Violence and derision

March 1, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The Jokers. Albert Cossery, Anna Moschovakis, trans; $17.95 paper 978-1-59017-325-1, 150 pp., New York Review Books.

The ongoing unrest spreading across the Middle East provides a suitable opportunity to revisit Albert Cossery’s short 1964 novel The Jokers, a book about a group of political upstarts that seems bracingly relevant in the context of protests in Lybia, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and elsewhere in the Arab world.

Cossery’s novel is set in a city in an unnamed Middle Eastern country where a brutally repressive yet incompetent governor holds complete sway. The governor has banned panhandling, effectively criminalizing the impoverished segment of society. Vagrants and beggars have been rounded up by police enforcing the governor’s dictate that “the city must be liberated from the lowlifes that had taken to swarming like ants at a picnic in even the most respectable streets.” As the novel opens, a policeman is preparing to roust a beggar from a storefront. After attacking the vagrant with peals of verbal abuse that are ignored, the policeman – “this zealous servant of a mighty state” – physically assaults the figure. As he shakes the man “with savage fury,” the beggar’s head pulls away from his body and the policeman is left clutching it “like a bloody trophy.”

The opening scene of the novel presents a microcosm of Cossery’s tone and approach. The scene is dripping in irony: the policeman is depicted as a perspiring buffoon mopping at his face with a handkerchief that is “as coarse and dirty as a dishrag.” The beggar, by contrast, is “a finer specimen” of vagrant than the policeman is used to seeing, and he appears “lounging comfortably at the corner of a brand-new, quite splendid building.” The building houses a bank and a jeweler’s, two businesses “that demanded immediate protection from the rabble.” Cossery reverses our expectations by depicting the policeman as the more slovenly of the two characters, and establishes the social order of the city by underscoring the need to protect the rich (bankers, jewelers) from the ravages of the poor (vagrants and beggars). The irony is intensified when the policeman assaults the beggar, who assumes “the proud and thoroughly disdainful attitude of the dead”; a dead bum is “worth less than nothing” and “might even get him fired,” the fear of which prompts the policeman to try to shake the beggar awake, in the process detaching the head.

It becomes clear that the policeman has not beheaded a human being: the beggar is a mannequin left on the sidewalk by Karim, one of the jokers of the book’s title. Karim’s bit of sport pays off as the crowd that has gathered fills “with the sense of gleeful malice that is felt on the street whenever some representative of authority is dealt a blow.” Along with his partners – Khaled Omar, an illiterate businessman, Heykal, an unemployed man living off a small inheritance, and Urfy, a schoolteacher – Karim has devised a plan to subvert the authority of the governor and call attention to the incompetence of the city’s administration. They plan to plaster the city with posters praising the governor in such effusive terms that no one will be able to take them seriously. By drawing ironic attention to the governor’s inadequacies, they hope to expose him for the fraud he truly is.

The practical jokers in Cossery’s novel undertake to confront the absurdity of governmental incompetence with a concomitant absurdity in their rebellion against it. In this, it is Heykal who acts as their mouthpiece, claiming to know two things about challenging authority: “Number one is that the world we live in is governed by the most revolting bunch of crooks to ever defile the soil of this planet … Number two is that you must never take them seriously, for that is exactly what they want.” Heykal understands that taking the governor seriously would only lend him an undeserved legitimacy:

Each day brought more proof that in his initiatives and public speeches the governor dreamed of nothing so much as making Heykal happy by gratifying his sense of the absurd – as if he suspected that someone, somewhere in the city, was just waiting to rejoice over yet another non-sensical deed. As a buffoon he lacked for nothing; how could Heykal not love him? To kill him would be blasphemy. That’s what the pigheaded revolutionaries who fought him outright didn’t get: that they were giving him a reason to take himself seriously. To Heykal, the crimes of power were so obvious there was no need to shout them in the streets. Even a child could see.

Heykal is the ringleader of the group; he is also the focal point for Cossery’s blistering ironies. His philosophy of meeting absurdity with absurdity is counterpointed in the novel’s latter stages with that of Taher, a revolutionary dedicated to overthrowing the governor by more conventional, violent means. Taher represents a manifestation of the frustrated disenfranchisement that results from repression and government coercion, but he is also blind to the unintended consequences of his plan of action. By embarrassing the governor, the jokers hope to rob him of his power; by killing him, Taher will unwittingly make him into a martyr. The philosophical divide is laid out in an extended dialogue late in the novel:

“Games,” [Heykal] said, looking pensive. “You’re right to talk about that. Because we’re all playing a game, aren’t we, Taher effendi? I profoundly regret that my game has given you offense and caused you trouble. But any man has the right to express his rebellion in his own way. Mine is what it is; at least it doesn’t harm the innocent.”

“How infantile!” Taher retorted disdainfully. “I don’t doubt your intelligence, Heykal effendi, not in the least. But excuse me if I tell you that you’re just having fun while the people are suffering from oppression. Fun is no way to fight. Violence must be met with violence. And forget about innocence!”

“Violence will never get to the bottom of this absurd world,” Heykal responded. “That’s just was these tyrants want: for you to take them seriously. To answer violence with violence shows that you take them seriously, that you believe in their justice and their authority, and it only builds them up. But I’m cutting them down.”

“I don’t see how! There is no historical basis to what you do – to your insipid farces!”

“How? It’s easy. By letting the tyrants lead the way and being even stupider than they are. How far will they go? Well, I’ll go farther. They’ll have to prove themselves the greatest buffoons of all! And my pleasure will be that much greater.”

“But the people!” cried Taher. The poor people! You forget about them. They’re not laughing!”

“Teach them to laugh,” Taher effendi. “Now that is a noble cause.”

This exchange is perhaps too didactic, and Cossery lays out the opposing poles of his argument perhaps too explicitly. Nevertheless, the philosophical underpinnings of his story are strong and the stakes that the characters play for are high. The novel’s original French title, Violence et la dérision, is at once more subtle and more closely linked to the story’s underlying themes. If the entire novel can be seen as an extended debate about which of the two is a more effective weapon against tyranny, by the end of the book little doubt remains as to which side the author comes down on.

Lost in the shadows

February 5, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The Four Stages of Cruelty. Keith Hollihan; $29.99 cloth 978-0-312-59247-9, 394 pp., Thomas Dunne Books.

Sometimes the experience of reading one book informs the experience of reading another. Books do not exist in a vacuum, and each successive work has a place on an evolving continuum of literature against which it will be judged and, in some cases, found wanting.

I came to Keith Hollihan’s debut novel, The Four Stages of Cruelty, immediately after finishing Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling. Although not precisely a prison novel, Carpenter’s book does feature a section set in a reform school and another in San Quentin. The Four Stages of Cruelty, by contrast, is very definitely a prison novel: it tells the story of Kali Williams, a corrections officer at Ditmarsh Penitentiary, and her relationship with Joshua Riff, a teenaged inmate incarcerated for murder. Kali is charged with escorting Josh to his father’s funeral; while the two are on the road, she breaks her own rule about maintaining an emotional distance between herself and the prison inmates, and falls into a conversation with the young man. Josh tries to give Kali a comic book he has drawn about life inside Ditmarsh, and although she refuses to accept it, she quickly finds herself getting sucked into the internecine world of corruption and deceit the book portrays.

Hollihan wants to depict the shifting morality and questionable ethics that operate within an enclosed environment where it is frequently difficult to discern the good guys from the bad. As “one of only 26 women on a corrections staff of 312,” Kali has developed a heightened cynicism as a coping mechanism; this is juxtaposed with Josh’s almost blithe naïveté. (The narrative alternates between Kali’s first-person sections, and Josh’s, which are told in the third person.) “I can think of no gentle way to begin,” says Kali at the outset, and indeed the book is replete with violence and acts of degradation. But Kali is interested in exploring “the mystery of compassion” that can assert itself in even such a seemingly inimical environment as Ditmarsh, which adds a philosophical note to the story.

Unfortunately, all of this is presented in a manner that is too schematic to be entirely satisfying. Kali learns that Josh was a member of an art therapy group run by Brother Mike, a civilian, or “weak sister” in prison parlance. Brother Mike does pottery: “It’s comforting to me,” he tells Kali, “that beauty can come from violence, if only in metaphor.” The heaviness of this is typical of Brother Mike’s function in the book, which is more or less to act as a mouthpiece for Hollihan’s thematic concerns. Not that such vocalization is necessary. Hollihan peppers his narrative with pithy epigrammatic reminders that the story is attempting to deal with weighty themes: “Hope was like an adrenaline shot,” we are told. “It gave you a jolt of heart-thumping life and left you beat to shit afterward.”

But these themes are ineffectively grafted onto a pulp storyline involving a former inmate, known as the Beggar, who secreted a cache of money within the prison walls. Even this lowbrow plot is ineffectively handled: the novel’s climax involves a prison riot that does not build the necessary tension, and there is a beheading that recalls the Daniel Pearl incident in a way that verges on exploitation.

The novel’s various parts never coalesce, and the high-minded philosophical musings seem like an afterthought meant to lend a pulp story a veneer of mock grandeur. This is in stark contrast to the very real philosophical heft of Hard Rain Falling, a novel that seamlessly integrates its existential elements into its story. Here, for example, is a passage from the reform school section of Carpenter’s novel:

There were six punishment cells, and communication of a sort could be made by yelling, but most of the time it required too much effort, or Jack’s senses were gone and he could not hear. But sometimes he did. He could hear other boys being brought in, yelling, cursing, some of them crying, and he himself suppressed all feelings of pity for the others; they did not pity him. They probably thought he was some kind of hero. Well, fuck them, too. Maybe in the cells they would learn the truth as he had, and know that nothing existed but a single spark of energy, and that spark could die for no reason, and existed for no reason. Then they would understand that it does no good to cry out, because a spark of energy has no ears; the ears are a lie, a joke, a dream, to keep the spark going, and there is no reason to keep the spark going. Any more than there is a reason for letting it go out.

By contrast, here is Brother Mike in conversation with Josh in The Four Stages of Cruelty:

“Since the early days of this country, there have been men with good intentions who thought the secret to reform was changing a man’s behavior. If you can’t change character, they felt, then why not change how a felon acts in the world? I don’t think that’s the answer. It’s a kind of programming for reducing incidents of violence, with dubious results. The soul needs more attention than that. You might as well wait until a man is old and toothless if you want to solve the problem of violence. Let nature run its course, and a man gets too weary to take such instant and disproportionate offense at all the perceived slights of the world. But that doesn’t mean he’s a better man.”

“But what if he’s a better man before his time is up – isn’t it unjust to forget about him for a couple of decades or so?” Josh was roused to his own defense. He knew it was a trick. You weren’t supposed to question the calculus of justice.

There is a kind of facile obviousness to the Hollihan passage that is completely absent from Carpenter’s writing. Some would suggest that such comparisons are unfair; I prefer to align myself with James Joyce, who felt that every time he wrote he was in competition with Shakespeare and Dante. Would I have liked The Four Stages of Cruelty more had I not just come off reading Hard Rain Falling? It’s impossible to say. Knowing that Carpenter’s novel is so strong, does Hollihan’s appear pale by comparison? Without a doubt.

Dostoevsky in America

January 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Hard Rain Falling. Don Carpenter; $21.00 paper 978-1-59017-324-4, 308 pp., New York Review Books.

Although Don Carpenter’s eight finished novels and two collections of stories received critical acclaim during the author’s lifetime, almost all of them are out of print today, and Carpenter can hardly be called one of America’s best-known literary luminaries. New York Review Books, which in the past few years has become an invaluable resource for bringing renewed attention to unjustly forgotten or overlooked literary works, did a great service by reissuing Carpenter’s coruscating first novel, 1966’s Hard Rain Falling, in 2009.

When critics discuss the novel (if they discuss it at all), they tend to refer to it as a crime novel or a prison story. Jonathan Lethem, a longtime admirer of Carpenter’s, calls Hard Rain Falling “one of the best prison novels in American literature,” but this is reductive in the extreme. Indeed, only about one-third of the book, which tells the story of orphan and drifter Jack Levitt, takes place in reform school, or later, San Quentin. The balance of the novel follows Jack as he meanders through various encounters in pool halls and dive bars, eventually settling into a domestic story involving Jack’s attempt to redeem himself by marrying and fathering a son. The San Quentin material, which forms the central third of the novel, is convincingly rendered, and would certainly have been controversial in 1966 due to its overtly homosexual content, but nevertheless accounts for only one aspect of a much larger, more ambitious narrative.

Richard Price comes closer to the mark when he refers to Hard Rain Falling as “a beat-era book of disaffected young men devoid of On the Road euphoria but more poignant and gripping for its fatalistic grounding.” It is, however, not only the lack of euphoria that sets Carpenter’s novel apart from On the Road. Kerouac, who was raised Catholic, was always quick to point out that the Beat Generation was “basically a religious generation,” and that what the characters in On the Road were pursuing was a kind of spiritual enlightenment. John Clellon Holmes recognized that Kerouac’s characters were “on a quest, and that the specific object of their quest was spiritual. Though they rushed back and forth across the country on the slightest pretext, gathering kicks along the way, their real journey was inward; and if they seemed to trespass most boundaries, legal and moral, it was only in the hope of finding a belief on the other side.”

Jack, by contrast, is not possessed of a spiritual vision. Quite the contrary: his early experiences at the orphanage have rendered any notion of spiritual transcendence fanciful at best.

At the orphanage they had gone to religious services every Sunday morning in the dining room and listened to different preachers tell them that God loved them especially because they were orphans and that they had a hard lot in life, but the hardness of their lot gave them a precious opportunity to be particularly saintly in their conduct, to be obedient, to be moral, without having placed in front of them the temptations toward sin that come to children who have sinful parents around them, tempting them away from the path of goodness by their bad example; how they, the children of the orphanage, were the results of the sins of their fathers, and yet at the same time had this great opportunity to lead blameless, uncontaminated lives of purity and virtue; to obey the rules and be especially beloved of Jesus Christ, who Himself disowned His own Mother and made Himself into an orphan, so to speak … But it did not take much thinking on their part to see that if Jesus Christ and God approved of the administration of the orphanage, in fact preferred it to home and parents, then they were the enemies of the orphanage children because if that hollow cavity in their souls was the love of God then God was the murderer of love.

Later on, while incarcerated in San Quentin, Jack thinks that “there has got to be a God, because only an insane God could have created such a universe.” Jack’s blasphemous philosophy is based in a repudiation of spirituality, not a Kerouac-like pursuit of it. Early in the novel, as if to underline a fidelity to his almost anti-religious worldview, Jack’s teenage yearnings are described in precise, earthly detail:

He had desires, and nobody was going to drop out of the sky to satisfy them. He tried to milk a little self-pity out of this thought, but it did not work: he had to recognize that he preferred his singularity, his freedom. All right. He knew what he wanted. He wanted some money. He wanted a piece of ass. He wanted a big dinner, with all the trimmings. He wanted a bottle of whiskey. He wanted a car, in which he could drive a hundred miles an hour (he had only recently learned how to drive, and he loved the feelings of speed and control, the sharpness of the danger). He wanted some new clothes and thirty-dollar shoes. He wanted a .45 automatic. He wanted a record player in the big hotel room he wanted, so he could lie in bed with his whiskey and the piece of ass and listen to “How High the Moon” and “Artistry Jumps.” That was what he wanted. So it was up to him to get these things.

Jack’s dearth of spiritual belief is bundled up in the fact that he is unable to “milk a little self-pity” out of the realization that “nobody was going to drop out of the sky” to give him what he wants. Rather, Jack understands, “it was up to him to get these things.” Like Dean Moriarty in On the Road, Jack pursues freedom, but unlike Dean, he does not do so in any kind of mystic capacity. Still, Jack is not without what he calls a “vision” for his future, a vision that he feels involves “a wildness in itself, a succession of graduated pleasures and loves and joys.” Conceiving of himself as a “cynical optimist,” he imagines that his “vague” and “childish” hopes are preferable to those whose lives have already been laid out for them:

If they seemed too noisy, too wild, too defiant, perhaps it was a little out of desperation, because lying before them were endless years of dull existence, shabby jobs, unattractive mates, and brats with no more future than themselves.

There is a piercing irony in the fact that Jack’s adolescent fear of becoming trapped in a life of domesticity and responsibility is realized after his release from San Quentin, when he meets and eventually marries Sally, the boozy ex-wife of a motion picture actor. The couple has a child, which Jack names Billy after his friend and prison cellmate (with whom Jack had a homosexual affair while incarcerated). Carpenter employs a number of ironic reversals in the novel’s final section, as Jack’s earlier lust for freedom and disdain for authority are supplanted by an incipient love for his son, which sees him taking a series of thankless jobs in order to raise enough money to support his family. When Sally becomes pregnant, Jack’s earlier dismissal of his own conception – “A penis squirts, and I am doomed to a life of death” – is turned on its head as he begins to see in his son the vague possibility of his own redemption. Sally, meanwhile, finds domestic life an unbearable constraint on her desire to socialize and run free; she frequently leaves Billy in the custody of a Chinese babysitter while she goes out drinking.

Jack’s existential malaise crystallizes in his terrified realization that there is nothing he can do to ensure that his child will grow up safe from the scourges of a fallen world:

It was an awful word. Nothing. It made him sick at heart. He refused to believe in it. He demanded that there be something he could do. He demanded that his love be worth something to his child. If it wasn’t, life was garbage. He had to rule out the idea that life was just a matter of accident, or percentages, because it was just too goddam much to stand for. Even if it was true, he was determined to live as if it were false.

This determination ultimately proves illusory, as it must for someone whose entire existence is vested in a rebellion against institutionalized order, a rebellion that begins in the orphanage and continues right through his stay in prison. At the end of the novel, Jack has not abandoned his pursuit of freedom, but his conception of it has changed substantially:

[The] freedom he had always yearned for and never understood was beyond his or any man’s reach, and … all men must yearn for it equally; a freedom from the society of mankind without its absence; a freedom from connection, from fear, from trouble, and above all from the loneliness of being alive.

This passage from the final section of the novel – a section titled, not incidentally, “Meaningful Lives” – puts the lie to those who want to reduce the novel to a mere crime story. The pervasive existentialism, so reminiscent of Dostoevsky (a writer Jack admires, because they both spent time in prison), is only one layer in a story that deals incisively with matters of class, race, and sexuality. George Pelecanos, in his introduction to the New York Review Books edition, calls Hard Rain Falling a novel of ideas, which seems correct. “As in all good literature,” Pelecanos writes, “it attempts to answer the question of why we’re here and does so in a provocative way.” It is a powerhouse novel, which deserves to find a new audience.

Here comes the sun

March 25, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

Solar. Ian McEwan; Knopf Canada, $32.00 cloth, 300 pp., 978-0-307-39924-3.

There is a sequence in Ian McEwan’s new novel so astounding in its control, so deft in its pacing, so wicked in its ironic inversions, it can effectively stand as a microcosm of all the best elements in the author’s not insubstantial oeuvre. Barely nine pages long, this bravura set-piece involves nothing more exotic or esoteric than a bag of crisps purchased at an airport kiosk. I am not going to describe how this sequence unfolds, because it works best if a reader arrives at it with no prior foreknowledge. Suffice it to say that the scene is a staggering example of why McEwan has been recognized as one of the finest living practitioners of the novelist’s craft. A lesser writer, having created such an impeccable scene, would have felt content to leave it there, but McEwan returns to the bag of crisps story twice more in his narrative, for different reasons and to different effects, each time adding another layer of irony to the telling.

If Solar had nothing else to recommend it, the bag of crisps and its attendant fallout would be more than sufficient to command a reader’s attention. Indeed, most books would not be able to survive such a scene, coming as it does around the narrative’s midpoint: everything afterward would seem like so much anticlimax. But Solar – a galloping and ferocious read more plot-driven than most of McEwan’s recent books – finds the author firing on all cylinders, and should anyone doubt how good he can be when he’s operating at the peak of his powers, this novel should provide the answer: very, very good indeed.

Solar tells the story of Michael Beard, an overweight, slovenly physicist who won a Nobel Prize for what has come to be known as The Beard–Einstein Conflation. He has received honorary degrees, held various university posts and sinecures, but his best work is two decades behind him. When the novel opens, in the year 2000, Beard is 53, “a man of narrowed mental condition, anhedonic, monothematic, stricken.” Beard’s anhedonia is the first of the novel’s many reversals: an inveterate womanizer, he is currently attached to wife number five, and has embarked on 11 affairs during his time with her. “Weren’t marriages, his marriages, tidal, with one rolling out just before another rolled in?” Beard ponders. But his current quandary is bound up with his “stricken” condition: in an attempt to even the score, his wife, Patrice, has embarked on an affair with the builder who has been working on the couple’s home. She is having this affair “flagrantly, punitively, certainly without remorse,” leaving Beard to “[discover] in himself, among an array of emotions, intense moments of shame and longing.”

Shame is not an emotion that McEwan’s protagonist wears comfortably or easily: he is selfish, manipulative, and frequently duplicitous. Having nearly bankrupted the research facility he works for (a government think-tank based on the real-life National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado) by proposing a futile and prohibitively expensive energy-reduction scheme involving domestic wind turbines, Beard hopes to revivify his dormant professional reputation by stealing a plan to use photovoltaics – harnessing the sun’s radiation as a sustainable energy resource – to solve the world environmental crisis. An early climate-change skeptic, Beard has a conversion following his return from an expedition to the North Pole, where he is meant to “see global warming for himself,” and he sets in motion a series of events that will have consequences for both his professional and personal lives.

Solar has been described as a “climate change comedy,” and it is a deeply, profoundly funny book. But the climate change aspects of McEwan’s narrative, and the concomitant background research that has so clearly informed this material, are ultimately less interesting than the human comedy surrounding Beard and his unravelling personal relationships. McEwan’s incisive vivisection of a particularly male impulse toward infidelity at times rivals Roth, and he is merciless in his dissection of one member of “that class of men – vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever – who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women.” Beard, who is “never a complete cad,” still identifies one lover’s belief “that he could plausibly fit the part of a good husband and father” as “a flaw in her character, like a trapped bubble in a window pane, that warped her view” of him. McEwan has created an unlikable character with whom we nevertheless remain sympathetic, in part because of Beard’s own honest self-awareness: “Like many clever men who prize objectivity, he was a solipsist at heart, and in his heart was a nugget of ice.” Examining himself in the bathroom mirror, Beard is “disbelieving”:

What engines of self-persuasion had let him think for so many years that looking like this was seductive? That foolish thatch of earlobe-level hair that buttressed his baldness, the new curtain-swag of fat that hung below his armpits, the innocent stupidity of swelling in gut and rear. Once, he had been able to improve on his mirror-self by pinning back his shoulders, standing erect, tightening his abs. Now, human blubber draped his efforts. How could he possibly keep hold of a young woman as beautiful as [Patrice] was? Had he honestly thought that his Nobel Prize would keep her in his bed? Naked, he was a disgrace, an idiot, a weakling.

There are readers who will no doubt find such passages unnecessarily nasty, verging on cruel, but such readers would do well to bear in mind the long tradition of body comedy in English literature, both contemporary (see Amis, Martin) and classical (see Shakespeare, William). Indeed, there is a certain Falstaffian quality in Beard’s gluttonous pursuit of physical pleasure, whether it be women, food, booze, or some combination of all three. Moreover, McEwan’s characterization of Beard – his mental acuity and his physical grotesqueness – are central to the author’s approach in the book, which is dependent on the comedic irony that arises from the gulf between scientific objectivity and emotional muddiness.

McEwan’s ironies cut deep and hard. Beard, who becomes a passionate advocate for sustainable energy and environmental awareness, at one point delivering a speech that would make Al Gore sit up and listen, spends much of the novel on planes or in cars, injecting fossil fuels into the atmosphere by the bucketful. In his vast appetites, he is the very embodiment of our modern drive to consume, to hoard, to ingest. His eventual comeuppance is perhaps meant to indicate that humanity cannot go on raping the planet’s resources without paying a price for it down the line. The fact that this message is contained within a frankly comic novel only serves to underline its essential seriousness.

Eliza Doolittle in Prada shoes

November 19, 2009 by · 6 Comments 

The Humbling. Philip Roth; Hamish Hamilton Canada, $30.00 cloth, 150 pp., 978-0-670-06971-2.

There’s no shortage of erotic fiction; what distinguishes Roth’s is its outrageousness. In a world where it is increasingly difficult to be “erotically” shocking, considerable feats of imagination are required to produce a charge of outrage adequate to his purposes. It is therefore not easy to understand why people complain and say things like “this time he’s gone over the top” by being too outrageous about women, the Japanese, the British, his friends and acquaintances, and so forth. For if nobody feels outraged the whole strategy has failed.

– Frank Kermode

humblingYes, ever since Roth had poor, neurotic Portnoy violate that hunk of raw liver, one facet of his ongoing project has been to imagine and describe increasingly outrageous sex acts in all their … um … naked glory. Fetishism, voyeurism, water sports, onanism, older women with younger men, older men with younger women, sodomy, threesomes: at one point or another all of these and more have made appearances in Roth’s fiction. And, indeed, the response to what critic Mark Shechner has called Roth’s “testosterobatics” has been, from many circles, outrage – in particular, because the priapism in Roth’s novels is presented without any trace of moralizing judgment or qualification. Referring to Sabbath’s Theater, perhaps the most extensive and explicit catalogue of sexual escapades and peccadilloes in Roth’s not insubstantial oeuvre (and the book that prompted the Kermode comment above), Shechner avers that the novel “refuses to justify itself, to claim its outlawry to be more than outlawry, its naked psychic spillage more than naked psychic spillage.”

Of course, “naked psychic spillage” on its own would be entirely uninteresting, except from the perspective of pornography; what elevates Roth’s writing is his brazen intensity, his unvarnished honesty in laying bare the often uncomfortable truths about the masculine psyche, his seething anger at our commonly accepted societal hypocrisies, and his apparent inability to craft a boring sentence. Moreover, for a literary writer of Roth’s stature, his late-career output has been astounding, on both a qualitative and quantitative level.

Indeed, when Sabbath’s Theater appeared in 1995, it was suggested that the novel represented the apogee of everything the author had intended to say in his career; following its publication, many expected Roth to retreat into a cozy retirement. Two years later, he published American Pastoral, the first of a monumental trilogy that eviscerated postwar America in a furious volley of righteous indignation. American Pastoral is not only one of the greatest American novels of the last 25 years, it signalled the onset of a late-career rebirth for Roth. Volume after volume appeared, on an almost annual basis, each one as potent as the last.

Following the corrosively political American Trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain), Roth, by then approaching his 70s, turned his attention to the twin subjects of aging and death. With the exception of his Sinclair Lewis–inspired alternate history, The Plot Against America, and the college-age protagonist of last year’s Indignation, Roth’s novels became meditations on the various ways the body betrays us as we make our inevitable march to the grave. They were also paeans to masculine sexuality, which remains potent long after the ravages of the body have removed the ability to do anything about it. Both David Kepesh in The Dying Animal and Nathan Zuckerman in Exit Ghost try to recapture some of their lost youth by becoming involved with much younger women, a tactic that is also employed by Simon Axler in Roth’s latest novel, The Humbling.

Axler, who is 65 when the novel opens, is described as “the last of the best of the classical American stage actors” (substitute the word “writers” and this description could easily fit Axler’s creator). But unlike Zuckerman in Exit Ghost, rendered impotent by an operation on a cancerous prostate, Axler’s impotence is of a different kind: he has lost the ability to act. Cast as Prospero and Macbeth in productions at the Kennedy Center, “he failed appallingly at both.” “He couldn’t do low-intensity Shakespeare,” Roth writes, “and he couldn’t do high-intensity Shakespeare – and he’d been doing Shakespeare all his life. His Macbeth was ludicrous and everyone who saw it said as much, and so did many who hadn’t seen it.”

Filled with existential dread at the prospect of losing the one thing that gave his life meaning Axler retreats into a state of despair that causes his wife to leave him and sends him into a downward spiral of suicidal depression. What lifts him out of his torpor – at least temporarily – is the affair that he initiates with Pegeen Mike Stapleford, the daughter of an acting couple who were once Axler’s good friends. Pegeen is 25 years Axler’s junior. She is also a lesbian. When Pegeen drops by to visit Axler one day, she tends to his scraped hand after he takes a tumble and offers him a glass of water; this act of common tenderness arouses dormant erotic feelings in Axler, who seduces the younger woman. Pegeen comes bearing emotional baggage – her long-term girlfriend has betrayed her by undergoing hormone therapy and deciding to pursue sex reassignment surgery – and a toy chest full of goodies such as a cat o’ nine tails and a strap-on dildo.

This, of course, is where Roth brings on the outrage. The sex in the novel is typically explicit, but also traffics in a kind of adolescent male wish-fulfillment fantasy aspect:

At first she lost her know-how up there and he had to guide her with his two hands to give her the idea. “I don’t know what to do,” Pegeen said shyly. “You’re on a horse,” Axler told her. “Ride it.” When he worked his thumb into her ass she sighed with pleasure and whispered, “Nobody’s ever put anything in there before” – “Unlikely,” he whispered back – and when later he put his cock in there, she took as much as she could of it until she couldn’t take any more. “Did it hurt?” he asked her. “It hurt, but it’s you.” Often she would hold his cock in her palm afterward and stare as the erection subsided. “What are you contemplating?” he asked. “It fills you up,” she said, “the way dildos and fingers don’t. It’s alive. It’s a living thing.”

There is quite a lot of this kind of thing, much of it playing off a rather tired recapitulation of the Madonna/whore dichotomy.

Although the novel attempts to imply that the act of embarking on a sexual affair with Axler was done under Pegeen’s volition, impelled by her sense of anger and betrayal at her ex-girlfriend’s decision – “If Priscilla could become a heterosexual male, Pegeen could become a heterosexual female” – the active agent in the early stages is Axler, who seduces the younger woman by playing a Schubert recording for her, then keeps her by buying her expensive clothes and Prada shoes. The caricaturing of the lesbian character as obviously indulgent in the fetishism of sex toys is offensive, and the notion that a homosexual woman can be easily “turned” by a suitably potent and generous male reflects the perpetuation of a pernicious misogynist myth. It is unclear what the point is of making Pegeen a lesbian in the first place – if it is meant as a skewering of our politically correct sanctimonies, this hardly comes across, and if, as Frank Kermode suggests, it is meant to produce “a charge of outrage adequate to [Roth’s] purposes,” what that purpose might be remains, in this instance, obscure.

Axler is a stage actor, and the middle section of the novel, titled “The Transformation,” clearly evokes Pygmalion; Axler is a kind of latter-day Henry Higgins, outfitting his Eliza Doolittle in designer clothes and jewellery, buying her “luxurious lingerie to replace the sport bras and gay briefs” and “little satin babydolls to replace her flannel pajamas.” He takes her to a hair stylist so that she can have her hair cut “in a style unlike the cropped mannish one she’d favored throughout her adult life.” Watching his reluctant charge in the hairdresser’s chair, “sitting there at the edge of humiliation, unable even to look at her reflection,” Axler begins to question the motivation behind the affair:

What is the draw of a woman like this to a man who is losing so much? Wasn’t he making her pretend to be someone other than who she was? Wasn’t he dressing her up in costume as though a costly skirt could dispose of nearly two decades of lived experience? Wasn’t he distorting her while telling himself a lie – and a lie that in the end might be anything but harmless? What if he proved to be no more than a brief male intrusion into a lesbian life?

The conflict between Axler’s impulse to dress Pegeen in the costume of a heterosexual woman – as though she were merely playing a role on the stage, one that she can easily slough off once the performance is over – and the larger implications of indulging in “a lie that in the end might be anything but harmless” provides the middle section of the book with a kind of ironic tension, but whether this is sufficient to overcome the misogynistic stereotyping that pervades the narrative is a question that even the most sympathetic reader will have difficulty answering in the affirmative.

Of course, Roth is a tragedian, which means that things don’t turn out well for Axler. Whether Pegeen was or was not an active accomplice in initiating the affair, whether it was indeed her conscious decision to renounce her experience with her ex-girlfriend in the most dramatic way she could imagine, in the final section of the book she becomes the driving force in determining Axler’s fate; individual readers will have to decide whether her role in Axler’s humbling is sufficient to rescue the novel from the cartoonish  nature of what has gone before.

In the book’s final 10 pages, Roth does manage to hit his stride: the pent-up rage that Axler feels over his own inadequacies is finally released in a furious outburst of indignation. The closing pages of The Humbling recall the best of Roth: the intensity, the anger, the bracing, Chekhovian tragedy. (Chekhov’s tragic hero Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplev figures prominently in the novel’s final scene.) At a brief 140 printed pages, The Humbling – little more than a novella – is minor Roth: a short, ultimately unsatisfying detour in an otherwise extraordinary literary career.

Playing the game

October 4, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

It is hard enough, though not for the Booker judges, to like the historical novel nowadays, but harder still when that novel’s conception of characterisation seems itself antiquarian, as if Woolf and Proust and Chekhov, not to mention Muriel Spark and Penelope Fitzgerald, had never existed. Byatt’s formidable research commands respect, but it is hard fully to respect a novel in which Rodin, Oscar Wilde, Emma Goldman and Marie Stopes have walk-on parts, or that delivers itself of lines like: “All sorts of institutions were coming to life. The Tate Gallery opened on Millbank in 1896,” or “The rich acquired motor cars and telephones, chauffeurs and switchboard operators. The poor were a menacing phantom, to be helped charitably, or exterminated expeditiously.” Such moments, abundant here, necessarily have the air of what Kierkegaard called “playing the game of marvelling at world history.”

– James Wood on A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book (via TEV)

Beyond the crash barrier

September 28, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

Concrete Island. J.G. Ballard; Picador, $18.00 paper, 180 pp., 978-0-312-42034-5.

concrete_picador2001_250Concrete Island was first published in 1974, one year after the appearance of Crash, arguably J.G. Ballard’s most notorious novel. A surrealistic prose poem about the collision of mechanical industry and the human condition, Crash shocked an English reading public that was utterly unprepared for its explicitness and scabrous nihilism. Concrete Island is at once a quieter book and a deceptively subversive one. While it appears at first to cleave more closely to a recognizable tradition of social realism, the narrative becomes more oblique and impressionistic the longer it goes on. By the time this brief novel has run its course, it has become something of a hybrid: a peculiar modern retelling of Robinson Crusoe, with aspects of Shakespeare’s Tempest thrown in for good measure, and a satire on modern urban anomie.

As the story opens, Robert Maitland, a 35-year-old architect, leaves his office to drive back to the home he shares with his wife, having just spent a week with his mistress, when a blow-out forces his car off the exit ramp of an elevated highway and onto a triangular traffic island beneath the junction of three roads. In the manner of social realism, the details provided in the novel’s opening sentences are specific and exact:

Soon after three o’clock on the afternoon of April 22nd 1973, a 35-year-old architect named Robert Maitland was driving down the high-speed exit lane of the Westway interchange in central London. Six hundred yards from the junction with the newly built spur of the M4 motorway, when the Jaguar had already passed the 70 m.p.h. speed limit, a blow-out collapsed the front near-side tyre. The exploding air reflected from the concrete parapet seemed to detonate inside Robert Maitland’s skull.

The reader will note the switch in the final quoted sentence from a detailed mimetic narration into the realm of metaphor, a slippage that will persist throughout the remainder of the narrative. Indeed, having scaled the embankment to the road, only to be knocked back again by a passing car, his body transformed into “an atlas of wounds,” Maitland, increasingly despondent and (apparently) alone, begins to conflate his own physical body with the island: “Identifying the island with himself, he gazed at the cars in the breaker’s yard, at the wire-mesh fence, and the concrete caisson behind him. These places of pain and ordeal were now confused with pieces of his body.” In his pain-addled psychic state, and having succumbed to fever, Maitland imagines making a circuit of the island, leaving “sections of himself where they belonged.” He speaks, like “a priest officiating at the eucharist of his own body,” and his sacramental offering – “I am the island” – erases the ontological distinction between himself and his surroundings. Volition, in Maitland’s feverish brain, becomes transferable; where earlier he had supposed that by driving recklessly when there was no need “he had almost wilfully devised the crash,” he now attempts to effect “the transfer of obligation from himself to the island.”

All of this is grounded in a rigorously detailed depiction of the physical environment that surrounds him: “The ground was littered with cigarette packs, stubs of burnt-out cigars, confectionery wrappers, spent condoms and empty match-books. Fifty yards in front of him the concrete caisson of a traffic sign protruded from the embankment.” But while the mimetic details remain foregrounded, they constantly abut more uncanny language, which often involves the transformation of the environment that has become Maitland’s de facto home into something threatening: the grass around the concrete verge is repeatedly described as “seething,” headlights “[flare] in the liquid darkness,” and the rain “lash[es]” and “sting[s] his cold skin.” When Maitland realizes that he is not alone on the island, his new companions – Jane, a prostitute, and Proctor, a hulking man-child who fancies himself an acrobat – secrete him away in a room festooned with wigs, make-up, and a poster of Charles Manson.

If the second half of Concrete Island is a gloss on Shakespeare’s final play, Proctor is clearly a stand-in for Caliban, while Maitland shares properties in common with Prospero. But this relationship is a debased and comically inverted one. Having secured his dominance over Proctor by humiliating him in a particularly degrading manner, Maitland tries to trick the illiterate giant into writing “MAITLAND HELP” on the concrete embankment, telling Proctor that the letters spell out Proctor’s name. Proctor, emboldened by his desire to see his name scrawled across the concrete, scribbles bastardized versions of “Maitland,” “happily chalking the letters in streamers down to the ground, as if determined to cover every square inch of the island’s surface with what he assumed to be his name.” Proctor’s attempt to name the island acts as an ironic inversion of Maitland’s own eucharistic invocation earlier in the novel, but it also serves as a comedic reiteration of the connection between Maitland and the island itself.

Indeed, Maitland’s project throughout the book – escape – becomes increasingly ironic the more closely he is associated with the island. He alternately pleads with Jane to show him her “secret pathway” off the island – the route she uses to go to work – and insists that he doesn’t want to leave: “As a matter of fact, I don’t particularly want to get away from here. Not for the moment, anyway.” Maitland comes to realize that escape can take the form of a physical ejection from the island, or a mastery over it. Instead of a prison, the island ultimately comes to represent a kind of kingdom for Maitland: a place in which he may hold sway over his environment and its inhabitants, even dispensing a kind of noblesse oblige by making love to Jane and bribing Proctor with bottles of wine from the case that was in his car’s trunk when he crashed. Although his early attempts at escape are tortured failures, his final recognition about Jane’s “secret” route provides him with a “new-found physical confidence.” The concluding scene of the book finds Maitland alone once again and, for the first time since his accident, having found something resembling peace of mind. Freedom, for Maitland, comes not from being alone, but from being alone by choice. His ability to reconcile himself to his situation is the final satirical barb in Ballard’s mordant little fable.

An orphan

September 14, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

Okay, so here’s what happened. A couple of months ago, I was contacted by the books editor at The Walrus, who asked if I’d be interested in contributing to their fall review roundup of big books. Always happy to oblige my colleagues in the book review biz, particularly when they offer to exchange money for a bunch of words, I eagerly agreed. After a bit of back-and-forth, he assigned me a brief review of Zoe Whittall’s second novel, Holding Still for as Long as Possible. I dutifully read the novel and penned a short review. Upon completing this task, I went into my day job at Quill & Quire magazine, where I was told that we had hired a new staff writer: Zoe Whittall. At which point I emitted a Homer Simpsonesque “D’oh!” accompanied by a vicious slap to the forehead from which I’m still recovering.

Long story short, I felt that the appearance of conflict that would accrue to my reviewing the work of someone who would be a colleague by the time the review appeared was too great, and I reluctantly withdrew the piece. Of course, that left me with a completed review on my hands, and no place to print it. Fortunately, ’round these parts I feel free to toss my scruples to the wind. And so, with the above explanation serving as full disclosure, I’m printing the review here. In case you might be interested.


Holding+Still+coverHolding Still for as Long as Possible. Zoe Whittall; House of Anansi Press, $29.95 cloth, 304 pp., 978-0-88784-234-4

“You are all a lost generation.”

Add cell phones with texting capability and the kind of jacked-up paranoia fostered by disasters such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, and Gertrude Stein might easily have been referring to the twentysomethings who people Zoe Whittall’s second novel. Josh is a paramedic who mends bodies but has trouble mending his own psyche; Billy is an erstwhile teen music idol who suffers crippling panic attacks; and Amy is a documentary filmmaker trying to deal with her creeping sense of anomie in the wake of a dissolving relationship. Over the course of the novel, these three young adults circle each other, drinking heroic amounts of alcohol and trying to assuage their anxieties about the meaning of their lives and the uncontrollable forces of the world around them.

Holding Still for as Long as Possible is a clear improvement over Whittall’s affected debut, Bottle Rocket Hearts. A pervasive sense of authenticity runs throughout the novel, whether the focus is on the practices of EMS paramedics or on the mental anguish fostered by repeated attempts to drown out reality in a sea of booze and casual sex.

If Whittall’s novel evinces certain technical weaknesses – the inclusion of an artificial deus ex machina climax and a somewhat superfluous epilogue – it is nonetheless a testament to an author who is improving with each successive outing. The novel contains real emotion; a reader can’t help but appreciate the humanity in these characters, even when the characters seem unable to locate the humanity in themselves.

“It’s my grandson’s book: don’t read it.”

September 4, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

(Via Kate Sutherland.)

The outsider

June 19, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Whatever. Michel Houellebecq, Paul Hammond, trans.; Serpent’s Tail, $14.99 paper, 156 pp., 978-1-85242-584-5.

9781852425845It’s easy to argue that Michel Houellebecq is the poet laureate of alienation in the late-20th and early-21st centuries, but this is at once too facile and too reductive. Houellebecq’s brand of disaffected nihilism owes a debt to literary forebears such as Céline and Nietzsche, but it also incorporates a vicious antipathy toward Western capitalism and its spoils that was largely absent from the work of those earlier writers. Houellebecq shares with Céline a passionate outrage against the dehumanization of modern life, but his vision is distinct (at least in part) from that of, say, Camus. In contrast to Meursault’s recognition of the universe’s “benign indifference” (in L’Etranger), the worlds Houellebecq creates are fiercely inimical toward his characters’ attempts to forge any sort of connection or meaning. Tibor Fischer’s assessment of Whatever, Houellebecq’s acerbic 1994 debut, as “L’Etranger for the info generation” is a glib sound-bite, but one that does the novel, and its author, a disservice.

Which is not to say that Houellebecq doesn’t invite such comparisons. The unnamed computer programmer who serves as Whatever‘s narrator speaks of his “total isolation, the sense of an all-consuming emptiness,” which he feels will be relieved by goading his colleague, the hideously ugly 28-year-old virgin Tisserand, into committing murder. The scene of the intended crime is the same as that in which Meursault murders the Arab – a beach – and the aura of racial tension is replicated, even ratcheted up a notch: the narrator suggests that Tisserand kill a woman he’s been eyeing, but the latter replies that he’d rather kill her “half-caste” lover. “Well then, I exclaimed, what’s stopping you? Why yes! Get the hang of it on a young nigger!” That the narrator wants Tisserand to kill the woman (or her lover) with a knife is not terribly subtle in its symbolic resonance: the notion of Tisserand, the virgin, penetrating one or the other of his would-be victims is the culmination of the narrator’s own debased sexual odyssey throughout the novel.

In the book’s early pages, the narrator, who has just turned 30, tells us that he has “had many women, but for limited periods,” and has been celibate in the two years since he broke up with his most recent girlfriend, Véronique. The “feeble and inconsistent attempts” he has made at sexual liaisons in the interim “only resulted in predictable failure.” To assuage his sexual frustration, he writes bizarre animal stories, such as “Dialogues Between a Cow and a Filly,” in which a breeder artificially inseminates a Breton cow, allowing the cow “to get stuffed”:

And stuff her they do, more or less directly; the artificial insemination syringe can in effect, whatever the cost in certain emotional complications, take the place of the bull’s penis in performing this function. In both cases the cow calms down and returns to her original state of earnest meditation, except that a few months later she will give birth to an adorable little calf. Which, let it be said in passing, means profit for the breeder.

Actually, let it not be said in passing, but rather let it be dwelt upon, since for Houellebecq, sex and commerce are inextricably linked. This connection will reach its apogee in the sex tourism business that Michel and his girlfriend, Valérie, establish in Houellebecq’s third novel, Platform, but it is here, too, in the narrator’s belief that economic liberalism and sexual liberalism are “strictly equivalent”:

Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It’s what’s known as “the law of the market”. In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate. In a totally liberal economic system certain people accumulate fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude.

Thus does the laissez faire attitude promulgated by the sexual revolution reduce some members of society to the level of erotic paupers. Sexual liberalism, like economic liberalism, is “an extension of the domain of the struggle,” reaching “all ages and all classes of society.” Or, in the formula the narrator posits: “Sexuality is a system of social hierarchy.” This is bracingly satirical, and exemplifies what Houellebecq is best at: the snidely pithy diagnosis of modern urban anomie.

The phrase “an extension of the domain of the struggle” is the literal translation of Whatever‘s original French title: Extension du domaine de la lutte, a phrase that is at once more appropriate to Houellebecq’s core concerns in the novel and more teasingly elliptical. The debased English title highlights the narrator’s ambivalence toward pretty much everything – his life, his job, other people – but elides the righteous anger that seethes underneath it: anger at a society that has consigned itself “primarily to consumerism,” the sole remaining “consolidation of [its] being.” This consolidation is made manifest in the “leprous façades” of Paris, “behind which one invariably imagines retired folk agonizing alongside their cat Poucette which is eating up half their pensions with its Friskies,” and in “the inevitable advertising hoardings flashing by, gaudy and repellent.”

Here we find one of the most evident cleavages between Whatever and L’Etranger: whereas Camus wrote about an existence devoid of God, in which Meursault is forced to reckon his free will in the face of what Warren Zevon termed “the vast indifference of Heaven,” there is a God in Houellebecq’s novel: money. The narrator (like Houellebecq himself at the time) is a middle manager at a computer software company, where employees are counted as “assets,” and he moves in a society in which losing a car “is tantamount to being struck off the social register.” (It’s no accident that one of the few characters described as “happy” in the novel is a socialist.) The God of commerce hovers remorselessly over the novel, and this God, like the breeder in the narrator’s short story, is “not … a merciful God.”

Early on, the narrator spots a piece of graffiti that reads “God wanted there to be inequality, not injustice,” and “muse[s] on who the person so well informed about God’s designs might be.” The note of sarcasm is readily apparent, but it’s undercut later on by the acknowledgement that “a totally liberal economic system” fosters and exacerbates the very inequality that a capitalist God must want. It is only at the novel’s close, when the narrator finds himself in a meadow, with none of the appurtenances of modern consumerism at hand, that he feels, “with impressive violence, the possibility of joy.” He goes on: “The landscape is more and more gentle, amiable, joyous; my skin hurts. I am at the heart of the abyss.” This is perhaps the final, ironic twist in Houellebecq’s aversive little narrative: under the rubric of modern consumerism, divesting oneself of material desires only serves to lead one to the heart of the abyss.

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