A kind of antipodean counterpart to E.L. Doctorow (and now, like Doctorow, a resident of New York), the Australian novelist Peter Carey seems able to do virtually anything on the page. A master of plot, character, setting, phrasing, point-of-view, description, and dialogue (among other things), Carey has published sprawling bildungsromans and swift-moving capers, real travelogues and fake confessions, books for children and books for adults. Perhaps his greatest achievement, The True History of the Kelly Gang, is a Down Under Western filtered through the richly impoverished word-hoard of an uneducated outlaw. Like all of Carey’s works, it boasts a narrative brio few writers can sustain.In his new novel, His Illegal Self, Carey turns (as Doctorow did in Billy Bathgate) to a neglected genre: the boy’s adventure story. In trenchant, gorgeous chapters, we follow seven-year-old Che Selkirk, the abandoned son of Sixties radicals, as he goes on the lam with a woman who seems vaguely familiar. Their flight takes them west across America, and eventually to the Australian outback (even as the narrative backtracks to the events that drove them to flee).Carey is one of contemporary literature’s great describers, and the picaresque mode allows him to indulge his lyrical gifts. At Kenoza Lake in upstate New York, we are told, “The geese would be heading up to Canada and the Boeings spinning their white contrails across the cold blue sky – loneliness and hope, expanding like paper flowers in water.” Australia, by contrast, is a vision of fecundity:A big tree had fallen, its clay- and pebble-crusted roots naked in the air like dried-out innards. The trunk, which made a bridge between the flood bank and the low bank, was about as big across as a man is tall and he soon found a place, just below the disturbed earth, where you could jump down onto its broad back, like the back of an elephant or a slippery seal, and he walked along it, with the kitten now meowing softly, down to the place where the timber splintered and smashed and speared into the earth.Almost Biblically aggregative, such sentences alone might carry us through fifty pages or more. But Carey is after larger game. The novel’s driving ambition is the evocation of innocence and experience, of the attachments and eventual heartbreaks that characterize both childhood and the 1960s. Which is to say, His Illegal Self rises and falls on the relationship between Che and Dial (and their relationship with one of the eccentrics they, like Huck and Jim, fall in with).Carey can deliver a supporting character with Dickensian brilliance; a few lines are sufficient to capture both the comedy and the pathos of Che’s Grandma Selkirk, for example, or of his erstwhile neighbor Cameron. (“He sat in ski socks before the electric radiator, spreading the skin condition that he hoped would save him from Vietnam.”) Yet the novel’s depiction of its two most central people sometimes stumbles. And so our emotional investment in them – and even our understanding of the plot – wavers, as though we are reading by candlelight.This flickering quality arises from the formal challenge the novelist has set for himself here. Although a few asides lead us to believe that Che, our third-person protagonist, is remembering his childhood from some point in the future, Carey elects to narrate in virtually unbroken “free indirect style,” foregoing interpretation by the author. The choice makes aesthetic and dramatic sense – aesthetically, it brings us close to the exotic intellect of the seven-year-old, and dramatically it allows Carey to withhold certain pieces of information without seeming coy.It also gives Carey license to practice and perfect a technique for which the Russian formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky coined the term ostranenie (often translated as “defamiliarization.”) Ostranenie involves trying to present a fictional object as it appears to consciousness, rather than trying to explain it for the benefit of the reader. The aim is the (illusory) overthrow of the mediating tyranny of the author. Here, for example, is a hotel, seen through Che’s eyes:Then they walked along green corridors with long tubes of light above, and the sounds of TVs applauding from the rooms. Dial’s face was green in the hallway, then dark and shrunken inside the room.It is defamiliarization that gives these sentences their beauty and their strangeness. In their almost erotic attention to sensory detail, they also capture a quality of consciousness peculiar to children. (A former elementary school teacher, I can testify that it’s not uncommon for kids to have 20/10 vision; as noticers, children make Saul Bellow’s heroes look positively obtuse.)Yet an overreliance on defamiliarization is also the novel’s chief weakness. We may sense in the passage quoted above that Dial has become momentarily frightening, but can only guess how, or why. Carey’s emphasis on the external places us emotionally further away from Che than we ever are from Huck Finn, muddying the stakes of the novel. In a way, the extremes to which Carey pushes ostranenie could be said to proceed from false assumptions about consciousness – to underestimate the degree to which seven-year-olds do interpret and make sense of their worlds. And defamiliarization is like any other figure of speech. To be profligate with it is to deprive it of its power to discriminate among objects in the fictional world.Then again, Che’s failures of apprehension help drive the adventure forward, and when the emotional center of the novel precipitates out of the stream of images, about two-thirds of the way through – when, that is, Che has something to lose – the candle by which we’ve been reading flares up, and begins to give off a brighter light.Still, one does wish for some moderation of style of the middle third of the book. However breathtaking the writing, His Illegal Self, falls short of a goal attainable to Peter Carey and to few other novelists: the creation of consciousness. Fans of Carey, of the English declarative sentence, and of books that end with a bang rather than a whimper, are encouraged to pick up His Illegal Self. But they should expect a transcendent amuse-bouche rather than a well-balanced meal – a book more likely to arouse appetites than to slake them.
Hollywood has always poached stories from the republic of letters (not to mention Broadway and, increasingly, Nick at Nite), and some of the greatest movies of all time have started out as novels. Still, this year seems notable for the number of literary adaptations coming to the screen (see our earlier post). It strikes me that movies made from books can disappoint in two ways: first, by hewing too closely to the source material, and, second, by venturing too far afield from it. Either way, one’s reading of a book can be spoiled by seeing a movie first. Instead of E.L. Doctorow’s Dutch Schulz, one sees… Dustin Hoffmann. And then one has to live with an ugly paperback edition of Billy Bathgate, whose cover is basically a movie poster.The most successful adaptations, I think, take on a life of their own, using the source material as a springboard. And any time previews lead me to believe that one of these adaptations is in the offing, I try to read the book in a hurry, before heading to the theater.My strategy has been paying handsome dividends lately. First, I bumped Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men to the head of the reading queue, and discovered one of my favorite books of all time. So much of what makes this novel great – its voice – seems unlikely to translate to the screen, and so I’ve elected to skip the recent movie version, starring Sean (no relation) Penn. Even if the DVD is on your Netflix queue… read this book first!Less likely to stand the test of time, but still a wicked-fun read, was Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. This book, too, was voice-driven, introducing me to the nasty wit and sly machinations of schoolmarm Barbara Covett. The movie version, with Dame Judi Dench in the Covett role, wisely eschews some of the book’s narrative elements, finding cinematic equivalents instead. Through a masterful Dench performance and some judicious voice-over, the movie manages to convey much of the ironic tenor of Barbara’s internal monologue, while giving us more insight into Cate Blanchett’s character than Heller does in the book. Still, I’d recommend the novel Notes on a Scandal to anyone looking for a literary page-turner.This month’s Bookforum offers insight on yet another movie adaptation: that of Patrick Suskind’s Perfume. This bestselling German novel from the 80s features an antihero who relates to the world entirely through his olfactory glands, and would thus seem to be unfilmable. In their Bookforum interview, director Tom Tykwer and producer Bernd Eichinger discuss the difficulties of adaptation. “You cannot really put this novel into an existing structure for a film,” Eichinger says. “It’s not a genre movie, not a thriller, not a horror, not a love story. It’s truly bizarre and original.” Which is a fair description of Suskind’s novel, the story of an 18th-century murderer.
Let’s say you’re slightly to the left of the Bell Curve: you read, on average, a book a week. And let’s say you’re also slightly leftward-listing in your survival prospects: that, due to the marvels of future medicine (and no thanks to the blunders of contemporary foreign policy) you’ll live to the fine old age of 90. Let’s furthermore presuppose that you’re one of those people, the precocious ones who were reading Kesey and King and Kingsolver and Kipling at 15. How many great books will you get to read in a lifetime? Assuming you’ve already answered the adjunct question (why?) for yourself, the prospect of having to choose only three thousand books from among the many Millions may sound daunting. My Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of World Literature contains some entries on authors alone, and is hardly comprehensive. Balzac alone could eat up almost one percent of your lifetime reading. On the other hand, as usual, limitation shades into wonder… because in an infinite reading universe, we would be deprived of one of the supreme literary pleasures: discovery. Half of my favorite works of fiction of the year were by authors (women, natch) I’d never read, had barely heard of: Kathryn Davis’ The Thin Place, Lynne Tillman’s American Genius: A Comedy, and Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica.And if I had gone my whole life without discovering Deborah Eisenberg, I would have missed something like a literary soulmate. The beguiling, bewildered quality of Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes – the sentences whose endings seem to surprise even their writer – is so close to the texture of life as I experience it as to be almost hallucinatory. On the other hand, Eisenberg’s world is much, much funnier and more profound than mine. She’s single-handedly rejuvenated my relationship with the short story… and just in time for the remarkable new Edward P. Jones collection, All Aunt Hagar’s Children. I’ve already expressed my suspicion that Jones has been a positive influence on Dave Eggers, as evidenced by What is the What. So I’ll just round out my survey of new fiction by mentioning Marshall N. Klimasewiski’s overlooked first novel, The Cottagers – a dazzlingly written thriller.In between forays into the contemporary landscape, I’ve been trying to bone up on the classics. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t read Pride and Prejudice until this year; it’s about the most romantic damn thing I’ve ever encountered, and I’m a sucker for romance. Pricklier and more ironic, which is to say more Teutonic, was Mann’s The Magic Mountain – a great book for when you’ve got nothing to do for two months. Saul Bellow’s Herzog completely blew my doors off, suggesting that stream-of-consciousness (and the perfect evocation of a summer day) did not end with Mrs. Dalloway. Herzog is such a wonderful book, so sad, so funny, so New York. So real. I can’t say the same thing about Kafka’s The Castle, but it is to my mind the most appealing of his novels. As in The Magic Mountain, futility comes to seem almost charming. E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate was another wonderful discovery – a rip-roaring read that’s written under some kind of divine inspiration: Let there be Comma Splices! Similarly, I was surprised by how well page-turning pacing and peel-slowly sentences worked in Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City. Ultimately, it’s sort of a ridiculous story, but it’s hard to begrudge something this rich and addictive. Think of it as a dessert. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the rip-roar of that most sweeping of summer beach books, Lonesome Dove. And if the last three titles make you feel self-indulgent, because you’re having too much fun, cleanse the palate the way I did, with the grim and depressing and still somehow beautiful. Namely, Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing or W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. (What is it with those Germans?)Nonfiction-wise, I managed to slip away from journalism a bit, but did read James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men while I was in Honduras… sort of like reading Melville at sea. I made it most of the way through Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (God knows why, half of me adds. The other half insists, You know why.) Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment lightened things up… Not! But I will never read Cosmo Girl the same way again. Come to think of it, pretty much all the nonfiction I loved this year was a downer, about the impure things we can’t get away from: Susan Sontag’s On Photography, Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces, David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity, and especially the late George W.S. Trow’s astonishing, devastating Within the Context of No Context. Lit-crit offered a little bit of a silver lining, as William H. Gass’ A Temple of Text and James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self. Wood’s essays on Tolstoy and Bellow remind me that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God”… which is, I guess, why I’ll keep reading in 2007.