John Wray: Lowboy

Wray, John, (2010), Lowboy, Picador
ISBN 978-0-312-42933-1

It’s astonishing, really, how far popular fiction steeped in philosophy or theory has come. Modernist and postmodernist fiction, despite the levity and ease that the latter brought to that kind of writing, was still explicitly (and difficultly) theoretic. Writers like Robert Coover or Donald Barthelme have, to this day, written for a certain kind of audience, a select group of readers, not small in numbers but far from representing the mainstream of popular literary fiction. Although there are young writers like the amazing Colson Whitehead, who continue writing these slightly difficult, openly brainy kinds of books, many of our younger writers have managed to create books which are sneakily smart, which tell an engaging tale that works both on a theoretical level as well as on a level concerned with the complexities of ‘normal’ storytelling. Among the writers in this vein are Lorrie Moore, whose so-so most recent novel, A Gate at the Stairs (review forthcoming) is part moving coming of age-tale, part intellectual exercise, obsessed with naming, meaning, and reality and Brian Evenson, who writes harrowing tales of horror, fueled by a fine philosophical mind, fed on a diet of French philosophy. Another writer is the prodigious John Wray. Lowboy, published in 2009, is his third novel, after The Right Hand of Sleep (2001) and Canaan’s Tongue (2005). Wray is a consistently astonishing writer, and Lowboy is an incredibly good book. It’s a lot of things, but first and foremost, it’s a compelling, great read, and a smart one at that. Trust me. Read it.

Like Evenson, Wray manages to write, his literary and philosophical concerns aside, a completely convincing genre novel. This is harder to do than you’d imagine, but Wray pulls it off with aplomb. Lowboy is a mystery novel, employing many tropes and tools of the genre, and it’s an addictively readable mystery at that. From the first to the last page, the reader hurries through the book following the hints Wray has scattered throughout, exploring the dark landscapes below and above NY City. That Lowboy does work like an excellent thriller or mystery is all the more interesting, since Wray has sidelined the detective in his book, more than that: he has given him a bit part, made him second to the narrative and theoretical structure of the book. Without this move, Lowboy wouldn’t be half the great novel that it actually is. In his classic study of postmodern fiction, McHale has pointed to the detective mystery as the genre that best embodies the modernist paradigm. Modernism, according to McHale, is about finding out about the world, the one, real, indivisible world. The literary techniques that are applied to achieve that goal may vary but the goal never changes. There are problematic issues attached to that, especially if we look at fringes and peripheral phenomena. Wray tells his story through his protagonist, and robs the detective of the power to read and explain the world. Things have to be explained to him although the whole story, ultimately, is beyond him, and beyond a simple explanation, actually.

This is important, because Lowboy‘s protagonist Will Heller, nicknamed Lowboy, is an outsider, fringe, part of the periphery: he is mad. No, really, he is a paranoid schizophrenic, and as we enter the book he has just made his escape from the Bellavista Clinic (a thinly veiled reference to Bellevue, I guess) and roams the streets of NY. Or rather: he enters the intricate, labyrinthine underground world of the New York subway system. Even with his perception endangered, he can find his way through NY with ease, and a determination that makes him some kind of Theseus. In fact, this isn’t that odd a reference. Although this Theseus doesn’t need Ariadne’s help, his zeal and resolve are similarly fueled by the wish to save other lives, though in this case, it’s the whole world that Will attempts to save from fiery destruction. In Will’s odd head, the dire global warming warnings have engendered a belief in the imminent destruction of the world by fire that can only be stopped if Will (bear with me) is cooled down, which to achieve he needs to get laid. This may sound like an adventurous story a desperate teenager tries to tell a gullible girl he wants to bed, but Will completely and utterly believes it. In fact, at no point in the whole novel does Wray condescend to his protagonist, he’s utterly serious about Will’s problems and concerns, which is rare.

Mental illness is often subject to readings that celebrate the margin as different, using its symptoms as cute or terrifying images, in order to achieve something akin to an ‘atrocity tale’: connecting with normal people in the mainstream by using the margin as contrast. Wray doesn’t do that, and much of the power and drive of the book is due to Will’s genuine anguish. Sometimes Wray doesn’t offer explanations, which contributes to the mystery and tension in the novel, and even Lateef Ali, Lowboy‘s detective, is sometimes blindsided by the mentally ill people he pursues. Impressively, the mystery that surrounds Will and those like him in the book, is never really resolved, cleared up. This is not about understanding madness. Indeed, Wray appears to harbor no wish to relate Will’s thoughts and ratio in a way that makes perfect sense to his readers, who do not share Will’s predicament, and so the clinical view is completely absent from the book, although psychiatrists do make an appearance in Lowboy. Yet their explanations create as much fog as they clarify issues, and in a twist in the very last sentence of the book, John Wray makes, unambiguously, clear that Lowboy is a literary work of art, that it does not attempt to speak about people afflicted with Will’s illness. As we know from Foucault, this is a central problem: mental illness is rarely allowed to speak itself, and if it is, its speech is licensed, framed, ‘allowed’. For a writer not afflicted with the illness in question, this can be a kind of trap.

John Wray offers a few solutions. Among these is his refusal to explain Will, to make his readers empathize with him at all costs. Another is the serious, earnest nature of his portrayal of Will’s perception. Although Lowboy creates an exaggerated image of the mind-set of many teenage virgins, and of the hyperbole that teenagers are often prone to display whenever they are feeling particular put-upon and desperate, exaggeration never turns to caricature. Will’s desperation is palpable and real, and his reading of the world is different from mine or yours, but Wray doesn’t linger on the specific issue of the difference, he doesn’t spend much time with Will’s symptoms as symptoms. The seriousness (despite the fact that Lowboy is actually a hilarious book, to be honest) provides an interesting link to another genre that Wray sets his book in, apart from the mystery aspect. It’s a coming-of age tale in a way. Many reviewers have correctly cited J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye as point of reference. This is appropriate inasmuch as the anger and directness of Salinger’s protagonist, and his disdain for the “phoneys” does have many parallels to Will’s behavior in Lowboy. But Will is like the light, open version of Caulfield. There is no hate, no real disdain in him, he’s wondering, trying to cope, and understand. One of Wray’s remarkable achievements is that he managed to use a difficult character in a way that is not the least exploitative, I think, that makes use of his unique situation without pathologizing him. There are many schizophrenic characters in fiction and many more who are otherwise mentally ill. Will doesn’t resemble them as much as he does the unmarked boys from modern (normative) coming of age novels.

I have, accidentally, been reading a few of those lately, from great works, like Padgett Powell’s Edisto, to dire ones, like Joe Dunthorne’s Submarine, or Sue Townsend’s series of horrible books. The worse the book, the stronger the tendency to use irony and sarcasm, to distance oneself from the story through clever tricks and ruses. Clever puns and a knowing air, these can work when you’re as extraordinarily talented as the young Martin Amis who managed to pull this kind of writing off in The Rachel Papers (read my review here), but there’s a dishonesty, really, to the whole enterprise, and looking at its center you’ll find, more often than not, an unoriginal philistine mind cloaking itself in cleverness. In the bad (but well-praised) books, this is invariably the case. And what’s worse, they are horribly normative in the worst way. Iterating white male narratives, reproducing cute images of repressive myths, these books are really quite damaging to public discourse. The cleverness and irony makes it just less bearable. Caulfield is an exception, because of his directness.

Another exception, and focus of one of the best coming of age novels ever written, is the protagonist of Henry Roth’s magisterial Call It Sleep. Roth’s David Schearl (though he’s quite a bit younger than the usual characters of these books) is bewildered by the world around him, and as he uncovers the world beyond his apartment, he discovers language anew, and the world, and Truth, are revealed to him in a set of complex epiphanies, though his head can’t grasp them. This poetic and religious understanding of his environment, which unfolds in the pages of Roth’s incredible novel, is close to how madness may be described by some. There is dirt, and sex, and intrigue, but Schearl stumbles through all this without having to resort to cheap asides and ironies. Reading Lowboy, Roth’s book was the first I thought about. While the gravitas and the scale of the two novels are very different, they share a concern (also questions of cultural heritage, by the way) about how the world is read by someone who is not part of the in-crowd, whose sexuality may be differently bracketed (With Roth there’s also of course the later books to consider), someone who cannot rely on convention to make sense of it all.

This is crucial. What separates Will from ‘normal’ people is not madness, it’s that his perception of the world is fresh. Philosophers like Nelson Goodman have shown how much even the very act of seeing is translated to us via conventions. Much of Will’s oddness, when he changes into a two-dimensional world, for example, or when signs around him come alive, this is not strictly speaking mental illness. Wray has captured a fragility in narrating the everyday, by using a character at the margins, who is able to see the world the way he does because the normative narrative has pushed him so far aside that he doesn’t even develop double consciousness. Those whom we regard as sick and disabled we shelve, we box them, as/like objects. And still we punish them. So while they do not get to partake of the narrative of power, they suffer its consequences. The ease with which we as a society inflict punishment upon those whom we regard as disabled is astonishing, the forcefulness with which we ensure that the conventional reading of how limbs and minds are supposed to work is the only reading available and deviations are shelved, boxed and punished, is frightening. The cascade of story and images in Lowboy implies a cognizance of this fact, of the enormousness of this kind of oppressive structure.

Will is dangerous to himself and others, this we learn early in the book. Or is he? Lowboy captures eloquently the fine line that separates truth from normative fiction. There is a careful ambiguity to the question of how (and if) Will is as dangerous as Lateef Ali and the others think he is. Although the larger structures of state and society are not explicitly invoked, Wray scatters obvious references throughout. The fact that Lateef Ali was born Rufus Lamarck White (there are five essays begging to be written just about that name and its meanings in relationship to the novel and its contexts, political and cultural) is one such plain, but unforced reference, another is “Skull and Bones”, Will’s nickname for the wardens who pursue him through the underground, which can’t help but recall the Yale society that goes by the same name. Not only that one. Conspiracy theories, not just Sutton’s silly one, are at heart reductive, reactionary celebrations of the status quo, even when they appear to question it (cf. for example Daniel Kulla’s fine book-length essay on the topic), and as such, the nickname and the job of the two wardens in hot pursuit of Will are a perfect fit. Between Ali and the wardens, Will navigates between realistic and cliché representations of reality. The fact that he doesn’t depend upon convention and consensus to understand the world, means that he can move from a realistic world into a symbolic world of representations, where people are proxies for ideas and structures.

There’s more to the novel than that. Personally, I felt a strong connection between this book and Saul Bellow’s slanderous (but brilliant) Humboldt’s Gift, also, the use of semiotics in the book warrants many close inspections. Lowboy manages to take on a difficult kind of protagonist without falling into various traps. This book is not about understanding Will (and those like him), it continues to put off final explanations. It’s an incredibly rich book, and a review as short as this cannot possibly do it justice, but in closing, it’s important to not overstate the ideas, because, incredibly, despite all this, Lowboy is a great, suspenseful, quick read, that works on a direct, engaging level. Wray’s prose is careful, elegant and insanely precise, but also very unobtrusive. It’s hard to imagine anyone not liking this book. By rights it should be a bestseller and the object of university seminars both. This is a moving, great read. Don’t miss out on it.

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Padgett Powell: The Interrogative Mood, a Novel?

Powell, Padgett (2009), The Interrogative Mood: a Novel?, Ecco
ISBN 978-0-06-185941-0

When I heard about this book in bookblogs, I was skeptical. See, American bookbloggers have a tendency to elevate stern genre distinctions to fetishes, creating such a strong image of what a genre is supposed to be like, that they happen to hail a surprising number of recent and not-so-recent publications as major breakthroughs in the genre in question. From an “Alternative History” of the novel to Lydia Davis’ work, the unexciting string of ‘shocking’ breaks with convention is long and dire. So when Padgett Powell’s most recent book, The Interrogative Mood, was received along similar lines, lines that the subtitle “a novel?”, with the pointed question mark, only served to deepen and emphasize, I almost regretted getting it. I wrote down a few remarks for this review concentrating on the ludicrous straw men of some reviewers, tying in this book, without having read it. Yeah, I do that sometimes. As I got into it, however, I became genuinely excited about the book and its writer. It’s quite astonishing that Powell really manages to pull this off: an experimental book that does play intelligently with genre notions and conventions, that’s an engaging read, quite moving, frankly, yet also challenging and consistently interesting. Pick up this book. You will not be disappointed. And while you’re at it, pick up also his debut novel, Edisto (review forthcoming). Padgett Powell is one of the most genuinely exciting writers I’ve discovered in a while.

The Interrogative Mood is an interesting kind of novel (and why not run with it and call it that). On the surface, there is no plot, there are no characters, there are just questions. 164 pages of unceasing, unflagging questions, one after another. When I heard that the book consisted solely of questions, a few ideas came into my head about how a plot might be constructed through questions, but I didn’t expect this. The endless stream of questions appears to be a barrage of non-sequitur inquiries, some humorous, some not, some political, some not, many very silly, many not. The second question of the book is “Are your nerves adjustable?”, third question “How do you stand in relation to the potatoe?”, fourth question “Should it still be Constantinople?”, sixth question “In your view, do children smell good?”. And so on. The wealth of questions is quite overwhelming, but in a good way. When Powell set out to write a book composed solely of questions, this is exactly what he did, unlike other writers, he didn’t cloak a cheaply traditional, sentimental book with experimental cloth. He really wrote an experimental book that is truly unlike any book I’ve read so far. What makes it so unique is the fact that these questions appear to form an incoherent stream of impromptu ideas, a rambling book with, at best, novelty factor, but that in Powell’s hands, they acquire a subtle coherence, a voice, direction and meaning. The book is both coherent and rambling at once, depending upon the degree of care which one applies to the text. It’s a text glittering with subtleties.

It’s also an addictively readable book. The flow of questions is exhilarating, challenging and fascinating. Some questions provoke you to raise objections, some ask you to dig into your memories, still others, and those are a large portion of the whole, are goofy and funny, some of those more like cheap comedy quips, and some as finely wrought as a Dr. Seuss book. There will be questions that surprise you, questions that will touch upon some memory that’ll move you, make you rev up your memory. It’s hard to imagine a reader not swayed by the titular ‘moods’ of Powell’s book (I’ll mention other meanings of the title in awhile), at least to some extent. These questions are well crafted and it’s admirable that Powell is able to use them as he does. But on the whole, as you turn the pages, the questions lose importance and you answer fewer and fewer of the, just coasting along on the wave of words, as the small units of questions coalesce into something larger. Something, yes, that I would call a novel.

Definitions of the novel abound, and since, to riff on a phrase of Jarrell, a definition is a short text that has something wrong with it, I won’t try to define the novel here, it’s been done, with varying levels of success. Try your local library. It’s difficult to come up with a list of “must” elements in such a comprehensive and fluid genre like the novel, which isn’t defined in a non-ambiguous way through any element. There are novels in verse, brief as well as long novels, expansive historical novels and dense, action-packed novels. Novels can feature any kind or amount of characters and are composed in all kinds of structures. While it’s easy to determine if a book is ‘clearly’ a novel, the borderline cases are far harder to pinpoint. One such case is Padgett Powell’s fine book, which explicitly asks the reader to consider whether it’s a novel, and indeed it shares enough properties with the mainstream novel to justify calling it one, or at least considering it as one as a valid mode of reading the book (among others). The first, most basic properties are these: The Interrogative Mood has two characters (a very basic requirement) and a narrative. One of the characters is the narrator, the interrogator, the one asking the questions. He definitely experiences a change of character as the book progresses, and as we hear to him ramble, we notice that some questions are more personal than others.

There is an urgency in some questions, and some explicit biographical background worked into others. The very nature of the questions used suggests a personal spin. The kind of questions, their sequence and recurrence, among other factors, help map out a kind of personality. It’s actually quite remarkable how precise a writer Powell proves to be in this regard. For example, there are quizzes, i.e. detailed questions that are about general knowledge. The vast majority of these have to do with nature, which suggests a preeminent importance of the topic for the asker of questions. This fact is firmly impressed upon the reader, as names and images of animals and plants are threaded through his head as he tries to follow the book, keep up with its dodges and feints. These quiz questions are fair and open, and only revealing in terms of sheer quantity and focus of topic. There are also other questions, less fair, but also still more revealing ones. In personal and political matters, Powell’s narrator has the tendency to ask leading questions. He confronts his counterpart with false dichotomies, or he asks what is at best a rhetorical question. It is with these questions that he’s really tipping his hand. These questions, whether it’s his use of false dichotomies or of rhetorical questions, they tell us what the narrator believes or at least what he wants to make his counterpart think he believes. There is, however, no indication of subterfuge in the book, despite the tricky surface. The unnamed narrator appears to be quite earnest and straightforward, within the limitations of the form he has chosen, of course.

So when he gives his opinions away they don’t develop into a new game, they lend resonance to the book, imbuing it with a voice that is singular and unmistakable. As you read on, engrossed by the entertaining surface, you enter into a kind of intimacy with the narrator, listening for his voice, for personal issues even in perfectly innocent questions. This is a work that the book expects you to do. It relies firmly upon our instincts to look for and draw connections even between seemingly unconnected events and statements. By looking closely at the text, listening to it, we find that, far from random, the book is composed, and structured. While one reading wasn’t enough for me to puzzle out that structure, it’s worth noting that the narrator has a few subjects he’s obsessing about, subjects that keep recurring, often in different contexts. It’s not, from a first reading, obvious how these subjects and themes work, in what way they are stacked and repeated, but the enormous amount of them assures that we are made aware of structure, and together with the changes in tone and direction that we see in the personal questions, we have an immediate sense of narrative. Make no mistake, there is not an overt plot, a story that we can follow and retell. To claim that would be absurd. Yet it would be equally absurd to deny the fact of structure, hidden though it is in the folds of this complex book, structure that, indeed, amounts to what can meaningfully be called a narrative.

As for the counterpart, the listener to questions, the answerer of them, little is known about him. The interrogator addresses him in the second person singular, an address that is purposefully fuzzy. The reader naturally assumes that he or she is meant by the questions, and immediately starts formulating answers, thinking about the questions. Not until quite a few questions in, the interrogator refers to answers that he has received. Not from the reader obviously. How we read these references and asides hinges mostly upon the question of whether we are prepared at all to read this as a novel. If we’re not, the putative answers will only be seen as a rhetorical device to further engage “you”, i.e. the reader (who would be the prime suspect for the role of the “you”), in the book’s discussion. If on the other hand, we are open to seeing The Interrogative Mood as fiction, a listener, a counterpart emerges that could (or not) motivate the speaker to ask more and more personal questions. Reading the book with a hypothetical listener/answerer in mind, questions that are pointed and focused, questions that we thought referred to the interrogator and his situatedness, could be his way of riffing upon his counterpart. All these, while they may seem like idle speculations, are legitimate questions, and I think that from the subtitle to some of the details, Powell fuels this kind of debate.

It’s hard not to think that Powell is very aware of how our thinking about genre conventions in the arts has changed, from Wayne Booth’s groundbreaking work on the novel (there is a point to make about Booth’s treatment of James’ narrators and the way Powell’s narrator is set up) to Nelson Goodman’s astonishing distillations in the 1970s and 1980s. This isn’t, by the way, the only theoretical consideration that underlies the book. The title refers us to another one which I can but briefly sketch. “Interrogative Mood” is a grammatical term, referring to a way to express interrogativity in some language, though not in English. That is remarkable for a book written in English and suggests that the book is concerned with the wider modes of interrogativity. In semantics, interrogativity holds a special place. It’s a repository for doubt, a marker of ambiguity (ambiguity of reference, for example. Interrogatives are often highly dependent upon context to be clarified, yet it is this context that Powell, slyly, denies us), of epistemological uncertainty. It is a mode that doesn’t just raise questions, it also puts things into question. But in the case of The Interrogative Mood, this isn’t a coldly calculating questioning, not an intellectually bracing search. Powell’s narrator is clearly calling not just aspects of his knowledge of the world, and his interlocutor’s, into question, he puts himself up for discussion. The very form and shape of the book is designed to be elusive, to allow the narrator to hide in a mirror cabinet of questions. Questions seem to be propelled outward, demanding answers of people elsewhere, but we can, as I said earlier, follow these questions back to their source, Powell’s narrator.

When you come down to it, The Interrogative Mood is a very small and personal book, yet through its engagement with the reader (the ambiguity of reference is a big part of that), it’s also a very open book, open to the world without. Many definitions of the novel, especially German ones, have stressed that the novel is the one genre that contains the fullness of life, the smörgåsbord of the everyday, containing often disparate elements, from human psychology, to public events and the richness of bodily experience, in short, “life in its allness”, to quote from Lucács’ classic Theory of the Novel. And in the stupendous amount of kinds of questions and sectors of knowledge that Powell’s book draws on and uses, it does just that. It’s a slim book, a simply written book that is teeming with life. Yes, the two characters’ lives, but also ours. Powell introduces the book with a quote from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. “Does the Daylight astonish?” Whitman asks. And the very first question that the book has for its reader is “Are your emotions pure?”. That wonderment, that tender sensitivity, the careful voice of the narrator expecting, no, hoping, for something beyond the fog that crawls all over us. Yes, the questions are a kind of fog themselves, but if we let them, they can clear some of the other fog away. Padgett Powell has written a wondrous book, a light, musical read, that is formally brave and beautiful in terms of its emotions. It’s not a generous book, but the heart of it is hardened by distress. Read The Interrogative Mood. You won’t be sorry.

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