Thursday, February 21, 2019

Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart

Hardcover, 339 pgs, Pub Sept 4th 2018 by Random House, ISBN13: 9780812997415

I listened to this novel months ago—just about the time it came out. I haven’t been able to adequately put into words how I felt about it. This was the first time I’ve partaken of a Shteyngart novel, and it is more in every way than I was expecting. There is a shadow of Pynchon’s frank absurdity there, and some bungee-cord despair—the kind that bounces back, irrepressible.

Shteyngart’s novel is overstuffed with funny, sad, true, caustic, simplistic, derogatory observations about life in America that somehow capture us in all our glory. He is not dismissive; I think he likes us. The main character in this novel, Barry Cohen, is nothing if not representative of what we have taught ourselves to be: money-mad and self-pitying, educated enough to capture our own market but too stupid to see the big picture. What introspection we have is wasted on divining the motivations of others rather than our own triggers.

Barry is a man America loves to hate. He is a successful hedge fund manager who emerged from the economic crisis in fine shape—it was only his clients who suffered. And his clients suffered because the government finally caught on to some irregularities in Barry’s operations that allowed him to win so much. While the SEC investigated, Barry left Seema, his wife and an attorney, with his son Shiva to see if he could find an old flame. Last he’d heard she was living in the South.

Right there Barry made a big mistake. One doesn’t leave an attorney for another woman. I mean, how stupid do you have to be? Barry and Seema had been doing okay marriage-wise, though it turns out Shiva is autistic. Unable to speak and often looking as though he does not even comprehend what words and comments are directed to him, Shiva is unknowable.

Barry wants to love him, but maybe wants Shiva to love Barry himself more. Seema handles most of Shiva's care which means she cannot work. More and more absorbed with nurturing her son’s growth, she recognizes and relishes small victories in understanding Shiva's internal world while her husband languishes.

Barry Cohen’s odyssey from New York by bus to various destinations in the south features a man with a skill set that serves him surprisingly well when traveling by bus on limited cash, no credit, and a roller-board of fancy watches. He can’t be shamed because he’s a bigger crook than anyone. Dragging around his collection of fancy watches turns out not to be very lucrative—who recognizes their value? But they do get him food occasionally, and a little tradable currency.

Barry spends relatively little psychic energy pondering the sources of his Wall Street wealth, but somehow recognizes it’s probably not worth as much as he was getting paid to do it. His long-story-short gives us cameos of American ‘types’: street-wise salesmen, long-suffering nannies, practical mothers, and money managers who believe their work confers some kind of godliness on their financial outcomes. Because we win, we are meant to win. Yes, this all takes place in the first year of the Trump administration.

Barry Cohen is hard to take. “See, this is the thing about America,” he tells his former employee in Atlanta, a man named Park that Barry keeps referring to as Chinese, “You can never guess who’s going to turn out to be a nice person.” 

Well. Barry is not a very nice person, really. He simply is not reflective enough. We can feel twinges at his angst, but ultimately we make our own beds, don’t we? Barry is tiresome, that’s the problem. His adventures are quite something, but we grow weary of his blind spots and slow recognition that he does, in fact, love his imperfect family. It’s all he’s got, the silly doofus, and they are worthy of his love. We’d rather spend time with them.

In an enlightening interview with The Guardian, Shteyngart acknowledges the story is about racism:
"I think racism undergirds all of this, no question. It’s a huge part of it. When we were immigrants and couldn’t speak the language, the one thing this country told us was: ‘You’re white, there’s always somebody lower than you.’"
Shteyngart thought he might add a gender dimension to the story, and was going to make his main character a woman, but the few female hedge fund managers he found were rational and didn’t take such big crazy risks that they end up blowing up the world. Right, I think. Exactly right.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Friday Black: Stories by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Paperback, 194 pgs, Pub Oct 23rd 2018 by Mariner Books, ISBN13: 9781328911247, Lit Awards: Dylan Thomas Prize Nominee for Longlist (2019), Aspen Words Literary Prize Nominee for Longlist (2019)

I forget where I first heard of Adjei-Brenyah, but it was about the time of publication in 2018 and the name of his debut story collection was so similar to Esi Edugyan’s much-lauded Washington Black that I wanted to read both to make sure they were separated in my mind. Now it is difficult to imagine I would ever forget the title story “Friday Black,” about a young man in a retail store setting dealing with the sales and buying mania of Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the official opening of the Christmas season. There is indeed something black in the American psyche, that would celebrate a day of such whipped-up and fruitless passion for more than we need or can effectively use.

I did not read the first story in the collection, “The Finkelstein 5,” until long into my perusal of the collection. Just as well, because it stares full-face into the racism we still see and hear all around us today. The characters who are black attempt to fit into white society, dialling up or down their overt display of “blackness” on a ten-point scale they believe the white overculture has created for them.

Adjei-Brenyah draws from the incidental murders of young girls attending Sunday school, of a young man shot as he walked down the night-darkened street of his neighborhood, of a young man so angry at the deaths of the others that he considers, for a moment, fighting back. There is a barely-disguised cameo of the talking heads on right-wing TV talk shows, with Adjei-Brenyah carefully picking out for us the most offensive and patently absurd of their comments regarding white fear of unarmed teens and children of color.

My favorite of the stories in the collection has to be “Zimmer Land.” In this significant piece, which I can imagine being chosen for Best-Of collections until Adjei-Brenyah is old and gray, a young man works at a kind of play-station where members of the community are given the opportunity to see how they would react when their fear or anger instincts are aroused.

Patrons are issued a weapon when they enter the play space set, a paint gun whose force can rupture fake blood sensors in the mecha-suit of the player. Mecha-suits sound like transformer kits, inflating to protect the torso, legs, and arms of players, and to intimidate patrons. Patrons are not told to use the weapons they are issued, but the mere convenience of the weapons is an opportunity, and the rush of shooting is like a fast-acting drug.

Isaiah is black and he is the player white patrons come to test their emotions against in a “highly curated environment.” When Isaiah complains to management that most of the patrons are repeats, coming frequently to fake-kill him and not learning anything new about the sources of their aggression, perhaps even “equating killing with justice,” his bosses tell him his heart better be in the job ‘cause there are others who’ll do the work with real aggression and commitment.

At least four of Adjei-Brenyah’s signature pieces in this collection describe the soul-destroying unreality of America’s retail space, where salespeople are rewarded for up-selling and given praise, if not bonuses, for selling the most [unnecessary] stuff to the most [psychically- or financially-vulnerable] people. We are reminded that there are several ways to make money while hoping to make a living writing, and in Adjei-Brenyah’s case it is retail sales rather than, say, restaurant work or construction. He gives us a look at what we never thought to ask as we made our way through the racks of shirts or stacks of jeans.

Highly praised by other acclaimed writers in front-page and back-cover blurbs, this collection heralds the arrival of someone we will continue to look out for. The ideas behind the work is what is impressive, besides just the writing skill. Adjei-Brenyah knows one doesn’t have to be sky-diving to make the work interesting. It’s about what you’re thinking about while sky-diving.

Late Night comedian Seth Meyers interviews Adjei-Brenyah about this collection:

Book Riot interviewed Adjei-Brenyah and one set of paragraphs stood out:
EM: Reading this collection, I could really feel a lot of non-literary influences in your writing. Like maybe a little bit of cinema and television crept in there as well.
NKAB: Yeah.
EM: Could you talk more specifically about what some of those influences were?
NKAB: Yeah, I grew up reading a lot of serial sci-fi and fantasy. I read Animorphs as a kid. I’m from the Harry Potter generation. But outside of books and stuff, I love anime, from Dragonball-Z to more cerebral stuff like Death Note or this anime called Monster. Miyazaki stuff as well. And what’s cool about that is I was made to view those things as valid for a lot of high-level thought. It’s funny because when you see parodies of anime, there will be people in the middle of fights having really philosophical debates. Anime is really big on that, and that was important to me. When there’s violence, it’s very much couched in “this is why,” and that rubbed off on me, I think.”

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Murder Casts a Shadow: A Hawai'i Mystery by Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl

Paperback, 277 pgs, Pub June 6th 2008 by University of Hawaii Press, ISBN13: 9780824832179

Can I have more than one favorite author? Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl is a playwright but she put her hand to a murder mystery after writing several successful plays. This is a true gem: multi-faceted, with rich portrayals of Pacific Island peoples and their beliefs as well as believable motivations for murder. We get the native Hawaiian perspective on why America the mainland was interested to annex the islands, and all of it so light, so fragrant, so beautiful, like Kneubuhl’s descriptions of the dawn, the surf, the flora.

The time described is the 1930’s and the characters we meet are glamorous, sophisticated, smart, and sound an awful lot as though they could be speaking today. The women--in particular one woman, Mina--is fully-realized and unafraid to reveal her doubts, her passions, her intents. Others may gossip, but she is guileless. She is beautiful and suffers from the attentions of men. She sets the parameters of a working relationship right from the start with a man she doesn’t know well, suspecting he will, as they all do, eventually fall under her spell.

Native names may be a challenge for some but I relish the added authenticity and depth to the story as it unfolds. A museum director, a white man, is murdered. The police chief, also white but married to one of twin sisters descended from island royalty, hosts a Pacific Islander playwright and sometime British spy who has come to Hawai’i to return the portrait of a Hawaiian king once misappropriated from the islands. When the portrait goes missing at the time of the murder, Mina, one of the twins and a part-time journalist, works to uncover the perpetrators.

Kneubuhl doesn’t put a foot wrong while effectively throwing red-herrings into the story at every turn. While it appears several people have a motive for murder, we never see the ending coming, though it had been spotlighted a few times earlier in the drama. Kneubuhl has a theatre artist’s skill of involving our every sense, beginning on page one when someone spills a glass of brandy over their costume at a gala. Taste, scent fill the air directly and hit the bloodstream quickly.

She does the same with her descriptions of sunrises in the outer islands, the condition of the sea, the torrential rains, the lava-rock cliffs—the physical fact of the islands are as important as anything or anyone else in this story. It is a real achievement to have highlighted the natural beauty of a place while sharing its history, all the while amusing us with a plausible murder mystery.

The cast of characters is plausible, too, from Mina’s best friend, the daughter of a Chinese immigrant who likes cooking French food more than his native cuisine to a Japanese maid, we learn later, who happens to be very knowledgable about Asian antiques.

Kuebuhl has written more than two dozen plays and three of her most celebrated plays are collected in an edition called Hawai'i Nei: Island Plays. This mystery novel has become a series with two other books featuring its main characters, including the indomitable Mina. Most important, perhaps, is Kneubuhl's celebration of island customs and placing the islands in the context of America’s sometimes bloody and racist history.
“Our stories are so worth telling…you are leaving a gift for your community.”--Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl in an interview in 2015 for PBS Hawaii.

Here is Victoria Kneubuhl being interviewed by the Hawaiian talk show host, Leslie Cox, in 2015 for PBS Hawaii: