Wormholes, portals, wizards, dachshunds, geological time, haute cuisine: these are a few of the things you will find in Kathryn Davis’s fiction. “My sensibility as an artist,” Davis said in a recent interview in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, “is (thank God) a Frankenstein monster of parts.” Ever since the publication of her first book, Labrador, in 1988, she has shown herself to be a writer of graceful sentences and wild creative power—the “love child of Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll,” Joy Press once called her. Wherever her imagination wants to go, Davis will follow, whether that means traveling from Denmark to upstate New York with an opera-writing murderess (The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf) or settling down in a 1950s Philadelphia partly populated by robots (Duplex). She has written a novel called Hell, in which time collapses on itself within the walls of a semi-detached house, and a novel called The Thin Place, about a Vermont town where the skin between this world and the spirit world is especially porous.
Davis’s new novel, The Silk Road, continues her exploration of the strange, but if anything, it’s even bolder than her earlier books. Rather than ease the reader into the extraordinary by way of the ordinary—as Duplex does, for example, by beginning with a sleepy suburban street before proceeding to introduce robots and sorcerers and air-borne scows—The Silk Road dives right into the extraordinary from the first paragraph:
We were in the labyrinth. Afterward, no one could agree on the time. Jee Moon was tucking someone’s right hand in under their blanket, having first tucked in the left. She did this tenderly but firmly, as if to suggest we could be doing it for ourselves. Next she took someone’s head and lifted it like it wasn’t part of a human body, a cabbage or a planet or the repository of all good thoughts and evil, which, when you think about it, is exactly what a human head is.
What is going on here? A yoga class winding down, with everyone in shavasana, or corpse pose. Where are we? In the labyrinth, like the narrator says, which we will soon learn is part of “the settlement,” located in the Arctic north, where the permafrost is rapidly melting. And who are we? A group of individuals known only by the names of our professions (the Astronomer, the Archivist, the Topologist, the Cook), guided by a mysterious woman named Jee Moon. And why are we here? To escape from a flea-borne plague that is devastating humanity.
This, anyway, is the novel’s frame story, loosely modeled on the frame story of Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which 10 characters fleeing the Black Death gather in a villa near Florence and swap yarns to pass the time. But, in The Silk Road, the medieval literary device gets a new, fantastical twist: The characters don’t just tell each other tales, they hear each other’s thoughts, which swarm “from our heads and—not being solely the province of the brain—from other parts of our bodies, and [rise] to link themselves with other thoughts in a molecular action.” Though such mind-melding might quickly become ridiculous in the hands of another writer, Davis harnesses it to powerful effect, using it as an excuse to blend the characters’ voices with voices borrowed from literature, scripture, and song.
Some of Davis’s allusions are bound to slip past the reader unnoticed. There are not many who will recognize both a line from Lucretius (“Moreover in the sum of all things there is no one thing that is begotten single”) and the lyrics to an old French pop song (Chariot, chariot, si tu veux de moi…). But the sources of these lines are less important than what Davis makes of them—how she orchestrates them into a meaningful and quite beautiful whole. Often the same passages that leave us scratching our heads are the ones that take our breath away. Describing the spread of the plague across the globe, Davis writes:
Everyone knew it was a physical condition—they were that knowledgeable—but the extent of what they knew was compromised by exposure to a glut of information and rumor, making it difficult to predict anything. Some people claimed mortality didn’t come through Saturn and Jupiter, but rather through Mars. Others said the work of the planets could not be avoided but there were things it was possible to avoid. Transmutation was easiest between bodies that had matching qualities. No one knew where the sickness came from or where it was going. No one knew which hospitals had medicine or empty beds or doctors or nurses. There were robbers abroad in the land. There were wild beasts.
As this passage indicates, it can be helpful to think of The Silk Road as a piece of music, in which meaning is produced through rhythm and repetition rather than rational exposition. The reader, holding onto his hat, has to trust that themes and variations will be revealed, even if nothing in the end is certain. But complaining about indeterminacy in a Kathryn Davis novel is like complaining about William Gass’s love of alliteration or Bob Dylan’s singing voice. The embrace of uncertainty is central to the whole endeavor. Like Emerson, Davis insists that “knowledge is the knowing that we cannot know.”
The Silk Road is full of enigmas. Are the main characters siblings, as their shared memories of childhood suggest, or are they linked in some more intangible sense—perhaps as different permutations of the same soul? Is the Arctic settlement where they find themselves the Tibetan Buddhist bardo between one existence and the next? When one by one the characters begin to disappear, where do they go? We can ponder possible answers, point to evidence, even argue for one interpretation or another if the spirit moves us, but finally the pondering is what’s essential. Davis’s style encourages us to remain open to multiple interpretations even when they contradict each other. A “cove of sparkling light” at the settlement’s edge may either be a “real pool of something like water—we were in agreement on that if nothing else—or just a gathering of attention, all of it in one place, as solid and bright-surfaced as a jewel but otherwise beside the point.”
Of course, the beauty of fiction is that things can be both. The cove can be liquidly real and also a potent projection. The characters can lead their individual lives—in which they walk an ancient pilgrimage route through France or bump their braces on a water-fountain spout in St. Louis—while at the same time blending their consciousness together in a hum of voices that summons all the living and the dead.
It would be safe to say that Davis is fascinated by multiplicity, but not by the distracted, all-over-the-map multiplicity that characterizes novels such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. These novels, whatever else might be said of them, suffer from a jittery lack of focus. Their structures, down to their syntax, seem born of the same impatient impulse that has given us Tinder and flights of beer. By comparison, The Silk Road is a calm book that, with its meditative poise and measured prose, invites us to reduce speed, concentrate, reread and reconsider. Even as it entertains us in the expected novelistic fashion by narrating the story of a group of characters over a span of time, it is constantly throwing our received ideas about narratives, characters, and spans of time into question—and sometimes throwing them overboard altogether.
I have, so far, read The Silk Road three times and can already see that I am going to have to buy another copy—I’ve messed mine up with so many marginal scrawls. These range from exclamation points made to mark favorite images (“a few clerics in long black cassocks, sliding up and down the steep pathways like chessmen”) and aperçus (“Furniture was important to people who cared about the surfaces of things”) to question marks curling next to what, in a conventional mystery novel, would be called clues. The mystery in The Silk Road, however, revolves around nothing less than the formation and dissolution of selfhood—what Joy Williams calls “the great wheel of time and its terrifying promises of rebirth and forgetfulness.” If this mystery has a solution, I have yet to find it. If you do, you’ll have to let me know.
“Quaint they were, these records, strange and ancient, washed to shore when the Moderan seas finally unthawed.”
So begins David R. Bunch’s first book, Moderan, which appeared as a paperback original from Avon in 1971. It was to be his only book released by a large publisher during his lifetime, and it was never reprinted in the U.S. until now, when New York Review of Books Classics has brought out a new (and expanded) edition for the first time.
New-metal man! It does have a ring. MODERAN! It did seem pretty great in concept, I’m sure, and, who knows, perhaps it had a reasonable chance for success. But all societies, all civilizations, all aspirations it seems must fail the unremitting tugs of shroudy time, finally, leaving only little bones, fossils, a shoe turned to stone maybe, a bone button in the sea perhaps, a jeweled memento of an old old love.
Moderan collects dozens of brief stories set in a future world apparently destroyed by nuclear bombs, a world where the landscape has been entirely paved over with plastic and the surviving humans have transformed themselves into cyborgs, their bodies mostly replaced with metal, leaving only a few flesh-strips as evidence of their old form. The men with the most metal become warriors whose identity is merged with the Stronghold that houses them, and the pleasure and glory of Moderan is the warring of its Strongholds. (Most of the stories in Moderan focus on Stronghold 10, the best at warring.)
The new-metal men hunker down in their Strongholds and wage war against each other. War is the most exciting thing in everyone’s lives, the way to prove strength and superiority: a force that gives meaning. “Plotting for each the other’s total destruction and coming up with countermeasures to protect each his own new-metal hide at all costs are the kinds of human enterprises that put the human animal up close to godliness.” War lets the Strongholds forget everything but the war, because “amidst the stern havoc, the hard contest demands and all the real problems of carnage, there was not time for either doubt, ghosts, or fears.” War is action, and action allows something almost like joy. “I guess I’m happiest,” Stronghold 10 says, “when I’m in my War Room handing the big orange switch of war to ON and pressing the buttons of launchers. Or, to put it another way, I’m not unhappy or worried or asking questions then—and I’ll settle for that.”
Bunch’s language is unique, sometimes reminiscent of E.E. Cummings, sometimes of Kurt Vonnegut, sometimes of folktales and sacred texts, sometimes of advertising and propaganda. With a breathless tone and many words set in blustery ALL CAPS, the stories present a diction appropriate to the hyperbolic masculinity of Moderan, a world that values only macho strength and aggression. Before their body parts were replaced with metal, Stronghold 10 tells us, humans were weak and vulnerable, susceptible at any moment to injury or death. No more. “I am a Stronghold master, BIG, in the armor plate of total invulnerability. My ammo is stacked in heaps roundabout, and I can win ANY war. My blasters stand itchy on the GO pad, ready, at the speed of a metal thought, to launch for TOTAL SMACK.”
The tone throughout is almost always positive, happy, joyful. This is depressing dystopia presented as thrilling utopia. In substance, Moderan bears similarities to various novels of terrible futures (we might make much fruitful comparison between Bunch’s book and Swastika Night by Katharine Burdekin, for instance), but unlike most such stories, Moderan is not told from the point of view of an outsider or a heretic. Rather like Candide’s Dr. Pangloss, Stronghold 10 and the other narrators love Moderan and think it is the best of all possible worlds, indeed the absolute height of achievement, the end of all progress—nothing could possibly be better.
The book begins with a retrospective introduction that works in some ways like the notes and epilogues of such novels as Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale: it lets us know that however eternal and immutable the systems of the story’s world seemed, they were as mortal as Ozymandias. The march of time cannot be stopped with metal and strongholds. For all their declarations of immortality, the people of Moderan turn out to be as perishable as the rest of us.
In addition to providing an added level of irony, the frame story offered by the opening pages of Moderan allows some freedom in the book’s organization. The original edition organized the stories into three parts: “The Beginnings,” “Everyday Life in Moderan,” and “Intimations of the End”; the NYRB Classics edition adds a fourth section, “Apocrypha from After the End,” which contains Moderan stories (and one poem) Bunch published after 1971. Some of the stories, particularly the first few, lead logically into each other, but most do not. They are like collected folktales or chapters from a future age’s Bible, sometimes repetitive, sometimes contradictory. I expect the book is best appreciated in small doses, a few stories at a time, rather than chugged down all at once. The individual stories, after all, were first published separately over more than 10 years’ time, and there is a certain flatness to the Moderan setting that is both completely appropriate and narratively limiting. Many of the stories work like inverted picaresques, with, instead of a protagonist wandering off to learn about the world, someone coming to learn something about Moderan and the strongholds. Thematically, this works well, making the monotony of Moderan’s monoculture palpable, but it can be trying for a reader. (In many ways, the most compelling sections of the book are the second and fourth, which are the least uniform in their topics, settings, and narrators.)
Some readers have always found Bunch trying, even in small doses. In a letter published in the May 1961 issue of Fantastic Stories of Science Fiction, a Mrs. Alvin R. Stuart of San Saba, Texas, wrote: “It is downright disgusting to read the rest of the magazine and think, with pleasant anticipation, ‘Good! There’s one more story I haven’t read!’—and then, upon turning to the page, to find such utter rot as this author—and I use the term doubtfully—has been submitting. Some of it reads like something written by a mental patient or a moron.”
In the early 1960s, Bunch’s byline started appearing regularly in Fantastic and its companion, Amazing Stories of Science Fiction, both edited by Cele Goldsmith. Goldsmith remains one of the most extraordinary and undersung editors in science fiction’s history; her taste was broad and eclectic, and she welcomed work that other editors considered a bit too odd. Mike Ashley (perhaps the most knowledgeable historians of science fiction magazines) has written that
Of the authors who debuted in the middle period of Goldsmith’s editorship, four stand out: Roger Zelazny, Thomas M. Disch, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Piers Anthony. There is little doubt that science fiction owes a debt to Cele Goldsmith for putting these writers on the road. All of them had already tried to sell professionally—Le Guin had submitted a story to Amazing as far back as 1939—but none of them had found an editor appreciative of their talents. Only Goldsmith saw through the fantastic trimmings to the creative core…
Though he had sold a few stories to other SF editors, he became a fixture at Amazing and Fantastic throughout Goldsmith’s tenure, allowing him to make a longterm transition from small (often regional) literary journals to the larger audience of science fiction readers. He soon found another champion: Judith Merril, who reprinted him in her annual Best SF of the Year collections, and who asked him for recommendations of literary magazines that she might find material in—advice that helped change Merril’s anthologies from good but genre-bound collections to books with a breadth that still, more than 50 years later, remains nearly unique.
I think it is no coincidence that some of Bunch’s earliest champions were women, and women readers continued to respond particularly well to his work through the years. In the desperate, patriarchal militarism of the 1960s, Bunch’s stories foresaw two tendencies that, many years later, scholar Susan Jeffords identified pervading contemporary American culture: the post-Vietnam “remasculinization” of the warrior image and the fetishization of “hard bodies” as a manly ideal.
Hypermasculinity in Moderan isn’t limited to individual bodies. Now, humans can give the entire planet a hard body:
As it whirls the world in space our planet stands out bold now and surely indestructible, coated as we have plasto-coated it, with nothing to grind it away at the big middle and nothing to wear it out at the far hubs. […] I am harder than the stones were and more mind-set than the animals. SCIENCE HAS MADE A MAN! NEW METAL MAN! Science has coated and made clean the dirty EARTH ball for him to stand on.
An obsession with masculine strength and dominance is vital for warring, but the ideology of the warmongers infects every other aspect of society, turning science into a weapon for the destruction of everything perceived to be weak. The Earth itself cannot survive a world of hypermasculine warriors.
This hypermasculine caricature additionally contains a caricature of the misogynistic trope of the shrewish wife. The New Metal Men haven’t simply hidden themselves in strongholds to protect against missiles and bombs—they have also fled marriage, domesticity, and femininity, like weaponized versions of Robert Bly’s Iron John. Stronghold 10’s wife survives the operation to replace most of her body with metal, and now her husband fears her more than he has feared any attacks from other strongholds. He and the other strongholds see nothing but nagging and emasculation:
All over Moderan that spring, when we were beginners-new and the plans not set-mold, they came walking in, struggling, falling down, getting up to come on, most of them with one aim to view — not to let that disappearing surviving rat husband get away with a thing. I’M YOUR WIFE, seemed, in their minds, to say it all and leave no questions of any kind. Doom was final; doom was sealed-down doom. That gray twilight terror-life of wife-husband husband-wife (WEEAAOOOHH YEEAAOOOHH OOHH OHH) must never be changed, not even by the ending of a world.
The men, having achieved the strength they so desired in their Strongholds, are now free to do with their wives what they always wanted: “We formed a Commission for the Relocation of old New-Metal shrews. We moved them to a place prepared for them, the walled province of White Witch Valley. The walls are high there; it is a prison, vast and maximum-security….”
Misogyny, militarism, and ecological apocalypse go together, with the strong men asserting their right to dominate a natural world viewed as feminine and weak, and therefore worthless. Women and landscapes that don’t bow to the men’s utter domination are deemed enemy combatants, obstacles to be destroyed or remade. Not only do the rulers of Moderan cover the world with plastic, but they also create plastic flowers that can be programmed to appear during certain seasons. The new-metal men seek to eradicate everything alive and replace a few items with artificial stand-ins, things easier to control than the unpredictable, other-than-human inhabitants of the wild. With narcissistic force, they blast and plasticize the world until it resembles their shallow ideal.
In a 1966 issue of the literary journal The Smith (which included the Moderan story “The Miracle of the Flowers”), a one-line biographical note declares that David R. Bunch “is a cartographer who maps madness.” This was not a metaphor only: Bunch worked for the U.S. military’s cartographic agency in the era of the Vietnam war. Mapping military madness was his day job.
In an August 1971 letter to Ursula K. Le Guin, James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon) said, “David Bunch just sent me his new Moderan book, a mean treat. I’ve long felt he was one of the most undersung and ill-known landmarks in sf…not much beam-width compared say to Cordwainer Smith but oh what intensity at the focus, what idiosyncrasy, what a one roaring diamond glimpse…” Tiptree’s instincts seem accurate: both the comparison to one of science fiction’s other great oddballs, Cordwainer Smith (I would also add R.A. Lafferty), and the sense that with the Moderan stories, at least, there isn’t a lot of “beam-width” but lots of intensity and idiosyncrasy. Bunch’s non-Moderan stories do show more range of subject matter and style, and he published in a tremendous variety of venues—not only science fiction magazines but also literary journals, including Gordon Lish’s Genesis West, where his byline appeared alongside those of Ken Kesey, Donald Barthelme, Jack Gilbert, and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka).
Yet Tiptree was right; there is a narrowness to Bunch’s beam regardless of topic or venue. I’m not sure it could be otherwise. He was as interested in poetry as in fiction, and he seems to have approached fiction like poetry, seeking a kind of poetic compression within and between his sentences. The intensity and idiosyncracy are always there, and the poetic compression adds a feeling of density, too. The Moderan stories tell of a world that is trying with all its might to narrow itself into one way of being, a world where ways of living are no more diverse than the plastic that covers the landscape. At times, the stories can feel monotonous in their obsessions, or obsessive in their monotony. It is not that Bunch’s own vision is narrow, but that he depicts a world of ever-narrowing visions, a world where imagination responds only to violence and complexity has died in the rituals of war. Read one or two stories and they seem funny, quirky, jaunty in their satire. Read the whole book, and the full weight of the apocalypse bears down, the full sense of all that is lost, and what was once amusingly odd begins to reveal a dark, hollowed-out core, and laughter starts to catch in your throat.
Other writers would try to make us feel the horrors of this world through sympathetic characters and stories carefully arced toward sentiment. We would know this is a bad world because we would feel pity and fear for the characters we cared about. That is not this book. Throughout his career, Bunch showed no interest in the sorts of scene building and character development essential to social realism and popular fiction. His inclinations were toward much older forms of storytelling, toward myths and folktales and children’s stories, toward archetypes and allegories. (It is best, perhaps, to think of Moderan as a kind of science fictional Decameron or Canterbury Tales.) In the latter half of the 20th century, there were few homes for such writing other than the science fiction magazines, because science fiction thrives on mythic heroes and archetypal situations. Just as importantly, science fiction developed its own style of compressed language, one hospitable to neologisms and to quick gestures that could suggest entire worlds. For a reader of SF, the narrator’s statement on the first page of Moderan of being one of “the beam people, the Essenceland Dream people” is par for the course and sparks a quick imagining of creatures that are somehow composed of energy rather than bodies. Because this is SF, there’s no expectation that Bunch will now explain all the details of beam people—that might have been the expectation in 1926, when Hugo Gernsback first launched Amazing Stories as a way for people to learn about science while they read tales of adventure, but by mid-century, SF’s aesthetic assumptions had developed enough for exposition-heavy stories to be considered clunky. Instead, readers thrilled for off-kilter details that suggested new worlds, and writers such as Robert Heinlein had, in the decade or two before Bunch began publishing, refined techniques for making the most of such details while also keeping a story humming along with exciting plots and characters who conformed to concepts of human behavior and representation developed in the 19th century and promulgated through countless short stories and novels.
In many ways, it was into science fiction (and its related popular genres) that myths and folktales found themselves repackaged in the wake of the 18th century’s rationalism and the 19th century’s storytelling innovations. By putting the techniques of modern science fiction to use in older structures, though, Bunch threw a wrench into his stories’ engines. The effect is, appropriately, a kind of modernism where the expectations common to one form collide with the expectations of another, re-invigorating both. As readers, it’s hard to get our bearings, because everything is both familiar and new: we know how to read old myths and folktales, we know how to read science fiction, we know how to read the language of self-help manuals and advertisements and jingoistic propaganda—but do we know how to read them all together at once?
Perhaps we are ready for David R. Bunch now. Our literature is saturated with dystopias; our news is filled with blustering men who seem to want nothing so much as a stronghold from which to war, war, war; our landscape is covered in plastic. The all-caps exclamations don’t seem out of place in a world of war criminals’ tweetstorms. Discourses intermingle endlessly: yesterday’s satire is today’s business headline, political arguments sound like dulled-down Dr. Seuss, and children’s stories include shelter-in-place instructions. Moderan is catching up to us, or we’re catching up to it. What once seemed so strange as to be almost unreadable now stands inches from the de rigueur.
It is a testament to literary progress that we have reached a point where we might more fully appreciate the achievement of David R. Bunch, but it is a condemnation of the damned human race that each passing decade has leached his stories of their bitter surrealism to the extent that now they may be read as reports on the real.
“Have you ever taken the Myers-Briggs personality test?” asks novelist Jane Smiley. “Well, I have and my personality comes up as ‘improviser.’ That’s me.”
We are having lunch at a pricey seafood restaurant overlooking the water on an unseasonably sunny autumn afternoon in Vancouver, and Smiley is explaining how she plotted Some Luck, the first in a sprawling trilogy of novels that tells the story of the American Century through the lives of the seven members of one Iowa farming family. First, she says, she laid out some simple ground rules for herself. The book would begin in 1920 and end in 2020, with each short chapter covering a year, and the prose style would be straightforward and unfussy. Once she had decided on the basic outlines for the trilogy, she sat down and got to work. “I just started and let them live,” she says of her characters. “I knew when they were going to be born, and that’s all I knew.”
This looseness of design shows in Some Luck, which was longlisted for the National Book Award when it was published earlier this fall. At times, especially in the earlier chapters, not much seems to be happening. Major historical events — the stock market crash, the rise of Adolf Hitler in Europe — scud past like clouds on a distant horizon as the Langdons, Smiley’s farming family, plow their fields and care for their children and worry about the weather and crop prices. Characters appear out of nowhere, as if pulled from the author’s back pocket, and take up central roles in the narrative. But slowly, like images from an old-fashioned Polaroid, the characters come to life on the page, smart and quirky and full of opinions, until, by the end of the first volume, one is hooked — not so much to find out what will happen, but to know whom these people will become, what fate has in store for them.
Vital to this narrative pull is the Langdons’ eldest son Frank, who is the closest thing to a protagonist in Smiley’s crowded cast of characters. Headstrong and smart, Frank thrives by upending the expectations of his parents, and later the world around him. “It was beyond Frank to understand why he sometimes did the very thing he was told not to do,” Smiley writes early on, when Frank is still a boy. “It seemed like once [his parents] told him not to do it — once they said it and put it in his mind — then what else was there to do?” Frank’s father, Walter, beats him with a belt until Frank is “too confused by pain” to count off the blows, but when it’s over, it’s clear that the lesson Frank has learned is not that he shouldn’t disobey his parents, but that his will is stronger than theirs.
There is a touch of the charming sociopath in Frank — later in the book, he is recruited to root out spies for J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI — but only a touch. Mostly, he is a survivor, a man determined to live life on his terms. This is true of all the members of the Langdon clan, who are each in their own way attempting to break out of a mold the world has shaped for them. “One of the things that goes through all three novels is characters attempting to live with and make something of what’s happening around them,” Smiley explains. “They’re not defying it. They’re not living back in the Ozarks and going against the grain. People don’t do that in Iowa. They’re attempting to make something of what is happening around them. They all mean well.”
Before our seafood lunch, during a panel discussion at the Vancouver Writers Fest where Smiley was appearing to promote Some Luck, she told the crowd that she had conceived of the Langdon trilogy as a single long story and had originally envisioned stopping each volume in the middle of a sentence, which would then be picked up in the next volume. Her publishers wouldn’t let her do that, but she says she still views the three books as a single continuous ribbon of narrative, each volume covering a third of a century in the lifetimes of the rapidly expanding Langdon clan. (Volume two, Early Warning, which takes the characters up to the 1980s, is due out this spring; and the final, as yet untitled volume is scheduled for fall 2015.)
The idea for the trilogy, Smiley says, arose in part out of her fury over the political situation in the U.S. since the Bush Administration and a desire to understand “how the country got where it is today.” She set the book in Iowa farm country, territory she explored in her 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Thousand Acres, because she wanted to cut through contemporary Americans’ ignorance about where their food comes from. “We forget,” she says. “We know, but we forget. We think it comes from the grocery store. There’s this constant tension in American life about, ‘Does my food come from General Mills or does it come from the ground?’”
Smiley addresses this tension directly in the later chapters of Some Luck, set during the postwar years, when Frank’s younger sister, Lillian, marries and leaves Iowa for Washington D.C. to begin raising her family. The child of a father who farmed oats and couldn’t start his day without a bowl of oatmeal, Lillian is stunned to discover Cheerios at the neighborhood supermarket. She is also delighted to be able to feed her son formula made with purified city water in sterilized bottles, rather than breastfeed.
For Smiley, Lillian’s attraction to these consumer conveniences is a rational response to a childhood spent on a hardscrabble rural farm, but also emblematic of how an entire generation allowed itself to be “suckered” into a reliance on corporate America. “I love Lillian,” says Smiley, “but the way she chooses to feed the kids, the way she chooses the cereals she chooses, she’s a sucker. She thinks, ‘We’ve skirted along the edge of serious food-borne illnesses [growing up on the farm] and so: I believe. I believe that General Mills is going to give me something more nutritious and more safe than what I grew up with. I believe I don’t want manure in the yard.’ Well, that’s the way we felt in the ’50s.”
Smiley herself was born in 1949 and grew up in Webster Groves, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis. She moved to Iowa in her early 20s for graduate school and remained in the state for more than two decades, teaching at Iowa State University until the mid-1990s when she moved to the coastal resort town of Carmel, Calif., where she now lives with her fourth husband, a real estate developer. Though A Thousand Acres, the book for which she is perhaps best known, is also set in Iowa, her fiction has traveled widely in the course of her long career. One early novel, The Greenlanders, is set among the Norse peoples of 14th-century Greenland. A more recent book, Ten Days in the Hills, loosely based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, is set in Hollywood during the early days of the Iraq War.
In the case of the Langdon trilogy, Smiley says she set out to tell the story in simple, unadorned prose. “One of the things I was doing while I was starting to write this book was reading a lot of Alice Munro,” she says. “Alice Munro writes in a very straightforward style, and that allows her to take up a lot of issues and discuss a lot of things because you trust her.”
The novel’s omniscient narration, which weaves between characters, sometimes directly accessing their innermost thoughts, and at other times merely reporting their outward actions, allows Smiley to cover a great deal of ground. In the first volume, the reader becomes immersed in life on a small Midwestern farm without running water or tractors, then is whisked off to North Africa and Italy where Frank serves as a sniper in the U.S. Army during World War II, and lands finally in early-’50s suburban Washington and New York where Cold War-era paranoia reigns.
Asked how she mastered the details of these wide-ranging worlds, Smiley offers a modest authorial shrug. “I’m not a scholar,” she says. “I don’t have to master it. I only have to appear to master it. Some things are fairly self-contained, so in order to appear to master them, you just to learn the facts and think about it and figure it out. Other things are not so self-contained so you have to spend more time trying to sort out what’s essential and what’s not essential.”
Much of classic 20th-century fiction, she acknowledges, operated on a narrower scale, focusing on the author’s subjective filter on the world rather than on the world itself. Even today, authors can be reluctant to venture too far from their own experience, fearing that they have no right to tell a story that doesn’t belong to them. This, clearly, does not count as one of Smiley’s chief fears. “The question, as I view it, isn’t ‘What right do I have to do this?’ but ‘Just try and stop me,’” she says. “The reader is the one who decides whether you have the right to do it or not. Your job as an author is to draw the reader in, and to get the reader to willingly suspend disbelief. I don’t have to second guess myself already. The reader’s there to second-guess me. That’s his job or her job.”
“I’m not saying that the bulk of novels out there aren’t art — they are — they’re just not modern art.”
Douglas Coupland, “Why Write Modern Fiction?”
How ironic that Douglas Coupland, the man who popularized the term “Generation X”, turns out to be one of the least ironic novelists of his generation. His novels may, on the whole, be loaded with typographical trickery, brand names of the nanosecond, slacking youngsters, and Simpsons references, but he’s also deep into a suite of timelessly, radically un-hip novelistic themes. At the lightest readerly touch, Coupland’s smirking surfaces and visual bravado give way to a landslide of questions and concerns about, as Andrew Tate put it in his book-length study of Coupland’s writing, “conviction, community, connection, and continuity.”
Take Coupland’s work as a whole and his strengths become starkly apparent. He’s especially good when writing in the voice of an actual character, not a neutral, disembodied narrator. (He’s even better when writing as several of them.) Often criticized for peppering his texts with marketing detritus forgotten or best forgotten — Tae Bo, Gap, Pets.com — he deals with the timeless human problems best when discussing them in parallel with things so disposable. His penchant for suddenly dropping protagonists into bizarre scenarios also draws reviewer heat, but when he successfully mixes the very bizarre and the very mundane, there’s nothing quite like it in literature. He’ll often steer away from the norms of plotting and typesetting tradition, and when he does, the harder he cranks the wheel, the better.
The less conventionally novelly a novel Coupland writes, in short, the richer it is. He appears to understand this. “It seems the more experimental my work gets,” he writes in the blog post quoted above, “the more people respond to it.” This was borne out during my own immersion in the ink-and-paper world I’ve come to call Couplândia. The author begins his literary career at the dawn of the 1990s, a healthy yen for experimentation governing his watchful eye for the moment. This slowly weakens, bottoming out in the early 2000s. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, it returns with an new intensity, allowing him to produce novels delivering the distilled, unadulterated — and to his fans, annoyingly addictive — essence of Coupland.
2. The generational books
The idea and the reality of Generation X, the novel that made Coupland’s name, are surprisingly different. While generation-flavored enough to fit under this heading, it’s only just. More apt is the oft-made comparison to Boccaccio’s Decameron, in that it’s a book of fictional characters who themselves invent fictions. Lacking prospects of a fulfilling career or even a stable identity, Andy, Claire, and Dag each independently move out to a chintzy motel-ish complex of bungalows in the (then even more geriatric-geared) desert town of Palm Springs. There, they work future-free jobs and search for conviction/community/connection/continuity — a sort of makeshift family, even — by telling each other stories. Sure, they drop references to 1960s and 1970s media culture, attempt to build identities by futilely repurposing midcentury trends, and bitterly resent the Baby Boomers, but there’s more to it than that.
Take the novel’s ending, in which narrator Andy speeds toward what he thinks is the mushroom cloud civilization has spent the Cold War waiting for. He approaches and realizes that it’s just smoke from farmers burning a rice field. A pure white egret flying in front of the wall of blackness catches his eye. A bus full of developmentally disabled teens stops to watch too. When the egret swoops too low and slashes Andy’s scalp, the kids swarm, all clumsily trying to hug him at once. At first he’s frightened. Then he doesn’t want them to stop. I have come to regard this as a quintessential Coupland moment.
It’s also one of the elements missing from Generation X’s 1992 follow-up, Shampoo Planet. Where Coupland’s first novel portrays an age cohort that has effectively opted out of politics and the economy, his second portrays a slightly younger one that has opted out more or less out of politics but opted way in to the economy. Its main character, named and modeled closely after Andy’s clean-living, financially grasping little brother Tyler, dreams of nothing more than heavily gelling his hair, hanging out the mall, and rising through the ranks of a large defense contractor. He’s a representative of what Coupland (and Tyler himself) terms the “Global Teens”. The book satirizes them, but — and perhaps this is evident in the phrase “Global Teens” alone — I’m unsure how well it knows them.
Microserfs, however, knows its subjects, and well. Published in 1995, Coupland’s third novel is ostensibly the contents of its main character’s PowerBook. Daniel Underwood, a lowly bug-catcher employed by a Microsoft at the height of its powers, finds himself at the center of a group defection from Redmond to Silicon Valley. The move is as much mental as geographical: first they’re replaceable (but comfortable) drones in a sprawling corporate hive, then frantic (but innovative) paddlers on a leaky start-up raft. Their new company, called Interiority, produces an odd combination of programming language and 3D modeling environment called Oop!
Coupland cares about the Microserfs-turned-Interiorites’ relationships with technology, with one another, and how the former and the latter interact. Some find love, some gain and lose ideologies, some get sick, some finally get in touch with their sexuality, and some get really nice shiatsu massages. Yet at the same time, the book is awash in artifacts of mid-1990s technology, geek, and popular culture: laser pointers, “Stop the insanity!”, Gak, the Virtual Boy. It’s the clearest early example of one of Coupland’s primary strengths, a Beatlesque ability to combine extreme datedness and extreme timelessness.
Two more strengths are also on display. The text-as-digital-document conceit lets Coupland bust out a typographical creativity that, while glimpsable in Generation X, runs relatively wild here. Some of the pages represent “subconscious files” in Daniel’s PowerBook, which are haphazardly (or so it seems) covered by disconnected phrases like “Demonize the symbolic analysis,” “Uranium and Beethoven,” “Define random,” and “You’re smarter than TV. So what?”
The novel also delivers more abrupt moments of absurdist humor than its two predecessors combined. While these have multiplied in Coupland’s more recent work, I still think none beat this passage from Microserfs:
Emmett has 4,000 manga comics from Japan. They’re so violent and dirty! The characters all look as if they’re saying unbelievably important things — talking to God and the Wizard of the Universe — but when you translate them, all they’re really doing is making belching noises.
Maybe you had to be there.
3. The reverse experiments
To look at Generation X, with its wonky large format and artistic-informational sidebars, or Microserfs, with its words all over the place at so many different scales, you’d assume they were the work of an avant-gardist with an unusually porous mental wall between literature and visual art. You’d be right, in a sense. Though it’s unclear how much Coupland accepts the “avant-garde” label, he’s a visual artist as well as a novelist. His two personalities aren’t usually compartmentalized, except in 1998 through 2001, when Coupland’s novelistic mind seemed to endure an uncharacteristic bout of traditionalism. Though they’re pretty much devoid of geekdom or other such subcultures, the three novels published in this period don’t suffer from particularly conventional content. They do, however, suffer from conventional form.
Girlfriend in a Coma, by far the strongest of the trio, explores with startling directness a few of what have become Coupland’s signature themes. Karen, the titular girlfriend, falls into her titular coma at the end of high school in late-1970s Vancouver. Her circle of friends — and especially her boyfriend Richard, who seems to do a lot of the narration — grind through life, some aimlessly and some with blinders on, until Karen wakes up in the late 1990s. A media circus erupts around the woman, who, if you think about it, is kind of a time traveler.
But in the future though she may be, Karen doesn’t like the future she sees. Through her eyes, late 20th-century society is both hardened and dissolute, filled with people drifting unmoored both from absolute values and from one another. Coupland builds toward Karen’s return to the living and confession of disappointment by riding the suspense lever with almost Stephen King-like hand. When an inexplicable, fast-spreading malady kills off everyone but Karen and those close to her, comparisons to embossed-cover types are even harder to resist. But King, Koontz, Patterson, et al. probably wouldn’t have ended a book with the ghost of a notoriously horny high school football player lecturing the characters about their failure to adequately foster the communal sphere and define nobler aims for themselves and each other.
Could you call Coupland a moralist? In a sense, you could, though the moralism of a book like Girlfriend in a Coma is very much his own, and thus at least more interesting than most. Unfortunately, 2000’s Miss Wyoming picks easier targets. It tells two stories, non-chronologically and in parallel, though they eventually bend and converge. One is of Susan Colgate, a floundering television actress and former professional beauty pageant entrant. Presumed dead in an airliner crash of which she was actually the sole survivor, Susan seizes the chance to escape her life and high-gloss aspirational harridan of a mother. The other is of John Johnson, a hacky Hollywood producer, sort of a Don Simpson who bottomed out, flatlined, and went on an impoverished Kerouac-style vision quest instead of just dying. Unfulfilled to say the least by his foray into humiliating modern asceticism, he starts to suspect that Susan might be the answer to his questions about existence.
Both Miss Wyoming and Coupland’s next novel, 2001’s All Families Are Psychotic, suffer from a plot problem. That is to say, they’ve got too much of it. Miss Wyoming’s John and Susan, incomplete searchers both, seem always to be performing the next action in a long causal chain, which itself was a result of whatever falling dominoes happened to precede it. The same goes for the troubled, partially criminal, largely AIDS-afflicted Drummond clan at the center of All Families are Psychotic. If we aren’t watching these characters’ elaborate peregrinations and collisions, we’re on a drip feed of explanatory information about their pasts. This sounds normal, and it is; that’s the problem. It’s certainly not normal by Coupland’s standards. How I longed for the freedom from these standard novel syndromes enjoyed, for instance, by the relatively plotless Generation X.
It’s a shame these novels have execution troubles, because Coupland’s interests are still there, and his interests remain, er, interesting. This is mostly true of All Families Are Psychotic, which is in parts driven by cogitation about noble lies, generational incompatibility, the disintegration of the public sphere, and crippled humanistic optimism. Janet, the enervated Drummond matriarch, laments her place as a member of “a lost generation, the last generation raised to care about appearances of doing the right thing — to care about caring.” At some hard-to-define point, she simply “stopped believing in the future,” as so many Coupland characters do, not that they always understand they’ve done so, let alone state it so baldly.
Where Girlfriend in a Coma debuted Coupland’s way with multiple narrating characters, Miss Wyoming and All Families Are Psychotic are told in the third person, omnisciently. That the effect is so deadening reveals the inseparability of first-person narration (especially from several persons) from what’s great about Coupland’s fiction.
4. The calm
2003’s Hey Nostradamus!, a textbook example of that most delightful literary genre, the return to form, seems conceived down to its very structure to exploit Coupland’s skill of letting the cast write the book. Its central event is a Columbine-style school shooting. (Or, given Coupland’s Canadian-ness and his proclivity to root his books firmly in his native land from this point forward, an École Polytechnique-style shooting.) Coupland interprets this massacre and its legacy through four different consciousnesses: Cheryl, a teenage victim speaking from a life-death borderland; Jason, Cheryl’s secret husband who subsequently falls into long-term chaotic isolation; Heather, the woman with whom Jason eventually finds some degree of solace; and Reg, Jason’s dogmatically religious, monstrously domineering father.
As in Coupland’s other novels, families wield less of an influence than you’d expect over their members, and when they can muster any power, it tends to be of the restrictive or damaging kind. What do the real good and ill are extrafamilial bonds and social units: young Cheryl and Jason’s marriage, made official one surreptitious afternoon in Vegas; their Christian youth group, exerting tremendous pressure and sanctimony even in adulthood; an under-the-table child-fathering arrangement between Jason and his brother’s widow; the doomed, camo-clad three-man shooting squad, their motivations refreshingly never diagrammed.
It’s the same way in Eleanor Rigby, Coupland’s 2005 novel and his brief return to single-character-narrated narrative. That character is Liz Dunn, a plain, overweight, middle-aged office worker who, despite having near-unlimited spending power from well-timed Microsoft stock purchases, nonetheless remains invisible to society. Her actual family, resembling a cloud of semi-benevolent mosquitoes, does her no favors. It’s not until her long-lost, terminally ill son turns up that she experiences any real human-to-human connection. Born suddenly and almost unexpectedly twenty years earlier, when Liz was a teenager, the foster-raised Jeremy brings to this near-featureless setting an embattled but enthusiastic engagement with life and a series of apocalyptic pastoral visions about “farmers [who] had lost their belief in the possibility of changing the world.”
Loneliness: it’s beyond obvious in Eleanor Rigby, but it’s evident in all of Coupland’s novels so far. Despite usually enjoying each other’s company, Andy, Claire, and Dag all live their desultory lives in response to loneliness. Despite his drive, his 100-percent modern bedroom, and his vast collection of hair care products, Tyler nonetheless finds himself trapped in moments of loneliness. Daniel and his hard-coding coterie beat down their loneliness with technology, a habit they their story overcoming. Thrust into a new and unfamiliar era by her coma, Karen can’t avoid loneliness; dragged into it by time and life itself, her friends can’t avoid theirs. Desperate to fill their own emptinesses but knowing only the frameworks others have thrust them into, Susan and John walk their lonely, (mostly) separate paths. Each of the Drummonds are embroiled in their own lonely crises, until their crises merge into one big family crisis. Lost between the living and the dead, Cheryl is doubtlessly lonely; stripped at once of both wife and belief system, Jason is lonelier still; when Jason disappears, his girlfriend becomes so lonely that she falls prey to a low-class psychic; with one son missing, one dead, and everyone else in his life driven away by control-freakishness masked as religiosity, Jason’s father is lonely indeed. But in Coupland’s oeuvre, Liz is the loneliness queen.
5. The explosions
But oh, how even to sketch a context for jPod? Published in 2006, it comes a bit over a decade after Microserfs and is often discussed as an update to it. In that sense, it has a logical place in Coupland lineup of novels, but in another, more immediate sense, it seems to have sprung, spontaneously and without inhibition, straight from the man’s id. It’s 447 pages of three-letter words, classic arcade machine specifics, Chinese characters for concepts like “boredom” and “pornography,” walls of text made up of not quite non sequiturs, love letters to Ronald McDonald, and random numbers. It’s Coupland’s most divisive book, and no wonder.
There’s a main narrative in there, somewhere, about a cubicle cluster of misfits at a Vancouver video game firm. (None dare mention the name Electronic Arts.) This “jPod”, so dubbed because of its J-surnamed members, is assigned a thankless task: go back and insert an edgy turtle character based on the host of Survivor into a skateboarding game already in development. Buffeted by the substantial winds blown by his marijuana-growing mom, his philandering actor dad, his nonsensical workplace, his aggressively lazy co-workers, and a threatening yet amiable Chinese people-smuggler who makes his boss disappear — not to mention a spiteful, cynical version of Douglas Coupland himself — narrating jPodder Ethan just tries to cope.
Compared to jPod, any book would seem subdued, especially the epistolary novel The Gum Thief which followed the next year. But in its quiet way, it’s the stranger of the two works. Taking his multiple-voice technique to its limit, Coupland composes the book as a series of letters, journal entries, short stories, and novella excerpts passed between Roger, a fortysomething alcoholic divorcée with a dead son, and Bethany, a chunky, disaffected young goth with a dumb boyfriend. Both work at the same branch of Staples. Roger writes to Bethany, Bethany writes to Roger, Roger writes his novella, Bethany reads his novella, and Roger’s wife and Bethany’s mother are contributing their own epistles as well, each small text influencing the others. It’s a hall of mirrors, at some turns: Roger’s novella itself contains a novel whose protagonist seems a lot like Roger himself.
But jeez, that novella. Glove Pond is one of the most engaging fictional bad books I’ve ever read. Though at first it simply seems inept, it develops throughout The Gum Thief into a true masterpiece of deep askewness. Something’s badly wrong with this bizarre Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? pastiche’s every sentence, but, like any art rotten at its core, it’s difficult to pin down exactly what:
Within minutes, all the cheese and crackers were gone, and Gloria had eaten the two pickles. Now what would they feed their guests? Steve remembered some pancake mix at the rear of their cupboard. Was the mix beweeviled? That’s okay. Heat will kill them.
Switching narrators every chapter also forms the structural foundation of Generation A, Coupland’s most recent novel. It sounds like a jPod to Generation X’s Microserfs, which isn’t far from the truth. Coupland once again brings together a group of young people to tell stories for one another, except this time it’s in a slowly emerging future setting where bees have died out as a side effect, as it were, of the production of a drug that stops its users from thinking about the future or their fellow man. The kids, loosely speaking, aren’t just North American this time; they’re from New Zealand, Canada, France, the United States, and Sri Lanka.
It’s a more elaborate, international, science fiction-y version of Generation X, then? The assessment sounds dismissive, but the concept that both books share, that storytelling offers the last line of defense against a barren world of social isolation — against loneliness and disconnection — is still relevant. It’s unlikely to get less so.
6. An earnest apocalypse
Are we really headed for a such a bleak future? Is it really because we’re ignoring it, because of our willful information bombardment, our mass denial of absolutes, our retreat into our individual selves, and the breakdown in our ability to hear and tell stories? It’s the scenario each and every one of Douglas Coupland’s novels warns us against. Yet somehow that never ends up being the feeling I take away from any of them. I close most Douglas Coupland novels with a mind jazzed on fresh literary possibilities, not just because he breaks so well from threadbare forms and hybridizes so well with foreign ones — especially visual “pop art,” of which his novels are an equivalent — but because he does it in a way that no small quantity of people seem to actually read. Call it a victory of slickness over substance or marketing by minutiae if you must; in experimental fiction, that’s a world-saving feat.
Some of the chiefest pleasures in a lifetime of reading fiction are those moments when you stumble upon a gem of a book you somehow missed. This happens more often than we might care to admit because reading fiction is a lot like its distant cousin, the acquisition of knowledge: the more you do it, the less of it you seem to have done. There’s no shame in this. Lacunae are inevitable for even the most voracious and catholic of readers. The consolation is that the deeper you go into your life and your reading, the more precious the long-overlooked gems become once you finally unearth them.
All this came to mind recently when I picked up a novel I’d been meaning to read for many years, John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor. Reading the opening words was like touching a live wire: “In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke…”
I was instantly transported to another time and place, as much by the music of Barth’s language – fops, fools, flitch – as by his characters and story, which were at once fantastical, venal, ribald, preposterous, plausible and flat-out hilarious. Usually a slow reader, I galloped through the 755 pages, mystified by the criticism I’d heard over the years that Barth was a difficult and needlessly long-winded writer. Here was a masterly act of authorial ventriloquism, a vivid recreation of the cadences and vocabulary, the mind-set and mores (or lack thereof) of English colonists in America’s mid-Atlantic region in the late 1600’s, when tobacco was known as sot-weed and those who sold it were known as factors. One such man is Barth’s protagonist, Ebenezer Cooke, a feckless London poet in love with his own virginity and virtue, a dewy-eyed innocent who is sent to the cut-throat Eastern Shore of Maryland to tend to his father’s tobacco holdings and, in the bargain, write an epic poem about the place. Ebenezer describes himself as “a morsel for the wide world’s lions.” What a gorgeous set-up for a satire.
It was only after finishing the novel that I went back and read Barth’s foreword, which he wrote in 1987 for the release of a new, slightly shortened Anchor Books edition. From the foreword I learned that The Sot-Weed Factor was originally published in the summer of 1960, when Barth was just 30, exactly 50 years before I finally came to it. I also learned that the novel sprang from an actual satirical poem of the same title published in 1706 by an actual man named Ebenezer Cooke. Much more interesting, I learned that this was Barth’s third novel, and he originally envisioned it as the final piece of a “nihilist trilogy.” But the act of writing the novel taught the novelist something: “I came to understand that innocence, not nihilism, was my real theme, and had been all along, though I’d been too innocent myself to realize that fact.”
This realization led Barth to a far richer one: “I came better to appreciate what I have called the ‘tragic view’ of innocence: that it is, or can become, dangerous, even culpable; that where it is prolonged or artificially sustained, it becomes arrested development, potentially disastrous to the innocent himself and to bystanders innocent and otherwise; that what is to be valued, in nations as well as in individuals, is not innocence but wise experience.”
The dangers of innocence versus the value of wise experience. Here, surely, is a rich theme for any American novelist trying to capture the impulses and foibles and follies of a nation convinced of its own righteousness – in love with its own virtue and virginity, if you will – a nation that historically has had little use for history and therefore has spent several centuries blundering its way, usually uninvited and ill-informed, into the affairs of other nations, beginning with the settlements of native Americans and moving on to the Philippines, Mexico, Guatemala, Iran, Cuba, Chile, Vietnam, Cambodia and, now, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Perhaps no other novelist has explored Barth’s theme more surgically than Graham Greene did in The Quiet American. Published at that fateful moment in the mid-1950s when the French disaster in Indo-China was giving way to the blooming American nightmare in Vietnam, Greene’s novel tells the story of a world-weary British war correspondent named Thomas Fowler who can’t hide his loathing for all the noisy, idealistic Americans suddenly popping up in Saigon. He reserves special contempt for an American innocent named Alden Pyle, some sort of foreign-aid operative who shows up on Rue Catinat with a head full of half-baked theories and a heart full of good intentions. Fowler, despite himself, begins to feel protective toward Pyle. He muses, too late, that he should have known better: “Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”
And therefore, of course, causing all natures of harm to himself and to bystanders, innocent and otherwise. Alden Pyle is the title character of the novel, and a perfect title it is – because you can’t get any more quiet than dead.
While Greene set out to illuminate the dangers of innocence in The Quiet American, Barth chose to mine its comic potential in The Sot-Weed Factor. And so innocent Ebenezer gets captured by rapacious pirates (twice) and murderous Indians, swindled, stripped of his clothing and his name and his estate – only to wind up with his virtue, if not his virginity, intact. His epic poem even becomes a hit. It’s one of the funniest, raunchiest, wisest books I’ve ever read.
While I believe it’s best to let fiction speak for itself, just as I doubt that an understanding of a writer’s life sheds useful light on his work, I itched to know more about Ebenezer Cooke’s creator and his methods. A little digging taught me that John Barth grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where much of the action in The Sot-Weed Factor takes place, and as a young man he switched from studying jazz at Julliard to studying journalism at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. It was there, while working in the library, that he discovered Don Quixote, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Petronius’s Satyricon and, most tellingly, One Thousand and One Nights. Barth became intrigued with the literary device known as the frame tale, in which a character in a story narrates the story. For Barth, then, the telling of the story is the story. This explains why he has called Scheherazade, the character who narrates One Thousand and One Nights, “my favorite navigation star.” She, like every writer, will survive only as long as she keeps coming up with good stories.
And Barth’s musical background helps explain why he channeled Fielding, Sterne, Smollett, Cervantes, Rabelais, Voltaire and other masters of the picaresque novel to arrive at the narrative voice for The Sot-Weed Factor. “At heart I’m still an arranger,” Barth once told an interviewer. “My chiefest literary pleasure is to take a received melody” – a classical myth, a Biblical scrap, a worn-out literary convention or style – “and, improvising like a jazz musician within its constraints, re-orchestrate it to present purpose.”
This got me thinking about my other belated fictional discoveries. A few stand out, including James Joyce’s magisterial Ulysses, which I’d dipped into many times but never read wire to wire until a few years ago. (What was I thinking to wait so long?) Another was James Crumley’s crime novel, The Last Good Kiss. I broke down and read it after I got tired of hearing fawning references to its immortal opening sentence – “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” For once, the fawners nailed it.
And then there was Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, which was once, according to Richard Ford, a sort of “secret handshake” among its small but devoted band of acolytes. For better and for worse, the novel forfeited its cult status not long after I discovered it, when Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were horrifically miscast as the disgruntled suburbanites Frank and April Wheeler in the big-budget movie version of Yates’s masterpiece. The movie, for all its many flaws, worked in concert with Blake Bailey’s biography of Yates to bring his work to a far larger audience than he ever enjoyed in his 66 years of life. Even bad movies sometimes do good things for books. It’s a pity Richard Yates wasn’t around to enjoy his revival.
And finally there was the curious case of Flann O’Brien, an Irish writer who, like Yates, was obscure in his lifetime and will soon receive the posthumous big-screen treatment. I first heard of Flann O’Brien (the pen name for Brian O’Nolan) when I read that Graham Greene had reacted to the humor of O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds with “the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage.” That sounded promising. So did the discovery that Anthony Burgess, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce were also O’Brien fans. While browsing in my neighborhood bookstore soon after making those discoveries, I happened upon the handsome Everyman’s Library collection of all five O’Brien novels. Books find us as often as we find them. I bought the volume and swallowed it whole, each short novel more hilariously disorienting than the last. “A very queer affair,” as the author himself admitted of his life’s fictional output. “Unbearably queer perhaps.”
Or perhaps not. In the forthcoming movie version of At Swim-Two-Birds, Colin Farrell has been cast as the unnamed hero, a dissolute young Irishman who is writing a novel about a man writing a novel full of characters who come to life when he’s asleep (including one he conceived with one of his own female characters). Frustrated by their maker’s iron authority, they set out to destroy him and win their freedom. On paper this might sound un-filmable, but I thought the same thing about William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, and the director-writer David Cronenberg worked cinematic magic with it. We can only hope that Brendan Gleeson, the director of At Swim-Two-Birds, is a sharper interpreter of O’Brien’s weird proto-postmodernism than Sam Mendes was of Richard Yates’s blackly unblinking realism.
In the end, these belated discoveries did what all good fiction does: they illuminated the world I live in, enriched its colors, deepened its music. None moreso than The Sot-Weed Factor, because in addition to its purely literary virtues it helped me see just how different today’s world is from the world that greeted the novel 50 summers ago. Today Americans who write “serious” fiction face what the Dublin-born, New York-based novelist Colum McCann has called “the prospect of irrelevance.” When John Barth was hitting his prime in the 1960s, “serious” American writers faced no such worries. (I place the word serious between quotation marks because no one seems to know quite what it means as a modifier of writer, unless it means someone who is after something above and beyond the most basic and necessary thing, which is, of course, money.)
Among the discoveries during my brief background check on Barth was an essay by a man named John Guzlowski, who, as a grad student in the early 1970s, was drunk on then-current American fiction – not only the mainstream realism of Updike, Bellow and Roth, but all the untamed, unnamed new writing by the likes of Barth and Pynchon, John Hawkes and William Gaddis and Robert Coover, very different writers who eventually got lumped together under a vague and porous umbrella called Postmodernism. Guzlowski went on to teach at Eastern Illinois University, where he taught a course in Postmodern Fiction half a dozen times over the course of 20 years. “Every time I teach the class,” Guzlowski writes in his essay, “there is just a little less interest in looking at Postmodern novels.”
He might as well have said serious novels or literary novels or novels that seek to do more than titillate or entertain. Those things, as Colum McCann knows, are becoming harder and harder to sell to American book buyers, and the people who write them are edging closer and closer to the brink of irrelevance, which is a gentle way of saying extinction.
John Barth and John Guzlowski have reminded me that this wasn’t always the case. There was a time, not so very long ago, when serious – and funny, challenging, mind-bending – fiction was passionately read and discussed, a vibrant part of our national life. It was a time, in Updike’s phrase, when “books were a common currency of an enlightened citizenry.” Those days may be gone, and gone forever, but novels like The Sot-Weed Factor will always be with us. And as I was happily reminded this summer, it’s never too late to discover them.
Scott Esposito is the editor of The Quarterly Conversation and the host of the literary blog Conversational Reading. His writing on books has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Chattahoochee Review, and the Rain Taxi Review ofBooks, among others.I’m a big advocate of the test of time – often I’m favorably impressed by a book right when I finish, but in the ensuing weeks and months, when I have a chance to look back through a book and see how it ages in my mind, many books that I once thought were good begin to lose their luster. So, in order that you can attach the proper grains of salt to each pick, I’m going to do my favorites for 2007 in the order in which I read them.Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, the third book I read, reads like a grand old mannered novel that got stuck with a 21st-century premise: there’s a new Biblical Flood, and all that survives is a children’s hospital. The story unfolds as the staff and the tiny patients figure out what God has in store for them. If this sounds overly religious and fantastic, it isn’t – Adrian builds amazingly realistic characters while telling a tale that, although it certainly includes elements of fantasy, should satisfy any devoted realist. Adrian’s an amazing talent, and for more info, read my review of this book.A couple books later I read what might be my very favorite novel of the past few years: Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec. This novel simply describes the rooms in a Paris apartment building, but in these descriptions Perec ranges all over the world, telling all kinds of amazing, intricately crafted stories. The whole book is too complex and well-built to ever do justice to in a small paragraph like this – so, please, just read it.At number 15 is The Savage Detectives, another book composed of discreet, story-type units. This book is generally agreed to be Roberto Bolano’s masterpiece (either that or the never-completed 2666), and in it Bolano simply traces the lives of two poet-youths as they and their forgotten generation age. Though the book is innovative and stylistically challenging, it still delivers realistic characters and deep emotion.About ten down we come to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and the first book of Proust, both of which I won’t bother to write about as readers probably know about them already, and then at 28 Raymond Queneau’s Witch Grass, a wonderful, playful book that one might legitimately say is about “nothing.” Some have said that this is Queneau’s gloss, in novel form, of Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” but regardless of how you interpret it, this is a plain old joyful read, as Queneau’s prose is continually fresh and entertaining. In my blog, I wrote a little about it.At 36 is Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, which made me wish I had read her earlier; Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence follows at 37. Then we get onto some works of criticism: Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, in which he lays out his famous theory of myths and tries to pin down the basic kinds of stories people tell. Though this book is sometimes dense, there’s a lot here, and it certainly changed the way I looked at narratives. A little after that I read Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, in which he looks at how works of fiction are built. As erudite as this book is, it’s highly readable; Booth meant this as the definitive book on rhetoric in fiction, and though he tried to bite off more than he (or probably anyone) could chew, this is about as good an attempt as you’re going to get.After that I dipped into a little Spanish, reading Cesar Aira’s How I Became a Nun and Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co. The Aira is a subversively funny work about a little boy (or is it girl?) who has a completely crazy experience when his father takes him out for his first taste of ice cream; the Vila-Matas is an un-novel that is composed entirely of footnotes to a book never written about writers who stopped writing. It’s a very clever book that transcends mere cleverness, and for more about Vila-Matas, whom I think is an amazing writer, have a look at my essay on him.After that there was Iris Murdoch’s masterful The Sea, the Sea, which I blogged about. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin, the unforgettable Tristram Shandy, Alex Ross’s fine overview of 20th-century classical music, The Rest Is Noise, George Eliot’s Middlemarch (which I can’t recommend highly enough), and, most recently, the Renaissance work of 100 stories, The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio.Though the last was written in the 14th century and may seem a little old and musty, I hope people give it a look. These stories are clinics in how to compose a short work of fiction, and reading them compared to something written by a more contemporary author is as refreshing as listing to a Bach sonata after taking in a symphony by Shostakovich. Moreover, these are just plain fun – Boccaccio’s swipes at the church make you realize that people always have, and always will, have axes to grind with politicians and those in power, and his stories are bawdy enough to make you laugh out loud at his boldness.More from A Year in Reading 2007