George Saunders is one of the most democratic of great modern writers. His story collections concern disappointed Americans stuck in thankless stations of life, and can be appreciated by such Americans, as the stories are written in satiric, empathetic, tightly coiled prose that sails off the page, propelled by hidden rhythms that are outwardly heartbreaking and inwardly brilliant and vice versa. To paraphrase Ratatouille, the author is implicitly saying that anyone can cook or, in this case, experience the transcendent illumination and sense of understanding and purpose that’s provided by art. (Last summer, Saunders even wrote a stirring and perceptive portrait of Donald J. Trump’s supporters, taking them on their own terms while rejecting said terms, somehow simultaneously.)
Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders’s first novel, finds the author going for broke, trying to explode the novel form to dissolve as much as possible the distance separating writer from reader. Saunders mounts a nontraditional historical drama organized around the myths of Abraham Lincoln and his son, Willy, which, like all historical fiction, is truly about the time in which it was produced. Saunders connects the official American Civil War of the 1860s to the unofficial civil war that never ended, pitting the underclasses against one another while the upper echelon has its insidious run of the place. This novel is more demanding and exhausting than anything Saunders has previously written, but there’s something characteristically welcoming about Lincoln in the Bardo, as if Saunders is saying “let’s fly.”
Saunders has always been a distinct and idiosyncratic stylist, but the words in this novel have a particularly oily, electric, tactile quality. To borrow something that Dennis Lim wrote about David Lynch in The Man from Another Place, Saunders believes in the thing-ness of words. He renders commonplace words alien, erotic, dangerous. He mixes poetic repetition with variations of iambic pentameter, creating a syntax in which the syllabic beat is often unexpected and viscerally exhilarating. He blends 19th-century words with contemporary slang, forging a somewhat alternate language of the afterlife or the “bardo” (a Buddhist “intermediate state”), where Willy finds himself after succumbing to what was probably typhoid fever as the Civil War raged. (A coffin is a “sick-box,” a corpse a “sick-form,” while a crypt, most poignantly, is a “white stone home.”) He uses parentheticals and hyphens promiscuously, deliberately informing the writing with a rough, unfinished texture that suggests the self-interrogating, double-checking chaos of thought.
The book is told from the multiple perspectives of the dead, recalling Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. Saunders’s ribald and tragic ensemble are the spirits haunting the Oak Hill Cemetery, where Willy was initially interred, and they take turns speaking to us in stanzas that suggest both a poetry collection and a play. (For Saunders, even the use of negative space on the page has emotional resonance, for this critic often found himself simply looking at this book, regarding it as an abstract art object, a visual testament to the alone-ness gripping the characters.) Tellingly, the spirits more often speak about their cohorts than they do themselves, and so we often hear thoughts indirectly, filtered through the experience and baggage of an intermediary. Oak Hill suggests another of Saunders’s metaphorical amusement parks, as well as a crazed party—a microcosm of a society ironically consumed with good manners while eating itself alive.
There’s another audacious gambit here, as Saunders quotes dozens of historical writings about Abraham Lincoln and his family and collaborators, composing entire chapters out of borrowed words, suggesting literature’s equivalent of musical sampling. As in sampling, Saunders repeats himself throughout, stitching together multiple quotations about the same seemingly straightforward observations. Ten sentences in a row, for instance, will appear from differing sources attesting to the handsomeness or ugliness of Lincoln, or to merely the color of his hair. The repetition of these quotations, like the repeating of certain fictional phrases, creates an incantatory effect that communicates obsession, doggedness, and a sense that something is being mined and prodded and chewed until a volcanic nothingness is revealed to reside underneath texture and flourish. This scrapbook structure pokes between the cracks of iconic American history, as Saunders reveals the hot subjective state that predominantly governs society. We can’t agree on Lincoln’s hair, let alone on our legacy of subjugation.
Saunders’s tricks should theoretically cancel themselves out, collapsing into self-conscious clutter, a cacophony of concept and device, but this book’s elements are united by the through line of the author’s yearning to break the strictures of his specific point of view. Saunders makes up words, scrambles words, reinvents grammar so as to expand his vision, stretching his sensory palette to accommodate the emotional realms of powerful men, dying children, and, as Saunders’s fury escalates in the book’s second half, slaves whose corpses are relegated to an anonymous dumping ground, where they find commonality with the poor white trash who was too blinkered by prejudice to understand them in life. Saunders is at war with himself, with one’s inescapable singularity of awareness, as he yearns to capture the Great Emancipator, one of the most famous and mythical of all men, while doing justice to the longings of, say, a deluded housewife so obsessed by money in life as to find herself storing twigs and stones in death.
Saunders’s aim to render the totality of America has a meta parallel in the narrative: The ghosts are eaten up with self-absorption, determined to delay their passing into the next world, which the author posits as a fantastical version of reactionary life. And, like all reactionaries, the ghosts see their cowardice as bravery. Spurred on a tragic seriocomic quest, the spirits challenge themselves, intermingling within a variety of presences living and dead, discovering and savoring a few of the many varieties of need. And Saunders races along with his characters, determined to do his dozens of perspectives justice, erecting a great, dizzying cauldron of bitterness, ultraviolence, cruelty, and compassion that could, at any moment, tip over.
George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo is now available from Random House; 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 King’s writing suggests that kindness, some brief contentment, can be found in the most terrible places. Yes, many of his tales are black to the bone—The Shining and Pet Semetary offer no illusion of hope—but more often than not, King’s interest is on the warm-heartedness and compassion that defies the darkness at the edge of town. There’s 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, they’re 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 collection’s longest and least effective. For one, it distractingly echoes Holly’s previous outings, marrying Mr. Mercedes’s baroque criminality to The Outsider’s 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 clown’s backstory in It.
King never reads less like himself than when he’s writing about Holly Gibney, who’s 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. She’s 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 King—horrid, yes, but full of humor, humanity, and authentic local color—“If It Bleeds” is a well-honed exercise in mechanical storytelling.
“Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” could be lifted from any of King’s 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 Craig’s 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 isn’t 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 handset’s damaging influence, and not a subtle one. But there’s a freewheeling whimsy to “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” 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 “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” calls back to King’s early pulps, then “The Life of Chuck” 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 Chuck’s life from the cusp of mortality back to his childhood. The first is an apocalyptic nightmare tied to Chuck’s impending death via a neat metaphysical trick, while the last looks at his childhood in a uniquely haunted house. But it’s 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 isn’t life-changing or even particularly significant, but it’s the impermanence of the moment that gives the vignette such poignancy. The rules of Chuck’s world are temporarily suspended and the story, peculiarly for King, offers an unreservedly positive moment of human engagement. “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” 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 King’s collection explores both the light and dark halves of that enchantment. “Rat” sees that stalwart of the author’s fiction—the writer-protagonist—sequestered 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 writer’s angst into a Faustian bargain.
“Rat” is King’s best attempt at conveying the pressure and claustrophobia of the writing process since Misery. We feel Drew’s excitement at the blank page and the endless possibilities it offers. It’s 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 Drew’s son, Brandon, choking on a tomato. “This is like that,” he writes, “only stuck in my brain rather than my throat. I’m not choking, but I’m not getting enough air either. I need to finish.”
As Drew begins to “lose his words” and his options narrow, both creatively and in terms of survival, “Rat” transforms into a Poe-esque tale of madness, isolation, and obsession. Anyone who’s ever poured all their efforts into a personal, creative project will recognize Drew’s loss of perspective as the novel becomes all-consuming.
Whether “Rat” 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 they’re 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 Jedrowski’s Debut Swimming in the Dark
The separate yet sometimes inextricably linked spheres of politics and desire make for doomed bedfellows in Jedrowski’s debut novel.
The separate yet sometimes inextricably linked spheres of politics and desire—especially when it comes to queer sexuality—make for doomed bedfellows in Tomasz Jedrowski’s Swimming in the Dark, an intricately structured coming-of-age romance between two young men living under the autocratic rule of the Polish United Workers’ 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 story—a year since he has last seen Janusz—and 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 with—and first real crush on—a 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 Beniek’s willing body against his own. But when the lights are thrown back on and everyone can see what he’d done, he experiences for the first time the familiar marriage of desire and shame.
Beniek’s 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 Poland’s Jewish population, implicating them in the country’s involvement in the war and forcing them to flee. Ludwik’s 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: “Beniek’s departure spelled the end of my childhood, and of the childhood of my mind: it was as if everything I’d assumed before had turned out to be false, as if behind every innocuous thing in the world lay something much darker and uglier.”
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 “armor against the hard edges of reality.” And when he overhears a conversation between two obviously gay men at a speakeasy, he’s prompted to seek out a copy of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. He eventually reads the book himself, and he feels immediately projected into its world: “It felt as if the words and the thoughts of the narrator—despite their agony, despite their pain—healed some of my agony and pain, simply by existing.”
Ludwik reads Giovanni’s 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, Baldwin’s 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 they’d 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.
There’s a tendency toward the figurative in the novel’s language that sometimes feels forced, but the claustrophobic interiority of Ludwik’s psychological turmoil elevates Swimming in the Dark to startling and moving heights. The looping in of Giovanni’s Room as a meta text also deepens rather than deflects from Jedrowski’s central themes. Reflecting on the impossible choices facing Baldwin’s protagonist, Ludwik explains at one point that “suddenly the narrator’s pain didn’t 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.”
“I should have known you’re one of them,” Janusz says when Ludwik brings up the prospect of leaving Poland for the West in search of freedom—freedom 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 views—amounting to a disparity between how they envision possible futures for themselves—only escalates.
There’s 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 views—or not. But in Swimming in the Dark, there’s 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, Ludwik’s 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 elsewhere—and he serves as a necessary foil for Ludwik’s developing political perspective as the novel’s protagonist and narrator, whose own resolve is only strengthened by witnessing Janusz’s consenting negotiation of the only future available to him without radical action. The novel’s 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 Allen’s 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, “That’s life.” There’s a witty sentiment on nearly every page of this book, but Allen’s 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. Allen’s father was a hustler who indulged his children and spent more than he could make, while Allen’s mother sacrificed likeability for the sake of maintaining domestic order, a dichotomy that leads to one of the book’s most poignant observations: “Sadly, 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.” Apropos of Nothing has several such startling lines, revealing the occasional emotional benefits of Allen’s direct, plain-stated prose. Such writing underscores the book’s pervading and often unexplored sadness, suggesting the fuller autobiography that might’ve 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, it’s difficult to distinguish Allen’s 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. Allen’s descriptions of women are generally dated and tasteless, probably to willfully spite the Woke Police, and one of the worst is directed at Lasser: “Then, a few days later the madness subsides and she’s pound for pound the best female in the world.”
As Allen checks off his various dalliances and relationships—his rendering of Diane Keaton is reverential, though he’s characteristically murky on the actual textures of their collaboration—he 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 couldn’t 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 Allen’s magnitude. (On September: “A 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?”)
Yet even the passages devoted to Allen’s 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 “terrific.” This affected indifference is part of Allen’s average-Joe routine, his apparent conviction that, though he’s writing a memoir, little of this material is worth mining at length—hence the book’s all-too-appropriate title. But this naïf routine is a charade, as evinced by Eric Lax’s 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: “That’s why Diane Keaton always came out funnier in the movies I played with her, because I’d write all the jokes for myself—and I can do jokes nicely and get my laughs—but she was always funny in the scene because her stuff was always character. I’m going through a movie like Annie Hall glib and facile as a comic, but she’s going through as a character.” Such specificity, such an admittance to the gods of process, is only fleetingly present in Apropos of Nothing.
This cool, reductive voice of Allen’s is revealed to serve a purpose. Far from a definitive account of Allen’s working life, Apropos of Nothing is a response to the elephant of Allen’s legacy: his cheating on Mia Farrow with her 21-year-old adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, and Farrow’s subsequent accusations that Allen molested her seven-year-old daughter, Dylan, whom Allen had adopted, in 1992. This material composes a third of Allen’s 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 didn’t learn English quickly, terming her “retarded.” 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 it’s no wonder one of Farrow’s 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 “brainwashing” Dylan, drilling into the child’s head a story with shifting details. These episodes are of an extravagant awfulness, giving Apropos of Nothing a shocking, lurid power. Many of Allen’s allegations against Farrow have been echoed by Soon-Yi as well as another of Farrow’s children, Moses. Allen finds it ironic that his son Satchel, now the acclaimed journalist Ronan Farrow, would castigate NBC’s downplaying of the Harvey Weinstein scandal while himself seeking to minimize Soon-Yi’s 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, there’s an intrinsically important fact: After two elaborate investigations, Allen has been found guilty of nothing by no court except that of public opinion—an opinion that generally thinks Soon-Yi, to whom he’s 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 who’ve said they’ve regretted working with Allen—Greta Gerwig, Timothée Chalamet, among others—certainly knew of the accusations when they signed on to work with him, but they couldn’t have known that those accusations would matter again, especially to their own careers. Given this context, Allen’s bitterness is more than understandable, but it has curdled his empathy. These episodes aren’t 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 Farrow’s rage at his affair with Soon-Yi. (He says merely that Farrow’s initial reaction to the affair was “correct.”)
Even Allen’s anger at Farrow, and modern society’s hypocrisy, isn’t mined as fully as it might’ve been; he essentially shrugs it all off, ending his book with a sigh of “fuck it.” Imagine what Norman Mailer, another acquaintance of Allen’s, might’ve done with this material’s vast intersection of politics, sex, evolving mores, pop culture, and demons, including those of this filmmaker. Allen is a great artist, but he’s 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 Gould’s Perfect Tunes, Music Isn’t a Recipe for Success
On the page, the main character’s musical aspirations never feel as alive as her interpersonal relationships.
Emily Gould’s second novel, Perfect Tunes, is nothing short of frustrating. Gould’s writing comes to life when revealing the intricacies of a mother-daughter relationship, as it does extensively in the latter two of the book’s three parts. But her approach to writing about music leaves much to be desired. Music drives the lives of her characters, but you almost wouldn’t know that from the lack of musicality to Gould’s 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 she’s subject to the demeaning treatment of her male supervisor. One night at a music venue, she meets Dylan, whose band, the Clips, is on stardom’s 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 book’s narrative, jumping forward about a year into part two, which covers the early years of Laura’s single motherhood—material that, with its authentic portrait of the day-to-day challenges of childrearing, often recalls the last few stories in Harold Brodkey’s First Love and Other Sorrows. As her daughter, Marie, grows into a toddler, Laura puts her artistic aspirations on hold. All the while, Callie’s music career flourishes.
Part three, the novel’s most compelling section, deals with teenage Marie’s relationship with Laura—and 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 Laura’s consciousness and into Marie’s, opening up wonderful new dramatic avenues. Gould skillfully tracks Marie’s struggle with depression and Laura’s guilt about feeling unfulfilled by a life devoted to parenthood. There’s 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, “We’ve never been close.” We instantly share Laura’s reaction of shock and bafflement, because Marie’s infanthood, when mother and daughter had “slept in the same bed, breathing in the same rhythm, Marie’s legs kicking [Laura] in the stomach as she drifted from one dream to the next,” was so well-rendered in part two.
But the novel’s other main focus—Laura’s musical aspirations and how they conflict with her responsibilities and identity as a parent—never 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 isn’t quite up to the task of transmogrifying music—a fundamentally non-verbal art form—into vivid sentences. Throughout, Perfect Tunes is full of vague descriptions and clunky dialogue (a loft apartment is “big” and “weird”; Dylan plays a “fuzzy banger”; and a song has a “simple structure and a basic, hooky chord progression”), and when it comes time for Gould to express the feelings brought on by a great song—or even capture the reasons that music is so important to her characters—she either avoids the matter or simply flounders.
Especially in the novel’s 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 book—the first of the two tragedies alluded to earlier.)
Across Perfect Tunes’s pages, we also don’t get much sense of what Laura’s 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 “anti-folk,” Gould completely avoids telling the reader anything substantive about the fruits of her protagonist’s creative labor. This is a disappointing deficiency of ambition in an otherwise engaging and moving look at a woman’s interpersonal relationships.
Perfect Tunes is available on April 14 from Avid Reader Press.
Innocence to Experience: Paul Lisicky’s Later: My Life at the Edge of the World
It settles into a distinct rhythm as time passes and Lisicky’s 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. He’s 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 “it was impossible to speak a sentence without folding death inside its structure.” 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 community—particularly 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 next—is both the setting and the implicit subject of his memoir. Andrew Holleran’s 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. “The dead hover over and about us—maybe they are watching us through holes we can’t see, maybe they’re inside the light bulb, warming its thin glass,” Lisicky writes. “Can you hear them humming in unison?”
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 “the ubiquitous costuming of my twenties, the look of inclusion and aspiration, but also the look that once allowed me to disappear.” 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. “I beat them to suggest that anger belongs in the spirit of my clothes,” he writes. “It’s not the year for perfection and the ideal fit. At this point in time we are only damaged, scraped, burned, and used.”
When Lisicky comes home for a visit after his first months away, his mother—who in the opening pages of Later sends him off to a world she’ll never understand, he fully believing she expects him to die of AIDS—reacts 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 “fuck[ing] HIV into me.” And in this way, he’s 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 Lisicky’s 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 rage—about internalized homophobia, about shame—sends him “back 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 he’s using it against my brothers and me.”
While he has certainly come to Provincetown for some kind of escape, Lisicky’s past is still never far from his present. When he returns home for the holidays, leaving behind a new boyfriend who he realizes he’s 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. “It’s awful to be reminded that what we’ve made of ourselves is so flimsy,” he writes. “Can be lost in all of two minutes.”
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 Lisicky’s relationship with his chosen town deepens. A steady stream of people enter into his life just as others leave suddenly, tragically. “A friend asks me how the prospect of illness changes people’s experience of identity and time,” he writes. “What does it do to them? I am too close to the question to answer it.”
But now, from the distance of years, Lisicky’s memoir itself seems to be offering up a response in the form of its patterns, its recursions, its steady stream of questions—some of which can never be answered. When his father dies decades after his first years in Provincetown, he finds himself immediately traveling back out “to the place I associate with death,” and at first he reflects upon his father’s stubborn will to live, even at the age of 91 and despite evidence of his failing body. But then he realizes that, to him:
“…every death will always be an AIDS death; everyone will always die before their time, whether they’re twenty-one or ninety-one. Nobody will ever get enough affection; everyone will be abandoned emotionally by the people they’d counted on, who get hardened by procedures, the insurance industry, the medical establishment, the funeral industry at the end. And for all that’s against their terrible journey, the dead burn brighter to me than they do when they’re alive.”
Later’s final chapter, in a sudden jump forward in time to what basically amounts to the present, centers around how PrEP—a highly effective drug in the prevention of HIV—has changed the queer community forever, and not just in terms of our sexual practices. For Lisicky, when he first goes to Provincetown, “the air we breathe is drenched in its possibility,” 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, “simply a young man who hasn’t had to take the costs of a plague into his blood. He isn’t rebelling, isn’t saying fuck you to the parents who could have disinherited him, kicked him out of their house, said unforgivable words. He’s not hiding.”
While observing this scene, Lisicky is confounded by the nonchalance of it all, the way this young man doesn’t think twice about bending to the will of desires he’d perhaps never learned to fear. About PrEP, Lisicky writes that “[w]hen people in their twenties swallow this pill, they take a different story into their body.” 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, it’s 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 he’s 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 who’s 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 who’re 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 Winslow’s most violent pieces of writing—the title novella, about a New Orleans cop who hunts the drug dealer who tortured his brother to death—before seguing into mellower character studies that recall his earlier, chiller, more comfortably genre-based origins. In “Crime 101,” a jewel thief intersects with a rumpled yet calculating police officer; in “The San Diego Zoo,” a bizarre case of animal armament leads to unlikely romance; in “Sunset,” 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, “Paradise” and “The Last Ride,” return the book to more violent and topical terrain: the American drug war and our government’s inhumane imprisonment of fleeing families on the Mexican/U.S. border.
These stories are all animated by Winslow’s ear for dialogue and feeling for place, particularly San Diego, which becomes a recurring symbol of a vanishing way of life, a paradise that’s gradually being commodified into nonexistence. The Pacific Coast Highway, an ongoing subject of reverie in Winslow’s books, serves as a kind of circulatory system in Broken—a 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. Winslow’s juxtaposition of such details with this country’s 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 Trump’s lies, incompetence, and trademark callousness.)
Particularly given our current social calamity, Winslow’s Americana continues to haunt me. Ball games. Grilling with buddies with beers on the deck. Intoxicating sex with someone you’ve 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 could’ve possibly intended.
How are you doing with this thing personally?
I’m 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. It’s kind of quiet and not many people are around and we’re hunkered down. We’ll 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. “Oh, people are dying, people are suffering, let’s talk about me.”
I’ve felt the same way about writing movie reviews lately.
Right? But life goes on, I guess. I know I’ve been reading more and watching a lot of old DVDs and things, because we don’t 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 “escape” because I think that’s 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. I’m 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 that’s arriving after a few of your weightiest and most political novels. Did you consciously think of it as a palette cleanser?
Well, it’s an interesting way of putting it. I’m not sure I’d 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, I’ve 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.
There’s a clever structural misdirection in this book. It’s 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 [“Crime 101,” “The San Diego Zoo,” “Sunset”] I’ve 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 “Broken.” 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 there’s that kind of opening statement, the melody that’s 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 there’s going to be a certain chord progression that you’re not going to completely depart from. Well, some jazz does, but the kind of jazz I really love doesn’t. 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 I’d been working on some of these stories for a while. I’d been working on “Crime 101” for a couple of years and never quite “got it.” I had the opening line of “San Diego Zoo” in my head for literally years. But I didn’t know what it meant. It was a line that struck me funny.
When I read that, I thought, “This is a new Winslow. Where the hell is this going?”
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, “Why don’t you get a chainsaw?” And a buddy of mine, this old cowboy, was standing next to me and said, “Giving Don a chainsaw would be like giving a revolver to a chimp.” [both laugh] Which sadly is true. I’m notoriously clumsy and not very mechanical. And he was right: I probably would’ve cut my hand off, or my leg off, or something. Well, somehow that line evolved in my head into “No one knows how the chimp got the revolver.” 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 “Crime 101,” I typed that line out and just made the rest of it up. I was playing that great game “what if?” I did not know how the chimp got the revolver until I typed the end of it.
What’s striking about “The San Diego Zoo” is that it’s genuinely, unforcedly sweet, especially coming after “Broken,” which is a bitter pill to swallow.
“Broken” is one of the toughest, harshest pieces I’ve ever done. It was fun to go to sweet, you know? And I agree with what I think you’re saying: that there’s a very fine line between sweetness and saccharine. But there’s not much chance of my crossing over into that. [laughs]
Did you consciously perceive a relationship between “Broken” and The Force?
Of course. I’d 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 “Broken” in a completely different location to help achieve that, but sure I knew the reader would say “this is kinda like The Force.”
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. I’m not trying to make moral judgments about my characters. I might have them, independent of the book, but it’s not my job to create good guys and bad guys; it’s to create as realistic people as I can, and get the reader close to them. I’ve sat down with a lot of objectively evil people: serial killers, psychopaths, drug folks—you 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.
“San Diego Zoo” is dedicated to Elmore Leonard and “Crime 101” 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 don’t run from my influences. I’m 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 might’ve done a film with him, which didn’t 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 don’t think I said five words. He got on the phone and said, “Don Winslow, you were two-years-old when I wrote 3:10 to Yuma.” Which was the most charming way of putting me in my place. And I said, “Yes, sir, but I tried to read it.” 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 didn’t get good cell reception in our apartment. In fact, if you stepped two feet closer to the beach you couldn’t 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 would’ve stayed there all day.
That’s got to be one of those moments you keep in your pocket.
Absolutely, man. Absolutely.
I’m not trying to blow smoke, but I think you’re playing on Leonard’s level these days.
Well, I wouldn’t say that, but thank you, I try. We all revere him in the genre. And he’s one of those guys you’ve never heard a bad word about. Or Michael Connolly, who’s terrific. Or Lee Child or Dennis Lehane. These guys, who’re so huge and so great, are genuinely nice people.
That’s great to hear. I’m a big crime book guy.
Yeah, apparently. [laughs] And you know I dedicated another story in Broken to Raymond Chandler, who’s the granddaddy of us all, and if I write for another hundred years I’m never gonna write as well as him.
Your Chandler story, “Sunset,” 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 didn’t 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: It’s mellow, there’s depth there that doesn’t 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.
There’s an additional commonality to these stories that affirms the “broken” theme. In every one, there’s a decisive moment where a character essentially says, “Screw it, I’m going to act for decency, against the fabric of my surroundings.”
Yeah, frankly you’re the first person who’s 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 I’m 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 what’s basically an indecent world? Increasingly, we’re 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 that’s fair. In some ways, in all these stories, there’s a return to older values. The last story, I’m 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 don’t editorialize the conservative at the center of “The Last Ride.”
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.
There’s an image in “The Last Ride” that I don’t think I’ve seen in a western before. That startling image paralleling the hero’s fate with that of his horse.
I went to college in Nebraska and worked on ranches. I’ve lived in Idaho, Montana, out in California. I’ve had cowboys all around me, and I’ve seen too many horses put down. It’s a terrible moment. And I thought that was just the right ending.
In some interviews, you’ve 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, I’m composing it that way, but I make it better, I hope, in the cutting phase. When I do first drafts I’m not thinking about the reader much at all. I just try to get it down, and then, with every subsequent draft, I’m 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 you’re 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 there’s no space for them to take a break. You want to control the ride that you take them on that way.
It’s 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.
That’s exactly what I’m talking about, Chuck. This is going to sound really goofy, but sometimes I’ll step away from the screen to the point where I can’t make out the words, only the shapes.
It’s almost as if such abstractions allow you to see your over-writing.
I think that’s absolutely the truth, and it does sound crazy.
With jazz, crime novels, and other arts, there’s 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 don’t think so. I come from blue-collar New England, not tweed New England. [laughs] My dad was first-career military. I’m 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 he’d say, “If you don’t buckle down and steady you’re going to spend the rest of your life shoveling fish guts.” I came from a Bruce Springsteen kind of town that’s 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 ‘80s, as an investigator, I just fell in love. There’s 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, “My God,” and I’m still in love with it. I don’t know how many hundreds of times I’ve 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 I’ll 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 Palma’s Pulp Cocktail Are Snakes Necessary? Goes Down Easy
Though there’s 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 Palma’s vintage films often felt like the ultimate fusion of brains and balls—explosions of the potentialities of pulp moviemaking.
Written in 2016 and now available from Hard Case Crime, De Palma and Susan Lehman’s Are Snakes Necessary? seeks to fill the void left by the filmmaker’s 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 that’s 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 Palma’s unofficial remake of Hitchcock’s 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 Lee’s 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 Travolta’s 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 Palma’s heyday, and from attempting to figure out which formula it’s 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 “full flush of carnality” 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 there’s a consistent amount of sex here, the book still feels like an act of extended foreplay, as we’re 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 Lehman’s writing is confident, but it still only faintly conjures the wrenching, surreal power of a classic De Palma sequence, whether it’s 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 Palma’s 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 there’s fun in figuring out which of De Palma’s staple of actors might have played each role in Are Snakes Necessary?—Brock is the Gregg Henry character, Fanny is Nancy Allen, and so forth—on the page these characters are just mice being moved through a narrative contraption. Without De Palma’s stylistic gamesmanship, without the poignant, daring melodrama of the director’s preferred style of acting, the personality and obsessiveness of De Palma’s 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 film’s 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 Offill’s Weather Reckons with the Intimate Rhythms of the End Times
How do we deal with a crisis when it isn’t 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. “I’m usually so bored reading about climate change,” she said, “I thought this book could be a useful thing.” As many authors try to capture the period we live in, the anxieties we face within ourselves and as a larger whole—by, say, referencing such hot-button issues as climate change and economic disparity—Offill 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 it’s immediately apparent that she’s addicted to responsibility, to being relied on without realizing it’s a flaw: “‘I wish you were a real shrink,’ my husband says. ‘Then we’d be rich.’” She has a brother recovering from addiction who can’t stay off her couch, a fiscally irresponsible mother, and a son who’s capable of breaking her heart. “Are you sure you’re my mother?” he asks at one point, “Sometimes you don’t seem like a good enough person.” Then there’s her husband, who’s 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 won’t stop paying in fear she’s 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:
“I tell him that old joke about going backwards.
We don’t serve time travelers here.
A time traveler walks into the bar.”
This captures the feeling you may get when reading Offill’s novels, including Weather. “Look here,” 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 “Hell or High Water.” It’s not long until Sylvia hires Lizzie to answer emails sent from fans of the podcast—doomsday preppers to social activists who both share a common interest in the collapse of society and the end of times. It’s the means by which Offill examines these two American identities, poking fun at both, illustrating where the two intersect on a Venn diagram.
“What does it mean to be in this Twilight stage,” Offill asked at Books Are Magic, “The stage where you know and you don’t know?” She’s 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. It’s 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 “Hell or High Water” become more and more esoteric, Lizzie feels the metaphorical tides slowly rising to her feet. She feels time running out but isn’t sure exactly what she will have to face. And in such moments, Offill offers generous insights to us readers: “My #1 fear is the acceleration of days. No such thing supposedly, but I swear I can feel it.” Can’t 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 isn’t presented as such?
Jenny Offill’s Weather is now available from Knopf.
Reconciling Memory: Peter Stamm’s The Sweet Indifference of the World
Stamm accomplishes something remarkable by giving the reader a story that’s simultaneously disorienting and comforting.
Early in Peter Stamm’s 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 novelist—perhaps Swiss, perhaps middle-aged like Stamm—wrestling with their personal history or fame or the ordinary events of their life. It’s a practice that’s increasingly familiar, which, of course, isn’t to deny its ability to produce some outstanding work. But Stamm isn’t predictable, and he isn’t ordinary, and over the course of this especially slim novel, he accomplishes something remarkable by giving the reader a story that’s 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 couples’ lives are the same—somehow folded in and upon one another in the narrative of the book—but separated across 20 years. Stamm’s language is spare and thin, avoiding unnecessarily heavy prose in a way that makes Christoph’s 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, “I can’t 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.” 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 didn’t 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 isn’t that the answer is irrelevant, but that the question was far more interesting.
In the novel’s 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 Christoph’s brief encounter with his own doppelganger momentarily suspends this security and leaves both the narrator and reader disconcerted. When Chris questions Christoph’s 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, “This 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.” 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 café and mutters, “It’s too late…it will always be too late.” Has the cycle begun to fold back upon itself a second time? We can’t 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 man’s effort to understand, mold, restructure, and interpret himself through memories—both false and real. Or as if Christoph—or whoever might stand in for him—is talking with himself to find some meaning from what did or didn’t happen 20 years ago. More than any ordinary novel, Sweet Indifference is a process.
At one point in Sweet Indifference, Christoph tells Lena, “[T]hat’s what I always liked about books. The fact that you can’t change them. You don’t even have to read them. It’s enough to own them, and pick them up, and know that they will always remain the way they are.” If Stamm is speaking to some distressing urge to reconcile one’s 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 Sayles’s Yellow Earth Is a Masterfully Fair Hearing on Human Nature
What animates Sayles’s fiction is curiosity about different kinds of people and their experiences.
In the middle of John Sayles’s Lone Star, which tells the intricate, intergenerational story of a Texas border town, comes a moment, no longer than 30 seconds, where two Army officers—one a black woman, the other a white man—talk 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. They’re 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 Dakota’s 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 “sovereignty by the barrel.” 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 Sinclair’s 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 Killdeer’s 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 Sayles’s characters are morally compromised, rather than purely good or evil, he’s 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 Earth’s sheriff, or the radical Teresa Crow’s Ghost, who dogs Killdeer with reminders of their people’s history of being exploited and pushed around by the government. No character is minor in Sayles’s world.
Another of Sayles’s 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 clichés, 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 character’s experience, and the narrative voice is inflected by that character’s 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 “both sides” equivocation, Sayles masterfully balances and gives fair hearings to competing agendas and doesn’t shy away from the ugly side of human nature; by the same token, he doesn’t 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 doesn’t 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 Sayles’s Yellow Earth is available on January 28 from Haymarket Books.
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