Rarely operating as agents of actual literature, the superheroes of Grant Morrisonâs Supergods are instead portrayed as foils, projections, and countercultural symbolsâideas, the things that stand for things. Readers of Morrisonâs own contributions to mainstream comics may perhaps have not seen this coming. Arkham Asylum and All Star Superman, two highlights in a storied career, distinguished themselves from most other attempts at superhero storytelling with their dizzying array of ideas, but the real spectacle is seeing them peopled through and through. Even when Superman follows Bizzaro to the Underverse and encounters a flawed bizzaro clone of himself (Zibarro, an almost-Superman who instead of X-ray vision has the urge to write poems), itâs the sceneâs immediate importance to this newest ongoing saga that carries whatever it can be read to say about the power of art. When Superman, the journalist, encourages Zibarro to continue his pursuits, it isnât because he likes Zibarroâs poetry (with which heâs clearly unimpressed), but because he knows when a comforting word can do some good. As such, his encouragement doesnât focus on meter or imagery, but rather on the poemsâ utilitarian function: “Your writing has a unique quality…All these wonders only youâve seen.” Itâs a compliment with a reason.
Not surprisingly, ideas abound in Supergods, but Morrison seems to side with Superman more often than not. What could have been a definitive textâa criticism of the superhero genre by the author whoâs done the most to expand our understanding of what superheroes are capable ofâturns out instead to be a scattershot historicist reading of various notable comics and comic figures of the last 75 years that somehow leads to an elaborate résumé. Superman, for his many feats, becomes a vague and rootless expression of hope, likened in the space of one paragraph to Moses, Karna, and Jesusâanything that sticks.
Morrisonâs readings are often insightful, and the best of them heighten a workâs stature by reminding us what it, the work, can mean to other readers. There are those of us who found sexual liberation in the early Wonder Woman comics, for example, at least partly due to the creatorâs polyamorous lifestyle. However, this approach frequently glosses over a workâs singular merits for the sake of drawing out historical treatises from elements that perhaps wouldâve been better off left alone, or at least read by a New Critic. Scenes are brought up not to highlight their roles in a particular storyline, but for a specious entry to a reductive declaration about a certain cultureâs leading myths or a celebrity-filled anecdote. Exclamation points are reserved not for descriptions of thrilling sequences but for the moments when the author identifies in a story a dormant ideology. Thereâs no true interest in Robinâs early transformation from “a bounding paragon of vigilante boy justice” to “a weeping, petulant nervous wreck who lived in fear of losing his beloved Batman”; the sudden change bears mention only because it can be read to derive from the crazed campaigns of a comics-hating psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham, one of Supergodsâs real-life villains. Read in this manner, the villain wins.
A writer whose sentences are rich and bright and forward-racing, Morrison can make of any subject anything he wants, and it is a sight to behold when he uses his power for good. But things start to wear down with the insistent introduction of the author as another historicist figure whose works are beholden to circumstance. What starts as a book about superheroes continues as a book about something called the Sekhmet hypothesis, which wields solar patterns as responsible for both major cultural shifts and personal evolution in Morrisonâs own life. By the end of Supergods, once the author has abandoned any pretense of structure and the narrative has been interrupted by a tedious summary of his feelings about the Batman film franchise, itâs clear that the project was never meant to land anywhere. Itâs just a bunch of stuff he likes to think about.
Grant Morrisonâs Supergods was released on July 19 by Spiegel & Grau. To purchase it, click here.
Review: For Stephen King and Readers, If It Bleeds Is a Coming Home
King can still write a horror story that scares and delights in equal measure.
Stephen Kingâs writing suggests that kindness, some brief contentment, can be found in the most terrible places. Yes, many of his tales are black to the boneâThe Shining and Pet Semetary offer no illusion of hopeâbut more often than not, Kingâs interest is on the warm-heartedness and compassion that defies the darkness at the edge of town. Thereâs both a warmth of character and a reassuring familiarity to his worlds that mitigates the horror within.
The same can be said for his latest collection of novellas, If It Bleeds, which feels like a coming home, both for King and the reader. Each of the tales is a return to well-trodden ground for King, but for the most part, theyâre written with such charm that the old-fashioned feels refreshing in its sincerity. And, indeed, sincerity is a key feature of these tales. The titular story, which revisits Holly Gibney, the sleuth who evolved from sidekick to heroine throughout the Bill Hodges trilogy and The Outsider, is the collectionâs longest and least effective. For one, it distractingly echoes Hollyâs previous outings, marrying Mr. Mercedesâs baroque criminality to The Outsiderâs pulpy sci-fi horror, never really doing anything new with either strand. The monster itself is nicely drawn, but a chapter devoted entirely to tracing its appearances throughout recent history reads like a pared-down version of Pennywise the clownâs backstory in It.
King never reads less like himself than when heâs writing about Holly Gibney, whoâs interesting but rarely believable. From novel to novel, her quirks, which suggest that she may fall on the spectrum, have been either exaggerated for effect or retconned if they get in the way of plotting. Sheâs a rough approximation of an autistic personality, and her artificiality weakens the story as a whole, which is made more obvious by its proximity of the other novellas in the collection. Where they are classic Kingâhorrid, yes, but full of humor, humanity, and authentic local colorââIf It Bleedsâ is a well-honed exercise in mechanical storytelling.
âMr. Harriganâs Phoneâ could be lifted from any of Kingâs early collections. It owes an obvious debt to the EC Comics and Twilight Zone reruns that the author has credited as his early inspirations. The simple plot concerns 12-year-old Craigâs friendship with his eponymous neighbor and the gift of an early-model iPhone that disrupts their lives and afterlives. The tale is set in the early aughts, yet it has such a timeless voice that the phone already seems an uncanny, anachronistic object, even before the supernatural shenanigans kick in. That isnât a knock, as the juxtaposition of tone and technology is what gives the story its edge.
King, an avowed critic of cellphone ubiquity (most notably in Cell) is clearly making a point about the handsetâs damaging influence, and not a subtle one. But thereâs a freewheeling whimsy to âMr. Harriganâs Phoneâ that elevates it beyond the modest sum of its parts. Regardless of the year in which it takes place, the story concerns a world of school dances, bullies, dollar scratch cards, and a young boy happy to spend his afternoon reading to an old man. In such a world the crude morality at the heart of the tale makes emotional sense.
If âMr. Harriganâs Phoneâ calls back to Kingâs early pulps, then âThe Life of Chuckâ is a fair representation of his later experiments with literary fiction. The story is told in three distinct parts, each one working within a different genre as King takes the reader on a reverse tour through moments of Chuckâs life from the cusp of mortality back to his childhood. The first is an apocalyptic nightmare tied to Chuckâs impending death via a neat metaphysical trick, while the last looks at his childhood in a uniquely haunted house. But itâs the middle section that gleams brightest as a piece of emotionally driven, nostalgic character work, the kind of writing that King most often succeeds at when working just outside the horror genre.
We encounter Chuck in early middle age as his path crosses with a lonely young woman and a street musician. Their brief meeting isnât life-changing or even particularly significant, but itâs the impermanence of the moment that gives the vignette such poignancy. The rules of Chuckâs world are temporarily suspended and the story, peculiarly for King, offers an unreservedly positive moment of human engagement. âMr. Harriganâs Phoneâ is exhilarating in its sensory minutiae, yet it never loses sight of its overarching emotional theme. King is able to conjure joy from such small incidents that the reader is left wondering quite how the trick was done.
And if writing is some kind of magic or strange alchemy, then the final story in Kingâs collection explores both the light and dark halves of that enchantment. âRatâ sees that stalwart of the authorâs fictionâthe writer-protagonistâsequestered in a cabin in the woods. Drew is there to write a novel, something that carries significant risk, as earlier attempts have driven him close to madness. While everything goes well at first, soon storm clouds (both literal and figurative) begin to gather. An ill-advised handshake and the presence of a strangely talkative rat turn the tale of a writerâs angst into a Faustian bargain.
âRatâ is Kingâs best attempt at conveying the pressure and claustrophobia of the writing process since Misery. We feel Drewâs excitement at the blank page and the endless possibilities it offers. Itâs a call to creative arms. The first 30 pages may leave you longing for a cabin in the woods of your own, so as to be free from the obligations of a normal life. King writes with absolute clarity about writerly frustration, likening it in one memorable image to Drewâs son, Brandon, choking on a tomato. âThis is like that,â he writes, âonly stuck in my brain rather than my throat. Iâm not choking, but Iâm not getting enough air either. I need to finish.â
As Drew begins to âlose his wordsâ and his options narrow, both creatively and in terms of survival, âRatâ transforms into a Poe-esque tale of madness, isolation, and obsession. Anyone whoâs ever poured all their efforts into a personal, creative project will recognize Drewâs loss of perspective as the novel becomes all-consuming.
Whether âRatâ has a happy ending or not is open to debate, but as a conclusion to If It Bleeds the story demonstrates that, happily, King can still write a horror story that scares and delights in equal measure. Each of these stories is a pared-down, or even recycled, version of a horror the author has unearthed before, but theyâre told with such verve, confidence of voice, and, yes, warmth that you find yourself creeped out and comforted at the same time.
If It Bleeds is now available from Scribner.
Love Is Political in Tomasz Jedrowskiâs Debut Swimming in the Dark
The separate yet sometimes inextricably linked spheres of politics and desire make for doomed bedfellows in Jedrowskiâs debut novel.
The separate yet sometimes inextricably linked spheres of politics and desireâespecially when it comes to queer sexualityâmake for doomed bedfellows in Tomasz Jedrowskiâs Swimming in the Dark, an intricately structured coming-of-age romance between two young men living under the autocratic rule of the Polish United Workersâ Party in the early 1980s. The novel is written as an address, with its narrator, Ludwik, referring to his former lover, Janusz, in the second person as he recounts the highs and lows of their affair, as well as the ideological differences that led to its end. Ludwik has been in the United States as a political defector for a full year when he begins to tell his storyâa year since he has last seen Januszâand he follows daily news on the radio of escalating political strife at home in the present even as he looks achingly back into the past, wondering what might have been.
The novel begins with a confession. Nine years old and on a religious excursion with others his age, Ludwik tells of how he developed a close kinship withâand first real crush onâa Jewish boy named Beniek. During a party on the last night of the trip, when the lights suddenly go out without warning, Ludwik finds himself on a dance floor in the dark, pulling Beniekâs willing body against his own. But when the lights are thrown back on and everyone can see what heâd done, he experiences for the first time the familiar marriage of desire and shame.
Beniekâs family abruptly moves away following the trip, and Ludwik later comes to understand, during secret listening sessions of Radio Free Europe broadcasts with his mother and grandmother, that the PUWP had turned on Polandâs Jewish population, implicating them in the countryâs involvement in the war and forcing them to flee. Ludwikâs sexuality is thus connected to politics from the start, represented in a carefully and skillfully constructed montage of linked scenes chronicling both his sexual and political development in turn: âBeniekâs departure spelled the end of my childhood, and of the childhood of my mind: it was as if everything Iâd assumed before had turned out to be false, as if behind every innocuous thing in the world lay something much darker and uglier.â
After an encounter years later with a man in a public park leads him to think that submitting to what he believes is deviance will lead only to a life of loneliness, Ludwik vows to conceal his sexuality at all costs, renouncing his desires and choosing to live instead through books, which were âarmor against the hard edges of reality.â And when he overhears a conversation between two obviously gay men at a speakeasy, heâs prompted to seek out a copy of James Baldwinâs Giovanniâs Room. He eventually reads the book himself, and he feels immediately projected into its world: âIt felt as if the words and the thoughts of the narratorâdespite their agony, despite their painâhealed some of my agony and pain, simply by existing.â
Ludwik reads Giovanniâs Room over a course of days otherwise spent doing grueling manual labor at a work education camp, where he later begins his courtship with Janusz after spotting him enjoying a solitary swim in a river. Eventually, Baldwinâs novel becomes a bridge between them, its fictional world of pain and fear creating a shared space allowing for the possibility of love. Upon their release from their work assignments, the two spend an almost dreamlike few weeks camping together in the woods, exploring the nature of desires theyâd mostly kept hidden and out of sight until then. But the first glimmers of strife between the two men, who are otherwise blissfully in love, surface in conversations that enter the realm of politics.
Thereâs a tendency toward the figurative in the novelâs language that sometimes feels forced, but the claustrophobic interiority of Ludwikâs psychological turmoil elevates Swimming in the Dark to startling and moving heights. The looping in of Giovanniâs Room as a meta text also deepens rather than deflects from Jedrowskiâs central themes. Reflecting on the impossible choices facing Baldwinâs protagonist, Ludwik explains at one point that âsuddenly the narratorâs pain didnât soothe my pain anymore. His fear fed my fear. I was like him, David, neither here nor there, comfortable in no place, and with no way out.â
âI should have known youâre one of them,â Janusz says when Ludwik brings up the prospect of leaving Poland for the West in search of freedomâfreedom from the state, freedom to live a life of choice. Janusz would rather follow the rules and participate in the system, corrupt as it might be, rather than take the risks associated with rebellion. And when they return to Warsaw after their time alone together, Janusz to begin work with the PUWP and Ludwik seeking a possible future as an academic, the disparity between their two political viewsâamounting to a disparity between how they envision possible futures for themselvesâonly escalates.
Thereâs danger in staging ideological difference as the basis for dramatic conflict in a fictional narrative, because the possibility of reconciliation and resolution hinges so completely on the notion that characters must renounce their viewsâor not. But in Swimming in the Dark, thereâs little hope for Ludwik that Janusz is going to suddenly transform into a revolutionary, as he quite purposely builds a comfortable life for himself within existing constraints. And so instead of staging a political impasse between two men in love as a tragedy, Jedrowski adroitly provides readers with the pleasure of observing the development of a personal politics, Ludwikâs coming of age less a coming-out narrative than one of gradual radicalization.
In the end, Janusz is drawn not as a patriot blinded by the propaganda of his government, but as a man unwilling to risk everything for the uncertainty of a future elsewhereâand he serves as a necessary foil for Ludwikâs developing political perspective as the novelâs protagonist and narrator, whose own resolve is only strengthened by witnessing Januszâs consenting negotiation of the only future available to him without radical action. The novelâs indelible complexity ultimately lies in its representation of a mind in conflict with the body.
Swimming in the Dark is available on April 28 from William Morrow.
Woody Allenâs Apropos of Nothing Is a Humble and Crabby Confessional
For Allen, his new memoir is a form of retreat-as-attack, or perhaps vice versa.
In his memoir Apropos of Nothing, Woody Allen goes out of his way to portray himself as an average Joe who got lucky, resisting his reputation as a brilliant artist and intellectual even as he recounts one triumph and extraordinary encounter after another. As one might expect, the book is rich in name-dropping, such as Allen being complimented by Tennessee Williams and Federico Fellini, arguing movies with Pauline Kael, and hanging between jazz sets with Cary Grant. These events, and many others, are described by the 84-year-old legend in a curt, matter-of-fact, somewhat amusing understatement, as if to say, âThatâs life.â Thereâs a witty sentiment on nearly every page of this book, but Allenâs chilly approach to his own story feels alternately humble and crabby.
This slim memoir offers a general once-over of the Woody Allen narrative, starting with his childhood in Brooklyn. Allenâs father was a hustler who indulged his children and spent more than he could make, while Allenâs mother sacrificed likeability for the sake of maintaining domestic order, a dichotomy that leads to one of the bookâs most poignant observations: âSadly, even though my mother was a much better parent, much more responsible, and more mature than my not-so-moral, philandering father, I loved him more. Everybody did.â Apropos of Nothing has several such startling lines, revealing the occasional emotional benefits of Allenâs direct, plain-stated prose. Such writing underscores the bookâs pervading and often unexplored sadness, suggesting the fuller autobiography that mightâve been.
It is, however, refreshing when a memoir or a biography skips yards of obliging genealogy so as to get to the material that motivated one to buy it in the first place. Allen has a sense of what you want from him, in terms of the glories and the terrifying still hotly contested nadirs of his life. After a childhood of bickering parents, baseball, magic tricks, and dreaming of life as a Manhattan playboy like a character out of a vintage Hollywood romance or noir (a dream that he would realize on his own terms), Allan Konigsberg began writing one-liners for city columns, eventually christening himself Woody Allen and rising rapidly through the ranks as a comedy writer. Allen would ride into the city, knock out 50 jokes a day for a publicity firm, who would attribute the lines to various celebrities, and for this task he was out-earning his parents combined. Soon he was writing for TV, working for legends like Sid Caesar with up-and-comers such as Mel Brooks. Not long afterward, new manager Jack Rollins was helping Allen refine a stand-up routine. This is one of the better portions of the memoir, as Allen bothers to communicate the work of honing a personality via one performance after another.
Throughout Apropos of Nothing, itâs difficult to distinguish Allenâs intended tongue-in-cheekiness from his callousness, especially when the neuroses of his second wife, actress Louise Lasser, are anchored primarily from the scrim of how they affected him. Allenâs descriptions of women are generally dated and tasteless, probably to willfully spite the Woke Police, and one of the worst is directed at Lasser: âThen, a few days later the madness subsides and sheâs pound for pound the best female in the world.â
As Allen checks off his various dalliances and relationshipsâhis rendering of Diane Keaton is reverential, though heâs characteristically murky on the actual textures of their collaborationâhe also works his way through his dozens of films in passages that alternate from the sublime to fortune-cookie thin. Allen pushes back hard against the notion of himself as an auteur, noting the many ways that everyone on a production has shaped his voice, while demythologizing himself with tales of his aesthetic as a result of accidents. His propensity for his long master shots springs from his allergy to rehearsing, while chapter headings in his films have sometimes served to bridge gaps that couldnât be solved by editing.
Allen also recounts the many times that films have drastically changed shape, from the abandoned two-narrative structure of Sleeper to the entirely re-shot September to the dramatically re-cut and re-shot Annie Hall. His openness to admitting these setbacks refutes the image of the auteur as an all-mighty god and dreamer, and these stories are refreshing and encouraging to hear from an artist of Allenâs magnitude. (On September: âA drama that asks the question: Can a group of tortured souls come to terms with their sad lives when directed by a guy who should still be writing mother-in-law jokes for Broadway columnists?â)
Yet even the passages devoted to Allenâs films are vague; he has little interest in discussing his process apart from a few anecdotes, and many of the actors he worked with are written off with a pat adjective, usually âterrific.â This affected indifference is part of Allenâs average-Joe routine, his apparent conviction that, though heâs writing a memoir, little of this material is worth mining at lengthâhence the bookâs all-too-appropriate title. But this naĂŻf routine is a charade, as evinced by Eric Laxâs Conversations with Woody Allen: His Films, the Movies, and Moviemaking. In that indispensable interview book, Allen goes into plenty of detail on his craft. For instance, he discusses his collaboration with Keaton thusly: âThatâs why Diane Keaton always came out funnier in the movies I played with her, because Iâd write all the jokes for myselfâand I can do jokes nicely and get my laughsâbut she was always funny in the scene because her stuff was always character. Iâm going through a movie like Annie Hall glib and facile as a comic, but sheâs going through as a character.â Such specificity, such an admittance to the gods of process, is only fleetingly present in Apropos of Nothing.
This cool, reductive voice of Allenâs is revealed to serve a purpose. Far from a definitive account of Allenâs working life, Apropos of Nothing is a response to the elephant of Allenâs legacy: his cheating on Mia Farrow with her 21-year-old adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, and Farrowâs subsequent accusations that Allen molested her seven-year-old daughter, Dylan, whom Allen had adopted, in 1992. This material composes a third of Allenâs book, and his fury serves as a counterpoint to the plaintive prose, lending his accusations an authority and credibility that might be lacking if his style were more heated. Allen portrays Farrow as a monster, who bore and adopted children out of vanity, collecting them like expensive pocketbooks, only to abuse them physically and psychologically. He alleges that Farrow plucked Soon-Yi from a Korean nunnery at the age of five, berating her when she didnât learn English quickly, terming her âretarded.â Another child was locked in a shed, others were put to work as servants, and implications of mental health crises were ignored. (Smugly, spitefully, Allen says that itâs no wonder one of Farrowâs children committed suicide.)
Allen alleges that Farrow said to him that she would get revenge for his affair with Soon-Yi, cooking up the allegations concerning Dylan. There are many stories here of Farrow âbrainwashingâ Dylan, drilling into the childâs head a story with shifting details. These episodes are of an extravagant awfulness, giving Apropos of Nothing a shocking, lurid power. Many of Allenâs allegations against Farrow have been echoed by Soon-Yi as well as another of Farrowâs children, Moses. Allen finds it ironic that his son Satchel, now the acclaimed journalist Ronan Farrow, would castigate NBCâs downplaying of the Harvey Weinstein scandal while himself seeking to minimize Soon-Yiâs version of events in New York magazine. However, Allen makes many unsubstantiated accusations himself, implying that Farrow was sleeping with a judge and a clerk of the court during their trial.
Of all the hearsay on both sides, thereâs an intrinsically important fact: After two elaborate investigations, Allen has been found guilty of nothing by no court except that of public opinionâan opinion that generally thinks Soon-Yi, to whom heâs now been married for over 20 years, is his adopted daughter. Allen worked unimpeded for decades after the Farrow accusations only to be blacklisted again recently in the wake of Me Too, a necessary movement which has nevertheless led to notions of guilty-until-proven-innocent and of all indiscretions as career-ending. The younger stars whoâve said theyâve regretted working with AllenâGreta Gerwig, TimothĂ©e Chalamet, among othersâcertainly knew of the accusations when they signed on to work with him, but they couldnât have known that those accusations would matter again, especially to their own careers. Given this context, Allenâs bitterness is more than understandable, but it has curdled his empathy. These episodes arenât so much dramatized as rattled off in Apropos of Nothing, and the book would be far more powerful if Allen had been able to rouse himself, as an artist, to identify with Farrowâs rage at his affair with Soon-Yi. (He says merely that Farrowâs initial reaction to the affair was âcorrect.â)
Even Allenâs anger at Farrow, and modern societyâs hypocrisy, isnât mined as fully as it mightâve been; he essentially shrugs it all off, ending his book with a sigh of âfuck it.â Imagine what Norman Mailer, another acquaintance of Allenâs, mightâve done with this materialâs vast intersection of politics, sex, evolving mores, pop culture, and demons, including those of this filmmaker. Allen is a great artist, but heâs so close to this material that he seems to have felt the defensive need to pull back from it. Apropos of Nothing, itself more or less banned from this country, is a form of retreat-as-attack, or perhaps vice versa.
Apropos of Nothing is now available from Arcade.
In Emily Gouldâs Perfect Tunes, Music Isnât a Recipe for Success
On the page, the main characterâs musical aspirations never feel as alive as her interpersonal relationships.
Emily Gouldâs second novel, Perfect Tunes, is nothing short of frustrating. Gouldâs writing comes to life when revealing the intricacies of a mother-daughter relationship, as it does extensively in the latter two of the bookâs three parts. But her approach to writing about music leaves much to be desired. Music drives the lives of her characters, but you almost wouldnât know that from the lack of musicality to Gouldâs prose.
Part one of Perfect Tunes introduces us to Laura, a recent college grad and aspiring musician, who moves in with her best friend, Callie, in New York City. Laura quickly takes a job as a hostess at an upscale bar, where sheâs subject to the demeaning treatment of her male supervisor. One night at a music venue, she meets Dylan, whose band, the Clips, is on stardomâs doorstep. They begin a tentative romance, and as Laura navigates the inadequacies of their relationship and pursues her own artistic goals, a pair of tragedies strikes and Gould ruptures the bookâs narrative, jumping forward about a year into part two, which covers the early years of Lauraâs single motherhoodâmaterial that, with its authentic portrait of the day-to-day challenges of childrearing, often recalls the last few stories in Harold Brodkeyâs First Love and Other Sorrows. As her daughter, Marie, grows into a toddler, Laura puts her artistic aspirations on hold. All the while, Callieâs music career flourishes.
Part three, the novelâs most compelling section, deals with teenage Marieâs relationship with Lauraâand with her stepfather and stepsister, whom Laura meets toward the end of part two. For the first time in Perfect Tunes, the narrative moves outside Lauraâs consciousness and into Marieâs, opening up wonderful new dramatic avenues. Gould skillfully tracks Marieâs struggle with depression and Lauraâs guilt about feeling unfulfilled by a life devoted to parenthood. Thereâs a particularly moving scene when Marie, confused and disturbed by a recent turn of events in her flirtation with a classmate, comes home drunk, and after a tense confrontation with Laura, Marie off-handedly remarks, âWeâve never been close.â We instantly share Lauraâs reaction of shock and bafflement, because Marieâs infanthood, when mother and daughter had âslept in the same bed, breathing in the same rhythm, Marieâs legs kicking [Laura] in the stomach as she drifted from one dream to the next,â was so well-rendered in part two.
But the novelâs other main focusâLauraâs musical aspirations and how they conflict with her responsibilities and identity as a parentânever feels as alive as the mother-daughter relationship. Early chapters, when Laura is young and childless, fail to show what it is, specifically, that songwriting does for her. For one, Gould isnât quite up to the task of transmogrifying musicâa fundamentally non-verbal art formâinto vivid sentences. Throughout, Perfect Tunes is full of vague descriptions and clunky dialogue (a loft apartment is âbigâ and âweirdâ; Dylan plays a âfuzzy bangerâ; and a song has a âsimple structure and a basic, hooky chord progressionâ), and when it comes time for Gould to express the feelings brought on by a great songâor even capture the reasons that music is so important to her charactersâshe either avoids the matter or simply flounders.
Especially in the novelâs second section, Gould very much misses the opportunity to dazzle readers with descriptions of Laura performing with Callie for the first time in years, and to an enthusiastic crowd. She chooses to summarize the event in a single, brief paragraph, and then the rest of that chapter is spent merely informing us of how adrenalizing, how transcendent an experience Laura had on stage. By the end, the reader never gets to feel the moment, to experience it firsthand. (Gould pulls a similar maneuver when 9/11 strikes early on in the bookâthe first of the two tragedies alluded to earlier.)
Across Perfect Tunesâs pages, we also donât get much sense of what Lauraâs music sounds like. Descriptions of her music are mostly limited to exegeses of her lyrical themes, while references to other bands are rare, and, apart from an early mention that Laura considers her songs âanti-folk,â Gould completely avoids telling the reader anything substantive about the fruits of her protagonistâs creative labor. This is a disappointing deficiency of ambition in an otherwise engaging and moving look at a womanâs interpersonal relationships.
Perfect Tunes is available on April 14 from Avid Reader Press.
Innocence to Experience: Paul Lisickyâs Later: My Life at the Edge of the World
It settles into a distinct rhythm as time passes and Lisickyâs relationship with his chosen town deepens.
At the start of his memoir Later: My Life at the Edge of the World, Paul Lisicky is a literary fellowship recipient in his early 30s. Heâs about to stumble into what will become his queer community in the middle of the AIDS crisis in early-1990s Provincetown, Massachusetts, where at that time âit was impossible to speak a sentence without folding death inside its structure.â What follows is a deeply meditative and deceptively meandering series of vignettes, asides, observations, and questions both rhetorical and otherwise that cohere to reveal a writer grappling with the costs of desire, how to build an identity more powerful than shame, and the ways that loss can become a place in which to live.
Provincetown as a haven for members of the queer communityâparticularly during the years when Lisicky first lived there, when people he saw at the bar one weekend might be gravely ill or even dead the nextâis both the setting and the implicit subject of his memoir. Andrew Holleranâs essential works of fiction about another queer mecca, Fire Island, mostly written or at least set before the onset of AIDS, depict the destination as a hotbed of delirious excess, a place in which to lose rather than find yourself. Reading them while knowing what comes next has now turned them into ghost stories, their writer unknowingly depicting a world about to disappear. In Later, Lisicky gives individual faces to the victims we often speak about collectively, and what might seem at times on the verge of becoming a catalogue of relationships, some dizzyingly fleeting and others more enduring, becomes instead an intimate glimpse into daily life during an epidemic, a montage of faces lost or forever changed. âThe dead hover over and about usâmaybe they are watching us through holes we canât see, maybe theyâre inside the light bulb, warming its thin glass,â Lisicky writes. âCan you hear them humming in unison?â
In the early days of what would later become a long-term residency in Provincetown, Lisicky refers to his clothing style at the time as âthe ubiquitous costuming of my twenties, the look of inclusion and aspiration, but also the look that once allowed me to disappear.â He literally sheds the evidence of his old self and instead dons a motorcycle jacket and Doc Martens, beating the leather against stone to break it in. âI beat them to suggest that anger belongs in the spirit of my clothes,â he writes. âItâs not the year for perfection and the ideal fit. At this point in time we are only damaged, scraped, burned, and used.â
When Lisicky comes home for a visit after his first months away, his motherâwho in the opening pages of Later sends him off to a world sheâll never understand, he fully believing she expects him to die of AIDSâreacts with palpable shock, and even fear, to his new look. He imagines her picturing him having rough sex somewhere in the dark, an anonymous man âfuck[ing] HIV into me.â And in this way, heâs marked the before and after in his own life, becoming someone his mother can only partially recognize.
Weaving their way carefully through Later are glimpses into Lisickyâs upbringing in a house of violence and rage, and reflections about his parents serve as bookends to the story of his life in Provincetown. A self-examination on the subject of queer rageâabout internalized homophobia, about shameâsends him âback again in the house of my childhood, listening to my raging father, and I see how weak it makes him, hear how it turns him into an idiot, no captain of himself, and then heâs using it against my brothers and me.â
While he has certainly come to Provincetown for some kind of escape, Lisickyâs past is still never far from his present. When he returns home for the holidays, leaving behind a new boyfriend who he realizes heâs implicitly instructed not to call him there, he recognizes just how tenuous and fragile his new identity is. He feels flung back into his former self, 17 years old again, the world around him uncertain and unstable. âItâs awful to be reminded that what weâve made of ourselves is so flimsy,â he writes. âCan be lost in all of two minutes.â
Later: My Life at the Edge of the World, whose title refers both to the geographical remoteness of Provincetown and the bleakness of the prospect of living a life with no future, settles into a distinct rhythm as time passes and Lisickyâs relationship with his chosen town deepens. A steady stream of people enter into his life just as others leave suddenly, tragically. âA friend asks me how the prospect of illness changes peopleâs experience of identity and time,â he writes. âWhat does it do to them? I am too close to the question to answer it.â
But now, from the distance of years, Lisickyâs memoir itself seems to be offering up a response in the form of its patterns, its recursions, its steady stream of questionsâsome of which can never be answered. When his father dies decades after his first years in Provincetown, he finds himself immediately traveling back out âto the place I associate with death,â and at first he reflects upon his fatherâs stubborn will to live, even at the age of 91 and despite evidence of his failing body. But then he realizes that, to him:
ââŠevery death will always be an AIDS death; everyone will always die before their time, whether theyâre twenty-one or ninety-one. Nobody will ever get enough affection; everyone will be abandoned emotionally by the people theyâd counted on, who get hardened by procedures, the insurance industry, the medical establishment, the funeral industry at the end. And for all thatâs against their terrible journey, the dead burn brighter to me than they do when theyâre alive.â
Laterâs final chapter, in a sudden jump forward in time to what basically amounts to the present, centers around how PrEPâa highly effective drug in the prevention of HIVâhas changed the queer community forever, and not just in terms of our sexual practices. For Lisicky, when he first goes to Provincetown, âthe air we breathe is drenched in its possibility,â and he finds himself marveling at the spectacle of a generation of queer men having more or less fully shed the constant fears that so many of us have always associated with sex.
Having poetically and achingly reflected at length earlier in his memoir about the relationship between the erotic and the destructive, desire and dread, Lisicky now describes with no small amount of awe the image of a handsome man in his 20s lying on a circular table having sex with four men at once, âsimply a young man who hasnât had to take the costs of a plague into his blood. He isnât rebelling, isnât saying fuck you to the parents who could have disinherited him, kicked him out of their house, said unforgivable words. Heâs not hiding.â
While observing this scene, Lisicky is confounded by the nonchalance of it all, the way this young man doesnât think twice about bending to the will of desires heâd perhaps never learned to fear. About PrEP, Lisicky writes that â[w]hen people in their twenties swallow this pill, they take a different story into their body.â But Later is the story of other bodies at other times when the possibility of the future was still only just that, a testament to the audacity of being ourselves and risking the danger and violence and murderous institutional discrimination that once necessarily accompanied our happiness, in spite of the odds stacked against us and the uncertainty that defined our very existence. And for that, itâs already timeless.
Later: My Life at the Edge of the World is now available from Graywolf Press.
Interview: Don Winslow on Broken and the Jazz of His Crime Fiction
The acclaimed crime novelist discusses his new collection of novellas, his influences, and more.
Don Winslow is a testament to life as the best school of writing, as heâs as colorful as the characters who appear in his propulsive, sensual, political, and often brutal crime novels. An ex-private investigator, a rancher, a surfer, a hiker, a jazz enthusiast, and a journalist whoâs studied the intricacies of Mexican drug trade for his acclaimed Cartel trilogy, Winslow is a man of vast experience, empathy, and curiosity who dramatizes all perspectives on the criminal ecosystem, from the hippie stoner to drug czars to all the cops, reporters, immigrants, and imperiled children whoâre trying merely to get by.
Honing over the years a clipped-paragraph style, Winslow fashions novels that simultaneously suggest tabloids, op-ed pieces, and Norman Mailer-style epics. But his new collection of novellas, Broken, finds him working in more moderate and relaxed keys, after writing a handful of the biggest books of his career: The Cartel and The Border, the final installments of the Cartel trilogy, and the searing The Force, about a corrupt New York City cop.
Broken thrives on misdirection, opening with one of Winslowâs most violent pieces of writingâthe title novella, about a New Orleans cop who hunts the drug dealer who tortured his brother to deathâbefore seguing into mellower character studies that recall his earlier, chiller, more comfortably genre-based origins. In âCrime 101,â a jewel thief intersects with a rumpled yet calculating police officer; in âThe San Diego Zoo,â a bizarre case of animal armament leads to unlikely romance; in âSunset,â an aging bail bondsman, the titanic Duke Kasmajian, reflects on a vanishing way of life while overseeing a final chase, leading to lovely ruminations on scotch and West Coast jazz, among other things. The last two novellas, âParadiseâ and âThe Last Ride,â return the book to more violent and topical terrain: the American drug war and our governmentâs inhumane imprisonment of fleeing families on the Mexican/U.S. border.
These stories are all animated by Winslowâs ear for dialogue and feeling for place, particularly San Diego, which becomes a recurring symbol of a vanishing way of life, a paradise thatâs gradually being commodified into nonexistence. The Pacific Coast Highway, an ongoing subject of reverie in Winslowâs books, serves as a kind of circulatory system in Brokenâa route toward contemplation and healing. Throughout these stories, Winslow also rhapsodizes on the little elements of Americana that can offer transcendence, from the classic ballgame-and-hot-dog date to the ritualistic grilling of fish for fish tacos. Winslowâs juxtaposition of such details with this countryâs slide into political sadism suggests nothing less than the internal war to remain decent in an age of sensationalized heartlessness. (On Twitter, Winslow is a mercilessly astute critic of Donald Trumpâs lies, incompetence, and trademark callousness.)
Particularly given our current social calamity, Winslowâs Americana continues to haunt me. Ball games. Grilling with buddies with beers on the deck. Intoxicating sex with someone youâve just met by chance. These are heartbreaking things to ponder as the COVID-19 epidemic forces us into isolation. In this light, these rituals become even more fantastical, even more poignant, even more seemingly lost, than Winslow couldâve possibly intended.
How are you doing with this thing personally?
Iâm fine, thank you. My wife and I live way out in the country sort of north and east of San Diego on an old ranch, and it looks pretty much the same around here as it always does. Itâs kind of quiet and not many people are around and weâre hunkered down. Weâll just see how this goes, I guess. I have to tell you, it feels a little weird talking about a book during all of this. âOh, people are dying, people are suffering, letâs talk about me.â
Iâve felt the same way about writing movie reviews lately.
Right? But life goes on, I guess. I know Iâve been reading more and watching a lot of old DVDs and things, because we donât get very good internet service up here. So, you know, I guess we serve our purpose. [laughs]
I was reading Broken while COVID-19 was creeping into Virginia where I live, and, I hate to call art an âescapeâ because I think thatâs often a horrible reduction, but this book was an escape.
Well, I think escape is one of the purposes of art. I think it can be engagement and escape. Iâm not insulted by that at all. If people are entertained and it takes them out of this thing for a little while, God bless.
Broken is a collection of novellas thatâs arriving after a few of your weightiest and most political novels. Did you consciously think of it as a palette cleanser?
Well, itâs an interesting way of putting it. Iâm not sure Iâd put it exactly that way, but I know what you mean. These were stories that I had had in my head for a while with the exception of the final one. And I knew that they were too substantive to be short stories but they were certainly not going to have the epic bulk that you alluded to. If I may use a different analogy, Iâve been sort of running ultramarathons for the last 20 years, you know? And so it felt it would be refreshing to run a middle-distance.
Thereâs a clever structural misdirection in this book. Itâs called Broken and fans of your recent work may have a bleak expectation. The title story certainly fulfills that expectation, but many of the stories are warm, comparatively light character studies. At what point did you begin to consider that pervading arc?
Pretty early on. The three middle stories [âCrime 101,â âThe San Diego Zoo,â âSunsetâ] Iâve sort of had in my head for quite a while. The titular story was a bit later. And then I thought that this collection really needed a bookend, a story that matches the feel of âBroken.â And so then that structure became apparent to me. I think a lot about jazz because I listen to a lot of jazz. And sometimes thereâs that kind of opening statement, the melody thatâs being written down, you know, and then you go off into this middle phase where people are improvising on that, which, sometimes, tonally, is very different from where you started, until you circle back to the opening theme. In the case of this book, we open and circle back to brokenness.
So you have the same interests as your character Duke then?
[laughs] Yeah, which comes in handy, you know? Jazz has been a big thing with me since I was a kid and I took an especial interest in West Coast Jazz, you know, though I like other stuff as well. And so that was just fun to write and kind of visit.
To continue this jazz metaphor, particularly the idea of riffs on a theme, the broken motif is certainly in the lighter stories, too, just expressed differently.
Yeah, exactly. Not to torture this metaphor, which is kind of fun, but you know thereâs going to be a certain chord progression that youâre not going to completely depart from. Well, some jazz does, but the kind of jazz I really love doesnât. And I know who I am as a writer and as a person; many of these themes are going to come out anyway. In terms of chord progression, I was always very clear about the order of the stories.
Did you write the stories in chronological order?
Not exactly. Again, I knew what the order was going to be, but Iâd been working on some of these stories for a while. Iâd been working on âCrime 101â for a couple of years and never quite âgot it.â I had the opening line of âSan Diego Zooâ in my head for literally years. But I didnât know what it meant. It was a line that struck me funny.
When I read that, I thought, âThis is a new Winslow. Where the hell is this going?â
We live out on an old ranch and brush clearance is a huge issue because of wildfires. I had a bunch of downed trees and somebody asked, âWhy donât you get a chainsaw?â And a buddy of mine, this old cowboy, was standing next to me and said, âGiving Don a chainsaw would be like giving a revolver to a chimp.â [both laugh] Which sadly is true. Iâm notoriously clumsy and not very mechanical. And he was right: I probably wouldâve cut my hand off, or my leg off, or something. Well, somehow that line evolved in my head into âNo one knows how the chimp got the revolver.â It stuck in my head for years, and when I was committing to doing these stories and trying to figure out what was the next thing after âCrime 101,â I typed that line out and just made the rest of it up. I was playing that great game âwhat if?â I did not know how the chimp got the revolver until I typed the end of it.
Whatâs striking about âThe San Diego Zooâ is that itâs genuinely, unforcedly sweet, especially coming after âBroken,â which is a bitter pill to swallow.
âBrokenâ is one of the toughest, harshest pieces Iâve ever done. It was fun to go to sweet, you know? And I agree with what I think youâre saying: that thereâs a very fine line between sweetness and saccharine. But thereâs not much chance of my crossing over into that. [laughs]
Did you consciously perceive a relationship between âBrokenâ and The Force?
Of course. Iâd written that big cop book, and I knew there were going to be similarities here. But I also knew there were going to be important differences, and I very deliberately set âBrokenâ in a completely different location to help achieve that, but sure I knew the reader would say âthis is kinda like The Force.â
The Force is one of my favorite books of yours. I think you have a daring, uncomfortable empathy with your antihero.
An uncomfortable empathy is a good way to put it. A little frightening. I spent a lot of time with cops in doing that book, but I have my whole life anyway, because I was a private investigator. I had a lot of cop friends, and I really did feel an empathy with Denny. Iâm not trying to make moral judgments about my characters. I might have them, independent of the book, but itâs not my job to create good guys and bad guys; itâs to create as realistic people as I can, and get the reader close to them. Iâve sat down with a lot of objectively evil people: serial killers, psychopaths, drug folksâyou name it. None of them define themselves as monsters. They have a point of view, we might loathe it, but they have a point of view.
âSan Diego Zooâ is dedicated to Elmore Leonard and âCrime 101â to Steve McQueen, which makes sense when you read that story, though it feels very Elmore-y to me too.
Absolutely. And Michael Mann. I donât run from my influences. Iâm very happy to proclaim them, and one of the great thrills of my life was spending an hour with Mr. Leonard. We were in the same room one time very early in my career on my first book, and I was too shy to go up to him. And then later, I mightâve done a film with him, which didnât work out, and he died, sadly, shortly thereafter. But I got to be on the phone with him for an hour.
Did he live up to your expectations?
Oh, even more. I donât think I said five words. He got on the phone and said, âDon Winslow, you were two-years-old when I wrote 3:10 to Yuma.â Which was the most charming way of putting me in my place. And I said, âYes, sir, but I tried to read it.â And he laughed and told stories for an hour, nonstop. It was me, my agent, his agent, and him on the phone. And I was standing in the rain. We were living down on the coast, and we didnât get good cell reception in our apartment. In fact, if you stepped two feet closer to the beach you couldnât get cell reception. So, I went outside, and it was one of those rarely raining Southern California days, and I stood in the rain for an hour listening to Elmore Leonard. I wouldâve stayed there all day.
Thatâs got to be one of those moments you keep in your pocket.
Absolutely, man. Absolutely.
Iâm not trying to blow smoke, but I think youâre playing on Leonardâs level these days.
Well, I wouldnât say that, but thank you, I try. We all revere him in the genre. And heâs one of those guys youâve never heard a bad word about. Or Michael Connolly, whoâs terrific. Or Lee Child or Dennis Lehane. These guys, whoâre so huge and so great, are genuinely nice people.
Thatâs great to hear. Iâm a big crime book guy.
Yeah, apparently. [laughs] And you know I dedicated another story in Broken to Raymond Chandler, whoâs the granddaddy of us all, and if I write for another hundred years Iâm never gonna write as well as him.
Your Chandler story, âSunset,â may be my favorite in this collection.
I have a fondness for that story, which I wrote from beginning to ending. I sat down, started typing and almost literally didnât stop until it was over a few days later. I just knew the story.
To borrow an element from that story, to belabor another metaphor, it has the feel of scotch: Itâs mellow, thereâs depth there that doesnât announce itself.
Well, thank you. I wanted to write a sunset story that was a little mellow and was a little mature, and talked about some older guys, you know? And talked about loss of a lot of things: loss of loved ones, loss of a hero, loss of a certain kind of life.
Thereâs an additional commonality to these stories that affirms the âbrokenâ theme. In every one, thereâs a decisive moment where a character essentially says, âScrew it, Iâm going to act for decency, against the fabric of my surroundings.â
Yeah, frankly youâre the first person whoâs picked up on that. I think the ultimate question of crime fiction has become the ultimate question for all of us in these times that we live in, and Iâm not happy about that. For me the ultimate question of crime fiction has always been, for the characters: How do you to attempt to live decently in whatâs basically an indecent world? Increasingly, weâre living in an indecent world.
To piggyback on that, this book offers a vision in which people must act apart from mass politics, divorcing themselves from the media maelstrom. Is that fair?
I think thatâs fair. In some ways, in all these stories, thereâs a return to older values. The last story, Iâm sure you picked up on it, is a neo-western, quite obviously. And I thought it would be more interesting if I made that guy a Trump voter, a conservative.
Yeah. I follow you on Twitter and I know what your feelings about Trump are, which I share. But I like that you donât editorialize the conservative at the center of âThe Last Ride.â
It just struck me as a more interesting slant on it. And then this guy changes his mind, you know, and goes back to what I would think of as those older western values.
Thereâs an image in âThe Last Rideâ that I donât think Iâve seen in a western before. That startling image paralleling the heroâs fate with that of his horse.
I went to college in Nebraska and worked on ranches. Iâve lived in Idaho, Montana, out in California. Iâve had cowboys all around me, and Iâve seen too many horses put down. Itâs a terrible moment. And I thought that was just the right ending.
In some interviews, youâve wondered if your style as a writer is too flexible. I find your voice distinctive though, with those short, machine-gun paragraphs. Do you achieve that structure in the editing phase, or do you compose that way?
Basically, Iâm composing it that way, but I make it better, I hope, in the cutting phase. When I do first drafts Iâm not thinking about the reader much at all. I just try to get it down, and then, with every subsequent draft, Iâm thinking more and more about the reader. What is the reader hearing? What is the reader seeing? We sometimes forget that reading, though certainly an intellectual activity, is also a visual activity. I pay a lot of attention to what the words look like on the page, and if the look is achieving the effect that I want it to. So, in reference to that kind of machine-gun thing that youâre alluding to, sometimes I think words just need a lot of space around them so that they do stand out. But, other times, if you want to grab the reader and not let him or her go a while, then you want the page to look very dense, so that thereâs no space for them to take a break. You want to control the ride that you take them on that way.
Itâs funny to hear you describe this process. As someone who writes reviews, I often edit according to how I like the visual shape of a paragraph in a word document.
Thatâs exactly what Iâm talking about, Chuck. This is going to sound really goofy, but sometimes Iâll step away from the screen to the point where I canât make out the words, only the shapes.
Itâs almost as if such abstractions allow you to see your over-writing.
I think thatâs absolutely the truth, and it does sound crazy.
With jazz, crime novels, and other arts, thereâs an East Coast/West Coast distinction. With your traveling, with your New York- and California-set novels, it seems that you can lay claim to both coasts. Do you have a preference?
I donât think so. I come from blue-collar New England, not tweed New England. [laughs] My dad was first-career military. Iâm from a fishing town. My old man used to take me to the fishing factory, where they rendered all that shit. From 500 yards you could smell it. And heâd say, âIf you donât buckle down and steady youâre going to spend the rest of your life shoveling fish guts.â I came from a Bruce Springsteen kind of town thatâs now become a touristy town. All that has always been a big part of my life, and I go back there every year, and I probably do more surfing there now than I do here.
But when I came to the West Coast, which was in the late â80s, as an investigator, I just fell in love. Thereâs no other way of putting it. And I can remember like it was yesterday the first time I drove on the Pacific Coast Highway. I went, âMy God,â and Iâm still in love with it. I donât know how many hundreds of times Iâve driven that road down here, and I never get bored with it, it always excites me.
I go back to New England and I eat fish and chips and chowder and out here Iâll have my beloved fish taco. The two oceans are also very different, very different kinds of personalities, if I can put it that way, and I love them both. I feel like I have the best of both worlds. You need to come out here when this blows over.
Broken is now available from Harper Collins.
Brian De Palmaâs Pulp Cocktail Are Snakes Necessary? Goes Down Easy
Though thereâs a consistent amount of sex here, the book still feels like an act of extended foreplay.
Once you could count on the release of a new Brian De Palma film every few years, many of which abounded in recurring motifs that suggested a secret conversation between the director and his admirers. There were Hitchcock references, particularly to Vertigo and its symphony of shifting female identities and male voyeurs hopelessly enthralled with sexual illusions. There were also tracking shots of astonishing virtuosity, unapologetic fetishizing of beautiful women, lusciously lurid cinematography, purplish scores (usually by Pino Donaggio), and an overall sense of playful abandon and adventurousness that renders most contemporary thrillers anemic by comparison. At their best and not-so-best, De Palmaâs vintage films often felt like the ultimate fusion of brains and ballsâexplosions of the potentialities of pulp moviemaking.
Written in 2016 and now available from Hard Case Crime, De Palma and Susan Lehmanâs Are Snakes Necessary? seeks to fill the void left by the filmmakerâs lack of output over the last decade or so, an absence which has often been accompanied by frustratingly unfulfilled rumors of various projects, as well as the half-hearted Domino. Composed of short, punchy prose and bite-sized chapters, this slim genre novel reads very much like a script for a new De Palma project, one thatâs rich in the debauched and rarefied play lands of the rich and famous, aspiring photographers (voyeurs), male predators, and beautiful and imperiled women, with a soupcon of political intrigue on top. Yes, even Vertigo is evoked, as a blonde becomes a brunette and a variation of the perverse twist of De Palmaâs unofficial remake of Hitchcockâs film, Obsession, is indulged. This naughty pulp cocktail goes down deliciously easy.
Three male and three female protagonists (De Palma, a former engineering student, values such symmetry) are sent by their hungers and ambitions on an elaborate collision course against the backdrops of heavily mythologized, movie-ready cities such as D.C., Paris, and Vegas. Barton Brock is a manager-slash-fixer for Lee Rogers, a Republican senator up for re-election who hires as an intern 18-year-old Fanny Cours, the daughter of one of Leeâs former conquests. Also mixed up in this inevitable sexual melee is Elizabeth Diamond, the trophy wife of a rich art collector, and Nick Sculley, an aspiring photographer who, like John Travoltaâs character in Blow Out, requires a bit of real-life tragedy to inform his art with meaning.
The fun of the book springs from its abject, unapologetic horniness, which is more distinctive in our timid times now than it was in De Palmaâs heyday, and from attempting to figure out which formula itâs going to settle into. (Short answer: several at once.) Much of the novel is devoted to these characters hanging out and discussing status and strategy, so that De Palma and Lehman may note their designer apparel and particularly their varyingly terrific bodies. (Fanny is said to be in the âfull flush of carnalityâ and there are sentiments offered about the bodies of French women, bedroom voices, and the fit of white T-shirts on young, cut men, among other things.) Though thereâs a consistent amount of sex here, the book still feels like an act of extended foreplay, as weâre conditioned by De Palma thrillers to await the violence that goes with the carnality. The climax atop the Eiffel Tower and its resolution ingeniously pay off the various story strands, offering a tragedy and its inadvertent avengement.
Still, Are Snakes Necessary? also illustrates the limitations of attempting to recapture the visceral qualities of cinema via prose. De Palma and Lehmanâs writing is confident, but it still only faintly conjures the wrenching, surreal power of a classic De Palma sequence, whether itâs the prom scene in Carrie or the anguished murder in front of a Fourth of July fireworks display in Blow Out. The Eiffel tower sequence in Are Snakes Necessary?, with its vicious, mathematical toggling between various parties as they hurtle toward violence, is clearly meant to suggest one of De Palmaâs greatest hits (the authors even specify which part of action is meant to be seen in slow motion), but the poetry is missing. De Palma is a maestro of juxtaposition, composition, and performance calibration, not of words on a page.
Though thereâs fun in figuring out which of De Palmaâs staple of actors might have played each role in Are Snakes Necessary?âBrock is the Gregg Henry character, Fanny is Nancy Allen, and so forthâon the page these characters are just mice being moved through a narrative contraption. Without De Palmaâs stylistic gamesmanship, without the poignant, daring melodrama of the directorâs preferred style of acting, the personality and obsessiveness of De Palmaâs worldview is compromised. Are Snakes Necessary? offers a fascinating glimpse, then, as to how a script for a director is fleshed out by the other stages of a filmâs creation. The book is a serviceable, even compulsive page-turner, but it could be a hell of a movie.
Are Snakes Necessary? is now available from Hard Case Crime.
Jenny Offillâs Weather Reckons with the Intimate Rhythms of the End Times
How do we deal with a crisis when it isnât presented as such?
It was an unusually warm February night and the room at the Brooklyn-based Books Are Magic was filled from front to back, our collective body heat radiating across the space to the point of discomfort. We were all listening to author Jenny Offill as she answered questions about her newest novel, Weather. âIâm usually so bored reading about climate change,â she said, âI thought this book could be a useful thing.â As many authors try to capture the period we live in, the anxieties we face within ourselves and as a larger wholeâby, say, referencing such hot-button issues as climate change and economic disparityâOffill places herself within the conversation without being overbearing, without shouting too loudly.
Weather focuses on Lizzie, a librarian, a mother, a wife, a sister, and a daughter. She carries the cargo of all of those identities, and itâs immediately apparent that sheâs addicted to responsibility, to being relied on without realizing itâs a flaw: ââI wish you were a real shrink,â my husband says. âThen weâd be rich.ââ She has a brother recovering from addiction who canât stay off her couch, a fiscally irresponsible mother, and a son whoâs capable of breaking her heart. âAre you sure youâre my mother?â he asks at one point, âSometimes you donât seem like a good enough person.â Then thereâs her husband, whoâs steadily becoming fed-up, or worse, disinterested in where Lizzie seems to be focusing her energy. Not to mention the awkward encounters with her next-door neighbor. And the driver she wonât stop paying in fear sheâs his very last costumer. Lizzie is consumed by problems ranging from the end of the world to the drug dealer who lives in her apartment building.
Offill establishes the motif of time from very early on in the novel:
âI tell him that old joke about going backwards.
We donât serve time travelers here.
A time traveler walks into the bar.â
This captures the feeling you may get when reading Offillâs novels, including Weather. âLook here,â she seems to say with her words, holding our childlike palms, dragging us from one site to the next. Offill replicates a similar form here as in her 2014 novel Depart. Of Speculation, creating intimacy with her narrator through spontaneity, short-formed paragraphs, and skipping forward through linear time. Lizzie is the former grad student and mentee of Sylvia, a national expert on climate change and podcast host of âHell or High Water.â Itâs not long until Sylvia hires Lizzie to answer emails sent from fans of the podcastâdoomsday preppers to social activists who both share a common interest in the collapse of society and the end of times. Itâs the means by which Offill examines these two American identities, poking fun at both, illustrating where the two intersect on a Venn diagram.
âWhat does it mean to be in this Twilight stage,â Offill asked at Books Are Magic, âThe stage where you know and you donât know?â Sheâs a smart writer, of course. She knows subtlety, and knows how to create a tone that will make us laugh, pull at our heart strings, and, above all, genuinely surprise us. But most importantly, she knows how create a form which elucidates the way we perceive the everyday. Itâs a perfect time in American life to have a writer like Offill, whose idea of a novel seems the most conducive to replicating our daily lives from the minor burdens, which can feel like Shakespearean tragedies, to our widely shared conflicts, those which are ignored and then ignored until they boil over.
In Weather, as the questions sent to her by fans of âHell or High Waterâ become more and more esoteric, Lizzie feels the metaphorical tides slowly rising to her feet. She feels time running out but isnât sure exactly what she will have to face. And in such moments, Offill offers generous insights to us readers: âMy #1 fear is the acceleration of days. No such thing supposedly, but I swear I can feel it.â Canât we all feel this too? At the reading she speaks of taking on more activism, playing a role instead of just standing idly by. She asks us all: How do we deal with a crisis when it isnât presented as such?
Jenny Offillâs Weather is now available from Knopf.
Reconciling Memory: Peter Stammâs The Sweet Indifference of the World
Stamm accomplishes something remarkable by giving the reader a story thatâs simultaneously disorienting and comforting.
Early in Peter Stammâs The Sweet Indifference of the World we learn that its narrator, Christoph, is a writer, and you may wonder if the novel is going to unfold as so much autofiction does today. That is, as a story about a novelistâperhaps Swiss, perhaps middle-aged like Stammâwrestling with their personal history or fame or the ordinary events of their life. Itâs a practice thatâs increasingly familiar, which, of course, isnât to deny its ability to produce some outstanding work. But Stamm isnât predictable, and he isnât ordinary, and over the course of this especially slim novel, he accomplishes something remarkable by giving the reader a story thatâs simultaneously disorienting and comforting.
The novel tells the story of two couples: Christoph and Magdalena, and Chris and Lena. Both men are writers, and both women are actresses. According to Christoph, and as recounted to Lena, the couplesâ lives are the sameâsomehow folded in and upon one another in the narrative of the bookâbut separated across 20 years. Stammâs language is spare and thin, avoiding unnecessarily heavy prose in a way that makes Christophâs story all the more urgent. Stamm dispenses with quotation marks, paragraphs, and ordinary indicators of internal and external dialogues. And it all works perfectly.
A fourth of the way through Sweet Indifference, Christoph tells Lena, âI canât tell you the end of the story…the only stories that have endings are the ones in books. But I can tell you what happened next.â This warning, like almost any page of the novel, could be picked up and read entirely on its own. Stamm has constructed a narrative less about what did or didnât happen but, perhaps, what could have. Does the novel give any certainty by the end that Christoph and Magdalena were once Chris and Lena? By the time Sweet Indifference reaches its end, it isnât that the answer is irrelevant, but that the question was far more interesting.
In the novelâs disoriented narrative, in which each character layers upon another like a palimpsest, Christoph is the one reliable thread able to pull the reader through the maze. His certainty and conviction toward Lena helps to keep us anchored. But Christophâs brief encounter with his own doppelganger momentarily suspends this security and leaves both the narrator and reader disconcerted. When Chris questions Christophâs claim that he did (and eventually Chris will) publish a book, the former takes solace from the fact that he can find no record of it online. He rejects that this other man is his definite future.
Another detail that Christoph gives in order to try to strengthen his case also turns out to be false. When he later recounts this event to Lena, Christoph announces, âThis is the most painful part of the story…He was right. I must have seen the scene somewhere and made a memory of it, incorporated it into my life.â In this moment, Stamm leaves it to his readers to settle the meaningfulness of the contradictions on their own.
Midway through the book, an old man abruptly walks into a cafĂ© and mutters, âItâs too late…it will always be too late.â Has the cycle begun to fold back upon itself a second time? We canât be certain. At the outset, Sweet Indifference can be puzzling and slippery, but along the way the same distinctive style that distorts begins to coalesce into something more enlightening. Instead of dissonance, Stamm manages to produce an unusual harmony. It often comes across as a meditation structured around one manâs effort to understand, mold, restructure, and interpret himself through memoriesâboth false and real. Or as if Christophâor whoever might stand in for himâis talking with himself to find some meaning from what did or didnât happen 20 years ago. More than any ordinary novel, Sweet Indifference is a process.
At one point in Sweet Indifference, Christoph tells Lena, â[T]hatâs what I always liked about books. The fact that you canât change them. You donât even have to read them. Itâs enough to own them, and pick them up, and know that they will always remain the way they are.â If Stamm is speaking to some distressing urge to reconcile oneâs life with a wishful memory of it, then perhaps all it takes is some perspective. This is a book that invites many questions: Are Christoph and Magdalena actually some version of Chris and Lena? Why does the novel end exactly where it began? Or does it? Is Christoph hurt or alleviated at the end of his journey with Lena? And as to whether there are definite answers to any of these questions, Stamm invites us to stumble upon them for ourselves, perhaps at some later stage in life when, revisiting the book, it will all make a different kind of sense.
The Sweet Indifference of the World is available on January 21 from Other Press.
John Saylesâs Yellow Earth Is a Masterfully Fair Hearing on Human Nature
What animates Saylesâs fiction is curiosity about different kinds of people and their experiences.
In the middle of John Saylesâs Lone Star, which tells the intricate, intergenerational story of a Texas border town, comes a moment, no longer than 30 seconds, where two Army officersâone a black woman, the other a white manâtalk furtively in the background of a bar scene. The camera nestles into their booth as they speak in hushed tones, and suddenly a new dimension to their relationship, which appears decorous and professional, is revealed. Theyâre soon interrupted by the town sheriff, and with only a few lines exchanged, we learn everything we need to know about these lovers on the sly.
Sayles, a screenwriter, director, editor, and novelist, excels at seeing each of his characters as the protagonist of their own story. And his rare ability to inhabit the intersecting perspectives, motivations, and desires of a diverse dramatis personae is in full evidence in his new novel, Yellow Earth. The novel takes place near the beginning of the Obama administration, on North Dakotaâs Three Nations Native American reservation and in the fictional neighboring town of Yellow Earth. Both the town and the reservation are situated atop the Bakken formation, where hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been underway since the early 2000s.
As the story begins, a representative from a Texas oil company goes door to door convincing residents to sign leases on their property so that drilling can commence. The chairman of the tribal council, Harleigh Killdeer, is all for it, dismissing the objections of a few outspoken dissenters in his community and promising âsovereignty by the barrel.â The ensuing oil boom brings with it a population surge in Yellow Earth as workers flood the town, accompanied by an increase in violent crime, drug trafficking, and prostitution.
Recalling Upton Sinclairâs Oil! in its canny political observations and vivid descriptions of drilling and extraction techniques, Yellow Earth is about the economic stratification, moral corruption, and opportunistic exploitation fomented by capitalism. Over the course of 400 pages, a landscape is transformed by greed and avarice in the populist guise of free-market speculation and community enrichment. The gulf between the optimism of Killdeerâs public relations blitz and the situation on the ground is pronounced in the poor conditions the oil workers live in, vividly sordid strip-club scenes, and recurring images of environmental waste.
While most of Saylesâs characters are morally compromised, rather than purely good or evil, heâs guilty here of crafting a cartoon villain: Brent Skiles, a steroidal, Ayn Rand-quoting drug runner who cons Killdeer into forming a company to serve as a front for his trafficking operation. And for his part, Killdeer ends up looking like a fool, almost to the point of incredibility. More compelling are less prominent characters, such as the animal behaviorist with a grant to study prairie dogs who falls in love with Yellow Earthâs sheriff, or the radical Teresa Crowâs Ghost, who dogs Killdeer with reminders of their peopleâs history of being exploited and pushed around by the government. No character is minor in Saylesâs world.
Another of Saylesâs strengths is his affinity for depicting different regions of the United States, from Louisiana swampland to urban New Jersey to an Alaskan fishing community. In particular, he has a knack for describing physical landscapes and capturing dialects. In some of his earlier fiction, the latter is a bit too pronounced, rarely a line of dialogue going by without a phonetic spelling or an apostrophe at the end of a word. But Sayles is a bit more restrained here, using sentence structure and idiomatic phrasing, sometimes omitting words or even resorting to clichĂ©s, to capture local patois across typically talky scenes. He employs close third-person, present-tense narration to facilitate the frequent switches in point of view; each chapter is anchored to one characterâs experience, and the narrative voice is inflected by that characterâs way of speaking and thinking. When taken together, the sequence of chapters creates not a sense of omniscience, but of kaleidoscopic subjectivity.
Without falling prey to false âboth sidesâ equivocation, Sayles masterfully balances and gives fair hearings to competing agendas and doesnât shy away from the ugly side of human nature; by the same token, he doesnât give in to cynicism or despair. What animates his fiction is curiosity about different kinds of people and their experiences, and an imagination expansive enough to portray their inner lives. He doesnât fetishize diversity, but his stories are naturally diverse as a result of his engaged interest in the world around him. Now entering the fifth decade of his career, Sayles remains a standard-bearer for the American novel.
John Saylesâs Yellow Earth is available on January 28 from Haymarket Books.
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