Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Halfway Through Adam Levin's "The Instructions": Of Sub and Serious Men

Adam Levin's "The Instructions" is a novel with a lot to say. At a bit more than the halfway mark (pg. 610 approx.), I thought I'd hit the ground running with somethings it says that have especially struck me. So here we go...

There's a need to represent the voice of the modern, let's say especially male, illiterate in contemporary fiction. Does it stretch a writer's capacity, to write as a guy who doesn't have much to express in any coherent, articulate way? (Especially when you're an Adam Levin, who clearly does.)

No more so than a skilled actor affecting bad acting.

"The Instructions" is full of these contemporary Cro-Magnons or troglodytes or whatever historically lower-on-the-evolutionary-ladder group you wish to assign them to, i.e. men who haven't got much to offer the grand discourse but no less wish to add their two cents. They might also like to feel marginalized, on the fringe, like their way of life is under attack. True, sometimes -- often -- their way of life may well be under attack, but it's not without reason. The reason? Bluntly, the things they're willing to uphold are often terrible, like denying themselves and / or others of what should be basic freedom, of the right to decide for oneself what's moral and just.

This phenomenon brought to mind Simone De Beauvoir and her description of the "sub-man" and the "serious man" -- lowest in the order of her archetypal freedom seekers. The sub-man is led along like a calf to slaughter, and the serious man upholds certain idols for the simultaneous and fairly paradoxical ends of control and personal fulfillment. In other words, the serious man usually begins to believe his own fictions, perpetuating them and foisting them on the always less-discriminating sub-man. Thus are dogmas born and sustained, or so I say, in a nutshell. (Hannah Arendt would then have referred to sub-men as the disenfranchised necessary for demagogues to enact totalitarianism, which is something.)

[Various spoilers no doubt ensue. So proceed with caution!]

In Levin's fiction, sub-men come in the form of, primarily, the security personnel of Aptakisic Middle School, a major setting of the story and one in which we find the 10-year-old protagonist and primary narrative voice, Gurion Maccabee, constantly and deliberately willing himself into conflict. The hypertrophied, hyperactive argumentative abilities of Gurion and his cohorts on "The Side of Damage" (more on that group in a bit) who inhabit the Cage (a little more on this in the next paragraph) are put into direct linguistic opposition with these "mediocre men" -- to refer to them in Nietzschean parlance, because of all the damnable philosophical language already in use. Ron Desormie, lecherous gym teacher, is the ostensible leader to these sub-men, and poster child of "The Arrangement" (primary antagonist of The Side of Damage, which I'll get to when I get to both (they go hand-in-hand)), a serious man if ever there was one, his idol being the so-called self-evident value of winning, and doing so at any cost.

But my favorite of the sub-men, and probably the best rendered in terms of speech and appearance, is a handless (lost in a crop-grinder) Australian transplant, Monitor Victor Botha, disciplinarian to the Cage's inhabitants (The Cage being a place for students who have exhibited violent or otherwise dangerous tendencies that make them unfit for inclusion in classes with the general student body). Botha is the only major authority figure in the Cage, the teachers who flow in and out of its confines (literally a cage-like chain link enclosure) are rarely even subordinate to him in any authoritarian chain-of-command sense. Botha's law is, at the story's outset, absolute. Unlike, say, Nurse Ratched of "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," who felt a panacea lay in the prospect of shaming those in her charge out of their difference, Botha desires not to be bothered. Only rarely does he shame anyone, and when he does, he does it with far less cunning and pre-meditation than Nurse Ratched. One such instance of Botha's sadism especially comes to mind, happening around the 100 page mark, which leads to a good turn by Benji Nakamook (Gurion's closest companion) and others in the Cage, as effect.

The incident in question occurred when Gurion first arrived at the Cage, practically his initial interaction with Botha and all others attending Cage classes. There was, meanwhile and hitherto Gurion's arrival, a student -- Egon Marsh -- who was constantly the butt of jokes in the Cage, apparently partially a result of his living in squalid, abusive conditions at home.

The incident began with Botha noting a smell, and said, in a little of his idiosyncratic accent (a bizarre fusion of Australian and, interestingly, really heavy Chicagoan), "Something smells downright bleddy Marshy." Gurion is unaware that the comment is aimed derisively at Marsh. The subsequent events are bulleted:

  • Gurion purposely breaks and asks to sharpen a pencil in an over-compensating attempt to demonstrate that the smell is not his own, as said unaware that Egon Marsh is the one who Botha's accused of being smelly.

  • Botha warns Gurion that normally he'd be given a "step" (the punishment progression at Aptakisic for misbehavior) as consequence for Gurion's speaking out of turn, but he'd benevolently let it slide this time. (Gurion probably correctly surmises, in narrative reflection, "That Botha might be actively trying to humiliate me ..." though admits it didn't occur to him at the time.)

  • Finally, as Gurion begins sharpening his pencil, Botha takes the opportunity to begin his assault on his easy target, Egon Marsh, saying: "Wait! Wait, Mr. Makebee! No need to waste your affort. I think I've found a writing implement here--yes. Look. Right here in this nest!" And he affected pulling a hidden pencil from Egon's hair.
The reaction this elicits is at first mirth, but then, Benji Nakamook decides it better to humiliate the perpetuator of humiliation, and says, simply, "Combover" to Botha. Because, as it happens, Botha class-act that he is, has a combover. This might seem trite in any other situation, an easy exercise of an old cliche, i.e. villainous lowlife = has a combover. But Levin goes to great lengths both to explain the combover as a thing in itself and then Botha's personal reasons for sporting that really unpleasant look. Partly explained by Gurion as follows, "Like those kids who when you tell them their foot-taps annoy you and then in response they tap faster and harder, these men kept their combovers intact to save face."

This then segues into a really involved effort by Nakamook to insult Botha by modifying his hairstyle to affect a combover of his own (a "Harpo Progression" as Gurion calls it), which like quite a few of the Side of Damage's efforts to mock the sub-men of authority, fairly quickly gets away from him and brings about wholly new problems that I won't delve into. (Gurion does a nice job, however, of incisively picking apart the psychological nuances of Nakamook's mockery gone awry, part of which can be blamed on Gurion's own misunderstanding at the time of the combover plot's unfurling.)

Botha's presence as law of the Cage remains ubiquitous in the narrative, even as lengthy passages lead Gurion elsewhere in and around Chicagoland (which is, if I haven't already said it, the greater setting in which practically all of the story takes place). I'll be very interested to see how he and his role change (however significantly).

The Side of Damage exists to undermine the Arrangement (authority for authority's sake, rote and pointless). One of the neatest things about "The Instructions" is how big ideas are rendered with very real-sounding churlish and / or childish vernacular. The Side of Damage sounds like the secret society of rebellious pre-teens and teenagers. And that's just one highly notable example. As the story progresses we see a psychological profile done of Gurion by his therapist, "Call-Me-Sandy" (a woman of some student-standing at the University of Chicago, brought clearly to bear in her profile of Gurion, which also has within it coded and not-quite-coded advances directed toward her female professor). In "Call-Me-Sandy"'s profile we learn in clinical terms (many of which "Call-Me-Sandy" later admits were used for the express purpose of impressing her professor) that Gurion has several very distinct ways of communicating with his peers, but which boil down to three different kinds of "codeswitching" (pg. 306-7): 1) erudite, 2) prophetical and 3) colloquial.

Largely ignored by me to this point is the nature of Gurion and his religion (which as the story would have it are inextricable terms). He demonstrates his great faith by making frequent reference to God "Adonai," the Jews "Israelites" (there are no longer Jews, and the term holds no meaning to Gurion), and other esoteric references to traditional semitic, chiefly Hebraic, texts and so forth. I mention that here because many of Gurion's friends and a great deal of the reason for why he has not been allowed to stay enrolled at any of his previous schools, believe him to be a kind of prophet, or very plain and straightforwardly, The Messiah. Accordingly he is referred to as "Rabbi" by many of his fellow Israelites, who see him as a scholar and authority on such matters. He sees himself in the same terms, more or less, and in his free time (in passages which fill the novel) he writes his scripture.

All of this then seems to fall under the auspices of The Side of Damage, although certainly Gurion has had some difficulty to this point in reconciling the somewhat dogmatic belief that Israelites are the chosen people, possibly needing to be led by Gurion, if he is the Messiah, and the more pluralistic membership, the generally neglected and oppressed, of the greater Side of Damage. The division is also sort of coming to a head at the point I'm at in "The Instructions" -- Nakamook is feeling betrayed to a certain extent by the fact that, as Benji is a goy, Gurion clearly cannot put him on the same standing as his followers, other Israelites.

Last, I'll mention Ron Desormie and one of his closest lackeys, Floyd The Chewer, and a situation involving them both while Gurion is trapped in an In-School Suspension (ISS). Gurion has constructed a weapon "a penny gun" that fires coins with enough force to cause bodily harm and property damage. He has used it on the scoreboard at Aptakisic, which is about as symbolic an attack on Ron Desormie as Desormie can endure. He doesn't endure the attack well and comes screaming at Gurion (Gurion is in his suspension for other reasons unrelated to the scoreboard, and it later is revealed the scoreboard was completely destroyed by an ally of the Side of Damage, not Gurion himself). Desormie then goes into a long soliloquy regarding his thoughts on Gurion and his "so-called" friends:
Not only don't I think your jokes are funny, ever . . . but I don't even get your jokes. And I don't think anyone does. And even if they do, I don't think they think your jokes are funny either, because you're not mature. Maturity, Maccabee, is control of yourself, and I don't think you've got control of yourself.

The soliloquy goes on to make reference to characters from "The Godfather" and "Good Fellas" and is mostly a rambling, ham-fisted diatribe. I like that Levin chose to have Desormie speak idiosyncratically with his expressing "Not only don't I think" and so forth. I think that, too, captures the voice of the individual he was going for, a man not totally in touch with how to express himself. I think it also sometimes goes a bit overboard, and I'm not as totally thrilled by malapropisms like Desormie's saying "non-sectarians" when he (probably) means to say non-sequitur.

Floyd the Chewer, a policing automaton of the school, enters the scene after Desormie has been led into the principal Mr. Brodsky's office, to explain the scoreboard and its destruction. Floyd wants to talk to "Ronny D" his nickname for Desormie, and asks Miss Pinge, the secretary, "So what about any updates on Ronny D and the chief, there? . . . You got a potentially predictional ballpark figure regarding the time for their pow-wow's overage, maybe?" All the malapropisms here are exceedingly forced, although I waver back and forth with this, because my main reason for feeling this way is that nobody in the world that I've experienced speaks like Floyd. But, then a.) who cares if anyone speaks like Floyd and b.) I have a feeling I'll one day meet someone who does, thus throwing that argument entirely out the window.

I'll have to reflect on this and still more things in what I have left to read of "The Instructions."

More to come!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

P. Fanatics: HAIR! Edition

If you're in Chicago next week, on a Thursday night, and you're looking for something to do, THEN consider the above image / invite. Possibly more details HERE.

Mason Johnson will be there, a cast of others will be there. I definitely will be there. So what more do you need? Gold? You don't need gold.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Can't Decide How Much I Like Karen Russell's Short Stories

It is true, apparently, that Karen Russell's first novel, "Swamplandia!" was recently released. This title is befitting her previous collection of short stories, "St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves," which I've now read. I'm not sure about "Swamplandia!" (so you can search elsewhere for reviews on that). Let me start by saying I really enjoyed Karen Russell's short story featured in The New Yorker, as a result of her being one of the recepients of their "Top 20 Under 40" honors last summer.

Karen Russell is a good author, but is she better than that? Is she better than other young authors whom I enjoy? I like the sprightly quality of many of her stories. That much is true. I think by my natural temperament I swing toward the more negative side of positive opinion. This is not good, I think. I'd prefer to be sanguine and carefree. (Not carefree in a delusional way, if it's possible to be carefree any other way.)

But see there, in my parenthetical aside? See that I've said being carefree seems delusional, that it is implicit to the idea of being carefree? That's negative. And so too is the title of this post -- more or less -- implicitly as well. Too negative. Certainly some of Russell's stories speak to me more than others. Her collection "St Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves" is thus more uneven (take that, Mark Athitakis) than other collections I've read of late. But enough with soft praise and let me get to actual, considered criticism.

My biggest overarching negative criticism of Karen Russell is that she seems to be a writer without a fully realized ethos. I've wrestled with whether this is a fair assessment for a long time (I can't remember when I first started reading "St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves," much less began writing this review). The point is, there are many interesting stylistic qualities to Russell's work but I constantly felt let down by their weight, i.e. I kept feeling there was something more to her stories that she wasn't saying, or that there was something more that could be said. This, as criticism goes, is more on me, as a reader, but I guess as contemplative aspects to her storytelling go, I was left very underwhelmed.

I do like that whimsy abounds in the world of Karen Russell's fiction. I feel like Terry Gilliam, on his less morose days, could direct the hell out of one of her tales. That's another thing, Russell's stories feel like they should more appropriately be referred to as tales. I see in her writing some of the same things I've liked about the writing of authors like Stephen O'Connor, under whom Russell apparently has studied. But like O'Connor, she writes stories that don't always fully commit to their subject matter. Her whimsy feels only halfheartedly implemented, like an author who'd prefer to be writing fiction of a more realist bent but who likewise feels as though (s)he is not making enough of his/her creative abilities by doing so. Had George Saunders never existed, I feel like Karen Russell would be a very different kind of writer, as would many who appear in publications such as The New Yorker.

Allow me to further explain. Irreverent settings in Russell's stories strike me as having little point or no point OR have a hyper-telegraphed point (e.g. "Out to Sea" in which a retirement community has been built of old boats and so forth, and its denizens are literally isolated from society by this means, which it doesn't take a master of metaphysics to make the connection between this and an elderly inhabitant's emotional isolation, also). It's fine that the settings don't immediately or necessarily relate to the plot, in the former and alternative case listed above, but then why have the plot be something as vanilla as coming-of-age in an ice rink or giant conch shells? The concerns of the characters, most of which are children, are so ordinary and everyday that the whole collection begins to feel like it's on repeat, just with required changes in costume and scenary. (This would also explain why I think I liked "St. Lucy's" earliest-appearing stories the most*.)

I hate to just heap the negative criticism on a work like this, especially knowing that A.) Karen Russell is a skilled writer whom I can absolutely understand people liking and 2.) you could easily argue my position is one of a different school of thought. But like Stephen O'Connor, Russell shows a lot of creative agility and I'm disappointed by writers I feel could be doing far better than their body of work. With luck, that's what "Swamplandia!" is for Russell -- especially considering how I felt about her "20 Under 40" New Yorker story. It was far superior to anything I've read in "St. Lucy's." I'm not sure when I'll be willing to give Russell a try again, though. She frustrated the hell out of me.

*My favorites of this collection were "Ava Wrestles the Alligator" and "Z.Z's Sleep-Away Camp For Disordered Dreamers."

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Now I Know About Jobs For Women and Girls: the 2nd Bibliographing Challenge

Alissa Nutting is another young author you should take time out to read. She has a macabre view of life, at least as shown through her fiction. I like that. I ENCOURAGE it. Or the plan is that I will dedicate my life to the promotion of such things, ENCOURAGING such things as the hilarious macabre in fiction, for one thing I will do / am doing. (Check out Lindsay Hunter, Amelia Gray, Faith Gardner and Jill Summers if you're looking for more of this kind of good stuff (and yes, I've provided links, but there's more by all four authors athwart the internet and elsewhere, which you should also read).)

Nutting is also the second of two writers I challenged Nicole of bibliographing to read. Nicole, never being one to back down from a reading challenge of any sort, did just that. (Check out Nicole's good thoughts on the subject here, in fact.)

So without further ado, and not much reiteration of my "take that, challenged" etc. refrain of last time, here are my thoughts on Nutting's debut short story collection, "Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls."

The first story in the collection is called "Dinner." It's about a motley assortment of individuals being boiled alive in a kettle. I was reminded of cartoons in which the protagonist is set into similar circumstances, misinterpreting the situation at first as some sort of spa-treatment and, in specific, Jacuzzi, complete with a ravenous antagonist chopping carrots nearby. The inhabitants of the kettle are a little more immediately aware of their plight than, say, Bugs Bunny.

We are given, probably not surprisingly considering the entire collection's title, an offering of this experience through the narrative lens of the only female in the bunch, a bunch of six altogether. There's a weird pragmatism and a fatalistic resignation to her description. She describes the others by the degrees of their attractiveness as men, human beings and, disconcertingly, as meals. "The men do not look so delicious."

"'There are worse ways to die,' I tell myself, 'than being boiled then sliced with a knife.' But it takes me awhile to think of one." This is the sort of black humor that the piece drives on. The story itself is probably too outlandish to take its subject matter as seriously as it might have, i.e. sincere rumination on the cruelty of man feels misplaced when at several points an evil-seeming chef enters their boiling chamber to remove one of their ranks for preparation and consumption. Couple that with the fact that the narrator immediately gets it in her head to dive unthinkingly into faux-love with the nearest, most innocuous seeming of the men who surround her (e.g. she says: "'I love you,' I say. It's coming from a good-pretend place. I just want to pack as much into these last few moments as I can."), and what you have is a really charged story, powered by a comic eye for the absurd and a willingness to poke fun at the human condition, wherever said condition rears its terse, too serious head.

And while generally humorous throughout, there are a great many stories here that do in fact hit dramatic high notes and demonstrate considerable range on the part of their author. One in particular is "She-Man" -- which just by its title starts off by sounding a little callous, yet ultimately proves to be anything but. Human callousness factors into the story heavily, though. Deceit and love are components as well. I've never seen "The Crying Game" but "She-Man" strikes me, based on what I've heard of "The Crying Game," as a more honest appraisal of its outcome (at least a very different appraisal).

The narrator, an unnamed woman, is a complex person, hitherto the time of the story she'd been a transgendered prostitute in the employ of a pimp named "Daddy V." Daddy is as huge an asshole as one would assume a man of that moniker would be. He makes life hard for the protagonist, reentering her life and attempting to blackmail her and extort money from her boyfriend, a professional bowler named Ginno. Ginno is unaware of the fact that she was once a man, which is where Daddy's blackmail enters the equation. But she's unwilling to manipulate Ginno, in every way a lovable loser, into giving her the lion's share of his recent payday after a big tournament win.

Or as she puts it:

He wants the money. All of it, the whole pot of Ginno's winnings. Daddy didn't change the channel until he saw Ginno receive an oversized $30,000 check.

The terrible part is that I know I could invent some story that makes it seem like I really need the money and Ginno would have no problem giving it to me. Somehow that means there is no way that I could ever bring myself to do it. He's the first and only decent man I've ever been with. And that makes me a decent woman.
So she attempts to pay him off herself, which goes not the way she probably wanted. The whole thing turns into a massive nightmare, and despite her best intentions, the narrator is undone by her deception. I'll say no more of that.

"Dancing Rat" is another of the stories that I found particularly enjoyable. It tells the tale of a woman who plays the part of a mouse named Sneezoid on a kid's dance show called Whisker-Bop! It's also about her relationship with her infertile boyfriend and, also, her relationship with her young, opinionated co-star Missy. The interplay between Missy and the narrator, in specific, is peculiar. Missy is as manipulative and bratty as privileged people get. The narrator won't be browbeaten by her, though, if she is at least in general kowtowing and servile to her demands.

Others I really enjoyed and highly recommend "Gardner," "Deliverywoman" and "Bandleader's Girlfriend."

Probably the only story that really missed its mark (and of course we're talking purely opinion here) was "Hellion." I thought it ambitious, and it had a really excellent concept: a hell-bound woman, or "Hellion," who becomes entangled in a romantic relationship with the devil. What could go wrong? Well, for my tastes the story was just sort of blah, nothing much happens. I guess I'm complaining about what I felt could have happened more than I am what did. I suppose that's an irritating position to take, but I've never promised I'm not irritating in a great many ways. Read it and see what you think.

Go, go now and read it!