Sunday, March 30, 2008

Last Night at the Lobster

Review of Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, from the Toronto Star in December 2007.

I suspect many people will take a pass on Stewart O’Nan’s new book for the subject matter alone, which is about as prosaic and downbeat as you can get. Last Night at the Lobster is a slim novel that recounts a day in the life of a Connecticut Red Lobster outlet, from the perspective of Manny, the manager. The last day in its life, actually – the branch is about to close in a corporate downsizing move.

Readers who avoid this one will be missing out, though. True, O’Nan’s book is sombre in mood, unleavened by the comic hijinks that we’ve come to expect from workplace tales, and much of the narrative is built on the mundane details of restaurant work. But Last Night is surprisingly affecting and charming: O’Nan takes his milieu seriously and treats his characters with compassion.

On reading O’Nan’s first novel, Snow Angels, many years ago, I was impressed by how well he captured his working-class characters without slipping into the “I sing of the common man” tone sometimes found in, say, Russell Banks. In the early pages of Last Night at the Lobster, I wondered if that balance had tilted. The book is set at the height of the Christmas season, in what seems like an open bid for pathos, and it’s dedicated partly to “everyone who works the shifts nobody wants.” Obviously, O’Nan is keenly aware that while chain restaurants and retailers are unavoidable fixtures of North American public life, they rarely get written about in serious fiction. But a writer on a mission doesn’t always bode well.

I needn’t have worried. O’Nan does openly court our sympathies, and he sounds several earnest notes about corporate indifference: “The whole place may be disposable, and everyone in it,” thinks Manny early on, “but you can always find a use for a rubber band.” (Red Lobster’s parent company, Darden Restaurants, is transferring Manny and four other staffers to a nearby Olive Garden; everyone else at the Lobster is being pink-slipped.) But while the premise has sentimental undertones, O’Nan doesn’t overplay them – instead, he focuses squarely on the responsibilities and worries and minor crises that make up Manny’s last day at the helm of the branch.

That day is complicated on several counts. Several employees don’t bother to show, and some of the ones who do are surly. A blizzard worsens throughout the day. And Manny is distracted personally, too: while he has a pregnant girlfriend who’s waiting for some kind of commitment, he’s still tormented by a recently ended affair with a Red Lobster waitress, Jacquie, who’s not going to Olive Garden and who is working at the Lobster on this last day.

Over the course of the novel, O’Nan sketches several scenarios that will be familiar to anyone who’s worked in a restaurant: the daily regular who’s there when the doors open to order his usual; the huge party that arrives without warning in the middle of the lunch rush; the neglectful parent who blames her child’s bratty behaviour on the staff. Having put in several years at a chain pizzeria myself, I can testify that O’Nan also shows a strong grasp of the casual bickering and camaraderie that employees share. He even throws in another staple of restaurant life, the late-night bull session.

Mostly though, he focuses on the work itself. Last Night is full of patient, deliberate descriptions of Manny and his co-workers carrying out their various duties, from clearing the ice in the parking lot to heating up the deep fryers to cleaning the washrooms. Although one of the book’s regular refrains is “as always, Manny tries to lead by example,” O’Nan manages to stop short of idealizing his protagonist. The messy affair with Jacquie is an obvious humanizing strategy, but it works, helping to create a measured portrait of a decent, confused man.

It’s not lost on the reader, of course, that Manny’s decency is unremarked upon and unrewarded. He’s undoubtedly too loyal to his work: as he admits to himself, “he can’t stand a job left undone,” and it’s downright startling when he idly muses, midway through the novel, about a possible future that doesn’t include Darden Restaurants. Last Night at the Lobster is a small, quiet story with no epiphany or resolution, and Manny’s absorption in his unglamorous everyday tasks could be seen as futility. But the novel dares to suggest that even drudgerous work can still offer us enough purpose to get through another day, and sometimes that’s important enough.


Review of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex, from the Toronto Star in September 2002.

Jeffrey Eugenides’ new book isn’t the only long-awaited second novel coming out this season – Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend and Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man will be along in October – but it’s the one with the most to live up to. After all, Eugenides’ nine-years-ago debut, The Virgin Suicides, was a more promising book than, say, Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History. Both of them balanced literary ambition with crowd-pleasing camp, but ultimately Eugenides’ sad, creepy tale carried greater resonance.

While The Virgin Suicides was slim and compressed, Eugenides works on a new scale with Middlesex. It’s a 500-pager, a long family saga spanning most of the 20th century and stuffed with Big Themes: personal turmoil and political cataclysm, incestuous love and familial guilt, labour unrest and immigrant unease, crime and capitalism. Small wonder that it’s been gathering pre-publication buzz.

Like its predecessor, Middlesex also concerns sexual confusion amid the leafy streets of Grosse Pointe, Mich. As the very first sentence informs us, the novel’s hero is a hermaphrodite: Callie Stephanides is born a girl in 1960, but reborn at the age of 14 as a boy. The adult Cal, a male diplomat living in Berlin, relates the story of his/her own early life, culminating in that traumatic rebirth. He also looks back in time, recounting the adventures of his parents and paternal grandparents.

Those grandparents are Desdemona and Lefty, who flee the Asia Minor village of Bithynios after the Turks invade in 1922. Narrowly escaping a mass slaughter at the city of Smyrna, the two board a boat bound for the U.S. and marry en route. They settle with relatives in Detroit, and while Desdemona struggles to adapt her silk-growing skills to the new world, Lefty puts in a brief stint at a Ford factory before opening a bar. Their son, Milton, becomes a restaurateur himself, marrying and raising two children of his own. His younger child is our narrator, Callie/Cal.

It’s best not to dwell on the fact that in these early sections, the narrative voice relates events in more detail than a not-yet-born Cal could possibly possess. Cal playfully alludes to this disconnect at times, but that doesn’t make for anything approaching an unreliable narrator subtext. In fact, the technique seems like nothing more than a device to allow Eugenides his epic scope while also making room for a chummy, conversational tone. Cal is a patient and indulgent storyteller, constantly saying such things as “shall I get right to it?” and “so, to recap” and “surely you’ve guessed by now.”

Such asides are symptoms of the novel’s major problem: There’s something a little undignified about its relentless attempts to ingratiate itself. Eugenides tends to formally announce his themes and motifs, as if to spare us the effort of looking for them. (Cal on the subject of Berlin: “This once-divided city reminds me of myself.”) He splashes ellipses liberally to lubricate the suspense. He shows a weakness for cute visual metaphors: the movie reel, the snapshot, the diorama. And the book has more than its share of Lovely Images that seem calculated to provoke sighs of delight. (“It was the custom in those days for passengers leaving for America to bring balls of yarn on deck. Relatives on the pier held the loose ends. As the Giulia blew its horn and moved away from the dock, a few hundred strings of yarn stretched across the water.”)

The hyperactive plotting also suggests a pathological fear of flagging readerly interest. The sacking of Smyrna and the 1968 Detroit riots provide natural crisis points, and make for two of the book’s most charged and gripping sections. But calamity is never really far: The dominant mode here is melodrama, the dominant strategy plot contrivance. On the night Callie is born, a stroke hits her grandfather, but it’s not fatal – he has more strokes in store, conveniently timed for key moments in Callie’s life. Unlikely coincidences and flamboyant demises abound. We can’t even get through the performance of a school play without somebody dropping dead.

I’m all for (fictional) people dropping dead, and Lord knows The Virgin Suicides had a high body count. But with a story as long and busy as this one, a surplus of crises makes for diminishing returns. Middlesex is always readable and entertaining – for all his apparent insecurities, Eugenides is a natural storyteller – but most of its characters and events seem too arbitrary to really haunt the reader’s consciousness.

The pace does slow down a bit as Callie approaches puberty. Ensconced in a futuristic Grosse Pointe mansion on Middlesex Boulevard and enrolled in a private girls’ school, Callie frets about her body’s increasingly obvious strangeness and moons over a redheaded classmate, dubbed only The Obscure Object. A close attention to the minutiae of teenage life – a page-long description of a school bathroom, say – helps ground the action, and the affair with the Object is particularly well rendered, surreal yet plausible. There’s also a tart section in which Callie’s worried parents fall under the sway of Dr. Peter Luce, a hipster sexologist.

Callie’s resistance to Luce and her own dramatic gender switch form the core of the novel. She flees to San Francisco and takes a brief tour of the underground sex industry, but her adventures feel strangely truncated after her family’s long and winding story. In fact, Eugenides never really reconciles the whimsy and excess of the novel’s first half with the psychological realism he aims for in the second. It doesn’t help that after a tremendous build-up to Callie’s “coming out,” he skimps on describing its aftermath. A predictable subplot involving the adult Cal’s halting romance with an American photographer is sketched as thinly as possible.

Still, it would be a mistake to underestimate Eugenides’ talent. His writing can be sharp and funny. There are nice riffs in Middlesex on German compound words and on the horrific qualities of public men’s rooms. He can move a complicated story along economically. And his obvious affection for his characters (even as he refuses to indulge them) is charming. Middlesex may be underwhelming in the end, but as a diversionary yarn it’s more beguiling than most. At the very least it should inspire curiosity about what Eugenides will do next. I hope we won’t have to wait nearly 10 years to find out.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Year of Living Biblically

Review of A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. Toronto Star, fall 2007.

It’s a long and ongoing tradition: journalists artificially insert themselves into some milieu and then recount their experiences. Every so often some reporter will, for a brief time, live as a homeless person, or work at a menial job, or undergo some fad diet or exercise regime. Nearly 50 years ago, white writer John Howard Griffin posed as a black man travelling in the Deep South for his book Black Like Me. More recently, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock lived on nothing but a McDonald’s diet for a month for his film Super Size Me. There’s an air of the stunt about these endeavours, but they can also serve as a springboard to thought-provoking larger discussions; Spurlock, for example, managed to look at the unhealthy influence of fast-food culture on modern life from several angles.

A.J. Jacobs, an editor at Esquire in New York, has put himself at the centre of a story twice now – first with 2004’s The Know-It-All and now with The Year of Living Biblically. In the new book, Jacobs tells us that his agent refers to his chosen genre as “immersion journalism.” Unfortunately, Jacobs is the kind of writer who gives immersion journalism a bad name. Superficial, intellectually lazy, and unfunny, he uses his own experiences not so much to explore big ideas as simply to kitschify them.

For The Know-It-All, Jacobs spent a year reading the Encyclopaedia Brittanica in its entirety, after somehow convincing a book editor that this would be an interesting and meaningful task. For The Year of Living Biblically, Jacobs sets out to follow the numerous and varied dictates of the Bible, “as literally as possible,” for one year. Especially the oddball ones. Especially the oddball ones that are merely wacky and in no way genuinely threatening or distasteful to modern liberal humanist sensibilities.

Both the book and the project are organized chronologically. Jacobs decides to tackle the Old Testament in his first eight months and then the New Testament in the final four months, and he records his progress in brief diary-style entries, spanning a few days at a time. The breezy, episodic feel is exacerbated when Jacobs realizes that there are rather a lot of rules in the Bible – hundreds and hundreds – so he’s going to have to do some picking and choosing. “I will still attempt to follow all the rules simultaneously,” he writes early on. “But on a given day, I’ll hone in on a particular rule, and devote much of my energy to that rule, while keeping the others in my peripheral vision.”

Look, let’s face it: this is book-deal bait, pure and simple. Jacobs, though, argues (unconvincingly) that his project springs from a genuine interest in spirituality. Nominally Jewish, he lives a mainly secular lifestyle, but remains fascinated by his Uncle Gil, a black-sheep relative who’s tried several religions and has even been a sometime cult leader himself. The irreligious Jacobs also claims to be looking for some sort of ethical framework he can pass on to his young son, and figures living Biblically can help him articulate it.

In that latter respect, it may be that the project actually served a purpose. Part of Jacobs’ Bible year involves trying to rein in his some of his baser human instincts, like lying, gossip, and envy – things we could all stand to work on. But Jacobs’ ethical exercise program seems to bear pretty modest results. At the end of the first month, he notes with some surprise that his new self now holds open elevator doors, gives small change to homeless people, and “refrains from gawking at odd-looking passerby.” That it took 38 years and a Bible-themed book deal to bring basic, everyday human decency onto Jacobs’ radar is downright alarming, but better late than never, I suppose.

Anyway, Jacobs is most interested in visible manifestations of his spiritual carnival ride. He lets his beard grow unchecked, wears white robes in public, and starts blowing a horn (shofar) to mark each new month. His tone while describing these escapades is one of disingenuous mugging: “I sip a glass of water, part my lips, jut out my jaw, and blow the shofar again. It sounds like a dying fax machine.” You can practically hear the whimsical string music that will no doubt figure heavily on the soundtrack of the inevitable film adaptation. The same is true of the various one-off projects that Jacobs engages in, such as building a rudimentary hut in the living room of his condo or writing scripture on the frame of his front door.

The Year of Living Biblically could have made some intriguing points about what it means to observe Biblical teachings in the modern world. But while Jacobs does make some dutiful field trips – he visits, among others, an Amish man, a group building a creationist museum, and his fanatical Uncle Gil, now living in Israel – he returns from these excursions with shockingly little insight. What do you know, the Amish man has a dry sense of humour, and the creationists are more engaged and intelligent than you’d think.

If there’s an overall theme to the book, it’s that much of the Bible probably isn’t meant to be taken literally, especially the unpleasant bits. But Jacobs himself shows no inclination to actually probe deeply at any questions that arise. When faced with the problem of reconciling spiritual interests with fantastical beliefs (creationism, miracles) or unpleasant ones (the Bible’s anti-homosexuality passages), his MO is simple: shrug and move on. The book’s most common rhetorical flourish is the gormless little section-closing scratch of the head, such as: “Could I ever get into the skull of an ancient Israelite who believed in several gods? Do I want to?”

Failing to achieve any relevance, The Year of Living Biblically could at least have been entertaining. But Jacobs has the comedic sensibilities of a matinee standup at a B-grade Vegas lounge. “Humans have come up with some astoundingly bizarre stuff ourselves – biathlons, turducken, and my son’s Chicken Dance Elmo, to name a few,” he writes at one point. And at another: “You watch the Appalachian snake handlers on the Discovery channel, and they look as weird as the guy on Coney Island who hammers six-inch nails into his nostrils, or Nick Nolte after a couple vodka tonics.”

Like religious belief, humour is a personal and subjective thing, and I guess some readers may consider Jacobs’ comedy stylings to be heavenly. But for this one, they were purgatorial.

The Fabulist

Review of Stephen Glass’s contemptible debut novel The Fabulist, from the Toronto Star in spring 2003.

A young man is rising quickly in his chosen career when his unethical actions catch up to him. He’s fired and disgraced; his sense of himself and his place in the world is shaken. But a new and transcendent love affair helps him to accept his past mistakes and move on with his life.

It’s a perfectly workable story arc for a middleweight commercial novel. And the hero of Stephen Glass’s The Fabulist is no more flawed than many other fictional characters who command our respect, or at least our attention. Yet the publication of Glass’s first book has provoked almost universal revulsion from commentators and critics.

Of course, media types tend to take a dim view of Glass, who’s become a bogeyman in the field. In 1998, the 25-year-old journalist had worked his way up to associate editor at The New Republic when it came out that he’d spent most of his young career brazenly making things up in print. And The Fabulist, though billed as a novel, recounts the fate of, ah, “Stephen Glass,” a young reporter whose life falls apart when it comes out that he’s been brazenly making things up in print.

Most observers have made a great show of their moral outrage over Glass’s new career, stopping just short of invoking legislation that deviants not be allowed to profit from their crimes. Reading the coverage, it’s easy to forget that Glass is not, in fact, a murderer, and that he’s at least managed to land in a business where his approach to accuracy can be an asset rather than a liability. After all, novelists often smugly describe themselves as “wonderful liars,” while in the next breath asserting that fiction allows them access to some sort of “greater truth.”

Still, the unsettling scent of a cash-in clings to The Fabulist. A coy author’s note addresses Glass’s backstory even as it works in the usual all-that-follows-is-fiction disclaimer. And after ducking media for five years following his firing from The New Republic, Glass gave in and told all to 60 Minutes – on the eve of his book’s publication. (His publicity team has also had a bit of uncanny luck: the breaking story of fallen New York Times reporter Jayson Blair has made journalism ethics a hot topic.)

Readerly unease won’t be limited to the book’s packaging and promotion. The meatiest part of the story is a lightly reworked account of Glass’s now-famous confrontation with his boss at The New Republic after his lies were exposed. (Here the boss is called “Robert Underwood” and the magazine “The Washington Weekly” – Glass changes all names but his own.) Glass’s subsequent soul-searching drives the rest of the narrative. Which means that one obvious question looms: why is this a novel at all? Surely The Fabulist: A Memoir would have had Simon & Schuster reaching for its chequebook just as quickly.

Perhaps we’re to believe that Glass’s motive was some postmodern freeplay of genres. But the text itself – straightforward in structure and tone, with a readable but lacklustre prose style – offers no support for that theory. The more likely explanation is that the first-time author simply sought to dodge the rigours of reporting events as they happened, of getting the details right. Why sweat that stuff, when instead you can rely on the kind of invented flourishes that made you a hotshot reporter in the first place?

There is nothing inherently wrong with that decision. But it means that the reader of The Fabulist ends up feeling like a New Republic fact-checker going back to one of Glass’s phony stories, constantly separating the verifiable bits from the implausible details. An unfair way to read a novel? Maybe so, but given the book’s marketing strategy, I don’t think Glass or his publisher can get away with that complaint.

In any case, the larger problem is that in The Fabulist, Glass consistently puts the freedom of fiction to misguided and self-serving uses. Take his frequent reliance on outlandish set pieces: in one, he slaps on his girlfriend’s makeup to get “in character” while inventing a fake source; in another, he pretends to be deaf to avoid an awkward moment and is forced to maintain the deception throughout an airline ride. These episodes strain desperately for comic effect and usually fall flat.

More troubling are the portrayals of Glass’s fellow journalists. After Glass is fired, he and his family and friends are stalked mercilessly by scoop-seekers. Even as our hero professes remorse for his own sins (to us, anyway – never to those he’s actually sinned against), his tormentors are invariably shown to be mean-spirited, sanctimonious, and hypocritical. Robert Underwood, for example, parlays the Glass scandal into a book deal for himself; I’m not aware that his real-life counterpart did any such thing. In the climax of The Fabulist, one former friend is so desperate for a quote from Glass that he invades a veterinarian’s office and threatens a sick dog.

Like much of the book, this would ring false – contrived and cheesy – even to a reader who knew nothing of the author’s past. But it’s also worth noting that had Glass written a non-fiction book, it’s doubtful that he could have pointed to any real incident that would have made his foes look so pathetic. And he certainly wouldn’t have been able to give himself this climactic pseudo-insightful speech in a moment of crisis: “[A]ccuracy’s not all that you’re looking for. Journalists always say it is, but it’s almost never true. You’re looking for a good story; accuracy’s only half of it.”

And what of Stephen Glass? The obvious appeal of a book like this is the chance for an inside glimpse of the mental processes that led to his elaborate deceptions. But after five years of reflection, Glass’s epiphany is strictly banal: he just wanted to be loved. The Fabulist fails as a novel, to be sure, but if it really does represent everything its author has learned about himself, then it seems to have had little therapeutic value either.