edmund white, “caracole”

Edmund White
Caracole
(Plume, 1986)


Edmund White’s narrative works might be divided into four categories: first, the obliquely fabulist early novels which are relatively forgotten (Forgetting Elena, Nocturnes for the King of Naples); second, the autobiographical fiction he’s best known for (A Boy’s Own Story on); third, the memoirs (My Lives, City Boy); and fourth, the historical fiction (Fannie: A Fiction, Hotel de Dream). There’s a rough chronological progression across these forms: autobiographical novels lead fairly naturally to memoirs. His biographies might be lumped in that third category; and it’s a small jump to go from writing biography to fictionalizing biography in his historical fiction. This isn’t a straight progression, of course: not everything fits into this rough schema. Caracole came out in 1985, after White had moved into autobiographical fiction; however, it hews much more closely to the mould of his first two novels. After reading White’s other works, however, one finds the autobiographical elements in this book can’t entirely be ignored. In City Boy, for example, White notes that his portrayal of Susan Sontag and her son in this book led to a break with them: reading it now, in the light of White’s subsequent autobiographical work, it’s hard to avoid this element of the book. A cosmopolitan uncle who rescues a nephew from an intractable home situation clearly has parallels in White’s own life in the 1970s; but most of the other characters in this book resist immediate identification.

This is not a roman à clef: this is the straightest of White’s books, and pseudoreality prevails, as it does in Proust’s The Captive and The Fugitive. At the same time, one understands, reading this book, why White would have shared an issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction with Samuel R. Delany, as this isn’t a world away from the spirit of Delany’s Nevèrÿon fantasies. The setting is a city: White’s description of the book in City Boy suggests that it’s nineteenth-century Venice, but abundant indirection makes it clear that the city is not entirely a resurrected version of that city, though it is marine, does have carnivals, and many of its characters sport Italian names. Bits of Rome’s geography are recognizable, and there’s a distinction between a lazy South and an industrious North. The first chapter begins in a crumbling rural villa, a setting almost Southern gothic; mention of conquerers suggests empire, but not quite a recognizable one. Christianity doesn’t seem to exist, perhaps a nod to Carlo Levi’s “Christ stopped at Eboli”; those outside the city are described as living in tribes, and there are other kingdoms. Courtliness is emphasized inside the city; but the interactions of the characters might be those of New York in the 1970s. This is an imagined world: though one that, like all fiction, takes the outside world with it.

The first chapter depicts the novel’s young protagonist, Gabriel, in his decaying home in the countryside; he lives with his corpulent mother and feral younger siblings, visited occasionally by a distant father. In the woods, he finds a girl, Angelica; he marries her in her tribe’s ceremonies, but is discovered by his father, who, in cahoots with his mistress, confines him in a cage. Angelica summons his powerful uncle in the city to rescue him; Mateo, a senator, brings Gabriel to the city and teaches him the ways of the court. White’s defamiliarization of the world goes down to the level of language. Here, for example, Gabriel’s early playmates (“sons of the old rural gentry”) are described:

One of them had a clay pig, small enough to fit into his pocket; it whistled one dry, low note when blown on the snout. The other knew the names of stones but he was the hardest to understand. Someone’s youngest brother he called “the Least One.” If he doubted a story, he said, “I don’t confidence you.” Windows he called “lights” and their hiding place in an oak bole he spoke of as the “plunder room.” Where the creek fanned out into a hundred rivulets, this child said, “That’s where it turkey-tailed,” and if a grown-up showed him special attention he’d ask later, “Why did he much me?” Both of Gabriel’s companions spoke in doubled nouns (“biscuit-bread,” “ham-meat,” sulfur-match”). Nor did they grasp what Gabriel meant when he said once, “Have a nice weekend.” After a while it turned out their families worked every day and the notion of a weekend was beyond their means. (p. 7)

This linguistic slipperiness carries into the courtly world, where it is carefully cultivated and put to use:

When Mathilda asked Mateo to bring Gabriel to his very first reception at her house, Mateo assumed she was merely being polite out of consideration for him, Mateo. More than once she’d assured him she knew what it was like to be stuck with a child in their nearly childless world of artists and intellectuals; after all she (with Mateo’s distant if affectionate assistance) had raised a child, Daniel, who was now thirty and looked so nearly as though he were her brother that her maternity would have been suspect had not their celebrated, even infamous past together been so well documented. Nevertheless Mathilda was delighted when naïve or provincial people mistook Daniel for her brother or lover, and to increase the confusion she often referred to him coyly as “the darling.” This coyness was so unlike her that people expected to catch a sardonic smile and were shocked to see instead the sort of smile people wear when they speak of their pets. What few people knew was that an older child, a girl, had died when she was four. This loss had poisoned Mathilda’s joy in motherhood at the same time it had intensified her love for – no longer “my son” but “the darling.” (p. 93)

The civilization that White depicts is a mannerist one: this is a book less baroque than rococo. Cultivating relationships is important, but most important is to find a language in which that relationship might be depicted. In the first chapter, Gabriel’s relationship with Angelica jumps from animalic sex to a declaration to his mother that he intends to marry her (whatever that might mean to the two of them) to a marriage in her tribe’s rites, which he does not understand; then he is taken away from Angelica entirely and begins to desire her while building fantasies around an invented woman. On Mateo’s unrequited love for an actress:

Love is a progressive illness, one that starts as self-hallucination, an act of parody, and ends as a wholly real, involuntary malady that kills us or something vital in us. Mateo could never quite understand when or why he’d fallen so terminally in love with Edwige, but he suspected that whereas when could be answered, as least theoretically, why could not. Nevertheless he speculated at such length on his own condition he sometimes imagined that the function of love was to be a point de repère, an enigma so bright it distracted attentions from bigger fears. (p. 84)

The novel proceeds in a spiral fashion, jumping back on itself as it moves between its characters – or more precisely, between the relationships between its characters. Among its other meanings, caracole is “snail” in Spanish and Portuguese; in architecture in English, it may mean a spiral staircase. The most common English meaning is a half-turn on a horse; the OED qualifies this by noting that “Many writers have used the word without any clear notion of its meaning”.

joshua cohen, “cadenza for the schneidermann violin concerto”

cadenza for the schneidermann violin concertoJoshua Cohen
Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto
(Fugue State Press, 2007)


This book is a rant, one that goes on for 380 pages. It’s impossible, when discussing the rant as literature now, to escape the influence of Thomas Bernhard, who looms large in this book. The narrator of a much smaller book, William Gaddis’s Agapē Agape midrant on Bernhard’s Concrete addresses the problem of Bernhard:

Where the tissues, just get cold water on it stop the bleeding, you see? Scrape my wrist against this drawer corner tears the skin open blood all over the place it doesn’t hurt no, skin’s like parchment that’s the prednisone, turns the skin into dry old parchment tear it open with a feather that’s the prednisone, reach for a book reach for anything tear myself to pieces reaching for this book listen, you’ll see what I mean, opening page you’ll see what I mean, “From March to December” he says, “while I was having to take large quantities of prednisolone,” same thing as prednisone, “I assembled every possible book and article written by” you see what I mean? “and visited every possible and impossible library” this whole pile of books and papers here? “preparing myself with the most passionate seriousness for the task, which I had been dreading throughout the preceding winter, of writing” where am I here, yes, “a major work of impeccable scholarship. It had been my intention to devote the most careful study to all these books and articles and only then, having studied them with all the thoroughness the subject deserved, to begin writing my work, which I believed would leave far behind it and far beneath it everything else, both published and unpublished” you see what this is all about? “I had been planning it for ten years and had repeatedly failed to bring it to fruition,” but of course you don’t no, no that’s the whole point of it! It’s my opening page, he’s plagiarized my work right here in front of me before I’ve ever written it! (11–12)

The narrator of Concrete is of course writing on Mendelsohn; the narrator of Joshua Cohen’s book, a violin player named Laster, is speaking about a fictional composer named Schneidermann. (Prednisone, for what it’s worth, appears on p. 100 of Schneidermann.) One thinks past Agapē Agape to J R’s Edward Bast, another New York composer whose musical dreams keep getting shifted downwards by the world. Thematically, the Bernhard novel that leaps most quickly to mind is The Loser, a book about a talented musician friend misunderstood by the world, though stylistically this book is closer to Concrete. Laster, a violin player, has just played Schneidermann’s sole work, the titular violin concerto at Carnegie Hall; in lieu of the cadenza, he holds forth from the stage all night, a textual, rather than a musical, cadenza.

How does one escape the shadow of Bernhard? This doesn’t look like a Bernhard book: rather than a single long paragraph there are frequent breaks, often mid-sentence, which are given a triple indent. (A ragged right margin also makes this look slightly less like standard prose.) The indents seem to function as pauses for breath: most of these breaks appear mid-sentence, but the sentences run on and on, generally only reaching an end when they detour into rhetorical questions. Occasionally the indents move further in, an interesting choice for what is such an oral book: toward the end, when section breaks become more frequent, the margins shift more often, seeming less like prose and more like poetry. Though Bernhard’s books are deeply concerned with voice, they are not oral: they are written documents through and through, a writer attempting to explain something. Here, a speaker attempts to explain things; though there’s an exhortation to the audience at the beginning, we never hear from the audience, and one wonders, finally, if they exist at all. Carnegie Hall is, of course, available for rental: this might simply by a monomaniac’s indulgence.

One can’t help wondering, in a book like this, about the audience. The book takes as its subject the artist unjustly ignored; as a novel, it’s positioning itself similarly, in the tradition not only of Bernhard but also of Stanley Elkin, whose voices I can hear in this. Allusions to Henry Roth and perhaps J R also appear. I think also of Evan Dara’s two books, the first-person narration of which has a similar feel, though in those the perspective shifts seemlessly between characters; there’s no escape from Laster’s vice-like grip in this book. And the audience comes into play as well because the question of the survival of High Art – in the form of the classical tradition in music – is an immense part of the book. There’s a decided similarity in tone, if not in form, to the later David Markson novels, which stack up trivia about artists, ostensibly against oblivion. Schneidermann implicitly parallels the classical tradition to the survival of the Jews: it’s hard to know what to feel about that. The reader of this book is Cohen’s audience as much as the possibly non-existent audience in Carnegie Hall is Laster’s; one struggles to find a place to listen appreciatively while suspecting a certain amount of contempt. Maybe it’s not contempt: maybe it’s simply that the audience is by and large ignored. I wonder about that. I wonder as well about the narrative voice, which is, among other things, unlikeable: in an age when any other book is nearly instantly accessible, I wonder about the readers who have the temerity to persevere with such a voice. The audience is being challenged; Laster’s audience in the book don’t see fit to take up his challenge.

Writing about classical music in New York in 2007 is necessarily different from writing about classical music in Vienna when Bernhard was alive. I wonder, as well, about a young writer taking up an old man’s voice: while it works surprisingly well, it’s hard for the reader to get around the knowledge that this is very much an imagined past. (This might be the source of the repeated references to Thomas Taylor’s Hymns of Orpheus, which float behind this book.)

A parallel might be drawn between Schneidermann and James McCourt’s under-appreciated Now Voyagers, though that book was created under the shadow of Joyce rather than Bernhard and took as its subjects gays and the opera world in New York in the wake of AIDS rather than Jews and the symphonic after the Holocaust. The two books are constructed entirely differently: and McCourt’s is the work of an old man rather than a young one. But both attempt to reconstruct a world against oblivion; and neither of these books seems to have found its audience yet.

jeremy m. davies, “rose alley”

Jeremy M. Davies
Rose Alley
(Counterpath, 2009)


It’s a bit surprising to me how poorly Perec’s novels are read in this country. Everyone knows of A Void, at least by reputation, though few seem to have actually read it, or to have any idea of the reasons that Perec might have for using a lipogram in that book. There was a smattering of interest in the new edition of Life a User’s Manual, but one didn’t really sense that a lot of people were picking that up with the enthusiasm it deserves; it’s a book that people seem afraid of, which is unjust. One almost never hears anything about W, maybe because it was out of print in English for a while, though it’s an astonishingly powerful book. The book of Perec’s that one sees most often, around New York at least, is Species of Spaces, maybe because it was taken up by architects. But it’s hard to point to much recent American fiction (with the obvious exclusion of Harry Mathews) that bears the influence of Perec, which is odd: the short shelf of his work would seem to be a cookbook full of recipes for potential books.

This, however, is an extremely Perec-y novel, down to its index of locations, people, and works of art; I will admit that I am a sucker for a novel with an index. (Stanley Crawford has also played with that form, in Some Instructions, and of course there’s The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium.) The novel is based around a failed film shot in Paris in 1969; the film, also to be titled Rose Alley, after the spot in London where John Dryden was attacked in 1679 by thugs who may have been hired by the libertine John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, who was upset with Dryden’s verse.

A description of an earlier film by the director and screenwriter of Rose Alley (the film) seems like it could easily describe how Rose Alley (the book) works:

This was a collection of miniatures, thirteen still lifes in thirteen continuous shots, ninety seconds in duration each. An elaborate system of eleven predetermined categories, subcategories, and corresponding lists of objects matching each classification – either likely, unlikely, invented, or inconceivable – was coauthored by Krause and Wexler. (p. 8)

The book has thirteen chapters, all but one based around a character associated with the film; while each chapter takes off from a character, there is no dialogue, and no sense that any action is happening in real time, and stories tend to go backwards (and occasionally forwards) in time. Each chapter is structured around a character, but not in the voice of the character. The reader has the feeling that there’s some logic structuring these episodes, but what, exactly, that logic might be is never entirely clear. One thinks, of course, of Raymond Roussel, who came up with this method of structuring a book (I presume it’s not an accident that “Rose Alley” sounds like “Roussel-y”; other echoes of Roussel can be found through the text) and his followers: there are echoes of the organization of Life a User’s Manual and especially Mathews’s Cigarettes. (Mathews blurbed the book; he also appears obliquely inside the book, when the screenwriter has a poem rejected by Locus Solus, the journal he edited with Ashbery, Koch, and Schuyler.

Chapter 12 is the work’s clinamen: titled “Poet Squab”, it tells the story of Dryden’s quarrel with Rochester through what seems to be collaged text. One function of the book’s index is here revealed: some sources can be gleaned from entries such as “Burnet, Gilbert, 151 (qtd.)“: text from Burnet’s Life of Rochester appears on that page, though Burnet’s name does not. The index also allows the reader to trace narratives through the book: Chapter 6 tells the story of Wilhelmina Princep, a name which hasn’t appeared in the book to that point. Turning to her entry in the index, however, the reader discovers that she’s made eight different appearances in the text under different names. This is a carefully constructed book, and one that demands re-reading.

An index begs the question of who’s constructing it: the shadowy narrator, one presumes, is the only one who might know all of Wilhelmina’s guises, and all of his textual borrowings. The first-person narrator appears in the first sentence of the book and disappears in the last; one might assume that he’s a film historian, tracing out what happened to Rose Alley. Curiously, in the first sentence, he declares that he’s never been to Paris. But we quickly forget the idea of the narrator as a real figure when we move into the minds of the characters themselves in his description of them; by the next paragraph, he’s deep inside of Evelyn Nevers’s head, describing how a saltcellar stands as an analogue for her lover Prosper Sforza in her mind. (One might find Duchamp in that saltcellar; maybe that’s a reach.) This narrator might be an overly presumptuous historian, trying to tie things together; there’s also the hint that the narrator might be the subject of the last chapter, the film’s director Selwyn Wexler. It’s Wexler, we’re told early on, who’s most interested in Dryden and Rochester; in the penultimate chapter, we’re finally given his project for the film:

Wexler’s idea was that the cast and crew would find out as much as they could about their characters and the background of the film. Read Rochester and Dryden. Writer their own dialogue. Even the ones who couldn’t speak English. Myrna would be unnecessary. Everyone would be unnecessary. There wouldn’t be any need for props or sets. Which they didn’t really have anyway. The only necessary thing would be an organizing intelligence. Wexler’s. And the camera. The characters would relate directly to this eye. They would make their own context. (p. 144)

The narrator, perhaps, might be the camera’s eye; the first sentence (and another sentence towards the end of the book, where the narrator says he’s only been to London once) might well be misdirection. In the final chapter, the narrator describes a succession of versions of Rose Alley, all unfinished; the twelfth is the film diaries of Wexler. The thirteenth, we are led to believe, is this book, which invites careful re-reading.

danielle dutton, “attempts at a life”

Danielle Dutton
Attempts at a Life
(Tarpulin Sky, 2007)


The first story in this book, “Jane Eyre,” effectively rewrites that novel as if it had been written by Robert Walser, with the short sentences, friendly appeal to the reader, and self-abasement of his narrators. It’s an exercise in compression: 400 pages become five and a half. Brontë’s book is rendered strange and unfamiliar. One realizes that the opposite process could be applied, and Walser’s short stories could be stretched out to become novels: but a good deal of Walser’s charm comes from his compression: The Assistant and especially The Tanners suffer in comparison to the magic of his shorter works. From the first paragraph, covering the first few chapters of the novel:

I read a lot early in life, and seriously craved love, but was accused of being a liar by my own family and set away to learn to sell my soul to the Lord, and also to knit. Abandoned at school, I befriended an extraordinary girl who soon died like a martyr in a series of consumptive fits. Small but a natural watcher, I lived on through that season of death to learn to speak French and to draw. (p. 3)

This is very funny, of course (the dangling “and also to knit” threatening to tip over the sentence); but the Jane Eyre narrating this story is a very different person from the one who narrates the novel, who couldn’t be imagined telling her story in this way. This much compression implies distance – be it ironic or damaged – a comprehension of one’s life as a written thing. It’s not by accident that one of the few details of Jane Eyre’s early life given above is how much she read: these are bookish pieces, as one might expect from a story rewriting a novel in the voice of another writer. A section named “Some Sources” at the end suggests that Robert Duncan’s “An African Elegy” feeds into “Jane Eyre”; the lines quoted in the poem describe Virginia Woolf, who isn’t mentioned directly in the notes. This is a story, one senses, about the way in which a life can be told; this comes through in the content of the story (a canonical story about the subjection of a woman) but more strongly through the style of the story, in the way that it scrutinizes how women write and are written about.

An argument could be made that these pieces are prose poetry, but there’s an emphasis on narrative that isn’t usually stressed so much in prose poetry. But like prose poetry (I’m thinking of Mallarmé), this is a firmly written language: they couldn’t really exist in spoken form, because they have to exist on the page. This comes out most clearly in the centerpiece of the book, “Everybody’s Autobiography, or Nine Attempts at a Life.” The title, of course, is from Gertrude Stein’s second autobiography, the first that she wrote in her own voice: rather than assuming Alice Toklas’s voice, she became everybody. In this piece there are nine short sections (several only a paragraph long), each with a first-person narrator explaining, in a different way, their life. The notes in the back suggest that it uses material from Jerome Rothenberg anthology of Modernist artists and poets Revolution of the Word, and it seems like the text was collaged from their biographies and works: though nothing quite adds up, and there’s the feeling that the reader is listening to Modernist ghosts reciting their lives. The language is familiar, but strange: the ninth section starts “I was born circa 1877 in Pennsylvania, and died in 1949” (p. 32); the narrator of the fifth, born in Mexico City in 1946, travels to Europe in 1972 and meets a woman who kills herself in 1950.

The language here is interesting: one can’t really say that one was born “circa 1877” (“circa” itself being the sort of word one finds in print more often than one hears it), or narrate stories with paradoxical holes in their plots with the assumption that a listener will believe. One can’t say “I died” because that’s a lie: if the speaker had died, he couldn’t be speaking. There has to be a suspension of disbelief. One could say it, maybe in the context of a play as there’s a suspension of disbelief inherent in the theater, but even there it doesn’t work: the audience would perceive the character as lying. There’s not quite the same convention of realism – we know that what’s happening before us is, in at least one sense, fake, being performed by actors who are not characters. Shakespeare, it’s worth noting, doesn’t show us sixteenth-century England directly. There’s a scene in de Chirico’s novel Hebdomeros where a play is being performed; a fight breaks out, and the viewers are confused as to whether it’s a real fight, the same conundrum that opens Joseph McElroy’s Actress in the House.

On the page, however, “I died” can be said: it’s a received convention of fiction that we can be spoken to by dead people. We accept the characters of a nineteenth-century novel behaving in a way that seems nonsensical because there is that suspension of disbelief: we’re willing to admit the possibility that the contemporaries of the novelist did behave that way. (A historical novel presents something very different, of course.) And in a sense, of course, books are the way dead people talk to us: a dead person can’t write, but someone who wrote can be dead. This is fantastically strange, but we tend to take it for granted.

It’s to Dutton’s credit that she gets at this: not hitting the reader over the head with it, but suggesting. That’s how, in a way, the sources in the back of this little book function: none really gives away what’s going on in the story they ostensibly inform, but they send the reader off to other books. This is a book with a perfect epigraph, from Gertrude Stein’s Lectures in America:

And it is necessary if you are to be really and truly alive it is necessary to be at once talking and listening, doing both things, not as if there were one things, not as if they were two things, but doing them, well if you like, like the motor doing inside and the car moving, they are part of the same thing.

henry green, “concluding”

Henry Green
Concluding
(Dalkey Archive; originally 1948)


It’s hard not to tear through the last Henry Green novel I have left, Concluding. Still on the shelf is Surviving, the volume of odds and ends put together by Matthew Yorke. I am glad I went through Caught and Back before Concluding: this book is not so consumed with World War II. Rather, it’s class that concerns Green; this is a usual subject for him, though here it appears in a different sense entirely that what might be expected. No two novels by Green that are entirely similar – Nothing and Doting, maybe, though I’m not sure how well that holds up – but this might be the oddest of them. Maybe this is why I like Green so much: after eight novels, he still surprises.

The plot takes place over a day; the previous night, two girls disappear from a girl’s school. The two administrators of the school, Miss Edge and Miss Baker, are more concerned with scheming on how to get an elderly scientist, Mr. Rock, to leave his house on their grounds; Mr. Rock does not want to leave, as he lives happily with his cat, goose, and pig, named Alice, Ted, and Daisy, respectively, as well as his granddaughter, Elizabeth, who is recovering from a nervous breakdown. At the school, a dance, for Founder’s Day, is to happen that night.

This is a lighter book than Back and Caught, almost pastoral, though this is a pastoral distinctly tinged with shadow. The image of dappled sunlight and shadow is one that comes up repeatedly here; this happens down to the level of the book’s sinuous sentences, which often start in one place and end some place else altogether. Here, Miss Marchbanks, interim administrator, considers what to do:

Extremely short-sighted, she had taken off her spectacles and put these on Miss Edge’s desk as though, in the crisis, at a time when she had been left in charge, she wished to look inwards, to draw on hid reserves, and thus to meet the drain on her resolution which the absence of the girls had opened like an ulcer high under the ribs, where it fluttered, a blood stained dove with tearing claws. (p. 39)

Or this love scene:

“Adams won’t like this,” she said, and turned with a smile which was for him alone to let him take her, and helped his heart find hers by fastening her mouth on his as though she were an octopus that had lost it’s arms to the propellers of a tug, and had only its mouth now with which, in a world of the hunted, to hang onto wrecked spars. (p. 46)

Immediately after this, one of the missing girls is found; but we never entirely learn what happened to her. Nor are her superiors in a hurry to find out.

There is something odd about this book. One notices first that Miss Edge tends to capitalize many of her nouns. At first one assumes this is cod-Victorian emphasis, though one wouldn’t expect that in a book by Green; likewise, the girls of the school all have names starting with “M,” which might be a stylistic choice to show off how interchangeable the girls seem to be. But as the book progresses, it becomes clear that the world that this book takes place in might not be a realistic portrait of Britain in the late 1940s, as one might have assumed from Green’s other books. Halfway through the book, letters arrive for Edge and Baker from a state functionary, directing them that a change has been decided upon, and the girls are to be trained to be professional pig farmers, because there is not enough opportunity for the girls in the “State Service”. We seem to be in a socialist Britain, albeit one that still has a queen. Going back to the beginning, the book reads differently; it becomes strange. We find Mr. Rock explaining to Adams how he got his cottage: “Why, when the State took over from the owner, and founded this Institute to train State Servants, it was even in the Directive that I was to stay in my little place” (p. 7). This doesn’t particularly stick out the first time through: all institutional language is affected and mildly ridiculous.

But here is the reason that Edge and Baker aren’t particularly interested in the girl’s disappearances: it will mean an agony of reports. Elizabeth explains to Mr. Rock, her grandfather, how things are, with particular reference to her lover, one of the girls’ teachers:

“You see, when you’re young and all that,” she went on, “starting in the State Service, because I know, Gapa, I’ve done it, things have so changed since your day, well then, then slightest bad report he gets and he’ll never receive promotion. Never. It isn’t a story, honest. No redress, nothing. And you realise what an Enquiry means, if you appeal against one of these awful Reports. It’s the end. Absolutely. Even if you think you’ve brought it back, it boomerangs back onto you. (p. 143)

An explanation for the other girl’s continued disappearance becomes apparent: Mary was orderly to Edge and Baker and was worn out from working, so she’s run away from the Institute. The delusional Edge considers this possibility and dismisses it:

Because they all knew that attendance on Baker and herself was an honour for which every one of the girls longed, it was just the little extra to be intimately close to them both. Nevertheless, she saw how the whole thing could be made to look if Mary did not come back soon, how black if this latest fantastic story was allowed to creep around. (p. 131)

Another explanation becomes apparent later: the girls, it turns, might not be as innocent (or as interchangeable) as they might appear. But, as the title suggests, nothing is ever concluded.

It’s not entirely surprising that this should turn out to be speculative fiction – the book did appear in the window between Animal Farm and 1984, and one might assume that something was in the air in Britain after the war – but it’s a surprise to be getting this from Green. The politics aren’t particularly surprising: Green never tries to disguise the fact that he was upper class, despite his empathy for the lower classes. It might make sense that this is the book Green wrote after Back; following this, he turned (self-consciously, presumably) to the upper-class trifles of Doting and Nothing, a turn that might be seen as a retreat if those books weren’t so good in their own rights.

henry green, “back”

Henry Green
Back
(Dalkey Archive; originally 1946)


It’s hard for me to get around how good Henry Green was; one starts every novel expecting that this might be the one to let you down, but it doesn’t happen. Back might be seen as a sequel to Caught, the third of a rough trilogy starting with Pack My Bag, his oblique memoir: besides being the books that don’t have a participle for the name (leaving aside the early Blindness), these are books that document Britain during World War II: they show how things were, not how they are. They’re not as funny as his others, of course; Pack My Bag seems to have been written in a stately panic, while Caught comes out of the claustrophobia of the Blitz. Back seems to follow from the haunting final section of Caught, where Richard Roe has been evacuated to the country and is talking obsessively about what happened to him; but Charley Summers, the protagonist of Caught, seems to be the opposite of Roe: he can’t speak at all about what happened in a German prison camp, though one of his legs is missing.

For all its documentary force, Back is very much a novel – more explicitly so than Caught. There is a clearly constructed situation, with two different triads of children and parents. Charley, before leaving for the war, had an affair with Rose, who was married to James; Rose died while Charley was a POW, but she did have a son, named Ridley, that both Charley and James believe to be their own. (The reader is given no hints as to the parentage of this child; we view this through the lens of Charley, but his judgment is shown to be deeply faulty.) And Rose’s father, Mr. Graves, had another daughter, Nancy, by a different mother. After Charley returns, he visits Rose’s parents; Mr. Graves sends him obliquely to visit Nancy, not mentioning who she is. When Charley finally meets her, he thinks that she is a revenant Rose; there, paternity is the source of identity. With Ridley, who he sees for the first time not knowing who he is, he can reach no conclusions about paternity:

He was appalled that the first sight of the boy had meant nothing. Because one of the things he had always hung on to was that blood spoke, or called, to blood. (p. 9)

This incident, at the start of the book, sets the rest of the plot in motion. Having met Nancy through Mr. Graves’s machinations, he confuses her with her half-sister; there seems to be no real resemblance between the two women that any one else notices. This is not the first familial confusion in the book: visiting Rose’s parents, her mother, under strain, imagines Charley to be her dead brother. He chalks it up to the war; others, noting his confusion about Nancy/Rose assume the same of him.

What’s most interesting about Back are the odd relationships engendered by the war: Charley is on friendly behavior with the man he ostensibly cuckolded before the war, and on friendly behavior with Rose’s parents. There is no mention of Charley’s own parents; we might assume that they are dead. But it’s worth noting that Charley doesn’t pursue a relationship with Ridley, whom he believes to be his son; once, he makes a sign to the boy, putting his finger to his lips, but this is their only real communication. It’s the substitute family that becomes his: when Mr. Graves has a stroke, he visits often, and is there when Mr. Graves finally dies. This switch isn’t his alone: Mrs. Graves, who knows of the extramarital liaison that produced Nancy, has Charley bring Nancy to her house when Mr. Graves is dying; Nancy moves in and effectively becomes the couple’s daughter. Nancy does have a mother of her own, of course, with whom, she takes care to note, she was the best of friends; but the mother has been evacuated to the country and doesn’t appear. (Nor does James – the son-in-law of the Graveses and father of their grandchild – appear when his father-in-law is dying.) When Nancy and Charley finally decide to get marred, they plan to live with Mrs. Graves: an odd family of elective affinities.

Everything ends happily, or reasonably so, with a marriage on the way: it’s very much a novel in that way. It’s entertaining to watch Charley to bumble his way through his job, his life, and his relationships with women. But Back is a book about trauma; reading it, I found myself thinking again and again of David Cronenberg’s underrated Spider (based on a novel by Patrick McGrath that I haven’t read), another closely-observed story about a damaged man returning home after years spent away. The viewer of Cronenberg’s film doesn’t know what happened to Clegg in the mental hospital, though it can be assumed to be terrible; nor do we know what happened to Charley Summers in Germany. He does make one tiny admission about what happened to him, two sentences, ten pages from the end of the book: these two sentences don’t describe what happened directly to him, just how he was living, and they hit the reader with the blow of a hammer. We realize just how much has been unsaid in this narrative. Moments like this are scattered through the book: when Mrs. Graves admits to Charley that she knows about her husband’s other daughter, for example, and we realize how complex real world relationships can be. Mr. Graves, stricken dumb by his stroke but still conscious, can only watch the reassembly of a family (his wife, Nancy, Charley) which goes on in front of him on his deathbed. There’s little mention of Charley’s missing leg in the book, though it must cause him a great deal of trouble; most characters seem not to notice it, and even a doctor is surprised to hear that he has a missing leg. All these things have been swept under the rug, necessary, one supposes, for survival during wartime.

jean-philippe toussaint, “self-portrait abroad”

Jean-Philippe Touissant
Self-Portrait Abroad
(trans. John Lambert)
(Dalkey Archive, 2010)


What, precisely, is this book? My copy is a galley; the front cover and the title page say “Self-Portrait Abroad, a novel by Jean-Philippe Toussaint”; on the cover, the category tags it as “fiction”. The info sheet tucked inside this copy says that in the book “our narrator – a Belgian author much like Toussaint himself – travels the globe”. The Library of Congress headings on the copyright page don’t suggest that it’s fiction, rather tagging it travel. To the reader, it doesn’t feel like a novel: this is a small book, a collection of short travel pieces that might have appeared separately in a newspaper, as I thought I heard Toussaint indicate last Friday in his appearance at BookCourt. Were one coming at this book as a tabula rasa, one would probably not tag it a novel.

This book might be thought of as falling between genres in tradition of Butor: his Mobile, while formally much more experimental, takes the same approach to travel. At the end of that book, the reader has an idea of Butor’s sensibility, what interests him; but a sense of Butor as a traveler is entirely lacking, and one wonders whether Butor actually took the trip laid out in the book. Toussaint’s approach is more personal (a bit more like Butor’s later, and more stylistically restrained, The Spirit of Mediterranean Places), but there is the same vagueness: if this is memoir, it’s considerably oblique one. It’s certainly not trying to be travel writing, as that’s usually understood: one can’t learn very much about places from this book. (“Seen from above, at four thousand feet,” the narrator writes in the first paragraph of “Tokyo,” “there isn’t much difference between the Pacific and the Mediterranean.”) Rather, as the title suggests, we learn about the narrator.

The narrator sees not where he is, but where he’s from. On his arrival in Tokyo, a Corsican friend insists on filling him in on what happened there; he is “perfectly indifferent to the surrounding atmosphere,” an indifference that the narrator seems to share: “Although it was pastis time,” the narrator notes, “we contented ourselves with green tea.” The section named “Hobg Kong” describes that city from a bench in its airport and, most notably, from the airplane prior to arriving in the city. The subjectivity of the narrator is paramount:

The silent cabin of my sleepy seven-forty-seven was still convinced of its being night, however, as it flew in perfect stillness toward Tokyo to the hushed drowning of its motors, my watch showing one o’clock in the morning, the other passengers dozing around me in the feeble light, the small plastic blinds on the window carefully lowered, to say nothing of my own fatigue after seven or eight hours of flight, my eyes heavy and closing softly, yes, everything seemed to indicate that it was night – apart from one important detail: it was now broad daylight outside. (p. 13)

There’s an accuracy to this depiction: while a clock declares one time, the passengers understand it to be something else entirely, just as the airplane only appears to be still to those inside with windows closed, so the relative motion of the rest of the world can’t be noticed. The passengers arrive in a city still in the grips of this disjunction, in no state to understand anything. The airport becomes a dreamscape, and we understand the behavior of the narrator earlier in the piece; the airport is anything but an interesting place, but it seems impossible to traverse. One wonders what the great novels of airports are; Brian Eno’s Music for Airports gets at this feeling with its etherial, possibly inhuman, choirs.

One thinks back past Butor to another French traveler, Raymond Roussel, who traveled all over Africa in his specially designed motorhome and famously didn’t bother to look out the window. This is the conspicuous consumption of the idle rich; but Roussel also realized that enough narrative to fill any number of books could be found in anything – the label on a bottle of water, for example – and that the act of looking could be more important that what you actually looked at. (Dalí tried to run with this in his film Impressions de la Haute Mongolie – Hommage à Raymond Roussel – skip to about forty minutes into the bloated film for the big reveal, that the seemingly abstract landscapes of the second half of the film were in fact generated by zooming in on the the ferrule of a pen that Dalí urinated on with an electron microscope.) Robbe-Grillet is also in the background, of course: a number of his novels are set overseas, but one forgets this because Robbe-Grillet is never that interested in his setting: Project for a Revolution in New York could have happened anywhere; a more direct antecedent to Toussaint’s novel, La maison de rendez-vous, another of the later, kind of terrible Robbe-Grillet book, is as inconsequentially set in Hong Kong, taking only chinoiserie from its location.

This is a slight book, tracing out an itinerary across Asia and Europe, dropping south to Sfax, the town in Tunisia that Georges Perec described in Les choses; Japan has the most pages devoted to it, but it’s difficult to work out whether multiple trips are being described or the same trip split into moments. Time is a focus: the individual pieces go back and forth in time. In the last piece in the book, the narrator describes returning to Kyoto (a previous piece has indeed been about Kyoto) and trying to be overcome by emotions; he is not, though the setting is right, and he describes a desolate landscape as straightforwardly as he does in the book. The ending is uncharacteristically emotional, and suggests that the jumps back and forth in time are not verbal acrobatics but an attempt at something else:

This wasn’t the first time I’d seen a place I’d frequented in the past disappear in this way, the transformation of a location I’d known, but seeing this desolate spectacle, this abandoned station out of bounds behind iron bars, this deserted station with its disused platforms, whose tracks had become a craggy rain-soaked wasteland and whose main hall with its ticketing machines was now a junkyard where a rickety turnstile lay askew in the mud, I realized that time had passed since I’d left Kyoto. And if this affected me so deeply on that day, it was not only because my senses, numbed by the prevailing grayness and the alcohol in my blood, naturally put me in a melancholic frame of mind, it was also because I suddenly felt sad and powerless at this brusque testimony to the passage of time. It was hardly the result of conscious reasoning, but rather the concrete and painful, fleeting and physical feeling that I myself was part and parcel of time and its passing. Until then, the feeling of being carreid along by time had always been attenuated by the fact that I wrote – until then, in a way, writing had been a means of resisting the current that bore me along, a way of inscribing myself in time, of setting landmarks in the immateriality of its flow, incisions, scratches. (pp. 83–84.)

The echoes of Proust (and perhaps Leiris) here might be unexpected: the reader is sent back to read the book again, to make sense of this record again.

henry green, “caught”

Henry Green
Caught
(Harvill Press, 1943)


Caught seems to be the odd one out of Green’s books: it’s the only one that’s out of print in the United States. Berkley Medallion published a paperback in 1960 available on Amazon for wildly inflated prices; since then, as far as I can tell, potential readers have had to have recourse to the British edition. It’s also, and perhaps relatedly, the only book of Green’s that John Updike didn’t like, as he admits in his introduction to Loving/Living/Party Going. But the strangeness of the book really starts with the title: Caught is a verb, like most of Green’s other titles, but it’s in the past tense, not a gerund. Green’s other books describe how things are; this one describes how things were. Caught depicts a specific point in time – the Blitz in London – and was published soon afterwards (1943). There’s a documentary character to this book that isn’t in Green’s other novels; it feels much more like Pack My Bag, Green’s memoir of his youth than Loving, which followed two years later (and which is also set during World War II). Most of all, it’s not comic: there are comic elements, of course, but this is a much more serious book.

Caught describes the lives of firefighters in London at the start of World War II as they wait for the bombing of London to begin. It’s an exceptional state: no one behaves as they normally would, and no one is quite sure what the new rules are or how long this will last. The characters hang suspended: they are doing what they know is dangerous work; indeed, at the end of the book, a number of them are dead. The lives that they are living are unsustainable; the book ends with a coda where we learn that the central character, Richard Roe, has been sent home:

Some months later, after nine months of air raids on London, Roe was unlucky one morning. A bomb came too close. It knocked him out. He was sent home, superficially uninjured. They called it nervous debility. (p. 173)

The nine months of air raids on London fall into the eight blank lines above the beginning this section: they’re not described directly, though Roe haltingly attempts to describe them to his sister-in-law. But the disaster is not written about directly: preparations for it fill most of the book, and its repercussions finish the book. What happened can’t be described directly; maybe it’s something that can’t be explained. Green, it should be said, was a firefighter in London during the war; like Roe, he would have been upper class and somewhat out of place, but how closely Roe’s life corresponds to his, I don’t know. This is a book written in the middle of WWII; the grand narrative that came out of that war (of good defeating evil) had not yet been constructed, and whether the actions of the firemen in London were brave or delusional hadn’t yet entirely been defined. Roe attempts to explain what happens to his sister-in-law:

“The first night,” he said, “we were ordered to the docks. As we came over Westminster Bridge it was fantastic, the whole of the left side of London seemed to be alight.”
(It had not been like that at all. As they went, not hurrying, but steadily towards the river, the sky in that quarter, which happened to be the east, beginning at the bottom of streets until it spread over the nearest houses, was flooded in a second sunset, orange and rose, turning the pavements pink. Civilians hastened by twos or threes, hushed below the stupendous pall of defeat until, in the business quarter, the streets were deserted.) (p. 177)

Two more paragraphs encircled in parentheses follow, describing what happened from an omniscient point of view. Roe at this point has not entirely regained his language: he struggles to explain something that made an immense impression on him, but largely fails, and his sister-in-law remains uncomprehending. But the omniscient narrator’s point of view is curious and worth scrutinizing. Roe describes what he saw from his perspective (“the left side of London”); the narrator’s description is not so much more objective but more artful. Detachment seems to be necessary to attain this artfulness; a beautiful description, coming from Roe, would seem callow, as he’s describing a situation in which his fellow firefighters – “friends” doesn’t really work, as Green’s books are always attuned to class distinctions – are going to be killed.

These parentheses have appeared before in the book, more mystifyingly, at the beginning. Roe is second-in-command to Pye, an older trade-unionist; Pye lives with his elderly sister, who is not quite right in the head. Pye’s sister, wanting a child, kidnaps Roe’s son Christopher; the situation is soon sorted out, but it necessarily complicates the already fraught relationship between Pye and Roe; Pye’s sister is sent to an asylum, and Christopher is sent to the country. Roe attempts to reconstruct what must have happened, but fails; the two primary participants, a child and an insane woman, can’t explain what happened. Parenthetical paragraphs serve to do this; we are dragged outside of the character’s point of view so that we can understand what happened.

Christopher figures only in the fringes of this book, but he’s especially well done as a character. He’s decidedly not romanticized:

Christopher was like any other child of his age, not very interested or interesting, strident with health. He enjoyed teasing and was careful no one should know what he felt. (1)

This is perfect: when such a description appears on the first page of the book, you know it’s worth reading. It’s not altogether unexpected – but still shocking – when we near the end of the book Christopher has this interaction with his father in the country:

“Look,” his father interrupted, “haven’t you knocked those branches about enough? There’s hardly a bird left in the garden since you’ve been out. You’d do better to put food for them. They starve in this weather you know.”
“They’re Polish people,” Christopher said, “and I’m a German policeman, rootling them about.”
“Well, if that’s so, hadn’t you better carry on the good work where it’s drier? Why not go back to the stables and see if you can’t kill some more mice with a spoon? You could think they were Czechs,” his father said.
“Oh thanks, I say. That’s a lovely idea,” and he ran off, stumbling in the snow, diminutive. (p. 190)

Children are more terrible than they know; but there’s a realism to this description.

This is necessarily a solemn book; and the effect from reading it is different from any of the other books by Green. It’s not my favorite of his work; I wonder if it would be anybody’s, just because his other novels are so powerful. But it’s not the worst of his books: Blindness is clearly juvenilia and suffers in comparison to the rest.

alexander pushkin, “the tales of belkin”

Alexander Pushkin
The Tales of Belkin
(trans. Hugh Aplin)
(Hesperus Classics, 2009)


My knowledge of nineteenth-century Russians is embarrassingly bad: most of Dostoyevsky, a reasonable amount of Tolstoy, Oblomov, some Chekhov, a handful of others. Eugene Onegin, in a translation that I’m sure is lacking in some way, is sitting on the shelf yet unread, awaiting a project. In the mean time, here’s Pushkin’s The Tales of Belkin, a collection of early short stories. The book belongs to that familiar subject: how people in the provinces live who have gain their knowledge of the outside world through books. A problem invariably arises: how can a literate and knowing narrator tell their stories from within? A variety of frames of narration are constructed around the stories to permit this: as much as anything, The Tales of Belkin is an investigation of how storytelling works.

The central image of “The Shot” is a painting with two shots fired through it. The narrator marvels at the closeness of the shots; the second turns out to be the work of Silvio, an officer the narrator once knew, and is the occasion for the telling of the story of how those shots came to be there. In a duel, the painting was shot the first time by accident; the second time, it was not an accident, but rather a demonstration by Silvio of how he could kill if he chose to do so. The painting is the occasion for the telling of the story: the narrator meets both parties of the duel, but separately, and if he had not remarked upon the two shots in the painting, he would never have been able to put the two parts of the story together. The painting is thus a plot device; the content (described offhandedly as “some scene from Switzerland”) is not important, but its existence is, because without it the story couldn’t be told. Coincidence makes the story possible; it grabs the reader’s attention, but coincidence by itself is not enough to serve as a plot. It maneuvers the narrator into place so that he can tell the two halves of the story of Silvio; but coincidence in fiction is a very different thing from coincidence in life. The narrator comes off, as he must, as blithely oblivious of the forces moving him about.

This is complicated by layers of narration: “The Shot” is told in the first person by a narrator, who we learn in a quoted letter in the publisher’s note which serves as introduction, is “Lieutenant-Colonel I.L.P.” who ostensibly told it to Ivan Belkin, who wrote down the story; Pushkin (if we may assume that Pushkin is the “A.P.” of the publisher’s note) ostensibly only edited these stories into a volume. We have then a story retold several times; presumably it merited retelling because of its use of coincidence. Coincidence grabs a listener; does it grab a reader in the same way? It’s worth looking back at the twice-shot Swiss landscape: it might be taken as a representation of realism, what the artist sees in nature. What makes interesting fiction isn’t realism: the painting only appears in the story because of the bullet holes the author added to it.

Coincidence also features heavily in the next story, “The Blizzard”; here, we are told the story of a girl who “had been raised on French novels, and consequently was in love”. A secret marriage is arranged; a blizzard fortuitously arrives, and the marriage doesn’t happen. Years pass, a second suitor turns up, the girl sits in the garden “like a true heroine from a novel”. Rousseau’s Julie is imagined. The new suitor turns out to be known to the girl; earlier gaps in the narrative are explained. Re-reading the story, the reader sees how the author has carefully left out events to build suspense, which is held when the story ends, unresolved. With this story, what Pushkin is doing becomes more clear: this is a systematic investigation of how fiction works and what can be believed. The reader is advised of this again near the start of “The Undertaker”:

The enlightened reader is aware that Shakespeare and Walter Scott both represented their gravediggers as cheerful and humorous people so as to strike our imaginations the more powerfully with this contrast. Out of respect for the truth, we cannot follow their example and are forced to admit that our undertaker’s disposition corresponded perfectly to his sombre trade. (p. 31)

This is straight-up metafiction; the first person plural of the narrator suggests the unreliability of the multiple narrators behind this: unreliable in the sense that we know full well that they are twisting the truth to suit narrative needs. When the reader then finds the titular undertaker confronted by his late charges, we don’t know if this is a tale of the supernatural – as we know the narrator is unafraid to play with reality – or if it’s all a drunken dream, as it turns out to be. In his forward, Adam Thirlwell presents Pushkin’s work is an analogue to Sterne’s, an unacknowledged elaboration on a passage in Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose; I think the Tales of Belkin suffer in this comparison, but one senses that these stories are intended to be slight. They’re still pleasant. The other material tacked on to the end of the book – two fragments that Pushkin wrote in the voice of Belkin – feel extraneous.

I like how Hesperus Classics look: I like that they’re marketing small books, and they tend to pick up things that other’s don’t. That said: there’s a lot of marketing evident on this book. Adam Thirlwell’s name appears as many times as Pushkin’s on the covers; Hugh Aplin, the translator, is nowhere to be found, though he also contributes a useful historical introduction. Maybe Thirlwell’s name goes further in Britain than it does here. And I presume Pushkin won’t sell himself. The cover – crows on a snowy landscape – has a solemnity that suggests that the designer never read the book. Aplin’s translation is unobtrusive, though this isn’t the case with his annotations: they are necessary because of Pushkin’s heavy use of references, but generally not particularly revealing.

stanley crawford, “petroleum man”

Stanley Crawford
Petroleum Man
(Overlook, 2005)


It’s a truism that most great artists aren’t nice people, in exactly the same way that most great businessmen aren’t nice people, or in the same way that anyone who’s devoted to one thing above all will prove lacking in the rest of life. One starts thinking about this very quickly when considering the work of Stanley Crawford: because he does seem to be that rare example of the artist who seems to understand the problem of living decently. One reaches this conclusion from his non-fiction work, which focuses on agriculture; but one can also arrive there through his fiction. Almost all of it (Gascoyne, Log of the S. S. The Mrs. Unguentine, Some Instructions, this book) focuses sharply on dictatorial male characters who are set on ruining the world, domestically or more broadly construed, in some way. Travel Notes, his second novel, seems to diverge most widely from this plan, but the narrator of that book might be roped into this schema without too much trouble. Though satirical, Crawford’s monomaniacs might be seen as a critical inquiry: what makes people behave this way? And what can be done about them? Crawford’s own response is a life of rural agrarianism in New Mexico, but his continued treatment of these characters in his fiction suggests that he hasn’t finished trying to understand them as a problem.

Petroleum Man, as its title suggests, is his most explicitly political novel. Published in 2005, it can’t help but be read as a novel of the Bush administration. Leon Tuggs, the protagonists, deprecatingly refers to his adversaries with the specific epithet (a Reaganism?) “liberal democrats” (the italics are his); their opposite numbers are “Conservative Republications“. Tuggs is a close personal friend of the President; by his own account, he is the most wealthy businessman in America (and perhaps the world), having achieved this position by selling something named “the Thingie®” which is made out of wood, and the precise function of which is left unclear (a nod, perhaps, to what is made in Woollett in Henry James’s The Ambassadors); it is, he says, an “unchallenged tool used to keep track of the proliferating things of the world.” His “liberal democrat” son-in-law informs him that there is “a glob of Thingies® all stuck together the size of a small iceberg floating off the coast of Southern California and that Thingies® have cause the death of millions of ocean-going fish by getting stuck in their gills and seabirds by getting caught in their throats” (p. 86) – but Tuggs, every inch the industrial villain, has little time for such concerns. Tuggs writes the book while in the air in his private jets; with an eye to his legacy, he has embarked on a program to give his two grandchildren, Fabian and Rowena, a series of scale models of every car (with a few planes, for good measure) that he’s owned; each model comes with explanatory text telling, at least in part, his life story as well as detailing his ongoing struggles with the rest of his family and the broader world.

Despite having a family, Tuggs is much better with things than with people; his fortune, he explains, stems from his General Theory of Industrial Sex, which mostly goes unexplained, but seems to stem from his observation that since sex can be found everywhere in the metaphors of the industrial world (nuts and bolts, plugs and sockets, etc.) there is no need to look for it in the considerably messier world of people. The position of Tuggs is that of Ayn Rand: he sees a rational world in front of him (found though the lens of engineering), and is purposefully blind to everything outside of that world – his family in the throes of collapse around him. His grandchildren, to whom his narrative is ostensibly dedicated, don’t seem to be interested in the slightest in his educational program, being, as they are, scions of a wealthy family above all else. But telling his life story through cars owned is the only way Tuggs can express himself: his world is the world of things. He yearns for the day when human advance will finally overtake the natural world:

This should be not far off, according to the figures I am being supplied concerning the paving over of raw land and the converting of forests into useful industrial products like Thingies® and the plans for processing useless icebergs into drinking water and – of course – into bags of ice to help counter the effects of global warming, which I have always regarded as yet another business opportunity, perhaps the greatest ever in the history of civilization. At the present moment, the main tool is the computer – which appears to work flawlessly, however, only in the movies. (p. 130)

The discordant introduction of the computer here points out how oddly anachronistic Tuggs seems as a figure of the American businessman: while everything, of course, can be made from petroleum, his fixation on the thing (as opposed to the human) seems out of place in an American economy that’s increasingly virtualized. His hated son-in-law, a lawyer for an investment, might point the way forward: like most financiers, Chip (note the name, of course) produces nothing but the abstraction of more wealth. (Fabian and Rowena, the reader assumes, probably will never bother to actually have jobs; they trade away their collection of laboriously constructed metal models of their grandfather’s cars for cheap plastic copies and cash to make up for their lack of an allowance.) There’s something almost laudable in Tuggs’s function as a producer: he is monstrous, but in his ridiculousness he is a comprehensible figure: we can see how he arrived where he is. His position at the end of the book is predictable: though he is more wealthy than ever, his family refuses to speak to him, and his long-suffering wife is suing him for “being the source of a drift onto her organic fields of illegal pesticides or herbicides or other substances not approved for organic production” when thousands of miniature hamburgers dropped from helicopters fail to hit his birthday party, as intended.

It’s always surprising how few American novels are about the mechanisms of capitalism and its effect on the businessman: off the top of my head, there’s The Rise of Silas Lapham, Melville’s “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” Nathanael West’s A Cool Million, Gaddis’s J R, Richard Powers’s Gain. It’s a big subject: there should be more.