Thanks to our friend Edan, who is well-connected in the world of audio books, Mrs. Millions and I had a 6 cd, seven and half hour, unabridged work of literature to keep us company on our recent trip from Chicago to New York, where we’re picking up the dog, and various of our far flung possessions. The Outlaw Sea was a riveting work of non-fiction by an accomplished reporter. Langewiesche is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and has written several books that combine hard reportage with the more ephemeral qualities of a travel writer. In this case, Langewiesche’s goal is to illustrate with bold examples the ungovernability of the sea. For him, this is a law of nature, but it is also a consequence of the inability of the laws of men to deal with sea’s expanses. His case studies, if you will, are many, but he spends the most time on a few memorable stories: the modern day pirate attack on the Alondra Rainbow in 1999; the post-apocalyptic landscape of the world’s most heavily trafficked ship graveyard, the beaches of Alang, India; and the wreck of the ferry Estonia on which at least 852 people died when it went down in a storm in the Baltic Sea in 1994. The subtext in all of these stories is that the tragedies contained within are, at least partly, a result of the inability of modern societies to govern the seas. The greater implication, as Langewiesche makes clear, is that such lawlessness and statelessness make the sea fertile for the operations of lawless, stateless terrorists. The sea is everywhere, but it is nowhere in the eyes of the law. These timely concerns, and Langewiesche’s sturdy prose elevate a book of riveting tales of disasters at sea to a book of more weighty importance.
1. When will Haruki Murakami finally get a Nobel Prize? Around this time every year, the question grumbles around Japanese literary circles. And around this time every year, the answer is the same: better luck next time. For my part, I've always observed this ritual with a jaundiced eye. Murakami, for all of his success and considerable stylistic accomplishments, just wasn’t Nobel-worthy (hold your flames until the end, please). His output is impressive and his fiercely devoted readership has made him one of the world's bestselling non-English novelists. But his books, which I had once found fresh and engaging, became increasingly predictable. If he hadn’t reached the limits of his talents, then it seemed that he was at least stuck in a very deep rut. But with 1Q84, Murakami's latest, the bandwagon’s out of the ditch, and I am jumping on board. The book, which was a blockbuster in Japan, is Murakami's finest work: nuanced, brilliant, gripping, philosophical but never tendentious, self-assured, cleverly post-modern yet authentic, and possessed of a haunting surrealism that by this point surely deserves its own adjective: Murakamian? Fans will find much to love. Murakami’s personal obsessions and eccentricities are on full display: cats, oddly-formed ears, European composers and novelists, and little people with strange powers. And yet, the book feels fresh in a way that Murakami hasn’t felt in a long time. It sees the familiar with new eyes. Reading it is like falling in love again for the very first time. Murakami’s work has always depended on subverting its readers’ sense of the familiar. His stories mostly take place in an off-kilter version of reality that seems the stranger precisely because of its similarity to the world we know. 1Q84’s brilliance is founded on more or less the same principle. It is instantly recognizable, yet inexplicably strange. A Murakami novel as it might be written in a Murakami novel. The premise is high-concept, but somehow unpretentious: two people, a novelist Tengo and a part-time assassin/fitness instructor Aomame, find that they have been transported from the “real” world into a fictional one complete with two moons, giant, glowing chrysalises woven from thin air, and a dead goat that serves as a portal to yet another world. Basically, it’s a love story. And a very affecting one at that. As might be expected, both the novel and the world in which it's set, the eponymous 1Q84, are self-consciously literary creations, one written by Murakami and the other by the writer, Tengo, who finds himself trapped in his own book, a high stakes literary fraud based on the work of a mysterious teenage girl. Although there are a few heavy-handed ventures into explicit meta-fictional commentary (a gun, which in contravention of Anton Chekov’s famous maxim, never goes off), the border between fiction and reality, whether Murakami’s or Tengo’s, is never explicitly drawn, and the whole enterprise is carried out with such zest and lightness of touch that it never occurred to me to question the concept. The brisk pacing doesn’t hurt, either. The book is a doorstop of the order of War and Peace or Infinite Jest, but unlike those shambling monsters, it features a gripping, tightly plotted narrative that's readable enough for the beach. Whereas Murakami's previous books often built slowly and ended ambiguously, exploring in the meantime only the most quotidian aspects of his bizarre alternate realities, 1Q84 hits the ground running and never stops. Except for a slow jog of exposition in the middle, the book, which traces the mysteriously intertwined lives of Tengo and Aomame, keeps up its quick pace through over 900 pages, putting on an extra burst of speed as it comes tearing through the finish line. Most incredibly for a book of this length, it manages with only one exception to tie all of its plot threads into an elegant ending better suited to a thriller than the elephantine social novel it resembles. As a novelist, Murakami has proven himself to be a world class marathoner. 2. After the English release of Murakami's last novel, After Dark, critics, myself included, began to wonder if Murakami was capable of writing something that moved beyond the intensely personal (and by definition limited) confines of his best work and into the world at large. His most ambitious previous novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, hinted at the possibility, but never quite achieved it. Although the book expanded the physical and historical limits of Murakami's world, it failed to push beyond the psychological boundaries of his main character, a cerebral, often anonymous cipher that was not quite Murakami himself. It seemed that Murakami--like the protagonist of the classic, almost psychedelic Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World--had become a prisoner of his own mind. And as time went by, that durance became a mini-genre of sorts: noir as therapy, detective stories where the sleuth trolls for clues in his own psyche but never solves the case. The essential mystery of these novels was how do you escape your own head? It seemed the puzzle was one that neither Murakami nor his characters were able to solve. 1Q84 seems to propose a tentative solution to this conundrum: self-awareness. For the first time, Murakami does not just write, but observes himself writing. And he has expressed this new awareness of himself as a novelist in an ingenious irony. Tengo, like Murakami has so often done, literally and unwittingly writes himself into his own novel. And, yet, Tengo is not Murakami. Nor, for that matter, are any of the other characters. The result is that, for the first time, Murakami is, as a novelist, unmoored from himself. The disassociation allows him the freedom to explore multiple perspectives, and his successful expansion into the third person has opened up a world of themes that were unavailable to him during his long period of solitary confinement. Murakami’s liberation--the book alternates chapters between the perspectives of Tengo, Aomame, and, by its third and final section, a hideously ugly private eye named Ushikawa--leads the characters to revelations that would have been unthinkable in any of his previous works. The difference is striking, and it produces some truly sublime descriptions of the human condition, expressed with Murakami’s wonderful simplicity and economy: (Tengo) was already thirty, but yet to have a sense of himself as an adult. It just felt to him like he had spent thirty years in the world. Or this passage, near the end of the book, that I never before would have imagined Murakami capable of: One evening, as the cold wind blew and she kept watch over the playground, Aomame realized she believed in God. It was a sudden discovery, like finding, with the soles of your feet, solid ground beneath the mud. It was a mysterious sensation, an unexpected awareness... 3. In part, 1Q84's achievement comes from Murakami's decision to write about Japan. In previous novels, Murakami seemed reluctant to seriously engage with his own country, most often placing his characters in a world that combined a fantastical fourth dimension of his own private obsessions with a jazzy transnational “West,” built on Russian novels, Beatles music and blue jeans. Much like his characters, most of whom are expats in their own lives, Murakami refused to directly engage with his environment, choosing instead to hide his characters away in caves and wells and cabins in the woods, where the only society they kept was their own. For all its fantastical elements, however, 1Q84 is very much about modern Japanese society. It grapples with the kind of front-page social issues we expect to find in Jonathan Franzen's latest: the historical legacy of World War II, the aging of Japanese society, and, most prominently, the rise of religious cults that led to the infamous sarin-gas attack on Tokyo's subways. The difference is both superficial and profound. With the exception of his career-making novel Norwegian Wood, a work of straight realism, Murakami has generally avoided the material signifiers of Japanese culture. His characters eat pasta and other western food. They sleep in beds, rather than on futons. They move through the kind of culture-neutral spaces, business hotels and luxury apartments, that form the archipelago of the developed world. To a certain extent, this cultural shorthand is what has made Murakami's books so popular internationally. Appreciating them requires no understanding of Japan, only a few weeks spent in any major metropolis. While Murakami’s other novels could have taken place anywhere, 1Q84 could only have happened in Japan. The book starts and ends in a uniquely Japanese locale, one of the elevated expressways that ribbon above Tokyo, and is peppered throughout with Japanese locations, situations, and references, both historical and otherwise, that feel nothing short of integral to the whole. Even the almost reflexive allusions to Western culture--in true Murakami fashion an obscure Czech composer and several European fashion designers are name checked in the book's first several pages--for the first time seem to reflect something essential about Japan itself, a country that connects East and West in much the same way as the elevated expressway connects the story’s realfictional and metafictional worlds. The result is a novel that feels more complete than any of Murakami’s previous work. Where much of his oeuvre feels somehow hollow at its core, like a literary Potemkin village, 1Q84 has real substance. It lacks the sense of rootless detachment that has characterized so many of his books, instead grounding itself and its characters in something real. 4. A few weeks ago, in preparation for 1Q84’s release, the New Yorker published an excerpt from the novel called “Town of Cats.” In the story--one of many stories within stories that fill the book--Tengo reads a piece of short fiction, written by an obscure European author, about a man who travels by train to a town populated by giant talking cats. Fascinated by the town, he decides to spend the night, watching the cats as they go about their daily lives. By the time he’s ready to go home, it’s too late. He waits and waits, but the train never comes. After a few nights, he realizes it never will. Tengo is fascinated by the story and reads it several times. He tells it to his dying father and his friends. Eventually, in the retelling, he realizes that he, too, lives in a town of cats, and if he’s not careful, he’ll die there. Reading 1Q84, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Murakami came to the same conclusion. Will Murakami ever win the Nobel? A member of this year’s prize committee was quoted as saying that the prize has been too heavily weighted towards Europe in recent years. The comment has no doubt given fresh hope to grumblers across the world. Whether they will be vindicated or not, only time will tell. In the meantime, there is one thing that everyone should be happy about. With 1Q84, Haruki Murakami has finally left his town of cats.
Wait a second. No, seriously hold on. Just a few more minutes.Oh. Sorry. It's you.I apologize for being late. Well, I only partially apologize. It is to be expected, really, with the Fourth of July striking and the World Cup ending.Yes. The World Cup. Sorry about my rudeness a little earlier - I've been busy for the past few weeks attempting to will my adopted club (England) to win (they didn't) and commit my arch-enemies (Brazil, Argentina) to lose (they did).With all of these distractions, both footy-wise and not, it was difficult to get any books read this past month. Yet (you'll be happy to know) I did complete a few. And while the most noteworthy book might have been Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn, I found that my favorite - my book of the month - was Sean Wilsey and Matt Weiland's The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup. By far.Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not some crazed soccer fan. Once every four years, I rediscover international soccer - primarily, the World Cup. And every four years, once the tournament is over, I promptly lose the love I had displayed just months before. I always mean to stay in touch once the World Cup is over, but I never do. I don't know enough about European clubs and can't find coverage of United States soccer, so I just lose it all together. But for a month and a half, I'm an expert.That's what led me to buying The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup.Wait. What exactly does this "guide" entail? That's easy. It's 32 essays by 32 different writers about the 32 countries that participated in the 2006 World Cup Finals. And of the heavyweights showed up: the essays range from David Eggers' gym teachers (who call soccer a communistic cesspool) to Aleksandar Hemon's unfortunate mix of sex and soccer. Nick Hornby struggles with the choice between club team (London's Arsenal, which employs a vast number of the French national team) and country (England, of course). Does he root for England? Or does he root for his Arsenal players? Sukhdev Sandhu thinks Saudi Arabia's too soft, while William Finnegan laments the loss of Portugal's best surfing spot - thanks to modern culture and, in part, soccer.But wait - there's more! On top of 32 great essays, Franklin Foer (Jonathan Safran's brother - any regular reader of this column knows of my fascination with the entire family) describes the government most likely to win a World Cup ala his book How Soccer Explains the World. And it's got all the numbers - useful demographic information on each country, past World Cup winners and the records of current World Cup participants, and the likelihood of each team to win. It's great for everyday soccer fans, and invaluable for the every-four-years fan, like myself.Amazingly, there's a common theme outside of the typical "Go Team Go!" narrative. At the World Cup, everyone, regardless of country, has a chance. Once the ball is kicked off, all teams are on equal footing. No monetary means will secure your team a victory. Rich soccer teams can buy all the talent they want - AC Milan, Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea - but only citizenship will get you a World Cup championship. Just the allegiance to your country. And every country can build a team. All you need is a soccer ball and a flat pitch.It's called the beautiful game because it's the joining of athletics and the pure will to win. Sure, there will be 0-0 ties. But the defensive stops, the fight to get to the goal, the sheer determination that leads to a cross pass that is beautifully set up by some guy that wasn't even there ten seconds before and then kicked into the back of the goal - that's sport.And that's why this book will continue to be a valuable addition to my library years after France (hopefully) beats Italy (boo!) tomorrow. It's not just a guide to this World Cup, but it's a guide to the desire of winning. The passion of being a fan. The ramifications of a single goal, of a clean sheet, or of a beautiful penalty kick. (Where are you now, David Beckham?) Most of all, it's a beautiful synopsis of the game itself, of its strange gravity and powerful importance.Because this is more than just a game."The joy of being one of the couple of billion people watching thirty-two nations abide by seventeen rules fills me with the conviction, perhaps ignorant, but like many ignorant convictions, fiercely held, that soccer can unite the world."Corey Vilhauer - Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, June
Early in Denis Johnson’s ninth novel, The Laughing Monsters, protagonist Roland Nair describes the odor of disinfectant in an African hotel room as assuring guests, “‘all that you fear, we have killed.’” As the recent Ebola panic has reaffirmed, few places are more fraught with dread in the Western imagination than this continental hot zone, a screen onto which the developed world’s most chronic apprehensions and misapprehensions are projected. Africa in this gripping, demented novel is the ultimate “unknown unknown” of Rumsfeldian reckoning, teeming with the most virulent strains of viruses and extremism. Yet it’s also a theater of operations where the Chinese are pursuing strategic advantage and the full might of the U.S. intelligence machine has been mobilized to pursue shadows -- as often as not its own. Seven years after taking on military intelligence in the National Book Award-winning novel Tree of Smoke, Johnson returns to the subject once again. But The Laughing Monsters is a much slighter affair, a fizzy alcopop compared to that kaleidoscopic work’s dark, bitter brew. Still, it leaves a poisonous aftertaste and grapples with existential queries far above its pay grade -- questions of grace, theodicy, and unknowability. Leave it to Johnson, variously hailed as a visionary in the Blakean mold and a “junkyard angel,” to twist the slender frame of the “spy thriller” into a shape that can bear such hefty cosmic freight. Indeed, much of the novel’s charm lies in its disregard for the limitations of the genre. By breaking all the rules, The Laughing Monsters becomes something new -- a seriocomic spy novel that’s both timely and universal. Just as the novel is no conventional thriller, Nair is no conventional international man of mystery. He’s a crazy patchwork of identities, divided loyalties, and conflicts of interest, a spook expert in laying fiber-optic communication cables who’s also dabbled in drugs and diamonds. Equal parts dissipated opportunist and vulnerable coward, he’s inflamed above all with a lust for “cheap adventure,” whoring and buccaneering his way across the continent. The book opens with his arrival in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he’s arranged to meet his friend and erstwhile partner in crime, Michael Adriko, for unspecified but likely ignoble reasons. A war orphan turned U.S. black-ops commando, Adriko is a winning, exuberant shyster, nonchalantly lethal and constitutionally incapable of straight answers. He and Nair scored big here in the wake of 9/11, and have returned in hopes of “exploiting the riches of this continent.” While Nair is ostensibly doing the bidding of NATO intelligence, he’s also selling state secrets, an act of treason involving the unwitting complicity of his fiancée. Adriko has plans of his own. His cover story is that he’s come back to marry his fiancée in the Congo. There’s also a scheme afoot to peddle precious material in Uganda -- not diamonds or gold, but uranium, the ne plus ultra of mythological anxieties in this age of global terror. This being Africa -- and a Johnson novel, no less -- things rapidly fall apart. Nair drinks himself into raptures, whores with unprotected abandon, muses on the maddening idiosyncrasies of the continent, has looping, antic conversations with a psychologically unraveling Adriko, and falls into the throes of an ill-considered, all-consuming passion for Adriko’s fiancée. While Tree of Smoke described a slow, tortuous spiral from idealism into disillusion and criminality, The Laughing Monsters is a zipline that starts off in amorality and zooms straight into the maw of hell. And yet it’s all great fun, as the characters haplessly careen through a jumble of tribal affiliations and enmities, languages and creeds, ghosts and legends, made all the more incoherent by the legacy of colonial meddling. Nothing in the setting evades Johnson’s anthropological gaze: not the clocks without hour hands, the slogans on the “huge devouring face(s) of the oncoming truck(s),” nor the 100 milliliter pocket-sized pouches in which liquor is sold. It’s a place of constant power outages, where the population is strung along on the empty promise of American-style consumer culture and a listless fatalism rules the roads, with traffic playing a game of vehicular Russian roulette “as if some superstition required it.” Though it leavens the horror, the manic, cavalier tone in which the madness is catalogued rings the odd off-note. On the other hand, Johnson’s vision isn’t easy to dismiss as smug postcolonial rubbernecking. Having traveled widely in West Africa during the early '90s, chronicling the Liberian civil war for Esquire and The New Yorker in all its phantasmagoric brutality -- cannibalism, televised tortures and executions of heads of state, addled guerillas in blonde glamour wigs and orange floatation vests supposedly endowed with the talismanic power to stop bullets -- Johnson knows of what he speaks. His Africa is a nightmare you can no more wake up from than you can look away from, in part because its nightmarishness so precisely mirrors what outsiders have done, and continue to do, to it. Though the horrors of imperialism have given way to the lesser evils of corporate plundering and western military adventurism, the result is no less toxic: a witch’s brew of political instability and rage that breeds terrorism as surely as oil spills lead to cancer. Adriko and Nair collide head-on with this vicious circle when they bog down in the Congo, their jeep swallowed by a blood-red gumbo that’s an obvious metaphor for many a recent U.S. quagmire. Later, they come face to face with the monster the developed world’s depredations have unleashed, finding themselves in the middle of a hallucinatory uprising in a stretch of the Congolese bush devastated by oil and mining operations. For all its apparent chaos, imperviousness to reason, and resemblance to a bad trip, however, Africa as it’s depicted in The Laughing Monsters is no match for the magical thinking and folly of the U.S. intelligence apparatus. One of the book’s chief delights lies in the way Johnson combines a satirist’s eye for absurdity with a completist’s mastery of trade craft -- the gadgetry, the jargon, the cat-and-mouse of interrogation, the cagey posturing of officialdom -- to paint a withering picture of the post-9/11 intelligence complex. This is the bloated, hydra-headed monstrosity of neocon dreams, “an expanded version of the old Great Game,” waging a disinformation campaign against its own people in a bid to impose the Manichean certitudes of the Cold War on a much murkier geopolitical reality. It gins up boogeymen only to get entangled in its own lies. Everyone knows it, but no one cares because everyone is getting rich. As one U.S. official admits, “Since nine-eleven, chasing myths and fairy tales has turned into a serious business. An industry. A lucrative one.” Nair characterizes this state of affairs as “poker-faced, soft-spoken pandemonium.” That word, “pandemonium,” with its demonic etymology, is a telling one. Johnson, a self-identified Christian writer, ever alert to parallels between the political and the religious, likens the intelligence complex to a kind of false god or demiurge that casts a spell of collective madness on the populace. All of this is narrated at an unflagging, headlong, and often disorienting clip. Though Johnson’s prose is more pared down here than in earlier novels, a current of lyrical transcendentalism runs through even the ghastliest circumstances. Beggars seem to “look through your own eyes and down your throat.” A drunk man is described as “speaking in tongues, his feet didn’t touch the floor, he was just being lugged around by his smile.” Such verbal flourishes are not the stock stuff of spy novels, and Johnson seems content to dispense with the realism typical of the genre in favor of a pervasive, magic-drenched atmosphere of disorientation, one that captures the whirl of the African continent. The same dervishing aesthetic carries over to the novel’s structure, which juggles first-person narration, journal entries, and letters. For the most part, Johnson is dexterous enough to handle this intertextual game gracefully. But occasionally, the story vaults forward and then has to back and fill, generating a befuddling kind of whiplash. In the end, though, neither the novel’s eccentricities of structure, nor an outlandish climactic showdown that pulls more symbolic than narrative weight, are enough to sink this unhinged foray into the heart of darkness. Though by no means a major work, The Laughing Monsters is a deceptively ambitious novel, straining toward -- and sometimes achieving -- transcendence. Along the way, Johnson shows that, when it comes to killing our fear of Africa, disinfectants and covert operations might have the wrong foe in their sights. As Nair says, “there’s always something more to be rid of. Something inside.”
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I read Middlesex in 2002 as a college sophomore. I read it again in 2004, and probably two or three times after that. In early 2007, I went into a bookstore and, looking helplessly at the stacks of new releases, asked when there was going to be another one from Jeffrey Eugenides. It was the first time in my life I felt impatient for a book I wasn't sure had been written or was going to be. Unlike childhood and adolescence, which are a sustained exercise in waiting -- you count the hours till your TV show, the days till your sleepover, the years till you turn eleven -- the adult self has a different relationship with anticipation. If you are not The Marriage Plot's Leonard, for whom there is no baseline of normalcy, if you are not in flux and falling in love or out of love or into some tragedy, the pangs of anticipation lose their childhood acuity and become muddled with complexities. So it is a rare pleasure to wait for something with that pure and uncomplicated eagerness. I carried this book around in my bag all day, waiting for the moment to open it. I went to a meeting and as I half-listened I moved my hands over the smooth pages with near-erotic pleasure. Perhaps I was just channeling a zeitgeisty fetishization of the endangered physical book. But I think it is more the relief born of nine years of waiting. "Waiting is an enchantment," writes Roland Barthes in The Lover's Discourse, to which Eugenides's heroine Madeleine transfers all of her anxieties about her aloof lover Leonard; "The Festivity is what is waited for." I waited for this book, Madeleine waits for Leonard, Leonard waits for his side effects to dissipate, Mitchell waits for Madeleine, and also for a variety of religious experience. Madeleine is pretty, and smart, and rich, and "slightly anxious." Leonard is maybe smarter, definitely poorer, and worse, sick. The hangover of Madeleine and Leonard's great Festivity is the grim reality of Leonard's mental illness. Madeleine is with Leonard through his illness, ostensibly because she loves him, also because she didn't get into grad school and she's not sure what to do. Eugenides describes with convincing and heartrending detail a Leonard in thrall to his lithium, a prisoner whose act of liberation is the heroic and misguided recalibration of his meds leading to a spectacular crack-up. Meanwhile, Mitchell travels through Europe and India pining for Madeleine and the Lord. In some respects, Madeleine is a surface upon which people project their respective wills. Everyone knows that Madeleine is bookish, but we only hear her discussing her actual books of interest with other young women at a conference. We don't know why Mitchell and Leonard love her exactly, except that she is beautiful, with clean sheets, full of (mostly unspoken) bookish thoughts. Mitchell spends years mesmerized by the memory of a glimpse of her "pale, quiet, Episcopalian breast." Eugenides is kinder to Madeleine than I, out of envy, might be inclined. The year I read Middlesex was the year my boyfriend, a student at Brown University, broke up with me. During my weekend visits, Brown seemed to teem with beautiful women who exuded the possibility of "clean-sheet Wednesday," and who didn't bouy the spirit with intimations of their stupidity. This book could have been an act of vengeance on girls who are pretty and thin and rich and go to good schools and read novels and have sex, but not too much sex or too soon. But even I don't hate Madeleine. Leonard is most blameless and deserving of sympathy in the novel -- his illness is a real and perpetual problem, a horse on his chest. And yet I guiltily celebrated when Madeleine met her intellectual compatriots for a few short days at the conference, or when she kissed Mitchell on a French leave to New York. The novel invites us to like Madeleine; the novel, like Mitchell, loves Madeleine in spite of her being, and probably because she is, a "Fortnum & Mason's drinker, her favorite blend Earl Grey. She didn't just dump a bag in a cup, either, but brewed loose leaves, using a strainer and a tea cozy." Mitchell describes his problem of being subsumed in the Godhead thus: "it was hard to kill your self off when you liked so many things about it." We might say the same thing about Madeleine. The liberally-distributed acidity and self-loathing of Jonathan Franzen -- and I cannot fail to compare the two after reading Evan Hughes's illuminating piece on the fraternity of contemporary heavy-hitters -- is a contrast to the more benign treatment found here. (Of the primary characters, that is. The supporting cast -- Larry, Claire, Thurston, Abby -- are intensely unlikable). The Marriage Plot is a nod to the humanity of sexy women who feel like lumpen embarrassments around the right kind of man. It's a nod only, though; we hear about Madeleine's bowel movements through their absence, revealed by the interrogation of Leonard. We do not see her sneak off to to take an anxious crap, the way we do Leonard. Madeleine's WASP mystique largely endures. That Madeleine is a WASP is put forth ad nauseam. When Madeleine takes Mitchell home for a fateful Thanksgiving, she brings volume 1 of A Dance to the Music of Time, which, like The Marriage Plot, is a both a witty society novel and a work whose great depth belies its light touch. Like a Powell character, Madeleine lives in rarefied air, with rarefied people like Pookie Ames surfacing here and there at Brown and in New York. Unlike in a Powell novel, the class markers occasionally jangle. Madeleine's father, Alton, begins a graduation weekend hotel strategy session with "When your cousin graduated from Williams..." Alton's "voice was surprisingly good; he'd been in an a capella singing group at Yale." Madeleine comes to Mitchell's guest room "dressed in a Lawrenceville T-shirt and nothing else." Perhaps these last two are Mitchell's Detroiter observations more than the novel's, but they sometimes grate. I can't know anything about the author's process, but The Marriage Plot must have been daunting to visualize and see through after Middlesex, which was built on the rock of historical adventure, unusual genitals, and the American dream. Eugenides has taken a risk with this novel, with his knowing tone and his aggressive syllabus. I found the first page repellent in its presentation of Madeleine's shelf list -- the "Colette novels she read on the sly" and "the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now to provide textual support in her English honors thesis..." I was happy when we got to the good stuff, like a hangover. But Eugenides knows what he is doing. At first, the heavy reading list and ponderous references are pompous, like a student who has done her homework and is trying to drop some pithy stuff into the class discussion. On its face, The Marriage Plot appears to be a novel that mentions a lot of novels without talking about any of them. These facile, knowing references disguise the sly ways that this novel engages with its predecessors. Eugenides layers his allusions in an exciting and well-concealed way so that viewed from one angle, the novel is a relatively old-fashioned love-triangle cum young adult drama. But the novel is full of parallels and inversions, using its sources on a number of levels. As the novel opens, we look at Madeleine's shelves, upon which are arranged the novels of Wharton, Austen, Eliot, "and the redoubtable Brontë sisters." But, it's immediately clear, Madeleine is no Lily Bart, no Ellen Olenska. She's May Welland, Emma Woodhouse. As The Marriage Plot continues, she becomes Dorothea Brooke or Jane Eyre. At the end of her own novel, saintly Jane Eyre tells us that "my time and cares were now required by another -- my husband needed them all," a moment with clear echoes in Eugenides's book. Jane looks after her maimed husband, but her narrative closes with St. John Rivers, gone to India where he ...clears their painful way to improvement: he hews down like a giant the prejudices of creed and caste that encumber it...His is the ambition of the high master-spirit, which aims to fill a place in the first rank of those who are redeemed from the earth -- who stand without fault before the throne of God; who share the last mighty victories of the Lamb; who are called, and chosen, and faithful. Mitchell's Calcutta gross-outs, his religious yearnings, his bhang enthusiasms, are a new take on the monastic St. John. This novel is a surface upon which we might project the other novels we have read; Eugenides invites us so to do. In Calcutta, all Mitchell sees of Mother Teresa are the yellow soles of her feet, and I thought of T.S. Eliot: "You curled the papers from your hair,/ Or clasped the yellow soles of feet/ In the palms of both soiled hands." Mitchell and Madeleine return from Thanksgiving, "walked together up College Hill, hugged, and parted," which conjures a vague jumble of 19th century and earlier works in my brain. Every fictional hangover past 1954 owes something to the ur-hangover of Jim Dixon in Lucky Jim. Like Jim, Madeleine has to perform a duty with a blinding hangover after a night of bad sexual decisions. Like Jim, she enlists a person whom she has wronged to help her. The echoes are so subtle I heard them only after I had finished the book. Maybe I'm reaching, but I think the novel encourages us to reach. Eugenides's characters appear to have read everything; we assume that he has read everything, and more. I initially wondered if, with this book, Eugenides will alienate readers who are not readers like the readers in his novel. I doubt it, because I'm not a reader like the readers in his novel, not by a long shot, and even without having read Thomas Merton or Deleuze & Guattari I can follow and enjoy a story about a pretty girl, a crazy boy, and a pining best friend. Madeleine's Semiotics 211 classmates like the theorists who "wanted a book, that hard-won, transcendent thing, to be a text, contingent, indeterminate, and open for suggestions. They wanted the reader to be the main thing. Because they were readers." Even though her classmates are silly, they have a point. Like Madeleine, I think of myself as a reading traditionalist, a person who wants "a book to take her places she couldn't go herself" and who additionally wants "something to happen" to its characters "in a place resembling the world." As a reader, I make tea with leaves and tea cozies, and as that kind of reader, this book satisfies me. I have to say that for adventure, pizzazz and magic carpet rides, The Marriage Plot doesn't do it for me like Middlesex. As a book snob, The Marriage Plot does more. I can guess at the references and congratulate myself on recognizing the novel's technical complexity. But my opinion is like, problematized, as the Semiotics 211 kids might say. I waited for this book. I waited nine years and I wanted it bad. I rubbed my hands and its pages and fondled it and felt a physical stirring. Getting what you wait for makes the awaited thing both better and worse than it is. Was it good for me, this book? Yeah, it was good. It surprised me; it got me thinking about the things that Eugenides can do as a writer. The poor man doesn't even get to bask a moment in his achievement before his fans are impatient for the next thing. I begin the long wait anew. Bonus Link: Jeffrey Eugenides explains "How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Write The Marriage Plot." Image credit: Bill Morrisfirstname.lastname@example.org.
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