24 September 2007

Murphy, Yannick. Here They Come. San Francisco: McSweeney's, 2006.

Very early on in this book, its narrator—a preteen girl of unspecific age—confesses to saying "fuck" a lot: "I curse all the time, or maybe it's just 'fuck' I always say" (6). This comes after she narrates herself saying fuck in conversation, and so she's doing a fine job of contextualizing her own character. Then what follows her swearing confession is this paragraph:
My mother says shit in French all the time. Merde when the electric gets cut. Merde when the candlestick wax drips onto her clothes. Merde when the gas gets cut too and we eat cold sandwiches each night for dinner. (6)
This is the first time we ever find out that the narrator's family is poor, and it's this kind of linked-up narrative economy of letting segues act also as revealing, confessional moments that make this book a pretty masterful work.

A bit dull in the end, though. I want in a brief amount of space to argue for this book's fitting into a kind of Neo-Quirk school of fiction writing, and then I want to argue against that school's vitality. Miranda July, I'm looking in your direction. (Oh, and a pal of mine recently asked whether I'd read the essay on quirk* in the new Atlantic, and I haven't and so if what follows spells out that writer's argument word for word know that my plagiarism is unintentional.) (UPDATE: "Quirk takes not mattering very seriously.")

Here They Come is narrated in the present-tense by a young girl with an incredibly rich vocabulary and an inanxious, almost jaded approach to sexuality (or maybe I'm just not hearing her anxieties having never been through this part of a young girl's life, though in my defense I'll say that at the end when she gets her first period it results in a party at some fancy restaurant where her jaded mother orders the girl champagne and everyone applauds). She calls her father's mistress "the slut" and can bend spoons with her mind, or at least wants her reader to believe she can. In other words she's a precocious child, and if the orphan is a central trope for melodrama, it's this little girl (or boy) to which Neo-Quirk returns every time. Think of the Tenenbaums in the prologue to the Wes Anderson film, or the young girl with her dowry collection in July's film (or the ASCII-artist, chat-room lothario brothers).

If as a person putting together a story you think about the precocious child you'll see what a great little tool he is. He gets to think and act like an adult (with his incredibly rich vocabulary and her sullenness derived from Shaw plays) while not actually having to be an adult (which is to say take responsibility for her actions or be beholden to anyone but himself). And so the precocious child is like this perfect little ego that can make whatever moves he wants in the novel without us expecting (m)any consequences.

Hence this novel's plot, which eschews causality not in any showy antagonistic way, but to me it seems just because. The narrator's father disappears one day. Not even the slut knows where he has gone. Then the middle third of the novel takes place and her brother goes with the slut to Spain, where they have a lead. Then the father reappears one day. The brother and slut return from Spain. I guess they've changed, but that his disappearance isn't really the cause of anything nor his reappearance any kind of reward makes me distrust the arbitrary use of plot arcs in the book. And there are many plot arcs, and they fall like canned echoes one after the other in the book's final ten pages. Everything up to that has been a lollygagging stroll from one quirky incident to another.

I guess the argument could (and should) be made that life itself isn't causal. That people disappear from our lives without us doing anything or knowing why. That coincidence is only the stuff of phonily constructed plots. But what I want to argue is that novels aren't supposed to just reenact daily existence. They're supposed to work as made-up stories that serve to help us make sense of our own lives. I dunno that I could spell out the difference, here, but I feel like I should, but I'm going to move on.

I now think, though, that people don't even expect novels to say or do anything anymore other than reward the reader. Neo-Quirk, if I have to try to put it in context, seems to me to be a school of art (and this pending argument may only apply to the literary manifestations of quirk, and I know I've only provided this one example, but please bear with me) that is thriving in the era of the non-reader (q.v. the NEA's "Reading at Risk" brouhaha of a couple year's back). Neo-Quirk aims only for entertainment, but as it's entertainment literarily delivered it gets misread, I think, as something more substantial.

It's like Murphy's book was a nice thing to read because the language and images were so nice and newly presented, but the book doesn't really say much of anything. I guess it's about a preteen girls' coming of age, but it's not like she does anything in the novel to actually come of age. She's just older by a year or two at its end. Nothing is said of what this might mean.

I feel like if more people were reading books would be forced more urgently to mean things. Now that no one is reading, the only people who will come to Murphy's book are those who have made what's amounting these days to a Lifestyle Choice to Read Books Because They're There. So delivering a novel that on a sentence-by-sentence level rewards these readers' readings is enough. But it shouldn't be enough. It's not enough.

I thought, for some reason, while reading this book, of Chabon's Mysteries of Pittsburgh, which I read ten years ago. It was published in the mid-80s, back when cable TV was still something of a novelty. A first novel. Quirky, sure, in its own way (it's got a character named Phlox for crying out sakes). But look how desperately it strives to make meaning, and how artfully it succeeds. In that time ("back in my day" he says all elderly) quirk wasn't enough. Art, or at least novels, were expected to say things. It wasn't all art-for-art's-sake.

Which brings me in this scattered post to Michel Gondry, whose Science of Sleep I found pretty dull in the same way as I do this novel: all quirk, no substance; what substance Gondry works to achieve is too paltry to get absorbed in. Compare that film (the screenplay to which Gondry'd supposedly been working on for years and years and years) with his Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which of course Charlie Kaufman wrote), which is endlessly compelling on top of being quirky mostly because it takes the time to deal with life as an adult, which is to say a life of pain and loss and pettiness and loathing toward the self and others. All that along with beauty and cuteness and love. ESotSM moves us because it takes us to the dark side of human life to show us how great the good stuff is.

Gondry in SoS, July in much of her work, Murphy in her novel here (I hereby accept all wilted cabbage thrown my way because of a flagrant inability to come up with other novel/literature sources of quirk...help, anyone?) only want the good stuff. They all seem baffled by adulthood. And who isn't? What I think turns me off from their work is that most of us baffled by adulthood have no choice in our lives but to keep wading deeper and deeper into it. These Neo-Quirkers, though, are plainfaced escapists. They get to stay back on dry land, looking out over the rest of us with furrowed brows, confused expressions, happy they're not getting wet.

Finally, here's what Frank McCourt (who I'd imagine is quirk free) has to say about this novel:
This is a hell of a book. You might not be able to finish Here They Come in one sitting [indeed not: ed.], but it will haunt you until you do. What detail! What characters! I can imagine both Jane Austen and Raymond Carver pouring over this masterly novel.
Oh, Frank McCourt, don't be a fool. Jane Austen?


* I heard "quark" when he asked me this, or rather "Quark", meaning the page design software, and wondered why anyone would bother cluing me in to an article about Quark.

18 September 2007

Oates, Joyce Carol. Wonderland (1971). New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1992.

A novel in three parts, telling the youth, young adulthood, and fatherhood of Jesse Vogel, who begins life as an orphan after he narrowly escapes his homicidal father (who, when Jesse's like 10, shoots Jesse's mother and siblings, then himself). Much of the first third of the novel details Jesse's life in his foster home, as the adopted son of Dr. Karl Pedersen, a world-famous diagnostician, who adopts Jesse as part of an obsessive need to cultivate an heir, and this section easily contains the novel's most compelling passages, mostly because the drama driving the narrative is Jesse's pull away from his birth father's shameful, murderous past (which is to say, then, his pull toward the seeming wholesomeness and success of Dr. Pedersen), and yet also his pull away from Dr. Pedersen's oppressive parenting. Here is a man who carts his daughter—a math savant—around the country to show her off to specialists, and all the while this daughter eats everything within reach to deal with the stress and loathes every fiber of his father's being. Here is a man whose son shuts himself up in his room pecking out notes for his musical compositions, who, too, is unhealthfully overweight and never speaks during family meals. Every scene is a big ball of tension.

Then Jesse alienates himself from the family and becomes a hard-working medical student. This encompasses the novels' extremely long second section. Then he marries and has two daughters, and the third section of the novel proceeds much like Roth's American Pastoral, in the way that Jesse's youngest daughter runs away from home and gets involved with that Kooky Sixties Counterculture, to the point where Jesse's final act becomes the quest to find her in some urban slum and return her to the home.

Oates's ending is meant to suggest that despite everything Jesse does in the second third of this novel to become anybody but either the homicidally crazed father that sired him or the obsessively crazed father that raised him, he's doomed to repeat the very same acts of parental control he once suffered from. But, like, what Jesse does at the end is cleverly track his daughter down in some apartment where she's suffering from jaundice and malnutrition, and bring her home, where he can probably feed her and get her to, you know, live longer than one more summer.

Am I that much of a square that I can read no instance of "demonic-paternal control" (Oates's words for it, from her Afterword; something she calls "the tragedy of America in the 1960s") in this novel's final act? Shelley (the daughter) shows no ability to take care of herself. Was it the super special gift of the Sixties to let free spirits follow their blisses regardless of whether it killed them?

Fucking boomers. Roth does far more stellar things with point of view and the sentence, so just read his book and not this one.

06 September 2007

Cheever, John. Falconer. New York: Ballantine, 1978.

Cheever's inevitable prison novel, telling the story of Ezekiel Farragut, a well-to-do heroin addict who kills his brother in a fit of anger by spearing him twenty-some times with a fire stoker. Here's how it happens:
"I know one thing," shouted Farragut. "I don't want to be your brother...."

"Kiss my ass," said Eben.

"You've got Dad's great sense of humor," Farragut said.

"He wanted you to be killed," screamed Eben. "I bet you didn't know that. He loved me, but he wanted you to be killed. Mother told me. He had an abortionist come out to the house. Your own father wanted you to be killed."

Then Farragut struck his brother with a fire iron....
Readers of Cheever's "Goodbye, My Brother" will recognize the situation readily, and readers of Cheever's letters or journals will also make special note of his hero's heroin addiction. Cheever, to my knowledge, never shot up smack, but he was a severe alcoholic, who would reward himself for waiting until noon before pouring himself a drink. The reward? Gin.

What's interesting about the novel is how one can watch the way prison—a place devoid of the world's riches as Cheever and his protagonists understand them: woman, drink, nature's bounty—becomes the only possible fictional space in which the author can explore his own personal demons. Which is to say it was impossible not to read this novel autobiographically, a reading I usually distrust. But for the first third or so of the novel we watch Farragut worry daily about his addiction and whether the prison doctor will administer his dose of methadone. And then all this rumination on the nature of addiction is dropped when a boy named Jody happens upon the scene and Farragut falls in love with him and they develop a steady sexual relationship. This, naturally, is maneuvered into carefully and trickily. Jody is "so glad [Farragut] ain't homosexual" (96) and Farragut wonders "if he could bring off his love for Jody in the street. Would he walk down the street with his arm around Jody's waist, would he kiss Jody at the airport....?" (107). Soon Jody breaks out of prison by masquerading as an altarboy (don't ask) and the question of whether a male-male love relationship could survive "the street" is dropped at once. The final third of the book wanders around discussing prison riots in general and Farragut's own sneaky breakout in specific.

One other thing is that at one point Cheever writes that "Obscenities recalled for Farragut the long-ago war with Germany and Japan" (36). Am I wrong in remembering that this was a war with Italy as well, and that Cheever's weird oversight of this major fact has to be written off to his ongoing love and obsession with that country? Maybe Italy was only a supporting actor in the drama of WWII, but I read such a line as powerfully naive and touching.

I'm being so condescending to one of the U.S.'s major writers. Is it because we share a birthday? Is it because the torment I read in his journals of loving and wanting to be with men was what probably pulled me the strongest from the proverbial closet? When I think of John Cheever I can only feel a constant regret. If he were alive I'd want to just pat him on the head a lot.