Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Down and out in Newport

Allison Lynn, The Exiles (Boston: New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013). 336 pages.

Perhaps no famous quotation from literature is more contested than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s remark that there are no second acts in American life. You can add Allison Lynn’s name to the list of those who disagree, although only at the very end of her second novel and only after her characters have done everything in their power to prove Fitzgerald right.

The Exiles is the story of two young unmarried parents who own “nothing except an expensive New York lifestyle.” When the opportunity presents itself to exile themselves from the city, they grab it. A Wall Street broker, Nate Bedecker is offered a job at his firm’s satellite office in Newport, Rhode Island. His girlfriend Emily Latham has already walked away from a job in “experiential advertising” when she became appalled at herself for expending her best creative energies on a sales campaign for a potato chip. Having bought “a ’60s-era faux-Victorian” on a “postage-stamp lot,” they load their baby gear and financial papers into a Jeep Cherokee on the Friday of Columbus Day weekend, and drive the two hundred miles to their real-estate lawyer’s office to sign the final papers and pick up the keys. “They might not have a marriage license, but now they had a kid and a house to bind them,” Emily reflects. “It was the real thing.”

Things get more real when they leave the lawyer’s office to find that the Cherokee has been stolen. Stranded with the eighty-five dollars they have in their wallets, they must fend for themselves until the banks open again on Tuesday after the long holiday weekend. Almost immediately they begin making bad decisions. They cancel their credit cards, for example, before thinking to pay for a hotel room. Even if only temporarily, they find they are exiles from the 21st-century economy. Although they display some ingenuity in navigating the expenses of a strange city, their estrangement is keen. In a souvenir shop, “packed to capacity with nearly indistinguishable tchotchkes,” Emily realizes that there were people in Newport with cash to burn:Emily no longer believed that someday she’d be one of those people herself. As a child in Cambridge, Emily had fantasized about growing up and owning a town house in Boston. In her dreams, the urban castle featured a game room, a screening room for movies, and a minifridge full of Grape Crush. She’d since given up that dream (she didn’t want it all anymore, she just wanted enough to remain consistently in the black) along with so many others. What she got, in return, was Nate.Hardly a ringing endorsement of her relationship to the father of her child! The truth is that Emily is a deeply unhappy woman, less in exile than in isolation—and from no one so much as Nate. Her lack of attachment to him is betrayed by her reluctance to marry him. “She didn’t want to wed just because they had a child,” she tells herself. “She wanted to wed because Nate was her soul mate.” Not that he is a loser, exactly. He is a “middle-feeder,” as Lynn calls him, who “pull[s] in a base-level salary and negligible bonus.” Although he is the son of a famous architect, Nate has little ambition and less interior life. Even his baby son Trevor kicks him at night to get away from him.

Nate and Emily would be unpromising subjects for a novel if Lynn had not knotted her plot so deftly. Both of them arrive in Newport with a secret they are keeping from the other. Emily has stolen an expensive painting by a hot young New York artist from a dinner party at the apartment of rich friends. The theft is merely gossip from the New York life they have left behind—breathless email messages from friends speculating on the identity of the culprit, phone calls from the NYPD asking for interviews—until Nate discovers the painting folded up and hidden in an inside pocket of the baby’s diaper bag. Emily can no more explain why she took it than Hurstwood can explain how he stole ten thousand dollars in Sister Carrie. Forces stronger than either of them prompt the thefts. When she finds the painting in a stack of canvases in her friends' study, Emily thinks:This piece might be worth nothing in a hundred years, but today it could fund nearly anything. Paint slopped on a piece of stretched cotton by an imbecile, yet the person who owned it possessed a slice of power. Power: Emily had so little of it herself that she’d been essentially evicted from Manhattan, the epicenter of power. Here, though, was capital on a canvas. As Emily gazed at the [painting] . . . more than anything, she simply wanted a piece of the power. She simply wanted a taste. She simply wanted a whiff of what fell in everyone else’s lap. She simply wanted.Nate’s secret is less revealing of character, but in an age in which health is confused with morality, it is the more devastating. Both his grandfather and his father were afflicted by Huntington’s disease, an inherited disease that causes the slow degeneration of nerve cells in the brain. There is no cure. Nate has never had himself tested, and knowing that he might be carrying the Huntington’s gene, he fathers a child with Emily without telling her of the chances that Trevor will inherit a grisly death sentence.

If her characters are not particularly admirable (or even likable), Lynn gives you something that is far more interesting. Nate and Emily make a series of choices that will have you shouting at them in frustration. Nate takes the baby and hitchhikes across Narragansett Bay to find his grandfather’s locked-up house. Emily lies to the NYPD about the night on which the painting was stolen. Nate puts the painting back in the diaper bag without saying anything to Emily. She refuses to ask old New York friends for any help, although they keep calling and emailing her. You identify, not with them as persons (limited and defective as they are), but with the decisions they make. You second-guess them. You call out what you would do in their circumstances, as if they could hear you. They drive you batty. If their problems were not real problems—stolen car, stolen art, the prospect of terminal disease—you would turn away from them quickly.

“The reader’s identification is rooted in the characters’ decisions,” Umberto Eco has said; “he either supports them or rejects them. The ethical response to a text is rooted in this identification.” Lynn is one of the few young American novelists to grasp this narrative principle instinctively. In the end, though, she blinks. She likes her characters more than they deserve. She wants them to have the second chapter their bad decisions ought to deprive them of. “They would be all right,” she concludes. “Tomorrow they’d make a fresh start, absent the traumatic evidence of their life before.” But the woman is an art thief! you cry. Surely there must be some moral consequence to her brazen covetousness! Lynn and her characters shrug as the novel closes, however. “Anything is possible,” Lynn writes. And though you suspect that she began The Exiles once she had conceived her characters’ dilemma (but not its resolution), you are willing to forgive Allison Lynn almost anything, including her last few pages, because the first three hundred are ethically mesmerizing in a way that few contemporary fiction is any more.

Monday, July 01, 2013

10 worst prize-winning American novels of all time

I’ve compiled so many list of best books—best Jewish books, best New York books, best baseball books, best Reagan books, best literary histories, best memoirs—that I am in danger of losing touch with my inner literary grouch. Here, then, is something to irritate even the politest of readers: a list of the ten worst prize-winning American novels of all time. (Or, well, at least since 1950.)

( 1.) Jerzy Kosinski, Steps (National Book Award, 1969). The first “experimental” or “postmodern” novel to win a major literary award in the U.S., except that Steps was neither. The book is a random collection of episodes of brutality. The Painted Bird had been overlooked four years earlier. This award was compensation for the oversight.

( 2.) Paul Harding, Tinkers (Pulitzer Prize, 2010). “Tinker, tinker. Tin, tin, tin. Tintinnabulation. There was the ring of pots and buckets.” The novel’s 192 pages feel like four times that self-indulgent length upon reading. Rejected (with good cause) by every major publisher to whom it was submitted, Tinkers was eventually published by Bellevue Literary Press. The award was widely viewed as a consolation to small publishers.

( 3.) Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones (National Book Award, 2011). If there were an award for best novel for grammar school readers, Salvage the Bones still would not have deserved it, even though Ward’s book is written for ten-year-olds, as Janice Harayda discovered. Adult readers were able to endure it only for the sake of what Ron Charles celebrated as literary history.

( 4.) William Faulkner, The Reivers (Pulitzer Prize, 1963). A pattern is emerging: literary prizes are always a mistake (I could end my sentence there, but I’ll go on)—always a mistake when they are awarded for some other reason than to honor a book. The Pulitzer Prize committee ignored The Sound and the Fury, honoring Oliver La Farge’s paleface-writes-redskin Laughing Boy instead; singled out Margaret Ayer Barnes’s immortal manners-of-the-rich novel Years of Grace instead of As I Lay Dying; preferred T. S. Stribling’s Reconstruction novel The Store to Light in August; and pushed Absalom, Absalom! away to get to Gone With the Wind. Even with the garlanding of A Fable in 1955, the neglect had not been rectified. The Reivers was not only Faulkner’s last book; it was likely his worst. But he had died on July 6, 1962, and when the opportunity arose to honor him posthumously, the prize committee could not resist.

( 5.) William Styron, Sophie’s Choice (National Book Award, 1980). A “flapping, gobbling, squawking turkey.”—Martin Amis. Sophie’s Choice indicts an entire generation of American Jews on “the charge of advancing the ‘racist and violence-provoking’ ideology of Jewish exclusivism. The Jews stand accused of collective amnesia, effacing the memory of other peoples’ suffering.”—“Jews Without Memory.”

( 6.) E. L. Doctorow, The March (National Book Critics Circle and PEN/Faulkner Awards, 2005). Sherman’s March to the Sea becomes an analogue or metaphor for the Iraq War. Or something. Not even those on Doctorow’s political side have any desire to reread this tendentious yawner.

( 7.) William Gaddis, A Frolic of His Own (National Book Award, 1994). Even the Gaddis faithful were saying hosannas when his fourth book weighed in at just under 600 pages. Once again the novelist declines to punctuate speech or identify speakers, which might be effective in a story or short novel (although I am still trying to figure out the artistic purpose of making things hard for the reader), but is wearying in such a long novel. Supposedly a satire on the law, the novel also includes tortuously reasoned legal decisions, in full tortuous detail, which are longer than most Supreme Court decisions, including the dissents. A Frolic of His Own is a great unmovable monument to tedium. What a thing to be remembered for!

( 8.) Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain (National Book Award, 1997). Usually it is the Pulitzer Prize committee that mistakes a huffing middlebrow bestseller for a serious novel. Perhaps the NBA jury was cross-eyed from reading Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Little else can explain passing over Cynthia Ozick’s Puttermesser Papers or Ward Just’s Echo House for this romance in the guise of a historical novel. The lesson for prize juries: leave Civil War novels alone.

( 9.) Norman Mailer, The Executioner’s Song (Pulitzer Prize, 1980). Everybody praised Mailer for abandoning his typical rhetorical hypertrophy for the simple declarative sentences of this book. What nobody ever says is that a thousand pages of these flat sentences (“Gary was kind of quiet. There was one reason they got along. Brenda was always gabbing and he was a good listener. They had a lot of fun. Even at that age he was real polite”) are enough to make you want to swear off reading forever. Add that no one in the book is anyone you’d ever want to spend ten minutes with in extraliterary life, and you have the best explanation why, if this is his best, Mailer is already nearly forgotten.

(10.) John Updike, The Centaur (National Book Award, 1964). His first novel after Rabbit, Run was an experiment for him—his Ulysses, his rewriting of Greek myth in contemporary terms. As such the novel is ham-fisted and obvious. Neither myth nor Updike’s own story gains anything from the parallels. A shame too, because the story itself, stripped of the classical allusions, is quietly affecting. The main character, a high school teacher, is based upon Updike’s father. What might have been a son’s loving portrait disappears into the novel’s claptrap. Luckily for him and for us, Updike never tried such a thing ever again.