Archives for posts with tag: United States

Junot Diaz’s “How to Date” is written in the second person, but like most successful second person stories, that tricky little ‘you’ is anything but general. You, in this case, are a young man living in America. You’re from the Dominican Republic. Some of your family still lives there, and you take  the photographs of shirtless young cousins leading goats around off of the walls of the crummy apartment you live in when you’re expecting to host a girl. You are also totally girl crazy, or maybe just crazy in general, because you’re a teenager. Because of who you are and where you live you’re a little fucked up by racism, by poverty, and by the way that desire is so often tied to big things outside of what it is you want. Mostly, you just want to bang, but even that’s imbricated within a larger social structure.

I like Diaz, and he’s so good with this story. The details feel so right, hiding the government supplied foodstuffs so your date wont know the extent of your poverty, the awkwardness of making conversation, experimenting with boundaries and social roles… they just feel right. But the story is painful, too, because it’s not just about being girl crazy, it’s about negotiating the complexities of race, and about the hierarchy of racialized desires, about stereotypes and sounding ‘smooth’ when the person you want to snuggle up to is categorically collapsing you. But now I’ve made it sound heavy, and parts of “How to Date” are, but it’s also fun and sweet! In that respect, it’s a lot like adolescence itself.

The Verificationist book cover, Bookside Table, EM KeelerDonald Antrim’s The Verificationist is basically about a really long hug that makes a guy named Tom loose it and jump into the abyss of what seems like a prolonged nervous breakdown. Tom is a psychoanalyst, and the bear hug takes place at an informal meet-up (in a Pancake house!) of a whole university hospital department of analysts.

It’s a literally heady book, but headless too, because Tom is cognitively disembodied by this hug, and he floats up and away into the dusty rafters of the 24hr breakfast joint. He overworks his mind by tracing the map of intimacies, predominately sexual intimacies, between himself and his colleagues and his wife and the desirable young woman who has been their party’s waitress. In terms of plot, that’s pretty much it. But I think it’s a relatively successful exploration of a peculiar tendency of a culture steeped in the mumbo jumbo of psychoanalysis to develop a paralysis of self awareness, though it may in fact be more of a delusion than an awareness.

Tom is obsessed with the fulcrum point between what it means to be a son and a father, and he gets himself into the situation of the bear hug by being childlike and attempting to start a food fight with a group of child psychologists. The bear-like analyst that hugs him into submission is described as a figurative father, and Tom submits to a fantasy of being raped by this imaginary father rather than develop the maturity it would require to commit to becoming a father himself. They have an empty room in their house, and because The Verificationist is nothing if not an invitation to armchair psychoanalysis, he is afraid of painting it because he can’t commit to the idea of impregnating his wife. They fight about it. And so after the  pleasure of eating blueberry pancakes–a silly and juvenile food– he suffers a nervous down, aware that he chose the kiddish comfort food because his is unable to confront his fear of adulthood and reproduction.

And who could blame him? If he is professionally obligated to believe in Freudian bullhooey, how could he possibly choose to be the passive object of fear and hatred and homicidal feelings; wouldn’t you  rather have the active hatred of the child? Psychoanalysis, much like American culture, almost always places the higher drama and the primacy of representation in the development of the child rather than the agency of the parent. Antrim hints at this through having Tom imagine floating away to the scene of an important battle: that of the Americans against the (paternal) British. This is a site of embarrassment for Tom, and a site of mythmaking for America writ large. The battle is restaged year after year, and the trauma of separation, the shame of that original (and indeed, orginary) dependency, never quite goes away.

Antrim uses language clearly, and having the entirety of the story filtered through the obsessive lens of Tom even as he becomes fractured in the middle of his traumatic event (the hug) is fascinating, to say the least. Antrim manages to make you loath Tom as much as the character loathes himself, and you feel just as trapped by his obsessional and circuitous thinking as he does. Which is certainly a testament to Antrim’s skill, but at times I felt that the premise of the book was a bit too much of a trick. Even as it called Nicholson Baker and DavidFoster Wallace to mind, The Verificationist feels like a practice run. The idea is there, the formal constraints are set, but… What’s missing? I think it may be a sense of meaning–it maybe authenticity, on all fronts. Tom, so well versed in psychobabble, can only harken back to hollowed and cliched ideas from his discipline to give meaning to the experience of his breakdown, and because he does this in real time, it crowds out the readers ability to make anything of this extraordinary circumstance. This is not necessarily a flaw, in fact I suspect that it’s one of Antrim’s aims. It’s just that, from where I read,  Tom and the discourses of Jung and Freud are too overbearing to give you a chance read much into this story; it’s all there on the page, and doesn’t need you  at all.

Bookside Table, Asterios Polyp book cover, EM Keeler

David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp is almost perfect. The title character is a so called ‘paper architect,’ inventive on the page, but his designs are unfailingly unrealized. As a professor at Cornell, he pushes his students hard to avoid the decorative, and makes clear his deeply modernist sensibility: he has built the form of his life to follow what he imagines is its the function. But the function of life is not so easily understood, and his designs are flawed. When his tastefully furnished apartment literally goes up in flames, destroying his Eames lounger, his pair of Wassily chairs, his tapes and books and drafting table, Asterios’ design sensibility is torn up, and he is forced to build his life from scratch at the age of fifty.

He is obsessed with what he perceives as the duality of life, yin and yang, men and women… form and function. The part-time narrator is his still born identical twin, who also visits Asterios in his dreams, and acts as the shadowy other side, the constantly present absence, of Asterios’ life and accomplishments. Mazzucchelli develops this lost twin trope into a moving exploration of loneliness and repetition, in a refreshing and surprising way.

Throughout the book certain postures, words, or even entire frames are repeated, though transformed by their context even as they depict an identical image. Asterious sitting on a bed and examining a blister, for example, is a scene of domestic bliss when his wife Hana is there, in the next panel, rooting through the medicine cabinet for a bandage, and also an unromantic piece of solitude, even loneliness, when years later he sits on a bed as a border in rooming house, his feet in pain from work.

Many of the panels in this graphic novel were completely breathtaking, and the visual techniques that Mazzucchelli used to convey the innate difference of each character–their voices and interior lives so distinct from one another–were so successfully executed that I wish I could just reprint the whole thing here for you. I was dazzled by the way that this work was able to be both subtle and bold, with the varying graphic styles working together so well, sometimes seamless and others with great clashes. Just like the bonds that people form in life.

One scene, where Asterios recalls with a strange longing the cloistered intimacy of his disintegrated marriage, is unbelievably effective: Hana vomiting; Hana’s underwear on the floor, stained with her menstrual blood; Hana’s hand reaching into her cosmetic bag; Hana smiling; Hana’s hand between her legs; Hana waving in a scarf; Hana popping a pimple; Hana’s sweat stained gym clothes; Hana; Hana; Hana. The longing for precisley her, the realness and mutability of her presence, is almost overpowering. The warmly vulgar sensuality of their former intimacy reveals to Asterios the stultifying emptiness of his obsession with formal purity.

Mazzucchelli’s lines on these pages are clean and elegant, but have just enough friction to rub you raw. The story that he tells here is bound up in aesthetics, and his plentiful offerings are pleasurable and moving. While this may be a work of paper architecture, the lives built for Hana and Asterios have a palpable weight, a shape that takes up space in the world that the reader must build and rebuild, every day of her life.

A gate at the stairs book cover

I’m definitely not the first person to say that Lorrie Moore’s ability to build beautiful stories sentence by immaculate sentence  is excellent. But I’ll say it over and over again, especially about  A Gate at the Stairs.

Tassie Keltjin, the narrator and heroine, is rendered so finely and authentically that I can’t help but be on the look out for her whenever I find myself on campus.  I can’t get over how real she seems, she’s not so smart or sexy or athletic or well read or insightful or pretty or particularly special in any way. I don’t mean she was a dud– just that she has the complicated dignity of someone more or less average; her role wasn’t to be saved or doomed. Her role was to reach out from the french cut pages of this book and into my heart.

The way that Moore was able to take Tassie’s experiments with intimacy and create this breathing guide to understanding just a little bit more about the world, about America, about motherhood, about women and men and room mates and brothers, gave me a feeling of tremendous awe.

This is why I read books.  Because the power of imaginative empathy is so overwhelmingly illuminating, so much so in this work that I feel like I can’t even begin to cross the bridge of language that would enable me to tell you about this ineffable liberty of feeling. Instead all I can do is beg for more, more, Moore.

My Cousin, My Gastroenternologist by Mark Leyner book cover

So, I think that maybe you had to be there when it comes to My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist. This guy, Mark Leyner, was a giant of new American fiction when this book exploded onto the scene. He was a muscle-man among gladiators; he was standing shoulder to shoulder with David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen. That’s actually why I wanted to read him.  And don’t get me wrong, it was pretty damn good stuff… mostly.

There were moments of real intrigue and delight! It’s billed as fiction, but there’s a picture of Leyner himself on the cover, and it reads like a gonzo memoir. Leyner even says right in the first section that it’s “An autobiography written wearing wrist weights.” And his real life wife, Arleen, to whom this book is dedicated, is a person-cum-character in this sparkplug story.

I think that part of Leyner’s project here may have been to showcase the way that corporations, commercialization, television, etc., have in some respects limited our abilities to communicate with each other. I’m not so sure that he nailed it. His much lauded prose was delivered with the shimmering delight of an over-medicated, over-caffeinated, and over-educated psychoanalyst. And I totally laughed, literally out loud, at many of his glorious one-twos. But, ultimately, there was no single punch that I couldn’t just roll with. The book lacked the heft of flesh, had no sticking power, and for all of it’s bravado didn’t make contact, and didn’t leave a bruise.