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Skippy Dies Is Hilarious, But Don’t Laugh

By Leon Neyfakh
Monday, September 27th, 2010

Skippy DiesIf there is a literary equivalent to movies that mix live action and animation a la Cool World and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Paul Murray’s darkly cartoonish novel Skippy Dies is it. Set in a so-so Catholic boarding school near Dublin, the book centers around the undoing of two 14-year-old boys, one lovesick and shy, the other cheerfully nerdy and enchanted by science.

Here’s an email that the nerdy one, Ruprecht Van Doren, sends into outer space early in the book as part of his search for extraterrestrial life:

Greetings, fellow intelligent life-forms! I am Ruprecht Van Doren, a fourteen-year-old human boy from planet Earth. My favourite food is pizza. My favourite large animal is the hippo. Hippos are excellent swimmers despite their bulk. However, they can be more aggressive than their sleepy demeanour might suggest. Approach with caution!!! When I finish school, I intend to do my PhD at Stanford University. A keen sportsman, my hobbies include programming my computer and Yahtzee, a game of skill and chance played with dice.

One of the feisty wiseacres Ruprecht hangs around with reads this and thinks it’s really stupid. “Who the hell’s going to want to reply to that?” he says. “It’s the gayest e-mail I ever heard.”

Later in the book — the same book! — Ruprecht loses his faith in science and math, stops speaking, and grows obese from grief following the sudden death of Skippy, his best friend and roommate. That’s how all over the place this long, bumpy novel is: one minute you’re LOLing at the incredibly funny dialogue between the kids and the next you’re barely holding it together in the face of Murray’s unflinching rendering of adolescent despair and disillusionment. This is not just black humor, either, nor absurdist horror — Skippy does actually die, and there is actually a cause, and someone is actually responsible. And contrary to what you might think based on the novel’s jaunty title and deceptively smiling flap copy, his death is treated not as a joke but as a tragedy.

And while it’s undoubtedly the novel’s central event, it’s also just one of many emotionally punishing plot lines that take up its 660 pages. These plot lines — about unrequited love, about drugs, about becoming an adult and resigning oneself to life as an orthodontist — unfold one top of the other, with Murray shifting his attention every time one short chapter ends and another begins. Murray fights on a bunch of different fronts at once, and to his credit, it’s only very late in the game that you realize — and start getting distracted by — how all the stories he’s telling fit together thematically. Spoiler alert: the book is “about” history, memory, and the crushing asymmetry of our lawless universe.

For all that, Skippy Dies is at its best when Murray is trying to be funny. My favorite bit takes place when Ruprecht and the boys are trying to come up with a way for Skippy to prevail over his rival in love, and Dennis — the same fellow who earlier taunted Ruprecht for his email to the space aliens — proposes building a death ray and evaporating the guy.  Ruprecht dismisses this as a bad idea, on the basis that “violence never solved anything,” and Dennis disagrees. “Violence solves everything, you idiot, look at the history of the world,” he says. “Any situation they have, they dick around with it for a while, then they bring in violence.” Later on Dennis flips out when he finds out he’s supposed to play the bassoon in a quartet with Ruprecht as part of a concert celebrating the school’s 140th anniversary: “I’ll saw my hands off,” he declares, “before I appear on stage with you and your Orchestra of Gays!”

There are lots like this. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the word “gay” used in the pejorative sense to greater comic effect than it is in Skippy Dies. And if that’s not your cup of tea, rest assured that the punch lines in this book are plentiful and varied: some are meant to make you laugh, while others take the form of virtuosic turns of phrase and improbably resonant metaphors. A man is tormented by visions of the woman he loves standing on the deck of an ocean cruiser with her fiance, draped in a “garland of muscular arms.” Skippy stares at a girl “uncomprehendingly, like she’s a new letter of the alphabet.” Skippy’s father, at a loss for how to talk to his son on the phone, hides his discomfort by covering himself with “pieces of dads from TV.” These are great phrases, and the regularity with which they appear throughout Skippy Dies makes the book a page-turner because one so looks forward to coming across more of them.

Come for the gay jokes, stay for the prose. Just don’t come expecting some kind of funhouse fairy tale.

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Author Lauren Kunze on Writing about Harvard in The Ivy

By Leon Neyfakh
Monday, September 20th, 2010

Lauren Kunze’s The Ivy is a book for teenagers about a Harvard freshman’s tumultuous love life. It is the first in a four-book series being published by the Greenwillow imprint of HarperCollins. Kunze was an English major at Harvard; she graduated in 2008 and has spent the past two years moving from city to city every couple of months trying to figure out where she wants to live. She spent this past summer in New York, and as of this writing she’s back in her hometown of Oakland, California, where she has just completed the manuscript for the second book in her series.

With The Ivy, Kunze enters a proud tradition of Ivy League-themed young adult literature — a mini-genre that includes Diana Peterfreund’s Secret Society Girl, which is about a fictionalized version of Yale; Robin Hazelwood’s Model Student, about Columbia; and of course, Kaavya Viswanathan’s plagiarism-ridden How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, the story of a high school girl who is forced to become fun in order to appear well-rounded before Harvard’s admissions board.

It was the appearance — and disappearance — of Viswanathan’s book that inspired Kunze to try to write a novel about Harvard, she told THIRTEEN in a phone interview. “I was sitting around talking with Rina, my roommate, and I was like, ‘Huh, all you have to do is write a young adult book that mentions Harvard and it’ll do really well!’ Obviously, her book didn’t do really well — but it was kind of a ‘how hard could it be’ moment.”

Ms. Kunze and her roommate — Rina Onur, now a financier in Turkey — came up with a rough sketch for what would become The Ivy, in which a clumsy California girl named Callie tries to find happiness on a campus full of ambitious, monied jerks after her high school boyfriend breaks up with her via email. In the process, Callie develops multiple crushes on boys, attends exclusive parties at social clubs, and pursues a spot on the staff of a magazine called Fifteen Minutes, the weekend supplement of the Harvard Crimson, which your blogger happened to work on in college and whose depiction he was thus very curious to read.

Below, a condensed and edited Q&A with Kunze about the origins of her book, her love life at Harvard, and the strange realities of the contemporary publishing industry:

Bookish: Did you figure the entire time you were at school that you’d write a book about Harvard?

Lauren Kunze: No. I definitely had a dream about becoming a writer one day and thought that it would be one of the coolest jobs ever. But it’s kind of a fantasy profession so I almost view this book as an experiment to see if I could actually support myself as a writer.

B: How did you find a publisher?

LK: So, senior year, [Michael Pietsch] from Little, Brown, who published Kaavya’s book, came to give a talk in front of all the English majors. It was supposed to be for people who were potentially interested in going into the publishing industry. I think half of the people in there were trying to figure out how they could get published themselves. Someone asked if he accepted unsolicited manuscripts and he said, ‘No, but if someone gets a hold of my personal email and sends me a very interesting letter, I’ll read it.’ So after the talk I went up to him and said, ‘I’m going to need your personal email address, because I’m going to send you a very interesting letter.’ I think he was really surprised but he gave it to me. Then I drafted with Rena this pitch for the novel and sent it in, and he was interested and passed it on to an editor. None of the book had been written at that point, so I then basically tabled my thesis for a week and wrote the first three chapters and sent them in. Several months later I got a rejection letter from the editor’s assistant saying that the book seemed “YA.” And so I figured that was it. But then a few more weeks later — it was spring break at this point — I got another email from an editor at one of their young adult divisions asking to see the chapters. So I sent them and and got no response again. So finally I emailed her and said, you know, “I’m assuming you’re not interested based on the fact that you haven’t responded, but if you have any feedback that’d be great.” So she actually sent me some very thoughtful feedback on the first few chapters. And this was the first thing I’d ever written creatively, so I had no idea what I was doing. But based on her feedback I felt like I could sort of start over and finish it. And then I did. And after that experience, I wanted to go to the more traditional route of finding an agent first and then having her deal with the publishing houses. So in late November, early December, 2008, I signed with an agent and then she sold it in March 2009. I finished it before querying agents, so it was already done then. It required about three times as much editing in terms of time as it did to write it, but there was a completed manuscript when I got an agent.

B: Did you figure the entire time you’d write a book about Harvard?

LK: No. I definitely had a dream about becoming a writer one day and thought that it would be one of the coolest jobs ever. But it’s kind of a fantasy profession so I almost view this book as an experiment to see if I could actually support myself as a writer.

B: How much of the stuff in the book really happened?

LK: Obviously not all of it, thank goodness. I actually lived in Wigglesworth in a four person suite across from four guys, and so the dynamic of the dorm room is pretty authentic. And the last chapter is based on a real Harvard-Yale incident from sophomore year. I was never on the Crimson or Fifteen Minutes, so a lot of the details about the comp process [what happens when you're trying to join an organization at Harvard] were completely fabricated. And just FM in general — it’s a fictional version. I don’t think it’s similar to the real magazine.

B: Did you really comp FM?

LK: I didn’t. I would have considered possibly comping the Lampoon or the Advocate – a lot of people have asked me why I didn’t do either of those — but the honest truth is I didn’t even really hear about them till the end of sophomore year. I guess I’m not really a joiner.

B: When I was an editor at FM there was a lot of hand-holding and worrying about whether we were hurting the compers’ feelings. It wasn’t the cutthroat, exclusive club you describe in the book, and there was no mean, powerful monster at its helm.

LK: Yeah. When I said the fictional FM is very different from the real FM, I think that’s sort of what I meant. In the world of The Ivy it was necessary to have the magazine be this powerful, widely read, and revered publication that freshmen would want to join and an evil upperclassman character would sort of run. But that doesn’t align with my experience of FM in reality. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way — FM was a magazine I knew existed and saw from time to time.

B: Did you read a lot of Ivy League-themed YA literature when you were preparing to write this book?

LK: No. I had actually never read a book that was classified in the young adult genre before. When the editor’s assistant who sent me that first rejection letter told me the book ‘seemed YA’ he abbreviated it and I didn’t even know what it meant. I don’t think I’ve read any Harvard novels. I read Nick McDonell’s first book and I previewed Expensive Education on my mom’s Kindle but I did not download it. I want to read Simon Rich’s book. When I knew that I was going to try to write a young adult novel, that was when I first started reading what were considered successful young adult novels.

B: What’s the reasoning behind identifying your book with the Harvard brand?

LK: The publishing market is so brutal, and there are so many books, that anything that you can use to distinguish yourself as an author or your work helps. I think Harvard is something the public is curious about and it definitely already has huge name recognition. You’re doing anything you can to grab the public’s attention and get them to pick up the book. It wasn’t like I sat down and said, ‘I’m going to write a Harvard novel,’ or, ‘Here’s this girl exploiting the Harvard brand but she messed it up so here’s my chance to exploit it myself.’ That’s not what happened. It’s a small aspect of it, but it was more like I had a sense that a novel can be successful if it has a combination of these features — if it’s YA, if it has these glamorous parties, if it has multiple love interests. I’m worried that I’m sounding calculating, but the point is, I wasn’t trying to sit down and think, ‘I’m going to write a Harvard novel.’ It was, ‘I want to write a novel and I want it to succeed, so this is the type of novel that I’m going to write.’ And so, yes, it takes place at Harvard, but what’s more interesting is I think representing the college experience in general, because it’s a time period in life that’s considered very difficult to market by the publishing industry. There are almost no books or TV shows or anything that take place in college. It’s sort of this off-the-map area — it’s this uncharted territory. So it is unique in its Harvard setting, but I think overall the experience of a young girl going off the college and going into a vastly new environment and encountering all these different people is very universal.

B: Why is college considered off-limits?

LK: I don’t know why. It just sort of seems like one of those rules of the publishing industry. People reference it all the time. This was actually a big conflict with my book because it was straddling the border. I didn’t have an audience in mind. I was just thinking, ‘I’m writing about college,’ but it definitely could have gone either way — adult or young adult — and it was kind of a big decision. I ended up making it younger and that was a conscious decision — it got to be for a younger audience with every rewrite.

B: What happens now that the first book in the series has been published?

LK: I just finished the second one and there’s two more after that.

B: OK, let’s talk about crushes. When Callie first gets to Harvard it seems like every boy who looks at her takes her breath away. Did you have a lot of crushes freshman year?

No, that was not my experience freshman year. I had two serious boyfriends in high school, and for me it was very important to go the first semester of college without having a boyfriend at all. I know some of those couples who coupled up first week of freshman year and I just didn’t want that to be a priority at the beginning. I think a good deal of the romantic aspects of the book have to do with the genre, and my editor, and what my editor thinks young women are interested in.

B: Did you have a high school boyfriend when you started Harvard?

LK: No, I did not. Definitely not.

B: Any advice on that front for girls who have just arrived at Harvard this fall?

LK: Well… I don’t want to advise the entire freshman class to break up with their boyfriends. But that being said, I think there are a lot of experiences to be had when you start college and you shouldn’t close yourself off to anything you might be interested in trying.

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State of Undress: Franzen’s Freedom

By Leon Neyfakh
Monday, September 13th, 2010

Everybody knows everything in Freedom. Not one secret feeling is successfully hidden, and not one lie is unequivocally believed. At one point Patty and Walter Berglund, the couple at the center of the story, have a fight in Walter’s study with the door open, and afterward, when someone in another part of the house indicates that she has overheard them, Patty tells her that she would have done well to pretend she hadn’t: “We all have to work really hard on pretending.”

Work hard they do, both at pretending and believing, but it’s never any use. Everyone sees through everything, if not right away then eventually.

Chalk it up to the author of Freedom, Jonathan Franzen, working hardest of all, athletically undressing each of his characters until all motives — acute and deep seated — are laid bare. There’s an idiom in Russian that translates literally to “bringing people out onto clear water”; it refers to exposing people when you know they’re trying to hide something ugly about themselves. My mom always told me never to do this — that it humiliates people and makes them even worse than they are. Franzen does not play with any such kid gloves: He wants his reader to know exactly what’s wrong with all of his main characters and why, and he is relentlessly detailed and imaginative in his rendering of their deformities.

The result is that Franzen’s four main characters — Walter, Patty, their mutual friend Richard Katz, and their son Joey — are all both extremely self-aware and surgically sensitive. People say what they need to say to get what they think they want– or more commonly, what they wish they wanted. They try to pretend they’re not being selfish when they are; they try to pretend they don’t know they’re hurting one other or setting them up when they do. And for all their efforts, no one is free from the punishing churn of intense self-knowledge nor the lonely inner turmoil that comes of a highly developed sense of empathy. They all read each other like open books, basically, and it is harrowing, especially if you’re the kind of person who is scared more than anything of other people’s secret thoughts.

“I’m just worried that I’m not actually what you want,” Walter says early on, after Patty succumbs to the long and terrible, heretofore unrequited crush he has had on her since the day of their first meeting. Patty, who is 21 at this point, has just spent several days in the company of the cool, magnetic Richard Katz, and has only just decided — yes, decided — that she is not in love with him but Walter after all. She has been unconvincing in her delivery. “I think you’re a wonderful person!” is one of her opening lines. Then, when it’s looking like Walter has some reservations: “I swear you won’t be sorry.”

He goes for it, obviously, even though he knows as well as Patty does that insofar as she really feels something for him, it’s because she has talked herself into it. Alone in their private delusions, the two of them decide to start a life together, thus committing to years of diligently working around the big lie that joins them. And though you feel awful at first as you watch Patty work up to overcoming her ambivalence and Walter go along with it because he just loves her so much, you allow yourself to hope and hope right along with them that it was not a mistake for them to try. It is a testament to Franzen’s power as a storyteller that after living through this emotionally depleting novel, you are not made to feel stupid for this.

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Daniel Kehlmann’s Metatastic Fame

By Leon Neyfakh
Monday, August 30th, 2010

Daniel Kehlmann’s unabashed jones for pithy postmodern jokes is infectious. Fame is one prankish little book, and even if at first you catch yourself wondering if this kind of thing can still be fun, you won’t worry for long.

It’s a novel-in-stories, maybe the native literary form of the internet age, in which every plotline we’re aware of or have thoughts about is one we have pieced together from multiple blog posts, articles, and other types of “content” absorbed online. The narrative of Fame takes shape gradually, too: Instead of a linear storyline, we get a fragmented view of a universe inhabited by an ensemble cast of characters who are circumstantially central to each other’s lives.

Kehlmann — a young German writer whose best known work, a blockbuster in Europe, is 2006′s Measuring the World — uses that structure to weave an intricately mapped arrangement of metatextual jokes. There’s one chapter in which a character who has resolved to commit suicide instead of battling her just-diagnosed cancer is seen begging her author to spare her life and just rewrite the plot of his story so that she lives. She talks to him, he talks back — that’s the kind of thing we’re dealing with here.

Like Jennifer Egan’s recent novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, Kehlmann really works the “novel-in-stories” format to its fullest. One of the best things about this book is the delight he takes in pivoting from one perspective to the next chapter to chapter, how reliably he manages to surprise you at the beginning of each of his nine stories. I liked Egan’s book for how much fun it was to see what part of the universe the chapter you were about to start reading would center around, what improbable perspective she’d take. With Kehlmann it’s the same: There’s a thrill in this kind of brain activity, and he really knows how to provoke it in his readers. Fame is appealing in the same way complicated toys are.

In the opening story, “Voices,” we meet a fellow named Ebling whose phone won’t stop ringing with calls from people who have apparently dialed the wrong number looking for someone named Rolf. It is Ebling’s first cell phone, and he is made very uncomfortable by it. The fact that all these people are calling and asking him questions causes him to go mad, until he is impersonating this Rolf — a man he knows nothing about — to people who apparently know him intimately. His own life starts seeming foreign, and he eventually forgets who he is. Pretending to be Rolf and going along with whatever glitch has caused the situation makes him feel like he was always meant to be Rolf, that he was living as the wrong person his whole life.

A little while later we meet actual Rolf, a world famous actor who has his own identity problems, and toward the end we meet the numbskull from the telecommunications company whose fault it was that Ebling got assigned his phone number.

These kinds of maneuvers are irresistible to a certain kind of person, for whom there is nothing more pleasurable than admiring the architecture of a meticulously designed plot, than following the wiring that connects the nine stories and figuring out how it’s held together. It’s like Kehlman has a really fragile model of a house made of popsicle sticks in his hands and he’s trying to pass it off to you, and you’re trying to take it from him without letting it fall to pieces.

It’s also like a skateboarding video where guys perform stunts using a seemingly organic system of ramps and rails, following advanced choreography but improvising unpredictably. In Fame you’re watching a whole universe, too, while Kehlmann goes around doing tricks. You never know what the next one’s going to be or how he’s going to use a pipe or a curb but you’re happily confident that it’s going to be rad.

There’s one part where Kehlmann does something unbecoming of a showman. It comes early in the book, in a chapter about Rolf the famous actor somehow transforming into an anonymous, shabby impersonator of himself. Rolf is with a woman who has just told him that maybe he should try impersonating someone else — that he’s not really a natural fit for Rolf.

Then: “His eyes slid to the mirror. There she was, and there he was, and suddenly he didn’t know anymore which side the originals were on and which side the reflections.”

My fellow Thirteen.org blogger Nick Sylvester wrote something about Young Jeezy a couple of years ago that has stuck with me. The post was about a song called “Bury Me a G,” in which Jeezy gets shot outside of a club, and in which you can hear — about three quarters into the song, as an interlude — the voice of a female newscaster describing the scene and saying in a stern, sad voice, that so far it is “unclear” whether Jeezy “was the suspect or the victim.”

Nick was really bothered by the line because:

It’s like, the suspect/victim thing is the only reason anything remotely morally difficult in rap is compelling at all to me. It’s just too big — too big and banal and clumsy a thing to just say, “It’s unclear whether he was the suspect or the victim.” I mean really now.

When Rolf looks in the mirror and has that thought about not knowing whether he’s the real thing or the reflection, Kehlmann is being artless the same way Jeezy was on “Bury Me a G.” Kehlmann’s subject in this book, his main preoccupation, is the difference between fiction and reality, and this line is an aberration from his otherwise funny and suggestive treatment of it.

It kind of ruined “Bury Me a G” for Nick, but it doesn’t ruin Fame, not by any means. If you like Donald Barthelme and you always favored the more advanced varieties of Legos, read it.

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Back to the Future: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad

By Leon Neyfakh
Monday, August 16th, 2010

If you like Back to the Future, you’ll love Jennifer Egan’s new novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad. No, there’s no actual time travel in the book, but the stories in it are told out of chronological order, so as far as the reader is concerned there might as well be. Adult characters you meet early on reappear in later chapters as children, and vice versa. Sasha, who is a 35-year-old assistant at a record label in the book’s opening, is shown later as a student at N.Y.U., and then again as an 18-year-old girl who has run away from home and gone backpacking in Europe. Because each section is told from a different perspective you find out different facts about her each time she reappears, and the math you do in your head as you’re putting it together produces a relentlessly titillating effect.

The “novel-in-stories” has been a fashionable play in book publishing lately — Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men, Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists are two other recent examples — but that doesn’t make the tangle of relationships that connects all the characters in Goon Squad any less impressive or convincing. Characters who are peripheral in one chapter are revisited later and placed at the center of the action. Backstory is deployed deliberately, every reveal timed for maximum punch.

There’s an inimitable flavor of ache Egan manages to conjure by showing us Sasha as a teenager only after we find out what’s going to happen to her when she’s a grown-up — how her priorities will change, how the range of emotions she feels will totally shift.

It really did remind me of Back to the Future: Call me crazy, but is there anything better than seeing Marty McFly and Jennifer Parker as a middle aged married couple in part two, after you’ve known them as seventeen year olds forever? Or how about seeing Marty’s mom in the first one, all puffy and pallid at the beginning of the movie, as a radiant high school student in 1955? It’s thrilling the first time you see it, and it never stops being thrilling.

There are lots of moments like that in Goon Squad, which follows an ensemble cast that includes musicians, producers, executives, publicists, and journalists as they try to a greater or lesser extent to hold onto their personalities while growing older and increasingly locked into lives they can’t control. Finding out little by little what roles each of them has played in the others’ lives scratches a very particular itch.

It’s not gimmicky, if that’s what you’re thinking. Though I mainly never forgot that Egan was presiding over the show the whole time, controlling what I saw when, it was also plain that she put surgical care into the arrangement, that she hadn’t just broken apart an ordinary, left-to-right storyline and shuffled it for funsies. It’s not a trivial maneuver undertaken for attention: There’s an inimitable flavor of ache Egan manages to conjure by showing us Sasha as a teenager only after we find out what’s going to happen to her when she’s a grown-up — how her priorities will change, how the range of emotions she feels will totally shift.

As I read the first half of the novel, I kept worrying that Egan was trying to say all the connections between her characters were evidence of something like fate. It was most acute in the fourth chapter, about a family’s trip to Africa, in which she describes a record producer’s teenage daughter dancing provocatively in front of a young local warrior who earns money entertaining American tourists. Egan wastes no time taking a big gulp of air and going through the guy’s entire future history:

“Thirty-five years from now, in 2008, this warrior will be caught in the tribal violence between the Kikuyu and the Luo and will die in a fire. He’ll have had four wives and sixty-three grandchildren by then, one of whom, a boy named Joe, will inherit his lalema: the iron hunting dagger in a leather scabbard now hanging at his side. Joe will go to college at Columbia and study engineering, becoming an expert in visual robotic technology that detects the slightest hint of irregular movement (the legacy of a childhood spent scanning the grass for lions). He’ll marry an American named Lulu and remain in New York, where he’ll invent a scanning device that becomes standard issue for crowd security.”

This felt cheap to me, this dramatic fast-forwarding, in a way the rest of the book didn’t. It’s a montage, basically, and the way Egan delivers it, it’s like she’s trying to say that what happens during a person’s life is all predetermined — that you can look at a teenager and see his future in his eyes. I still don’t know if that’s the point of A Visit From the Goon Squad —if all these disappointed individuals who populate the book are all doomed from the start.

For what it’s worth: At the end of Back to the Future III, when Doc Brown and his beloved Clara arrive in 1985 in a time traveling train, Doc joyously tells Marty, who is worried about his destiny, that the future hasn’t been written yet — that his life is whatever he makes of it.

Goon Squad does not end so cheerfully. The bleak last chapter, which takes place in the all-too-near future, describes a dystopian society of doomed computer addicts whose consciousness and individuality is expressed primarily through the product endorsements they post to social networking sites. Whether or not there are flying cars is not addressed.

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Garcia’s Hate: Gossip for Intellectuals Done Right

By Leon Neyfakh
Monday, August 9th, 2010

"Hate: A Romance" by Tristan Garcia

Hate: A Romance is told from the perspective of a journalist named Elizabeth who spends the best years of her life writing pieces for magazines in Paris. This is how she describes it early in the book:

“I covered ‘culture,’ that is, everything and nothing. I had my little supplement. I went out, I kept up with the scene. Television was my first beat. It’s how everyone starts out. I’d go hear shows, indie rock shows, to compensate for the shit I watched on TV. I did trend pieces, I wrote up the latest thing. It leaves a funny taste in your mouth. You smell death in the life all around you, and all the while you keep waiting for something new. I did ‘fashion,’ too, naturally, and ‘books’ every now and then. If we were sitting across a dinner table and you asked me, I could tell you what people were talking about; I couldn’t tell you how much else, but I knew what was current.”

Holy moly. At the end of the chapter she drops this:

“In this world some people are distinct individuals while others are no more than paths of transmission. At my age, the signs are unmistakable: I belong in category two. I have my work cut out for me.”

Hate: A Romance, which Farrar, Straus and Giroux is publishing in translation this fall, is by Tristan Garcia, but you’re meant to regard it as having been written by Elizabeth. That’s the frame: Elizabeth has written a historical account of what was happening in Paris during the 1990s and early 2000s and that is the book we’re reading. It’s to Garcia’s credit that one barely thinks about him — or the translators, for that matter — while reading it.

The book is Elizabeth’s memoir, sort of, except that it’s not really about her, but three of her friends— the dangerously charming punk William Miller, the conservative intellectual Jean-Michel Liebowitz, and the AIDS prevention activist Dominique Rossi — and how they destroyed each other’s lives. These three guys, in Elizabeth’s telling, are historical figures: separately and together, they were responsible for shaping their era. They captured people’s attention. People cared what they thought.

William is the magical genius in Elizabeth’s universe, her favorite by far. They meet when they’re about 20 years old because she wants to do a story on him. At this early stage, he is an inarticulate, shy gutter punk who wanders around muttering about all the projects he is planning. Elizabeth befriends him and stands by his side as he transforms — unconsciously, of course — into an icon worshipped by “somewhat marginal people.” William turns himself into a careening spectacle: a glamorous, inscrutable figure who rails against AIDS prevention activists for trying to talk him and all other young men into giving up their freedom, a.k.a. using condoms. When William, a master bullshit artist, writes a book and achieves a new level of fame, “Technikart and most of the magazines and ‘avant-garde’ fanzines hailed the emergence of a new voice.”

Dominique is one of Elizabeth’s colleagues early in life — the two of them covered nightlife together and interviewed famous people. At the beginning of the book, she introduces him to William, thus setting off the pair’s five year turn as an “old-fashioned couple.” During this time, more and more people start dying of AIDS, and Dominique, who is HIV positive, gradually trades in his glamorous, old life as a club kid for a consuming role as a community organizer who promotes safe sex. After he and William break up, they become bitter enemies, both obsessed with making sure the other one and everything he stands for is forgotten by history.

There is a third friend, Jean-Michel Liebowitz, whom Elizabeth dates on and off for about a decade while William and Dominique carry on their war.  Liebowitz is a professor of strong convictions who begins his life on the left but finds himself, as he gets older, taking unmistakably conservative positions. He rails against cultural relativism, pop music, promiscuity, and what he perceives as the left’s knee-jerk affection for any and all minorities. He is a public intellectual; he writes books for the popular press and appears on television. But he considers himself a philosopher, and as we learn early on, he has contempt for Elizabeth’s line of work. “He was always going on about the unfashionable, the ‘nonmodern,’ the old days,” Elizabeth recalls. She stands for the opposite of all those things, she knows: “each new fad supplanting the last.” Liebowitz makes fun of her sometimes, saying that when finally his books became fashionable, she’ll have no choice but to embrace his views because it’s all she is “programmed” to do.

It is a story about ideas told through the people who had them, and the emotions, grudges, and ambitions that informed the things they believed and wrote. Typical gossip for intellectuals, in other words.

Elizabeth has her own disdain for journalists. At one point she makes fun of the credulity with which feature writers and critics respond to William’s unserious, self-promotional book. Elsewhere she laments not being able to talk to Liebowitz because she is “not an intellectual.” Still, you never get the sense that she ever takes any of that stuff much to heart. She knows from the beginning how Liebowitz feels about her work, but it doesn’t make her want to do it any less. This is significant insofar as her book — again, we are pretending Hate is her book — amounts to a long, expertly paced magazine piece, one written by an attentive, well-sourced journalist who has great affection for her subjects. Though there’s plenty of first person in the book, it’s essentially a reported history, complete with interviews and scenes and props and anecdotes — killer devices, all, which come from a playbook that you don’t often see being used in novels. Tristan Garcia has applied the storytelling techniques native to fun, middlebrow journalism and used them to tell a fictional story. The framing device — ”this is a book written by a journalist” — is not just an excuse; it actually informs the book’s style.

In the introduction, Elizabeth says she has written the book for William — to rescue him from obscurity and to correct the conventional wisdom that he was never anything but a vapid, reckless buffoon who deliberately gave people AIDS in order to get attention. But William’s memory is not the only thing being rescued in Hate. The other is journalism: Elizabeth, for all her cynicism about the profession, has written an immersive and deeply felt piece of magazine writing. It is a story about ideas told through the people who had them, and the emotions, grudges, and ambitions that informed the things they believed and wrote. Typical gossip for intellectuals, in other words. Also, a decisive defense of the form.

The book is about death, too, and what happens to people who spend their lives trying to be influential when they’re no longer able to make noise — how their mark on the world is registered, remembered, and above all forgotten. William cuts right to the heart of it when his book of nonsense is published to rave reviews and Elizabeth says to him, “Not bad, Will, you’re a writer now.” “No, Liz,” Will answers. “You don’t get it at all. I’m a motherfucking text.”

Elizabeth does get it though, and she knows what she’s doing when, barely 30 pages into the book, she quotes an aging Dominique looking back on the “joie-de-vivre” of gay life before AIDS. “When you’re defining your own era, you’re not aware of it, you think you’re building a future,” Dominique says. “Then one day you realize that this future you’re building is just something that people will look back on one day as the past, as something past and gone. That’s what it means to live out an era, a time, a moment. All of a sudden — yes — it ends.”

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Jean-Christophe Valtat’s Icky, Riveting 03

A swirling teenage monologue that's both disturbing and compelling thanks to the author's precision.
By Leon Neyfakh
Monday, August 2nd, 2010

Last week I wrote about two French novels that have been translated recently into English: Jean-Christophe Valtat’s 03, which was published last month, and Tristan Garcia’s Hate, A Romance, which is scheduled to come out in November. Both books are published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and both take place in late 20th century France. They share an unusual origin story — two editors at FSG teamed up to edit and publish them after one brought the originals home from a trip to Paris — and I initially thought it would make sense to write about them side by side.

After looking hard for common ground beyond the circumstantial, I decided I couldn’t disagree with FSG editor Mitzi Angel — the translator of 03 and the publisher of Hate — when she told me in an e-mail that stylistically, at least, the two books are like “chalk and cheese.” So better, I think, to treat each one separately. Valtat’s this week; Garcia’s next.

03 above all is plotless: nothing happens on any of its 84 pages, which add up not to a story but a swirling internal monologue delivered by a tense young man who is infatuated with a mentally challenged girl in his town. It’s unclear how old the narrator is when he’s describing his crush — the back of the book says vaguely that the ordeal is being “remembered years later” — but the action, such as it is, takes place during the ’80s, while he’s in the 12th grade. His preoccupation with the girl develops over many mornings spent waiting for his bus to school and watching her intently while she waits for hers across the street.

Over the course of the one long paragraph that comprises 03, the bratty, nerdy narrator investigates the texture of his unlikely attraction to the girl, imagining what it’s like to be her and trying to figure out why he finds her so appealing. In the process he explains proudly how different he is from his peers in the suburbs of Paris and how much smarter he is than the grown-ups who tell him what to do. Basically, he’s a disgruntled teenager: a cynical and resolutely independent adolescent who listens to The Cure and Joy Division, who takes pride in seeing through societal norms, and who boasts of possessing an intelligence that is “determined to reject everything around it.” He makes jokes using skeptical scare quotes the way Hipster Runoff does, and the cold, proud knowingness with which he regards the world calls to mind Tao Lin. He is very impressed with how clearly he sees through the bullshit everyone else around him falls for, and he cherishes what he thinks of as his hard-won maturity.

That you’re rooting for Valtat’s baby monster at the end of this unattractive stream of consciousness is a testament to the verve and precision with which the author built him.

The girl across the street looks to this charmer like someone living a real life — a human animal more free than him because she is unencumbered by the exhausting calculations that govern every one of his thoughts and feelings. At one point, he defensively rejects the idea that there’s such a thing as “spontaneous feelings,” which he believes are always “the outcome of long and involved tactical maneuvers.” That being the case, he reasons, why not try to “act as conscious, as deliberately, and therefore forcefully as possible”?

He admits toward the beginning that he is “drawn to her precisely for the chance to love a beauty that had no self-awareness and of which, consequently, I alone would be the sole and watchful guardian.” It’s an icky thought process, but you get the idea pretty quickly that this guy’s only really interested in the girl insofar as sizing up her deformities helps him understand his own. Toward the end of the book he comes right out and says it: “I wanted to turn her into an allegory for my own failings.”

A tiresome fellow, all told. But Valtat — who has written a new book in English called Aurorama that’s being published by Melville House this month — renders the character with force, invoking ideas and memories that are muscular enough in their specificity that following along with the narrator’s scattered thoughts is riveting, even if spending an hour with someone so salty and stunted is not your idea of a good time. You wonder as you read this book how, if, this wreck of a boy will change as he grows older. That you’re rooting for Valtat’s baby monster at the end of this unattractive stream of consciousness is a testament to the verve and precision with which the author built him.

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Paris Review’s Lorin Stein on Discovering New Books

How a title led the editor to Jean-Christophe Valtat — and a new translation project
By Leon Neyfakh
Monday, July 26th, 2010

"Exes" by Jean-Christophe Valtat

Lorin Stein, the newly installed editor of the Paris Review, discovered Jean-Christophe Valtat while wandering around in the Gallimard bookstore in Paris back in 2008. Mr. Stein, then an editor at the publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux, had been having lunch with a French publisher and the book critic for the French magazine Les Inrockuptibles. Afterward he asked the critic to take him to a bookstore and tell him what to read. “She showed me some books but I’d heard of them,” Mr. Stein said by phone on Friday. “Then she went to work, and I was by myself. I was just killing time and I saw a book called Exes. I thought that was a good title so I pulled it down.”

The author of Exes was Mr. Valtat, whom Mr. Stein had never heard of and who was not particularly well-known in France. There was another book of his on the shelf, this one considerably shorter and enigmatically titled 03. Mr. Stein bought them both and packed them for New York.

The editor tracked down a third book while he was in Paris as well, this one a French bestseller by Tristan Garcia called La Meilleure Part Des Hommes. One of Mr. Stein’s colleagues at FSG, Mitzi Angel, had heard good things and asked him to get her a copy.

When he got back to New York, Mr. Stein presented Ms. Angel, who runs her own imprint at FSG, with both 03 and La meilleure part des hommes. She loved both, and not long after, an agreement was struck; she would translate the Valtat volume into English for him, and he would translate the Garcia for her.

“I only later realized just how crazily difficult it was,” Ms. Angel said in an email. “But it was fun: we ended up editing each other, which was interesting, and not usually something that happens in a publishing house.”

“We would go into each other’s offices and we would show each other a hard sentence and then we would both start riffing — just coming up with different solutions,” Mr. Stein said, adding that at a certain point in the process he approached FSG’s French-speaking foreign rights director Marion Duvert for help, and enlisted her as a co-translator.

The two books are radically different in style and plot. Valtat’s 03, which was published last month by FSG as a paperback original, takes the form of a hypnotically tense internal monologue delivered by a young man who has become infatuated with a mentally ill girl who lives near in his neighborhood; La meilleure part, according to Ms. Angel, which will be published through her Faber & Faber imprint of FSG in September as Hate: A Romance, is “about the end of politics in the ’80s and ’90s and what that means for a bunch of intellectuals and their sex lives.”

“Both books are set in the ’80s and share some preoccupations: the synthetic feel of that decade; the lack of commitment or engagement or sense of purpose; the sense that something might have been irretrievably lost,” Ms. Angel said.

Look for a side by side look at both books here next week.

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Simon Rich’s Elliot Allagash

By Leon Neyfakh
Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

Simon Rich’s debut novel, Elliot Allagash, is about a young well-intentioned nerd named Seymour who tricks and cheats his way to high school popularity and an exemplary academic record.  When a diabolical and endlessly wealthy new classmate — the Elliot Allagash who gives the book its name — decides to become Seymour’s ally, he turns the geek’s life around — just to see if he’s powerful and clever enough to do it. In the end — and this spoils very little about this hilarious, tightly wound story — Seymour is caught, and the life Elliott has so athletically built for him unravels.

The book came out at a funny moment, mere days after a 23-year-old named Adam Wheeler was kicked out of Harvard for allegedly faking a tall pile of academic credentials, including his SAT scores and his high school transcripts, and trying to grift his way to a Rhodes scholarship. Though Wheeler has entered a not guilty plea, he has already been publicly humiliated and his life has been placed on hold indefinitely while the evidence is evaluated.

The story of Adam Wheeler lines up so well with the one Rich has written for Seymour that one wonders whether the accused con boy had an Elliot Allagash holding his hand and egging him on throughout all of his apparent deceptions.

While Elliot Allagash has far from a happy ending, the story trails off in a way that suggests that hope and love will overpower what would initially appear to be Seymour’s unfathomable, devastating disgrace. Though most everyone is laughing and cherishing their angle on his tailspin, there are people who are willing to protect him until the storm passes. One starts to see how even trouble as grave as what Adam Wheeler got himself into is survivable. Not to be all “kids these days,” but considering how many times they’ve watched it happen at this point, online and on their TVs, the young readers this YA book is being marketed to must be absolutely terrified of the sort of media-driven ruin Seymour suffers in this book, and for that reason Elliot Allagash is a relavant story for them, and everyone else, to be reading right now.

The story of Adam Wheeler lines up so well with the one Rich has written for Seymour that one wonders whether the accused con boy had an Elliot Allagash holding his hand and egging him on throughout all of his apparent deceptions. It’s a horrifying thing, to imagine yourself in his position, and without giving too much away, it’s exactly what you get at the end of Rich’s book, wherein all the lies and manipulations Seymour has carried out over the course of his four-year friendship with Elliot are exposed — first on a television show, then in newspapers around the country — and his once-promising future is suddenly, cruelly erased. “They’re going to be mean to me,” little Seymour says, shortly after his world comes apart and he goes into hiding, in what is just one of many air-tight, on-point renderings of nightmarish fear that appear in the book. Is this not definitely how Wheeler felt when he got the first indication that his jig was up?

Elliot Allagash is a superb novel, not just good-naturedly funny but emotionally gripping, thanks to the bewildering swiftness with which Rich knows how to build characters and establish dynamics between them. The young author — also a Saturday Night Live writer who, full disclosure, is going to be appearing at a reading I’m hosting next month — gives backstory in places where he could have been forgiven for skipping it entirely but does so economically and unobtrusively so that it feels natural, rather than dutiful. Seymour changes slowly even though the book takes two hours to read, as does the fragile friendship between him and the omnipotent, genie-like Elliot. Finally it’s about one boy giving up on another that will leave you happily sure that, should you ever screw up as badly as Seymour (or Adam Wheeler) did, there will always be someone in your life who won’t give up on you.

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