Angels and Demons in an America Left Behind

It is dangerous to ask fiction to always be relevant, but when skilled writers reach for themes close to the heart, I can’t help but pick them up. Tales of Rust Belt cities or rural former mining towns have immediate resonance for me, and based on the evidence of thirty billion Trump era thinkpieces and resulting Ohio senatorial campaigns, I am not alone. Fiction at its best can tie themes together on more emotionally resonant levels than exacting reporting ever can, and two recent novels dove straight into this territory, telling two stories of children who come of age in forgotten places and cope in diametrically different ways.

The Rabbit Hutch is the tale of Blandine Watkins, nee Tiffany, who shares her apartment in the titular affordable housing development with three boys who, like her, are fresh out of foster care. She has a tortured relationship with her hometown, a fictional Indiana Rust Belt relic named Vacca Vale. (This city name, alas, only made me think of Vacaville, a wonderful Spanish-English mash-up of a name for a California city just north of the Bay Area.) She wanders the streets and tells the tale of her city’s decline, endures floods as its climate shifts, and becomes the lonely defender against a planned development in a cherished park named Chastity Valley. She takes on the name Blandine to channel one of her heroes, the early Christian female mystics who stood as lonely voices of protest against corrupt, crumbling systems. Whether she is a martyr like the real second-century Blandine is a question left to readers of this debut novel by Tess Gunty.

Like many first publications of American MFA program offspring, The Rabbit Hutch tries to do a lot, its voices not all consistent. Gunty, a South Bend native and Notre Dame alumna, clearly knows her territory, recasting Studebaker’s decline in that city through the tale of the Zorn Automobile Company in a wrenching examination of the remaining ruins. (Vacca Vale seems to lack any golden domes that might keep the outside money pouring in.) On the flip side, the threatened redevelopment of Chastity Valley is cartoonish, the sadness of Blandine’s teacher seducer an eternal cringe. I thought the whole thing could have held together just fine sans the amusing, meandering story of Moses Blitz, the exhibitionist who spurs along Blandine’s rapture. (Perhaps this should have been novel number two.) The undercurrent of absurdity built through digression after digression takes oxygen away from the reality of the rabbits in the hutch, too many of them left to too small parts in Blandine’s drama.

Blandine’s drama, however, can carry a story on its own. She brushes up against the other Rabbit Hutch inhabitants, all seeking some stability in chaotic lives, in a series of poignant set pieces. Her three roommates fall into tropes but all illustrate something valuable: social media pretty boy Malik, aloof Todd, and everyman Jack, who takes the narrative reins to rationalize the absurdity of the whole affair. Gunty’s decision to let Todd illustrate the novel’s climax in drawings adds a twist to Blandine’s long-foreshadowed fate, one of many bold thrusts by our author, whose creative range is wide enough to make the thing worth reading and hope she returns to Vacca Vale for more.

Gunty had the misfortune of emerging at the same time that a great institution of American literature took up some of the same themes. Barbara Kingsolver has been churning out bestselling literary fiction for years, and last fall she provided an update on Dickens’ David Copperfield in Demon Copperhead, its characters reborn in turn-of-the-millennium Appalachia, stripped of their Victorian morals and cast adrift in a sea of heroin and meth and Oxy. A 67-year-old woman surges out in a teenage boy, keen in his insight and dry in his humor, wrenchingly tender and hard as nails, descending into the deepest recesses of an American hellscape to produce one of the more compelling narrative voices I’ve encountered. Kingsolver’s book was one of the most absorbing I’ve read in years.

Demon Copperhead, nee Damon Fields, is born to a drug addict mother in a single-wide in Lee County, Virginia. His dad died in a place named the Devil’s Bathtub, and until the foster care system intervenes he is raised largely by his neighbors, the Peggotts, who are themselves raising a grandchild of the same age left behind by an incarcerated mother. He bounces from home to home, treated horribly, his only support from other kids, most notably the alluring Fast Forward, a magnetic high school football star who introduces ten-year-olds to pharm parties. Even when Demon secures an intervention from his rigid paternal grandmother and seems to reach a clear road through middle school, his own athletic success writes a prescription for his undoing. What follows is a brutal tale of addiction and life on the edge, an immersion in the inner workings of a boy still somehow seized by an instinct to persevere.

Demon and Blandine are twinned orphans of American collapse. Demon gets subjected to exploitative foster parents, though finds some support in inspiring teachers; Blandine wins the foster parent lottery, but gets wrecked by the teacher who takes her under his wing. Eminently practical Demon learns how to play the game and get by in any situation, which in Lee County leads him straight toward trouble; Blandine seeks a transcendent plane above her besotted surroundings, only to have them come crashing down on her naiveté. Hopes and dreams for either of them would imply an escape from their stations, yet Demon comes to own his roots, while Blandine is Vacca Vale’s most ardent environmental champion and/or ecoterrorist. The U-Haul escape is never so easy as any outsider might think, especially where there is a creepy snake of a man named U-Haul filling the role of Uriah Heep to Demon’s David Copperfield.

It is worth pondering Demon’s fate for a moment to see how far the world has come since David Copperfield. Dickens’ orphans, after all, did not have to contend with the pill mills of Appalachia, and that era’s concerns about sex look quaint in retrospect. There is a quiet but present Wendell Berry-style lament about modernity in Kingsolver’s prose, as successive generations of Appalachians lose touch with the skills necessary for self-sufficiency and the deeper cultural byways (sustained, in Demon’s world, by a Black transplant form Chicago), all flattened by mass media and consumer capitalism and doped-out societal collapse. But at the same time there are more ladders out, more however imperfect supports, more pathways for the Angus Winfields and June Peggotts to rise up and then return and tackle injustices head-on. And while New York Times reviewer Molly Young finds Demon’s eventual fate sorry in comparison to Copperfield’s ascend to Dickensian fame, it is also far more realistic: maybe Damon Fields can’t be a global celebrity, but maybe he can be a clean, decent guy with a loving girl who looks out for his people and provides stability in a place that needs it. If that is a condemnation of this era, may we all be so damned.

I’ve become increasingly convinced that contemporary fiction is at its best when it can take the slightly longer view. I have yet to read a tale of the Covid-19 pandemic or Trump Era America that truly compels me; these works always seem freighted with a try-hard quest for relevance, and wear their politics a bit too brazenly, and the climate change and redevelopment angles of The Rabbit Hutch fall right into that vein. Far more powerful are the retrospectives like Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads and now Demon Copperhead, which look back across a few decades with sage eyes. Somewhere in here lies the enduring power of the social novel in an era of information and new media overload: it allows for meditation, for slow thought, for careful processing of what has transpired in a lifetime. It escapes the noise of the zeitgeist to pick out what should endure. (The great novelists who do write in the present, like Sally Rooney, achieve the same state by stripping out the superfluous details and allusions, boiling their prose down to the essentials.) Twenty years on from the start of the opioid epidemic, Kingsolver’s thundering moral authority punches harder because we, as readers, know exactly what will come of it, and while some of her jabs at the system that created hillbilly elegies land better than others, they all add up to an undeniable truth about the nation it has wrought. Her work is no less political than The Rabbit Hutch, but time allows it to get the perspective a bit more right.

Both The Rabbit Hutch and Demon Copperhead are deeply invested in their young protagonists. There is a risk here of sentimentality, of falling too far in love with these kids battered by forces beyond their control who nonetheless dream of more. But while not all fiction can have happy endings, neither can it all be portents of doom: it can instead tell a story that stands alone outside of any great arcs of progress or decline, speaking for itself and any relevance felt on a deeper plane by its readers. Moreover, great social novels not only reveal reality as it is or was, but can also nudge their readers, however gently, toward belief in something more. Somewhere in here lies the triumph of storytelling, an experience both immersive and thought-provoking that is more necessary than ever in a world of endless digital distraction. This is what good fiction should do.


In Search of a Millennial Normal

Some novels seem like they’re written with the sole purpose of luring me in, and Sally Rooney’s Normal People is the greatest recent addition to that category. Normal People does not pretend to be a sprawling social novel, telling us how we live now. Short but precise and easily inhaled in a quick weekend, it tells us how two Irish teenagers lived then, and in so doing, she can speak, if not for a generation, at least for an inwardly-probing and literary-inclined segment of it. Rooney has set the bar for a new wave of writers, and the rest of us need to get our acts together.

If Rooney is a sign of what we millennials will bring to fiction, I have some hope for us yet. Normal People is about two fellow millennials’ interactions between 2011 and 2015, so yes, they send texts and emails and check Facebook and so on, but at no point does it feel like a forced statement on use of technology, or any sort of commentary on how technology is changing lives. It’s just a fact of the characters’ existence, and one gets a sense of how little those details matter up against the more powerful, interpersonal challenges that drive Normal People: love, longing, betrayal, hurt. And while the characters have political lives, Rooney (an avowed Marxist) uses them smartly, and lets them bubble up only when it would make sense for them to appear. (The one digression she does allow, a brief discourse on the political limitations of literature, at least fits with a protagonist’s own struggles.) This is a novel about two people and their relationship, period, and its understatement allows it to say more than an overwrought Great Irish Novel could have.

Rooney’s tightly wound novel is a millennial love story, the on-again, off-again tale of two Irish kids from Carricklea, a fictional town in provincial County Sligo. Connell is a well-regarded, jovial athlete in high school who would rather keep to himself and read books; outcast Marianne is an odd duck rich girl who can’t wait to flee her backwater hometown. Their relationship is fraught by class, as Connell’s mother, Lorraine, cleans the expansive home of Marianne’s icy family. Both lack fathers; Connell’s never figured in his life, while Marianne’s is deceased, and they both bear some scars that their high school social circles will never understand. But Connell and Marianne are the two most driven students in Carricklea, which leads them to find one another and then make their way to Trinity College, Ireland’s most esteemed university. At Trinity their roles begin to shift, as Marianne starts to find her crowd while Connell is suddenly out of his element among the Irish upper crust, his basic decency and quiet smarts unable to attract much attention in the breeding ground of the Dublin elite. The pair struggles to make its way in the world, never formally attached but always drifting in and out of each other’s orbits, united by ties they cannot shake.

Long stretches of Normal People are dialogue, but Rooney eschews the use of quotation marks, a tactic I’m rather fond of: it forces the reader to track it carefully and breaks down some of the barrier between the third-person narration that drives the novel forward into a sort of haze, one that both lulls the reader into the rhythms of Marianne and Connell’s complicated love life and forces one to keep track of who exactly said what. Rooney’s prose rides along with a droll simplicity, and its matter-of-fact statements that belie their own gravity. It’s not hard to picture her as the sharp, snide girl injecting venom from the back of the classroom, and there was certainly a phase when this kid who sees a lot of himself in Connell would have been attracted to her Marianne.

Normal People is a superb bildungsroman, a genre of novel that remains my favorite. It takes young people from a state in which the world’s possibilities open before them through the growing alienation when reality does not match dreams, through times in life when doors begin to close and they must learn who they are, where they come from, and just what they might become. Jaded outsiders will probably always be best at capturing the halls of power, and much like Fitzgerald in New York, Rooney knives through her characters’ social circles in Dublin with a brilliant exactitude. Even as Marianne and Connell bust out of Carricklea, it pulls them both back; sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of grief, and finally in something that may begin to approach catharsis.

As any great novel should, Normal People reaches its peak in its final pages, a rush to a climax followed by a struggle toward resolution. For all its world-weary cynicism, for all its characters’ brokenness and painful missteps, it still knows that intimacy is not impossible, that people still have jobs to do in spite of it all. My generation’s great artistic calling compels us to find the shards of a broken sublime, and Sally Rooney does just that.

In the Light of What We Know

 “If metaphors increase our understanding, they do so only because they can take us back to a familiar vantage, which is to say that a metaphor cannot bring anything nearer. Everything new is on the rim of our view, in the darkness below the horizon, so that nothing new is visible but in the light of what we know.”

I don’t always jump on the bandwagon of the hot novel du jour, but one that got favorable reviews across the board this summer did grab my attention: In the Light of What We Know, a debut novel by Bangladeshi writer Zia Haider Rahman. It’s a novel that stems from that desire for metaphor detailed in that quote above—a desire “to analogize, to link one thing with another, and to make whole the disparate,” in the words of Zafar, the character who is the novel’s primary subject.

It’s a novel that belongs in the same category as Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom: it’s a big social novel, trying to talk about the Way We Live Now. With an international flavor thrown in, it can almost seem like the most self-consciously zeitgeisty novel ever. (It’s a novel about the U.S. in Afghanistan! About investment banking and the financial crisis! About the collision of Western and traditional values! Life in the British aristocracy! Math and metaphors and through it all the meaning of writing and therefore of life! And on and on.) But then, of course, you realize that all of this is Zia Haider Rahman’s life, and that he’s just writing in the light of what he knows. Of course, that alone isn’t enough to dismiss the charges of pretension, and every now and then, the quotes at the start of each chapter grow to be a bit much, or the characters’ intellectual asides don’t quite ring true, even given the depth of knowledge they display. It’s clearly a debut novel, carried by the same instinct I first had when I started writing: the author believes he has to pack in as many of his thoughts as humanly possible, lest any one little drop of his brilliance be left unwritten.

The good news is that Rahman is rather brilliant, and knows this. One exceedingly self-conscious pre-chapter quote by Italo Calvino even lays it out: “overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature.” Indeed, why shouldn’t he go for it? Literature is far more forgiving of possible overreach than the real world, and if the end result gets us somewhere, who cares about the sniping of the cynic from on high? This is a novel as personal exploration, the lines between reality and embellishment obscured; one man’s effort to turn everything he’s known into a somehow coherent narrative arc. To the extent that anyone can meet that near-impossible goal, it does well, and the bevy of glowing reviews shows how sincere Rahman can be, even though his life story can seem so inaccessible.

The tagline for James Wood’s New Yorker review in the print edition called it “a novel of the global elite,” which is true in the sense that pretty much every character is in a position of power, and perhaps all save Zafar from privileged backgrounds as well. But Zafar’s inability to ever find comfort in that elite is the novel’s driving force, the source of his eternal foreignness. Even as he becomes fully conversant in its language and customs and courts a woman who is its ideal, alienation and disgust always simmers beneath. Zafar is a tortured genius, forever someone from somewhere else, and he can share this story only to the unnamed narrator; despite Zafar’s skepticism of bonds built around mere familiarity and his rejection of free will, he is, ironically, pulled toward another man from the subcontinent.

The bond goes a bit deeper than that, of course: Zafar and the unnamed narrator share a brotherhood born of curiosity, an identity as Oxford men and bankers, and a passion for math. In the cleanness of numbers, Zafar can usually escape the ambiguity that overwhelms his daily life, but even there, it doesn’t quite work, with Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem repeated throughout: within any system, there are claims that are true that cannot be proven true.

This is a powerful theme in the novel, with several unique takes on that old Socrates maxim that the wisest man knows that he knows nothing, with greater knowledge only opening up a realization of one’s ignorance. For all of Zafar’s brilliance, he only becomes more and more alienated, and the narrator, while wise not to go quite as far as Zafar in his jadedness, feels many of the same burdens of knowledge. Consider this brilliant turn of phrase: “The faith in having the measure of others really becomes unstuck when you begin to consider how many you’d acknowledge as having the measure of you.” The revelations are often unsettling, and it is not hard to see how circumstances could drive men like these, seemingly so privileged and powerful, into the depths of despair.

For such an erudite novel, it settles into a good pace after some early meanders, and the prose manages to reach a high caliber without being showy. The chapter entitled “The Gospel of St. Thomas” in particular grips the reader, as the details of Zafar’s courtship with Emily Hampton-Wyvern finally come into the light. I especially applaud the decision to eschew quotation marks, a technique that turns dialogue into a sort of meditative trance: the speaker is de-emphasized, and things flow together into a deeper reflection, at times even making us wonder what was really said, and what was merely thought, perhaps in retrospect. (At one point, there’s an explicit mention of this; it also raises the question of how much our narrator—and through him, Rahman—is massaging his depiction of Zafar for his own purposes.) It’s not a tool to be used frequently, but for the tone of Rahman’s novel, it’s ideal.

Readers will likely either love or hate In the Light of What We Know, depending on what they themselves know: how much can we relate to Zafar, a man with such an extraordinary biography? Thankfully, there are a number of ways to approach the enigmatic Bangladeshi raised in Britain, a child of both “a corner of a corner of the world” and Oxford: through lenses of class and race and culture, from intellectual affinity to political or philosophical curiosity. (There was a bit of Zafar leeching into my recent post on the U.S.’s role on the international stage.) Slowly, surely, the bond between the two protagonists emerges as the theme, though its development comes at the expense of the novel’s paper-thin women. For good or ill, they are in a world of their own, along with their author.

There was a time when I probably would have called this the best thing I’ve ever read. The novel’s reach is awesome, that of a social novel raised to the highbrow level; I admire its scope, and a number of lines have been written down to keep. I found some avenues to relate, at times a bit more than I’d like to admit. But now, safely emerged from my phase of overly anxious, morose soul-searching, I can’t help but find it incomplete: telling that narrative about oneself is great, but it’s only a start. To that end, I’ll be very curious to see what Rahman writes next. Now that he’s shed some light on his past, where does he go from here, now that all the self-consciousness is out of the way?