2/13/2004

Three "Novels"

Once upon a time, the term “novel” was a catch-all, a descriptor for imaginative works of narrative prose or verse that did not conform to existing genres (e.g. the chronicle, the history, the epic, the fairy tale). In a way, then, the novel has always been experimental, pushing at generic boundaries even as it defined them. Although they may be canonical today, the earliest novels—Don Quixote and the Tale of the Genji, for example—look pretty radical compared with their literary contemporaries. Only in the Nineteenth Century did the hot, unstable entity called the novel cool and solidify into a recognizable form—Austen, Balzac, James, and Dostoevsky among its architects. And even since then, an experimental strand has persisted, from Tolstoy’s “loose, baggy monsters” through Finnegans Wake and Pale Fire, and right up to the present.

The history of the “novel” I’ve just outlined licenses authors to apply the term to works that barely resemble other novels, and, sometimes, they’re right to do so. Still, calling something a novel doesn’t necessarily make it so; if a piece of writing more closely resembles a play, or a story collection, why call it a novel (perhaps because novels sell better?) Three new books I’ve read recently—Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, Stuart Dybek’s I Sailed With Magellan, and Matthew McIntosh’s Well, have got me thinking about all this, about what makes a novel a novel, about the commercial perils of the short story—and about the pitfalls of calling what looks and smells and walks like a duck anything other than: Duck!

The Known World
In its first 200 or so pages, Edward P. Jones’ The Known World resembles nothing so much as a story cycle. The impatient reader may begin to wonder where these vignettes of slave life. However, Jones’ leisurely pace and measured prose eventually reveal a unity of purpose, a cumulative power that overwhelms in two ways: gradually, then all of a sudden. Frankly, The Known World is the best new American novel I’ve read since Jeffrey Eugenides'Middlesex.

A broad range of influences are visible in Jones’ portrait of antebellum life in Virginia—Faulkner in its conception, Hemingway in its restraint, Garcia Marquez in its use of foreshadowing, Toni Morrison in its supernatural power, Cormac McCarthy in its hallucinatory violence. However, one senses that Jones is his own man, an iconoclast. Notice, for example, the way Jones’ prose and acute historical sense tap into a canon overlooked by other American novelists: the slave narrative. Far more than Beloved, a book to which this one will doubtless be compared, The Known World draws on and continues the work of Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and other early African American writers. From these authors’ narrative, Jones has learned to write about slavery from the inside, so that it does not seem the sole determinant of his characters’ lives. Amid the oppressive climate of the fictional Manchester County, the slaves and former slaves depicted in The Known World find and lose love, fight, experience spiritual awakenings and spiritual deaths, venture out into the unknown world, and lead interior lives as rich as any Henry James heroine’s. Paradoxically, Jones’ matter-of-fact view of slavery—and his naturalistic-bordering-on-deadpan depictions of torture, slave commerce, slave insurance, and so on—make the peculiar institution seem all the more terrible—as though, undercutting against the moral outrage of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Beloved is an inclination to melodrama that suggests that something as outrageous as slavery can’t be real. It is, Jones’ book reminds us, and readers will emerge from it grateful for its author’s wisdom.

I Sailed With Magellan
Like the Joyce of Dubliners, Stuart Dybek writes with an exquisite sense of place and an amazing sensitivity to the dreams and dislocations one encounters in the borderland between childhood and adulthood. His last work of fiction, The Coast of Chicago, is one of my favorite books, and I approached I Sailed With Magellan with high expectations. If The Coast of Chicago, with its unified setting, its young-to-old chronology, and its careful patterning (alternating short stories with lyrical “short shorts”), seemed more like a latter-day Winesburg, Ohio than a mere collection of stories, I Sailed With Magellan feels more like a group of very good stories than the “Novel-in-Verse” its title page insists it is. Here, Dybek preserves the setting and tone of his earlier work, but organizes his stories loosely around a central character: Perry Katzek. Like Kerouac’s Jack Duluoz, Perry seems pretty clearly to be a stand-in for his author, and the richness of lived experience fills to bursting the strongest stories here—“Song,” “Undertow,” “Blue Boy,” and “Je Reviens.” All four offer glimpses of Perry’s childhood in the Bronzeville section of Chicago. Another excellent quartet of stories—“Lunch at the Loyola Arms,” “Orchids,” “We Didn’t,” and “Que Quieres”—show Perry in various stages of a deferred maturity, and although they seem slightly less finished…well, so does adulthood; I’ll call it “evocative disarray” and chalk it up to authorial intent. Throughout, images and characters recur in the background. We see again and again morning glories and the spray of fire hydrants in summer and Perry’s uncle Lefty. These devices may justify the inclusion of “Breasts,” a novella largely unrelated to Dybek’s attempt at bildungsroman, but here, Dybek indulges his weaknesses—stagy dialogue, purple eroticism, and scenes and characters seemingly lifted from TV.

Even sans “Breasts,” I Sailed With Magellan doesn’t succeed as a novel. Broken into discrete chunks, Perry’s journey seems stripped of causality. For example, his mother’s madness—alluded to in several stories—can remain, in a story collection, undramatized. In a novel, however, such a powerful influence on the protagonist wouldn’t remain merely implicit. Other experiences that seem to lie at the heart of Perry’s (and perhaps Dybek’s) character stay in the background, as well, and while Dybek gestures in a few stories toward focusing this book on the relationship between Perry and his Uncle Lefty, the uncle disappears for long stretches. It is always a pleasure to read Dybek, and some of his best work is here, but I Sailed for Magellan argues less for a reenvisioning of the novel’s possibilities than the creation of some genre between collection and novel that might serve Dybek’s intentions better than the "Novel in Stories" seems to.

Well
Such a genre might help Matthew McIntosh out, as well. Clearly, he has novelistic ambitions—look at Well’s jacket copy—but in no sense is his first book a novel. Clever formatting may conceal Well’s scant length, but the reader emerges from the book with the sense that something is missing here. Irritations abound: the arch titling (“Though Occasionally Violent or Glaring, Modern Color is on the Whole Eminently Somber: The Border”), the repetitive scenes of empty sex and drug use that seem drawn less from the author’s experience than from his reading and viewing, and, especially, the anxiety of influence: the almost reflexive cribbing from Hubert Selby, Jr. and Dennis Cooper and Denis Johnson. McIntosh wants to use multiple perspectives to show us life in the dismal burg of Federal Way, Washington, but the voices in his various vignettes are often so similar as to be virtually indistinguishable. That said, there are some remarkably good short stories lying around in the second half of the book, and McIntosh clearly has a vision to share. McIntosh seems pretty clearly to be Catholic, and his frank and unironic handling of faith and doubt and God is refreshing. “Fishboy” and the story mentioned above (whose title I will not deign to type again), for example, might have appeared in a strong collection, rather than an ersatz novel. One wonders, in fact, if the author’s desire to write a novel concealed from him what might have been apparent in a manuscript billed as “stories”: that half of what he has here should be jettisoned, or reworked. I don’t mean to disparage McIntosh—I admire his ambition—but rather than dropping $23 on this one, I recommend that you check it from the library and cruise through “Fishboy,” “The Border,” and some of the short interstitial material. Save your money for when Matthew McIntosh publishes his real first novel, which, his strongest stuff here gives me reason to hope, could be dynamite.

2/10/2004

argh!

In the dreariness of February, the anus of the annus, this writer finds himself adrift, as his protagonist so recently was. I hope to post some book reviews this weekend, but we'll see...