Includes reviews of:
Hashtag Good Guy With a Gun (Sagging Meniscus Press), by Jeff Chon
Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino (Graywolf Press), by Julian Herbert
Thick Skin (Kernpunkt Press), by N/A Oparah
Wiki of Infinite Sorrows (Kernpunkt Press), by Matthew Burnside
Meiselman (Tortoise Books), by Avner Landes
Capturing the Times
Although Jeff Chon's Hashtag Good Guy With a Gun has been published after Donald Trump was voted out of office, it is clearly intended to evoke the Trump era, even if the action of the novel takes place just before and just after the 2016 election. It is not a political novel, or is only indirectly, in the way it depicts the cultural conditions that help to explain Trump's ascendance. It offers a literary snapshot of the kinds of behavior that accompany the political turbulence that Trump seemed to foment, while also revealing in the attitudes of its cast of characters that the genesis of such turbulence derives not from Trump himself but from already turbulent currents roiling through American culture.
While the ostensible protagonist of the novel is Scott Bonneville, a disaffected former teacher whose violent confrontation with a would-be shooter in a pizza restaurant provides the novel's narrative axis, numerous other characters also receive close attention as we circle around this incident, tracking its aftermath, as well as learning more about the circumstances that brought about such an event in the first place: Scott's abusive family background--he is a Korean-American adopted by white religious fanatics--and his later failures at both love and career (the former involving the mother of one of his students), his slide into conspiracy thinking that leads him to the "Pizza Galley" on the fateful night, where he believes he will be breaking up a pedophile ring located in the basement. Among the characters associated with Scott and his story, we follow the fortunes (misfortunes) of Scott's troubled student, Blake Mesman, who joins up with a hyper-masculine incel group, the "Company of Men," and Scott's brother Brian, who, as it turns out, has dealt with the abuse he experienced in their father's milieu even less constructively than Scott.
The protagonist's plan to expose the pizza restaurant as the locus of an operation for kidnapping children is of course drawn directly from the 2016 attack on a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor supposedly harboring sex slaves, according to a QAnon-like conspiracy theory focused on the Hilary Clinton campaign and spread on social media. Chon provides a twist on this real-life occurrence by making the would-be perpetrator not an obvious alt-right nutjob but a seemingly mild-mannered Korean-American teacher whose life setbacks prove too much for him. Similarly, the grievances, anxieties, and disappointments visible in the actions of many of the other characters take on their own particular expression but are recognizable manifestations of the traits that came to seem more widespread during the Trump years. It might be tempting to regard what Chon is doing in Hashtag as a form of satire, except that nothing of what happens is very amusing, and there is little suggestion that the situations and behaviors depicted can very easily be corrected.
Two of the other important characters, Yu-jin Walker, manager of the Pizza Galley, and Song Jae-dong (identified throughout the novel as Jae), are also Korean-American, and especially through Jae, the influence of Korean culture further enhances the perspective on the stories we follow. We first meet Jae, a currently homeless man, outside the Pizza Galley, where he encounters Scott, brandishing his weapon on his way inside. Jae has a vision of Scott as Jeoseung Saja, "Korean folklore's emissary of death," but this notion of Scott as a folkloric grim reaper (a connection Scott himself seems to accept) creates an unsettling resonance as the novel progresses: Is Scott the reaper, or is he the subject of Jeoseung Saja's mission who proves himself unworthy of crossing over? Jae is himself an uncertain source of enlightenment about about this conundrum, as he is clearly not of sound mind, a state of affairs that led him to leave his wife and daughter and live on the streets in the first place.
By the novel's conclusion, attention has largely shifted away from Scott Bonneville (except for his ultimate role as victim), in favor of Jae, Scott's brother Brian, and Blake Mesman, the latter two of whom lead Scott into the literal inferno that decides Scott's fate. The ending seems in keeping with the novel's overall portrayal of a society cultivating failure, with those experiencing the loss of cultural coherence and its attendant personal disappointments ill-equipped to respond beyond paranoia and undirected antagonism. In this, Chon surely does accurately evoke the disarray in which America has recently found itself (made even more intractable by the ubiquity of social media), a state of confusion Donald Trump certainly exploited for his own narcissistic purposes. But somehow simply mapping this cultural dissolution finally seems perfunctory, a superfluous gesture. In many ways, Hashtag Good Guy With a Gun provides what we would expect from a "novel of the Trump years," which seems to me an inadequate rationale for writing a novel. This is not so much a judgment of this particular novel (which maintains interest well enough) as dissatisfaction with the whole notion of "capturing the times" in a work of fiction. I don't really want the Trump years to be captured in the first place; I'd prefer they be released and sent on their way.
The Life You Dream Of
Although Julian Herbert is the author (or co-author) of more than 20 books published in Mexico, he is available in English translations through only three of these, Tomb Song (translation published 2018), The House of the Pain of Others (translation 2019), and now Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino (translation published in November of 2020). Since half of Herbert's books are collections of poems, those of us reading Herbert through these translations are already getting an unavoidably limited and distorted perspective on his work, but the three translated books are also considerably different from one another, making a comprehensive assessment of the work essentially impossible.
Of course it might be said that these very differences signify a writer willing to take risks, to experiment with forms and the mingling of forms. This would unquestionably be true (an impression only reinforced if we consider that he is also the vocalist in a rock and roll band): The House of the Pain of Others is some combination of journalism, history, and a travelogue as it chronicles the 1911 massacre of 300 Chinese immigrants in the Mexican city of Torreon (150 miles or so from Herbert's hometown of Saltillo), while Tomb Song combines fiction and autobiography in something close to what is now called autofiction, although there are interludes in the book so thoroughly invented they veer toward fantasia. These are both very good books, but lack of context from Herbert's other published work could lead readers of the available translations to find them overly various, unmoored from the author's broader tendencies and concerns.
Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino is a somewhat more recognizable sort of book, a series of short fictions and a concluding novella. The collection displays a degree of unity in its frequent focus on the violence associated with the Mexican drug cartels (perhaps an unsurprising focus given the book's title), although it also has sharply drawn characters and a good deal of humor (in the title novella especially). This conjoining of violence and comedy has the effect both of actually heightening the violence when it does occur and making the comic outlook underpinning all of the stories more disturbingly funny. The first two stories in the book, "The Ballad of Mother Teresa of Calcutta" and "M.L. Estefania," establish the prevailing tone. In the former, absurdity prevails: the narrator, a self-styled "personal memories coach" who helps people enhance (i.e. fabricate) memories relates a false memory he urges on a client writing his memoir, an anecdote in which the client, during a long wait at the Charles De Gaulle airport to fly back to Mexico City and feeling ill (he's been accused of theft on top of it), accidentally throws up on Mother Teresa, who has just arrived. In the latter, what starts out as farce (the protagonist is hired to impersonate the title character, a famed Mexican writer of Western novels) turns deadly, as the narrator witnesses his companions being shot to death by a drug gang. The narrator is spared only because the leader turns out to the narrator's former student.
"White Paper" and "The Roman Wedding" do not depict violence directly, but instead evoke the propinquity of violence and its aftermath, in the former through a kind of Barthlemean burlesque in which a group of forensics students conduct an ineffectual crime scene investigation, in the latter by focusing on the funeral of a drug lord whose son at the end of the story finally walks away from the family business. Other stories are not directly engaged with the sociopolitical realities of Mexican life, and show Herbert more freely indulging in acts of imagination. In "There Where We Stood," the narrator (apparently Julian Herbert) sees a manifestation of the deceased Mexican writer Juan Rulfo, who informs the narrator he is the devil. "Caries" is about a man who discovers his mouth is full of sheet music (the story provides us with several pages of the scores). "Z" is a speculative, post-apocalyptic story related by a man whose city is being ravaged by an infection that causes people to crave human flesh. The narrator is seeing his psychoanalyst, who has the infection but hasn't yet come down with the worst symptoms.
No doubt, however, the title novella is the book's feature attraction, and it certainly does validate both the impudence of the title and the work's place as the book's capstone. It reinscribes the blending of the humorous and the terrifying, as well as the entanglement in the anarchic absurdity of protagonists with artistic and intellectual credentials (or at least pretensions), who wind up the victims of circumstances they both abhor and covertly relish. In "Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino" the protagonist is a film scholar of sorts (focused on Tarantino, of course), who is kidnapped by a drug lord and brought to his mammoth underground lair, where he discovers that the drug lord is obsessed with Quentin Tarantino and wants the narrator to help track him down. After dispatching his thugs to find the director in Los Angeles and bring back his head (a separate narrative strand tracks their hapless efforts to do so), the drug lord retains the narrator's services as an interlocutor in discussions of Tarantino's oeuvre (of cinema in general), and the narrator finds himself increasingly content with his lot--until the police raid the hideout after tracking his own abduction. Later the narrator visits the kingpin in prison, discovering that the latter's resemblance to Tarantino had motivated his rage, reminding him of his own lost ambition to be an actor: "He's kind of like me in the movies, but in real life I wanted to be like him. . .And you can bear having your appearance stolen, champ, but not the life you dream of."
The dollop of pathos added at the conclusion of this novella doesn't mitigate the social realities depicted in the book, but perhaps does make them more perplexing.
Probably N/A Oparah's Thick Skin treats its subject about as successfully as can be done, at least in a novel (or perhaps novella) of relatively modest ambitions. The subject is the narrator's attempt to get over a breakup with an ex-boyfriend. The narrator's account might be called a story of heartbreak, but it isn't really so much about lost love as it is an effort by the narrator, Nneka, to interrogate her emotional allegiance to the relationship, to process the trauma the breakup has caused her, even though she knows that allegiance was rooted in more than love, that the trauma comes from a breach in the identity she had claimed for herself until then.
Composed of fragmentary reflections, memories, observations, and reveries, Nneka's account makes it clear enough that this identity was partly grounded in an irresistible need for acceptance, both as a woman and as a Nigerian-American born of immigrant parents with exacting standards. This need has instilled a sense of inferiority in Nneka, which both led her to endure mistreatment from the boyfriend, Jacob, and now makes her effort to cope with the end of the relationship even more painful as she also struggles to finally overcome the fears and anxieties that have conditioned her dependence. The novel's dominant trope is invoked in the title: Nneka's initial strategy for coping is to develop a thick skin, either literally, by adding various substances to her body (including extra weight) or figuratively, through a questionable mode of therapy (her best friend likens it to a cult). Although ultimately it could be said the novel is about "healing," there is little dramatic progression to a revelatory moment, no final reckoning with the old self and creation of the new, although the final scene suggests perseverance, as Nneka walks down the street drinking a cup of tea, a drop of which spills on her hand: "I slow down, burn, and keep walking."
What makes the reader persevere through a novel without much forward movement is Oparah's evocative language. "You taught me to write us," Nneka apostrophizes Jacob at one point, but if anything it is in her attempts to reckon with her new life without Jacob that Nneka's powers of recall and observation become even more verbally acute:
On the deck, sun against skin. I am bones on your ground. No way is comfortable. I am the pea under mattress. There is no escape. You sit on the porch futon, saturated and dried too many times. Brown and heavy, burden and rot. You sit anyway, make new imprints. Ignore the ruin. Your right holds a cigarette. Your left, a beer. Something is always approaching your lips. I watch you, simmering, too dark to burn. We don't share words, but we're not silent. . . .
Throughout, the prose style manages to arrest our attention through its effective balance of clarity and suggestion, out of which does gradually emerge an austere kind of narrative development. If Nneka's account is being recorded in a diary or journal of sorts, perhaps we could say that it is this writing that in its aesthetic precision bids to become her most valuable form of therapy.
But while the novel's prose does maintain the reader's interest, finally it is harder to muster a lot of complementary interest in the ostensible object of Nneka's obsession, Jacob himself. That he ultimately seems a shallow man, an ordinary, self-centered and thoughtless male hardly worthy of Nneka's agonized retrospections might indeed be a conclusion Oparah intends for us to reach, but this not really make reading about him any more invigorating. The book's genuine merits thus can't entirely redeem its inherently banal subject.
All Work, No Play
I want to think that my inability to fully appreciate Matthew Burnside's Wiki of Infinite Sorrows is due not to its palpable flaws but because finally I am not really part of its intended audience. The book is apparently a reworking of a text that originally appeared as an online hypertext work called In Search Of, and although I am not altogether unfamiliar with (or unsympathetic to) electronic texts, this work seems to have been composed primarily for a community of readers especially attuned to the possibilities of digital storytelling. (Burnside teaches "cross-genre and digital writing.") In addition, this form appears to be heavily indebted to the conventions of the video game, with which most of the members of this community are intimately familiar but which, suffice it to say, is entirely unexplored territory for me. (The last video game I can remember playing was Pong.) Surely this audience understands Burnside's objectives better than I do.
Still, presumably Burnside would not have adapted the original work to print unless he believed it could stand on its own in this medium. While its origin as a hyperlinked text to be read on a screen could give us clues as to how the print text is organized and the effect it is intended to have, its form and devices ought to succeed or fail by the standards we are accustomed to using in judging traditional print fiction. Certainly Burnside should be free to experiment with the conventions of fiction, to unsettle reader's expectations, including expectations of what "experimental fiction" might do. To the extent that in Wiki of Infinite Sorrows (as well as his previous book, Postludes (2016)) Burnside is indeed searching for a form to accommodate a vision of form expanded by the elasticity of digital narratives, then each book merits reading, but the former, at least, more as a failed experiment than a compelling adaptation of digital storytelling.
My first problem with the novel is that it doesn't really seem consistent with its title, or the publisher's description of it as "a collection of fictional wiki entries." Even if this merely means that the individual entries were initially composed online, the notion that the interactive qualities associated with "wiki" have been reproduced in this novel is inaccurate and misleading. The core narrative in Wiki of Infinite Sorrows enlists the characters and setting of In Search Of, although necessarily this narrative does not have the indeterminacy of the hypertext version. It concerns the Cress family, living in the town of Brownleaf, whose youngest son dies suddenly but apparently continues to live deep inside the cyber world. Later, his sister searches for him and ultimately joins him in his world. This narrative, however, is supplemented with various other scenes, interludes and stories, most of which have no directly discernible relationship to the Cress family story.
The temptation, of course, is to search for interpretive connections among all of the included fragments, for a coherent integration of the book as whole, and while no doubt some such integration is always possible given a suitably sweeping generalization, this effort finally seems antithetical to the work's origins and its reconceived purpose. If the goal is to invest print-bound fiction with something of the digressiveness and multivalence of electronic fiction, then imposing a synthetic unity on a motley succession of vignettes simply because they are unavoidably serial would surely be misguided. Some of the segments do indeed link up with other segments in a fairly straightforward way (besides the Cress family narrative, there are also a number of episodes concerning "Sal" and his problematic relationship with a court-appointed android "companion"--known commercially as a "Sidekick"), but many others bear no apparent relationship to these stories or to each other. This discontinuity may be not only deliberate but ultimately the book's underlying warrant. But does this move work?
The original title of In Search Of identified it as a "Sandbox Novel," which apparently was meant to identify it as a work accentuating the reader's participation, allowing the reader to "play." This is a perfectly fine idea, but it seems to me that readerly play in relation to print text must be directed to different ends than it would be with a hypertext work, which explicitly solicits the reader's participation in determining plot. Merely to disconnect the book's individual parts from an expected structural whole to make them more disparate and divergent does not really ensure more active and productive reading. It just makes it more likely that we will find a work like Wiki of Infinite Sorrows a frustrating reading experience.
Several reviewers of Avner Landes's Meiselman: The Lean Years have had trouble reckoning with the novel's titular protagonist. One reviewer acknowledges the novel's effective humor, but suggests that the comedy arises because the protagonist is "a lot of fun to laugh at." Another suggests that Meiselman is "incapable of empathy or any other emotion aside from envy and resentment," making him a proto-MAGA guy," while yet another dismisses Meiselman as "an asshole with no redeeming qualities." This reviewer would prefer instead a "redemptive novel" featuring something other than an "utterly repellent everyman" as protagonist.
It is certainly the case that Meiselman, an "Events and Programs Coordinator" at a suburban Chicago library, is a profoundly flawed human being who has trouble empathizing with others and can only negotiate the world by attending closely to his own sense of well-being, but this really makes him a figure to pity rather than "laugh at" (when we're not wondering if there's a little bit of Meiselman in ourselves). And he is indeed often motivated by envy and resentment, but these feelings are really no more deeply experienced than any other of Meiselman's emotions--Meiselman seems to be most driven by a propensity to dwell on his most immediate sensations and most exigent impulses, especially after he determines that he has in fact spent too much time keeping himself in line and avoiding conflict. His emotional and intellectual superficiality may not be "redeemed" by a more healthy self-awareness at the novel's conclusion (although he does seem chastened by the "trauma" he has endured during the week in his life the novel chronicles), but this seems part of the novel's design: Meiselman's affliction does not seem to be of the sort that can be easily reversed through moral revelation; it seems likely Meiselman will continue muddling through in his own blinkered way.
In his unremitting libidinal urges, Meiselman might seem reminiscent of Philip Roth's obsessive protagonists, but he is much less determined to consummate those urges. His lusting is all in his head (except for an embarrassing interlude at his wife's bedside--literally--when according to custom she is supposed to be off-limits to him). He is both impulsive in scrutinizing his sexual desires and reluctant to indulge them. For several days he becomes preoccupied by a "pink-haired woman" (actually a high school student) he espies in the library, and to whom he is obviously attracted, but while he does scheme to be in her company, to help her out with a paper on Shakespeare she is writing, the scheming goes no farther than that, and she winds up pairing off with Meiselman's rival, Izzy Shenkenberg, a former classmate turned important writer, who has been invited to speak at the library by its director, Ethel Lewinson (also the object of Meiselman's erotic interest). Meiselman is sexually attracted to his wife, Deena, as well, but in this case he has reduced his sexual relations with her to a matter of ritual--every Sunday night--the anticipation of which actually makes him neurotic about it. By the novel's conclusion, Deena is on the verge of leaving him because she has started to find him creepy.
Finally, Meiselman seems more comparable to the protagonist of Bruce Jay Friedman's Stern, the loser who desperately wants to be a winner but hesitates to take strong action, worrying over his problems rather than seeking to resolve them. Meiselman advances toward what its protagonist conceives to be a confrontation between himself and Izzy Shenkenberg, who has written a novel that purportedly includes an unfavorable portrayal of a local rabbi. (Meiselman reads Izzy's book, but doesn't really pay close enough attention to say whether it's a fair criticism or not.) But in his capacity as moderator of the discussion with Shenkenberg, Meiselman mostly avoids confrontation, sticking instead to questions written by Ethel. For his more or less obedient behavior, Meiselman is rewarded at the end of the night by an announcement that Ethel has resigned her position as library director and that Meiselman, ostensibly in line for the job, has been passed over as her replacement. It is a humiliation Stern would appreciate.
But Friedman's character undergoes his travails as a clash between himself as a Jew and a suburban environment still laden with Anti-Semitism. Meiselman traverses an entirely Jewish domain, a Chicago suburb in which the Jews flourish. Stern is to an extent afraid for his life (however overwrought that fear might be); Meiselman feels disrespected within his own community (and by his own family). This makes for a different kind of humor, less "black" and not exactly satirical. If it were true that we are encouraged primarily to "laugh at" Meiselman, such laughter would indeed be cruel, since Meiselman cannot easily alter his behavior--he's a rebellious personality and a dutiful member of his community, and given the familial and cultural constraints to which he customarily defers, it's difficult to see how he would effectively untangle this knot of conflicting influences. Meiselman's behavior is often risible, but we are really laughing at this intrinsic predicament, of which Meiselman himself is only fitfully aware.
Perhaps we would feel more benignant toward Meiselman if he were narrating his own story, but it is told by a third-person narrator, who, although sticking closely to Meiselman's perspective and hewing closely to his thoughts and perceptions, approaches Meiselman's actions with a scrupulous detachment. Meiselman's state of mind is reported fully and accurately, even as these introspections can encourage an unflattering view of our protagonist. This technique contributes to the novel's complex comic tone, and helps to produce a character who, despite a kinship with preceding American Jewish protagonists, is really a singular creation.