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Vladimir Sorokin stands atop a list of Russian novelists, along with Tatyana Tolstaya, Victor Pelevin, and Victor Erofeyev, who have married an old-school sci-fi sensibility with American cyberpunk hipness to constitute the vanguard of literary social criticism in Moscow.  Sorokin’s Ice Trilogy not only established him as a progenitor of the form but garnered for him a reputation as Russia’s bad boy literary star, whose brazen challenges to authority and occasional pornographic content compelled the Putin Youth to dump his works into a giant makeshift toilet. His latest work, Day of the Oprichnik (translated by Jamey Gambrell) imagines a Moscow of 2028. The Red Troubles (presumably the Soviet era) are over, as are the White Troubles (whatever those might have been) that followed them, and the czarship has been restored. It is The Russian Revival, or, as characters refer to it, “Nowadays.” The oprichniki are the defenders of the oprichnina, literally “the place apart,” the moral core of the Motherland. This was an actual group, comprised of brutal enforcers during the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the middle of the 16th century. You can see where this is going.

When you enter a world like this, where an alternate history shapes an unexpected and probably fucked up future, when you have to piece together strange events and align them with those from your own world, you have to ask yourself two questions: what’s different, and how did it get this way? From the first scene we are thrust into an autocratic, nationalistic, Orthodox, and downright brutal government. All the old icons and superstitions have returned. The czar (who has repainted the Kremlin its old white) is hailed continuously, and God is impulsively and perpetually thanked for this unnamed leader’s political guidance and moral clarity. Technologically, people get their news from “bubbles,” speak on mobilovs, and drive Mercedovs (oprichniks fasten the severed heads of vicious dogs as grill ornaments, who snarl and bark in lieu of sirens). The news and the entertainment industry are monitored closely by representatives from the slew of government departments such as The Culture Chamber, The Literary Chamber, The Inner Circle, The Mind Department, the All-Russian Equine Society, The Association to Promote Air Flight, The Society of Russian Fisticuffs, The Malachite Chamber, and, of course, the Good Fellows.  Dissenters are punished, severely and thoroughly.

I love these genres because of the level of detail an author can engage. For me, this is the test of quality, and it operates down to the sentence and word level. It’s a writerly genre that can stimulate without too much attention even to its political elements. Sorokin subtly slips in bits of technology, film, radio, law and references to that alternate history  with a phrase here, clause there, that serve as a textured backdrop to the political commentary and plot. Here, that political and economic causality is engaged in interesting ways. It becomes very clear early on why Russia has reverted to its old paranoia. The oprichniks joke, “We drive Chinese Mercedovs, we fly on Chinese Boeings, His majesty likes to shoot ducks with Chinese guns…We make children on Chinese beds! We do our business on Chinese toilets!” In short China (much like in Gary Shteyngart’s recent novel Super Sad True Love Story) has reached the global economic hegemony that seems more and more inevitable. But the czar is able to sustain some autonomy via the Far Eastern Pipeline, which runs natural gas from East Asia to Europe (through the nicely renamed St. Petrograd). It is protected by The Road, a.k.a. The Guangzhou-Paris Highway, the nexus of the Russian economy, where slippery Chinese industrialists are fended off by the oprichniks, crooked business agreements, and The Great Wall, extending from Eastern Europe, across Siberia, to China.  In vintage totalitarian fashion, the protection of New Rus’ economic interests is framed as duty to God. The oprichnik general Batya explains it, in a nice stylistic flourish from Sorokin, toward the end of the novel:

Now you, my dear Enochs, you’re wondering, why was the Wall built, why are we fenced off, why did we burn our foreign passports, why are there different classes, why were intelligent machines changed to Cyrillic? To increase profits? To maintain order? For entertainment? For home and hearth? To create the big and beautiful? For fancy houses? For Moroccan leather boots, so everyone could tap their heels and clap? For all that’s good, true, and well made, so that there’d be plenty all around? To make the state as mighty as a pole from the heavenly tamarind tree? So that it supports the heavenly vault and the stars, goddamn it, so the stars and moon would shine, you sniveling scarecrow wolves, so that the warm wind would blow-not-stop-blowing on your asses, is that it? So your asses would stay nice and warm in your velvet pants? So your heads would feel cozy under their sable hats? So you sniveling wolves wouldn’t live by lies? So you’d run in herds, fast, straight, close together, most holy, obedient, so you’d harvest the grain on time, feed your brother, love your wives and children, is that it?

Batya pauses, inhales a good snort of white coke and washes it down with vodka.

Now you see, my dearest Enochs, that’s not what it was for. It was so the Christian faith would be preserved like a chaste treasure, you get it? For only we, the Orthodox, have preserved the church as Christ’s body on earth, a single church, sacred, conciliar, apostolic, and infallible, isn’t that right? That’s why His Majesty has built this magnificent Wall, in order to cut us off from stench and unbelievers, from the damned cyberpunks, from sodomites, Catholics, melancholiacs, from Buddhists, sadists, Satanists, and Marxists; from megamasturbators, fascists, pluralists, and atheists! For faith, you sniveling wolves, isn’t a change purse! It’s no brocaded caftan! No oak club! What is faith? Faith, my noisy ones – is a well of spring water, pure, clear, quiet, modest, powerful, and plentiful! You get it? Or should I repeat it to you?

Again, we know where this is going. And this is the sentence Sorokin seems to be muttering to himself as he watches Putin at work. But as readers we are as preoccupied with the rudiments of this other world as we are with the political message behind its depiction. Thus, the story that occurs within this world, a day in the life of oprichnik Andrei Danilovich, need not be overly plotted. We’re dealing with a tableau of events that unveils both the particulars of New Rus and how it came to be. In that sense it reminisces of Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and is no less frightening.

It begins with a dream, “always the same dream,” a rude awakening, and a swift hangover cure, as Andrei prepares for another day on the beat, enforcing government policies and punishing the crooked and malcontent. After he cleans up, shaves, dresses, and his butler fastens a wolf head to his Mercedov, he zips off to his first job – the seizure of a nobleman’s home, the beating and hanging of said nobleman in the front yard, the gang rape of his beautiful wife, the shipment of their children to an orphanage, and the firebombing of the property. As a first-person narrator, Andre reminds us of Burgess’ Alex from A Clockwork Orange, reveling in barbarity, justifying it with faux philosophy. But he has the simplicity and regular-guy attitude of a Murakami or Bolano narrator, walking you through his day routinely, providing sparse commentary on the tedium of certain activities. From the opening “purge” he moves on to prayer, then to a bath house where he injects a hallucinogenic goldfish called a golden sterlet into his brain (which induces, a la Alex, fantasies of future rape), to a shady bargain on The Road with Chinese industrialists, to a cultural monitoring session at the opera house, to a fortune-telling session with a clairvoyant who announces that Russia will be “all right,” to a foiled disruption of a dissenters’ rally, to a meeting with the czar’s wife (who rises at sundown and breakfasts for dinner). The day culminates at the oprichnik mess hall with a rompish ritual so grotesque and shocking (mixed with demoniacal justifications like the one quoted above) as to remind us of the true nature of these types of regimes.

This is all obviously about Putin, and what he could do. It reminds me of Brian McHale, who heralded science fiction as “the ontological genre par excellence.” But allegory aside, these types of genres are a narratologist’s dream, because one can spend an inordinate amount of time (even in a 190 page book like this one) teasing out the tiniest components of this unfamiliar world.  Sorokin manages this deftly here, and combined with his urgent social message and twisted scenes of brutality, this would make for a chilling film. The opening and closing scenes alone solidify this belief. A lot is at stake with this novel, and Sorokin pulls no punches. But for us on the outside, it has the simple pleasure of just being so cool.

I had a few reasons to pick up Geraldine Brooks’ new novel Caleb’s Crossing. First, it’s a new book by a semi-important author, which has received mostly good reviews in major newspapers. Second, it takes place at Harvard, and I thought it would be a good read for my trip there for a conference. But most importantly, I have just begun a dissertation on contemporary novels that take place in the colonial period. So, Caleb’s Crossing, the story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, in 1665, seemed to fit the bill.

It does and it doesn’t. My work focuses on the novels, which have come to be called “historiographic metafictions,” that fall under the umbrella of postmodernism, novels like Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and Vollmann’s Argall.  Through the depiction of historical events and figures in an ironic light, they foreground the fluidity and downright unknowability of the past. Brooks is not so interested in that here. Like Edward P. Jones’ The Known World (and I find it very difficult to make this comparison in good conscience, but bear with me) Brooks has taken an obscure historical event and extrapolated it into a fleshy, dramatic narrative. But while Jones’ novel is a veritable masterpiece, Brooks’ premise is problematic, and sometimes disingenuous.

It is told from the perspective of Bethia Mayfield (a completely fictional invention), a pre-adolescent girl growing up on Martha’s Vineyard. Stifled by her puritanical father and brother, she sets out frequently on her own to explore the coastline. She eventually befriends a Wopanoak of similar age named Cheeshahteamauk. They discuss their mutual frustrations with their respective communities, in turn engaging in debates over religion. These are convincing, in that they exhibit the types of attitudes characteristic of people that age (“But aren’t you afraid of going to hell?” Etc.).  Throughout her narrative, Bethia evaluates her experiences, no matter how extreme or trying, under the auspices of her Puritanism, which too is convincing. She is a precocious storyteller like Jane Eyre (while the entirety of Jane’s story is told in retrospect, Bethia’s keeps hers like a journal, writing sometimes only hours after the events she’s addressing), and her impetus to self-expression and feminine identity is reminiscent. But the way Brooks has her stop short and remain within her value system, out of fear mostly, is key to capturing the ethos of the period.

But this is where things do become troublesome. Bethia continually refers to her adventures and conversations as sins, deviations from the obedience she only pretends to foster. But so too does she label as sins her questioning of her faith, and her keen interest in the all too stereotypical worship of nature on the part of Cheeshahteamauk. She wavers between her fascination (often verging on subtle eroticization) and a more typical condemnation of his religion as witchcraft. Again, we can chalk this up to accuracy, but things become blurrier after Cheeshahteamauk is slighted by his family, and debates assimilating with the Puritan community. In an early scene the friends decide to re-name each other, he acquiring the Caleb that he would be referred to as throughout the novel, she becoming Storm Eyes, “since my eyes were the color of a thunderhead.” She eventually sheds this title as Caleb becomes more indoctrinated in the Puritan way of life and religious education, but Caleb only becomes more Caleb-like. That is, his assimilation is celebrated, even by him, as an abandonment of his culture’s pact with Satan, and thus “Storm Eyes” must be discarded as child’s stuff, if not heresy.

The novel from there is relatively plotless. (And Brooks’ attempt at stylistic accuracy is commendable, but compared to the virtuosity of Pynchon and Barth’s achievements in this territory, she falls disappointingly flat. Consider “I suddenly felt so light that I thought I might lift off the ground and float away like the seeds of a blowball,” or “This morning, light lapped the water as if God had spilt a goblet of molten gold upon a ground of darkest velvet.” A lot of the time you feel like Brooks is digging for excuses to use archaic terms like “sennight” just to prove she’s done her homework.) Happily, Bethia and Caleb don’t engage in a romantic relationship (thus avoiding the utterly stereotypical and unrealistic), and this allows for a significant chunk of the later plot to be devoted to Bethia’s dilemma over her choice of husband. In the meantime, as Caleb matriculates into secondary school and eventually into Harvard, the plot centers on death and its aftermath, another nice accuracy on the part of Brooks. You see how daily life, and the Puritan attitude, is refined by the imminence of plague, famine, or, on Martha’s Vineyard, shipwreck.  Many important people die throughout the story, and this is not a device to sustain emotional virility–it’s the norm of the day. That said, there is not much beyond this to indicate a plot trajectory per se, and elements of desire and controversy are introduced haphazardly. We meet new characters, such as potential suitors for Bethia, at the last minute, and we have to drag ourselves up to believe that these people are actual human beings, and not devices. There is a core mystery in the Harvard scenes that involves the impregnation of a Wopanoak servant at the school, but this potentially most interesting issue is dismissed almost as rapidly as it develops. This is very clearly not a novel about the issues of colonization, assimilation, miscegenation, etc. but about Caleb’s so-called triumph.

And triumph he does. The climax of the novel is so mawkish that its downright dismissal of the fraught implications of his “achievement” are extremely troubling. At the commencement ceremony, Bethia asides, “Well, I thought. You have done it, my friend. It has cost you your home, and your health, and estrangement from your closest kinsman. But after today, no man may say that the Indian mind is primitive and ineducable. Here, in this hall, you stand, the incontestible argument, the negat respondens.” This type of proclamation is only convincing if we are made privy to Bethia as a naive observer of Wopanoak relations, but we are clearly encouraged to trust her wisdom, as a mouthpiece for Brooks herself. Toward the end, she again proclaims, “Caleb was a hero, there is no doubt of it. He ventured forth from one world to another with an explorer’s courage, armored by the hope that he could serve his people. He stood shoulder to shoulder with the most learned of his day, ready to take his place with them as a man of affairs. He won the respect of those who had been swiftest to dismiss him.” Nowhere amid this unabashed celebration of the “modernization” of the natives is there an indictment or at least a challenge to the cultural assumptions of the Puritans (“an explorer’s courage” is a particularly bold phrase, considering certain famous explorers’ treatment of their conquered. Again, this is not posed ironically). Sure, the discipline and the repression thing is addressed, but nowhere is the study of Latin, Greek, and the Bible as proof of one’s intellectual capacity called into question. It’s taken as a given, so Caleb’s mastery of his subjects at Harvard becomes the categorical evidence that he isn’t a savage. I don’t need to tell you how problematic this type of assumption is, and how anesthetized the pain and tension underlying all this becomes. King Phillip’s War is glossed over toward the end, and any discussion of the social and political aftermath of Caleb’s graduation (there were other native people in his class, including the valedictorian) is buried under the continuation of the death-and-grief trajectory of the plot. It is not until the very end, when Caleb himself is on his deathbed (only a month after his graduation), that the real issue is called into question. I hinted at adolescent notions of the afterlife earlier in this review, but it does become central here as the ultimate stakes of any belief system. As Caleb is dying, Bethia can’t help but wonder to what home he’s being called back, and her consultation with his people’s de facto witch doctor for a remedy for his consumption throws into doubt her devotion to her own set of values. This type of ideological inquiry, I think, needs to be central to a novel that’s going to address the history of native peoples. It’s largely missing here, even though Brooks handles it nicely in their childhood, toward the beginning. In a novel that attempts to address the “crossing” of cultural barriers, a more accurate title probably would have been Caleb’s Passing, because that’s more to the point here. Assimilation is heroic in Brooks’ imagination, and this attitude ultimately dooms her novel.

For fans, the six years spent with LOST, one of the most ambitious and transformative shows in the history of television, are hard to replace. Especially disconcerting are the number of network simulacra that have tried to fill its shoes. (witness FastForward and The Event). In many ways LOST aired during what we might call the Golden Age of Television, alongside The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, Dexter, the list goes on. Many of these shows have concluded their runs, and while AMC picks up the slack with the stellar Mad Men and Breaking Bad, the pay channels continue to attempt high budget shows that always seem doomed to cancellation – see The Borgias and Game of Thrones, who run the risk of going the way of Rome, Deadwood, and Carnivale. So, for the nostalgic, and as an anniversary of sorts, I want to share with you a conference paper I wrote about LOST‘s narrative structure. Critical literature on the show is slowly but surely surfacing, especially now that it’s finished. Randy Laist’s Looking for Lost: Critical Essays on the Enigmatic Series is a fine start. My analysis takes on the show’s narrative specifically, focusing on a few particular elements. It goes without saying that a major spoiler alert accompanies this paper.

* * *

With its achronous storytelling and depictions of literal time travel, its supernatural mysteries and cliffhanger endings, LOST is ripe for narratological analysis. Now that we have access to the entire series, it is especially appropriate and necessary to engage the narrative arc in its entirety. Despite the disappointment among loyal fans in the relatively solution-free and borderline mawkish finale, “The End” (the title turned out to be quite literal) did continue the show’s acute tendency to allow a season finale to dramatically shift how we read the near two-dozen episodes that preceded it. In this case, however, a necessary re-reading is enacted on a local and a global scale. “The End” not only requires us to re-view Season 6 through a new lens, but the entire trajectory of the characters’ adventures over all six seasons. Regardless of our feelings about the (again, quite literal) afterlife of these characters, “The End” leaves us feeling much like John Locke upon watching the Orientation video in season two, muttering “We’re going to have to watch that again.” Or, for more disgruntled fans, we may be left feeling like Jack at the end of Season 3, desperately moaning “We have to go back!” either to recapture the show’s purer ethos, or, as I plan to do here, to make sense of some of the formal moves this narrative made.

“The End” is not a terrible place to begin. If we rely on Peter Rabinowitz’s theory of privileged positions in fictional texts, we see the type of retroactivity an ending can enact.   He writes, “Our attention during the act of reading [endings and other privileged positions such as titles and first sentences] will in part be concentrated on what we have found in these positions, and our sense of the text’s meaning will be influenced by our assumption that the author expected us to end up with an interpretation that could account more fully for these details than for details elsewhere.” This phenomenon is no more clear than in “The End,” an uncharacteristically unambiguous conclusion to what was perhaps the most ambiguous of LOST‘s narrative arcs.  Namely, the alternate reality, in which the stranded characters were never stranded but nonetheless come together by other and perhaps equally mysterious means, turns out to be some sort of collective intermediary afterlife, a purgatory of sorts. Their interactions within this universe were, we now realize, actually steps toward a mass apotheosis into what we are led to believe is heaven in the final scenes. This revelation not only serves the primary purpose of having one tear-jerker of an ending, but also the not-so-distantly secondary purpose of causing the viewer to re-read these afterlife story lines in a new light.

It is, indeed, a character dominant conclusion. But something very interesting happens to Season 6′s narrative structure as a result of the final scene. In it, we have returned to the Island, where Jack has just defeated the smoke monster and prepares to die from the wounds suffered during the battle. The final frame mirrors the first frame of the Pilot episode, which begins with a close-up on Jack’s opening eye, having regained consciousness from the plane crash. Here, Jack returns to what we are led to believe is the same spot, lies down in roughly the same pose, and closes his eyes in another closeup. This provides neat formal closure, in the looping style characteristic of many of the show’s story arcs.

But this is not, technically, a loop, rather a parallelism. That doesn’t mean, however, that a smaller loop has not been established. Season 5 ends when an atomic bomb explodes at The Swan construction site with the hopes of returning the characters to their previous lives, thus ensuring that they’d never have to go through their turmoil on the Island. Season 6 begins with Jack looking out the window of an airplane, which we quickly learn is Oceanic Flight 815. He’s wearing his same clothes, sitting near the same people, and experiencing the same turbulence (only this time the plane doesn’t split in two). After landing, we learn that his father has just died and he is flying from Australia with the coffin in tow. In short, many of the details for Jack and others correspond to those of Season 1. Each episode of Season 6 focuses on a different character’s experience in this alternate universe, inviting the viewer to read the differences in situation and personality closely, without real indication of what is going on. Not until the re-introduction of Desmond in the latter quarter of the season does any semblance of a plot arise, one in which he is on a mission to unite these characters and remind them of another existence together, on the Island.

But, after “The End,” and only after “The End,” do we have the necessary tools for reading this sequence. In addition to the shocking revelation within the sphere of the alternate reality, the closing of Jack’s eye at The Very End completes the loop. That is, at the moment he dies on the Island, he wakes up on the plane, in this strange new reality. He even bears the not completely healed scars of his battle with the smoke monster, though the nature of these wounds are of course not revealed until the finale. So, while Jack’s experience in this universe eventually is teleological (he reunites, finally, with his father, who leads him and his friends through some sort of pantheistic pearly gates), Season 6′s existence as a narrative, thanks to this final image, is a moebius strip that cycles continually through Jack’s demise and re-awakening.

But how might we classify this ending in Rabinowitz’s terms? He asserts that according to the second metarule of configuration, readers “expect that the ending will somehow be prefigured in the beginning,” that there will be overarching textual balance. Moreover, there is with readers a “tendency…to find what they expect and want in a text,” and they “assume that authors put their best thoughts last, and thus assign a special value to the final [elements] of a text.” LOST is most polarizing in this regard. There are so many mysteries, unresolved plot threads, and open endings, and so many of them piled up over the seasons, that “The End’s” overt focus on character left the LOST literati reeling over the lack of precious “answers.” So much so that executive producers and head writers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse shot a coda in which some mysteries were addressed. In short, “The End” has the feel of needing to appeal to a broader audience, at the expense of the science fiction element that had drawn so much popularity to begin with.  It is in this sense, in addition to the They’re All Dead revelation, that “The End” was such a surprise.

But most interesting here is how “The End” corresponds to the two major ways Rabinowitz sees endings potentially defying the rules of balance, either by violation with a deceptive cadence, or exaggeration, with an excessive cadence. In both cases “the undermining of a conventional ending tends to stress the conventionality of that closure, and hence makes us aware of the gap between authorial and narrative audiences.” Such flouting of conventions can critique either the form itself or “question the ideological assumptions behind the convention.” LOST does all of the above.

I’ll begin with exaggeration.  Rabinowitz writes, “Thematizing a text’s conclusion is more complex still when a convention is undermined not by overthrowing it, but rather by following it in such an ostentatious way that it looks absurd.”  With LOST, we are dealing with one of the most massive ensembles of characters in television history. That nearly each of them is granted the most ultimate of happy endings – entrance into heaven – directly flouts the convention of the happy ending to an extreme degree. This mass apotheosis brings everyone together in remembrance of good times (almost like a reunion episode before the show is even over), but it consequently renders whatever happened to them over the course of their life-changing adventures seemingly irrelevant. No matter what you did or what happened to you – alcoholic, abusive father or husband, torturer, thief, murderer, liar – everything is going to be ok if you gain a certain sense of spiritual self-awareness. Regardless of one’s personal beliefs about the afterlife, this move is unusual, and it draws keen attention to both the formal convention of the happy and utterly conclusive ending and the ideological assumptions about the cosmic consequences of our actions.

For Rabinowitz, this is problematic: “many realistic writers prefer endings in which the full consequences of the events portrayed – even the consequences immediately pertinent to the narrative at hand – are neither worked out nor clearly implied.” Consequences are completely ignored in this case. Namely, the shocking deaths of and vexing grief over some of our favorite characters, some as recently as two episodes prior, are suddenly assuaged and anesthetized. But “The End” tells us that how and when you died, or even how and when you lived, doesn’t matter. That, in The End, it’s all about the personal connections we made.

But Rabinowitz delivered the above quote about realistic writers in reference to the other form of deviation, violation.  Endings violate when they “flagrantly defy what has come before” for the sake of shock and surprise. This establishes what Rabinowitz calls a “deceptive cadence.” Previous season finales of LOST engage in just this type of conclusion. At the end of Season 3, when the castaways on The Island are on the verge of rescue, the “flashback” off-Island sequence is inverted in its final scene, when a distraught Jack meets with Kate and utters the famous line “We have to go back!” indicating to the audience that this is not a flashback of the type they had grown so accustomed to over three seasons, but a flash forward, into life after rescue. Nothing in the narrative to this point (except for the general arc of potential rescue) indicates that this move was going to occur. Similarly, the finale of Season 4 builds up to the long anticipated (since the finale of Season 3) revelation of who is in the coffin. The outcome, John Locke, bears no contingency to any possibilities so far established (he was not, after all, one of the Oceanic 6 who escaped the Island). In the case of each example, a sense of the ending is delayed to later points, when new developments can aid a re-mapping of previous occurrences. Only at the end of Season 4 do we learn how and why the Oceanic 6 were able to leave the Island, and only in the early parts of Season 5 do we learn about Locke’s journey off the Island and adoption of the alias Jeremy Bentham that was thrown about during the Season 4 finale.

But there are no such opportunities with “The End.” And there are no analogous models upon which to build expectation. Even though the sheer ambiguity of the off-Island situation throughout the season warrants enough speculation that one may actually guess the ending, that this alternate reality is indeed the afterlife is in no way prefigured (Lindelof and Cuse even frequently directed attention away from the Island-is-purgatory theory, perhaps in order not to give away the real endgame of the show). Even the most conspicuous supernatural element of the show, the cosmic duel between Jacob and the Man in Black over the fate of the Island and of the world, is downplayed if not rendered completely irrelevant by the cosmology of this afterlife.

Rabinowitz’s conclusion may indicate a larger problem. He asserts that in cases like these, “the process of interpretation involves treating the [text] primarily as a popular [piece] (stressing the solution) rather than as a serious one (stressing the indecisive conclusion).”  The relevant question here may be, How seriously did LOST take itself, ultimately? Is the excessive conventionality of this happy ending indeed a “serious” flouting, or an appeal to popularity? Are we engaging a more “popular” mode of interpretation when we yearn for a smooth solution to all of the show’s myteries?

Regardless, Rabinowitz reminds us that “there is a general tendency in most reading to apply rules of coherence in such a way that disjunctures are smoothed over so that texts are turned into unified wholes.” Readers bring to a reading their own socially, intellectually and ideologically determined interpretive strategies, which they can employ to adapt the complicated text to their desires. Hence, in this case, the innumerable blogs, chat rooms, and theories, not the least of which came from Entertainment Weekly’s Doc Jensen, continuing months after the finale. But what must we do, in light of “The End,” to make the rest of LOST feel coherent (if that’s in fact what we really want to do)? Further analysis in the vein of Rabinowitz’s treatment of privileged positions (namely, season finales and premiers) will reveal a consistent devotion, as we’ve partially seen already, to the type of deviation Rabinowitz outlines. The formal effect in turn mirrors the content-based aim of the show – to challenge, if not subvert, prevailing ideological assumptions about the relationship between the natural and the supernatural, science and spirituality, and interpersonal relationships.

We’ve seen already how LOST‘s other finales enact a necessary retroactivity. They resolve mysteries and pose new ones in ways that are not prefigured. Thus, with this new and surprising information, we have no choice but to re-read. Just this occurs, for example, at the end of Season 3, when we have to re-view Jack’s off-Island narrative as a flash-forward rather than a flashback. But season finales have the luxury of being directly followed (however many months later, unless you own the DVD’s) by a season premier that begins to smooth over the gaps opened by the finale. Thus the beginning of Season 2 begins where Season 1 left off. Jack and Locke were left staring into into the abyss of the hatch before the screen fades to black. Season 2 opens in the hatch, with Desmond inside. Similarly, Season 4 ends with the disappearance of the Island, and Season 5 begins on the Island, having moved in time. Season 5 ends with the ultimate cliffhanger (and perhaps another excessive violation) an atomic explosion and a fade to white. Season 6 begins as the white fades into picture again, of Jack in an alternate universe (this is not a linear progression, but a deceptive one, that, we have seen, is resolved only at the end of Season 6). In each case the finale and the subsequent premier are in dialogue with each other in a way that assuages audience anxiety.

But I submit that LOST generates the final thrust of its narrative through even more privileged positions, at least here. And they are located in almost the exact middle of the arc.

With the happy ending of “The End,” the odd man out is John Locke. The heroic man of faith was murdered as he was preparing to commit suicide, never to see the fruits of his mission to bring the Ocean 6 back to the Island to save it. He dies desperate and deceived. But his mission is the fulcrum by which the endgame of the show is enacted. It begins in the Season 4 episode “Cabin Fever.” The Island is under siege, and Locke sets off to find the mysterious cabin to discern from the Island-deity Jacob what to do. The off-Island flashback focuses on Locke, and how throughout his life he just missed being recruited by Jacob and becoming the special person he always wanted to be. One such scene occurs when Jacob’s right-hand Richard Alpert visits Locke as a child. He lays a series of items on a table, including a knife, compass, baseball glove, and comic book, asking Locke to choose the items that “belong to him already.” When young John chooses incorrectly, Alpert storms out. At the end of the on-Island arc of the episode, Locke’s desire for heroism seems to be fulfilled, as he encounters the ghost of Christian Shephard (Jack’s father), who is not Jacob, but “speaks on his behalf.” From Shephard Locke learns that he must move the Island in order to save it.

These two examples are crucial mysteries in the trajectory of Locke. In the Season 5 episode “Jughead,” amid the Island’s chaotic shifts through time, Richard gives Locke the same compass we saw in “Cabin Fever,” instructing him to give it back to him as a sign of recognition at a later meeting. When Locke shows up in the 40′s (the Island has shifted to this point in time), he gives Richard (who is over 150 years old but  doesn’t age) the compass. Richard is dumbfounded. He doesn’t know John. But Locke instructs him to pay him a visit a few years later, when he’s a child, to validate what he is saying. Richard does just this, as seen in the “Cabin Fever.” That the young Locke doesn’t recognize Richard is one of the great disappointments of LOST, as it signals Locke’s future of always coming up just short, which turns out, sadly, to be his defining characteristic. But we can only read that disappointment through a re-vision equipped with necessary information that is impossible to prefigure.

The mystery of Christian Shephard takes considerably longer to answer. Locke succeeds in moving the Island, but amid the deadly time traveling, Alpert instructs him to leave the Island and convince those who left to come back. This was the only way to stop the shifts in time and save everyone. Locke leaves the Island, but when he can’t convince anyone to return, he tries to kill himself, and is murdered by Ben Linus before he gets a chance to. Hence Locke ends up in the coffin, as we see at the end of Season 4. But the episode in which we learn of Locke’s murder begins with an alive-and-well Locke, walking around on the Island, seemingly back from the dead. Only through flashbacks do we learn how he died. This seemingly improved Locke has a new mission: to kill Jacob. He succeeds, at the very end of Season 5.

It is only in the finale of Season 5 and the premiere of Season 6 (another example of the smoothing over of finale-anxiety) that we learn the mysterious truth of Locke’s return from the dead. Namely, the Locke that we think we know is in fact Jacob’s ancient rival, the Smoke Monster, having assumed Locke’s corpse as his own body. As the season progresses, we learn that it was the monster, who, as Locke, coerced Richard to give Locke the compass and instruct him to bring the Oceanic 6 to back to the Island, not to save everyone, but to kill them, and thus be free of his curse. To top it all off, by the end of Season 6 we learn that the monster also posed as Christian Shephard, and was thus the man whom Locke spoke to in the cabin and convinced him to move The Island, setting this entire arc in motion.

All this, especially if you’re not familiar with the show, is very confusing. But the point is this: what was once the turning point of Locke’s heroic adventure turned out, through a series of retroactive revelations, to be, as we have just seen, a painfully intricate plot on the part of the smoke monster to lead Locke to his death so he could assume his body, kill Jacob, and finally leave the Island (he doesn’t succeed in this final endeavor).  In other words the audience expectation for Locke, embodied in a long arc, was disrupted piecemeal along strategic points (what we might label, therefore, as the most privileged positions) of that very arc. This move, in my opinion, was masterful, however tragic. It emphasizes LOST‘s most valuable attribute, namely its keen interest in narrative deviation in a way unprecedented in television.

These deviations, as may be clear now, are perception-altering. Because of all these twists and turns, the central themes of the show are even more foregrounded. What we think we know about the supernatural, the scientific, the cosmic, the afterlife, the trajectory of our own lives, etc., is never what we think it is, and occurs in ways more spatial than linear. Moreover, the necessary deja vu enacted through this textual retroactivity signals a need to look more closely at the intricate workings of our own lives, and their unexpected privileged positions along the way.

Okay! Fine. Tea Obreht is a veritable prodigy, and The Tiger’s Wife is uncannily good. Most (no, all) reviewers, as well as the likes of Colum McCann, TC Boyle, and Ann Patchett, say no less. But this novel is not just good for a twenty-five year old. Most of us would kill to kill it like she does.

It’s a story told by a young doctor named Natalia, who travels through an unnamed Balkan nation, having been, about to be, and, maybe, perpetually always, war-ravaged, inoculating children, deriding (but perhaps eventually acquiescing to) local superstition, and, most importantly, seeking out the facts of her grandfather’s last days before his death by cancer. But the reader quickly comes to realize that the collection of a plastic bag full of Natalia’s grandfather’s personal effects fails to explain the man she loved. Rather, his stories, which she re-tells with elaborate and emotional texture, bring her real closure, in turn sending this novel brilliantly toward the borders of fantasy.

Here’s what some critics have said about these legends:

David Ulin: “What these stories represent is mystery, the unanswered questions that, even in a rational universe, exist at the center of the world.”

Michiko Kakutani: This novel “explores the very essence of storytelling and the role it plays in people’s lives…It’s not so much magical realism in the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gunter Grass as it is an extraordinarily limber exploration of allegory and myth making in the ways in which narratives (be they superstitions, cultural beliefs, or supernatural legends) reveal – and reflect back – the identities of individuals and communities: their dreams, fears, sympathies, and hatreds.”

Liesl Schillinger: “Ingeniously, Obreht juxtaposes Natalia’s matter-of-fact narration with contemporary folk tales that are as simple, enthralling, and sometimes brutal as fables by Kipling or Dinesen…Arrestingly, Obreht shows that you don’t have to go back centuries to find history transformed into myth; the process can occur within a lifetime if a gifted observer is on hand to record it…The Tiger’s Wife is all the more remarkable for being the product not of observation but of imagination.”

Ron Charles: “That The Tiger’s Wife never slips entirely into magical realism is part of its magic – its agile play with tragic material and with us – because, despite Natalia and her grandfather’s devotion to science and rationality, this is a story that bleeds into fable with the slightest scratch.”

This unabashed praise shares a collective awe at how Obreht subtly imagines the thin border between reality and legend that pervades not only her stories, but, more importantly, the lives of the people whom these stories are about. So how does she pull it off? In short, the subtle mysteries of these stories are managed via even subtler narrative moves that generate this mythic atmosphere. Natalia simply sets up the structure of her story near the very beginning of it:

Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life…One, which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told to me, is of how he became a child again.

This is the novel in a nutshell. But the language here is important to note. Namely, by indicating how she came across these stories, Natalia is prefacing how she herself is going to deliver them to us. Her journey with her friend Zora, which gets sidetracked by news of her grandfather’s death, serves as the framing narrative, told by Natalia in the first person. Chapters are interspersed that recall memories of her childhood with him, visiting the local zoo, admiring the tigers. But suddenly, mid-story, she will declare, “He thought for a long time while we walked with the elephant. Perhaps under slightly different circumstances, he might have told me about the tiger’s wife. Instead, he told me about the deathless man.” And so, the grandfather assumes the narrative in his own voice, recalled verbatim by Natalia. His recollections stand alone as their own short stories (within stories within stories), and they are utterly compelling as such. His encounter with Gavran Gaile, the deathless man, is the story, Natalia indicates, of how he became a child again, spiritually, with his eyes open to his lost faith and to his own death (and, thus, his life).

The story of the tiger’s wife is, indeed, the story of Natalia’s grandfather’s maturation. But it is told by her alone, having pieced together anecdotes through interviews and research. It is consequently imbued with the fantastic, that is conveyed, again, by embedded stories, subplots about vicious hunters, slighted lovers, and a superstitious village. These chapters stand alone, as interruptions of the framed narrative, but internally they are more complex and digressive than any of the other chapters. Obreht has the pupil’s grasp of detail and metaphor, and her appropriation of magical realist elements is deft and subtle. But her management of these narrative levels across and within chapters, and her ability to render relatively unnoticeable rapid and frequent shifts between them, smoothly moving from one embedded story to another, mid-paragraph sometimes, is her most impressive quality. It is this ability to create authorial distance from your subject matter that renders the embedded story most mythical, even beyond the mysterious events of the stories being told. Obreht pulls it all off swimmingly.

Obreht brings it all together with emotional force by novel’s end. When the tales of the deathless man and the Tiger’s wife are complete, we return to the framing narrative, in which Natalia has learned of her grandfather’s death. A sense of her grief has been somewhat elusive to this point, as the reader is more rapt by her stories than by her own predicament. But as she retrieves her grandfather’s effects and returns to her medical task at hand, we see, through her own eventual encounter with the mysterious and mythical, the origin of her impulse to tell all these stories in the first place. What had so far come off as a meandering weave suddenly takes on the feeling of a completed circle, and Natalia takes on extraordinary depth in just a few climactic scenes. Her subsequent mastery of diverse voices, especially her willingness to take on the very voice of her dead grandfather, is thus a direct outcrop of her grief, which will make re-reading her narrative even more powerful.

This is an achievement for Obreht – we think of really good writers as having gone through some sort of mysterious training period, where their craft is almost magically honed by fire in some far unreachable realm. Obreht is too young for that, and, thus, she feels more real. The Tiger’s Wife is sticking with me, and I suspect it will for a while. This alone is a testament to what I hope will blossom into the career that it already promises to be.

One can see that David Foster Wallace was thinking about the main problem of what would become his final work when he delivered his commencement address to Kenyon College in 2005. Now regarded as a seminal piece on modern compassion, it proposed to reveal, as any small-college commencement address worth its speaker fee is wont to do, the “real purpose” of a liberal arts education. For Wallace, it was this:

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed…And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.

Wallace elaborates by applying this idea to a regular occurrence – a trip to the grocery store. Rather than lament our vice-tight schedules and the depressing lighting, or loathe the overfed customers in the overlong checkout line, we should look around, and imagine other people’s stories, realizing “the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.” More than a trite dictum on empathy, this idea is first and foremost about storytelling, about filling in for ourselves the unheard narratives that people tell themselves. And Wallace over the years was most interested in narratives of suffering. Boredom (so closely linked to the problem of addiction, which he addressed in Infinite Jest) is one such type, and it takes center stage in his last book, an unfinished project published under the title The Pale King.

Really, any book about the IRS that doesn’t talk at potentially tedious length about boredom would need to have its head checked. But Wallace makes it work in surprising and brilliant ways. Like Infinite Jest, the book establishes a central setting – this time a tax collection and processing center in Illinois – through which a wide variety of zany characters come and go. While the chapters that digress into the backgrounds of many of these characters constitute the type of attention to personal narratives Wallace spoke about in his address, there are other chapters, which go on for pages and pages about tax code, that deliberately test the reader’s ability to stick with it. We watch characters concoct more and more methods to cope with office tedia (the story takes place in the ‘80’s, pre-Internet), but we also watch characters experience supernatural effects of hyper-consciousness (one character floats when he’s really focused). Toward the end of the manuscript, our main protagonist (more on him later) comes to a final realization:

I learned that the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth, of course, though it is also one the ignorance of which causes great suffering.

But moreover, I discovered, in the only way that a man ever really learns anything important, the real skill that is required to succeed in a bureaucracy…I discovered the key. The key is not efficiency, or probity, or insight, or wisdom. It is not political cunning, interpersonal skills, raw IQ, loyalty, vision, or any of the qualities that the bureaucratic world calls virtues, and tests for…The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.

The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex.

This passage comprises nearly the entirety of one short chapter, which I don’t have a problem calling the book’s climax. The remainder of the book (there’s not much left after this chapter) is similarly hopeful. Amid the subplot (any sequence that one wants to label a “plot” in this book would do well to call it a subplot, in that it operates, always, beneath the surface of things. Emily Cooke said it well in The Millions when she affirmed, “events receive a swirling, almost obfuscating treatment, the event itself nearly effaced by context or interpretation”) of the attempts to replace human workers at the IRS with computers, certain characters, as mentioned, discover that they have special abilities to focus, not just on tax-work, but on the lives of others. The penultimate chapter, in which Meredith Rand, a beautiful (and, thus, emotionally isolated) agent, tells the story of her stint in a psych ward to Shane Drinion, the man no one else pays attention to, is the best in the book. It is a story about listening, about paying attention with unmotivated empathy. To see Wallace’s notes in the appendix address some of how this storyline would play out filled me with sadness over the potential this book really had. Namely: “Drinion is happy. Ability to pay attention. It turns out that bliss – a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.”

It’s fairly clear how preoccupied with boredom Wallace actually was in his final years. Jonathan Franzen asserted as much in his recent article in The New Yorker:

That [Wallace] was blocked with his work when he decided to quit Nardil – was bored with his old tricks and unable to muster enough excitement about his new novel to find a way forward with it – is not inconsequential…When his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death. If boredom is the soil in which the seeds of addiction sprout, and if the phenomenology and the teleology of suicidality are the same as those of addiction, it seems fair to say that David died of boredom.

Franzen spends a good deal of this article hashing out his anger over Wallace’s suicide. But if we put his observations of his dear friend’s decline alongside what Wallace came up with in The Pale King, we see the tragedy. In short, this book is as much about writing as it is about working at the IRS. Tom McCarthy made the right connection between the image of the service agent and of the novelist, hailing the book as “a much rawer and more fragmented reflection on the act of writing itself, the excruciating difficulty of carrying the practice forward – properly and rigorously forward – in an age of data saturation.” Cooke agrees: “The question is whether, along with the data, [the agents] can acquire a sense of vocation and vision, of meaningful work in a meaningful world. It is a question whose implications point inward, to the novelist’s own profession, and outward, to the status of human activity generally in what we have come to call an ‘information society.’”  It’s ultimately up to you to determine whether, like Franzen did, Wallace’s vocation and vision had left him, but, here, that struggle is valiantly dramatized.

Like addiction in Infinite Jest, boredom serves as a centripetal theme. Everything comes back to boredom. But, also like Infinite Jest, the theme is developed piecemeal, in a plotless tableau that is nonetheless filled with the delicious nuggets that we have come to love Wallace so much for. We have characters like the “fact psychic” Claude Sylvanshine, the compulsive and uncontrollable sweater David Cusk, the logorrheic and narratively expansive Chris “Irrelevant” Fogle, and the monastic Shane Drinion, who floats when he concentrates. Not to mention other chapters that tell of menacing infants, terrifying childhood shit stories, and life in the ‘60’s. They are digressive in that wonderful Wallacean way, becoming like legends, the way you can kick back with a friend and say, “Remember that part in Infinite Jest?” In that sense one feels that The Pale King could have been as long, as Rabelaisan, and almost as scriptural as its predecessor.

But the most interesting move Wallace makes is a vexing narrative divergence from the structure of Infinite Jest (by the way, I am happy to talk about Wallace’s shorter fiction, or his first novel The Broom of the System, but there really is no other analog, in a holistic sense). Namely, everything reads along just fine, until you hit Chapter 9, titled “Author’s Foreword.” The first line may evoke that familiar postmodern groan. Oh. This again. It begins:

Author here. Meaning the real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona. Granted, there sometimes is such a persona in The Pale King, but that’s mainly a pro forma statutory construct, an entity that exists just for legal and commercial purposes, rather like a corporation; it has no direct, provable connection to me as a person. But this right here is me as a real person, Dave Wallace, age forty, SS no. 975-04-2012, addressing you from my Form 8829-deductible home office at 725 Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont 91711 CA, on this fifth day of spring, 2005, to inform you of the following:

All of this is true. This book is really true.

The rest of the chapter recounts his suspension from university (rich students paid him to write their papers) and subsequent employment at the IRS. In a later chapter we learn how he was confused for a higher-ranking David Wallace and was thus given a job well above his pay grade. All of this is fictional, of course. Wallace wasn’t even forty in 2005. He was 43. Not to mention the fictional home address and social security number (“Wallace” claims he was issued a new one when he joined the Service). But this is not the point. In short, this whole sequence is a blatant ploy at the idea of fictionality in general. There are other first-person narrators, some identified, some not. Other chapters refer to Wallace only in passing, as merely a tangential character. He is both focalized protagonist and wallflower. But there is more to it than what “Wallace” himself calls “postmodern titty-pinching.” The real point here, broadly, is that Wallace seems to be writing a counterfactual life. If we take Franzen at his word, we might partly read this book as a dramatization of Wallace’s own despair. Many characters share famous Wallacean traits (excessive sweating, precocious “data mysticism,” penchants for storytelling), and we find that their lives in the Service have a Plan-B quality. Sylvanshine wants to become a CPA but can’t; Cusk has unnatural processing abilities but is too paralyzed by his condition to live a public life; Fogle shifts life paths after he stumbled into the wrong review session in college; Lane Dean signs up after he gets his girlfriend pregnant. Across these characters Wallace depicts the tragedy of what could have been, condemning characters to lives of tedium. The saddest thing about it, though, is the hopeful note it ends on, as these seemingly doomed characters become friends and begin to rise to the challenge of remaining relevant in the dawning digital age. At any rate, we see Wallace here searching, an activity that maybe occurs most often when we are bored, for greener pastures.

If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that I have refrained to this point from calling The Pale King a novel. This was essentially my way of broaching the rabbit-hole debate over the book’s textual status. A particularly snarky article (and that’s saying something) from Slate’s Tom Scocca took to task Michiko Kakutani’s review. He writes:

Evaluation is beside the point. Kakutani, gamely taking things at face value, wrote that the book was “lumpy but often stirring” – well, why wouldn’t it have lumps? It’s not a finished novel.

And: “this volume showcases his embrace of discontinuity.” But why would it be continuous? It’s not a finished novel.

The Pale King is less inventive and exuberantly imagined than Wallace’s previous novels.” But it is not a finished novel.

It is “[t]old in fragmented, strobe-lighted chapters” – but it is not a finished novel!

And so on. Scocca accuses Kakutani of over-harshly mistreating The Pale King as a finished, polished product, when it is really just a draft.  He’s looking for his “Gotcha!” moment, but his qualms, in form and content, are more reductive than Kakutani’s claims by far. She’s doing her job of evaluating what’s there. Scocca drops the ball by assuming that what’s there is somehow worse than what could have been there. In other words, he dodges the idea that a fundamental characteristic of any novel is its unfinishedness. This is an idea as old as Bakhtin and central to deconstruction, as well as to novel theory in general. The Pale King offers a rare glimpse into process in a raw state. As Emily Cooke concluded, “the book’s inconclusiveness keeps alive [Wallace’s] questions, and ours, in a way a completed work wouldn’t…As much sense as it settles into, it will escape us. It escaped him.” If ever a novel was going to be patently unfinished, it should be this one. Wallace has created an open-ended counterfactual existence, where he was free to imagine possibilities bleak and hopeful. That he couldn’t give us a final answer was the great tragedy of his life, but perhaps his most novelistic quality.

1. “John Billy,” which begins, “Was me supposed to tell Simple Ranger how Chuck Nunn Junior done wronged the man that wronged him and fleen to parts unguessed,” and is the fifth of 10 stories that appear in Girl with Curious Hair, strikes me as starkly different from most of Wallace’s work. This is, for example, one of the very few of his short stories that feature or is focused on lower class characters. There is also the tailor in the story “Say Never,” in Girl with Curious Hair, and the last piece in Oblivion involves some poor Midwesterners, though it’s not about them, and there are some stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men where, it seems to me, it’s ambiguous. But, for the most part, Wallace’s world is made up of well-educated, gainfully employed, could-go-to-therapy-if-they-wanted, upper middle class whites. There is no one in his short stories who mows the lawn, or stocks shelves at Wal-Mart, or drives a truck for a living. There is no one who would appear in a Raymond Carver story or in the worlds Cormac McCarthy writes about, but “John Billy” is an exception to that, and this story actually could have been told (differently, obviously) by either of them. From the moment it opens, “John Billy” is dramatically different.

2. In his later work, Wallace is primarily interested in ethics — human relationships, solipsism, sadness, etc. — and some of that comes through in Girl with Curious Hair, but in this story he seems primarily interested in language. “John Billy” most clearly owes a debt to McCarthy, who Wallace praised a number of times and in a number of places, my favorite being the three word recommendation/review of Blood Meridian that reads, in entirety, “Don’t even ask.” In an interview somewhere Wallace said he didn’t know how McCarthy “gets away with it,” and that’s the part of McCarthy’s project that Wallace focuses on here: how to make the anachronistical and anarchic, mythical, biblical, dirt poor, ungrammatical, spoken language work.

Some of it works and works amazingly well, like:

And was me told the table how except for the eyes, the jaw, and the pelvis, which to our community relief all healed up, prime face, in just weeks, leaving good luck bad luck Chuck Junior a sharper shot, wickeder dancer, nearer to handsome than before, how except for that, the major impact and damage from the accident had turned out to be to Nunn’s head, mind and sensibility. How right there in the post-accidental car he suddenly got conscious but evil …

and:

Now the buzzards outside the Outside Minogue Oklahoma Bar was down, sitting row on straight and orderly row on the edge-of-Minogue land stretching off toward dirt. Appeared to us through the window like fat bad clerics, soft and plump, teetery, red-eyed, wrapped up tight in soft black coats of ecumenism and observation. Had orange beaks and claws.
Was a good thousand orange beaks out there. Double on the claws. Lined up.

But other attempts seem to me to still be too far away and condescending, informed more by Deliverance than by any actual contact with poor whites. More bad joke than interesting use of language. An example is the title character’s use of the phrase “interjaculated,” for “interjected,” which is funny, but in a snobby, snickering way. It has the same attitude as The Jerry Springer Show.

And Wallace is really better than that.

3. There also, curiously, some sentences with cadences that could fit into a Bob Dylan song. The names all seem like something from Dylan — T. Rex Minogue, Glory Joy duBoise, Simple Ranger — and there are passages that could be narrated in his nasal, for example:

T. Rex Minogue was asking us to drink to his death.

or:

We passed the jars around and unscrewed Minogue’s bootleg lids.
We was silent at our table, expected T. Rex dead, or at least twisted, traumatized, Nunn-struck.
“Hi,” he said.

4. Which — 2) & 3) — is not say this piece is in any way derivative or merely imitative. What is exciting here for me is precisely the way Wallace is experimenting and pushing himself and trying to use language with which he is unfamiliar. There are some parts of this, too, that are very traditional. For example, “John Billy” is told as a story being told, a style that goes back to Chaucer, was used by Conrad, and wasn’t, in 1989, experimental. But Wallace finds ways within this form to experiment and does a number of things that seem to me to be original. For one, it’s narrated as a story told to us about a story told about a story, which makes the traditional style more complicated, and, for two, Wallace starts introducing prosodic elements like line breaks into the prose narrative, which I’ve never seen anywhere else in fiction.

For example:

How right there in the post-accidental car he suddenly got conscious but evil,

“evil,” I emphasized, and there was shudders from civilians and Glory Joy,

and how a evil Chuck Nunn Junior fought and cussed and struggled against his spinal restraints, invected against everything from Prime Mobile to OU Norman’s head football coach Mr. Barry B. Switzer hisself; how even slickered in blood, and eyes hanging ominous half out of their holes, Nunn’d laid out two paramedics and a deputy and shined up my personal chin when we tried to ease him into an ambulance …

Or, the same thing with stranger punctuation:

She told how Nunn come more or less to, in his little wrap-around car, his torch-lit busted eyes in blood like bearings in deep oil;
“Remember the eyes of Nunn,” I interjaculated, and Simple Ranger give me a watching look
; and as Glory Joy finished up communicating anger and justicelessness she felt, upon seeing T. Rex’s brother V.V. Minogue, listing far to port up against the largely unharmed cab of his IH liquor truck, weepy, shitfaced, scratchless …

5. Stylistically, there’s something constant in Wallace’s work, which can be found in his non-fiction and fiction pieces, which can be found here too, even when Wallace is writing in a voice that isn’t the one that comes to him most naturally. I don’t know exactly what it is called but it is a hyper-accurate, very technical language. The sense, which Wallace conveys with this almost-sometimes-stilted voice, is of someone struggling to express what’s hard to express, what’s delicate, struggling to do justice to the complication — a very careful, cautious, circuitous way of speaking (common in therapy and the best of continental philosophy), which is sometimes criticized as obfuscationism but is, in fact, normally an attempt to be ethical verbally, to be fair to that which is not simple.

To me it seems like it’s the texture of Wallace’s writing, but while this texture is vital to the kinds of questions Wallace asks in Oblivion‘s “Mister Squishy,” or Brief Interview with Hideous Men‘s “The Depressed Person,” it didn’t have to happen here, in “John Billy,” which points to this being something essential about Wallace and the way he writes.

He has this ethico-linguistic texture, here, with his use of,

– coordinating modifiers (“at an ominous and coincidental point in time”)
– compound nouns and modifiers (“a climactic and eternal chase-down-the-field and catch-from-behind” and “the runner-plus-interference problem,” respectively)
– extended and sometimes doubled non-defining relative clauses (“V.V., stepped in post-explosion guilt and self-loathing, plus not a little eau d’sweet potato, was speeding away”)
– very specific, technical or speciality-specific vocabulary (“near-gerunds confrontation,” “vis a vis,” “institutional-caring facility”)
– irregularly-used works, such as brand names as verbs (“to arrive and gawk and Kodak”)
all of which express the kind of carefulness that emerges later, when Wallace returns to fiction, as explicitly ethical, and shows, even this early, the impulse towards writing as a kind of ethics.

This is how I usually go to Kramerbooks. I arrive in Dupont Circle in the pre-dinner hour, emerging from the Q Street exit of the Metro and heading shortly down Connecticut Avenue and through the glass door by the shop window. Immediately you are inundated with wood shelves and stacks of all the books you’ve been reading about in magazines and online in recent weeks. Moreover, the smell of the place – coffee and pastries mostly, but pervasive and richer; it seems to have seeped into the pages – is most inviting. I browse the stacks of new releases, reading first pages and blurbs, getting a sense of what the reviewers have been talking about. The large wall to the left of the entrance comprises the fiction section, while smaller, chest-sized shelves in the foreground display titles in philosophy, religion and spirituality. In the back, facing the entrance, are travel and foreign language titles, as well as politics and history. Neighboring the back wall is the entrance to Afterwords cafe, with one of the best menus in Dupont, and not just for a bookstore.

When you enter the store and gravitate toward the fiction wall, there is an entrance adjacent to it to another room that houses poetry and local titles, as well as a shelf of recent anthologies from The New Yorker, Paris Review, and “Best American” series. Also in this second room is a cozy bar, where you can order a Rogue Dead Guy Ale, which, especially for $6.50, is up there with The Big Hunt’s House Amber as one of the best bets for beer in Dupont. Grab a book from any of the copious shelves and saddle up to a two-person table to peruse and sip before heading to happy hour or dinner.

Typically, I browse for a good quarter of an hour, before friends arrive and we head to another spot for drinks and dinner. During this short interim, I indulge fantasies of ownership, lament the limited capacity of my wallet and shelf space to accommodate all the books I want. But I gird myself and leave with nothing, happy to have looked, touched, but saved myself again. After wine at Circa or beer at The Big Hunt or vodka at The Russia House, grab a meal at any of the incredible restaurants in the Circle and surrounding areas. Maybe head to Gazuza for a nightcap, hookah, and some of the best downbeat jams in the city. Then, when you’ve had your fill of eat and drink, head back to Kramers for the best after-hours atmosphere in town. There is low-key live music every Friday and Saturday night, and the restaurant is open well into the early morning. Wind down the evening with friends over brownie sundaes or any one (or two) of their gourmet pies.

And then the coup de grace. Inhibitions and apprehensions disarmed, I return to the bookstore, at last ready to purchase. A night of full indulgence sufficiently dulls the pain of $27 for a Zizek or new fiction. Bargain books Kramers is not. But the massaging of the senses, physical and intellectual, makes for a great city night.

Visit kramers.com for menu options, music schedule, and hours.

I tell my students that sentimentality is the appropriate emotion at the most predictable time rendered in the most obvious weather, and all of it covered with a thin scum of false compassion. But you can get away with all that, yes, even a tear falling for a dead mother on a cloudy day, if you let it be what it is, in its full poverty, if you don’t wield it like some huge club of sensitive “feeling” with which you knock the reader over the head. True feeling has the force of grace; sentimentality has the stench of morals. The word “should” and “must” cling to its fat cherubic legs. Half comprised of self regard, and the other half a mixture of cliche, the sentimental is close to the feigned regard of the funeral director: appropriate, and grave, but with one eye on the itemized bill. Hitler wept when he watched a pair of boiling lobsters, but showed no particular compassion for those he exterminated.

A mind too utilitarian and selfish, too unable to see its own contradictions, too willing to be its own hero will often have an undeveloped feeling sense. This might go a long way towards explaining why a man might cry at his spoiled brat of a daughter’s wedding (my baby, my little girl) and not even slow down to drop a quarter in the cup of a beggar. He has scenarios for his emotions: beggars are all worthless pieces of shit who cause their own troubles, but daughters getting married are video worthy–extensions of his delusion that all is right with the world, and he is a wonderful daddy. Much of what we call sensitivity is no deeper than Madame Bovary’s fantasies about being a cloistered nun. It’s horseshit.

The difficult, the ambiguous, the nuanced call for an integrity of equivocation: this does not mean we should blunt all emotions or feelings when we write. Just as some people like sappy stories, others consider any direct feeling to be a sin against their aesthetics. Both represent different species of limited. I tell my students compassion and feeling are not in the feelings themselves, but in the artistic selection of details that bring them to life. In a story where a man comes home to find his wife in bed with another man, you might create a far better feeling sense if you have him peek through the half opened door, see his wife’s clothes holding a press conference with the man’s belt and neck tie, and, instead of having the husband break in and attempt to kill the wife and lover, or having him break down in sobs, he quietly goes down stairs, and sets the tea kettle to boil, very carefully removes his eye glasses, wipes them, waits for the kettle to scream for him, a whistle that will no doubt alert the lovers that he has arrived. Good actors know that emotion can be implied through a procedural of small actions, none of which are spectacular in and of themselves, but which, cumulatively, achieve an effect of the genuine.

It is also important to remember that subtle is not always better than overt and obvious.Some writers, especially those trained in writing programs, go overboard being nuanced. I call this Chekhov syndrome. They never met an emotion they liked, and yet, their stories (or poems) can be so understated that they never show up on the page at all. This is just as god awful and boring as being maudlin, and, worse, you may even win awards for it! Others of an equally “nuanced” bent might see themselves and their values reflected in your work and consider you a “subtle” artist even when it is actually a case of you being a cold hearted snob ass. Cold hearted snob asses too often run the arts. Chekhov, unlike his followers, knew how to be openly emotional and direct. I love Chekhov better than almost any other artist, but many of his followers bore me. They almost make me want to watch “The Sound of Music” (Love Richard Rogers, hate that musical.) So what to do?

Einstein said: “Things are as simple as they are, and no simpler.” I think this applies to the feeling sense in poems and stories as well. One of the safest things you can do is teach students to “show don’t tell,” but that can lead to two errors: one, overly describing and indulging in detail for its own sake. Two, the sort of “overly nuanced” feeling sense I mentioned just a paragraph ago. I prefer: “make sure your telling shows, and your showing tells, and that the two are not so easily separated since it is the miracle of art that showing and telling be one living force, just as character and plot be one living force.

This morning, I was very happily sipping coffee, eating a hard boiled egg, and reading Nabokov’s lectures on Russian literature. These lectures are as much an aesthetic pleasure to read as a good novel. At any rate, Nabokov recognized Tolstoy as the greater artist, but Chekhov’s stories were what this great writer and, yes, snob would have taken with him if exiled to another planet. He went on in great detail about the story usually translated as “The Ravine” (Nabakov prefers “The Gully”). Nabokov’s love and admiration for Chekhov were so evident that I found myself moved to tears. I was quite pleased with my noble soul. Then I went outside to smoke a cigarette and stare at the snow swirling in thirty mile an hour gusts. Tree branches were strewn about the yard. My garbage can had made it half way down the drive way and looked as if it might hurl itself at the next available Volvo.

Still full of my artistic sensitivity, I spied a slate grey Junco hopping about near the porch. I said: “hello, Mr. Junco.” I approached it, thinking it would fly off, but the Junco only hopped rather less than frantically, and I noticed its left wing was broken. I chased that Junco half way through my yard, determined to catch it and mend it, and show how compassionate I am. He tried to escape my kindness by making a run for a Lilac bush. This exposed him to a sharp shinned hawk who swooped down and put the pretty pink billed bird out of its misery. I may have covered my eyes. I may have hated the hawk, or myself, but I watched fascinated. The grace and ferocity, and the snow swirling all about gave me a sense that this moment was memorable, that I must witness it without judgment or editorial prejudice. The Junco gave forth only one small cry of distress, and then it was dead in the talons of the hawk, and I thought of the character Lipa in Chekhov’s story, how her child is murdered by a miserable woman who throws a cup of boiling water on him. At the end of this story, long after the murder, Lipa gives a piece of buck wheat cake to the senile and cuckolded husband of the murderer, her former father-in-law. She then dissolves into the story’s end, singing a song into the evening light. I thought how mercy and ferocity might be difficult to parse out, how they might fall upon each other in such odd and frightening and glorious ways. I thought that my recent feelings of self ennoblement for being such a sensitive reader had been foolish and petty, and that the “gift” I was being given was exactly this moment in which nothing in my heart or conscience could be clearly agreed upon. This is the truth of feeling. This is where I must begin.

Introduction

If we want to call Yahia Lababidi’s work since Trial by Ink fiction, we should do it for lack of a more accurate term. Like Trial, the following, titled “Underground Revisited,” exists between genres. We have an invented speaker and audience, and a steady flow of ideas and verbiage. But we don’t have a manageable Aristotelian plot, or any sort of substantial tension between characters (except for the occasional thrown shoe). This is man v. himself. Sounds more like a long poem.  On the surface, “Underground Revisited” is a hardy homage to Dostoevsky, a stylistic parody, in the Hutcheon-esque postmodern (i.e., aesthetically and theoretically productive) sense of the word, that, as a good parody does, reaches beyond mere play with form, that says something about that form via repetition and imitation. Here, Lababidi continues the aim of his major work, namely, that of answering big questions. As he told me, literature hasn’t changed that much. It’s still people trying to deal with living in their own skin and among others in a society. That’s precisely what’s going on here. Notes from Underground is so timeless because it, as Dostoevsky’s novels so masterfully tend to do, poses fundamental questions about human existence. Lababidi is up to much of the same. His speaker, like Dostoevsky’s, is self-loathing, but attention-starved, deep-thinking, but obsessed with action. He feels trapped between personal codes of being, imploring his (in this case, literal) audience for advice and understanding. Both stuck and unstuck, he struggles to put one intellectual foot in front of the other. This uncertainty cuts to the core of what it means to participate in a discourse, but, more importantly, of what it means to try to get along in one’s own life.

Underground Revisited
by Yahia Lababidi

Abominable Ladies and Gentleman, thank me for coming!

Tonight I empathize with every one of you. I’m overcome by a peculiar affection encompassing all and, almost myself. I do not lie.. now! Just how long I shall continue to experience this curious condition, I do not know. There are no constants and there are no certainties. Yes, there are none, certainly. We are merely figures of fun moved by unseen forces, which have no right to make any claims to knowing ourselves. (Nor can we assume any credit for our actions, only blame). It is important, therefore, that we recognize the notion that we should accept ourselves, fully, for what it truly is: a fallacy. We most certainly should do no such thing. To accept oneself, fully, is to assume responsibility for all that wanders in the wasteland of our heads and, that is a most dangerous thing to do. Instead, one should only judge oneself by their actions, and not for their thoughts. Thought is thwarted action, impotent action, unactualized action; active but not action. The thoughts we choose to act upon define us to others, the ones we don’t define us to ourselves. Only partially, of course, for one can never fully know themselves, nor should they want to. The over examined life is even less worth living than the unexamined one, trust me. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, true, but a lot is absolutely fatal … particularly self-knowledge.

It is a wonder then that people are able to identify on any level at all with others -family, friends, or lovers- when they are unable to identify with themselves. How they do it, I shall never know. Which is not to say that I should not care to know but, the truth is, I do not care to know. I care much more for extraordinary personalities than I do for ordinary persons; and I shall continue to be consumed by character until the day I live (which must account for my most shameful self-absorption). But, I do hope you don’t believe every word I’ve said, however, even I don’t. Or, perhaps, especially I don’t. But more likely, affectations aside, I don’t entirely. Believe every word I’ve said, that is. You see, I most certainly do not ‘see the world steadily and whole’. Rather, I see it oscillating wildly and fragmented. But, everything is difficult to see when one will not open their eyes. I know that. I’m aware that I am walking around with one eye firmly shut, and the other half open. Don’t be alarmed. I’m all too aware that I only say half-truths, and that I’ve lived even less than what little I’ve seen, all theory and hardly any practice. With me, there can only be so very little life in my life for it to be livable; any more life and I could not continue; any more light and I would go blind. Yes, I’m all too aware of that. I am aware. I have the suffering of awareness, though, and not merely the awareness of suffering (which is only its offspring). But, please, don’t take me too seriously – it’s enough that I do.

I’m sorry if you do not find the programmed amusing so far -I did not intend to depress you, I only meant to impress you- but the truth is that I don’t either. And, why should I make myself amusing to you when I can’t find myself amusing? Why should you be able to enjoy me, when I can’t enjoy myself? Don’t answer me! An answer would rob me of my uncertainty, and that is all I have left. Without it I am left with nothing. Please, don’t answer me. But, believe me, I wasn’t always this way. I wasn’t always a haunted man. You would not have recognized me then, just as I do not recognize myself, now. You know, the metamorphosis of others from friends to strangers is not so tragic, even if it occurs overnight. To become a stranger to oneself, until one no longer knows who they are … that is. Still, one ought not to be suspicious of change, for it might be the only constant. And if history books are littered with instances of hardened sinners becoming selfless saints, then why can’t a clumsy, careless clown exchange his costume for the cloak and crown of a sad, thoughtful philosopher? Just why not? But, it is not proper to discuss such matters with strangers. I can see you’re already uneasy.  There’s no reason why you should not be able to enjoy yourselves, individually and collectively.

You sir, the one with the divided nature, can enjoy yourself twice, or thrice, or however many times you are unable to identify with yourself. I, on the other hand, shall continue exploiting my selves. Why? Because I am an entertainer, first and foremost, and I am not to forget that ever again, if ever I hope to become a human being, secondly. What does he mean by that you might ask, if I permit. You see, I am not altogether human. Humane, yes. Human, no. But, how can you see? If you could, then it would not be a curse and, I am cursed. Cursed to find differences where there are none, and to ignore the differences that exist. I am the abominable one. Really, it’s a shame. No doubt you came counting on being amused, astounded with witticisms perhaps, and, instead you have been abused by being made to witness a savaging, of one abusing himself. Perhaps I should recite you some sublime passage from one of the unassailables, those immortal untouchables, and charm you with the breadth and width of my learning…

I apologize, again. I’ve merely forgotten my place, that is all. Yes, in deed to forget one’s place is most certainly all. It is the single greatest crime one can commit against oneself and one’s fellows. And, I have done so, repeatedly. But, believe me, when I say that I do so against my will. I am the victim of a virus which deforms and defiles and destroys. No, I am not that. I am the virus itself. So, lest it prove catching, I ask you all not to listen too closely. My origin is unknown, my destination unavoidable. In a void, able. I am. In a void, I am able. Inavoidiamable. There, that is something at least. If nothing else, I have given you a new word: “inavoidiamable”. Now, tell me where you have heard such a thing? Nowhere, I am sure, for I have not heard it before. I’m sorry, that is another fault of mine, that I can not imagine. To assume that you have not heard of a word simply because I have not is arrogant. To not imagine, that is the single greatest crime one can commit against oneself and one’s fellows. The fact of the matter is, I have tried to concentrate on the world within to the exclusion of the world without, for some time now. That is why I cannot imagine. But, I have only tried, and failed. All along I was aware of -no, I impatiently awaited- the world without. And even when my vessel began to sink I only waited aboard, bored, not to learn a lesson in survival but so that I might tell a tale later. Not share, but tell a tale, like the sole survivor of a shipwreck. No, like the soul survivor…

Honorable ladies and gentleman, I have a confession to make: I have no soul! None whatsoever. And it is very likely that, due to disuse, I stand to lose my body soon. For, just as Evolution suggests that we lost a tail for which we had no use, I am to lose a body I cannot use. Already, I have witnessed my soul silently slipping away from my body, disgruntled and disgusted, unable to play another (false) part except the one written for it -whose language I could not, or did not want to decipher. Since then, I have forgotten my place as I’ve said. I have borrowed from other souls, much finer, nobler, than the one I do not possess; and, I continue to do so even now. In exchange, I have loaned myself, only to realize I was over-drawn and artificially propped up on bounced reality checks.  That is why I must stand here, and you must sit over there. I must not allow myself to get any closer to you; it would not be fair to either of us. So, please, do not approach me; do not answer my questions; do not even look my way, lest you pity me. You may however, ask me questions -although I feel obliged to warn you: I have far more questions than answers

Yes, madam, you in the corner without a blouse. What is it you wish to know? No, I do not own clothes, anymore. That does not mean we are the least bit alike. You do not wear a blouse for a reason, no doubt, not because of doubt. You have either forgotten to do so, or you have chosen not to for some ridiculous reason. Or, perhaps you are poor and cannot afford one. In short, you have a reason. I have none. You have conviction. I have none. You have a belief in something or other:  be it a Cause, or your Self. I have none. There are others like you: counterparts, representatives, similar specimens. I am not even like myself.

Yes, sir, in the front row, in the middle. What? How dare you say you are in my position when we do not inhabit the same imaginative universe?  I have accessed regions of my soul you do not possess.  I have traveled landscapes of the mind you cannot fathom. I have had rarified sentiments you are not entitled to. What do you say? You want concrete evidence. With all due respect, sir, I am not a construction worker! I do not deal with the concrete. It is the abstract I traffic in. But, if you must, I will give you clear and irrefutable reason why we are not in the same position. You, sir, are comfortably seated. I am standing, always, and uncomfortably at that. What’s more is that you are in the front row; I need not say where I am, but it most certainly is not there. Finally, you are in the middle, balanced, moderate. I, my good man, am an extremist. I would sooner be beneath that seat in the farthest corner than exchange places with you. I’m sorry. I’ve forgotten my oath, to myself really more than anyone else: to empathize. Believe me, I do not mean what I say; if I did, I wouldn’t feel the slightest need to say it. It is but an act, though I am not an actor, per say. I can only act offstage, before close acquaintances or distant friends. Still, I ought to at least try and act naturally. Really, it is only that I’m in love with my own voice. I am like the bird that, seduced by her song, cannot stop singing throughout the seasons and catches her death of cold in winter, if not of exhaustion beforehand. No, I am not in the least like a bird. The bird is as beautiful as its song. I am as vile as my venom. I apologize; I shall not lapse into such extravagant indulgence again.

Thank you, sir, for throwing your shoe in my face. I don’t deserve it. You are far too kind and considerate to throw only one shoe. Really, you show such restraint. Yes, madam. You, without the arms, in the arms of the furry fellow. Well, what about Love? Yes, by all means, I believe in it. What it does not create in us, it compliments. It is perhaps the last of the miracles. Its chief allure is how unrealistic it is, and yet how senselessly we pursue it. Then, when we think we’ve found it, how senselessly we chase it away. What is that you say? Oh, no! No, my good lady. You have entirely misunderstood me, and I’m sure that is a fault of mine, since those who are consistently misunderstood must be to blame somehow. No, I do not believe in the possibility of love in my situation. I very much feel I am denied this possibility. Unless, of course, I were to find one who were constructed, and then deconstructed, in a similar vein. And, frankly, I don’t think it at all possible since I’m doing all I can to avoid looking for, or being found by, such a non-person. I say: I will never fall in love and, I don’t. It is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Now, tell me, who says there are no more prophets when there are prophesies? Just as, who says there are no more miracles when there exists even the idea of Love? I tell you, whoever says anything at all has spoken too soon, for they are bound to discover the inverse truth -sometime after- perhaps when it is already too late to benefit from it. That is why it is best to say nothing, or else everything, if one possibly can. Personally, I never mean what I say when I say it. I might mean it tomorrow, or yesterday. But, never today. That is why I feel that the only thing I cannot endure more than being misquoted is being quoted at all. It is simply maddening. You can quote me on that.  Actually, please do. It would do me a great deal of good to have my words echoed by strangers. It might even restore my faith in humanity, and bring me to embrace the person who uttered those dear, dear words. Yes, sir, with the broken spirit. What is it?

0! My God … my goodness! What a startling question. I don’t quite know how to respond, or if I ought to at all. It is important to refuse to answer certain questions, on principle, since one can’t speak lightly about absolutely everything. But wait. I’ve already answered your question indirectly, which is the best way to answer any difficult question, anyhow. Your answer is “my God… my goodness.” The two are interchangeable for me. No, they are not. That is far too simple an answer to such a complex question. Certainly, I believe there is injustice and there is imbalance; there is evil and wrong doing; there is sickness and suffering; poverty of the body and spirit. How then can I, or any intelligent, seeing human being say that God is all good, or even that there is a Heaven and a Hell? He is not all good. Rather, He is all: good and bad.  If we are created in His image, therefore it should follow that He is capable of greater good, and bad, than we are. We are limited, He is limitless.  ‘The greatest leap of man’s mind is to realize its limitations.’

What’s that, sir, you say about heaven and hell? I have not made myself clear on that point? Does that mean I have been clear on all others! Please, see me after this is all over and explain it to me, will you. Yes, heaven and hell, there’s no denying them. Only not in the next world, Heaven and hell are here.  Every Day is judgment day.  If you go unrewarded in your life, then, you must be good; and that, in and of itself, is your reward (and punishment). Yes, it is all absurd and senseless, particularly for the sensitive few who would like to believe otherwise.

Yes, Miss, with the bookcase on your back. One must think everything and do nothing? Are you suggesting then, learned lady, that thinking is not doing? Now, you must be sounding like me to amuse me. But, believe me; I am not amused to hear you repeat such things when I do not fully believe in them myself. I may amuse myself with such folly, you may not. You dishearten me. I did not think it possible to influence persons before and, I do not still. We receive only the stations our antennas attract, which is why we should keep our antennas out at all times in the hopes of picking up all of our stations. Otherwise, I cannot persuade you of what you do not already believe in the dawning of your knowledge. I cannot awaken in you what is not dormant. I cannot plant a seed where there is not fertile soil. And that is why it disheartens me that you should be like me in any way. Not that I feel I have affected you, for if you had not heard my words now, it would have been any incident or accident later that would have stirred you to those words. Yet, I wish it were not my words, and that you had heard them elsewhere. You are far too clever to join the daily increasing ranks of the overfed and undernourished. That is what it means to be overeducated.  But, it is not a fault that cannot be undone (sadly, it takes far longer to ‘unlearn’ than it does to learn, just as it is nearly impossible to ‘unsee’ what one has already seen). It can be achieved, however, and I am living proof of it. Although, perhaps “living” is too strong a word. Still, I am proof of it, nevertheless. You must not quote any more of those journals or ‘important’ authors, however. Or at any rate, if you must, then do so with some feeling. Where is your passion? Without it, you are merely a corpse with a borrowed mouthpiece, an ass carrying a bookcase, that is all. Intellect without sentiment is a cold, concrete structure without either doors or windows. Structurally solid, it is uninhabitable to the occupant, and impenetrable to the passerby.

Yes; the elderly gentleman with the black tears and the soil in his hands. No, sir, I could not possibly make light of your grief. What you hold in your hands is the Body of God. Yes, the Body of God is not invisible, it is Nature. How can we be in awe of one and not the other? It is the land, the sea, the air and the Infinite Universe. In which case, Humanity must occupy God’s nether regions. I apologize, that was careless of me … but not thoughtless. And, I’m not sorry. I do see the stars in space as His upper body, which can only mean…. God is not dead. Nature is independent of us yet, we are dependant on it. It goes about its natural cycles as it did before we came to be and, will continue to do so long after we cease. We have not tamed nature, we have only maimed it:  with electric blades and metal claws that pierce, tear, torture and spoil the air, the earth and its waters. Or what we call:  travel.  And, then monstrous machinery that devastates and contaminates its skin and soul. This we call: the cost of our living. And, next to those weightless clouds, Industry has contributed their own leaden clouds to choke the skies. Yet, we shall pass and It shall remain, majestic and mysterious, mocking us who have named it and so think we have known it. So, sir, I share your grief. For all our private and public worlds -and the monuments built to honor our accomplishments, thought forms and inventions- we are no more than a passing intervention, insignificant in the laughing eyes of Eternal Nature. Yes, Nature is God, and to be natural in thought and deed is divine. I, however, cannot be natural even when I sleep, or view nature except with envious eyes in my waking hours. There is no hope for me. But surely you, young man with the clear glass eyes, can see that it is not too late for you to be saved, provided you do not grow any further.

No, most certainly not! You should not wish to grow like me, mine is a malignant growth. I speak since I am not at peace with my silences. My words are elaborate because my thoughts are unclear. You speak with such simplicity and sincerity. Why you would want to emulate me worries me immeasurably and reminds me of the poisonous charm of words. Please, not another word or I shall expose myself! I must forget all that I am to be happy, you must only remember it. There is no use denying that yours’ is the superior state. Do not think that because you have the knowledge of happiness then, I must have the happiness of knowledge. Happiness and Knowledge are not to be wed in my world. For the feeling person, Ignorance is Happiness; and for the thinking person, Happiness is Ignorance. This I know. Ignorance on the first, simple, and natural level of existence is the prerequisite for Happiness, while on the second, more complex (hyperconscious) level of existence, it is the contrary: Happiness is considered Ignorance. But there exists a third level where Happiness and Knowledge can coexist. The selfless few who arrive at this state are those who ‘see the world steadily and see it whole’. But, I’ve already spoken ad nauseam on where I stand in relation this notion…

All of a sudden, I realize I am weary with fatigue, and I’m sure you feel the same. Thank you for your patient audience. What’s that? One more question? What a terrific trick that is you are performing, sir! Or, is it madam? What do you say? It is not a trick, it is a talent? A gift from God? No, I beg to differ. Look where you are seated, my dear ma… friend. The seats by your side are vacant, though there is a shortage of seats. You are all alone. Lately, I am of the opinion that a talent is not a gift but a curse, or at the very least, a hindrance. Any remarkable ability, as such, which differentiates one from the herd, that is talent, true. But, as a result of it, you will not be viewed with tenderness and understanding; and perhaps as a result of it, too, you will not be able to view others with tenderness and understanding.  You call that a gift? No, I must differ with you. I must be allowed to leave, now. I am too tired to continue this charade any longer. Also, I have already said too much although, to some of you, it might seem like I’ve said nothing at all. Whatever the case … Honorable ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming.

Wait! Don’t go…. I do not wish to be alone, anymore. I have nowhere to go. There, I have said it! And I have said it with neither trembling lip, nor quivering voice. I have said it rather bravely and matter-of-factly; because in fact, I do have enough energy to continue. I have to have enough energy to continue. And, sir, when I am done -when I am truly over and done with, and no longer of any use to anyone- then you may throw your other shoe in my face. In fact, please, do so now, I cannot stand the suspense. Thank you! Now, where was I before I so rudely interrupted my selves? Oh yes, talent is a curse. Yes, I’m sorry I stand by that. Forgive me, but I cannot take any more questions. Why? Because for every question of yours I entertain, I ignore one of my own. So, the format shall continue to be question and answer; only I shall be asking the questions and answering them. And, it shall be better this way for all of us. Believe me. But, please, stay a while longer. I require your presence for inspiration. I’m afraid if you leave, my muse shall, too. Also, if you stay, I promise to be more honest than I have been before, within the confines of the impossibility of honesty, of course.

What then, is the impossibility of honesty? Simply, it is to say that complete honesty with oneself is impossible and, with others improper. What one can do however is to bridge the gulf between what is said and what is done. (Perhaps also between what is thought and what is said). That is the utmost extent of honesty anyone can afford. How very polite of you, sir, to nod so understandingly while I am speaking. Really, manners are everything. Manners and Morals, and all the more so if they are natural (and not the product of some pretentious finishing school). More than anything, manners simultaneously express respect and self-respect; and morals enforce them. Which brings one to ethics. What of ethics? Can ethics exist outside of society? Absolutely! One is ethical for one’s sake. In fact, not only do ethics exist outside society, they exist only outside of society, since the ethics within society are simulated and inauthentic. For God’s sake, ethics exist outside of organized religion, as well, which accounts for the irrefutable goodness and non-judgmental stance of some atheists. All that is well and good is not found without, but within, irrespective of whichever club one is a member of. It is important not to lose sight of that in one’s lifetime, just as it is important never to lose sight of one’s death during one’s life.

What do I mean by that? “Death destroys a man: the idea of death saves him.” To realize the day shall come when one will lie beneath the earth they tread upon, and to realize that day may be tomorrow, is very wise indeed. Such a realization either endows one with a sense of urgency or futility. As always, the answer lies not in the middle, but in the continual excursion to either extreme. Yes, the senselessness of life and the senselessness of death, that is what one should preoccupy oneself with. Nothing else is of the least importance, other than Art, but certainly not Science. What a bore Science is with its relentless insistence on evidence and proof and, how unrealistic that is. There is no proof, and there are no guarantees! Proofs of purchase and guarantees accompany appliances, not us. Which is all the more reason never, ever, never, to lose sight of death or attempt any number of ways of maintaining a firm foothold in the quicksand that is life. Make no mistake, we are sinking, and we shall all soon be submerged. There is no avoiding it. Why the startled look, how could you have thought otherwise? Or had you simply not thought? Still, that’s no reason not to live because you must die. There is life to live for, and Art. What is Art? It depends on whom you ask:  the artist, or the public. To the artist, Art is the act of clearing his/her throat to find a Voice, silencing the voices in their head, and luring from it’s lair all that is secretive or mysterious. It is the act of dressing the invisible, of giving Form to the formless. And, only by becoming a slave to Art can the artist ever hope to master Life. To the general public, Art is a beautiful translation of the transition that is Life, rendering it more possible to endure. But, Art is not reserved to artists alone (and many artists are poor artists at that). Some people live artfully and fill their lives with art, while others artfully live and fill art with their lives. Ultimately, to burn brightly with one’s own Art, that is the purpose of life, if indeed there is one.

What then, is the greatest crime one can commit against oneself and one’s fellows? Desistance. To recognize one’s passion and not pursue it: to realize and refuse. Ignorance is bliss, to ignore is heresy. In which case, I must be damned… But, never mind me. Please, never mind me; I mind me enough as it is. Anxiety-ridden and doubt-driven, I am. I wonder: if one forgets about themselves, will they be forgotten? I don’t know. I know I don’t know. I also know endless self-scrutiny is fruitless. To concern oneself constantly with the endless possibilities of one’s growth, and in which direction is, as sure a way as any, to stunt one’s growth. But what can one do? We are not free … to do anything. We are free, but not Free. We suffer from a restricted freedom. We are free, from within a cage, yet we are also given a key -not to the cage, of course, but to ourselves. This way, we have the possibility of being free, to surprise others and ourselves. But, the true surprise is how hesitant we are to act. And when we do, just how helpless.

Excuse me, may I ask you a question, sir? What is the difference between you and that horse you are riding? There’s no need to take offense, an answer will suffice. No, I mean other than that it is an animal, and that it is mounted, since both of those conditions apply to the human condition. What do you say? There are no differences, then? No, sir, you are mistaken, again. There is one; one difference you have overlooked. The difference between you and your horse is that his blinders are removable. What do I mean by that? Just that his blinders are external and can be discarded; whereas ours are not and cannot. Don’t be so surprised. We all wear blinders which determine what we see and what we don’t, and accordingly, what we respond to and how. Some of us only see what is ahead of us, while others only see what is around them. The rest of us are looking at our noses. I do not see anything since my eyes are not in accord. But, I promised not to discuss myself, further…

How much time and energy we exhaust discussing ourselves, as though we were existing beings when, in truth, we are merely symbols. Collectively, we are a physical manifestation of the complex character of Creation, that is all. For, just as Nature is the Body of God, all of Human Nature is His Soul. That, I believe, is why we are here -to act and interact in such a way as to make manifest to Him the possibilities of His Being. But, this is not a solemn sermon -much as it may sound like one- since I am not in the position either to be solemn, or to present a sermon. Perhaps, I should speak of something else, then. How about aesthetics and insects? Yes, insects and aesthetics, it is. And, 0, what a frightful emphasis in our infinite vanity do we place on aesthetics!

You do not agree? Look at the cockroach. Now, look at how you recoil in horror! Look at your lips, upturned in disgust, and how your eyes long to recede to the back of your skull. Now, look at the ladybug, and look at your delight. Look at the fly, now, look at the butterfly. What is it about appearance that allows us to dismiss creatures so carelessly, and approach others so eagerly? What do we know of the nature of the black beetle that depicts it as any less loveable than the lady bug, or the butterfly? It is not harmful, nor is it lacking in usefulness; it only commits the unpardonable crime of not being pleasing to the eye. Likewise, why am I addressing myself to the attractive members of the audience, the more visually arresting of you? Is it because we assume, somehow, that Beauty is a kind of benediction, while ugliness expresses varying degrees of sin. Or, is it more superficial, but more meaningfully revealing, than that? I don’t know. Whatever the case, it is a temptation that must be avoided. No, that’s wrong. Can you tell me what is wrong with that sentiment? I’ll tell you. Temptation is not to be ‘avoided’, it is to be resisted. To be present and resist, not to distance yourself and avoid, that is noble. But, I have nothing in common with nobility. I tremble before temptation. I must avoid it, since I’m not strong. Okay, sir, you may now throw your other shoe in my face; I am over and done with. You already have? Very well, then, I shall exit unclimactically. At least, it is closer to the Truth that way. Thank you again and, please, remember me in your prayers.

It was the novel, specifically The Brothers Karamazov, that once and for all set me on the path toward dedicating my life to literature. Only recently has poetry come to occupy a similarly sacred space as the novel in my outlook. This delay is not due to any prejudice on my part, but more to a simple lack of sufficient exposure.

The main catalyst for this awakening was John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” When I first encountered it, I had been studying Pynchon, Barth, DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace. Namely, practitioners of the massive, whose major works will undoubtedly stand as monuments to our historical and cultural moment. “Self-Portrait” is one such undertaking.

The sheer philosophical, epistemological, formal and emotional scope exhilarates me every time I read it. It is a virtuosic, dynamic, and ultimately heart-wrenching meditation on self-consciousness and loss, central notions of late twentieth-century art. Like those masters of narrative I mentioned, Ashbery causes me to pause and reflect with awed humility that I could never do what he did in this poem.

Rachel B. Glaser is a rule breaker, which is a terrible way to start off talking about this, Pee on Water; bland as more haughty platitudes, but, whatever: when I was reading this book, the most promising short fiction I’ve encountered in near forever — I was, like, What am I going to write on the Internet about this rakish, precious creature; or Where am I going to put, in my understanding, the way this thing makes everything feel, in this room, on this bed, holding these stories, in the world. Two possibilities, in the matter of even figuring out how to open my mouth about it, occurred eventually. One mentions the technical mutant-ness (product of an implicit, albeit devious, acumen) of the book upfront or one’s smitten foremost with the charm, wit, emotional derring-do, hilarious truth, and clever bruises in the thematic treatment of woolliest angles of this human problem/definition. Whatever approach, the major accomplishment is really how fiction achieves in all this.

Here is a special book; I read it, it made me feel happy, and I had to write a friend an email asking her why nobody else contemporary or comparable to the young Rachel B. Glaser writes as epiphanic structures as these or plays with the purpose and effect of fiction with such verve. In the consideration of recent stories, I want to read Rachel B. Glaser all the time instead of anybody else her age and range who somebody publishes — even though I am wracked for anything cognizant in the way of my response or critique. She woke me up sneakily, Glaser, in a fashion hard to articulate — or, like, just put things out of order in a way that made it all hurt and shine. Something like this, as has been pointed out, is not supposed to work. Given more general attention, the Pee on Water stories might meet with some critical harrumphing over the giddy-rude-earnestness, the diamondy lumpiness, the sophomoric timbre. These are the sort of stories that flip backward through the glass of tall windows instead of taking the stairs.

She remembers, for us, fiction can do anything, actually, and just forgets to — lethargically flopping shy of new capacities because we don’t desire what we don’t expect. The opportunities allowed the form are incredible: as long as a writer architects for her fiction a hermetic operational math (whatever that is… I guess I mean, as long as a readable method is presented for the prosaic world we’re accessing), she can tear it the fuck up: laterally, through the bizarro dark places of the heart, wormed about at witchy exercise. The narrativity of a kind of story like Glaser’s spews contrarily and wide — astonishing readerly expectations for how literary structures ought to play out. Glaser’s debut collection punches open with “The Magic Umbrella,” a laughing, stitched-up ramble that’s, closer looked into, the upsettingly smart and adventurous intro to a whole new kind of way to get at us and leave it all crumpled and amazed. A cute snatch of grade school juvenilia — “One day there was a girl whose name was Jen. She was a secondgrader. Jen was running to catch the bus when she saw that it was raining. She ran back to get her umbrella” — provides a site for launching into a textuality that, umbrella-like, springs into a dream song on authorship, on authoring, out to where the fictive realizes.

“If I don’t know what is going to happen in a story, it feels like it is happening to me,” said Rachel. Read Pee on Water: it’s surprising — accessible, even friendly, it’s far away from callow complexes, morbid distancings: the more fun-house it gets, the less rote, the riskier its whole shtick pulls it off. Glaser’s technical moxie demonstrates most “experimentally” in the toy-like, fluidly intricate, textual prowess of, for one example, “Iconographic Conventions of Pre- and Early Renaissance: Italian Representations of the Flagellation of Christ,” wherein the essayistic unspools into vociferous considerations of repetition/transmission. The piece jumps from site to site straying after its thematic resonance.  We discover how there is room, in a consideration of the flagellation of Christ, for Kobe Bryant describing an alleged sexual assault, and before it really makes sense, everything is dancing together, everything, put up, is poetry.

Pee on Water takes the upsettingness and glory of the information used to puzzle out what we are, takes this stuff and, with existential sass (rather than sickly irony and mock criticality — looking at you, hipster writers), puts chunks in a car together, or programmed within a video game, or trapped in an escape pod adrift in outer space, or confusedly standing in front of an old lady’s cadaver, or yearning out on the lawn, desperately sentimental; the familiar and its opposite toss around and turn out mirroring each other. In a standout story “The Jon Lennin Xperience,” a regular-esque, semi-uncomfortable guy is introduced to an immersive bootleg video game that simulates the daily experiences of John Lennon; the gamer, increasingly obsessed, eschews his participation in the dimensional world to assume the virtual identity of the musician-character. What the Lennon experiences and those outside the simulation mean for each other, nested further into each other, trouble the narrative; and, whether the game life is an analogue for the “real” life, a commentary, or whatever — the technology and the humanity wrap around each other imperfectly and significantly. There are miracles in every story in this book, seriously, and still I’m overwhelmed too much to attempt cataloging them comprehensively.

When done with Pee on Water I wanted to keep holding it, I wanted to gift it away quick to friends, I wanted to watch the author answer some emails, but then I didn’t immediately have anything to say about it, though I knew that Glaser’s formal temper and emotional intelligence, and everything else, here in this Pee on Water are definitely, now that we know, what we need. I almost didn’t remember reading a chapbook of her poetry some months back, so maybe her verse doesn’t fascinate as readily (as to be forgotten blithely) as this, but damn is this collection a loud promise that there’s still something left to do, right now, with this form, here in America; easily, it’s one of the most notable titles released in ’10, also, which piques my interest in the small venture called Publishing Genius for putting it out. There is, yeah, Gary Lutz, but besides him I’m not confident I’m wetting my pants over any living American short fiction writer in recent memory the way that it happens when I think about this gorgeously written book and its author. So let me say this: These are thirteen stories that will be read and believed in.

Why do we make lists?  I tend to agree with Paul Tankard, who wrote in Prose Studies, “[A list makes] an implicit truth claim that subverts prose…a list in a novel is part of the fiction, a list in a poem is part of the poetry, but in both cases the list introduces a pragmatic element. What a list does in pragmatic circumstances it will seem to do in a literary circumstance. It stops us reading and starts us counting…It moves the reader, for a moment, outside literature.”  Or perhaps Umberto Eco’s thesis of his book on literary enumerations is more to the point: “we like lists because we don’t want to die.”

That pretty much accounts for the pragmatic elements.  But what about this “stepping outside of literature” business?  Every year around this time (especially since the advent of Twitter) we are flooded with Best-of-the-Year-Books lists.  This year was the first time I saw a few Best-of-the-Best-of-the-Year-Books-Lists-Lists.  Why?  Any discerning reader knows that you can’t just rank your favorite books, that nothing stacks up in a neat little row like that.  We need individual books to fulfill individual needs, and some do certain things really well that certain others can’t, or don’t intend to.  That’s the beauty of literature.  But here we are, and here I am, delivering my list.  I’ve been doing it independently since ’08, but I am glad to share with you my year in fiction.  The reason I (we?) do this is not too far from Eco’s – namely, we can take stock of how much we have read, but in doing so don’t we always become even more morbidly aware of how much we haven’t read, and how many more years like this there are to go?  Death would be a rather unfortunate inconvenience in the yearly reading campaign.

In the past, I’ve posted my broad results of yearly reading.  The lists included any book that I read that year, young or old.  This runs the risk, in the long term, of becoming repetitive.  That is, anytime I read Underworld, Infinite Jest, or The Brothers Karamazov (which I hope will occur often), they will automatically make the top five.  It’s nice to flaunt, but it’s completely unhelpful to a reader looking for my opinion on the best fiction of a given year (that is why you’re here, right?)  Now, I wish I could be like Maureen Corrigan or Ron Charles and have a hundred books delivered to my door every week for review. I wish I could come from a place of having read all the relevant novels of the year.  That’s not the case.  I missed new ones from Tom McCarthy, Emma Donoghue, Jennifer Egan, David Grossman, Louise Erdrich, and John Banville, among many others. Still, I feel like I’ve been lucky enough to have read five novels that many would agree are “Best Of.”  But since I don’t have high authority, I feel unqualified to label this a “Best Of” list.  So, like Oprah, I give you my Year-End Favorites.

The first question most newspapers, magazines, and blogs have asked is, “Will Freedom make it?”  The literary event of the year has made mine, perhaps because of its literary-event-of-the-year status.  It’s too important to ignore.  So, I’ll begin there.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.  Franzen may not be The Great American Novelist the way Time has set him up to be (only Time will tell if that is true).  But he is a great stylist, and his sentences make the book.  His characters are deplorable and spend most of the novel engaged in one Girardian mimetic triangle after another, repeating the mistakes of their parents, with potentially ruinous effects. I have friends who hate the novel on the grounds that they believe that Franzen actually likes these people and hates pretty much everyone else. A certain snobbishness does pervade, but it can be overlooked thanks to the same type of page-turning fun that characterized The Corrections and the scathing satire of his near impeccably crafted sentences.

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields.  So, I cheated.  Shields’ portentous rap against the state of fiction in favor of memoir is technically nonfiction, but it’s so artfully produced that I must comment.  Namely, he argues that contemporary fiction, forty years after Barth’s “Literature of Exhaustion” is, finally, exhausted.  Memoir, in its emotional authenticity and basis in fact, is gaining more steam by the year.  While he’s at it, he spends a good deal of time addressing the issue of plagiarism, i.e., if we’re dealing with memoir, how much can be made up, borrowed, stolen, etc.?  In his opinion, anything goes.  The content of the argument is relatively compelling, but about halfway through the book you have an epiphany.  It has to do with the structure.  The book consists of twenty-six chapters, each named after a letter of the alphabet and dealing with issues of nonfiction (“overture,” “mimesis,” “reality,” “memory,” and “blur” are just a few of the chapter titles). Each chapter is comprised of a series of aphorisms ranging from a sentence to a paragraph in length.  There are 618 such aphorisms.  But, halfway through (or earlier, if you’re sharper than me), you realize that Shields didn’t write any of these aphorisms.  They are all lifted from somebody else.  No quotation marks, no citations.  I can’t tell you how much this added to the reading experience.  I hadn’t encountered anything quite like it.  To Shields’ dismay, he was forced to include a works-cited appendix at the end, slightly undermining his argument for total and credit-less sharing.  I was still compelled, if not convinced.

Solar by Ian McEwan.  “The Master of the Macabre” surprised me here with an homage to Updike and Rabbit Angstrom in the figure of Michael Beard, a Nobel laureate who is charged with the task of solving global warming.  He has more than a few problems, though, mostly pertaining to the amount of potato chips (and women) he consumes.  This sets the stage for a Rabelaisan romp that, stylistically as well as structurally, provides laughs at nearly every turn.  Ultimately, the bureaucracies whose job it is to solve the world’s problems are bitterly satirized here in a refreshing turn from the recent darkness of On Chesil Beach.

Zero History by William Gibson.  “The Bigend Trilogy” concludes with a journey into London’s underground fashion trade.  At the center of it all is multi-billionaire Hubertus Bigend, whose single goal in life is to fulfill his many curiosities. Here, it is, in an elaboration on the idea of pattern recognition (also the title of the first novel in the series), a fascination with predicting trends in the market.  That fascination manifests itself in an attempt to corner mass produced military wear for civilians.  This is vintage Gibson, a commentary on the simulacrous state of consumerism, the invisible workings of desire and demand.  But can those workings be manipulated?  In addition to all this, Gibson is so enjoyable because he brokers in cool.  Apple products and Twitter pervade the novel, as well as a good amount of motorcycle courier-ing.  His comments at his reading in D.C. this fall tell us the most, however.  “For anyone serious about writing,” he asserted, “genre is only useful as a narrative strategy.” This best sums up this recent trilogy.  He deftly made the transition from out-and-out SF into what a London writer called, in reference to Spook Country (the second part of the trilogy), “one of the most important books of the decade.”  Count that for all three.

And the winner is (but who’s counting?)…

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart.  I will re-post my review from the summer here:

Until three days ago, I had not read anything by Gary Shteyngart.  But, true to form, the YouTube trailer of Super Sad True Love Story (released July 27) intrigued me enough to spend my birthday money on it. I was aware of Shteyngart’s propensity for hilarity, and this novel delivers.  But it was layered in unexpected ways.  It is the story of Lenny Abramov, an – ahem – middle-aged Russian-American with a taste for books.  Only, in Lenny’s America, books have become physically repulsive (they stink), and every citizen is perpetually linked to his or her apparat, a media streamer good for all things data and entertainment.  Reading has been replaced by “text scanning for data”; dollars are now “yuan-pegged” due to China’s global economic dominance; Credit Poles are set up in public spaces, which flash people’s credit scores as they walk by; people are subsequently divided into HNWI, and LNWI groups (High/Low Net Worth Individuals), your membership of which determines your social prospects; similarly, women’s “Fuckability” and “Personality,” their apparently only two appealing traits, are broadcast by their apparats; like David Foster Wallace’s near-future, Shteyngart’s is saturated with acronyms and product placement, with the vulgarity turned way up.  JK (“just kidding”) is replaced with JBF (“just butt-fucking”), and name brands such as Polo and J. Crew are replaced with AssLuxury and JuicyPussy. Americans get their news from Fox-Liberty Prime and Fox-Liberty Ultra (“the Fox”). This alone indicates the hyper-conservate policies that run Abramov’s America, a nicely woven sub-plot that comes to a surprising head by novel’s end.  Citizens are constantly screened for their credit ratings and, if returning from abroad, for how many foreigners they’ve slept with. Almost precisely this happens to Abramov, whose story centers on his love for Eunice Park, a Korean-American he falls for while abroad in Rome for a year.  The narrative is told from their alternating perspectives – one chapter will be comprised entirely of his diary entries, the next by her e-mails and online chats.  A nice dichotomy between old and young, literate and “post-literate.”

And ultimately, that’s what this book ends up being about.  The gaps (emotionally and technologically) between generations (Abramov works for a company that helps people try to live forever), and the (im)possibility of love, romantic or otherwise, between them.  Amid his satirical romp that lampoons, cleverly, the future of American political and consumer society, Shteyngart rounds the narrative out to address what Abramov realizes are life’s only two truths: my existence and my demise.  This novel shows us that how we get from the former to the latter is, yes, a super sad true love story.

To help get my mind around what Synetic Theater was trying to do with their adaptation of Bulgakov’s oppression-defying, faith-affirming romp The Master and Margarita, I turned to Linda Hutcheon’s helpful study of postmodern adaptations, her 2006 book A Theory of Adaptation.  For too long, she asserts, we have evaluated adaptations as products, in terms of accuracy, verisimilitude, and the like.  But, in true Hutcheon fashion, we should be focusing on the process as well as the product of an adaptation.  We can best do that by examining not so much the form of the piece (novel-to-screen, novel-to-stage, etc.), but what she calls “modes of engagement.”  There are three types, which are all, as she says, “immersive”:

Some media and genres are used to tell stories (for example, novels, short stories); others show them (for instance, all performance media); and still others allow us to interact physically and kinesthetically with them (as in videogames or theme park rides).  These three different modes of engagement provide the structure of analysis for this attempt to theorize what might be called the what, who, why, how, when and where of adaptation.  Think of this as a structure learned from Journalism 101: answering the basic questions is always a good place to start.

This seems simple, but it is quite obviously very useful in an age of hyper-interactivity and myriad Hollywood adaptations.  Hutcheon studies opera extensively, so it would be interesting to see what she would have to say about The Master and Margarita.  In short, it is an exemplar of this theory, in that it is a dynamic hybrid of the latter two modes. In the program distributed by the Landsburgh Theatre (the host venue, in DC’s Chinatown), we learn a little about Synetic Theater. Their slogan reads as follows:

Synthesis: the coming together of distinct elements to form a whole

Kinetic: pertaining to, or imparting motion, active…dynamic…

Synetic Theater: a dynamic synthesis of the arts

In other words, before the opening curtain, a clear idea of what you are about to experience–or engage with–is murky.  Not shortly afterward, however, are confusions assuaged (and expectations met).

We sat in the front row, a few seats away from a friend and colleague who is a dancer and has many more intelligent things to say about that side of things. But from our vantage point, it fully seemed that this troupe, in the words of P90X’s Tony Horton, flat out “brought it.”  Or, to quote The Washington Post’s Nelson Presley,

The Performers of Synetic Theater seem to have made up their minds about what they are: rock stars…As performers, [director Paata Tsikurishvili, who also played Master, and choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili, who played Margarita]…are mesmerizing, melding intensity and craft…But no matter how striking the staging and effects, which include creative decapitations and even a zombie scene, the story is consistently clear and forward-moving.

More on the story in a minute.  But to finish about the execution–the sheer physicality of the entire ninety minutes left us breathless and exhilarated.  In addition to the Tsikurishvilis’ performances, Alex Mills’ contorting Azazello and Philip Fletcher’s Behemoth dazzled. And Armand Sindoni’s Voland was hilarious in an appropriately demonic way.  I can’t drift too far out of my territory to comment on sets and choreography, but when you’re coming away from a night at the theater muttering, and pardon the pun, “damn, damn,” something must have gone pretty well.

But I did have an agenda.  The third part of my Bakhtin-Dostoevsky-Bulgakov Masters thesis analyzed the novel within the novel, the source of the Master’s troubles, “Pontius Pilate,” a subversive re-telling of Jesus’ condemnation and crucifixion.  It is a prototype for what would come to be known in the postmodern era as “historiographic metafictions” (Hutcheon again), the underpinnings of which are encapsulated by Voland in the early going, when he asserts, “Of course Jesus was real…But you should know that nothing in the gospels actually happened!”

“Pontius Pilate,” therefore, attempts a re-conceptualizing of Jesus’ conversation with the title character.  And the final chapter of my thesis dealt with just that.  As opposed to the Jesus of the gospels, the Yeshua of the Master’s imagining converses at length with Pilate, eventually converting him–not to Christianity as we know it, but to the simple idea that everyone is inherently good, just unhappy sometimes–only too late.  The rest of the novel depicts Pilate’s regret in the form of a hallucinated dialogue in perpetuam with Yeshua, as they walk up a moonbeam into space. Very Bakhtinian, no?  Long story short, I was most interested in how Synetic was going to stage this encounter.

The first few scenes from “Pontius Pilate,” staged as the Master’s memories of his now-burned manuscript, are consistent with Synetic’s set pieces, substituting verbal exposition with interpretive dance, music, and sound effects.  They are effective, emotionally, but I was wondering when the conversation, the intellectual centerpiece of this encounter, would begin (we never even see Yeshua’s face in multiple flashback scenes).  But just as some discontent began to brew, Synetic put its most creative stamp on their project.  Toward the end, the Master and his cell mate in the insane asylum, the poet Bezdomny (Ryan Sellers is formidable in this role as well), are bound to chairs, seated back-to-back, and interrogated.  Bezdomny by a Soviet officer, the Master by Pilate himself.  Here we get a decent amount of the dialogue between Yeshua and Pilate, envisioned, perhaps, as Bulgakov intended.  The parallel between the Roman authority of the first century and that of the Soviets is made explicit as Bezdomny and the Master alternate lines from Yeshua’s conversation, asserting the goodness of humanity and the trouble with totalitarianism.  While much of the actual conversation is still left out, we are given the force behind it, and the force behind The Master and Margarita–that is, even if we, as the Soviets wanted to do, strip the story of Jesus of its mystery and miracle, we are nonetheless left with the very simple message of love in the face of authority, a miracle in itself.  That Synetic chose to stage it this way emphasizes the dialogic nature of our relationship with history. And it no doubt effectively fits their own mode of engagement. They deliver.

Was I nitpicking?  Perhaps.  You need not do that here, nor will you really have time to, in this frenetic and ecstatic adaptation.

The week before last, Salman Rushdie visited the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue to read from and talk about his new novel Luka and the Fire of Life.  It is a sequel to the popular Haroun and the Sea of Stories, written, as its predecessor was for his first son, at the request of his second son.  Its hero is Haroun’s younger brother Luka, the second son of the famous storyteller Rashid Khalifa, who must endeavor a similar journey into the Magic World to once again help his father. These books walk and talk like children’s stories, but we should believe Rushdie when he asserts that “we are all children,” and that the appeal of these books, he hopes, is broad.

He carried himself with his usual joviality: he congratulated one overzealous fan for her question, telling her that she should publish it; on another occasion, when asked about his process, he replied, already laughing as if he couldn’t help himself, “I write left-to-right, all the way across the page, and then all the way down the page until I’m finished”; when I asked him at the signing if he could convince Thomas Pynchon to visit the Synagogue, he replied, and this was after 200-odd signatures, “You know, if I only had his phone number.” But his explanations of this book were insightful.  “It looks like it was easy,” but he assures us that “re-writing one of the oldest stories ever told–the story of man gaining fire from the gods” is arduous.

This intention is a good place to begin, analysis-wise.  Haroun appealed to young audiences because of its protagonist’s fanciful and action-packed adventure to save the Sea of Stories from pollution, in turn restoring his father’s lost yarning mojo.  It appealed to me because it was essentially a metafictionalist’s manifesto.  Nearly all the tricks were on display (to recount them would taint them; they are best encountered in their surprising and entertaining form).  Storytelling itself thus becomes the central theme of Haroun, a defense of its imaginative and restorative power.  Young audiences will similarly delight in Luka’s adventure into the Magic World to steal the Fire of Life and help the ailing Rashid.  But while the theme of Haroun was storytelling, here we deal with philosophy.  Life and death (or, as it is overtly put here, Being and un-Being) as well as issues of time (characters who literally represent the past, present and future play prominent roles in Luka’s journey) are central throughout the narrative. Again, to say more would spoil its richness.

Each book’s themes figure at times heavily and delicately, but narratively they are each driven by a paradigmatic plot structure. In each case, the young hero finds that the Magic World somehow resembles his own imagination, and the solutions to many of the problems he faces arise from his memory of these imaginings.  So, for example, Haroun becomes a character in a princess-rescue, employing tools from the stories his father had told him.   But it is the narrative paradigm that drives Luka I find extremely interesting.

We learn early on that Luka

lived in an age in which an almost infinite number of parallel realities had begun to be sold as toys. Like everyone he knew, he had grown up destroying fleets of invading rocket ships and been a little plumber on a journey through many bouncing, burning, twisted bubbling levels to rescue a prissy princess from a monster’s castle, and metamorphosed into a zooming hedgehog, and a streetfighter and a rockstar, and stood his ground undaunted in a hooded cloak while a demonic figure with stubby horns and a red-and-black face leapt around him slashing a double-ended lightsaber at his head.

Just as Haroun’s adventure is driven by his memories of Rashid’s stories, Luka’s journey resembles his beloved video games, replete with save points, bosses, accumulated lives, and increasingly vexing levels (not to mention the fantastic nature of the Magic World to begin with).  This fits the philosophical themes of time and death very nicely.  Many times Luka debates whether he actually controls the outcome of his adventure, or if it’s all been pre-programmed. Toward the end he accuses his nemesis of treating this ordeal like a game, only to be refuted with “No. It is a matter of life and death.”

Kudos to Rushdie for not shying away from video game imagery; I agree with the L.A. Times’ Jon Fasman when asserts, “Rushdie, almost alone among modern fiction writers, gives these games their narrative due.”  It’s extremely risky, but if you’re going to talk about such things as parallel universes, multiple lives, determinism and free will–in stories, let alone in life–is not the video game a reputable analog?  So, in many ways, Luka and the Fire of Life is in fact about storytelling after all.  Is it a case for the value of video games as a storytelling device for children and adolescents?  Probably not, but the video game motif–something I have not come across, at least to this extent, in fiction–nonetheless works here both as a model for plot and as a meta-commentary on the tension between determined structures and the always present freedom of an author to create the incredible.  Rushdie manages both quite nicely here.

There should be a warning on the cover of Moby-Dick. Beware, it should say, reading this will require blood.

Fair warning would only be fair. As it is, the word of caution comes too late. Melville only mentions this cost, this culpability, when one is already hundreds of pages in. It’s only mentioned after we know to call him Ishmael, after we’ve followed, fascinated, behind Queequeg the face-tattooed harpooner who carries his god in his pocket, after we’ve sat through a scary sermon, heard a beggars warning, met the crazy Quaker shipping company owners and boarded the Pequod with Ishmael. It only happens after we’ve watched the waters for whales, watched while the water’s impossibly calm, and after we’ve learned the customs and social structures of whaling ships, after we’ve met everyone and after we’ve seen the one-legged captain with his thumping and his obsession.

Then we’re told we’re doomed.

The structure of this moment — this too-late announcement that one is irrevocably involved — is, of course, the same for the reader as it is for the characters in Moby-Dick. This is what happens in the novel and what happens, at the same time, to the reader of the novel. It’s a metafictional moment revealing one’s ethical responsibility, revealing it not as a choice, but as a sentence.

This metafictional moment comes in a metafiction chapter of the novel, the chapter where Ishmael, the narrator, uses this genre to directly address the reader, directly address the nature of the narrative, the bookness of the book, and the question of the truth of the story. It comes in Chapter 45, “The Affidavit,” which starts out, “So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book…” The function of the chapter is the function of an affidavit, that is, to swear to the truth of something, and Ishmael does this by epistemological appeal to his own eye witness testimony, to the stories commonly known among those who know these things, and news accounts and written documents, where “A fact thus set down in substantial history cannot easily be gainsaid.” He swears and declares that what he says is the truth. He has, he says, “no more idea of being facetious than Moses when he wrote the history of the plagues of Egypt.”

To make this direct appeal on behalf of the truth of the narrative, the narrator has to step a step away, into metafiction, and in doing that directly addresses the reader. He warns that “they,” by which he means “landsmen,” by which he means us, “might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.”

Ostensibly this misinterpretation — which is, maybe, the most common interpretation seen in readings of Melville’s magnum opus — horrifies the narrator because it’s wrong, and because it remakes the horribly real into a nice little morality tale. It seems, though, that, in truth, the fear here is also that the readers, in making the whale into an allegory, in making the story a fable with a learnable lesson attached at the end, might exempt themselves from any moral responsibility. Swearing to the truth of what he has to say, by means of metafictional address, the narrator also in this moment manages to point out that the reader is always already ethically involved.

“Do you suppose,” the narrator says,

that that poor fellow there, who this moment perhaps caught by the whale-line off the coast of New Guinea, is being carried down to the bottom of the sea by the sounding leviathan — do you suppose that that poor fellow’s name will appear in the newspaper obituary you will read tomorrow at your breakfast? No: because the mails are very irregular between here and New Guinea. In fact, did you ever hear what might be called regular news direct or indirect from New Guinea? Yet I tell you that upon one particular voyage which I made to the Pacific, among many others, we spoke thirty different ships, every one of which had had a death by a whale, some of them more than one, and three that had each lost a boat’s crew. For God’s sake, be economical with your lamps and candles! Not a gallon you burn, but at least on drop of man’s blood was spilled for it.

This is a sort of shocking moment, for you are sitting there or I am sitting here, reading, quietly reading, for all intents and purposes innocent of the world’s blood and bother, its violence and tumult, and Ishmael comes right out of the page and accuses us of blood. Whether by not reading about our involvement, when we read the paper in the morning, or by reading about it here, we are not separate, he says. We are, in our actions and inactions, culpable.

Moby-Dick is, in one basic sense, an economics story. It’s about the kind of capitalistic colonialism America has always been involved in. Like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the story suggests that this system, this kind of colonialism, whereby we scour the world for resources to take, just assuming they’re ours for the taking, is pretty normal, pretty acceptable. The problem with the system, these novels propose, is that sometimes a crazy person, a Kurtz or an Ahab, takes the enterprise crashing over the edge into excess and insanity. It is, in this sense, a warning about a limit. Melville shows us, though, that it’s not just the crazy people, those who betray the fiducial interests of the mission, who are the problem. It’s also those who acquiesce.

When Ahab announces his insane mission, “And this is what ye have shipped for men …”, the harpooners all shout out “Aye, aye!” Starbuck alone resists, saying he’s there to do business, not vengeance, to make money, not mad revenge. Starbuck wants to focus on this normal business of capitalism, rather than waging war on the ontological, attempting to “strike through the mask!” of visible things through to the “inscrutable malice,” the “inscrutable thing” behind reality. Starbuck resists, but only for a second, and then he falls silent. He cannot separate himself from this, cannot opt out. In his silence, Starbuck acquiesces. “Aye, aye!,” Ahab says, “thy silence, then, that voices thee.”

We, the readers, in the same way, slip past the limit we are supposed to be aware of. If we are not reading, the narrator says, we have, in that, tacitly accepted the situation, and are involved. And if we are reading, well, look at the light we’re reading by: its oil we’re burning, oil that can only be got with this system, that always requires blood.

The metafictional moment acts as an ethical trap, and, more than 200 pages into the text, it’s sprung, a surprise, and we’re caught.

It’s a surprise, I think, because we think of reading as safe. Library posters and summer reading programs teach us that.

There is even a strain of thought that understands reading to be a kind of act of ethical resistance, as a way to ethically opt out, ala Slovoj Žižek’s promotion of politics of Bartleby, with Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener’s radical repeated refusal to participate. Reading, the idea is, is an act of passivity that exempts you from the hubbub of capitalism, the structural violence of our modern world. Reading is a moment wherein one is not a part of the machine. Reading, where one is so intensely turned inward, is a place where one is not acquiescing, by act of mere modern existence, to the system.

It’s a tempting thought precisely because reading feels so safe. It has, at least for me, been an existential refuge. As we become increasingly aware that our lives are entangled in structures and systems we didn’t choose, structures of race and class and economics, structures of global power, of ideologies invisible to us, of what the old Calvinists called sin and sin nature and our fallen state, and are always entangled in ways which can be to our benefit but also our damnation, of course we have wanted to find a safe place. And reading feels like a safe place. When I, by contrast, am standing in a grocery store, looking at the kinds of coffee on sale, I am caught up in the colonialism that made this possible, the environmental problems that this entails, the Cold War politics and third world policies of US, and the choice I have is not whether to participate or not, but how. When I interact with other races or don’t interact with other races, when I interact with other genders or don’t interact with other genders, when I step out my door with an American passport in my pocket, an American passport with its patriotically-themed pages printed in pale blue, I’m all ready involved. I don’t get to choose in the way I think I want to choose. In the way I was taught that ethical action is a kind of choosing. I’m just stuck with the responsibility and the question of how. Against this, though, reading has felt like it was safe.

Then Melville says: This costs blood.

There are a number of problems, of course, with conceiving of reading as an act where one isn’t ethically involved. As “ethical resistance.” What does that even mean? Another, the big one, for me, is that it is always this move of self-exemption that enables unethical behavior. We always, always, always find ways of making other people the bad people, and ourselves safe from moral responsibility. We disown our own responsibility and culpability with never-ending displacements that would rival a nursery rhyme, the cow takes the dog, the dog takes the cat, the cat a rat, the rat the cheese, and no one just stands alone with it. The search for the guilty party is always the search for other people. It’s displacement. Trying to find a way out of our ethical problems seems to always involve saying we never had them, they weren’t ours, we resisted, and this exactly repeats the structure of the problem. Actual ethical moments, it seems to me, can only come as this kind of shock that collapses the distance we place between ourselves and culpability.

Melville does this in this moment of metafiction. It’s one of the brilliant things metafiction can do, though it doesn’t always. The knock against metafiction is that it’s narcissistic, self absorbed, smart kids showing off. This can, in fact, be the case, but metafiction also offers us or can offer a real chance to see ourselves for what we are, to acknowledge our own responsibility.

Consider a work that is by no means a classic of the metafiction genre: Jud Süß, Oskar Roehler’s 2010 film about the 1940 Nazi film of the same name. Roehler’s film shows the original film, even integrating clips from Joseph Goebbels’ original into the story about a story. In one scene, Roehler shows Nazi soldiers watching the vicious, anti-Semitic film, zooming in on their awful, leering faces, and then he cuts, and shows the scene from the back of the theater, and we see their heads and shoulders as silhouettes, watching the movie. We see them, in that moment, in the same way we see the people in front of us, and the shot collapses the distance we might normally place between ourselves and those evil other people. We are watching them watching, and that visual stutter serves to point to the fact that we are sitting there as they are sitting there, leering at them leering, and we are not separate and distance from them. It isn’t, I don’t think, an act of moral equivalence, but simply serves to focus us on a question: How do we distinguish ourselves? How do we separate ourselves? How is that we’re different?

There is, in metafiction, a possibility for ethical realization. Moby-Dick isn’t metafictional, by and large, but a brilliantly shaggy, multi-genre work. When it is metafictional, though, in this chapter, “The Affidavit,” it manages to surprise, and to collapse the distance we so often put between ourselves any sense of culpability.

Hey you, he says. You. You’re involved in this.

Drawing courtesy of Matt Kirsh, who is drawing a picture for every page of Moby-Dick.

A week ago I had the great pleasure of meeting Dr. Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, at the Aspen Institute’s Cultural Diplomacy Forum at the Philips Collection. She was participating in a panel discussion with Michael Dirda about her work at Johns Hopkins and the role the arts can play in shaping foreign policy. Two days later, Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize and became a permanent member of a triumvirate of South American fiction giants (along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Roberto Bolano). Both writers exhibit the type of friendly and meaningful dialogue proposed by the many noteworthy speakers at the Diplomacy Forum. I want to put these two figures into dialogue with each other, by speaking about Nafisi’s Reading Lolita and Vargas Llosa’s lesser-known work, The Storyteller.

My favorite line from Nafisi’s panel came from her anecdote about her arrival at Johns Hopkins. A colleague essentially said “Oh, good, we needed someone to do women’s studies and Muslim literature,” to which Nafisi responded, “Bloody hell, no! I want to study dead white men!” She elaborated, emphasizing the notion that if there is to be true dialogue, we must be able to step outside what we know and engage other forms, other cultures, with empathy.

This is the impetus of Reading Lolita in Tehran. Nafisi’s students (and Nafisi herself) deal with their plight as women in a Muslim theocracy by reading, among others, Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austen – curious, and at best tangentially relevant, seemingly. But this is the point. For these women, these “dead white men” take on utmost significance in their lives. Their novels illuminate the troubles of sexual abuse, notions of the American Dream, and “burden” (Bellow) of individual freedom in ways made relevant and meaningful by Nafisi’s teaching. (The classroom scenes are among the most powerful of the book, ranking along with Frank McCourt’s as some of the best of that genre I’ve read). What these figures have in common, for Nafisi, is their engagement with what she sees as the central issue of reading fiction at all:

Pity is the password, says the poet John Shade in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. This respect for others, empathy, lies at the heart of the novel. It is the quality that links Austen to Flaubert and James to Nabokov and Bellow. This, I believe, is how the villain of modern fiction is born: a creature without compassion, without empathy. The personalized version of good and evil usurps and individualizes the more archetypal concepts, such as courage or heroism, that shaped the epic or romance. A hero becomes one who safeguards his or her individual integrity at almost any cost.

Nafisi’s novel is filled with accounts of brutality against women in Tehran. She depicts this lack of empathy as the root of male oppression and violence in the “Muslim World” (Nafisi herself puts this term in quotes, attacking it as reductive). Hence the need to read “at almost any cost.”  The many female characters of Reading Lolita in Tehran embody this need with a zeal that can rejuvenate our own love for good fiction.

This type of empathy, as Bakhtin would say a traveling into the other and back again into an enriched notion of one’s own selfhood, is at the heart of Llosa’s The Storyteller. It is the story of an unnamed first-person narrator’s journey to know his friend Saul Zuratas. Known affectionately as “Mascarita,” he is a red-headed Jew with a grotesque birthmark that takes up half his face. His outsidedness from Peruvian normalcy compels him to identify with the Machiguenga tribe of the jungle.

He begins by studying them academically, only to reject the field of ethnology and linguistics as unethical. The rest of the novel after this declaration is a multi-text. Interspersed with the narrator’s account of the end of his relationship with Zuratas is a series of circuitous and labyrinthine tales from Machiguenga mythology. It is clear to the reader that Zuratas himself is telling these stories. He has completely joined the tribe; much more, he has become their bard, their hablador, their storyteller. A mythical figure in his own right, he is kept hidden from the academics and documentarians who come to the jungle. Over time the narrator comes to discover Zuratas’ new life, with profound effects on his own.

The story itself is powerful, but the work is enhanced by the point Vargas Llosa makes through his narrative strategy. The narrator’s story is one of trying to know the Machiguengas through standard Western academic practices. He thinks by studying them at the university, and by filming a sensitive documentary, he is doing the tribe justice to those who would re-educate them and steal their land. But next to the Zuratas chapters – what can be called nothing other than bits of magical realism – they seem insufficient and, yes, unethical. Zuratas, an outsider, has somehow – to the narrator’s bafflement at the end of the novel – been “able to feel and live at the very heart of that culture…having penetrated its essence, reached the marrow of its history and mythology, given body to its taboos, images, ancestral desires, and terrors…being, in the most profound way possible, a rooted Machiguenga.”

For Nafisi and Vargas Llosa, this type of – to use his word – “conversion” is entirely possible. It requires, first, this Bakhtinian idea of travel outside of the self. For both these excellent thinkers, that type of travel is rooted in storytelling, in great novels.