Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Review: Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

Doubleday, April 2009

If I’d read Colson Whitehead’s forthcoming coming-of-age novel, Sag Harbor, when I was coming of age myself, it would have been absolutely revelatory on two counts: First, that the dozen or so upper-middle-class black kids who accounted for roughly 4% of the students in my private high school also moved in a different world, with different identities, when they were away from school and their white classmates; and second, that the vacations my classmates took to places like Hilton Head and Kiawah Island, where parents left the kids to their own unchaperoned devices for days at a time, were actually much more lame than they sounded.

But already knowing these things didn’t stop me from enjoying Sag Harbor immensely. Though this “autobiographical fourth novel” is quite different from Whitehead’s first three books—most of all, from his first novel and gothic masterpiece, the extended double-consciousness metaphor The Intuitionist—it’s still an absolute delight to read, and just as insightful about racial identity in America as his earlier books.

Whitehead’s last two novels, John Henry Days and Apex Hides the Hurt, are very funny books, both wry, angry, telling takes on racial myopia and 21st century occupational absurdity (a journalist living junket to junket, a celebrated nomenclature consultant hired to mediate the renaming of a town, respectively). But neither of those books is laugh-your-ass-off funny in the way Sag Harbor is. Sag Harbor is the story of an African-American boy named Benji who spends nine months of every year at a predominantly white prep school in Manhattan (“I was used to being the only black kid in the room”) and passes his summers in Sag Harbor, a small enclave of upper-middle class blacks in the Hamptons, the elite east end of Long Island. Sag Harbor begins in June 1985, when Benji is 15. With their sister off to college and their quarreling parents rarely driving out to join them, Benji and his brother Reggie have their family’s house almost entirely to themselves.

Though it’s perhaps a bit early to start canonizing this book, it’s not too far-fetched to say that Sag Harbor may soon take its place alongside F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Walter Mosley’s Man in My Basement in the trinity of great Hamptons novels. And Sag Harbor would unquestionably qualify as the most humorous of the three. Maybe Whitehead himself could have had a career in the naming business; one of the funniest parts of Sag Harbor comes early in the book when Benji introduces his friend NP and explains how he got his nickname:

We called him NP, for Nigger Please, because no matter what came out of his mouth, that was usually the most appropriate response. He was our best liar, a raconteur of baroque teenage shenanigans … We thought we were being smart [by abbreviating] his nickname until one day we were over at NP’s house and his mom started getting on his case for some chore or other he had neglected. He began some elaborate explanation—meteorites had squashed his bike and he couldn’t make it home—when she lost her patience and cut him off with a shrill, “Nigger, please!” Mrs. Nichols’s hand shot to her mouth, but it was too late. His nickname had approval at the highest levels. For all we knew, she’d coined it in the first place.

Let me be the first to say that the very short shortlist of indelible nicknames in American fiction—Pudd’nhead Wilson, Studs Lonigan, Scout Finch—just got one name longer.

In the droll author's note that accompanies the advance proof of this book, Whitehead talks about how he’s doing things out of traditional order, presenting his autobiographical novel as his fourth book rather than his first. You can almost feel all the places where this book might have gone awry in a less mature novelist’s hands. There are chapters that start out like essays, riffs, or comedy bits he’s been working up for years, such as "The Summer of 'Dag'" (about evanescent teen lingo) and the era-defining New Coke fiasco, a riotous set piece that you'd think would go nowhere, but ends up fitting perfectly into Benji’s fish-out-of-water prep school experience. The riff that starts off seeming the most pointless—a discourse on mid-’80s easy listening radio—turns out to reveal the lovely emotional core of the book. Likewise, there are other scenes—involving the seething, gin-guzzling, barbecuing dad who’s already taught Benji “no one can hurt you more than me”; and the “he’s not my cousin, I thought he was your cousin” ante-raising pyromaniac at the end-of-summer bonfire—you fully expect to send the book hurtling toward a cataclysmic, turning-point-of-my-life ending.

But Sag Harbor is the rare breed of autobiographical novel that avoids such pitfalls. It's a book of adolescent frustrations, missed opportunities, and false starts; big changes beginning in small ways; minor revelations writ large; major revelations only partly understood; and hilarious and resonant moments of teenage buffoonery.

One of the problems with autobiographical first novels is it’s often difficult to place them in the context of a writer’s entire career. After the veiled memoir is out of the way, it’s easy to see how a writer got from Novel B to Novel C, but the first novel often seems anomalous. There are exceptions; take Tobias Wolff, another prep school misfit, who’s essentially written a succession of memoirs covering various stages of his early life, sometimes casting them as novels, as in the case of Old School. Though This Boy’s Life is surely the best of the bunch, it’s still of a piece with the others. Looking at Southern novelist Lee Smith’s autobiographical first novel, The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed, is more puzzling. It’s a fine book, but also a very conventional coming-of-age book; it’s hard to imagine how she got from Dogbushes to Fancy Strut, which isn’t her best book, but the one in which she emerges fully formed as a novelist of unique and perceptive gifts for creating vast casts of hilarious and real characters from the inside out. Only recently did I discover that she didn’t make the leap from Dogbushes to Strut leap in a single book; in between she wrote the long-out-of-print Something In the Wind, a late-’60s novel set in a North Carolina college. It’s not a great book—in some ways it’s a step backwards from Dogbushes, which is probably why it has dropped off the map—but you can see the progression in terms of humor and empathy and insight, and see its author actually becoming Lee Smith, rather than simply going to sleep one night as a Decent First Novelist and waking up, one novel later, as an Iconic Southern Author.

The difference in Colson Whitehead’s case is that he shot out of the gate with The Intuitionist, a book that makes you go Dag! in every way a great novel should. Three books later, as his writing takes an autobiographical turn, the good news is that he’s already Colson Whitehead, Literary Badass, and at no time in his trip down memory lane does he forget it. This bit of fictional autobiography may come at a perfect time in Whitehead’s career: not at the beginning, where the story would be left in the shaky hands of a first-time novelist telling the only story he thinks he really knows; or at the end, told by an old man gone weepy with nostalgia and asking us to indulge his book-length footnote to a career on the wane.

There’s nostalgia in Sag Harbor, but it’s 15-year-old Benji pining (quite movingly) for his early childhood rather than Whitehead getting misty-eyed over the teenage geek he once was. Instead of wallowing or reveling in the past—or ruing his own adolescent failures—Whitehead mines the rich material of a modestly misspent youth, and plays it to perfect and beguiling effect.

Click here to order Sag Harbor from Amazon.com.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Review: The Women by T.C. Boyle

Viking Books, February 2009

It's always interesting to see what happens when new books collide with other recently published titles on similar subjects or themes—when different authors, working more or less in isolation, happen to alight on the same subject simultaneously. Such was the case four years ago when Pulitzer Prize winners Philip Roth and Michael Chabon completed two extremely different novels involving alternate Jewish history scenarios at roughly the same time. Roth’s The Plot Against America—a nightmare vision in which Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR and, as president, steers the U.S. clear of World War II but brings the war home to American Jews—hit bookstores just as Chabon was wrapping up The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a hardboiled detective novel set in an imagined Yiddish-speaking Jewish settlement in Alaska. Random House withheld The Yiddish Policemen’s Union for two full publishing cycles, reportedly to avoid confusion with The Plot Against America.

Fast forward a few years and we find ourselves confronting a logjam of recently published and forthcoming books concerned—at least in part—with the notorious extramarital affair of legendary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney, and the brutal massacre and fire at the couple’s Wisconsin home, Taliesin, that brought the relationship and Mamah Borthwick’s life to an abrupt conclusion on August 15, 1914.

Here’s the basic chronology: In 1903, Mamah Borthwick Cheney and her husband, Edwin Cheney, hired Wright, then 35 and just emerging as an architect of renown, to design their Oak Park, Illinois home. The Cheneys and Wrights (both families resident in Oak Park) became fast friends. Sometime between 1903 and 1907 Frank and Mamah began a sexual relationship and in 1909, Frank, father of six, and Mamah, mother of two, left their families and moved to Europe, touching off an international scandal that proved a sensation in the press. Wright, still married (his first wife, Catherine, wouldn’t give him a divorce until 1922), returned to Oak Park in 1910 to put his career back in order, and began construction on Taliesin, a Spring Green, Wisconsin farm and estate. Wright moved with the now-divorced Mamah Borthwick to Taliesin in the fall of 1911, again creating a sensation in the press and causing deep resentment among their neighbors that would persist until Wright’s 1959 death. Wright slowly tried to rebuild his reputation as an architect and Borthwick became the American English translator for Swedish Woman Movement philosopher Ellen Key. In summer 1914, Wright and Borthwick hired two Barbadians, a former Pullman porter named Julian Carlton and his wife, Gertrude, to serve in the living quarters at Taliesin. On August 15, while Wright was in Chicago with his eldest son, Lloyd, completing construction on a sprawling (and now long gone) outdoor concert venue called Midway Gardens, Julian Carlton attacked and murdered Borthwick, her two children, a draftsman, a gardener, a stableman, and a carpenter’s son with a shingling ax and set Taliesin afire, killing seven and leaving the house in ruins.

The first of the three books concerning the Wright-Borthwick affair, William R. Drennan’s Death in a Prairie House (2006), is a historical inquiry into the Taliesin murders that drew lukewarm reviews at its time of publication, but garnered renewed attention with the success of the second book, Nancy Horan’s bestselling novel Loving Frank (2007), a warm and revealing character study of Mamah Borthwick just released in paperback this summer. The third is PEN/Faulkner Award winner T.C. Boyle’s The Women, due out in February 2009.

Though Drennan’s ostensible purpose is to unravel the mystery of the Taliesin massacre, he also spends much of the book weaving together strands of other historians’ research on Wright to come to some vague conclusions about the roots of Wright’s architectural ideas in 19th-century American transcendentalism and the massacre’s influence on his later work, as well as a handful of other received biographical details, which is why his book didn’t really wow the critics when it debuted in 2006. The success of Loving Frank—and its author’s championing of Drennan’s work—has helped revive interest in Death in a Prairie House.

Loving Frank, well-received by readers and critics alike, focuses specifically on the Wright-Borthwick relationship. Although it’s not a first-person narrative, it operates from Borthwick’s perspective for 90% of the book. The perspective shifts away only after Borthwick is murdered. Because so little is actually known of Borthwick’s inner life, and the only surviving glimpses inside Borthwick’s mind come from a handful of letters she wrote to Ellen Key, the Mamah Borthwick of Loving Frank is predominately a character of her author’s invention. Such is the case with all “the women” in Boyle’s book of the same name, and while it’s not the purpose of this review to compare the two books, it’s interesting to see where the writers’ imagined versions of these little-documented historical figures meet and diverge.

The fundamental difference between The Women and Loving Frank is that Boyle’s book looks more broadly—and also more deeply—at the entire sweep of the relationships that made the personal life of Frank Lloyd Wright a lurid front-page sensation. Though the Taliesin massacre obviously marked the end of Mamah Borthwick’s life, it occurred just at the midpoint of Wright’s life and relatively early in his career; his four most famous designs—Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel (1923), Pennsylvania’s Fallingwater (1939), Racine, Wisconsin's Johnson Wax Building (1944), and Manhattan’s Guggenheim Museum (1959)—still lay ahead of him. The tragic events of August 15, 1914 were nowhere near the end of his career in the scandal sheets either, and The Women chronicles his affairs with all three of the women who made him a favorite target of the “yellow” journalists of the day: Borthwick; his eventual second wife, Maude Miriam Noel; and his third and final wife, Olgivanna Ivanovna Lazovich Hinzenberg.

Granted, these are small distinctions when one considers how much the subjects of The Women and Loving Frank really overlap, and the possibility that the reading public has already gotten its fill of the tabloid life of an architect fifty years dead in the last two years. But what really troubled me about The Women when I began reading it was not so much my concern that it might rehash Loving Frank, but rather the sense that Boyle seemed to be repeating himself. I got that feeling right from the book’s epigram, an oft-repeated quote from Wright that’s also paraphrased in Loving Frank:

Early in life, I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility; I chose arrogance.

The Women is constructed as a narrative written by Sato Tadashi, a Japanese architect who (in Boyle’s invention) apprenticed to Wright at Taliesin in the 1930s, with the assistance of his grandson-in-law, Irish-American novelist Seamus O’Flaherty, who added his own rhetorical flourishes and imaginative forays into the minds of the characters (which, incidentally, Tadashi occasionally questions in wonderful footnotes sprinkled throughout the book). The Women begins in Tadashi’s voice, describing how he first came to Taliesin as an apprentice who paid tuition for the privilege of doing the master’s bidding, be it draftsman’s work, wood-chopping, or corn-shucking.

I experienced a disquieting sense of déjà vu when Tadashi, in the novel’s first few pages, arrives at Taliesin in his sporty, just-purchased 1924 Stutz Bearcat. Within minutes of meeting Tadashi, Wright looks over the car and says, “Isn’t it a bit extravagant? That is, wouldn’t it have been wiser, all the way around, if you’d put your money into the fellowship?”

The great-man arrogance that places his work above everything and presumes that all of those around him—even the newest arrivals—will do likewise, should seem eerily familiar to anyone who has read The Inner Circle, Boyle’s masterful 2003 novel about pioneering sexologist Alfred “Prok” Kinsey. The Inner Circle is also written from the point of view of a young disciple/employee who struggles with—but always submits to—the single-minded demands, whims, preoccupations, and endless pontifications of his genius-master. The introduction to The Women concludes with Tadashi unleashing a litany of doubts about Wright, and wondering whether his personal shortcomings and grievous sins made him unworthy of the devotion of his acolytes:

Still, the question remains: Did I know the man we Japanese revere as Wrieto-san? Who was he, after all? … Was he the wounded genius or the philanderer and sociopath who abused the trust of practically everyone he knew, especially the women, especially them?

Fortunately, this is not Tadashi’s book in the way The Inner Circle revolved around narrator John Milk and his adventures as Kinsey’s oft-conflicted right-hand man. The Women, appropriately enough, belongs to the women in Wright’s life. Except for the introductions to the book’s three parts (and in those wonderful footnotes, where the ever-tricksterish Boyle twists his knife and has his fun), Tadashi stays out of it.

Most of all, The Women belongs to Maude Miriam Noel, who seizes the spotlight at every opportunity like Gloria Swanson’s tragic fallen starlet in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard—even though she’s only playing the part. Boyle’s Miriam is every bit the self-absorbed, self-dramatizing, declaiming manipulator Frank Lloyd Wright is, and then some. She figures prominently in nearly every portion of the book, and from the moment we meet her slipping warily into Tijuana in search of a farmacia that will supply her with morphine, we’re hooked. The drug seems to fuel Miriam no matter what her purpose, whether she needs it to quell anxiety or distress or to help her affect the alluring Memphis belle languor that she uses to seduce the great man at their first meeting. Miriam’s effect on the book is well-nigh hypnotic. Boyle has written some memorable women—Talk Talk’s tenacious Dana Halter is only the most recent—but his Miriam Noel tops them all.

And like his Mamah Borthwick and Frank Lloyd Wright, Boyle’s Miriam Noel is very much his own. Adhering slavishly to the historical record, such as it is, is in no way Boyle’s goal here, and rather than attempting to enumerate instances in which he may stray from historical accuracy, I’d rather characterize the “truth” he means to convey about Wright and his women: namely, that Wright sought out some match for his own arrogance and elevated sense of self in all the women he involved himself with after his first wife, Kitty, and in Mamah Borthwick, Olga Milanov, and Miriam Noel—most of all—he found it. Again, the aim here in Boyle’s fiction is not fact, but truth, something much more subjective, and also more interesting.

That said, one of the challenges of writing a novel that concerns fairly well-known history—especially history that’s become much more widely known through the writing of others in the last three years—is how to build toward a dramatic climax that many or perhaps most of his readers will know is coming. Moreover, when that ending is an event as garish and devastating as the Taliesin murders, the writer needs to deliver, and bring something, some signature to the moment that’s not already there. A writer of Boyle’s acknowledged talent for inhabiting the minds of his characters has to make the principal players both real and his own—not just to make well-considered, educated guesses, but to know the unknowable and bring it to life. You know that when he gets to Julian Carlton, the dark-skinned Barbadian who briefly served as a butler and handyman at Taliesin before committing the grisly murders, Boyle is going to build him from the inside out, and you know how risky a venture that is for a white author taking on a real-life black murderer. (It's easy enough to say Carlton's race doesn't matter until you recall that the cause of death for two of his victims was officially recorded as "Killed by Negro.") Has any book been more lavishly praised, initially, and summarily excoriated, subsequently, than The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Styron’s journey inside the mind of the slave rebellion leader? Julian Carlton was no Nat Turner, but the potential problem here is the same. A Pulitzer Prize winner in 1967, Styron’s “psycho-history” has been almost universally condemned by African-American scholars in the last 20 years as textbook white single-consciousness, arrogance and ignorance masquerading as art. Boyle is a more skillful and insightful writer than Styron ever was, and in no way does he share Styron's inclination to throw his subject to the lynch mob (it'd be a different story if Boyle had Carlton sleeping with Mamah Borthwick, but that doesn’t happen here). Boyle’s Julian Carlton explodes with nuance, empathy, and spine-tingling rage and menace. Horan’s Carlton, by comparison, is a detached and timid gloss.

The other challenge Boyle faces in this book, appropriately enough for a book about Frank Lloyd Wright, is architectural. As mentioned earlier, the defining moment of Wright’s personal life—the murders of August 15, 1914—occurred when Wright was 47, some 45 years before his death, and nearly 30 years before his career really peaked. Most of his greatest achievements as an architect, and his relationships with two of the women with whom The Women is concerned, hadn’t yet begun. So Boyle’s challenge was to take the natural climax of the book and timeshift it to the end of the narrative. He does just that, but refreshingly, he does it without using it to frame the events of the book. Although Tadashi alludes to the murders in some footnotes as if the event is well-known to the reader, they aren’t played as some sort of cheap device, along the lines of, “Black hand, bloody hatchet—how did we get here?”

Boyle/Tadashi simply presents the narratives of the three women—Olgivanna, Miriam, and Mamah—in reverse-chronological order, making you feel the inevitability of what you’ve already read by revealing the earlier events that predicated the rest of the story. It’s magnificent storytelling, rich in the invention of the minutest details of imagined lives. Nearly every page is infused with the arrogance of the Great, a self-anointed cultural elite who believe themselves above the Average and its constant encroachment on the fragile framework of their constructed lives. In Miriam Noel and Frank Lloyd Wright you feel the pull of massive, posturing egos toward one another, and you get to bask in the glow of Miriam’s stranger-than-fiction variation on the avenging harpy—one drawn largely from real-life events, since most of her vengeance was played out in the press by her own design. And Mamah Borthwick makes a perfect bourgeois bohemian, blithely unaware of how anchored she is to some portions of the mores of her class, even as she’s set herself adrift from others.

Curiously underdrawn, conversely, are Wright’s first and last wives, Catherine (aka Kitty) and Olgivanna. In Kitty’s case, on the surface, the reason seems obvious: the span of Wright’s life covered in The Women begins with his departure from their marriage (albeit 14 years before their actual divorce). In The Women, Kitty simply isn’t the character that Mamah and Miriam are; neither proto-feminist iconoclast nor drug-addled, manipulating tragic heroine, she’s just the abandoned first wife. If The Women, in one respect, is about the type of women who fall into the orbit of greatness—in Wright’s case, a greatness that seeks its equal rather than mere ornament—it’s not really about Kitty, who came into Wright’s world before he was great and before, perhaps, anyone but his mother knew he would be. She was simply a teenager in love with an ambitious apprentice. Kitty fell for a talented young man; her successors joined forces with a genius.

Where Olgivanna fits here is more perplexing. She came to Wright fresh off her involvement with an Eastern European philosopher of some odd repute, thus carrying with her a modest quotient of intelligentsia cred. This in and of itself may have made her capable of slaking Wright’s thirst for “complication.” As Boyle writes, Wright wasn’t just looking for sex or love; he wanted “something fraught and embattled, a relation to make the juices flow in every sense.” But whatever innate ability Olga may have had to stoke Wright’s fires was overwhelmed in the fiery crucible of Miriam’s vengeance, and her dogged determination to destroy the them both.

What Olga brought to the table in her own right isn’t evident in The Women; there’s little to suggest what attracted Wright to her in the first place. Maybe this is a limitation of the narrator: Olga is the only one of Wright’s women with whom Tadashi’s life at Taliesin actually did intersect. Because he experienced her as the cold and humorless mistress of the house, long entrenched by the time of his arrival, this experience may color (or dull) his perception. It also underscores the point that this is Miriam Noel’s book, in that of all the damage Wright's relationships did him, the Miriam nightmare was the one he brought on himself by falling for such a manipulative and unstable woman. Granted, he abandoned his children for Mamah Borthwick, but that in no way brings the massacre at Taliesin down on Wright’s head, whatever the firebrand preachers of rural Wisconsin may have suggested in his day.

To Boyle, Wright’s attraction to Miriam Noel points to fundamental contradictions at the heart of the man. There’s little reason to doubt Wright’s monumental arrogance, his belief that the trivial necessites and demands of everyday life were beneath him. Hell, on the day he deserted his family in 1909, Wright reportedly told his 13-year-old son "You're the man of the house now," and handed the boy a $900 grocery bill. Such trivialities as grocery bills and child support were all unworthy distractions from his momentous work as the world’s greatest architect, yet he actively pursued other sorts of distractions that invariably undermined his career and limited his achievements.

If this is Boyle’s point—that to understand the misfortunes Wright suffered in his relationships with women is to understand how his own penchant for drama and personal upheaval invited them—then the pain he experienced at the hands of Miriam Noel is the central episode of the story, rather than the murders at Taliesin, which really weren’t his fault. Though the massacre undeniably altered the course of Wright’s life, it obviously didn’t do so much as it could have, since he wasn't there when it happened. (A fact, Drennan notes, that has led some to speculate, without evidence or motive, that Wright himself planned the murders.) Wright’s absence on that day meant the difference between a fine architect who died young and a man who lived to become the defining American figure in his field. And who’s to say—in the absence of the career and work that followed—whether the events that day would be explored in multiple widely read books in a short three-year span nearly a century later, or whether they would simply have taken their place in the annals of sensational 20th century crimes and other homages to the tragic and bizarre.

Although, again, the point of this review is not to compare The Women with Loving Frank or Murder in a Prairie House, it’s interesting to look at one point at which the two novels intersect, and one at which you would expect them to cross paths where they do not. Keep in mind that Boyle’s book and Horan’s are very different in character. Boyle’s is a noisy book with epic sweep that works from inside the minds of multiple characters; Horan’s is a quiet, perceptive study of a single character, that Horan says she originally tried to write from multiple perspectives before abandoning that approach. For the most part, Horan works delicately around the historical record; Boyle acknowledges it and sweeps it aside when it gets in the way of his narrative, although both authors seem to have their way with history at various times. Boyle invents his characters with Wright-like audacity and disregard for how others may have constructed them; Horan isn’t nearly so bold.

One point at which you would expect these novels to meet is the time when Mamah and Frank inform their respective spouses of their affair. Horan sticks closer to Wright’s biographers on this point, placing the confessions at separate times within the privacy of their respective Oak Park homes. In The Women—significantly, in the only scene told from Kitty’s perspective—Mamah and Frank confront their spouses together after dinner at the Cheney house in a synchronized, high-minded assault on the hypocrisy of a society that dictates allegiance to loveless marriages, joint lecturers on the poetics of free love. There’s not much reason to believe this actually happened, but the fact that Boyle invents this scene and Horan doesn’t reveals something more than their respective inclinations to adhere to the traditional story: Frank was always an arrogant pontificator, no matter whose book you’re reading, but Horan’s Mamah is a woman just awoken by infatuation and love at the time she confessed her adultery to her husband, whereas Boyle’s Mamah is full of Wright's self-righteousness and already deeply entrenched in the radical erotoplastics of Ellen Key.

One point at which the two versions of the story do meet is Christmas Day, 1911, during Borthwick and Wright’s first winter at Taliesin. Hounded by reporters out to confirm claims that they’re shacked up in this Wisconsin “love nest,” the couple agree to stop the denials and invite the reporters to Taliesin to hear their side of the story. In Boyle’s version, at Borthwick’s urging, Wright vows, “Let’s trumpet it to the world.” Wright reads a prepared statement, a passionate and florid defense of their union. Quoting liberally from the writings of Ellen Key, Wright lays out a philosophy of individual self-fulfillment and free love, and (in Boyle’s version), Borthwick sees him grow more magnificent with every word he speaks as he enlightens the reporters and, by extension, the masses. Horan’s Borthwick, by contrast, is wracked with doubt, realizing almost immediately that—far from converting and enlightening anyone—he’s leaping headlong into a trap, especially when he reaches the keynote of his sermon:

Laws and rules are made for the average. The ordinary man cannot live without rules to guide his conduct. It is infinitely more difficult to live without rules, but that is what an honest, sincere, thinking man is compelled to do.

The reporters, who would summarily annihilate the couple in their next editions, essentially have one question: “It’s Christmas Day. Where are your children?”

In his autobiography, Wright holds forth briefly on the forces that drove him and Borthwick from their marriages with a sense of inevitability and passivity, as if his desertion of his family were a sort of civil disobedience practiced in deference to a higher law. He argues that the Great are as helpless in the face of true moral and natural law as the Average are beholden to the governance of civil law. This is very much Frank Lloyd Wright as Boyle portrays him, though The Women is no more faithful to Wright’s version of his life story (Tadashi’s footnotes occasionally highlight its contradictions) than it is to any other historical source. But in Boyle’s case, this “Don’t bother me with the facts” approach isn’t laziness or ignorance. Boyle knows the facts, such as they are, and he also knows they don’t tell the whole story. Maybe the reason that Sato Tadashi, the “biographer” who renders Boyle’s narrative, fails to portray Olgivanna, the Wright wife he knew, as richly as Miriam and Mamah, the wife and mistress he didn’t, is because he lets the facts he knows get in the way of the character he might imagine. While it may be too strong to say that Boyle is suggesting that it is the province of the novelist, not the historian, to fully exhume the past, he may indeed believe that bringing the past to life is first and foremost an act of invention rather than research and reportage.

Of course, Boyle is a novelist, so you could easily dismiss all exaltation of the novelist’s unique power to bring history to life as puffed-up self-aggrandizement, exactly the sort of arrogance-worn-on-sleeve that arguably made Frank Lloyd Wright less successful than he could have been because his condescension, callousness, and tendency to suck people dry alienated nearly everyone he met. But it’s also important to note that Boyle has told interviewers that he writes each day with his bare feet soaking in the warm blood of a chicken he slaughters each morning. Much as Boyle loves to get inside the heads of his characters, he also enjoys messing with the heads of his readers.

So whether The Women is an implicit defense of the novel's power to illuminate the past, an indictment of the exceptional who believe themselves exempt, a defense of everyone who suffered at the hands of Frank Lloyd Wright, or none of the above, it’s also a deliriously engrossing book, and if you decide you’ve already seen enough of it at the end of a 5,000-word review, you’ll be depriving yourself of a supremely diverting and rewarding read. That said, if you’re looking for insight into the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, you won’t find it here; there’s far more architecture in Loving Frank than in The Women.

It’s the tabloid life of Frank Lloyd Wright—and the way he seemed to court fame and infamy in equal measure—that takes precedent in The Women. That thirst for publicity, good or bad, is a significant part of who Wright was, much as he liked to distance himself from the preoccupations of average people. It’s at the intersection of genius and arrogance, fame and notoriety, that The Women operates. From that confluence T.C. Boyle has fashioned the finest and most enchanting work of his career, a novel so satisfyingly and imaginatively wrought that it matters little that we already know the bones of the story—and how it all turns out—not only from Wright’s many biographers, but also from two books on the same subject published almost too recently for comfort.

Boyle’s career has never been about comfort; its hallmark has always been the bold and awesome force of his imagination. True to its author’s reputation, The Women thunders toward its familiar, calamitous ending with such menacing inevitability that the immutable facts of August 15, 1914—and the mysterious spaces between them—begin to seem something that only a novelist of T.C. Boyle’s titanic gifts could possibly conceive.

Click here to pre-order The Women from Powell’s Books.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Review: Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos

Atlantic Monthly Press; January 1, 2009

In the title track of his 9/11-inspired album, The Rising, Bruce Springsteen summons the image of "a catfish dancing on the end of my line" to evoke a fireman's state of mind as he finds himself suspended between life and death. The "rising" of the song's title refers not so much to the rising flames in the collapsing Twin Towers as to the notion of resurrection, as Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen describes in his definitive Paste magazine review. But as other tracks on the album make clear, Springsteen is concerned less with the resurrection of the dead than of the living—the spiritual rebirth of those whose lives have been stunted by the deaths of their loved ones.

All of these notions—the mystifying space between life and death, the strange and lasting toll death takes on the living, and what it means for the living to sing to the dead—stand at the heart of Stephanie Kallos' brilliant forthcoming novel, Sing Them Home. Originally titled Hope's Wheelchair, Sing Them Home draws on a real event from the author's southeast Nebraska childhood in which a wheelchair-bound woman named Hope, afllicted by multiple sclerosis, was badly hurt when a tornado destroyed her farmhouse.

But unlike the Hope of Kallos' hometown, the Hope of Sing Them Home "went up" and never came down. The novel focuses on the lives of Hope's three children (now in their thirties) and how her death's failure to supply "the gift of bones" shaped the adults they became—and the adults they didn't become. "The gift of bones is a profound comfort to the living—little else satisfies—and these children have done without it," Kallos writes.

Given its premise, it's refreshing to discover that Sing Me Home isn't in the least maudlin. A quarter-century later, Hope's incorporeal death has left her offspring not so much grief-stricken as unsettled and odd.

But death is central to the novel. Sing Them Home is set in a Nebraska town called Emlyn Springs where Welsh tradition runs deep, and nowhere is that tradition more manifest than in the town's all-consuming observance of the funereal rite of Gymanfa Ganu. The Gymanfa seems like a dramatically intensified Celtic cousin to the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva, the main difference being that Gymanfa Ganu requires that the home of the deceased (or some other appointed location) be occupied for seven days by the entire town, as opposed to a ten-man minyan, and that instead of praying twice a day, mourners observing Gymanfa Ganu are expected to sing Welsh hymns 'round the clock—to sing the dead home, as it were.

Two Gymanfa Ganus play noteworthy roles in Sing Them Home: that of Hope's widower, Llwellyn, which creates the circumstances of reunion and homecoming that kick off the book; and that of Llwellyn's grandmother. The grandmother's Gymanfa is described in a 1960 entry in Hope's diary. Though this early entry, relating Hope's first visit to Emlyn Springs as Llwellyn's fiancee, captures a young woman full of, well, hope, and a burning desire to lose her virginity, later entries track the early signs of MS and the toll it takes on her as the disease advances (both before and after she finds out what's happening to her). Hope's diary creates a recurrent and increasingly heartbreaking secondary narrative in the novel—a beyond-the-grave voice unknowingly relating the story of how her life slipped away from her.

As in Kallos' stunning debut novel, Broken for You (2004), the power and determination of the dead to communicate with the living is an important issue in Sing Them Home. It's also a source of frustration for the dead in this novel, who know when the living need them, but are also aware that the living aren't especially good at hearing what the dead need to tell them, or understanding the responsibilities that the dead have in their world.

Of Hope's three children, the youngest, Bonnie, seems most attuned to the presence of the dead in the world of the living; known to one and all in Emlyn Springs as "The Flying Girl" because she and her bicycle went up in the twister with Hope and inexplicably landed safely on top of an upended tree, Bonnie devotes her life to the collection of seemingly random junk and scraps of paper—anything that may even vaguely point her toward her mother's continued presence in the world or connect her pre-Flying Girl life to the one that followed.

Bonnie's older brother, Gaelan, is among the last of his kind in the world of local network affiliate news: the non-meteorologist weatherman, a good-looking, affable on-screen presence with no scientific qualifications for predicting the unpredictable (a job that seems especially absurd in Nebraska). A maniacal bodybuilder with a healthy Springsteen fixation, Gaelan devotes his late afternoons to a particularly detached brand of serial polygamy.

Hope's eldest, Larken, gets a number of the greatest set-piece scenes in the book. The first thing we learn about Larken, an art history professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is that she can dress down a belligerent student in her office without ever letting on that she has a Reese's peanut butter cup lodged in each cheek. The glimpses we get of her adolescent journey from Little Miss Emlyn Springs to overweight town tramp in a two-year span are tautly presented without a hint of unseemly sentimentality.

The scenes involving Larken and her upstairs neighbor's child are also a thing of beauty. Despite its built-in limitations, this relationship also points toward a more engaged and satisfying possible new life for Larken, and during the course of the book we see Larken and her brother and sister move awkwardly, and not always promisingly, toward resurrections of their own. Much like the dead who see all and wish they could do more about it, as readers we begin to see where their lives ought to go, but it's not always clear if or how they're going to get there.

Much like Broken for You, Sing Them Home is a richly textured, deeply satisfying, and enduring read—a whirlwind of aching sadness, secret histories, sex that's by turns empty and angry and sloppy and transformative, moments of great sweetness and joy that are never saccharine, and ultimately, resolution and redemption that are well-earned and in no way false or forced. Before Sing Them Home, Kallos was already, arguably, the best first-novelist of the Aughts; now it's abundantly clear that she's becoming quite a bit more than that.

Click here to pre-order Sing Them Home from Powell's Books.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Review: The Bible Salesman by Clyde Edgerton

Little Brown; August 2008

Clyde Edgerton’s 2003 novel, Lunch at the Picadilly, wasn’t his best book—his 1988 masterpiece, The Floatplane Notebooks, still holds that honor—but in many ways it was the quintessential Clyde Edgerton novel. Not only did it have a high quotient of songs folded into its pages—Edgerton and fellow musician Mike Craver even developed a musical around the book—it also had a near-endless supply of hilarious and pitch-perfect dialogue of old Southern ladies. I’m a fan of all of Edgerton’s books and can attest that there are many things he does well, but channeling Southern women of advanced age and transcribing their conversations is quite simply what he does best, and does better than any other writer I can think of, male or female, Southern or otherwise.

Edgerton comes by his ear for this sort of dialogue naturally. He grew up in the 1940s and ’50s in a tiny North Carolina community called Bethesda near what is now Raleigh-Durham International Airport, surrounded by many aunts and cousins whose language and cadence seem to flow through his pen at will.

Clyde Edgerton’s new novel, The Bible Salesman, is not a typical Edgerton novel in the Lunch At the Picadilly sense, but it’s his most risk-taking work of fiction since his 1995 western, Redeye. Set in rural North Carolina in the 1940s (and several years earlier in flashbacks), The Bible Salesman charts the course of two men—one of them a dashing and accomplished thief, the other an enthusiastic, but unwitting accomplice—on a grand-theft-auto crime spree. The titular Bible salesman is a credulous young man named Henry Dampier who gets talked into joining a car theft ring by Preston Clearwater, a career criminal who convinces Dampier that he’s an FBI agent who’s infiltrated the ring to bust the perpetrators. By assisting in the car-transfers, he tells Dampier, he’ll be working for the FBI on a critical, top-secret mission.

The book deals in violence and seediness like no Edgerton novel since Redeye, and culminates in the most suspenseful scene Edgerton has ever written, in which Dampier and Clearwater attempt to rob a small-town doctor (a scene introduced in a killer short story, “The Great Speckled Bird,” published in The Southern Review last year). But aside from the showdown with the doctor, the most memorable scenes in the book concern Dampier’s courtship of a girl named Marleen Green whom he meets in his travels selling Bibles.

What’s remarkable about the scenes of Henry and Marleen is, of course, the dialogue. While their conversation mostly serves as a prelude to a physical relationship, it’s also the tentatively philosophical banter of two people whose ability to think abstractly and articulate those thoughts are largely undeveloped. In a movie, we’d most likely gloss over this sort of awkwardness with a music montage that would reduce the development of their relationship to looks and gestures, but Edgerton plays it all out as only he can, creating perfectly realized verbal exchanges between essentially non-verbal people. This strikes me as a very difficult thing to do, especially without even a hint of condescension on the writer's part.

Reading these scenes, you ache at the awkwardness of Henry and Marleen and laugh at their clumsy attempts to impress each other (and Henry's transparent scheming to shed his virginity), but Edgerton never makes his characters look stupid or casts them as objects of ridicule. For example, after a brief debate on whether aspirin actually stops pain or simply covers it up, Henry waxes philosophical to Marleen about “how you couldn’t for sure talk about some object in some ways unless you knew which particular one it was so you could say that one.” Marleen counters by pointing out that “you couldn’t make any real sense about certain kinds of tree things if you talked about trees in general.” She concludes, leading Henry and Marleen to their tentative first kiss: “Sometimes generalizing doesn’t work.”

This is classic Edgerton, as are the too-few and too-far-between moments shared by Henry and his two elderly Bible customers, Miss Sarah and Mrs. Finley, which let us spend at least a few pages in Lunch at the Picadilly country. The scenes of Dampier’s childhood, and his efforts to make sense of the rigid religion he was raised on, echo earlier books like Where Trouble Sleeps and Raney as well. Some of The Bible Salesman's finest and funniest moments happen when Dampier, reading and thinking independently on the Bible for the first time as an adult and thrashing out its apparent contradictions in his head, tries to engage Clearwater on biblical topics, and of course the hardened car thief wants no part of it. What pushes the book into Redeye territory (and beyond, since we care about Henry and Marleen, as well as Henry's sister, more than I recall caring about the characters in Redeye) is the violence at the core of Preston Clearwater, which engenders a sense of dread in the reader that pervades the entire experience of reading the book.

One peculiar aspect of The Bible Salesman is an Author’s Note that appears at the start of the book. In it Edgerton defends the “[a]pparent usage irregularities of some characters’ speech… Since langage is not spoken in a vacuum, but rather in situations among people,” Edgerton writes, “it is clear and reasonable that the use of language be judged by custom and appropriateness rather than by the principles of correctness drawn from mathlike assumptions.”

I have no doubt Edgerton believes this—I couldn’t agree with it more myself—but I just wonder under what sort of duress he felt compelled to write it, and to include it as the preface to this novel, which by my count is his ninth. Edgerton’s characters have been speaking their own language and earning their author comparisons to Mark Twain for his ability to capture dialect since his first book, Raney, appeared in 1983. Why he’d feel the need to defend the authenticity of his characters' speech, and their right to speak in the authentic dialect of their region at this stage of the game is a mystery to me; maybe it has something to do with the fact that Edgerton has a new publisher, the Boston-based Little Brown, after 25 years with the Chapel Hill-based Algonquin Books. But you’d think Little Brown would understand this without the explanation, and trust their readers to get it too.

One thing I’ve always appreciated about Edgerton’s characters and his portrayal of rural North Carolinians in particular is that they talk how they talk and they are who they are, and there’s no tortured, divided-soul personal agenda behind the way he writes them. He’s not Eugene O’Neill protesting that “stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people,” nor is he James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus vowing to “forge the unconstructed conscience of my race in the smithy of my soul.” Edgerton is a storyteller, not given to such self-dramatizing proclamations, and the truths his stories reveal flow quite naturally—and usually quite quietly—from the stories themselves and the characters and situations within them, rather than from the author’s wrestling with some troubled relationship to them.

When Edgerton strikes the first note of racial prejudice in Raney, it’s not presented as a sweeping indictment of the character who speaks it; it simply emerges as another facet of the cultural chasm separating Old South Raney and her New South husband, Charles, and what they both need to learn if they hope to understand each other. In a later book, In Memory of Junior, there’s much casual discussion among veterans of their experiences in Vietnam. Most of these take place on gravedigging jobs, but the exchange that’s stuck in my mind for years involves Jimmy and Faison on a fishing trip, when Jimmy says of the war, "It alters a man’s life. At’s a fact… I saw stuff over there I’ll never see again... While we was over there we was different, and I sure as hell don’t think anybody ought to get the blame... You get sent somewhere to do a job, you do the job. I’ll tell you one thing. I by and large loved it. Most of it."

In another writer’s hands, this would be a soapbox moment, the character serving as a mouthpiece for the writer and articulating his deepest convictions (or exposing their antithesis) on the most controversial national episode of the author’s lifetime. But in Edgerton’s hands it's something different. It's reasonable to assume this is part of what Edgerton believes about Vietnam, and a partial reflection of his experience as an Air Force pilot in Southeast Asia during the war. But Edgerton isn't talking here—Jimmy is. And that’s what allows the character to speak, quite credibly, a truth that doesn’t happen to be the whole story, but is true nonetheless, I suspect, for many small-town Southern boys for whom Vietnam meant a chance to see other parts of the world, possibly fly planes, and certainly experience things that they never would have if they hadn’t left home to serve: “I by and large loved it.”

Edgerton expands on this experience quite powerfully in his memoir Solo—his most recent book before The Bible Salesman—and reveals a response to the war experience that’s more complex than Jimmy's, and much more regretful. But Jimmy's take is in there: "They say war is hell," Edgerton writes in Solo, "but it wasn't hell for me." I’ll confess to having learned as much about what Vietnam meant to some of the young men who fought the war from those six words of Jimmy’s as I learned from Solo. As strong a memoir as Solo is, Edgerton is at his best as a novelist. With the arrival of The Bible Salesman—a book that’s as funny and true as his earlier novels and also the scariest thing he’s written yet—it’s good to have Edgerton the novelist back, and with a hell of a tale to tell.

Click here to pre-order The Bible Salesman from Powell's Books.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Review: Man in the Dark by Paul Auster

Henry Holt; August 19, 2008

Like most novelists whose work will outlive them, Paul Auster rarely deals in the sort of topicality that traps books in time. He didn’t take time in ’80s novels such as City of Glass or Moon Palace to ruminate on Reaganomics, Iran-Contra, or Glasnost; nor did he waste words in taut ’90s outings such as Leviathan or Timbuktu mewling about Gen-X malaise or presidential sex scandals. This is not to say Auster’s novels have been out of step with the times, inherently escapist, or blithely insensate to the realities of the eras in which they’ve been written. But perhaps more consistently than any other literary writer of his generation, Auster has fashioned worlds so engrossing in their invention that to connect them too concretely to the familiar mundanities of our own dimension would somehow diminish them.

If a novelist needs a reason to keep separate the world in which he writes and the worlds of which he writes, Auster has an especially good one: Most of his books have layers of reality—written and lived—already etched into their pages. His last fully realized novel, The Brooklyn Follies (2005), incorporates just such a layering effect through “The Book of Human Folly,” an accumulation of random musings that protagonist Nathan Glass writes as a dying old man “trying to keep himself entertained.” The Brooklyn Follies incorporates most of the narrative elements familiar to Auster readers—dispatches from the existential void, intricate plotting, stories within stories, lives within lives—even though Auster himself seems more interested in entertaining readers than in unsettling them, at least compared to more challenging earlier works like Leviathan and Oracle Night.

But The Brooklyn Follies diverges most sharply from previous Auster novels in the final pages, when the world of his readers and the world of his characters collide as never before. Nathan Glass awakens to a lovely Brooklyn morning with his story resolved and all more or less right in his world, but the dramatic irony is thicker than he can possibly imagine, given that the morning in question just happens to be September 11, 2001. I’m making this sound more trite and conveniently coincidental than it actually is; the ending works quite well. Though Auster would be first to question the idea that there's anything "natural" about the nature of novels, and the traditional relationship of reader and writer and story (The New York Trilogy was about nothing if not blurring those distinctions), perhaps allowing 9/11 to intrude on his story at that point was just a natural conclusion for a writer so rooted in New York City (and deeply affected by the events of that day), bound to the inescapable truth of the city's 21st-Century existence.

Or maybe choosing to have Nathan Glass’s world intersect with our own was simply another provocative Austerian device. After all, his books have always operated at simultaneous cross-purposes: carrying us away in the thrilling machinations of his characterization and plotting, while repeatedly shaking loose the story’s grip by exposing or deconstructing the machinery of writing or the voyeurism of reading. The fact that he’s consistently managed to accomplish these two opposed tasks through generally straightforward, lucid, and conventional narrative structure and style—eschewing the post-structuralist banalities of most metafiction—underscores his signature gift.

Three years and two novels later, with the forthcoming publication of Auster’s latest work of fiction, Man in the Dark, it’s possible to see the end of The Brooklyn Follies in an entirely new light. From the outset, Man in the Dark both acknowledges 9/11 and poses the question: Is it possible to tell a contemporary story of a world where 9/11—and the senseless war that's been its ongoing aftermath—never happened?

Man in the Dark quickly arrives in such a world—or, more accurately, in such a story. A man finds himself trapped in a hole with no means of escape, and no idea where he is or how he got there. Relatively quickly, he gets a few clues: He’s Owen Brick, a soldier in a war in an “American wilderness” he doesn’t recognize, on a mission to kill the man responsible for the conflict. First we learn a bit more about the war that surrounds him: It’s a civil war that began in late 2000, following the contested presidential election, when several states, including New York, elected to secede (with the support of most of Europe) from the U.S. We're in sci-fi/alternate-history country here; the rest of what Brick knows about 21st-Century America--9/11, the war in Iraq--has never come to pass. An auspicious beginning, to be sure. We also know from the get-go that these events are taking place within a story that a bed-ridden, insomniac old man (the titular man in the dark) named August Brill is telling himself to keep his mind off the bitter recriminations of his own memories.

All of this lands us in familiar Auster territory: not just the story-within-a-story conceit, but also extremely similar terrain to Travels in the Scriptorium, the intriguing but skeletal novella the famously deliberate novelist cranked out between The Brooklyn Follies and Man in the Dark. The opening section of Man in the Dark is part rehash, part inversion of Travels. In Travels, an unnamed man sits imprisoned in a place he doesn’t know how he got to, punished for crimes he can’t recall. Mr. Blank, as he’s called (a name that gets a tossed-off shout-out in Man in the Dark), has spent his life sending people on dangerous and often deadly missions, for no apparent reason other than his own amusement. Most of his minions turn out to be characters from Auster’s earlier books.

Many critics dismissed The Brooklyn Follies as “Auster lite” because so many familiar Auster devices seemed to be played for laughs; Travels strikes me as “Auster heavy” since it lacks the leavening effect of an ingenious and diverting plot—something Auster has always delivered (with the exception of the grinding sci-fi dystopia In the Country of Last Things)—rendering it more intellectual exercise than novel. Man in the Dark, which unceremoniously ditches the Owen Brick story when the old man either tires of telling it to himself or realizes he doesn’t know how to resolve it, is ultimately more dissatisfying than Travels because Man in the Dark does, at first, seem to be going somewhere.

Auster’s storyteller-characters have written themselves into corners before—it happens (literally) with Sidney Orr’s blue notebook story in Oracle Night, but in the whirlwind of that novel it works, and seems purposeful, just as noteworthy in its truncation as it might have been had Orr continued to write it. In Man in the Dark, the interior tale just seems dropped, the weird world rolling on (in the words of the novel’s closing bon mot), in a way that smacks of disengagement on the author’s part. At some point I begin to wonder if to be in the mind of Auster is to give all his acts of deconstruction equal weight and credence, or if I should just give in to my suspicion that there’s as little here as meets the eye, and that Man in the Dark seems half-baked because it is.

I suspect as well that as we see more reviews of this book, most reviewers will attempt to cast Man in the Dark as a reckoning for our wretched times, a sweeping indictment of our modern-day masters of war and a blast of reality for a world deluded by its own carefully crafted illusions. I wish Man in the Dark were that book, but it’s not. There’s no doubting Auster’s anger and frustration, the power of the dark vision in the abandoned sub-narrative (a raging war at home as the necessary alternative to the war taken on the road), and there’s no question he’s created some compelling and searing images and moments in this book. But he also seems more and more like an old man telling himself a story that he can take or leave at any time. This is not the sort of conviction that makes a book “the only world that exists for the person who reads it” (to paraphrase Leviathan), and it’s a sad state of affairs for an author who once said that writing, for him, was “a matter of survival.”

That said, there’s more to this book than a ditched sub-narrative, although not nearly as much as one would hope. Brill isn’t alone in the dark; sharing that darkness with him are his daughter and granddaughter, who have taken the widower into their house to assist his convalescence, and huddled together to heal from loss and tragedy in their own lives. While the daughter is, oddly, a near-non entity in the book, the granddaughter enjoys some lively conversations with Brill that take up most of the pages after Brick’s story falls by the wayside, although their talks about the history of Brill's marriage turn out to be some of the least satisfying writing Auster has ever done. The granddaughter's own story ultimately ties the book tragically—if too sensationalistically—to the brutality and horror of the war in Iraq.

Man in the Dark is not without its moments, even if the climactic revelation of how the war has come home to Brill and his family isn’t one of them. Auster’s newfound broadside stance does resonate at times. The author’s overarching take on post-9/11 America and the war in Iraq certainly rings true, and Man in the Dark is undoubtedly a book for our time—it’s just not a very good one, at least by Auster standards.

Perhaps what makes Man in the Dark of our time most of all is not so much its subject matter as the way I’ve found to appreciate it. More than just a novel of war, Man in the Dark is also a book for the scattershot attention spans of the YouTube and iTunes era, when the best parts are so easily extracted and enjoyed apart from the whole. Like a new album that’s mostly filler, but can be celebrated for one or two strong tracks without even having to purchase the rest, Man in the Dark is best appreciated for a few great licks that pop up throughout the book, and are genuinely memorable, riveting, and thought-provoking in the best Auster fashion. Perhaps best of all is his riff on the vital role of inanimate objects in art film (in a conversation between Brill and his granddaughter)—a wonderful echo of the marvelous filmic excavations of The Book of Illusions. Does anyone render the language of film in written language better than Paul Auster?

If nothing else, this lovely digression serves as a reminder that the 61-year-old Auster (hardly an old man at all) retains the gifts that have made him nearly peerless among American writers of the last quarter century. But the question remains of how he sees himself these days: as the fearless, visionary novelist who taught himself how to die at a young age and lived to produce the titanic Leviathan and The Book of Illusions, or as an old man telling himself stories that will literally kill him (as turns out to be the case in Man in the Dark) if he brings them to their natural and full resolution?

Here’s hoping Auster’s next book doesn’t so much address that question as render it moot.

Click here to pre-order Man in the Dark from Powell's Books.