Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Apartment: The Dream of the 90s is Alive!

File this one under "wheelhouse novel" for me. Teddy Wayne's new novel, Apartment, is about two dudes who share an...wait for it... apartment in mid-1990s NYC. These two guys, who meet in their MFA program at Columbia, spend their time boozing, reading, and working on their novels. Fair warning: This is the white dudiest of white dude novels. So of course I loved it. But this is no dumbass Tucker Max book. It's a thoughtful examination of privilege, loneliness, and what it takes to be a good fiction writer.

The unnamed narrator is the guy who "owns" the prime Manhattan apartment — his great aunt's name is on the lease but she lives in Jersey, so let's him live there, not exactly on the up-and-up. Also, the narrator's father pays the rent and for his schooling, so he doesn't really have much to worry about. 

Billy arrives on the scene from the, Illinois, but the Midwest might as well be Mars to these uppity NYC kids. Even so, he's immediately magnetic to all in his class, because of his good looks, his talent as a writer, and also as an "exotic" — a salt-of-the-earth midwestern bartender. Billy is the only in class to defend the narrator's mediocre story, so the narrator is drawn to him, makes friends with him, and seeing as how he's struggling to make it in NYC, invites him to move into the guest room in his free apartment. 

This has disaster written all over it. But it works for a while, and the good times roll. They drink. They find ladies. They drink more. They work on their stories. They send their stories to magazines. They watch Friends and Seinfeld. They do some drugs. And all falls apart. And the narrator soon finds that his privilege is an illusion.

So there's two kinds of privilege here. There's the narrator's privilege of wealth, that as Rob Lowe's character says in Wayne's World, can get you far in America, almost to the top, but it can't get you everything. Indeed, it can't get you the privilege of talent. And that's what Billy has and the narrator doesn't, and no amount of wealth will get him that. 

This is a short book, but one I enjoyed immensely in the two sittings it took to read. It's rich in 90s pop culture references — sports, music, TV, etc. And it's lack of a better word. If you need a good few-hours distraction from the current state of things, this is it. 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Index of Self-Destructive Acts: Never Underestimate Your Ability to Screw Up

If you've read your Bill James, you'll know "the index of self-destructive acts" is a humorously titled baseball statistic referring to the number of ways a pitcher can screw up, independent of anyone else on the field — it includes, balks, hit by pitches, wild pitches, and others. 

In baseball, as in life, one should never underestimate one's ability to screw up. And that's what Christopher Beha's long but satisfying novel is about: How self-destructive acts, however innocuous, unintentional, or insignificant, can really put a damper on one's happiness, success, or ability to stay alive.

A huge cast of characters living out a seemingly endless number of plot strings and themes make this novel feel almost Tolstoyian. (This is only 520 pages, though.) And even though it takes place over the course of about six months in 2009, it feels completely in the now — examining many of the themes and ideas that define our modern lives. 

Sam Waxworth, if there's a main character, is it. He's a "data journalist" — a new thing in 2009, so think a slightly hipper version of Nate Silver — who correctly predicted the 2008 presidential election. As a result has been hired away from his Madison, Wis., home by a prestigious NYC magazine to write a blog based on math, data, and numbers science. He's also expected to write features, and his first big one is about the disgraced writer and baseball man Frank Doyle.

Frank has been a lifelong liberal and influential baseball writer, but he's recently been turned into a conservative hero because of his staunch support of the Iraq War — think a more boisterous, booze-soaked version of George Will. Even before the novel started, Frank had already delivered the first of many self-destructive acts — at the last game at Shea Stadium in 2008, after way too many beers, Frank joined the TV broadcasters for an inning of commentary, and wound up delivering an enormously offensive racist remark about Obama. This got him cancelled — he was fired from his column at a New York newspaper and basically became persona non grata in the upper-crust NYC circles to which he'd become accustomed.

So now, six months from the "Ballpark Incident," Waxworth's editors think it'd be interesting to check back on Doyle to see how he's handling his "demotion." Waxworth had been a Doyle fan, read all his baseball books, but in his piece, he plans to bury Doyle. This will not be a redemption story. 

So Waxworth and Doyle's careful dance, as well as each's own problems (Doyle, his booze; Waxworth, acclimating to NYC and being tempted to stray from his wife by, of all people, Doyle's daughter), are the framework of the plot of this novel. The rest is about the supporting cast, which is huge, Doyle's kids, Waxworth's wife, Doyle's wife, Doyle's kids' friends, a street preacher, and many more. In some way or another, they all seem to collide with each other, taking turns committing their own self-destructive acts. Eventually we fall into a rhythm with each chapter told through the eyes of a different one of these characters, often showing an event we've already seen, but from a new perspective. 

Needless to say, this novel is a lot. Though strongly plot-driven and at the mercy of the machinations of its characters, this is also a big, rich novel of contemporary ideas. What is more valuable: hard data, statistics, science or our gut feelings and what we fervently believe (even absent evidence)? But also, what role does art or poetry (or just artistry, like an objectively beautiful curve ball or left-handed swing) play in an increasingly empirical world? And perhaps most critically, what point do we choose self-preservation over loyalty and/or simply the right thing to do?

This novel was recently named to the National Book Award longlist, a bit of a surprise — it's a small press novel (Tin House!) with a meager readership so far (it only has 240 Goodreads ratings — but that'll certainly improve because of being named to the NBA longlist). I took a chance on it because I'll read just about any novel with a baseball angle. And while frankly baseball winds up playing only a small role in this huge novel, I still thoroughly enjoyed it. I'm going to miss these characters, even the ones who did terrible things to each other. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

A Traveler at the Gates of Wisdom: Stories are Universal

John Boyne is the consummate storyteller. His last two novels, The Heart's Invisible Furies and A Ladder to the Sky were both brilliant, engrossing reads. I loved 'em immensely. But with his new novel, A Traveler at the Gates of Wisdom, he pulls off quite the neat storytelling trick, even for him. 

Imagine a story told over 2,000 years, in about 50-year increments set in locations literally all over the world. But it's the story with the same characters. Only the times and places change. Confused? I was initially too. And a little skeptical.

But it works...mostly. The novel is essentially one guy's life story. The Character, as we'll call him, grows up, marries, has children, endures unimaginable tragedy, marries, suffers more heartbreak, sets out on a quest for vengeance, abandons said quest, reunites with this brother, continues quest, and so on and so on and so on. 

But again, the trick here is that each little segment of story — generally eight pages or so — is set in a new time and place around the world. Boyne spends a few paragraphs orienting you, and reminding you at what stage in the story The Character is in. And and then he just continues, whether he's in Eritrea in 340, China in 1191, or France in 1916.  

I know this sounds gimmicky, and I guess it is. And though it's not 100 percent successful — especially in the first half of the novel, things get a bit repetitive — it works more often than not. In the second half, as the times and places seem more familiar, the story really gains some momentum. It helps too that along the way, we get Bill-and-Ted-like cameos from famous historical figures who flit in and out of The Character's life — his sister marries Attila the Hun, he helps Shakespeare stage Julius Caesar, and there's many more. (Aside: If you're bad with remembering names — in novels or in real life — this is a perfect novel for you, because the characters' names change in each new chapter. It's obvious who each person is from the context, but so, and I can't emphasize this enough, you don't have to remember anyone's name!

This whole thing wouldn't have worked at all if the story he's telling was boring. But it sure is not. It's quite the swashbuckling yarn. This — let's go with the fancy term — bildungsroman has it all: Murder, betrayal, love and loss, a quest for vengeance, war and pestilence, and Donald Trump.  Wait, what was the last one?

Yes, so part of the point of this novel is to really examine the human condition: Have we learned anything in 2,000 years? Have we evolved to be more empathetic? More kind? More reasonable? Smarter? You'd think so, wouldn't you — but maybe not. 

Given how much I loved his last two books, a new John Boyne novel should've been an exciting event, and I should've rushed right out on pub day to buy the hardcover (or have read the ARC two months ago). But in reading about this one, it really did sound a little too strange. I knew I'd read it, but I wasn't stoked. And through the first half, I was like "Oh no, is this like a three-star Boyne novel? I'm so disillusioned!" But thankfully, and this is a lesson on why it's important to not give up on books (wink), the second half is so much more entertaining. I would've loved to have been a fly on the wall for conversations between Boyne and his editor about the "rules" for this novel and troubleshooting some of the problems that no doubt came up. What is the narrator allowed to know from his "previous lives"? What does he "remember"? Etc. Those had to be fascinating conversations. And so if you're in the mood for something different, give this one a try.