Fanfare for the Comic Muse

Time to play catch up.  Three books, one post, because I’m all about customer service.

familiarMark Z. Danielewski, The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May. After thinking about this one for a couple days, I came to the realization that Mark Danielewski may very well have written a book that’s unreviewable. This isn’t to say that it’s bad or that the content somehow puts the book outside the scope of a review – it’s just clearly incomplete. There are, to date, at least two additional volumes in Danielewski’s latest endeavor (with more to come, I think), and Danielewski being Danielewski, the first volume makes very little effort to tell a satisfying story with a conventional narrative arc. Usually the first book in a series sets the stage for what’s to come: introduces the characters, gets all the expositional business out of the way, ramps up the conflict, and so on. What the first volume of The Familiar is, instead, is a series of stories that I suspect will interlock at some undetermined point in the future. For now, we get only a taste of what’s to come: an epileptic girl who may have powers of healing; a Latino gang member; a couple on the run from government agents; a frankly incoherent story featuring (I think) Thai or maybe Korean characters speaking in a patois so thick I couldn’t really figure out anything that was happening.

And all of it is written in typical Danielewski style, with experiments in font and text placement, illustration and color, and shifts in perspective. It’s fun if you’re into this sort of thing (which I am), but anyone entering into it expecting a satisfying story is going to leave disappointed. But if you’re on Danielewski’s wavelength, there’s no way not to be really excited at the prospect of what’s to come.

*****

Your_Fathers,_Where_Are_They-_And_the_Prophets,_Do_They_Live_Forever-Dave Eggers, Your Fathers, Where Are They? and the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? Your Fathers, Where Are They? works more effectively as a thought experiment and an exercise in conversational flexibility than anything else, which marks this as minor Eggers. It’s a fun little thing, and a quick, relatively breezy read, but basically Eggers sets out to answer these questions: Why are white males such dickbags? (and) What’s missing in their lives to make them so angry and unsatisfied despite the fact they’ve had every advantage a person could want? I mean, it’s a compelling question (especially as one of the white males in question), but I find books that set out to do this kind of heavy lifting usually fail as solid narratives because they’re primarily concerned with responding to a thesis instead of telling a story. This one isn’t a failure – Eggers is too talented for that – but where a book like Eggers’ masterful Zeitoun works because the message is embedded in its heartbreaking narrative, the message is the narrative inYour Fathers, Where Are They?, and once that becomes clear it’s hard to get involved in the plot when we know that plot is just a means to try and answer a question.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around a man named Thomas. He’s 34 and disaffected, angry about the shooting death of a childhood friend, and someone so unstable we learn he once tried to burn down a hospital to make a point. But now he’s kidnapped half a dozen people and chained them in separate buildings in a decommissioned military base. The book is told exclusively in dialogue, as Thomas essentially interviews them (with the threat of violence right below the surface) about a variety of topics. From an astronaut, he wants to know what it felt like to work toward a shuttle mission for his entire life only to have NASA defunded just as he was on the cusp of career success. From a congressman he wants to know how and why even politicians with the best of intentions get sucked into the bureaucratic machine. From his 6th grade teacher he wants to find out if he and his friend were molested as children. And so on.

Watching Eggers play with dialogue and perspective in this way is fun, even if, as I said above, it becomes less satisfying once we clue in to what he’s doing. It ends ambiguously, as it must, which is probably only going to annoy people who aren’t already on board. I think Eggers fans will enjoy the exercise, but for the uninitiated, Your Fathers, Where Are They? will probably be more frustrating than anything else.

*****

To riseJoshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. I mean, I don’t know. Clever is good, right? It indicates intelligence (I think) and a certain sense of humor (I think). I like clever. Monty Python, Christopher Guest movies, Michael Chabon. But it’s gotta be effortless. If I can see the flop sweat, it’s not clever, it’s work. And Joshua Ferris sweat all over this mofo.

For a while, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour read like a worthy successor toAnd Then We Came to the End, Ferris’ previous book, which I loved. Paul O’Rourke is a dentist with some impressive anxiety issues, an unhealthy tendency to get overly attached to the women in his life, and an obnoxious devotion to his atheism. As a guy of comparable age who shares all three of those traits, I could relate. And Ferris is funny and unusually perceptive at times. I love this quote, which is going to haunt me every time I head into the classroom with students who grow farther and farther away from my age with each passing year:

The 1980s were thirty years ago. The people now following [minor celebrities] Daughn and Taylor thought of the 1980s as I used to think of the 1950s. The 1980s had, overnight, become the 1950s. It was unimaginable. I might as well have been wearing a Davy Crockett hat and cowering under my desk for fear of a Soviet attack.

Then Paul discovers someone is posting as him online. First appears a website for his dental practice where there hadn’t been one before. Then a Facebook account. Then someone using his name on the Boston Red Sox fan forum he frequently visits. Then Twitter. And at first the postings are innocuous and full of non-sequiturs. But then they become fixated on Judaism, and an ancient sect of religious doubters called the Ulm, and the tweets and postings start to sound more and more anti-Semitic.

And that’s where things go downhill. I love a good conspiracy novel as much as the next guy, but I shouldn’t see the gears and cogs of the conspiracy’s machinery at work. In To Rise Again at a Decent Hour the machinery was so obvious and laborious I could practically smell the grease and feel the steam. Where before we got wry humor, we suddenly get entire pages that go like this:

The Ulms’ origins were well documented by references to those books of the Bible where the Amalekites were mentioned, from Genesis through the Psalms. It was said that the Greeks called the Ulms metics and were known to them as anthropoi horis enan noi, or “the people without a temple.” There was a list of ways the Ulms had been systematically suppressed since the advent of Christianity . . .

And on. And on and on. And on. By the end of the book I was bored with the whole thing. I didn’t care about what happened to Paul or his practice or any of the other characters, really. And it’s a good thing, because the book ends with a damp squib of a resolution. I don’t mind vague endings – I’ll go to the mat defending the end of the movie adaptation of No Country for Old Men – but you’ve got to give me something. In this case, there was a story, and then it was done.

How did this get short-listed for the Man Booker Prize? The mind boggles.

*****

Current listening:

Beatles red

The Beatles – 1962-1966

A Brain in a Bottle

revolutionsWhen I first started writing a review of Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions, I focused on my problem with artistic experimentation.  I opened with a quote from Patton Oswalt, asserted that I have no inherent problem with artists who experiment, and began to tell a rambling story of my recent visit to Los Angeles’ Getty Museum.  If I’d bothered to finish it, I probably would’ve worked in references to Pulp Fiction and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, made snarky comments about John Cage and/or late-career Scott Walker and/or Luluthe Lou Reed/Metallica collaboration, and proceeded to pen an even-handed reaction to the book I described in my last blog post as both the monster under my bed and an unwanted cancer diagnosis.  It would’ve been oh so witty.

But about two paragraphs in, I realized what I think we all must realize, and it is this: Some works of art aren’t worth the trouble.  And so it is with Only Revolutions, which can generously be described as a talented author disappearing up his own hindquarters.  The heart of what I would have said about experimentation in my original review is that I’m all for it as long as it serves the story.  As soon as the point becomes the experiment, I lose interest.   And that really is what Only Revolutions brings to the table: style over substance.  It’s all flash, all technique, and no heart.  It’s the literary equivalent of the hot blonde or the studly dude who look awesome from a distance (or, okay, even up close) but can’t string two sentences together.

So what’s the problem with Only Revolutions?  Take a gander at these two pages.

OR 1

 

OR 2

The conceit behind the book (which will explain what you’re looking at) is this: It’s a road trip of sorts, told by two narrators, Sam and Hailey, who meet, fall in love, proceed to have “adventures” (which include such compelling vignettes as Trip to Hospital and Waiting Tables in St. Louis), and tell us their version of the story in competing first-person accounts.  The first image above is Sam’s story; the second is Hailey’s.  Each account starts at one end of the book, and the catch is that you read eight pages from one perspective, mark your place, flip the book over, and read the corresponding eight pages in the other voice from the opposite direction.

It’s not as much work as it sounds (Danielewski helpfully indicates where to flip by beginning the ninth page with a bold-faced capital letter), but it’s still work that, as far as I can tell, exists for no other reason than to be work.  I didn’t find the alternating voices to be particularly compelling, nor did one seem to complement the other.  I could see it being worth the trouble if, say, Hailey’s narrative consistently gave us insight into what she was thinking or feeling during the events that Sam describes (or vice versa – neither character is a solo protagonist, and I don’t mean to imply that Hailey exists only in reaction to Sam; if anything, they’re a textbook case of codependency).  Instead, all Danielewski does is skew things slightly, which often means changing the name of a car or altering a line of dialogue.  That, I suppose, is sort of interesting – like his far superior House of Leaves, the changes left me off-balance, which I generally appreciate – but it wasn’t done to any necessary effect that I could tell.

As you can probably see, there’s also a timeline running down the margin of each page which is, I think, supposed to indicate the universality of Sam and Hailey as archetypal lovers who have existed throughout and across time.  It’s sort of an interesting idea, but is it worth doing something just to do it, or should we instead want it to be done well or not at all?  In other words, “Hey, man, cool timeline, but it’s just so goddamn busy.  Couldn’t you just tell me a story?”

Further adding to the problem is the fact that both voices are written in a slang-heavy patois (which you can also see in the above images) that, again, seems to be done primarily for effect.  I think it’s supposed to be cool, but I’m just reminded of the episode of Seinfeld when Elaine calls Kramer a “stupid hipster doofus.”  I think I might’ve been turned on by the quasi-verse patter when I was waaaay into slam poetry for five minutes in the late 90s, but Danielewski just seems to be trying too hard. I really wanted to pat him on the head and say, “It’s okay, tiger.  You’ll do better next time.”

Next up: Roger Ebert’s autobiography, Life Itself, which I fully expect to spend the next week sobbing through.

*****

Current listening:

Pulp different

Pulp  – Different Class (1995)