Notes from the Underground

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A Year in Reading: Ed Champion (The 13 Most Underrated Books of 2010)

Critics who produce the same tired titles for these infernal end-of-the-year lists are as useless as austere accountants who refuse to fox trot on the dance floor.  They are stiff, unimaginative, uncultured, incurious, and, quite possibly, lousy in bed.  They are the literary equivalent of unadventurous tourists who cling to tired maps and who are hopeless with a Swiss Army knife.

The authors who are afforded predictable laurels are not to blame for this.  Don’t get me wrong.  These folks know how to cut the rug. Paul Murray (Skippy Dies), Yiyun Li (Gold Boy, Emerald Girl), Tom McCarthy (C), Cynthia Ozick (Foreign Bodies), David Rakoff (Half Empty), Adam Ross (Mr. Peanut), David Mitchell (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet), Matt Taibbi (Griftopia), Paul Auster (Sunset Park) and Marilynne Robinson (Absence of Mind) hardly need any help from me.  Chances are that you’re already familiar with these fine titles.  As for some “masterpieces,” well, you don’t really need me to tell you that the emperor wears no clothes.

But who needs such unpleasantness!  2010 was a great year in books!  This was a hard list to assemble!  There were only two books this year that almost made me consider suicide!

The following list represents an effort to identify books that were completely marginalized, modestly outside the radar, or needlessly condemened by certain hatchet wielders who lacked the grace and/or the intelligence to embrace a peculiar magic.

Allison Amend, Stations West – Jewish cowboys, vagabonds, 19th century multiculturalism, and an elaborate storyline covering a good fifty years.  It isn’t often when a novelist crams so much enjoyable story into a taut 250 page container.  In addition to the book’s telling but unobtrusive historical details (“inexpensive porcelain dishes” delicately placed inside a glass case for a quiet dignity, the newspapers taking so long to deliver the news, et al.), Amend is very careful in giving the reader much to infer.  Garfield, for example, is an indolent trainhopper who becomes something of a politco.  The reasons behind this unlikely ascent are skillfully delivered: “As the country entered a new century, so did Garfield.  He was tired of the raised eyebrows, the barely polite refusals, tired of fighting just to get the same food or service everyone else did.  Just because he had a Jewish surname.”  Yet remarkably, this book has received scant notice from the book reviewing outlets.  Perhaps because it’s too readable to be true.

Toby Ball, The Vaults –  “So he leaned against a thick timber that had at one time served as a post for a jetty and with his collar up and hat down inhaled the sweet, moist smoke and felt the cold become a more-interesting-than-uncomfortable sensation on his skin.”  That’s probably the type of hyperspecific pulp prose style that’s going to infuriate the Millions readership.  The time has come to loosen up.  From a worldbuilding standpoint, why shouldn’t we know the origin point of the post?  Why shouldn’t we know how someone faces the cold or contends with competing dermal sensations?  These may seem flippant questions.  But if we can accept this level of detail in William Gibson or Nicholson Baker, then surely we can offer some wiggle room for an engaging novel that somehow manages to squeeze such intriguing sentences into brisk chapters (did I mention that this book moves?) for a high-octane, multiple character story that involves a parallel dystopian America in the 1930s.

Robin Black, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This – Forget Wells Tower. Robin Black’s marvelous short story collection, which was needlessly ignored by The New York Times and The Washington Post, is very much on the level: far truer to human existence than anything written by that lumbering Young Turk. These subtle and mature stories avoid belabored metaphors and neat conclusions, revealing numerous nuances about the human condition in its careful use of understated language   Black knows “the heavy lifting when the conversation sags.”  In “A Country Where You Once Lived,” cybersex involves “gasps from behind a curtain of shimmering color blocks.” The striking possibility that humans can surrender to their baser instincts is suggested by “Harriet Elliott”’s narrator sleeping in a bedroom filled with stuffed animals.  Some stories are interrupted by terrible accidents, often of the car crashing variety.  But these stories don’t just tell the truth; like much great literature, they make a quiet case for perseverance.

Paula Bomer, Baby – These darkly hilarious tales are somewhat reminiscent of Kate Christensen, Iris Owens, and Maggie Estep.  Yet Bomer is more willing to investigate that uncomfortable territory between extreme behavior and insanity. In a Bomer story, you’ll find a perverse passage (“She didn’t know what to do. But that was how it was. Babies screamed, you tried all sorts of things, and sometimes, they just kept screaming anyway.”) that makes you ponder why the character hasn’t been arrested for outright neglect.  (What “things” did this mother try?  And why is her partner so complicit?)   Unfortunately, mainstream publishers don’t have the stones to publish such material anymore.  Fortunately, Word Riot Press is there to cover the gap.

Jane Brox, Brilliant – In The Journal of American History, Jill Lepore unfurled a Bummer Bertha, suggesting that microhistories, by way of auctorial passion, have little to offer the serious minded.  Such a distressingly humorless attitude can be handily answered by Jane Brox’s fascinating book, emerging from a straightforward examination of how artificial light has permanently altered human existence.  Before reading this book, I had no idea how difficult it was for astronomers to locate dark patches of the sky.  I knew that the end of the curfew had augmented nightlife, but I hadn’t fully considered how swiftly gaslight had superceded candlelight, making such items as theatrical makeup more garish.  The common electricity that we now take for granted is a relatively recent phenomenon.  Imagine that you’re a farmer in the 1930s who has recently received rural electrification.  Now imagine that you’re given the sudden ability to see beyond the circumference of the kitchen table and how this alters your everyday family life.  Brox’s book is loaded with such examples.  And I include it on this list, with the proviso that you may become as intoxicated by the subject matter as I was: so much so  that you will find yourself flocking to the library, seeking the many sources and pondering the vantage point of someone illuminated in 1849.

Andrew Ervin, Extraordinary Renditions – Ervin’s debut novel is one of two Hungary-themed books on this list. I don’t know what it is about Hungary, but maybe the Budapest Tourist Office will explain this obsession to me one day. Extraordinary Renditions was one of those novels (or three interconnected novellas; pick your category!)  that made it into my backpack at BEA (I have no recollection of acquiring it; so perhaps it was a plant!) and which I very much enjoyed.    Like the Amend and Bomer books, it’s very much the kind of book you don’t see published by a major house anymore.  No coverage in The New York Times, nothing in The Washington Post, some coverage in some newspapers.  See a trend?  Anyway, this book’s about national identity and expatriates running around Hungary.  It’s funny, alarming, evocative, and, very often with its internal description, defies its apparent historical setting.  It echoes political texts while presenting political folly (and youthful folly).  Said folly even extends to the naivete of a celebrated composer of some years, who shuffles the Budapest streets like a young man.

James Hynes, Next – Knowing of my needless difficulties in obtaining review copies from Little Brown, a good friend placed this novel in my hands and urged me to read it.  Not only did I finish this tome in one sitting, but I plunged into Hynes’s backlist, discovering the wonderfully twisted book, Kings of Infinite Space.  I don’t say this lightly, but James Hynes is very much the real deal.  He is as worthy a literary satirist as Sam Lipsyte, Lydia Millet, George Saunders, Jess Walter, and countless others.  But you won’t see him in The New Yorker anytime soon.  And that is because, from his homebase in Austin, he understands the human condition too well.  Hynes knows that what occurs on your way to a job interview is often just as important as whether or not you get the job.  The result here is a novel that is both hilarious and revealingly introspective.

Charlie Huston, Sleepless – The prolific and highly enjoyable Charlie Huston has given us some gleefully brutal moments, vampirism afflicting the marginalized, and comic capers involving a crime scene cleanup. But Sleepless signaled an unexpected gravitas and several ambitious steps forward. With its plot set in the daringly recent future (six months from now), with 10% of the population suffering from permanent insomnia and addicted to a massively multiplayer game called Chasm Tide, Huston portrays an increasingly more persuasive world in which life is dictated by the cultural dregs that remain. Where Gary Shteyngart offered little more than expansive (yet enjoyable) detachment with his dystopian epic, Super Sad True Love Story, Huston wants to get at the manner people carry on.  Does it come from fatherhood?  Some larger sense of responsibility?  The ability to withstand horrific torture or loved ones disappearing?  Manhood’s certainly part of the game, but the chessboard’s much larger.  And Huston only gets better.

Julie Orringer, The Invisible Bridge – This sweeping epic was, at 624 pages, perhaps too much for some critics to take in.  One snarky scribbler condemned this book for “feel[ing] birfurcated” without bothering to cite a reason.  (Perhaps the events of the Holocaust?  Known to unsettle populations and disorder romantic harmony?  Just a few wild stabs in the dark.)  Such foolish snaps don’t even begin to approximate what Orringer’s magnificent debut novel does.  Using beautiful language to depict the near disappearance of an idyllic paradise (“He entered through a floriated wrought-iron gate between two stern figures carved in stone, and crossed a sculpture garden packed with perfect marble specimens of kore and kouros, straight from his art history textbook, staring into the distance with empty almond-shaped eyes.”), this powerful novel is equally unflinching in ilustrating how its colorful cast of characters (including an acrobatic family member) “might grow up without the gravity…without the sense of tragedy that seemed to hang in the air like the brown dust of bituminous coal.”  This is a book that approaches unspeakable barbarism with a rare ebullience, feeling neither inappropriate nor unconsidered.  It is a call for hope and small acts of resistance.  It may be set in the past, but this is very much a novel for our times.

Gary Rivlin, Broke USA – Many flocked to Matt Taibbi’s excellent Griftopia as the high finance expose of the year.  But Gary Rivlin’s understated look at predatory lending is also worth a look.  The book collects perspectives from every end of the spectrum.  There’s Chris Browning, the former manager of a Check ‘n’ Go in Ohio, who was fired because she was required by the higher ups to upsell and lend money to anybody who walked through the door; Martin Eakes, the man behind the Center for Responsible Lending offering a more reasonable APR through his credit union.  And then there’s the sordid history of the rapacious corporations that built up their businesses with the refund anticipation loan, disguising the hidden costs of tax preparation.  Like Howard Karger’s Shortchanged and John Lanchester’s IOU, Rivlin’s book is vital in understanding some of this nation’s most underreported issues.

Matthew Sharpe, You Were Wrong – Lips are “two fat garden slugs making love.”  There is “no worse violation of a soul than hope.” We’re told that “tones can be tough for everyone and were extratough for Karl, who was lately an avid pupil in the urgent remedial project of tones.”  Sometimes the reader is subtly addressed.  Sometimes not.  There is a curious precision to the description in the way the “midafternoon sunbeam entered the house through a bedroom window to the right.”  These are just some of the many nonsequitur joys (or planned pleasures?) to be found within Matthew Sharpe’s extremely goofy and very enjoyable novel, which seems to be channeling Flann O’Brien’s madcap spirit.

Scarlett Thomas, Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas’s subtle efforts to examine the relationship  between narrative and life – to say nothing of the omega point – were drastically misunderstood by those who expected another The End of Mr. Y.  For this masterful novel — defiantly plotless after the success of Thomas’s previous pageturners — is very much interested in how narrative must rely upon contrivances in order to present life. Beyond this, it dares to portray Meg Carpenter, an intelligent woman whose identity is occluded by the driftless mumbling of her flaccid partner.  By offering a protagonist brazenly defiant of reader expectations, Thomas subtly channels Henry James’s Isabel Archer (with Meg, like Isabel, even running into some money), while also demonstrating that the quest for the new often leads to the same old cycles.

Donald E. Westlake, Memory – This lost novel in a drawer, published by Hard Case Crime after four decades of dutiful dust collection, revealed that  Westlake was far more than a mystery master.  The book’s taut and fatalistic narrative arguably aligns itself with Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.  And had Westlake pursued more solitary outcasts like protagonist Paul Cole, he may very well have pursued John Banville’s trajectory (ironically, with Banville finding his alter ego, Benjamin Black, in the end).  Which isn’t to take away from Westlake’s Dortmunder books or Westlake’s wonderful Parker novels (written under Richard Stark) – all very deserving of praise.  Memory confirms that “inferior” genres must be reconsidered by the seemingly discriminating.

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Snake Meat and Reefer: Horacio Castellanos Moya

This is what meeting one of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s narrators is like: you’re in a squalid cantina in Guatemala City, in an alley by the archbishop’s palace. Or maybe it’s a chic place in San Salvador, across from the mall, where the waiters are gorgeous and they serve fancy cold cuts with the rioja. They come late, and when they arrive they seem a little off – a little strung out, a little jumpy. Right away, they want to tell you everything, all at once: about the article in today’s paper by some has-been calling them a hack, Kati’s dress and how fat she looks in it, a conspiracy between drug dealers and the military police, the best place to get oysters, and isn’t marimba music terrible, the worst, and how they’d like to sleep with the Spanish girl from the human rights office, and did you hear about Olga?, of course she’d already fucked him before she died. It’s a torrent. You can’t get a word in edgewise so you just sip your beer or your wine and wonder if it’s the cocaine talking or something they got from their psychiatrist. But you are enjoying yourself, because however one-sided it is, they’re supplying everything a good conversation needs – sex, secrets, politics, and death, and because they’re funny, really funny, even as they’re being morbid or petty or paranoid. And they are paranoid – persecution-complex, Nixon-level paranoid. But as Kurt Cobain said, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you. Besides, you think, in this country, who knows what’s true and what isn’t, so you relax and settle into a rhythm and take in every story as it comes. And that’s when the real mayhem starts.

Even at the rare moments when they aren’t narrated in first-person, Horacio Castellanos Moya’s novels feel like monologues. Like the best monologues, they float on a wave of relentless interiority, a steady stream of talk which feels like it is being pumped directly out of someone’s skull and which, however insane, carries the electricity of live thought (Moya has been lucky to have translators – Katherine Silver and Lee Paula Springer – who have been able to render this whoosh in English).

In an interview at The Quarterly Conversation, Moya claimed to be influenced by Elias Canetti’s conception of the writer as “a custodian of metamorphoses,” the writer as someone who has the ability “to metamorphose himself into the people of his time, no matter how weak, miserable or dark they are.” Moya is a gifted mimic, and “weak, miserable or dark” isn’t a bad description for his protagonists, who are often limited and usually more than a little crazy. Thomas Bernhard is another major influence (the subtitle of Moya’s most notorious novel El Asco translates as”Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador”), and Bernhard’s almost boundless capacity for revulsion runs like a chain through his work. But Moya’s novels go beyond simple ventriloquism or scorn. They read like gonzo thrillers or amphetamine-fuelled nightmares, and owe at least as much to the pulp violence of Richard Stark or Mickey Spillane. Which is to say that it’s possible to draw up a perfectly respectable late-Modernist pedigree for Moya, reaching back past Bernhard and Canetti to Notes from the Underground and on through Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, with pitstops at Simenon and Gombrowicz. But to get at the mood of comedy and dread that saturates his work you need to think of Ralph Meeker’s deadpan sadism in Kiss Me Deadly or Lee Marvin disappearing into the shadows at the end of Point Blank.

On the first page of Dance With Snakes, a beat-up yellow Chevrolet materializes on the curb next to a San Salvador housing project. The car is home to a ragged, bearded drunk who roams the neighborhood scavenging for trash. Eduardo Sosa, an unemployed sociologist who lives across the street, tries to befriend him. He joins him on his rounds and learns that his name is Jacinto Bustillo and that he was once a factory accountant. Outside a filthy bar called Prosperity, a toothless dwarf named Coco performs oral sex on Don Jacinto. They brawl; Jacinto kills the dwarf with a broken bottle. Eduardo slits the older man’s throat.  At this point, the novel finally leaves the world of the mundane.

Eduardo returns to Jacinto’s car and climbs inside. He feels as if he hadn’t just killed a man, but cut a hole in the fabric of reality, “As if I were Don Jacinto, as if the pocketknife with the bone colored handle were a kind of scalpel I’d used to make an enormous incision that allowed me to penetrate the world in which I wanted to live.” The car is home to four poisonous snakes – lady snakes – with names: Beti, Loli, Valentina, Carmela – and the ability to communicate. Eduardo explains to them that he is the new Bustillo, and together they set out on a two-day orgy of unspeakable violence.

Moya narrates the spree alternately through Eduardo’s eyes and over the shoulders of dogged cop Lito Handal and tenacious girl-reporter Rita Mena. In between explosions, stabbings, mass snake-bites, and stampedes, an image of San Salvador and Salvadoran society at large starts to come together in flashes, like the picture in a zoetrope. Politicians serve the wealthy; both are in bed with the drug cartels, and the cartels use the drug enforcements squads meant to pursue them for protection. Corruption is everywhere; the gulf between rich and poor is immense. Or, as Eduardo puts it:
We went downtown, to the buildings destroyed by the earthquake, the sidewalks packed with the street vendors selling piles of used clothing from the United States, the sound of hundreds of stereos playing at the same time, and the crazed crowds of people pouring out onto the streets. The yellow Chevrolet moved at a snail’s pace through the sea of bodies. It was hard to believe that what had once been the historic city centre had now been plunged into chaos, only as a result of the government’s indolence. I wanted to do my good deed for the day and help clean up the neighborhood. I stopped the car where the crowds were thickest and told the ladies to go out for a stroll.
Senselessness is written from inside a whirl of complexes: narcissism, sex-addiction, megalomania, paranoia, and a gnawing sense of inferiority – as a Central American among Europeans, as a writer, as an amateur among professionals. The narrator (unnamed, though clearly meant to be Moya’s stand-in) is a coward, a would-be womanizer and, from the sounds of it, a hack writer.

At one point he gets an idea for a novel.  He has been hired to copy-edit a 1,100 page report detailing human rights abuses perpetrated by the military against Mayan villagers. Some of their testimony sounds like poetry to him. He copies certain sentences in his notebook, like “I am not complete in the mind” or “At first I wished to have been a poisonous snake, but now what I ask for is their repenting,” and repeats them to everyone he meets; they remind him of César Vallejo. The novel is going to be about a dead man he dug up in his mound of documents, a murdered civil registrar from the town of Totonicapán, who would tell his story as a semi-decapitated, fingerless ghost, “always with the fingerless palms of his hands pressing together the two halves of his head to keep his brains in place, for I am not a total stranger to magical realism.” He comes up with this plan in bed. After, he gets up and takes a shower, heads over to a bar to meet a girl, and forgets about the whole thing.

When Senselessness came out, John Leonard faulted Moya for “aestheticizing…traumatic utterance.” He went on to sniff that the only thing clear at its end was that “the victims of genocide have not yet found a witness worthy of them.” In fact, Senselessness doesn’t spend much time on witnessing or utterance because it is miles apart from the naïve surrealism and moist hand-wringing which its novel-in-a-novel mocks. Moya knows how to treat his subjects obliquely. Here, the aftermath of a decades-long massacre becomes the occasion for a sex farce, an office comedy, and a paranoid thriller. The last lines turn the whole thing into a black joke.

Laura Rivera, the narrator of The She-Devil in the Mirror (2009), is Moya’s finest monster, less out-and-out destructive than Eduardo Sosa but at least as deluded (to the point that it starts to seem like clairvoyance), and with all the frenzy of Moya’s stand-in in Senselessness but with none of his hang-ups. A rich girl, her father owns coffee plantations outside of town and bought her a BMW for her eighteenth birthday. She was married and divorced; now she’s forever on the prowl – for gossip, for men, for distraction.

When She-Devil starts, Laura’s best friend Olga María has just been gunned down in her living room in front of her children. Laura is shocked, incredulous, and suspicious – and never shuts up about it. The book comes in nine chapters, and each one is a soliloquy delivered in a different place: at Olga’s wake, in Church, at a restaurant, on the run. We never hear what her interlocutor has to say; after a while we wonder if she’s even there.

Laura Rivera can’t stop talking about Olga’s murder, but she also can’t stop talking about herself. Her self-absorption, snobbery, and racism come out in waves, but for all her obliviousness, the death of her friend turns Laura into a kind of detective. She starts thinking about everyone she knows, starting with her ex-husband and the men Olga slept with. Like that, the little world of San Salvador society comes into focus: affairs, holding companies, coke habits, political rivalries, abandoned warehouses, embezzlement, and assassinations, all with no more legwork than a trip to the beach. In the background, Police Commissioner Lito Handal and reporter Rita Mena, last seen in Dance With Snakes, go about their jobs. So does Robocop, a former soldier, a killer with a shaved head on the run from one of Moya’s un-translated novels.

Politics in Moya’s novels is mostly an issue of making things visible. His characters move through societies unhinged by civil war and narcotics smuggling, and their manias channel wider pathologies. In the same way that the ticking time-bomb in Petersburg throws a moving spot-light on a city lurching toward revolution, violence in Moya’s books illuminates the collusion and corruption of power. Even Laura Rivera ends up sounding disillusioned: “It’s awful my dear… the same thing will happen that happens with all the crimes committed in this country: the authorities will never find out anything and people will simply forget about it.” Part of the fun of Dance with Snakes is that, by the end, Eduardo’s spree feels like more of an overreaction than outright madness.

But at the same time, Moya, who lived through the beginning of the Salvadoran Civil War and was twice exiled because of its repercussions, mostly keeps the recent past in the background. Even in Senselessness, which takes the aftermath of the Guatemalan Civil War as its immediate topic, it comes to the surface most forcefully in the corners – in old stories, rumors, and dark suspicions. In the two Salvadoran novels, the war is almost all substrate, history for people living violently in the present.

In the end though, Moya’s addled protagonists are capable of keeping his books aloft on their own steam. His novels are as much about the compulsive pleasures of speech as they are about anything else. As records of a time and place they lack any trace of didacticism or cant. As fictions they carry a sense of giddy possibility, of literature as a game without rules. So when you find yourself with Eduardo Sosa sitting down to a dinner of soup made from his dead snake lover and a pile of stolen marijuana, a soup which carries in itself the distilled essence of the snake’s lustful spirit and which propels Eduardo into a four-way inter-species orgy, you feel compelled to agree with his verdict: delicious.

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