When I was in my early 20s -- still youthful enough to consider myself an angry young man -- I discovered the novels of Sinclair Lewis. My father had had an old slipcased edition of Main Street alongside titles like Omoo and Wuthering Heights -- so I’d always thought of Lewis as too musty to bother with. Yet when I finally read one of his books -- Babbitt was the first -- I was shocked by how modern it felt. Despite the references to derbies and pipe tobacco, it was as indignant and cynical as I was. When you’re an angry young man, this qualifies as a good thing. I soon read Lewis’s other classics -- Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, Dodsworth, Main Street, and It Can’t Happen Here. Lewis’s skepticism, his disdain for hypocrisy, and his ringing pessimism felt in step with a hypocritical and pessimistic world: it was the early 2000s, and George W. Bush was dragging us into war. Given the timing, It Can’t Happen Here's dystopianism struck a chord with me. In the book, Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip wins the presidency through a mix of populism and economic promises, then promptly turns the country into a fascist hellscape. Though the book was published in 1935, it felt as if it had been written just before I read it: the conflict in Iraq was at its height, and Bush had, like Windrip, gone from folksy numbskull to leering warmongerer. Bush was Buzz; Lewis had seen our future. I pressed the book upon friends, as if reading it would somehow change the country’s predicament. Thanks to the United States’ latest predicament, It Can’t Happen Here has become a back-catalogue hit; Donald Trump’s election has made it Amazon’s top-selling American Classic, and 22nd-bestselling book overall. Americans seem to be reading it as something like non-fiction, more Michael Lewis than Sinclair Lewis. On its surface, this seems reasonable: like our new president, Windrip rails against the media and intellectual elites, and Windrip’s white supporters -- who mass to hear him talk of restoring America’s greatness -- lash out at minorities. Windrip even employs a Steve Bannon-like propagandist who sneers at supplying “ordinary folks” with “true facts.” Once in power, Windrip jails dissenting congressmen, abolishes the states, and opens concentration camps, among other general horrors. And this is where It Can’t Happen Here lost me in 2004, and loses me today: it becomes so relentlessly, cartoonishly grim that its prescience is dimmed by its alarmism. Which begs the question: do we need It Can’t Happen Here for this? We seem to be depressing and alarming ourselves without any outside help; thanks to social media, we’ve become a nation of hissing cats, our backs perpetually arched. There’s another Lewis novel that describes a Trump-like figure’s rise with none of It Can’t Happen Here's Hunger Games hyperbole: the religion-deflating Elmer Gantry, written in 1926. While It Can’t Happen Here posits the aftermath of a false prophet’s ascent, Elmer Gantry is a complete portrait of such a man -- and, in our present moment, strikes me as the far more useful book. Elmer Gantry’s titular character is a boozing womanizer who, as a college student, learns “the intoxication of holding an audience with his closed hand” in his public speaking class. Yet he shunned the debate team because “he viewed as obscene the notion of digging statistics about immigration…out of dusty spotted books in the dusty spotted library.” Gantry chooses a life in religion more out of lassitude than belief -- his mother, “owned by the church,” “had always wanted Elmer to be a preacher” -- though he was “a little too much tempted by the gauds of This World.” As he moves up the ministerial ladder -- beginning in lowly Banjo Crossing and grinding towards the metropolis of Zenith -- he preaches against personal ambition, though he “advertised himself in the newspapers as though he were a cigarette or a brand of soap.” He rails against immorality, though he’s a Ku Klux Klan admirer and a sexual predator. He’s too hypocritical to consider his hypocrisy. None of this bothers his followers; all they want is a good, fiery show -- never mind that he considers them “pop-eyed and admiring morons.” “He had a number of phrases -- all stolen -- and he made his disciples repeat them in chorus, in the manner of all religions,” Lewis writes. In different circumstances, Gantry wouldn’t hesitate to lead chants of “Lock her up” or “Build the wall” -- regardless of whether he believed in the words or their consequence. Unsurprisingly, Gantry fixates on his audiences’ sizes, not any good that he might do: “The crowds do seem to be increasing steadily,” he tells an associate. “We had over eleven hundred present on my last Sunday evening…and during the season we often have nearly eighteen hundred, in an auditorium that’s only supposed to seat sixteen hundred!” Indeed, he has the bigliest crowds around. In It Can’t Happen Here, Buzz Windrip emerges from the traditional architecture of American politics. He’s a despot but he’s also, first and foremost, a politician. Gantry, though, is more Trumpian, a fraudulent fish-out-of-water who makes it up as he goes. And, like Trump, he knows that truth is no match for style. Elmer Gantry ends with the preacher thundering to a crowd of 2,500, “We shall yet make these United States a moral nation!” -- though he has just emerged from a sex scandal involving his secretary. The lesson of Elmer Gantry -- and, perhaps, of Donald Trump -- isn’t that terrible people succeed. It’s that good people enable them by hearing what they want to hear. If you want to read a nightmare about the havoc Donald Trump might wreak, then pick up It Can’t Happen Here. But if you want a guide to how we’ve come to find ourselves in such a bewildering, dangerous place —-- and to how we might, in the future, avoid such empty hucksters -- choose Elmer Gantry. It’s one of Sinclair Lewis’s best. And it’s the story of Donald Trump.
When he set out write The Orphan Master’s Son, his 2012 novel set in modern North Korea, Adam Johnson faced a seemingly insurmountable problem: Very little is known in the West about daily life in modern North Korea. The government of the ruling Kim family pumps out a constant stream of propaganda, but nobody believes a word the country’s official news agencies say. More accurate information comes from defectors, but residents of the capital city of Pyongyang, where much of The Orphan Master’s Son is set, rarely defect. Even when Johnson wangled a rare visit to the country, his government minders never let him out of their sight and ordinary citizens wouldn’t risk looking at him on the street, lest they arouse the suspicions of the country’s brutal secret police. Johnson’s solution was to write The Orphan Master’s Son as speculative fiction, mixing the facts he was able to gather with his own fertile imagination to create a fictive world he calls, for the sake of convenience, North Korea. Just as is the case with most speculative fiction, many of the underlying facts of this fictive world, such as North Korea’s vast system of gulags and the government’s bizarre ban on owning dogs in the capital city, are real. But many other details, such as a gruesome program to drain the blood of dying prisoners to provide fresh blood for healthy citizens elsewhere, serve as literary metaphors for life under totalitarian rule. After Johnson’s surprise win of the National Book Award last week, many readers will be rushing out to buy the winning book, Johnson’s 2015 story collection, Fortune Smiles. But readers new to Johnson’s work may also want to make room on their Christmas wish lists for The Orphan Master’s Son, a brilliant, compulsively readable novel that blends the fine-grained emotional texture of literary fiction with the big ideas and world-building pleasures of the best speculative fiction. At the heart of The Orphan Master’s Son, which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, is Jun Do (“John Doe”), a young North Korean raised in a work camp for orphans. In the first section of the novel, which reads like a dystopian thriller, Jun Do joins a secret government unit tasked with kidnapping valuable foreigners and bringing them to North Korea. When he succeeds at that, he is sent to language school to learn English and assigned first to work as a spy stationed on a fishing vessel and then as a translator on a diplomatic visit to a senator in Texas. The antic disaster of Jun Do’s sojourn in the American heartland sets the stage for the novel’s far more ambitious and strange second half, a cockeyed love story told in standard third-person narration, intercut with a heartbreaking first-person tale of a gung ho government interrogator, and the creepily chirpy voice of the government's propaganda office piped via loudspeaker into every household in the country. For much of this section, Jun Do is either under interrogation by the state’s secret police or an inmate in a barbaric prison mine, but Johnson leavens the bleakness of his hero's daily existence with breathtaking narrative leaps and deftly understated dashes of barbed humor. In one of the chapters narrated by the propaganda office, the voice reminds its listeners that the loudspeakers serve as a vital early warning system in the nation’s still-simmering war with its American-backed southern neighbor: "The Inuit people are a tribe of isolated savages that live near the North Pole," the voice explains. Their boots are called mukluk. Ask your neighbor later today, what is a mukluk? If he does not know, perhaps there is a malfunction with his loudspeaker, or perhaps it has for some reason become accidentally disconnected. By reporting this, you could be saving his life the next time the Americans sneak-attack our great nation. When you stop laughing, you realize this is precisely the sound of a police state quietly, gingerly tightening its ideological stranglehold on its population. In a recent New York Times article, Alexandra Alter noted that, with his Pulitzer and National Book Award wins on successive books, Johnson joins an elite literary club of consecutive prizewinners that includes the likes of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Wallace Stegner, and Eudora Welty. Of these four, only Roth is still alive and he is now retired. Johnson, on the other hand, is 48 years old, with just four books behind him. If there is a more promising writer at work in the U.S. today, it would be hard to name him.
There used to be a series in the The Paris Review Daily on what writers see from their windows. I read every single entry available online and was struck by how much they revealed about the meaning of place and home, as well as about the comfort of constancy and familiarity. Every day these writers saw the same landscapes and objects within arm’s reach, and they knew where each piece stood and what language defined it. In the opening paragraphs of Juan Goytisolo’s 1970 novel Count Julian, the narrator pulls the cord of the venetian blind and looks out the window. He is a Spanish emigré who is exiled in Morocco during Francisco Franco’s regime. From his house in Tangiers, he can see the mountains on the south coast of Spain across the sea: “one day, another, and yet another: ever the same: a predictable sharpness of contour, a mere cardboard model, in reduced scale, of familiar landscape.” Pulling the cord of the venetian blind to see that view is like being born again, “eyelids blinking frantically as the blinding sun streams in.” He is transported home, to a place of recognition: “yes, that’s really your homeland: moody, violent, within arm’s reach, as the saying goes.” However, a few lines later, the narrator notices an unpredictable climate that surrounds the land, unexpected storms that serve as a reminder that Spain is now foreign to him. He is stuck on the opposite shore, free to go anywhere but to his estranged home. The ocean that separates them is both comforting and confining, an umbilical cord that ties the progeny to the mother’s womb. But Spain has been more of a stepmother country than a motherland to the narrator. In his essay “Reflections on Exile,” Edward Said writes: “[Exile] is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.” The fissure between the narrator and his true home is too deep, and sore like “a badly infected open wound.” The narrator wants revenge against the culture that cast him out and decides to become Count Julian -- an actual historical figure who was a traitor against Spain during the Moor invasion in the 8th century. He spends every waking moment planning another Moor invasion into the enemy coast. Julian, the narrator, wishes nothing less than complete desecration upon poisonous Spain. As a novel in verse, Count Julian is perhaps better read out loud. Helen Lane’s translation from the Spanish captures the restlessness and the masterful syntax of this poet of broken verses. The narrative is filled with the breath of punctuation and yet it is relentless in its fragmentation. Just like the nature of exile itself, the narrative offers no relief, no place of rest: just fragment after fragment of dry landscapes, lonely characters, and rooms in disarray. Each sentence is stitched together with colons, with no capital letters or periods to emphasize a beginning or an end -- a refusal to further disrupt a narrative of displacement. The disjointed sentence structure of the novel is justified: The story does not narrate events, but rather searches for what is not known within the very language of the telling, the feeling of aporia. What the narrator can’t comprehend is the contradiction, the desire to punish his motherland for banishing him. He longs for Spain just as much as he resents it. At one point, he admits that he lacks the language to denounce his own origins: “you lack a language, Julian! [...] / Hispanos proudly proclaim / that language is their very own private property / it is ours, ours, ours, they say / it is we who created it / it belongs to us / we are its masters.” Julian wishes his language were neutral: soaring falcon, noble Poet, come to my aid: bear me aloft to the realm of more luminous truths: one’s true homeland is not the country of one’s birth: man is not a tree: help me live without roots: ever on the move: my only sustenance your nourishing language: a tongue without a history, a hermetic verbal universe, a shimmering mirage: a lightning bolt or a scimitar: the Word freed after centuries of bondage: the illusion of the bird who flies into the canvas to peck at the painted grapes: language-as-transparency, language-as-reflection... Language without heritage or memory, language as nourishment. Julian’s plea is one for acceptance, for freeing himself from the binding contract of place and culture. Goytisolo writes that “the life of an emigré of your stripe is made up of a discontinuous series of events that are very difficult to assemble into a coherent whole.” The goal is to glue the pieces back together. Julian feels that has been “dropped out from the march of history: [...] having just climbed off the train that is laboriously chugging ahead, slowly but surely.” In the end, the book goes back to the same room where it begins, but with the added promise of repetition: “as you know all too well: tomorrow will be another day, the invasion will begin all over again.” This is a book about the discontinuity of lives, but also about the possibility of continuing to unpack layers. There is no beginning or end to the train of history; it keeps marching forward. History, much like living, is a continuous experience.
Transformations, Anne Sexton’s 1971 collection of poems, is a portal. The front cover, our entrance, is a drawing of a peasant and a raven, taken from the Brothers Grimm tale “The Little Peasant.” During a storm, a traveling peasant seeks shelter at a mill. The miller's wife is home alone, and she gives the peasant food, drink, and apparently much more. The miller returns home, and his wife is frightened that he will discover her infidelity. The peasant diverts the husband’s wrath by presenting a raven wrapped in cowhide as a soothsayer. The peasant is a trickster, one transformed. His wizened face is the proper entrance to this experience. Our exit is of the now-defunct, full-page author photograph variety: Anne Sexton sitting on a screened-in porch. She wears a white dress and sits in a wicker chair, holding a half-smoked cigarette. Sexton is curator, narrator; she who transforms. She opens the collection with a frame: “The speaker in this case / is a middle-aged witch, me.” She implores her readers to “draw near,” and asks, even at 56 years old, “Do you remember when you / were read to as a child?” She laments our adult loss of wonder and terror. She offers this book as a poisonous antidote. Transformations feels so absolutely a product of the early '70s. Poems from the book appeared in Cosmopolitan and Playboy. The experience of reading Sexton’s poems mirrors a child finding and scouring through Grimm’s tales in a wood-paneled basement during that decade. Huddled in a dark corner within a brightly-lit suburb, she sees another, older, darker world -- while surrounded by board games, extension cords, and Christmas decorations. Sexton dedicated the book to her daughter Linda, “who reads Hesse and drinks clam chowder.” It is the only book of poetry that contains a preface by Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut met Sexton at a party, and drew her a story diagram for Cinderella. Sexton was already retelling the Grimm fairy tales, a manuscript that would become Transformations. Vonnegut has high praise for Sexton: “she domesticates my terror, examines it and describes it, teaches it some tricks which will amuse me, then lets it gallop wild in my forest once more.” “How do I explain these poems?,” he wonders. “Not at all.” Vonnegut’s preface reads like the gasp of an admirer, who seeks not to explain but to bear witness. Sexton injects the modern world into Grimm’s fairy tales, but does so by inserting mundane references and contemporary mood. The result is poems with the architecture of archetype but modern anxiety. She inserts prefatory poems before the tales proper. Some prefaces, as for “The White Snake,” connect narrator to transformation: “I knew that the voice / of the spirits had been let in--/ as intense as an epileptic aura--/and that no longer would I sing / alone.” Others, as for “Rumpelstiltskin,” connect past to present: “He speaks up as tiny as an earphone / with Truman’s asexual voice.” In Sexton’s re-telling of that tale, a miller says his daughter could spin gold from straw. The land’s king locks her in a room, where “she would die like a criminal...Poor thing. / To die and never see Brooklyn.” The modern creeps into “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” with the virgin’s “cheeks as fragile as cigarette paper.” Or when the queen “dressed herself in rags / and went out like a peddler to trap Snow White,” and wraps lacing “as tight as an Ace bandage” around Snow White. The marriage of legend with Limoges is quite surreal. Sexton also documents the secret transformations that surround us. From “Red Riding Hood:” The suburban matron, proper in the supermarket, list in hand so she won’t suddenly fly, buying her Duz and Chuck Wagon dog food, meanwhile ascending from earth, letting her stomach fill up with helium, letting her arms go loose as kite tails, getting ready to meet her lover a mile down Apple Crest Road in the Congregational Church parking lot. Other than the cleverness of her updates, Sexton delivers stirring lines. “Rapunzel” begins “A woman / who loves a woman / is forever young.” In another tale, the narrator notes “The unusual needs to be commented upon.” I have always thought of Anne Sexton in tandem with Sylvia Plath for this exact line. Sexton and Plath are often coupled because of their suicides, but they are connected in poetry through their spinning of the unusual. Consider Plath’s “Sow,” her ode to a “Mire-smirched, blowzy” marvel that had been “impounded from public stare, / Prize ribbon and pig show.” From “Pheasant:” “It startles me still, / the jut of that odd, dark head, pacing / through the uncut grass on the elm's hill.” Sexton’s poetry feels like it has consistently more thorns than Plath’s, whose movement toward myth felt more folk than dark. I also return to Transformations because it is a God-soaked book. There are small touches, as when Hansel and Gretel’s mother “gave them / each a hunk of bread / like a page out of the Bible,” as well as an overall tone that reflects the detritus of Sexton’s Protestant upbringing. Her final book was the posthumously published The Awful Rowing Toward God. An epigraph to her earlier poem “The Starry Night,” is an excerpt from Van Gogh's letter to his brother: “That does not keep me from having a terrible need of -- shall I say the word -- religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars.” Sexton corresponded for years with Brother Dennis Farrell, a Benedictine monk from California. Sexton's letters are whimsical. She “wishes you'd convert my doubt to belief” but “knows you won't cuz it ain't that easy.” She had been reading The Way of the Cross: “I like it. I see it twice, through my eyes and through yours...I think of Mary...I wonder what she felt...What was she wearing? How long was her labor? Things like that...it is the poet in me that wants to know. The book is giving me a new insight and love and understanding of Jesus and of his humanity.” She even sent the monk a draft of a poem that she “dared not publish” for she wonders “if it insults Christ...for I will change the last two lines if they do not work.” Farrell apparently fell in love with Sexton, decided to leave his monastery, and hoped to see her. Sexton responded in a long, recursive, passionate missive, but her rejoinder is firm: “Our letters...no matter how direct and human they may seem to you are not to be compared to a direct relationship.” In an earlier letter she indirectly warned that “people think poets are in touch with some mystical power and they endow us with qualities we do not possess and love us for words that we only wrote for ambition and not for love.” The monk had forgotten a poet’s letters of love are poems, not truth. In the notes to Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters, Sexton’s daughter and Lois Ames explain that following the “gradual dissolution of her deepest relationships,” when Sexton’s “friends provided less and less support, she turned to God for comfort.” She would “read Xeroxed weekly sermons from a church in Dedham" and became friends with the pastor. Sexton was not a traditional convert. Her God was a personal revision of the Protestant God she had found so wanting. That revision is reflected in the tone within Transformations. Vernon Young, in one of the first reviews of the book, called the poems “occasionally vulgar, often brilliant, nearly always hilarious,” and the complementing drawings “importunate and macabre; Gothic and placental.” Barbara Swan’s work is the perfect twin to Sexton: I return to Transformations to be snatched back to the past. The most disturbing story-memory from my own childhood is the scene in Rumpelstiltskin when the queen’s messenger saw a fire burning in front of a little house: “Around that fire a ridiculous little man / was leaping on one leg and singing: / Today I bake. / Tomorrow I brew my beer. / The next day the queen’s only child will be mine.” I think it was the proximity of mundane life and legend, of joy and horror. Sexton inhales the Brothers Grimm and exhales something darker and newer, all while sitting in a white dress on a white wicker chair, smirking at us.
There’s a scene in Inside Out, the new Pixar movie about the inner life of a young girl, that illustrates how the brain forgets. In Pixar’s rendering of the brain’s interior, memories are stored in brightly colored globes. When a memory begins to weaken, its color fades and eventually turns gray. Then a cleaning crew comes in to expunge the grayest globes, paying no heed to the memory contained within, even if it is important or interesting. It’s a funny visual of “use it or lose it,” that sad fact of human memory. Watching that scene, I thought, of course, of all the times I’ve had to click the Did you forget your password? link. Then I thought of all the books I read as a child, especially the “chapter books” I read in elementary and middle school. They seem more lost, somehow, than the books I read in my teens and early-20s. The premises and characters of these books I may have forgotten, but their titles and authors I can still recall. But the books I read from ages nine to 12 are different. During those years, I consumed books the way a child does: quickly and without discernment. I don’t even remember having strong opinions about them. It was as if the things I read were just a passing landscape -- what would be the point of saying I liked one landscape better than another? I knew I would never go down that particular road again. This is a long way of saying that I recently happened upon one of these landscapes. For years, I’ve had a very, very dim memory of having read a book about a girl who time travels while she sleeps. But that was all I could remember. I had no author or title, no idea of the cover or the year it was written. I wasn’t even sure if it was a book. Sometimes I would ask people if they remembered reading or watching such a story. No luck. Oh well, I thought. It probably wasn’t a very good book, anyway. Happily, I was wrong. The book is good, really good. I discovered it while browsing The New York Review's online catalog of children's books. I was looking for a gift for my 10-year-old niece, and I read a novel synopsis that sounded very much like my dim memory: Charlotte Sometimes, by Penelope Farmer. You might recognize the title from The Cure whose 1981 single “Charlotte Sometimes” was inspired by Farmer’s book. (Charlotte Sometimes was first published in 1969, when Robert Smith would have been 10.) After re-reading it, I thought, yeah, I can see why this novel inspired The Cure. It’s a somewhat gloomy book, an eerie story about childhood, identity, loneliness, and death. At the same time, it has all the pleasures of a good time-travel yarn. The premise is simple: a girl, Charlotte Makepeace, arrives at boarding school, falls asleep in her new dormitory, and wakes up in the same dormitory bed, only it’s 1918, 40 years earlier. There’s a war going on and her classmates are completely different. Everyone calls her “Clare.” The next morning, Charlotte wakes up to find that she’s back in her own time. The next morning, she’s back in 1918. After a few days of going back and forth between the past and present, Charlotte realizes that she’s switching places with Clare. She and Clare begin to leave notes to help each other cope. Because Charlotte is the new girl, and no one knows her, hardly anyone notices that Clare is taking her place. But Clare’s sister, Emily, immediately realizes that Charlotte is an impersonator, and demands to know what is going on. Charlotte doesn’t know. The best she can guess is that it has something to do with the bed that she and Clare share. Charlotte is right about the bed; disaster strikes when Charlotte, during one of her 1918 visits, is moved out of the dormitory and into a new bed. Without the magic bed, Charlotte can’t get back to her time. She’s terrified, and at the same time a little relieved to have a break from her nightly commutes, which leave her reeling at the beginning of each day as she tries to catch up on what she missed during the previous day. One of the things I liked about the book as an adult (and probably also as a child) was how faithful the novel is to Charlotte’s point of view. Not only do we never hear from any other character, including Clare, (who is presumably dealing with her own confusion in 1958), the book also doesn’t spend a lot of time dealing with the logistics of time travel or the differences between life in 1958 and 1918. Instead, the book focuses on Charlotte’s precarious sense of identity as she shifts between being herself and impersonating Clare: And she thought, uncomfortably, what would happen if people did not recognize you? Would you know who you were yourself? If tomorrow they started to call her Vanessa or Janet or Elizabeth, would she know how to be, how to feel, like Charlotte? Were you some particular person only because people recognized you as that? Later, after being stuck in Clare’s time for many weeks, Charlotte’s sense of self begins to weaken even more: Charlotte began to dream she was fighting to stay as Charlotte, and one night woke from such a dream struggling, even crying a little. When she was calm again, she did not feel sleepy at all, so she lay still, carefully and deliberately making herself remember Aviary Hall, object by object, room by room. Also she made herself remember things that had happened to her there, as Charlotte, but it was alarming how the details seemed to slip away from her. Even when she tried to conjure up her sister Emma’s face, she kept on seeing Emily’s. Adolescence is all about forging an identity, and this novel speaks to those questions of “who am I?” and "how do other people see me?" in an abstract, haunting way. Even as an adult, I occasionally wonder what kind of person I would be had I grown up in a different era. For me this question is a feminist one, since my identity would have been limited in certain ways had I been born 40 years earlier. Charlotte Sometimes doesn’t have a feminist agenda, yet it does give a rare portrait of the lives of girls and women during wartime. It also shows how the past can live on in the present. One of the central mysteries of the novel is how Clare and Charlotte are connected across time and why they are able to switch places. I won’t spoil it here except to say that I found the ending very satisfying, and even though I had no specific memory of it, it’s probably the reason that the book stuck with me for all these years. For those of you with middle-grade children, I recommend Charlotte Sometimes wholeheartedly, and for those of you who may have read it as a child, I recommend returning to it, if only because rereading is one of the only forms of time travel available to us. One of the surprising joys of reading picture books to my toddler son is glimpsing an illustration or reading aloud a phrase that suddenly registers as familiar and beloved. What seems forgotten is only waiting to be rediscovered.
If you read one 500-page classic of Georgian literature this year, make it Mikheil’s Javakhishvili’s galloping 1924 epic, Kvachi Kvachantiradze. Contemplating the exploits of its titular conman, who has the "acute nose and instinct of a pedigree hound," brings to mind the description of Lucien de Rubempré, the protagonist of Honoré de Balzac’s Lost Illusions: “He’s not a poet, this young man: he’s a serial novel!” Unlike Lucien and the Bildungsroman heroes of similarly panoramic novels, Kvachi makes no claims to be an aesthetic creature. On his European voyage, the thieving rogue stays in bed to peruse his pornographic collection rather than visit the Strasbourg Cathedral, wonders why someone doesn’t glue some arms onto the Venus de Milo, and says the following of Auguste Rodin’s “Thinker:” “That man is thinking up some great plot, I know. I wish I could meet him, he’d be a good comrade.” (What better proof that all criticism is a mode of autobiography?) And yet the boorish Kvachi does share one crucial trait with his Balzacian forbears: he is incapable of living a plot-free life. In his brief introduction to newly released English translation, the scholar and translator Donald Rayfield writes of Kvachi's author’s sad fate during the Stalinist regime’s Great Terror of 1937. Javakhishvili was tortured and executed after praising the courage of a poet who shot himself rather than denounce his fellow writers for their alleged anti-revolutionary tendencies. One wishes that the laws of picaresque fiction applied to life and that Javakhishvili could have magically been blessed with the same Houdini-like powers of his unscrupulous protagonist, who cheats death many a time throughout his larcenous career. What the slippery, often-hunted Kvachi lacks in integrity he makes up for in ingenuity. On the run from the Red Army’s secret police, he draws up a search order to “find and arrest the notorious counter-revolutionary, saboteur, and bandit Kvachi Kvachantiradze.” Kvachi himself then stops in at the local police departments of each town to check if the wanted man -- that is, himself -- is in the area. “My god,” says one of his associates, “So you’re searching for yourself, then?” Apart from revealing Kvachi’s brazenness, the clever ruse points to something more fundamental about his restless character. The episodic Georgian novel dramatizes Kvachi’s fruitless search for himself, for some feat that will satisfy his insatiable desire for power, women, and money, and finally “bridle his fate’s headstrong Pegasus.” Kvachi is born into a family of provincial inn-keepers on a portentous day that is “deceitful, false, and treacherous.” (Kvachi will be all three.). The young Kvachi has the “unusual ability to divine people’s characters” and lives according to the following maxim: “Never refuse anybody anything, but only honor your promises if it’s profitable for you today or tomorrow at the latest.” The novel, which began as a series of sketches, hurtles from one of Kvachi’s scams, scrapes, or seductions to the next, pausing every so often to drive home the monstrosity of its hero. Kvachi is a philistine, attempted rapist, blackmailer, and cold-hearted murderer, not a lovable cad. He begins his unsavory career with lower-stakes swindles and acts of thuggery in his homeland: scamming shopkeepers, defrauding his elderly landlady out of her house, setting up a fake anarchist group to extort rich students or convince one stubbornly honest teacher to pass him and his friends. The future crimes carried out by him and his loyal (to an extent) co-conspirators range from inspired -- robbing a bank while posing as a film director shooting a bank robbery scene -- to unimaginative and brutal—blackmailing a lover with pictures taken of them in flagrante. His schemes are all excessive, indicative of a compulsion to defraud that goes beyond mere greed. When the tone-deaf Kvachi rents a grand piano for a summer, he sells it not once but three times before skipping town. In one of the worst HR decisions of all time, an insurance company hires Kvachi to sell policies. He quickly figures out that bilking clients is hard work and takes out several policies of his own. A remarkable string of bad luck naturally ensues: “We never had any illness in our family. The day before yesterday my father died. He passed away so suddenly that he couldn’t say a word. The next day our house in Kutaisi burnt down. Now I’ve had a bad accident.” Kvachi provides its share of local Georgian color, but there is little provincial about it. Georgia, which enjoys a brief spell period of independence between the Tsarist and Soviet regimes, is a country “not even a hundred people on earth have even heard of.” As such, it soon proves unsuitable to Kvachi’s outsized ambitions, prompting him to travel first to Odessa, then on to Russia: “...everything in mysterious and infinite Russia was prepared for him, longing and waiting, like an unhappy woman for her fairytale prince.” To devise a persona compatible with this destiny, Kvachi simply anoints himself Prince Napoleon Apollonovich Kvachantiradze. In an entertaining illustration of the narcissistic logic that allows him to inhabit his characters, he subsequently sees the real Napoleon Bonaparte’s golden dinner plates on display and buys a similar set for himself: “Well, am I worse than him? I have his name!” In St. Petersburg, Kvachi quickly ingratiates himself into Grigori Rasputin’s inner circle. When not participating in orgies with the debauched (and well-endowed) holy man, he takes charge of lucrative government contracts in Turkestan, facilitates international arms deals and, oh yes, foments the Russian Revolution, which erupts just in time to save him from the first of his death sentences. (The Revolution prompts Javakhishvili to momentarily rise above Kvachi’s cynical machinations and show, through a remarkable allegory about two Russian brothers, how world historical events are driven by more profound forces than venality.) As he languishes in a cell awaiting his hanging, Kvachi is hounded by an impish inner voice urging him to confess his extensive misdeeds. Alas, the rakish sociopath is not one to repent, neither to his interrogators nor to himself: “Leave me alone! The past is past. Why the hell do you want the truth? Anyone can tell the truth -- idiots, savages, and babies.” Kvachi’s self-directed outburst advocates for the primacy of fiction, natural given that he is a creature forged entirely from fictions, beginning with the fake certificate of nobility his father purchased for the family at the age of five. His art depends on bribed newspaper editors, carefully sown lies, and phony mandates. Forced to flee St. Petersburg during the Revolution, one of Kvachi’s crestfallen lieutenants informs him that the only thing he has managed to save are some seals and rubber stamps. Kvachi, aware that having the power to authorize new fictions is infinitely more valuable than the trainful of palace treasures he has lost, reassures his compatriot: “You’ve saved everything!” So entirely does Kvachi forge his character that when he finds himself on a Turkish battlefield, he suddenly becomes something other than a fraud. Too fickle to be a true poltroon, he miraculously transforms (temporarily) into a real hero: That instant had reversed and aborted Kvachi’s life and character and endowed him with something miraculous and otherworldly. The old Kvachi had died another one, unfamiliar and new, was born a moment later, as proud and unbending, courageous and fearless as Leonides at Thermopylae, Alexander the Great, or Erekle King of Kakheti, or Napoleon at Arcola. Despite not being particularly introspective, Kvachi does occasionally sense that his true “personality” is nothing but a bottomless pit of undefined longings. Upon first seeing the Black Sea from a train, we read: The sea was beautiful at a distance, but Kvachi intuited its treachery, its changeability, and in anticipation he was filled with fear, trembling, and distrust. The sea’s grandeur terrifies him. Sublimity can’t be manipulated, or conned, or blackmailed. The sea can in no way be channeled to serve Kvachi; at most it can only mirror his own roiling nature. He bears torture more stoically than this insight into the limits of his power and the vagueness of his desires. We last see Kvachi as the kept man of a Turkish Madame, a fate that somewhat punctures his lofty image of himself as a “free soaring eagle” destined for greatness. In the novel’s final scene, Javakhishvili addresses the aging, and still restless, libertine: “So what do you want, then? I don’t think you know! I understand you, Kvachi Kvachantiradze! I understand you, my Kvachi! I understand you, my little Kvachi! I understand...I understand...” A later, 1934 version would be harsher on Kvachi, telling him to “rot in [his] pit,” but in the original (and in this English translation), Javakhishvili closes with this more empathetic gesture toward his sordid creation, whoever he is beneath his guises.
DVR and subscription services have somewhat emancipated TV viewers from the tyranny of the 30-second ad, though once a year viewers willingly embrace our bondage during the Super Bowl, last weekend’s Carnivalesque ritual in which trips to the bathroom were timed to avoid commercial breaks. Whether you found the ads uplifting or deflating (to use a topical word), now would be a good time, while Sunday’s commercial orgy is fresh in your mind, to read Michael J. Arlen’s Thirty Seconds, his classic account of the making of an AT&T spot. In Thirty Seconds, Arlen, then television critic for The New Yorker, chronicles the filming of “Tap Dancing,” the first of five commercials for AT&T’s long-distance phone lines. (Arlen’s father wrote the massively popular 1924 novel The Green Hat, the opening scene oh which happens to have the sensual, dreamy quality of a high-end perfume ad.) The N.W. Ayer advertising agency came up with the company’s “Reach Out” campaign and its accompanying ditty, which melodically encouraged both telephone users and subway gropers to “Reach out, reach out, and touch someone!” According to its architects, the 1979 campaign sought to reinforce the notion that long-distance calling is “an easy, non-traumatic experience.” How did it accomplish this? By “selling emotion.” The “Tap Dancing” commercial consists of five “vignettes.” In each, two people share a moment of remote rejoicing: a tap dancer rings his granddaughter from backstage and listens to her practice her steps; a hockey player missing his front teeth calls his similarly chomper-challenged son after winning the championship game; two women, one white, one black, chat on the phone while doing yoga headstands; a cowboy, having just competed in a rodeo, calls a female jockey, who has just competed her race; and a newly shorn Army recruit phones his father, a barber, from his barracks. That’s 10 scenes to cast, shoot, and splice together into a 30-second ad guilting viewers into making a long-distance call to their mother, old friend, parole officer, whomever. The eminently moral ad execs insist, however, that they have done their best to keep the “obligation level” light: You can suggest in an artistic manner that a person might feel better for making a phone call to a faraway friend, but it wouldn’t be right to suggest that something terrible will happen to the person if they don’t make the call... Formally, Arlen constructs his book around a sequence of short, punchy episodes, or rather vignettes. Arlen is primarily an eavesdropper, briefly profiling the actors, setting the scene and then letting the dialog of the principal players drive the action. That dialog has a Sorkinesque quality, all the more so because it's endowed with that same blend of seriousness and triviality. During one shoot, Gaston, an advertising executive in the creative group, notices a glass of milk precariously positioned on a television set. He and the director, Steve, discuss the potential backlash: Steve says: “[The glass of milk] looks good. A nice quality.” Gaston: “I know, but then the phone company gets letters saying, ‘How could you leave that milk there? The kid is going to spill the milk on the set, and the house will go up in sparks, and all those people will be burned to death.’” Steve: “They’d say all that?” Gaston: “All that.” It’s comforting to be reminded that before the Internet, concerned citizens were perfectly able to vent their outrage. Every so often, Arlen will hazard a brief authorial intrusion, but his withering ironic presence is felt most conspicuously through his absence. Take the following scene in which the team scouts locations: Steve says: “I like this house. It’s a little upscale, but it photographs very well.” Gaston says: “We could do the white yoga here.” Linda says: “Wouldn’t the black yoga be better?” Jerry says: “I’m not sure it reads black.” Steve says: “Don’t worry. We can fix the downstairs room like a black girl’s apartment, whatever that is. You know, give it a condominium look.” I suppose Arlen could have interrupted here to consider whether advertisers must adapt to their target audience’s prejudices to be effective, or whether they actively perpetuate racism by shaping those prejudices. Instead, Arlen follows the discussion as it casually segues into finding the house that “says tap dancing” to the director. Arlen’s reticence strikes me as even more damning, perhaps because the four-line exchange blindingly illuminates the workings of racism more than any cultural analysis could. Arlen treads just as lightly with the notion that “reality” is a nothing more than a filmic effect to be achieved. When an actress questions why a rain machine operated by a man named Billy is needed when it is actually raining outside, she is told: “That’s God’s rain...It doesn’t show up on film. We need Billy’s rain.” Omnipotent though the Lord may be, some extraordinary feats remain beyond even His power. One of the book’s pleasures is watching the participants’ obsess over such details, be it finding the perfect “generic emblem” for an imaginary hockey team or determining how a soldier should call home: “[The phone] might be better not by his bed. I mean, would it look military with the guy lounging in the sack?” Each participant demonstrates a sincerity about his or her calling that is as touching as it is risible. The director, Steve Horn, is renowned for not being “afraid to deal in human emotion.” He studied Italian Renaissance painting at Columbia, a foundation he claims serves him well in constructing his tableaux vivants. Time and again he is faced with conditions that would ruffle even the most phlegmatic of Quattrocentro painters. During the yoga scene, a toddler, Lily, is supposed to imitate her upside-down mother and topple over in a comical, endearing fashion. In some takes, however, Lily stays exasperatingly upright: “Damn, I wish she’d fallen down then. Why won’t she fall down?” As the exhausted director sighs at the end of another frustrating shoot involving a stubborn cat and its bumbling handler: “You know, sometimes those little human touches just about break your back.” One N.W. Ayer man describes leaving the Packaged Goods department to take on the “greater emotional texture” of AT&T’s Long Lines account. An actor avows that attending commercial acting school was “a very important step for me. Very significant.” When pressed to explain why, he says that while it’s difficult to put into words, it taught him how to hold a sheet of copy during auditions. An actress is more expansive on the art of commercial acting: I’m proud of what I do, and I think it’s refined my craft tremendously. Mainly, it’s tightened my technique, and it’s taught me how to cut out extraneous stuff. I mean, it’s a very demanding form, because you’ve got only thirty seconds in which to establish a character... However, some ads aren’t worth the money or the chance to further refine her craft: “I won’t do those brutal pesticides that poison the environment, and I won’t do douches...” Casting poses its own challenges: “Llamas are terrific. I like llamas, except they spit.” Thus is the career of one talented camelid cruelly curtailed. One young lady auditioning for the yoga role has better manners than a llama but is passed over because she reminds the casting team of “some Procter & Gamble girl,” and thus is presumably more suited to feigning ecstasy over laundry detergent than performing sensual yogic postures with a phone stuck to her ear. (Or at least that’s how I interpreted that classification.) There are a handful of reliably heartwarming grandmothers but a dearth of new, or rather old, talent: “The trouble is each grandmother has been used so many times.” The team faces a similar shortage in its search for the toothless hockey player, for the understandable reason that “there just aren’t any actors who want to appear on TV with missing teeth.” (They cast a real hockey player instead.) Finally, the discussion over a candidate for the rodeo cowboy captures the wry tone of the book’s many clipped exchanges: Jerry says: “He might do.” Steve says: “He’s too Southern.” Linda says: “He’s from Jackson Heights.” Steve says: “I mean, he looks Southern. He says barnyard to me.” Linda says: “I’ll bet he’d be surprised to know that.” Our fascination with the dastardly tricks of subliminal advertising notwithstanding, the ad industry primarily trades in the blatantly manifest. The same ad executive who claims that “in thirty seconds, everybody notices everything” also admits that one should never “worry about being too obvious visually.” The latter statement partly explains why the “Reach Out” campaign spots, which can be found on YouTube, look laughably hokey today -- then again, so will most contemporary commercials in 25 years. After reading about the ridiculous effort that goes into making such schmaltz, one wonders what the commercial would have looked like had the N.W. Ayer advertising team phoned it in. Surely not much worse? Arlen frames the commercial’s release as ironically as he does everything else in the book. “Tap Dancing” first airs on the Johnny Carson show during an interview with the tennis star Roscoe Tanner. When Carson goes to break, the commercial comes on, sandwiched between a Volkswagen ad featuring Wilt Chamberlain and an amateurish spot for a local car dealership. Arlen resumes transcribing the Carson interview: another ad come and gone. In the book’s most interesting, Mad Men moment, director Steve takes a post-shoot drive, which prompts him to reminisce about his father: You know, driving always has a nice feel for me, even in traffic. One of the things I remember from long ago -- it must have been right after the war: my dad would take us all out driving on the Belt Parkway every Sunday. Every Sunday afternoon, we’d all get in the car, and he’d drive us up and down and around the goddamn Belt Parkway. I guess it was his idea of a family thing to do. I guess he also really loved that road. It’s a wonderful story -- moving, funny, and a little sad -- made all the more stirring by the contrast with the manufactured familial bliss and “human emotions” in which Steve traffics. The sly Arlen manages to sneak in a vignette that actually reaches out and touches someone.
The ongoing Tour de France is the most novelistic of sporting events: There is ample character development with riders responding to three weeks of brutal tests; plenty of intrigue with opportunistic alliances and rivalries springing up; masterful set pieces like ascents up the denuded landscape of Mt. Ventoux and group sprints through medieval towns; villains, be they deranged fans sprinkling the road with tire-puncturing tacks or a certain disgraced Texan; some upstairs-downstairs class tensions between aristocratic team leaders and their toiling, water bottle-ferrying domestiques; and finally, a romance between man and exquisitely engineered, custom-fitted and gorgeous machine. Having already belabored the comparison, I’ll simply point out that the joys of watching the Tour and reading, say, a bit of Stendhal every day are not dissimilar, not least because both, however gripping, are inevitably plagued by longueurs. In some ways, the novel is a form about managing downtime, conserving energy to expend it more forcefully later, which strikes me as a good way to describe the riders sheltered in the peloton. By contrast, Tim Krabbé’s revered The Rider is for those who like their drama condensed rather than parceled out over several weeks. The short novella is the autobiographical story of Krabbé’s experience at the one-day Tour of Mont Aigoual, “the sweetest, toughest race of the season.” Among his more colorfully drawn opponents are a muscular rider who “looks like the giant who was always throwing Chaplin out of restaurants”; a lithe climbing specialist (and bank teller) whose favorite opponent is himself; and Krabbé’s arch-nemesis, the “wheel sucker” Reilhan, a promising talent and perpetual drafter (that is, one who conserves energy by sitting in a rider’s slipstream) who finds “the idea of doing anyone even the slightest favor” intolerable. Krabbé despises the “golden boy” Reilhan, but looks upon the few spectators on course with equal scorn. Spying a beautiful young woman, he instantly assigns her to the “generation of emblems” who is merely cheering for the “journalistic cliché” of the rider rather than the rider himself; finely attuned to such distinctions, the tetchy Krabbé gives himself over to a delightfully withering assessment: “Now that I’m five centimeters closer, I can see how pretty she really is. I hate her.” (He prefers the grazing cows who don’t bother to hide their indifference.) “No worse way to follow a road race than to be in it,” notes Krabbé, as if constructing the narrative is as difficult as the race itself. Riders sprint off early and disappear from view, and he cannot be certain how far ahead they are or if he will eventually spy them up ahead with a “feeling of impropriety: like accidentally catching a glimpse of a woman in the nude.” The race takes the leaders approximately four and one half hours, though time in racing is subjective: “Three more minutes. Oh, how easy it will look on paper,” Krabbé wryly notes of the race’s final kilometers, which to him feel like an eternity. The Tour covers 137 kilometers and traverses the Cévennes mountain range in Southern France, a region where as late as 1950, “some of the Catholic inhabitants thought Huguenots had only one eye, in the middle of their forehead...” These secluded high plateaus prove to be a wonderful setting for Krabbé’s depiction of road racing as a kind of anti-Enlightenment reaction, an imitation of life “without the corruptive influence of civilization.” The ordered procession of kilometers around which the narrative is organized fails to stem the race’s frequent illogical elements, how rival riders engage in “mutual self-destruction” and decisions are just as likely to be made through prudence as rashness: “Suddenly I know that I’m going to attack. The decision catches me off guard.” In a wonderful chapter in his book-length study of the bike-obsessed Beckett, Hugh Kenner describes what he calls the “Cartesian Centaur,” more prosaically a man on a bike, a being who “rises clear of the muddle in which Descartes leaves the mind-body relationship. The intelligence guides, the mobile wonder obeys, and there is no mysterious interpenetration of function.” Krabbé steps in to re-muddle things, staging a Cartesian battle between body and mind. Describing one of his fellow riders, he writes: Lebusque is really only a body. In fact, he’s not a good racer. People are made up of two parts: a mind and a body. Of the two, the mind, of course, is the rider. But the rider is a very peculiar kind of mind, at once supremely rational and supremely irrational. Any account of endurance sports must capture the descent into a personal, highly motivated, and masochistic madness, one that derives its impetus from defying, or rather ignoring, logic: “I’m only giving it everything I’ve got because no one says I have to. Only when there are arguments for something can there be arguments against it.” (Krabbé’s most famous novel, The Vanishing, delved into motiveless malignity rather than motiveless exertion.) Krabbé writes that he “started on this sport fifteen years too late,” and one gets the sense that his reputation as the “scourge of the peloton” stems from his desire to make up for lost time. At times he sounds like a Raymond Chandler character: “We straighten up, drift along, fifteen seconds to breathe just for the fun of it.” Indeed, there is something similar about the respective codes of honor among noir private detectives and semi-professional cyclists. Marlowe would doubtless be as disgusted by Reilhan’s free-riding as Krabbé and his fellow races are. Krabbé is also not without that amour-propre defining most athletes, from the biggest stars to weekend warriors: I view my wrists, stretched out in front of me to the bars, straight as ramrods. They’ve become so tanned, almost black in the wrinkles. The little hairs lie next to each other in wet rows, pointing away from me. I find my wrists incredibly beautiful. Vanity of vanities! What does man gain by the toil under which he toils under the sun? Beautiful, tanned wrists apparently. The Rider is often cited as the best book on cycling, its quotes about pain and suffering and endurance and honor quoted admiringly. Certainly, Krabbé’s notions of honor and courage are exhilarating, but they are also a little ridiculous, which only adds to the book’s charm. Krabbé sets the tone early on by proclaiming to be shocked by the emptiness of non-racers’ lives. After an extended paean to suffering in which he has shown his own literary prowess, he concludes: “Suffering you need; literature is baloney.” Debating whether to shift into a lower gear on a mountain becomes a competitive as well as a moral dilemma: “Shifting is a kind of painkiller, and therefore the same as giving up.” And a final piece of bombast: “Being a good loser is a despicable evasion, an insult to the sporting spirit. All good losers should be barred from practicing as port.” Each statement strikes me as being a bit silly while also demonstrating an incontrovertible truth that “strikes to the soul of the rider.” Sports writers often appeal to the chivalric tradition to capture the rare character of the most accomplished athletes; the best instinctually grasp that Don Quixote furnishes a more fitting model -- noble and absurd -- than those bona fide knights of medieval romances. Of the legendary Jacques Anquetil, who would move his water bottle from his bike to the back of his jersey before climbs in the mistaken view that it lightened his bike, Krabbé, in a Quixotic formulation, notes that “What Anquetil needed was faith. And nothing is better for a firm and solid faith than being in the wrong.” What makes The Rider a particularly appealing sports novel is that for all his seriousness, Krabbé knows how to let the air out of his inflated rhetoric. Lebusque, the courageous but poor racer, makes one last, not-so-vicious “attack” 130 kilometers in: “...he bobs past us like an old, rotten surfboard.” And our noble, long suffering hero who pours his life into the trial? “You sprinted like a jackass,” notes one spectator. The harsh critic makes no mention of the rider’s beautiful wrists.
While on a tour of an aircraft carrier hangar bay led by a Navy Commander, Geoff Dyer writes: “I always like to be in the presence of people who are good at and love their jobs.” This is the overarching feeling one gets from reading Another Great Day at Sea, in which every person Dyer meets either loves their job or passionately loves their job. It also describes the experience of reading this book. A unique and compelling stylist, and a charming reporter, Dyer seems to have an absolute bang-up time on this assignment, and it’s a pleasure to go along with him. The first book to emerge from Writers in Residence, a new grant organization that sends writers and photographers to report from the “key institutions of the modern world,” Another Great Day at Sea is an account of Dyer’s two weeks aboard the USS George H.W. Bush, the largest aircraft carrier in the world, in fall 2011. Knowing Dyer only from his writing on travel, jazz, and Russian film, I was curious as to why he’d asked for this project, but I quickly learned that from boyhood he’d been a bit of a military geek, and two weeks on the boat brought that out of him again. Any critic will tell you that there’s nothing harder than writing a thoroughly positive review -- the superlatives start to pile up and devalue each other pretty quickly. What I found most remarkable about this book is that Dyer’s uniform delight with everything and everybody he meets never gets monotonous. Every person he interviews is polite, extraordinarily competent, and unfailingly devoted to the Navy, and yet they each come across as unique, interesting people rather than military clones. This may have a lot to do with what Dyer calls his “knack for idiotic pleasantry, anchored in zero knowledge” that draws them out, or the fact that people could probably tell how impressed he was. “People sometimes talk of feeling ‘humbled,’” he writes, “but that’s not how I felt on the boat; it was more like an awareness of frequently being in the presence of superior individuals whose capacities and experience were quite unlike those I came across -- I knew plenty of writers and artists -- back at the beach.” (“The beach” is carrier jargon for the mainland. Dyer loves the jargon.) Dyer’s main objective is that of an anthropologist -- cataloguing from top to bottom the workings of this floating mini-civilization of high-achieving sailors. There are chapters on the gym, the toilets, the smoking area, the dentist, the chapel, the brig, the ship psychiatrist, movie night, the pilots, the captain, and the commander of the flight deck. Most of which, again, are to his liking. But while he scrupulously details the daily life of the carrier, he never comments on its purpose. He talks about the planes taking off and landing every day from their location in the Arabian sea, but never what they’re doing on their flights. Describing a statue of George H.W. Bush, the boat’s namesake, is one of two times politics comes up. Although he admits to being surprised by the fact, he never notices any tension along racial, gender, or sexual lines. As he says, it’s “a happy ship.” His only source of chagrin aboard the carrier is the prevalence of evangelical Christianity, a fact he delves into when he learns that the lieutenant commander in charge of the flight deck is leaving the Navy, after 28 years, in part to help his wife homeschool their children. Their ensuing conversation -- the other time politics comes up -- sticks in Dyer’s head, and he expounds a bit on the ship’s preponderance of “religious nuts...an America I had not come across before, an aquatic version of the Midwest and the bible-belt South.” It’s the only time, apart from when he ecstatically receives a free cleaning from the ship dentist, that his British shows. He seems more unsettled by having met conservative Christians than the fact that they sometimes shoot at things from planes. On the whole, his attitude towards the sailors on the carrier is awe and respect mixed with a little jealousy. They have a clear purpose, and they pursue it with a near-perfection that sometimes leads them into the sublime. When he is interviewing Disney, a young pilot who likens flying to playing video games, Disney says that flying on a clear night over water feels like flying in deep space. Dyer writes: “So there it was, still intact despite the technological advances and laconic delivery: the lyricism of night flight as first and famously evoked by Saint-Exupéry. It was as if he had revealed something intimate to me, the experience that was at the core of his being: a realm of poetry accessible only to those whose world-view is based on technology, knowledge and calculation rather than wide-eyed wonder...And Disney, the kid who’d excelled at video games, for whom it all came down to hand-eye coordination, on keeping an eye on the dials and switches and the data, was having the transcendent experience craved by mystics, shamans, seekers and acidheads.” Photo by Chris Steele-Perkins
One particular image from Baked by Mark Haskell Smith, that of a young Mormon missionary in flagrante delicto with a "Megamillionaire pop-rock chanteuse," persists in my memory. There is bondage involved. And testicle shaving. It was with this image in mind that I began Smith's new novel, Raw: A Love Story. I hoped to find that same ribald humor, not to mention a few delightful plot twists. I wasn't disappointed. The day I bought Raw, I also wrote my own fiction, got my eyebrows waxed, started a contemporary literary novel by a writer who lives in Brooklyn, read a few book blogs, purchased a cappuccino made by a man in polka dotted Oxford shirt, posted a photo of my son to Tumblr, read some Dr. Seuss to that same son, and watched an episode of Millionaire Matchmaker (which, by the way, has totally gone downhill since assistants Destin and Rachel left the show). Such a rich cornucopia of experience, if I do say so myself! If your days even remotely resemble my own (and if you're reading this, well, I bet they do), then you will find great pleasure in Mark Haskell Smith's depiction of our contemporary diversions and obsessions, both the high and the low. The book stars one Sepp Gregory, a reality TV star with killer abs he loves to show off. He's just published a book -- a "fictional novel" as he calls it -- and it's a megawatt hit. Of course, Sepp didn't write the book -- hell, he hasn't even read it, he's too busy doing crunches and obsessing about the erectile dysfunction that's plagued him since he got dumped by one fellow cast member and then another. Sepp's publisher hired an aspiring novelist named Curtis to ghostwrite Sepp's masterpiece, but in this world, ghostwriting is a closely-guarded secret. In sweeps Harriet Post, the most bookish book blogger in all of book town, ready to tear the whole sordid apparatus apart. As she says to a friend, "He wrote a book? He can't even wear a shirt." If the plot sounds absurd, that's because it is, but the book's over-the-top, swinging-from-the-chandeliers storyline is partially what makes it so entertaining. Crazy stuff happens, and it's a joy to be inside the drama. The more technicolor the plot, the more addictive it becomes. That same addictive quality, however, threatens to turn the novel into the kind of reality TV you love to hate and hate to love. The threat is what matters here, and Smith knows it; that Raw bends in the direction of unreality but doesn't quite complete the contortion is what makes his novel so effective. While the satirical depictions of Sepp and Harriet invite you to laugh (and laugh and laugh) at their blind spots, they don't prevent you from feeling compassion for these people. Sepp forgets he has a mind, and Harriet forgets she has a body, and Smith presents these conundrums with a cheeky tenderness. If all of the above isn't enough to entice you to read this romp, how about this: Ladies and gentlemen, Raw is the first novel to namedrop The Millions! (Clearly, we have arrived.) It also mentions The Rumpus, Jacket Copy, Gravity's Rainbow, Book Soup, Changing Hands Bookstore, Heidegger and more. Pair those references with a list of fictitious reality TV shows I'd totally watch with horror and glee, and you've got yourself one helluva good read.
I first learned of Stephanie Vaughn’s short stories through The New Yorker fiction podcast, when Tobias Wolff read her story “Dog Heaven”. (Three years later, Téa Obreht chose “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog” from the same collection, Sweet Talk.) Podcasts are my way of getting through laundry weekends, and I remember listening to “Dog Heaven” while I was folding a stack of tee shirts at my kitchen table. But at some point I had to stop to wipe my eyes. And then I just had to give up on the laundry altogether because I couldn’t concentrate on something as banal as folding tee shirts. I’m pretty sure this is the point of literature: to break us out of our routines. I’ve read “Dog Heaven” several times since then and it always gets me feeling a little weepy. It’s a flat-out masterpiece, the story I would give to anyone who is lukewarm on short stories. (And, according to publishers, there are a lot of you out there). Without giving too much away, “Dog Heaven” is about a dog, Duke, who loves his family so much that he runs away from “dog heaven” in order to be with them. Gemma, the family’s young daughter, narrates the story, but in a way, the story’s true narrator is Duke, the dog. The story’s first sentence -- “Every so often that dead dog dreams me up again” -- is perfection, letting you know right away that you are about to enter a lost world, one that maybe only Duke and Gemma know about. Many of Vaughn’s stories depict lost worlds. Gemma is a recurring narrator, a military brat whose family moves often, going from one base to another. You would think this would lead to a feeling of dislocation, but Gemma has a sharp, outsider’s eye and her observations are grounding rather than alienating. I was especially intrigued by a story set (in part) on Governor’s Island, a small island in the New York Bay, just off the southern tip of Manhattan. Nowadays, Governor’s Island is a public park, a summertime spot that hosts public art and 1920s-themed parties, but in the 1970s, when Vaughn’s story is set, it was a slowly-dying military base: If you looked away from the light of the city, you looked back into the darkness of the last three centuries, across roofs of brick buildings built by the British and the Dutch. The post was a Colonial retreat, an administrative headquarters, where soldiers strolled to work under boughs of hardwood trees, and the trumpeting of recorded bugle drifted through the leaves like a mist. It was a green, antique island, giving its last years of service to the United States Army. Vaughn grew up a military brat, like Gemma, and in a recent interview for The Rumpus, she talked about conjuring places from her past, observing that over time, “you are as much an invention of your memories as you are the author of them.” You can feel that invention of memory taking hold in Gemma’s narration, as she looks back to her childhood and tries to make sense of her relationship to her family, and in a larger sense, her country. There is ambivalence toward authority throughout Sweet Talk, something more than the usual coming-of-age disillusionment, as Gemma confronts the dark side of military culture. It’s an ambivalence that feels especially relevant now, as Americans look back on a decade of war overseas. Sweet Talk was published in 1990, with most of the stories being published in The New Yorker in the 1980s. It was re-issued last year by Other Press, and in her interview for The Rumpus Vaughn indicated that she has been working on a novel, but wouldn’t say much more. I am naturally eager to read more of Vaughn, but Sweet Talk is an achievement in its own right, not the training ground for a novel or the precursor to something greater. Here’s hoping it stays in print for years to come.