Sunday, December 16, 2007

Home Land

Review of Sam Lipsyte’s novel Home Land; this was in early 2005 in the Toronto Star.

Novelists have always found rich material in characters who are at odds with the world. But in North America in the years since World War II, an entire sprawling genre of alienated-young-man fiction has taken shape. Everywhere there are confessions of grownup Holden Caulfields adrift in a world of affluence. They disdain business and society and fetishize their own failures, yet somehow they rarely seem to suffer any real physical privation – their pain is the existential itch of the privileged.

Sam Lipsyte’s second novel belongs to that category, but to its credit, it’s firmly in the black-comedy subgenre. And it’s organized around a conceit so fitting and simple that I can’t quite believe it’s not been done before (though I confess no examples leap to mind). Home Land is narrated by a thirtysomething layabout, and it’s made up of letters to his high school’s alumni newsletter.

Eastern Valley High School of New Jersey has produced gods of the guitar and the baseball diamond, as well as rising stars in politics, business, and science. It’s also produced the underemployed Lewis Miner (class of ’89), who, as he declares at the outset, “did not pan out.” Over several weeks and a couple hundred pages, Lewis entertains his former classmates with painfully honest accounts of his masturbatory misadventures and drug-dazzled ambles about town, Or rather, he tries to entertain them: none of Lewis’s updates make it into the pages of “Catamount Notes,” to his growing frustration.

Lewis’s shoulders are stacked with chips that more earnest writers would build whole novels around: his mother’s dead, his father’s brutish and estranged, and his girlfriend’s ditched him to be closer to her own movie-star brother. Lewis keeps himself in drug money by writing “FakeFacts” for the in-house newsletter of a cola corporation, but mostly he hangs out with his best friend, Gary, a fellow class-of-’89 wastrel who has issues of his own. Gary (who first appeared in Lipsyte’s short-story collection Venus Drive) disgraced his parents with accusations of ritual sexual abuse, then sued his psychiatrist after deciding that his recovered memories were (probably) false. Lewis semi-affectionately refers to him as “the Retractor.”

With its offhand accounts of days and nights wasted away, the novel nicely captures the kind of relationship in which close friends encourage each other’s worst habits – what the shrinks call codependency. It’s also rich in secondary characters, such as Fontana, the former principal of Eastern Valley High, who suggests a couple-decades-older version of Lewis. There are also threatening drug dealers, preppie princesses, and blusteringly self-involved parents – a steady parade of bit players enlivens the action, and one never has the sense that they’re mere foils to Lewis.

They might be foils to Sam Lipsyte, though. Home Land isn’t really a character study and it isn’t really a state-of-our-culture satire (unlike its predecessor, The Subject Steve, which combined a light comedic touch with DeLillo-isms that strained to be epoch-defining). Mainly the novel’s a venue for its author’s twitchy wordplay. Literary types typically show their skills with lyrical swooning, or with painterly descriptions of everything that passes before their characters’ eyes. Lipsyte, though, prefers stylized, funny dialogue and off-kilter aphorisms. And he draws laughs from the kind of exposition that would be mere narrative pollyfiller to most writers: “Home from the garland, I found the latest issue of Catamount Notes in my mail slot, got myself nooked up on the sofa for a visit with my cougar kin. Some alums had acquired new coordinates of toil on the corporate slave grid. Others were celebrating the advent of poop-smeared approximations of themselves.”

As that passage indicates, Lipsyte’s style does run the risk of being overly glib. Home Land’s wry tone of emotional vacancy is certainly preferable to woe-is-me victimhood, but it does tend to keep the stakes small as the story moves to its climax (which is, inevitably, an Eastern Valley High class reunion). When Gary’s horrific relationship with his parents is rendered at the same insouciant pitch as, say, Lewis’s idle lust for a barista, it’s hard to genuinely care about either – or, indeed, anything. The novel’s resolution, which sees Lewis’s smirking and mugging burned away by raw and painful feeling, is a powerful moment, but a small victory.

Specimen Days

Review of Michael Cunningham’s novel Specimen Days; Toronto Star, 2005.

It’s still early in the critical jousting over Specimen Days, Michael Cunningham’s new novel, and already several reviewers have accused him of recycling his last one. That would be The Hours, the 1999 blockbuster hit made up of three interwoven stories about people in varying stages of emotional distress – one of those people being Virginia Woolf, whose style, themes, and situations are reworked in the book.

Cunningham’s new novel is also made up of three connected stories to which a dead literary figure – poet Walt Whitman in this case – serves as a kind of godparent. Still, the cries of “retread” are unfair. In Specimen Days, Cunningham genre-hops from historical fiction to suspense thriller to science fiction, and whatever the book’s flaws, it’s clear that in style and subject he’s pushed himself onto new ground (at least, new to him).

In fact, the book that Specimen Days really calls to mind is David Mitchell’s hit novel Cloud Atlas. Both of them dabble in various genres and hopscotch across various time periods, and both tease the reader with clues and echoes that link the various stories. I don’t mean to suggest that the similarity is anything but coincidental (Mitchell’s book was published only last year, after all), but Specimen Days does suffer in comparison: it lacks Cloud Atlas’s giddy, propulsive plotting, and Cunningham’s connective webs feel less clever and energizing than Mitchell’s.

One of the disappointments of Specimen Days is the way Cunningham handles his discrete narratives. In The Hours they were intertwined, with the reader pulled back and forth among three time periods in a manner that, while it may have been contrived, at least seemed organic during the reading. The stories were also nicely brought together at the end, in a way that managed to seem satisfyingly inevitable rather than manipulative. In Specimen Days, in contrast, each story ends before the next begins, and most of the connections between them are slight – such as the recurring character names, or variants of them, and the Whitman motif, which feels like an add-on more than an integral part of the proceedings. The overall effect suggests a collection of novellas more than a novel.

Still, for the most part Specimen Days is engaging enough that it’s tempting to overlook the structural jerry-rigging. And one common link to the novel’s three parts is the Manhattan setting – a lovingly rendered backdrop that goes a long way toward providing narrative continuity and momentum.

“In the Machine,” the first piece, is set in the 1800s, among New York’s desperately poor. Lucas, a sickly 13-year-old, takes over his brother’s job at a metalworks plant after the brother is crushed in the workings of a machine. Lucas divides his energy between trying to provide for his frail, ghostlike parents and mooning over Catherine, his dead brother’s fiancée; his only solace lies in reading from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass at night. (He also quotes from the book in conversation, compulsively and convulsively – his spasms provide a comic touch that doesn’t quite feel intentional.) The boy’s situation gets more desperate when he hears the keening voice of Simon, his dead brother, emanating from the machines around him – the gears at work, his mother’s music box – and becomes convinced that malevolent ghosts are reaching out to ensnare the living.

The portentous gloom of “In the Machine” makes it the most ponderous of the three pieces here. But it also makes for a nice parable about the anxieties of the industrial age – and the theme of paranoia runs deeper as the novel progresses. In the second story, “The Children’s Crusade,” the time is now, with New York City enshrouded in dread by the still-fresh World Trade Center attack. The protagonist is Cat, a forensic psychologist who works with the FBI, logging and interpreting terrorist threats. A group of child suicide bombers are striking at random throughout the city, and they share an obsession with the poetry of Whitman – and with Cat, who’s drawn into their eerie campaign.

The final section, “Like Beauty,” is set about 120 years from now, in a distinctly dystopian New York. A sinister private-sector plutocracy calls the shots, and the city has become a kind of theme park. Simon, a sentient android, makes his living as local colour for the tourist trade, simulating muggings on demand (shades here of the stories of George Saunders). But it turns out that Simon’s creator imprinted him with a hidden homing impulse, and when it kicks in, Simon flees New York for Colorado in search of his maker – in the company of Catareen, a female lizardlike creature from another planet.

The vision of the future here is a familiar one, from its jargon (“hoverpods” float by overhead) to its facile satire (children are named “Tomcruise” and “Katemoss”). But if Cunningham doesn’t exactly reinvent his genres in Specimen Days, he does show a certain fluency in them. “The Children’s Crusade” subtly escalates the suspense, as Cat’s own safety is compromised, while “Like Beauty” deftly avoids overexposition, parsing out just enough detail about the state of the world circa 2120 to keep the story coherent.

Ultimately, though, the novel shows little cumulative power, mainly because of the handling of the Whitman motif. The Leaves of Grass quotations that various characters spout are lovely in and of themselves, but the poet’s influence never really seems encoded in the novel’s DNA. And Whitman’s relation to the overall theme – the search for beauty and transcendence in an age of everyday dehumanization – remains superficial.

Again, in fact, the advantage goes to Cloud Atlas. Mitchell focused on the battle between altruism and avarice within human nature, and while his message wasn’t necessarily any more profound than Cunningham’s, it seemed more vivid and deeply felt, rooted in character rather than abstract ideas. Specimen Days, which essentially presents good people battling the vague and faceless spirit of the age, is not nearly as haunting.

The Sleeping Father

Review of Matthew Sharpe’s novel The Sleeping Father; Toronto Star, sometime in 2004. One good thing about putting all this old stuff here is that it’s made me realize I give in far too often to a certain rhetorical tic: a series of consecutive sentence fragments, set off by “Or” or “And,” to list characters or elements of a book. Must stop that.

The reception of Matthew Sharpe’s newest book must gladden indie publishers across the land. The New York author has previously published a short-story collection and a novel with imprints of the Random House empire. But his biggest success has come with the tiny New York house Soft Skull Press, which released The Sleeping Father early this year. That novel has become a sleeper hit, propelled by strong reviews and word-of-mouth and an appearance on the Today Show’s TV book club.

The buzz is understandable. In his tale of a Connecticut family in crisis, Sharpe creates awkward, stress-jangled characters, sets them in an up-to-the-minute social context, and watches them collide, maintaining throughout a strict dedication to the reader’s enjoyment.

The crisis-beset family is the Schwartzes, as singular in their misery as anything Tolstoy could have imagined when he set out his famous aphorism about each unhappy family being unique. Mother Lila has fled to California after multiple infidelities; depression-addled father Bernard spends much of the novel in a coma after a prescription mixup; teenage son Chris is a high-school misfit with the gift of irritating everyone around him; and teenage daughter Cathy has renounced her family’s Judaism in a quest to Catholicize herself.

That the above paragraph is absurdly reductive is a compliment to the book. Too many novels rely on one easily summarized defining dilemma per character, but the foibles of the Schwartz family intersect and multiply in unpredictable ways, and their wobbly orbits pull in intriguing secondary characters. Like Lisa Danmeyer, an ambitious neurologist with some daddy issues who indulges Chris in a weird battle of wills. Or Frank Dial, Chris’s sole friend from high school; their relationship is complicated by race (“Frank was one of five blacks matriculated at the Bellwether High School for Upper Middle Class Caucasians”), vague homoerotic yearnings, and, eventually, Frank’s feelings for Cathy.

The Sleeping Father is primarily a black comedy, and the book is an unfailingly fun read. Sharpe’s narrative voice is snappy but not quite smarmy, and at its best and most confrontational, the dialogue hums electric. In structure, too, the book is eager to please: while the scenes and situations are mostly domestic in nature, Sharpe builds suspense thriller-style, with quick scene changes and 59 short chapters.

On the downside, the author apparently believes that he must drop a bravura apercu into every paragraph to keep readers impressed. A line like “Each of them gave [their grandfather] a kiss, which meant penetrating with their faces the almost tactile bolus of smoke that encased his head” is wonderful, but nearly every scene is rendered at the same pitch – which means that the tone becomes monochromatic and those glittering one-liners lose a bit of their patina. Also, Sharpe’s guiding hand can sometimes be too easily discerned behind the speech of the characters. Chris, Frank, and Cathy occasionally veer toward the kind of hyper-articulate teenspeak that invites mockery when we see it on TV shows.

Still, Sharpe’s willingness to pursue surface effects accounts for much of The Sleeping Father’s appeal. The book’s third-person narration jumps among various points of view but also encompasses an omniscient voice. That voice pokes fun at the characters: “Cathy made a gesture at her brother that was definitely not a sign of the cross.” It renders lyrical their raw feelings: “Walking so lightly in the world was a source of intense frustration for Chris.” It brazenly withholds information for dramatic effect: “Lisa Danmeyer … was speaking with someone she considered to be an ally at the hospital, a sympathetic ear.” In short, it does anything necessary to entertain for the moment.

That’s an untrendy approach, thought by many to be a relic of pre-modernism. But it can resonate with readers, as shown in the popularity of John Irving’s novels, or of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. And unlike many others, Sharpe somehow pulls it off without sacrificing the novel’s emotional punch. I chuckled at the many contrivances in the telling of The Sleeping Father’s story, but I found that its characters and their problems long outlived the turning of the last page.

Elsewhere, Part 2 / Elyse Friedman

On Steven Beattie’s site last month, he and I did a joint “dialogue review” of Elyse Friedman’s short-story collection Long Story Short. Here it is. And here’s a profile of Friedman (well, one of those weird and slightly awkward review-profile combos) done for eye weekly back in 1999.

In person, Elyse Friedman offers little hint of the brash energy on view in Then Again, her debut novel. Sitting meekly in a Random House boardroom, the 36-year-old author seems quietly amused at the novelty of being an interview subject, and her responses are refreshingly free of stock sound bites. That unpretentious quality also informs Friedman’s fiction – but at a much higher pitch. Then Again is a spirited romp, full of outsized emotions and marked by a manic narrative voice.

The novel centres on a bizarre family reunion. Joel Schafer, a stinking-rich Hollywood crap merchant (think Joe Eszterhas with a Canadian birth certificate), summons his two sisters, Michelle and Marla, to their childhood home in the suburbs of Toronto. He’s restored the house to its exact 1970s state, and has even hired actors to stand in for the long-dead Schafer parents. In narrating the action, the lonely shut-in Michelle alternates the increasingly flaky present with the emotional detritus of her past, highlighted by a doomed teenage love affair that still haunts her, 20 years later.

Friedman’s work has already earned admiration from the Toronto author Paul Quarrington, who set her on the path to publication. After enrolling in a correspondence course at the Humber Writer’s Workshop, Friedman was paired with Quarrington (Whale Music, The Spirit Cabinet), who praised the short stories she turned in. Emboldened, she turned to the long form and sent her erstwhile mentor a draft of Then Again. “After the course was long over, he was kind enough to read the manuscript,” says Friedman. “And then, doubly kind, he gave it to his agent.” But the matchup was fortuitous for creative reasons as well as career ones: “I think we have a similar sensibility. I love the fact that he can write something very funny but also very poignant.”

Friedman walks that line pretty well herself in Then Again, which veers from cartoonish satire (Joel’s absurd pranks, Michelle’s dating misadventures) to grim drama (a mother lost to cancer, a father to suicide). The novel isn’t wholly free of first-fiction missteps – the prose sometimes lacks finesse, and the denouement seems contrived – but it’s readable and affecting throughout. And Joel’s mad wish to reclaim the lost suburbia of his youth gives Friedman plenty of thematic play. “One thing that interests me is selective memory,” she says. “I’ve talked to a lot of siblings who’ve grown up in the same house, and some remember it as being an utterly hellish experience, while others remember it warmly and fondly.”

The streets of Friedman’s own childhood – she was raised in North York – don’t fare well in her memories. “I didn’t enjoy the suburbs particularly. I felt like our family was just too weird to survive there. And when we moved downtown, and I saw the weirdos thriving on the street, I felt like we had come home.” Not surprisingly, in Then Again Friedman renders the downtown core much more affectionately – and compellingly – than she does the ’burbs. The novel may be a raspberry to suburbia, but it’s also an ode to Toronto life, right down to the fictional stand-ins for Book City and the By the Way Café.

While Friedman’s already started a second novel, she’s keeping her artistic options open. A graduate of a Canadian Film Centre screenwriting program, she’s written five feature-length scripts, mostly comedies. None have been produced, but Friedman’s currently negotiating to option one. She’s also sold a proposal for a TV sitcom, although no broadcaster is yet attached. “I think writing is writing,” she says. “I write poetry as well. I want to be able to move from format to format, and not get categorized or stuck into one role.” Different mediums offer their own advantages; Friedman cites film’s visual nature and narrative compression, but notes that fiction allows for time-shifting and more ambitious structure. While writing Then Again, she never slipped into screenwriter mode. “It’s all about the rhythm of the words when I’m writing fiction. I hear it, I don’t see it.”

She might have to start thinking in pictures now, though – she’s mulling over an offer to pen a screen adaptation of her own novel. “Adapting from a novel is a whole other matter,” says Friedman, swallowing with trepidation. “Obviously, I’d have to go back and revisit the story and relive it again, and try and divorce myself from the structure and the format that it’s in now and play with it. You really do have to radically alter fiction to put it on the screen.”