Jun 242009

I tend to gravitate towards all topics gritty and weird. I’m quite comfortable if that causes you to judge me; for the record, I’m not sure your tastes can be trusted either. Anyway, my idea was to read James Frey’s, A Million Little Pieces, and Denis Johnson’s, Jesus’ Son, back-to-back, and then compare the two. I had some vague notion it would be interesting to compare nonfiction to fiction and all that. Well, the concept turned out to be a drag for a number of reasons not worthy of mention. Suffice to say, others have flayed, crucified, and incinerated Mr. Frey with much more skill and insight than my humble efforts would ever yield.

However cliché Little Pieces might be, I found it entertaining. I started to write some thoughts down and pecked out a few hundred words. Only then, I found John Dolan’s articulate evisceration and thought “why bother.” My reaction to Frey was not nearly as rabid as Dolan’s, but his extended rant on what’s wrong with the book is much funnier than mine could ever be.

In the twenty-first century, books about addiction and substance abuse hardly howl from the margins of society. After Burroughs, Selby, Bukowski, Thompson, and…And…realizing just how long this list could go, I’ll end with Dr. Thompson. But yes, after all that, it is hard to not squint one eye when surveying yet another book, or even a short story, about drug use.

That said, you’d be hard pressed to find an anthology of contemporary short fiction that did not contain Denis Johnson’s “Emergency.” By the way, I have no statistical proof to back up this claim; if some clever jerk decides to go out and actually do the math, my position is clear. Regardless, the story is ubiquitous, yet somehow I managed to not read the entire collection it came from, Jesus’ Son, until this year. Johnson’s collection is all about getting high, being high and all the nutso things one does while high that seems to make good sense at the time. The book has gritty weirdness in spades. One of the central forces of style in play is that insane actions are reported in a deadpan tone as though they were perfectly normal. Of course they are not normal, but the protagonist is nearly always blasted on some kind of chemical, or recovering from one. So, because all the stories are told in first person, the ongoing psychic reality is going to be one that is insane. For example, at the end of the first story, the protagonist hallucinates a box of cotton balls screaming in pain just before a nurse administers an injection that will knock him out. With this move, Johnson lets the reader know that the protagonist is quite aware of just how sick he is. Once that self awareness has been established, the reader should understand the protagonist as someone who will deliver a story as truthfully as a substance abuser is able.

Johnson’s perspective and style of narrating the insanity of addiction is unique. Quirky. He manages to find interesting images and situations that cause me to laugh while cringing. One of many challenges that writing presents me is finding fresh ways of approaching events, images, and dialogue. My early drafts, and many of my later ones, are full of interesting moments that are riddled with clichés. For me, the clichés are often clumsy placeholders. The trick is to then go back and look for a fresh(er) way to relate that moment. So, a specific reason I see Johnson as successful is that he finds new angles to look ugliness of addiction without being didactic, preachy, or cliché. Nor does he romanticize use or users. On the other hand, there really are some remarkably interesting and beautiful images evoked in this collection that are related through a prose style that has a raw, elegant quality to it. While reading this collection, I felt as though Johnson was relating his truth through fiction in a way that made the idea of a memoir irrelevant.

Of course, as someone who writes fiction, I am biased. I freely admit that I think the whole idea of nonfictional narratives is one that is fatally flawed. Like, if a writer is working with their memory as some kind of Oulipo restriction that involves intent, then I can dig it. But if they take themselves seriously as someone who is writing a ‘truer’ version of things, well, I can’t see that as anything besides wishful thinking.

I’ve yet to read Johnson’s novel, Tree of Smoke. But, after finishing Jesus’ Son, I’d be willing to drop a couple of bucks on it.

Jun 182009

Upon finishing the novel Platform, I felt as though Michel Houellebecq could have written a great book. Instead, he wrote a mediocre book containing flashes of brilliance. To be sure, he was getting at all the right issues when exploring the novel’s central theme of sexual tourism: the economic reality of the phenomenon; the culture of global capitalism; the impotence of service economies; the cultural fallout/repercussions of global, western corporatism; and the melancholic irony of failed communist states that now tacitly commodify its citizens. Yes – I could add more to that list; and to my mind, almost any serious attempt at exploring those issues would at least make a novel worth the effort to read and evaluate. If I were a postmodernist scholar, Platform would provide fertile soil for quite a few conference papers. However, I am a merely a fiction writer; one who toils at becoming better at my craft. That is the lens I read through. Therefore, I want to talk about where/why this book succeeds and fails.

For me, one of the most irritating things that can occur in a novel, is for it to start out resoundingly good then take a dramatically wrong turn. In contrast, if my expectations are low then I will take such turns in stride. It is when I know that the author can do better that I get pissed off. Sadly, the first five chapters of this novel are seared into my memory as being good. In fact, they are bone jarringly good, which makes later disappointments that much harder to swallow. Houellebecq starts out delivering a first person narrative that is as honest as it is relentless; shoving the reader’s face right into ugly, contemporary issues without being didactic. The beginning of this narrative is both fearless and insightful. The reader looks at the world through the eyes of the protagonist Michel: an unapologetic sexual tourist. Houellebecq does not squander the opportunity of utilizing a self-aware, intelligent character who reflects upon issues in a disinterested fashion even as he moves through life as a kind of sexual zombie. The first three chapters gave me a lot to think about. Early on, Houellebecq has a number of voices sounding off in the debate, as he mercilessly lampoons bourgeois, European, tourists and tour-culture. The first section is darkly comic, and beautifully written. Then, out of the blue, Houellebecq begins the sixth chapter with unexplained exposition that reads as a sort of half assed third person omniscient PoV coming from Michel’s future girlfriend Valerié. The reader is given intimate details about Valerié’s early sexual experiences in a clumsy and gratuitous fashion that completely undermines the credibility the author has worked so hard to earn. This is not a minor disruption. Houellebecq switches perspective without telling the reader how or why it occurs. The author could have done any of a number of things to provide a transition for the reader: he might have created a pseudo-meta-moment where he alludes to the fact this is a book being written in retrospect before his suicide; or simply say that he later discovered the details of his future girlfriend’s childhood from her; or he could have indicated that he does not know all the facts allowing for a much more interesting and nuanced story. He does not make any of these moves. Instead, the reader is merely given the information in a herky-jerky fashion, and the first person narrative resumes.

That minor hiccup would be forgivable. What is unforgivable is second part of the novel, which takes place in Paris. The forty-year-old human sinkhole that was introduced in the beginning of the story proceeds to have an inexplicable love affair with a twenty-seven-year-old woman whose primary motivations seem ripped directly from a Penthouse letter. Michel asks the exact question that the reader wants answered: “What do you see in me? I’m not particularly handsome, I’m not funny; I find it difficult to understand why anyone would find me attractive” (99). In lieu of articulating a plausible verbal response, Valerié provides fellatio with raspberry jam. Fear not. It gets worse. Valerié is conveniently a tireless sex machine: morning, noon, night; she is perpetually ready to service or be serviced by Michel. Valerié has a career, makes a great salary, and lives in a palatial apartment. After she has worked an eighteen hour day, Valerié is portrayed as always grateful for either Michel’s penetration, or the opportunity to provide him with oral sex. I’m sure that middle-aged civil servants the world over salute the author’s imagination. To add insult to an already damaged narrative, the novel also begins to follow the career of her boss Jean-Yves. The reader is forced to endure chapter after chapter of tedious exposition regarding the life of corporate executives, as they give reports, and go to business meetings. Of course, in between there are details if Michel and Valerié having sex, or the miserable minutia of Jean-Yves perfunctory marriage.–Yawn.

Midway through the story, I remembered a very funny moment that had occurred early on; when Michel, sickened by clichéd, formulaic American novels, ends up burying several books on a beach in Thailand. I have to wonder if this middle passage is not some sort of parody gone terribly wrong. Is Houellebecq’s intent to be ironic, and I am just not in on the joke? Maybe there is something I am missing out on by not reading it in French. Regardless, the book never leaves first person, but the reader is expected to accept that Michel somehow has access to details of other character’s actions he could not possibly know. This book would not have worked third person, but Houellebecq could have found a more skillful way of dealing with the issue of 1st person.

The clumsy handling of this twilight zone exposition is exacerbated by the lack of anything significant occurring within the story. The characters are stagnant and flat, and the plot plods along. Working as travel industry executives, it is quite obvious that Valerié and Jean-Yves are going to make a foray into sexual tourism on a global scale. Once this finally occurs, Houellebecq begins to pick up steam again, as he makes a few half-hearted allusions of sending up the scheme as a metaphor for twenty-first-century imperialism. The reader is told of violent rapes and street gangs annihilating one another while our facile trio proceed to plot their sexual/financial conquest within the heights of an office building; but that is about as far as the author goes. I found myself wondering where this writer was for the last one hundred pages.

The second half of the novel partly redeems itself when Michel pitches the idea of a sexual tourism themed getaway at the town of Baracoa. Baracoa Cuba is the bay where Christopher Columbus first dropped anchor, and began to enslave, rape, and slaughter the first indigenous tribe he discovered. The significance of the launching of this fictional venture against the backdrop of that particular location, a location whose history includes both the Conquistadors and Communist Guerillas, is a brilliant postmodern moment. Finally, Houellebecq is back on track as Michel processes the ramifications of his actions even as he acts as a catalyst to bring the scheme about. At this point, the author has developed the protagonist, but to my mind he has not earned the series of events that are to follow. In short, I read the second half because the author had grabbed me by the lapels early on, and I knew what he was capable of. But, this is what I expected from cover to cover.

In an interview, Harry Crews talks about the responsibility of a writer when they know the story has taken a wrong turn. To paraphrase: Crews says that a writer has to have the courage to destroy any forward progress made the moment one realizes that the story has taken a wrong turn. If you do not have the balls to do that then you are a sham. I think the comment is dead on. Reading the first and last sections of this novel, I cannot believe that Houellebecq did not know he had completely botched the middle. For whatever reason, he forged ahead and created a book worth reading- but barely. To me that seems a damned shame. To be so close to getting at something gritty and true, and to then just chuck it for the sake of completion is a waste. Houellebecq certainly has the potential to write a brilliant novel, a great novel,and one worth recommending; Platform is not that novel.