Thursday, December 5, 1996

An Interview with Tobias Wolff

An interview with Tobias Wolff, discussing his book The Night in Question
Published December 5th, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

This Boy’s Stories
Writer Tobias Wolff Discusses New Collection

By Tobias Wolff
Knopf, $25.00

Although Tobias Wolff is primarily known for his memoirs This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army, he initially emerged as a short story writer. Raymond Carver called his 1985 debut collection, Back in the World, “an occasion for which we should be grateful,” dubbing Wolff “a young master.” Since Back in the World, Wolff has published two memoirs, one short novel (The Barracks Thief), and two more short story collections, including the recently released The Night in Question.

The new collection extends Wolff’s already formidable mastery of the short story form. Stories such as “Bullet in the Brain,” which delves into the memory of a smart-ass book reviewer at the moment of his death, and “Lady’s Dream,” which blurs the line between dream and reality as a woman remembers her courtship, stretch the limits of the form to terrific lengths.

Speaking from his hotel room in Seattle—which is not far from Concrete, the town he immortalized in This Boy’s Life—Wolff elaborated on his unique approach to short fiction.

The Story “Bullet in the Brain” is very different from your other work. How did it come about?

Why did I write that story? Because it surprised me. I think that I wasn’t really planning to write that story. I got hit by lightning or something when I was writing that story. The second half of the story came to me not as part of the original conception of the story but in the writing of it. It was originally intended to be something different. As happens, I think, when writers are at their best, I was kind of ambushed in the process of writing that story, and my idea was hijacked by some other—I can only call it inspiration—that came to me in the writing, and I just let it rip, basically. Something takes over, and you have to let it lead you—perhaps where you didn’t intend to go. But when that happens to writers, they should definitely surrender.

That switch in the middle is amazing. A lot of your stuff is pretty spatial, pretty in the real, and this one really goes inside—almost stream of consciousness. Is this something that you’re trying to explore, or did it just happen?

Well, I’m obviously open to it happening, or it wouldn’t have happened. Yeah, I’m very interested in pushing the story form to whatever limits I can push it to. And this seemed to offer a way of exploring the form in a different way than I had before. And I liked the feeling, and I’m open to doing it again. It was a lot of fun writing that story.

I think of Umberto Eco’s quote about wanting to poison a monk—had you just been wanting to shoot a book reviewer?

Yeah, I won’t deny that there was a little bit of, shall we say, puckish ill will intended in that story, and a return for services rendered.

You actually got a bad review?

I’ve been very gently treated by reviewers, but a lot of friends of mine have been roughed up very badly and very deeply hurt—one of them to the point where she stopped writing, for years and years. I’m not going to name her, but she was one of the pre-eminent short story writers in this country, and she was savaged on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. And she simply stopped writing. Writers are very fragile people, most of them. It isn’t that reviewers shouldn’t be honest, that’s not it, but some of them take pleasure in cruelty. And there’s almost a hatred of writing in some of their reviews. There aren’t that many of them who are like that—there are just a few. And at the same time I have to say that I recognize—I just couldn’t have written that story just about someone like that. Then they’d just be a cartoon to me. But I recognize in myself a propensity for that kind of detached and caustic oversight in life—a certain ironic distance, shall we say, from life itself that I don’t like—a quality in me that I recognize and that I recognize in a lot of other writers too. And I think that if you indulge it you can become dangerously detached from life. It’s usually a more spiritual danger, but in this case it becomes a physical danger too. The sort of reviewing habit—that sense that life owes you novelty and originality all the time, that life should be putting on a superior and entertaining performance for you all the time—is a kind of dangerous expectation for the spirit, and in this case, obviously, it becomes a dangerous one physically for the guy.

He seemed to be reading instead of living it.

Exactly—life as text.

But you take this jaded character back to the essence of why he loves language—with his last memories.

Returned him to his source.

This bullet saved him, like in Flannery O’Connor.

Like Flannery O’Connor, yes, the way violence works in her stories sometimes—it can wake people up.

So if there had been someone to rob a bank every minute of his life, he would have been a good man.

That’s right, exactly. It’s funny you say that—I was sitting around with some friends last night, and we were quoting Flannery O’Connor. I came up with that great line of Manley Pointer’s while he’s stealing that girl’s leg, and he’s going down the ladder of the hayloft, leaving her up there, and he says, “You think you’re so smart, ’cause you don’t believe in anything. I’ve been believing in nothing my whole life.”

Your story “Lady’s Dream,” with its mixture of reality and dreams, is different from a lot of stuff you’ve done too.

Sometimes, perhaps, as maybe also comes out in “Bullet in the Brain,” the present can become insubstantial to us. This is a way of figuring the past—and that moment when you perhaps see back to where you might have gone another way, and you imagine yourself back there, and your life has taken a particular turn. I mean I wouldn’t go in a different direction myself, in the way my life has gone, but I know a lot of people would. And I imagine somebody going back to that source moment of the situation they’re in now—and would they do it differently? And this woman, in finding herself there, discovers that she loves this man. And, in a sense, accepts that condition that she’s lived in that she does not like all over again. Usually a dream is an escape. In this story, it becomes almost a kind of renewed commitment.

Your story “Sanity” also features a dysfunctional family that ends up sticking together.

Yeah, [April] manipulates her stepmother into buying the car. Then she has to stay. It’s kind of like that story about Atlas handing the world over to that other fellow, kind of tricking the other strongman into holding the world on his shoulders, so he can get out from under it. And in a way that’s what we do—sanity in this world means a certain calculation sometimes. It’s hard to keep your head above water and to manage things, especially for the young, and this kind of coolness, perhaps, in necessary to survival.

Your story “The Chain” is something of an allegory. I’ve never seen that happen in your stories—I’ve never seen a moral in your stories before.

The moral is so obvious that we know it already. You know what I mean? It’s really a question of following—of being forced psychologically. My project in this story is to make the reader want to do what the guy does—and to follow the psychological process by which someone can commit an irrevocable wrong.

So your plan was to make the reader root for doing these terrible things, these irrational things?

Well, here’s the thing. This story is based on something that happened to me. I had to watch my four-year-old son be savaged by a dog as I ran down a hill. It was just exactly the scene that I described at the beginning of that story, and that dog was on a 100-foot leash, and the police would do nothing about it. And it seemed wrong to me that that dog should be allowed to stay in that yard like that. And I felt morally obliged to do something about that, even if the law wouldn’t help me. And in the end, I didn’t. A friend of mine offered to do it for me, and I wouldn’t finally let him do it. But I could imagine, in a weak moment, in an angry moment, in a moment such as I experienced and could understand if someone else did it, saying, “Yes, take that dog out, because I’ve tried everything else. This dog needs to go.” And what would happen from that moment on, the terrible things that could be set in motion? I mean it’s happening everywhere in the world, isn’t it? Everybody’s trying to get justice. The Bosnians are trying to get justice. The Serbs are trying to get justice. The Hutus and Tutsis are trying to get justice. The Chechnyans are trying to get justice. And one man’s justice is another man’s injustice. So when you start that thing, it doesn’t stop. It’s never stopped, in fact, from the first time. It just goes on and on. We’re caught in this chain, really. It’s our condition. What I’m trying to do is understand it—how even with good intentions, that thing can happen. I don’t consider [Gold] an evil man. I think of Gold as a man not unlike other men I know—trying to work out the best thing to do from a number of very imperfect choices.

In “The Life of the Body,” like in “Bullet in the Brain,” there’s this really self-satisfied character whose world just gets shattered. This seems like something you’re interested in, at least in this collection.

Yes, I am. That’s something stories can do, I think. Just for a moment they can hold up a true picture to a person, to allow them just for a moment, perhaps, to glimpse their real face through that wishful portrait that they carry around in their mind. Though Wiley is a figure not unlike many who profess the life of the mind, it seems to me. There’s a distance between what he professes and how he lives. It is in this story, as stories do—it’s dramatized. Stories are dramatic moments. But I don’t consider him, again, a monster of hypocrisy, or anything like that. His main enemy is himself. You know when he talks about not liking contemporary fiction—the funny thing about that is that I think he would benefit from reading some contemporary fiction. He would learn something about self-scrutiny from it. And the personal life, he’s pretending not to have an interest in that. He finds it more comfortable to indulge in the kind of generalities of a day gone by and to lose himself in a world that no longer exists—and all in the interest of being very high minded. There’s something that he could learn about himself in contemporary fiction that, I think, is symptomatic of his flight from reality. He’s a very familiar figure to me and not a bad figure. I’ve had teachers like him, and they were good teachers, actually. Some of the best teachers I had were people like him. There are traits of that man in myself, or I couldn’t have written that.

—David Wiley

An Interview with Robert Olen Butler

An interview with Robert Olen Butler, discussing his book Tabloid Dreams
Published December 5th, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Elvis Tribe Found!

By Robert Olen Butler
Henry Holt, $22.50

“JFK Secretly Attends Jackie Auction,” “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot,” “Doomsday Meteor is Coming,” “Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed.” Do any of these tabloid headlines sound like subject matter for great literature? To Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler, they do.

Taking his cue from works such as Oedipus the King and Hamlet, Butler works under the premise that if it is to be meaningful, literature has to connect in some way with mass culture.

“I think you can look at the enduring works of great literature and see them in a certain way,” Butler said in an interview during his book-tour stop in Minneapolis. “Take this for instance: ‘King Inadvertently Marries Own Mother, Plucks Out Eyes,’ or ‘Prince Sees Ghost of Dead Father, Who Fingers Own Murderer.’ I haven’t done this systematically yet, but I suspect that every great work of enduring literature in the world can be expressed as a really good tabloid headline.”

Butler’s new collection of stories, Tabloid Dreams, takes twelve such tabloid headlines and explores them in ways that the National Enquirer never imagined. Stories such as “Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover” and “Nine-Year-Old is World’s Youngest Hit Man” are no longer simply third-hand reports of some Albanian scientist’s research. Like the stories in Butler’s last collection, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, they’re real literature inhabited by real characters.

“The themes that were most urgent from A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain,” Butler says, “one could describe as cultural exile, loss, aspiration, the search for self and identity, and those themes were still kicking around in me after I’d finished the book. And one late night a the 24-hour Kroger’s in Lake Charles, near where I live, those themes leaped out and attached themselves while I was standing in line, shifting a cold bottle of milk from hand to hand—they leaped out and attached themselves to one of the headlines down there on that bottom rack. I think that night it was probably ‘Boy Born with Tattoo of Elvis.’ And I suddenly realized that the tabs had consistently been getting the headlines right, but they’d been getting the stories wrong. So this book sets the record straight on a dozen important issue of our time.”

In writing these stories, Butler reclaims some of our culture’s greatest myths. He treats Elvis, the Titanic, and extraterrestrials with the respect they deserve, rescuing them from the banality to which constant exposure has subjected them. Citing the upcoming Broadway musical about the Titanic as a prime example of how amazing things can become little more than a joke, Butler returns the potency to his subjects. People love Elvis, Marilyn, and JFK for a reason, and Butler looks past their superficial treatment in the tabloids to see why these mythical figures elicit such powerful responses in the public.

“I think that this particular penchant in our society, our culture,” Butler says, “is very deeply related to mythology, folklore, urban belief tales, which we know to take seriously. Human beings need to feel as if the intensities of their mundane daily lives are connected to something larger, and we do this by projecting our daily concerns into much larger dramas—peopled by much larger figures or wildly extended circumstances. I think that’s the impulse that creates myths, and it’s an impulse that creates an interest in these kinds of stories.”

The best stories in this collection are the ones that dissect awesome events to find, at their heart, an intense human connection. The story “Doomsday Meteor is Coming” and the sister stories “Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed” and “Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle” portray the intense need for connection that impending doom necessitates.

In the meteor story, two twentysomethings, Linus and Janice, spend the day at a Gen-X “Zima Garden,” where Linus overhears a report about the doomsday meteor. While Linus goes through astonishing levels of existential dread, the oblivious Janice keeps pestering him to get his nipple pierced as a symbol of their commitment. Although her request at first sounds pathetically small in comparison to the weight of the meteor, ultimately Linus decides to go through with it.

“The implication of this story,” Butler says, “is that the imminent end of the world does not drive him to religion or to notions of a higher being. In a way he accepts the randomness, as it were—and recognizes that all he can hold on to is his girlfriend, is this other person here, who is oblivious and remains oblivious, but for whom he makes a serious gesture of connection, to the point of being prepared to mutilate his body. And so the flesh that is so vulnerable to this imminent death he then willingly violates.”

The Titanic pieces may be even better. Probably the collection’s best-written stories, they portray both the immensity of the 1912 tragedy and its effects on two very human characters. But unlike in “Doomsday Meteor is Coming,” the characters in these stories never quite get it.

Butler calls the Titanic “the symbol of man’s technological hubris at the beginning of this century. But ultimately what is most important and what lingers and what literally haunts this disembodied spirit in the first story and the woman in the last has nothing to do with all those grandiose macro things, but indeed has to do with a moment of connection—that Linus has sense enough to seize, but these two people do not, to their everlasting regret.”

For their inability to connect, the man is forever doomed to haunt waterbeds, cups of tea, and toilets, while the woman is doomed to live in an unknown time, with no chance at ever reclaiming her lost connection.

Despite the collection’s frequent zaniness, Tabloid Dream is a very serious look at the way Americans live. Butler does have a lot of fun with them, but he doesn’t make fun of these absurd dramas. He sees them as a way into our collective psyche, and if he’s laughing, he’s laughing with us.

“The jokes in this book all come from inside the characters,” Butler says. “There are no one-liners in these stories. It’s a very funny book, but it’s also as serious a book as I’ve ever written. … A lot of what we call postmodern novel writers have drawn on the popular culture, but they have done it, far too often, from the position of aloofness, scorn—or satire, parody. But I think artists need to get inside the popular culture, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to use these headlines as ways into the enduring themes that artists have always been concerned with.”

With HBO turning the book into a series, Butler is truly interacting with the popular culture, giving as much back to it as he has taken from it. This is the function of a sincere mythmaker, and Butler succeeds, although in different ways than the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen, in making the seemingly outlandish cultural phenomena come alive in a very real and useful way. But like those writers, Butler looks to be in this for the long haul.

“I’ve got so many other headlines that are exciting me still,” Butler says. “I have a hunch I’m gonna write another book of these. I’ll probably call it More Tabloid Dreams Found on Mars.”

—David Wiley

Thursday, October 31, 1996

An Interview with Larry Brown

An interview with Larry Brown, discussing his book Father and Son.
Published October 31st, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Shades of Brown

By Larry Brown
Algonquin, $22.95

Back in the 1950s, nobody knew who Flannery O’Connor really was. Her powerful, grotesque, and unforgiving stories burned themselves into the reader, and only a few close friends knew she was a quiet little Catholic woman from Milledgeville, Georgia. Like O’Connor before him, novelist Larry Brown writes with an intensity that’s sometimes nearly unbearable. And like O’Connor, Brown’s private bearing belies his frightening literary presence. With an easy laugh and a quiet, unassuming charm, Brown hardly seems the fiery, unflinching literary persona that has gained so much attention in the past few years.

Brown’s last novel, Joe, evokes such a pathos for his characters that it almost transcended fiction. In his novel before that, Dirty Work, which focused on the aftermath of Vietnam, Brown took on God himself. His new novel, Father and Son, lives up both to Brown’s literary reputation and to its portentous title.

A dark, disturbing look at a small southern town in the late 1960s, Father and Son follows the troubled Glen Davis on a rampage through the other characters’ lives and deaths. Fresh out of the state pen for an alcohol-related vehicular homicide, Glen takes up old loves and hatreds where he thinks he’s left them, but as his ex-lover Jewel says, “Things has changed.”

“I like to start off with a character in trouble,” Brown said in an interview during his book-tour stop in Minneapolis, “and see where it leads. That’s where I start all my stories, with a character, and I like to follow them around, see what happens, and eventually it leads to some kind of conclusion I didn’t know was coming.”

Glen begins as a character similar to the main character of Joe—a flawed but essentially sympathetic character in trouble. But Brown takes the familiar misunderstood rebel theme and stretches it to its breaking point. His first night back, Glen kills Barlow, a slimy bar owner he sees as the reason for his prison sentence. Then he goes on to rape a young woman he picks up around town, all the while ignoring his responsibilities to Jewel and to his four-year-old son, David.

“I wanted to see if I could create an even less sympathetic character than Joe, but still make you care about him,” Brown says. “I wanted to have this nasty guy with almost no redeeming qualities, but make you look at his past, what made him the way he is—and maybe not like him, but at least see where he’s coming from.”

This isn’t easy, but as Glen increases in his evil intensity, the reality of his circumstances makes him understandable, if not sympathetic. Brown’s greatest talent lies in his ability to get inside different characters’ heads, and with Glen he succeeds in creating a horrific, warped mind that's entirely believable—even inevitable.

As the reader’s hopes turn away from Glen, the characters he sees as his enemies rise to take his place. The novel’s beginning paints Glen’s father, Virgil, as a worthless drunk, but as Glen’s credibility shrinks, Virgil’s character gains in richness. Bobby Blanchard, the town’s lawman and Jewel’s new suitor, also slowly shifts in the reader’s sympathy. From seeming like little more than the ominous and antagonistic face of law, Bobby ultimately ends up as one of the novel’s most genuinely likable characters.

“I didn’t know any of these things was gonna happen,” Brown says. “I just had this idea of a guy coming back home after being in prison—coming back and going to the cemetery right away to see his mama. I brought in Bobby’s character in the cemetery, but I didn’t know how tied up he was gonna get, how much he has to do with Glen’s story.”

As the novel progresses, the relationships become more and more intertwined. The reader slowly learns that Virgil dated Bobby’s mother, Mary, before World War II, and that Bobby and Glen are half-brothers. Hence the Dostoyevskian rivalry. Interestingly, Brown discovered these relationships at about the same time the reader does:

“I kind of figured it out when I was looking at Virgil and Mary’s pasts,” Brown says, “and as Mary became a more important character, the relationship just sprung up—and it made a lot of sense. It also made the tension between Glen and Bobby more understandable.”

Plenty of other things arose—and fell away—as Brown wrote Father and Son:

“Originally, it was gonna be a novel about the Civil Rights situation in the ’60s,” Brown says, “and Vietnam too. I grew up with segregation, and I wanted to write something about what it was like, but those things got pushed aside as Glen’s story got going. It just turned into a story about these characters instead.”

Still, Brown keeps a keen eye on the novel’s race relations. He paints a subtle portrait of the small southern town (based on his own town just outside of Oxford, Mississippi), and the levels of power are apparent, even if they aren’t the novel’s focus.

Brown creates the town and its inhabitants so organically that, even just a few pages into the book, the reader develops a mental map of its layout. As with the best fiction set in small towns—Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio or Peter Hedges’ What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, for instance—Father and Son succeeds in making you think you’re there.

“I keep an eye on the things you see every day,” Brown says, “the roads, the trees, the wind on the grass, the rise and fall of the water. Without that stuff you don’t really get a good sense of place.”

Even compared to the awesome power of Joe and the hilarious pain of his second story collection, Big Bad Love, Brown outdoes himself in Father and Son. His sense of detail is at its peak, and the writing itself achieves a new level of poetry for Brown.

“I sure do like a pretty sentence,” he says. And with his uncanny gift for evoking the humanity—and inhumanity—of his characters, Brown builds the narrative with layer upon layer of penetrating and, at times, heart-stopping lyricism.

William Faulkner (who shares Brown’s hometown), upon deciding to become a writer, noted that it was a fine thing to be able to create a man who has a shadow. Larry Brown’s writing embraces this notion of real characters whose lives hold true consequence, and with every sentence, Brown makes his characters actually live. With such nuanced attention to the things that make us human, Father and Son confidently places Brown among this country’s finest contemporary writers.

—David Wiley

Thursday, October 24, 1996

The Cattle Killing, by John Edgar Wideman

A review of The Cattle Killing, by John Edgar Wideman
Published October 24th, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

’Til the Cows Come Home

By John Edgar Wideman
Houghton Mifflin, $22

A two-time winner of the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction, the novelist, short story writer, essayist, and memoirist John Edgar Wideman never ceases to astonish. His challenging, experimental novels, along with his occasional appearances on National Public Radio, have left an indelible mark on America’s artistic and social consciousness.

Wideman released his last book, Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, in 1994, but he hasn’t published any fiction since 1990, when his masterful Philadelphia Fire won him his second PEN/Faulkner award. So his new novel, The Cattle Killing, arrives amid a flurry of critical expectation.

The novel’s title refers to the South African Xhosa’s infamous 1856 cattle killing. The Xhosa were a peaceful, agrarian people whose livelihoods depended on their cattle, but with the Europeans invading physically, intellectually, and religiously, the tribe reached a moment of truth. In a fit of hysteria, Nongqawuse, the daughter of a tribal priest, received a vision ordering the Xhosa to kill all their cattle.

Wideman recounts the words of the prophecy:

Spread my message to all the clans, daughter. Bid them hear me well. This evil world is dying. A new one is on its way. The whites will be driven out. The ancestors will return and dwell again on the earth, bringing with them endless herds of cattle to fill our kraals.

But only those who kill all their cattle will be welcomed in this new world. The people must kill their cattle now if they wish to live forever in peace and harmony when their ancestors return.

Although this act meant suicide for the Xhosa, they eventually saw that they had no other earthly chance against the encroaching whites. And while not all of them followed the prophecy, they ultimately destroyed 400,000 of their cattle, causing a famine that killed more than 40,000 Xhosa.

Wideman uses this episode as the centerpiece of The Cattle Killing, and even though the novel’s main action takes place in eighteenth-century Philadelphia, the narrative circles around it, drawing the various characters in toward it.

Framing the novel with a kind of metafictional meditation, Wideman himself is drawn into this spiral as a character. Within this frame, however, the real narrator, an unnamed former slave turned itinerant preacher, takes over as the novel’s central intelligence. The preacher begins by explaining that he has visions (probably brought on by epilepsy) that take him to unimaginable planes of consciousness, giving him an almost godlike clarity. But the visions invariably give way to violent, horrific fits that cause him to lose track of time.

The narrative shifts constantly, and it’s never really clear whom the preacher’s addressing when he’s speaking. He tells his story in first, second, and third person, and, if that isn’t confusing enough, as the novel progresses, other voices arise to fill the gaps that he leaves. His main audience seems to be one of two incarnations of an African maid whom he meets on his way to Philadelphia. When he first comes across her, she’s fleeing the plague-ridden city with a dead white baby, and he watches her carry it into a lake and disappear forever.

Upon reaching Philadelphia (where he aims to help fight the plague), he hears rumors of her story and finds that the whites believe the blacks to be not only immune to the plague, but to be its cause. He pieces together the rumors to find that a prominent white family had expelled her from their quarantined home because their child became sick. They forced her to take the child outside the city to die, and thus begins the spiral of events that follow (or, rather, lead up to) her encounter with the preacher.

If all of this sounds perplexing, it probably doesn’t cover a fifth of The Cattle Killing’s layered storytelling. The preacher tells his story to his audience, who tells her own story, and within their stories, their memories tell their own stories. But it all leads to one culminating central image: the cattle killing.

A parable encompassing hundreds of years of racial horror, The Cattle Killing succeeds on a level that exceeds even mythmaking to become truth. Wideman’s prose sears, using the written word to transform the horror of history into something beautiful. Reaffirming the regenerative power of storytelling, The Cattle Killing leaves the reader exhausted but inspired:

Tell me, finally, what is a man. What is a woman. Aren’t we lovers first, spirits sharing an uncharted space, a space our stories tell, a space enchanted, written upon again and again, yet one story never quite erased by the next, each story saving the space, saving itself, saving us. If someone is listening.

The New Republic calls Wideman “our leading black male writer.” While this is certainly true, it’s like calling Franz Kafka the greatest German Jewish writer from Czechoslovakia, or Aretha Franklin the greatest female soul singer. Of course it’s absurd to separate Wideman’s writing from his race and culture, but such appellations, however accurate, miss the point. Wideman’s body of work, especially this novel, distinguishes him as one of the greatest writers—and minds—of our time.

—David Wiley

Thursday, October 17, 1996

The Life of God (as Told by Himself), by Franco Ferrucci

A review of The Life of God (as Told by Himself), by Franco Ferrucci
Published October 17th, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Heaven is a Place Where
Nothing Ever Happens

By Franco Ferrucci
University of Chicago Press, $22

Question: In all of Western literature, what character is the most widely scrutinized, admired, deplored, and debated? Who, finding a way into nearly every novel, story, and essay, resounds more widely and more deeply than any other? (Hint: It’s not Holden Caulfield) Why, God, of course—Yahweh, Allah, Jehovah, the Big G Himself.

Whether playing the all-powerful (if inconsistently characterized) war god in the Hebrew Scriptures, the resplendent deity in Dante’s Paradiso, or the petty technocrat in Carol Hill’s The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer, God just won’t stay out of our literature.

Now, Italian writer and critic Franco Ferrucci takes Him on again in his new novel, The Life of God (as Told by Himself). The book originally came out in Italian in 1986, drawing raves from the Italian critics—notably Umberto Eco—and Ferrucci has finally translated it, with the help of the now late Raymond Rosenthal, into English.

Drawing mostly from the Bible and Classical literature, Ferrucci re-imagines the often misconstrued (and always male) deity as a kind of clueless schlemiel. He has little power—He can create, but He can’t control—and He can’t seem to get a grip on His own existence.

In this account, the rhetoric of the vengeful, petty God of the Pentateuch (and latter-day evangelists) proves inaccurate; this God is more interested in understanding His universe than lording over it. He’s just like us: He ponders creation; He falls in Love; He gets depressed, even suicidal. The Bible got a few things right, though: God has a terrible memory, and He’s often so wrapped up in Himself that He misses great lengths of earthly history:

For long stretches at a time I forget that I am God. But then, memory isn’t my strong suit. It comes and goes with a will of its own.

The last time it came back to me I was sunk in one of those late-winter depressions. Then one night I switched on the television set, and a fire of events burst before my eyes.

Jumping in and out of history at will, God meets all the big names—Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Dante, Einstein—and gives the reader a full lowdown on each. He views Moses as more of a bureaucrat than a prophet and deplores the absurd list of rules he sets out as holy writ. And although God admits Jesus as His son (Catholics beware: It’s not exactly an immaculate conception), He sees no real reason why Jesus has to martyr himself.

But the novel’s subtle layering causes God’s criticism of these visionaries to fall back on Himself. He simply wants people to be happy, to enjoy the wonders of His universe, but He hasn’t equipped them for happiness or understanding. He can’t even be happy Himself. So it’s up to Moses to find a way of making sense of the world, even if it’s through petty rules and regulations.

Jesus also emerges vindicated, even though he’s more of a trickster and manipulator than a deity. He sees humanity’s need for a savior and provides a tangible—if slightly bogus—connection to the mysterious, which is more than the philosophically paralyzed God ever does.

Still, despite His shortcomings, God comes off as a pretty decent fellow. He doesn’t demand that we kill each other over holy land, condemn the so-called immoral, or even go to church. He simply asks that we try to get along and enjoy what He’s given us. Interestingly, this attitude sounds a lot like secular humanism, which, coming from God, may be one of the richest and most instructive ironies in religious literature.

This novel’s great triumph, however, is its terrifying and illuminating re-evaluation of traditional eschatology. Achieving nearly Biblical resonance, The Life of God (as Told by Himself) brilliantly depicts the growing incompatibility between God and His creation. Ferrucci has produced a near-masterpiece of anti-apocalyptic prophecy.

—David Wiley

Drown, by Junot Díaz

A review of Drown, by Junot Díaz
Published October 17th, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

By Junot Díaz
Riverhead Books, $21.95

Junot Díaz’s debut collection, Drown, arrives at an interesting time in the history of the English language. With Congress pushing for an “English-only” state, and with conservative word-hawks like William Safire trying to keep the language from expanding, Díaz’s Spanglish comes on like a wake-up call for America’s tired ears and tongues.

Drown mixes English and Spanish street dialect to create some of the finest, most sublime prose this side of the Atlantic:

When times were real flojo, when the last colored bill flew out of Mami’s purse, she packed us off to our relatives. She’d use Wilfredo’s father’s phone to make the calls early in the morning. Lying next to Rafa, I’d listen to her soft, unhurried requests and pray that our relatives would tell her to vete pa’ carajo but that never happened in Santo Domingo.

The collection follows one boy, Yunior, through his childhood in the Dominican Republic, his adolescence in Nueva York, and his eventual exploration of his family’s past. Díaz accentuates this cyclical pattern with radical shifts in his storytelling approach: He writes the first seven stories in first person, with Yunior as the narrator, and in the eighth story Yunior narrates in second person. And in the last two stories, Yunior narrates mostly in third person, seemingly taking the writing duties away from Díaz.

Like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in reverse, Drown circles into the past to find his character’s voice. And what a voice it is. This collection marks the arrival of a major new talent.

—David Wiley

Thursday, October 3, 1996

Behind Closed Doors, by Alina Reyes

A review of Behind Closed Doors, by Alina Reyes
Published October 3rd, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

And Behind Door No. 1…

By Alina Reyes
Grove Press, $22

Do you sometimes feel like you’re a character in a novel? Do you dream, like Madame Bovary, that thousands of eyes watch your every move and that some benevolent author has planned a series of enlightening adventures for you? Then maybe you’re the protagonist of Alina Reyes’ new novel, Behind Closed Doors.

Billed as “an adventure in which you are the hero (or heroine),” Behind Closed Doors contains two sections, male and female, and the reader can choose to be either. The novel has two beginnings, one at each cover, so the male and female readers read toward each other.

Reyes seems to have gotten much of the inspiration for this structure from Milorad Pavić, whose first novel, Dictionary of the Khazars, exists in male and female versions, and whose latest work, The Novel of Hero and Leander, was written toward the center from both ends. To this Reyes adds a device borrowed from Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch—within each section, the reader chooses the paths that most please him or her, creating a new story with each reading. Each section (or gender) offers four or five possible endings and an almost infinite variation of stories.

Reyes, however, adds her own wrinkle to the mix. Rather than writing the novel in second person, telling the reader what he or she does, she uses first person, making the reading feel more like a recitation or a memory than a novel. With the reader as the “I,” the novel seems more intimate and less separated from the reader. The device also strengthens the reader’s feeling of autonomy, making the stories seem less ordained by the writer.

At each section’s beginning, the reader stops at a traveling circus and enters a funhouse of sorts called “The doors of Eros.” Within these doors the brave adventurer finds every variation of erotic fantasy, and the paths follow the reader’s sexual and intellectual desires. Along the way, a male reader finds nurses, secretaries, ogresses, amputees, ghosts, and hermaphrodite angels to fulfill his desires. The woman finds pirates, Black Knights, firemen, kilt-wearing bagpipe players, and even an aged version of herself. Both sexes find innumerable voyeuristic opportunities for self-abuse—glass doors, hidden portals, conveniently placed hotel windows—and this voyeurism seems at first to be the whole point of the novel.

There’s much more to this than erotic pleasure, though. Just when all the bumping and grinding starts to sound repetitive, each story funnels through a middle section called “The Exchange.” Here the stories take on a more serious tone, because instead of finding another sexual partner, the reader/protagonist meets the author. In this exchange the protagonist and author discuss the nature of writing, reading, desire, and free will, illuminating Reyes’ motives as an author and provoking the reader to examine why he or she reads—and lives.

Here the reader makes the choices that affect the final outcome of the story. And despite the illusion of free will, here Reyes writes with the heaviest hand. Of the possible endings, Reyes obviously favors the choice of commitment to an idealized “true love.” All other endings leave the reader pathetically alone and unhappy, as if love were the answer to all of life’s problems.

Reyes’ slight puritanical streak is not this novel’s only shortcoming, either. Even with the wacky innovations in structure and the variety of Reyes’ sexual imagination, the novel often reads like a Penthouse letter. Lacking any kind of lyrical edge—even in its most inspired and riotous moments—the novel simply reports the mechanics of sex.

With little or no poetry in her erotica, the intimacy that Reyes so strategically renders loses much of its immediacy. She sets up the most amazing scenarios—two women and a battalion of firefighters, acrobatic sex under the big-top, even sex with the reader’s own shadow—but the pedestrian language mars the whole effect.

Often lapsing unwittingly into silliness, Reyes uses phrases like “hard pine cone” and “rod” to describe a penis and “crack” and “shell” to describe a vagina. The reader often ends up more amused at the situation than aroused or enlightened.

Still, Behind Closed Doors offers much to the adventurous reader. If only for Reyes’ treatise on the nature of authorship, authority, and individual will, this novel is well worth reading. Well, maybe that and the great cross-dressing scene….

—David Wiley

The Enchantmentof Lily Dahl, by Siri Hustvedt

A review of The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, by Siri Hustvedt
Published October 3rd, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

By Siri Hustvedt
Henry Holt, $23

Northfield, Minnesota native Siri Hustvedt stunned the international literary community with her experimental 1992 novel, The Blindfold. Now Hustvedt returns with a much more conventional second novel, The Enchantment of Lili Dahl.

Set in the small town of Webster, Minnesota (a fictionalization of Northfield, says Hustvedt), the novel draws a motley cast of small-town characters into a sensational web of obsession and violence.

The protagonist, the beautiful ingénue Lili Dahl, works in the Ideal Cafe and spends her nights as Hermia in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Soon she enters into an affair with an exotic stranger, Ed Shapiro, a painter transplanted from New York. At the same time, Lily develops a strange interest in the 1932 murder of Helen Bodler, and a reclusive, stuttering weirdo named Martin Petersen (who plays Cobweb in the play) starts to show his interest in Lily.

The coincidence of all this happening at once seems thoroughly unlikely, and the contrived tensions build to a climax that’s straight out of Hollywood.

Hustvedt has an astonishing eye for characterization, though, drawing a wholly believable and memorable cast, and it’s frustrating to see them wasted on such a hokey plot. Despite her descent into the novel’s ersatz drama, Lily remains  an intriguing combination of quaintness and transcendent wisdom. Her inarticulate genius shines even through the silliest, most unbelievable circumstances.

Hustvedt also strings interesting motifs through this flawed novel. With Lily and Martin Petersen acting out a drama on and off stage, and with Martin’s psychotic final public display, the novel cleverly skirts the line between reality and the stage, between life and art.

—David Wiley

Friday, August 16, 1996

An Interview with Kevin Canty

An interview with Kevin Canty, discussing his book Into the Great Wide Open
Published August 16th, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Even the Losers
Into the Great Wide Open Explores Teen Life

By Kevin Canty
Doubleday, $21.95

Does America really need another coming-of-age story? Cynics will say no: Everything about growing up has been said in Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Although these classics still resonate deeply, modern life changes so rapidly that our writers have to scramble to interpret the ever-evolving experience of adolescence.

As a consequence, the last decade has seen a glut of novels and memoirs dealing with the subject. Some are good; a few are great: Tom Perrotta’s Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, to mention two. Short story writer and novelist Kevin Canty adds to this growing field, bringing a valuable new voice.

His first story collection, A Stranger in this World, features some of the most memorable and, at times, disturbing views of modern adolescence. In the story “Blue Boy,” the main character, a lifeguard named Kenny, almost allows a boy to drown because he’s too stoned to notice. Another character, Paul from “Pretty Judy,” finds himself seducing an attractive retarded woman, not knowing whether his actions are right or wrong.

“I guess if I had one subject that overrides a lot of these [stories],” Canty said in an interview during his book-tour stop in Minneapolis, “it would be identity—looking for an identity. ‘Who am I? How do I put a self together?’ And once you’ve constructed yourself, you do something that your constructed self can’t recognize. How do you assimilate that? ‘I’m a good person; I’m not that kind of person.’ And yet you did that; and yet you caused that. What do you do when you don’t know yourself anymore? Those are the moments I’m really interested in.”

Canty’s characters constantly redefine themselves because of changing situations. The main character of Canty’s new novel, Into the Great Wide Open, is a revised version of the Kenny in “Blue Boy,” and he struggles to adapt himself to his problematic seventeen-year-old mind and body.

Jaded, overly analytical, and way too cool for words, Kenny plays a kind of stoned Holden Caulfield. At the novel’s start, he meets Junie on a “Liberal Religious Youth” weekend retreat that their parents have forced them to attend. The two quickly pair off, and during the next nine months they become each other’s repository for pain, jealousy, and, sometimes, love.

If all this sounds too familiar, well, that’s the point. Canty hits all the hot spots: teen sexuality, familial neglect, alcoholism, suicide attempts, and, of course, pregnancy. But Canty treats these subjects with a rare insight—and sense of humor—achieving a level of immediacy that jars the reader into recognition.

Written in the third person—but limited to Kenny’s field of vision—Into the Great Wide Open explores adolescent self-perceptions and the ways in which teens reconcile this vision with their skewed worldview. The novel follows Kenny’s thought processes, going into his mind to record his observations, which are often faulty.

“A lot of times these things happen,” Canty says, “and [Kenny] doesn’t see it. There’s this delayed decoding, where he’ll only figure out later, ‘Oh, that’s what was really going on.’ In my life, often, the important things happen, and I don’t really realize it at the time. It’s only later, in some kind of retrospect [that things make sense]. But Kenny’s so jammed up in terms of experience—a lot of times he’s really running on instinct. He doesn’t quite know why he’s doing things, and he keeps making judgments about himself, and about half of them are wrong.”

But Kenny keeps trying, sounding out different versions of his imagined self in his head. He goes through several drafts of each observation, and Canty uses intricate and often hilarious wordplay to record these thoughts. As Kenny struggles to find the words, he gets nearer to his own truths and to his own identity.

“I guess I believe in language as a means of controlling the world,” Canty says. “Whether you’re a writer or a cement block salesman, finding a word that’s adequate to your situation—finding out, ‘Oh, yeah. That’s what I am’ or ‘That’s what this is’—is a really fascinating process.”

This attempt at self-mastery through language recalls James Joyce’s A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. The wordplay, the excursions into the character’s consciousness, and Kenny’s megalomania all resemble Joyce’s treatment of the young Stephen Dedalus. But unlike Stephen, Kenny is not based on the author’s own younger self.

“I don’t think he’s autobiographical,” Canty says. “You take snippets of your own life. You have to, because this is the only experience of being a human being that I’m ever going to have. So you’ve got to base it somewhere. And a lot of the furniture of adolescent life in [the novel] is similar to my own high school catastrophe. … I dropped out of high school. I was kind of a disreputable jerk. But he’s really a made-up character. … It’s all just lies.”

Canty ends the novel on an odd note, leaving Kenny in a situation that’s as ambiguous as it is final. The question looms for the reader: What will Kenny do with his life? With Kenny’s gift for words, the most obvious future for him would be as a writer, but Canty was reluctant to give such an easy answer.

“I don’t know,” Canty says. “In some sense, I’ve deliberately left his world past the end of the book unexplored…. This wordplay makes me think he’s somebody who could be engaged by [writing], but I kind of left his future up for grabs.”

—David Wiley

Friday, August 2, 1996

Snakebite Sonnet, by Max Phillips

A review of Snakebite Sonnet, by Max Phillips
Published August 2nd, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Venom Wearin’ Denim
Max Phillips Stuns with Debut Snakebite Sonnet

Snakebite Sonnet
By Max Phillips
Little, Brown, $22.95

In the first chapter of Max Phillip’s debut novel, Snakebite Sonnet, the ten-year-old protagonist, Nick Wertheim, attempts to suck the snake venom out of the nineteen-year-old Julia Turrell’s leg. “If Julia had to die for me to suck her leg,” he thinks, “then it was worth it. I’d die too, of course; fair’s fair… I couldn’t bear to spit Julia’s blood on the ground, so I swallowed, thinking, Better Not.”

Although the snakebite wasn’t poisonous, this scene introduces perfectly Nick’s obsession with the venomous Julia. A stranger to Nick’s halcyon childhood, Julia dazzles with her fast lifestyle—her wild clothes, her poetry, her lovers—and Nick is snared at first glance: “The first time I saw Julia, I wanted to lie down with her, though I was 10 years old and had no idea why I wanted to lie down with her, or what I might do about it once I had.”

What follows are twenty-one years of sheer agony, in which Nick plays puppy dog to the oblivious Julia. He misses out on all of life’s normal milestones, because Julia’s overwhelming predominance in his life eclipses all other influences. Because he meets her before puberty, she marks his sexual awakenings, and all his future desires entail her. He never learns to fall in and out of love; he never learns to be independent; and although he goes through all the motions, he never develops a wholly singular identity.

Although Nick’s obsession is the central issue, Phillips never allows Snakebite Sonnet to fall into the monotone that obsession so easily brings. The novel is intense but also subtle, building and layering to create a vision of human weakness that transcends Nick’s single narrative voice. Phillips employs innumerable visual and tactile cues—snakes, sisters, and lots of sex—sending the reader deeper and deeper into novel: farther, in fact, than Nick’s own understanding of the story.

Perhaps Phillips’ most interesting accomplishment is the novel’s intricate construction. Arranged into fourteen chapters, Snakebite Sonnet is both a poem and a novel. A line from Julia’s “Snakebite” sonnet heads each chapter, and it’s difficult to separate cause and effect: Because Julia gives Nick her sonnet, does the sonnet dictate the novel’s structure, or vice versa. Like Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, which uses a similar device, Snakebite Sonnet is an intricate game with endlessly circling signifiers. But the game’s power is never overshadowed by technical cleverness.

Although this novel’s overt narrative deals exclusively with memory, it’s ultimately about redemption; it’s about the future and how to move into it. But it’s not an easy redemption, nor an ideal one. Nick knows he’ll never fully recover from Julia, and like a heroin addict, he “chooses life” at the cost of a great compromise.

With its 300 pages of anguish and frustration, this novel’s overall effect is draining. It leaves a void in the reader’s mind and heart, but this void—like the dull ache of loss—is more welcome than any answer that the novel could possibly give.

Like his character Julia, Phillips amazes with his luxury and extravagance. His narrative resources and poetic gifts are already fully formed, making Snakebite Sonnet one of the finest and most heartbreaking debuts in recent memory. The only problem is that this novel is so good, so exhausting, and so all-encompassing that it’s hard to imagine anything beyond it.

—David Wiley

Friday, July 19, 1996

Fame & Folly, by Cynthia Ozick

A review of Fame & Folly, by Cynthia Ozick
Published July 19th, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Faulty Towers
Ozick Exposes Folly of Literature’s Greats

By Cynthia Ozick
Knopf, $21 

In her new collection of essays, Fame & Folly, Cynthia Ozick writes that her favorite book by Anthony Trollope is The Way We Live Now, his thirty-third novel out of forty-seven, because it’s his longest—952 pages. About herself she writes that she “has not written enough”—just under 2,000 published pages in thirty years—and that she “is little-known or not known at all, relegated to marginality, absent from the authoritative anthologies that dictate which writers matter.”

Yet despite her “marginality” and the sparseness of her oeuvre, she’s one of the finest writers and critics of our time. She doesn’t need forty-seven novels (although they would certainly be welcome), because in those 2,000 pages she’s written such gem-like masterpieces as Levitation, The Shawl, and The Messiah of Stockholm.

Like her idols Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz, Ozick combines traditional Jewish history and mythology with fabulous technical innovation, creating a literature that’s both forward- and backward-looking. Her “Puttermesser” series of short stories rewrites the creation myth, weaving a modern New York sensibility into the ancient “golem” tales, and her chilling story “The Shawl” and its follow-up, “Rosa,” portray the awesome void created by the Holocaust.

Along with her masterful authorial presence, Ozick also brings an astute literary and social consciousness. A champion of “high art” and an espouser of her own self-styled feminism, Ozick writes about literature and history with equal doses of passion, humor, and awe. She balks at nothing—T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism, Henry James’ existential dread, her own obscurity—and her erudition allows her an almost omniscient view of whatever subject she chooses.

Her essay “Eliot at 101,” from Fame & Folly, examines Eliot’s phenomenal rise and fall from public favor. Unabashedly stating that Eliot was the center of her literary apprenticeship, Ozick describes him at his height as “pure zenith, a colossus, nothing less than a permanent luminary fixed in the firmament like the sun and the moon.” He filled football stadiums—the University of Minnesota’s football stadium, to be exact: 14,000 seats—with adoring fans of his poetry and of his “New Criticism.”

Eliot’s readers rebelled against Wordsworthian tradition in favor of Modernism, but “the young who gave homage to Eliot,” writes Ozick, “were engaged in a self-contradictory double maneuver: They were willingly authoritarian even as they jubilantly rebelled… they were ready to fall on their knees to a god. A god, moreover, who despised free-thinking, democracy, and secularism; the very conditions of anti-authoritarianism.”

By now the god has fallen: Nobody’s interested in Eliot’s fascist apologetics or his rigid criticism anymore. But his fall seems to have ushered in a loss of popular interest in “high art.” No writer could possibly fill a football stadium now, and Ozick mourns this loss. “What we will probably go on missing forever,” she writes, “is that golden cape of our youth, the power and prestige of high art.”

Other essays in Fame & Folly, notably “What Henry James Knew,” “Mark Twain’s Vienna,” and “Isaac Babel and the Identity Question,” discuss the relationship between what Ozick calls “fame and folly.” James’ ambition and ego were driven by intense insecurities; Twain was momentarily anti-Semitic; Babel rode with the Red Cossacks—yet critics treat these artists as holy. As with Eliot, Ozick reveres the writers but doesn’t agree with their mystification. As Ozick’s essay “Rushdie in the Louvre” argues, mysticism in at the very heart of fanaticism and authoritarianism, and this fascinating and accomplished collection of essays does great service in holding great art up for all to behold while allowing the artists under discussion to remain merely human. Ozick may not be in danger of being idolized by anyone other than me, but this book succeeds brilliantly at rising up as a work of high art while remaining tethered to a very humble and very earth-bound author.

—David Wiley

Cross Channel, by Julian Barnes

A review of Cross Channel, by Julian Barnes
Published July 19th, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Changing Channels
English Novelist Crosses Over with
Short Stories About French

By Julian Barnes
Knopf, $21

Born in 1946, Julian Barnes was a late bloomer. He published his first novel—the fine, if conventional, Metroland—in 1980, and has been turning out novel after novel, each more brilliant than the last, ever since. His third book, Flaubert’s Parrot—a combination biography, novel, literary critique, and critique of literary critique—was hailed by critics as the greatest novelistic innovation since Nabokov’s Pale Fire. With these accomplishments, Barnes has established himself as one of the masters of the novel. His newest book, however, Cross Channel, is a collection of short stories and finds him far out of his element.

Comprising ten loosely connected stories, Cross Channel addresses Barnes’—and England’s—obsession with France. This obsession colors much of Barnes’ earlier work, and Cross Channel deals directly with the questions of language, culture, and religion at the heart of British and French discourse.

As always, Barnes’ scholarship is formidable. Ranging from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries, Cross Channel takes up everything from Catholic missionary soldiers to bridge building to bicycling to winemaking, and as with Flaubert’s Parrot, Barnes delved heavily into journals, newspapers, and correspondence to write these stories. The results can be perplexing, especially to monolingual Americans, but at times they can also be deeply gratifying.

The richest of these stories, “Hermitage,” is a moving treatise on love and winemaking in fin-de-siècle France. Two British women, Emily and Florence, are fed up with the turnip farmers of their native village, and to escape they buy a vineyard in northern France, their “hermitage.” Through their interactions with the locals, Emily and Florence open the story to much larger questions than to just the specifics of winemaking. Discussing purity regulations for their vintage, the two women learn about local habits, issues of nationalism, and questions of language. Even the simple task of transporting the wine brings up old economic and social dilemmas.

Not every story in this collection evokes so much so powerfully. Many stories, however beautiful the language, are more technically dazzling than artistically satisfying. The story “Melon” astounds with its knowledge of eighteenth-century culture and history but leaves the reader dry. “Melon” records the various destinies of a group of British noblemen who go to France for a cricket match in September 1789, at the start of the French Revolution—definitely the wrong time to be thinking of sports. With this premise, the story could have been a powerful depiction of personal loyalties, or at the very least an examination of class struggle, but it’s neither. The narrative threads end up getting mangled and fragmented by Barnes’ own virtuosity. Each character’s individuality becomes more and more obscure, and the story ends up being pointless despite its wide range.

Although many of the individual stories in Cross Channel successfully examine the English/French fascination—such as “Interference,” with its cranky exiled composer, and “Dragons,” with its awesome religious clash—the collection is, as a whole, somewhat weak. The interconnecting threads are flimsy, and there’s too much going on in this book for it to be wholly integrated or complete. Maybe the collection is too short—just 211 pages—to make any sense of Barnes’ vast subject material.

Barnes’ worst mistake in Cross Channel is an attempt at closure at the end of all this discontinuity. In the last story, “Tunnel,” the main character, an older version of Barnes himself, travels to France by Eurostar in the year 2017. Letting his mind wander over his lifetime of visits to France, he constructs in his mind a kind of English/French mythology. Despite the story’s eschatological bent, nothing is really culminated. Instead, Barnes relies on the worst narrative trick to pull the story together: The last line of the book reads, “And the elderly Englishman, when he returned home, began to write the stories you have just read.” Hopefully Barnes—the somewhat younger Englishman—will return home to write another novel.

—David Wiley