Friday, May 2, 2014

The Bend of the World

There are two basic kinds of novel that get packaged as literary satire. There's the bitter, score-settling kind, where everyone is thinly based on someone the writer feels superior to, the fiction equivalent of the fired guy's expletive-laden mass e-mail or Jim Carrey's on-air meltdown at the start of Bruce Almighty. And then, more common and (to be uncharitable) more pernicious, there's the earnest, gentle satire, the kind that says "Look how silly we all are, but that's life!", and boils down to middlebrow postmodern realism with a slightly higher joke count. But there are also books that combine the best elements of both with an outlook that isn't so easily pigeonholed, and create something distinctive, something like Jacob Bacharach's The Bend of the World.

 One of the problems with most satire is that it tells people something they already know. Yes, corporate machinations are simultaneously ridiculous and malevolent. Yes, artists are pretentious, venal, and emotionally fragile. And yes, conspiracy theories are bizarre and their proponents colorful. An entire novel devoted to exploring any one of these notions is likely to overstay its welcome. Especially if its author isn't knowledgeable enough about the setting being described to do anything more than reproduce the cliches that have made the underlying message familiar in the first place. But what about a novel that explores all three notions at once, by someone who knows all three worlds well enough to summarize them in three hundred expertly-streamlined pages? Well, that's what The Bend of the World is, and I'm here to tell you it's pretty darn good.

I'm not one to talk about writers and generations and one being the voice of the other, because I don't believe in individual writers being the voice of anything, or in generations period, except as inventions that get into people's heads and influence their behavior in limited but visible ways. So let's just say that Bacharach's voice is thoroughly contemporary, with a particular brand of sarcasm that's related to but distinct from that of other richly ironic novelists. (The cover copy and Dan Chaon's blurb mention Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, probably because both are first novels, but I think Wonder Boys is a better comparison, in range and momentum and lightness of touch that is nonetheless ultimately quite moving. Bacharach, whose blog is always worth reading, calls Wonder Boys Chabon's finest work.) The dialogue has the snappiness of a great pay-cable sitcom, if there had ever been one of those, and captures something about the combination of intelligence and goofiness, of posturing and sincerity, in the way some of today's twenty-somethings talk.

It helps that Bacharach has lived in the world to a degree that many first novelists haven't, or at least don't give any sign of having. He can write about a museum party, which lots of writers could probably manage, but he can also write about a job in corporate middle-management, about going to a (non upper middle class) bar, about riding a public bus, without the film of alienation and reflexive disapproval that would cover most literary novelists' accounts of same. You never feel like he's describing drug use, casual sex, and so forth in the tone that even theoretically worldly writers often fall into, that of the dismayed tourist. (Which is not to say he's not aware of their downside; we'll get to that, if I ever manage to stop writing this review.) And I doubt you'll find many fictions that describe the following moment, even though it's as instantly recognizable as many a celebrated apercu: "I fell into bed fully clothed and slept a blacked-out, anesthetized sleep until two a.m., at which point I woke with the desperate need to piss and a huge boner that made it nearly impossible. I stood unsteadily and willed it to go down; when it didn't, I did my best to force myself to pee anyway, bending at the waist and trying my best to aim for the bowl, and I made a ridiculous mess."

Well, instantly recognizable to a dude, anyway. And I suppose I should acknowledge that The Bend of the World is a pretty dude-centric novel (something else it has in common with Wonder Boys), though to some degree that's a function of the protagonist's personality and circumstances. The women in his life are seen from a distance that's realistic but also potentially off-putting for some. All this ties in with the novel's final sequence, which I find slightly unsatisfying on narrative terms (it smacks of the Serious Event with which lesser novels in this niche often attempt to create a sense of finality for their wide-ranging plot) but quite powerful as a thematic crux, the point at which Bacharach's prose proves as adept at humanist melancholy as at surrealist mockery. This is a common transition-- as I suggested above, much satire is deeply sympathetic beneath the surface-- but it's rarely this well-executed technically, and it works all the better because what has gone before hasn't telegraphed its intentions quite as strongly as usual. Bacharach's not one for telegraphing, mercifully: he leaves the reader to recognize the point at which these seemingly disparate satires converge, the larger observations about life and socio-political order and sense of purpose, the (forgive this cliche) face of tragedy beneath the comedy mask.

I haven't really discussed the plot. Nor will I, and not just because this review is long enough already. I'm not sure a description of it can really capture the tone. It's the sort of sequence of events you'd describe as madcap, but that word is so wrong in a description of The Bend of the World as to belong in some other language entirely. It all flows along very naturally; to some extent that's to do with an expert sense of pace and of balance among plot strands, but another way in which this is the best kind of satire is that it's just exaggerated enough to be enjoyable without losing sight of the similar things that happen in real life. And let's not lose sight of "enjoyable." I've said a lot of nice, sophisticated-sounding things about this book (enough, one might imagine, to earn a bribe in fiat money rather than cryptocurrency), but if I've made it sound like hard work I've obscured the point. This shit is hilarious. I'd like to offer some quotes to prove it, but like all great comedy the material is heavily dependent on context for the full effect, and anyway the best stuff is too profane for Amazon, where a version of this review will eventually appear. So don't take my word for it. Read the first fifteen or twenty pages. If you're not laughing already, you're not going to like this book as much as I did, but you should still read it, because there's more going on there than wild urban misadventure. The Bend of the World is easily the best novel I've read this year.