Susan L. Mizruchi’s Brando’s Smile has less to do with Marlon Brando’s physical display of happiness than it does with dispelling the myths that made him a cultural icon. “As the first biographer to have reviewed Brando’s archives,” Mizruchi offers a fuller understanding of the man, “the Brando that was not visible to the world in order to understand the one that was.” Her main purpose, though, which she explicitly identifies in the introduction, isn’t only to question Brando’s legend (the womanizing, the lost interest in acting, his publicity-driven politics), but to argue that his motivations ran deeper than has previously been asserted.
Mizruchi, an English professor at Boston University and a prominent cultural historian, focuses much of her attention on Brando’s library and the books he read, sharing his varied annotations and how his often neglected intellect and eclectic passions in history, literature, and social causes informed much of his acting and the films he decided to pursue. As expected, the biography traces Brando’s life in chronological order: growing-up in Omaha with an abusive father and an alcoholic mother; moving to Manhattan and learning from Stella Adler and those at the New School; and finally, deciding to leave the stage and pursue acting in Hollywood.
The characterization of Brando, here, is rich with deft and thorough analyses of his films, showing his wide ranging interests, and revealing how his revisions (mostly extensive trims) improved both his character and the work as a whole. In an interesting anecdote, Mizruchi writes, too, that Brando’s ideas weren’t limited to dialogue and movements: His intuition to speed up the camera, “to create the effect of slow motion,” predates the use of the technique in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, which has famously been credited with the innovation.
Mizruchi also lingers on Brando’s use of objects and physical movements, noting that, for him, words were less important than what the audience saw and perceived. Mizruchi’s chapters—among them, “The Epic Mode, 1960-1963,” “Political Films, 1963-1969,” and “Villains and Superheroes”—center on why Brando initially decided to pursue a specific film and how he went about preparing for each role. His reasons for wanting to work with a certain director, wishing to play a particular historical figure, or delving into a script that reflected his activism with Native Americans, civil rights, and humanitarian aid abroad are all taken into account, culminating, in the final section, in how he used his celebrity to fight these issues.
Although Mizruchi freely explains that her love for Brando dates back to her childhood (she thanks her parents, in the acknowledgments, for accepting her “inexhaustible curiosity” and “teenage obsession”), it’d be a mistake not to consider that as much as she succeeds in redefining the actor and debunking many of the negative criticisms, she provides an analysis that’s offered a bit too much as objective fact. One of her biggest oversights concerns Brando’s desire for money toward the end of his life. Her discussion about his poor performance in Christopher Columbus: The Discovery undermines Brando’s financial needs, as he requires money for his son, Christian, and the young man’s murder trial. Though Mizruchi acknowledges this necessity, she attempts to qualify what Native Americans saw as Brando’s blatant disloyalty—he was always an ardent supporter of the rights of indigenous people, and this film didn’t align with his sympathetic views—with his probable idealism: “…Brando hoped that intellectual honesty could be reconciled with commercial success.” However, his deficient acting in the movie, Mizruchi thinks, was likely sabotage out of “loyalty—to his friends as well as to historical truth.” But, she considers, it also probably had much to do with “anger” and “depression,” while providing no further elaboration. This failure to consider the Brando she has, in a sense, romanticized herself runs throughout her research. One need only count the “may’s” and “might’s”—“Brando never produced a screenplay or fiction that was on par with his standard of performance, which may explain why he didn’t pursue them wholeheartedly”—to question whether Mizruchi presents an accurate portrait, or if she’s too preoccupied with quelling Brando’s myth that she may have mythologized him in her own way.
Despite this flaw, Mizruchi’s study of Brando should be labeled as a great achievement, as she goes beyond the celebrity culture that’s so consumed his legacy. Brando’s view on acting—he saw it as a business and social necessity of which everyone partakes—would suggest, too, that Mizruchi, and any other biographer, can never actually settle on one version of him, as he had, he admitted, so many different versions of himself. So many different, one might say, smiles.
Susan L. Mizruchi’s Brando’s Smile is available now from W.W. Norton & Company.
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.
In Find Me, the Sequel to Call Me by Your Name, the Echoes of Love Are Resounding
André Aciman’s novel is a series of ghost stories interrupted by fleeting flashes of light.
The Ancient Greek verb opsizo, as the reader is told in Find Me, André Aciman’s sequel to his 2007 novel Call Me By Your Name, is a way to name the act of arriving too late to the feast, “or to feast today with the weight of all the wasted yesteryears.” Call Me By Your Name tells the story of a brief yet fervent summer romance between two young men, Elio and Oliver, at Elio’s family’s Italian villa. Samuel, Elio’s father, now divorced in Find Me many years after the events of the earlier novel and traveling by train from Florence to Rome to read from his most recent book at a university, explains the meaning of opsizo to Miranda, a young and beautiful American woman he meets on the train. An intense mutual sexual attraction quickly develops between them, and what follows is an improbable yet captivatingly believable romance between the older man and much younger woman. Perhaps Samuel has in fact arrived at the feast just in time, laden with empty years but not yet bereft of the possibility of real, lasting love.
The echoes of a conversation between Samuel and Elio in Call Me By Your Name, when the father advised the son about how to value even the loss of love as evidence of a life fully lived, are immediately apparent in Samuel’s approach to his unexpected courtship with Miranda in Find Me. “We only want those we can’t have,” he says to her, referring to his habit of revisiting a particular location in Rome that always reminds him of another lost love that he doesn’t share with the reader. “It’s those we lost or who never knew we existed who leave their mark. The others barely echo.” And Find Me is essentially a novel of echoes. Each of its disparate sections, narrated first by Samuel, then by Elio, and then by Oliver before Elio eventually gets the final word, interrogate the ways in which the past—whether in the form of lived experiences or in imagined detours—is where we are our truest, most yearning selves. The echoes are sometimes more beautiful than the sounds that they reflect.
The danger, of course, lies in the possibility of succumbing to opsizo, failing to capitalize on possibilities existing in the present. Just before kissing Samuel for the first time, Miranda accuses him of not being a present-tense kind of person. “This, for instance, is the present tense,” she says before her tongue first grazes his lips, and the section of Find Me that comprises Samuel and Miranda’s first day together takes up more than a third of the novel, an intensely present-tense sequence that challenges us to value a narrative almost entirely devoid of conflict, built instead on gentle surprise and the visceral pleasure of witnessing the origins of an unlikely love affair between two complex and very forthcoming characters.
And Find Me’s subsequent section, told from Elio’s point of view, cleverly reverses the age dynamic between narrator and object of affection as Elio, a decade after Oliver, unexpectedly falls in love with a much older man—a man his father’s age, in fact. “I’d lost my soul for so long and was now finding I’d owned it all along but didn’t know where to look for it or how to find it without him,” Elio tells us, a sensation also described by Samuel when he says to Miranda that everything in his life before “was all leading up to you.”
Oliver, too, in the decades since his affair with Elio, has abandoned a significant part of himself to the past, specifically to events that took place at a certain Italian villa. Now a relatively happily married professor with two grown sons, he still entertains possibilities for a more uncontainable desire, in the form of flirtations with colleagues and yoga classmates, even as he believes that his chance for true happiness was lost when he turned his back on Elio all those years ago. When a guest at a party he’s throwing in his Manhattan apartment plays a piano piece that Elio once played for him, Oliver realizes that “some arcane and beguiling wording was being spoken about what my life had been, and might still be, or might never be, and that the choice rested on the keyboard itself, and I hadn’t been told.”
In her 1997 collection of essays, The End of the Novel of Love, memorist and critic Vivian Gornick argues that somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, as a result of a cultural turning away from the traditional social order with regards to gender, the subject of romantic love—once a wellspring for narrative—had lost its potential for depth and complexity, its reliable knack for drama. She writes that the “idea of love as a means of illumination—in literature as in life—now comes as something of an anticlimax.” But in Find Me, the anticlimax is the point. Aciman dispenses with the notion of love as fuel for narrative and instead uses its power of transfiguration as the measure by which to evaluate a life.
For all its straightforward narration, Find Me has layers of complexity that come through as echoes between its sections, dialogue repeated in slightly different cadences by characters as they circle around issues of time and fate, life and death. The novel’s beating heart is the fact of mortality and the tragedy of aging, which is staged in stark relief by the age discrepancy between the members of the novel’s first two romantic pairings. This theme is made literal by Samuel’s death after he has a child and lives several happy years with Miranda, and the threads of fate and chance woven throughout Find Me—the title itself a call to action—all amount to the fear of dying before we ever truly get to live. “I think all lives are condemned to remain unfinished,” Elio’s older lover says to him, perhaps already recognizing how their affair will end. “This is the deplorable truth we all live with. We reach the end and are by no means done with life, not by a long stretch! There are projects we barely started, matters so unresolved and left hanging everywhere. Living means dying with regrets stuck in your craw.”
Later, Oliver recalls a moment on the street when he met the gaze of someone from his department at the university who should have recognized him but who failed to acknowledge him at all. And he explains that he believed for a moment that he had died—“that this was what death was like: you see people but they don’t see you, and worse yet, you’re trapped being who you were in the moment you died … and you never changed into the person you could have been and knew you really were, and you never redressed the one mistake that threw your life off course.” Find Me is a series of ghost stories interrupted by fleeting flashes of light, just like the lives of the characters described in its pages who find and lose and find again their great loves. But it’s the possibility of light that we all live for, as these characters remind us. The chance for someone to dim everything that has come before into shadow.
And, sometimes, a second chance.
André Aciman’s Find Me is available on October 29 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The Very Queer In the Dream House Explodes Expectations of Memoir
The book is Carmen Machado’s deeply intelligent and fiercely innovative account of her experience of domestic abuse.
Queerness has always called attention to itself, and so must the art that explores its increasingly expansive borderlands. Queer forms break apart recognizable structures and expose them as incommensurate for the expression of an experience that by definition exists in opposition to the status quo. Queer narratives, too, inevitably call for new structural packaging, and autobiographical accounts of queer experiences have begun to formally reflect the often Gordian nature of the lives they represent on the page—lives irrevocably knotted by politics and power structures designed to resist their very existence.
“The memoir is, at its core, an act of resurrection,” writes Carmen Maria Machado in the opening pages of In the Dream House, a deeply intelligent and fiercely innovative account of her experience of domestic abuse. Machado’s richly layered narrative takes the form of a personal story embedded within an extensive cultural history. “[Memoirists] manipulate time; resuscitate the dead,” she writes. “They put themselves, and others, into necessary context.” The necessary context in this case is that of queer stories in a historical dialogue that has too often excluded them or written them out, and Machado explores the ways in which internalizing and then rejecting the dominant narrative has prevented queer people from understanding that our differences—which we’ve by turns reluctantly and defiantly come to celebrate—do not preclude ugliness. She explains that “queer does not equal good or pure or right. It is simply a state of being—one subject to politics, its own social forces, to larger narratives, to moral complexities of every kind.”
Machado takes a hard look at her former self in her memoir, a self painstakingly excavated through calcified layers of doubt, confusion, and shame. Most of In the Dream House is written in the second person as an address to this unearthed self, a younger version of the author who suffered at the hands of a female lover in a relationship that forms the narrative backbone of a more general exploration of the historical representation of queer domestic abuse. The “I” speaker is the author now, happily married to another woman and living at a safe distance geographically and otherwise from the “you,” the lost and naïve girl who suffered through so much without understanding why. “I thought you died,” Machado says to the “you” who otherwise occupies these pages, “but writing this, I’m not sure you did.”
In the Dream House is structured as a series of brief sections titled after various tropes expressing particular elements of her time in what she coins as the “Dream House,” a rental in Indiana where her girlfriend lived during most of the duration of their relationship, and which Machado frequently visited from where she was attending graduate school in Iowa. The relationship is narrated from its origins as a chance meeting in a diner in Iowa (“Dream House as Inciting Incident”) to a request for a drive to the airport to pick up the other woman’s then-girlfriend (“Stranger Comes to Town”) to a fateful, breathless first hookup (“Lesbian Cult Classic”) and a first confession of love (“Romance Novel”). The relationship trajectory briefly arrives at an experiment in polyamory (“Star-Crossed Lovers”) before dissolving into a monogamous relationship (“Entomology”) fraught with jealousy (“Appetite”) and gaslighting (“Lost in Translation”), and finally to an atmosphere heavy with frequent verbal and emotional abuse with the constant threat of physical violence.
Machado’s story is punctuated by harrowing moments of conflict that feel, because of their specificity, almost uncannily familiar. We come to inhabit her mind so wholly that the claustrophobia of her relationship with this other woman is made present first in the mind and then in the body like some foreign infiltrator, a cancer spreading quietly beneath the skin. The book’s hybrid nature is essential to its project, a marriage of form and content that elevates its subject by allowing it to accrue meaning in unconventional, surprising ways. Had Machado presented her subject in a traditional form, it would have gone against its own premise, and interspersed between the chronological narrative of increasingly severe instances of domestic abuse are brief forays into cultural criticism and queer history that further contextualize the ways in which we can be conditioned to accept abuse as normal, or as something we deserve, as Machado works through how the dominant culture views abuse narratives.
She interrogates films like Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, a quietly seething portrayal of a man sexually drawn to a murderer at the cruising grounds they both frequent, and George Cukor’s Gaslight, the suspenseful story of a woman made to believe she’s insane so that her husband can dispatch her to an asylum, as a way of showcasing elements of her own experience reflected back to her by popular culture, illuminating exactly how she’s been manipulated and controlled. Machado also includes an extensive retelling of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which Captain Jean-Luc Picard is captured by the Cardassians and tortured into claiming that he sees five lights strung up above him where he’s being held, when in fact there are only four. He suffers and suffers but still maintains that he sees four lights instead of five, even as his resolve gradually weakens. Later, after being rescued, he retrospectively acknowledges that he was about to finally submit. “I would have told him anything,” he explains. “Anything at all. But more than that, I believed I could see five lights.”
One of Machado’s central preoccupations is with the erasure of queer stories from conversations surrounding domestic abuse. “I have spent years struggling to find examples of my own experience in history’s queer women,” she writes. “Did any of them gingerly touch their bruises and know that explaining would be too complicated? Did any of them wonder if what had happened to them had any name at all?” She’s meticulous about research and context, as in a section (“Dream House as Ambiguity”) in which she explores historical accounts of court cases that ruled on instances of domestic abuse between women, ultimately arriving at the conclusion that the only stories that persevere over time are the ones with overly salacious details about overly extreme acts of violence. In an extended and devastating section called “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure,” she guides us through a series of otherwise banal decisions that resulted in her abuse—responding defensively to accusations of moving too much in her sleep, for example, or deciding whether or not to wash her girlfriend’s dirty dishes after being commanded to do so—and thus thrusts us squarely into the world she finally, by the end of the book, has escaped. A world of unpredictable cruelty, a world where she was always afraid of what the consequences of seemingly banal actions might be.
The verifiability of women’s stories of abuse becomes central to In the Dream House’s final pages. Machado bitterly conveys the frustration of being the victim of wounds invisible to the naked eye, no bruise or scar available as evidence to make plain what she’s suffered, in language reminiscent of the testimonies of the women of the #MeToo movement whose stories are all that they have to show for what they’ve endured. “I think a lot about what evidence, had it been measured or recorded or kept, would help my case,” she writes as she attempts to affix an ending to her story, some kind of stopping point. “That there’s a real ending to anything is, I’m pretty sure, the lie of all autobiographical writing. You have to choose to stop somewhere. You have to let the reader go.”
Machado imagines trying out different endings to her memoir, and she describes the effort to do so in the language of a craft essay, thinking about a potential reader’s experience of her story and debating whether to end on some kind of “narratively satisfying confrontation,” perhaps leaning in to a more conventional structure than the one she has otherwise chosen. But she instead leaves us in a place of ambiguity much like the experience of queerness itself, an identity category which has always struggled to be defined in terms of its own choosing. It’s an uncomfortable and indeed unsatisfying place to end a story about abuse, as the abuser is only exposed as such through the telling of a story that could easily dissolve with the slightest suspicion of exaggeration. But a necessary condition of Machado’s project is to spark dissatisfaction on the part of readers looking for any kind of definitive resolution.
“You have no reason to believe me,” she tells the reader. But she isn’t begging us to accept the truth of her account. She’s daring us to doubt it. “If a tree falls in the woods and pins a wood thrush to the earth, and she shrieks and shrieks but no one hears her, did she make a sound?” Machado writes. “Did she suffer? Who’s to say?” And the question reverberates through In the Dream House, louder and louder, building up to a scream.
Carmen Machado’s In the Dream House is available on November 5 from Graywolf Press.
With The Institute, Stephen King Channels Political Outrage into Familiar Horror
It’s in the moral murk of a politically loaded situation that King finds the richest seam of his story.
For years after the publication of The Shining, fans wondered what happened to Danny Torrance, the boy with the psychic powers at the center of the 1977 novel. While promoting Full Dark, No Stars in 2010, Stephen King acknowledged in an interview that he liked the idea of a world where Danny and Charlene “Charlie” McGee, the pyrokinetic main character of 1980’s Firestarter, could get married. According to the author, “they would have totally wonderful children.” Though Doctor Sleep would later conclude Danny’s story, and close down the possibility of that particular union forever, King’s latest novel suggests that the idea continues to flower in his imagination.
The Institute is chock-full of “wonderful” children or, at least, some very ordinary children with extraordinary powers. At its center is the Institute, a facility in the woods of Main that houses kids who’ve been abducted because of their telekinetic and telepathic abilities. There, the children are tested and tortured in order to enhance their wild talents. And into this hellish dominion enters Luke Ellis, a boy with middling telekinetic reach but dizzying intellect.
Meanwhile, ex-cop Tim Jamieson settles into his new home in the South Carolina town of DuPray, a place as Kingsian to its core as the man himself. Good-natured and kind, unflinchingly but undemonstratively moral, and with a newfound willingness to follow his hunches, Jamieson is the sort of hero that King has been writing about since 1979’s The Dead Zone. Our introduction to DuPray and Jamieson, who takes a job as a “night knocker” for the local sheriff, is warm and meandering, but its brevity is a tell: that King won’t be writing in his more sweeping epic style. The baroque backstories and irrelevant divergences that mark the highs—or lows, depending on your perspective—of King’s fiction are here offered in miniature. It’s a hurried sketch rather than a meticulous painting of a small community.
For better and worse, after this brief introduction, the novel jumps the 1,000 miles north to the Institute, remaining there for the better part of 300 pages, abandoning Jamieson and DuPray for so long that readers may forget that they ever existed. When Jamieson suddenly reappears, the jarring effect is both a testament to the absorbing power of Luke’s narrative and a sign of how weakly King has woven together the two strands of The Institute.
Though the “special” child is a well that King has drawn from many a time, the novel has a political edge that rescues the trope from the shadow of redundancy. The Institute is about separating children from their parents and putting them in cages, all in the name of national security and the better good. Even though King has stated that he wasn’t inspired by ICE and the migrant crisis, it’s almost impossible to separate the fiction from the headlines. And it’s in the moral murk of this situation that he finds the richest seam of his story. The Institute, you see, has a practical purpose. And while that purpose is best left for readers to discover for themselves, it will spoil nothing to say that the novel offers a philosophical quandary: How many children are you willing to destroy to save the world?
Such a question allows King to move away from the Manichaean notion of good and evil that limits much horror fiction. The Institute’s staff ranges from jobbing professionals to zealots for the cause. Sprinkled in are a few obligatory sadists, but these are the least interesting of the children’s tormentors. Queen above all is Mrs. Sigsby, who combines the primness of Dolores Umbridge with Nurse Ratched’s terrifying psychopathy. She’s the villainous heart of the novel, yet her cruelty is neither unthinking nor indulgent. She’s merely the result of an unblinking ideology that allows her to see children as resources rather than human beings.
King has always been particularly good at etching the bureaucratic villain. His writing is sophisticated enough to acknowledge that few humans pursue evil for its own sake. Mrs. Sigsby is the very opposite of an agent of chaos. But her pursuit of order involves a complacent evil that’s more terrifying because of its authenticity. Like everyone else, she has a boss, and quotas to meet, and little time to consider the moral implications of her actions. And her eventual undoing ranks among the more satisfying of King’s resolutions because Mrs. Sigsby represents the walls of bureaucratic unkindness that plague 21st-century life.
The children are charming, of course. No one writes kids for adults as well as King. The Institute has been marketed as It for the new generation. This seems mostly to be a publishing gambit to grasp the coattails of Andy Muschietti’s successful two-part adaptation of It. But there’s some truth in the comparison—namely, in the realistic camaraderie fostered between the kids, who face and overcome the apathetic cruelty that adults represent.
All of which makes it a shame that the book is so rote, as it sees King continuing to dip his toes in the same murky, shallow waters of crime fiction where much of his work has been stuck for the last decade. The author remains in the top tier of storytellers. Much has been made of this, often in reductive tones—as if storytelling isn’t what we’re all here for. Such benign dismissal neglects his deceptively simple style, the crafted tone of voice that seamlessly marries the everyman and the extraordinary. It overlooks the heart and heat that radiates off the page of a King novel, and in The institute his skills actually come to the fore more than usual because the story itself is fairly insubstantial.
The ideas are there: the juxtaposition of a human America against a corporate one, the meeting of physical and psychogeographic landscapes, that even in a multifaceted situation there’s a clear definable line of goodness. But King has wielded them more elaborately and successfully elsewhere. In The Institute, he offers them as the axes of a yarn that’s wholly relevant, and which nods toward the underlying complexity of any project based on serving “the greatest good,” but which, even at close to 600 pages, feels too fleeting to offer answers.
Stephen King’s The Institute is now available from Scribner in the U.S. and Hodder in the U.K.
With Year of the Monkey, Patti Smith Spins Dreams Into Topsy-Turvy Words
It’s a moving, witty, at times almost trance-like work traversing age, aging, sickness and death, as well as joy, gratitude and wonder.
Patti Smith’s Year of the Monkey is a Book of Dreams, or, more accurately, a Book of Dreaming. It’s not, or not merely, a systematic transcription of the artist’s nocturnal journeys, but rather a book wherein the processes or mechanisms of dreaming determine the course and pulse of the narrative. There’s a canon, or at least a corpus, of this type of work, including preeminently the works of Franz Kafka, along with such unique creations as proto-surrealist Gerard de Nerval’s Aurelia, surrealist texts in general, and, to a more curious degree, Alice In Wonderland. Explicitly referencing pretty much all the above works or writers, along with many others (Smith has never been hero-shy), the book combines Carrollian topsy-turvy with the kind of hard-edged mystic surrealism that Smith is so famous for.
Smith is the ideal avatar for this kind of narrative because her style is so motile. She can go in any direction at any time. From her earliest days as poet-singer onward, she’s woven and fused multiple imageries, a lyrical bric-a-brac able to span centuries, from Joan of Arc to Arthur Rimbaud (one of her earliest heroes) to Jimi Hendrix. Allen Ginsberg once likened reading to time travel, to a reader linking up with a writer from another century and being essentially transported to that time in a very palpable way. Smith is such a time traveler. She seems to live in myriad epochs simultaneously, a spiritual ubiquity directly reflected, in Year of the Monkey, through her surroundings: “It is all about my desk with a cabinet portrait of the young Baudelaire and a photo-booth shot of a young Jane Bowles and an ivory Christ without arms and a small framed print of Alice conversing with the Dodo.”
The book chronicles a year of the poet’s movements across America and more far-flung places—besides being a time-traveler, Smith is a true planetary adventurer, a sought-after figure “slowly wading through a long chain of requests”—as she navigates the mysteries of mortality, both her own and that of others. The dreamlike nature of the journey is signified early. Smith checks in to the Dream Motel, where immediately personification commences. In dreams or Wonderland, anything can take the form and function of anything else:
“–Thank you, Dream Motel, I said, half to the air, half to the [motel] sign.
–It’s the Dream Inn! the sign exclaimed.
–Oh yeah, sorry, I said, somewhat taken aback. Even so, I didn’t dream a thing.
–Oh really? Nothing!
The motel sign remains a constant voice, a kind of Cheshire Virgil nagging Smith through layers of dream. Indeed, throughout Year of the Monkey, she speaks playfully Alice-like to many inanimate objects, be it the motel sign or her puke-spattered boots: “…I was pulling my strings off my Stratocaster when some guy with a greasy ponytail leaned over and puked on my boots. The last gasp of 2015, a spray of vomit ushering in the New Year…I knelt down and cleaned up my boots. Happy New Year, I told them.”
Another strange, steady occurrence throughout the book is what Smith calls the “candy-wrapper phenomenon”: “The beach was littered with candy wrappers…hundreds of them, maybe thousands, scattering the beach like feathers after a molt […] When I reentered my room, I could see that I was still sleeping, so I waited, with the window open, till I awoke.” These candy wrappers and their continual eerie reappearance evoke that odd totemic potency that mundane objects acquire in dreams. This potency is also reflected in the Polaroids that Smith includes as “amulets” or “talismans,” hard evidence of soft dreams, somewhat the way André Breton, the surrealist movement’s staunchest statesman, incorporated on-the-spot off-kilter photographs into his seminal dream work, Nadja.
To dream or not to dream, that seems to be the question. “The fringe of dream, an evolving fringe at that! Maybe more of a visitation, a prescience of things to come.” For as much as it is a book of dreams, Year of the Monkey is also a Book of the Dead and Dying. Throughout, Smith worries over the health and death of two of her closest friends, and so sometimes seems not only to be conjuring dream logic, but charting her own post-death navigation plan as well: “[I wondered] whether my assessment of the usage of the word candy wrapper was correct. I wondered if the mundanity of my train of thought was hindering my progress […] Cycles of death and resurrection, but not always in the way we imagine. For instance, we might all resurrect looking way different, wearing outfits we’d never be caught dead in.”
The book builds in visions and end-visions just as the election of Donald Trump looms. The Year of the Monkey gives way to the Year of the Rooster: “It was the 28th of January. The cock of the new year had arrived, a hideous thing with puffed chest and feathers the color of the sun. Too late too late too late, he crowed,” a kind of malignant overturning of the preceding wonderland, as well as a frightening carrion call. The prose becomes increasingly visionary, even biblical, with Smith’s incantatory prowess, her charging-horse delivery, at its most propulsive and insistent, advancing through repetition, invoking through breathless passages of prophecy too lengthy to quote and too powerful to take out of context, terrible visions of shunned migrancy and regenerative imagination.
Year of the Monkey is a kind of Patti in the Valley of the Shadow of Death or Patti in the Sadlands. This isn’t to say the book is regretful or self-pitying. Far from it. Rather, it’s a moving, witty, at times almost trance-like work traversing age, aging, sickness, and death, as well as joy, gratitude, and wonder. No longer the kid of her National Book Award-winning Just Kids, Smith (now 70) may be older, wiser and frailer, but she’s no less curious and curiouser.
Patti Smith’s Year of the Monkey is available on September 24 from Knopf.
Anatomy of an American Family and National Memory: Nell Zink’s Doxology
One of Zink’s missions is to navigate how the absence of one life continues to play on those left alive.
The past few weeks on his podcast WTF, actor and comedian Marc Maron has been delivering his usual pre-interview monologue, bringing listeners up to date on his life, his challenges with staying clean and sober, and, most recently, the suicide of David Berman, the singer-songwriter best known for his work with the Silver Jews. Maron composes his memory of a “hangout” session with Berman in Nashville, recalling how “he just told me the story, the whole David Berman story.” One facet of Nell Zink’s fifth novel, Doxology, is the death of a fictional indie musician, Joe Harris, whose absence is forever present within the book’s pages, tinging them with the same kind of grief present in Maron’s voice. But while Maron explores loss in the immediate aftermath of a death, recalling the “light” a figure like Berman gave off, Zink traces the effects of loss over the course of decades. Throughout, one of her missions is to navigate how the absence of one life continues to play on those left alive.
Decisions amass, one upon another in Doxology, a wide-spreading mural portraying the lives of an American family—Pam and Daniel and their daughter, Flora—from the late ‘80s to the modern day. Zink alternates her narrative between her protagonists quickly and often. Instead of dedicating whole chapters to, say, Pam’s perspective, multiple voices will share the page at once. Zink’s use of the third-person enables her to dance from character to character, one paragraph after the other. At one moment, we’re at a New York farmer’s market with Daniel, and in the next, we will be at an Ian MacKaye show with Flora. Zink never sticks with one character for longer than a page at a time, building a pace which isn’t unlike that of her characters, so quick-witted and always in motion, questioning their lives and relationships but united as a family, manifested through their shared space on the page.
Pam, Daniel, and Joe, all young and working crummy jobs at the start of the book, are united by their obsession with punk rock. Reminiscent of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Zink’s language has a melodic quality, her long, crisp sentences enhanced by precise punctuation and smart alliteration. Every character is fast-talking and ceaselessly witty; they appear to be performing like the musicians they desire to become, their use of language a kind of instrument. And like a good lyricist, Zink doesn’t waste a line of dialogue on anything uninteresting or even mildly benign. Everything feels just a little bit sped up, like an Aaron Sorkin production, but there’s also whimsy and joy in Zink’s prose, which brings passion to subjects as dry as soil aptitudes and door-to-door political canvassing.
Friends and bandmates, Pam, Daniel, and Joe are lovable and flawed, essential and aimless. Joe has “a case of high-functioning Williams syndrome,” and he ropes the gang together with unbending affability and an endearing trust in the world that helps to balance Pam and Daniel’s more cautious approach to record executives and groupies. Pam is the “retro hippie earth mother” who ran away from her parents in D.C. to Manhattan with 70 dollars “she’d earned by selling her father’s audio receiver and VCR to a pawn shop,” and Daniel is “an eighties hipster” who “lived in a state of persistent ecstasy.” Their stories build, mingle, and mesh as they attempt to start their own punk band, eventually leading to Daniel and Pam’s marriage, Flora’s birth, and Joe’s serendipitous slippage into indie stardom.
Doxology, though, isn’t a solely about music, as Zink is also concerned with shared national traumas and the idea of re-experiencing the past 30 years of American politics. She shows why she’s one of America’s great contemporary novelists through her sharp shift of focus, capturing a multitude of landscapes from the wide vistas of American music and politics, to the finer details of sustainable farming, computer programming, and D.C. parks. The wealth of knowledge that Zink brings to her novel is generous, guiding us through moments in America’s recent past—the millennium shift, the dot-com bubble, 9/11, the housing crash—with a firm sense of authority. She throws all sorts of complications at her characters, tracing how they react, adapt, continue to live, and move on like so many of us had to.
After the Twin Towers collapse, the story shifts to Flora’s coming of age. She’s sent to live with her grandparents in D.C. as the toxic dust settles, and as her life with them is close to utopic, Pam and Daniel can’t rationalize moving her back to New York, where everything smells like asbestos. So they place her in a D.C. private school, where her intelligence is incubated by teachers who see her potential. Throughout, Zink’s descriptions of place are simultaneously cynical, comical, and beautiful. There’s a sense that we’re caught in the most vivid of dreams, an impression that’s hardly diminished as Zink juggles between Flora’s life in D.C. and Pam and Daniel’s in New York. It’s here where Flora becomes interested in saving the planet, studying green sustainability, ultimately leading her to understand that those in power are really the ones who can enact change. As she blossoms into a little genius, she becomes entangled in the Green Party, hoping this will lead her to something bigger.
Though Pam and Daniel still appear in the novel’s second half, they’re cast as secondary characters, and their roundness noticeably dulled down. Their conflicts no longer drive the novel forward, as it’s Flora who’s given the wheel. Thus, she must be nothing short of exceptional in order to hold our attention, often unbelievably so: a deeply liberal intellectual with some life-altering conservative choices, an atheist who sits in cathedrals to obtain deeper wisdom under the watchful eye of a god she doesn’t believe in, a passionate socialist canvasing for Jill Stein with parents who stumble into being millionaires. She often seems philosophically inconsistent as Zink tries to make her incessantly admirable. Every time Flora seems to have reached an existential breaking point, Zink pulls her out of the trench without seeing the trauma through to its natural end. Zink undoubtably wants Flora to be “indestructible,” a word which “seemed to Flora like a pretty basic thing to be. Useful, possibly, but minimal. She wanted more than that.” Bullets bounce off Flora like Superman, and it’s often hard to empathize with a character whose path appears determined for success regardless of how many mistakes she makes on the way.
Still, Zink’s writing remains enthralling in spite of not seeing all of her conflicts fully through to their ends. Like Flora, Zink understands the cynicism of our world but still she shows us moments of humor, humanity, how we can continue to shape our lives despite a world out of our own control. As the novel slowly looms towards modern day, its finality recalls how we got here and a need to brace ourselves for what’s going to come next. If we’ve learned anything from recent history, there will probably be a few unexpected twists coming our way. In the end, this anxiety is personified by Flora, the novel’s greatest gift and biggest challenge.
Nell Zink’s Doxology is now available from Ecco.
Debating at the End of History: Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School
The novel succeeds, in part, by rejecting uncomplicated constructions of blame or causality.
Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School is the best novel of the Donald Trump era thus far—in no small part because it isn’t much interested in Trump. Rather, it investigates the weird and twisty relationships between Trump’s political context and the state of American language. The work of exposure and explanation—what Trump has done, how one might explain him as a political phenomenon, whose fault this all is—has been done, and is still being done. Lerner is after something else: in his own words, a “genealogy” of language and its malformations. He circles certain ideas and concepts—history, trauma, the fragmentation of identity—like a bird around a favorite lake. It’s argument by gesture. Look at these things. Don’t they go together, somehow?
The Topeka School bears a familial resemblance to Lerner’s first two novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04. An accomplished poet who published three critically successful collections before moving to prose, Lerner has always been a superb stylist. Atocha Station, published in 2011, is filled with sentences that manage to be at once conversational and virtuosic. And some lines in The Topeka School are as fine as any he’s written: “An intense but contentless optimism about the future was the only protection against the recent past, in which all the regimes of value had collapsed, irradiated or gassed.”
Other Lerner mainstays include the fragmentation of identity, time, and space. In Atocha Station, this interest manifests in protagonist Adam Gordon—who reappears in The Topeka School and stands in complete relation to Lerner himself—and his tendency to view himself in the third person and project many possible Adams in many possible futures. In 10:04, published in 2014, Lerner’s narrator eats a baby octopus and experiences a decentering that resembles the cephalopod’s distal nervous system. The Topeka School continues this project of redefining identity as a collection of many versions of oneself scattered throughout time.
What’s changed is Lerner’s scope. Atocha Station is cramped in the best possible sense. Caught in Adam’s head, the reader feels both claustrophobic and adrift in the same way that Adam feels claustrophobic and adrift in Madrid and the Spanish language. But The Topeka School jumps between characters, whose voices and thoughts often bleed together. Eight of the novel’s 15 sections concern Adam and his parents, Jonathan and Jane (both psychologists, like Lerner’s own parents), in 1990s Topeka. Between these longer sections are short chapters about Adam’s schoolmate, Darren Eberhard, whose story helps the novel cohere.
Adam is a nationally ranked debater, and the novel spends a great deal of time talking about the ways debate has stretched language in pursuit of maximum competitive advantage. Extemporaneous debate, Adam explains, was designed to encourage well-read and creative debaters who could “speak confidently on a range of topics.” But speaking “confidently” is possible without being either well-read or creative, and so debate preparation became less about the absorption of politics and history and more about projecting the appearance of absorption. The most common tactic is to speak at a blistering pace, to mention so many points and cite so many sources that one’s opponent cannot respond to them all. This shock-and-awe strategy is called the “spread,” a key to The Topeka School.
The spread leaves the debate’s audience in an unpleasant position. “It’s not that the audience really learns anything about these people or events,” Adam explains, “it’s about how naturally these foreign signifiers roll off the teenager’s tongue.” Debate, in other words, is deeply ironic. For the audience, a debater’s grotesque speed and incomprehensible allusions imply something hidden: agile thinking and erudition. But the debaters know that there’s nothing hidden, that their speech reveals and signifies nothing. It’s a cruel joke that the audience isn’t privy to—a little like serving pretentious wine dilletantes two-dollar bottles disguised as expensive vintages and making them give tasting notes.
Aside from the spread, Lerner includes other examples of harangued and hollowed-out language: psychoanalytic jargon, homophobic slurs, radio-commercial babble. Nearly every main character suffers language failure. When Adam’s mother recovers repressed memories of her father’s abuse, she finds her speech “breaking down, fragmenting under the emotional pressure.” This jumble, she thinks, resembles the poetry Adam admires—or, significantly, “what Palin or Trump sound like, delivering nonsense as if it made sense.” This is a sobering observation: The line is thin between art and blather, between language stretched into poetic ambiguity and language stretched into meaninglessness.
The Topeka School lashes together these blown-out languages and a national failure to listen and speak in good faith. “Even before the twenty-four-hour news cycle,” Lerner writes, “twitter storms, algorithmic trading, spreadsheets, the DDoS attack, Americans were getting ‘spread’ in their daily lives.” As goes debate, so goes America. This relationship is what the novel calls “a fearful symmetry between the ideological compartmentalization of high school debate and what passed for the national political discourse.”
The center of this “fearful symmetry” is the titular Topeka School, a way of thinking and a rhetorical mode that masquerades as populist, extemporaneous, and values-driven but which is actually elitist, highly orchestrated, and beholden only to power and capital. The Topeka School’s spiritual headmaster is Brian Evanson, Adam’s bespoke debate coach, who, as a master of plausible deniability and “choreographed spontaneity,” is the archetype of the new conservative. In the future, Lerner’s novel foretells, Evanson will become “a key architect of the most right-wing governorship Kansas has ever known, overseeing radical cuts to social services and education, ending all funding for the arts, privatizing Medicaid, implementing one of the most disastrous tax cuts in America’s history, an important model for the Trump administration.” It’s a resume that looks very much like former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s. Adam, on the other hand, is metafictionally destined to “attempt this genealogy of [Evanson’s] speech, its theaters and extremes.”
Lerner also puts in Evanson’s mouth the “end of history” thesis made notorious by Francis Fukuyama, which claims that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the great drama of civilization has concluded; the combination of democracy and free-market capitalism has won. (The irony is that the free market might very well end history, but in an ecological, not a political, sense.) The Topeka School has very little patience for this facile narrative, its notion of history as something overcome, improved upon, and left behind.
Not only has history failed to end, it has proven reluctant to move in straight lines toward progress, toward anything. In Lerner’s terms, history is “obstinate.” One of the novel’s consistent allusions is to Hermann Hesse’s short story “A Man by the Name of Ziegler,” which traces Ziegler’s traumatic realization that history is not, in fact, moving slowly, but stubbornly toward a better future. This is true for both global and personal history. It’s impossible to escape the past, which haunts and lingers in the traumas—physical, emotional, and linguistic—scattered throughout the novel. These traumas blend into one another; watching one of Adam’s debate opponents attempt the spread in a logorrheic mania, Jane notices how physically unpleasant, how literally painful, the spread is: “The breathing, the gasping for air—I’d heard hyperventilating patients make similar sounds…While the young man seemed to have a sort of swagger, my primary experience was of a body in duress.”
Another character in duress is Adam’s schoolmate, Darren Eberhard. Despite becoming, by novel’s end, an archetype of reactionary white masculinity, a gun-toting picketer with the Westboro Baptist Church, he remains a complex and often sympathetic character: isolated, earnest, disabled, and especially sensitive to language (the slurs others call him rattle around his chapters like echoes). In one sense, he’s a case study in radicalization, how a white man comes around to affirm and reiterate the speech of Fred Phelps or Donald Trump. But what saves Darren from stereotype and the novel from simplicity is that Lerner is more interested in the circumstances of his development than in either absolving or condemning him. The Topeka School doesn’t set out to “humanize” Darren, though it does. Rather, the novel is about a school of thought, a way of growing up. Darren, like Adam, graduates from that school, which produces Westboro picketers, far-right politicos, and famous novelists alike.
The Topeka School succeeds, in part, by rejecting uncomplicated constructions of blame or causality. But preferring complication means that it must gather together loads of material, and showing how well most of that material fits together is a long, slow job. Simply put, there’s a lot going on. Lerner runs the danger of parody, of self-incrimination; it would be easy for the novel to stop exploring hollow language and information overload, and instead begin exemplifying it. The Topeka School, in other words, risks spreading its reader. But reading it doesn’t feel like reading Gravity’s Rainbow or another maximalist novel actually designed to spread the reader. And there’s an appropriate ambiguity about a novel—which is, after all, a pile of language—that wonders about the ongoing ability of language to do good work.
There are times when The Topeka School, at least for a moment, suggests that an exhausted language might herald something better. Jane considers this possibility during talk therapy with her friend, Sima: “This language has reached its limit, and a new one will be built, Sima and I will build it.” Of course, this is exactly the sort of progressive thinking that Hesse’s Ziegler story deflates. And the novel seems to side with Ziegler: Jane and Sima never build that new language. They don’t even remain friends. Likewise, overwhelmed in a Hypermart, Adam sees brands and their interchangeable products as “an abstract stuff out of which they’d have to make new languages.” Unlike Jane’s utopian vision of a collaborative language, Adam’s version is more sinister, a cardboard language structured by mass consumption. Even Adam’s syntax lends a sense of coercion or obligation: “they’d have to make new languages.”
The Topeka School’s very end suggests that a future lies not in the wholesale construction of new languages, but instead in smaller moments of speech. Adam, singing at an ICE protest with his wife and daughters, reflects: “It embarrassed me, it always had, but I forced myself to participate, to be part of a tiny public speaking, a public learning slowly how to speak again, in the middle of the spread.” There’s room to hope that this isn’t, in fact, the end of history, and that things spread out might be called back in again. Maybe the most remarkable thing about The Topeka School is the way it models this possibility by gathering together the apparently distant and unrelated—psychotherapy, high school debate, Kansan politics, concussions, the drama of a marriage—into a story that feels sincere and generous.
Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School is available on October 1 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.