Contents | November 2001
In This Issue (Contributors)
More on books from The Atlantic Monthly.
The Atlantic Monthly | November 2001
Books & Critics
The Keepers of the Truth
New & Noteworthy
A gritty, dark, and comic novel of the Other America; Naipaul's sunny vision; four tales by a master of American prose
by Michael Collins
Scribner, 304 pages, $13.00
The Irish writer Michael Collins's U.S. debut novel is set in post-1970s small-town America, in the ripped-out heartlands where heavy industry has fallen away, to be replaced by the service industry—burger chains, strip joints, and, indeed, the Curl Up and Dye beauty parlor. The narrator, Bill, whose earnest amateur philosophizing perfectly conveys the mismatch of his wayward intelligence, is intent on writing an elegy for his country; or, perhaps, a wake-up call. But because he works for a local newspaper (called, perhaps heavy-handedly, the Daily Truth), he has constantly to be reminded that facts, not discourses, are the order of the day; a colleague sardonically remarks that his writing is "ambitious beyond the scope of journalism as we know it."
Collins searingly evokes the death of a small post-industrial town. He sketches, through an accumulation of precisely observed details, the cowed and crippled lives of people reduced to nostalgia and appetite. He has written a political novel about apolitical people who seemingly sleepwalk through their own defeat. But Bill needs shaking from torpor: "I had some things I wanted to say all my life. Problem was, I never had a story equal to my ideas."
Driving bake-offs and baseball games from the dull front pages, that story arrives in the form of a missing-persons case. The local bad boy has, apparently, killed and dismembered his father, although only a finger has been found. The moribund town is briefly energized by excitement, rumor, prurience; and the Truth becomes nationally important, and Bill's stories are syndicated nationwide. But Bill becomes entangled with the suspects and witnesses who were supposed to be his story, and events unfold calamitously. Collins produces an unnerving atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion, made the more disturbing by its being filtered through Bill's not wholly reliable mind. Bill, it seems, cannot trust anyone; nor can a reader entirely trust Bill.
Bill's overblown narration, slightly annoying at first, becomes both comical and unsettling as we learn more about him. It also enables Collins to risk, successfully, an elegiac tone of romantic yearning while keeping his eye on the grimly funny details of ordinary life. (A high point of these mock-heroics is a speech Bill gives at Lakeview Community College, in which he drunkenly overturns a podium and a pitcher of water, curses and berates his audience, and finally vomits into a trash can. He later describes this fiasco, deadpan, as "what I like to consider my lecture on 'The Discourse of Language.'") This book, in the words of its narrator, is "an almighty ... roar of despair"; but it is also intelligent, witty, humane, and utterly haunting.
—Robert PottsTrieste and The Meaning of Nowhere
by Jan Morris
Simon & Schuster, 208 pages, $23.00
ith what she says is her final book, the eminent travel writer, historian, and essayist Jan Morris closes a riveting literary career, which led from reporting Sir Edmund Hillary's 1953 ascent of Everest for The Times of London to some forty books, including classics such as her Pax Britannica trilogy and her profiles of Hong Kong, Sydney, and Venice. Trieste, the slightly melancholic farewell of a superb writer to the art and craft she graced for much of the twentieth century, is Morris at the peak of her form; it is both a thorough tale of the Italian city that long served as the leading seaport of the Hapsburg Empire—and was home for a time to James Joyce and Sir Richard Burton, among many other colorful personalities—and a glancing portrait of Morris herself, who loves Trieste in part because its vigor has passed and it is a city of ghosts and memories.
Morris's approach is to combine a sharp eye for detail with an easy scholarship and a graceful, authoritative prose voice, and so to bring a city, its history, and its people to life. Throughout her stories she explores the nature of exile, the "nonsense of nationalism," the necessary disorder of great cities. And she re-creates scenes and events: Nora Joyce waiting forlornly at the train station while her husband wanders off to get drunk with sailors in the Piazza Grande, and that same train station eighty-five years later, a booming international black market for blue jeans; hundreds of Jews quietly murdered by the Nazis in the old rice-treatment plant at San Sabba, eerily close to the city's ancient Jewish cemetery; the Emperor Franz Joseph's brother Maximilian reluctantly departing Trieste in 1864 to become the Emperor of Mexico.
"The books I have written are no more than smudged graffiti on a wall, and I shall write no more of them," Morris concludes. Her retirement at age seventy-five is understandable, but it is also a great loss to readers who have long savored Morris's lean, informed prose. This is a lovely last song.
—Brian DoyleHalf a Life
by V. S. Naipaul
Knopf, 224 pages, $24.00
From the archives:
"Among the Believers: Iran" (July 1981)
"Revolutionary guards, young men with guns, soon ceased to be surprising; they were part of the revolutionary sabbath scene." By V. S. Naipaul
"You can keep your socks on," a prostitute instructs the raw Willie Chandran, an Indian immigrant and the protagonist of V. S. Naipaul's first work of fiction in seven years. Half Brahmin, half Untouchable, Willie arrives in London in the late 1950s, and immediately immerses himself in that era's "bohemian-immigrant life," which for him includes sleeping with his friends' girlfriends or with prostitutes. In the first half of this novel the parallels between Willie's life and that of his creator are unmistakable: An aspiring writer from the imperial hinterlands journeys to London and gets involved with literary types, most of whom turn out to be self-aggrandizing schemers and fakirs. His initial attempts to publish his stories are curtly rebuffed: "India," he's told, "isn't really a subject." Ultimately, though, he places his work with a small Marxist press—at which point his life deviates dramatically from Naipaul's.
Having engaged in a surreptitious and brutal sex life, Willie bumbles along passively and marries the first woman who admires his writing. He then follows her—a mixed-race Portuguese-African—to her estate in one of Portugal's East African outposts. Here he is no less an outsider than he was in London or India. Colonialism is coming to an end, rebellion is simmering, and in no time Willie discovers the real Africa, which resembles an uglier and more extreme version of London, minus the Britannic gentility. The dark center of this book is race. The novel brims with stereotypes certain to make most of us uncomfortable, with Africans faring the worst by far (the men are sex-charged, the women sluts). Apparently not even colonialism could save Africa from itself. Yet Naipaul is no kinder to the European interlopers, and his novel as a whole amounts to a sneer at hypocrites of every stripe. Hardly a single character escapes the authorial lash, and typically enough, the only decent person in the book—Willie's wife—is humiliated and alone at the end.
Half a Life has a few problems, including some stilted dialogue and a scrambled, distracting chronology. But Naipaul's style is so frank it seems intimate, and the awful characters are studied and well crafted. Behind the matter-of-fact style is a cuttingly ironic view of human relations, and occasionally the author's voice simply overwhelms his narrator's. Yet when Naipaul talks, we listen, and speaking through the guise of a fictional character may be the least offensive way for him to tell us what he thinks. Here he assigns Willie the task of moral spokesman and watches him screw up—a handy reminder that in Naipaul's world a despicable fool is the best possible candidate for Everyman.
—Diane MehtaHoop Roots
by John Edgar Wideman
Houghton Mifflin, 242 pages, $24.00
From the archives:
"The Best Pickup-Basketball Player in America" (February 2000)
The man any true basketball devotee wants to play with or against. By Timothy Harper
From Atlantic Unbound:
Interviews: "Body Language" (October 7, 1998)
What's behind the work of John Edgar Wideman, the author of the new novel Two Cities, is simple: if you're going to talk the talk, walk the walk.
ohn Edgar Wideman's Hoop Roots is something of an extended improvisation, a memoir in which narrative is less important than feeling, and every action is amplified by the emotional associations it evokes. Spanning nearly fifty years of personal history, the book seeks to trace its author's lifelong love affair with basketball, although sometimes basketball disappears, yielding to reflections on family, racial tension, memory, and the nebulous territory of storytelling itself. In Wideman's hands basketball becomes not just a game but a folk art, with its own vernacular. "Like classic African-American jazz," he writes, "playground hoop is a one time, one more time thing. Every note, move, solo, pat of the ball happens only once. Unique. Gone as soon as it gets here. Like a river you can't enter twice in the same spot."
Wideman's expansive view of basketball allows him to link the game not only to jazz but to minstrel shows, Yoruba beading, and even Sunday services at the "Homewood African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church." Yet as in so much of his previous writing, the most vivid connections he makes here are to inner-city Pittsburgh, where he was raised in a family of strong women and largely absent men. For Wideman, this is the key to everything; as he suggests, "We went to the playground court to find our missing fathers. We didn't find them but we found a game and the game served us as a daddy of sorts." Even if he never quite sells us on this point, he does make a compelling case for the importance of family, wherever he finds it—whether in the hard-edged camaraderie of the playground or in the silence of his grandmother's sickroom. In attempting to discover a balance between these opposing landscapes (outside and freedom, home and responsibility), Wideman reveals his own contradictory impulses—to be accepted and to stand apart. In Hoop Roots he offers a fluid glimpse of this process, which even now continues to enlarge him and his relationship with the game.
—David L. UlinThe Practical Heart: Four Novellas
by Allan Gurganus
Knopf, 352 pages, $25.00
arly in this graceful suite of short novels a narrator comments, "History is not just lived; it's also wished." This aphorism duly adumbrates one of Allan Gurganus's long-standing preoccupations, which he explores throughout this book with his usual wit, spot-on period detail, and jeweled prose: the utterly personal, and thus malleable, quality of the past.
All these novellas deal with aspects of gay life, and Gurganus's most important accomplishment here may be in giving the closet life of gays historical and metaphorical resonance, imbuing the secret-keeping of families and society with broad moral dimensions and lyrical possibility. By avoiding the pitfalls of both victim politics and frivolous campiness while remaining sensitive to the real victims of homophobia and to the real joys of homosexuality, he has written an entertaining, disturbing, and inspiring book—a dazzling maturation from his folksy Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1989) and his square White People (1991). Finally, in literary terms The Practical Heart lets us see one of our greatest living raconteurs revitalize the neglected novella form, using a dense, elided, deeply American prose that is as intriguing as it is deadly funny.
by W. G. Sebald, translated by Anthea Bell
Random House, 304 pages, $25.95
ith The Emigrants (1996), the first of his books to appear in English, the German writer W. G. Sebald emerged as a figure remarkable both for his unforced moral gravity and for the freedom with which he crossed generic boundaries. Fiction, memoir, biography, travel—it has never been clear just where in his work the borders lie, or, indeed, if they exist at all. Austerlitz looks more like a novel than anything else Sebald has yet produced; but still one balks at such an easy definition. Almost all of it describes a nameless narrator's conversations with the title character, an architectural historian and compulsive photographer, whom the narrator first meets in the waiting room of a Belgian train station. At the start Jacques Austerlitz seems as detached from the personal as it's humanly possible to be. He talks expansively about nineteenth-century buildings and keeps working away at "endless preliminary sketches" for a great study of the "family likeness" between such places as "law courts and penal institutions ... opera houses and lunatic asylums." But he will not, the narrator says, "tell me very much about his origins and his own life." That is not true. It is the narrator who resists describing his own circumstances, saying only that he was born in Germany but now lives in England, as does Sebald himself. In contrast, Austerlitz will eventually tell all that he knows, and will tell more as he learns more, as his research slides open the dead bolts of his 1930s childhood and a past that "will not ... has not passed away." The Holocaust remains the ghost on every page Sebald writes; and in his learned eccentricity Austerlitz is something like an afterimage of Walter Benjamin.
Sebald makes no typographical distinction between Austerlitz's words and the narrator's, presenting their conversations without quotation marks and almost without paragraphs; it is as if they have disappeared into each other's voices. It seems both pointless and inevitable to wonder if these talks ever actually took place; doubtless scholarship will someday tell us, as it will explain the enigmatic and eloquent photographs with which, as always, Sebald punctuates his text. But such knowledge will take nothing away from a melancholy at once exhilarating and too deep for tears. Anthea Bell's translation puts the slight fustiness of Sebald's German into an English that, however pellucid, is not quite of this time or quite English either—lovely.
Recent books by Atlantic authors:
Diamond: A Journey to the Heart of an Obsession, by Matthew Hart. Walker, 288 pages, $26.00. A portion of this book first appeared in the March, 1999, Atlantic, as "How to Steal a Diamond."
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 2001; New & Noteworthy; Volume 288, No. 4; 144-146.