Potter's Book Blog

Reviews of world literature from 1900 to the present.

Category: American

Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle

Considerably longer, denser, and more self-indulgent than his other notable works, Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor is a seriously challenging affair for the reader; all the Nabokovian thrills are there, but the typically brilliant prose occasionally wanders into the realm of the needlessly obtuse.

Vladimir Nabokov / Russo-American / 1969 / 620 pages

I tend to give Nabokov high marks because he messes with me. In Lolita, I found that I rather enjoyed the novel despite its ostensibly inappropriate subject matter; subsequently, I felt bad about myself for forgetting what the book was actually about. But, props for the diversionary tactics. In Pale Fire, I was nearly driven mad by its open-ended conclusion which allows for any number of divergent interpretations. Why are so many very smart people finishing this novel on different pages, so to speak? How do you write a book that prompts critics to argue about whether or not some of the characters were real in the first place!? Even Nabokov’s simpler efforts, like the beautiful and often overlooked Pnin, employ clever prose stylings to tackle characters, their thoughts, and their actions in indirect or sideways capacities. You’ve got to stay on top of every line and allow for pauses between sentences; otherwise, you’ll never have the opportunity for the hundreds of ” … oh, okay, I get it” revelations that are crucial for successfully deciphering (and appreciating) Nabokov’s insanely unparalleled prose.

But the guy might have overdone it with Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, which is a huge tome (by Nabokovian standards) clocking in at over 600 pages with an accompanying series of end notes that may or may not be worth your time to flip through (I have yet to make up my mind on this point). Laced with tracts of Russian and French phrases and substantial discourses tending toward the biological, entomological, chronological, and psychological (that is to say, not literary), Ada is something of an frustratingly labyrinthine exercise with an ultimate thesis along the lines of I am a bigger polymath than you. Considering the fact that this is something I would have granted Nabokov long ago, I cannot say that it required such long-winded substantiation.

All that being said, the novel’s novelties are many and bear mentioning.

The book is more-or-less about a romantic relationship between Van Veen and Ada Veen who, through a quirk of cross-marriage infidelity, are actually brother and sister (a piece of information they discover after consummating their love, i.e. after it is “too late”) rather than first cousins (they were raised by different sets of parents which would have made them, ahem, “kissing cousins” rather than the considerably more incestuous “coital siblings”). So the name of the game is incest and the preponderance of Ada‘s passages might be best characterized as (juvenilely, unfortunately, uncomfortably) erotic in tone. You have to give Nabokov credit (or, perhaps, not give him credit) for returning to such racy material after all the allegations of perversion that Lolita drummed up. Do I think that Nabokov was a pervert? Probably not. Taken together, do Lolita and Ada add up to a significant dalliance with the literature of perversion? Um, yeah.

The novel is divided into five segments, with the first comprising more than half of the novel. Something of an ode to Tolstoy’s novels of the family (like Anna Karenina), the first section is set in an idyllic rural mansion during Van and Ada’s childhood. For all of the weird romantic tension, the landscape and its inhabitants are happy, content, and in many ways are living out the prime years of their lives. The children read great works of literature in the mansion’s expansive library, forage the woods for excellent specimens of butterflies and insect larvae, eat rich meals late at night, and carry on extensive conversations with a rotating cast of distant relatives who visit during holidays. Previous readers of Nabokov will recognize his uncanny ability to drum up such comfortable, idyllic scenery. It really is an event of high nostalgia. The subsequent sections of the novel chart the trials and tribulations of their adulthood and eventually relate the happenings of their old age, where they collaborate on something of a mutual autobiography that is supposed to be the very pages of Ada, or Ardor that rest in the reader’s hands.

But nothing in the Nabokovian universe is simple. Van’s formal education is in psychology and, as he grows older, he begins to specialize in humans’ ability to think back on the past and recall events from their childhood (which is, obviously, the linchpin underlying the entire narrative arch of Ada). The children and all of their relatives — indeed, everyone they know — live on a world called “Antiterra” (or sometimes referred to as “Demonia”) that resembles in many geopolitical senses our “Earth” yet differs in some important respects (like, for example, substantial swathes of North America are inhabited extensively by and, indeed, managed by Russian and Irish immigrants). The names of cities and universities are different than those on “Earth” and the historical development of Antiterra departs dramatically from that of the planet we’ve all grown up on. Furthermore, Van’s psychological patients fall prey to collective, mass illusions of a sister plant — Terra — that has its own history, inhabitants, and geography. Terra, as such, never makes an actual appearance in the novel, but its presence is felt. Many people conjecture that it might be the location of the afterlife once one’s life on Antiterra has expired. Others doubt its existence. Movies are made, books are written, and scholastic energies are devoted to the study of Terra and Van Veen, himself, spends a considerable portion of his career thinking about the mysterious planet.

There are other sleights of hand as well. The book opens with a brief statement that every character in the book is now dead except for Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Oranger. Despite seeming to be of some consequence, this statement ends up being almost entirely meaningless as neither of these characters appear until the last dozen pages of the novel. When they do, it is not at all clear why our attention should have been drawn to them in the first place (my hypothesis is that Nabokov just threw us a red herring). It takes a while before the reader realizes that the setting of the novel is not actually located on “Earth” and the significance of this is also not immediately obvious. Vague and passing mention is made of flying carpets (weird). In an attempt at suicide, Van pulls the trigger of a gun he has pointed at his head only to have it turn into a banana (the most plausible explanation from my perspective is that he’s now found himself in some sort of afterlife with only the faintest of transitions). Later on, he insults a person in a hotel lobby who shoots him in the back. Nabokov writes that Van is now in the “next phase of his existence” but it exactly mirrors his previous state (is he dead again? how many parallel universes are we running through, here?)

If this all sounds needlessly bizarre, then you’ve taken the correct interpretation. Nabokov has always written weird stuff, but I’ve generally found that the weirdness services a broader aim in a pleasantly productive way. Ada, by contrast, comes off as being a bit too self-indulgent: there are too many in-jokes, too many obscure references, and too many hopelessly opaque passages. I have this picture in my mind of Nabokov laughing over a typewriter and, perhaps, calling his wife / editor / assistant Vera into the room to partake in his mirth. I wish I could join in the hilarity, but I don’t know enough about butterflies, biological taxonomy, Russian history, and French grammar. And neither, I would guess, does anyone else.

Rating: 5 / 10

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Manhattan Transfer

There is an astoundingly dense and convincing world set within these pages; it is entirely too easy to get drawn into the heat and rush of the prose, the place, and the politics. There may be finer books about the city of New York, but none of them so adeptly draw on the city to illustrate the uncomfortable truth about the caprice of the American Dream.

John Dos Passos / American / 1925 / 342 pages

Every book I can think of that in some way resembles Manhattan Transfer turns out to have been published after 1925. There is something here of Saul Bellow’s characters in Herzog and Seize the Day as they wander around cosmically large cosmopolises. I can see that Paul Auster probably took a lesson in geography from Dos Passos as he set out to write his New York Trilogy and I was reminded at several points of the tone and timbre of Howard Zinn’s scathing recast of the history of American classism, A People’s History of the United States. It is child’s play to trace direct lines from Dos Passos to works by Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, O’Hara, Barth, and even Flannery O’Connor and Nathaniel West. Depending on the day, the mood, and the company I was in, I might be so adventurous as to venture the claim that Manhattan Transfer is a bit of an American literary lodestone. I found myself wondering anew with the turn of each page: why haven’t I read this before now?

The only stylistic precursor to this work is probably the writing of James Joyce, but you shouldn’t let that deter you. Dos Passos has done for New York what Joyce did for Dublin: he takes the total tonnage of the city’s variegated inhabitants, diagnoses their myriad pathologies, and arranges them incisively in a narrative structure that floods you with enlightening details and ambience. He also borrows, one might argue, from Joyce’s stream of consciousness writing style, but only insofar as it suits his purpose; Dos Passos is interested in presenting you with many facets of the New York existence, but he’s not going to make you drink from a fire hose. The freewheeling thought associations and deep incursions into his characters’ psyches are not so dense and fugue-like that they leave you reeling. Rather, his characters experience the word like you and I do; that is to say, the world is both tactile in its reality and, more or less, mental in its implications.

All that being said, the book’s narrative certainly has no center. Manhattan Transfer is a broad, ranging mural of life in New York that is populated by many, many characters and a surprising number (or maybe an implausible number, given the city’s vast geography) of interwoven plot lines. Some characters stay with us throughout the duration of the text while others emerge only briefly before disappearing into the background. In fact, it takes the book a good hundred pages at least until we, as readers, are really able to understand who the main characters are in the first place. The book is divided into three parts, the first of which introduces the various cast members before the second part crystallizes their relations to one another and begins to telescope in on two of them. In the third section, however, the focus of the narrative begins to slowly circle out again before, in the final chapter, hopscotching around the entire city, giving us only fleeting glimpses of many characters we’ve previously encountered. The logistics of reading the book can, at times, be a bit overwhelming, but the fun of following the characters across the city is a worthwhile reward.

Dos Passos writes with an acerbic, damaging pen. You get the sense that, despite the novel’s intricacies, it was written quickly and passionately in long spells of hurried typing. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the book’s prose style are words that quickly run together, forming unique passages of description. Sometimes these are castoff combinations (such as curlyhaired and highslung) but at other times they are completely novel (rainseething, girderstriped, and absintheblurred … which is, you know, the blur that accompanies the consumption of absinthe, I guess). Each section of the novel is broken into chapters and each chapter is further divided into bits of text that are sometimes only a paragraph in length. It is not uncommon to jump across many settings and people (and, in some cases, even years) within the same chapter. To this end, Dos Passos adheres to very few conventional narrative limits and this allows him to construct many haunting juxtapositions: on the same page we see the beggar in the alley, the millionaire in the penthouse, the seaman on a barge at the docks, and the late night machinations of the young financier.

And his characters will rarely find themselves on the more pleasant side of the comparison. One of the take away messages of the book is that the American Dream is a fickle, capricious deity that will use and abuse you with mirth and without mercy. We see the millionaire spoiled by a bad stock investment. We see the young gentleman bequeathed a large inheritance who, for lack of industry, ends the novel in poverty. We see actors and directors make it big before fizzling out. Immigrants who work hard and get ahead; immigrants who work hard and get nothing. People, rich and poor, commit suicide. The bartender who amasses enough cash as a liquor runner during Prohibition to purchase a mansion. The man who migrates from a rural community looking for work that simply does not exist.

Dos Passos wages class warfare with a maliciousness that makes contemporary allegations of the same look like watered down bedtime stories. His driving point is the one we’ve heard: any person’s station in life is randomly determined at birth. If you’re of a low station, a brief spell of bad luck can destroy you. If you’re of a high station, then your mistakes can be larger, your spells of bad luck of greater duration before you are similarly destroyed. Hard work and industry can beat back the randomness of American life, but not all the time. The rags-to-riches narrative is, in the vast majority of instances, a hoax.

It’s admittedly heavy-handed, but the incredible material disparities at work in this novel are indeed omnipresent in the American metropolis even to this day. I was blown away at the timeliness and topical relevancy of Manhattan Transfer and it makes contemporary complaints that we’ve strayed off of some idyllic path of yore seem disingenuous. When he situates the post-materialist lives of the rich in such close proximity to the very material-focused needs of the poor, Dos Passos illustrates that being an American means radically different things for different people. What is the common worth of an American narrative when its inhabitants are so far at odds? The answer comes back: not much.

Rating: 9 / 10

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Infinite Jest

I believe three things about this novel: (1) it is a work of genius, (2) anyone who reads it with at least a middling level of attention/engagement will benefit from having done so, but (3) the time investment is so large that one must think creatively about scheduling its consumption.

David Foster Wallace / American / 1996 / 980 pages + 100 pages of footnotes

I had not intended to write a review upon my completion of this book. Infinite Jest is one of the more widely read books that I’ve featured on this blog (at least, widely read in the demographic which I suspect stumbles upon this blog from time to time) and online analyses of the text are both multitudinous and, in general, rather well composed. For example, my friend The Book Walrus has written a passionate take on the book that he drafted in the immediate aftermath of his finishing it and, by and large, I find myself agreeing with his reactions. If you’ve finished the novel and are looking for a hard-hitting (and bare bones) theory of how the more obscure plot elements unfold, you can check out this post from Aaron Swartz; I pretty much buy most of what he’s laid out and the attendant commentary by other contributors raises a number of additional (and fascinating) points. By contrast, if you’re on the market for a more high-theoretical take on the novel’s construction and narrative techniques (and don’t mind a nontrivial amount of bookish pretension), you can head over to the Howling Fantods website and gear up for an academic thesis by Chris Hager. There are also a number of other (slightly less good, but decent enough) reviews herehere, and here.

Point being, obviously, that the marginal utility of my investing any time in another set of comments on this topic is, in a word, low. I can state this fact even more humbly: I seriously doubt that I have anything at all novel to say about DFW’s project.

But once you scale the mountain, you fall subject to a strong inclination to leave your mark. The fact remains that struggling all the way through Infinite Jest — much like reading a novel by Pynchon, Joyce, Bolaño, or Tolstoy — is a major literary landmark in any serious reader’s life. On a fundamental level, DFW has tweaked the margins of my understanding of the novelistic form; he has shed light on a world of which I previously knew very little (i.e. drug addiction and rehabilitation); he has poignantly and pointedly summed up the dangers that I have always believed were inherent in American consumerism; he has rejiggered the contours of nonlinear storytelling in a way that I found entirely unique and pleasantly surprising; and he has, at various points, made me laugh, retch, pout, and applaud. The termination of Infinite Jest will surely go down as one of the greatest (and bravest) literary gambles in the history of fiction and, as I read it, I found that I was both irked and impressed, both speechless and breathless. All this by way of saying that the profundity of this moment demands of me a written reaction. It’s just how I’m made. My apologies to web users the world over.

I think there’s always existed for readers a great deal of trepidation surrounding truly enormous works of literature and this trepidation gets exponentiated when we’re talking about a postmodern enormous work of literature. DFW (and others) have asserted that Infinite Jest is not postmodernism, strictly speaking, but it does make for (at times) difficult reading. The big question, then, especially for readers who are attempting to read broadly, is whether or not struggling through this book is worth the effort. After all, you could read 5 or 6 other books (or maybe the total tonnage of everything Hemingway ever penned) in the amount of time it would take you to digest this one megabook. As I have found very few online articles related to this topic, in particular, I thought I might try to lay out a case for why many people (and by this, I mean many more than you might initially suspect) would derive sufficient utility from Infinite Jest to warrant its reading. My main argument here is that the book really successfully accomplishes three things and I think that any one of these three reasons is enough for a reader to dive right in. As a counterweight, though, and as an honest broker, I also present what I consider to be the book’s three main shortcomings.


(1) The book’s substance and satirical thrust make for a seriously damning indictment of American culture (specifically in the 1990s, but, scarily enough, I think DFW’s critiques would be even more salient in our current environment). By “American culture” I mean, in particular, consumer culture, but even more generally, the broader milieu of dynamics that feed Americans’ acquisitive dispositions: a hyper-selfish desire for personal gain, a deep-seated preference for simpler pleasures, and, in the end, a near-universal disappointment when, later in life, we gradually realize that many of the ideas we were sold on were either practically unattainable or ultimately unrewarding. To this effect, DFW satirizes a system of electronic-based entertainment that has become so pervasive, quick, and easy to use that entire swathes of the population content themselves with endless hours of television, movies, and sports broadcasts. He also delves deep into the effects of drug abuse and addition which are, in a way, no less insidious than the addictions many people harbor for entertainment. Finally, DFW takes us on a tour of a teenage tennis academy where students are intensely bred to become professional tennis stars. But even here, the proposition is simply lose-lose: if you can’t make it as a tennis pro, then you’ve failed in your ambition; if, however, you get to the “big game” of professional tennis competition, then you’re just going to be another cog in the entertainment machine that feeds millions of people whom you’ll never meet. The adults in Infinite Jest (at least those who are not strung out on fringe political radicalisms) are almost uniformly despondent and exhausted. The children, who cry themselves to sleep and oftentimes dabble in prepubescent drug use, seem destined to end up much like their mentors. One might say that Infinite Jest is a Swiftian swift boat that’s been sent to gun down all the components of American culture that I dislike.

(2) The book’s narrative voice is a unique amalgamation of distinct character viewpoints and a strangely distant / vague authorial viewpoint that effectively calls into question the very nature of communication itself. Occasionally, the narration comes from a first-person perspectives, but generally the “entity” who is describing the actions narrates in a third-person omniscient voice. Strangely, however, this voice subtly adopts the slang and outlook of whomever he/she/it is talking about. Every once in a while, DFW will throw down one of his ridiculous $20 words and then mark it with a footnote that says something to the effect of: “Of course, the person we’re talking about right now would have never actually used this word.” This is a rather disconcerting experience for the reader, because it’s often unclear whether what we’re reading is supposed to be a paraphrased account or a literal one. What are quotation marks supposed to mean, then? When we’re privy to a character’s internal thoughts and history how can we know whether or not the portrayal is filtered? The footnotes are also famous for presenting important plot details and, in many cases, their placement in the text is odd. For example, a lengthy scholastic footnote about the history of a Canadian game or the evolution of a film director’s lighting techniques gets pasted into a section that relies heavily on a child’s memories of his parents’ home. Intellectually, I have a hard time trying to figure out where this narrative “entity” collected and arranged the first-person accounts or why he/she/it is continually making excuses for the rhetoric in footnotes. Also, why is there so little connective tissue linking together the plot elements? Is the narrator insane or just irresponsible? What I’ll settle for is the verdict that the narrator is a bastard god against whom I’m literally waging some sort of metaphysical battle as I plow through the book’s contents. In a way, this is totally cool.         

(3) The book’s narrative structure is about as daring and innovative an approach as I’ve ever encountered. It’s not new news that Infinite Jest opens with what is, from a chronological standpoint, the last event of the novel and, furthermore, that the final pages of the book contain one hell of a bewildering conclusion. This is a very disjointed novel and it’s up to the reader to (1) be patient and (2) speculate about the links (that hypothetically, at least, exist) between the disparate plot elements. The first chapter, quite simply, shows you the convergence of the various plot lines, but it makes no sense due to lack of context. The end of the book narrows the focus somewhat toward this convergence, but breaks off before anything resembling an epiphany sets in. I think it’s almost requisite that, upon finishing the novel, you immediately flip back and read the first chapter (which is only about 15 pages in length). Once you do that, you’re well on your way toward educated guesses about how we got from page 980 to page 1. Another interesting structural component to the novel is its symmetry around the dead middle (like, almost literally, at page 490) where a particularly violent murder takes place which sets the tone for the remainder of the text. You can entertain yourself a bit by examining how some occurrences and accounts in the second half of the novel mirror their counterparts in theme / style / content in the first half. To this extent, there is nothing resembling a traditional plot line in Infinite Jest; in fact, it’s fairly difficult to stick with the novel through the last 200 pages due to this fact. The novel doesn’t “end” so much as it just kind of spins itself out. When you return to the first chapter, however, it makes for a satisfyingly climatic conclusion.


(1) The book’s content is pretty rough and tumble in the sense that drug addition and childhood stress are not pretty things. Although I laughed out loud at several points in the first few hundred pages, I was dead silent throughout the rest of the book (and I eventually got to the point where I began to feel bad about my initial reactions). DFW’s somewhat jocular prose styling is a bit of a red herring when it comes to Infinite Jest‘s emotional content. Much like the violent clashes in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or the detailed descriptions of inhumane cruelty in Saramago’s Blindess, you will be beaten about the face with harrowing accounts of drug use, child abuse, and people generally hitting rock bottom as they destroy all of their personal relationships. There is a sense of inevitability underscoring all of this that makes it even more debilitating: DFW argues that these outcomes are straightforward symptoms of the system of mass consumerism we inhabit. If you enroll in a tennis academy at the age of 13, we know what will happen to you. If you are raised on a diet of cheap entertainment, then you’ll spend your whole life looking for quick hits. Welcome to America.       

(2) DFW is longwinded and erudite in his writing, which is usually a plus, but fairly routinely becomes so obtuse as to detract from what it is he’s actually getting at. Reviewers have previously stated that his prose stylings are unpretentious and I generally agree with them; however, there does seem to be an explicit overture at virtuosity being made here. Unlike some reviewers, I don’t think that there’s too much extraneous material in terms of plot and setting; however, I concur in the analysis that what is there tends to be overwritten. If you like at least three paragraphs on each page, look elsewhere.  

(3) Asininity abounds. DFW undercuts his own intellectual acrobatics often. There are countless scatological jokes, transvestite jokes, various other bathroom humors, and so on. There are also wheelchair-bound assassins, cannons that shoot huge containers of garbage miles into the air, completely implausible geopolitical problems, lounge singers turned presidents, societies for the preservation of obscure grammatical rules, and on and on and on. I think this detracts from some of the bigger points set forth in the novel, especially when one eventually realizes that you’re really not supposed to be laughing at any of it. After a certain point, when people have died and teeth have fallen out and grown men have broken down and cried like infants and children have committed suicide, I’ve had enough of the ridiculously fake transvestite undercover police officer, for example, and all of the attendant sex-based humor. This is perhaps a minor point, I know, but I could see how it might be mildly off-putting to some potential readers.      

Lest these caveats seem too serious an indictment, let me again state that I think this novel is well worth your time and effort. Plus, there are many great online resources to aid one in the task. For example, check out this 11-point primer on how to gear up for DFW’s novel as well as this quick-check index of key terms and people who appear in the novel. You can also take a gander at this character-connection graphic, but it’s basically just visual gibberish, so I wouldn’t put too much stock in it.

There are no broad brushstrokes in this novel; everything will be assembled slowly in pointillistic precision and it will at times be painful. But this is a totally unique and bizarrely ingenious novel that I promise you’ll be mulling over well after you’ve finished reading it.

Rating: 10 / 10

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The Tenants of Moonbloom

The protagonist is a bland and mild-mannered landlord, but his rise toward goodness is meteoric; this is a stellar and inspiring work of art from a criminally neglected American author.

Edward Lewis Wallant / American / 1963 / 245 pages

For all my apartment and dormitory living over the past several years, I can’t say that my thoughts often turn to my landlord. I know he’s out there — working his magic — but I’ve always seemed to have bigger fish to fry. Like the dude downstairs who blares NPR talk radio as his 7am alarm clock. Or the bizarre aromatic conflagration of Korean and Indian cooking (excellent when segregated, but rather dangerous in summation) that emanates from the stairwell on alternating Tuesdays. Too many toasters in other people’s outlets fry my circuitry. I get roaches even though I manage my modest estate like an obsessive compulsive. When the dude above me insists on his daily imbecilic living room calisthenics, gobs of soot drift down from my light fixtures and into my coffee mug. And we go on.

But the landlord is a distant figure. I mail him my monthly rent cheques, he sends the requisite repairmen, and occasionally I see him lurking around corners in the basement wielding a hammer or maybe a toilet plunger. He is an impersonal deity.

So at first cut it seems a bit odd that Wallant chooses a landlord, or, more specifically, a rent collector who has been hired by the landlord (the distinction, I think, is simply splitting hairs) to play his protagonist. Norman Moonbloom is this man and he’s been charged with making the weekly rounds at a handful of tenement buildings in New York City in an effort to collect cash for his brother who manages a much broader commercial empire. Norman is your run-of-the-mill product of anonymized, urban, high-density living: he finds it difficult to locate the importance of his daily tasks, he grows weary of the lives of other humans crowding so close to his own, and he struggles to recognize any aesthetic satisfaction from the squalor of his surroundings. Every day he knocks on dozens of doors and simply demands the rent payment. People aren’t pleased to see him arrive, don’t feel better when he leaves with their money, and would rather the visits be spaced out at intervals longer than a week.

But the boring beige of Norman is the perfect blank canvas against which Wallant’s other, considerably more dynamic, characters can react. There is the 100-year-old Russian immigrant who eats continually and practically wallows in his own detritus. There are the two jazz musicians whose late night rehearsals keep the apartment complex hopping at all hours (much to the chagrin of the other tenants). We have a homosexual African-American novelist, a drunkard high school poetry teacher, numerous dysfunctional families, a sex-crazed Asian, a handful of survivors of the Holocaust, an Italian language teacher who swills coffee like it was water from the Fountain of Youth, a hunchbacked painter, and, not to be outdone, a candy vendor who hassles potential buyers all day long in an effort to collect a sufficiently fist-sized wad of cash that he might throw away on prostitutes later that evening.

If you think these descriptions resemble caricatures more than characters, then I forgive you briefly for the confusion. Indeed, one of the reasons that The Tenants of Moonbloom is so great is that Wallant is able to squeeze every last drop of humanity out of these figures. The apartment buildings are practically slums, but behind every closed door is a bustling cacophony of dialogue, activity, and, well, life!

The structure of the narrative is straightforward. We follow Norman up and down the stairs as he goes door-to-door soliciting the rents his older brother demands. We generally see him interact with every character (perhaps two-dozen in all) before we get to return to any one of them. Most tenants have long (justifiable!) lists of complaints about the quality of their apartment and they engage in a number of beseeching, wheedling, or threatening tactics to elicit some kind of action on Norman’s part. To prevaricate is his default position and the unaddressed demands pile up high. At the end of each day, he returns to his own abode, exhausted in both moral and physical capacities, and contents himself in a loneliness that rings pleasant after a day so thick with other people and their problems.

But he cannot stand it for long. Eventually Norman snaps and the ennui is replaced by energy. He marshals all of his considerable resources and takes the tenants along with him. The back cover of the book boasts the following praise and I concur entirely in its analysis: “the final pages … must be considered as among the most joyfully uplifting, the most ennobling, or any penned by a serious talent.” I’m not interested in giving anything away, but I will say that if you don’t finish reading this novel with your fist pumping in the air to celebrate the victory of the human endeavor over the obstacles of the modern world, you haven’t a heart.

Panegyric aside, The Tenants of Moonbloom is also comprised of stellar descriptive passages, highly entertaining and original dialogue, and many trenchant insights. In fact, when taking this together, it is utterly baffling to me that Wallant is not better known. Tenants was published posthumously and Wallant was only 36 when he died unexpectedly after only a few years of professional writing. In that brief period of time, his pen exploded into four novels (the other three of which I know absolutely nothing about). As with Maria Dermoût’s novel in my last review, it seems that the NYRB classics imprint has made another excellent choice in elevating an obscure novel into its rightful place in American literature. This is a book that will appeal to a broad range of readers and I recommend it highly (especially to fans who’ve previously enjoyed works by J. D. Salinger, Saul Bellow, and, to a lesser extent, Nathaniel West).

Rating: 9 / 10

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The Floating Opera

Barth’s first novel is a darkly entertaining and jumbled narrative of spouse-sanctioned infidelity, hyper-literate baseness, and crackpot nihilism; it reads almost like a grittier, more caustic Salinger novel.

John Barth / American / 1956 / 252 pages

The Floating Opera is more self-consciously “first novelish” than any other first novel I have read. Barth creates a first-person narrator who effectively begins the novel with: “Look, reader, I’ve never written a novel before, so this is going to be kind of rough, but just bear with me.” What proceeds is a more-or-less precise, but heavily jumbled, account of a very important day in the narrator’s life that relies on broad narrative arcs which swing wide of a strictly chronological progression. We, as readers, are often given bits of information (like names, places, events, etc.) before we get their contextualizing details. These missteps are chalked up to the author’s inexperience, but they are also, on another level, very effective dramatic devices. Of course, this is all a bit gimmicky, but I can dig it.

The narrative gradually settles down and some of the closing scenes are expertly and straightforwardly rendered in more traditional prose styling. It is at this juncture in the novel, however, that some truly ridiculous stuff transpires, so the narrative switch is something of a red herring. Indeed, there’s so much amorality (or perhaps immorality if I’m willing to cast that rhetorical stone) in The Floating Opera that one is almost deadened to the effects of the ultimate (gratuitously heinous) final decision undertaken by the narrator in the novel’s closing pages. Barth seems less concerned with the plausibility of characters’ actions than he is with their novelty. If it’s possible, the justification of these actions seems to fall even further down the list of Barth’s priorities and this all, in total, makes his work difficult to decipher. Somewhat repeatedly, we’re hit with the message that nothing is of value and no justification is meaningful; given the narrator’s fundamental grossness, this nihilistic response is not exactly sufficient motivation for the reader to stay engaged. But other positives abound.

On some level, Barth is concerned with analyzing (though not necessarily answering) questions related to the value of social conventions, interpersonal relationships, and, ultimately, life itself. His characters conduct interesting experiments in spouse-sanctioned infidelity (see above objections regarding plausibility), suicide (attempted, unsuccessfully), and mass murder (don’t worry, this is also unsuccessful and preposterous). The narrator has set for himself the task of meaningfully relating the circumstances that led up to his suicide attempt some years ago. This is a challenge for him as, we’ll soon discover, he hasn’t exactly spent his life seriously pondering the explanations behind and motivations for his behavior. It’s not until his father’s suicide (when the narrator is well into adulthood) that he’s finally forced to sit down and conduct an “inquiry” into life’s purpose. In the course of his meandering explanation, we learn about his father’s suicide, his mistress, his illegitimate child, his gerontological friendships, his World War I experiences, his law education and subsequent practice, and the “floating opera” talent show that comes to his small town and provides him with a grandiose means by which he hopes to take his own life.

All of this would make for heavy material (and, at times, it does) were it not for the jocular hilarity that Barth works into the narrative. The narrator exudes wit as much as he does erudition and the prose propels the novel along at a nice pace. Much like William Gaddis in A Frolic of His Own, Barth seems to exhibit a penchant for deftly satirizing the legal profession and many of his accounts of the court cases tried by the narrator are maddeningly ridiculous. The legal proceedings parallel the broader themes of the novel closely: court verdicts often hinge more on rhetorical flare and the judge’s biases than they do on some sort of objective appraisal of the facts. This line of thinking is made all the more dramatic when it comes to many of the narrator’s extralegal dilemmas. Why was he forced to stab a German soldier to death during World War I? Why did his father kill himself? Why is sex such a strong human motivation when it’s something of a base and animalistic activity? Despite all his efforts at framing these inquiries in rational terms, the narrator is forced into a cynical stance: nothing is inherently meaningful and life is worthless.

It is an uncreative crutch. Indeed, I found the narrator (despite his rhetorical flourishes) and many of the other characters (despite their infrequent charm) outright despicable creatures. I’m not a reader who must “relate” to characters in a novel before I’m willing to give it a high appraisal, but I must admit that this cast was overwhelmingly populated by bottom feeders. It becomes difficult to maintain your raptness when you routinely find yourself thinking “Yes, but no one would really do something so horrible!” or “Okay, but who would ever resort to that!?” This vileness is laid all the more bare in Barth’s second novel The End of the Road, which was packaged together with Opera and which I read as soon as I’d finished the first novel. (In The End, Barth has drafted a book with much less humor, more realism, and a similarly despicable cast. Here another love triangle, this time unsanctioned by the spouse, yields to a botched abortion and a similarly dissatisfying moral. The effect is grating and I came to the conclusion that The End was an objectively minor novel.)

But, as anyone who knows much about Barth will tell you, The Floating Opera and The End of the Road are not exactly the best points of entry to the man’s work. If he is famous at all, it’s for the much lengthier postmodern / speculative fiction novels The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy. I can’t say that my appetite has been whetted for more Barth, but I do highly recommend Opera as an often hilarious and darkly poignant meditation on age, life, and convention.

Rating: 7 / 10

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The New York Trilogy

Often billed as the intellectual’s detective novel, The New York Trilogy manages to pack in a bewildering number of highbrow references and sophisticated narrative tactics in the course of its scant (for a trilogy, that is) 300-page run. It’s also one hell of a page turner.

Paul Auster / American / 1985-1986 / 308 pages

I am not so terribly familiar with the detective novel. Of course, I’ve read many books where the protagonist is on a quest with an unknown destination; novels like The Magus or The Savage Detectives, for instance, pit the main character against a substantial puzzle that simultaneously unfolds both for him and for the reader. I’ve also read books that center around a larger-than-life figure who rarely appears in the text, but somehow manages to be the obsessive focus of the other characters in the novel. In this vein, correctly locating or identifying the enigmatic figure is central to the narrative. Consider the many incarnations of the female “V.” in Pynchon’s V. or the (anti)climactic encounter with Bokonon at the top of a hill in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. Certainly Ayn Rand took this idea to new heights in Atlas Shrugged when she all but created a cultural institution by asking: “Who is John Galt?”

Like any good novelist working in the detective genre (or so I can gather), Paul Auster infuses his New York Trilogy with substantial doses of both these dynamics: his protagonists are constantly searching and scrutinizing their surroundings in an effort to locate or keep track of an enemy, competitor, or estranged friend. But Auster famously tweaked the formula in several important ways. Virtually all of his characters are writers and, perhaps unbelievably, they all appear to be in the top percentile of well-read individuals. They have conversations with one another about Whitman, Thoreau, and Hawthorne; they are familiar with biblical texts and academic theological scholarship; they read histories of ancient cultures, foreign lands, and famous figures; they mull over the writings of philosophers and the verses of poets as they amble aimlessly around the streets of Manhattan. With their heads collectively thrust so far into the clouds, very few of them possess sufficient practical knowhow to convincingly pass as detectives and, indeed, this is a title that is thrust upon most of them accidentally.

The trilogy opens with City of Glass in which a writer of detective novels, Quinn, is mysteriously asked to tail a recently-paroled child abuser named Stillman. Possessing no sleuthing skills beyond the fictions he creates for paperback bestsellers, Quinn quickly finds himself in over his head and much of this first volume charts Quinn’s rapid descent into hysterical paranoia. In a somewhat odd turn of events, a character by the name of Paul Auster appears (who is also a writer), though he does not seem to be a stand-in for the actual Paul Auster (i.e. the author of the book I’m reviewing). The second volume, Ghosts, is a much shorter and highly abstract story of a detective named Blue who has been hired by White to keep watch of Black. There are many parallels to the previous volume, but no direct connections; in fact, aside from being set in New York city during the same time period, the second volume appears to function as a non sequitur. The third volume, Locked Room, tells the story of an unnamed first-person narrator whose best-but-long-estranged friend, Fanshawe, has supposedly passed away, leaving the narrator as the executor of his literary estate. The narrator oversees the publication of Fanshawe’s extensive set of novels, ends up marrying Fanshawe’s widow, and comes rather close to losing his mind. Quinn happens to be referenced in this volume and a character by the name of Stillman also pops up in a seedy bar, though it is not the case that he is the same Stillman as he who appeared in the first volume.

So, this is the sort of book I enjoy.

I enjoy the reliance on geographic setting in the novel: the claustrophobia of the busy streets, the dankness of the second- and third-story apartments, the spatial descriptions of landmarks relative to one another, and the extensive use of specific street names, subdivisions, and train stops. Auster has set a convincing stage with his descriptive passages and his characters move across this stage in deliberate capacities. I enjoy the disconnectedness of the narrative, the distinct disjunctures with indirect parallels and hints. I am reminded, in particular, of the structure of Bolaño’s 2666 in that both books rely on stand-alone sections that make only passing reference to one another. I enjoy, as well, the rather high level of erudition on display in the work. Auster was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters a few years back and I find this an appropriate commendation given the overt intellectualism that permeates most lines in The New York Trilogy. Finally, I also enjoy reading a book populated by writers, by fellow appreciators of the written word; Auster explicitly calls our attention to the process of writing, to the dependability of narrative, and to the blurriness of the line between fact and fiction. It’s a similar tactic to those employed in a wide range of other metafictive novels: from If on a winter’s night a traveler by Calvino to Omensetter’s Luck by Gass.

And although the plot drags a bit in places (especially during the highly impressionistic second volume), it has a number of interesting things to say about detective work. As readers, we have to remember that the protagonists are almost always unwitting, accidental detectives. The procedures and tools of the trade are unfamiliar to them and the process of trailing suspects, disguising themselves, and endlessly recording observations into their notebooks uniformly drives them nearly insane. If the currency of private investigation is the answer (the key! the discovery!), then Auster’s detectives literally fall apart in their search for wealth. I read this as a damning, but subtle line of criticism: the relentless, exhaustive search for truth and meaning in a world that is demonstrably chaotic and random is a task that is beyond human. It is a theme that smacks of two excellent writers already mentioned in this review: Vonnegut and Pynchon. So many people behave so strangely in the novel that the question Why did you do X? could be (and is) repeated over and over again. I cannot recall a single satisfactory answer to this inquiry.

My major shortcoming as a reviewer of this novel, of course, comes by way of my total lack of experience reading detective genre novels. To that end, I’m not sure that readers with a steady diet of such work would embrace The New York Trilogy. For those of you looking for a witty, generally well-written, and erudite postmodern riff on the search for objectivity, however, this is it.

Rating: 7 / 10

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Omensetter’s Luck

Gass famously coined the term “metafiction” and Omensetter is, in large part, a work of fiction about fictions: subtle shifts in narrative form and a plot replete with storytellers, liars, and old testament texts explicitly invite the reader to consider the nature of the story’s narrative.

William H. Gass / American / 1966 / 304 pages

I have a professor in my graduate program who always warns us against “navel gazing” by which he means, I take it, focusing on ourselves qua ourselves. As a political scientist, if I spend too much time contemplating how I go about conducting research, then I don’t actually end up conducting any research at all. If I continually critique the extant work in the field, but do not add my own contribution, then I fail to leave my mark in any meaningful capacity. Engaging in a thought experiment aimed at rigorously investigating the epistemological limitations of social science makes for good parlor palaver (well, it depends on whose parlor you’re in), but at some point you’ve just got to roll up your sleeves and start working. Occasionally, however, I’ll come across a published work that does both: at the same time that a scholar contributes something substantive to our understanding of the social world, she also manages to offer us a new method or approach by which we might learn additional things. By addressing substance in an innovative manner, she calls our attention to method; defying my professor’s admonishment, such a work navel gazes its way straight into productive discourse.

Omensetter’s Luck is, I think, the successful literary equivalent of navel gazing.

William H. Gass was a philosopher and literary critic long before he was a published author and “metafiction” was a term he coined during the early years of his academic career while he was working on his doctoral dissertation. It’s a term that calls attention to the structure of narrative and was first invoked to discuss a new breed of American authors who emerged in the 1960s. Metafiction is distinct from the antinovel, for example, because it does not destroy narrative, per se. Rather, it invokes the straightforward narrative tactics of an earlier generation of writers to subtly draw attention to the method, rather than the substance, of the story. It sounds like a difficult undertaking. Indeed, in the afterward to the Penguin edition of Omensetter, Gass describes the arduous years of work that went into publishing his first novel and, having read the result, I can understand why. It is a novel that distills some very complicated ideas about the nature of storytelling and, in many parts, smacks of the philosopher rather than the fiction writer. It’s a unique book that has some fairly big ideas at work under the hood.

Gass crafts the substance of the story by drawing heavily from the American authors that preceded him. There are distinct elements of the “Southern Gothic” in Omensetter, specifically harking back to Flannery O’Connor and Nathanael West. Gass also shares these authors’ preoccupation with spiritualism vis-á-vis the natural, secular world and his characters are placed in stressful situations that tend to render this opposition in stark terms. There are also evident nods toward Faulkner and Joyce in Omensetter’s stream of consciousness rants, impressionistic dialogue, and disassembly of the fence between the intra- and the interpersonal. There are literally no typesetting techniques employed in distinguishing dialogue from thought, spoken word from internal monologue (not even the Joycean dash). This makes for slow reading and I must admit that I restarted the first 10 pages three separate times before I felt like I had an adequate handle on the style.

But Gass stands alone. Despite reminding me at various points of many other authors, it is also the case that none of these authors ever wrote a book quite like Omensetter’s Luck. 

The plot itself is not so terribly interesting. Brackett Omensetter is recently arrived with his family in the fictional small town of Gilean, Ohio. He is something of a disheveled, unkept man, but he is also gregarious and helpful. Through a bizarre set of circumstances, the town’s other inhabitants come to the conclusion that there is something mystical, something lucky about Omensetter. Their suspicions are perhaps not entirely unjustified, as Omensetter seems to exhibit an uncannily adroit understanding of the natural world and its animal inhabitants. Some of the townsmen are unsettled by his behavior, most notably the pastor Jethro Furber, who begins a disinformation campaign that slowly turns the town against Omensetter and — even more troubling — turns Omensetter against himself and his own family. There is a mysterious death that requires investigating, a sick infant that must be nursed, and a congregation that grows increasingly distrustful of a pastor who borders on the pathological.

It is the method by which the plot is revealed that makes for compelling reading. The novel is divided into three parts: the first two of which are shorter and, in a way, function as false introductions to the novel’s true focus, which emerges in the much longer third section. The first section is vaguely titled “The Triumph of Israbestis Tott” and describes in a fugue-like narrative an old man named Tott who attends an auction. Tott is the town gossip (he bends the ear of anyone who will listen and his stories appear at first glance to be elaborations) and it is through him that we first glean some disorganized details about the showdown between Omensetter and Furber that occurred several years prior. It is a bit unclear just what Tott’s triumph may be, but perhaps it is simply his longevity: by outlasting the other actors in the tragedy of Omensetter, Tott is now free to spin the yarn however he deems fit.

In the second section — “The Love and Sorrow of Henry Pimber” — we first see the Omensetter family come to town, find a home, and join the ranks of the Gilean community. Coinciding with these events, Henry Pimber falls seriously ill with lockjaw and it is Omesetter’s improvised poultice of beets (rather than Ferber’s fervent prayers) that keeps Pimber alive long enough for the doctor to arrive and treat his symptoms. Thus begins a strange relationship between Pimber and Omensetter where the former both admires and resents the latter. This second section of the novel is written in more straightforward prose and ends with a truly haunting interaction between Omensetter and Pimber in the deep woods outside of Gilean. When Pimber disappears shortly thereafter, Omensetter is immediately suspected of his murder.

The third and longest section — “The Reverend Jethro Furber’s Change of Heart” — is best begun with a good deal of momentum as it opens with 75 pages of Joycean stream of consciousness that is steeped in archaic old testament references, lewd sexual musings, and improvised verse. Told from the perspective of Reverend Furber, it shifts the focus of the novel toward the cosmic battle playing out in the landscape of Furber’s mind and the swirling amalgamation of spiritual aspirations, mortal failings, and man-of-the-cloth paranoia could have been ripped straight out of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The ensuing chapters that comprise this section of the novel are all much shorter, more concrete and chart out Furber’s elaborate lies and deceptions. He is an insufferable cur.

Despite trying one’s patience at times, the novel ends well and is an overall enjoyable experience. Gass is also very clever in drawing our attention to the art of fiction. Rather than straightforwardly hitting us with an unreliable narrator, we actually observe characters responding to the fictions articulated by other characters. Israbestis Tott spins his (obviously hyperbolic) tales regarding a fake world that Ferber gradually constructed from lies. Omensetter eventually has no choice but to give into these lies and conform to other people’s expectations of his behavior; it is a concession that takes his family to the brink of ruin and fundamentally reconfigures the balance of power in the town. In wrapping up the detritus from this epic confrontation, Omensetter’s Luck tarries to a powerful meditation on the fiction of fictions.

Rating: 7 / 10

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A Frolic of His Own

Anyone currently residing in a society governed by laws would probably do well to read this novel; even those in lawless societies might not completely be wasting their efforts. Speaking of effort, I’d recommend throwing back a highly caffeinated energy drink and donning your thinking cap before you begin reading.

William Gaddis / American / 1994 / 509 pages

It is an interesting mind experiment to ponder how literature changes when we strip it of one or more of its fundamental components. Authors in more contemporary times have been playing around with this for a while now and occasionally they stumble upon something truly excellent. For example, think about the exciting narrative possibilities that opened up when we disregarded linear storytelling as a central component of the novelistic form. Although playing with the sequence of events seems a bit old hat nowadays, this innovation was nothing short of extraordinary when Ford Maddox Ford and others were pioneering the technique in the 1910s. We might also think of stream of consciousness narration, where authors (Joyce, Woolf, and many others) move away from the (arguably unrealistic to begin with) structured and precise presentation of sensory experiences. Consider additional efforts to strip novels of paragraphs (Bernhard), extraneous verbiage (Hemingway), or characters who retain their names as proper nouns (Saramago). When these masters of form tie their hands in such dramatic fashion, the “limitations” of the resulting works sometimes speak louder than what has actually be placed on the page.

Due to a similarly innovative omission of his own, William Gaddis has become a fascinating and difficult figure in contemporary literature. Begun with his first novel (The Recognitions) and continuing through his last full-length work (A Frolic of His Own), Gaddis progressively bled everything out of his narration except for dialogue and the very slightest elements of stage setting. While this may sound similar in design to a theatrical production’s script, it is substantially vaguer; Gaddis rarely indicates who is speaking and his characters tend to interrupt one another, break off in mid sentence, or double back on previously-completed (or, perhaps, just seemingly-completed) discussion topics. Oftentimes, he builds in enough verbal ticks that it’s easy to distinguish one speaker from another. At other points, however, this is much less the case. The total effect is daunting, but fascinating: Gaddis writes some of the most believable and hilarious dialogue in Frolic that I’ve ever encountered in written form.

More so than in his other books, Gaddis experiments with a broader range of styles in this novel. For example, he has inserted scores of pages of a script for a play and he has them recited aloud (with commentary!) by the author of the production, the novel’s protagonist, Oscar Crease. There are several court decisions written by various circuit judges that appear wholesale at fairly random intervals (no doubt substantial research went into writing this novel) and the text of letters, newspaper articles, and advertisements also put in an appearance. One of the more captivating and comical passages of the novel is a 50-page transcript of a legal deposition. A group of people sits down to watch a movie and Gaddis seamlessly blends their discussion with an account of everything that transpires on-screen. These shifts in form constitute a welcome reprieve from otherwise endlessly running conversations, but several reviewers have taken him to task for writing, well, if not a novel exactly, then some kind of bizarre hybrid attempt at a novel. I’m kind of on the fence: while it’s obvious that the reader, to a certain extent, must construct the novel from the pieces that Gaddis has cobbled together, it’s also fairly evident that there is an intended final product. It is entirely possible, for instance, that as a reader, you can “get things wrong” if you aren’t careful. Reading the book is almost a collaborative project between reader and author, but the relationship is asymmetric. Gaddis is our instructor, not our peer.

This all demands a good deal of patience. The reader only encounters, say, a glass breaking if someone shouts: “my gosh, that glass just broke!” You only determine someone’s race, build, or gender when a third party comments on their appearance or summons them by name (in this respect, it’s often impossible to get a handle on a character’s age). The physical contours of a scene can change dramatically (for example, someone departing the room or arriving with arms full of groceries) without the reader being made immediately aware. In this sense, there’s a nontrivial lag time between what the characters are experiencing and what the reader is encountering. The technique also virtually destroys anything resembling a separate narrator; if all we get are people talking and a variety of other documents with no coherent framework presented by a narrator (omniscient or otherwise), then we’ve really moved into an entirely new form of fiction. This lack of filtration is both exhilarating and problematic. Scenes drag, mundanity abounds, and there are more discussions about food, television, and room temperature than you can shake a stick at.

But the satire is biting. Indeed, Gaddis so thoroughly skewers “the law” — as a profession, a procedure, and a system of social organization — that there’s really no reason anyone reading this book would ever voluntarily end up in a courtroom. Examples are telling. The playwright Oscar Crease is engaged in two lawsuits: one against himself (his car accidentally ran over him while he was in the process of hot wiring it) and another against a huge Hollywood production company (which allegedly stole substantial portions of his play in the course of filming a major summer blockbuster). As we watch the latter lawsuit play out, however, we realize that, not only is the play horribly written to begin with, but the movie has very little relation to it and Oscar seems to have indulged in his own healthy amount of plagiarism (indeed, by the end of the novel, the Eugene O’Neill estate sues Oscar for having “borrowed” substantial swathes of dialogue from Mourning Becomes Electra). A formerly-pregnant woman is sued by her ex-lover for paternal rights because she aborted the fetus without consulting him; just prior to the abortion, however, the woman is accidentally tapped on the shoulder at a hospital and she decides to sue for fetal endangerment. When a dog runs into a huge public sculpture and becomes trapped, the sculptor files an injunction in court to prevent the fire squad from sawing into the sculpture to remove the dog. The locals get angry at this pretentiousness and stage a protest to ask the government to remove the sculpture. When lightening strikes the edifice and kills the dog, the artist feels his work has been befouled and sues the government to remove the sculpture and transfer it to another city. Meanwhile, the court case has generated so much media attention that the locals are now seeing the benefits of tourist revenue. They stage another demonstration, this time in support of keeping the sculpture in their town. A woman sues a man because he talked her into a breast augmentation. A parent sues a pastor when he accidentally lets her child go during a river baptism and the child drowns.

The larger point that Gaddis develops over several hundred pages is this: no one wins. Court cases are decided in favor of or against this or that party, but the process is so ponderous, expensive, and logically convoluted that it’s impossible to emerge victorious. In legal procedure, words are twisted until they become meaningless, common sense is contorted until it resembles naiveté, and the value of a dollar is belittled so extensively that it becomes worthless.

If anything, the people who come out looking best are the lawyers themselves; if anyone in the novel is levelheaded, reasonable, and rational, it is the lawyer. He is a passive participant in a system that he openly acknowledges is broken and borderline Kafkaesque. When faced with the indignities suffered by his clients, the lawyer is a stoic — if fundamentally unhelpful — sympathizer. More often than not, the lawyer is accessible, eager to advise, and knowledgeable. The bill, as they say, is in the mail.

The novel would have been a bit better if it had moved beyond its main satirical thrust. Gaddis tackles in tangential capacities several of his other criticisms that he has famously developed in greater depth in other works: anti-capitalism tendencies are evident here, but left unexplored; his contempt for the mass media consumer is explicit, but secondary; even his character development suffers substantially, though I cannot say whether this is more attributable to the book’s style or its substance. The cast of characters in the novel is fairly thoroughly reprehensible and, as their fates soured toward the novel’s conclusion, I must admit that I wasn’t terribly troubled. They spend most of their time cooped up in the same three or four rooms in a country mansion and the sense of claustrophobia occasionally ramps up to a nearly intolerable pitch. All that being said, my opening sentiments persist: this is a great book to read for those interested in an (clearly biased) account of the legal profession. Frolic probably goes down as one of the great legal novels of all time together with Kafka’s The Trial (which I have previously read and enjoyed) and Dicken’s Bleak House (which I intend to read next month).

Rating: 8 / 10

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I cannot recall more precise, considered prose than this; Housekeeping reads like a proseminar in the novelistic form and its meditations are all at once intriguing, intricate, and immediate.

Marilynne Robinson / American / 1980 / 219 pages

When compared to many of their artistic brethren, novelists really got the fuzzy end of the popsicle stick. My stomach almost churns when I think about the sustained mental activity and sheer intellectual endurance that underlie a masterpiece in the novelistic form. A flash of brilliance might yield an excellent painting. A moment of inspiration may engender a particularly compelling sonnet. A musician might be able to draw on a sudden melodic vision in the course of writing a song. Even, perhaps, the writer of short stories might be able to avail himself of the late night, wrote-it-in-one-sitting method. But it’s a completely different animal when it comes to the novel. I can think of a few dozen truly brilliant novels, but consistency of composition is not an attribute that emerges from their ranks; indeed, it’s not a virtue I typically extol because I don’t typically run across it in the course of reading what I would consider brilliant writing. My favorite novels are awe-inspiring in parts or have especially poignant scenes, but they are not — from outset to denouement — brilliant throughout. The opening of the novel could have packed more momentum, the tedious bit in the middle made more dynamic, the end might have been drawn out, curtailed, modified, and on and on. I think consistency of composition is an elusive goal at the highest levels of the craft. This is why there is some hazard in writing. This is why perfection is an empty ambition. This is why we never got the Great American Novel.

So you can imagine my astonishment when I picked up Housekeeping. Here is a book that unfolds densely in the first few pages and draws you deeply into the narration in the most razor-sharp and precisely calculated of fashions. Each lengthy paragraph is comprised of the perfect balance of empirics, metaphor, and words familiar and obscure. The dialogue is sparse both in frequency and in execution, but rings clear with perfect pitch and timbre. Robinson’s development of characters, though lean, is total. Her chilly, frigid descriptions of water, forests, and rurality are haunting. Previously well-trodden themes such as family life, individuality, and gender roles are updated in nuanced and thought-provoking capacities. I waited a few pages for the magical effect to wear thin. I waited some more. I was still waiting when my jaw hit the floor upon finishing the novel’s final sentence. This is, quite simply, an awesome book.

The plot is readily garnered from the back of the book and is, really, not so important in itself. Two young sisters are orphaned when their mother commits suicide and are left in the care of their elderly grandmother. It is not long before the grandmother passes on and a couple of great aunts move into the house to temporarily play the parental role. They grow tired of the responsibility rather quickly and manage to track down the sisters’ elusive aunt (their mother’s younger sister) on whom they pawn off the still young children. It is here that the story gets going and the rest of the novel explores the relationships between Ruth and Lucille (the sisters) and Sylvie (the aunt). Although initially at ease with one another, these relationships will be tested by mounting pressures from the girls’ school and from the surrounding townsfolk.

Housekeeping is set in the rural, densely forested town of Fingerbone, where harsh winters and unchecked wildlife serve as constant reminders that the natural world is both vast and uncontrollable. The town is the sister’s and Sylvie’s ancestral homestead, but all three are resident aliens when it comes to understanding the town and its dynamics. The sisters were first deposited on the steps of their grandmother’s house mere minutes before their mother killed herself and Sylvie, by returning to care for the children, has come back to a memory of her previous life that she abandoned decades prior. Ruth and Lucille skip school and play alongside a lake deep in the woods while Sylvie wanders aimlessly through the house and the town, more in touch with events contained entirely inside the confines of her own head than those transpiring all around her. Indeed, Sylvie presents as being comfortably, innocuously insane and the ways in which she chooses to keep the house (or not keep the house, as it were) seem to lend credence to such suspicions. Bottles and cans pile up in all corners of the house, cats run rampant, the garden is only sporadically tended to and meals are typically bland affairs taken in candlelit quasi-darkness.

The crux of the novel is the exploration of this simple setting, of scrutinizing it through the prism of Ruth’s first-person narration. The narrative perspective that Robinson employs is a real treat: Ruth at various times grows so close to both her sister and her aunt that her use of “I” almost doubles as the plural “we.” The thoughts and actions of Lucille and Sylvie invade Ruth’s thoughts to such an extent that, in a latent capacity, the reader is presented with a much richer set of insights. Ruth also tends toward extended and somewhat mystical ruminations where she speculates about the dead walking among the living, about recollections of the past lives of the family members she has lost, and about unseen forest consciousnesses against which she must be on her guard. Her tendency to weave empirical observations with metaphorical speculation borders on the schizophrenic, but is beautiful. Robinson relies so heavily on lyrical, robust prose in these sections of the novel that I was often left completely (pleasantly) bewildered. Somehow, subtly, Ruth’s simple observations explode into the cosmos. Somehow, inexplicably, past blends with present and both bleed seamlessly into the afterlife.

Though the book is almost exclusively about females, I do not think that it is a feminist work (or, at least, not so simply a feminist work). And although it is a novel about family, about belonging and about identity, I think one would be rather surprised at some of the angles from which Robinson chooses to set her scenes. The author is evidently very familiar with the bible as a text, with Emerson, Melville, and Hawthorne, indeed, with the full weight of American literature that preceded her. Robinson draws extensively from this menagerie of influences and this lends an aura of age to the book that belies its 1980 publication. There are very few bells and whistles here, but in their stead Robinson offers us something truly uncommon: a carefully written novel where each word is worth its space in the text. This has to be one of the most consistently well-composed books ever written and it is certainly one of the best books I have ever read.

Rating: 10 / 10

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This far-flung amalgamation of diverse historical events sums to an unfulfilled quest of epic proportions; in the process, Pynchon tells us something about contemporary times as bastardized reflections of the past and about the future as a futilely constructed straw man of false hopes. It sounds dark, but you will laugh. Oh, how you will laugh.

Thomas Pynchon / American / 1963 / 547 pages

Pynchon is perhaps not best known for V. but it put him on the map. A young 20-something at the point of its publication, Pynchon virtually rocked the literary world with his surprisingly advanced command of language and history. Critics predicted that, with time, Pynchon would become one of the most important figures in American literature and, in large part, they were right. Within just a decade, Pynchon returned to the presses with The Crying of Lot 49 and the daunting Gravity’s Rainbow which (like Joyce, Gaddis, and Wallace) continues to exude a hugely complicated attraction for “serious” readers of high literature: Rainbow sounds so awesome, so tortuous, and so mind-blowing that it scares off even the most conscientious consumers. Rainbow is a book that you talk about for years, buy a copy and place it on your shelf, look at it every day through slitted eyes for months before you pick it up, and, having done so, undergo massive countermeasures in other areas of your life in order to set aside considerable time to digest its prose.

Luckily, V. is not like that. Scholars of Pynchon normally recommend V. as an entry point to the author’s corpus, a flexing of the fingers prior to engaging in the real fight against Gravity’s Rainbow. Having never read the latter novel, I cannot endorse this opinion, but I will say that reading V. certainly will whet your appetite for more Pynchon. Even better than this, though, is the fact that the novel is an incredible offering in its own right; no mere overture, V. amounts to one of the most satisfying reads I’ve yet undertaken this year. When paired with Lot 49, it also presents a diverse range of form and style. While the two novels are similar in many respects, Lot 49 is radically different from a basic prose perspective. Devoid of the winding, endless sentences that came to characterize Pynchon’s later work, V. generally employs punchier writing and a comparatively manageable vocabulary to convey its points. You’ll still need an online dictionary and Wikipedia open on your laptop to understand the countless cultural and historical references, but — on the whole — V. comes off like Pynchon’s last effort to remain halfway considerate toward the (everyman) reader.

The novel itself is difficult to explain. Set equal parts in a 1950s present and a various-year past, V. progresses in narrative fits and starts through disjointed chapters that do not always stand in clear relation to one another. Ostensibly, the novel focuses on two men, named Stencil and Profane, who could not be more different from one another (the names are weird, but that’s part of the fun of Pynchon; other character names range from Pig Bodine to Mafia to Winsome; indeed, their construction is often representative of the character; allegories abound). Stencil is obsessed with identify/locating/copulating with a woman named simply V. who is often mentioned in the journals left to him by his father. It’s not immediately clear why this woman is so important; she does not factor particularly prominently in the narrative of Stencil’s father’s life and the accounts of her existence are so vague and disparate that actually locating her is surely an exercise in futility. If Stencil’s obsession is misplaced, then Profane’s is nonexistent. A product of a Depression Era pregnancy, Profane is aimless, amoral, and barely animate in his day-to-day existence. Indeed, Pynchon often invokes yo-yo-related imagery to describe his mechanical, empty movements back and forth across the great urban landscape of New York.

But Stencil and Profane are really just along for the wacky ride, most of which takes place beyond their own limited horizons. Stencil draws on sources other than his father’s journal to construct lengthy backstories surrounding V.’s existence and these narratives are generally only loosely (and unreliably) connected to one another. V. pops up in an account of 1890s British espionage in Egypt; she appears again a few years later during the planning stages of a painting heist in Florence; a similar figure materializes in Namibia in 1922 during an indigenous uprising against colonial power; then again in Malta during the WWII German bombardments of the country’s capital city, Valletta. One of the tenuously fascinating/frustrating things about the novel are the variations in style across these different accounts. The Namibian siege is told as an introverted personal narrative and borders on the gothic in nature. The bombing of Malta comes from a man’s personal confession and waxes philosophically on moral, familial, and geopolitical subjects. The British espionage bit (which reappears for an encore performance in the book’s epilogue) is told in terse, rollicking prose that seems intended to underscore the hair-raising intrigue of these somewhat tense situations. So, sometimes the book drags a bit and sometimes it soars, but it remains compelling throughout.

Thematically, the book is rich. The words “inanimate” and “animate” appear frequently and much is made of their juxtaposition. One of the more macabre and harrowing passages of the book finds Pynchon going into great detail about a “nose job” — how the cartilage is cut, the skin pulled back, the bridge reassembled, etc. In addition to plastic surgery, the characters find themselves in other similar not-quite-animate situations. Profane at one point works as a night watchman at a research facility that uses human dummies made of plastic to simulate the effects of various accidents (car crashes, blunt trauma) on actual human beings. In a jazz bar, inanimate objects (instruments) give rise to free-flowing, animate manifestations (namely, music). A pregnant woman discusses with a friend the moral pros and cons of aborting the fetus, which predictably boils down to an argument over the point at which the fetus becomes animate matter. The list continues.

This debate gets morphed in different ways during the “historical” passages of the novel. A painting of Venus is held to be just that — an inanimate painting — by some people in the Florence chapter, but is revered as a lifelike representation of the goddess by other people (indeed, this is true to such an extent that some characters are willing to risk incarceration to steal it). A particularly damning indictment of German (in particular) colonialism (more broadly) crops up at various points, which twists the in/animate theme in geopolitical and humanistic directions. Pynchon covers in great, disturbing detail the German army’s genocide of indigenous Namibian citizens in 1904 and, nakedly, indicates that this functioned as a historical precursor to the Nazi’s extermination of the Jews during the Holocaust some decades later. This section of the novel is told retrospectively (from the perspective of a radioman in 1922) during a siege of a German compound by the surviving Namibian people. Within the compound functions the standard set of high European society (dancing, drinks, and dialogue) while outside the compound, the natives are brutally repressed with heavy artillery and arial bombardments. In this way, the native population is reduced to inanimateness through death while the European colonists are comparatively animate through their nihilistic pursuits. Pynchon’s point is interesting: when we blur the line between the living and the manufactured, we can get by with anything. Morality and meaning fall away.

This jives well with the broader thematic material for which Pynchon is most famous: the conspiracy theory, the intellectual overreaching humanity resorts to in order to project order onto chaos. Certainly this was the case in Lot 49 as the heroine of the novel attributes a set of seemingly unrelated events to some unseen mega-force pulling strings behind the scenes. Defying the more plausible explanation that V. is in actuality not some sort of quasi-mythical female goddess that seems to pop up during historical epochs, Stencil instead connects vague dots and, toward the end of the novel when he believes he’s hot on V.’s trail, begins to think that broader forces might be conspiring to keep the woman out of his reach. He breathes life into chaos by flooding it with agency. Rather than the happening of events, someone is out there deciding how things will take place; rather than the inanimate, probabilistic movements of time, Stencil opts for an explanation predicated on the animate, the human and highly personal processes of sharing information, laying clues, evading detection, etc. How human is a human with a plastic nose? How human is an indigenous population that is virtually destroyed by another? How human and organic is our relationship to our forefathers when any message, any lesson they might have bequeathed to us is hopelessly, irrevocably mutilated by the chaotic intervention of random events?

Big questions. No answers. The book peters out as disjointedly as it begins and, as readers, we end up disoriented and unsettled. But Pynchon fills the holes with inventive wordplay, humor, and — at times — beautiful prose. It’s enough encouragement to propel one forward to further consumption. Somewhere around page 200, I definitively made up my mind to tackle Gravity’s Rainbow in the next year. Allegedly dealing with many of the same themes presented in V., I’m very much looking forward to further meditations on these important inquires.

Rating: 9 / 10

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