I'll Never Be a Final Girl; or, On Not Reading Justin Cronin's Excellent Novel, The Passage.

Justin Cronin,  The Passage (Ballantine: 2010), 784 pages.

imgres

Jamie Lee Curtis, as "final girl" Laurie Strode in Halloween (1978).

 

 

I just couldn't do it. But I did try. I'd heard great things about The Passage, the 700+ page thriller by Justin Cronin. I checked the ebook out from my local public library and downloaded it to my Kindle and began tearing through it like a death-row inmate infected by a terrifyingly aggressive Amazonian bat virus... YIKES.

I've had this problem before, in fact I've had it all my life: I'm too squeamish for horror. The only scary movie I truly love is The Shining, which is less a horror movie than a Kubrick movie. All his movies are scary in some way (though The Shining is much less scary when recut as a family-friendly comedy, as seen here). The only reason I got any enjoyment out of Halloween, the 1978 John Carpenter movie, was because I was able to watch it on a meta-level, with Jamie Lee Curtis as the classic "final girl", the victim who overcomes her torturers, thanks to Carol Clover's fantastic book, Men, Women & Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Film. (Alert: BEST BOOK TITLE EVER).

I tried to read Stephen King's The Stand and quit once it got too... horrific. But I had high hopes for The Passage, perhaps because I thought it would be more of a dystopian fantasy along the lines of The Hunger Games (a novel about children killing each other - is there anything more horrifying?), which I was able to appreciate, if not enjoy.

The Passage begins with a classic Hubris of Man setup: American scientists hacking through the South American jungle in search of a miracle virus that will cure cancer and, possibly, death. Where are the bioethicists when you need them? Not in this scene, unfortunately, and thus a killer virus begins its journey from hidden bat cave to the rest of the planet. We then cut to various character setups: the early life of young Amy Bellafonte, the girl who will save the world; Brad Wolgast, the FBI agent who will save Amy; etc. We see the initial stages of disaster unfolding faster than the general public realizes or could even imagine and it's thrilling, as a thriller should be. The writing is perfect: fast but not cheap. A young cop is described as "a fresh recruit with a face pink as a slice of ham" and storm clouds are "a wall of spring thunderheads ascending from the horizon like a bank of blooming flowers in a time-lapse video."

This was all good. Exciting, fun, great language. But then it got scary. I'm not even going to get into it, because if you like this kind of thing you will read it for yourself and if you don't it will just sound icky. It is icky, but more than that, it's actually frightening. Cronin succeeds in describing an apocalypse that will make you worry not just about bats but about future natural disasters and what happens when the things that keep society glued together break down, from communication pathways (Wolgast realizes things are getting really bad when USA Today is reduced to two short pages) to electrical power plants to food production systems. And VAMPIRES! There, I said it.

I always enjoy the setups more than the outcomes, whether it's Harry Potter first encountering Diagon Alley to buy his wizardry supplies or walking through Dignan's 75-year plan for success in Wes Anderson's first movie, Bottle Rocket (1996), but in the case of horror it turns out it's the only part I am capable of enjoying. The decision to not finish it, however, did allow me the pleasure of spoiling the entire series (The Passage is the first of three novels, two of which have been published so far) by reading its Wikipedia page, something I also do on a guilt-free basis when the Game of Thrones books bog down. I recommend it.

So I apologize, Justin Cronin. You've written a terrific horror novel. It's just too scary to read.

Nevada Girls: Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers: A Novel

 

The Flamethrowers: A Novel by Rachel Kushner (Scribner: 2013, 400 pages).

 imgres

Freeway overpass, Spiral Jetty, you get the idea...

 

There's a sweet little riff in the second chapter of Rachel Kushner's new novel The Flamethrowers, when the book is still zipping ahead with energy in which Kushner writes of former First Lady Pat Nixon, "Hair dyed the color of whiskey and whipped into an unmoving wave… she was a ratted beauty-parlor tough... from Nevada, like me." This is supposed to be the voice of Reno, the young, Nevada-born aspiring artist at the heart of the novel and as of Chapter 2 I was still reading it that way, but by the end of the novel I stopped believing in that voice, despite how much I admired it.

 

In list form, The Flamethrowers is about: The 1970s Land Art movement; The meanings of speed vs. stasis; The New York City art scene; Motorcycles; Italian fascism; European student movements; China girls; Female sexuality; Minimalism; Futurism; Global capitalism; Corruption; The Bonneville Salt Flats and the World Land Speed Record. The writing is gorgeous. I could hardly wait to start.

 

Reno is a young woman on a mission to transcend her station, to get out of the doomed blue-collar world of dirtbikes and cheap beer in which she grew up and create a niche for herself in the art world of 1970s New York. If she can make it there, she can make it anywhere. Strangely, although she does sort of make it there - if you can count going to all the cool parties and sleeping with all the cool artists "making it," which you probably can - she fades as a character once she arrives. She a passive – frustratingly passive – protagonist. Which brings us to Maria Wyeth.

 

Maria Wyeth is the deader-than-deadpan, self-abnegating antiheroine of Joan Didion's 1970 novel Play It As It Lays and Maria haunts The Flamethrowers like Reno’s more sophisticated twin. Like Reno, Maria Wyeth is a native of Nevada who claws her way to New York City where she is valued for her beauty and carelessly used by abusive men. Both of these characters define themselves by their passivity, their “resigned tranquility,” as Didion puts it. Both women find momentary agency through driving, Reno on a motorcycle and Wyeth in a car through a maze of Los Angeles freeways, and on and on. Lots of similarities. Yet somehow Didion makes Maria Wyeth’s dispassion the subject of the novel; more than a coping mechanism, it’s a rational response to the craziness of the world around her. In Play It As It Lays, the events of the novel are a backdrop to real subject: Maria and her mood. In The Flamethrowers Reno becomes the backdrop.

 

Reno functions less as a character and more as a stand-in for the author, a partial observer who keeps all her observations – brilliant as they often are – hidden in an internal monologue. It’s a cliché to ask why a reader should care for a character but in this case one wonders: Why do the other characters care for her? “Hmm. Let’s see,” says Reno’s friend Giddle: “You’re young.” Reno is young, beautiful and compliant. That’s why they like her. It gets tiresome. Writing about housewives in the 1950s, Kushner observes: "The woman senses that time is more purely hers if she squanders it and keeps it empty, holds it, feels it pass by, and resists filling it with anything that might put some too-useful dent in its open, airy emptiness." And that’s the problem. Reno doesn’t have to be a hero but after watching her merely float past the action of most of the novel I stopped believing she was capable of the observations Kushner was writing on her behalf.

 

There’s no question Kushner is a talented observer of people and their peccadilloes, a writer who in less than ten pages can set young Reno up in a romance with a motel maintenance man named Stretch - Stretch! - and make you not only believe it but want to see the Rachel Kushner-directed version of the short film based on the interlude. That film doesn't exist, but if it did I would watch it.

 

"On occasion I let my thoughts fall into that airy space between me and whatever Stretch's idea of me was," Kushner writes. I know the feeling: ever since finishing The Flamethrowers I've let my thoughts fall into that airy space between the novel and whatever I hoped it might be. The Flamethrowers is worth reading for its gorgeous language and fascinating ideas. But like that hot guy on the motorcycle who becomes the world’s worst boyfriend, it might also break your heart.

 

A Nation of Garbos.

Book Review: Eric Klinenberg, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone (Penguin: 2012)

This review originally appeared in the Dec/Jan 2012 issue of BookForum, available here.

Americans love our icons of individuality — Henry David Thoreau, The Lone Ranger, Carrie Bradshaw — almost as much as we wish all the single people would just settle down and get married. As sociologist Eric Klinenberg writes in Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, “Americans have never fully embraced individualism, and we remain deeply skeptical of its excesses.” [8] Nevertheless, we’d better start getting OK with it--because as Klinenberg shows, this country is getting more single by the minute. The facts are astonishing. “The majority of all American adults are single,” he writes. “The typical American will spend more of his or her adult life unmarried than married, and for much of this time he or she will live alone.” [4] And as he goes on to note, “people who live alone make up 28 percent of all U.S. households.” [5] Adults living alone are “more common than the nuclear family, the multigenerational family, and the roommate or group home.” [5] OK, fine: We’re single. So why are we so insecure about it?

Like his predecessors who have mined the social fallout of the country’s individualist streak–writers such as David Reisman (The Lonely Crowd, 1950) and Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone,1995)--Klinenberg wants to expose a previously underreported fact of American existence, something so huge we’ve come to take it for granted. As he writes, “living alone is something that each person or family experiences as the most private of matters, when in fact is its an increasingly common condition and deserves to be treated as a subject of great political significance.” [6] When it does become the topic of debate, living alone is usually presented as “an unmitigated social problem, a sign of narcissism, fragmentation, and diminished public life.” [6] But Klinenberg maintains that none of these judgments are necessarily true.

Klinenberg begins with a basic admission: This book is about the middle and upper classes. And this concession by itself tells us something important about living alone: People do it as soon as they can afford to. So please do not throw the book (or this review) on the floor when I tell you the first chapter begins at a championship adult kickball game in Brooklyn. Klinenberg starts with the Non-Committals (imagine the sociologist’s joy: that’s the actual name of the winning kickball team) because here we have one of his target groups: people in their twenties and thirties who “have come to view living alone as a key part of the transition to adulthood.” [31] What happened to all the “boomerang” kids, those foot-shuffling college grads who live in their parents’ basements? The data show that there are fewer slackers today than ever before. [31] Maybe they’re just more visible because of the kickball.

Going Solo really gets interesting when Klinenberg addresses a seemingly inevitable fork in the path of American singletons (as he calls them): That moment, usually sometime in their 30s, when living alone morphs from a symbol of status (signifying financial security, confidence, independence) to a symbol of pathos (signifying loneliness, unattractiveness, an inability to find a romantic partner). Klinenberg delves into the challenges of living alone, starting with discrimination at work, as in the case of Sherri, who witnessed married coworkers getting raises as management continued to deny her any pay increases. When she confronted her boss, he told her “You wear all these clothes, and you’re always out, and we figured you don’t need it.” [74]

Sherri quit. But the bigger problem is one that is most Americans under 50 will recognize, single or not. “The work world makes extraordinary claims on the lives of young workers. Give yourself to business during the prime of your life, or give up your hope of achieving real success.” [61] It’s a brutal fact with very real consequences. In the “free agent” [61] labor market that now governs our working life, he writes, “the twenties and early thirties is precisely not the time to get married and have a family.” [61]

Going Solo is most compelling in moments like this, when Klinenberg makes connections between public policy, the law, and the rational choices human beings make in response to economic reality. Why should we be surprised that 50 year-old women are first-time mothers (as featured on the cover of a recent New York magazine with the headline “Is She Just Too Old for This?”), when those women had to devote what had previously been thought of as their “childbearing years” to securing  a financial foothold in an increasingly cutthroat economy?

Klinenberg also spends time on the topic of aging alone (today, one in three Americans over sixty-five lives alone, and that number increases in higher age brackets) [157]. His previous book, the award-winning Heat Wave, investigated the deaths of more than 700 Chicagoans — mostly single — who perished in the city’s 1995 heat wave. A city investigator called them “a secret society of people living alone” [23] and as Klinenberg demonstrated, in many cases their social isolation led to their deaths. Here, Klinenberg explores how American society might make the challenge of aging alone less lonely and more humane. He cites Congress’s passage of the 2006 Lifespan Respite Care Act, which allocates money to help pay for community-based caregiving for the elderly and the disabled [228] as a positive, though inadequate step forward. Quality assisted living facilities are also in high demand. “If as it’s often alleged, the baby boomers are a distinctively self-interested generation,” he writes, “they may well use their political clout to promote housing programs that benefit them first.” [229] If it happens, this could be the Me Generation’s most valuable legacy.

And regardless of one’s age demographic, living alone creates certain challenges for society. “What if, instead of indulging the social reformer’s fantasy that we would all just be better off together,” Klinenberg writes, “we accepted the fact that living alone is a fundamental feature of modern societies and we simply did more to shield those who go solo from the main hazards of the condition?” [221] Indeed, “what if” public policy could be created in response to “facts,” as he suggests, rather than irrational fears? It would be preferable, of course. But it’s so much easier to keep rooting for Carrie to marry Mr. Big.

This Week in Geniuses: Stephen Greenblatt and Lucretius.

My review of THE SWERVE: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt (W.W. Norton: 2011) appeared in The Boston Globe's Sunday Books section on September 25, 2011:

At the center of Stephen Greenblatt’s dazzling new book, “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,’’ is a hero: Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459 CE), “[a] short, genial, cannily alert man [who] reached out one day, took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied.’’ It may not sound heroic, but “behind that one moment was the arrest and imprisonment of a pope, the burning of heretics, and a great culturewide explosion of interest in pagan antiquity . . . if he had had an intimation of the forces he was unleashing, he might have thought twice about drawing so explosive a work out of the darkness in which it slept.’’

The work in question was a remote German monastery’s copy of “On the Nature of Things,’’ the epic philosophical poem written by Lucretius ca. 50 BCE . Extravagant as it sounds, Greenblatt argues that Lucretius’s poem is the forgotten keystone in the foundation of western civilization, helping to inspire an entire culture’s rebellion “against the constraints that centuries had constructed against curiosity, desire, individuality, sustained attention to the material world, [and] the claims of the body.’’ Lucretius, in other words, helped create modernity. By the end of this erudite and entertaining book - no, by the second chapter - he will have you convinced that it’s true.

Greenblatt has written an intellectually invigorating, nonfiction version of a Dan Brown-like mystery-in-the-archives thriller, right down to the suppression of a great work of radical art by the early Christian church. In the first chapter, titled “The Book Hunter,’’ we’re introduced to our detective, Poggio. He’s on the trail of lost knowledge, following clues and his intuition to find the book that “changed the landscape of the world.’’ In its gumshoe mode, “The Swerve’’ races through the inner sanctums of corrupt popes, crumbling monasteries, and a shockingly violent gathering of Catholic bishops at the 1413 Council of Constance. Once the manuscript is discovered, Greenblatt explores all the ways Lucretius’s poem influenced the modern world. As Poggio departs center stage, “The Swerve’’ leaves the mystery genre behind and becomes a vibrant history of ideas, tracing Lucretian thought from the Renaissance through the Declaration of Independence, Darwinism, and Einsteinian physics.

But still there remains a deep mystery to be solved. How exactly does culture change? Specifically, how was it possible “for a whole culture to turn away from reading and writing’’ and then, centuries later, turn back again? Much has been written (and disputed) about just how dark the so-called Dark Ages were, but in Greenblatt’s view they were very dark indeed. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Greenblatt writes, the Christian church undertook “the difficult project of making what appeared simply sane and natural - the ordinary impulses of all sentient creatures - seem like the enemy of the truth.’’ In contrast to Lucretius’s Epicurean-inspired assertion that the highest goal of life is to seek pleasure and avoid pain, Christians “understood that pleasure is a code name for vice.’’ Yet by the 15th century a few educated Florentines began to look around at the ruins of ancient Rome - the crumbling yet still functional aqueducts, the Forum, which was now used for grazing sheep - and wondered what had gone wrong. “The spectacle of the world,’’ Poggio lamented: “how is it fallen! . . . How defaced!’’ A thousand years of Christianity had not improved life on earth. Then again, it hadn’t really tried. After all, redemption was only available after death in heaven, if you were lucky enough to get in. For a humanist like Poggio, who had already been exposed to life-affirming classical philosophies, that was too long to wait.

Lucretius’s “On the Nature of Things’’ offered something radically different. The “Lucretian challenge,’’ as Greenblatt calls it, rests on a basic principle known as atomism, one of the foundations of Epicurean philosophy. Man was not formed in the image of his Creator: There is no Creator. Instead, everything, including man, is made of tiny particles called atoms, “the seeds of things,’’ Lucretius explained, which are eternal, indestructible, and infinite. They come together in infinite varieties, with a natural balance between creation and destruction, which goes on forever. Two thousand years later the philosopher George Santayana would call this “the greatest thought that mankind has ever hit upon.’’ While gods may exist, they do not control or even care about the lives of humans. “[T]he fact that it is not all about us and our fate . . . is, Lucretius insisted, the good news.’’ Free of superstition, man could fix his efforts on that which he could actually control: the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Of course Lucretius knew nothing of Darwinian evolution nor of molecular biology nor of quantum physics. Astoundingly, all these modern scientific theories would prove him right.

“The Swerve’’ is the story of Poggio’s heroic rediscovery of a book that has shaped human consciousness for over 2,000 years. It is a thrilling, suspenseful tale that left this reader inspired and full of questions about the ongoing project known as human civilization. Although Lucretius was neither an atheist nor a hedonist, his views were anathema to Christian leaders so they were censored and nearly forgotten. But thanks to the subversive and strenuous efforts of one determined 15th-century scholar, Lucretius’s gift to humanity was saved. Greenblatt reminds us that Thomas Jefferson, who owned eight copies of Lucretius’s “On the Nature of Things,’’ described himself as “an Epicurean,’’ someone who rejected superstition in favor of “sensation, of matter and motion, [on which] we may erect the fabric of all the certainties we can have or need.’’ “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’’ certainly reflects an Epicurean philosophy; perhaps, thanks to Greenblatt’s heroic rediscovery, Lucretius can lead us into the light of reason once again.

Read "The Call."

I had the pleasure of reviewing Yannick Murphy's new novel, THE CALL, in last week's Boston Globe. You can read it on Boston.com or below...

The Call, by Yannick Murphy (Harper Perennial, 223 pages).

Many readers disdain high-concept novels for good reason: they’re usually more fun to write than to read. But if they give it a chance, most readers will find that Yannick Murphy’s remarkable new novel THE CALL succeeds where others fail. The concept? This novel is written in the format of a daily journal; to be precise, the call log belonging to a veterinarian in a small New England town.

CALL: A horse with lameness. ACTION: Drove to farm. The poorest farm I have seen so far... The owner’s boy sat on the rusted seat of a tractor that did not look like it could move, but grew up from the ground where it was, pushing itself through the dirt and had come to rest…Tall grass grew up high alongside its tires, past the height of the wheel wells. RESULT: After I felt the horse’s leg, I told the owner about the heat. I told her she would do well to stand the horse’s leg in a bucket of ice water. The woman shook her head. “No ice,” she said… WHAT I SAID TO THE WIFE IN BED: Am I getting grayer? The children told me I have more gray here… WHAT THE WIFE SAID: No, you don’t have more gray than usual. It’s just that the children are taller. They can see the gray they have never been able to see before. WHAT THE NIGHT SAID: Coyotes rule.

THE CALL is a portrait of a family, Dr. David Appleton, his wife Jen, and their three children: Sam (12), Sarah (10), and Mia (6). When Jen says, early in the book, “Be careful hunting, David. He’s still so young. You only have one son, you know,” we can tell something terrible is coming.

“CALL: My son. I can’t get him fast enough… I can see the holes in the cloth of his coat, and the goose feathers sticking out from them, wavering in the wind.”

When Sam is shot by an unseen hunter, he falls into a coma and the Appleton family feels everything that was once stable slip away. And yet… as much as David and Jen fret about Sam’s prognosis (“WHAT THE WIFE SAID I DID IN MY SLEEP: Cried.”), life in all its tiny details goes on. (“WHAT THE TRUCK IS TELLING ME: Check engine.”). As David makes his rounds to the horses with toothaches and pregnant goats his community comes into focus. Aging Dorothy, for instance, with her pet sheep Alice, who lives inside the house. The rich couple with their mansion and Great Dane. Jim Bushway, the careless farmhand who shoots “rock tiger” — chipmunks — and leaves them where they fall. With his son frozen in a coma each member of this small town becomes either a source of information about his attacker or a suspect. The person calling the Appleton’s home and then hanging up, over and over, isn’t helping matters.

What will become of the wounded son? Why is David seeing spaceships in the night sky? And who is calling him and what does he want to say? This is a suspenseful novel; the format demands that much be left unsaid, so the reader is constantly looking for clues wherever they turn up. Just how suspicious is that careless farmhand? Will the tension in the Appletons’ marriage finally explode? (“WHAT MY WIFE CAN DO: Make me angrier than I have ever been.”). Although most of these questions are answered, they’re not ultimately the point of this novel, because no matter how tragic Sam’s condition, daily life still includes things like lunch, and sick cows, and swim meets. “WHAT I THINK WE MUST BE: Crazy to spend an entire weekend waiting in the gym of a technical school, but I know years from now we will look back and say these were good times, maybe the best because we were with our children all the time.”

The truthful evocation of family is the real triumph of THE CALL. “When we are alone we like to tell each other how wonderful our children are, but it is something we do not tell others,” David says, describing a conversation with his wife. “We tell each other with abandon, things we have lately seen in our children that prove how smart and wonderful and cute they are… it’s cathartic, as if we need every once in a while to do this bragging, or so that we remind each other of how right it was for us to have married one another.” There is much love in this novel, and just as much truth about the pain and pleasure of family life. “What is taking place is as layered as something in nature,” writes Murphy of an encounter between two of her characters. She could well be describing her own clever and beautiful book.