Model Home by Eric Puchner

February 18, 2011

Jonathan Franzen has made a career of putting “typical” American families in uncommon situations to try extract in word form some essence of American life. The Corrections was a smash hit on multiple fronts using this formula and Freedom has done very well commercially as well. I have tried to describe my dissatisfaction with both of those novels. I get the feeling that Franzen believes verisimilitude is too boring, but cannot bring himself to embrace magical realism. Or, as James Wood suggests, perhaps Franzen casts an unwieldily wide net, trying “to put too much in.” According to Woods, The Corrections was “wide rather than deep, and smart rather than subtle.” Franzen’s The Corrections is “a kind of glass-bottomed boat through which one can glimpse most of the various currents of contemporary American fiction.”

While Woods stated that The Corrections was an unintentional demonstration that a certain kind of social novel was not viable, he praised Franzen for the excellence of his characterization. The novel succeeded, he suggested, when it focused on character rather than social issues. I think the same criticisms and observations apply to Franzen’s Freedom. The success of that novel is in exploring the intimate relations of its characters. It fails in the direction of caricature to the extent it tries to engage broad political issues, whether environmentalism, cronyism, politics, or population growth.

A lesson of The Corrections seems to have been that the buying public likes a novel that tries to engage a broad array of American social issues through the lens of a disintegrating American family. Other novels have tried to follow that pattern. Eric Puchner’s Model Home is one of those.

The Zillers consist of a Corrections-like family. Two parents who tolerate each other, an older son, middle daughter, and youngest son. There are millions of these, but it seems almost intentional that this is the makeup Puchner chose for his family. The Ziller children have not fled the nest yet. “College-bound” Dustin is a handsome, popular senior in high school and has a garage band formerly called the Deadbeats, Lyle is sixteen and nerdy, and eleven year-old Jonas is dressed completely in orange. Warren, the father, has lied to the family about the disappearance of his car. He told them the car was stolen. It was repossessed. Camille can tell that Warren has a secret and suspects an affair.

The drama of the high schoolers’ lives revolve around sex. Dustin’s girlfriend is holding out until their one-year anniversary. Lyle begins the novel as a virgin. Under the influence of her teen co-worker Shannon, she starts flirting with Hector the security guard for the upscale housing development where the Zillers live. The flirting turns serious enough that Hector writes poems to her and, before summer is out, they are knocking clocks off the wall.
Each family narrates at least a couple chapters of the book. The perspective shifts irregularly with Jonas bearing the lightest load. This passing of the speaking totem permits a greater sense of family while diluting the individual intensity. We are never with Jonas long enough to really understand what is going on with him. He seems the least real, the least convincing. He is there, in orange, almost as a prop, even when he is the center of the action.

The summer of 1985 gives way to the summer of 1986 which passes into the winter of 1986, which seems weird to me. Winter does start in late December, so I suppose that stretch between Christmas 1986 and New Year’s could be called the winter of 1986. It just seems weird to me.

While the sex lives of Dustin and Lyle burgeon, their parents languish in an ailing relationship. Warren remembers a moment of happiness early in their marriage:

Camille had turned to Warren with a look of such stunning affection that he had actually lost his breath. I will never be happier than I am now, Warren had thought. Seventeen years later, he realized how sadly prescient this was. He did not know how he and Camille had ended up like this, so stranded in their own lives that they could barely wish each other good night, but it was one of the several ways in which love – so persuasive in its innocence – had betrayed him.

This melancholic reminiscence is typical of Warren. When he is not trying to unload his inventory of worthless homes, he revels in the decline and fall of his marriage or latches greedily onto family moments that he will later recall with fondness. Warren’s dreams, slow-tracked when he left the University of Chicago School of Law to take care of his pregnant wife Camille, are being destroyed by his own ineptness and some misfortune.

The sexual piccadilloes of Dustin and Lyle play an important role in the disintegration of the Ziller household. They lead to a pair of otherwise unrelated housebreaks. I have to question whether it is wise for an author to have his novel’s plot pivot on two burglaries. One is a bit outlandish. The second pushes the envelope of the credible.

It is odd that Franzen was writing Freedom while Puchner was writing Model Home. Warren and Camille are so much like Patty and Walter. Both are ostensibly liberal families. Camille’s car has bumper stickers covering everything from abortion to nuclear proliferation. Where Walter’s ambitious pro-environment plans fall through, Warren’s real estate venture has landed the family in financial straits, if not ruin. Both families are stumbling toward minor tragedy. Puchner tries to do for the mid-1980s what Franzen in The Corrections tried to do for the late 1990s and in Freedom tries to do for the 2000s.

The sentiment behind the line that sums up life for Warren would not be out of place in the The Corrections if you substitute a car trip for Christmas or in Freedom if you substitute Walter’s house in the woods for Warren’s family auto.

Perhaps, in the end, it was all you could hope for: to get your family together in one car, once or twice a year now that they were older – now that you were going gray yourself – and feel the precious weight of their presence.

The prose is less than ideally fluid with that superfluous “yourself” and the “precious weight of their presence”. Whether my own aversion to this repetition of sounds precious/presence (to say nothing of the cliched scaffolding it decorates) is meritorious, I am confident that Martin Amis would join me in the pedantry. Generally disliking what I know about Amis, I am ashamed he is the best company I can find on this particular gripe. Such sentences do subtract from the whole, particularly when they are summations of character’s end-of-novel views. This is where Puchner pulls up short of Franzen.

Puchner’s glass-bottomed boat gives glimpses of the 1980s real estate market, the politics of ethnicity, garage bands, disfigurement, toxic landfills, and the door-to-door sales business. The virtues of this book, like the merit Wood found in The Corrections, are those times when Puchner “cleav[es] to the human, when he is laying bare the clogged dynamics of his fictional family.” Puchner seems to be less intent than Franzen on making social statements, though he conspicuously touches on many issues. He seems to have realized the pull of a novel like this is family and character. He provides a number of well-imagined scenes with the color of truth. Puchner rarely invests his character’s actions with broad political or social significance. They remain grounded in a way Franzen’s never are.

Still, Puchner escapes the mundane by using coincidences and unlikely behavior, like the break-ins. He uses these last unlikelihoods to tie all his strands together. I think the book could have been improved by having fewer story lines and delving deeper into the most important ones which would have had the salutary effect of eliminating the need for the twin crimes. Like Franzen’s work, Puchner could have improved his novel by sacrificing some breadth for depth.

If you like Franzen’s work, you might want to try Puchner. Puchner does not have quite the stylistic flair of Franzen and his prose feels a little less crisp. But he covers very similar themes in a very similar way. He is better at maintaining the focus on what is important, namely the Zillers, though he does this in part by subjecting them to a statistically unlikely tragedy. Despite Model Home being a good book, I do not think it either can or should make a serious run at the Rooster.


Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky

February 8, 2011

Marie is bad. The interesting question is what makes her bad. She is recently released from prison. She was incarcerated for incredibly bad judgment. She fell for a criminal who fancied himself Clyde. Her version is revealing of what makes her both charming and bad:

My boyfriend robbed a bank. A small one. In the suburbs. Juan Jose. He was only twenty-two years old. He was this perfect boy. Like a painting. I wasn’t much older, twenty-four. I didn’t know he was going to rob a bank. I knew almost nothing about him, really. I had met him in a bar, the week before. He showed up in the middle of the night at my door. Scared. Bleeding. I didn’t even think about it. He needed me. We went to Mexico. Later, after the police found us, I went to jail. I didn’t regret it. I don’t.

The other thing that makes Marie charming is her love for Cailtin, the girl she nannies as her first job out of prison. Caitlin is the daughter of Ellen, Marie’s childhood acquaintance. Ellen is from a privileged background, Marie is not. Ellen’s mother felt sorry for Marie, so she took every opportunity to invite Marie over to the house and to foster a friendship between Ellen and Marie. The girls are not, it turns out, a good match. Ellen has her mother’s sense of nobless oblige, however, so Ellen gives Marie her first post-prison position.

As the quote above demonstrates, Marie often does not carefully deliberate over a decision and its consequences before acting. To counterbalance this impetuousness, she rarely feels remorse. (“Marie did not believe in regret.”) The quality is one of her more endearing traits.

Ellen should have known better. In high school, Marie slept with Ellen’s boyfriend. The criminal escapade, while not indicative of maliciousness, should make a person pause to place their child’s well-being in the hands of Marie. Marie is aware of all this and, thus, feels no guilt in giving Ellen her comeuppance when things predictably turn sour between them.

The movie-critic author describes Bad Marie as her attempt to write a French movie. I think that is probably as accurate a description of the feel of the novel as any. The book could easily be converted into a movie. Imagery is extremely important to the novel and its success. The thread of the story is populated by a number of elegant visual pearls. Despite the absence of lovable characters (excepting Caitlin), despite Marie being bad, she matters. Her decisions, as poor as they are, have import.

This novel is not unlike Brooklyn in that the central character is frustrating. Marie is a bit more actively bad than Toibin’s Eilis, but neither make good decisions. Marie is almost the antithesis of Eilis. Where Eilis is passive, Marie is active. Where Eilis allows others to manipulate her, Marie more often manipulates those around her. At least, she acts. She fills with her presence the novel, her surroundings, New York, Paris.

The meat of the novel is the character study of Marie. Dermansky seems to get her right. Her decisions, destined to break hearts and ruin lives in surprising ways, flow naturally from her attributes and flaws. Marie is a liberating alter ego for those who want to fly to foreign lands on a moment’s notice. There is a freshness to entering the mind of someone with so little regard for consequences, so little self-awareness, so much engagement with the moment. And, yet, everything about her feels tragic. A person cannot successfully live as Marie lives.

Because she cannot seem to learn from the past or project into the future, Marie is able to deny that a disastrous decision can only lead to bad things. It is this, rather than a malicious nature, that makes Marie bad. She assumes that life is more chaotic than it actually is, that the near future is as unpredictable as next year’s weather. Societal rules are made for the Maries of the world. They need rules and they need to follow them, because they are so incredibly bad at making decisions on their own. Marie’s simple spontaneity is a poor way to live, but a fine way to carry a novel.

Bad Marie has to be a long shot to win the Tournament of Books, but the odds are good it will please its readers. I would not be surprised to see it upset one of the books with more reputation and less verve.


The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano

January 11, 2011

This Tournament of Books longlist selection seduced me with its allusions to math and its connections to physics, two subjects I find fascinating. The author is, according to the book jacket, “a professional physicist” who is currently working on his doctorate in particle physics. The novel won the Premio Strega, Italy’s most prestigious literary prize, so promised to be worthwhile even if it did not make the ToB cut. It has kept its promise to me.

Knowing next to nothing of Italian, I read the novel in English. This places me one additional step removed from the author. The book has some clunky phrasing and relies too heavily on “then” to assure the reader that chronology matches sentence order. At one point, Mattia looks “out the opaque windows of the atrium”. (And he does actually see the landscape when he looks out, so this is not a metaphorical “looking out”.) I do not know whether these missteps are the fault of Giordano or his translator, but they are of only slight consequence. These occasional discordant notes are, happily, interspersed with some nice attention to the details of growing up and relationships.

The novel opens with Alice Della Rocca preparing for ski school on a morning in 1983. She is six years old and hates ski school. Her father is anxious to get her to the slopes, so Alice gulps her breakfast milk to please him. The milk will be her undoing. She joins her ski school class, says ciao to her father, and starts up the mountain. About halfway up, she has to use the restroom. Rather than alerting the instructor, she separates herself from the group to relieve herself surreptitiously. This decision, made in a moment to avoid embarrassment, leads to tragedy.

From Alice’s life, we move to Mattia Balossino who has a twin. Where Mattia is intellectually gifted, his sister Michela is significant mental impairments. Mattia has never been to any child’s birthday party but his own and Michela’s. In his third year of primary school, a classmate finally invites him to a birthday party. The classmate invites his sister too. Mattia, who has suffered considerable isolation because of his always present but oblivious sister, is crestfallen that the invitation is not his alone. At home, he broaches the possibility of going to the birthday party without Michela. His mother is disappointed in him. Mattia wants only to spend some time at the party without Michela, being a normal boy. His chosen method of obtaining his freedom chains him to that moment for the remainder of his life.

Both of these early scenes are written with an uncluttered poignancy. The characters are set on trajectories that, the reader knows, will eventually intersect. Giordano takes his time, developing the characters and their existence as misfits. High school is quite difficult for both of them, at least until they find each other. I expected a fairly conventional love story once they had met. I believe my expectations were somewhat justified by this passage:

The others were the first to notice what Alice and Mattia would come to understand only many years later. They walked into the room holding hands. They weren’t smiling and were looking in opposite directions, but it was as if their bodies flowed smoothly into each other’s, through their arms and fingers.

The marked contrast between Alice’s light-colored hair, which framed the excessively pale skin of her face, and Mattia’s dark hair, tousled forward to hide his black eyes, was erased by the slender arc that linked them. There was a shared space between their bodies, the confines of which were not well-delineated, from which nothing seemed to be missing and in which the air seemed motionless, undisturbed.

Giordano subverts expectations for this high school romance. Alice and Mattia are broken people and Giordano does not shy from showing their frailties in a realistic light. While they balance each other, they do not “complete” one another or erase the mistakes from each other’s past. Mattia and Alice are not pieces to a puzzle that snap into place and live happily ever after. I applaud Giordano for this realism which helps to raise The Solitude of Prime Numbers above the triteness of Nicholas Sparks (at whom I somehow feel free to take shots though I have never opened one of his vacuous romances).

But, the best part of the book is, frankly, the central conceit of the novel and the passage around which, I believe, the novel must have been written. I will tease you with only a portion of Giordano’s excellent discussion of prime numbers:

You encounter increasingly isolated primes [as you search the set of whole numbers for primes], lost in that silent, measured space made only of ciphers, and you develop a distressing presentiment that the pairs [(e.g., 11, 13; 41,43)] encountered up until that point were accidental, that solitude is the true destiny. Then, just when you’re about to surrender, when you no longer have the desire to go on counting, you come across another pair of twins, clutching each other tightly.

The concept is evocatively beautiful. This is math for romantics. Or maybe just romance for nerds. Giordano’s novel fits nicely around this idea and its bleak but not hopeless consequences. By tying Mattia’s mathematical abilities to the less logical realm of love, Giordano elevates both number theory and romance. It is a nice accomplishment and one worthy of an audience. I have my doubts that it will be enough to survive the ToB brackets, but the novel would make a worthy contender.

I do have one final complaint. This is not a novel that gets chess right, though it does get romance right. A friend of Mattia’s compares the initiation of a kiss and sexual intimacy.

Once Denis, talking about himself, had told him that all opening moves were the same, like in chess. You don’t have to come up with anything new, there’s no point, because you’re both after the same thing anyway. The game soon finds its own way and it’s only at that point that you need a strategy.

While it is true that only very good chess players are likely to come up with anything newly valuable to chess in the opening, this does not mean lesser players need not worry until later about strategy. The strategy for all players begins at least by the opening (and for top level players before the game even starts). While there are thousands of named openings (or variations on named openings), it is a strategic choice for white to pick the solid d4 rather than the more dynamic e4. Likewise, whether black responds to white’s e4 with the c5 of the Sicilian Defense, the e6 of the French Defense, or the e5 of the Ruy Lopez Defense (The Spanish Game) is a crucial strategic decision. Denis’s analogy does work better for poor players who know nothing about openings, but only because they will likewise know little about chess strategy. Everything, then, is tactics.

So, of all the things that The Solititude of Prime Numbers gets right, chess is not one of them. The mathematics, however, more than makes up for this failure. And I find consolation in the fact that Giordano did not demonstrate Mattia’s genius by his winning every chess game he ever played.


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

January 4, 2011

“And death…happens to us every day.”

by Paul Auster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

December 14, 2010

Edith has been, quite rightly, popular around the literature-loving blogosphere this year. The Classics Circuit featured the works of Wharton in January. While not technically part of the Wharton Classics Circuit, Kevin from Canada re-read Custom of the County that same month and loved it all over again. He enjoyed it so much, in fact, that it made his “10 Best” for 2010. In May, The Mookse and the Gripes reviewed Wharton’s Ethan Frome which turned out to be one of his Ten Twelve Best. A Rat in the Book Pile also read Ethan Frome and drew out in her post interesting observations and quotes regarding the narrator. Where KfC opened the year with Wharton, Kevin from Interpolations (KfI? K2D2?) closed it out (November, close enough) with that same Wharton, Custom of the County. He has also read in 2010: Ethan Frome and House of Mirth.

Who doesn’t want to read what all the cool kids are reading? And, yes, if these bloggers jumped off a literary bridge, I would follow. But I have my own reasons for reading Wharton. Ethan Frome is one of my favorite novellas of all time. I first read it at university roughly twenty years ago. I have re-read it since, but, frankly, have been a little frightened to pick up another Wharton for fear another of her works would not live up to the genius of Ethan Frome. I cannot say I will have the same love for Age of Innocence, but it is an outstanding work of literature and a pleasure to read.

I highly recommend A Commonplace Blog, where D.G. Meyers has posted a “reconsideration” of the novel which is a more insightful and thorough review than I could manage, so I direct you there in lieu of an attempted review here. This year, (2010, the year of Wharton), he also used The Age of Innocence to illustrate his hypothesis regarding the function of plotting in novels. I highly recommend that post too.

Spoilers ahead.

Wharton is brilliant as any of the above reviews/posts will confirm. She has incredible insight into human motivations and the sorts of psychological foibles that so often tether her characters to tragedy. D. G. Meyers does a great job of discussing how The Age of Innocence is a response to and refutation of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. I have not actually read The Portrait of a Lady, so cannot comment on the comparison other than to say Meyers makes a convincing case. In Meyers’ capsule summary of that work, he says:

“Isabel Archer consciously decides against rising above her daily level and agrees to be buried alive in marriage to a moral monster, sacrificing the long windings of her own destiny to the duty of protecting her stepdaughter.”

This interplay of concern for others and feminine strength is also present in The Age of Innocence, though Newland Archer does not see it until the end. Like James’ Isabel Archer, Newland believes that he is the one calling the shots, making the moral choices. Whether Isabel is correct, and it seems perhaps not, Newland definitely is mistaken. He is condescendingly concerned with women’s lack of freedom:

[Newland Archer’s] exclamation: “Women should be free – as free as we are,” struck to the root of a problem that it was agreed in his world to regard as non-existent. “Nice” women, however wronged, would never claim the kind of freedom he meant, and generous-minded men like himself were therefore – in the heat of argument – the more chivalrously ready to concede it to them. Such verbal generosities were in fact only a humbugging disguise of the inexorable conventions that tied things together and bound people down to the old pattern.

This superiority of attitude extends, of course, to his fiancee May who has “been carefully trained not to possess” “freedom of judgment”. He is pleased that he is not so clueless as May because, if he were, “they would have been no more fit to find their way about than Babes in the Wood”. And, yet, by the end, it becomes obvious that May and Ellen have been playing the game of life at a level so much deeper that his own that he managed not to be much more than a pawn in their game. They are the ones who contrived to allow Newland his freedom, but he was too arrogantly thick-headed to see the choices he was given. One of the beauties of this early Twentieth Century novel is how devastatingly it undermines the masculine notions of superiority of intellect and wordly understanding.

Newland is too hemmed in by convention and unwilling to deviate from custom to realize when May offers him freedom. He laments Ellen’s lack of freedom even though, history proves, she is the one that ultimately achieved it and lived it. For Newland, women are weak and imprisoned by societal rules while good men are wise and protective. Wharton brilliantly subverts these prejudices by demonstrating the depths of delusion upon which they depend. The reader is sucked into Newland’s mindset which makes the final revelations so devastatingly pleasurable.

If I read another Wharton, I will expect a twist in the tail of the story that turns everything that has gone before on its head. Just as Ethan Frome was about the tragedy of romance, rather than the seeming conflict between true love and marital duty, The Age of Innocence is about the power of women and the cluelessness of men rather than the tragedy of women’s subjugation.

Wharton is delightful. 2011 should be the year of Wharton too.


Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

November 30, 2010

Election campaigns are roiling American airwaves at the moment and will for the next several days. I am still surprised when I overhear a talk show host explain, from a co-worker’s radio, that the reason people from the other side disagree with him is, literally: “They hate America.” He repeats the mantra several times for emphasis. One politician cheats during a debate, another has to assure potential voters that she is not a witch, and an unhealthy minority of Americans think the President of the United States is not really an American. All of this is why I generally prefer novelistic fiction to the fantasy world that is, and likely always has been, American politics.

I have recently learned of Poe’s Law. Essentially, the “law” states that when a fundamentalist (religious, political, trekkie, etc.) reaches a certain point of wackiness, it becomes impossible to distinguish between a fundamentalist and a parody of the fundamentalist. Franzen seems to have run into Poe’s Law with this book. It is difficult to tell at points in Freedom whether he is in earnest or whether he is trying to parody extreme “right wingers” and/or extreme “lefties”.

I was among those who thought The Corrections was and is overrated. Franzen can churn out some nice prose, he has an admirable vocabulary, but the book seemed too cartoonish and derivative. He managed, for instance, to “pay homage” to South Park by using Mr. Hankey in a way that sucked out all the wit and replaced it with nothing interesting. Poking fun at big-pharma is neither daring nor original. It is better managed in a one-panel New Yorker cartoon than suffused throughout a serious novel. The fish-down-the-pants scene reeked of Seinfeld‘s Kramer. Cartoonish and derivative.

Ostensibly, this is another family drama, this time about the Berglunds. As with The Corrections, all members of the family suffer from dysfunction of some sort. Walter is a bright attorney who worships at the feet of Richard Katz, minor rock legend. His wife, Patty, is extremely competitive, also has a crush on Katz, and settles for Walter. Walter and Patty have a daughter Jessica, who is largely ignored by her parents in favor of Joey, her brother. Jessica is generally ignored by Franzen too, which is no doubt intended.

Patty adores Joey, practically worships him. Unsurprisingly, he becomes a bit self-centered. He has run-ins with his liberal father which leads him to seek outside money sources. A money-making opportunity arises when he creates and then fills a niche market at his girlfriend’s (Connie’s) Catholic school. His products are cheap watches with “chewable-looking” bands into which, after buying a thermo-embedding press, he embeds the text of his customers’ choosing. The school soon forbids the girls to wear watchbands with embedded text. Joey is upset; Walter is unsympathetic.

“It’s not an outrage,” Walter told him. “You were benefiting from an artificial restraint of trade. I didn’t notice you complaining about the rules when they were working in your favor.”

“I made an investment. I took a risk.”

“You were exploiting a loophole, and they closed the loophole. Couldn’t you see that coming?”

***

“It’s still money I should have had.”

“Joey, making money is not a right. You’re selling junk those girls don’t really need and some of them probably can’t even afford. That’s why Connie’s school has a dress code – to be fair to everybody.”

“Right – everybody but me.”

Joey becomes a Republican.

This exchange highlights a problem I have with Franzen’s Freedom. Walter is an extremely intelligent policy wonk who has, by the time of the above conversation, graduated law school. He should know better than to throw out terms like “artificial restraint of trade” in situations having nothing at all to do with an artificial restraint of trade. If we believe Patty, and we have no reason not to believe her, Walter is far too smart for that sort of mistake.

The “artificial restraint” Walter references was the nuns’ policy of permitting one watch, one ring, and two earrings. No one, not even Joey, was preventing the Catholic school girls from buying those same watchbands from any other retailer. Joey simply recognized and satisfied a demand. The term “restraint of trade”, however, has a very specific legal meaning which Walter, being a lawyer and policy dweeb, would know: “Contracts or combinations which tend or are designed to eliminate or stifle competition, effect a monopoly, artificially maintain prices, or otherwise hamper or obstruct the course of trade and commerce as it would be carried on if left to the control of natural economic forces.” (Black’s Law Dictionary). Franzen goes a step further and has Patty recall Walter using the term “artificial restraint of trade”. This term is unknown to Supreme Court decisions or the SSRN eLibrary (covering law, economics, and other fields) but, apparently, is used very occasionally in economics and more informal discourse (2300 returns from Google, many referencing this book).

The problem here is similar to that I had throughout the book. I find it doubtful that the Walter Franzen has given us would use the term that way, even in the heat of an argument with his son. He would have had to use the term to mean that the nun’s policy regarding jewelry stifled competition in the market for jewelry. The definitions of markets matter a great deal in antitrust and a single private school would never constitute a market, something Walter would know. Setting that pedantically technical point aside, the restriction does not directly benefit Joey. It benefits all sellers of watches and watchbands at the expense of those who sell other types of jewelry and accessories. Joey simply recognized the niche market for watchbands and filled it. Joey was not protected from any other purveyors of watchbands, lettered or not. Walter’s frustrated accusation that Joey did not complain about “the rules” when they worked in his favor entirely misses the mark under any reasonable understanding of economics. And Walter definitely had a thorough understanding of economics.

There is an unreality to Franzen’s work that prevents me investing in the characters. This unreality is both what makes his books work and why I cannot find them sufficiently serious to be much more than entertainment.

Take this scene (SPOILER ALERT) for another example:

“…I told her I had cancer. She didn’t know anything.”

***

“Are you actually suicidal?” the mother said. “Or was that just a threat to keep your friend from leaving?”

“Mostly a threat,” Eliza said.

“Mostly?”

“OK, I’m not actually suicidal.”

“An yet you’re aware that we have to take it seriously now,” the mother said. “We have no choice.”

“You know, I think I’m going to go now,” Patty said. “I’ve got class in the morning, so.”

“What kind of cancer did you pretend to have?” the father said. “Where in the body was it situated?”

“I said it was leukemia.”

“In the blood, then. A fictitious cancer in your blood.”

This scene works because it is funny. The scene is funny because the father’s stern inquiry into the location of Eliza’s “fictititious cancer” amidst his daughter’s bizarre obsession, heavy drug use, and suicidal threats is ridiculous. Franzen is at his best when dissecting interpersonal relationships in this way, but the effect is too often that of a punchline rather than an insight.

The scene with Walter and Joey can work, too, with Walter being a bit ridiculous by wielding his greater knowledge of economics dishonestly. Arguments between fathers and sons, particularly those characterized by competition and rebellion, are likely to become ridiculous with both haphazardly throwing whatever projectile is handy. For Walter, it was an arcane term from economics.

Too many of the other pivotal scenes have a similar ridiculousness to them. They are just real enough that the characters seem in earnest, but sufficiently unreal that they seem to be part of a joke. The book is infused with politics, but Freedom is never clear in revealing whether Franzen is trying to parody or to portray “intellectual” lefties who bungle basic economic ideas. Nor can I tell whether he is aiming for reality or satire with his “greedy” righties. The politics is a politics of caricature which does not, in my initial reading, seem to lend much more than humor to the book. I grant that it is difficult to put current politics into a book without sounding a bit foolish yourself, but that is what Franzen chose to attempt. Poe’s Law has frustrated his attempt to make any political points.

There is more to Freedom, including parallels between this work and Age of Innocence and the characters’ obsession with freedom in their relationships. I do not think Franzen achieves for our age what Wharton achieved for hers. Her comedy is brilliant because it is so penetrating. Franzen’s comedy is not brilliant because it obscures more than it reveals. The difference is that between a joke and wit.

[A number of grammatical mistakes have been corrected since the initial post several hours ago. My apologies.]


Ghosts (The New York Trilogy, Volume 2) by Paul Auster

September 14, 2010

I have been slightly delayed in posting about this second volume in Auster’s The New York Trilogy for no entirely discernible reason. I could say that the fact that I was on the wait list for the third volume, The Locked Room, at the library and, then, for no apparent reason, The Locked Room has disappeared from the library’s catalogue, dampened my enthusiasm. What to say about a trilogy when you only have the first two books? Then I have a dilemma. Do I buy the whole trilogy? My library has done this to me before. It has two of the three books in Coetzee’s semi-autobiography “trilogy”. I did buy the missing one that time. It’s Coetzee, after all. But Auster? I have not been blown away, though I probably should have been. Is Auster shelf-worthy?

Ghosts is a very interesting book. It was Sasha’s least favorite of the three. Perhaps that will ultimately prove to be so with me, but I sort of liked it. It felt less ephemeral than the last. The pages did not crumble to nothingness like a library hold. And, yet, it is weird.

First of all there is Blue. Later there is White, and then there is Black, and before the beginning there is Brown.

These are the characters. Blue is our guy, the one over whose shoulder and through whose eyes we peek. White hires Blue to watch Black. So, the second in the trilogy again has a private eye (this time a real detective) following and watching a subject. In the first book, it was not clear whether our man, Daniel Quinn, had followed the right man out of the train station. He could have spent most of the book watching a man unrelated to “the case”. Blue, though, is watching the right person we know. Only, we know less about why he is watching Black than we knew why Quinn was watching the elder Stillman. Blue watches Black and writes reports to White, hoping that he is focusing on the most relevant information.

The problem for Blue is that Black simply reads and writes and, occasionally, goes to get something to eat. Black’s routine is predictable and, seemingly, interminable.

For to watch someone read and write is in effect to do nothing. The only way for Blue to have a sense of what is happening is to be inside Black’s mind, to see what he is thinking, and that of course is impossible.

Blue had always been a man of action, so doing nothing is difficult for him.

He has never given much thought to the world inside him, and though he always knew it was there, it has remained an unknown quantity, unexplored and therefore dark, even to himself. He has moved rapidly along the surface of things for as long as he can remember, fixing his attention on these surfaces only in order to perceive them, sizing up one and then passing on the the next, and he has always taken pleasure in the world as such, asking no more of things than that they be there.

Blue has plenty of time, however, so he does start examining the world inside him. He discovers, among other things, stories.

More than just helping to pass the time, he discovers that making up stories can be a pleasure in itself…Murder plots, for instance, and kidnapping schemes for giant ransoms. As the days go on, Blue realizes there is no end to the stories he can tell. For Black is no more than a kind of blankness, a hole in the texture of things, and one story can fill this hole as well as any other.

Blue’s discovery of stories distracts him from his mission. He becomes more intrigued by the stories he imagines for Black than the activities of Black himself. Blue often pulls himself back from fantasy to the reality of his mission, but it becomes more and more difficult for him to separate the false from the true. His stories, he realizes, are more about him than they are about Black.

This isn’t the story of my life, after all, he says, I’m supposed to be writing about him, not myself.

This realization does not make things easier for him. He still struggles, discovers that he inserts himself into the story even when he does not mean to do so. Blue then becomes meticulous about writing down only facts, facts about Black, so that his reports become very difficult for him to write. His earlier surety in the world around him has been shaken, so he grasps on, again to the surface of the world, naming objects in his room in an attempt to tether himself to reality. But he has a problem, once you dive below the surface of things, you can swim as deep as you like without reaching the bottom.

Auster is writing, on the one hand, about storytelling and writing. On the other, he is writing about life. He does an excellent job weaving together the intersection of life and writing and how the one, in many ways, interferes with the other. One can either live or write about living. And, also, there is the problem of understanding another person, writer or otherwise. You can see what the person does, but to have true understanding, you need to know what they think. This is impossible, because, when you begin speculating what is in another’s mind, you cannot help but creep into the story you write for them.

We are not where we are, he finds, but in a false position. Through an infirmity of our natures, we suppose a case, and put ourselves into it, and hence are in two cases at the same time, and it is doubly difficult to get out.

This is an excellently philosophical work. The story, too, is intriguing as fables and allegories should be. I have not doubt that writers will pass this book along to other writers for generations. And, too, will readers. Readers, after all, are haunted by the ghosts of writers. Readers, when they attempt to delve below the surface of a novel, into the mind of the author, they insert themselves and become hopelessly confused regarding what parts belong to the author and what parts are their own. Auster has made a beautifully postmodern statement and I look forward to the last of the series, whereever I find it. Sasha enjoyed it most, and I have heard the same from others.

Perhaps I have made no sense at all. Merely doubling myself as Auster’s characters do so frequently. I can only say with certainty that there is more to this installment of the trilogy than I can convey and, to be fair, more than it would be possible to convey. All the same, I’ve undoubtedly made a hash of it, so I encourage you to read it yourself and come back to explain the big and little things I have missed.


This Is How by MJ Hyland

September 8, 2010

Everything unconditional belongs in pathology. – Nietzsche

I chose to read this author because she is a Tony’s Book World recommended author. I chose this specific book of Ms. Hyland’s because it was a Whispering Gums recommended book. And, too, the author was kind enough to drop by my blog. So, though I did not rush out and buy a copy of one of her books as she hinted I might, I did rush to my Kindle and buy one of her books. Jedi mind tricks don’t work on me.

The lesson here is not for writers to comment on my blog so that I will automatically, a month later, read your book and blog about it. It is for writers to get two other bloggers whose literary discretion I admire and whose opinions I trust to gushingly recommend your work and, only then, come nudge me in a most classy manner. In that case, I very likely, almost certainly, will rush somewhere to buy a copy of your book. I am conditionally easy that way.

The book. Well, it starts with that dark quote from Nietzsche above. Beyond that, the best thing to say about it is that I highly recommend it. This is a book that is best read cold. Everything I can tell you about the character and the plot without entirely spoiling the novel you are better off discovering on your own. Really, you are. But if you insist on knowing more, read on.

The protagonist of This Is How, the odd Patrick Oxtoby, narrates. Through the first person narration, the reader has insight into the sometimes hilarious, sometimes frightening, sometimes pitiable, and always engaging thoughts of Patrick. He is difficult not to like, but, all the same, makes the reader and everyone else around him a little nervous. The novel begins with a description of his hard, but not too hard knock at the door of a boarding house where he will try to begin a new life. The knock is answered by Bridget, the charming and attractive proprietor of the boarding house. This early scene gives an idea of Patrick’s quirkiness.

She takes hold of her long brown hair and pulls it over her left breast like a scarf.

‘Let me take your coat,’ she says.

‘I’m not bothered,’ I say. ‘I’ll keep it on.’

I want the pockets for my hands.

‘There’s a rack just beside you.’

‘I’ve said I’ll leave it on.’

‘I thought you might feel more comfortable with it off. It’s a very warm evening.’

She looks at me and I look at her and she takes a step back as though she blames the place where she’s standing for the silence.

Patrick is not slow. He did well in school, studied Psychology and History at university for a year or two before dropping out, and is an ace mechanic. While it is never articulated or confirmed, Patrick exhibits symptoms commonly associated with Asperger’s Syndrome or autism. He has trouble understanding social cues and connecting with people. He takes things literally and seems emotionally remote, even with those who should be closest to him. Underneath this (or on top of it?), Patrick is a sweet man. And, then, underneath that, he has an unsettling, potentially violent personality. As pointed out at Whispering Gums, MJ Hyland has created a lovable but disturbing character, who is both simple and complex. At least, it is no easy task to understand him, despite his simplicity.

Only a few pages into the book, we learn that Patrick had a fiancée, Sarah, who abruptly broke off their engagement. He describes the scene in which Sarah, standing at the top of stairs, tells him it’s over. She leaves him standing there as she walks out of the house.

I wanted to push her down the stairs, make the kind of impression that I didn’t know how to make with words. But I didn’t, and when she’d closed the front door I said, ‘Okay, then,’ and, ‘Goodbye, then.’

Afterwards, I played the scene over and over, imagined how I planted my hands in the middle of her back and pushed hard enough to send her flying.

And I got this sentence in my head, over and over, ‘You broke my heart and now I’ve broken your spine.’ It was something I’d never say, not like anything I’ve ever said. I’ve never done any serious violence to anybody, never even thought about it all that much….

I’m here now, a hundred miles away, and that’s the past. Sarah’s the past. It’s done with. I don’t have to think about it again if I don’t want to.

This scene fits a pattern in which we at once feel sorry for Patrick and afraid of him. His heart was broken, after all, and cruelly, but then there is his fantasy about the stairs. The reader isn’t alone in these feelings. The characters with whom Patrick comes into contact have the same conflicted feelings towards him. They want to like him, but, just when they start to feel comfortable, Patrick’s oddness puts them on edge again. Through a number of quite funny and touching scenes, Hyland builds Patrick’s unique character and the tension of the novel. The reader can feel the pressure building. Patrick will do something good or something bad, or somebody will do to Patrick something good or something bad. Like Patrick, the story keeps the reader on edge, hoping for the good but preparing for something bad.

This is a great success to the book. Hyland beautifully allows the reader to see what Patrick looks like from the perspective of others, and demonstrates that having access to his thoughts does not actually improve the reader’s ability to predict Patrick’s behavior. Because Patrick is incapable of understanding interpersonal customs and subtext, he is unstable in social situations. He seems to have the potential for violence, even if he doesn’t think about it “all that much.”

Hyland so superbly builds Patrick’s personality and the situation that we, the readers, know that Patrick is going to misunderstand a crucial fact at a crucial point. We know that, but we cannot be certain whether that misunderstanding will set him up for a trap laid by another or unleash some of his anger onto someone else or take a different but similarly tragic course. Tragedy of some sort looms ever larger in the first section of the book. That is, unless the twist is danger averted, a connection made, ensuing bliss. It could be. I certainly hoped that is the way things would turn out. But I have probably said too much already. By the time the crucial early to mid-novel event occurs, it feels inevitable.

And then, in the aftermath too, Hyland conjures the dueling specters of optimism and doom. Hyalnd manages her pacing well, so that, even when little is occurring, you know something will happen. And then it is put off a bit, and a bit. Excellent writing.

This book is about the intersection of love, sex, and violence. Patrick’s deficiencies in interpersonal communication make it difficult to make the types of connections necessary for love or even sex. Violence is another matter, but violence can only beget more isolation and confusion. Or, maybe, they are similar matters. Love and sex nearly as often lead to confusion. At least when someone is hitting you, you can be pretty confident about where they stand.

This novel is bursting with its author’s talent. To go any further into the plot would spoil it. That leaves large themes untouched, so I encourage further discussion in the comments, now if you have read it, later if you will.


The Incident Report by Martha Baillie

August 30, 2010

I was lucky enough to pick the winner of this year’s IMPAC award and, thereby, won (along with two others) Kevin from Canada’s 2010 IMPAC contest. In addition to the generosity of giving out prizes, Kevin kindly offered to expose me to Canadian fiction. I eagerly accepted and specifically requested that this book be among the titles he sent.

I had only ever heard of this book through Kevin’s coverage, as a member of the always excellent Shadow Jury, of the 2009 Giller Prize. His review captures the quirkiness and strengths of the book. It does have strengths besides its quirkiness, though the quirkiness is a strength too. I had not re-read the review until just now, partly with the aim of not simply repeating it and partly with the aim of engaging in at least a bit of conversation. Also, my comments here also reflect my conversations with my significant other who grabbed this book out of the shipment immediately and enjoyed it immensely. She liked the way the incident reports become more personal and begin to reveal the narrator as a character rather than as simply a recorder of events. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Kevin has summarized the book well, so I encourage you to visit his review, but I will try to give a shorthand version, for context.

The book consists of 144 incident reports by a librarian, Miriam Gordon, working in a Toronto library. The first incident report recounts Miriam’s interaction with a young man who spends two hours stripping electrical wire and then asks for a handheld vacuum to clean up the mess he has made. The first several incident reports relate events similar to this in that they are seemingly unconnected to plot issues or Miriam beyond her duties as a librarian. Gradually, however, Miriam begins inserting personal details into the reports and embellishing them with memories from her childhood. Martha Baillie pulls this aspect off quite well, I thought, methodically building a plot into these often quite short incident reports.

There are at least three major plot lines. One involves Miriam’s childhood, particularly her relationship with her father. Another involves a mysterious library patron who begins leaving notes referencing the opera Rigoletto which, incidentally, is the first opera Miriam ever saw. The very short summary of the opera is that the father’s plot to avenge his daughter’s honor results in a mistake of identity that gets her killed. It soon becomes clear that the Rigoletto notes are meant for Miriam. The grow more sinister over time. There is also Miriam’s interactions with a young man she first sees reading in the park.

The plotlines all seem disaparate and unconnected, like the initial incident reports. However, over the course of this quick read (195 pages, most less than half full) patterns and links begin to form. The effect is one of literary pointillism, almost. It is a quite original approach and Baillie carries it off well. But, given the method of narration and Miriam’s limited knowledge, it is difficult to determine whether any of the connections or patterns are real or only imagined. One patron seems a good candidate to be the mysterious writer of the Rigoletto notes, and then, seems not to be such a likely candidate or is ruled out entirely.

Incident Report 10 is a key to at least two of the plotlines. Miriam relates the story of her first broken heart and her reaction after the breakup by phone.

I rushed out the front door without stopping to pull on my coat or boots. The freezing air slapped my cheeks: it plunged down my throat into my unsuspecting lungs. My father, who happene to be clearing the front walk, tossed aside his shovel and ran after me across the lawn, his feet breaking the crust, sinking into the deep snow. When he’d caught up, he took me in his arms. I present this memory in my father’s defense whenever I take him to trial, as I so often do, laying my fears and shyness, my crippling self-doubt, at his feet.

After this experience, Miriam is wary of romantic love and, as indicated, has mixed emotions regarding her father. Miriam’s relationship to men is, it seems to me, a primary factor in the book. The emotion of this short and quirky novel is subtly potent, creeping up slowly on the reader as the storylines unfold. The parade of eccentric patrons, for instance, marches through the story to the yearning beat of the human heart.

This afternoon at 4:55, a stout female patron, having spent several minutes exploring the contents of her purse, pulled out a small object. It lay in the plump palm of her hand. She thrust her arm across the desk. “This is for you,” she explained. She was rewarding me. I’d provided her with the books she needed. In its brightly coloured wrapper, the condom resembled a candy. At first I thought it was a candy. She was not a regular. I had never seen her before. Naturally, I thanked her.

This small events, when compiled, begin to tell us about Miriam, almost as much as her own more explicit discussions of herself and her mental state. She is an easy character to like. This is often a weakness in a novel, but the beauty of this novel is in its construction and in the events. The world is a tragic place for many of the patrons, despite their kindness. So too, Miriam, as gently caring as she is, has suffered. Her role is not unlike that of the heros of Greek tragedies and her heart is her weakness. Her very likeability, even lovableness, is her fatal flaw.

Kevin from Canada did not like the storyline involving the Slovenian named Janko who Miriam befriends. I thought the storyline was essential to the successful unfolding of the full plot, that it added some needed complexity to the mix, and hit the right emotional notes. This may be where you (and Kevin) realize that I am perhaps a bit more sentimental as a reader than is Kevin. I was pulled in by the relationship between Miriam and Janko and touched by its resolution. I cannot imagine being as satisfied with the book without it.

Before closing, I would also like to note the beauty of the novel as a physical object. The paper is thick and pleasing to the touch. Even more, the inside of the covers contain a reproduction of actual pages that were inserted into the book return slot of a library. The pages are covered with the series “0123456789” repeated over and over. Interestingly to me, the actual photocopy of the page shows that, despite the obsessiveness of the pages’ author, there are apparent mistakes a few times, where a number is repeated at the end of a line or from one line to the next, suggesting to me a fragility of mind that prevents the poor soul from effectively managing even this pitiable scream. It was a nice touch that emphasized the novel’s realism and tethered this story to the world. Damaged people reach out, often ineffectually, and it is not always easy or possible to understand their cries, much less to ease their pain. The physical construction of the book reminds me why my ereader is not a substitute for my physical library, only an enhancement.

Thank you, Kevin, for introducing me (and my wife) to this author and this book.


The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

August 26, 2010

The title of this book is, if you do not know, a reference to Superman. Superman’s Fortress of Solitiude has been a physical stronghold of varied significance and geographic location. My sense is that Lethem was probably making the reference to John Byrne’s Man of Steel miniseries comic book in which the Clark Kent persona is described as “The Fortress of Solitude”. I am not, nor have I ever been, a comic book fan, so this speculation is based on Wikipedia. Take it for what it is worth.

It is worth next to nothing, by the way. Because the Fortress of Solitude could also be Dylan Ebdus’s house on Dean Street in Brooklyn. The Dean Street house, like the Fortress, is occupied by The Parents. Occupied is selling it too strongly. Their spirits inhabit the place even if, technically, they do not exist there is a fully real and alive sense. Abraham spends most of his time working in his studio. Rachel becomes an even more ethereal presence. Superman’s parents are but statues, reminders. This parallel is equally compelling and also dervied from the Wikipedia articles on Superman and his lair, if you had not guessed.

Besides comic books, the fully prepared reader will be well versed in the music of the 1970s and 1980s, R&B and rap particularly, but not exclusively. Lethem’s alter ego and the narrator of the novel is Dylan, named after Bob Dylan (legendary folk singer, of course), a hero of his parents. His best friend for a time is Mingus Rude who is, presumably, named after Charles Mingus. Charles Mingus was a legendary jazz musician (the Kindle dictionary, rather than my own knowledge of music history, gave me that one). While Dylan Ebdus’s parents are not musicians, Mingus Rude’s father, Barret Rude, Jr., is a former soul vocalist. An entire section separating Dylan’s and Mingus’s childhood from their adulthood consists of fictional liner notes to an album collecting music by Barret Rude, Jr. Lethem has a deep appreciation for R&B music of the time and it shows through multiple references and an awareness which suffuses the work.

Finally, the cultural aspect that most gripped me: Lethem and I grew up at roughly the same time. The Fortress of Solitude is absolutely dazzling in yanking the reader back in time to a palpably real New York childhood. The games kids play, both psychological and ball-oriented, have you feeling like someone just outside the ring, watching. Maybe you’ll get picked, or picked on, next time. In the meantime, it is great fun watching Dylan make his way in this new world.

For, Brooklyn is new to Dylan. Abraham and Rachel decided to attempt a social experiment of some sort. They move to a rather blighted area of Brooklyn and enroll Dylan in the local public school. He is very nearly the only white child in the school. Even in the neighborhood, white children make only a brief, if potent, appearance:

And Dylan wondered guiltily why the white girls on skates hadn’t called to him instead. Knowledge of this heretical wish was his second wound. It wasn’t like the dead kitten: this time no one would judge wwhether Dylan had understood in the first place, whether he had forgotten after. Only himself. It was between Dylan and himself to consider forever whether to grasp that he’d felt a yearning preference already then, that before the years of seasons, the years of hours to come on the street, before Robert Woolfolk or Mingus Rude, before “Play that Funky Music, White Boy,” before Intermediate School 293 or anything else, he’d wished, against his mother’s vision, for the Solver girls to sweep him away into an ecstasy of blondness and matching outfits, tightened laces, their wheels barely touching the slate, or only marking it with arrows pointing elsewhee, jet trails of escape.

The opening section is told in the third person with access to Dylan’s thoughts, but not others’. Dylan is precocious and bright and not entirely unlike the young Coetzee of Boyhood. I would be surprised if Lethem had not read Coetzee’s work prior to writing his own. And, too, he probably was influenced by Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. It is no light thing, my comparing this work to those two masterpieces. Lethem is extremely talented, a standout of his generation. However, weeks after finishing this work, I am still unsure whether it will end up in my top ten reads of this year, much less that it is deserving as a spot on a list of twenty best novels of the 2000s. Its strong start is not enough for all that.

I am not from Brooklyn, so part of the strength of the start, for me, was the fascinating look at a childhood that was chronologically parallel to my own. The life of city kids was always mysterious to me, a different way of living. And so Dylan’s proves to be far removed from my own. While I would not trade my memories of herding cattle or playing in the hay barn for them, I am envious of street ball, block parties, and walking to school. But my particular, or peculiar, fascination with the lives of urban kids does not explain all of the appeal of the first half of the book.

Adult idealism hovers in the background of the child’s-eye Brooklyn. Gentrification, Rachel’s determination to raise Dylan in a racially enlightened manner, and Abraham’s commitment to art are all interesting and important sidelines. Each is essential, if not as thrilling as a well-tossed spaldeen. The beauty and success of the first half of the novel is that these larger, more political, themes are woven into the story of Dylan’s boyhood. They never overpower, only accentuate his experiences. In other words, this first half is never didactic.

The first third of the novel swings between Dylan’s perspective and several others in the neighborhood, including Isabelle Vendle (a prime mover in the gentrification process of Gowanus Hill), Barrett Rude, Jr., and Dylan’s parents. Lethem styles prose with the best of them while deftly managing these varying perspectives and the story. I was always disappointed to put the book down while reading this first section. This is despite the fact that some comic book powers may or may not seep out of the panels into Dylan’s world. I am not really into superpowers in my bildungsromans, but, as with the politics, they are used to enhance the richness of the world without being overly intrusive.

For one example, and on a theme that recurs throughout:

His mother had instilled this doubleness: there were things Rachel and Dylan could say to one another and then there was the official language of the world, which, though narrowed and artificial, had to be mastered in the cause of the world’s manipulation. Rachel made Dylan know that the world shouldn’t know everything he thought about it. And it certainly shouldn’t know her words – asshole, pothead, gay, pretentious, sexy, grass – nor should the bearers of nicknames know the nicknames: Mr. Memory, Pepe le Peu, Susie Cube, Captain Vague, Vendlemachine.

His father’s nickname was The Collector.

Dylan spends the entire book trying to navigate between the various worlds he is forced or chooses to inhabit. Not to belabor the quotes, but there is another, this one occuring in a scene involving a confrontation between two neighborhood rivals, “each kid” being the observers of this confrontation:

Each kid wondered and had to consider the possibility that he alone didn’t know, that the lines of force were visible to the others. The Dean Street kids were widened in that instant, a gasp of breath went in and out of the lung of summer just then. It made you dizzy to taste the new air.

I have hardly mentioned the plot at all, but, with a reclusive artist as a father, a drug-addicted sort-of-ex-singer for a neighbor, and a racial identity to grapple with, there is plenty of story for the first half. Lethem writes it so well, you’ll feel almost as if you’ve lived it too.

Then came the liner notes. It is a fairly short section, interesting enough. It ties the first and last pieces together, gives a nice interlude between childhood and young adulthood.

Part Three is ominously entitled “Prisonaires”. The reference is to a group of prison singers who hit the charts from prison, it’s a story grown-Dylan is pitching movie execs. The scene opens with Dylan packing to go to California for his father, and to pitch the movie. Dylan Ebdus is older, but hip. He is comfortable moving between worlds now.

Entry points between zones are hidden until they aren’t, until they become as obvious as a lit kitchen door in a club’s alley, behind which three young women from Walla Walla pool an evening’s tips. And as so often in my experience, passage between was eased by alcohol or marijuana or cocaine, those boundary medicines. Line, Mr. Mildly Weird Older? Of course I’d like a line, and to cross one too, please.

He is haunted by his past, though. He moves between worlds, but never feels fully part of any of them. On Dean Street he was the white kid, at college he was the public school kid, and in life he is struggling to make sense of his own life.

The weakness of the second half is in the fact that Dylan spends it trying to understand his life, explain it, come to terms with why Dean Street was the way it was. His musings leave a number of excellent snippets of prose for the reader. But the story loses momentum. It frustates partly because Dylan is frustrated, which is a good thing, but, and this is the less good, party because exposition does the work in the second half where the story carried the first. Dylan struggles almost as much with his own life as he does with “The Prisonaires”, a musical group whose lead, rather than ending in a fiery crash or cocaine-fueled heart attack or familial bullet, simply fades into, not death, but a quiet, non-descript existence. Dylan wants explanation, the reader wants a story.

I am rambling, but this is a huge book which, frankly, ambles over much territory. Lethem deserves credit for trying to talk about race in a novel, in a way that doesn’t insultingly patronize its readers and its characters. Yes, I am talking about a recent bestseller that shall not be named. There are not easy answers here. That is Dylan’s and Lethem’s problem. They both flail about, trying to find answers, but, both are still a little afraid because this is dangerous territory. Just as there are codes on the street by which Dylan knows both that he will be yoked and how to play his role in the yoking, there are rules in society for talking about race. Dylan and Lethem both struggle a bit. It is probably one reason they spend so much time in the second half trying to explain. But, for all that effort, I don’t think the second half is either as engrossing or as enlightening as the first half of the novel.

Now I am rambling. The book is good. I have struggled with what to say. I am going with this first draft. Part of my problem is that I wanted the novel to mean more to me than it does. Another part is that the first half was so outstanding, the grown Dylan could only disappoint. My disappointment should be gauged against my expectations and my first half experience. Oh, and if you like books set in New York, this one gives a look with depth at particular moment in time. In all, the novel is outstanding.

Lethem is for real.