Please check it out on the SevenPonds blog:
That should sufficiently cover it so I won’t have to blog about it here too :)
Travel Writing and the American Gaze: The Best American Travel Writing, edited by Anthony Bourdain and Jason Wilson
(Disclaimer: I feel super obsolete writing a review of a 2008 collection. In fact, I even felt obsolete reading this book in public. The downside of including years in collection titles [as opposed to, I suppose, big Roman numerals, or even Arabic numerals; see the “Now That’s What I Call Music” CD series]. I’ll just pretend that 2008 was a good year for wine and travel essays.)
I would never have read this book, but my mom happened to have it and was no longer interested in reading it. My mom regularly checks out plastic-coated hardcovers from the library that some American woman or British man or vice versa wrote about their lovely summer or decade in Tuscany or the south of France or Venice or where-have-you. She thought this would be in keeping with her reading proclivities, but no— the book is instead filled with reporter-at-large type essay dispatches from Chad, Cambodia, northwest Pakistan, Turkmenistan. Full of danger and discomfort; not stories where you necessarily want to trade places with the protagonist. She blamed series guest editor Anthony Bourdain, whose brand is after all titled “No Reservations.”
She thought it would be my thing though. And I guess it kind of is.
The diversity of the stories and the journalistic clarity of the writing (the most-represented major publications here are The New Yorker and Travel + Leisure, with some Harper’s and Slate thrown in) made for consistently interesting, entertaining reads. I’ve never followed travel writing as a genre, but there’s something to be said for getting the opportunity to be thrown into a far-flung place for 6-12 pages at a time, learning minutiae about a country or city or neighborhood you’d maybe never have thought of otherwise, much less visited.
But I have my complaints. And I don’t know if I should lay these complaints at the feet of individual writers and editors, or upon the shoulders of the genre as a whole.
The first thing that struck me, several stories in, was that most of the writers were men. Four out of the twenty-five essays were written by women. It took about ten essays to get to the first woman-penned story, and, lo and behold, it was a super-short, semi-humorous, quasi-poetic reflection on a bathroom hookup with a hot Israeli in a Brazilian youth hostel (“Mr. Tingler,” by Emily Maloney). Not exactly comparable in gravity to, say, the embedded reporters in African war zones (see: “African Promise,” by J. Malcolm Garcia; “The Border,” by Peter Chilson).
I get that this is largely a question of access. While women can and do travel most of the world, there are places and contexts where they aren’t quite as welcome, and spaces that are not as easy to penetrate and move freely in. (Exceptions, maybe, can be found in Kristin Ohlson’s “Kabul Nights,” in which she visits secret restaurants in the Afghan capital, and Annie Nocenti’s “The Most Expensive Road Trip in the World,” in which she and a female documentarian ride along with Qatari princes and real estate magnates on a falconing trip through some of Pakistan’s least hospitable parts.)
This lack of representation makes sense, but it’s still disappointing. It’s like living in a little world where, superficially, women have every opportunity that men do, but then zooming out and remembering that they don’t, that the outside world is even farther from a liberal paradise than America is.
When I went to Lebanon solo (I swear, I’ll shut up about this some day), I felt extra apprehensive because of my gender. My fears proved mostly unfounded, though I definitely attracted strange looks wandering the streets of Beirut by myself, taking pictures. When I arrived in Paris, before my (male) friend met up with me, I was hassled by two separate panhandlers in front of Sacre-Coeur within two minutes; after he joined me, there was no similar incident for the remainder of the trip. When a female friend told me about her solo travels in Eastern Europe, she recommended attaching oneself to older local women to safeguard against creeps. Shit, even here, when I walk home from BART at night, I have my spidey senses on for the entire walk home (it’s generally a pleasant enough suburban neighborhood, but there is the occasional crime in the area and there’s almost no street light, which turns every shadowy passerby into a potential misogynistic psychopath).
So maybe there are problems in other parts of the world, presenting us with a stark dichotomy of gender access, and this isn’t the fault of the authors or editors of any one travel volume. But my other complaint was the way the writers themselves, these American men, talked about the cultures they visited, in particular foreign women, their interactions with them and how they are treated by their countrymen: what I like to call the American gaze.
In particular, two stories rubbed me the wrong way. The first was “The Woman in the Kuffiya,” by Jeffrey Tayler. You might already be apprehensive because of the title. I was too.
“The Woman in the Kuffiya” is a short, three-page personal anecdote originally published on WorldHum.com. In it, Jeffrey Tayler retells a brief encounter he had with an Arab woman in southeastern Turkey, near the Syrian border, in a town called Harran. He is walking along a road by himself, “lost in thoughts about history and the Bible.” Then, the young woman in the kuffiya, or red-and-white-checked Arab scarf, pulls up her horse-drawn cart and offers him a ride. She speaks no English, and he converses with her in his limited Arabic. Her name is Hawa’. He asks if she is married, she is. She offers him fresh baked bread. She complains about the men in her village and how lazy they are.
But mostly, Tayler is captivated by her beauty. When she first releases her kuffiya, it unmasks “a comely, full-lipped mouth and clear bronzed skin.” Aware of the fact that he is in an Islamic country, he tries to avoid staring, but “she was just too beautiful.”
When they reach his destination, he turns to say goodbye, and they share a charged gaze filled with a shared “repressed lust.” Then she readjusts her kuffiya and moves on.
Tayler ends by contemplating the strength of his attraction to this woman. The last two lines:
“The oft-maligned Islamic custom of purdah does much to preserve passion in its most urgent and ineffable form. No topless beach has ever, to me, looked the same after Harran.”
I’m really not sure how to take this. On the one hand, he could be commenting on the paradoxical tendency of sexual repression to perversely promote sexuality and bring it to the forefront of thought, something Foucault wrote about and Russell Brand adapted in a bit to apply to the Jonas Brothers’ purity rings, which I don’t disagree with. But what else is happening here? Is he Orientalizing/fetishizing Islamic womanhood? Is he placing an entire culture and its participants within the context of his own male, desirous American gaze? (“Gee whiz, I don’t really believe in women covering themselves, but now that you mention it, it’s pretty awesome for my libido.”)
Admittedly, it’s a brief, subjective piece, and it’s Tayler artfully, un-self-consciously reproducing the experience exactly as he lived it. But sometimes the way we live things doesn’t deserve to be transferred unfiltered from head to page, where it can sit with an undue sense of its own weight and authority.
The second story was “Looking for Mammon in the Muslim World,” by Seth Stevenson, originally published on Slate.com, about the author’s through-the-looking-glass trip to Dubai. This one I was a little more ambivalent about, because in some ways it feels like it could have been written by the male me. Like “The Woman in the Kuffiya,” it’s more overtly subjective than most of the other essays in this collection, and the dude doesn’t try to hide his insanely American and Western worldview. In fact, he comes off sounding like he’s never even been a travel writer before this moment—there’s a sense of innocent wonder in his story lacking in the work of the other writers, who tend to favor feigned objectivity or, at the very least, wry appreciation.
On the flip side, Stevenson’s naïveté also means he seems to have embarked on this little journey with only the shallowest understanding of Islam and the Arab world, likely gleaned from cable news channels and newspaper headlines. His mission: to understand the bizarre spectacle of capitalism in the middle of the Middle Eastern desert that is Dubai, and to extrapolate that to grandiose statements and solutions on the East-West cultural divide. For him Dubai is confounding: how can the Arab world have its own answer to Las Vegas? How can a religion so often at odds with Western civilization enjoy the fruits of our decadent, consumerist system?
For the most part he tackles these questions with humor and levity, and for the most part that’s fine. But at one point, he goes into a little “aside” in which he lists three bones he has to pick with the way women are treated in the U.A.E. He puts these “bones” in list form, which was such a total me move that I almost liked him for it—but then, the content of this aside was stunning in its ignorance (not me, I hope):
“1. It seems horribly unfair that the men’s dishdashas are white, while the women’s long cloaks (called abayas) are black. I ask you: Which would you rather wear beneath a blazing desert sun? If Arab culture weren’t otherwise so progressive on gender issues, I might say this was a clever means of discouraging women from leaving the house.
2. The unfairness becomes crystal clear when you go to the beach here. The Emirati women keep their abayas on. Meanwhile, their husbands strip down to tight, short bathing suits—exposing their flabby stomachs and hairy backs.
3. I’m fine with the headscarf that covers the hair. (This seems not unlike wearing a yarmulke.) But the face veil is fundamentally different and, in my view, not okay. One cannot happily contribute to society when one has no face. The veil transforms women into a pair of downcast eyes. And again, it seems, more than anything else, like an enticement to stay at home.”
Oh. Kay. So. Many things wrong. Here.
…Let me respond with my own mini-listicle.
1. Seth, you’re speculating. Nothing else in this fun little story gives me any confidence that you’ve studied Arab history, social or sartorial, so I’d be careful about making any bold hypotheses on the development of gender practices, lest you influence a young mind as impressionable as your own. Read: Your one visit doesn’t make you an expert. And that whole “progressive on gender issues” line? Just snarky. Especially because I feel like you’d be one of those people who’d ask me how much I had to cover myself in Lebanon and how hot it was in the desert there. (For those people: No more than here, and Lebanon isn’t desert.)
2. Considering your #1 and #2 make the implicit assumption that these hypothetical beachgoing couples are Arab, your observation on the hairy backs sounds vaguely racist.
3. Oh, so we’re starting from the place where all things associated with Jewish culture or religion are deemed “good” and a Western-sanctioned benchmark as to what types of head coverings are acceptable? Alright, so with that potentially flawed premise, let it be known that Seth is fine with the headscarf, but he draws the line at the face veil (as he calls it). “Not okay,” says Seth. Those women are oppressed, those men are bad, and Seth is standing by shaking his head. It’s just that simple, people.
Anyway. Believe it or not, this wasn’t the part that gave me the most pause. The pausiest part was later, as Seth tries to wrap up all of his uninformed observations and cultural aggrandizement in one neat little bow, if that bow were a horrible anecdote that somehow managed to be offensive to both Western and Eastern sensibilities at the same time.
It happens when he and a friend go to a club called Cyclone, which is full of prostitutes. The scene disturbs him: young, attractive women playing up to old, bald men, as security looks on to make sure “transactions” are made outside of the club and not in. He even notes the “desperation” in the air, as strong as the scent of one of the Hungarian hooker’s perfume. After scurrying out:
“Let it be said: I have witnessed sexual deviance being tolerated—or at least ignored—within the borders of a Muslim country. And I’m declaring it a promising sign. If there’s one thing the West and the Middle East can come together on, it’s a Hungarian hooker.”
Whether or not this was slightly tongue-in-cheek (it may have been, but still ultimately fit with the overall earnestness of his article), this sentiment kind of took me aback. Coming together over the shared notion of women as prostitutes? Hookers as preferable to women wearing veils? Middle Eastern society being viewed as “progressing” no matter what attribute of Western society it adopts/shares? So creepy in so many ways. (And really: you witnessed sexual deviancy in an Arab, Muslim country? Do tell! …This is kind of like the moment when you’re a certain age and you realize your parents had to have sex to have you.)
Note that the entire essay was written from the point of view of someone who clearly deemed himself a progress-minded liberal, who ended his little story by criticizing some British teenagers who called the Arabs backwards. Racist teenagers. Always easy bait. (See: Twitter.)
These were the two stories that I found the most problematic, maybe in part because of my own focus on the Middle East. But there were others, other stories that produced uneasiness about the nature of the white, male, American gaze, activated in a foreign land. “African Promise” by J. Malcolm Garcia, which unquestioningly adopts the ironic phrase of the title. “Dark Passage” by Peter Gwin, which comfortably revisits Heart of Darkness for the 21st century. “Wheels of Fortune” by Peter Hessler, which basically talks about how much everyone sucks at driving in China.
Travel literature by its very nature must be subjective, a reflection of the society the writer represents entering the society the writer visits. For the American traveler, the American gaze is unavoidable. But I wonder—as a newcomer to the genre—can you write around it? Can I take the scribblings in my travel journals of yore, which admittedly contain signs of my own American gaze, and translate them into something I’d be comfortable publishing? Do Americans have to encounter the world this way—so limited, yet so assured?
I’d be interested to know. Because I kind of want to be a travel writer.
In the grand tradition of the family saga which includes Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and, to a lesser extent, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury comes American author Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, which follows the Greek-American Stephanides family over three generations culminating in the biological and spiritual identity crisis of the narrator, one Calliope “Cal” Stephanides.
Ever since this novel came out a decade ago, I’d been under the impression that it was primarily about the experiences of a sexual hermaphrodite, as evidenced by the title. Calliope starts life as a girl, and spends thirteen years believing she is female until, upon hitting puberty, she discovers she is actually a boy. She has a rare condition that results in a not-quite-penile “crocus” which doesn’t fully show itself until adolescence. And so at age thirteen, Calliope becomes Cal.
Serendipitously, the Stephanides family lives in an ultra-modern multi-level house on a street called Middlesex, which becomes a metonym for this period of Cal’s life. This is one of several heavy-handed devices Eugenides employs that, in my opinion, keep this great book from being truly genius.
More on that—but as I said, despite my first impressions, Cal’s condition and sexual identity are not necessarily the most important part of the book, though they contribute an intriguing backdrop. It essentially is a family saga; more precisely, an American immigrant family saga. With Cal leading the way, we start in Bithynios, a tiny Greek village in that netherland that has historically alternated between being part of Greece and being part of Turkey. This is where Cal’s grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona, are from. The Greco-Turkish War is on. After their village is destroyed by Turkish troops, they escape to America with a bereaved Armenian doctor in tow.
Everything about this novel is inexorable. Cal never lets us forget that all of this history results, ultimately, in him. Overtly, this means that his grandparents’ incest (clearly a prerequisite to any family saga), his parents’ lesser incest (first cousins), and the eighty-something Armenian doctor he gets stuck with as a child because of family loyalty contribute to his abnormal condition and the belatedness with which it is discovered. Less overtly, this novel is about the immigrant experience, about coming to America, about being in America and belonging elsewhere and always having that somewhere else inside you. And so here also does his family’s story constitute his own identity. Everything is teleological.
Middlesex is also hugely informed by Eugenides’ own experiences. First of all, Eugenides… Stephanides. Same number of syllables. Second, Greek. (Jeffrey E. is half.) Third, growing up in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s, as he did. Cal spends his early childhood in Greektown in Detroit until the city’s auto boom begins to bust, at which point his father’s restaurant fails and then the race riots occur. One thing I liked: in a subversion of textbook-American history, Cal portrays these as a legitimate revolution:
“So was it a riot or a guerilla uprising? Let me answer that question with other questions… Why had General Throckmorton deployed his tanks on the East Side, miles from the rioting? Was that the kind of thing you did to subdue an unorganized gang of snipers? Or was it more in keeping with military strategy? Was it like establishing a front line in a war? Believe whatever you want. I was seven years old and followed a tank into battle and saw what I saw. It turned out that when it finally happened, the revolution wasn’t televised. On TV they called it only a riot.” (250-251)
Also, Eugenides spent time in Berlin in the early 2000s, which is where we find Cal as a forty-something man as he narrates his chronicle.
I’m always interested in the ways authors have or have not lived the experiences of their protagonists—the geography, the chronology, the demography, the education, career, relationships. Like my favorite WWII authors: Joseph Heller was stationed in Italy as a pilot who had to fly missions, hence Yossarian. J.D. Salinger served in Europe and afterward dealt with stress and emotional trauma, hence Seymour Glass, and also the narrator of “For Esmé.” Kurt Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden when the Americans firebombed it, hence Billy Pilgrim and Slaughterhouse-Five.
This, in turn, makes me wonder if one can truly write about something they haven’t lived. How do you fabricate something out of nothing? How do you write honestly about a place, a time, a person you never were? Makes me think of a quote from Angels in America– another work about this great land of ours– by (best character) Harper Pitt: “Imagination can’t create anything new, can it? It only recycles bits and pieces from the world and reassembles them into visions… Nothing unknown is knowable.”
(And this is why I can’t write fiction.)
Eugenides has written three novels, and while certain elements of his life undoubtedly informed The Virgin Suicides (growing up a boy in 1970s suburbia) and The Marriage Plot (I haven’t read it yet, but probably being an English grad student in the 1980s), Middlesex feels the most like it very closely follows his own life’s trajectory. Besides, of course, the hermaphrodite part, though who knows if this isn’t some vague externalization of an inward gender struggle.
Also, like any family saga worth a darn, the genealogy is stretched and overlaid onto the macrohistory that is occurring in the background, in the real world, like a less silly Forrest Gump. Henry Ford makes an appearance, because Lefty works in his factory. (An awesome scene where Lefty’s English class puts on a “melting pot” pageant at which Ford is in attendance, complete with the students in ethnic costumes climbing into a fake pot and changing into red-white-and-blue, as teachers stir with giant spoons.) The riots. Cal does LSD in San Francisco. Bigger things are happening; the family’s story is bigger than itself.
This is a beautiful book, and it contained moments of brilliant honesty, but I found myself a little disappointed in what occasionally felt like a simple lack of originality. Some of the more florid passages seemed ripped from a Creative Writing 701 course at Stanford (where Eugenides earned his M.A.), wonderfully executed but missing a soul. The devices were occasionally too clever, the prose too self-aware.
It may be that I was disappointed following my reading (and re-reading) of Eugenides’ 1993 debut novel The Virgin Suicides, which was dazzlingly original: an entire novel told from the point of view of no one in particular, a mass of “neighborhood boys” who witness from afar the tragedy of the Lisbon sisters, in the style of a Greek chorus. The whole narrative of that book felt heavy, dreamlike, unlike anything else I’ve come across. As wonderful and engaging as it is, Middlesex just wasn’t as revolutionary.
“Why should I have thought I was anything other than a girl? Because I was attracted to a girl? That happened all the time. It was happening more than ever in 1974. It was becoming a national pastime. My ecstatic intuition about myself was now deeply suppressed. How long I would have managed to keep it down is anybody’s guess. But in the end it wasn’t up to me. The big things never are. Birth, I mean, and death. And love. And what love bequeaths to us before we’re born.” (388)
I’m not at all acquainted with the genre of this title. Ever since early college, I’ve been on an off-and-on mission to read everything I should read, which is to say, old, famous stuff, and in the midst of pursuing the fogey classics it gets hard to keep up with what’s new and good and recommended. Besides for looking at “New & Recommended” sections in bookstores or reading reviews on the Rumpus.
So recently, I read two short story collections by reputable, living authors, How We Are Hungry by Dave Eggers and Self-Help by Lorrie Moore, and I gave both 5 stars on Goodreads. High praise, compared to my 4 stars for mega-classic Jane Eyre.
(I should also qualify that Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help was actually written the year I was born. So, not new at all. I just didn’t discover her until like three months ago. If I haven’t read it [and it’s at least set in the post-VCR age] it’s new to me!)
Anyway, as much as I like the sense of accomplishment that comes from getting acquainted with literary giants—people like Faulkner and Austen and Orwell—there’s something doubly inspiring about reading something recent. New fiction. It’s more accessible. It’s more relatable. It almost feels like something I could write, if I was just as splendidly observant and marvelously eloquent as people like Eggers and Moore.
Today, Dave Eggers. Broke down and read him after what felt like years of 826 Valencia press and McSweeney’s FB article shares and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius references (I can’t get over that title and its fabulous superlatives), not to mention the fact I know at least two people who have worked with him (starstruck!). This short story collection was to be my introduction to Eggers because, in my opinion, short stories make great introductions. They’re short.
What Dave Eggers lacks in simplicity of titles (see story #2: “What It Means When a Crowd in a Faraway Nation Takes a Soldier Representing Your Own Nation, Shoots Him, Drags Him from His Vehicle and Then Mutilates Him in the Dust”), he makes up in simplicity of prose—not too simple, just spare, and often lovely.
The collection, as far as it has an ongoing theme, is a compare and contrast between human and animal nature, except that thirteen stories are about the former, and only one is about the latter. In the first thirteen stories we meet numerous characters who agonize and equivocate, who live cerebrally and try to fix careers and relationships or plan the minutiae of a perfect life or death (“Notes for a Story of a Man who Will Not Die Alone”).
My favorite of these is also the longest: “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly,” about Rita, a woman who has let life happen to her, including giving up custody of two foster children that she wanted to adopt because it was just easier; and Rita’s uncertain, somewhat reckless resolution to climb Mount Kilimanjaro on an adventure tour for Western yuppies. The story arc is unexpected— after the trials and travails of climbing the mountain, which take up most of the narrative, there is a brief, transcendent moment at the summit where Rita’s life seems to make sense and the world seems to harmonize. This could have been the end of the story. But the harmony abruptly breaks apart when she learns from her fellow travelers that, unbeknownst to her at the time, three native luggage boys had perished in their sleep the night before due to wet weather conditions and a faulty tent. Suddenly, everything is terrible:
“Yesterday she found herself wanting something she never wanted. To be able to tell Gwen that she’d done it, and she wanted to bring J.J. and Frederick a rock or something from up there, because then they’d think she was capable of anything finally and some day they would come back to her and—oh God she keeps running, sending scree down in front of her, throwing rocks down the mountain, because she cannot stop running and she cannot stop bringing the mountain down with her.” (199)
In this way, each of the thirteen stories is messy and inconclusive and the protagonists flawed, indecisive. But the fourteenth story is about a dog. “After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned” is told from Steven the pet canine’s point of view. He loves to run. He doesn’t like squirrels. This is his story.
“When I run I turn like I’m magic or something. I can turn like there wasn’t even a turn. I turn and I’m going so fast it’s like I was still going straight. Through the trees like a missile, through the trees I love to run with my claws reaching and grabbing so quickly like I’m taking everything.
“Damn, I’m so in love with all of this.” (206)
As foreshadowed in the title, Steven dies at the end of the story. On a race through the forest with his doggie friends, he slams into a low-hanging branch and falls into the river. His spirit sleeps for six days before he wakes up in heaven, an experience he embraces with as little apprehension as he did life. It’s not complicated at all.
It’s a little gimmicky to tell a story from the point of view of a dog, but Eggers’ gleeful manipulation of the prose—like a child’s, but commanding, and never sacrificing clarity—makes the story a joy to read. He also takes a somewhat clichéd premise—basically, that Steven the dog has it all figured out, so what the hell are we doing?—and still makes it feel like a worthwhile life lesson. Especially set in opposition to the previous story and Rita’s halting quest for an undefined happiness.
Eggers has moments of pretention, with his long titles and his funny forewords and whatnot, but he’s such a brilliant writer that it doesn’t matter much. I’m still a little daunted by A Heartbreaking Work’s sheer size, but I plan to continue to pursue his oeuvre.
In the meantime, I’m regularly checking out Eggers’ 90 Days, 90 Reasons, a project he co-founded to recount the reasons to re-elect Barack Obama. Occasional McSweeney’s contributor and Zuckerberg evil twin Jesse Eisenberg’s essay wasn’t up to par with some of his other work (see: Jeremy Lin Has Helped Me Through Some Pretty Tough Times, written at the height of Linsanity), but I really enjoyed Reza Aslan’s and Roxane Gay’s, on world engagement and hope, respectively. Eggers is a literary rock star.
Michael Chabon, known for writing on gay, Jewish, American themes, sometimes all at once, lives in Berkeley. That always blows my mind a little bit—when someone famous or renowned is in my proverbial backyard. Berkeley isn’t that big! I might run into him at Trader Joe’s, for all I know. (Most recently, I also discovered that Andy Samberg and the other two guys from the Lonely Island graduated from Berkeley High, within a year or two of my cousin; and also that the grandson of my research paper topic, a sociology professor living in Lebanon in the 1930s, is like a retired architect or something here.)
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001) is set against a backdrop of the Golden Age of comic books, with the two protagonists, Josef “Joe” Kavalier and Sammy Clay (né Klayman), the team behind the Superman, Batman et al contemporary THE ESCAPIST.
The book is almost absurdly readable, despite being over 500 pages and spanning two decades in the main characters’ lives. Joe, a serious student of magic, escapes Nazi-occupied Prague in the coffin of a golem. As a fellow magician and Jew, he idolizes Harry Houdini (who persistently appears as kind of a mythic figure in historical fiction, a representation of the immigrant, the Jew, the American experience, and a kind of transcendence of the realm of the physical, of the limitations of political identity; see also E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime). This is in part where the inspiration for their costumed hero, the Escapist, comes from. A superhero who can break the bonds that bind—for Sammy, his polio-afflicted legs, his claustrophobic upbringing, his homosexuality—for Joe, his utter inability to rescue the family he had to leave behind—for everyone, something different. And for awhile, he is deployed to stylishly kick Hitler’s ass (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) in the reds, blues and yellows of Empire’s comic pages.
At first, I was a little confounded by Chabon’s writing style. On the one hand, it is pleasant, simple but very well-crafted; and the story early on was shaping up to be uplifting with just a hint of tragedy.* The main characters get along well from the very start (Joe, Sammy’s hitherto unmet cousin from Czechoslovakia, is foisted into Sammy’s bedroom in the middle of the night with no warning by his overbearing mother—I was like, wouldn’t he be mad?). But things seem to go too well for them in general. Joe gets the girl. Joe is the best artist in the world. Despite being bound to contracts, they get their superhero comic book made. They become best friends (the hint of homoeroticism, at first, seemed to me unintentional; turns out it wasn’t, at least not on Sammy’s end). They make money. The Escapist is a hit.
Then, a little abruptly, things don’t go well, which is what I had been waiting for all along. The middle act (which comes about five-sevenths of the way through the book) follows Joe to Antarctica for his bizarre bit of participation in World War II. Scarred by the loss of his family, Joe gives up everything else—his best friend, his girlfriend, his life in New York—for the chance to kick literal Nazi ass. But he’s assigned to the one place he’s guaranteed to see no action. The icy landscape is rendered in detail, an alarming contrast to the flashy 1939 New York that we started the book with. “Antarctica was beautiful—even Joe, who loathed it with every fiber of his being as the symbol, the embodiment, the blank unmeaning heart of his impotence in this war, had felt the thrill and grandeur of the Ice. But it was trying, at every moment you remained on it, to kill you” (436). The base Joe inhabits, completely isolated from real combat, still manages to experience tragedy via a freak carbon monoxide-related accident (is it the new thing to depict World War II experiences that aren’t conventionally glorious or horrifying—that are instead maybe horrifyingly conventional? I’m thinking of Robbie’s septicemia in Atonement, and the fact that we never see the combat that earned him the wound).
The last part of the book deals with Joe’s re-introduction into nonpolar society, and his reunion with his friends. This part of the book feels the most real(istic): dreams have been forgotten, loves have been lost, and the setting is now a suburban Long Island cookie cutter in the early 1950s. Of course, real can be kind of boring too, and for me this was the least interesting part of the book. (Also: what was the exact nature of Sammy and Rosa’s relationship? I guess it was supposed to be kind of Pleasantville but it was perplexing nonetheless.)
Despite that, from start to finish it’s a consistently entertaining read, with some really lovely moments. The times that Chabon is describing the skill of Joe’s art, or delving into a superhero origins story, are probably the most inspiring. The world at the dawn of the comics age is thrilling. I also found the characters to be likeable, though not always accessible. Joe, despite his vengefulness—Nazis killing his family and all—seems a little too perfect (coincidentally, a charge also levied at James McAvoy’s Robbie in the film version of Atonement). Despite the fact that more of the story is told from his point of view than Sammy’s, Joe remains something of an enigma. And going back to the “things-were-going-too-well” qualm I had with the first part of the story, the entire novel – even the violence, the sex (or maybe I’ve just been reading too much Henry Miller and Philip Roth lately)—had a kind of chaste air, an innocence, even a feeling that everything would be alright. People in Chabon’s world are basically good. Who knows… it might just be his dead-on channeling of the optimism of a bygone American era?
“Finally, in the immeasurable and timeless distance, she makes out something that has the appearance of solidity, a smudge of stony gray, wavering. As she draws nearer, she glimpses a flash of silver, a ghostly stand of cypress, the plinth and columns of a temple, rough-hewn, pyramidal, at once Druidic and Babylonian, and withal vaguely reminiscent of the great institution in whose bowels she has for so long dreamed away her days. It looms ever larger, and then the spiral finally unravels around her and gives out, depositing her, clothed now only in the clasp of her wings, on the temple’s threshold. The great doors, cast from solid silver and ornamented with crescent moons, creak as they slowly open inward to admit her. With a final glance back toward the shattered chrysalis of her old life, she steps through the portal and into a high chamber. Here, in a weird radiance cast by the tails of a thousand writhing glowworms, sits on a barbarous throne a raven-haired giantess with immense green wings, sensuously furred antennae, and a sharp expression. She is, quite obviously, the Cimmerian moth goddess, Lo. We know it before she even opens her rowanberry mouth.” (271)
*There’s also footnotes. I found this a little strange, though the book is obviously meticulously researched and the footnotes’ biographical asides do lend an air of realism, down to precise dates and comic book issue numbers.