This past summer I received a review copy of Janice Kaplan’s book The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year of Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life. I was intrigued, not because I’m an enthusiastic consumer of self-help literature but because I guessed that Ms. Kaplan must have endured some biblically proportioned misfortunes to feel qualified to write an entire book about optimism. I checked her author photo: no disfigurement to speak of, but then again it was only a head shot. Would her bio place her as a refugee, a terminal patient, maybe the victim of a Twitter shaming campaign? No such luck. She “has enjoyed wide success as a magazine editor, television producer, writer, and journalist.” She “lives in New York City and Kent, Connecticut.” The book, I thought, ought to include a disclaimer for the genuinely suffering: Your results may vary.
Looking on the bright side is easy if it’s the only side you’ve got. The useful trick if your life has really gone pear-shaped is to look not on your own bright side but on someone else’s dark side, to be grateful that at least you aren’t that guy. That is one of the more therapeutic ways to read the Book of Job, say, or the police blotter of a Florida newspaper. It is certainly the ideal spirit in which to read Steve Toltz’s hilarious Quicksand, which makes the God of Job look downright unimaginative in His punishments—though one does not like to tempt fate by saying so. Toltz, an Australian writer whose 2008 debut novel, A Fraction of the Whole, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, has created in his hero Aldo Benjamin a strong contender for World’s Unluckiest Man. If comedy is, as Mel Brooks once said, when someone else falls into an open sewer and dies, Quicksand is comic gold.
When we meet Aldo, he is drinking in an Australian beach bar with his best friend and foil, Liam Wilder, a failed novelist-cum-policeman who is desperate to appoint himself Aldo’s personal Boswell. “[Y]ou’ll inspire people,” Liam says of his proposed novelization of Aldo’s trials and tribulations. “To count their blessings.” Aldo is, we soon learn, a paraplegic and ex-convict. He is a failed serial entrepreneur (“he just needs to find a way to appeal to ‘people who want their instant gratification yesterday’”), a lightning rod for catastrophe, a man so unlucky in love that he was once accused of date rape while still a virgin. He can’t even commit suicide properly, prompting him to explain his decision to try horse poison thus: “You’d have to pour yourself literally buckets of human poison just so you can reach the point where you can say: This is enough to kill a horse.”
Quicksand is not a novel with a plot so much as it is a catalogue of the horrible fates that have befallen Aldo, from high school to his final, almost Christ-like disappearance. The book is a patchwork of different narrative styles and devices. It is told in part by Liam, but it also includes Liam’s partial manuscript Aldo Benjamin, King of Unforced Errors; a transcript of Liam’s long interrogation, in his capacity as constable, of Aldo in his capacity as a child-murder suspect; a transcript of Aldo’s testimony as defendant in an unrelated homicide trial; some poetry; and a maybe-but-maybe-not-hallucinated conversation between Aldo and God. Forward momentum is effortlessly maintained by the reader’s knowledge that things can get worse and his unsavory but irrepressible desire to know how, specifically, they are going to do so.
The incidents Toltz forces his poor protagonist to endure vary widely in their emotional tenor. We may smirk as Aldo is horse-whipped with a car antenna for trying to steal one of the revenge-porn photos a woman has hired him to remove from city lampposts. We may laugh helplessly when the madam of a brothel tries to charge him for the combination to a bike lock she had given him to secure his wheelchair (“The bouncer became alert though insultingly made no move to silence me, finding me harmless and unthreatening”). But there are moments of searing pain in Quicksand as well. Aldo’s wife, about to perform at a music festival, discovers that their unborn child has died, and Aldo botches his attempt to comfort her. Aldo is savagely raped in prison, and “[t]he single consoling thought, that so many had gone through this before, was not consoling at all.”
It is in moments like these that Quicksand ceases to be a mere shaggy-dog joke—albeit an unusually, deliriously inventive one—and wades into the ravenous quicksand of theodicy. Why is suffering on such a scale permitted? How much of it can one man be expected to take without succumbing to despair? And are any of the available defenses against despair—faith, friendship, love—effective when one has suffered as profoundly as Aldo Benjamin has? (In a sort of slam-poetic prayer, Aldo addresses God: “about love, I was on the fence—until You electrified it.” Even the good in his life has gone bad.) Toltz wisely refrains from trying to give a definitive answer to any of these questions, but his book raises them and raises them in an insistent, even aggressive way. Few novels as funny as Quicksand manage anything remotely approaching its gravity.
Notwithstanding the fact that Aldo ends his days living on a figurative ash-heap—a tiny, rocky island near a popular Australian surfing beach—Quicksand explicitly mentions the Book of Job only once. “I know what you’re thinking,” he tells Liam in the midst of one of his manic fits of logorrhea. “Is there no end to these words of yours, to your long-winded blustering? Job 8:1.” Liam replies, “I totally wasn’t thinking that.” The reader—forewarned is forearmed—totally will think that at various points in Toltz’s book. Toltz and his creations speak in belching cataracts of words, jokes, and aphorisms. These can be maddening as often as they are entertaining or moving. The reader’s patience is, however, richly rewarded. Toltz shows us how language and its creative use make friendship possible by allowing us to transfigure and communicate the truth of our lives—and so to keep hope alive.
The French writer Patrick Modiano, the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, offers a subtler and less optimistic glimpse of an ill-fated life in his novella Paris Nocturne, newly translated by Phoebe Weston-Evans. It is a book with a decidedly Kafkaesque bent, in which the narrator’s troubles do not seem to admit any solution because the troubles themselves do not come into sharp enough focus. Despite a spare prose style that never strains after any novel or startling effects, Modiano suffuses every page of Paris Nocturne with dread. The book starts with trouble and will, the reader feels certain, end with something worse. It is a cautionary tale about knowing when one is out of his depth, knowing when to leave well enough alone.
“Late at night, a long time ago,” our narrator begins, “when I was about to turn twenty-one, I was crossing Place des Pyramides on my way to Place de la Concorde when a car appeared suddenly from out of the darkness.” The young man is hit, though not badly; a woman dressed in a fur coat, her face bloodied, exits the car. The two of them are spirited into a nearby hotel lobby while the police arrive. The young man, though mentally “muddled” by the impact, takes note both of the woman’s obvious wealth—“Her fur coat was certainly not one you would find at a flea market”—and of the presence of a “huge” man who “glanced at us coldly from time to time.” He is shuttled between hospitals in a manner that seems not quite above board, to say the least. Ether is involved.
The huge man reappears to present our narrator with two things: an affidavit to sign, indicating that the woman was not at fault in the accident, and a fat wad of cash (“I had never held such a large sum of money”). Despite the generosity of this bribe, our narrator more or less fails to see it as one, noting that he “would have preferred a note” from the driver. And so, swaddled firmly in his own naïveté, he resolves to track her down. The remainder of this very short book traces his attempts to do so. He also muses on his past, his relationship with his father, and some inexplicable gaps in his memory. He feels a strange gratitude toward the woman: “I needed the shock. It gave me the opportunity to reflect on what my life had been up to that point. I had to admit that I was ‘heading for disaster’—to use the words I’d heard others say about me.”
Perhaps because of the narrator’s faulty memory, he doesn’t give a very thorough account of himself, and the reader is left to wonder in what sense he might have been headed for disaster. Is it to do with his recklessness, borne of his naïveté? Or is it perhaps to do with his aimlessness, his apparent inability to do something useful with himself? It is equally difficult to get a firm grasp of what might have passed between the narrator and his father, who is mentioned only in oblique passages like this one:
I recalled those last meetings with my father, when I was about seventeen years old, when I never dared to ask him for any money. Life had already drawn us apart and we met up in cafés early in the morning, while it was still dark. The lapels of his suits became increasingly threadbare and each time the cafés were further from the city centre. I tried to remember if I had met up with him in the neighborhood where I was walking.
What was the nature of those meetings? Just how did life draw the narrator and his father apart, given how little “life” the narrator seems to have going for himself? Did the father reject the son? If Paris Nocturne were a longer book, it would be all but impossible to engage with; it raises questions to which the author himself may not even have answers in mind. It is all atmosphere, all mood, like a Simenon novel minus its plot or resolution. It generates suspense like a thriller but is content to do nothing, at least nothing very dramatic, with it. Whether our narrator gets the disaster he seems fated for is left ambiguous. About that, as about many other things, the reader can only speculate.
It would be silly to suppose that this is anything but what Modiano intended. Paris Nocturne is more interested in memory and its vagaries than it is in being a detective novel. Yet, one can’t suppress a philistine wish that Modiano had seen what is clear as day to the reader: if creeping down dimly-lit city streets is fun, it would be that much more fun with a proper Harry Lime darting in and out of the shadows. Would Paris Nocturne really have suffered for having a more conventional, more satisfying resolution?
If Paris Nocturne disappoints by delivering less incident, less catastrophe, than it promises, the fifteen stories in Ann Beattie’s collection The State We’re In delight by promising little and delivering even less. The book is subtitled “Maine Stories,” but the state alluded to in the title might as well be one of suspended animation. The conflicts navigated by Beattie’s characters are, by and large, vanishingly small. They lead lives in miniature, lives that recall the ships-in-bottles or snow globes one might find in a rental property. At their lowest-key, Beattie’s stories can elicit a kind of anti-schadenfreude: at least my misfortunes aren’t that boring. Yet more often they show that human beings do not measure their own difficulties against the Worst That Could Happen. Even a relatively trivial challenge or experience can carry a weighty significance.
Several of the stories in The State We’re In are connected by shared characters. (The rest are connected, of course, by the fact that they take place in Maine, but the details of Beattie’s setting make little impression on the imagination. Fleeting references to, for instance, the Bose outlet in Kittery only serve to remind the reader that he shouldn’t expect fireworks from this volume.) Jocelyn, a teenager trapped with her aunt and uncle for the summer, appears in “What Magic Realism Would Be,” “Endless Rain into a Paper Cup,” and “The Repurposed Barn,” stories strong enough that the reader wonders whether this character might not have merited a novel of her own.
In the first of these stories, Jocelyn is in summer school, struggling to write an essay about Magical Realism:
Now was the hour: Uncle Raleigh would look at what she’d written and offer advice and encouragement, while she mentally corkscrewed her finger outside her ear and pitied him because he had no job, and he limped, and he was a nice man, but also sort of an idiot. In any case, he—her mother’s brother—was a lot nicer than his dim wife, Aunt Bettina Louise Tompkins, whose initials were BLT. Hold the mayo.
Jocelyn doesn’t read like an anthropologically accurate rendering of a twenty-first-century adolescent—that BLT joke is pretty tin-eared stuff for a writer with a strong sense of detail—but she doesn’t need to. She effectively represents every young person whose consciousness, though not yet fully formed, is developed enough to register that the adults surrounding her are not quite on the ball—and may in fact, as in the case of Aunt Bettina, have unignorable deficiencies of their own. This discovery is a piece of bad luck that befalls most adolescents at one time or another. Beattie does some of her best work reminding us of how growing up can be a tragedy in itself.
“Silent Prayer” and “Road Movie” elegantly capture the tensions beneath the surface of adult relationships, a marriage on the one hand, an adulterous affair on the other. “Silent Prayer” consists almost entirely of dialogue—the bickering and recriminations of a husband and wife as the former makes final preparations for a business trip. It is the kind of tedious domestic scene we could generally do with less of, but it succeeds by calling attention to and slyly ridiculing its own characters. “Do you have any idea at all where my black Nikes are?” asks the husband, just after delivering a self-pitying lecture about the thankless fulfillment of his duties. “Not the Pumas that are mostly black, but the Nikes?”
“I wonder how other couples talk to each other,” his wife says a little later. “Maybe Roz Chast has some idea. That’s about the only person I can think of.” These people, with their petty concerns—the inconveniences of upward mobility—are nobody we envy or would ever like to emulate, but Beattie manages, ultimately, to humanize them. In “Road Movie,” an unpleasant man—the boss, in fact, of the unpleasant husband from “Silent Prayer”—stands revealed to his mistress when he thoughtlessly insults a motel employee:
Moira said to Kunal, “I know you’re busy, but I wanted to apologize for him. We’re not married, you know, and he’s never going to marry me, but that’s neither here nor there. You’ve seen to it that we had a lovely time here, and he appreciates that just as much as I do. He’s just one of those guys. You read him right. I apologize.”
We may be unlucky in whom we love, these stories say, but the lucky among us learn to accept the bad in others and perhaps to be enlarged by the experience.
Sometimes Beattie seems content to dispense with gravity and just indulge in wicked fun. A case in point is “The Little Hutchisons,” the funniest story in The State We’re In. It seems to be about the dullest sort of domestic drama. The narrator is agonizing over how to refuse a friend’s request to use her backyard for a wedding party. “I might simply have said yes,” she tells us, “if not for the fact that I once saw [the groom] deliberately run the lawn mower over a turtle. He wasn’t a child when he did this; he was a junior at Colby.” She ultimately finds the inner strength to say no, ruining the friendship. Bored yet? Out of nowhere the sleepy story becomes a diabolical meditation on karma, and the only “gravity” in evidence is, with the help of a tent and a windstorm, the instrument of the groom’s punishment.
Many of the stories in The State We’re In shouldn’t really work, and yet they linger in the mind. They are no less potent for being so slight and self-contained. At their best they remind us how little life we sometimes have to work with, what small things our joy or misery may turn on. And they urge us, if we read them in the right state of mind, to reach beyond the confines of an easygoing Vacationland reality after greater joys, even if they bring with them bigger trouble.
Jane Urquhart’s novel The Night Stages is a book positively swimming in misery and trouble.4 Unlike Quicksand, which allows us to laugh even as we experience the higher emotions of pity or compassion, it is unrelievedly bleak. Even its settings—a fogbound airport in Gander, Newfoundland; the wild hills and mountains of Ireland—militate against our sense that anything might improve for Urquhart’s characters. The Night Stages would be an exhausting read at half its considerable length. Yet it is a beautiful book, both beautifully written and invaluable in its attention to how suffering shapes and ennobles the soul. In its treatment of loss, loneliness, heartbreak, and thwarted dreams, it possesses an emotional maturity rarely found in books about happier lives.
The Night Stages is the sort of novel typically called “sprawling,” that critical shorthand for a book whose author has forced it to accommodate more characters and narratives than it ought to contain. In this case, though, the term really applies. Urquhart has woven together three storylines that not only complement each other without ostentation but also convey a powerful sense of time’s passage and pain’s long reach.
The first of these threads is about a woman named Tamara who, leaving behind Ireland and her married lover, Niall, finds herself stuck in the aforementioned Gander airport. She has nothing to do but contemplate its massive mural—Kenneth Lochhead’s Flight and Its Allegories (1957–1958)—and her own past, including her service during the Second World War, flying planes for Britain’s Air Transport Auxiliary. The second thread, the book’s biggest gamble, follows Lochhead’s development as an artist and at last the creation of the mural, a labor of love in egg tempera requiring over one thousand eggs. The ghostly “dialogue” set up between Tamara’s act of memory and the fruits of Kenneth’s creativity affords a melancholy reminder of how rare human connection can be. We take it where we can get it.
The third thread, the one with the emotional fuel to have been a book unto itself, treats the youth, early manhood, and rivalry of Niall and his brother Kieran. Their lives begin with the tragedy of their mother’s secret drug addiction and eventual suicide; Kieran develops a penchant for emotional outbursts so severe that he must live apart from his father and brother with the family’s housekeeper. As he grows older, Kieran discovers the pleasures of bicycle riding and then racing. Under the tutelage of a local coach, in fact more of a guru, he trains to ride as an independent in an eight-day stage race, the Rás Tailteann. (The “night stages” of the title are the competitors nickname for their drinking bouts, which “were an antidote of sorts to the day’s suffering and . . . an acknowledgment of more to come.”)
The Rás, as it is known, is the novel’s centerpiece, its deftly rendered action a welcome respite from The Night Stages’s persistent gloom. Until it isn’t. Kieran, already in the throes of a deadly serious romantic rivalry with his brother, is pitted against him in the Rás as well. This lends the proceedings a special urgency, to be sure, but the turn things take leads to still more tragedy. Kieran, defeated in the only thing that really mattered to him, withdraws from life—disappears, in fact. The loss of his brother is a wound from which Niall cannot recover. His unshakable obsession with Kieran’s whereabouts plays a great role in Tamara’s decision to leave him at last.
It is difficult to convey how something that sounds so emotionally overwrought can play out with such grace and sophistication on the page. Granted, there are elements of The Night Stages that do more than flirt with melodrama. One must suspend some disbelief: Though it would take a lifetime to get over a mother’s suicide or the loss of a sibling, most men would not take quite so long as Kieran does to get over a romantic failure. And we have passed over in polite silence (until now) Urquhart’s tendency to flog the figurative language of flight and of Niall’s own profession, meteorology. (The Book of Job even reappears: “Hast thou entered into the storehouses of the snow? . . . Hast thou beheld the treasures of the hail?”) The symbolism at times becomes a crutch.
But all in all, The Night Stages works. Why? Perhaps because, unlike books that merely seek to manipulate our emotions, this one wrestles honestly with one of the few questions that matters: is there anything to be gained from suffering? The answer is plain, though it isn’t easy to swallow: it’s the pain of losing things that teaches us what we can’t live without. The good news is that, as it happens in Kieran’s case, the lesson isn’t always the one we were expecting. Even the God of Job cuts us a break once in a while.