Sunday, June 23, 2013

Unrapturous: Tom Perrotta's THE LEFTOVERS

Tom Perrotta's work explores much the same territory as John Updike (though less rhapsodically and lyrically), the suburban world that many of us often mistake for a post-apocalyptic nightmare: possessions as expressions of the self; imploding and exploding nuclear families; secrets along every nostalgia-lined street; the meaninglessness of it all. It's familiar territory for Perrotta, but it must also have seemed like a fitting location to study the aftermath of an actual near-world-death event in The Leftovers.

One day, right around now, millions of people vanish (Perrotta doesn't give us a figure or even a percentage, but it seems to mirror the losses in the Soviet Union from WWII—if it wasn't your family, it was still several people you knew). Is it the Rapture, awaited in all its literalness by evangelical Christians? It meets one criterion, that of people simply popping out of existence, but the selection process throws any religious interpretation into question. So people are left with an unexplained decimation of their families and communities. What do they do now?

In interwoven narrative arcs, Perrotta traces the lives of about a dozen suburban citizens, showing how they cope and fail to cope (simultaneously, really), unpacking the choices they make about the shapes of their lives. All of this reconstruction—or deconstruction, or just plain destruction—revolves around the notion of family and relationships. People need desperately to connect with one another, but none of the standard patterns seem to work (if they ever did; one has to assume that that's part of Perrotta's intent, a critique of modern life). New sects and activities develop in response to the Sudden Departure, but other behaviors, such as applying to college and summer softball leagues, continue on as if their context hasn't changed.

The flip side of this scrambling to bond is a sense of guilt: each character has his or her own burden of guilt, but perhaps more important is the guilt imposed from outside, either by the watchful eyes of those who knew us before the big event or the watchful eyes of the quasi-religious sect that, in pairs, follows people about, endlessly smoking cigarettes in a quaint and gradual embrace of mortality.

The book is a breeze to read, providing interesting characters and situations but writing that's merely efficient. It's reflective, but never dense; literate, but not literary. Do we still use—with respect—the term "middlebrow fiction"? This is it, though I think even middlebrow work usually provides a passage that brings you up short, which this doesn't. The book is smart but the narration has a light touch, and most characters sound like the same person. There's plenty of humor, and never at the expense of the characters. It's something of a Stephen King novel, an Under the Dome that has no intention, once its one fantastic event has taken place, of returning to the world of fantasy, but instead leaves us trapped in the strangeness of suburbia, a place in which people may not experience rapture, but still experience human connection.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Events that don't quite happen: Pynchon's THE CRYING OF LOT 49

I'll say this, boys and girls: It contains some fine sentences. It also contains some truly strange sentences in which the syntax has come unsprung; these pop up every few paragraphs like a nervous tic. Then there are sentences that hint beyond whatever they're ostensibly saying, sentences that point beyond the material world, lines that linger over their subject and call down holiness on the meanest scrap of earth.

However, what Thomas Pynchon's short novel The Crying of Lot 49 lacks is anything resembling a character. We follow Oedipa Maas on a journey shorter than that of Odysseus and longer than that of Leopold Bloom (how her journey is Oedipal eludes me; it's Homeric in its meandering and Joycean in its particularity); named co-executrix of a will for a man with whom she once had a fling, Oedipa, in attempting to fulfill her duty, stumbles upon the symbols, texts, and history of what may be a secret organization . . . or may not. The plot is something of a hash, a shaggy-dog story (that I'm sure accrues meaning at the symbolic level, but feels drunkenly assembled, part of the joke being its haphazardness) in which Oedipa goes from place to place picking up clues, the aimlessness of her wanderings indicative of the thinness of her character. No one ever speaks anything that sounds like real dialogue; that could be a fine stylistic choice, but Oedipa herself is deprived of any consistent style, so the words she speaks do not help us see or hear her.

This, too, is purposeful, I suppose. With a cipher for a main character, it is the reader who wanders the streets of San Francisco (among other places), banging into evidence for nothing but other evidence. The novel is meant to be funny—at several levels—and manages that, to my taste, in some of the more comedic lines and juxtapositions, but mostly it feels like the abstract idea of humor instead of a story worth a laugh.

If you're curious about the novel, it's blessedly short. I'd suggest reading it in as few sittings as possible; each time I picked it up again, I felt as if I'd stepped on word-scree, with nothing to cling to, nothing solid from the previous reading to even recollect. It does build well at the end, though the climax is—and you can see it coming from a mile off—insistently anticlimactic.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Drama in Scranton: Jason Miller's THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON

To most people who've even heard of him, Jason Miller is famous for two things, both of which took place in 1973: winning the Pulitzer for his play That Championship Season and starring as Father Damien in the William Friedkin–directed The Exorcist. The play may be weirder than the movie, and certainly a darker commentary on its times.

Four men who, years back, were on a winning basketball team, are joined for a reunion with their coach (whom the play labels "Coach"): George, the mayor, up for reelection, is incensed to be running against anyone, but especially bothered by his opponent's environmentalism and Jewishness; Phil, his campaign manager, had a fling with George's wife (this will come out), and is a businessman who relies on political favors; James is a junior high school principal who is expecting an endorsement from George to be head of the school board; his brother, Tom, drinks and makes cynical comments from the sidelines.

There was a fifth member of the winning group of starters, but the reason he hasn't stayed in touch is revealed, eventually, to be the fault of Coach. While the men drink and generally fall out with each other, Coach tries to remind them of their greatness, but the more he speaks, the more we see that he's a bigot, a brute, and that his version of manhood—built around winning at all costs—is perhaps one reason these men remain trapped in an eternal adolescence, none of them truly comfortable in his life.

Almost immediately, the play is marvelously foul—not rich with profanity, like Mamet, but locker-room brutal with sexual, racist, and misogynist language. The dialogue is pitch-perfect, always audible, and the characters bounce their lines off each other as if they were passing the basketball from one to another in that famous winning game's final seconds—which is likely the exact effect Miller was after.

Aside from Tom, who is likable simply because he stands back from much of the fighting, making smart remarks, none of the characters seems better than pathetic, and over the course of the three acts, everyone slips lower in your estimation. In Coach's exhortations, you hear a dying gasp of a clawing, grasping world that is often portrayed as full of men who worked hard and prayed to be good; these men aren't good, and the world they've made has nothing permanent or kind about it. This is another Lost Generation, the kind Updike captured in Rabbit, Run—another tale of the (post-war) modern damned man for whom the metaphor of life-as-a-game hasn't paid off in any satisfying way.

The play's three acts come right atop each other; we're witnessing a few hours in these characters' lives, which makes the rapid unraveling somewhat unconvincing. Like many American plays of its time, its oddly structured, caught between literalism and symbolism, ending abstractly, more satisfying in the moment than taken as a whole.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Blues He's Playin': Bill Cheng's SOUTHERN CROSS THE DOG

I can't discuss this book without the discussing another book, which I set down at the halfway point. The Yellow Birds, by Iraq war veteran Kevin Powers, came highly recommended from some-list-or-other. I felt that novel moving too slowly, circling a central event that felt like it might not be terribly compelling, in language that, while often lovely and evocative, failed to advance its flawed-men-at-war story to my satisfaction. The prose worked too hard without much to show for it, reminding me of a metaphor from Henry James: "a screw hammered into wood." It's not a bad book, and the writer is possessed of skill and thoughtfulness, but I grew tired of it, jumped to browse its climax, and put it aside.

The next book recommended to me by someone's list was young writer Bill Cheng's debut novel, Southern Cross the Dog, and at first, I worried that I was seeing another book that functioned by style rather than story. There's some of that—and the story doesn't come together at the end as I'd hoped it might—but Cheng is capable of more variation in his tempo. He might linger over a description, but more often, he dispenses his observations both briskly and poetically, and there's a pulsing momentum to the entire novel. He reminds me of Ron Hansen, turning any available part of speech into a verb when need be, and the sentences don't catch in your throat or eye, but flow marvelously.

The story follows several characters, and it took some time for me to realize that the center of the tale is Robert Chatham, a black boy who becomes a man of his own making in the course of the novel. Eight years old at the time of the Mississippi Flood of 1927 that displaces his already damaged family, Robert becomes an itinerant and rootless figure who gets knocked out or nearly killed way too many times over the years. (Several ploys and plot elements are visited too many times in the book.) People come and go and come in his story, and the coincidences would probably perturb evens Dickens. Various other vivid characters intersect with Robert, most notably ex-con and blues musician Eli Cotter (who, sadly and surprisingly, doesn't return after too early a departure). Robert sweeps floors at a brothel, flees the Klan, winds up among backwoods trappers, and clings to life even at its most painful.

Reviewers have noted the border crossing done by the author: a Chinese-American who lives in the Northeast, Cheng writes of a time, place, and people of whom he has no direct knowledge, his sources, largely, the blues musicians he loves. For my money, he pulls off the endeavor, capturing various styles of speech and the troubled souls of suffering blacks and whites. I do wonder what a black reader would make of it—especially a Southern black reader.

It's an exciting debut, terrific for much of its length, and, though not completely satisfying at the end, often satisfying in its parts.

Postscript: It gives nothing away to reveal that the title—which is not explained in the novel—refers to two railroads, the Southern and the Dog: as in, "where the Southern cross[es] the Dog." I'm relying on the New York Times for that explanation.