Liberal University Professors

Holocaust Memorial BerlinMy 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.

Slab Review

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.

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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.

Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs Review

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.

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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.

Colorless Tsukuru Review

I’m teaching a class right now on Haruki Murakami. It reminded me that I wrote this review of his last novel back in 2014. It originally ran on Full Stop.

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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.

The Mark and the Void Review

The Mark and the Void was one of my favorite novels of 2015. I wrote a review of it for Full Stop, but, for whatever reason, never posted that review here. Now I’m posting it. The full review is below.

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Paul has an idea for a novel. A banker decides to rob the bank he works for. Only it’s an investment bank, and investment banks have no cash, no safes to crack, nothing but numbers on computer screens, changing totals from one account to another. It’s all so ephemeral. He can’t stuff it in a sack and head for the border. On top of this, the banker is being observed by a mysterious stranger. The banker feels the stranger before he sees him, but pretty soon the stranger becomes more than a creepy feeling. He becomes a presence, now approaching the banker with an idea.

So begins Paul Murray’s latest novel The Mark and the Void. The story follows Claude, a French banker working in the financial district of Dublin. He is approached by a writer named Paul who claims to be working on a novel about the banking industry after the global economic collapse of 2008. He wants Claude to be his muse and his everyman character. Claude grants him access into the world of international banking. Claude’s coworkers are energized by Paul’s presence. They fantasize about their roles in Paul’s novel and feed personal narcissisms about being the subject of literature, all the while ignoring the facts that they don’t read novels, that Paul’s last book was a commercial and critical failure, and that Paul seems a whole lot more like a conman than any kind of writer.

And, as Paul’s prefatory idea for a novel suggests, the idea of robbing the investment bank emerges.

At the end of the preface, Paul the character (as opposed to Paul Murray, the author) asks the reader, “What do you think? Would people buy it?” This forces the reader, not yet four pages in, to decide whether or not she could accept the possibility of Claude as a literary protagonist and accept the possibility that Paul is running a con on us all. These are not insignificant questions. There’s a reason why we have very few investment bankers in literature. They’re boring. Even when great writers shape protagonists out of everymen with mundane jobs — think of Joseph Heller’s middle manager in Something Happened — the results are middling at best. When lesser writers, like Bret Easton Ellis in American Psycho, make an investment banker the protagonist, the banker has to be a serial killer to be even remotely interesting. But Paul isn’t promising to be a great writer like Joseph Heller, and he’s not offering gore and mayhem like Ellis. He’s instead giving you an impossible proposition: an investment banker robs his own bank, which has no actual money, rather than robbing the taxpayers and his investors, which is who investment bankers typically rob. In other words, Paul is telling you that you’re being conned. It’s up to you to decide whether or not to go along with it for another 450 pages.

Unlike Paul the character, Murray the author gives us good reason to go along with the con. His previous novel, Skippy Dies, is brilliant. It was short listed for the Costa and National Book Critics Circle Awards and longlisted for the Booker. It may well have set a record for the novel nominated for the most awards without actually winning one. Beyond the accolades and near misses, Skippy Dies is a stunning mixture of comedy and tragedy. It hints at a depth that Murray can mine for a few more books. Specifically, the elite Catholic boarding academy at the center of Skippy Dies has been taken over by a business teacher who seeks to exchange the religious focus of the academy for an ideology of the marketplace. Rather than producing graduates who embrace a Catholic morality, the children of Dublin’s economically elite families learn to view the private school as a pipeline into the financial industry. In this sense, neoliberalism replaces Catholicism as Ireland’s most influential religion.

From the start, The Mark and the Void promises to explore this theme with more depth. Murray introduces the notion that the marketplace is becoming the true religion of Ireland early in the novel. He describes the financial district of Dublin “as a private fiefdom, like Vatican City in Rome, only devoted to money instead of God.” And the financial industry of the novel operates like the medieval Catholic Church. Everyone tithes to it, whether they believe in it or not. It hoards the vast majority of the region’s wealth and turns that wealth into power. It holds sovereignty over the lives of the populous, dictating how society’s resources will be allocated, who will win and who will lose. It sometimes awards the most devout with small tokens of its overall hoard, but mostly keeps the earthly rewards to itself. And, like religion itself, the financial industry is based largely on faith. The only real value the paper in your wallet — or, more likely, the numbers on your computer screen when you check your bank account — has is symbolic. We have faith that these numbers mean something in exchange for real goods like food and clothing and transportation and housing. As long as we all agree to believe in that symbolic power, it does have value. And, like so many organized religions, those closest to the symbolic power tend to be the most corrupt.

Murray examines the intricacies of this neoliberal religion through Claude. Claude meditates on his role as a banker, and his willingness to sacrifice things like love, family, travel, and community — his “whole life,” as he puts it — for the job. He says that “every banker has in his head a number, or rather a Number. This Number represents the amount of accumulated wealth he has decided will be enough.” The second he reaches this number, he’ll get out of banking. But, as Claude observes, “the bigger problem is that as you approach it, the Number tends to change. It shifts upward.” In this sense, Claude’s Number fulfills the role of heaven for the neoliberal: it’s the reward for lifelong piety. Money is invested with a redemptive value. His whole life is worth trading for a certain amount of it. Forget even the symbolic power of money to buy real goods. He has gone beyond the need for anything real. His necessities are taken care of. Even his luxuries are attainable and attained. There’s nothing the money can buy him now. Further, Claude, unlike his higher ups in the financial industry, isn’t in a position to make enough money to buy real power. Nor does he seek the power that the global one percent have to bribe politicians to reshape public policy in their image. He instead seeks that spiritual place where a Number symbolically redeems all his sacrifices.

Claude wants to articulate this for Paul, but he says, “I don’t feel confident that I could explain this without making it seem like more greed.” Because, on the surface, it is greed. Members of the financial industry suffer from a similar emotional disorder as the people on Hoarders, only the financial industry’s hoards are neatly tucked away behind so many secured internet spaces instead of visibly represented in old pizza boxes and dirty diapers. For Claude, though, it’s more than greed; “it’s something more mysterious.” Because the Number only makes sense in a religious context: as the realm of spiritual redemption or as an absolution for his sins against humanity. Likewise, neoliberalism — the ideology that privileges the concerns of the marketplace over all other concerns—only makes sense as a religion. It demands that we put all our faith and social safety nets into the Invisible Hand of the Marketplace, trusting it to make everything all right, to bring about paradise and equality despite the fact that this trust in the past has led mostly to world wars and profound inequality.

Claude takes a typical path to the church of neoliberalism. He comes from a small village in France. His father was a blacksmith and a veteran of the 1968 revolution. He simultaneously pushed Claude into banking and resented Claude as he became a banker. Claude, for his part, honors his father’s revolutionary past by studying philosophy in college. He focuses on the works of François Texier, a fictional amalgamation of Jean Baudrillard and Guy DeBord. Texier has his own theory of neoliberal religion. He observes that, at its inception during the Middle Ages, “the corporation was almost identical to contemporary ideas of angels . . . immaterial, ageless, capable of acting like human beings but bound by neither substance nor time; the corporation, an entity which we imagine as a uniquely secular creation, a paragon of reason and common sense, in fact began its life as an offshoot of a Christian myth.” Texier goes on to argue, “Today, though we no longer believe in angels, we still regard the corporation as a higher order of being.”

French philosophy of the ’68 revolution doesn’t bond Claude with his father. Claude has great difficulty embracing relationships with anyone. Love, family, and community are all too much for him. He escapes from them all through the world of banking. In a moment of clarity, he says, “Perhaps after all that is the true purpose of Business: to replace the shifting, medieval labyrinths of love with the broad, sanitized avenues of materialism, the lightless, involuted city of the self with something gridlike and rational.” Claude goes all in, living a monk-like life inside a cubicle and a condominium, purified in the glow of his numbers on a screen.

It’s no wonder that Claude and his coworkers are so open to Paul, even if Paul seems like a conman. The bankers’ world is devoid of art, devoid of any questions of meaning that go deeper than materialism. Even as a largely failed novelist, Paul introduces them to subjunctive worlds, spaces where they can imagine alternatives to the dominant neoliberal narrative. The only problem: contemporary Ireland — and contemporary global society, by extension — has no room for a novelist among the clutter of a wireless world. Paul has love. He married a stripper. He has family, including his mostly neglected four-year-old son, Remington Steele. He is part of a community, albeit a community of hustlers and conmen. He’s been ensnared by the trappings of the global boom, and now he’s struggling to untangle himself during the bust. Unlike the banking system that Claude works for, no government funds exist to bail out Paul. As much as the bankers need Paul and his art, Paul needs money to keep his home and feed his son and keep his wife off the stripper pole.

This establishes the dramatic tension of the novel. The neoliberal religion is failing to provide any meaning deeper than materialism. The banker turns to the novelist to help him examine the depth of love and life, but the novelist has been reduced to a desperate state. His time is spent clawing for a handhold on a slick and rocky cliff. If Claude is going to get his whole life back from the sacrifices he’s made to banking, he needs to recuperate the damage his financial sector has waged on artists like Paul. Or just on Paul himself.

In line with Skippy Dies, these powerful themes are carried through the novel on the shoulders of humor. The Mark and the Void is funny on so many levels. There’s direct political satire, like the Forbes article on Claude’s boss, Porter Blankly, which relies on glowing hyperboles to portray Blankly as a slightly more sociopathic Kenneth Lay. There’s corporate satire, like when Blankly coins the term “Think Counterintuitive,” a thinly veiled allusion to Steve Jobs’s “Think Different.” Beyond both slogans needing the “ly” to make them grammatically correct, there’s all the employees at Claude’s investment bank who make ridiculous and dangerous mistakes in their attempts to think counterintuitively. There’s Paul’s con, which would be obviously bad if his marks weren’t so illiterate. At one point, Claude wants to know more about Paul. Paul counters that the protagonist never knows much about his author. After all, Paul says, “Do you think Billy Budd knew where Conrad lived?” The fact that Paul’s attribution of Billy Budd to Joseph Conrad doesn’t set off any red flags makes it even funnier. Later, Paul tells Claude that Winston Churchill (born 1874) wrote parts of War and Peace (1869). Claude is fascinated to learn this.

Other sections of the novel are slapstick. There’s a lot of language play. There’s a bit of bathroom humor to keep things from getting too serious. There are touches of romantic comedy. And, as the plot careens toward its climax, there’s a lot of good, old-fashioned absurdity.

Murray also recognizes that every story needs love. At one point, the bankers debate whether or not a great novel has ever failed to deliver on a love story. Claude offers 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. His colleague, Ish, retorts, “Every story needs love. Even at the bottom of the sea.” So there are love stories. Claude falls for a Greek waitress named Ariadne. Paul struggles in his relationship with his wife. Ish tries to write herself into a romantic narrative. And, perhaps most significantly, there is the homosocial love affair between Paul and Claude.

In the end, Murray pulls off the impossible. He writes a funny, poignant, human, and philosophical novel about an investment banker. It raises deep questions. It makes shallow jokes. It argues for the need of arts and philosophy in the face of global consumer capitalism. It unpacks ideologies that are so prevalent they seem natural. Throughout the reading, it feels like we’re being conned, not so much by Paul Murray as by the world outside the novel. Still, for all the weight the novel carries, Murray takes care to make the experience of reading the book a whole lot of fun.

Baseball Anthology

We’re deep into the Major League Baseball playoffs, my local team is struggling for their lives, and, sadly, I’m not that interested.  I was a huge baseball fan when I was a kid.  With every year, my interest seems to wane a little more.  The one publication that has retained my interest in the sport is ZiskZisk bills itself as the “baseball magazine for people who hate baseball magazines.”  You could end that sentence one word early and it would come closer to how I feel about the magazine.

Still, I read Zisk faithfully.  I always enjoy it.  Perhaps the most exciting news out of the Zisk world is the publication of Fan Interference, an anthology of writing from Zisk.  The anthology features some of my favorite pieces from Zisk over the years.  It also includes a story I wrote about my love/hate relationship with baseball called “The Last Days at Fulton County Stadium.”

If you’re interested in ordering the book, you can get it directly from the publisher or from Atomic Books in Baltimore.  It’s also available on Amazon.

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Hollywood Pretty

sean_illo_39_by_brad_beshawIn the movie The Hours, Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf walks halfway down her stairs and pauses.  Inspiration has struck.  She tells her husband that she believes she has the first line of a novel.  The film cuts to her sitting comfortable in a writing chair among the soft morning light and using her favorite pen on lovely paper to construct what becomes the word-for-word first sentence of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

I like this scene because it’s absurd.  It’s absolutely nothing like the real life process of writing.  Novels are inspired, sure, but that inspiration doesn’t visit us from up high like a muse or like God handing down the fifteen commandments to Moses*.  Instead, novels linger in our imagination for days or months or years until we finally decide it’s time to let them live outside our imagination.

When I pause to think I have the perfect first sentence, it doesn’t emerge as a complete sentence.  Like everyone, I have ideas that I have to translate into words, and translations evolve from the idea to the idea’s representation on the page.

And writing novels isn’t scenic and softly lit.  It’s a daily process of hammering out a few words, paragraphs, or pages until, several months later, you actually have something.  Then there are the years of revision.  The first sentences of every novel I’ve written came at least a year after the original draft of the novel was complete.  They are all revisions.  The first sentence of Madhouse Fog was one of the last things I wrote.

Also, Virginia Woolf looked nothing like Nicole Kidman, and the first sentence of Mrs. Dalloway isn’t that cool.

Then again, I’m a very different writer from Virginia Woolf.  Woolf said that writers need to have a room of one’s own and a monthly stipend that allows one to focus solely on writing.  I still don’t have either of those things.  And it’s okay.  Charles Bukowski said something like, “No writer who could write worth a damn could write in peace.”  I believe in that.  Not because it’s necessarily true.  Just because it’s a better representation of the world I live in.

So in honor of these thoughts, I want to include a column that I wrote for Razorcake back in 2007.  It’s about writing the first draft of Drinks for the Little Guy.  I think it’s an honest representation of what writing a first novel was like for me.  It’s definitely not pretty like a Hollywood movie.

Here’s a link to download the PDF of the column: Carswell_Column_Razorcake_39

*Perhaps you were thinking there were only ten commandments.  You forget that God handed Moses fifteen, and he dropped the stone tablet with the first ten.  At least that’s the way Mel Brooks and I remember it.