The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah (tr. by Geoffrey Strachan)

February 7, 2012

There is a grand tradition in which old men look back on their lives recounting the moments that made them who they are. It frequently occurs in novels too. From The Fall to Waiting for the Barbarians to The Underpainter, great literature has used this device to provide both distance and immediacy, both wide perspective and intensely personal focus. The character often is not the old man who tells the story. He is but a boy or a young man or even a middle-aged man who does not know, to our narrator’s dismay, what our narrator knows. And, though we know the boy or young man makes it to old age, we still cringe at the dangers he faces because we do not know what his condition will be on the final page.

The Last Brother uses this well-trod device to suck us into a story that yanks more heart strings than most people have. In addition to the (sort of) child narrator, Appanah deploys, in no particular order: natural disasters, clashes of religion, domestic violence, disease epidemics, abject poverty, racism, and, that powerful trump, the Holocaust. The old narrator sees with his young eyes more of life’s worst between the ages of eight and ten than most people see in a lifetime. One almost wonders if the book is some sort of reply to Dostoevski’s The Brothers Karamazov, perhaps a bolstering of Ivan’s anti-theist argument from evil.

This French novel is set on the island of Mauritius, from which Nathacha Appanah originally hails. (Nobel Prize-winner Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio also has “strong family connections” to the island of just over one million people.) Appanah’s novel found its inspiration in real-life events on Mauritius in the closing years of World War II. Her characters are fictional, but all of the large scale events in the novel are historical.

The novel opens in the present-day with a line reminiscent of Camus’ The Stranger: “I saw David again yesterday.” We immediately know that David is significant and, shortly, we know that something has kept Raj, the narrator, and David apart since David was ten years old. Appanah does a magnificent job of withholding enough of the mystery of who David is and why the narrator has not seen him for decades that I will not spoil it, though it is all told within the first six pages.

Most of the story takes place when Raj is nine years old. He lives with his parents and two brothers (Anil and Vinod) on the Mapou sugar cane plantation. The time and place is nicely evoked, as is Raj’s relationship with his brothers. Their father works in the cane fields and they live in a makeshift shelter, not even a shack, that, like every other sleeping place in the laborer’s camp, provides only the barest protections from the elements. The camp is a rock-studded mud hole that turns to an omnipresent dust between harsh rains. Life is hard and the children have to work nearly as soon as they can walk. Anil, Raj, and Vinod (in order of age) have the relatively plum job of carrying water from the nearby river. On these walks, Anil carries a stick, something Appanah uses to nice effect:

Anil always walked with a stick bent near the top into a U, sometimes resting his hand in the crook of it. It was a branch from a camphor tree which had been strongly scented for a while but had then simply become a little boy’s stick. He would twitch the grasses in front of him to drive away the snakes, which terrified us, Vinod and me. Anil adored this stick. It was, after all, the only thing that was really his own, that he did not have to share with anyone at all. It was a source neither of danger nor envy and no one could claim it from him.

We learn both how destitute the family is, how Anil shepherds his younger siblings through the dangers of camp and family life, and how, implicitly, Raj has not even a stick to call his own. There are other little nuggets, including that this stick, unlike the one his father uses to beat them and their mother, is “a source neither of danger nor envy”. Appanah and her translator (Geoffrey Strachan) handle this heavy novel as they do this particular scene, that is with aplomb.

The themes of brotherly love and familial bonds are predominant in this book, as well as the inherently tragic nature of life itself. This is not a light and happy read. Prepare for an emotional wringer. And, yet, the feelings Appanah elicits do not feel falsely won. There was a real story and there is real art in Appanah’s rendering. Neither life nor the novel treat Raj lightly. Given David’s absence from Raj’s life for something like sixty years, we know this period weighs heavily on Raj. Whatever else life has given him or done to him, he is forever marked by that brief, tumultuous time in his youth. Raj’s childhood choices are haunting spectres most fearsome for their persistent presence.

This is a TOB 2012 contender and, given some of the mixed reviews for Murakami’s homage to Orwell’s 1984 (i.e. 1Q84), The Last Brother may have an outside chance at an upset. On the shout-out front, Appanah nods not only to The Stranger with her opening line, but to other great French works too, like Alain Robbe-Grillet’s superb The Erasers. I don’t think a judge would have to be at all embarrassed to pick Appanah’s work over Murakami if the former spoke to them more directly than the latter.

Scouting the judge, however, suggests that 1Q84 and its science-related speculations will perform as expected against Appanah’s much less experimental, much more emotion-driven work. Misha Angrist is a Ph.D. bearing scientist whose bio has this quote:

I suspect that most of our children will have genome scans as a routine part of their health care, to say nothing of their social lives. I want to understand what that world might look like.

The novel of ideas will, I think, prevail.

I am happy to have read the book, happy to have been exposed to new facts about the horrifying plight of Jews fleeing Europe during World War II, and pleased to have made an acquaintance with this author. The book, however, will not appeal to everyone and likely will not go deep into the Tournament. In fact, while I liked it better than The Sisters Brothers, this also is not precisely in my “wheelhouse”. But The Last Brother is exactly the type of book (a serious and readable small press offering) that ought to make it into the lower seeds of the Tournament of Books. Kudos to the deciders on this one.

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 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.

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.]

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.

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.]