Come with us to a place called Brooklyn, where the stories are half-baked and their endings bland and soft
By Melvin Jules Bukiet
September 1, 2007
Something nice this way comes. It begins with the awful—whether it’s as enormous as the Holocaust or the World Trade Center or as intimate as family dysfunction or the death of a loved one—and then finds comfort. None of this Anna on the tracks, Emma in the dumps, or depressing Father Zosima’s corpse smells stuff; that’s sooo 19th century. As for Molly Bloom’s devil may care so let’s screw our brains out attitude, or Humbert Humbert’s twisted sexuality, or Dr. Spielvogel’s “Now vee may perhaps to begin” ironies, they’re clearly the product of 20th-century neuroses.
Instead, let’s just book passage on a gentle, healing voyage. Sound trite? It is, but it’s apparently the literature of our time as exemplified by Jonathan Safran Foer, Myla Goldberg, Nicole Krauss, and Dave Eggers, along with everything McSweeney’s, the magazine founded by Eggers. What this otherwise disparate group of fiction and nonfiction writers share are a special calming effect on the souls of their many readers and, most significantly, a locus in which their work has come to fruition: Brooklyn.
You can see it from Manhattan if you look carefully across the East River. You can even go there if you follow a young couple (he’s got a goatee and she has a ponytail) onto the F train. But if you’re not blessed to reside within walking distance of Prospect Park, you can always read about Brooklyn in the work of the writers who live there or find inspiration there. Brooklyn principles can be found anywhere that young people gather to share their search for love and meaning, a search that they alone are qualified to pursue by virtue of their pristine vision of the deep oneness of things. Whereas physical danger or emotional grief leaves most people lonely or ruined or dead, they triumph over adversity.
To achieve this miracle, certain writers produce Brooklyn Books of Wonder. Take mawkish self-indulgence, add a heavy dollop of creamy nostalgia, season with magic realism, stir in a complacency of faith, and you’ve got wondrousness. The only thing that’s more wondrous than the BBoW narratives themselves is the vanity of the authors who deliver their epistles from Fort Greene with mock-naïve astonishment, as if saying: “I can’t really believe I’m writing this. And it’s such an honor that you’re reading it.” Actually, they’re as vain and mercenary as anyone else, but they mask these less endearing traits under the smiley façade of an illusory Eden they’ve recreated in the low-rise borough across the water from corrupt Manhattan.
Before entering into the passage through wonder, it’s vital to point out that although Flatbush or Cobble or Boerum Hill or Red Hook is the pond into the center of which the pebble drops, the ripples spread. Michael Chabon in the San Francisco Bay Area is both example and slightly elder statesman of wonder. Sue Monk Kidd brings wonder to the rural south, and Alice Sebold finds wonder in heaven above. Benjamin Kunkel even imports it to Manhattan. Brooklyn is a psychic rather than a geographic designation. And yet . . .
Brooklyn’s always been the overlooked sibling among the boroughs. Founded several years before New York, it was swiftly relegated to a role as Manhattan’s unglamorous adjunct. First farms and then factories provided its economic basis. Now back-office space does the same. Until recently, Brooklyn was strictly second choice for residence. Beatniks who couldn’t afford Greenwich Village crossed the river in the ’60s, and yuppies who couldn’t afford Soho moved to Park Slope in the ’80s. Now hipsters who can’t afford the East Village have filled every cranny between soon-to-be evicted bodegas and auto-repair shops with cafés sporting lava lamps on the tables and old record albums tacked to the walls. Inside, a horde of latte-swilling sensitives sit in mismatched chairs and tap at laptops and can’t imagine why they’d ever want to cross the river again. They interpret their migration born of economic necessity as a hegira of moral virtue. Self-righteous sour grapes define their attitude to Gotham.
In short, they’re young. Youth and orphanhood function prominently in BBoWs. In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Foer’s Oskar Schell is a precocious nine-year-old, maybe a prodigy, whose father died in the World Trade Center. In The History of Love, Krauss gives us teenaged Alma Singer, who aims to make her widowed mother a match. Even those books that don’t actually kill off the folks, such as Goldberg’s Bee Season, are chronicles of life with flaky, emotionally absent parents who might as well be physically removed from the lives of their quivering offspring. And Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius begins with the real-life death of the author’s mother and father from different cancers a few months apart. All of these books instantly trigger the “Awww” reflex of narcissistic empathy that makes readers, adoring the proximate cause of their own sensitivity, buy them by the truckload.
Two other kinds of books have children as protagonists. The first are serious novels by serious writers. Beginning in the postwar era with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, this category includes David Grossman’s See Under: Love and The Book of Intimate Grammar and Steven Millhauser’s Edwin Mullhouse. The second group is made up of so-called young-adult novels that ostensibly face “issues” but pull punches for their tender audience. Like many YA novels, which are constructed for a pedagogical market, the BBoWs insist on finding a therapeutic lesson in their dark material.
Unlike Grossman’s books, which are fraught with terror of the half known, and Edwin Mullhouse, which provides a horrifically unredemptive surprise ending, the BBoWs usually toss a child into a situation of extremity and then rescue her from the jaws of narrative. They present both the protagonist and, vicariously, the reader with a problem: Mom’s a shoplifter; Dad’s got cancer; America is a racist place. Then these books surmount the problem in a way that sends a surge of sentimental warmth through readers, who can pretend that they, too, have confronted evil or sorrow and made it through to the other side. Yeah, Mom’s in jail, Dad’s dead, and Jim Crow lives, but the individual has grown through his or her experience, and that’s all that really matters. History and tragedy foster personal growth.
To be specific, let’s start with Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, the suburban but best and most egregious example of wonder because its protagonist, Susie Salmon (“like the fish” she cutely informs us on the first page), has the biggest problem of any in the field. She’s been raped and murdered. Fortunately, Susie has resources that are not usually available to the newly deceased. She’s landed in “her” heaven, a dreamland designed specially for her that includes “peppermint stick ice cream . . . [and] a newspaper where our pictures appeared a lot.” Franny, Susie’s dead “intake counselor,” says things like “Walk the paths . . . and you’ll find what you need,” and helps her check in on those she left behind. Most of her family and friends are pretty devastated by Susie’s disappearance and the discovery of a single elbow bone that implies her fate. Her father is obsessed with finding her killer and her mother has an affair with a detective on the case and then splits to California. The only three who show resilience are Lindsey, her sister; Ray Singh, the cute multicultural guy who’s the one non–family member Susie ever kissed (aside from Mr. Harvey, the killer next door); and Ruth, her best friend, whose soul Susie touched on her way to heaven.
Generally speaking, the sex-murder of an adolescent offers little that’s good. But in The Lovely Bones, mom and pop hook up and so do Ray and Ruth, whose body Susie is allowed to occupy just long enough to have real, true, beautiful sex for once in her afterlife. “I had never been touched like this,” she tells us. “I had only been hurt by hands past all tenderness. But spreading out into my heaven after death had been a moonbeam that swirled and blinked on and off. . . . Inside my head I said the word gentle.” The book ends with a glow.
Every impulse in every sane reader must shriek No! at this pabulum. It’s not lovely that Susie’s been slaughtered, hacked, and dumped in a pit. It’s not lovely that icy Mr. Harvey gets his comeuppance by a conveniently dropped icicle as the pit containing Susie’s body parts is being drained, leading us to assume that her remains will be found and that she will finally get a lovely stone.
Nice thought if you can abide it. Unfortunately, it’s false to all human experience to find “growth” in tragedy. In fact, the dull truth is that pain is tautological. The only thing suffering teaches us is that we are capable of suffering.
According to Jeffrey Sharlet, a journalist/provocateur who helped inspire this essay, and Andi Mudd, a spectacularly unwondrous college student who assisted in researching it, The Lovely Bones and its ilk “deserve a public shaming.” That’s because BBoWs are escape novels, albeit garnished with intellectual flourishes. They’re kitsch, which Milan Kundera defined as “the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling [that] moves us to tears of compassion for ourselves, for the banality of what we think and feel.”
Serious fiction, literature, even if it’s fabulist, sharpens reality. BBoWs elude reality to avoid the taint of anger or cynicism or the passion for revenge felt by real people in similar situations. Instead of telling a story of brute survival, BBoWs indulge in a dream of benign rescue.
As Sebold cleanses Susie Salmon’s personal history of ugliness and pain, so Foer expunges history writ large in both of his novels, Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. In the former, a young man named Jonathan Safran Foer, “the hero,” whose grandfather is a Holocaust survivor, sets out to find Trachimbrod, the Ukrainian village where his ancestors had lived before its obliteration. He has several clever adventures with a local tour guide who mangles English to nifty effect. We also receive a quasi-slapstick, quasi-magic realist saga of the annihilated Jewish towns of the district. And then comes the novel’s single enduring and initially powerful effect. After various false leads in his search for Trachimbrod, Jonathan and his guide encounter a solitary old woman on the steps of a tiny house in this broken country.
There’s a painful conversation in which the old woman tries to avoid admitting what she knows but finally breaks down and announces, “I am it.” Note the present-tense declaration. Despite the deaths of hundreds or thousands of Jews from this specific location and millions more throughout Eastern Europe, she survives, not merely as an individual, but as a repository of an entire history. Trachimbrod lives.
Similarly, in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the narrative propels naïf savant Oskar—he’s a pacifist, a vegan, wears only white—on a quest to discover the meaning of the single word black that his father left behind after an ill-fated meeting in the World Trade Center. Oskar encounters an array of idiosyncratic characters, including the 467th richest person in the world and a 101-year-old man who keeps a wall of masks, all of whom respond to his heart-wrenching search. Foer also provides illustrations. Usually these are literal versions of moments or images within the book, but some include weird typography and suggestive full-page one-liners like “Excuse me, do you know what time it is?” Then we come to the visual conclusion. It ends with a flip book of what appear to be photographs that bring a fuzzy figure of a human being who has jumped from the doomed World Trade Center back toward the top of the page. It was all a bad dream. For the BBoWs, every day is September 10th.
Whether wonder is an expression of extreme depression that cannot abide confrontation with grotesque reality or merely a convenient avoidance of same, it uniformly evokes deep nostalgia for the personal or political past that existed before we came to this pass of maturity or social, national, or international distress. To reiterate: would that it were, but it ain’t.
More realistic than Foer or Sebold only because they’re not overt fantasists, are Dave Eggers, author of the novelistic memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and Benjamin Kunkel, author of the memoiristic novel Indecision. Both search for meaning and quite wondrously find it, Kunkel in political consciousness and Eggers in the “lattice,” a glorious connection of “my people, collective youth, people like me, hearts ripe, brains aglow . . . people who have everything in common no matter where they’re from, all these people know all the same things and truly hope for the same things.”
Prior to salvation via lattice, Eggers’s book begins with the death of both his parents. Rather than palm off younger sibling Toph on relatives, Dave de facto adopts him. They drive to California (“Please look. Can you see us?” he implores readers to join their adventure. “Can you see us, in our little red car?”) and make a life with some old and some new friends. One of those friends is suicidal; another has a terrible accident. Mostly, Dave thinks.
Mostly he thinks about what he’s doing, which is writing about what he’s doing, and he’s smart enough to see through himself at every step of the way. There are notes to “the unspoken magic of parental disappearance” and “the painfully, endlessly self-conscious” nature of his book that will engender “a thousand tidal waves of sympathy” though “most self-revelation is just garbage.” He anticipates all criticism by analyzing “self-aggrandizement as art form” and “self-flagellation as art form” and “self-aggrandizement disguised as self-flagellation as even higher art form,” though in the end we get “a certain hope.” Lest this become too much about Dave, he involves the reader because what’s best of all is that “this can be about you! You and your pals!”
So he says, though he “look[s] with pity upon all the world’s sorry inhabitants, they unblessed by our charms, unchallenged by our trials, unscarred and thus weak, gelatinous.” Maybe I’m taking literally what’s meant to be sarcastic, but beneath the sarcasm lays real disdain. This is most evident at his sister’s wedding, a presumably significant event in Eggers family annals. Instead of extending the lattice, however, the sole, incredibly tepid description he gives of the groom is that he’s “a nice young man named James.” As for the other guests, Dave thinks, “I am not them. I am . . . a hundred years old.”
The flip side of the purity of youth is the wisdom of age. But just as childhood is not sweet, so age does not confer wisdom. A stupid child will become a stupid adolescent, etc., etc., yet BBoWs are filled with venerable graybeards. Beside Eggers’s avowal of antiquity and Foer’s centenarian, there’s a rainbow matriarchy in Sue Monk Kidd’s Secret Life of Bees and the aged Leo Gursky in Nicole Krauss’s History of Love. Of course, Einsteins occasionally walk among us, but they’re not the norm. Then again, normal hundred-year-olds don’t engage in the kind of romantic interlude that Dave and a date have when they effuse about each other’s greatness in a mating call and response for the ages.
“This is abundance.”
“A luxury of place and time . . .”
“Something rare . . . ”
“[A]lmost historically unprecedented.”
“We must do extraordinary things,” they cry until they’re “kissing like warriors saving the world.”
This reader remained unsaved, as apparently did Dave’s suicidal friend, who finally explodes: “Your dad is not a lesson. I am not a lesson. You are not a teacher,” while Dave revels in how all this makes “the experience not cheaper but richer, aha! being that much more layered, the depth luxurious . . . edifying, ramifying . . . the friend and he threatened suicide . . . and above all the recognition of the value of the friend threatening suicide . . . as both life experience and also as fodder for experimental short story or passage in novel.” In other words, “All this did not happen to us for naught.” It happened so that Dave could write a book. It’s theosophy if that’s your preferred brand of holiness.
Throughout this mind-breaking work of staggering self-love, Eggers creates an entire style manual for BBoWs, replete with pop-culture references, preferably those “melding . . . two or more cultural elements, ideally one high and one low.” Zany anecdotal tangents fly off the narrative and within sentences via the BBoWs’s favorite units of typography, dashes, parentheses, and italics (because they’re so bursting with ideas that they’ve got to tell you—now), as well as the aside that inevitably draws attention away from the tale and reflects it back on the teller.
Yes, the prose hops, it’s got a beat, you can dance to it, and sometimes you can laugh out loud at its wit—stop me before I write like him—yet beneath the intellectual hijinks lies a maudlin sensibility.
Of course, his readers love him. Any young man who takes upon himself the parenting of an orphaned younger brother deserves such love as well as the genuine respect of others. And Eggers’s own adoration of “perfect” Toph is truly touching, but his adoration of himself is less so and the contortions with which he acknowledges this, then acknowledges his acknowledgment, can’t obviate the basic wondrousness that has since come to permeate the McSweeney’s circle of loveliness. In fact, the magazine (more like a corporate enterprise with multiple tentacles and spinoffs, including a store and a progressive educational agenda) has published many excellent writers, such as William Vollmann and Lawrence Weschler, but its specialty remains the perception and implicit self-congratulation of wonder.
One example—there are slews—comes from McSweeney’s associated organ, The Believer, in its running profile/interviews titled “Child.” Some gems from the first few issues include Aidan, Esme (named after the story by J. D. Salinger), and Joey. The author of the Aidan piece acknowledges (like Eggers) the stereotypes he’s playing with, but can’t resist the boy with “a bouncy head of unruly cornsilk, quick blue eyes and a large and unpredictable vocabulary, [who] runs and romps, joyfully discovering the world in all its many-splendored glory.” Esme is an “adorable towhead with hair as blond as straw” who goes to a school that “emphasizes arts, creative play and cooperation. All the toys are made from wood. Every day the kids bake fresh bread.” And little Joey knows from the earliest age that she wants to be a fashion designer, “but in the extra-alluring way [of] intelligent, thoughtful, discerning children.” Innocence is exalted even though Joey’s precocious sexuality is sort of scary, and Esme’s school doesn’t seem to understand that childhood is really tribal warfare in ferocious competition for scarce resources. The bread of wonder may be fresh, but it’s half-baked, soft in the middle, and unpalatable.
Just as up to the minute in slangy voice and hip venue as Eggers’s Heartbreaking Work is Indecision, the first novel by the current wunderkind of wonder, Benjamin Kunkel. In this book, protagonist Dwight Wilmerding is at sea. After graduating from college and taking up residence in a crash pad he shares with some buddies on Chambers Street, all he really knows is which girls he likes but can’t commit to. Then he’s offered an experimental drug to help him make decisions, which leads him to accept a vague invitation to visit a former classmate in Ecuador. There he finds true love, a secular form of the easy salvation BBoWs truck in, with Brigid, the sexy Belgian who his sister Alice has secretly set him up with in a sibling ex machina.
Dwight’s maundering and meandering prior to his rescue is reminiscent of Holden Caulfield’s urban peregrinations in The Catcher in the Rye, which Michiko Kakutani picked up on when she fascinatingly reviewed Indecision for The New York Times in the voice of Mr. Caulfield. This makes sense not only because Wilmerding resembles Salinger’s hero, but because, despite its Manhattan-centrism, The Catcher in the Rye may be the ur-BBoW.
To refresh any readers who may have blotted their own adolescent reading of The Catcher in the Rye from memory, you’ve got the snotty young Caulfield on his way home to his parents on Fifth Avenue to give them the bad news that he’s been bounced from Pencey, not his first prep school. In the meantime, he reflects meanly upon some of the other students, calls up an old teacher, and buys a record for his too cute younger sister. Holden’s famous denunciation of the “phonies” of the world and his own inability to see the way he manipulates the reader is radical wonder. He pierces the veil of appearances that adults are too jaded to perceive. He knows; he understands; he dreams of saving anonymous children. He’s utterly phony.
Where Eggers’s memoir ends on the verge of his historic voyage to Brooklyn and McSweeneyworld, Kunkel concludes Wilmerding’s journey with a bizarre political exhortation. He’s come down from the Ecuadorian rain forest to deliver the word. “I wanted to write a memoir that would . . . convinc[e] susceptible and unformed young people to campaign for those better economic arrangements and that fairer disbursal of freedom which, for the sake of efficient reference and inevitable misunderstanding, I had taken to calling democratic socialism.”
The nakedness of Kunkel’s desire to change the world and of Eggers’s angst has an appeal, but it’s simultaneously simple and disingenuous. Both are Salingers of our time. That’s because they embody critic Lionel Trilling’s famous dichotomy; they mistake sincerity for authenticity.
Sharing Dwight Wilmerding’s incipient political consciousness is Lily Owens of Sue Monk Kidd’s Secret Life of Bees. Fourteen-year-old Lily’s dad is a ne’er-do-well redneck, and her mom was maybe sort of accidentally killed by Lily when she pulled a gun out of a drawer a decade earlier, in 1954. But that’s okay because Lily and her tough but loving black nanny Rosaleen enter onto their own path to a new home of wonder. After Rosaleen stands up to local racists who resent the civil rights movement, they’re guided by a mysterious name scribbled on a mysterious label left by Lily’s mom (rather like the message left by Oskar Schell’s dad) and arrive at Tiburon, South Carolina, where three beekeeping sisters, May, June, and August Boatwright, take in the child and teach her that hating folks because of the color of their skin is bad and that chanting and dancing in conga lines with a “sisterhood” of any color is fine.
Lily even meets a nice black boy, Zachary Taylor, whose kisses are “like moth wings brushing [her] lips,” which sets her to “floating on a river of light.” The message is inspiring, the writing moralistically clichéd. Lessons, orphans, fuzzy spirituality, universal amity, The Secret Life of Bees has it all. Kidd ends with Lily in the “center of the universe, where everything is sung to life” and, too perfectly, she “wake[s] up to wonder every day.” It’s pure cornball, historical BBoW.
Back to actual Brooklyn writers, through a different kind of bee, we encounter Myla Goldberg’s world of the less explicitly traumatized but nonetheless wondrous Naumann family. In Bee Season, Goldberg, like Foer, defines people by their quirks, the more idiosyncratic, the deeper the presumed portrayal. So she raises the quirks high as Salingeresque roof beams in the Naumanns. Father Saul has been a searcher since his druggie 1960s student days, but he’s discovered Judaism and become a Kabbalah-studying cantor at a local synagogue. Mom Miriam is supposedly a lawyer but has actually had a brilliant decade-long career as a shoplifter and burglar whose specially chosen stolen objects are used to create a dazzling shrine she calls the “kaleidoscope” in a storage warehouse. Big brother Aaron is turned on by Hare Krishna. Eliza herself is a slightly sad, slightly troubled adolescent. No one pays her much attention until it becomes apparent that she’s got an inexplicable gift for spelling. Her various contests provide the slight narrative between episodes in which the loopy strivings of the various Naumanns take precedence.
Among the book’s tumbling epiphanies is a tikkun/nirvana/whatever that Eliza attains. As Kabbalah teaches her to spell, “her body has become a network of invisible strings, each letter resonating according to its own secrets. Sympathetic vibrations set off by the letters in quickening succession build within her until her entire body is humming. Eliza can sense her skin producing sounds through its pores, a frequency so low she can only feel it, music that sets every nerve tingling until she is no longer aware of the floor, the air, her clothes, her room, the pen that has …. dropped from her hand.”
Though Eliza’s revelation sounds more like Muzak than music, readers everywhere were apparently won over by her charm and the exquisite nonsense of the rest of the questing Naumanns. Not to begrudge success in any form because the BBoWs are one and all (well maybe not Sebold and Kidd) better written than the vast majority of genre books that comprise most bestseller lists, but this is bunk. Along with mothy, soft-core sex, BBoWs feature pallid soft-core religion—aka spirituality—faith without frenzy, without animal sacrifice. When they speak in tongues, they channel voices that suggest Archie and Jughead in a puerile fixation on pop culture, often music (some practically come with CD mixes), and comic books. McSweeney’s did a special issue on comics, and Michael Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay presents two young comic-book artists who have weathered hard times, the latter in urban poverty in Brooklyn and the former in Europe on the brink of the Holocaust. Chabon’s sentences shine with a gloss unequaled this side of Ipswich, and he has a gift for the set piece, be it a Marvel Comics–like equivalent of the Brill Building or a scene in an Antarctic naval station. Any one of these episodes offers satisfaction, but one after the other begins to feel like the comics that these guys write and illustrate. That’s because Kavalier and Clay have no inner life. They are finely inked cartoons without a third dimension.
Not that everything that touches the splendid borough is piffle. Besides BBoWs, Brooklyn has given birth to books ranging from Hubert Selby’s morbid noir Last Exit to Brooklyn to Neil Gordon’s garrotte-tight thriller The Gunrunner’s Daughter. Jonathan Lethem provides a case in point because his imagination is deeply anchored in Brooklyn and he writes of adolescence, especially orphaned adolescence in Motherless Brooklyn, and his narratives are peppered with references to popular culture. However, all of this makes for a mimetic re-creation of genuine experience that he knew as a child on Dean Street rather than as a childish adult on Dean Street. Moreover, Lethem doesn’t pull punches. On the second page of The Fortress of Solitude, a kitten is accidentally killed while the protagonist’s mother smokes cigarettes. Unless it’s Mr. Harvey in The Lovely Bones, no one smokes in BBoWs. They’d as soon smoke as fail to recycle. Also, a daring flight at the end crashes. Perhaps Lethem is striving for wonder, but he’s too smart to let it carry him away. He has, however, been carried away by his imitators. The BBoW authors have adopted Lethem as a surrogate father, and he ought to disinherit them.
Brooklyn has also inspired Emily Barton, whose second novel, Brookland, gives off the strongest BBoW vibes of all. To begin with, there’s that title, with the quaintly antiquated borough name. There’s the initially young protagonist, Prudence Winship (she ages over the course of the book), whose parents die. And there’s her big dream, to build a bridge across the East River, this occurring at the turn of the 19th century before John A. Roebling was a glimmer in his parents’ eyes. There’s even the fuzzy image of a soaring span on the book’s cover.
But ancient adages don’t endure without reason. Brookland can no more be judged by its cover than its title. Prudence Winship is a flesh-and-blood human being who has casual flesh-and-blood sex and experiences ugly emotions like a ferocious sibling rivalry that leads her to level a curse on her younger sister. And her pursuit of her dream is stone and lumber, detail after precise detail of structure and angle. After reading Brookland, you could construct a bridge from her blueprint. Above all, Barton’s book is about the peril of dreams rather than their comfort.
Furthermore, some of the writers of BBoWs also show a capacity for tough-minded, Barton-like development. A second novel by Myla Goldberg and a third book by Dave Eggers travel geographically and emotionally far beyond their initial efforts. Goldberg’s Wickett’s Remedy is set among working-class Bostonians during the influenza epidemic of 1918 and Eggers’s What Is the What takes its protagonist from a ferocious civil war in Africa to ambiguous comfort in America. Perhaps needless to say, neither particularly appealed to the authors’ original readership.
On the other hand, we have The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, in which a manuscript of the same title (note that writing itself is often valorized in BBoWs; Lily Owens yearns to produce “actual books,” Eggers tells us about his “work” as he produces it, and one of Paul Auster’s most recent novels features authors as characters) is nearly consumed by the Holocaust. Written in his native Yiddish during the 1940s by Warsaw writer Leo Gursky, it’s smuggled out of Europe by Leo’s friend, translated into Spanish, and published under the friend’s name, purchased by David Singer, an Israeli wanderer who marries Charlotte, a translator who, years later, is retained to retranslate it into English by the mysterious Jacob Marcus, who is really famous writer Isaac Moritz, who happens to be the son of Leo Gursky but doesn’t know it. Got that? Well take a breath because all of the women in Gursky’s original History of Love are named Alma after his youthful inamorata, as is the daughter of Charlotte Singer. It’s this latter 15-year-old American Alma who sets the plot in motion with an aim to match up her widowed mom with Gursky’s son. Did I mention that Alma’s father, David, died in the interim and the girl gives sections of her notebook tearjerking titles like “I Was Six When My Father Was Diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer”? Unknowingly circling each other throughout the book, Gursky and the fetching semi-reincarnation of his beloved meet on the day of his death.
Krauss’s construct is hugely complex and the dizzying pieces fit immaculately. At least they seem to or Krauss’s dexterous prestidigitation convinced me. Unfortunately her other tricks don’t work so well. The History of Love is rife with gross historical errors. To pick one, Gursky in his 1940s Warsaw days pens a eulogy to the great Russian/Jewish writer Isaac Babel, whose murder was not publicly known until the mid-1950s. More egregious, because it’s an error of sensibility rather than fact, a Yiddish writer of the era would simply not have known of Babel. Krauss, however, knows or knows enough to fake intimacy with a vast cultural tradition by tossing in every imaginable element of Jewish lore and literature. Besides Babel, there are Bruno Schulz (read by precocious Alma), Kafka, and, of course, the evocation of I. B. Singer in Alma’s surname. But this is no more than a graduate-student litany of names, and the book is no more than learned Kunderian kitsch that gives the illusion of peril, but can’t touch the nightmare. The History of Love is like a tugboat, a cute little vessel built out of Alma’s wondrous pseudoprofundities, some of which take up full pages with the likes of “LAUGHING AND CRYING” and then, a better afterthought, “LAUGHING AND CRYING AND WRITING,” while dragging the horrors of genocide behind.
Even poor Leo can’t escape Krauss’s kitsch machine. Excerpts from his opus include excurses on angels—angels!—and parables of wonder. “Having begun to feel, people’s desire to feel grew. They wanted to feel more, feel deeper, despite how much it sometimes hurt. They struggled to uncover new emotions. It’s possible that this is how art was born.” It’s impossible that this pudding go from Yiddish to Spanish to English, enduring the fire of Europe and a flood in South America.
Krauss’s career so far has been a curious one. Her first novel, Man Walks into a Room, was a chilling tale of amnesia that explored cutting-edge cognitive theories about the role that memory plays in consciousness. Unfortunately, the book suffered, as least as far as the market was concerned, from being “too cerebral.” Yet Krauss apparently took this idiotic criticism to heart and said, “Oh, you want soft. Here’s soft.” It’s astounding that she can hit any note that she wants and sad that she wants to hit this note, which sentimentally implies that trauma may be overcome by a young girl’s pluck. The Holocaust, the obliteration of Yiddish culture, the death of Alma’s father, they’re all grist to justify a dubiously redemptive wonder.
Some of the tropes of wonder go all the way back to Betty Smith’s seminal 1943 coming-of-age novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in which teenage Francie Nolan eventually has to deal with the death of her father. A Tree is straightforwardly realistic, yet Smith seems to have eaten of a tree of wonder when she wrote a piece for the Sunday, December 12, 1943, New York Times Magazine titled “Why Brooklyn Is that Way.” In it, she blissfully chimed: “There is something indefinable about Brooklyn that makes it different from New York. . . . Everything changes when the subway crosses the Williamsburg Bridge. . . . High up on the Els [sic] tracks above the Brooklyn streets the passengers sniff fresh air that has the tang of the sea. . . . There is a feeling that somehow there is more time for everything. . . . The train seems to run slower than it did in New York and the sound it makes on the Brooklyn rails is quiet and rhythmic instead of important and harsh.”
Wonder, however, doesn’t grow on trees, and the BBoWs have a complex lineage that courses from Smith through J. D. Salinger to recent progenitors of the genre, some of whom include Paul Auster and Mark Helprin. Auster, a godfather figure to these who are actual Brooklyn residents, has long trucked in woolly mysticism, but his early books also had a strongly abstract, alienating effect that evaporated once he crossed the East River. His recent novels Oracle Night and The Brooklyn Follies involve authors and internal narratives by those authors, magical notebooks and last-minute legacies that prove the cosmic necessity of chance. At the end of Oracle Night, when, despite a few minor deaths, everything turns out fine, protagonist Sidney Orr sobs, then shares, “I don’t know how long I carried on like that, but even as the tears poured out of me, I was happy, happier to be alive than I had ever been before. It was a happiness beyond consolation, beyond misery, beyond all the ugliness and beauty of the world.”
More explicitly fabulous than Auster is Mark Helprin, whose Winter’s Tale uses magic realism to imbue a gritty city with fairy-tale coziness. The novel takes several waifs through trials and tribulations and redeems them. Unfortunately, Helprin was banished from the precincts of wonder when he turned into—or revealed himself to have always secretly been—a neocon and insisted in his nonfiction that the world is a dangerous place. This is especially ironic because the BBoW authors who have learned from him are fundamentally conservative. Though the individual authors are vociferously leftist, they remember and yearn for Ronald Reagan’s blissed-out Morning in America, during which they spent their formative years. Or maybe they’ve harbored resentments all along and their books are the revenge of the boomers’ children. Coddled and cosseted, they’re the first generation of novelists who grew up reading the young-adult pap that they’ve now regurgitated with a deconstructive gloss learned in college. Of course, such aspirations require equivalently high subject matter. Hence the BBoWs’s mock encounter with enormity. Still, they have no teeth. They’re sheep in wolves’ clothing who manage to write about bad things and make you feel good.
So what’s so terribly wrong with all this? BBoWs are benign and smart and claim important antecedents (Krauss’s pantheon, Auster’s nods to Borges and Calvino, Foer’s echoes of Günter Grass before the latter’s recent . . . um . . . awkwardness), and some are stunning prose stylists (Eggers and Chabon and Krauss) who clearly have literary talent to spare. That’s precisely why their books are more insidious than simpler genre novels wherein people manage to triumph over trauma.
In fact, trauma’s never overcome. That’s what defines it. Your father is dead, or your mother, and so are most of the Jews of Europe, and the World Trade Center’s gone, and racism prevails, and sex murders occur. What is, is. The real is the true, and anything that suggests otherwise, no matter how artfully constructed, is a violation of human experience.
Melvin Jules Bukiet is a novelist and professor at Sarah Lawrence College.
Comments are closed for this post.