Kismet by Jakob Arjouni

November 11, 2011

My excuse for picking out this book was that I was searching for something my significant other, who likes crime and thrillers and Germany, might enjoy. This is a detective thriller from Germany. But, having been wrong before to rely on mere signposts rather than evidence, I chose to read it before gifting it.

Alas, the book was not one I would gift. I have relayed the basics (German, crime, thriller) to my one and only, she can choose to read it or not. I am not vested nor am I risking my credibility as a book recommender. The last time I tried this (vetting before wrapping a potentially gift-worthy detective novel) the novel also failed to grip me, so no gift. My ambivalence in making her aware of that one proved wise. She abandoned it. She will probably make it through this one, if she tries it. Still, I am done scavenging for recent release detective fiction that, in some way, can be linked to the literary.

The story begins with protagonist Kemal Kayankaya and a gentleman named Slibusky “crammed into the china cupboard, emptied for the purpose, of a small Brazilian restaurant on the outskirts of the Frankfurt railway station district, waiting for a couple of racketeers to show up demanding protection money.” Kayankaya wise-cracks his way through the wait to the confrontation, noting Siblusky’s smell and the ridiculousness of two grown men hiding in a china cabinet.

This small job, which Kayankaya assumed would require only scaring a couple of low-level punks, turns into something much bigger. The Frankfurt mafia/gang scene soon becomes the focus of Kayankaya’s single-detective agency.

The reason I am not a good reader of this type of crime thriller is that I find jarring the deux ex machina of an author who noticeably intrudes in the story to save his protagonist from that protagonist’s own incredibly bad and entirely unlikely decisions.

A momentary digression: I love The Usual Suspects in which Verbal tells the police detective a tale about an elusive and sinister man named Keyser Soze. Verbal has been arrested, he has to convince the police that he is more victim than perpetrator. In other words, he did not walk into the police station just for kicks, to see what would happen. Moreover, he escapes by his own sharp wits rather than the convenient dullness of his would-be murderers.

Kayankaya’s thought process seems to be: “What is the course of action most likely to end with my body being discreetly disposed of by powerful criminal organizations who do not hesitate to chop off the fingers of shopowners or start gun battles in the streets? Then I will do that and hope for the best.” Of course, with the author on his side, the best usually happens, in the long run. There are, I am told, four of these. I won’t be verifying the claim.

It is interesting (dismaying?) to me that German audiences are, apparently, as immune to ridiculousness in plots as are Americans. Though the thriller does seem to provide a glimpse into modern German culture, I am sure Jenny Erpenbeck, Martin Walser, Eva Menasse, or any number of other contemporary authors provide a more nuanced and insightful depiction of German life. For that matter, I am still slow getting to Thomas Mann and his Magic Mountain. (Footnote to self: Significant dread at tackling the monster suggests Rat’s Chance in Hell Challenge.)

Kismet uncovered for me pitfalls several book-selection pitfalls to which, it appears, I am not immune. First, relying solely on the translator (the esteemed Anthea Bell) is insufficient for ensuring that a particular translated work will match your or a beloved’s taste. Second, that a particular publisher (the also esteemed Melville House) prints the book does not mean, again, that you and the novel will run through flowered fields holding hands. Third, when you know you tend not to find a particular genre satisfying, do not keep blasted trying with unknown, unproven books/authors. Instead of reading books that I know I likely won’t love but hope my intended giftee might like, I should gift books that I love and that she might like. I will let her recommend to me those books from her favorite genre that she loves. Passing mediocre books back and forth would be idiocy. Luckily, I am the only idiot in the house.

So, I did not fall in love with the book. If you do not mind a few absurdly irrational choices by your protagonist for the purpose of an adrenaline rush, then this could be up your alley. For a more positive, less curmudgeonly review, there is always the Washington Post (very possibly to blame for putting this on my radar…though I kept thinking it was a blogger in my sidebar, it wasn’t) or The Independent. Better though, try a blogger who gives a nice, objective overview of the entire series, highlighting both the positives and the negatives.


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.]

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

May 24, 2011

This is a book with much (and many) to recommend it. Lisa Hill aptly calls it a “maelstrom of ideas” and John Self at the Asylum notes “[n]ot much is left out of Skippy Dies – and there is so much energy it that it explodes out in unexpected directions.”

While it may be easier to list what the book does not have, let’s go with what it does have: Skippy dies, the students and teachers engage in hijinks of various sorts, there are crimes, death threats, adventures, romances, grand science experiments gone right and gone wrong, politics, fighting, true love, and…well, I am starting to sound a little like Peter Falk in “The Princess Bride” as he elaborates on the merits of the eponymous book whose story the movie relates. Falk as The Grandfather was right and so is Kevin from Canada. So too is The Reading Ape who makes another (more informative) movie comparison: “Skippy Dies is Dead Poets Society if Dead Poets Society were funnier, more complicated, and believable.” (See also Scent of a Woman.)

Skippy Dies is good.

For great summaries of the book and its plot, I direct you to any of the above-linked reviews. If you have not read the book, you’ll want to hit at least one of those to get a sense of what the book is about before reading my somewhat unstructured thoughts.

As a comparison of the opinions of Lisa, Kevin, and John will show reactions are quite varied, from love to slightly positive ambivalence. Kevin is an aficionado of ”school novels” and, so, really enjoys that aspect. He also finds the characters a great strength. They are. The students at Seabrook College each have distinctive personalities that both makes it easy to recognize them and allows Murray to explore the interesting interactions between them. John Self perhaps most admired Murray’s ventriloquism of anything and everything between “business speak and ad-land jargon to teenage angst and youthful brio”, but recognized the “messiness” as both a strength and a weakness. Lisa was put off by “the stuff about Ruprecht’s theories of physics” and the derivative nature of the adolscent banter and private school culture which powers the book.

I agree with them all, though not about everything.

The students (particularly) are entertainingly distinctive and, frankly, it is a blast to spend time with them. The adults are less so, though I not sure I found them quite as dull as Lisa seems to have found them. I also loved Ruprecht’s digressions into physics, where Lisa found her attention wandering “especially during the stuff about Ruprecht’s theories of physics.” This difference is likely explained by the fact that, just as Kevin loves novels set in schools, I love novels that touch on, incorporate, or, best, obsess themselves with physics. Skippy Dies comes close to the obsession end of the spectrum, though it is not really about physics or science at all. The physics in this novel is used as metaphor and can, I think, largely be tuned out as the rantings of a slightly unbalanced boy-genius. In other words, don’t be frightened by the physics. I just mention it because the physics metaphors permeate the story.

As an example of Ruprecht’s rantings, take this one where he makes an explicit metaphorical connection between physics and the story being told:

‘…When you think about it, the Big Bang’s a bit like school, isn’t it?’


‘Ruprecht, what the hell are you talking about?’

‘Well, I mean to say, one day we’ll all leave here and become scientists and bank clerks and diving instructors and hotel managers – the fabric of society, so to speak. But in the meantime, that fabric, that is to say, us, the future, is crowded into one tiny little point where none of the laws of society applies, viz., this school.’

Uncomprehending silence; and then, ‘I tell you one difference between this school and the Big Bang, and that is in the Big Bang there is no particle quite like Mario. But you can be sure that if there is, he is the great stud particle, and he is boning the lucky lady particles all night long.’

‘Yes,’ Ruprecht responds, a little sadly; and he will fall silent, there at his window, eating a doughnut, contemplating the stars.

This Big Bang metaphor is quite apt, actually, for the school in many ways. There are larger and smaller bangs throughout, very like the interpretation of M-theory (the M in this interpretation standing for “membranes”) where events like the Big Bang are caused by collisions between membranes (essentially separate universes) which transfer or generate massive amounts of energy that radiate throughout the “brane” (universe) before dispersing and cooling until another collision.

Murray returns again and again and again to the concept of different worlds colliding and releasing disrupting energies: the private school kids and drug dealers, the boys’ school and their sister school, the teachers and students, the cloistered life of the school and the politics of the business and finance world, parents and their kids. Then there is the metaphor of the doughnut.

The doughnut shop is a central hangout for the students, it is where Skippy dies, and, as you can see from the above quote, they are nearly omnipresent. Doughnuts are shaped like a torus which, in string theory, is a “perfect” shape. The connection is no coincidence as Murray returns to the doughnuts and the implicit connection with physics and string theory repeatedly. In fact, as I suggest above, he may return to these themes too often, wearing them out with overuse. (And there are other themes similarly beaten past death.) Still, I loved it. String theory as a metaphor for the laws of human relations is beautiful to me, enough that I could stand a little too much in this book as there is generally too little of it in other literary works.

Your eyes are probably glazing over as I delve deeper than I am certified to go in the ocean of science. There is more to the physics than I am able to relate here anyway, so I will just say, if you love such things, there are plenty of ideas to keep you occupied. If you are not into such things, you might not really notice how central they are to Murray’s task anyway because they can also be dismissed as the incoherent babbling of a slightly off-kilter Ruprecht. That’s how Ruprecht’s schoolmates generally take it.

Aside from the physics, the human interactions are done quite well. While the teachers are dull, Murray paints the intimacy of patchwork romances in eye-catching detail, such as this rumination by Howard:

Ah, right – this is how he normally acts with her. He remembers now. They seem to be going through a protracted phase in which they’re able to speak to each other only in criticisms, needles, rebukes. Big things, little things, anything can spark an argument, even when neither of them wants to argue, even when he or she is trying to say something nice, or simply to state an innocuous fact. Their relationship is like a piece of malfunctioning equipment that when switched on will only buzz fractiously, and shocks you when you’re trying to find out what’s wrong. The simplest solution seems to be not to switch it on, to look instead for a new one; he is not quite ready to contemplate that eventuality, however.

And, not to overdo it, but a later seen which also demonstrates the ad-jargon ventriloquism John Self mentions:

‘The Sony JLS9xr offers several significant improvements on the JLS700 model, as well as entirely new features, most notably Sony’s new Intelligent Eye system, which gives not only unparalleled picture resolution but real-time image augmentation – meaning that your movies can be even more vivid than they are in real life.’

‘More vivid than real life?’

‘It corrects the image while you record. Compensates for weak light, boosts the colours, gives things a sheen, you know.’

‘Wow.’ He watches her head dip slightly as she extinguishes her cigarette, then lift again. Miniaturized on the screen she does indeed seem more lustrous, coherent, resolve – a bloom to her cheeks, a glint to her hair. When he glances experimentally away from it, the real-life Halley and the rest of their home suddenly appear underdefined, washed out. He turns his eye to it again, and zooms in on her own eyes, deep blue and finely striated with white; like thin ice, he always thinks. They look sad.

There is a world, a torus-shaped world, in that last paragraph, and it is one of many that Murray shows us.

Yes, many plot points are far-fetched. Yes, the first third of the book (originally published as three volumes in a single slipcase) is much more fun than the rest. Yes, the book is too long. And, yes, the book is, overall, incredibly, soul-searingly dark. It still manages to be fun and the pages fly by and, most importantly, Murray manages at least every hundred pages to get something so precisely right it can make you gasp.

I picked this to win the Tournament of Books before I had read it. I wouldn’t pick it to win now, and not just because I know it did not win. It is not as accomplished a novel as A Visit From the Goon Squad. But it is a damn fine book. As John Self put it: “Murray is a writer to watch; but also one worth reading now.”

The Finkler Question by Harold Jacobson

May 18, 2011

I owe an explanation for the long absence of reviews. I would like to tell you that I have been developing a grand theory of book/literary blogging, that The Great Ape’s always interesting observations sparked a desire to blog with purpose rather than haphazardly. Or, I would like to tell you that I have been engaged in such a stimulating reading project that I could not take a break to tell you about it, but that, now, the results will astound you. (For that, you can click through to The Rat in the Book Pile where Sarah is entertainingly blazing a trail through Russian lit.) I even would be satisfied telling you that I have been too busy compiling billable hours to dash off a review.

I cannot truthfully tell you any of those things and it’s Howard Jacobson’s fault. The Booker jury bears some responsibility too, but, mostly, I have to blame Jacobson. I could even blame myself for allowing this one book to derail my blogging. And there is the fact that, after the Tournament of Books, a short slowdown likely was inevitable. But none of this makes me willing to absolve Jacobson. He is to blame.

His sin is not in writing an astonishingly bad book that, nevertheless, garners an outsize share of readers. That would actually make me eager to post and blog. The problem is that the book is, at least on a sentence-by-sentence level, very well written. During the entire 307 pages, I felt I was in the hands of a skilled author who knew what he wanted to do and that, at any moment, I might be blinded by the brilliant coming together of the text into something coherently beautiful. But I never was. This last probably cannot be laid at the author’s feet.

The “well written” thing should be explained. I find it difficult because I marked very few passages. My own deduction from this evidence would be that, while there were no painfully bad sentences (though there were painfully unfunny jokes, possibly meant to be), there were few great ones either. I marked this:

His self-consciousness surprised and appalled him. What need was there for this? Why did he not simply speak his heart?

Because the heart did not speak, that was why. Because language presupposes artificiality. Because in the end there was nothing, absolutely nothing, to be said….

He should have howled like an animal. That at least would have been a genuine expression of how he felt. Except that it wasn’t. There was no genuine expression of how he felt.

That’s good. The truth in that passage is written so we feel the inadequacy of language. A nice trick, Mr. Jacobson. It only really takes one good passage to redeem a book, so that should have done it. It didn’t. Though not because of the plot, more ably capsuled here, here, or here than I could manage at this point. Nor mostly the characters. The humor played a part.

I never laughed or smiled. There were things even I could tell were meant to be funny, that probably were. Whether, objectively, the jokes were any good, I felt no amusement. The obstacle to that was probably Treslove.

Treslove is a raving racist. That’s a lie. He is sort of the opposite of a racist, if a racist is someone who exalts his own heritage and/or hates and denigrates “the other.” Treslove is in love with the idea of “the other”, specifically Jews. He wants to be around Jews, to become a Jew, to fuck a Jew. I am not sure what can be said about a character who, after rogering a (Jewish) friend’s wife, is disappointed when he learns she is not Jewish. Treslove seems to be the embodiment of a brainless, reflexive anti-Semite, but with his conclusions running in precisely the opposite direction. This makes him nearly the same thing. It’s hard spending a book with such a fellow.

My sense is, after a couple weeks or so of thinking about the novel as little as possible, that the ridiculousness of Treslove, in contrast to the more normal characters, was Jacobson’s point. There is some utility in avoiding a direct indictment of anti-Semites, because the obvious evilness of their worldview obscures the equally important ridiculousness of it. Only an idiot really holds something against Jews because they are Jews and, therefore, only an idiot could really exalt Jews simply because they are Jews. Jacobson gets to make a point without wading into too much outright ugliness.

But that cannot be exactly right either because there are anti-Semites of a more conventional sort within the book, including, arguably, Jewish anti-Semites. The world is much more complex than anti-Semites vs. non-anti-Semites. Perhaps, instead, his point was that, post-Holocaust, we are all anti-Semites now…..But that cannot be right either, and not only because the sentiment would be only a vacuous ripoff of a more famous but still somewhat vacuous early-century statement. What I actually meant by that is I have no idea what the point of the novel is.

The crux of the problem is the lack of definition of terms. A late exchange between Treslove and a Jewish character begins to address one of this logical problem with Treslove’s idealization of, and anti-Semites’ villainization of, Jews.

‘Is it like being gay? Is there a Jewdar that enables you to pick one another out?’

‘Again, depends. I rarely think someone is Jewish when they’re not, but I quite often don’t know I’m talking to a Jew when I am.’

‘And what is it you look for?’

‘I’m not looking for anything.’

‘What is [it] that you recognise, then?’

‘Can’t explain. It’s not one thing, it’s a collection of things. Features, facial expression, a way of talking, a way of moving.’

‘So you’re making racial calculations?’

‘I wouldn’t call them racial, no.’


‘No, definitely not religious.’

‘Then what?’

She didn’t know what.

Neither do I. Maybe the amorphousness of the concept of “Jew” (ethnicity, religion, culture, ???) contributes to anti-Semitism. Some may convince themselves they are only criticizing a religion or a culture when, perhaps, they are not as clear on their categories as they imagine. On the other hand, perhaps sometimes people really are criticizing just an aspect of the religion Judaism and get accused of or lumped with or confused with actual anti-Semites. (I don’t believe religions, whether specific ideologies or the whole god enterprise itself, are beyond criticism. In fact, I think organized religions ought to be criticized and often and loudly.)

In the end, I only knew with certainty that Jacobson was lampooning Treslove. There are other candidates (the Zionists, the Jewish anti-Zionists, etc.), but I am too ignorant of Jacobson’s writing, his frames of reference, and Jewish culture generally to draw any reliable conclusions. I think he was making fun of (having fun with) most of them (fun for him, not for me), but I am not sure that is entirely right either. I have no answer to the “Finkler Question”, the “Finkler” question, or any other question posed, referenced, or tackled by this book.

I am dismayed that I cannot more ably identify why the novel and I did not get on. The dividing line between fans and the rest of us is the humor. Those who liked it, like it. Those who do not like the humor, close The Finkler Question with irritation. My annoyance puts me in the esteemed company of Kevin from Canada and James Wood (The New Yorker), but at odds with the equally esteemed John Self (Asylum) and Trevor (The Mookse and the Gripes). That’s it. That’s all I have.

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.

Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

April 5, 2011

For the best review of this book I have read, please check out Kevin from Canada’s laudatory and knowledgeable treatment.

I know almost nothing about horse racing. I have only ever seen horses race on television (or webstream just last night to confirm that Charles Town still has horse racing). The world Gordon shapes into a beautiful novel is entirely foreign to me. That has the disadvantage of my having to learn some racing terms and the ways horsemen and women make a buck at the track. For instance, while I had heard of claiming races before, I had no understanding of how the system worked. Gordon (with the help of KfC’s review) brought me up-to-speed unobtrusively. It still took me to the end of the first race to feel like I had a good grasp of the goings on. The characters were interesting enough and the human strivings sufficiently compelling that I had already been drawn into the story, even if the world behind the track was uncomfortably foreign.

Gordon uses a rotating perspective to give the reader a method of learning everything required to understand the characters’ machinations without long paragraphs of exposition. All the major characters voice the novel from time to time. The most interesting choice was Gordon’s decision to use second person voice for Tommy Hansel, a young upstart who rolls into town trying to get over on the locals. Tommy has a passioante relationship with Maggie Koderer, a wild haired girl who is new to racing.

[Maggie] lies asleep in the straw in some tiny striped shirt that won’t pull down all the way over her belly button, and her jeans are taut and shiny over the keelbones of her hips. She is so small in the middle that you can pull the jeans down to her knees by opening just the one button with a soft pinch of two fingers, and look out now if she doesn’t let you do it, without even opening her eyes to ask who it is, the slut, golden straw sticking in her dense fuzzy hair, thorning the kinky pigtails. And that coassack face of hers, slashed by just the one blade of dusty light that comes through the crack in the barn door. She is so light even in that most rounded and muscular part of her, where the strong sinews twist together in a basin, that you never see her push up to let you, rather she arcs and floats a little over the sweet straw to meet your hand, like a magic lamp with its wick floating in oil….

The choice of giving the second person voice to Tommy is not accidental even if the basis is not apparent near the beginning. Tommy is a dangerous character. Maggie has an odd attraction to him. There is the physical attraction as the above quote signals, that sexual energy comes partly from Tommy’s good looks (e.g. “a beautiful, feline walk, spare, athletic, no cowboy loose-jointedness about it”) and partly from his menacing nature:

[T]here was something odd about his hands. They curled backwards behind his writsts, hiding themselves, as if they knew they were not to be trusted. She knew, herself, that they did not always mean her well. They knew how to do many things, or rather, they knew how to do one thing, how to tame animals, but this they did from a whole forest of angles, and always on sufferance, for under their gentleness was threat.

To balance the naïve enthusiasm of the new kids, Gordon provides the seasoned Deucy and Medicine Ed. The two of them have been around for decades and have seen the likes of Tommy and Maggie hundreds of times. Medicine Ed, an elderly black trainer, is an engaging character and the chapters in which the third person narration includes his thoughts are some of the best. More than any of the other characters, Medicine Ed sees the horses as beings worthy of respect and, sometimes, awe. While he received his nickname for his dabbling in shady performance enhancement substances, he treats the horses with the dignity due fellow sentients.

When Medicine Ed finally had Little Spinoza alone, he tell it into him: Get ready, son. The women gone to take your manhood, he broke the news, not like it was the ned of the world, and next come disease, hospital cases, and death, but like it was the thing the horse ought to know. The first cold had come and they were walking round and round the shedrow in a silver fog that beaded up the cobwebs and the horses’ eyelashes.

Wasn’t no idea of mine. I saw wait a short while, see how he do. Nothing ain’t gone change that horse much at his age. I say he a little bit of a crybaby, that’s all, but easy to settle once he riled. You be surprised, I tell em….They start to laughing. Pretty soon they cackling like witches. Got me outnumbered, what it is.

Medicine Ed checked himself. This was a stab-back and two-face thing to say about the women. They don’t mean no harm, he added. He didn’t want to be a wrong influence on the horse. What good it do if the horse love him and hate them others?

Gordon description of the horses and their personalities grants them a dignity and respect too. They are characters as rich and vital to the novel as any of the humans. The book is romantic about horses (and the lower-echelon trainers, grooms, and jockeys) without romanticizing them. That’s not an easy feat to pull off. Gordon does it beautifull, making this one of the most enjoyable reads of the Tournament of Books.

That is not to say the book is perfect. Some of the plot developments are too predictable, some owe too much of a debt to gangster movies and stereotypes, but the book holds together. I believe KfC when he says that the characters are believably eccentric. Niche worlds seem to attract an outsized portion of the Two-Ties and Joe Dale Biggs of the world. Gordon has tapped into the seedy underbelly of racing in a way I have not seen before and with technique that charms. I will be keeping a lookout for some of her other work, even if her stories do not always have horses in them.

So Much For That by Lionel Shriver

March 22, 2011

Prior to reading this book, I had heard it repeatedly described as a “health care” novel. The message, it was said, predominates. I began the book with some trepidation. Over four hundred pages of a fiction author’s message about health care is not my idea of a good time. My doubts evaporated quickly.

But not before Chapter One starts off with this:

Shepherd Armstrong Knacker
Merrill Lynch Account Number 934-23F917
December 01, 2004 – December 31, 2004
Net Portfolio Value: $731,778.56

Recognition that the “Net Portfolio Value” will soon start to decline takes little familiarity with the art of foreshadowing. This is a message book. And then the prose and characterization begin.

“Shep” Knacker is a professional handyman. He accumulated his nestegg by first building up and then selling a home repair company. The proceeds, after tax, were not sufficient and the timing was wrong for him to begin “The Afterlife”, his dream of ditching modern society for a tropical paradise where a person could get by on dollars a day. Instead, he has continued to save and has stayed on with the company. Shep had poor judgment and worse foresight in selling the company just before it became extremely valuable. The new owner, silverspooned Randy Pogatchnik, was a terrible employee and is a worse boss. Shep is miserable. The only thing that has been sustaining him is his belief in “The Afterlife.”

Shep is married to Glynis, an artisan metalworker who plans more than works to the family’s financial detriment. They have two kids: Amelia who is grown and Zach who is in high school. Shep is tired of the grind and shouldering the family’s financial load. The book begins as he is packing for “The Afterlife”. He has not yet told Glynis. He plans to:

He wasn’t presenting her with a total fait accompli either, a wave goodbye at the door. Officially he would confront her with a choice, on for which, in the service of credibility, he had paid through the nose. Odds were that he had purchased nothing but an illusion, but an illusion could be priceless. So he’d bought not one ticket, but three. They were nonrefundable.

His determination to go is bolstered by the fact that the bank account is his doing. He has provided Glynis with a home, food, and time to practice her art. She has frittered away that time, something over which the ever-responsible Shep manages to feel some guilt. The problem is that Glynis is a perfectionist and has not been pushed.

She could overcome her anguish about embarking on an object that, once completed, might not meet her exacting standards only if she had no choice. In this sense, his helping had hurt her. By providing the financial cushion that should have facilitated making all the metal whathaveyou she liked, he had ruined her life. Wrapped in a slackening bow, ease was a poisonous present.

Lionel Shriver has deftly sketched out the family. Shep is a reliably pragmatic man with a soft touch and one dream, the “priceless illusion” that keeps him motivated. Glynis is a hard-edged perfectionist who has let the dream slip, to the extent she ever shared it. We meet them at a crisis point. Shep is leaving with or without Glynis. He cannot stand mundane reality anymore.

I was won over by the writing quoted above and lines like this in which resentment is described as:

an emotion distinctive for being disagreeable on both its generating and receiving ends.

When Shep does tell Glynis, she indulges where he expected resistance. He sets his plight in heroic terms, pitting “The Afterlife” against endless milk runs to the A&P.

”There are worse fates.”

“No,” he said. “I’m not sure there are. I know we’ve seen plenty of poverty – raw sewage running in gutters and mothers scavenging for mango peels. But they know what’s wrong with their lives, and they have a notion that with a few shillings or pesos or rupees in their pockets things could be better. There’s something especially terrible about being told over and over that you have the most wonderful life on earth and it doesn’t get any better and it’s still shit.”

Shep’s passion for ditching the 9-to-5 world is infectious. Glynis’ reasonable response was grown-up but frustrating. Why can’t Shep have his dream?

The answer, of course, is health care. Glynis calmly informs Shep that she has cancer and she will need the health insurance he gets through his employer. He cannot leave for his paradise. The news is shattering. He must slink back to the jerk Pogatchnik and beg his job back. The situation is doubly hard because, as Shep left, he dropped a trail of colorful suggestions for what Pogatchnik could do with the job.

Shep’s best friend is Jackson. Jackson and his wife Carol have a daughter, Flicka, who suffers from familial dysautonomia (FD). FD is a rare genetic disorder that affects almost exclusivly Ashkenazi Jews and causes insensitivity to pain and a multitude of other problems. Flicka is sixteen years old, a daddy’s girl, and will be lucky to survive to her late twenties. Jackson and Carol also have a second daughter, Heather, who they would have aborted had the amniocentesis revealed that she too had the disorder. Heather craves the attention her suffering sister receives. To keep her from feeling “left out”, Jackson and Carol obtained a prescription of placebos. To placate themselves, they allowed Heather to eat her way into obesity as compensation for the misfortune of having an unwell sister.

My misgivings about this being a message book started creeping back on the little cat feet of foggy passages like this:

”You sound so down on Medicare and Medicaid. But you’re not saying that you wish old and poor people didn’t have access to health care.”

Jackson sighed. That line was so predictable. Shep was a class-A Mug. For the ranks of complacent dupes to which, alas, Jackson also belonged, Shep Knacker could be the mascot. “No, I’m not saying that. My point is, guys with health benefits don’t think they’re paying their own medical bills. They cling to their precious employee health insurance as if it’s this great freebie. It’s not free! They don’t understand they’d be getting, like, fifteen grand more in salary if it weren’t for the damned health benefit! It’s fucking sad, man.”

“Money’s gotta come from somewhere, Jacks. Som big national thing would send taxes through the roof. There goes your fifteen grand. Worse, if you earn a decent living.”

“It seems like it’s all the same dough, but it’s not. Think about it. Every piece of paper that just landed in your mailbox cost money. Some officious twit was paid to fill in all those codes, and tick the boxes, and fire off copies to five other places. Thirty percent of the money spent on medical care in this country goes to so-called ‘administration.’……”

Large sections of the book are filled with conversations like this one. Shep playing straight man while Jackson, who has been dealing with the health care industry for years, feeds him statistics and rants in a way familiar to anyone who has heard political talk radio (left/right, does it matter?) or someone who listens to political talk radio. Under the weight of a great bulk of this sort of dialogue, the smooth realism of the opening starts to fade. It is to Lionel Shriver’s great credit that, despite this sort of thing, her characters only occasionally feel like props for her essay on health care. Shep, Glynis, Jackson, Carol, and Flicka throb with vitality and truth. Zach spends his time holed up in his room, so is little more than a placeholder for most of the book. Amelia is window dressing and Heather is a disaster.

There is a third major health crisis that begins developing a third or so into the book. Shriver plays it a little too coy, only giving hints of the condition besides otherwise providing full access to the character’s thoughs. The strings, in other words, started to show.

This transparency is not helped by the fact that the narrative hangs on the three major health issues: FD with about 350 or so sufferers worldwide; mesothelioma with an incidence rate of less than 30 per 1,000,000; and the unidentified condition which, given the statistics I was able to find, may have an incidence rate as high as 100 per 1,000,000, but it is probably much, much lower (I added plenty of fudge factors to get to 100/Million). The third condition is asking lots of indulgence from the reader. I found it hard to indulge given the way this third afflicted character had been portrayed and all the circumstances surrounding his life. The numbers were an aggravating factor, but the plot machinations required to get there were simply too implausible.

(I am not including in the tally an elderly parent and the parent’s health issues which are plausible. Though this fourth health care crisis could feel wedged in to provide a comprehensive birth-to-death overview of the disadvantages of the American health care system.)

Still, Lionel Shriver is skilled at keeping us perched on the shoulder of these two suffering families. The frustrations of dying in slow motion are conveyed with a disquieting candor. Cancer is a bitch and Shriver holds back little of the psychological trauma. At least, she maintains the grit for the first two-thirds to three-quarters of the book.

The material is so heavy, the tragedy so black, Shriver must have felt a need to provide some light and hope. She does this through a number of very suspect plot developments. Coincidence upon coincidence would not be so bad, but the novel ultimately gives way to Hallmark(tm) moments. Closure and even hope for the future abounds, which alone is not bad, but it feels similar to what I imagine a Nicholas Sparks book feels like at the end if I was ever masochistic enough to subject myself to his dreck. Things work out too well, the characters handle life’s uppercuts too easily.

The downside of this happy-as-possible-under-the-circumstances ending is that the message is lost. Topping off the novel with syrup leaves such a sickly sweet taste that it is hard to imagine many readers are left with a hunger for action.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

March 19, 2011

This “comic” novel does not do itself any favors on page three. The first page contains only the title in all caps. It is horizontally centered and near the top of the page, but not too close to the top. This first page gives the feeling that you are in the hands of a professional, at least in the typesetting and layout department. The second page does nothing to dampen one’s spirits. The page is blank. A little breather after such a nicely displayed title is actually welcome. But then page three starts the story and, presumably, the comedy.

The chapter is titled “Do Not Go Gentle.” Okay, this brings up a pet peeve of mine. “Gentle” is really an adverb here, as it modifies “do go” and, therefore, it should be “gently” giving: “Do Not Go Gently.” This reminds me of Dirk Gently, a lead character for Douglas Adams. Maybe that is why that last word was changed to “gentle.” Or, it could be, that it is sort of like “do not go soft” meaning do not become soft. This theory is quickly blown away when the first sentence of Lenny’s diary concludes:

I am never going to die.

Lenny does not want to go gently.

Titles are minor. If you have been following the Tournament of Books, you will know that page three (misreported as page one) contains another turnoff. Lenny it turns out is on a plane from Rome to America. Who owns the jet? UnitedContinentalDeltamerican. Yep, it’s the old corporate conglomerate gag where you make fun of things like Time Warner which was a merger of, get this, Warner Communications, Inc. and Time, Inc. (and, technically, the assets of Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. which sort of kills the gag because it was not named Time Warner Turner; see also Viacom). This suggested to me that the book was going to be unfunny. Shteyngart presumably expected a different reaction as he uses the same shtick several more times in the novel, giving us things like AlliedWasteCVSCitigroup.

But wait, like a bad infomercial, there is more. On page three. Actually, that’s almost a quote except for the quip about the infomercial and the lack of a contraction. That’s not the bad part. The bad part is this:

We don’t die because our progeny lives on! The ritual passing of DNA, Mama’s corksrew curls, his granddaddy’s lower lip, ah buh-lieve thuh chil’ren ah our future. I’m quoting here from “The Greatest Love of All,” by 1980s pop diva Whitney Houston, track nine of her eponymous first LP.

The problem is not that this sentiment is insufficiently vacuous to warrant being satirized. It is. Shteyngart’s error is tap dancing along the lines of racial stereotypes (“chil’ren” and all) apparently for laughs. If she actually sang it as “quoted”, accuracy constitutes a defense. But she doesn’t. She ennunciates quite well, in fact. I know both because (a) I bought the album on cassette when it came out and (b) I just finished listening to it again to be sure I did not misremember. Alone, this means nothing. I may be hyper-sensitive, but it made me wary of further similar missteps. (And, again, this seemed sufficiently funny to the author to keep it up for another page; the bit continues on page four: “But what ah our chil’ren?”)

So, by the first page of story, I have at least two warnings that this book will occasionally be unfunny and, sometimes, offensively so. Shteyngart and I are off to a good start.

Lenny recently has met and fallen for Eunice Park. Eunice is a beautiful young woman while Lenny is 5′ 9”, 160 lbs balding man with a “gray, sunken battleship of a face.” Lenny’s sole means of attracting Eunice, a constant spender, is his financial prowess. This exploitative May-September relationship is the “love” part of the story. Arguably, it is also the “sad” part and the “true” part too.

Eunice is an American whose parents emigrated from Korea. The second chapter contains messages from “the Globalteens account of Eunice Park.” The title is: “Sometimes Life is Suck”. Eunice’s mother warns her to study and that boy’s are “extra.” The stereotype is not only of a Korean immigrant speaking poor English, but also of a mother who must secretly tell her daughter that she loves her because the father wants only to push her to strive for excellence. Shteyngart seems to be equal opportunity when it comes to having fun with ethnicity. Equality is good. But that first “quote” already had me wary, so any comedy was lost on me.

The thing about Shteyngart’s playing with stereotypes is that it saps some of his satire of any power. When he satirizes others’ playing off stereotypes, the wry knowingness that could lead to a chuckle is gone, or was for me, because I no longer fully trusted Shteyngart with this material. It is hard to effectively poke fun at something you are doing yourself. An example is the CGI critter, named Jeffrey Otter, which pops up on Lenny’s apparat to ask customs-type questions when he is re-entering the United States. (An apparat, by the way, is an umpteenth generation smartphone. Lenny starts out with an “old” apparat, an iPhone…hahaha…ha. Sigh. Good times.) Jeffrey Otter changes costumes, accents, and so forth depending on the expected audience. Sometimes he wears a sombrero, other times he calls Lenny “pa’dner”, that sort of thing. It seemed too easy and, particularly when Shteyngart was already playing the same sort of stereotypes for laughs, questionable at whom Shteyngart expected the reader to be laughing.

Super Sad True Love Story is a story. It is told partly through Lenny’s diary and partly through e-mail, text messages, and phone conversations, many of which do not include Lenny as a party, though often as a subject. The e-mail exchanged between Eunice Park and others in her age group sound plausibly realistic. An example:


Dear Precious Pony,

Sup, slut? I really wish you were here right now. I need someone to verbal with and Teens just ain’t cutting it. I’m so confused. I went up to Lucca with Ben (the Credit guy) and he was super nice, paid for all my meals and this gorgeous hotel room, took me for a walk around the city walls and to this insanely good osteria where everyone there knew him and we had a 200 euro wine. I kept thinking about how he would be the perfect boyfriend and I sweated his hot skinny bod. But all of a sudden I would tell him like for no reason that his feet smelled or that he was cross-eyed or his hair was receding (which was a total LIE), and he would get all intro on me, turn down the community access on his apparat so that I wouldn’t know where the fuck his mind was, and then just stare off into space. It’s not like we didn’t do it. We did. And it was all right. But right afterwards I started having this major bawling panic attack and he tried to comfort me, told me I looked slutty and that my Fuckability was 800+ (which it’s so NOT, because I can’t find anyone in Rome who can do Asian hair) but he couldn’t. I feel so much shame.

The downside of the realism is that, to the extent it sounds like teens or early twenty-something girls with empty heads, the e-mail is best skimmed for exposition (the reason they are included in the first place).

I am obviously grumpy. If you were not turned off by the page three humor, then you might enjoy the very detailed world-building that Shteyngart has undertaken. His Rome and New York, mostly New York, is recognizably unrecognizable. The Chinese own most of the United States. As the quote above indicates, everyone’s train of thought is available to the world unless you “turn down the community access” on your apparat. This is a world of little privacy and a disintegrating United States of America. Self-worth is based primarily on fuckability and credit ratings. Large conglomerates have taken over major aspects of security operations both within and without the United States and those conglomerates cut deals with both the American government and foreign governments to maximize their profits.

Shteyngart never drops the ball in maintaining the consistency of this alternate universe or in providing a feel for what it is like to be a member of the upper-middle class in the SSTLS world. I have little doubt that most of his vision made it onto the page. This is an achievement even if I did not find it terribly fun. I also had trouble caring about the characters. In significant part, that is because his characters had little depth of feeling for each other. They were incredibly shallow.

Lenny plays Humbert Humbert to Eunice’s Lolita. He worships the roughly two decades younger Eunice for her beauty and condescends to her because she is young and shallow. Depending on the circumstances, he treats her as either a sex doll or a child who needs his protection. Essentially, he projects onto her what he needs her to be. Meanwhile, Eunice is a sexual striver. She uses her sexuality to attract the highest credit rating she can find in a surrogate father.

The primary hope ought to be that both Lenny and Eunice mature and find someone more compatible. Lenny is too taken with both Eunice’s physical attractiveness and her need for a protector to let the relationship go. Eunice seems more likely to leave, but won’t unless she can find a bigger yuan-pegged financial portfolio. There is little love in this love story and none of it true.

Lenny also has professional worries. He is a salesman in the life extension business. The plan for not dying is to earn enough to buy some of his company’s treatments. It is a nice little irony that Lenny cannot afford the thing he is desperate both to sell and to have. The obstacles to success are two-fold. First, Lenny is not a great salesman. Second, the world is falling apart. Between the plots to kill his friends, the riots in Tompkins Park, and the collapse of the American economy, Lenny will seem lucky to hold onto enough to keep Eunice and a roof over his head. Unfortunately, I was not very interested to find out whether he managed a win in any area of his life.

If the starter jokes were funnier to you than to me, there is much in this book you will like and you will probably be more open to emotional engagement with the characters. SSTLS and I tripped over each other out of the gate and never regained our balance. I was probably looking for things not to like after page three. I certainly found such things. This is a book for a particular audience. I am not in it.

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

March 15, 2011

Egan is a writer’s writer. By that, I do not mean that her books do not sell. What I do mean is that they should. Her prose snaps cleanly, like a carrot or Vlasic pickle. She wows with the delivery of, just when you need it, a nice insight or pleasingly verisimilitudinous scene. I made many notes, marked many passages. This novel/collection, no one can agree, presents the world as it is, only with the color saturation turned up and the contrast enhanced.

Everything was not perfect. I found the last chapter/story to be the weakest. Others strenuously disagree.

I have some support for my view. That final chapter is set in a future New York. There are helicopters swirling overhead, lots of police and “security agents” and people are absorbed in their “handsets”. These are all elements present in Super Sad True Love Story, though in Super Sad the “handsets” are “äppäräti” (score one Super Sad). Take this quote from Goon Squad:

An army of children: the incarnation of faith in those who weren’t aware of having any left.

if thr r childrn, thr mst b a fUtr, rt?

Well, Shteyngart’s characters have something to say about that in his alternate universe:

There’s more, isn’t there? There’s our legacy. We don’t die because our progeny lives on! The ritual passing of the DNA, Mama’s corkscrew curls, his granddaddy’s lower lip, ah buh-lieve thuh chil’ren ah our future. I’m quoting here from “The Greatest Love of All,” by 1980s pop diva Whitney Houston, track nine of her eponymous first LP.

Utter nonsense. The children are our future only in the most narrow, transitive sense.

My point, my only point with these comparisons, is that writers living in New York seem to have a very similar view of the future of New York. Full credit and highest kudos must go to the chapters that are more fully original rather than a re-working of post-2001 New York zeitgeist. For that, I would award full credit to the first chapter and the “Africa” chapter. They worked for me.

The first chapter is a glimpse into the life of Sasha, an assistant to the powerful music executive Bennie Salazar. She suffers from kleptomania and, while on a dinner-date with Alex, swiped a woman’s wallet. Alex is clueless as to Sasha’s involvement and, therefore, the woman’s behavior (after “finding” the wallet in the restroom where she lost it) seems bizarre to him. While he and Sasha are leaving the restaurant, Alex suggests that the woman hid her own wallet to garner attention. Sasha responds:

”She didn’t seem like that type.”

“You can’t tell. That’s something I’m learning, here in N.Y.C.: you have no fucking idea what people are really like. They’re not even two-faced – they’re, like, multiple personalities.”

“She wasn’t from New York,” Sasha said, irked by his obliviousness even as she strove to preserve it. “Remember? She was getting on a plane?”

“True,” Alex said. He paused and cocked his head, regarding Sasha across the ill-lit sidewalk. “But you know what I’m talking about? That thing about people?”

“I do know,” she said carefully. “But I think you get used to it.”

“I’d rather just go somewhere else.”

It took Sasha a moment to understand. “There is nowhere else,” she said.

The beauty of the scene is not just the humor of Alex’s obliviousness (which to fully appreciate you have to know all that went before), but the way it twins the opening quote of book, the quote by Proust. In A Visit From the Goon Squad, we get slices of characters as, in life, we get slices of people. To paraphrase Proust, the unknown elements in the lives of others are impossible to ever completely discover. This is true the world over and not, as Alex presumes, only in New York. The fact that Egan understands that is refreshing. New Yorkers tend to believe in New York’s exceptionalism. (For instance, not to bash Shteyngart or his characters, but the protagonist actually says: “I was proud of New York, now more than ever, for it had survived something another city would have not: its own rage.”)

But Egan’s work is the focus here. The idea that people are multi-faceted, reflecting a different light depending on perspective, is not entirely original. However, Egan executes the idea to near-perfection in A Visit From the Goon Squad. The glimpses we see feel like exactly the right ones. Summaries of a character’s life will be laid out as so many wares to demonstrate that Egan made the right choice given the other glimpses of other characters. These summaries simultaneously remind her readers that an important juncture in one character’s life is a minor episode, or at least not the most intense episode, in that of another.

Charlie doesn’t know herself. Four years from now, at eighteen, she’ll join a cult across the Mexican border whose charismatic leader promotes a diet of raw eggs; she’ll nearly die from salmonella poisoning before Lou rescues her. A cocaine habit will require partial reconstruction of her nose, changing her appearance, and a series of feckless, domineering men will leave her solitary in her late twenties, trying to broker peace between Rolph and Lou, who will have stopped speaking.

The flash forward provides context which deepens the moment, makes it richer. Egan’s management of these details and the piecing together of all the disparate lives into a coherent picture is, literally, awesome. While, occasionally, the methodology at least verges on the gimmicky (a second person chapter, the infamous power point chapter), Egan is a writer of extraordinary control over her subject matter. Her sentence by sentence construction is immaculate, even while her characters may occasionally make the sorts of statements that can be so cringe-inducing in Freedom:

”I don’t get it, Jules,” Stephanie said. “I don’t get what happened to you.”

Jules stared at the glittering skyline of Lower Manhattan without recognition. “I’m like America,” he said.

Stephanie swung around to look at him, unnerved. “What are you talking about?” she said. “Are you off your meds?”

“Our hands are dirty,” Jules said.

Her characters can be frustrating, but the writing never is. A simple moment involving a down and out character demonstrates that Egan remembers who her characters are, what little things have the clench of importance for them:

”Hey,” I heard behind me, two ragged voices. When I turned, they called out, “Thanks,” both at the same time.

It had been a long time since anyone had thanked me for something. “Thanks,” I said to myself. I said it again, wanting to hold in my mind the exact sound of their voices, to feel again the kick of surprise in my chest.

I was impressed. Egan will doubtless become a reliable author for me, someone I can look forward to without fear of disappointment.

Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne

March 7, 2011

Karim Issar, a computer programmer from Qatar, narrates this story via a journal. His journal, at least the part to which we have access, begins on October 3, 1999 describing his airplane ride from Qatar to New York. His seatmate, a pimply teen named Brian, asks about what Karim does. Karim explains that Schrub Equities has hired him to “help them prepare for the Y2K bug so their systems do not malfunction.” He started the journal as a way to improve his English and because “several financial magazines” he reads “advise recording a journal for self-actualization.” He also has two other reasons:

(1) I hypothesize that writing your thoughts is a way of deciphering precisely what you truly feel, and it is especially valuable if you have a problem, similar to how writing a computer program helps you decipher the solution to a real-world problem, and (2) recording my experiences is also integral to remembering precise ideas and moments from my time in the U.S. I have a robust memory for some details, but it is complex to continue acquiring data and archive them all, and even I now am forgetting some older memories, as if my brain is a hard drive and time is a magnet.

While it is never explicitly stated, passages like this strongly suggest that Karim has Asperger’s Syndrome or a mild case of autism. He is extremely poor at recognizing non-verbal cues and at handling social interactions generally. He is unusually logic-oriented and, therefore, has trouble understanding jokes. The abnormal neurology of Karim places Kapitoil in the tradition of novels such as Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time , Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, Wray’s Lowboy, Hyland’s This is How, and other “neuronovels”, as Marco Roth dubbed them in an n+1 article. In the article, Roth quotes Lionel Trilling from 1949:

“A specter haunts our culture—it is that people will eventually be unable to say, ‘They fell in love and married,’ let alone understand the language of Romeo and Juliet, but will as a matter of course say ‘Their libidinal impulses being reciprocal, they activated their individual erotic drives and integrated them within the same frame of reference.’”

Karim’s descriptions tend to be very much like the latter. For instance, in describing a woman who flirted with him several months previously, Karim says:

Her face was highly symmetrical, and under her business suit her body had a pleasing shape, and she smelled like a garden.

During the course of the novel, Karim has some libidinal impulses that are reciprocated by his officemate Rebecca. His technical descriptions of his feelings for her and the miscommunications occasioned by gaps in his knowledge both of English (though he studies idioms and vocabulary regularly) and of human relationships provides a refreshing levity. In addition to the potential romance between Rebecca and Karim, Wayne develops several other themes.

Karim’s father is not happy that Karim has left the family business for the world of global markets and international finance. Where his father is suspicious of capitalism and the United States, Karim has Gekko-like* faith in markets to efficiently allocate resources. Their political disagreements are complicated by the fact that his father is a single-parent to Karim’s sister, Zahira. Karim’s mother elicited from Karim, while on her deathbed, a promise that he would always look after Zahira. Karim’s father currently allows Zahira to attend university, but is having some misgivings. Karim, of course, believes it is critical that Zahira obtain a university degree in her chosen field.

Meanwhile, Karim’s Y2K work at Schrub Equities is mundane. He is ambitious, so he develops on his own time a program to predict price changes in oil markets. He sends the first version to an unscrupulous co-worker, Jefferson, who offers to “help” him present it to someone in “quants” or the quantitative analysis side of the company. Jefferson, of course, submits the work as his own. Jefferson tells Karim that he was told that Schrub already has a similar but better program. “Better luck next time?” he e-mails. Karim is oblivious and, even after finding strong evidence that Jefferson took credit for his work, is unwilling to believe that Jefferson double-crossed him. Being unsuccessful and ambitious, he tries to improve the program which he names “Kapitoil”.

Wayne uses these strands to set up some conflicts between the Schrub Equities profit-seeking and Karim’s broader sense of responsibility, the responsibility to self versus family, and the way individuals are shaped by their choice of livelihood. Mr. Schrub confides to Karim at one point:

”It’s funny,” he said. “You act a certain way, and you think you’re an absolutist, but every day there are these little shifts. They’re so small you don’t even notice them. And one day you look at yourself and aren’t sure how you got there.”

I said, “That is usually how change occurs. It is like physical growth. You cannot detect it on a daily basis.”

“Like a physical growth,” he said, although I had merely said “physical growth” and did not include the indefinite article. “Exactly. Like a tumor.”

This is a “soft” neuronovel, under Marco Roth’s characterization, and it does “”load almost the entire burden of meaning and distinctiveness onto [its] protagonist[‘s] neurologically estranged perceptions of our world.” The result provides well-covered ideas with a sense of freshness. I felt at times, though, that Wayne did not entirely invest in Karim. He begins with a total faith in capitalism and the benefits of efficient markets, then shifts by the end to a more jaundiced view. Partly this is because of his treatment at the hands of the greedy, like Jefferson. There are unconvincing episodes too, however, such as when he learns “U.S. history” from The Grapes of Wrath, concluding that:

[T]here was no minimum wage in the time period of the novel, which causes problems for the workers on the free market.

I question whether a person as knowledgeable about economics and as logically oriented as Karim would draw this lesson from Steinbeck’s work. It felt to me like Karim was being pushed in a direction necessary for the author’s aims. This rough handling of the cast detracts from the overall effectiveness of the book. Message predominates over character and realism in the plot. This weakness creeps into other areas as well. The New York office of Schrub Equities is located on the 88th floor (Karim likes the symmetry of the number) of World Trade Center 1. This is at least the second book in the ToB that relies on the reader’s knowledge of and emotional response to 9/11 to provide a significant part of its power. I consider that a shortcoming.

I do not want to give the impression that I did not enjoy the book. I did. It is very readable, particularly if, like me, you tolerate well neurologically abnormal narrators. Karim’s unique way of looking at the world is handled well throughout the first half of the book. His preciousness begins to wear thin as message becomes more important, yet I was sufficiently invested in both the plot and Karim that I was eager to learn their outcomes. If you enjoy neuronovels, you might quite like this one.

Finally, Kapitoil does use an accurate chess analogy. Karim makes a point about why computer programs may make better financial analysts than humans, noting that computers are better at the brute force calculations used in much of chess. He does not leave his analogy there. Humans retained at the time some competitive advantage during the endgame if their computer-opponent was not permitted to access endgame databases. With only a few pieces on the board, humans are able to conceptualize a strategy rather than calculating the exceedingly large number of possible outcomes. At least at the time, computers still struggled in the endgame if they relied on the same algorithms they used to play the rest of the game.

The analogy and his point is important to a strand of the novel, specifically that logical analysis alone is not the optimum method of solving all human problems. Humans still have some advantages over calculators.

Kapitoil meets Freedom tomorrow in the Tournament of Books. The Reading Ape predicts that Freedom will advance. I would like to say otherwise, however, I would choose Freedom over Kapitoil were I the judge.

* [edited after posting: I originally wrote “Gecko-like faith” though, on reconsideration, I believe Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko makes a better analogy for my purposes than the cute lizard. In fact, I am unsure what sort of faith, if any, geckos have in free markets.]

[Update 2: Link fixed. Thanks, Sarah.]