Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Discomfort of Strangers

I read The Comfort of Strangers, by Ian McEwan, as part of my exploration of travel/expat fiction; I'm interested in the overwhelming tendency of these novels to put the main character in peril because he or she is abroad. The inherent premise of the "genre" is that one somehow loses an important bit of equilibrium when traveling, or that a new country's otherness is fundamentally threatening—so the characters seesaw back and forth between these two antagonistic forces.

The Comfort of Strangers is a textbook case for this genre. A couple on holiday, Colin and Mary, the force of their love and affection on the wane, yet eddying to and fro as with the tide, find themselves being led by a local who plans to harm them.

The duty of an author in these novels is to make sure the characters get lost—the winding streets of a place representing the winding streets of their souls. There's an idea of a destination, but it can't be reached. Indeed, McEwan punishes his characters, making them traipse through a city that must be Venice (the city is unnamed), in search of food when the restaurants have closed. The city is free from traffic and other signs of modern living, suggesting an older world, or a deeper and less fathomable one in the case of human desires.

To make matters worse, they've forgotten to bring their map along—of course! They are hapless in their capriciousness.

The reader becomes immersed in the characters' hunger, their need for a few simple bites of food and a drink of water becoming a quest, as if they were walking across a desert. The fact that they're on holiday—and bad things aren't supposed to happen to you when you're on vacation, right?—allows them to drift in aimlessness, to pause and try to figure out where they are in their disorientation (Colin even looks to the sun at one point to guide them in their treks, as if he's out in the wilderness instead of a city).

The reader feels their passivity, their inability to take control of their environment, which makes them vulnerable. This is essentially the foundation of the travel novel: the characters have lost their moorings in this new, strange land, so birds of prey and vultures circle above them the minute they step out of their hotel.

Robert is such a bird. He takes them under his arm—literally—and under the auspices of finding them nourishment, guides them into his strange lair that he shares with his inscrutably submissive wife, Caroline.

What's interesting in McEwan's narration is his lack of explanation. He doesn't probe deeply into any character, so their motivations, not to mention the essence of who they are, remain a mystery.

This approach has both good and bad effects. On the good side, it allows McEwan to keep the action moving. For example, the second time Colin and Mary encounter Robert, they are near their hotel, and given the fact that they don't particularly like him and only want to rest and get something to eat, one wouldn't think they would go along with him. They do, however, and the reader is forced to accept their bad decision—to trust that being on holiday has made them so passively desultory that they will go wherever a hand guides them.

The lack of explanation keeps the novel cloaked with mystery. How can we possibly understand the cruel perversities of Robert and Caroline except as living metaphors of strangeness? They are others in extremis. How can we even understand Colin and Mary? McEwan doesn't allow it. Colin's passivity can even be interpreted as a strange, perhaps unconscious complicity in Robert and Caroline's murderous scheme. Does he allow the events to occur, as Robert would have us believe? Is Colin simply a naive innocent?

McEwan's insistence on gliding on the surface of actions and characters might work well to create suspense, but in the end, it limits the novel. It's impossible to understand the characters beyond the fact that they're living relatively unexamined, shallow lives (because of laziness of a holiday?) and sleepwalk into their demise.

To be fair, McEwan does provide signals of the characters' inner states. They revert to a sort of childhood, sleeping in the afternoon, lacking the energy or motivation to tidy their hotel room, becoming dependent on their hotel maid: “They came to depend on her and grew lazy with their possessions. They became incapable of looking after one another.”

Like children, they're susceptible to trusting the wrong person.

For more on McEwan, read Notes on Saturday, by Ian McEwan and Ian McEwan's Supposed Plagiarism.

For more of my thoughts on travel/expat novels, read Death in Venice, Death in Expat Novels.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Shortcomings - Adrian Tomine

I've never been a comic book guy. Perhaps I was brainwashed by trappings of "high culture," the elite traditions of an English major, or perhaps I just never trusted anything that wasn't so dense with words that it had to provide deeper meaning.

When I was waiting tables way back in the early '90s, a scrubby cook who looked as if he'd walked straight out of a comic book—bushy red hair, skin and bones, a hopeless music nerd—gave me a wadded-up copy of some stuff by Adrian Tomine (jeepers, he must have been 18 or 19 then). I read it and thought it was great, unlike any other cartoonist I'd read, a poet of small, lonely moments, a minimalist who could fill the mundane with meaning.

I Xeroxed that wadded-up cartoon and never forgot Tomine's name, so I've taken pleasure in watching his rise in stature.

I recently read Shortcomings and thought, in short, that it packed as much punch as any novel I've read. Although graphic novels might not be able to offer the depth and texture of a classic like Anna Karenina, they certainly match a short story or a film's ability to excavate and reveal meaning in the tiny moments of life.

In fact, the graphic novel probably suffers from its comparisons to a novel. It's more like a film—I read Shortcomings in about an hour and a half and felt like I'd seen a film when I put the book down. His panels combe the precision of line drawings with the gentle pacing of art-house film. The facial expressions and gestures are subtle, and his dialogue is sharp and true whether he's portraying a squabble in a dive bar or the negotiations that precede a kiss.

The main character, Ben Tanaka, is struggling with love and self—as an Asian-American, but primarily as a human being. Tanaka, a 30-year-old movie theater manager in Berkeley, treats his girlfriend Miko poorly, alternating between bitter criticism and sullen withdrawal. She's a beauty, but he doesn't seem to realize this, and takes her for granted—like many men, unable to figure out that his sour, caustic comments aren't appealing.

After tolerating his increasingly churlish behavior for too long, and then discovering his all-white porn stash, Miko suggests they "take some time off" and moves to New York City.

Ben is crushed but in time he begins to pursue a series of blondes. Following a failed attempt to kiss the artsy punk girl who takes tickets at his movie theater, he has a brief affair with a bisexual graduate student who soon dumps him with the sendoff, "I could be totally brutally honest about why I'm doing this, but I'm going to restrain myself because I'm not sure you'd ever recover."

Shaken, Ben flies to New York City, where, spying on his own girlfriend, he discovers that she has been sleeping with a white man.

Yes, it's time for Ben to grow up, to view himself through a different lens, to think about being less negative and more appealing—but we know he's not going to do this for a good, long while. Ben has too many "shortcomings."

Beyond his"weird self-hatred issues" and "relentless negativity" that Miko points out to him, he has a pathological fear of change. Tomine depicts these flaws almost too faithfully in Ben's consistently sullen expression, which stands out all the more among the other characters' precisely inflected faces.

Ben does have a half-redeeming friendship with Alice, a serial-dating Korean dyke who is something of a narcissist and a hypocrite herself. And he has his tender moments. But he seems consistently clueless about his many flaws.

You might say that Ben is the perfect character for a an adolescent reader, if only because he's trapped in the shortcomings of his own adolescence.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

"Tree of Smoke" Flames Out

The New York Times' review of Tree of Smoke says that it "is a tremendous book, a strange entertainment, very long but very fast, a great whirly ride that starts out sad and gets sadder and sadder, loops unpredictably out and around, and then lurches down so suddenly at the very end that it will make your stomach flop."

Not. On all accounts.

I think I'm Denis Johnson's ideal reader in some ways--his first novel, Angels, and then his collection of short stories, Jesus's Son, are among my favorite books. So I was eager to read Tree of Smoke, especially after several reviews elevated it to masterpiece status and it won the National Book Award (perhaps in the way that Paul Newman won the Oscar for the somewhat laughable The Color of Money instead of the true classic The Hustler).

Tree of Smoke, at least by its heft, is ambitious, but doesn't deliver. The things Johnson does so well--his keen, poignant portraits of people desperately clinging to the edge of life--don't quite come to life here. The novel is littered with his usual cast of desperados--the sort of desperados I usually read Johnson for, including Bill Houston from Angels--but I never quite feel their heartbeat.

In fact, Johnson exposes a limitation in this novel. His characters always unravel in familiar ways (the same labyrinth of drugs, alcohol, quirky mysticism), so what used to seem odd, unpredictable, and possibly enlightening is now hackneyed, just another Denis Johnson recipe, almost as if he's writing a genre novel.

Since Johnson is hailed as a genius, one expects him to bring more counterpoints and layers into his prose--the polyphony that Kundera says makes the novel such a unique art form--but like listening to heavy metal, you only hear the occasional ballad among mostly head banging tunes. If Denis Johnson is indeed a genius, he needs to add second and third notes to his tune--he needs to offer a vision of life that holds surprises. In short, he needs to get over himself.

Since the book weighs in at over 600 pages and covers the time span of the Viet Nam war, it promises to provide new historical angles, but I felt as if the Viet Nam scenes were cliched, watered-down versions of Apocalypse Now or other Viet Nam classics (e.g., the colonel, who's at the moral and psychological center of the novel, is nothing more than a cross between Kurtz and a rogue version of Robert Duvall from Apocalypse Now). He's flatly mythological, without flesh, derivative.

Then there's the colonel's nephew, Skip Sands, who is perhaps the true main character of the book. Except that he's utterly without complexity, without any urgent drive or motive. When he has sex with a woman, it's hard to imagine him getting an erection. He's consigned in the novel to waiting around, organizing the colonel's card catalogue of espionage, and wanting to be a part of the war; as a character he waits for 600 pages to be a part of the novel.

Skip offers this wisdom on the war--and this is about as wise as the book gets: "This isn't a war. It's a disease. A plague." Yes, this is what high school history teachers have been teaching for 30 years.

"These folks mean business," avers the Colonel. "You whack them down in January, they're back all bright and shiny next May, ready for more of our terrible abuse." Again, no new insights here. In fact, sometimes Johnson's characters actually seem to be mouthing the historical research he's done.

Granted, it's difficult to portray this era in a fresh light given the number of books and films that have explored it, but this is Denis Johnson, supposedly one of our most original authors, so I expect more from the strange place he views the world from. At his best, Johnson presents an unhinged word that's full of odd beauty and religious possibility even as its murderous and cruel, but even Johnson's eerie lyricism only snakes through on occasion, and he doesn't earn the tilt he gives this world.

I wonder if Johnson works better in shorter forms. In some ways, the novel's length seemed to indicate an author who was trying to nail down his story, reaching, and then reaching again for something, but only adding pages to the work, not meaning. I also wonder if his editor lacked the cajones to edit him--how does one edit a master?

How does one review a master as well? Every review I read gave Johnson tremendous benefit of the doubt, as if the reviewers were afraid to say a negative word. But then American reviewers tend to act more as marketing agents and plot summarizers than true critics.

Fortunately I came across an honest, astute review of this book in the Atlantic Monthly: "When a novel’s first words are 'Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed,' and the rest of it evinces no more feel for the English language and often a good deal less, and America’s most revered living writer touts 'prose of amazing power and stylishness' on the back cover, and reviewers agree that whatever may be wrong with the book, there’s no faulting its finely crafted sentences—when I see all this, I begin to smell a rat. Nothing sinister, mind you. It’s just that once we Americans have ushered a writer into the contemporary pantheon, we will lie to ourselves to keep him there."

The reviewer in the Times said that by the end, he wished the novel were longer. I kept wishing it were shorter. Nearly every page until the end.