Quinn Dalton’s recent collection Bulletproof Girl contains eleven stories about women in peril. Not physical peril in the tied to the railroad tracks “save me Indiana Jones” way, but social and emotional peril. Each story is a snapshot, a day or two in the life of a woman who has come up against something in her life that is big and hard to move. My favorite story was “Lennie Remembers the Angels” about an elderly woman who is paranoid about her neighbors but turns a blind eye to her son’s transgressions. There is a physicality to her language in this story: damp heat, dark apartments and overpowering food smells. Like “Lennie,” several of the stories in the collection could be mistaken for chapters in a novel; they aren’t self-contained. Dalton is very good at fleshing out her characters, and we know their individual histories. As she leads her protagonists through their hard times, we are given stories that are as character-driven as they are plot-driven. The long title story broadens the themes the Dalton explores in the rest of the collection. Instead of one woman, we have three: Emery, May and Celeste, three generations from the same family, all at difficult crossroads and alternately comforting and pitying one another. Emery is smarting from the loss of her boyfriend, her mother May has been driven to odd obsessive behavior ever since her husband moved out, and old Celeste the grandmother is vibrant, but will not sympathize with her daughter, and instead takes them all on a macabre errand.
The intrusion of the university into the life of the writer "is unquestionably the chief sociological fact of modern American literature," Keith Gessen wrote in last year's N+1 symposium on American literature. Though Gessen's rhetoric may have been strategically hyperbolic, the facts bore him out. For better or for worse, the M.F.A. workshop has changed our conception of literary art from that of a calling to that of a profession - one with its own "skill sets," human resources apparatus, and even (it seems at times) its own dress code.This isn't entirely a bad thing (as both Gessen and I are in a position to know). Among other things, a graduate creative writing program provides a brief oasis of financial and social security in the hard country that is the writing life. (O, to return to the days when one could proclaim to an interlocutor, "I'm in grad school," rather than mumbling, "I'm a writer...") But the workshop is, as its best pedagogical theorists know, hostile to the new. At its worst, it is a machine for converting freshness into formula.Which helps to explain the durability, among students of writing, of Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son. For a decade and a half, this slim collection has passed from hand to hand among M.F.A. students like samizdat. Johnson's stories are not reducible to formal principles. His plots are odd and ungainly. His sentences and dialogue, flirting with the poetic, violate the canons of understatement. Like the sentences of D.H. Lawrence, they seem to depend on the supernatural for inspiration. They may not always find it, but they are alive to the possibilities of language. My favorite Johnson story, for example, begins, "Sometimes I went during my lunch break into a big nursery across the street, a glass building full of plants and wet earth and feeling of cool dead sex."Reading Johnson's latest, longest, and, in my limited purview, finest novel, Tree of Smoke, I kept thinking of Jesus' Son's reinvention of the short story. Now, in 2007, in wartime, we find Johnson straining against the teachable conventions of the novel, in a way that does honor to the form. Though there are passages and even pages through which I itched to run my workshopper's pencil, I would trade a dozen finely calibrated domestic comedies for a single chapter of Tree of Smoke.This is a war novel in which the war never quite arrives. Instead, the tangled plot wraps itself around a handful of intelligence operatives, relief workers, and low-level grunts who hover around the peripheries of our decade-long quagmire in Vietnam. As some commentators have noted, the novel pays homage to the conventions of Vietnam literature and film, but it's the departure from the tropes of innocence and experience that matters. Here, as in Johnson's stories, the characters seem to have lost their innocence at birth. Their souls are stained with something like original sin.The central figure is William "Skip" Sands, who in 1965, when the novel opens, has joined the family business - the CIA. His uncle is a vivid, Ahabian character known as "The Colonel." In the course of the novel, The Colonel will become obsessed with an elaborate psy-ops plot to feed phony intelligence to the North Vietnamese. Meanwhile, the Agency will become obsessed with bringing down The Colonel. Amid the proliferating intrigues, then, the main plot will boil down to classical terms: a conflict in Skip's loyalties, the family vs. the state.Along the way, we meet the tormented Kathy, who provides aid to children injured in the war; the Houston brothers, enlisted men whose experiences in Vietnam may be said to be representative; and two Vietnamese ensnared in the Colonel's conspiracy. In lesser hands, any of these characters might have decayed into types, but Johnson invests each with a deep interiority, letting his or her mind wander at cross-purposes to the narrative. Here, for example, is Nguyen Hao, the reluctant co-conspirator, waking in the morning:"Sloth kept him in bed awhile. Restlessness drove him downstairs to the tiny court behind his kitchen, where the sun made more mist. Under its warmth everything gave off ghosts. They woke from the bricks, rose with a deep reluctance, disappeared. Hao spread his white handkerchief on the stone bench, seated himself carefully, and tried to find some quiet in his mind."Johnson who lately has been writing plays, tends to let his dialogue run on for pages, stilted, staccato bits meant to indict the poverty of speech, to leaven the mood, and to build tension. But his real genius is for description. In a single, unassuming detail - that white handkerchief - the character of Nguyen Hao comes alive, not an Orientalist's prop, but a flesh-and-blood character, who might be our neighbor. Johnson works similar wonders with Skip Sands' moustache.At 600 pages, the novel is clearly up to something bigger than a mere collection of characters. With its phony intelligence and its wartime hell built on the benevolent intentions of individuals like Skip, Tree of Smoke is an attempt to write about the present through the prism of the past. But Johnson's refusal to surrender completely to thematic and political imperatives - his remarkable ability to let his material breathe - rescues the novel from didacticism.At times, I was reminded of a parable by Kafka, another writer who flirts with, but never gives in to, allegory. In it, a dying emperor "has sent a message to you, the humble subject." His messenger sets out on his journey, but beyond the emporer's bed is a chamber, and beyond the chamber door is another chamber, and beyond that an outer palace, and then more chambers and palaces "and so on for thousands of years... Nobody could fight his way through here even with a message from a dead man."War, in Tree of Smoke, is like that message. It exists, murderously, but just over the horizons. Explosions echo in the distance, flicker in the sky, waft the odor of charred flesh toward us, but we are trapped just outside it, at human scale, wrestling with the angels of our nature. In this way, the novel speaks eloquently to our condition here in the U.S, circa 2007. It's the kind of eloquence they don't teach you in school. I guess you have to earn it.[an excerpt from Tree of Smoke]
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In an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, the writer and Iraq War veteran Roy Scranton outlined what he called “the myth of the trauma hero.” It goes like this: Every true war story is a story of trauma and recovery. A boy goes to war, his head full of romantic visions of glory, courage, and sacrifice, his heart yearning to achieve heroic deeds, but on the field of battle he finds only death and horror. He sees, suffers, and causes brutal and brutalizing violence. Such violence wounds the soldier’s very soul. After the war the boy, now a veteran and a man, returns to the world of peace haunted by his experience, wracked by the central compulsion of trauma and atrocity: the struggle between the need to bear witness to his shattering encounter with violence, and the compulsion to repress it. The veteran tries to make sense of his memory but finds it all but impossible. Most people don’t want to hear the awful truths that war has taught him, the political powers that be want to cover up the shocking reality of war, and anybody who wasn’t there simply can’t understand what it was like. The truth of war, the veteran comes to learn, is a truth beyond words, a truth that can only be known by having been there, an unspeakable truth he must bear for society. So goes the myth of the trauma hero. Scranton locates the origins of this myth in the 18-century Romanticism that valued individual experience above all else. He tracks the myth through two world wars, Vietnam, and up to the United States's most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The last few years have seen an outpouring of memoirs, novels, and films about these two wars, and many of the most commercially and critically successful offer their own take on the trauma hero. Scranton, however, finds this myth dangerous, saying that it “serves a scapegoat function, discharging national bloodguilt by substituting the victim of trauma, the soldier, for the victim of violence, the enemy.” He doesn’t fault the writers of such narratives as much as their readers, eager to honor the tales told by trauma heroes, and in so doing avoid hearing stories of war that detail the victims of violence, and -- more to the point -- those responsible for it. The Infernal, a novel by Mark Doten, seeks to tell that kind of story, one that accounts for those involved in the War on Terror at nearly every level, from the grunts lugging 80-pound packs to the residents of dusty villages on the other side of the world to the highest echelons of American power. I fear that this description, however, might give the impression that the book has the dutiful, even-handed tone of an episode of Frontline. That is not the case. The Infernal is certifiably insane, a monstrous, cartoon nightmare of a book. Open up the book, and you’ll find a “Dramatis Personae” section, like in a 19th-century Russian novel. This one doesn’t track family trees and patronymics, however; characters include Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, and Mark Zuckerberg, as well as more inscrutable entries for “The Omnosyne” and “The Memex.” What is going on? Is this a postmodern swipe at American society like Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, a novelization of the Rosenberg trial that featured Richard Nixon as its protagonist? A gloss on celebrity like Bruce Wagner’s Dead Stars, in which Michael Douglas appears as a hologram of a character? The action and language of The Infernal are of the moment, but you might have to go all the way back to the novel’s namesake to get an idea of what Doten is up to. In The Inferno, Dante Alighieri placed all his enemies from 14th-century Florence in Hell, where they gave accounts of their sins while suffering elaborate, ironic punishments. Doten wants to place these historical figures in his fiction where they will be forced to explain themselves, as this is unlikely to happen in the real world. The novel begins in the Akkad Valley of Iraq, at a geological formation known as Al-Madkhanah, or the Chimney. Strange clouds appear at the peak of the Chimney. A patrol of soldiers goes to investigate. One of them climbs to the top, where he discovers a boy burned almost beyond recognition. The soldiers return the boy to a base. He cannot speak, sign, or communicate in any way. But the Commission, a shadowy organization that seems to catalog and thus control the world, needs the information that the boy has. They decide to bring the traitor Jimmy Wales out of prison so he can use his invention, the Omnosyne, to extract a confession from the boy. Jimmy Wales? Isn’t that the guy who created Wikipedia? That is indeed who he is IRL, as they say, but in the universe of The Infernal, Wales was a student at Dr. Vannevar Bush’s Institute for Youth Advances, where he helped create the Memex, a worldwide network of knowledge that served as a kind of precursor to the Internet, except it was only available to the Commission. Wales broke with Dr. Bush and the Institute, however, when he invented the Omnosyne, an information-gathering tool that is half lie detector, half torture device. To use the Omnosyne, an elaborate system of wires are inserted into the subject’s tongue and spine, extracting the essential information from his very nerves and bones. The wires are hooked up to what looks like a typewriter, printing out the subject’s confession in Omnotic Code, which only Wales can decipher. Once he created the Omnosyne, however, Wales killed a dozen instructors at the Institute for Youth Advances, at which point the Commission placed him in jail for life and mothballed the Omnosyne. The Commission is desperate for the Akkad Boy’s confession, however, so they bring Wales and his device to the Akkad Valley. Due to the invasive nature of the Omnosyne, an extraction results in the death of the subject. This is deemed acceptable, as the Akkad Boy’s confession will surely prove invaluable. When Wales hooks him up to the Omnosyne and begins the extraction, however, the pages that are printed out in Omnotic Code give not the boy’s confession, but rather the confessions of a host of different people, all involved in the War on Terror in one way or another: Osama Bin Laden, L. Paul Bremer, an Iraqi woman named Noor, and on and on. These polysyllabic confessions form the text of The Infernal, which can read as if William Faulkner were blogging about current events, as in this passage written from the perspective of Bremer, Presidential Envoy to Iraq. Not much in the way of running water, friends, mostly this here’s a porta-potty town, Jay told us, I told Condi on the cell. Meanwhile Saddam flew past . . . Meanwhile Saddam flew right past us . . . And meanwhile Saddam in statue form, poster form, some billboards, too, and murals of Saddam, that sonofabitch just kept on flying on past us, One hell, I said, one hell of an Ozymandian tribute, Jay with no idea, Florida State University, then Shippensburg, never overcame those early obstacles... Elsewhere, Osama Bin Laden, holed up in a cave, has his followers construct a new dialysis machine, which quickly devolves into violent slapstick; two drone-strike survivors named Rashid and Hakim stumble around like Laurel and Hardy; US Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez crawls through the air ducts of Guantanamo; Iraq War Veteran Tom Pally hobbles around his ranch house on an artificial leg, trying to make dinner plans for his and his wife’s anniversary, instead getting accosted by the vengeful maitre d’ of the restaurant. In the background of all this, there are intimations of a New City coming into being, a realm of pure information that the Commission plans to upload themselves into, leaving behind the corporeal world. At this point in the review, I’m guessing that you either really want to read The Infernal, or you really don’t. It seems like an ideal object for the enthusiastic scholarship of a devoted cult, and I sincerely look forward to the WikiLink page that will explain all of the book’s mysteries. But Doten has written his idiosyncratic book about events that will be familiar to many, perhaps even overly familiar, and it’s worth asking why. Part of an answer may lie in Doten’s biography. Doten is currently the literary editor at Soho Press, the publishing house whose renaissance The Millions covered last year. Before that, Doten was an associate editor at The Huffington Post, working for the site at its very beginning in 2005. (Andrew Breitbart was one of the site’s cofounders, though he soon left after a falling-out with Arianna Huffington, and The Infernal has a great, nasty joke made at his expense.) Doten is sure to have edited hundreds, maybe even thousands, of stories about the War on Terror and its many players, to the point where they very well might have seemed less like human beings and more like hallucinations, the characters in a compensatory power fantasy dreamed up by a traumatized, vengeful public. That’s not the kind of story you can tell as a journalist, however, and it’s possible Doten looked to the role of novelist as a way of telling the deeper, spiritual truth about our disastrous recent history, the kind of truth that fiction is still best-equipped to tell. Debts to postmodern fiction aside, the book that The Infernal most reminded me of was George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Packer’s book is nonfiction, drawing on extensive interviews with ordinary citizens (remember when journalists did that?) as well as secondary sources for accounts of big name movers and shakers, but it’s structured very much like a novel, using the stories of its constituent characters to tell a larger, cohesive story about our current social reality, and what led to it. In fact, Packer explicitly modeled his book on novelist John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, an account of the tumultuous events of the early part of the 20th century. Packer’s goal in the book is quixotic, using the tools of serious journalism to try and offer a diagnosis of the sickness afflicting the body politic, the reporter doing the work of the artist. Doten also thinks that 21st-century America is sick, but The Infernal isn’t a diagnosis. It’s a bloodletting. As the Omnosyne extracts the Akkad Boy’s confession and the voices of those in power and the powerless inculpate themselves with every profession of innocence, the reader has the sense that all the lies and deceit of the last dozen years, the courage shown and the suspicion that it meant little, have been brought together in one place, between the covers of a single book. Here’s hoping that people open it.  A little inside baseball: Scranton’s essay is, in part, a response to George Packer’s essay on recent books about the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars for The New Yorker. Scranton takes Packer to task for only considering works that fulfill the trauma hero myth “while ignoring works that don’t fit that frame, such as John Dos Passos’s epic U.S.A. trilogy.” Writer, read thyself.
Just a few days before I embarked on Colum McCann's new novel Let the Great World Spin, we had a movie night at the Magee household. Lauren made some ice cream and our neighbors came over with Man on Wire, the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary about Philippe Petit and his walk on a tightrope strung between the two towers of New York City's World Trade Center in 1974, in hand.While the film portrays Petit as a roguish eccentric (as anyone with his "hobby" would have to be), it also captures his famous walk as not so much a stunt as a sublime gesture - a graceful figure, clad all in black, impossibly high up, framed by massive towers and set against the huge morning sky. The film builds to this impressive, balletic payoff, a beautiful counterpoint to the antics of Petit and his cohort as they plot out and set into motion their daring plan.Petit's personality is larger than life and so was his act. So it is perhaps no surprise that in centering his novel around Petit's walk, McCann makes the walk the book's gravitational center and ignores the voluble Petit almost entirely. In an author's note at the end of the book, McCann writes, "I have taken liberties with Petit's walk, while trying to remain true to the texture of the moment and its surroundings." And anyone who has watched Man on Wire will also find that with his few descriptions of the Petit's preparations, McCann has invented for him a new, if thinly sketched, backstory.A tightrope walker graces the cover of the book and though many reviews (as this one has) will likely devote ink to the famous act, it is little more than a backdrop to a disparate cast of characters. If Let the Great World Spin were a play, the action would take place in front of a painted backdrop showing the towers and the speck-like walker bathed in the morning light. The backdrop would sometimes be alluded to, but the action it depicted would never be a part of the foreground. The book traces a number of lives, ranging from mother and daughter hookers to a judge to an Irish priest of a particularly ascetic order. The priest is Corrigan, who, as a peculiarly selfless child, wandered from home and gave the blankets from his bed to homeless drunks. As an adult, he entered the priesthood and got himself posted to the Bronx where he lives in a housing project and becomes a sort of den mother and mascot to the complex's many prostitutes. Among them are Tillie and Jazzlyn Henderson, the mother and daughter pair, deeply jaded, scarred by heroin, but still irrepressible. These three, Corrigan's brother, and several others form one of the book's poles, and they are tied by a car accident to the novel's other pole, a couple living on Park Avenue, Solomon and Claire Soderburg. He is a judge, she an heiress, devastated by the loss of their only son in Vietnam. Claire has joined a support group with other mothers who have lost sons. She is painfully self-conscious, on the morning of the tightrope walk, about having the group - all hailing from the outer boroughs - into her status-signifying Park Avenue penthouse. There are a number of other characters as well, all tied to New York City in the 1970s in one way or another.To string his line between the towers, Petit shot fishing wire across the gap with a bow and arrow, and then he and his helpers tied progressively stronger and heavier ropes together until his heavy, steel wire could be hauled across. In the same way, McCann's characters are at the outset connected by only the thinnest of filaments - proximity and shared experiences and not much else - but through the machinations of the plot and by dint of mishap and employment and chance they become more connected, sometimes tragically.McCann's mastery of character and voice is on full display in Let the Great World Spin, especially the Claire Soderburg's fragile inner monologue and the mournful, staccato prison diary of Tillie Henderson. The novel is a bit shorter on plot, with much of the narrative energy devoted to the car accident at the center of the action and prizing out its impact on the lives of the characters. Some readers may wish the novel had more narrative to it, but McCann's well-sketched characters and sense of place may be enough to satisfy.
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