Thursday, May 31, 2012

"Words Become Road:" Edouard Levé's "Autoportrait"


While the two works couldn't be more different in their themes, structures, and tones, my recent reading of Edouard Levé's Autoportrait reminded me, at least subconsciously, of Padgett Powell's The Interrogative Mood. However, the biggest difference lies in their presentations. Powell's work is a series of questions that cover a wealth of ideas, hypotheses, and philosophical discourses. Its subtitle is "A Novel?," a play on the interrogative formats, as well as its classification. Is it a novel, or more of a psychological exercise? Autoportrait, however, offers no such "disclaimer," and is a series of declarations and moments from Levé's life, past and present. I decided to read it after a friend of mine made a passing mention of his final book, Suicide. I did some online research on Levé's art, and was immediately curious, and having finished Autoportrait, I find myself even more curious, not just about his life and works, but about how to approach the written words. On the surface, I highly enjoyed the book, but it's the kind of piece that seems to resist a need to provide satisfaction or dissatisfaction, and also opens up thought-provoking, conflicting views.

Whenever I read a book, I tend to do a lot of underlining and notes for citations and compelling passages, but my copy of Autoportrait has maybe one or two underlines, and no notes; it's simply impossible to judge whether one sentence or sentence cluster is "more important" than the next. The work is meant to be taken as a whole, and while I will offer some select passages, the examples I choose are taken at random, and work as part of the aforementioned "conflicting views:" any assemblage of sentences work quite well for example's sake, but are no more or less indicative of the rest of the work. Levé is presenting virtually every aspect of his life, and only he would have been able to know what was more important to him, and what was more mundane. The main source of curiosity, at least for me, is the juxtaposition of the serious and the banal, with some ideas begging for further explanation which then lead into vastly different territories.

"I attended a school that employed several pedophiles, but I was not among their victims. One of my schoolmates, at age twelve, was followed by an old man into a stairwell, where he dragged him into a basement and had his way with him. The dog belonging to a friend of mine disfigured his best friend when my friend was fourteen. I have never missed a flight that then exploded in mid-air. I almost killed three passengers in my car by looking for a cassette in the glove compartment while I was going one-eighty on the highway from Paris to Reims (Levé 15)."

Again, with this review, much like the mixture of Levé's thoughts, forces me to be repetitive and contradictory. In addition to resisting a singular emotion, Autoportrait resists genre, but clearly has a hand in two designations. The bookstore I work in has the title classified as fiction, even though one wouldn't be faulted for placing it in the biography section. As much as I hate to sound like a tenth grader forcing a summary from the book's jacket, the synopsis mentions the work as "perfect fiction...made entirely of facts." But what this really boils down to is the occasional pointlessness of needing literary classifications. To put this even more vaguely, Autoportrait is a work of art in words, not immediately poetic, but a canvas of pages mirroring its subject (the author) and at times reflecting the reader. While we don't have the exact lives or memories that Levé possesses, there's a universality in the bulk of what he writes. I'm writing this in the evening after visiting Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art--perhaps this is a stretch or a subconscious influence, but could Autoportrait be a work of literary performance art? Why not? It manages to be so much already.

"My memory embellishes. I often apologize, always thinking I shouldn't, and that I shouldn't have to. Over one summer I got six tick bites, only four years later did I become convinced that I had contracted Lyme disease, after I read a list of the symptoms on a Web site. I have cheated on schoolwork, but not at games. I dine alone in a restaurant if I have no choice, which happens only on trips. To dine alone in a restaurant seems paradoxical to me: going out to a restaurant is festive, festivities are collective. To find out whether I was homosexual, I tried to masturbate while thinking of men, it didn't work. When I watch the hunting show Trés Chasse, I have the impression that the hunters feel no guilt after the orgasm of the shot. I thank people easily (Levé 90)."


Edouard Levé was a painter (according to Autoportrait, he burned the majority of his early works), and a photographer in addition to being a writer. This work came before Suicide, which was turned into the publisher ten days before he killed himself. His various art mediums could very well support my hypothesis of the work being a form of performance art, but I'm treading carefully, especially since I mentioned his final work. As much as I champion creative expression and integrity, I feel it would be too harsh to link Suicide in this category, since I haven't read it, and even though it was clearly his way of expressing what was going through his mind, I wouldn't want to call it a piece of performance art, since we don't know what drove him to that final act. Has this essay illuminated anything about the reading? If not, that's understandable, since I'm holding Autoportrait in such high regard, and because it's the kind of work that has no true happy medium. It's a form of expression that will appeal to a reader or turn him/her off. There are so many ideas and facts to process, and in the end, you'll likely feel that you know Levé more or feel even more distanced from his persona. And really, these dueling ideas strongly hint to this work being a success, since Autoportrait evokes such a diverse range of emotions in its diverse range of revelations. The reader is free to choose the classifications that he or she feel are appropriate. I'm glad I chose this as my introduction to his writings, since I knew so little going in, and now I have a cache of information about Levé that explores more than any biography could hope to do. Like any review I post, I hope my opinions, whether one agrees or disagrees, will make a given work more illuminated. With Autoportrait, there's simply no way for that to happen without reading it.

"I do not read Faulkner, because of the translation. I made a series of pictures based on things that came out of my body or grew on it: whiskers, hair, nails, semen, urine, shit, saliva, mucus, tears, sweat, pus, blood. TV interests me more without the sound. Among friends I can laugh hard at certain unfunny TV programs that depress me when I'm alone. I never quite hear what people say who bore me. To me a simple 'No' is pleasantly brief and upsettingly harsh. The noise level when it's turned up too high in a restaurant ruins my meal. If I had to emigrate I would choose Italy or America, but I don't. When I'm in a foreign country, I dream of having a house in Provence, a project I forget when I get back. I rarely regret a decision and always regret not having made one (Levé 22)."

Work Cited:
Levé, Edouard. Autoportrait. Copyright 2005 by P.O.L. éditeur. Translation copyright 2012 by Lorin Stein.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Stories of Matt Bell: The Lost and the Found


My association with writer Matt Bell is based on a few interactions via social media, as well as a brief meeting and hello at this year's AWP festival. Last year, Jeremy selected His Last Great Gift (published in Conjunctions) as one of the first featured stories for Instafiction. I had never heard of Bell before this, and I was stunned by the depth of the story, a tale of a religious sect leader and the creation of a mysterious electronic messiah. After we linked to this piece, Bell immediately reached out to share his enthusiasm for our project, and I took to discovering more of his work. While Twitter interactions do not constitute a representation of someone's personality, I was doubly fascinated with his work (he's an editor for Dzanc Books as well as the literary magazine The Collagist) and his devotion to promoting literary excellence. He has published dozens of stories in a variety of journals, and has made quite a name for himself in the world of small presses and independent literature. As I mentioned before, I had the chance to meet him at AWP 2012, and I picked up a copy of How They Were Found, his debut story collection. Why am I putting so much emphasis on these small personal details? I'm doing so because his stories, while amazing on their own, take on even more significance when Bell's work to make great stories more widely read and appreciated is understood.

How They Were Found contains stories that glide between various genres while adhering to standard narratives and deliberately deconstructed forms, and sometimes manage to combine all of these ideas at the same time. For example, the book opens with "The Cartographer's Girl," a story that focuses on normally standard themes (relationships, loss, and death), but told from a decidedly non-standard point of view. The cartographer's relationship is highlighted with map legends that indicate where various landmarks of his relationship happened, and his attempt to pinpoint where the relationship has gone becomes a journey that needs to be mapped and documented. That might sound impersonal, but by using his own skills to come to terms with what happened, the cartographer's story is touching and heartbreaking.

"The cartographer compulsively maps everywhere he visits, draws on any surface he can find. At the bar down the street from his house, he draws topological renditions of the layout of the tables, of the path from his stool to the bathroom, of the distribution of waitresses or couples or smoke. There are many kinds of maps, but none of these get him any closer to where he needs to be. He keeps drawing anyway, keeps drinking too, until he feels his head begin to nod. He pays his tab, gets up to leave. If he walks home fast enough, he might be able to fall asleep without dreaming of her.

It is never enough to assume that the reader of the map will approach it with the same mindset the cartographer does. Even omitting something as simple as a north arrow can render a map useless, can cast doubts on all it's trying to communicate. Other markings are just as necessary. There must be a measurement of scale, and there must be a key so that annotations and markings can be deciphered, made useful (Bell 16-17)."

In "Wolf Parts," the idea of the "deliberately deconstructed" takes on new, graphic meanings. The tale of Little Red Riding Hood is not only told from various points of view, but is constantly stripped and manipulated. This is done so that by the end, the standard fairy tale is not just re-imagined, but infused with new levels of violence, philosophical meanings, and psychological implications. Passages of intense violence are written alongside passages of hilarity, so the reader also has to take in a mixture of new emotions as well as the new documentation of the classic fairy tale.

"An axe is a knife is a pair of sewing scissors: Tools as weapons, weapons as tools. Ways to cut yourself out from inside a wolf, or, in other circumstances, to cut your way back in.

Red and her grandmother had seen this trick before, and so could not be taken by surprise. Red refused to leave the path, the grandmother declined to open the door, and when they each questioned the wolf through the bolted wood, they already knew the cheap answers he would offer. The only one surprised was the wolf, who knew not where these women had gotten their knives, nor where they had learned the sharp skill with which they wielded them (Bell 151)."

Bell is also skilled at creating his own modern fables. There is a wonderful metaphor in "The Leftover," in which a couple breaks up and the woman finds herself living with a small version of her ex, a version that engages in the very actions she made him quit. Hundreds of stories have been written about breakups and their aftermaths, and this version shows how a simple idea can change the obvious into something unique. It's sweet and detailed, and after awhile the strange scenario feels normal as the woman mentally explores the changes in her life and the qualities of her ex.

"During this same time period, she comes to understand that it's not only the bad habits Jeff quit that make up Little Jeff. There are also qualities that Allison forgot she even missed, because they've been gone so long or because they disappeared from her and Jeff's relationship without announcing their departure. She notices the long absence of these traits only when they reemerge: Little Jeff writes poems on the backs of take out receipts and on yellow sticky notes, just like Jeff used to do. She finds them in odd places, as if Little Jeff doesn't understand that it might be more romantic to put them on her side of the bed or on her nightstand (Bell 172-173)."



The above citations are examples of Bell's gift of careful humor in odd places, but his work is also capable of serious, gripping accounts. One of my favorites in the collection is "Dredge," a mystery about a troubled man's attempt to find out who killed a young woman. His desire to do good is complicated by horrible memories from his childhood, and the fact that he embarks on his mission entirely alone, even going so far as to keep the woman's body in his freezer. For every step he takes in the right direction, circumstances and his own clouded personality force him to take steps back. There's no doubt that he's sincere, but his mental state makes him dangerous to himself and others. The story leads to a definite climax, but along the way, the reader is torn between sympathy and nervousness for what could conceivably happen.

"In the garage, he tries to lift the girl's tank top to get to the skin hidden underneath, but the fabric is frozen to her flesh. He can't tell if the sound of his efforts is the ripping of ice or of skin. He tries touching her through her clothes, but she's too far gone, distant with cold. He shuts the freezer door and leaves her again in the dark, but not before he explains what he's doing for her. Not before he promises to find the person who hurt her, to hurt this person himself (Bell 122)."

Another exploration of genre comes in "The Receiving Tower," a nightmarish story told in a small, claustrophobic setting. A group of soldiers are losing their memories while stationed at a desolate outpost under the command of an abusive, murderous captain. The original war is vague and possibly not even a threat anymore, but the icy surroundings and lack of communication makes situation even worse than any potential battle. There are elements of sci-fi and future dystopia, but the emotions and tensions come from the everyday activities of the lost soldiers.

"As I remember it--which is not well--young Kerr was the first to grow dim. We'd find him high in the tower's listening room, cursing at the computers, locking up console after console by failing to enter his password correctly. At night, he wandered the barracks, holding a framed portrait of his son and daughter, asking us if we knew their names, if we remembered how old they were. This is when one of us would remove the photograph from its frame so that he could read the fading scrawl on the back, the inked lines he eventually wore off by tracing them over and over with his fingers, after which there was no proof to quiet his queries (Bell 27)."

These are just general synopses of a few of How They Were Found's stories, but I feel they give an excellent representation of the work as a whole. The genre-bending and originality are beautiful, but having followed Bell for this last year, I feel this work represents something more. Bell is one of many writers who create amazing literary art that is often overlooked by mainstream readers of fiction. These particular stories have links to various genres, and prove that independent publishers and journals aren't in the market solely for exclusive purposes. How They Were Found was a stunning experience, but there's more to this than a simple review: The collection was published by an imprint of Dzanc Books, which offers this as part of their mission statement:

"Dzanc Books not only publishes amazing books, but works to champion literature and writing in the schools, and is fully committed to developing educational programs. Dzanc funds and runs workshops and Writer-in-Residence programs in several cities, including Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and New York. Dzanc has also set up a low-cost writing instruction program for beginning and emerging writers by connecting them with accomplished authors through the innovative Dzanc Creative Writing Sessions. Dzanc also sponsors the Dzanc Prize for community service, and works in partnership with literary journals to advance their readership at every level."

Simply put, I'm hoping that this review, along with the curative work of Instafiction, not only shows that literary writing can appeal to the mainstream, but that there are often a lot of overlooked benefits to supporting small presses. Works and writers like Bell are deserving of more attention, representing a world of literature that has its dedicated readers, but could appeal to so many more audiences.

Work Cited:
Bell, Matt. How They Were Found. Copyright 2010 by Matt Bell.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Foundations: Roberto Bolaño's "The Skating Rink"


This doesn't happen with too many writers, but whenever I read a book by Roberto Bolaño, I feel a keen sense of excitement and anticipation, feelings that take me back to what I experienced when I first discovered The Savage Detectives. Since his death in 2003 and the rise in his international acclaim, the English translations of his works have been welcome, but I've long given up on trying to stay abreast with them, chronologically speaking. In the last few years, I've purchased more than a few of the original English hardcovers, some of which are still on my shelf waiting to be read, while I've realized I need to devote time to other writers, as much as I'd enjoy a Bolaño marathon. My last reading of his work (not including magazine/journal publications) was nearly two years ago, so I figured it was time to dust off one of the books I've had in my possession. In that time, a few issues have been raised regarding the sheer number of posthumous publications, which seem to appear at least once per year, but sometimes with two or three popping up every six months or so. He was stunning prolific, but does the weight of his output diminish his talent, since the publications include some of his "lesser" works? And, as I've touched upon before, did the rapid, near-universal praise that his work received lead to a sort of diminished appreciation? These thoughts can be valid as well as pointless. Even with his less-acclaimed work, there's at least a small literary value; he didn't write fluff or throwaway works, and the only "problem" I've personally encountered is trying to keep in mind the biographies of the characters who appear in various forms throughout his books. The idea of "smallness" works quite well in the Bolaño canon, especially when his themes are equally displayed in more compact works, just as they are in his longer ones. This holds true with The Skating Rink.

The novel is told by three male narrators in the seaside town of Z, outside Barcelona: Remo Morán, a business owner; Enric Rosquelles, an overweight civil servant; and Gaspar Heredia, a nightwatchman at a local campground. All three men are connected, both intimately and socially, with Nuria, a beautiful figure skater who has been dropped from the Olympic team. Other small but essential characters appear within the narrations: Carmen, an aging, eccentric opera singer; Caridad, a younger woman who constantly carries a knife, which is mentioned so often as to render obvious the clue in the ensuing mystery; and the Rookie, a seemingly dangerous man who hangs out in a small bar. Two major plot points are revealed right away, and the reader has to make sense of the ensuing "detective" story: Rosquelles, infatuated with Nuria, builds her a skating rink in an abandoned mansion, a scandal because the rink is believed to have been built with laundered public funds. This rink becomes a murder scene, and the three interlocking narrations become explorations of potential evidence. The three men have strong opinions of each other, and the challenge lies in determining who is telling the honest side of the story. The details alternate between blatant and subtle. For example, Moran makes two early mentions of Heredia, nearly identical save for one major detail:

"We were adolescents, all of us, but seasoned already, and poets, so we laughed. The stranger's name was Gaspar Heredia, Gasparin to his casual friends and enemies (Bolaño 1)."

"It's true: in May I found a job for Gaspar Heredia, Gasparin to his friends, a Mexican, a poet, and flat broke at the time (Bolaño 7)."

While the murder mystery is the focal point, the surrounding details are as fascinating in their own right. Originally published in 1993, The Skating Rink was one of Bolaño's first published novels, and for an early effort, it still manages to preview the styles and themes for which he'd become renowned: the eerie, sometimes detached account of murders, sociological and civic corruption and disorder, and creative characters devoted to living their lives as they personally see fit. In various stretches of the narrative, the reader can sometimes forget about the mystery aspect and get lost in the beautiful details, some of which become essential to the resolution.

"The music was the 'Fire Dance,' by Manuel de Falla, and I could see the skater's torso moving in time with it as she lifted her arms, doing a clumsy yet somehow affecting imitation of a devotee offering a gift to a tiny invisible deity. The rest--the ice, the girl's legs, her silver skates--were mainly hidden by piles of packing cases left there to block the way and make the place look like an amphitheater when viewed from the rink, although as I made my way around them, they seemed to form something more like a miniature labyrinth. For a start all I could see was the girl's back, her arms curved in an ethereal embrace and the spotlights shining onto the ice, which reminded me of the lights around a boxing ring in Tijuana (Bolaño 61)."

Some of the passages exploring the down on their luck characters are striking, insofar as they create an aura of small-town life that reveals the universality of the downtrodden. I don't know how much of this is from Bolaño's original writing or Chris Andrew's translation, but it adds an atmosphere that would be right at home in an American mystery novel or film:

"I'm a rookie in this hell-hole of a town, said the Rookie when I asked him how he got his name. A rookie, a newbie at the age of forty-eight, a hick who doesn't know his way around the traps, and has no friends to help him out. He earned a bit of money salvaging stuff from dumpsters, and spent the rest of the day hanging around bars away from the beach, on the edges of Z, where the tourists don't go, or clinging like a limpet to the ever-unpredictable Carmen (Bolaño 89)."

The political scandal also has distinct airs that would be right at home in film noir:

"And if they ignore you, what will you do? If who ignores me, cutie? The people at City Hall, the mayor's man, everyone...Carmen burst out laughing, her teeth were chipped and uneven, and most of her molars were gone, but her jaw, by contrast, was strong and well-formed, the sort that holds firm when things are falling apart. You don't know what I have on them, she said, you don't know what a fuss I'm prepared to kick up. You and Caridad? Me and Caridad, said the singer, two heads are better than one...(Bolaño 94)."


Given my previous mention of the similarities that surround Bolaño's works, it's too easy to make connections between this early work and his later ones. However, for anyone even partly familiar with his writing, it's impossible not to think ahead to his later, more detailed works. For example, one of the chapter openings feels as if it was directly lifted from 2666:

"The days that preceded the discovery of the body were undeniably strange: freshly painted inside and out, and silent, as if we could somehow all sense the imminence of a calamity. I remember during my second year in Z, the body of a teenage girl, almost a child, was found in a vacant lot; she'd been killed and raped. The killer was never found. Around that time there was a series of murders, all fitting the same pattern: they began in Tarragona and moved up the coast, leaving a trail of bodies (girls killed and raped, in that order) all the way to Port Bou, as if the killer was a tourist on the way home, but a very leisurely tourist, because a whole summer season elapsed between the first and the last of the crimes (Bolaño 99)."

Again, these details are more or less related to the plot, and the revelation of the killer almost becomes an afterthought toward the novel's end; it's the attention to those details, both big and small, that makes The Skating Rink such a satisfying work. Sympathy for the characters come and go, along with the realization that, as a reader, you're trying to determine the motives and potential lies of the narrators. Therefore, the book is a murder mystery in name only. There's so much more beneath the surface, and getting lost in the asides is not a distraction. Returning to my introductory note about reading the works of Roberto Bolaño in chronological order: it would have been fascinating to read this work before The Savage Detectives and 2666. The hallmarks--poets, murders, and conflicting narrations--are there, and while The Skating Rink is not at all an introduction, it's a fascinating look at the ways Bolaño handled encompassing themes in a tidy format before moving on to more complex works. Yes, this is a murder mystery, but the build-up offers more satisfaction than the resolution. I've read and enjoyed his shorter works before, but since I finished it, this novel has stayed with me more.

Work Cited:
Bolaño, Roberto. The Skating Rink. Copyright 1993 by The Heirs Of Roberto Bolaño. Translation copyright 2009 by Chris Andrews.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Perplexing Visits: Jennifer Egan's "A Visit From the Goon Squad"


This month, I'm in the rare position of having a backlog of books to review for this site. I recently went through a more-voracious-than-normal reading binge, therefore having a handful of completed works awaiting essay reviews. While this is a good thing, I've been struggling with and partly avoiding this particular write-up. This struggle is personal, since, as I'm sure I've mentioned more than once, I'm a champion of constructive criticism, and I want to elevate discourse. In other words, the world of Internet writing and criticism is so fraught with ridicule, that the need to offer such disclaimers becomes necessary. My best friend writes the website Anthropogamer, and I recently tweeted this sample from one of his essays, since it sums up my thoughts quite well: "It has become so easy for a person to become publicly vocal that what is often said is completely and utterly pointless." At this point, I'm obviously circling around the issue. In the past, I've read shorter excerpts of Jennifer Egan's novels, and found a sample from The Keep to be extremely well-written and compelling, working as its own short fiction as well as an intriguing hint to what her novels could contain. I ended up reading A Visit From the Goon Squad, published in 2010, and had the opposite reaction, which was only magnified by the lavish praise given to the work. I know I'm in the minority here, but I feel it's one of the more overrated novels to appear in quite some time.

A Visit From the Goon Squad is a layered, ambitious work, spanning multiple characters, places, and time periods, going from one to the other from chapter to chapter. The characters include Bennie, a record executive and former punk rocker; his assistant Sasha, a woman with a troubled childhood and an addiction to kleptomania; Lou, a pedophile music producer; Jules, Bennie's brother-in-law, a journalist "famous" for his attempted rape of a movie star; La Doll, a publicist attempting to soften the image of a tyrannical, genocidal dictator; a washed-up musician named Bosco, a man with a crazy, unique idea for a final comeback tour; and various minor and major family members and friends of Bennie and Sasha, some who make key appearances, and some who emerge and end up fading into the background. The narrative structure alternates between standard chapters and inventive ones, including one of the final chapters told in a series of PowerPoint slides from the points of view of Sasha's daughter and autistic son, and the closing of the book set in a future New York City, a technological world that doesn't seem so terribly far away. Looking at this recap of the characters, it's all the more shocking to see that, with such a promising foundation, I found the book to be as perplexing as I did. Part of the problem is that the themes are sometimes too blatant, and while one could fill a big shelf with contemporary novels that attempt to make sense of our digital, sometimes too socially connected world, Egan makes sure this idea is rendered literally. For example, here's a passage narrated by Scotty, one of Bennie's former bandmates:

"Here was the bottom line: if we human beings are information processing machines, reading X's and O's and translating that information into what people oh so breathlessly call 'experience,' and if I had access to all that same information via cable TV and any number of magazines that I browsed through at Hudson News for four- and five-hour stretches on my free days (my record was eight hours, including the half hour I spent manning the register during the lunch break of one of the younger employees, who thought I worked there)--if I had not only the information but the artistry to shape that information using the computer inside my brain (real computers scared me; if you can find Them, then They can find you, and I didn't want to be found), then, technically speaking, was I not having all the same experiences those other people were having (Egan 73)?"

A lot was made about the David Foster Wallace-inspired character in Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot (I've only read parts of that work), and Egan goes further with Jules, writing his journalistic account of the interview and attempted rape of movie star Kitty Jackson. I couldn't tell if it was meant to be a satire or a homage, but again, what had the potential to be a successful attempt turned out to be too literal, constantly reminding the reader of the late Wallace not subconsciously, but so obviously that it becomes tired after just a few pages. Of course, this could be a way to highlight critiques of Wallace's style, but it becomes monotonous very quickly. At the very least, it shows how Wallace would have written had he been pompous and contemptuous of his audience, rather than just so supremely intelligent that his writing sometimes couldn't contain his inner monologues:

"But my Pavlovian efforts to suppress the PR component of our lunch have succeeded, and Kitty falls silent. No sooner have I congratulated myself on this triumph, however, than I catch Kitty glancing, sidelong, at her watch (Hermès). How does this gesture affect me? Well, I feel slopping within me a volatile stew of anger, fear, and lust: anger because this naif has, for reasons that are patently unjustifiable, far more power in the world than I will ever have, and once my forty minutes are up, nothing short of criminal stalking could force the intersection of my subterranean path with her lofty one; fear because, having glanced at my own watch (Timex), I've discovered that thirty of those forty minutes have elapse (Egan 132)."

Egan writes very good dialogue, making everyday conversations feel realistic, even in the most everyday situations, but there's the occasional piece of dialogue that feels so contrived and out of place as to be distracting, especially coming from someone as established as herself:

"Sasha turned and stared at him. She looked angry. 'Who am I talking to?' she asked. 'You're Bennie Salazar! This is the music business. 'Five years is five hundred years'--your words (Egan 26).'"

I've jumped around with these examples without really getting into the plot, but the recap I presented above gives a generally concise overview. Returning to the narrative structure, most reviews of the book at least casually mention how it can be viewed as a novel or a collection of short stories, connected by the characters. Examples and arguments can be made for both, as well as arguments as to who could be the main character. Sasha and Bennie are linked, not romantically, but by their association and the web of interconnected family and friends. However, I found myself not caring about any of them. This isn't to say that a character in a novel has to be sympathetic or achieve some sort of redemption. However, A Visit From the Goon Squad is full of people who are only casually constructed, or created in a fashion that gives him or her a lot of characteristics, but not any real reason to care. For such a character-heavy work, the emphasis is really on the social and cultural themes, but overall, I find it hard to pinpoint what Egan is ultimately trying to say. There are a lot of personal struggles and the occasional excellent chapter (my favorite being an account of Lou's trip to Africa with his children and girlfriend), and ideas on how personal problems are aided and magnified by a frenetic world, but overall, it feels like a stumbling attempt to fictionalize themes that are continually explored in other, better fashions.


And that's part of my struggle to write such a critique. Egan is a talented writer, but I feel that A Visit From the Goon Squad would have been immensely better with stylistic changes. The novel tries to balance between classic, straightforward storytelling and experimental flourishes, and while this isn't structurally distracting, I have a nagging feeling that Egan was trying to do too much. A writer should never be faulted for being too ambitious or attempting to do too much, as long as the message is clear. However, this work would have benefited from more focus on select characters, or an adherence to a standard narrative or even an adherence to a fully experimental form. I went into this reading with such high hopes and left it confused and wanting much more. With so much fluff in the world of fiction today, Egan should be commended for attempting to explore some very intangible ideas, and I'm still looking forward to catching up on her previous works. However, I just don't see how the praise for A Visit From the Goon Squad was warranted. Again, I know I'm in the minority, but it didn't connect with me the way it has for the majority.

Work Cited:
Egan, Jennifer. A Visit From the Goon Squad. Copyright 2010 by Jennifer Egan.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Thomas Frank's "Pity the Billionaire:" Our World Then and Now



It's been awhile since I've read and reviewed an explicitly political work, and not one that has politics as a mere fictional theme or as part of a more encompassing message. My last major political book review was of Michael Wolraich's Blowing Smoke, a humorous look at conservative paranoia. I made my points, generally enjoyed the reading experience, and Mr. Wolraich was kind enough to link and cite my review on his own site. At the time, I made a passing note about the reading being slightly odd, since I knew going in that it would speak to the liberal views that I already held. The way the current political climate has evolved (or regressed, depending on the angle), it seems even more strange that I would expect Thomas Frank's Pity the Billionaire to teach me anything I don't already know. This is my first reading of one of his works, after having seen him interviewed many times on television and in documentaries. My hope was to find a logical and contemporary historical narrative, since the focus of the book is on the rise of the Tea Party and the conservative reaction to the economic crisis. Also, just based on the aforementioned interviews, he struck me as an intelligent commentator on politics, and not just for entertainment's sake. People on the left and the right seem to be far too drawn to memes and soundbites, and I wanted to consume something more detailed, going beyond scrolling through humorous photograph captions and clicking "share."

Pity the Billionaire: The Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right manages to be both entertaining and informative, and presents its critiques in a manner that presents genuine constructive criticism alongside the recent developments that led to the Tea Party coming into being in the first place. In his critiques, he acknowledges the Tea Party as a legitimate (albeit flawed) movement.

"So let us give the rebels their due. Let us acknowledge that the conservative comeback of the last few years is indeed something unique in the history of American social movements: a mass conversion to free-market theory as a response to hard times. Before the present economic slump, I had never heard of a recession's victims developing a wholesale taste for neoclassical economics or a spontaneous hostility to the works of Franklin Roosevelt. Before this recession, people who had been cheated by bankers almost never took that occasion to demand that bankers be freed from 'red tape' and the scrutiny of the law. Before 2009, the man in the bread line did not ordinarily weep for the man lounging on his yacht (Frank 3)."

Frank's main argument is that yes, people should have been outraged and incensed after the government bank bailouts, but this anger morphed into an inexplicable wrath against the government. This reminds me of one of my favorite hypocrisies of conservative opposition to liberalism, in that a group that claims to be anti-government is quick to call people who even question our current state to be anti-American. In another twist, Frank argues, the conservative base quickly adopted the traits that they love to scoff at in liberal terms, namely portraying themselves as victims. Again, while Frank is critical, he doesn't stoop to name-calling, but rather highlights certain forms of hypocrisy. In a recent conversation, a friend of mine explained why she believed that, in a perfect world, people who support the Occupy movements and people who support the Tea Party would join together for a joint cause. Given the intense divergence in ideologies, I didn't know how this would work or make sense, but a key passage by Frank gives a great example as to how that would potentially work. The Occupy movement began as a critique of the bailouts and as a movement against money in politics. No matter what political ideology one subscribes to, the passage below should cause outrage:

"To believe in the fairness of the system was just as naive. The awful but unmistakable message of the bailouts was that the lords of Wall Street owned the government. Once they had got themselves in trouble, they simply whistled up the resources of the public treasury: our tax money. Federal agencies, we now learned, were honeycombed with alumni and future employees of the banks; Washington's officials all bowed before Wall Street's self-serving economic ideology; both parties were in on it (Frank 33-34)."

This is where it all went wrong for the Tea Party, blaming the government instead of the corporate greed that started this mess to begin with, and, despite its supposed abhorrence of social issues, becoming merely an extreme form of regular conservatism. Frank occasionally presents humorous asides to these developments. For example, a section of the book explores the ways in which a "grassroots, people-centered" movement was quick to be exploited for monetary benefits.

"The most famous example was the National Tea Party Convention, held in Nashville in February of 2010, which featured an appearance by Sarah Palin and charged attendees $549 each. What's more, the sponsoring organization turned out to be a for-profit outfit headed by a man who was reportedly trying to set up a kind of Facebook-style web empire for wingers. 'What was celebrated here in Nashville,' wrote the journalist Will Bunch, after cataloging the trinkets for sale there, 'wasn't so much the coming out of the conservative movement as the commoditization of it (Frank 77).'"


A notable aspect of Thomas Frank's writing is that he never hesitates to critique the liberal movement, too. With all of the problems still facing this country, a majority of politicians seem (to use the 'phrase du jour') out of touch. While the bailouts and the recession have hurt everyone, Republicans and Tea Partiers tend to misplace blame and priorities, while Democrats tend to be like most politicians and acknowledge problems without any concrete solutions. As I've mentioned before, both political parties have their share of problems, but in the documentation of crises and new social movements, I have never read a conservative opinion that critiques itself or offers any sort of acknowledgement of the left's concerns. Frank's critiques of Democrats is part of the bigger picture, that the party systems almost never solve anything, and as a people, we're reduced to name calling.

"The effects of a wrenching recession, on the other hand, aren't likely to touch the new, well-to-do Democrats directly. They know bad things are happening, yes; they express concern and promise to help the suffering, of course; but the urgency of the recession is not something they feel personally (Frank 182)."

I did have some critiques of the book. Given its publication date (January of this year), there's only a faint mention of the Occupy movements, a subject I would love for Frank to explore in book form. Also, many pages are devoted to Glenn Beck, and critiques of his former show and bluster have been documented enough to be familiar, not adding any real, new insights into his conservative scaremongering. But the overall message is concise, even with the many asides that pop up from chapter to chapter (for example, there's one of the best critiques and explanations of Ayn Rand's writings and philosophy and how her ideas have become beacons for the right wing). And while it serves to point out the hypocrisies and faults of the Tea Party, its historical examples would be best served to remind Occupiers of the reasons why the Occupy movement started: money in politics and the criminal activities of Wall Street and big banks. As my aforementioned friend also mentioned, the newest incarnations of the Occupy movements have been trying to encompass too many objectives and ideologies, and would be best served returning to its roots. This is another argument and should be the basis of other essays. Frank closes the book with a downright scary hypothesis of conservative ideals going further and further, being just satirical enough to be plausible:

"Before long they will have discovered that certain once-uncontroversial arms of the state must be amputated immediately. One fine day in the near future, it will dawn on them that the FDIC, for example, just delivers bailouts under another name; that the lazy man down the street should no more get his money back when his bank fails than when the housing market fell apart. What are interstate highways and national parks, they will ask, but wasteful subsidies for leeches who ought to be paying their way? What is disaster relief but a power grab by the losers who can't get themselves out of the path of a hurricane? And though public schools have been under assault for decades on charges of rampant secularism, the time is not far off when the freeloading by poor kids will be the factor that galls our leaders the most (Frank 187)."

Some who agree with the examples in this book may argue that Frank, like any political commentator, doesn't offer his own solutions to the problems. While this is true in theory, sometimes exposing said problems is a way to offer solutions, the old adage of "those doomed to repeat history." Where will we be in five or ten years? If the conservative movement has its way, it might not be a pretty picture. Overall, this is a fascinating, informative look at the movement, but again, it's a virtual guarantee that any conservative who reads it will be unmoved. Perhaps I'm adding to the problem myself by reading and promoting works that fit into my worldviews, but again, let's acknowledge that the system is still very flawed. How can this be changed? Conversation starters are great, but they have to grow into something more.

UPDATE 5/8/12: The fine people at Macmillan Books reached out to me to offer an accompanying sample of an audio version of Pity the Billionaire, read by Mr. Frank himself. Click here for a listen.

Work Cited:
Frank, Thomas. Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback Of the Right. Copyright 2012 by Thomas Frank.