Lucy and Todd

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Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue
 – Mark Kurlansky

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on August 14, 2012 at 3:46 pm

Who started all this? Was it Laura Esquivel? Joanne Harris? There is now an entire category of novels, bubbling away in dark cauldrons, which seek to enfold you in chocolate, butter, pastry, marmalade, squid – books that try to smother you with some kind of goo and its lore, blind you to the fact that there is no art between their covers. The reader will drool over sexy mädchen slathered in butter, feel his chin drip with the oil of cuchifritos (look it up for yourself) and if only he can be frog-marched to the cooker fast enough, he won’t have time to reflect. His head will be throbbing with a surfeit of recipes and gushy facts, which in their rich illimitability will make him think he has … been somewhere? Learned something? Pick up a copy of Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue: O god it has recipes in it. Recipes and cute drawings.

Mark Kurlansky is the author of Cod, Salt and other attractively-conceived works of popular history. This is his first novel, set on New York’s Lower East Side in the moneyed dislocations of the 1980s, and there is nothing wrong with its lively materials. But he shows little awareness of the ways in which fiction can “instruct”, though that seems to be what he thinks it is for: just another form of history. He allows you no insights, lets you feel nothing immediate, and god forbid you should have to get up and go to the dictionary. Instead, he insists on coyly dangling a thing in front of you and then preciously “revealing” it, as a parlour magician might. He must gloss just about every noun and expatiate on every bit of history he happens to mention. He does this in such a didactic, numbing way that it seems totally unfair that not one of the characters who get shot to death (as a number of them predictably, tediously do) is the same kind of teacherish git as the narrator.

This is the indigestible problem about Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue, “A Novel of Pastry, Guilt, and Music”: it is unbearably cute, and it is not a novel, but a 300 page lecture about notes for a novel. Many times you will hear the dust being blown off a carefully saved-up anecdote, situation or image. This is fiction for people who don’t understand fiction and never will. People who collect things.

When he isn’t lecturing (“it was the saddest day of the year, the ninth day of Av, Tisha-b’Av. This was the day of Jewish calamity, the day of the destruction of David’s Temple in Jerusalem in 568 BC. Rebuilt, it was then destroyed by the Romans on the same day in 70 AD, never to be rebuilt until the Messiah comes. It is also considered the date of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain … Nathan had been up most of the night before”), he’s asking questions. These are in the mind of his protagonist, Nathan Seltzer (food name, get it?). A few of the questions Nathan asks are apt: with the arrival of developers and new money in the “old neighbourhood”, must he abandon his own history in order to save his family?

But there is a pretty raw nugget in the middle of all the carefree cooking, munching and lovemaking going on: Nathan, a Jew, is having an affair with a pastry cook whose father might have been a Nazi. Nathan seems incapable of reasoning or morals – he’s delighted to find that he can eat a lot of torte as long as he regularly screws both his wife and the pastry cook. (The usual message from the US: you can do whatever you please if you’re a fathead who’s thin enough.) What sticks in the throat is the nervous occasional insinuation of this pseudo-Wiesenthal sub-plot, an awkward attempt to justify the novel as serious, and not a rompy cookbook with a few psychos thrown in for the purposes of grit.

It’s a problem when the main character is an unpleasant, dull-witted nebbish, someone totally implausible, seemingly incapable of being loved by the others, or even of coming up with his own weird, Kurlansky-like questions: “Even Beethoven in the nineteenth century, when Germany was just an idealistic dream, understood that these beautiful themes would turn ugly, turn harsh, become goose-stepping. Or was that not what Beethoven meant at all? It didn’t sound like that when Bernstein conducted. Was Bernstein closer to Beethoven?”

There are aspects of Kurlansky’s writing that recall the gentle, looping seaminess of Steinbeck’s novels of the 1940s, an impression reinforced by the cute drawings. In talking about music there are hints of Oscar Hijuelos; at times the mise-en-scène is an attempt at the historical whirl of Grass or Marquez. But he depends too much on circularity and story-telling, which become precious and finally monotonous. What you are willing to take for plausible conjunctions and coincidences finally become just too convenient and annoying beyond any fictional use: the non-fiction novel is here.

If you like attending lectures and trying out recipes, you’ll make it to the end of Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue. Otherwise, to haul your ashes through all this hectoring lecturing really is torture. In a novel of New York, should you have to wait till page 83 to get a martini?


Guardian, 9 April, 2005

© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

The Ministry of Pain
 – Dubravka Ugresic

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on August 14, 2012 at 3:37 pm

In her delightful, stirring book of essays, Thank You for Not Reading, Dubravka Ugresic wrote of one of the “advantages of exile”: “exile is a voluntary job of deconstructing the established values of human life. The exile, like it or not, tests the basic concepts around which everyone’s life revolves: concepts of home, homeland, family, love, friendship, profession, personal biography. Having completed the long and arduous journey of battling with the bureaucracy of the country where he has ended up, having finally acquired papers, the exile forgets the secret knowledge he has acquired on his journey, in the name of life which must go on.”

The Ministry of Pain is a brave, accomplished, cultured novel, sombre and witty. It is the story of just such an exile, Tanja Ucic, who leaves Zagreb in dismay and confusion and finds herself teaching the languages and literature of her “former Yugoslavia” at a university in Amsterdam, living in a subterranean flat on the edge of the red-light district. “I was, naturally, well aware of the absurdity of my situation: I was to teach a subject that no longer officially existed. What we called jugoslavistika at the university – that is, Slovene, Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian, Montenegrin and Macedonian literature – had disappeared as a discipline together with its country of origin.”

Tanja is plucky, but also easily sidetracked by the pain she feels in the large community of her fellow émigrés: “‘our people’ had an invisible slap on their faces”. In the cities of western Europe she goes to Croatian cafes and bars, but is often filled with despair rather than camaraderie: “Surrounded by smoke rings, they looked as ‘former’ as their one-time nationality; they looked like corpses that had risen from the grave for a bottle of beer and a round of cards but had ended up in the wrong place.”

Feeling culturally wounded, and believing her students feel the same, Tanja throws the curriculum out of the window and becomes a literary therapist. She attempts to reconstruct the land they have lost through an informal seminar, amusing, haunting and bloody: a “jugonostalgia” of their speech, cultural backgrounds, experiences of war. One girl writes about a typical red, white and blue plastic holdall, seen at émigré markets, and Tanja seizes on it as a metaphor. From now on, their essays will be about what they want to remember, good and bad, of the life of their non-existent country – each item will be put in the “holdall”. But the contents of this holdall become burdensome and eventually too nasty – in the end, only Tanja believes it is actually holding anything.

Then her professorship is terminated. She loses the ability to place herself in the world and spirals down into a depression – a striking meditation on the nature of war, language and displacement, the task of accepting one’s new country and one’s new self: “The past is our ‘installation’, amateur stuff but with artistic pretensions. With a touch-up here and a touch-up there, here a touch, there a touch, everywhere a touch-touch.” This is Ugresic at her best, constantly finding fascinating ways to portray the conundrums of the age and the quirky grammar of thought.

She moves quickly, almost enchantingly, from one comic or rueful consideration to another (Thank You for Not Reading was peppered with quotations from AA Milne’s Eeyore, and there is a deep ironic level on which he and Ugresic commune). Can an exile ever be entirely happy with the new place? Will it always have an unreality? “For me [Amsterdam] had the proportions of a child. Shop-windows in the red-light district displaying live dolls for grown-ups, porno shops decked out to resemble toy shops, kindergarten-like coffee shops … it’s not that this urban infantilism is subversive or derisive … it’s just that it’s turned Amsterdam into a kind of melancholy Disneyland.”

Tanja undergoes some shocking experiences, one the kind of random violence that exiles often take to be too much about themselves. In the middle of her painful withdrawal, her exile within exile, she voices a humbling, striking vision of the Europe that is to be, full of frightening, ambitious people from the broken nations, rootless technocrats, “net and web people” whose loyalties and assumptions will have to be tracked very carefully. There are also profound ruminations on the staggering amount of non-guilt we’re capable of feeling these days, thanks to the endless filters of media through which we experience our brutalities to each other.

But despite the breadth and depth of its political and literary ambitions, The Ministry of Pain is possessed of a wonderful, clear simplicity. There are very pure pleasures in Ugresic’s honesty, her lightsome, moving prose, her ability to dance in a flash from outrage to satire to a heartfelt exposition of beauty. In the end, Tanja comes to a pragmatic, darker understanding of what it means to be adrift on the map, returning to her linguistic roots in an astonishing fashion. The novel answers emphatically one of the questions Ugresic sets Tanja and herself: “whether a language that hasn’t learned to depict reality, complex as the inner experience of that reality may be, is capable of doing anything at all – telling stories, for instance.” Oh yes.


Guardian, 1 October, 2005

© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

Sag Harbor – Colson Whitehead

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on August 13, 2012 at 4:28 pm

The summer of 1985 is a halcyon one for Ben, 15, and his brother Reggie, 14, left alone in the family’s vacation house. The town of Sag Harbor, New York, is the plain face of “the Hamptons”, one of the weirder places on earth. In winter it is bleak potato farms, in summer the desk and playpen of writers, actors and arseholes from the world around: in Ben’s words, “the Hamptonite Undead”, who stop at nothing to satisfy their opulent summery urges.

Strange and brave that a community was founded here by black professionals from the city in the 1930s. “I’ll wager on this,” Ben says, “the sunsets closed the deal for that first generation … my grandparents and their crew … that first generation asked, Can we make it work? Will they allow us to have this? It doesn’t matter what the world says, they answered each other. This place is ours.”

Whitehead proves himself, among many other things, a poet of the American summer and its aspirations. In these cherished, toiled-for houses, Ben and his city friends live summer and adolescence parallel to the rest of the world. The place means everything to their parents, and to them. To let anything, even money worries, “interfere with Sag, your shit was seriously amiss”.

Within days of being left in charge, the two brothers have eaten all the frozen dinners they expected would sustain them. So Reggie throws himself on the mercy of Burger King and Ben gets a job at Jonni Waffle, a wonderful, nauseatingly evoked emporium of American dessert bilge – “the beginning of my exile from decent people”. Yet in Whitehead’s hands this place, reeking of burning sucrose, is the perfect theatre for every anxiety of puberty: monetary, digestive, racial, sexual and criminal.

The nostalgia the young have for family things is acutely done: the dependable look of rakes in the basement, or how it feels to gather up your stuff at the chilly end of a day on the beach. And there is a guilty, haunted Ben who looks down on his maturing self from outside, a kid never allowed to forget he goes to a fancy white school – “most of the year it was like I’d been blindfolded and thrown down a well”.

Day to day, Ben broils in the anxiety of any 15-year-old: “The new handshakes were out, shaming me with their permutations and slippery routines. Slam, grip, flutter, snap. Or was it slam, flutter, grip, snap? … Devised in the underground soul laboratories of Harlem, pounded out in the blacker-than-thou sweatshops of the South Bronx, the new handshakes always had me faltering in embarrassment … I had all summer to get it right, unless someone went back to the city and returned with some new variation that spread like a virus, and which my strong dork constitution produced countless antibodies against.” For Ben is a dork. The musical currency in his milieu may be rap, but he listens to the Smiths (as well as alluding to his Dungeons & Dragons past – “a means of perpetuating virginity”).

But this remarkable novel goes far beyond gentle musings on awkward youth. This is Ben on the meaning, to him, of the cataclysmic shift from rap to hip-hop: “Something happened that changed the terms and we went from fighting (I’ll knock that grin off your face) to annihilation (I will wipe you from this Earth). How we got from here to there are the key passages in the history of young black men that no one cares to write. We live it instead.”

In this elegiac, spirited prose there are echoes of Melville, one of the first to write about Sag, and others, too: Thurber’s ability to celebrate a troubled family through satire, and Cheever’s melancholy geography of class. Compared with his own brilliantly stark, insinuating writing in The Colossus of New York, Whitehead’s language here is relaxed and playful, a tribute to youth. But Ben’s take on life is a fond, proud, nervy shout, and a triumph of rueful reason.


Guardian, 16 May, 2009

© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

A World Elsewhere – Wayne Johnston

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on August 6, 2012 at 8:32 pm

Two chaps meet, Bouvard and Pécuchet-style, on a bench at Princeton University some time during the Gilded Age, that part of the 19th century when everything in America seemed on the up-and-up. If you had a lot of money. Landish Druken is a Newfoundlander, sent to university by his father, a sealing captain. This is Landish’s only chance to acculturate himself before returning to the north and the fur trade for the rest of his life. Padgett Vanderluyden, heir to the biggest fortune in America, is an altogether more Princetonian Princetonian. He decides on the spot that the rough-hewn Landish must, and will, be his only friend, for life. ‘Van’ begs Landish to come with him to North Carolina, where he is going to build the world’s largest house and Landish can become the novelist he wants to be. For several reasons Landish refuses and goes home, imbued with a higher calling now, and higher tastes than his father can stomach. Shortly Landish is destitute, living in an attic, writing the beginning of a novel ‘about the feeling of fall’ over and over again, and burning it every night.

Wayne Johnston is a master of the flavours of things: Landish and Van are japesters in the antique undergraduate style—when Van’s father dies, Landish gets him to smile as they pass a haberdashery by singing, ‘Full fathom five thy father lies/Those are pants that were his size.’ They pen a revue entitled Nutstewyou. But Landish’s desire to use his talent condemns him to his icy, howling winter attic. (Spoiler: the Newfoundland winter is here described so blisteringly that, truthfully, if you read this you’ll never go there.) But this is the setting of the greatest achievement of A World Elsewhere: a poetic and very deft observation of the nature of the bonds between parent and child. Landish thinks on his mother, who played with him when his father was away clubbing baby seals, and gave him his artistic nature. Most important is Landish’s relationship with Deacon, the orphan he ‘buys’ out of guilt. He raises Deacon in a punning yet meaningful dialogue that informs the boy about the world in a rich, ironical way. Landish changes the name of almost every thing around them: a health inspector becomes the Wealth Inspector; the nuns who visit them with over-curious charity are Nun One and Nun Too Soon. It is to these constructions and charms put on life that the little boy clings in their eventual adventure at ‘Vanderland’, the demesne and doom Van has created for himself in the middle of bloody nowhere. Nothing good comes of this reunion – the story, like the era, is ridden with neurosis and unrequited longings, for love and money.

The tone of the novel shifts as writer and boy are sucked into the opulent, etiolated atmosphere of Vanderland. The violently painted language of the first part has to be abandoned: the storms are now inside people. As Johnston says in his Notes, the mise en scene of A World Elsewhere is that of George Vanderbilt and his estate Biltmore, on which he spent his entire fortune. It is an enormous place that no one ever liked, at once too large and too plush. Johnston claims to have become fascinated by it. As charmless and lacking in history as Biltmore is, he must have felt driven to whip some heat, some scandal, some fight into a house which resembles Grand Central Station (also constructed by the Vanderbilts) in more ways than one. Vanderland is fast becoming  a mausoleum, and Van knows it. Landish and Deacon track life in, like unwanted footprints. This is going to end badly, for Van, like a Hearst, really only wants to be alone.

The denouement of the story is a surprising eruption into derring-do, dark passageways and Pinkertons. The direction taken by the characters, as drawn by Johnston throughout the novel, would probably in reality have been different. But after sweeping us from the wild world of St John’s Bay to the over-mentated interior of the costliest sarcophagus in the world, you can’t blame him. After all, the Police Gazette was always read by more people than the Social Register.


(A condensed version of this review was published in the Herald, Aug. 5, 2012)

Snuff – Chuck Palahniuk

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on August 3, 2012 at 10:52 pm

What the hell is going on? The country that produced Melville, Twain and James now venerates King, Crichton, Grisham, Sebold and Palahniuk. Their subjects? Porn, crime, pop culture and an endless parade of out-of-body experiences. Their methods? Cliché, caricature and proto-Christian morality. Props? Corn chips, corpses, crucifixes. The agenda? Deceit: a dishonest throwing of the reader to the wolves. And the result? Readymade Hollywood scripts.

So not only has America tried to ruin the rest of the world with its wars, its financial meltdown and its stupid stupid food, it has allowed its own literary culture to implode. Jazz and patchwork quilts are still doing O.K., but books have descended into kitsch. I blame capitalism, Puritanism, philistinism, television and the computer.

Chuck Palahniuk has his uses as a shock jock: 73 people (according to him) have fainted during public readings of his short story “Guts.” A riotous account of some disastrous underwater onanism involving a swimming-pool drain, that story excellently delineates the shallowness of American life. But his latest novel, Snuff, the dry-as-dust tale of people making a documentary about a woman who wants to break (as the promotional copy delicately puts it) “the world record for serial fornication,” is not so much shallow as bitter. Whatever point Palahniuk meant to make seems to have been lost in a self-induced miasma of meaninglessness — onanism of a more dispiriting sort.

Told primarily from the perspective of three participants, Mr. 72, Mr. 137 and Mr. 600, most of the action takes place in a vast hall where hundreds of men in their underpants plow through junk food and Viagra. All 600 of them have volunteered to spend the day sharing one woman and one toilet. It sounds like an athlete’s foot bonanza! But that’s show business.

On the plus side, the men have been certified free of venereal disease. Nothing to worry about then — except that this is the bottom of the barrel Palahniuk has chosen to scrape. He even dares to make a Melville-related joke (inevitably, I guess) based on the name of the whale. Not wise: Palahniuk’s banality makes the Pequod smell pretty sweet.

This novel reeks not of lust but of the lamp, with many a discharge of nerdy info on everything from cyanide poisoning, Claudius’ wife Messalina, vibrators, defibrillators, gangsta tattoos and Hitler’s inflatable Aryan sex doll to fluffers and intercourse-induced embolisms: stuff most 10-year-olds know — or could Google.

There is a running gag (to which the reader’s response may be to gag and run) about porn film titles, only a few of which — “Gropes of Wrath,” “Beat Me in St. Louis,” “Lady Windermere’s Fanny” — can be mentioned here. Some don’t even attempt to be clever. “Inside Miss Jean Brody” sounds like a title suggested by a newly arrived Martian.

Is this what passes for invention these days? Do Palahniuk’s readers chortle at such things? Have they no pride? There’s a glaring absence of finesse. A paragraph-long description of difficulty with excretory hygiene is offered by one “dude” as an analogy for a bad day, then repeated almost word for word at the end of the book. It’s not that great an analogy.

The telegraphing of the denouement is also out of control, with one allusion after another to genetic links between the star and the people servicing her: a baby was given up for adoption many years before. One possible “son,” the confused Mr. 72, has been perving for years all over a pocket-size rubber edition of her vulva.

Revulsion is expressed indiscriminately: Palahniuk is contemptuous of everything and everybody! Including, I suspect, us. The people in this novel don’t merely speak in clichés, their every action is clichéd. It’s as if, like some grumpy groundhog, Palahniuk has come out of his burrow only to tell us he has nothing to say — unless it’s that porn has ruined sex. But we knew that already.

The floppy plot seeks refuge in cosmetic tips and movie trivia, with a pretty obscene focus on actors who came to grief, if not death, while filming some picture or other. If this catalog of corporeal catastrophe is supposed to justify snuff movies, it fails. The trouble with snuff movies is that the wrong people die.

The risk in objecting to all this is that you look like a fuddy-duddy. But the problem is not the moral turpitude that Palahniuk pretends to promote or tolerate; the problem is his lack of artistry. He has allowed the failings of the culture he criticizes to infect his own work. The feeble irony employed here isn’t up to the job of processing all the detritus he hurls at us. Who will de-trite us now?

Instead of any real creative effort, Palahniuk chucks at us every bit of porno-talk he can muster. But not in a good way. This is no celebration of a field in which America excels — the hatching of new vocabulary — but an exercise in deadening the English language. Johnny One-Note, this book is shooting blanks. Alienation is soooooo 20th century.


June 8, 2008

New York Times Book Review