly vast historical whole. Over the hundreds of pages covering the Eastern Front, Littell allows the signal events of Aue’s biography to mingle with the quotidian: meals, illnesses, boredom, trauma, politics. At this human scale, the horrors Aue participates in loom even larger than they do from the bird’s eye of history. Death registers in a way that transcends statistics – not only as the end product of the Final Solution but as a condition of existence. It haunts the footsoldiers on both sides of the Eastern Front, and the officers, and the partisans, and the Jews. Exposed to forced marches and disease and rape and murder in something approaching real-time, we come to feel – as opposed to intellectually acknowledging – the pervasive grimness of total war.Presenting the Holocaust in this context also affords readers a deeper understanding of the ideological mechanisms of genocide. We are allowed to see how appeals to military necessity lay the groundwork, in the minds of the S.S. men and in the language that they speak, for the Final Solution. Littell exposes us to a dizzying range of anti-Semitisms, from the apoplectic to the anti-Communist to the somewhat resigned.The Jews themselves, alas, seem mostly like an unindividuated mass, but perhaps this is how they seem to our narrator. Littell allows room for this interpretation early on by giving us several moments that run counter to it, as when Aue personally supervises the execution of an elderly Jew, a theologian, who has turned himself in in the Caucasus:The old man fell like a marionette whose string has been cut all at once. I went up to the grave and leaned over: he was lying at the bottom like a sack, his head turned aside, still smiling a little. . . I was trembling. “Close that up,” I curtly ordered Hanning.After several pages of conversation with his victim, Aue has come to see him as a person, rather than as a part of a mass, and has hesitated. And why only hesitated? The gap between “trembling” and “curtly” contains the mystery that the book should be seeking to unravel.IV.What we don’t get, in the half of the novel devoted to the Eastern Front, is enough attention to that mystery. Or at least, not as much as we’ve been led to expect by the book’s prologue. There Aue, elderly and living under an assumed identity in postwar France, addressed us directly, defiantly… intimately. Now, on the Front, he has acquired the flat address of the camera.This movement away from interiority complicates Littell’s attempt to do for morality what he has managed to do for history: that is, to bring the Holocaust into view not as a singularity, but as part of a larger whole. And this is arguably the more crucial of Littell’s projects, as it is the only one for which the novelist’s tools surpass the historian’s. The essential unanswered question about the Holocaust – presumably one of the reasons for this novel’s being – is not how, but why.Littell knows that cordoning evil off from history lets us off the hook. (I am not like you, Stalin thinks, looking at newsreels of Hitler. I have reasons.) And so The Kindly Ones seeks to suggest the incredible complexity and variety of forces that add up to genocide, and how they embed themselves in the daily life of human beings. “I am just like you!” Aue insists at the end of the prologue.Yet, at the moments when this identification matters most, our narrator becomes inaccessible. The first time we see Aue kill with his own hand, he speaks of “an immense, boundless rage, I kept shooting at her and her head exploded like a fruit, then my arm detached itself from me and went off all by itself down the ravine, shooting left and right.” And then we get this:A sentence of Chesterton’s ran through my head: I never said it was always wrong to enter fairyland. I only said it was always dangerous. Is that what war was, then, a perverted fairyland, the playground of a demented child who breaks his toys and shouts with laughter, gleefully tossing the dishes out the window?How are we to interpret these trite metaphors? As a form of intellectual dissociation? As the falsification of memory by the latter-day narrator, looking back with the benefit of hindsight? Certainly not as a credible psychological account of a man “just like us” who has just killed for the first time. And what of the lurid cinema of that “exploded fruit?” Is Aue actually a sadist? A schizophrenic? An aesthete? A fraud? These are not mysteries, they are problems. Generally, we would look to style resolve them, but in the passage above, this is hardly possible.Indeed, style itself is a problem – one that grows as The Kindly Ones rumbles on. Acronymic Befehlsprache bleeds from dialogue into narrative. Descriptions of nature and weather, presumably meant to startle us by their incongruity, never rise above the anodyne: cows low, bees buzz, snow blankets the countryside. And the gray laziness of Littell’s descriptive mode ripens to a Koontzian purple in the presence of death. “The skull was resting against a stone,” Aue tells us at one point,quite clean, its empty sockets swarming with beetles, its gnawed lips baring yellow teeth, washed by the rain: and the skull had opened, revealing the intact flesh of the mouth, a thick, almost wriggling tongue, pink, obscene.Those last two hectoring adjectives turn whatever effect the sentence was to have had into parody. Littell seems eager enough to tell us what Aue feels – “boundless rage,” “vague anguish,” – or, in the venerable tradition of undergraduate fiction, to register those feelings in the form of intestinal discomfort or loss of consciousness, but he never develops a vocabulary for showing us, in modulations of the point-of-view, how Aue is changing or being changed by his work.The conspicuous opacity of the narrative voice Littell has settled into by the novel’s midpoint makes it impossible to understand the frequent lapses into hamhandedness as conscious effects. Perhaps something has been lost in Charlotte Mandell’s translation – or perhaps the lapses betoken a commitment to the poetics of Maurice Blanchot – but one comes to wonder whether they are simply bad writing, of a sort we’re unaccustomed to seeing in connection with the Holocaust. We might even be willing to overlook it, were we operating in the genre of historical novel. But Littell is after bigger game. (I’m just like you!) And because literature cannot avoid having an aesthetic dimension, Littell’s weaknesses of style will have grave consequences for the second half of The Kindly Ones, where he concentrates the book’s most obviously aesthetic elements: its plot, its exploration of character, and its self-negating elaboration of its themes.V.The entire novel – thus far powerful in its scale, but uneven in its portraiture – is supposed to turn, I think, on the scene, 400-odd pages in where Aue gets shot in the head in Stalingrad. The careful reader will notice that this is the precise point at which Aue’s copious, and copiously chronicled, bowel problems – his chronic diarrhea and literal nausea – begin to abate. It also marks an inflection point in his career prospects. Aue’s sensibility changes, too. Whatever has attenuated his appetite for violence – and for self-disclosure – has apparently been amputated. And so, after a long fever-dream fantasia on his incestuous love for his twin sister, he goes home to see his hated mother and stepfather. At the end of his visit, they’ve been hacked to death. With an axe.The title The Kindly Ones is an allusion to Aeschylus’ Oresteia, and with this murder, the previously subtle parallels come jostling to the foreground. In the last 450 pages of the novel, set largely in Germany and Poland, Max’s flight from his own “Kindly Ones” – a.k.a. his pursuing Furies – will take center-stage. Daniel Mendelsohn, who knows from Aeschylus, has mounted a credible argument that the novel constitutes is a meditation on two very different conceptions of justice: the Hellenistic and the Judeo-Christian. Yet Littell’s approach to evil in this second half of the book – one part phrenology, one part fatalism, one part Freud – explains away the very mystery that drew us into Aue’s exploits on the Eastern Front: the mystery of why. Also overlooked by Mendelsohn is the slackness that now pervades every paragraph. Even if the Oresteian parallel were to justify the inclusion of Aue’s masochistic homosexual encounters and his sadistic incest fantasies, would it necessitate treating them in such tedious detail? An onanistic orgy at a deserted country house goes on for 40 pages:The mattress was as clean as the sheets. So I set about soiling it myself, squatting with my legs wide apart, the ghostly body of my sister open beneath me, her head turned slightly aside and her hair pulled back to reveal her small, delicate, round ear that I loved so, then I collapsed in slime and abruptly fell asleep, my belly still sticky. I wanted to possess this bed, but it was the bed that possessed me.This isn’t transgression; this is an embarrassment.The embarrassment need not extend from author to narrator. After Stalingrad, we are meant, I think, to see Aue’s poisoned conscience leaking out and poisoning his world, and some of what Aue presents as fact is surely fantasy. Perhaps, like us, Aue is not capable of living with his crimes short of a complete mental breakdown. But the plot depends upon other, equally clumsily rendered elements (again, elements from The Oresteia). To dismiss the cartoonishness of the prose as simply an index of Aue’s grip on reality is to introduce an Escherian instability into the text.Rather, what I think we discover, in the second half of The Kindly Ones, is the inevitable dark side of our new era of Holocaust discourse. Artists young enough to ask interesting questions about, say, the eating habits and family lives of the Nazis, are artists whose aesthetic standards have been formed, not in the charnel-house of history, but in our fluid, polymorphously perverse popular culture. Littell may see himself as a student of Parisian deep-thinkers, but he’s learned at least as much from Hollywood. For where else but in the town that originated the terms “shock value” and “money shot” does the gross-out gag register as an end-in-itself? And where but in the movies would Littell’s commercial autoeroticism – insert sausage into rectum, insert penis into pie – register as shocking?VI.It seems we cannot erase the line of reverence that held the Holocaust apart from the rest of history without also eroding the line that kept it unpolluted by the rest of our culture, with its increasing shamelessness and ephemerality. Indeed, they were the same line. In 1995, William H. Gass’ monumental The Tunnel committed far less outré, and far more disturbing, discursive violations; ultimately, though, the book was still tethered to Adorno-esque notions of “the fascism of the heart,” and so it added to the common store of literature, even as its claims to departure from that literature collapsed. Fifteen years later, The Kindly Ones, authentically escaping from literary precedent, loses its bearings in the stylistic fog of horror movies, pornography, and advertisements. By the laughable last pages, Littell’s scatology registers mostly as shtick. Which is, you’ll notice, an anagram of kitsch.Notice also that we are miles away from talking about the concentration camps – Aue’s professional concern in the second half of The Kindly Ones. Under the old dispensation, writing about the Holocaust was seen as brave precisely because one owed it to one’s subject to also be good. Under the new one, you can dedicate your novel to “the dead” and still have your readers walk away remembering mostly the masturbation fantasies. If no one will honor your bravery, it’s only because you’ve managed to annihilate the source of any risk you might have run.Such is our current situation. We’ve moved from the Eichmann in Jerusalem controversy to the Angel at the Fence kerfuffle, from The Drowned and the Saved to BOY IN PJS. We’ve crossed the great divide between reverence and “meh.” This movement is called postmodernism, and in abler hands than Littell’s, it may yet prove itself capable of finding new ways to speak about the unspeakable. And yet it’s worth remembering that its direct forerunner, Friedrich Nietzsche, called not for the abandonment of all values, but their revaluation. The example of The Kindly Ones suggests that that revaluation becomes more difficult, not less, in the absence of something to rebel against. When nothing is sacred, there can be no sacrilege.We might say, of Littell, après lui, le deluge, but of course the deluge has already begun. Ethically, The Kindly Ones’ mash-up of Life and Fate and American Psycho represents no worse an offense than this season’s crop of Oscar movies, which give us the Holocaust as The Magnificent Seven, as The Green Mile; as “Hot for Teacher.” Harper Collins paid around a million dollars for the translation rights to The Kindly Ones, no doubt anticipating a wave of profitable outrage from prudish American reviewers. Indeed, the novel’s jacket copy promises “provocation and controversy.” In the end, though, the only meaningful provocation is how little controversy this intermittently powerful, sloppily written, and morally incoherent book is likely to cause: how commonplace it now seems.Is it too late to ask for our anxiety back?
I’ve never been a big fan of film adaptations of books. If I watch the movie version and then decide to read the book, as is currently the case with American Psycho, I can’t help but have an image of the actors in my head. If I read the book and then watch the film, I’m tempted to be that guy who says, “You know, the book is much better.”One time when I was interviewing a Hollywood screenwriter who had just published his first book, I asked him if he’d like to see a movie version of his novel someday. Absolutely not, he said, noting that having turned books into screenplays, he knows that by the end of the process one rarely looks like the other.But what bothers me most is when books for children are adapted for the big screen. I’m not talking about projecting Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! onto a movie screen. That’s fine with me. The book already has colorful pictures and isn’t considered a novel in the literary sense. Instead, my gripe is with, oh, say, the film version of J.K. Rowling’s wildly successful Harry Potter series.As a kid, one of the things I loved about reading was how I could create an image of what the characters looked like based on the author’s description. Sure, I suppose some of those books had pictures of characters on the cover, but that’s a far cry from seeing Daniel Radcliffe, the actor who plays Harry Potter, on billboards and in commercials for the movies.Admittedly, I also am not a big fan of the Harry Potter books. I read the first installment, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, before seeing the movie, and I had no desire to find out what happened next.I acknowledge the movies probably have spurred thousands of children to read more than they had before, but it’s the kind of reading that concerns me. In the end, kids end up reading books about wildly imaginative characters while being denied the pleasure of imagining what those characters look like. That disappoints me.Who knows, maybe most kids can easily separate the Harry Potter books from the films, especially since some of the screen adaptations allow for some creative license. I just hope the movies haven’t stifled the literary imagination of young readers.
A very cursory beginning!”Lillubulero,” in Lawerence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy“La ci darem la mano,” from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, in James Joyce’s UlyssesThe “Hoffmann Barcarolle” of Jacques Offenbach “played” by Sherlock Holmes on the violin in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Mazarin Stone” (the piece itself comes from Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann”, a musical rendering of some of the German Romantic writer, painter, and musical composer E.T.A Hoffmann’s tales)Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch becomes “Venus in Furs,” by the Velvet UndergroundBeethoven’s 5th Symphony features prominently in E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End (&, on a more scholarly note, Forster’s use of “the rainbow bridge” imagery, in the furtherance of the “only connect” theme, is taken from Richard Wagner’s Das Reingold, wherein the rainbow bridge appearing at the end conveys the gods to their paradisical new home Walhalla, see John Louis DiGaetani’s Richard Wagner and the Modern British Novel)The Beggars’ Opera by John Gay becomes “Mac the Knife” by Bobby Darrin, et al.”Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles becomes Norwegian Wood by Haruki MurakamiE.T.A. Hoffman’s The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr, the fantastical autobiography of a literate cat interspersed with the autobiography of his musician owner, Kapellmeister Kreisler (a fictionalized self-portrait of Hoffmann, himself a musical composer (as above); Tomcat Murr was the name of Hoffmann’s own tabby cat – and performs some katzenmusik himself in the novel)Alexandre Dumas (fils)’s novel La Dame aux Camelias becomes Giuseppi Verdi’s opera La TraviataAnd finally – though I come by this disingenuously because I haven’t read it – Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho: I hear tell that it’s got some very funny discussions of pop music, including the assertion that Genesis was the greatest British band of 80’s…
Ron writes in with this question:The recent issue of Firsts magazine has an article on today’s “blue chip” authors for book collectors: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Fitzgerald. It made me wonder who writing today will be a blue chip author in the future. In the next 10 or 15 years, who will have books selling at the astronomical prices many great first editions books command?I find old books fascinating, but I’m no book collector. It requires a fortitude and attention to detail that I simply don’t possess. However, I was able to pass this question along to an expert, book shop owner Nigel who runs the fascinating book collecting blog, Bookride. Here’s what Nigel had to say:Predicting which authors will be collected in the future is a good game but slightly risky.In the past people have tried to suggest authors worthy of financial investment and often got it sadly wrong. E.g. a few years ago Louis de Bernieres was being tipped as a highly collectable author. His prices did indeed shoot up in value so that at one point fine firsts of Captain Corelli were worth as much as $2000, but it is now readily buyable at less than half that. It could be because there has been a move against authors associated with Magic Realism, but also because the book is readily available and copies just keep turning up. The lesson is that however good a writer is – if there are too many copies of his or her works (and not enough collectors) the book will not prove a good bet. Supply and demand. That being said let me try and suggest a few writers.Of the serious American novelists you should be OK with Don DeLillo, Brett Easton Ellis (especially the UK hardback first of American Psycho), Michael Chabon, Jeffrey Eugenides, William Gibson, Toni Morrison, limited editions of Vollmann, signed stuff by Hunter Thompson. Of the mass market authors, I cannot see Stephen King falling into desuetude but you need to stick to the early stuff, thriller writers like Michael Connelly, Pelecanos, Lee Child, Laurie King, Ian Rankin are happening and may continue to resonate. The big money is now in photobooks, children’s literature (Rowling, Pullman, Dahl) and artist’s books (Koons, Hirst, Warhol, Emin, Prince). Photographer Robert Frank’s The Americans has more than trebled in value this century now selling for $10000+ in great condition, same goes for some of the young Japanese photographers. Condition is, as always, paramount.The Irish poets like Heaney, Muldoon, Mahon and Michael Longley are a goodish bet. I like Harold Pinter and think he will rise in value – other Nobel Prize Winners might do well like Gao Xingjian and Jose Saramago. South American writers are a little played out with the brilliant exception of Roberto Bolano (who, perversely, said that most writers who won Nobel prizes were “jerks”). Another great collectible iconoclast is the French enfant terrible Michel Houellebecq. US poet Philip Levine will hopefully be seriously collected, possibly Patti Smith and amongst the Brit poets I would back James Fenton.A litany of Brit writers like Ian Mcewan, Hanif Kureishi, Julian Barnes and Irvine Welsh are unlikely to flatline and in the “world music” category dig Haruki Murakami, Aime Cesaire, Khaled Hosseini, and Naguib Mahfouz. Of older writers I think Flann O’Brien might well increase in value – his work is said to give clues to the real meaning of [the TV show] ‘Lost’…Thanks Nigel! If any book collecting types have thoughts to share, please do so in the comments.Bonus Link: Finding First Editions – An “Ask a Book Question” from years past.