Three incidents in my life had become linked in my head. I felt like they were connected, but I couldn’t explain why. Whenever I talked about it, I ended up rambling. At the same time, the editor at Morpheus asked me if I’d written anything recently he could use. So I sat down and wrote an essay that allowed me to clear my head, articulate my thoughts, and get something over to the editor. I’m pretty pleased with how it came out. You can read it here.
I’ll admit that sometimes I review books by friends and acquaintances of mine. I do it often, actually. It is somewhat nepotistic in the sense that I choose my friends’ books as the subject of my reviews instead of books by strangers. It’s not nepotistic in the sense that I won’t review a book anything but honestly. Whether I know you or not, I say only what I genuinely believe in my reviews. That said, here’s my review of Keith Rosson’s book Mercy of the Tide. You can read the review in its original form here.
There’s a sense of impending disaster. The guy from TV is president. Moscow and the KGB threaten the American way of life. The doomsday clock ticks ever closer to midnight. People far from DC and national politics struggle to live lives without feeling overwhelmed by a sense of powerlessness.
I’m talking, of course, about the alternate 1983 in Keith Rosson’s new novel The Mercy of the Tide.
The Mercy of the Tide opens in a sheriff’s office. A religious wingnut drops a mutilated seagull onto Sheriff Dave Dobbs desk. For the wingnut, the seagull portends something ominous and otherworldly coming to destroy this small coastal Oregon town. Dobbs feels slighted by the dead bird on his desk. Dobbs’ deputy, Nick Hayslip, grabs the wingnut and roughly evicts him. Dobbs and Hayslip aren’t interested in an abstract menace. Dobbs life was recently shattered when his wife Junie was killed in a car accident. Nick, for reasons that emerge later in the novel, is also devastated by this accident. Elsewhere in town, Sam and Trina Finster, the children of the woman who drove her car head-on into Junie Dobbs’ car, are trying to pick up the pieces after the loss of their mom.
Such is the backdrop for the novel. Something wicked is in the distance. Because this 1983 isn’t the one that happened but one that might have happened, nuclear apocalypse is still a looming threat. Trina, despite being nine, is obsessed with the threat. She believes the end is near. No one can comfort her. Her father is a commercial fisherman with no interest in international politics and little interest in raising his kids. Sam looks out for his kid sister, but he’s seventeen. The time is approaching when he should leave the confines of his hometown and reach for something bigger. The fact that Sam’s such an outcast doesn’t help matters. And what’s going on with this mysterious menace leaving mutilated animal corpses along the coastline?
The novel that unfolds somewhat defies genres. The mysterious menace lends a bit of a horror feel to the book. The small town cops forever driving in the rain gives it an air of noir. But Rosson’s willingness to show the consequences of the tropes of horror and crime novels take this out of genre fiction. When characters get killed, their death isn’t just a plot point. We care about the deaths. We mourn them, along with the characters in the book. When there’s a fight, the characters get hurt. They carry their wounds into subsequent chapters. The reader is never let off the hook.
At other times, The Mercy of the Tide feels like literary fiction. There are rich descriptions of coastal Oregon in a time that’s passed, and the depth of Rosson’s investigations into class, gender, disability, and anger go far beyond anything you’ll find in most mass-market paperbacks.
And it’s the anger aspect that carries the book for me. Understanding what anger is and how it operates may be the most important tool in navigating the next few years, because the one thing we see all around us today is a reason to be outraged. We seem to be trapped in an endless cycle of anger, and our anger is often justified. For Dobbs, there’s real reason to be angry. He lost his wife. Nick’s relationship with anger is valid, too. In both cases, though, they demand a form of payback. Whatever payback they get will prove to be unsatisfying. Their drive to enact that payback will doom them. But they hang on to it.
Sam Finster feels the anger early. He redirects it onto anyone and everyone. When his sister wipes out mud-sledding down a hill, his desire for payback leads him to laugh at her. Then he comes to his senses. He runs to help her and pulls her into his arms. As Rosson writes, “She was a slight weight that leaned against him, a weight nearly inconsequential. Christ, like she was mostly jacket. He felt blisteringly ashamed at his earlier resentment—he would take care of her. He would protect her. He would pick up Gary’s slack. She was so little, and she was nine, and afraid, and they had only each other now. He thought, I’ll do anything to make her safe.”
This scene occurs early in the novel, but it sets up the power of the book. We can watch characters consumed by their anger, their lust to make someone pay. We can watch anger destroy them as the world races toward a potential apocalypse. We can release that anger, let ourselves grieve, and learn what it means to love. We can be human and waver between those contrasting impulses. We can find ways to take care of ourselves and one another; we can find meaning even when we feel powerless and hope is hard to find.
This is the April installment of my Flagstaff Live column. You can read the original here.
I have a love/hate relationship with crime novels. I love the heavy plots, the journeys into society’s seedy underbelly, the challenge of staying one step ahead of the mystery. I love how tough they are. I hate that most crime novels these days have cops, FBI agents, and the like as protagonists. I grew up a “white trash” kid, then became a punk rocker. Most of my associations with cops were as a kid or young adult getting harassed, shaken down, or cracked in the head by them. After suffering so many humiliations at the hands of the law, I can’t enjoy a book that makes those guys the heroes. Especially when the bad guys are so similar to the people I grew up with. So I mostly read old crime novels, stuff by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and writers like them, writers with a distrust of the system and of the wealthy, writers whose protagonists are outsiders just trying to make it. Where, I often wonder, are the contemporary equivalents?
Then along comes Lisa Brackmann’s Go-Between.
Go-Between begins with Emily, a restauranteur in Arcata, California who seems to have made her peace with her shady past. She employs undocumented labor and has a customer base of pot growers, but she tries to keep an arm’s length from everything and everyone. The one glaring exception is Emily’s boyfriend, Danny, a pilot who augments the cost of his plane by occasionally loading it with weed and hauling the cargo out of Humbolt County. He plans one last flight—a “minimum risk, maximum reward” haul that predictably lands him in jail. His arrest coincides with the return of a federal agent named Gary. Or “fucking Gary,” as Emily frequently calls him.
In another life, Emily was a pawn in one of Gary’s schemes. Now he’s back to move her around the chess board. He’ll hold Danny in jail for as long as he needs Emily. When he’s done with them, he hints that both Emily and Danny will be released. The project Gary has in mind is simple. He wants Emily to go to Houston and keep an eye on Kaitlyn O’Connor. Kaitlyn was the victim of a horrific carjacking that left her husband and son dead. Now she’s the public face of a tough-on-crime organization called Safer America. Safer America manages a lot of dark money and some important initiatives are on the ballot in the upcoming election. Emily just needs to keep Kaitlyn on message through the election season. What follows is a thrilling chess match between Emily and Gary. It moves the reader across the dark squares of power, money, and special interests that tend to run public policy on a state and national level. Gary is a complex villain. He’s charming and slippery. It’s never clear whose interests he serves (beyond his own) or how much power he has. Issues that we debate ideologically—specifically marijuana legalization and mass incarceration—are stripped from their moral standpoints and reduced to matters of money. Kaitlyn is inscrutable. She could become the Sarah Palin Gary wants her to be, or she could make a 180° turn once she learns her real role in power and money, much like Elizabeth Warren did. Emily’s motivations waver between the greater good and saving her own hide. Everyone involved—the reader included—loses a little bit of innocence.
Toward the end of the novel, Emily and Kaitlyn visit a law-and-order convention that looks eerily like any other trade show. At the core, the convention is full of consumables sold to consumers. The whole scene forces the reader to ask the question: what is all this law and order really about? Brackmann’s novel raises issues Michel Foucault explored in Discipline & Punish more than forty years ago. First, if the purpose of prison is to reduce crime, then we have to admit that three hundred years of incarceration (and thirty years of US mass incarceration) have failed. So, like Foucault and Brackmann do, we have to ask what purpose all this punishment and incarceration really serves. We have to investigate who profits off it. We have to become critical of the stories that do little more than promote the myth of justice in our justice system.
This becomes the real power of Go-Between. Brackmann goes beyond the simple and harmful morality tales of good cops and evil criminals. She investigates the very nature of crime. She explores who really profits from it. And she does all this in a kick-ass thriller that’s nearly impossible to put down.
I write a bi-monthly review column for Flagstaff Live called “Words That Work.” This is a reprint of my June column. It ran on June 15, 2017. You can read the original here.
A few months ago, the US dropped something called the Mother of All Bombs on Afghanistan. It created an explosion the size of a small nuclear weapon, killed 94 members of ISIS and a handful of civilians who had the misfortune of being ISIS-adjacent, and made it through one quick news cycle during which most Americans responded by saying, “Wait. You mean we’re still at war in Afghanistan?” Yes. We are.
Shortly after that, the presidential budget came out with cuts to everything we love and a large increase to the military budget, which is already up around $600 billion and larger than the next 12 largest military budgets combined. All of this leads to a question that doesn’t get asked nearly enough: if we’re spending this much money building weapons and armies every year, don’t we have to do something with them? In other words, if we have this many people’s livelihoods based on warfare, don’t we have to generate warfare?
I don’t know the answer to that question. I’m just here to review books, and works of fiction, at that. Still, works of fiction are the places where we can take on these larger, somewhat philosophical questions. And fiction’s response to my questions about the Mother of All Bombs and military budgets lies in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Assignment.
The Assignment begins with the murder of an internationally-known terrorism expert’s wife. The terrorism expert flies her body, in its coffin dangling from a helicopter, from the North African country where she was murdered and raped to Switzerland. The coffin is dropped into the ground straight from the helicopter as part of a spectacular funeral. Documentary filmmaker F. films the whole affair. After the funeral, the terrorism expert offers to hire F. and her crew to go to North Africa and document their investigation into his wife’s murder and rape. F., despite her best judgment, agrees.
Once F. gets to Africa (the specific country is never mentioned, but any of the five nations that border the Mediterranean will do), she realizes that she’s in way over her head. First, she is ushered by the chief of police through a performance of the investigation. At no point does F. think the police chief is actually investigating the murder. Instead, he’s using her film crew to produce the impression that the police have done everything they can. Second, she’s enlisted by the head of the secret service, who is at war with the police chief because the police chief wants to lead a military coup. And from there, F. is just a pawn shuffled across a desert chess board.
The investigation into the murder never takes a back seat in the novel, but the murder itself pales in comparison to all the other mischief that power brokers are engaging in. F. struggles to understand her role and why she continues to play the game, all the while getting more entangled. Along the way, she meets a war photographer who maybe wants to kill her, but at least takes the time to explain to her what she’s gotten into. He tells her that this North African nation’s “principal source of revenue was a war with a neighboring country…a war that had been creeping along for ten years now and no longer served any purpose except to test the products of all the weapons-exporting countries.” He goes on to say that, “since the stability of the market depended on weapons exports, provided these weapons were truly competitive, real wars were constantly breaking out.” For the war photographer, wars like the one currently raging in Iraq and in this North African desert, exist solely to keep the military industrial complex running. Everything F. has seen proves this point.
The heartbreaking and ironic thing about reading The Assignment in 2017 is realizing that it was written 31 years ago. One of the wars Dürrenmatt criticizes is the Iran/Iraq conflict, in which Reagan’s Special Envoy to the Middle East, Donald Rumsfeld, helped bolster the power of a little-known autocrat named Saddam Hussein. Part of the deal brokered between Rumsfeld and Hussein was a cooperation agreement to limit the military might of Syria. Of course, at the same time, the US was selling weapons to Hussein’s enemy in Iran so that the US could fund the Contras in Nicaragua.
Three decades later, only the names have changed. This is why Dürrenmatt—a Swiss author who wrote mostly during the mid-twentieth century and died in 1990—is still so relevant today. His novels transcend the immediate and explore the larger frameworks of how society operates. The Assignment goes beyond that, beginning with a Kierkegaard epigraph and folding Kierkegaard’s views of the abyss into the plot. It’s a novel that is as thrilling as it is deep.
Someone at the University of Chicago Press has seen fit to bring several of Dürrenmatt’s works back into print. Whoever it is, we all owe this person a debt of gratitude. I recommend any and all of Dürrenmatt’s books, but definitely start with The Assignment.
My university has a running column in the Ventura County Star on Sundays. Our public relations person asked me to contribute a column recommending books for the summer. She also wanted me to make it newsy. So I did what everyone in the news is doing. I started with Donald Trump. This was my original first paragraph:
Here’s an experiment you can try at home. Starting tomorrow, see how long you can go before encountering a reference to Donald Trump. After the first, time how long before the second comes along. You’ll be stunned by how incessantly everyone talks about Trump. It’s like we’re all in a room with a small child wielding a knife. We know he’s just a narcissist trying to get us to pay attention to him, but we still have to pay enough attention to not get stabbed. We keep thinking someone is going to take the knife out of his hand. But, no. That’s not going to happen any time soon.
This situation can cause anxiety for anyone. Perhaps it’s causing some anxiety for you. If so, I can help. I can’t take the deadly weapons out of the narcissist’s hands, but I can help with the anxiety.
I sent it off to the PR person. She liked the column, but she didn’t like the part about Trump being a small child wielding a knife. She feared that some of the university’s donors would be offended. So she rewrote the first paragraph for me. This was her version:
Here’s an experiment you can try at home. Starting tomorrow, see how long you can go before encountering a reference to Donald Trump. After the first, time how long before the second comes along. You’ll be stunned by how incessantly everyone talks about Trump. For or against Trump, it’s a continual topic of conversation.
Those against him may feel like we’re all in a room with a child who has a knife and we must pay attention or be stabbed. Those who support him may feel they are constantly under attack themselves.
Either situation can cause anxiety for anyone. Perhaps it’s causing some anxiety for you. If so, I can help with the anxiety.
Not to be a prima dona, but I couldn’t let this opening stand. This tone isn’t me, and I wouldn’t let my name be associated with these ideas. I disagree with the whole idea of “for or against Trump” being equally valid positions. Trump is following the playbook for establishing a totalitarian regime. He has scapegoated an entire religion and tried to ban members of that religion from entering the United States. His nationalist rhetoric has led to unconscionable attacks on immigrants. He has marginalized academics, intellectuals, and the free press. These are the first three steps that every totalitarian leader takes: scapegoat a minority population, heighten nationalist feelings, and silence opposition.
The next step is to push for a war to solidify this ideology.
It’s personal to me. My wife immigrated to this country. I’m an academic. Trump’s stances are stances against me and my wife personally. I teach at a university that is largely comprised of white women (another group he has attacked) and Latinos. His attacks are directed at my students. The guy even took my sister’s health care away. Her premiums went from $190 a month to $1300 a month when he insisted on trying to repeal the ACA, then refused to fund parts of it.
None of this is okay. If you support Trump and you feel attacked for your support, that’s a good thing. I honestly believe most Trump supporters are better people than Trump is. If you’re one of his supporters, I hope you do feel attacked and this leads you to rethinking your attack on politically precarious populations.
I didn’t say all this to PR person. Instead, I wrote a compromised third opening. You can read it and my five recommendations for good books here.
This Friday, August 18, there’s another Vermin on the Mount. I’ll be doing a sort-of reading at it. Come out. Come out.
This will be my seventh or eighth performance at a Vermin. I guess I do one every couple of years. I read the title story for my short story collection Barney’s Crew at the second ever Vermin, back when it was still at the Mountain Bar in Chinatown. I read there to promote my last two novels, Train Wreck Girl and Madhouse Fog. I did not do a Vermin for my last short story collection, The Metaphysical Ukulele. I don’t know why. But I have the new book out, Occupy Pynchon, and I’m going to do something with that. It’s an academic book that doesn’t lend itself too well to a Friday night reading, so I won’t read straight from it. Instead, I’ll do something a little more fun and dynamic. You’ll be entertained. I promise.
The festivities kick off at 7:30 at Book Show in Highland Park (5503 North Figueroa St., LA). You can learn more about it here.
At the beginning of the summer, I read the bizarre and amazing Japanese novel ME. I reviewed it for Los Angeles Review of Books. The review ran last week. You can check it out here.
I have to add that comment sections usually bum me out. I put all this time and thought into writing something. I revise it myself, hunt down a publisher–which isn’t always easy–and work with an editor who seeks further revisions. All of this care goes into what I say.
On top of that, I’ve published hundreds of stories, articles, reviews, and essays over the past 27 years. And I have a doctorate in literature. These are no small things. Still, anybody can log in and have the last word on my work.
With that said, I sure do love the comment at the end of the ME review. I’ll take comments like that all day.
Of all the novels I reviewed over the past few years, Slab was the strangest. It defies form and easy characterizations and sounds impossible, but it was mostly fun. This review originally ran in Full Stop.
Early in Selah Saterstrom’s Slab, the narrator and protagonist, Tiger, tells the story of her life-changing striptease. After reading a book on profound women, Tiger decides to pay homage to Helen Keller. She buys a thrift-store Holly Hobbie dress and an Ace Hardware bucket to use as a prop. The deejay introduces her as “Miss Killer.” Tiger stumbles on stage with her eyes closed and performs the most famous scene from The Miracle Worker. She tells us,
The performance ended when, having completed the transformative contact with the pole/well, I arched a joyous backbend. The music came to a halt. I popped up, raised my bare chest to the audience, arms open. Water, I said.
As I read this scene, I couldn’t help placing myself in the audience for the striptease. Tiger works in a low-rent club in rural Mississippi. It’s the kind of place that only people who’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on the working-class side of the rural South would know firsthand. For better or worse, I’m one of those people. I have no trouble picturing myself at a chipped-linoleum table with a can of yellow American beer in front of me and poverty and desperation oozing from the dark paneled walls and buzzing neon signs, watching a stripper grope across the stage in a fantasy only accessible to her. It’s an intimate moment. A poignant one if you can release the illusion of a complete understanding and just recognize that something powerful and painfully human is being communicated to you.
On a meta level, this scene is instructive to the reader. You’re in the audience. Tiger is on a stage — more literally a slab among the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — performing for you. Sometimes she tells you what she has in mind and gives you an interpretive framework to understand her art. Sometimes, you’re in the dark and just have to go with it. Either way, you can find comfort knowing that Tiger (and Saterstrom) have a method to their madness. It all makes sense — not necessarily to you — but to Tiger at least. And, at the core of the performance, Tiger is out to entertain you.
Any summary of the book will elucidate the challenges it presents to its reader. The novel is laid out like an extended playbill. Each chapter is a scene in a performance by Tiger while she stands on the slab of a house washed away by Katrina. Ostensibly, Barbara Walters is in the audience for this performance. At times, Walters asks questions or Tiger addresses her directly. At other times, it’s easy to forget Barbara Walters is there and Tiger abandons traditional narratives. One chapter is titled “Tiger Draws Some Rebel Flags.” The chapter consists solely of illustrations of rebel flags. Another chapter is titled “Tiger Riffs on the Classics: Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.” It’s a prose poem that surrenders story for language play:
I am inside the fourth degree
(do you mind if I smoke for the remainder
of the seduction (Soul mothers I am inside
the seduction) I am inside (the fourth degree) watching,
mind if I smoke inside the remainder of the remainder
of the remainder of the seduction) . . .
The whole novel plays with form. Some pages are only a sentence or a paragraph. There are sections laid out like stage directions that give no stage directions. The “Players” section of the playbill gives little information about the players. Slab could be categorized as a novel or an extended prose poem or a script for an impossible-to-produce performance art piece. It’s all of those things and more.
Any summary of Slab is also a bit misleading. Works that sound difficult typically sound like a chore to get through, and Slab is not chore. It’s fun from beginning to end. Because it’s so inventive, so different from standard novels, comparisons are hard to come by. The closest I can come is Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America. Both works have a poet’s ear for language and a comic’s feel for timing. Both are disjointed but somehow whole. Both have a tendency to dazzle and frustrate the reader. When I finished my first read of both, I knew second, third, and possibly more readings of the books would come.
Beyond all the experimentation, Saterstrom’s (and Tiger’s) talent for storytelling carries the work. Saterstrom gives voice to one of the American untouchables. It’s a complicated, beautiful, whimsical, troubling, and heart-breaking voice. It’s a voice that you can’t turn away from, not because it’s a spectacle, but because it’s art. Tiger tells the tale of how she went from a poor, rural stripper to a performance artist, but this is no rags-to-riches story. There’s no reason to believe that the transformation happened anywhere outside of Tiger’s head. All of her work as a performance artist is done in low rent strip clubs. She starts in rags and ends in rags. By her own description, she’s “a stripper who worked in what could only be called a ‘sub-genre’ way.” And, despite the temptations her occupation holds for a novelist, Saterstrom resists any urges to make Tiger a spectacle or a metaphor. Tiger is a deep, rich character. She has close ties to her reconstituted family. She understands the complexities of American South, interacts with troubling views on gun ownership, racism, and Confederate fetishes, yet still feels an affinity to her southern Mississippi homeland. She mourns her grandfather’s suicide. She meditates on dogs. She struggles as an artist and a woman. For all the distance she creates by telling her story on a slab while the reader sits in the wreckage of Katrina, Tiger feels human. Saterstrom’s ability to make Tiger so human carried me through my first reading of the novel.
Saterstrom’s choice to set this novel against the backdrop of Katrina is telling. She doesn’t discuss the storm much directly. She avoids tales of want and looting, starvation and death. Still, this context undeniably surrounds the novel. It raises questions about Katrina and its place in our collective memory. Certainly, we’ve faced bigger and more destructive storms in our lifetimes. As global temperatures continue to rise, we’ll face more of them. Yet Katrina — which was neither the first or worst of these recent storms — haunts us. And Tiger as the narrator to this storm helps explain the undercurrent of this haunting.
We have a term for women like Tiger. It’s white trash. Thirty years of political correctness have eradicated every longstanding, hateful term from our speech except white trash. Understanding Tiger as trash — a disposable person — helps explain the real tragedy of Katrina. The storm wouldn’t have done nearly as much damage if the levees around New Orleans had been repaired when they started to falter years before Katrina struck. And they probably would’ve been repaired if wealthy people lived near them. The aftermath of Katrina could’ve been mitigated if a combination of state and federal agencies had reacted like they did when Hurricane Andrew pummeled wealthy sections of Miami in 1992 and Hurricane Sandy hit the shores of New Jersey and New York in 2012. In short, the disaster would’ve been far less of a disaster if, culturally, we didn’t classify poor people as trash and see them as disposable when nature lays waste to their homes and leaves them with nothing but the slab once the water recedes.
During a short stint in juvie, Tiger takes a class in the art of Japanese flower arranging. She learns that, “At the moment of its extinction, the flower is perfect. It is in accordance.” Her teacher tells the story of a monk who gathers the debris from a storm and makes an arrangement of the trash on the temple altar. The monk explains, “I am practicing the art of decay appreciation.” These ideas, in a sense, give passage into Slab. Saterstrom is gathering the detritus of Katrina, narrating it through someone who is culturally viewed as trash, examining the rural American South on the verge of its extinction, and practicing the art of decay appreciation.
As long as I’m posting old reviews that I’ve written, I want to include this one I wrote for Electric Literature. It was for a wild and inventive book by a Swedish writer. It’s one of those books that made me want to read everything the author has written. I hope this book did well enough to encourage future translations of Lina Wolff’s work.
Lina Wolff begins Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs with a character telling a first person narrator a story: “‘It was a Friday two weeks ago,’ Valentino told me on one of the days he drove me to school. ‘Alba Cambó and I met up at ten that morning and went for a spin in the car.’” As a reader, you don’t know who the narrator is. You know nothing about her (him?) other than what’s expressed between Valentino’s dialogue. She goes to school. Valentino gives her a ride. It’s not clear who Valentino is. The focus of his story is Alba Cambó. You don’t know who she is, either. For the next ten pages, Valentino tells a story of major, life changing events that occurred on that ride two weeks ago. The story is exciting. It’s gripping. It’s so interesting that you almost forget that Wolff is giving you no ground to stand on as a reader.
When I read the first chapter, I was fully invested in what Valentino told me about Alba Cambó, fully invested in their lives, but also struggling with this lack of a foundation. Who was “I”, the narrator? Why did she disappear after the first ten pages of her own novel? Why didn’t she respond to anything he said? Why didn’t she interject with her own feelings, her reactions, or even what she saw outside the car window? What was her relationship with Valentino? Why did he feel so comfortable sharing incredibly intimate details with her? Why is Alba so important to both of them? Should I be reading more into this? Do the names matter? Is Valentino supposed to harken romantic notions of a dashing silent film star? Does Alba’s last name carry symbolic weight: cambó, literally, “she bent”?
After a page or two of these questions, I had to make a decision: do I follow this author whom I’ve never heard of into uncharted reading territory or do I abandon this book for something more familiar, more comfortable? I knew that sticking with the novel would require a certain amount of trust. I would have to forego my typical expectations and reading patterns and just go with the flow of this novel. Valentino’s story was interesting enough. The fact that I cared to ask all of these questions so quickly mattered. I trusted Wolff and kept going. It was the right decision.
Part of the joy of this novel lies in all that is unknown. The back cover gives almost no sense of what to expect from the pages within. The title is misleading. It was possible for me to enter into my reading completely in the dark, then wait for Wolff to gradually turn on one light after another. She is a master at this. She controls the information in very compelling ways, giving just enough to intrigue, then letting us get lost in the characters before what’s going to happen happens. She’s so good about revealing the information slowly that I’m hesitant to even review this novel. I’ve already told you too much. You’re better off buying the book and reading it before you read another written here.
And now that I’ve done my due diligence in warning you, I’ll carry on with this review. Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs has nothing to do with Bret Easton Ellis. It’s just the name of a dog that a minor character, Rodrigo, talks about, a dog that the narrator never meets. It came from a brothel where all the dogs are all named after famous authors. Rodrigo buys the dog as part of his plan to repair his deteriorating marriage. If there’s a literary allusion at all, it’s simply that looking toward Bret Easton Ellis isn’t the best way to fix your relationship. This is a warning that you probably don’t need — who looks to Bret Easton Ellis for relationship advice, anyway? In the brothel, the prostitutes feed rotten meat to the dogs when johns are cruel. The back cover tells you as much. Neither are dripping with significance in the novel.
The misdirection continues in the very nature of the novel. It’s written in Swedish and by a Swede, but there are no Swedish characters and no reference to anything Scandinavian. It takes place entirely in Spain and follows Spanish (and one Italian) characters. It would feel Spanish except that the translator is English and he uses English colloquialisms. Araceli’s mother is “Mum,” their apartment is a “flat,” friends are sometimes “mates” and colors are “colours.” All of this adds up to something beautiful and global in the same way that Lee Van Cleef in a Spanish desert that was supposed to be the American West and fighting Italians who were supposed to be Mexicans all made sense in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Once all of these typical expectations are abandoned, you can get to the heart of the novel. Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs follows an eighteen-year-old narrator named Araceli. She lives with her mother in a crumbling two bedroom apartment in Barcelona. Not much is happening in their lives. Araceli attends a school for translation and interpretation even though she has no real talent for this and no real job opportunities on the horizon. Araceli’s mother is a government employee who eschews relationships but enjoys trysts. A short story writer named Alba Cambó moves into the apartment below them. At first, Araceli and her mother are intrigued by Alba from a distance. They buy the magazines that feature her short stories and read them. Gradually, they get to know her and her servant, a central American named Blosom. Alba, Blosom, and Araceli’s mother grow closer. The introduction of Alba’s new love, Valentino, only serves to strengthen their ties. The fact that Alba is dying — which she reveals to Valentino in that opening story of his — enriches their bond. Because she is a generation behind them, Araceli becomes the outcast of the group.
The novel moves forward, meanders, and backtracks through the stories of these women. While Araceli is the narrator and this is ultimately her story, she spends much of the novel in the background. She’s a character we’re familiar with in film: the best friend, the one whom the story is never about, but who shows up at a café to say to the protagonist, “What’s wrong? You haven’t been yourself lately?” At least, Araceli seems to see herself as somehow not worthy of a story all on her own. So Valentino tells his story, Rodrigo tells his, Blosom tells hers, Araceli witnesses the adventures of her mother and her more glamorous best friend and her famous downstairs neighbor, and we even get to read one of Alba’s short stories in a chapter all its own.
This discursive aspect of Bret Easton Ellis is reminiscent of The Savage Detectives. I know that, in about a decade, Roberto Bolaño has gone from obscurity to worldwide fame to the cliché reference point for all Latin American fiction. I don’t mention him lightly or make this comparison in passing. Wolff’s work reflects Bolaño like Haruki Murakami’s The Wild Sheep Chase reflects Raymond Chandler novels. In both cases, authors take something incredibly original and put it into a context so unexpected that the second work is brilliant in its own right. In this case, Wolff has learned something about how to tell a story from Bolaño. The Savage Detectives is revolutionary in the way it chooses to approach protagonists. The reader never gets too close to Ulysses or Arturo. We instead get the stories of everyone who encountered the pair — old friends, passing acquaintances, lovers, editors, enemies. Because we can never see the work of the two poets or read their thoughts or even get a chapter in which they’re the clear cut main characters, we have to reconstruct them in our mind from a series of tangential points. It’s never a clear view. In structuring The Savage Detectives this way, Bolaño touches on something unique to twenty-first-century identity construction. We’re starting to construct our own identities through tangential points — posts crafted to maximize likes, pictures or videos with no context that sometimes vanish after a few seconds, ideas restricted to 140 characters and shaped in hopes of retweets. Bolaño’s Ulysses and Arturo are hidden and guarded because they live the lonely, disconnected, and sometimes passionate lives of artists, not because they’re social media addicts. Regardless, in both cases, identities come to be hyperaware of how they’re viewed from the outside.
Wolff shifts this. Our protagonist is also our first-person narrator. Her hyperawareness of how others view (or more often, ignore) her becomes all the more poignant. She’s not searching for meaning in her life because, clearly, there’s not much hope for that. She’s not sharing much of her internal struggles, her ideas or dreams or feelings, because no one in her life seems interested in hearing them. Those around Araceli are dismissive of her to the point where Araceli seems to guard herself from what’s going on inside. Within this dismissal lies the real feminist power of the novel.
The only stories men will listen to in the novel are Alba’s. She writes dark stories about men who meet humiliating or violent ends. Her longest is about a mysterious place called Caudal. She describes it as the last town on the road to hell. The townspeople are the last remnants of an era on its way to becoming bygone. In many ways, they demonstrate the worst parts of our own personality, kind of a collective id that has forgotten how to have fun. A specter of death hovers over them. The cemetery is the town’s most prominent landmark. A new priest enters the town with hopes of reviving it. The town, instead, destroys him.
Even the men who don’t get humiliated or killed come across poorly in Alba’s stories. Still, men love the stories. Araceli seems to learn something from this. When she tells her own story, she finds way to show men in honest, if humiliating, ways. She lets them lead themselves to their own dark ends. Similarly, like Alba does in her stories, Araceli finds a way to keep the women prominent in the stories. The men can take the lead and carry on to their logical conclusions. The women, in the meantime, learn to operate on the margins. They work together and get stronger through this work. They confront their isolation and nurture one another. They leave situations that feel untenable. They reject patriarchy in blatant and subtle ways. As Araceli grows and changes around these women, she learns to tell her own story. While it may not matter much to the people around her, Araceli’s story matters to Araceli. As you read the novel, it matters to you, too.
Dip your toes into a little philosophy and, before long, you’ll come across an introductory question about identity. It goes like this: you look at a picture of yourself at the age of two and you say, “That’s me.” But how could that be you? You’re not a toddler. That toddler doesn’t read essays about Haruki Murakami and identity on literary web sites. That kid lived in a different time and place than you’re living in now. You don’t share a single molecule with that kid. So you tell yourself stories. “That was me as an infant, before I went to school, fell in love, got a job . . .” Whatever story you tell, the question remains: what do you mean by “me”?
Well, names are an integral part of identity. You and that kid share a name. The rest is comprised of memories (fleeting and unreliable as those are), narratives (embellished and revised as those tend to be), and scars. When you get to this point in the thought exercise, the good questions come out. If what you are is mostly an amalgamation of memories and stories, does this mean you have agency in deciding who you are? Are cultural forces imposing themselves on these stories, forcing a race or gender or sexuality onto your “me”? Is there a core identity to “me”: a soul in the Judeo-Christian tradition, a kokoro in the Japanese one? How much of identity is genuinely individual? How much is cultural? How much is not contained within us and is part of a perpetual interchange with the universe around us? How does this all impact the most rewarding and meaningful parts of our lives: our familial relationships, our friendships, our romantic relationships, our ability to love?
It’s fun stuff to think about. It’s more fun if you don’t take it all too seriously.
Enter Haruki Murakami. Sure, he’s an international literary phenomenon, a global bestseller, and the writer most journalists mention first when the Nobel Prize announcement looms. But he’s also a guy who likes to play around with big philosophical and spiritual questions. He won’t answer them. He’ll take them seriously, but not too seriously. In a sense, he’s like my neighbor’s cat.
Indulge me for a few sentences.
My neighbor’s cat used to come by my front porch when I was out there reading. He’d sit under my chair and swat at the cuffs of my pants. He’d make whole games with my cuffs: stalking them, attacking them, biting them, nuzzling them, sleeping on them. Because I tend to wear a rugged type of pants, he’d never manage to get a thread loose. But that wasn’t his point. It’s too much to expect a cat to have a point. He’d get absorbed in the possibilities and run through the entire range of his capabilities to explore the cuff.
That’s how I envision Haruki Murakami approaching philosophy.
One cuff Murakami is swatting is this question of identity. It permeates his latest work, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. At the purest level, it’s a novel about a man who experiences deep emotional pain. This experience results in a fear of abandonment. He meets a woman with whom he is falling in love. In order to be part of that relationship, he has to deal with these memories of the past that have made him who he is and come out of it as who he wants to be. In other words, Colorless Tsukuru must explore his identity and come to know it well enough to rebuild it. The philosophical and the spiritual blend with a very practical question: how can I be a person in a healthy, loving relationship?
Murakami has been toying with love and identity since his earliest works. His very first protagonist — the narrator of Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball 1973, and A Wild Sheep Chase — is an enigma. He presents himself as ordinary and unremarkable. Most of his actions are quotidian. He eats omelets and sandwiches. He clips his fingernails. He drinks beer. He sits at his desk at work and doesn’t work. He plays records. He fails to finish that age-old writing workshop prompt, “You know Bob. He’s the kind of guy who . . . ” In the second two novels, he at least has a desire. In one, he’s looking for a lost pinball machine; in the other, he’s searching for a sheep with a star on its back. In Hear the Wind Sing, he doesn’t seem to want anything.
Most notably, he has no name. In Murakami’s first four books and five of his first six, his narrators are unnamed. In the Japanese, Murakami uses the first person pronoun boku instead of the more common pronouns watashi and watahashi. Boku is reserved for men and particularly young men. It doesn’t translate cleanly to English, but I wouldn’t be steering you too far off course to explain boku as the “dude” pronoun. Jay Rubin, in Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, explains this about the pronouns and thereafter refers to Murakami’s narrator as Boku. The Dude, so to speak (though not Jeff Bridges’ version). In this way, Rubin imposes the identity that Murakami and his narrator resist. It’s a natural reaction. If people don’t show us who they are, we make up names and stories to fill in the gaps.
At one point in A Wild Sheep Chase, the narrator and his girlfriend (both unnamed) debate with an unnamed limo driver about the significance of names. It’s fairly whimsical conversation that acknowledges how much of our identities are entwined with our names. If we don’t give ourselves names, people will assign them to us. Names like “the narrator,” “the girlfriend,” and “the limo driver.” Each of these names also assigns a role. Being a narrator, girlfriend, or limo driver all comes with a number of culturally designated tasks and responsibilities. Once we’re named as such, we’re expected to perform accordingly.
When, in his novels, Murakami finally got around to naming his protagonists, he named two of them Toru, a Japanese verb that means “to pass through.” Whether the story is passing through the narrator or the narrator is passing through the story or whether “passing through” is a more accurate way of describing our lives than the most common verb we apply to it — being — is not the issue. The issue is that Murakami is playing with us like that cat at my cuffs. No thread comes loose.
Names mean something in Colorless Tsukuru. When he is in high school, Tsukuru is in a group of five friends. The other four all have names with colors in them. These colors are meaningful. They guide the characters’ personalities. In a sense, the colors are the characters’ auras (though Murakami doesn’t use this word and carry all the New Age baggage attached to it). And Tsukuru, the ordinary one, the unremarkable one, becomes colorless.
His name is nonetheless meaningful. Tsukuru is the Japanese verb meaning “to make” or “to build.” His father, when choosing the character to spell Tsukuru, selected the character for “to make or build” instead of “to create.” So Tsukuru makes and build things. Specifically, he designs railroad stations. He doesn’t create new stations. He works on stations that are already built, retrofitting them to accommodate their changing needs. If a station is experiencing greater traffic than it was designed for, Tsukuru must expand the station. If it’s experiencing a different type of service — say fewer long-distance trains and more commuter cars — he must think about how to orchestrate the movements of the passengers.
This job becomes a helpful metaphor for how we deal with our changing sense of self. That two-year-old in the picture was experiencing growth in ways that we never will again. Now, we’re grown. When we think about the changes in our lives, they all have to be within the finite sphere of our selves. How do we retrofit our narratives and our memories to orchestrate the flow of our lives? When the city or our selves experience major shifts, we can’t simply create a whole new city or self. We have to find a way to expand certain stations to deal with the change. When we fall in love, we must build a new union station or grand junction in a finite space. This often means reconciling those remote outposts that are drawing too much energy or too many resources from the system. In a sense, this is Tsukuru’s challenge.
A reader unfamiliar with Murakami has a different challenge. Most of the love stories in Western culture end, famously, in death or marriage. We’ve been so saturated with these stories that their resolutions seem to be the only natural ones. Life, as we all know, doesn’t work like that. Well, it does probably end in death. That’s the case as far as I can tell. But nothing ends in marriage. Every day in a marriage is a decision to stay married and to do the things that make marriage possible and enriching (or miserable and destructive, or all the things in between). So if the characters are going to live at the end of your love story, life tells us it doesn’t have to end with the characters getting together, or reconciling, or getting married. We have a lot of choices regarding which spot of the relationship we call an ending. Murakami likes these choices.
In other Murakami stories, he has girlfriends vanish without a trace and a narrator who doesn’t bother to look for them, or does, but without clean resolutions. He has spouses reconcile in ways that don’t seem to be reconciliations at all, or marriages come back together with so many problems that we’d need another book to work them out. He has stories begin with the marriage. He has protagonists search for lost loves and not find them. In other words, he casts aside the typical story structure and, for all his flights of fantasy, he embraces more realistic resolutions.
Knowing this adds to the joy of Colorless Tsukuru. It’s a love story that hinges not on a marriage or a death, but on a character’s ability to retrofit his identity at this station in his life with the love he is on the verge of.
For all of Murakami’s forays into the “Who am I?” question, it’s ironic that nearly every reviewer of his work defines Murakami the same way. I could summarize nearly every review written about every Murakami book after Kafka on the Shore and into the foreseeable future. It goes like this:
This latest effort has all the characteristics we’ve come to expect from a Murakami novel. It features an isolated protagonist, diversions into the metaphysical (or magical realism or fantasy), cats, jazz, a classical musician, references to American pop culture, and a quest for something that has disappeared. Murakami moves at a pace that many view as painfully slow, but somehow the prose is engaging enough to keep us reading.
This work is not as good as my favorite Murakami novel.
Murakami fans will love it. Others will be befuddled. I’m a little pissed that Murakami has gotten so popular, so I’ll find something to nitpick. Here I go…
I don’t blame the reviewers for this. Once a novelist has reached a certain level, it’s almost futile to attempt to review his or her work. What both amuses and frustrates me about the template for the Murakami reviews is how rigidly reviewers impose an identity on Murakami, as if cats and jazz and pop culture references were the things that matter most about his novels. They’re not. They decorate the novels, make them pretty and festive and fun to be inside. But the real beauty of the books, Colorless Tsukuru and all the rest, comes from the intimate relationship Murakami has with his readers. He welcomes us into his world. We get to splash around in the deep end of philosophy and spirituality. He makes us do so much of the work to keep from drowning that we find our own way to swim in those waters. We come out stronger in the end.