Book Reviews

[Published in PLAYBACK:stl, June 2003]

Near the beginning of Don DeLillo’s new novel, Cosmopolis (Scribner, $25), 28-year-old billionaire Eric Packer – a financial futurist, arrogant yet reflective and curious – eases into his marble-floored, cork-lined limousine. He needs a haircut. En route, he battles the crowd on the streets – a presidential motorcade, a rap star’s funeral procession, protesters of capitalism – and takes a series of mid-ride meetings with his team of advisors, one of whom cautions Packer on his reckless borrowing of the unpredictable yen, a currency whose patterns he is determined to uncover. Also in his cross-town path are various lovers, his new wife – an heiress-poet whom he continually barely recognizes – and, ultimately, a foaming ex-employee whose separate-chaptered notes from underground spell out Packer’s fate.

DeLillo’s prose is both imaginative and exact. Beyond the city lie “toothpaste suburbs.” A local diner holds “the cross-roar of accents and languages.” In a rave’s blink dance “a cult of starvelings.” A powerful mogul, whose assassination invigorates Packer, is captured in a single image: “Filthy rich, this chap. Women in his soup.” As he did memorably in his mammoth novel “Underworld,” DeLillo expertly portrays the public’s gallop, which contains, as he puts it here, “coded moments of gesture and dance.” These moments are delivered vividly, and with a controlled rhythm, as is this glimpse of the rap star’s mourners: “Scores of women walked alongside the limousines, in headscarves and djellabas, hands stained with henna, and barefoot, and wailing.”

“Cosmopolis” is a brief book that’s big on ideas: sex and death, power and wealth and numbers. (In a quickly passing yet lasting metaphor, DeLillo describes how massive wealth has wiped the faces from our currency: “Money has lost its narrative quality the way painting did once upon a time. Money is talking to itself.”) And while the story’s fuel is the fiscal, each of the book’s ideas is tied to its largest one: time. It’s no insignificant detail that the book’s cork-lined limo is a nod to the time-obsessed writer Marcel Proust, whose own dwelling was cork-lined. (Packer proudly calls his limo “prousted.”)

Proud though he may be, Packer the futurist still must live by the same ticks as the rest of us, which have ticked since we don’t know when. And what’s fascinating about this character is that while he’s a bastard egoist, he’s given the added dimension of being aware of, even awed by, the world’s real mysteries. In one scene, during his in-limo doctor’s check-up, Packer looks at the screen that displays his heart, feeling “the passion of the body, its adaptive drive over geologic time, the poetry and chemistry of its origins in the dust of old exploding stars.”

But the novel’s last voice could be Benno Levin’s, the foaming ex-employee, who in the final pages is given the run-in with Packer for which he’s been waiting, armed. These two, powerless and powerful, powerful and powerless, are linked by the common mysteries of the world. “There are dead stars that still shine because their light is trapped in time,” Levin had written in his journal. “Where do I stand in this light, which does not strictly exist?” He stands, in the end, with Packer, the fated futurist who’s forced to wait for the present to take place.

[Published in PLAYBACK:stl, June 2004]

This is a remarkable book: eight stories, six of them quite long, that in new ways illustrate David Foster Wallace’s mastery over his favorite subjects: masking and the marketing of self; the evolving ideology and influence of advertising; emotional isolation; our efforts at real communication. The prose of Oblivion (Little, Brown; 352 pages; $25.95), the American author’s first book of fiction in five years, is uniquely controlled and often sounds almost formal. It’s noticeably less concerned with itself on the page than the prose of earlier books, including the brilliant Infinite Jest and Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. While those books offered plenty of  sentences that crackled and popped with textual playfulness, most of Oblivion owns prose that smolders like a slow-burning log.

The book begins with the 64-page “Mister Squishy.” A focus group sits around a conference table in Chicago, assembled like a jury to provide a verdict on a new snack cake called “Felonies!,” which, the narrator explains, is a “risky and multi-valent trade name meant both to connote and to parody the modern health-conscious consumer’s sense of vice/indulgence/transgression/sin vis a vis the consumption of a high-calorie corporate snack.” This is characteristic DFW, identifying how advertising has usurped individualism and counter-culture and made those ideas their ads’ own message. (Sprite’s anti-slogan slogan? “Obey Your Thirst.”) The author expertly and humorously examines “the whole ideology of rebellion-via-consumption,” but then digs more deeply into the lives of those held captive by such an industry. Take this passage describing the focus group, as led by question-administrator Terry Schmidt:

… at least half the room’s men [were] listening with what’s called half an ear while pursuing their own private lines of thought, and Schmidt had a quick vision of them all in the conference room as like icebergs and/or floes, only the sharp caps showing, unknown and -knowable to one another, and he imagined that it was probably only in marriage (and a good marriage, not the decorous dance of loneliness he’d watched his mother and father do for seventeen years but rather true conjugal intimacy) that partners allowed each other to see below the berg’s cap’s public mask and consented to be truly known…

This passage contains much of what DFW is celebrated for: wit, imagination, penetrating insights on loneliness, even the author’s favored double-possessive (“berg’s cap’s”). The passage also sets the pace for a pattern that will follow: stationary first-person narrators calmly telling an oddly troubling tale.

Such is the second story, “The Soul is Not a Smithy.” The narrator is remembering himself as a young boy in fourth-grade civics class, held hostage with three other slow-learners by a substitute teacher who’s slowly entering a crazed rage. In the book’s measured tone, the narrator tells us, “Only much later would I understand that the incident at the chalkboard in Civics was likely to be the most dramatic and exciting event I would ever be involved in my life.” The set-up is so intentionally unexciting that you sense a Foster Wallace strategy: our culture’s manufactured drama runs so high—'The Swan’ contestant weeps'—that real drama and emotion, tension and feeling, will instead be achieved through a slowly paced, richly detailed tale.

And it does. The narrator, as the tragedy unfolds, watches the outside world through the classroom’s window, its mesh squares providing “panels” of stories that he alone follows. While the teacher writes “KILL THEM KILL THEM ALL” on the blackboard, what appears in the “window’s narrative” is even more vividly chilling: a blind girl calls for her dog Cuffie, then is accosted by her students (“Ruth Simmons was at the weeping center of a laughing, mocking, hooting, cane-waving circle of deaf and blind children”); the blind girl’s mother routes carbon monoxide into her car as she applies Avon products (“forcing her hand into the shape of a claw that smeared lipstick all over her lower face as she gasped and clawed at herself for air”); the girl’s father wobbles in the snow after a horrifying accident with his snow-blower.

For each of each of these nightmarish scenes—and Oblivion has many, including the stunning, deeply disturbing three-page story “Incarnations of Burned Children"—there are sudden passages of beauty, such as when "Smithy”’s narrator wonders if his father ever opened up to the narrator’s mother about his sad work-day ritual of eating alone on a bench by two trees:

I knew my father well enough to know it could not have been direct—I am certain he never sat down or lay beside her and spoke as such about lunch on the bench and the twin sickly trees that in the fall drew swarms of migrating starlings, appearing en masse more like bees than birds as they swarmed in and weighed down the elms’ or buckeyes’ limbs and filled the mind with sound before rising again in a great mass to spread and contract like a great flexing hand against the downtown sky.

Not all of Oblivion’s stories produce such moments. Two stories even feel reader-resistant. In “Another Pioneer,” a narrator tells a third-hand, hard-to-follow story of a child-made-God in a Third World region, a designated supreme being who answers lined-up villagers’ questions in return for gifts. The story’s difficult to enter, and the vocabulary (“esemplasy,” “thanatophilic,” “phlogistive”) isn’t much help.

The title story is equally difficult to like and twice as long. “Oblivion” is narrated by a buttoned-up man who sits with his father-in-law in a golf course’s club house, watching a storm break and telling us about the increasing severity of a domestic problem. The narrator uses single quotes like breaths, so that descriptions become ‘descriptions’ ( “the whole 'can of worms’; 'the room’s large 'bay window’; 'we then lay carefully or 'gingerly’ down”). The technique certainly works as another way for the author to give strange distance to the familiar (he does this throughout; in the first story, the Gap is “a large retail clothier”), but for me it delivered more annoyance than reward. Add the obscure vocabulary (“oneriric,” “strabismic”), and the stretched-thin 50-page plot line—the narrator’s wife thinks he snores; he says he’s never asleep at the time of her complaints—and it’s enough to wear even the most patient reader down.

But two additional stories make this collection truly an achievement. First is “Good Old Neon,” whose narrator Neal rides with the reader in the reader’s car. It opens this way:

My whole life I’ve been a fraud. I’m not exaggerating. Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is to try to create a certain impression of me in other people. Mostly to be liked or admired. It’s a little more complicated than that, maybe. But when you come right down to it it’s to be liked, loved.

What follows is a 40-page coming clean from someone bright and winning but who’s stuck in a “fraudulence paradox,” meaning, for him, “the more time and effort you put into trying to appear impressive or attractive to other people, the less impressive or attractive you felt inside—you were a fraud.” Neal lists a series of activities he engaged in after feeling disgust over his fraudulence, including going to an analyst (whose unhelpful diagnosis is, You’re not a fraud if you can tell me you think you’re a fraud), then tells the reader: “I know this part is boring and probably boring you, by the way, but it gets a lot more interesting when I get to the part where I kill myself and discover what happens immediately after a person dies.” Intrigued? There are 30 pages to go.

And finally there’s the closer, “The Suffering Channel,” which follows veteran Style magazine writer Skip Atwater’s attempts to profile an artist whose work is his own moved bowels, creations Atwater considers “somehow simultaneously both more and less natural than conventional artworks.” Told with absolute narrative control and memorable compassion, the 50-page story covers an enormous amount of ground: the media and New York, art and the Midwest, and most of all this, which drives many of us to even just peripherally follow the celebrities in Style: “The conflict between the subjective centrality of our own lives versus our awareness of its objective insignificance.” More clearly, the narrator goes on to call this “death by demography—the fact that terror of being average was itself completely average.” For Atwater, this realization is “the core of the American experience he wanted to capture with his journalism.” The rest of this extraordinary story—the journalist’s quest to profile the artist—deserves to be left whole for the reader who finds it. 

I realize it’s summer and beach reads are in season, but there’s something about this book that feels important now, no matter the season. It’s challenging, and certainly there are whole stories difficult to draw reward from. But often, after a tough patch, there’s a very Foster Wallace description that reminds us we’re reading someone exceptional. Here’s a brief look back at the focus group of “Mister Squishy”: “One of the youngest men’s denim bellbottoms were so terrifically oversized that even with his legs out splayed and both knees bent his sock-status was unknown.” With a smile, the reader feels gratitude that this author is documenting all that surrounds us.

And all that’s inside us. In “Good Old Neon,” Neal the perceptive fraud speaks of the impossibility of truly expressing what’s in our minds: “What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it any given instant.” Nearly thirty pages, the narrator, making sense of himself because the reader’s there with him, half celebrates and half laments “the universes inside you, all the endless inbent fractals of connection and symphonies of different voices, the infinities you can never show another soul." 

Except, you wish you could tell him, in books like this. 

Happy Baby
Published in PLAYBACK:stl

One of the most harrowing books I’ve ever read is Jerzy Kosinksi’s 1965 novel The Painted Bird, in which a young boy wanders through Europe during World War II, hiding and shaking behind bushes, rising for savage beatings by those who find him. Stephen Elliott’s extraordinary and affecting novel Happy Baby (Picador; 191 pgs; $13), published by McSweeney’s last year and picked up for wide release in 2005, felt at times like The Painted Bird without the war.

Though both books are bracing first-person stories told by family-less, future-less boys, the comparison isn’t fair on paper. No setting compares to The Painted Bird’s after all, and its young narrator is entirely innocent while Happy Baby’s Theo courts some of his own beatings. And yet there the two characters are in the same frame of my mind—forced nomads, totally fucked—drawn together the way the lonely and battered are sometimes drawn together in life.

Happy Baby is told in reverse. Theo begins the story as a man returning to Chicago to check in on an ex-girlfriend (Maria) he’d met as a 15-year-old in a state home for wards of the court. It’s not long before the reader is witnessing Theo’s earlier life, in brief flashbacks, understanding immediately the level of grimness involved. Maria notices burns on Theo’s hands, and he remembers the more recent girlfriend who’d put them there. (“I said no and she said yes, pressing the cigarette into the back of my wrist, making a sound like the sizzle of an opium pipe. I screamed. ‘Now the other one,’ she said.”)

Over the course of the novel’s 11 chapters, there are marriages, abortions, drugs, fires, and sadomasochism. Theo tells of how his caseworker raped him. (“The windows were closed and the room was dusty and hot and filled with stacks of yellowing, creased paper forced into wide brown envelopes.”) Of his time at new juvenile centers. (“I stopped speaking for a month but nobody seemed to notice.”) Of his father. (“He pushed my kindergarten teacher down a small flight of stairs.”) Of his friends. (“'Hard day,’ Julie says, smiling as much as she can but it doesn’t come easy to her and it looks like it’s going to tear her face.”) Of himself. (“If I could love I would have loved by now.”) And most of all, of the life in front of him. Take this unforgettable scene in which Theo, having been shivering alone on the street, escapes the bitter, bitter cold and enters the basement of a house he’s come upon. He takes off all his clothes, so that he can warm them in the basement’s dryer:

I cross my arms over my chest. I’m worried that someone will come into the basement and find me naked. Will they let me put my clothes back on or will I have to stay naked until I turn eighteen? I fold myself over the drying machine, rattling around on the blue floor. I hug it to try to quiet it down, my legs pressed against its front, and lay my cheek on the top, trying to get the heat to enter my body. The machine quivers, my clothes tossing inside of it. I stretch my arms to its back, feeling. There, the metal forms ridges like ribs that I slide my fingers between. I rub my face along the lid.

This was the scene that first brought The Painted Bird to mind: a character’s fiercely solo battle against the world as it cruelly unfolds; and his narrative tone, which is matter-of-factly ghastly.

Yet by Happy Baby’s end, cruelty and ghastliness are not the dominate feelings. Because of the novel’s reverse chronology, the reader knows that the narrator who started the novel—the 36-year-old Theo—has made it through to a safer, more human place. And while this doesn’t soften the ongoing blows to the book’s boy, it does mean that, in the end, sadness and brutality aren’t allowed to triumph. The book itself triumphs. The triumph is the story’s telling.

Can't Stop, Won't Stop
Published in PLAYBACK:stl

Written over five years and exploring more than three decades of social and cultural change, this is an impressive, informative, and important book (St. Martin’s Press; 560 pgs; $27.95) with only a few minor but frustrating flaws. An experienced and highly engaged hip-hop journalist, Chang does three things particularly well here: he acutely defines hip hop’s relationship to the economic environment that produced it (“If blues culture had developed under the conditions of oppressive, forced labor, hip-hop culture would arise from the conditions of no work”); he chronicles how technological advancements changed the game (“The sound systems democratized pleasure and leisure by making dance entertainment available to the downtown sufferers and strivers”); and he illustrates how other cultural products—reggae and Spike Lee joints, Enter the Dragon and Beat Street, b-boy dancing and train art—shaped hip hop’s growth.

While Chang is well armed with juicy quotes from the major players (Chuck D: “Our interviews were better than most people’s shows”; Ice T: “Rap is really funny, man. But if you don’t see that it’s funny, it will scare the shit out of you”), he seems less interested in giving fair voice to those ‘the man’ men who hip-hoppers felt like they were up against. The book would’ve gained from more first-person commentary by authorities—be they police involved with newsworthy riots and raids or public officials trying to deal with the problems created by graffiti—who are often made to look like one-dimensional squares who don’t get it.

This aside, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop is fascinating reading. The story of hip hop’s international rise has many of the same elements of other stories of artistic creation: scrappy, outsider artists trying to handle their entry into the system; the public’s screw-that reaction to new styles (it happened to Stravinsky and Grandmaster Flash); and the artists themselves trying to play the game but stay true to themselves. 

For the young and forming Chuck D, this last element was a source of great inner conflict. When Def Jam president Rick Rubin came calling, Chuck D responded this way: “Mom! Tell him I’m not home. Tell him I don’t wanna make no stupid goddamn records!” With such urgency and skills, why would Chuck say no? “Yo I need to make some radical moves. And that’s not radical enough.”

Soon enough, of course, Chuck D would respond in the way pioneering artists did before him: by remaking the game itself.