01/05/11 4:00am

The Petting Zoo

By Jim Carroll


Jim Carroll’s writings—most famously The Basketball Diaries, but also its more assured sequel Forced Entries, and several volumes of tender, electric poems—had a freshness and candor that drew ardent fans. When Carroll died in September 2009 at the age of 60, those fans found some consolation in the news that he’d come pretty close to finishing his long-anticipated first novel, and that it would be published posthumously.
That novel, The Petting Zoo, centers on 38-year-old art star Billy Wolfram, who is in the thick of a baffling professional and personal crisis. When we first meet Billy, he’s fleeing a swanky party at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, undone by some potent canvases by Velázquez.” [T]he fact that this is what I do made it impossible to take in the experience without foolishly comparing my style to the master’s, and—with a colossal understatement—further magnifying my shortcomings,” he tells a doctor at the psychiatric hospital where he’s taken immediately after the episode. For Billy, making art is deadly serious business, and it’s excruciating when he finds he suddenly can’t make anything at all.

After two nights in the hospital, Billy retreats into a self-prescribed “reclusion” in his Chelsea loft, where he dreams, looks back on his childhood and his early career, and wallows in the torment of not being able to paint. He also communes with a very talkative and persistent raven. Claiming wisdom born of immortality, the bird taunts the artist and presses him to confront his past. Billy’s predicament, Carroll slowly and tediously reveals, stems from his spiritual uncertainty—and his repressed sexuality.
It’s impossible not to compare Billy’s basic biography to his author’s: Both artists are native New Yorkers who were raised Catholic, found success in their chosen mediums at a young age and wrestled with their renown. Carroll embodied a specific kind of New York myth, one he perpetuates through Billy, who “knew all the possibilities of his life were intertwined with this city.” But the lucidity and energy that fuels Carroll’s earlier writing is missing here, resulting in a story and a protagonist that feel strangely neutered and incomplete.

Billy may be a mess, but he’s also a cipher. There’s no real urgency to his ponderous, long-winded musings on the meaning and difficulty of art. Other characters—notably Billy’s assistant, Marta, and his best friend Denny, a rock musician—feel like lifeless cutouts, and the dialogue throughout is painfully stilted. Carroll seems to be holding his readers at arm’s length.

That’s surprising, since his earlier writings were characterized by a rawness that could leave you feeling almost uncomfortably close to him. As the final work of someone who isn’t around to explain it or surpass it with his next effort, the book’s failings also become tragic. It’s hard to know just how much of its unpolished feeling has to do with it being truly unfinished, and some devotees will surely find something sweetly naked and redemptive in the fact that we have it at all. That’s a tempting way to read The Petting Zoo, but the novel’s weighty symbolism isn’t enough to transform it into a work of art that can stand on its own.

11/11/09 4:00am

Stitches By David Small
W.W. Norton
Available now

In the mid-1950s, when David Small was 11 years old, someone noticed a lump on his neck. After undergoing surgery three years later, he was left with a serious scar—”my smooth young throat slashed and laced back up like a bloody boot,” he describes in his stunning, anguished illustrated memoir, Stitches—and even more brutally, without a voice: one of his vocal cords was removed. He soon discovered the lump had actually been cancer, something his distant, seething parents never intended to tell him.

From an early age, drawing was Small’s escape. He depicts himself sprawled on the floor, sketching intently and then leaping through the page into a joyful underworld far removed from the tensions that raged in the house above. As he revisits the ordeals of his childhood, his dark, moody illustrations are racked with unease and filled with chilling dreams and fantasies. When his 14-year-old self first pulls back the bandages to look at his wound, Small renders his stitches with near photographic precision, a sobering divergence from a style that tends to be looser and more impressionistic. He sees a fetus in a hospital specimen jar and imagines it clambering out and chasing him. Conjuring the sensation that he’s “shrinking down and living inside my own mouth,” he portrays himself sitting in the groove of a giant tongue, surrounded by teeth, holding his head in his hands.

When Small is 15, his doctor father confesses that the powerful X-rays he gave him as a child (in an attempt to cure his sinus problems) were what caused his cancer. When this truth comes out, it’s just one more betrayal on top of so many others, but there’s some relief in it being spoken out loud. Stitches is a book about silences: the things that go unsaid, the yawning spaces between people, and of course, the devastating literalness of Small’s own missing voice. The author long ago regained his ability to speak, and is known today as an award-winning writer and illustrator of children’s books. The nightmare of his own early years only makes his clever, inventive stories for kids more poignant.

10/28/09 4:00am

Dreaming in French
By Megan McAndrew
Available Now

It’s 1979, and 15-year-old American Charlotte Sanders and her older sister Lea are being raised in “benign anarchy” in Paris, by parents they call Frank and Astrid. Astrid, in particular, is larger than life, and as Charlotte negotiates adolescence, her mother looms glamorously above it all. In Dreaming in French, Megan McAndrew lovingly captures the desperate seriousness of being a teenager, years when everything feels terribly important and much energy is spent proving it.

“I was just me, waiting for someone to find me intriguing,” Charlotte explains. A classic sort of heroine in a classic coming of age story, she is-of course!-smarter and more thoughtful than everyone around her (including her mother, whose charisma doesn’t go unpunished) and blissfully unable to find a place she fits. Initially awkward, she ripens into her beauty right on schedule. She holds fast to her little rebellions, discovers power in sex with appropriately older me—,”taking lovers,” in her insistent parlance—and descends into cynicism with relish, like she’s the first person to ever wear a Sex Pistols t-shirt to a civilized meal or question the institution of marriage. Mostly though, she’s obsessed with becoming a woman. Her efforts to be older than she is, and later, her conviction that she has transcended age, are sharply observed here, portrayed with a yearning and a put-on wisdom that feels more authentic for being a little grating.

Charlotte marches towards 30 and McAndrew keeps things moving briskly, making it difficult for any one event (whether personal tragedy or political turmoil) to stand out. Dreaming in French may be predictable, walking us through the milestones of precocious young adulthood as if working from a checklist—but part of Charlotte’s appeal lies in her familiarity. She’s an archetype, an outsider determined to stand at a distance from the happy endings scripted for everyone around her. McAndrew is clearly enamored by her protagonist, and in the end seems reluctant to let her go. Readers will have less trouble: Charlotte’s story is wonderfully diverting, but not as profound as she or her author would like.

10/14/09 4:00am

Available Now

Is there a writer more perceptive than Lorrie Moore? In both her novels and short story collections, she’s displayed unnerving insight into people and all their mesmerizing, exasperating strangeness. Her remarkable new novel, A Gate at the Stairs, chronicles a year in the life of 20-year-old Tassie Keltjin, a farmer’s daughter attending college in a liberal oasis of the Midwest soon after 9/11. Moore’s prose is singularly contemplative and alert, suffused with anxiety and wordplay: A woman’s face has a look of “bravado laced with doom, like fat in meat”; overheard voices “sound seasick, or shopworn, or shot down, or like a station on the radio.”

As Tassie shivers through the punishing cold of her spring semester, she works as a nanny for a white, bourgeois couple, Sarah and Edward, who have just adopted an interracial baby. The child’s provenance is the source of much hand wringing, but Tassie’s devotion to her young charge is pure and unhesitating. Sarah, though, is harder to pin down: she’s a tangled ball of nerves and ambitions, both ushering Tassie closer to the family’s inner circle and pushing her away. Awkwardness and crossed signals stand in for honesty, and secrets threaten to disturb an already delicate balance.

If these relationships”—driven by agendas and ego”—form the heart of the book, Tassie herself is its pulse. Moore has crafted a real person, with a life that spills outside any boundaries drawn up to contain her. And so after a dizzying semester, Tassie goes to spend the summer on her family’s farm, and her story shifts into something sober and timeless. As she roams through fields and reflects on the quiet around her, dialogue falls away, and her next steps are uncertain. Occasionally, Moore offers a subtle reminder that her heroine is narrating from some indistinct, clued-in future, and that narrative distance offers both perspective and gravity. “What was education for, if not to acquire contradictions?” Tassie wonders early in the book. By its difficult, winning conclusion, she has earned her share of them, and we’ve arrived somewhere brutally sad and almost unbearably wise.

03/04/09 12:00am

Farrar, Straus & Giroux Available now

Both an art book and a unique sort of novel, Leanne Shapton’s impressively titled Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry is built on the intimate, ordinary details of two lives. Lenore Doolan, a food writer, and Hal Morris, a photographer, are Shapton’s own creations, but the material objects that define their four-and-a-half year relationship could hardly feel more authentic.

Ordered chronologically, the book is an exhaustive auction catalog of the defunct couple’s possessions. Shapton, the art director of the New York Times Op-Ed page (it’ll tell you something about her clever, sweetly sad aesthetic that her designs include the titles for Noah Baumbach’s film The Squid and the Whale), keeps the layout simple and restrained, organizing messy human emotion — and the objects it’s attached to — into individual lots offered up for reasonable prices (“seven pairs of socks, lightly worn” is listed for $10-30; “pair of unused movie tickets” is $5-15).

Along with personal letters, emails, grocery lists, mix CDs (with accompanying track lists), Christmas cards, party invitations, newspaper clippings and many photographs of the couple, there’s the revealing contents of a cosmetic case (precisely inventoried and photographed laid out in neat rows), “a collection of rocks,” “duplicate copies of seven paperbacks” and “ten identical take-out menus from local Chinese restaurant Wah-Sing.” All of these items stand as evidence of the particular ways these two people shared their lives — and just as importantly, the ways they didn’t.

One of the more obvious pleasures here is basic voyeurism. There’s also satisfaction in piecing together Doolan and Morris’s story entirely through the things they owned and used, and seeing what happened between “a cup used by the couple for their toothbrushes” and “real estate listings for one-bedroom apartments.” All the while, it’s a little unsettling to think about how the detritus of our own romances might end up catalogued, but in Shapton’s assured hands, there’s something oddly comforting about it, too.

01/21/09 12:00am

The dead of winter may be the perfect time to rediscover the deliciously dark stories of Daphne Du Maurier. Du Maurier, who died in 1989, was known mainly for her historical novels, but in the newly published collection Don’t Look Now, novelist Patrick McGrath has assembled a rich sampling of her unsettling short fiction, most of it written between 1940 and 1971.

In “Split Second,” a woman returns home from her daily walk to find strangers occupying her house. When she tries to prove her identity, there is no record of her existence, and no one to recognize her or come to her defense. “Blue Lenses” focuses on a woman who has just had surgery to correct her sight. When the bandages are taken off her eyes, she can see clearly but for one thing: everyone around her appears to have the head of an animal. The title story finds a British couple vacationing in Venice shortly after the death of their young daughter. They meet a pair of elderly sisters, one a sort of psychic who says she can see the child they lost. This encounter sets off a chain of increasingly anxiety-producing events, and Du Maurier heaps one disorienting twist upon another until we’re no longer sure what to be most afraid of.

“The Birds” (the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s movie of same name, with which Du Maurier was apparently none too pleased) is the collection’s best story. Set in a small seaside town, it centers on one man’s modest attempts to protect his family from the masses of birds that have, for no clear reason, begun violently attacking. Very quickly, the unexpected force of them becomes overwhelming, and Du Maurier dwells hauntingly on the sounds of hundreds of wings, beaks and talons beating against the windows of the family’s house as the birds try to force their way in.

But it’s not all terror, here. The grimness of stories like “Indiscretion” and “La Sainte-Vierge” comes from revelations of trickery and deception, an almost sarcastic kind of light-heartedness amid so much dread. Either way, Du Maurier’s skillful and elegant exploitation of our most primal fears makes these stories feel timeless.

07/30/08 12:00am

When eleven-year-old Osnat Greenberg and her parents move to Michigan from Tel Aviv, they arrive in a place that feels too quiet, too damp and too big. Kids are taken aback by Osnat’s origins — “You lived in Israel? Weren’t you scared?” —  and make fun of her name: “Why are you named after mucus?”

Ask for a Convertible, Danit Brown’s absorbing book of connected stories, revolves around the lonely, restless Osnat and a select few in her orbit over a period of about 15 years, mostly Israelis who feel the pull of another place no matter where they settle. Brown is wonderfully attuned to what’s special and strange about this particular pool of immigrants, but she’s careful to neither valorize where they come from nor paint their fraught relationships with their home and adopted countries as entirely unique.

By the time she’s 25, Osnat has dated seven guys named Chris. Living in Chicago, she agonizes about returning to Israel, reluctantly certain that it’s the right thing to do. Osnat’s roots offer her an excuse for, and possible solution to, the disorientation that plagues so many people her age. She figures her life would be worth more if she lived in a place where just waking up everyday meant “making the statement that having your own country was important.” As she makes plans to move — and then move again — and obsesses over whether she’ll ever feel at home, her parents carry on an endless, knowingly futile argument about whether they’ll live in Israel again themselves.

These sensitive (and often hilarious) stories ask what it means to be loyal to a place, and to a people, and what it says about you if you choose to defect. Brown paints Israel as a place that’s familiar and yet incredibly specific, where people respond calmly to terror alerts, work at dull jobs, worry about water damage to their apartments and fail their driving tests. To these characters, the country is somewhere to live, as well as to long for. It’s also somewhere to leave.

06/18/08 12:00am

Near the end of her graceful, wrenching memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay, Sarah Manguso admits that hers is “the usual sort of book about illness. Someone gets sick, someone gets well.” True, it’s nearly impossible to read her elegant account without thinking of other sobering personal narratives about sickness, especially Bee Lavender’s Lessons in Taxidermy and Susanna Kaysen’s The Camera My Mother Gave Me. But while Manguso’s is a familiar kind of story, it’s full of wisdom and horror that are uniquely its own.

In her early twenties, the author fell ill with a rare disease eventually diagnosed as CIDP, characterized (among other things) by temporary paralysis that occurs as immune cells begin attacking the body’s nerves. For years, Manguso put her life on hold as she checked in and out of hospitals and dreaded her next seemingly inevitable relapse. Reading the unhappy particulars of her experience, it’s a struggle to guard against the hypochondria this kind of “sick lit” so easily inspires — a reminder that witnessing someone else’s illness (whether firsthand or on the page) may tell us as much about ourselves as it does about the patient.

Manguso is generous with personal details, and vocal in her loathing for sentimentality. Early on, she describes lying under a pile of blankets during apheresis sessions, being infused with plasma that had been unfrozen and brought to room temperature. “I want to write a metaphor that will make a reader stop reading for a moment and think, Now I understand how cold it felt,” she writes. “But I’m just going to say it felt like liquid, thirty degrees colder than my body, being infused slowly but directly into my heart, for four hours.”

It’s here that the echoes of Susan Sontag’s brilliant Illness as Metaphor — in which that most iconic of intellectuals coolly railed against using shortcuts to talk about sickness — are clearest. Sometimes accuracy demands giving up the comfort of figures of speech, as Sontag so memorably insisted. With her strong, simple prose, Manguso similarly pays attention to the times when words can’t do enough.              

05/21/08 12:00am

Personal Days

Ed Park • Random House • Available now

It’s unclear what business the disillusioned office workers who populate Ed Park’s debut novel are in. Their jobs aren’t at any sort of alternative-weekly, like the one from which the author was unceremoniously fired a few years ago; there’s not the requisite frenzy. Personal Days is no thinly veiled tell-all, but Park has exacted revenge on his former employer in at least one way: the twin Starbucks and “hippie coffee van” that surround the fictional office are familiar signposts of the Village Voice’s stomping ground.

Like Joshua Ferris’s excellent Then We Came to the End, Park’s debut novel deftly turns trivial cubicle fixations into dark comedy. Both books take place at companies in the throes of mass lay-offs and use first person plural narration to suggest office groupthink (“We look like we’ve been squeezed out of a tube and haven’t quite solidified”). Park’s characters are younger and more cynical than Ferris’s, almost certainly because they work in New York. Most of what we know about them has to do with their idiosyncrasies.

As the mysterious company unravels, these colleagues become increasingly paranoid, intent on uncovering what they believe are surely sinister plots to force them out of their jobs (jobs they hate but cling to anyway — a common condition that is but one of Park’s many keen and caustic observations). The sincere camaraderie among them is premised entirely on their shared work environment: once someone is fired, they basically cease to exist. The office is its own continent, with distinct regions, subcultures and rituals.

Park is a founder and editor of The Believer, which makes his book’s stylistic quirkiness somewhat predictable. While relating the middle section as an elaborate outline and the concluding one as a long, rambling email might parallel the nonsensical organizational systems of office culture, it still comes across as decoration for a story Park wasn’t sure could stand on its own.

But it can. Personal Days succeeds on Park’s sharp prose and his sensitivity to the insanities of entirely average people. By encouraging our uncomfortable laughter, he does justice to the absurdity of the office.