Monday, September 10, 2007

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

Review of The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders (who, after In Persuasion Nation, I have now given up on for good). Toronto Star, 2006.

To say that it would be easy to parody George Saunders is no insult. It means only that he’s managed to developed a distinctive and recognizable writing style. After all, the American writers who’ve been lampooned the most over the years – with annual contests devoted to the stuff in each case – are Faulkner and Hemingway, which is good company indeed.

The danger, though, is that writers with idiosyncratic voices may start to sound like they’re parodying themselves. Flourishes become habits, and the fresh becomes familiar. Eventually, a highly distilled style that remains more or less unchanged over several books comes to have the same effect as no style at all, so acclimatized do readers become to the author’s tics.

George Saunders is approaching that point. He’s known for his two short-story collections, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, and slightly less known for his excellent children’s book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. His new novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, will seem familiar indeed to readers of his past work.

Partly this is because of the subject matter. Like all of Saunders’ work, Reign of Phil is a black comedy about regular folks struggling to get by in a world that’s vaguely surreal but is still burdened with all the punishing monotony and soul-deadening bureaucracy that marks our own. The main difference is that in the new book, the surreal qualities are more obvious and dramatic.

Reign of Phil is about two countries, Inner Horner and Outer Horner, the former being “so small only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner.” While in Outer Horner, the Inner Hornerites are confined to a Short-Term Residency Zone that’s apparently only a few square feet in size.

Trouble starts when some kind of minor earthquake shrinks the borders of Inner Horner to the point where no one can stand within them, and the seven Inner Hornerites are forced to encroach on Outer Horner land. In response, the local Outer Hornerites “tax” them – stripping them of what little money they have, and after that their clothes – and threaten worse, eventually embarking on a mini-genocide. All of this under the direction of “Phil,” an Outer Hornerite of no particular accomplishment who takes the changed borders as a chance to warmonger his way to leadership.

This is all related in the typical Saunders style, which is marked by some very specific comic devices. There’s the abundance of official terms and labels that the characters have to deal with – like “Short-Term Residency Zone” – and which no one ever seems to shorten, even in casual conversation. There’s the repetition of deliberately clunky phrases like “octagonal shovel-like receptacle.” There are the folksy qualifiers, the use of “That is” to begin explanatory sentences and “sort of” in the descriptions of people or actions.

All of this can be funny for a while, of course. But at this point, I for one hope to someday read a George Saunders story without any capitalized corporate/political jargon, and one that isn’t set to exactly the same narrative pitch as all the others.

Still, as a political satire set in a fantastical otherworld, Reign of Phil does manage some broad but effective humour. All of the characters are imagined as sort of semi-humanoids, each with their own bizarre, sketchily described physiognomy. For example, Phil’s brain is precariously mounted on a rack, and whenever it falls off the rack and onto the ground, as it often does, he begins bellowing violently jingoistic platitudes “in a suddenly stentorian voice.” And the media, which shamelessly promotes Phil’s power-grab and sadism, is represented by “three handsome well-groomed squat little men with detachable megaphones growing out of their clavicles.”

Little details like that are funny in a superficial way. But on the downside, they also push the story, which as an allegory is already once removed from reality, further into the level of abstraction. It’s hard to completely visualize any of the characters – we can picture only discrete details of their bodies – or even to imagine what the land they live in is supposed to look like. Our bewilderment in this regard may be fun, but it’s a minor, second-rate kind of fun, one that distracts us from the deeper pleasure of considering how the events in Outer Horner mirror those in our own world.

Not that there are any clear answers to that last question (and nor should there be). Saunders’ overall point is clear enough – best summed up as “be nice to other people and don’t listen to warlords,” I guess – but readers will have their own interpretations of specific elements in his story. Such as the Greater Kellerites, a race of affable, giant coffee-drinkers who reluctantly save the day. Or the even more deus ex machina coda, which is best left for readers to discover on their own.

The book has its strong points, and Saunders isn’t completely relying on familiar tricks. Near the end, he very cleverly and funnily renders the garbled thoughts of Phil, who’s been without his brain for too long. Unfortunately, the good stuff here can’t dispel the feeling that this was an exercise more than a fully realized novella. Anyone who hasn’t read Saunders should – but they should start with any one of his three other books. Reign of Phil will likely be remembered as a footnote to his catalogue.


Review of Kurt Andersen’s novel Heyday; Toronto Star, spring 2007.

Kurt Andersen’s first novel, Turn of the Century, was all about zeitgeist. Set in Manhattan at the height of the first Internet boom, it had its characters juggling complicated lifestyles and eating in trendy restaurants while embroiled in schemes and ventures in the tech and entertainment fields. Andersen, a co-founder of Spy and former editor-in-chief of New York, was well poised to recreate that milieu for fictional purposes, and the book was a lot of fun, enlivened by an inside feel and a breezy pace.

Andersen’s second novel, Heyday, is all about research.

For Heyday is a prime specimen of the Historical Yarn. It’s set in 1848, when a young Englishman named Benjamin Knowles renounces his family business and sets off to find his fortune in the rough, protean new society of America. (Some recent misadventures in Paris have stirred Ben’s taste for adventure; although he doesn’t know it, he’s left a dead gendarme in his wake and there’s another one on his trail, looking for revenge.) In New York City, Ben falls in with a motley group of friends: part-time prostitute and aspiring actress Polly Lucking; her brother Duff, a traumatized vet of the Mexican War with a secret compulsion for arson; and Timothy Skaggs, a dissolute but kindhearted journalist who’s the old man of the group at 35.

Ben and Polly fall in love, they quarrel, and she leaves New York in search of a rural Utopian community where she might make a new home. Soon afterward, Ben and Duff and Timothy set out to catch up with Polly, tracking her west. Eventually all of them make their way to California, looking to get in on the Gold Rush action. And all the while, that murderous Frenchman is still chasing Ben.

In telling this tale, Andersen bows to several of the historical yarn’s obligatory conventions:

1. Scenery, scenery, scenery. From cobble-stoned Paris streets in the middle of a riot to New York’s endless parties to San Francisco rising up from the mad scrabble of the Gold Rush, Heyday is stuffed with description and information. This extends well beyond judicious scene-setting or well-chosen colourful details, to the point that the narrative becomes one long exhausting, droning guided tour – a big reason for this book’s inflated page count.

2. Famous people everywhere. Just as believers in reincarnation tend to insist that they lived their own past lives in precincts of power and celebrity and intrigue, characters in historical yarns must inevitably encounter some of the most storied figures of the age. And so the exploits of Andersen’s happy wanderers feature a carousel of cameos: Charles Darwin and Friederich Engels and de Tocqueville and Walt Whitman and songwriter Stephen Foster and detective Allan Pinkerton. For scale purposes, imagine how absurd it would look if every second contemporary novel had its characters bumping into Al Gore and Britney Spears.

3. Protagonists who are more enlightened than their times. The U.S. in 1848 is a land of ruthless Manifest Destiny, and even the northern states are unduly accommodating toward their slaveholding southern neighbours. But don’t worry. Under the enveloping wisdom of Skaggs (Ben is “pleased to have an American friend to enlighten him about America’s flaws and impurities”), our heroes understand the same things that we readers do: that war and imperialism are bad and that people are the same under the skin and that human rights are inviolable.

4. Showy but superficial nods toward contemporary relevance. About the States’ recent military history, Skaggs reflects that “patriotic hoopla annoyed him, as did the spurious argument that Polk was obliged to attack Mexico before Mexico turned its weapons against the United States.”

To complain about all these things feels like a sour-hearted attempt to spoil the fun; this is simply a yarn, after all. But there’s surprisingly little fun to be had in Heyday. Mostly the novel just feels bloated and clunky. Andersen’s prose moves with a mere serviceable reliability rather than reverberating with the warp and wobble of fiction. And throughout the narrative he’s a hovering, intrusive presence – reminding us of our history (even when the characters don’t understand what’s going on themselves), pointing out connections we can make on our own, explaining motives that are obvious. If a character teases, he must be described as “teasing.” If he nods emphatically, he must “nod emphatically in agreement.”

Nor is there much to catch hold of in the characters. The villain – that vengeful gendarme – is a real moustache-twirler, while Ben and his American friends quickly fall into a bland fellowship that might as well be something out of the Bobbsey Twins for all its nuance and believability. To be fair, Andersen does pretend to complicate these relationships with little episodes of unhappiness or minor disagreements, but these are the quick skips of a tiny, smooth stone along a placid surface.

The only potentially interesting character, in fact, is Duff, who secretly deserted the American army and took up arms alongside the Mexicans, and who’s now wracked by pyromania, self-righteous murderous impulses, and deepening religious fervour. But because his torment is described in the same flat tones and breezy pacing as the rest of the story, it lacks much power or depth and only comes off as out of place and jarring. Heyday isn’t a novel to be taken seriously – few historical yarns are – but nor is it as entertaining as it should be.

The Namesake

Review of The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. Toronto Star, fall 2003.

Jhumpa Lahiri made her name four years ago with her first book, the superb short-story collection Interpreter of Maladies. Impressive for its crisp prose and close attention to physical and emotional detail, Lahiri’s work also showed a strong grasp of the narrative economy of the short-story form. But these days it’s assumed that young writers will “graduate” to novel-writing as quickly as possible, and she’s done so with her second book, The Namesake.

While the novel shares no characters or plotlines with the nine stories in Lahiri’s debut, it flows so naturally from its predecessor that it still has the feel of a sequel. Interpreter of Maladies is full of Indian immigrants and their Westernized children, settled in the northeastern U.S. and struggling with cultural confusion as well as faltering relationships. The closing story, “The Third and Final Continent,” has a tone of resolution: the narrator’s acclimation to America, and the wary first days of his arranged marriage, give way to a warm but believable declaration of love for both his adopted country and his wife. Still, The Namesake shows that Lahiri isn’t done with the dilemmas explored in the collection.

The novel centres on Gogol Ganguli, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1968 to recently arrived Indian immigrants. His father, Ashoke, is a young university professor; his mother, Ashima, dotes on memories of Calcutta while regarding her new home with suspicion. Gogol grows up surrounded both by American white-bread culture and by his parents’ ever-expanding network of Bengali-American friends. His unusual name springs from family history – Ashoke, a devotee of Russian literature, credits his absorption in Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Overcoat” with saving his life during a train wreck – but to Gogol it only represents one more obstacle in his quest for self-assimilation.

The story follows the first 30-odd years of Gogol’s more-or-less-ordinary life. He discovers the Beatles, graduates from high school, changes his name to the less conspicuous Nikhil, becomes an architect, falls in and out of love, and copes with a death in the family. Each chapter tends to skip a few years ahead of the last, but that doesn’t mean the story moves from one dramatic pivot to another. In fact, not much actually happens; for a book about identity crisis, the conflict here is pretty low-key. Gogol’s parents aren’t particularly oppressive, the travails of his struggle to fit in not especially stinging. After all, the central drama of the first 100 pages is a teenager not liking his name – hardly stop-the-presses stuff.

Yet The Namesake is surprisingly readable, propelled by Lahiri’s expert description. As in her short stories, she snares the reader with a patient layering of detail – from the dirty lining in a kitchen cupboard to the layout of an apartment complex – that never slips into mere information. At her best, she combines that detail with sharp observation of character, making for bold insights, subtly presented. Probably the book’s strongest section recounts Gogol’s affair with a pampered Manhattanite WASP who lives with her rich parents – fully Americanized at last, he’s dating a lifestyle as much as a person. An episode near the end of the book also convincingly captures the pain and confusion of a collapsing marriage. And although these bits stand out, the entire novel is extremely well-written.

Perhaps, in fact, a little too well-written. Throughout the book Lahiri relies on an excessively formal tone, evident in small word choices that start to add up: “contain” rather than hold, “obtain” rather than get, “converse” rather than talk. (When the conversing is especially good, one character even “expresses interest.”) That the novel includes a textbook-ready phrase like “a practice of Bengali nomenclature grants, to every single person, two names” is telling; that the wording hardly seems out of place is even more so.

It’s not that Lahiri’s writing is either clunky or showy. On the contrary, her prose carries undeniable grace, and she’s confident enough to avoid the kind of capital-W Writing with which so many young authors overinflate their work. But the ever-careful language tends to hold us at a reserve, limiting our emotional investment. As the critic James Wood has complained of John Updike, we are not immersed in the characters’ experiences and feelings – rather, we get an author’s very elegant essay about those experiences and feelings. (The book’s summary-style structure, in which many pages pass with little to no dialogue, doesn’t help in this regard either.) At its worst, the disconnect is comical: “He is shocked and discomfited by the news.” Not shocked and discomfited!

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a dry, detached style. But it’s unsuited to a novel that’s meant to showcase a central character’s inner journey. Finishing The Namesake, no reader could fail to admire Lahiri’s skill in exploring her themes, in balancing various motifs, in closing the story with a tidy nod to Gogol’s past and his family history. But all that admiration won’t erase the nagging wish that we’d gotten to know Gogol a little better, come to care for him a little more.

The Fortress of Solitude

Review of Jonathan Lethem’s novel The Fortress of Solitude. Was in the Toronto Star, fall 2003. The generalization in the first para makes me wince on rereading, but what are you gonna do?

The author Louis Begley, who took to fiction late in life, has said he waited so long because as a young man he felt he had no milieu to document. As far as excuses for creative inactivity go, that’s a pretty good one. Surely the most compelling novelists are the ones who draw on a strong sense of their corner of the world, whether Faulkner’s secession-haunted south or Richler’s hardscrabble Montreal. A writer without that sense is, at the very least, starting from a disadvantage.

Jonathan Lethem has lived in Berkeley and in Toronto, but his real corner of the world is Brooklyn, New York. You’d never know it, though, from his first several novels, which include Amnesia Moon, As She Climbed Across the Table, and Girl in Landscape. Those were gene-spliced genre pieces that mixed science fiction with the tropes of the western, the detective yarn, the campus comedy. Fun stuff, and often intriguing, but when Lethem turned his fiction to his home streets for the first time, with Motherless Brooklyn in 1999, it felt like a breakthrough.

Like Lethem’s other novels, Motherless Brooklyn leaned toward the high-concept: it was narrated by a Tourettic would-be detective looking to avenge the murder of his thug boss. Funny and readable, the book was distinguished by an affectionate but unsentimental portrait of the titular borough and, not coincidentally, by fuller and warmer characterization than that of its predecessors. Lethem builds on that with The Fortress of Solitude. His love of quirk, his devotion to premise, are still in place: this may be the world’s first rock-and-roll superhero urban-jungle coming-of-age prison drama. But it’s also the author’s most expansive and emotionally ambitious novel yet.

It’s the story of Dylan Ebdus, a white kid who grows up in a black-and-Hispanic area of Brooklyn in the 1970s. Ignored or patronized by his emotionally removed parents, Dylan settles into an uneasy relationship with his ’hood; at best the other kids tolerate him, and at worst they bully and rob him. Eventually an ally arrives in Mingus Rude, the black son of a burned-out soul singer who moves onto the block. Mingus navigates his new world effortlessly, and becomes Dylan’s confidante and sometime protector. But as they grow older, their friendship is strained by Dylan’s growing alienation from his surroundings, his gradual awareness of the opportunities his skin colour affords him.

The first half of this long novel covers Dylan’s childhood and adolescence, and the jittery third-person narration manages the nice trick of relating a child’s discoveries in an adult’s voice and vocabulary. Lethem’s descriptions tend to be showy and self-conscious – an abandoned house “wore cinderblock bandages over the windows and doorway like a mummy with blanked eyes and stilled howling mouth” – but usually end up seeming more apt than contrived. And while the perspective is mainly Dylan’s, it occasionally shifts to others, deepening our sense of the community. Like Isabel Vendle, a rich white woman bent on gentrifying the neighbourhood. Or Barrett Rude Jr., Mingus’s father – a sort of amalgam of soul greats, modelled most obviously on Marvin Gaye but with a personality of his own.

In its second half, the book fast-forwards to Dylan’s thirties and takes on a first-person narration. The tone becomes more conversational and accessible, but the switch also deliberately tests our sympathies. The adult Dylan – living in California, scraping by as a music journalist but dreaming of selling a movie pitch – turns out to be selfish and standoffish, less than likable. It’s a risky but laudable move: for those readers who need reminding that we need not admire someone to appreciate their internal struggles, Lethem offers it here.

All of this makes The Fortress of Solitude sound like a 500-page character study, but it has other charms, too. One is the tension between the naturalistic setting and an overlay of supernatural whimsy. At one point, Dylan discovers a mysterious ring that grants its wearer the power of flight, and he and Mingus, their fantasies fed by comic books, become a sort of superhero team, breaking up the odd mugging and small-time drug deal. But the device doesn’t overwhelm the book: superpowers turn out to be not all that life-changing, and the ring drops in and out of the story.

More important to the novel is Lethem’s love of lore, social and cultural. The narrative is crammed with information: on Marvel comic books, kids’ street games, science fiction book-jacket illustration, graffiti technique, avant-garde art, and above all pop music. (The two main characters are, of course, named for musical icons, one white and one black.) But while the Brit James Wood has led a critical campaign against this kind of thing – having coined the term “hysterical realism” to describe it – Lethem convincingly shows that such accoutrements can delineate character, not just obscure it.

This is most apparent in the hinge of the book, the bridge between the first and second sections. It’s an essay composed by Dylan for inclusion with the liner notes to a Barrett Rude Jr. compilation CD, and the piece perfectly nails the smug, pseudo-intellectual condescension of rock criticism at its worst, made creepy by Dylan’s (unacknowledged) relationship to his subject. “It’s odd to consider that Marvin Gaye, Philippe Wynne and Barrett Rude Jr. were all, by choice or upbringing, weird black jews,” goes one typical flourish of rhetorical excess. Without ever addressing Dylan’s life directly, the liner note makes its points – about his complicated views on race, his relationship to art and his childhood and Mingus – so well that the second half of the book seems to merely amplify them.

Still, the narrative holds attention throughout, and Dylan’s climactic reunion with Mingus, set against an attempted prison break, is adequate payoff. Here and throughout the novel, Lethem’s treatment of racial dynamics is earnest but nuanced. And while Lethem has already drawn not-quite-fair charges of political correctness from some reviewers, The Fortress of Solitude still shows him to be bolder than many young novelists.

Men and Cartoons

Review of Jonathan Lethem’s short-story collection Men and Cartoons. Was in the Toronto Star.

There’s an old Kids in the Hall sketch called “Premise Beach.” While two of the Kids shimmy away to surf music on a beach, they take turns coming up with some outlandish conceit: a politician with a slab of meat for a hand, say, or people with gift-wrapped packages for heads. Each what-if leads into its own skit, but that skit turns out to be only seconds long – the actual execution is clearly beside the point.

The short stories of Jonathan Lethem take place on Premise Beach.

Lethem is better known as a novelist; in recent years he’s produced his most giddily entertaining book (Motherless Brooklyn) and his most emotionally ambitious and affecting one (The Fortress of Solitude). Men and Cartoons, his new story collection, furthers some of his recent motifs, particularly comic-book superheros and damaged childhood friendships. But mostly it seems a throwback to his previous collection, 1996’s The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye. In his short fiction both then and now, Lethem tries out lots of quirky ideas, many of them fantastical in nature. But he tends to develop those ideas so economically that the resulting narratives feel starved and slight.

There are exceptions. In Lethem’s best pieces, he manages to play with his high-concept starting points in intriguing ways and invest them with emotional heft. A highlight of the earlier book was “Vanilla Dunk,” about a futuristic basketball league in which the players wear high-tech suits that allow them to download the skills of past greats. Lethem has lots of fun working out the logistical details of that premise, but he also crafts a gripping story about an obnoxious young white star and his brooding black teammate, encompassing themes of loyalty, integrity, and race.

In Men and Cartoons, the class of the collection is “Super Goat Man.” The narrator, Everett, is a striving Brooklyn-raised intellectual (not unlike the hero of The Fortress of Solitude, or Lethem himself) who repeatedly encounters the title character, a retired superhero. In the 1970s, Super Goat Man moves into Everett’s neighbourhood and befriends his parents; years later, he ends up teaching at the same New Hampshire liberal arts college that Everett attends. It’s to Lethem’s credit that the story’s central novelty, the idea of a humanoid goat moving through an otherwise-realistic milieu, is quickly superseded by Everett’s complicated feelings toward his semi-mentor. Those feelings are a little overexplicated in the end, but “Super Goat Man” remains a memorable portrait.

Most stories in Men and Cartoons, though, are draped on thin conceits and add little to them. In one, a magical police spray is used to identify missing items after a burglary; when the police leave the spray behind, it turns out to also reveal ghostly images of a couple’s past lovers. Another piece summarizes a man’s years-long semi-obsession with a woman he meets at a house party, culminating in an awkward dinner.

Lethem’s prose throughout is capable but perfunctory. In any given scene, there’s little in the way of sensory detail or startling character notes – just the cold outlines of the tracks of the plot leading forward. The people in these stories tend to be limned only by the vaguest of dissatisfactions; they’re clearly afterthoughts to the situations into which Lethem thrusts them.

Still, much of Men and Cartoons is at least superficially entertaining – but when even Lethem’s inventiveness fails him, the result is sheer tedium. “The Glasses” reads like a comedy sketch that wouldn’t survive the first table read. And the dystopia “Access Fantasy” relies on such already-exhausted sci-fi tropes as advertising run amuck.

If Lethem’s made a recent breakthrough in his novels, he’s still struggling to bring a new resonance to his work in the short-story form. One strangely promising development may be “The National Anthem,” the closing piece in Men and Cartoons. Written as a letter from one old friend to another, it’s unwieldy and exposition-heavy. But it’s one of the few pieces here that feels like it was born from some churning emotional impulse, not just from idle speculation.