Sunday, November 29, 2009

EATMEBAILEY: Reading Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn

As you may notice is kind of the theme around here, I like to read and talk books. I have no mission statement. But if there were one (and perhaps one day, who knows?) it would undoubtedly include some proviso on the reading/talking books subject, mandating their inclusion in affairs here or whatever it is exactly that provisos can establish. In other words, books are an important part of what we do, and I encourage you to feel the same.

With that said, I read another book: Jonathan Lethem's 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award winner, "Motherless Brooklyn." Amazingly, a decade later it's still good! But before I get to effusive praising criticism let me say I've enjoyed a few different non-traditional detective novels this year including "Inherent Vice" by Thomas Pynchon, "The New York Trilogy" by Paul Auster (which and whom I write more than a little of in the preceding blog post) and "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" by Michael Chabon -- and "Motherless Brooklyn" features a protagonist more sympathetic and idiosyncratic than any of those listed. His name is Lionel Essrog, and his surname is as garbled as his Tourettic speech, an affliction he suffers that I initially considered a potential insensitivity risk, just by its very nature, but ultimately I decided Lethem employs Essrog's tics with an even balance of tact and humor.

In fact, while there were moments when Essrog's tics got a little distracting -- no doubt Lethem's intent, but distracting nonetheless -- overall I found their placement extremely funny and also perfectly suiting the frenzied circumstances in which he found himself -- specifically all that happened after the murder of his boss and mentor, Frank Minna, owner of L&L Car Service, which Essrog explains is not actually a car service but a front for a detective agency. Believing himself to be a true and capable detective, Essrog thus begins his quest to find the killer, repeating compulsive expletives like "eatmebailey!" ("Bailey" the non-existent object of his tic's ire, he explains), while being largely suffered by those aware of his condition and inspiring a wide variety of reactions from those who are not.

The story could be strictly a comedy if it were harder to like and sympathize with Essrog, i.e., if Lethem were more callous with him and made him a bumbling jester to be laughed at and, perhaps, ridiculed. (I know it's unlikely he'd do this with a character diagnosed with Tourette's, but you could circumvent the issue fairly easily by establishing instead that Essrog was merely eccentric and not actually disabled.) But because he is instead so well-developed and so evidently desirous of respect and someone who recognizes his flaws but can look past them, you begin to understand what motivates the character. One particularly telling sequence occurs during a conversation between Essrog and Kimmery, a woman he becomes infatuated with. The conversation is regarding Essrog's ceaseless pursuit of the killer in the immediate aftermath of Frank's murder, to wit:
She sighed. "I don't know, Lionel. It's just, I'm not really sure about this investigation. It seems like you're running around a lot trying to keep from feeling sad or guilty or whatever about this guy Frank."

"I want to catch the killer."

"Can't you hear yourself? That's like something O. J. Simpson would say. Regular people, when someone they know gets killed or something they don't go around trying to catch the killer. They go to a funeral."

"I'm a detective, Kimmery." I almost said, I'm a telephone.
And while Lionel Essrog as a character study is really fun and fascinating, the detective narrative he's inserted into leaves something to be desired, I think. It does not come off as standard boilerplate, and without revealing more than I should to anyone who might want to read it (although I suppose a Spoiler Alert! might be apt from here onward), I can say I was less than blown away by how the various plot threads tied together. Happily, they did tie together, there were no massive plot holes (always a plus). Still, and perhaps because the story is meant to center on Essrog and his growing awareness of the various ways he's been kept in the dark and used by Frank Minna, there are no big climactical revelations -- things just seem to become slowly and seamlessly apparent, in a manner suggesting Essrog always somehow knew this was the case. But when the veil of illusion slowly glides away and it's clear everything Essrog assumed to be true isn't, he accepts his new reality and continues living just like any other person would.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Paul Auster vs. The New Yorker

The New Yorker's book critic James Wood puts forth many opinions of Paul Auster's latest novel "Invisible" and of Auster's work just generally in the magazine's recent November 30, 2009 issue. Most of his opinions are (spoiler alert) something less than what you'd consider high praise. But that's ok. I tend with varying levels of success to adhere to the Kurt Vonnegut school regarding literary criticism -- which is, at least in accordance with his following aphorism: "I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on a full suit of armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split."

Wood isn't entirely guilty of the same vitriol Vonnegut describes and disliked so. Still, he definitely takes Auster to task. And from what I've gleaned after a brief scan of the glowing Internet-scape, a lot of people have found merit in Wood's arguments. I suppose I'm one of them, although I do remain an unapologetic Auster fan. But concerning what I see as accurate in Wood's criticism of Auster is for example his initial parody and subsequent adumbration of uniquely Austerian tropes and plot devices. He also reasonably argues against Auster's prose, which especially in the examples he cites does appear simpler, Raymond Carver-esque in its austere and realist bend, and more un-ironically cliche-addled than his postmodern colleagues -- Wood says, "Auster, despite all the games, is the least ironic of contemporary writers."

However, while I think Wood does -- all told -- avoid the pitfalls of rage and loathing in his criticism of Auster, he does at times come off like an excoriator, as if his dislike of Auster's writing style, which he sees as littered with "boilerplate" and "cinemaspeak," is tantamount to it being irredeemable and deserving of the headmaster's paddle. For instance when Wood writes categorically that while ". . . there are things to admire in Auster's fiction, prose is never one of them." Wood backs this up with reasonable evidence, but one can't (or at least I can't) really shake the feeling that somewhere in all of it there is an ax being sharpened against the grindstone. Then there are what I would deem occasional potshots Wood sneaks in, for instance comparing Auster's prose to Carver's but adding, "although Carver would have written more interesting prose" or in saying that "[Auster] is only ever unwittingly funny." Speaking of the latter Wood quote, I have to admit Auster is not an author I've read for his humor, and while I don't want to touch on Wood's stating Auster is only ever unwittingly funny, I do appreciate Wood's implied concern that an author worth his or her salt should in some way be able to express a joke, inject humor where appropriate and do so cannily. Wood uses the "hilarious" novel (one I haven't read but now intend to) "The Third Policeman" by Flann O'Brien as Auster's use of "Hollywood plots" -- and a particular plot point he cites belonging to Auster's character Quinn in "The New York Trilogy's" "City of Glass" -- done both humorously and effectively.

Now obviously if you asked me to prove Wood is libelously false in any / all of his preceding assertions I would say that I can't do that, Dave. As already said he makes strong claims and provides useful, if possibly mischaracterized, evidence -- but he does so within the framework of a subjective set of criteria. I realize I'm moving into hazardous territory in stating that Wood's criticism is subjective and therefore implying its validity is suspect. But that's not really what I'm saying. And although I believe Wood is more excoriating than necessary, I won't fault him for his opinion of Auster's work. What I am saying is that to Wood, Auster is a peddler of banalities and sophistries; overall his work does not amount to much when stacked against the literary achievements of his contemporaries. Point taken and fair enough.

All I can offer as counterpoint, then, is a subjective defense of what I like about Auster, which -- to paraphrase -- Wood at least acknowledges there are things in Auster's work that are worthy of admiration. I recently finished reading Auster's "Man in the Dark" and really enjoyed "The New York Trilogy," the former a good example of Auster's more recent work and the latter is probably his most well-known book, which comprises his three earliest stories. One of the standard Austerian themes that "The New York Trilogy" features in parts is the disassociation and dissolution of male friendships. Of course all relationships in Auster's work are subject to just the same sort of dissolution, but none with the fury or the punctuation that seems to mark the severing of male friendships.

Ironically, these friendship breakups are usually for reasons that have little to do with an actual falling out. Instead, they are better characterized for the distance that already exists, how they've lost touch as part of a greater narrative already taking form. And often as one man disappears the other as if his doppelganger will step into his life and take his place, either literally with the unnamed friend and narrator who supplants Fanshawe as husband and father in "The Locked Room" or more figuratively with Peter Aaron as Benjamin Sachs in "Leviathan" -- after Sachs abandons everything in his life following a terrible, literal fall and his figurative reawakening in the wake of a violent encounter in the woods, or perhaps most nebulous of all is the end of Nashe and Jack Pozzi's friendship in "The Music of Chance," wherein Pozzi with Nashe's assistance escapes the pair's forced imprisonment at the home of two eccentric millionaires, the consequence of losing at a high stakes game of poker. Pozzi leaves but Nashe finds him badly beaten the next morning. Pozzi is rushed to the hospital by the overseers who are charged with ensuring Nashe and Pozzi don't escape, a complicated situation in its own right, and then Nashe is told with out any verifiable proof that Pozzi is well attended to and will survive. The tension that builds because of the dissolution of these relationships reaches a pronounced pitch, leading the narrator in "The Locked Room" on a frenzied search for Fanshawe, which at one point leads him to verbally assault a man in a bar with accusations that he is the lost Fanshawe. Benjamin Sachs is blown to bits by his own bomb, and Peter Aaron is left to answer for him to the police. Pozzi is never heard from again and Nashe, after finally being granted his freedom, drives off into the headlights of an oncoming vehicle with his overseers in the passenger seats, left to suffer whatever fate (or chance) has in store.

As for "Man in the Dark" by itself, I'll concede it impressed me less than all the other novels I list in the last paragraph. But despite its shortcomings, I still found it enjoyable and relevant. It read like a collage of the Bush administration's tenure, a sort of retrospective noting in spartan detail various causes and effects. August Brill, the narrator and for all intents and purposes the story's main character, can't sleep; he has about him the harried quality of a guilty conscience. He invents stories that play out in his head, specifically an alternate universe in which the United States is in a new civil war. He imagines a character who exists between both our universe and the alternate, and is assigned the task of murdering Brill in our world so the war will end, irrespective of the possible consequence that existence might end right along with him. Brill, however, holds all the cards as inventor of the story, and kills the man off before he can cause him any harm. He disinterestedly suggests it's the only way the story could end, but one wonders if the truth was instead that story was becoming all too real for Brill, a man it's suggested by those conspiring to kill him seems to want to die. But at the heart of "Man in the Dark" is family, and once again the dissolution of relationships (familial or other) for all the great litany of reasons: death, divorce, self-loathing, emotional vacancy, etc. I think this leads to some of the most powerful statements, which might be put better with lurid literary flourishes but in Auster's softly stated prose convey something equally powerful, as with how Brill discribes his sister's death, or perhaps more fittingly, demise:

Either her body had given out on her or she had taken pills, and I didn't want to know the answer, for neither one of them would have told the real story. Betty died of a broken heart. Some people laugh when they hear that phrase, but that's because they don't know anything about the world. People die of broken hearts. It happens every day, and it will go on happening to the end of time.
Maybe I'm biased, necessary subjectivity regarding interpretation of art would suggest this is so, but I like what Paul Auster says and thinks in his writings. Maybe he is guilty of all that Wood puts forth, maybe less so than Wood can admit. I don't know. All I know is at least Paul Auster isn't Chuck Palahniuk because that guy sucks.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Brief Thoughts on a Novel I Read: Mission to America

I'm not exactly sure what first got me interested in the works of Walter Kirn. I'm pretty sure whatever it was had something to do with the forthcoming release of the film adaptation of his novel, "Up in the Air," which is looking disappointingly more and more like a George Clooney vehicle and less like something I'll have any interest in seeing. I'm not saying the book and the movie have to be one and the same in terms of plot and all other points attributable, but I am concerned about how close to the original spirit of the novel they'll be able to stay with the invented protege, Natalie, necessarily adding new dynamic and dimension to the story's main character, Ryan Bingham. And yes, it's true, maybe they don't wish to stay close to the novel's original spirit, or even in the same ballpark. They're doing something different, creative license invoked. Fine, their prerogative. In that case, mine remains to grouse from afar until my suspicions have been confirmed or disconfirmed, then grouse some more, regardless.

But as for Walter Kirn and his oeuvre, I can say in the year to date I've managed to read "Up in the Air," "Thumbsucker" and most recently "Mission to America." And you bet I'm glad I have. Since I said in the title something about this being "brief" thoughts on a novel recently completed, I'm going to write only about "Mission to America" and try to be brief. Kirn appears to have some interest in fringe religious groups, evident in Justin Cobb's conversion to Mormonism in "Thumbsucker" and seen again with the far more obscure (and entirely a product of Kirn's imagination) church of the Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles in "Mission to America." The novel is written in the first-person narrative of Mason LaVerle, a young AFA missionary assigned the task, along with five other young men deemed similarly fit, of going off into America (or Terrestria) and diversifying and repopulating the dwindling AFA membership, wholly extant in the small town of Bluff, Montana.

Like the recent Thomas Pynchon novel "Inherent Vice" there is a pervasive attitude espoused principally by LaVerle that America has made a mockery of its divine (or at least spiritual) opportunity made manifest at its inception, and is descending instead to the slow depths of cultural dyspepsia, a land of the identity-less and devoid of any vision of where to go to reclaim itself -- our vices are too many, our concerns too vapid and trivial, our unrest too past the point of return. That's not to say LaVerle doesn't come off similarly wayward and misguided, or plainly brainwashed by his very insular community. He believes strongly in his faith, although at times more strongly than at others, and calls upon the "All-in-One," the spiritual essence of the universe, more or less, which has the unusual if not useful quality of being everything to everyone without limitations. This becomes rather muddled and contradictory as the story progresses, like in this conversation between LaVerle and his budding love interest, Betsy, who explains how she earns her living by cornering the market for retro clothing by buying it up from every thrift store and yard sale within hundreds of miles:
The problem is when the stuff is gone it's gone, though, so I really can't take the time to sell it off until I've got most of what's out there.

You think that's possible?

I can feel it -- you're about to preach, she said. Yes, I know, it's no substitute for God. It's stuff. It's only stuff.

That's what the All-in-One is made of, actually.

Not spirit?

That, and everything else.

I don't believe the notion of the All-in-One is intended to be entirely specious or farcical. There is something completely idealistic about the inclusionary spirit it evokes. It's a religion that turns tradition on its head by conforming to matriarchal rule and a general veneration and deference to women. It eschews the plasticity of modern life whenever this action is practical but goes no further than that in its day-to-day societal mechanisms. In other words, there are numerous relations with the outside world, and although it's rare that the people of Bluff venture beyond their town's limits it is not prohibited. Still, by the novel's end even Bluff has lost its momentum and has been compromised by the outside. Its faithful aspire to the same amenities that have come to define modern American society: stylish automobiles, expansive mansions, and worst of all, validation from the outside, which seems to precipitate the need for a mission to America in the first place. So that in the end, it's not the faith that fails but the people.

All right, so I said I'd be brief right? Well, I lied. Good night and BAD luck! (I'm a petty, petty man)