Enduring Love

By Ian McEwan

There is no denying that Ian McEwan has established himself as one of the most gifted and original authors of his generation. In novels such as The Cement Garden and Black Dogs he has staked out a highly individual fictional terrain, mapping fabulous introverted landscapes overcast with violence and haunted by strange varieties of love.

Of course, the downside of getting a reputation is living up to it. And given his history of success, most readers will come to McEwan’s latest novel with high expectations indeed.

Most of these expectations are met by Enduring Love, which offers a familiarly dark vision of human relationships. The story begins with Joe and Clarissa’s picnic in the Chilterns being interrupted by a terrible ballooning accident: “a catastrophe, which itself was a kind of furnace in whose heat identities and fates would buckle into new shapes.”

Out of this moment of crisis springs Jed Parry’s strange homo-erotic religious obsession with Joe – a vaguely literary species of erotomania that threatens to become a truly fatal attraction.

Except for one chapter in which Joe attempts to tell the story from Clarissa’s point of view (an interesting experiment in narrative that doesn’t work), Enduring Love is a well-paced, absorbing thriller. McEwan’s swift, spare prose is always a treat, making a welcome contrast to the studied preciosity of “fine writing” that receives the lion’s share of critical praise these days. And some real cleverness is on display throughout – beginning with the ambiguity in the title (is “enduring” being used as a verb or an adjective?) and ending with an appendix written up as a clinical case study.

On the downside, readers who have enjoyed the haunting, suggestive quality of McEwan’s fiction in the past may feel some disappointment this time out. I certainly found myself wishing that more had been left unexplained, especially with regard to the sub-plot surrounding the balloon accident. And the debate between the rational, scientific mind and the spiritual and passionate side of human nature, something that worked so well in Black Dogs, is overdone here (Joe is a science writer with a doctorate in quantum electrodynamics; Clarissa is a professor of Romantic poetry searching for the lost love letters of John Keats and Fanny Brawne).

Placed alongside academic types like these, the stranger of the piece only tends to draw attention away from the main narrative focus. But few readers will object. Jed Parry is one of the most memorable fictional psychos since Fowles’s Collector, and it is his obsessive delusions that make the book come alive. Finally, it may be his love that most endures.

Review first published February 7, 1998. The first Canadian edition had the ugliest cover art I have ever seen, which probably didn’t help its sales. Still, this is a better book than Amsterdam, and one of the best “battle of the sexes” books ever written. Male readers invariably side with Joe, while women defend Clarissa. For what it is worth, I seem to remember seeing an interview with McEwan where he said that Joe was the one who was right in the end.


Empire Falls

By Richard Russo

There is no insult intended when I say Empire Falls reminds me a lot of Stephen King. The simply constructed, suspenseful plot that never lets go of your hand, the small town New England setting, the unwavering conventional morality, easy cultural references, and telegenic adolescents (“telegenic” because made in television’s image) all recall America’s master of pulp horror. Nor is Russo’s book without a few monsters and ghosts of its own.

Local police officer Jimmy Minty is a violent brute. A disturbed teen turns out to be something of a ghoul. The town’s matriarch, Francine Whiting, is a witch complete with feline familiar. And Empire Falls itself is a ghost town, abandoned by American industry yet haunted by the dream of its vibrantly capitalist past. The Empire Falls of America’s Golden Age stalks the present town like a vision:

It was the first weekend in October, and the air was crisp, the leaves approaching their peak, the Knox River sparkling the blue of the reflected sky. Empire Falls looked, in fact, like it had been replaced overnight with a better version of itself.

This better version of Empire Falls isn’t really the old Empire Falls, but an idealized vision of the past. We have already seen it sitting in the town’s planning and development office:

along one whole wall sat a scale model of downtown Empire Falls, so obviously idealized that he didn’t immediately recognize it as the town he’d lived his whole life in. The streets were lined with bright green toy trees, and the buildings so brightly painted, the streets so clean, that Miles’s first thought was that this was an artist’s notion of what a future Empire Falls might look like after an ambitious and costly revitalization project. Only closer inspection revealed that the model represented not the future but the past.

The inhabitants of Empire Falls are just as haunted by dreams of the past. The hero, Miles Roby, resists his ex-wife’s “naive belief that you could just begin your life anew, as if the past didn’t exist.” He is right. No one in the novel escapes. The local landscape is littered with physical and emotional cripples. Even the high school principal is said to look “haunted” by the ghost of a father who pushed him too hard to succeed at sports.

The people of Empire Falls, in other words, are products. This isn’t to say they are unrealistic or unconvincing, only that they are creatures shaped by their environment. Like most novels that are about the life of a community, the structure of the narrative is that of a web. The residents of Empire Falls are the points connecting its threads, making patterns across time and space. But this is the only real significance individuals have. Miles Roby is the main character in the novel, but he is not an important force in other people’s lives (a fact he is often slow to realize). Russo’s is a fiction of relationships – the pattern they make is the life of the town.

Without Russo’s understanding of what it is that makes a community, Empire Falls would be a well-crafted but bland novel. That it isn’t bland, that it manages to make us care about its characters and even impress us with its wisdom, is a tribute to Russo’s identification with his material. Empire Falls is a place that feels lived in. Despite the handling of narrative voice, which often places the reader in a position superior to the people of the town, there is little of the condescension of the tourist. Along with well-educated, literary Miles, we have the sense that we belong.

Review first published online September 25, 2001.

The Elementary Particles

By Michel Houellebecq

In The Elementary Particles Michel Houellebecq has tried to write a novel of Big Ideas, and set off a firestorm of controversy in the process. Already both wildly acclaimed and condemned in Europe, its North American debut has been met with accusations of misogyny, racism, and other kinds of political incorrectness.

But most of this criticism misses the novel’s point. The Elementary Particles is an atom bomb of nihilism, and if it is offensive then it should offend us all.

The story deals with a pair of half-brothers: Bruno and Michel. Their mother, Janine, is a Bohemian floozy who parties her way through the ’60s and ’70s. Eventually both brothers are abandoned by their selfish and egotistical parents. Bruno has the worst of it, being shuffled off to a boarding school where he is physically and sexually abused. In mid-life he is overwhelmed by loneliness and ends up in an asylum. Michel, incapable of feeling any emotional attachment, becomes a famous scientist who redesigns the human race through his groundbreaking work in genetics.

Of all the novel’s Big Ideas, the most controversial are the least interesting. “All the great writers were reactionaries” an editor tells Bruno, meaning that all great writers look back to a past when society had its act together, before some historical crisis occurred that ruined everything. For Houellebecq there have been three such turning points in human history: the advent of Christianity, the rise of science and materialism (exactly when this happened isn’t clear), and the “metaphysical mutation” of the cultural revolution.

Houellebecq’s political argument is that the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s – drugs, free love, Aldous Huxley – was more than just an orgy of selfish individualism. It was a movement “calling for the sweeping away of Western civilization in its entirety.” That may seems a little over the top, but Big Ideas often come in the form of absolute pronouncements. Houellebecq’s writing is full of such breezily assured generalizations. You can understand why he offends so many people from offhand editorial passages like this:

The terrible predicament of a beautiful girl is that only an experienced womanizer, someone cynical and without scruple, feels up to the challenge. More often than not, she will lose her virginity to some filthy lowlife in what proves to be the first step in an irrevocable decline.

But we shouldn’t pity the beautiful girl. We are all involved in a process of irrevocable decline. The best evidence the novel presents for the “suicide of the west” is the breakdown of the family unit, our last true human community. Janine is only the most monstrous of the many selfish and irresponsible parents we meet. Even the nice characters admit to hating their children, and are usually just looking for a place to park them while they head for the nearest orgy.

There is, of course, nothing new about any of this. It is the kind of novel we might imagine David Frum writing, if he could write a novel. The really interesting part of The Elementary Particles is what it shares with a lot of the best science-fiction writing of the last decade – a concern for the future evolution of the human race.

As it turns out, The Elementary Particles is a kind of SF novel, supposedly being written sometime near the end of the 21st century. In its future Michel’s experiments, which have something to do with cloning, create a master race that is “asexual and immortal, a species which had outgrown individuality, separation and evolution.”

Is this a horrifying vision of the future? Far from it. According to Michel, Brave New World wasn’t a dystopic vision of the future but a description of the ideal state. All of the hedonism of the counterculture was only the result of our profound self-loathing, a disgust with our degraded human nature. But now, finally, science has found a cure.

Which is important, because the real enemy in The Elementary Particles is nature. Houellebecq despises nature in no uncertain terms. Michel is possessed by the conviction that “nature, as a whole, was a repulsive cesspit. All in all, nature deserved to be wiped out in a holocaust – and man’s mission on earth was probably to do just that.” Bruno is even more emphatic:

“Nature? I wouldn’t piss on it if it was on fire . . . I’d shit on its face. Fucking nature . . . nature my ass!”

Such an attitude both vilifies and finally endorses Nietzsche: Humankind is something to be surpassed.

Hating nature as much as he does, Houellebecq likes to dwell on how the human body is degraded through disease, old age, physical desire, and death. If only we could transcend this miserable natural state, Schopenhauer’s world as will, and adopt the cool metaphysical purity of Kant and the Buddha. Now that would be a future worth dying for!

The pessimism and self-disgust inherent in such a world-view have been bubbling to the surface in a lot of recent SF writing. We are such vile, unhappy creatures, extinction may be counted as a blessing. With the mapping of the human genome and advances in reproductive sciences we are nearing a point where “conscious evolution” will become a practical fact. People in the future will be stronger, swifter, smarter, healthier, and better-looking. According to Houellebecq they will be happier too.

It is an interesting twist on the idea of progress: If the future is going to be so much better, how can we stand living in the present? The Elementary Particles forces us to consider what the value of being human is.

Review first published December 23, 2000.

The Dying Animal

By Philip Roth

Sex is very important to Philip Roth. At times it seems like the only thing that matters at all. For his alter ego David Kepesh, the breast-obsessed “Professor of Desire” who makes his third appearance in The Dying Animal, everything else is just a waste of time. When Kepesh, now semi-retired and a public television authority on the arts, hooks up with a student nearly forty years his junior, all thought of “the best to see, hear, and read” goes out the window. What real man wants to go to the theatre when he could be having sex? “I always wanted to fuck her right away and not have first to sit through some shitty play.”

Kepesh’s consort is Consuela Castillo: “superclassically the fertile female of our mammalian species” – a Cuban-American Aphrodite with a D-cup. The ancient debate between body and soul is no contest.

Which isn’t to say The Dying Animal is anti-intellectual. In fact it is more of an essay than a novel, and one of the least dramatic works Roth has written in years. The relationship between Kepesh and Consuela is really only an excuse to string out authorial reflections on the meaning of the sexual revolution, Puritanism in America, and the millennium celebrations.

The superb sense of structure that informed the just completed “American Trilogy” (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain) is missing, and what we have instead is a wandering Portnoy-style monologue/confession. The main thesis – and since this is an essay it has a thesis – is that we can only experience freedom in sex. The rest of our lives are too ordered, stale, and routine, filled with defeat, compromise, and frustration. All of this is a living death. Only during sex “are you most cleanly alive and most cleanly yourself”:

Sex isn’t just friction and shallow fun. Sex is also the revenge on death. Don’t forget death. Don’t ever forget it. Yes, sex too is limited in its power. I know very well how limited. But tell me, what power is greater?

This doesn’t seem to me to be terribly profound, or even correct. If we take it literally, sex is the revenge on death only insofar as it leads to reproduction, which Kepesh wants no part of. And taken as a metaphor it is even less convincing, since then we can only be talking about a form of art. Take the following description of Consuela’s beauty and what it means:

He too knows she is a work of art, the lucky rare woman who is a work of art, classical art, beauty in its classical form, but alive, alive, and the aesthetic response to beauty alive is what class? Desire.

A living beauty cannot be a work of art, and desire – which is either instinctual or conditioned – is not an aesthetic response. Art is the aesthetic response to living beauty, a fact that Yeats, the poet of the “dying animal” understood. Desire and seduction are the revenge on art.

Review first published July 14, 2001.

Dream Stuff

By David Malouf

Dream Stuff is a book about people who are haunted. The ghosts in its stories are the ghosts of dreams, representing subconscious, underground worlds of imagination, creativity, childhood and loss.

The landscape is a kind of dreamworld itself. David Malouf is one of Australia’s most highly regarded literary exports and the country he describes has about it some of the sense of strangeness and the supernatural we associate with the island continent. Down Under has a double meaning in this collection. In a story like “Jacko’s Reach,” for example, the dream landscape which is also the natural native environment is in the process of being paved over in order to build a new shopping mall:

Those four and a half acres were an eyesore – that’s the council’s line: openly in communication, through the coming and going of native animals and birds, or through the seeds that can travel miles on a current of air, with the wilderness that by fits and starts, in patches here and great swathes of darkness there, still lies like a shadow over the most settled land, a pocket of the dark unmanageable, that troubles the sleep of citizens by offering a point of re-entry to memories that they have no more use for – to unruly and unsettling dreams.

The people we meet are haunted by a sense of loss for things that are not entirely gone. Dreams offer a chance to re-enter a present world of memory and imagination that has been driven underground.

Malouf is at his best when exploring the weird side of this dream world, one filled with the ghosts of lost loves and random violence brought about by false memories. Somewhat like Ian McEwan, Malouf associates the imagination with strangeness and danger. Aborigines, the native inhabitants of the dream world, become mysterious and threatening aliens. In the story “Dream Stuff” the title refers to an urban legend about secret gangs of workers harvesting marijuana at night.

The style is sometimes impressionistic and artificial. In the last story the day breaks upon “an expanding stillness in which clocks, voices and every form of consciousness had still to come into existence and the day as yet, like the sea, had no mark upon it.” But given the symbolic nature of what is being described this isn’t necessarily a fault. Otherwise Malouf’s writing is quite precise, especially in pleasantly fit details like the Australian vocabulary and the names given to American servicemen (“the Rudis, the Dukes, the Vergils, the Kents”).

One of the more interesting issues the book raises is that of national culture. If such a thing still exists then it too is going underground. In the title story of the collection Malouf associates it with the natural environment and Australia’s colonial history, an “underground history” that, like Jacko’s Reach, “no tower block or flyover could entirely obliterate.” But even here the dream is threatened.

The boy in the first story – and many of the stories feature children – can see the change coming when he looks at movie posters. The new world of modernity these posters advertise has a name: “America, that world was called.” Planet Hollywood we would call it now, and its effect on a people and their culture is far greater than any proposed shopping mall or high rise. The book concludes with a mystical speech about how “nothing ever gets lost”, but the action takes place on a national holiday and a local museum has just gone up in flames. The same speech suggests that the native culture of a place like Australia, or Canada for that matter, may only survive in the global village as bits of information floating in the ether, being received by distant satellites.

Review first published September 16, 2000.


By Arthur Bradford

Pretty much all you need to know about Arthur Bradford’s Dogwalker can be gleaned from its epigraph. This isn’t because of anything the epigraph says – it only suggests, not very eloquently, that it is possible to imagine various alternate realities for one’s life (a point which doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the stories in the book) – but rather its source: the Richard Linklater movie Slacker. This effectively introduces the book’s subject matter (twenty-something Texas losers) and sensibility (detached, understated, ironic).

The narrators in these twelve stories are ciphers. They exist merely to observe the various freaks around them. We might again think of the film analogy. The narrator records reality like a student film-maker (and I note in passing the biographical sketch of Arthur Bradford on the dustjacket, which informs us that his first feature film, a documentary, is about to be released). In a couple of the stories we even see him using the tools of his (real) trade, as he gets out his recording equipment to tape what is going on.

The style is deadpan wonder. Bradford’s world is pretty much pure fantasy – full of talking animals, carnival freaks, monster slugs, mutant dogs, domestic lycanthropes, etc. – but the narrator is never fazed. Physical and emotional extremes are scarcely felt. A man named Bill gets run over by a train and cut in two. His friend finds him on the tracks:

“Hey,” said Bill when he saw me. “This is a hell of a place to be, isn’t it?”
“What happened, Bill?” I asked. I knew it was a stupid question, but I couldn’t think of what else to say.
“I guess I fell asleep,” said Bill. “I sure didn’t expect this.”

The narrator is perfectly in tune with the weirdness of this world. While deadpan, he is rarely an objective reporter. The snowflakes that fall in his hand are so enormous “I could have built myself an igloo out of each one of them.” We have the sense that this isn’t hyperbole or poetic license so much as a strategy for staying sane. Bradford’s use of language accepts a freakishly overhyped world. We see it again in the story “Little Rodney” when the narrator attacks “a giant python of extremely large proportions”: “It was longer than my car. Its head was as big as a watermelon, its body thicker than my thigh.”

Of course the snake isn’t that big, as he later admits; but then, how often do you see a pregnant python in the park?

Philip Roth observed, some time ago, the difficulty American writers of fiction face in capturing the strangeness of American life. How can a mere novelist, he asked, match the headlines of the morning paper? In Dogwalker Arthur Bradford tries to avoid this problem by taking an end run through the supermarket tabloids. It is in the America of trashy headlines, with their eyewitness reports of monstrous births and the operation of supernatural forces, that his writing is most at home. The results, as with the tabloids, are amusing, but never strike us as being the real thing.

Review first published online December 4, 2001

Dear Alice . . .

By Steven Ryniak

The hardest part of reviewing Steven Ryniak’s Dear Alice . . . was tracking down whoever borrowed it. My big complaint: The book is too easy to pick up. The catchy title, the pocket-size portability, and the blonde in a bikini on the cover make it too tempting to leave lying around.

Supposedly compiled from “over 2,000 different advice column rejection piles, from more than 60,000 newspapers worldwide, after 15 years of back breaking research,” Dear Alice . . . features over 70 made-up letters from people who are . . . well, completely insane.

How can you tell when someone is “completely insane”? The answer seems to lie in a fanatical belief in an alternate reality. Speaking Ewok as though it were a living language is a pretty good sign. Wanting to go to wizard school is another. Imagining that you’ve been lost for a week in the Nigerian jungle when you’ve only been gone for eight hours is a sure bet.

The people writing these letters certainly don’t think they are insane. In fact, they are usually so sure of their own version of reality that they can’t wait to sue. The kind of advice they are seeking is mainly legal. These aren’t just any insane idiots, these are insane American idiots, and they can’t wait to go to court.

But what makes Ryniak’s idiots endearing is the fact that they are all such suckers. Their insanity is rarely paranoid. They really want to believe the best in people. A personal trainer gets his client to eat nothing but junk food while only working out one day a week, but the client is willing to get with the program. When a girl asks another letter-writer to rub her pit bull’s tummy, he complies. An old friend has no trouble convincing “T. L.” to deliver a mysterious metal trunk to an Arab named Aachmed at La Guardia airport. A father wants to know if the “magic pills” his son has been ordering by mail really work. Various correspondents complain about being horribly abused by doctors they are only now beginning to suspect.

As you might have guessed, this is not Miss Lonelyhearts. But Dear Alice . . . is a fun collection of humorous sketches sure to give the slightly less insane a lift.

Review first published online November 27, 2000.


By Chuck Palahniuk

In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman describes how the typographical age, or Age of Exposition, has been replaced by the Age of Show Business. The dominant medium of our time is television, which speaks in images rather than words. The information and art this image-based culture produces is incoherent, contradictory, and non-rational. Its ideology is entertainment. Aside from providing amusement, it is without content, meaning or purpose.

Which brings us to Choke.

Choke is the story of a young man named Victor Mancini, a med school dropout who works at the historical theme park of Colonial Dunsboro. Since pretending to be a peasant for the tourists doesn’t come close to paying the bills for his mother’s nursing home, he supplements his meager income with a truly ridiculous bit of fraud.

The scam works this way: Victor goes to a restaurant and pretends to choke. Inevitably someone rescues him and for the rest of their life they feel responsible for Victor, to the extent of sending him regular cheques in the mail.

There’s a lot more to the story than this, but the different elements remain mostly disconnected. Victor’s torrid and kinky sex life is the product of his attending a recovery group for sex addicts. His mother’s Italian diary suggests that he was conceived the son of Christ through the use of a religious relic. His mother’s nurse wants to get pregnant with Victor’s baby so she can use tissue from the fetus to save his mother from Alzheimer’s (or so she says). His best friend Denny collects rocks until he has enough to build a castle on a vacant lot.

And so it goes.

The best thing about this kind of writing is that none of it has to make sense. Entertainment is all about stimulation. Its goal is to provide pleasure without any of the intellectual and moral challenge of art. In its most basic form, stimulation is sex and violence. Fight Club, Palahniuk’s first novel, was mostly concerned with violence. Choke is obsessed with sex.

Victor’s path to sainthood is the negative way described by T. S. Eliot when he said the way down is the way up. He achieves a sort of grace by debasing himself, having come to the realization that torture isn’t torture and humiliation isn’t humiliation unless you choose to suffer. In themselves, degradation and humiliation can be quite liberating. Victor first becomes aware of this when he sees pictures on the Internet of a man dressed as Tarzan having sex with an orangutan. One look at the Tarzan man’s beatific smile and Victor recognizes him as a savior.

There are a few things one could say about this scene, but what struck me the most is the anachronism. At the beginning of the novel, Victor is in his mid-20s. But he is described as first seeing the picture of the Tarzan-man while surfing the Internet as a kid. If we imagine the main events in the novel to be taking place in the present, how is this possible?

This may seem like a small point, but in fact it is quite important. What Palahniuk is doing is writing just the kind of book Postman predicted. Anachronism has no meaning in a world without any sense of history. Alzheimer’s disease and historical theme parks are only metaphors for a book that has no memory.

And without memory, there is scarcely any need for narrative consistency. At the beginning of one chapter Victor is distraught over the number of restaurants he has crossed out with his red felt pen because he can’t do his choke routine in the same place twice. Yet only four pages later the possibilities are infinite: all he has to do is close his eyes and stab his finger at an open phone book. At another point he enters his mother’s nursing home and remarks how clean it smells: “you only smell chemicals, cleaning stuff, or perfumes.” Yet later, when he brings flowers for his mom her room “has that smell, the same smell as Denny’s tennis shoes in September after he’s worn them all summer without socks.”

Choke may well be the best example yet of a Show Business Age novel: amusing, anti-realistic, inconsistent, incoherent, and contradictory. Without any sense of cause-and-effect the construction of a plot is nearly impossible. We just see wild and crazy things happening to weird people. There are plenty of interesting ideas in Choke, especially with regard to Victor’s imitation of Christ and Denny’s attitude toward art, but they are only epigrams left to float like gratuitous pieces of fruit in the shiny jelly of Palahniuk’s hurried prose.

Sweet jelly, but it isn’t filling stuff.

Review first published July 21, 2001.

Bone by Bone

By Peter Matthiessen

With the publication of Bone by Bone Peter Matthiessen completes an impressive, albeit inconsistent, trilogy. The first volume, Killing Mr. Watson, made use of a medley of narrative voices to tell the turn-of-the-century story of the violent life and death of an Everglades sugar plantation operator named Edgar Watson. The second installment, Lost Man’s River, was a major disappointment, following the attempt of Watson’s son to come to grips with his father’s past. Bone by Bone, the final piece of the historical puzzle that has obsessed Matthiessen for the last twenty years, is the same story as told by the enigmatic Mr. Watson himself.

Watson was a real person, and the trilogy is grounded in the few hard facts that are known about his life. From these simple guideposts Matthiessen has re-imagined a Watson that is set against the lurid Watson gossip that has evolved over eight decades into a local myth. The result is a work that explores the making of an identity, a history, and a nation.

About halfway through the novel, Watson makes a reference to the “frontier thesis” of historian Frederick Jackson Turner. It was Turner’s belief that the American identity was created out of a response to the frontier – a challenge that brought forth a separate American character and distinctly American institutions. But by 1890 the U. S. census had officially declared the frontier closed, thus bringing America’s evolution to a terminus.

By Watson’s reckoning this was premature. “The professor who claimed there was no more frontier had never heard about the Everglades.” After living a semi-outlaw life in the Wild West (there were even rumours that he killed Belle Starr), Watson comes to the Ten Thousand Islands precisely because it is “the last American frontier.” The Everglades are a lawless, violent backwater that is also a land of opportunity for those who have the right stuff.

Matthiessen has always been interested in frontiers, in part because of what they represent as metaphors. The frontier is that fluid line dividing conscious and unconscious, advanced and primitive forces. The way they react makes history.

The frontier is also part of Watson’s split personality. On the one hand he is the progressive, entrepreneurial businessman known to the locals as the Emperor; on the other he is the savage, hard-drinking murderer “Jack” (a name he gives himself). And if it is the frontier that defines America, then Watson’s frontier identity is also symbolic – a man, like America, always starting over from scratch and trying to make himself anew.

The trick to a book like this is to take the raw matter of history and biography and give it artistic shape and narrative drive. And while Bone by Bone does have a few slow sections, it makes up for these in the boldness and size of its conception.

Though not as strong as the first Watson book, Bone by Bone manages to fulfill all of the promise in Matthiessen’s grand design, which stands comparison to Faulkner’s masterpiece Absalom, Absalom. The writing has a fullness as lush as the natural world Matthiessen’s language draws from, and the plot is controlled by a master’s hand. Matthiessen is one of those odd writers who are highly regarded but whose career has never seemed to peak – until now. With its completion, we can see the Watson trilogy as his masterpiece – a large and unforgettably powerful achievement.

Review first published October 2, 1999.

The Body Artist

By Don DeLillo

In a bold move to pre-empt any debate over who will write the worst novel of 2001, Don DeLillo has taken the prize home early. While there’s no way to predict what horrors are yet to come, it’s safe to say there won’t be anything as bad as The Body Artist published in the next ten months.

The sheer awfulness of The Body Artist is even more of a surprise given the talent involved. While Don DeLillo has always been a hit-and-miss author – for every White Noise there has been a Mao II – he has never gone off the tracks like this before.

What went wrong?

The fault is not in the story, though that is weak enough. In outline it deals with a body artist (think “performance piece”) named Lauren who is renting a house with her husband, a film director named Rey. Rey kills himself and Lauren goes on living alone in the house until a strange man shows up. He may be a homeless person, a ghost, or a figment of her imagination. In the fashion of the best high literary crossover into pulp romance (think The English Patient), they get involved.

So far, so bad, but what really makes the book a true disaster is the writing. Gone are the satiric wit, cultural engagement and kaleidoscope narrative of DeLillo’s last novel, Underworld. This time out he seems to be struggling under the influence of that greatest of all posh literary introverts, Virginia Woolf. Every small gesture in The Body Artist is presumed to carry Great Significance. Every subtle change in tense and tone is a profound mystery of meaning. Consciousness doesn’t flow in a stream so much as sit at the bottom of a well of self, listening to murky echoes and repetitions of itself thinking.

Lest you think I’m making any of this up, here are a couple of representative passages submitted as evidence:

She climbed the stairs, hearing the sound a person makes who is climbing stairs, and she touched the oak grain of the newel when she reached the landing.
It was okay. She wanted to be here and she’d be okay. All their marriage, all the time they’d lived together they’d lived right here.
Her body felt different to her in ways she did not understand. Tight, framed, she didn’t know exactly. Slightly foreign and unfamiliar. Different, thinner, didn’t matter.

That Lauren hears the sound of a person climbing stairs when she is, in fact, climbing the stairs, gives some indication of the level of self-absorption she has attained – a reverse Nirvana for the artsy set. Certainly her inability to understand what doesn’t matter anyway is a feeling many readers will share.

The second passage is an example of how the dialogue between Lauren and the stranger works:

“Then when it comes to me.”
“A thing of the most. Days yes years.”
“Do you know what that means? A day. A year. Or did you hear me use these words?”
“Say some words.”
“Say some words.”
“In when it comes.”
“In when it comes. What?” she said
“Leave into leaving.”
“Who is leaving?”
“This is when you, yes, you said.”
“What did I say?”

It is possible to find some defence for what DeLillo is doing. Since Lauren’s body is her art it makes a kind of sense that she is so obsessive about herself, so trapped within her own interior world. But making her sensitive to the point of feeling “her aorta recoil to every blood surge” is simply ridiculous. And the constant dwelling upon the minutiae of daily existence becomes a crushing bore even in a book as short as this.

As for the dialogue, DeLillo tries to excuse it by suggesting that Lauren and the stranger communicate “outside language.” He deliberately fashions their conversation so that it has no rhythm, none of the tempo, inflections or intervals that make normal speech comprehensible. That this results in a lot of gibberish is, I think he would argue, his point.

But this does not explain the rest of the dialogue in the book. Here, for example, is Lauren talking to the man who owns the house she has been staying in:

“Has it been satisfactory then?”
“Mostly, I think, yes.”
“Because if there’s anything.”
“No, it’s fine, I think. Rooms.”
“Rooms and rooms.”

What are we to make of this?

Scholars may find something to salvage from The Body Artist. In terms of its theme I assume it is meant as a response to DeLillo’s fascination with the way cultural products, and in particular the signals sent by mass commercial media, have colonized the subconscious. The only rebellion against the tyranny of the media thus becomes an obsessive inwardness that denies the external world entirely. As he says of Lauren, “the world was lost inside her.”

This is all well and good, at least for Lauren, but if this is DeLillo’s point then it is one that is lost in a dull, derivative paste of writing that is almost beyond parody:

He said, “The word for moonlight is moonlight.”
This made her happy. It was logically complex and oddly moving and circularly beautiful and true – or maybe not so circular but straight as straight can be.

My guess is most readers will find this baffling. I’m prepared to grant what the stranger says is “true,” but what is logically complex about it? Or moving? Or beautiful?

There is a poem by Wallace Stevens, “The Man on the Dump,” that reflects on a literature grown heavy with cliché, especially words stale with “beautiful and true” associations like “moonlight.” The moon creeps up on a pile of garbage that includes images of the moon itself, along with the wrapper from a can of pears, a cat in a paper bag, and books, one suspects, like The Body Artist.

Review first published February 3, 2001.