Message in a Bottle
Mere Realism Doesn’t Thrill Me At All

As I sit in the wood-paneled study atop my ivory tower, hemmed in on all sides by esoteric works of fiction, I begin to wonder how I came to this place. On one wall are slim volumes that refract and reflect each other like a Borgesian hall of mirrors, and on another are fat epics of Pynchonian complexity overstuffed with arcane and useless learning. In between are multi-authored novels in verse that make myth out of the Golden Age of Hollywood; plays that shift their characters achronologically through times past, present, and future; histories that masquerade as novels masquerading as histories; unfinished fragments by sickly Latin American geniuses; and futuristic stories told by narrators so unreliable that they call into question my existence as well as theirs.

Why must everything I read be so damn tricksy, and why am I not satisfied with simple tales straightforwardly told? After much self-examination I’ve come to realize that the foundation of the baroque structure that is my literary taste was laid quite early, and not by my own hands. The reader I am today is built entirely on two books given to me when I was barely out of the crib. It’s not my fault, in other words. I blame my parents.

They couldn’t have known the damage they were causing, of course. What harm could lie behind the shiny binding of a Little Golden Book? There were clues, though. What normal story can’t wait for the first page to start, instead beginning right on the cover? The Monster at the End of This Book: Starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover plunges you immediately into the maelstrom. Before it’s even opened, the grinning title Muppet is already greeting his soon-to-be acolytes with a friendly “Hello, everybodeee!” Before you’ve had a chance to take in the title page, Grover is already commenting on it as “very dull.” And things get slipperier from there.

Suddenly shocked by his recollection of the title, Grover fears what he’ll encounter at the end of the book and begs the reader not to go on: “Oh, I am so scared of monsters!” He constructs ever more intricate barricades of rope, wood, brick, and steel, but even a toddler knows that these are only ink on paper, no obstacles to a a determined page turner bent on reaching the dramatic conclusion. The pleas grow more impassioned and the suspense ratchets up until the ultimate twist arrives—the dreaded monster is Grover himself. Relief and chagrin ensue for the protagonist, along with a heady swirl of ideas for at least one young lap-bound listener. The fourth wall shattered! Identity destabilized! The once-transparent page made glaringly visible! The step from sunny Sesame Street to the darkness of Barth’s metafictional funhouse was a short one.

Perhaps I could have turned from that path if not for P.D. Eastman. His Go, Dog. Go! fatally fed my appetite for complexity and experimentation in prose. Even the name of his book is elaborately punctuated, for the love of Melville! What chance did I have? G,D.G! begins with deceptive simplicity, as a reportorial account: “Dog. / Big Dog. / Little Dog. / Big dogs and little dogs.” But the facts accumulate exponentially as dogs of all hues parade dizzyingly past, until a blooming, buzzing, hyperreal confusion is achieved. The dogs play and work, swim and ski, drive cars and fly zeppelins (are those goggles and scarves steampunk prototypes?). They ride roller coasters and wander through labyrinths. Yes, labyrinths. This is no mere picture book, but a phantasmagorical encyclopedia, the Ulysses of its kind.

David Markson described his own work as “Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like,” but he might well have been talking about Eastman’s. Instead of a single storyline there’s a series of continually interrupted scenes written in different styles and registers. Two dogs meet cute and enact a near-Beckettian playlet about a displeasing hat. Optimistic dogs enjoy the sun; pessimistic ones complain about the heat. The driving dogs stop for repairs. A new hat fails to impress. Three dogs have a party on a boat at night that’s so sad and comic it would make Padgett Powell laugh and Charles Portis cry. The cars approach a mysterious tree. The hats grow grander and the rejections more stinging. And then the threads join in a spectacular, colorful, climactic snarl, a two-page spread that rivals Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights in imaginative detail. What a dog party!

After that, the deluge. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, they say, so drink deep or taste not the postmodern spring. I slaked my unholy thirst by swigging from The Phantom Tollbooth, and then things got blurry for a while. I woke up in a pile of Barthelme shorts and it was like I didn’t care any more. My habit got so bad at one point that I could get through a brick of Gaddis in a weekend. I tried to wean myself off the stuff by switching to the Russians, but Tolstoy and Chekhov led to Bely and Bulgakov and I was right back where I started.

It’s not so bad here in the Library of Babel, really. It’s not crowded, for one thing, so I don’t have to fight for first dibs on that new novel by the obscure Romanian with the unpronounceable name. Still, I sometimes wish my folks had made different choices for me. Dick and Jane, perhaps? Then maybe the straight dope would be enough for me.

—James

This piece was first published at bookriot.com.

A Preview Instead of a Review

Around here we generally write about books we’ve already read, but to avoid staleness, I’m going to switch things around today. Instead of talking about something I know is good, I’m pausing at the moment of peak expectation to talk about a novel I hope is great.

A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava tells the story of Casi, a public defender in New York who’s never lost a case, but more than that, it’s a “huge, ambitious novel … told in a distinct, frequently hilarious voice, with a striking human empathy at its center. Its panoramic reach takes readers through crime and courts, immigrant families and urban blight, media savagery and media satire, scatology and boxing, and even a breathless heist worthy of any crime novel.” Or so the flap copy says. In this case I’m inclined to believe the publisher’s spin, partly because the book is also getting endorsements from critics I respect. For example, Steven Moore, author of The Novel: An Alternative History, lends his support: 

"Sergio De La Pava brings linguistic energy and grim hilarity to this furious novel about the dysfunctional criminal-justice system. His novel evokes such maximalist masterpieces of the 1970s as Robert Coover’s Public Burning and William Gaddis’s J R—he has Coover’s rage and Gaddis’s ear—yet also grapples with current issues hot off the AP wire. Socially engaged, formally inventive, and intellectually challenging, A Naked Singularity is a remarkable performance.”

Maybe that kind of recommendation doesn’t sell everyone, but it pushes the right buttons for me. This by itself would be enough to make me want to read it. It’s the story behind the story, though, that pushes the needle into the range of actual excitement.

A Naked Singularity has just been released in paperback by the University of Chicago Press, yes, but it was originally self-published back in 2008. De La Pava queried 88 agents, all of whom passed on his complex but entertaining novel, before opting to go it alone, trusting that his voice would eventually be heard by the right audience. By 2010, his book had reached a handful of lit bloggers and independent booksellers who agreed that this debut work could duke it out with any other famous veteran heavyweight, and they started spreading the word about it. A tiny but fervent cult developed, and that’s when I trundled over to my neighborhood Espresso Book Machine and had a copy manufactured for myself.

I’m not sure why I didn’t read it right then, but I know it had something to do with not being able to easily share the book, or the idea of the book, with others. When you’re in the business of selling stories, I think you tend to gravitate toward the ones that are part of a public conversation. If customers ask what you’re reading and the answer is completely unrecognizable, they’re not confident that you’ll be able to understand their own tastes and opinions—they have a hard time judging your judgment, so to speak. My awkwardly-printed copy (the text on the spine is misaligned and wraps halfway onto the front cover) has been waiting patiently for my interest to ripen, and harvest day is finally at hand.

To celebrate the new, wider release of the novel, one of the web journals that first championed it is hosting a group read, and I’m joining in. I’m a few days behind, but planning to catch up fast if A Naked Singularity is anywhere near as good as advertised. Even if it proves to be not quite all that, it’s pleasant to savor the moment of anticipation before plunging in—it feels like the first day of summer for a schoolkid, or looking at the pile of shiny presents under the tree on Christmas morning.

—James

Torn from Yesterday’s Headlines

As a part of the relentless, fast-paced, modern media landscape, Message in a Bottle is always hungry for content. Stay fresh! Stay current! That’s our motto. So what’s in the news right now? Well, there’s that proposal to build a new multipurpose sports stadium in Seattle. Must be something bookish we can tie into that. I know—fans will love Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing by Jim Yardley. The NBA is back in session and appears to be recovering from its alienating lockout, which forced many US stars to find temporary work by playing abroad. Partly because of their experiences, and even more so because of the influx of exciting talent from other shores (think Manu Ginobili, Dirk Nowitzki, and Ricky Rubio), Americans are becoming more aware of basketball as a global phenomenon. And let’s not forget about Linsanity—Jeremy Lin's outstanding performance and ethnic heritage have helped shine a light on the feverish world of the Chinese professional leagues. What better time to release (and talk about) a book on this very subject? It's a travelogue, a fun fish-out-of-water tale, and also an informative take on the big business of entertainment.

Readers of a less jockish persuasion may want to seek out Jim Bouton’s Foul Ball, the story of his attempt to spend his own money restoring a historic, municipally-owned minor league baseball stadium in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The only thing that stood in his way was a competing plan, thrice rejected by local voters, that involved tearing down the landmark and replacing it with a new facility to the tune of 18.5 million dollars in taxpayer funding. Logic would dictate that this be a very short book: “The good guys win. The end.” Of course, things in the real world never play out that easily. Foul Ball is partly a sports book, but even more it’s an exceptionally sharp look at civic politics. It’s must reading, really, for anyone interested in how government and the private sector interact behind closed doors.

That casts a pretty wide net, but maybe we need something with even broader appeal to capture the massive audience we’re seeking. What’s a trendy issue that touches everyone? Aha—the economy. Even Clint Eastwood's interested in that. Depending on who's making a speech, we're either still in darkest crisis or beginning to see the light. Regardless, we all know that a huge mess was made and we're in the cleanup phase. There are plenty of non-fiction accounts to explain how we got into this situation, but sometimes facts aren't enough to make us feel what the ride was like. That's where storytelling comes in, and that's why it's the perfect time for a paperback release of Williams Gaddis's National Book Award-winning novel J R.

It may look a little intimidating from the outside because of its size, and its lack of chapter breaks may ratchet up the anxiety, but brush those fears aside. It’s a masterfully arranged chaos of conversation that never fails to amuse and illuminate, and it’s by far the best fictional portrayal of the American financial system. The theme is clear from the first word of dialogue (“Money”) and throughout the novel every character, whether banker or bohemian, is subjected to the whims of the market. The whirlpool of plot is set in motion by the title character, an eleven-year-old boy who proves that a little knowledge is a very dangerous thing, taking a worthless share of penny stock and his book-learned business sense and parlaying them into a vast, speculative paper empire that will inevitably crash down on everyone around him. J R's aims are serious, but its tone is not—it's pure satire with the anarchic spirit of the Marx Brothers, and it actually makes the idea of mortgage bubbles and corporate bailouts funny. Anyone who reads it will find daily reports from the Wall Street Journal to be more absurd and yet more intelligible than ever. Be assured, there's not a more topical book to be found than this one.

Did I mention that it was first published in 1975? J R launches his projects from a payphone instead of sending text messages, but otherwise you might not notice. It speaks just as clearly and truthfully as it did thirty-seven years ago, and it’s highly likely that generations to come will say the same. Books have a shelf life longer than almost any other form of art or entertainment, and the greatest ones stay fresh endlessly. Instead of responding to a continually changing environment, they create their own and settle down in it. Every now and then the rat race circles around again to bring them into view and we wonder how they got so far ahead of us. They remind us that sometimes it’s better to let the moment catch up than it is to chase it. That’s why Message in a Bottle likes to bring you the news, but also the olds.

—James

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