Open City by Teju Cole

May 10, 2012

Perhaps the most enticing thing I can say about this Book Critics Circle Award finalist and PEN/Hemingway Award-winner is that it pairs very nicely with The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. In my opinion, these were, by a wide margin, the two strongest novels of the 2012 Tournament of Books, though only Open City made it to the Finals.

The pairing works because both engage in issues relating to the construction of personal identity, guilt/culpability, and history. In blogging serendipity, both Whispering Gums and Pechorin’s Journal posted reviews of The Sense of an Ending on the same (April 25) day and both have sparked considerable discussion. If you have read A Sense of an Ending, or even if you haven’t, I recommend both reviews and the following discussions.

Open City warrants equal attention. Julius, the narrator, is a psychiatrist in the final year of his psychiatry fellowship. He has taken to walking around New York City aimlessly. Much of this novel is filled with his ruminations while walking, such as about bird migrations and whether his interest in bird migrations is connected to his new habit of wandering the streets. He considers what New York looks like from the perspective of geese and, importantly, when he sees no migrating geese from his apartment window:

I doubted in some part of myself whether these birds, with their dark wings and throats, their pale bodies and tireless little hearts, really did exist. So amazed was I by them that I couldn’t trust my memory when they weren’t there.

There is, of course, more than birds. The passage is important because memory haunts this book and this is one of the first hints of its importance and malleability. The climax of this book is a revelation about the past that alters the reader’s understanding of everything that has gone before.

Along the way, Cole weaves his story with strands of fascinating minutia, from those birds to Herman Melville to classical music to Nabokov to the slave trade to terrorism and all manner of other things, literary and otherwise. The references are not just random bits thrown on the canvas, though, each is carefully selected for how it will impact the whole. Julius, telling this story in the first person, is not as aimless as his wanderings suggest. While he is “conducting a clinical study of affective disorders in the elderly”, he shows very little emotion throughout the novel. He gains some trust with his detachment, a reservedness that suggests open and objective reporting.

Julius is a wonderfully astute observer, which also strengthens his credibility. He highlights little details of city life in thoughtful, sometime humbling ways. A man walking home alone after finishing the marathon is, at first, pitied for having no friends or family to share in his accomplishment, but, as the marathoner and Julius walk beside each other, Julius considers the strength of will it takes to finish a marathon. He moves from the burst of energy at the end of the marathon to the pain of the “the nineteenth, the twentieth, the twenty-first mile[s].” Completing a marathon is, he says, “still remarkable no matter how many people do it now.” After having really considered marathoning, Julius realizes that the marathoner walking gingerly home was not a sad figure, but a triumphant one.

It was I, no less solitary than he but having made the lesser use of the morning, who was to be pitied.

These little illuminations of the beauty of the routine make this novel sparkle. They also each build towards that radical late shift. The story of the marathoner provides a miniature of the bigger story: An initial scene creates a particular impression, in the case of the marathon it is the pitiful man trudging home anonymously, but reflection and revelation shift the meaning and, hence, the final impression that is left.

Whispering Gums (link above) makes an interesting connection between The Sense of an Ending and The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Open City is not really anything like that. Julius is, unlike Tony, not a bystander to life. He is sufficiently ambitious to make it from his native Nigeria to America through medical school and what appears to be a very solid, if not spectacular, career. Julius had to assert himself to make these things happen and he is much younger than Tony. Tony’s “melancholic tone” based on opportunities missed is absent here, but oddly mirrored in Julius’s clinical detachment from his own life.

The books are not exactly the same, however much the focus can turn to “what really happened?” Neither The Sense of an Ending (see Pechorin’s Journal link above) nor Open City are primarily concerned with presenting a mystery to be solved. The actual facts are, in at least some sense, irrelevant.

In Barnes’s work, this is because a major focus of the book is on how memory, all memory, is faulty. Constructing an “actual” past is a fool’s errand, in some ways, because, to borrow from Heisenberg’s insights into quantum physics, the mere recollection (observation) of one’s own memories alters them. It is impossible to perfectly reconstruct the essential variables of events in one’s past.

Cole has a slightly different focus. While I do not think this Copenhagen interpretation of memory is irrelevant to the story Julius tells, because there is some uncertainty there, it is more sideshow than main feature. Cole is more concerned with how personal narratives are constructed, particularly including value judgments, than with the unreliability of memory (or narrative). This is one of the more interesting parts of Barnes’s work too. After all, what really is interesting is how the recognition of the incompleteness of Tony’s memories reorders the value judgments placed on prior (undisputed) actions and inactions. Villians may be heros, or not. Cole confronts the reader with a similar principle of moral uncertainty. There are depths to be spelunked.

And amid all this, those delightful observations of small things:

The creak-creak of the swings was a signal, I thought, there to remind the children that they were having fun; if there were no creak, they would be confused.

I will leave with one last, sort of spoilerish conjecture. I am not sure of the meaning of those last 175 dead wrens. That so many birds died despite the fact that “the night just past hadn’t been particularly windy or dark” suggests something sinister about the flame, about the statue of liberty itself. Freedom comes up several times in the book. Julius finds freedom in his wanderings, there is the story of the shoeshiner who purchases the freedom of his sister, his wife, and himself, and the Brussels discussion of freedom, including the comparisons of freedom in Europe with that in America. American freedom “form[s] and sharpen[s]” people in unique ways, Julius suggests. For some, of course, the contact with American freedom is radicalizing.

I have not formed a clear idea of how this sinister side of American freedom fits in with the story-altering revelation. Julius is very careful to construct this portrait of a respectable, if disconcertingly aloof, man who cares about the arts, philosophy, history, and his fellow man. He is always polite, if not very warm, and he has come from difficult circumstances in Nigeria to success in America. That final detail brings new meaning to his demeanor, making it seem frosty rather than reserved.

My first impulse had been to equate the disorienting light of the Statute of Liberty to our own impulse to believe in our goodness. Like the promises of America, our own freedom of memory can disorient and destroy. The flame can guide some to safety and opportunity, others it destroys.

The error I have made, I think, is in trying too hard to boil Cole’s excellently crafted ending into a nicely summarized philosophical point. The birds simply are dead and the emotions there are quite similar to the emotions upon learning that final fact about Julius (and his own reaction to it). There is an inchoate sadness; the tragedy feels unfinished, an explanation is needed. But all we have are wrens, dead for reasons unknown.


The Other Side by E. Thomas Finan

October 27, 2011

This collection was sent to me as a review copy.

E. Thomas Finan tends to look inward and does so in affecting ways. His protagonists have uneasy relationships with the world and, therefore, the stories are unsettling for everyone. He writes achingly realistic fiction that speaks eloquently through the clipped or choked dialogue of its suffering characters. Broken relationships feature prominently, but not exclusively. The broken relationships are often deep in the rearview, though closer to the heart than they initially appear.

Among the stories, there is one that appears almost like a writing exercise. Finan made the courageous (foolhardy?) choice to re-write Hemingway’s most famous short story and include it in this collection. Finan’s is titled: “Dunes Like White Elephants.

Nearly as enigmatic as Hemingway’s, the story approaches its subject obliquely. As in its famous predecessor, the intersection of a pregnancy and a relationship create the understated, but intense, drama. Where Hemingway showed a man pushing a woman to abort her pregnancy, in Finan’s take, the man is pressing for marriage. I actually think Finan pulled this off without creating a disaster which, frankly, is what I expected despite the talent displayed in the earlier stories.

Review copy.

Finan’s female lead is as reluctant as Hemingway’s and Finan’s potential father has the same binary view of the world as did his forebearer: the couple must either abort the pregnancy or marry and raise the child. The relationship in Finan’s work is a new one and, at least partly for that reason, the woman is very uncertain about turning this unplanned pregnancy into a shotgun wedding. The man believes the conclusion is foregone, despite his questioning tone. So many elements are mirrored, this was quite a risky story to publish.

I like what Finan has done to twist Hemingway’s stereotyped roles in interesting ways. He did not simply re-write the story into the modern age or reverse the poles. Rather, he bent and twisted the classic into something new and provacative. Finan certainly does not surpass Hemingway, but he gets points for shocking this reader into a closer analysis of the original. Kudos to Finan for his gutsy decisions.

My favorite story in the collection is “Motley Black.” The narrator, “Jay”, is taking a bus ride across country to escape the geography of his most recent relationship. A wiseass (“My friends call me Foley.”…..“So what should I call you?”) and introvert, Jay tries to avoid a seatmate only to end up with the talkative and otherwise annoying Foley at his side. While Foley snores, Jay broods:

One can always find the loneliness within life. It is always there. Conviviality, conversational relish, the glibness of society – all are signs of the struggle to ignore that loneliness, always lingering at your shoulder like an unwelcome stranger, one that we know too well. Perhaps, for many people, the only thing worse than a stranger is someone we know inside and out; despite all that knowledge, that patina of familiarity, there remains the hollow core of ignorance. What was a friend? Someone to unburden your heart to? Well, what would telling do? I did not need any more of projected narcissism, which constitutes the heart and soul of common friendship.

This dark moodiness is typical of the stories in the collection, though humor peeks* through in places. In “Motley Black”, for instance, Jay’s wit leavens things until the main action hits. The story bends towards absurdity, I thought it had snapped at one point, but finds its way to a satisfying conclusion. You can find an extended excerpt here.

Finan writes with impressive confidence (as his cribbing from a Hemingway story suggests he would). He usually delivers. Even if every story is not seasoned to my taste, Finan achieves what it is he sets out to do. Impressive.

[**Edited 11-4-2011: Not mountain "peaks", of course.]


The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

October 19, 2011

Augie March tells his own story beginning with his childhood in depression-era Chicago. His family is poor and his mother weak. The decisions are made by a domineering and realist grandmother. Augie’s description of her early in the novel gives a taste:

If wit and discontent don’t necessarily go together, it wasn’t from the old woman that I learned it. She was impossible to satisfy.

She does her best to ensure that the boys do well in school, stay out of trouble with the law, and learn to lie effectively to obtain medical care or food despite not qualifying for particular programs. Her goal is not so much “good” boys as successful boys. She wants for them whatever will get them ahead in the world and, hence, allow them to help with the family bills.

[T]he old lady, following her own idea of what that fate would be, continued to find various jobs for me.

Saying “various jobs,” I give out the Rosetta stone, so to speak, of my entire life.

Augie bounces from job to job, from mentor to mentor, from love to love, never able to settle into a position in life. He strives for something extraordinary, though he is not sure what that something is. His brother, Simon, is neither as idealistic nor as unfocused and, thus, generally makes more money. But this is plot and I like the writing most.

Bellow is particularly good at identifying and conveying the essential quality of a person. Describing a hulking, good-natured man called “Five Properties”, the narrator follows a few examples of the way Five Properties jokes and interacts with people with this nice summation:

He gave himself an awful lot of delight.

I like this guy as minor as he is to the story.

But the minor characters are important, Augie realizes that, particularly at a young age, he is more a product of influences than an independent agent.

All the influences were lined up waiting for me. I was born, and there they were to form me, which is why I tell you more of them than of myself.

As skillfully created a narrator as you can find, he tells us, of course, all about himself in the way he describes his “influences”. Bellow has that felicity with language that allows an author to speak on multiple levels simultaneously. For example:

William Einhorn was the first superior man I knew. He had a brain and many enterprises, real directing power, philosophical capacity, and if I were methodical enough to take thought before an important and practical decision and also (N.B.) if I were really his disciple and not what I am, I’d ask myself, “What would Caesar suffer in this case? What would Machiavelli advise or Ulysses do? What would Einhorn think?” I’m not kidding when I enter Einhorn in this eminent list. It was him that I knew, and what I understand of them in him. Unless you want to say that we’re at the dwarf end of all times and mere children whose only share in grandeur is like a boy’s share in fairy-tale kings, beings of a different kind from times better and stronger than ours. But if we’re comparing men and men, not men and children or men and demigods…if we don’t have any special wish to abdicate into some different, lower form of existence out of shame for our defects before the golden faces of these and other old-time men, then I have the right to praise Einhorn and not care about smiles of derogation from those who think the race no longer has in any important degree the traits we honor in these fabulous names. But I don’t want to be pushed into exaggeration by such opinion, which is the opinion of students who, at all ages, feel their boyishness when they confront the past.

If you suspect Einhorn is not quite as superior as Augie believes, you win a gold star. Augie does not, however, and that is brilliant. With a blindspot in his self-awareness, Augie scoffs at the “boyishness” and naivete of others who, incorrectly, believe men are different now than they were then. It is clear that Augie has caught a touch of hero-worship, a malady of youth if there ever was one. He uses the then-fashionable “N.B.” for “nota bene”, which became fashionable because a (then current) hero comparable to Ceasar or Machiavelli, namely FDR, had used it in one of his fireside chats. Augie is all enthusiasm and praise when, as Bellow also deftly conveys, the truth is much more messy and complex.

We learn something about Augie and something about Einhorn while being prodded with an observation on the world and history. Who are the great men of today? Or, alternatively, would intimate analysis of all great men bring them down to earth as flawed, sometimes petty or weak or selfishly grasping? From history to metaphysics and back through philosophy, Bellow peppers this novel with a learnedness as impressive as it is unobtrusive.

Bellow is, as James Wood has said, one of the “really great prose writers.” He was as eloquent writing about cars as people or ideas:

[E]arly in the morning Joe Gorman picked me up in a black Buick; it was souped up, I could tell the first instant, from the hell-energy that gives you no time to consider….[I]n and out of Gary in two twists and on the road for Toledo, where the speed increased, and the mouth of the motor opened out like murder, not panting, but liberated to do what it was made for.

Slender, pressing down nervous on the wheel, with his long nose of broken form and the color running fast up his face and making a narrow crossing on his forehead, Gorman was like a jockey in his feeling toward the car. You could see what pleasure he got out of finding what he needed to wrap his nerves in.

Bellow’s are sentences to touch and stroke. His prose has a distinctive sensuousness even as it burrows to sharp, slicing truths. The Adventures of Augie March manages to surprise with little stocking-stuffers on each page. And that is the least of the achievements here.

Not everyone, apparently, fell in love with Augie. That I can believe. Augie is not a conventional hero who prevails over all obstacles. Life treats him like a rugby ball, punching, kicking, and grasping at him. Bad guys win while Augie loses. Mostly, though, the characters lose as people usually, eventually, do. In the decades since Augie entered the scene, many critics have marked this book as Bellow’s arrival as a serious man of letters. The novel marked a less restricted approach than he had used in his first two novels. He is quoted later as saying about Augie March:

I took off many of these restraints…I think I took off too many, and went too far, but I was feeling the excitement of discovery. I had just increased my freedom, and like any emancipated plebeian I abused it at once.

And he was probably right. The story itself is a many-armed seamonster. Augie is buffeted about like a mote of dust in a droplet of water. He is acted upon more than he acts, making him a frustrating protagonist. His powerful but diffuse ambition stymies itself, pushing in too many directions or none at all. This is conveyed well, but perhaps there is too much of it. A partial listing of Augie’s jobs gives a flavor of how widely he ventures: newsstand clerk, book thief, dog groomer, eagle trainer, salesman, bodyguard, smuggler, and merchant marine. Augie March does not have the same tightness of Bellow’s later Seize the Day. A little more authorial tyranny might have improved the book. Or not.

Bellow acknowledged “the great mass of sand and gravel” in the novel but seemed pleased, as am I, that he “took [his] chance.”


The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt

September 6, 2011

Regular readers may recall that I am a fan of Joyce Carol Oates and that my favorite of her novels is Beasts. Oates frequently delves into obsession, near-madness, and madness. She also crafts beautiful prose and suspenseful stories. How she maintains quality given the quantity she produces will likely forever remain a mystery of American literature.

Hustvedt has written five novels over the past, roughly, twenty years. (Somewhere Oates chuckles.) This was her first, though not my first of hers. I quite enjoyed What I Loved and was spurred to explore her (to give Oates a laugh) oeuvre in greater detail. Having explored a full 40% of her novels, I have not developed a crush. I am indifferent to the fact that she has published a novel this year (The Summer Without Men; free excerpt here), while Oates manages only a short story collection and a memoir.

But why am I comparing these two? It is because this book reminded me of Beasts with respect to the plot or, more accurately, the setup. The story of both hinges on a student-professor relationship. The stories, however, are not really the same. The Blindfold is more about identity and the fictions we construct to make sense of ourselves and the world than about the psychology of mentor-mentee romance, the darkness of sexual obsession, and the cruelty of conquest.

It is easy for me to read too much into the fact, so I will, that Hustvedt is, and was at the time of writing this book, married to Paul Auster, author of the identity-obsessed New York Trilogy. Hustvedt’s work post-dates Auster’s and, I am tempted to speculate, owes a significant debt to it. The Blindfold is told in a series of interweaved stories, really, about a young woman named Iris Vegan. Iris is, as are probably most first-person protagonists, a “version[] of [her creator]” pieced together from bits of the author’s “personality, nerves, and [] experiences.” She is intelligent, depressive, and a bit lost.

Some of the stories seem almost allegorical, such as the one in which she finds employment as a dead woman’s medium. In that story, a strange old man is determined to write the history of a young woman who was murdered in his building. He hires female university students to minutely describe objects that formerly belonged to the dead girl, hoping that some psychic residue will rub off on his assistants’ prose. Iris is unaware of this quirk when she begins, but soon has the gist of the story from the old man. The unlikelihood of the fellow having legitimate custody of the dead woman’s things raises the possibility that he was the murderer.

Iris’s project is very similar to that of Blue in Auster’s Ghosts. Both characters are given the task of transcribing details without being told which details are important or what the ultimate purpose of the transcription is. Where Blue is watching a person, Iris is examining an object, yet both are really about the same thing: the way in which reality can be fit into any number of stories and how individuals fill the void of supplied meaning in ways that smooth their own emotional potholes. Of course, the effort of consciously creating a fictional story can be maddening and, again, both husband and wife explore this aspect.

Given that I had already read Auster’s New York Trilogy and Oates’s Beasts, this work was a bit of a come down. It seemed to tread the territory between the two, neither engaging on full-blown philosophical allegory, as did Auster, nor into the dark caverns of the obsessive mind as did Oates. Hustvedt’s first novel seems to me less a combining of the best of two ideas or themes, but a dilution of them. This sounds unnecessarily harsh. While I would recommend either Auster’s trilogy or Oates’s novella before this work, Hustvedt is an excellent writer.

For instance, she makes a more effective critique of the American health care system in one paragraph than Lionel Shriver did in a novel focused on the issue. Hustvedt’s Iris, in the hospital:

That afternoon Dr. Fish sent a psychiatrist to my bed. He spoke to me kindly in a low voice, and he had a white beard that I found reassuring….I think I would have enjoyed my talk with him had I not worried about what the conversation was going to cost. He looked expensive to me, and I kept wondering if his sympathy was covered by my insurance.

The scene is most notably for the humor rather than any political polemics. And this is an excellent part of Hustvedt’s writing, while always serious, she is never only serious. Like one of her more interesting characters, she maintains sufficient authorial distance to treat serious subjects lightly, thereby penetrating reflection. A male friend tells her:

”I watch myself live, Iris, like a movie, and that image of myself is everything. I don’t want to betray it. Do you know what I’m talking about? I’m telling you that what I can’t bear is the ordinary. I don’t want to bore myself, to sink into the pedestrian ways of other people – heart-to-heart talks, petty confessions, relationships of habit, not passion. I see those people all around me, and I detest them, so I have to be divorced from myself in order to keep from sliding into a life I find nauseating. It’s a matter of appearances, but surfaces are underestimated. The veneer becomes the thing. I rarely distinguish the man in the movie from the spectator anymore.”

I felt sorry for him and hated the feeling. He had delivered his explanation in a fierce tone of self-mockery and it bruised me. “I do understand you, Stephen, but don’t you think that everybody is finally the same in the most essential ways? Some lives are probably much duller than others, but it’s impossible to know how people live inside themselves, isn’t it? I mean, a life could seem boring on the outside and be tumultuous within. Isn’t cruelty more contemptible than ordinariness?”

Hustvedt’s examination of the intersection of story-generation and identity-creation seems, if not a re-working, then a reply to Auster’s own ideas on the subject.

In Ghosts, Blue is a man of surfaces as well. Through the mysterious writing project, he becomes better acquainted with his own interior. And, too, he comes to realize that the external reality, Black in his case, is “a kind of blankness, a hole in the texture of things, and one story can fill this hole as well as any other.” Iris has the same sort of recognition when trying to speak to or for the dead woman.

I wonder now whether it isn’t dangerous to assign significance to that which is essentially vacant, but we can’t seem to avoid it. We cover up the holes with our speech, explaining away the emptiness until we forget it is there.

The stories she could tell are endless and, therefore, pointless, when only the truth matters to her. The catch is that, like Blue, she also begins to question truth as a concept and as a good. Maybe the world, as far as humans can capture it, is made only of stories. What then of identity? Iris learns less what her identity is than that identity can be as fluid, as full of holes that need filling, as another’s life, whether the life is that of a man sitting, as Black, in an observable room or that of a dead woman evidenced only by detritus she left behind.

Hustvedt is ambitious and, I think, has grown as a writer. Her first effort is good, perhaps even very good. My favorite part of the reading experience was the way The Blindfold recalled to mind other, to my mind better, books and enriched the ideas in them. For that reason alone, it was well worth the read. And, despite being in no rush, I may well snag a copy of The Summer Without Men on the strength of this work and What I Loved. As for you, dear reader, I do think she is worth your giving her a try.


The Spot: Stories by David Means

April 12, 2011

David Means is an accomplished, if not particularly well-known, short story writer. I chose to give his most recent collection a try based on its inclusion on the Tournament of Books longlist for 2011. I was disappointed in that the collection was not chosen for the ToB, but was pleased, if not overwhelmed, by the stories it contained.

I was immediately won over by “The Knocking” and its humor.

Upstairs he stops for a moment, just to let the tension build, and then he begins again, softer at first, going east to west and then east again, heading toward the Fifth Avenue side of the building, pausing to get his bearings, to look out at the view, I imagine, before heading west, pausing overhead to taunt me before going back into motion for a few minutes, setting the pace with a pendulous movement, following the delineation of the apartment walls – his the same as mine, his exactly the same – and then there is another pause….

The description of the knocking goes on for a bit longer, but you get the idea, both of the knocking and of the narrator who is describing it. At this early point, there are still the questions of whether the knocker is intent on taunting and of whether the knocking would be annoying to anyone. The questions linger while we learn something of the knocker:

He was the kind of knocker who would learn a fresh technique, a way of landing his heel on the floor, of lifting his toes and letting them rattle a board, and work with a calisthenic efficiency – all bones and sinew – to transmit the sound via the uncarpeted prewar floorboards, woody, resonant oak solid enough to withstand the harder strikes. Above all, he not only took knocking seriously but went beyond that to a realm of pure belief in the idea that by being persistent over the long term and knocking only for the sake of knocking – in other words, blanking me at least temporarily out of his consciousness, and in doing so forgetting the impulse (our brief meeting last year) for starting in the first place – he could take a leap of faith and increase his level of conentration – pure rapture – and, in turn, his ability to sustain the knocking over the long run.

The delusion of a Nabokovian narrator, so exquisite because, possibly, the narrator is not delusional. Means holds the cards close throughout, releasing them expertly for maximum effect. I truly loved this story. The downside of that is that the rest of the collection could not hope to equal this one.

Do not get me wrong, there are other very good stories. “The Blade” is the second and, perhaps, my second favorite in the collection. It begins with a group of homeless men hanging out around a fire, passing a bottle, and telling stories. The stories become stories about knives and Ronnie has one, perhaps the best one. He holds onto it, waiting through silences when the others expect him to tell it.

Another blade-to-the-throat story stood at the ready, the men sensed. They caught a vibe in the static holding pattern the banter had taken, in the way that Ronnie held off on his turn to speak. They were sure he had a blade story!

While dribbling out details, including hints of Ronnie’s relationship with an old man called Hambone, Means fills in back story that Ronnie does not want to share to the other men. What is particularly engaging is how Means tells a story about telling a story in a way that both explains how a good story is told and demonstrates how a good story is told. The importance of including specific details to create credulity. By the end, the reader is as hungry for the story as those down-and-out men around the fire.

The collection freely shares characters from one story to another, intertwining lives and slowly revealing a large mosaic. This is not true of all the stories, but many of them. Sometimes, there is just a glimpse of how the stories connect, but, in that instant, the world Means has created gains a skosh of authenticity. Means works almost exclusively in the short form and his expertise in his craft shows.

For a third sample from this collection, you can try “A River in Egypt” which is about a father whose son may have cystic fibrosis. The father is inept and sometimes ugly, but this enhances his humanity and the emotion of the piece. These three stories to which I have linked provide a fair cross-section of the range and tone of the collection. While The Spot: Stories did not bowl me over with originality, it did impress me with its author’s storytelling ability. I am a little disappointed this work did not make the jump from the ToB longlist to the shortlist. I would have enjoyed reading a judge’s reaction to it.


Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos

March 27, 2011

John Dos Passos was a prominent member of “The Lost Generation”, rivaling Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner for literary preeminence. That many know nothing of him and many more have never read his work suggests a decline in his reputation. The suggestion is not false. He certainly is rarely included as high on lists of great works as either of those other three authors. This has little to do with the beauty of his early works or with his originality as an artist. Rather, it has mostly to do, I think, with his politics.

Like Hemingway, Dos Passos was an ambulance driver during World War I. He and Heminway developed a friendship and bonded over their left-leaning politics. Dos Passos’s views were driven by his dismay at the split of America, as he saw it, between the wealthy and the poor. These opinions are evident in his works mostly as a compassionately realistic rendering of his working class characters. These two most lauded of his novels (the trilogy and Manhattan Transfer) are not polemical, however, at least not in putting forth a particular political agenda. What seethes beneath is not a political agenda, but a frustration with the indignities industrial capitalism foists on ordinary people. There is the feeling in both Manhattan Transfer and his U.S.A. Trilogy that everyone, whether rich or poor, is ground down by American capitalism and the pursuit of money.

His politics shifted rightward over the years, beginning with the nomination of FDR as the Democratic nominee. Dos Passos was disappointed with the nomination. Soon thereafter, he attacked communist political theory which, of course, upset many of his fellow writers who were themselves communists and alienated many of his American and European readers. His literary status dimmed. Eventually, his anti-communist views hardened until he became at least a tentative supporter of Joseph McCarthy. This did not endear him to the artistic and literary communities. Further, though I have not read any of his writings after his shift to the right, my understanding is that his later works declined in literary quality.

All of which is to say, Hemingway and Faulkner managed to eclipse Dos Passos not through a rigorous comparison of their highest aesthetic achievements, but because Dos Passos made himself a political outcast and faltered artistically later in life. I have noted on this blog before my admiration for his U.S.A. Trilogy, so I will only say here that I thought it was a phenomenal work of astounding scope and accomplishment.

I picked up Manhattan Transfer with the trepidation typical of a return to one’s former paradise. Will it be the same? Will things seem smaller, dirtier, duller? I can say that, while this is not quite as powerful as U.S.A., I was pleasantly relieved with what I discovered.

There are too many characters and too many of them “primary” to sketch out a summarizing plot. The story is that of New York rather than any specific individuals who inhabit it, yet individuals do populate the pages and vividly. The individuals do not represent anything or any, but lead complicated lives trying to make it in New York.

One storyline begins with young attorney George Balwin reading the newspaper in his office. Having no clients, a story about a milkman seriously injured in an accident (a milkman previously introduced to the reader) provokes him:

He ought to sue the railroad. By gum I ought to get hold of that man and make him sue the railroad. . . . Not yet recovered consciousness. . . . Maybe he’s dead. Then his wife can sue them all the more. . . . I’ll go to the hospital this very afternoon. . . . Get in ahead of any of these shysters. He took a determined bite of bread and chewed it vigorously. Of course not; I’ll go to the house and see if there isn’t a wife or mother or something: Forgive me Mrs. McNiel if I intrude upon your deep affliction, but I am engaged in an investigation at this moment. . . . Yes, retained by prominent interests. . . . He drank up the last of the coffee and paid the bill.

With that, his career begins.

Emile and Congo Jake are seamen trying to decide whether to give New York life a go or to ship out. Jimmy Herf is a momma’s boy who grows up to be a journalist. Ellen Thatcher is a daddy’s girl and grows up to be many things, including a leading actress. The lives of these and many other characters are elaborately braided together to form a picture of New York society nearly from top to bottom. The picture of the African American community and other “non-whites” exists, if at all, mostly as blank space. They exist only as doormen, maids, and others whose personalities, hopes, dreams, fears, and lives are given little more attention than the automobiles or furniture in the room.

Bud, a young man who came to the city from upstate New York, first finds work as a dishwasher. The description of his first day on the job is both impressive in the manner Dos Passos conveys the drudgery and shocking in the way racial attitudes are presented.

Plates slip endlessly through Bud’s greasy fingers. Smell of swill and hot soapsuds. Twice round with the little mop, dip, rinse and pile in the rack for the longnosed Jewish boy to wipe. Knees wet from spillings, grease creeping up his forearms, elbows cramped.

“Hell this aint no job for a white man.”

“I dont care so long as I eat,” said the Jewish boy above the rattle of the dishes and the clatter and seething of the range where three sweating cooks fried eggs and ham and hamburger steak and browned potatoes and cornedbeef hash.

“Sure I et all right,” said Bud and ran his tongue round his teeth dislodging a sliver of salt meat that he mashed against his palate with his tongue. Twice round the little mop, dip, rinse and pile in the rack for the longnosed Jewish boy to wipe. There was a lull. The Jewish boy handed Bud a cigarette. They stood leaning against the sink.

“Aint no way to make money dishwashing.” The cigarette wabbled on the Jewish boy’s heavy lip as he spoke.

“Aint no job for a white man nohow,” said Bud. “Waitin’s better, they’s the tips.”

This offhanded racism is, while not prevalent, at least significant in this work (as it was in U.S.A.). The racism is that of the characters and is likely an accurate depiction of the common attitude. The scorn is not restricted to African Americans but also to Italians (“wops”), Irish, Indians, and others who were considered categorically different somehow:

Imagine living down here among low Irish and foreigners, the scum of the universe.

As someone else has noted, these scense are uncomfortable because they are so casually tossed off. There is about them no sense of awareness on the part of the author (either as opposing or promoting the views) of the ugliness. Given Dos Passos’s considerable interest in the plight of the downtrodden, his apparent obliviousness to racial and ethnic injustices is at least puzzling. It cannot be swept away with the recognition that politics are often treated in a similarly nonjudgmental way because, ultimately, both Manhattan Transfer and U.S.A. do make powerful statements about the political state of the city and nation, respectively. I have neither a sufficiently broad nor sufficiently deep knowledge of his work to go any further in what could certainly be a dissertation on the depiction of race in Dos Passos. It exists as it did exist, it is ugly as it was ugly.

I think Dos Passos manages more with respect to gender. He recognizes the inequality. In the following, Ed Thatcher has struck up a conversation with old man down on his luck. His daughter Ellen is uncomfortable.

”Daddy let’s go away. I dont like this man,” whispered Ellen tremulously in her father’s ear.

“All right we’ll go and take a look at the sealions. . . . Good day.”

“You couldn’t fahnd me the price of a cup o coffee could you now sir? I’m fair foundered.” Thatcher put a dime in the grimy knobbed hand.

“But daddy, mummy said never to let people speak to you in the street an to call a policeman if they did an to run away as fast as you could on account of those horrible kidnappers.”

“No danger of their kidnapping me Ellie. That’s just for little girls.”

“When I grow up will I be able to talk to people on the street like that?”

“No deary you certainly will not.”

“If I’d been a boy could I?”

“I guess you could.”

As with the racial epithets, no further attention is drawn to the scene, but the feeling is different. This exchange seems important precisely because of the gender issues inherent in both the daughter’s and father’s reactions. The impression that Dos Passos’s concerns go deeper as the women in his novel struggle against convention, traditional roles, and the peculiar perils of sex for them. Their reputations with respect to sexual virtue matter whereas, with the men, it does not. Further, the facts of unwanted pregnancies, illegitimacy, and abortion are starkly presented. Also, one character is homosexual and his difficulties, both socially and psychologically, are dealt with in a sympathetic and convincing way. The character is neither caricatured nor condemned. Rather, the difficulties of being a homosexual in early 1900s New York is explored in a surprisingly modern way. Dos Passos can engage interestingly in such social issues without resorting to either preachiness or stereotype.

The main show, however, is the struggle to survive and to “get ahead.” The fortunes of characters rise and fall, sometimes expectedly and sometimes unexpectedly. Sometimes they stagnate, as with Jimmy Herf, the momma’s boy:

”The trouble with me is I cant decide what I want most, so my motion is circular, helpless and confoundedly discouraging.”

Dos Passos sometimes powerfully evokes the emotion of the moment, as when Jimmy seems possibly to have lost a woman for whom he has fallen.

Jimmy Herf stood stockstill at the foot of the brownstone steps. His temples throbbed. He wanted to break the door down after her. He dropped on his knees and kissed the step where she had stood. The fog swirled and flickered with colors in confetti about him. Then the trumpet feeling ebbed and he was falling through a black manhole. He stood stockstill. A policeman’s ballbearing eyes searched his face as he passed, a stout blue column waving a nightstick. Then suddenly he clenched his fists and walked off. “O God everything is hellish,” he said aloud. He wiped the grit off his lips with his coatsleeve.

The fact that the woman will never see him kiss the ground conveys the depth and truth of his feeling and the futility of it. And, then, he seems to shake his desperate love, at least for a moment. The grit on his lips, though, is the masterful touch. Dos Passos can write.

I am long overdue posting this for the Classics Circuit, so I will stop somewhat abruptly here. I highly recommend Dos Passos though I suggest starting with U.S.A.. The techniques he uses here are more polished and refined in that work. That also means U.S.A. is slightly less accessible, which cuts against my advice. Dos Passos is well-worthy of exploration, wherever you start.

[Update: And, I meant to add this above, there is further discussion of this particular work at Pechorins Journal. I highly recommend checking that blog out generally and specifically with reference to this work.]


The Locked Room (The New York Trilogy, Volume 3) by Paul Auster

January 4, 2011

“And death…happens to us every day.”

by Paul Auster

The final installment of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy begins with the above quote and attribution. The quote does not appear, other than at this point, anywhere in The New York Trilogy. Google was of no immediate help in locating a separate writing of Auster’s in which this quote appears. It seems that the quote is Auster’s own, but written solely for the beginning of this work. This enigmatic choice is typical of the oddities within this work.

Unlike City of Glass which seemed to unravel rather than spin a plot and unlike Ghosts which seemed more allegorical than realist, The Locked Room has a realistic plot which pulls together some of the loose threads of City of Glass. For instance, the detective Quinn and Peter Stillman both make appearances in this story of a writer gone missing.

Fanshawe has left his six-months pregnant wife, Sophie, and has not returned. After he has been gone for some time, Sophie presumes him dead. The unnamed narrator, a failed novelist but successful writer of articles, was Fanshawe’s best friend in childhood and was named as his literary executor. Sophie approaches the narrator with Fanshawe’s writings, none of which has ever been published. The narrator is to determine whether any of it is publishable. He is daunted.

How could I be expected to take on such a responsibility – to stand in judgment of a man and say whether his life had been worth living?…He admired what I did, Sophie said; he was proud of me, and he felt that I had it in me to do something great.

Upon review of Fanshawe’s work, the narrator determines that it is Fanshawe who has achieved something great. The literary community agrees and Fanshawe’s work sells very well. During all of this, Sophie and the narrator fall in love. At first, they embrace this common element of their lives but, soon enough, they both wish to move past Fanshawe and his influence.

The narrator eventually decides that the only way to purge Fanshawe from their lives is to find him. His decision is made despite having received a death threat purportedly from Fanshawe in which Fanshawe warns the narrator not to search for Fanshawe. The narrator becomes the third detective-protagonist in the New York Trilogy.

The three installments of The New York Trilogy are less about detective work than about writing. This last installment, The Locked Room, continues some of the themes of twinning and identity. Fanshawe and the narrator seem, at times, to be different aspects of the a single person, though “there are photographs to document” that they spent their boyhood together. This assurance of photographs and other seemingly unassailable evidence of separateness is hardly dispositive given that the ability of words, or even facts, to convey truth is questioned.

Every life is inexplicable, I kept telling myself. No matter how many facts are told, no matter how many details are given, the essential thing resists telling…..We imagine the real story inside the words, and to do this we substitute ourselves for the person in the story, pretending that we can understand him because we understand ourselves. This is a deception.

Whether Fanshawe is the narrator’s creation or another aspect of the narrator, the reader must conflate, to some extent, Fanshawe and the narrator. The narrator can only write of Fanshawe by putting himself into Fanshawe’s story and we can only read the narrator’s story by inhabiting first the narrator and then Fanshawe. The doubling inherent in storytelling is unavoidable Auster reminds us.

The effect is brilliantly boggling because we readers are primed as humans or readers to look for meaning though, in Auster’s view (or at least in his narrator’s view), sense cannot be made of the story of anyone’s life.

The point being that, in the end, each life is irreducible to anything other than itself.

The skill with which Paul Auster simultaneously gives us a compelling detective story and circumvents the concept of sensible narration is dazzling. This third of the series is perhaps the most narratively conventional but, at the same time, it reveals the full extent and purpose of Auster’s earlier playfulness. Auster manages an ambiguity that would merely frustrate in the hands of a lesser writer. The ambiguity can be frustrating, but this is essential to Auster’s purpose.

Not unlike Nabokov’s Kinbote in Pale Fire who tries to extract meaning from his neighbor’s poem, the narrator here searches Fanshawe’s works for clues and, in the end, both Nabokov and Auster leave us with an open-ended finale. Both are masterpieces because this indeterminateness amplifies the central thesis of the texts without any resort to cheap tricks. The setup may be elaborate, but both authors manage to leave the reader with a satisfying catharsis that is only more pleasant because of the prick of doubt.

Perhaps the best summary of Auster’s accomplishment in The Locked Room is the narrator’s synopsis of Fanshawe’s work:

It is as if Fanshawe knew his final work had to subvert every expectation [the reader has] for it.

I will be re-reading the entire trilogy. This is a beautiful and demanding work.


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