Prose Roundup March 2008
The Book of Other People
Zadie Smith, ed.
Zadie Smith heads up this quirky collection of character sketches and short stories compiled to benefit the Brooklyn superhero store and writing center, 826NYC. The usual titans of the Believer/McSweeney’s empire are present: Eggers chronicles the experience of a lonely giant; Believer founder Heidi Julavits creates a portrait of an elderly judge looking back over her life; and Believer co-editor Vendela Vida covers the experiences of a drifter visiting her former roommate.
Laughter and pity are the frequent products of the collection’s twenty-three stories, which dwell largely on the eccentric and the cringe-inducing. Miranda July, with her blunt, signature style, tells the hilarious story of a woman who bonds with a celebrity on an airplane, while David Mitchell unveils the plight of a pathetic busybody mourning the death of her internet lover.
Everyone, from Jonathan Lethem to Chris Ware and others, is in fine, typical, literary form (partly, no doubt, because many pieces have been previously published). Driven by Smith’s mandate that the writers “make somebody up,” The Book of Other People is light, amusing, and, perhaps, easily forgotten; but then again that’s what people-watching is all about—glimpsing, if only fleetingly, what it might be like to be someone completely other than yourself.
Travels in the Scriptorium
Travels in the Scriptorium, Paul Auster’s latest novel, is a beautiful and chilling little book. The style is spare, philosophical. A man sits alone in a room, not sure of who he is, where he is or what he is doing there. He is unaware of the fact that he is under constant surveillance, both audio and video. He is completely unfamiliar with all the mechanisms of his body. His name is Mr. Blank.
The novel is a reverse caper of sorts. An Orwellian manuscript, author unknown, is in the room for Mr. Blank to read and decipher. He is visited, in his small space, by a variety of characters both eerily familiar to him and totally new. A devoted Auster reader will recognize the characters from his earlier works: Anna Blume from In the Country of Last Things, Peter Stillman of City of Glass and David Zimmer from The Book of Illusions, among others; all make cameos both onstage and off. These characters drop clues as to why they are visiting him; most notably, it is made clear that he has wronged Anna somehow, and is responsible for her suffering. The characters keep coming, the manuscript is read, Mr. Blank relearns how to urinate, defecate, vomit and orgasm again. He begins to piece together the puzzle, and discover how he relates to all these people entering and leaving his room.
I was reminded when reading Scriptorium of a passage in Ghosts, the second novella in The New York Trilogy: “Writing is a solitary business. It takes over your life. In some sense, a writer has no life of his own. Even when he’s there, he’s not really there.”
Auster is known for his obsession with stories within stories. Writers abound in his tales, and find themselves in precarious, even life-or-death situations not generally associated with the literary lifestyle. His great skill is in dosing literature with peril. Scriptorium gives authority to the many characters that Auster himself has, over the years, put through insanity, despair, even death. In some sense, the author has allowed his characters to finally grant him his own comeuppance. After all, he seems to ask the reader, what life does a writer have without his characters?
Jane F. Kotapish
Jane Kotapish’s debut novel, Salvage, is about a woman who spends most of her childhood (and early adulthood) in a closet, talking to an imaginary dead sister about what it’s like to be alive. As her mother recovers from miscarrying the sister, the narrator is left to the negligent care of her stepfather, who makes her feel guilty for the loss of the baby. Shortly after, the mother tells the man to leave, and the conversations in the closet begin. The self-conscious theatricality of the narrator’s voice reveals a mind treading insanity while painting a vivid world of sensual poetry.
With feminist overtones, the narrator asserts growing up with her single mother was a decidedly happy experience:
Watching other fathers prowl other houses piqued my curiosity, but in the way that a hamster might flag my interest, only because we didn’t have one. Other people’s lives seemed slightly messy to me when tangled up with men and pets.
The daughter boasts self-sufficiency from men, but the suggestion is that the price she pays for this independence is madness.
The author wrote this book “to explore what a secular interpretation of saint iconography might become.” Consequently, negotiating a sense of safety while not practicing religion emerged as a recurring theme. The mother dates men named after Catholic saints. She also keeps a statue of the goddess Artemis on her lawn, which everyone else sees as the Virgin Mary. It is as if she ultimately embraces the iconic figures she had set out to deny.
Each chapter is named after a verb that appears in its text: “sequester,” “balance,” “banish,” and so on. Though inventive, the chapter names don’t often represent the flavor of the text in the section, making this aspect of the novel feel random. Each part (there are seven of them) concludes with a confessional letter to the mother that sums up internal questions and worries. Although there are moments in the novel that drag, Kotapish artfully juxtaposes with complexity and honesty the ironies of self-reliance and loneliness, of freedom and happiness, and of being independent and female.
Now You See Him
(William Morrow, 2008)
T his canny potboiler about the shock waves of an unexpected death has its creaky moments, but on the whole it is a piercing evocation of the enervation and essential loneliness of domestic life. Nick Framingham is a plodding, small-town, middle-management type whose friendship with Rob Castor, a Jay McInerney-like literary prodigy, has provided him with vicarious thrills since childhood. Rob’s sudden reappearance in Nick’s life sets off a landslide of recrimination that gradually accumulates the sinister momentum of a nightmare.
In its structure and tone, Now You See Him at times echoes Donna Tartt’s The Secret History—not a lucky comparison for most novels—but Gottlieb’s talent is for unmasking the fatal chinks in lives glamorous and humdrum alike. Nick’s self-absorption and limited powers of observation are the linchpins of his demise, yet Gottlieb’s characterization is almost entirely without the self-pity that mars many such first-person constructs. The homoerotic subtext of the relationship between the novel’s protagonist and his shadowy counterpart would have benefited from a more daring exposition, and at times the novel’s mechanics stretch credibility. Those criticisms aside, however, Now You See Him builds an absorbing and even tender narrative out of a sordid web of disaster.
ContributorBrooklyn Rail Staff