Words Fail

Ha Jin wrote a dull novel about an atrocity, but the unsettling thing about Nanjing Requiem is that it almost seems engineered to be dull. Negative reviews of the book (and there are plenty) have tended to point out that Jin is a nonnative writer in English, and critics have cited plenty of examples of awkward phrasing in the novel. But that’s not really the book’s problem—accepting his style is a pact you make with Jin whenever you read him, and Nanjing Requiem‘s flaws aren’t a matter of an ungainly phrase or two. The flatness of his prose, when it works, acquires force over time. A Free Life, for instance, was richer for being so plainspoken; it echoed its hero’s simple, stubborn effort to establish a home with his family in America.

But A Free Life was a straightforward novel about assimilation in peaceful suburbia. Nanjing Requiem is a novel about the slaughter of thousands of Chinese by Japanese soldiers, which makes a bit of dialogue like this harder to process:

“What happened?” I asked.

“Some Japs broke into the deserted building where we stayed last night, and they cut down my dad and brothers. Then they stripped my mom and me and started torturing us. I screamed, so they punched me again and again until I lost my voice and blacked out. When I came to, I saw my mom’s body in the room. She couldn’t take it anymore and hit her head on the doorjamb and killed herself.”

Nanjing Requiem is full of tell-don’t-show writing like this, in which events that expose humanity at its most pitiless and cruel is presented in a flat register. The teenage girl describing her horrors isn’t suffering from shellshock, or at least the trauma isn’t signaled as such; this is just how Jin’s characters speak. And because these events are conveyed through dialogue, they’re stripped of more precise detail. Cut down—in what way? Started torturing us—well, how?

But that’s the issue. If I demand such details in the fiction I read, that’s my problem, not Jin’s, right? Nanjing Requiem, as the title suggests, is meant to be more of a tribute than a dramatization, a book designed to honor the dead instead of giving adjectival, metaphorical, novelistic shape to them. That approach is understandable, because stories about the Rape of Nanking have a ways of attracting melodrama. Iris Chang‘s 1997 book, The Rape of Nanking, did much to bring word about the massacre to U.S. readers, but her suicide seven years later has made her into something beyond a mere journalist or historian—I hesitate to use the word “martyr,” but it’s not entirely off. There’s a statue in her honor, and I can’t think of another journalist who’s been paid tribute with a soggy ballad:

That soggy ballad exists in part because there’s a dispute about the facts as Chang reported them—the tune reflects an urge to elevate her (and thus her reporting) above criticism. (I claim no expertise on the fine points on the matter, but it’s not hard to find people intemperately arguing over the details.) There’s similar melodrama in the 2009 film John Rabe, about the so-called “good Nazi,” the head of Siemens’ Nanking outpost who helped protect thousands of Chinese in the aftermath of the attacks. It’s formally well-made, but leaves you cold—the string swells, explosions, and cliched secondary roles (loose-cannon doctor, dutiful wife, romantic subplot) make it seem like a story we’ve seen before, Schindler lite:

Nanjing Requiem reads like a retort to such squabbling—to be neither a researched work that attempts to settle the facts once and for all, nor a novel with the usual comforts of fictional narrative. The novel’s arc, to the extent it has one, focuses on Minnie Vautrin, the dean of the Nanking women’s college that took in thousands of refugees. She’s the filter for the tragedy, but the story is doubly filtered through the novel’s narrator, Anling, an assistant at the school.

That’s where the book’s problem lies, I think—fair as it is to avoid a blood-soaked narrative about the attacks, or to put Rabe or Vautrin on pedestals, Anling herself never becomes a compelling character in her own right. Her personal drama involves her son marrying a Japanese woman, but this hardly registers as drama at all—that relationship takes place offstage, and when Anling learns they have a child, her response is prim and nonplussed. “The hostility between the two countries would cast a long shadow on their marriage,” Anling thinks. Jin has claimed a place and a moment for his novel, and established how it shouldn’t be written about—he writes with solemn respect for the dead, as it should be with requiems. But a studious avoidance of melodrama seems to have stripped a sense of life among those he’s imagined to tell the story.

An Old Chicago Story

My review of Peter Orner‘s new novel, Love and Shame and Love, is in last Sunday’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The surfaces of the novel are surprising—the chapters are brief and impressionistic, and I can’t recall the last contemporary “literary” novel I’ve read that included spot illustrations (it’d be nice if they made a comeback). But its themes are old-fashioned and familiar: It’s a Chicago novel, which means it’s largely about patronage, politics, and knowing your place. The novel opens in 1984 as the book’s hero, Alexander Popper, receives a lecture about how the city works from a federal judge:

Some call it patronage, I call it friendship. Nobody is his own man. Everybody needs somebody else…. This is how we build our buildings tallest of the tall. Our highways, fourteen lanes across. Sears, Roebuck, Marshall Field’s, Wiebolt’s [sic], Goldblatt’s, Montgomery Ward, Carson Pirie Scott, Hart Schaffner Marx, Polk Brothers! Back scratchers all. Do you think we could have reversed the flow of the Chicago River, this kind of engineering marvel, if not for the scratch, scratch, scratching of one another’s back?

There’s a lot of nostalgia going on here, not just for old retailers and old political operators, but for old Chicago writing too—I hear something Bellovian in that exclamatory, rhythmic speech, which recurs whenever a politician talks in the book. But the book isn’t an attempt to mimic Bellow, and much of the appeal of the book is Orner’s willingness to tinker with multiple tones. Popper, an aspiring writer for a time, mentions Algren and Carver, and Orner is trying to hybridize their styles into one that’s streetwise and straightforward.

When it works (as in a brief chapter about former mayor Jane Byrne), it works beautifully, though Orner can succumb to melodramatic flourishes when it comes to making broad statements about Chicago. (“They tore Comiskey down. In this city we tear everything down eventually.”) It’s a fine novel about Chicago, though it makes me wonder if the “Chicago novel” today is an artful snapshot of a place that no longer exists. Among the very good novels about the city in recent years—Ward Just‘s An Unfinished Season, Adam Langer‘s Crossing California and The Washington Story, and now Orner’s—none spend much time looking at the city past the 90s. Crime novelists do these days, I know, and Dan Sinker has tweeted an entertainingly profane novel-ish story about the current mayor’s rise to power. But if a novelist were attempting an ambitious novel about Chicago today, would it be obligated to circle around the same themes of political patronage and ethnic enclaves? Or is there a different story to be told about the city now?

Crazy Talk

“I’m not interested in the stuff of conventional novels,” Dennis Cooper says in an interview in the latest Paris Review. “I’m dedicated to writing about pretty specific things, in the hope of coming to a point where I feel no desire to address them anymore.” That statement encapsulates what’s both appealing and distancing about him: He eagerly challenges novelistic structure, but he’s done it while sticking to the “pretty specific things” of transgressive sex and violence. He has his fans, though the reviews of his past work have never encouraged me to investigate further.

In any event, I don’t love Cooper’s new novel, The Marbled Swarm. I have a fairly thick skin for fictional blood and gore, but the book’s scenes of cannibalism are queasy all the same, and a line like “[D]ead boys aren’t exactly wheels of brie, however much they might smell the same eventually” is off-putting even if you get the narrator’s gallows humor. (There’s more where that came from if you happen to be one of those fans.)

But Cooper’s goal in the book is a respectable and interesting one: He wants to look at how words can seduce and manipulate, and how poisonous that instinct can be when the person using the words is fairly bonkers. The “marbled swarm” of the book’s title is a term the narrator uses to describe his father’s enchanting manner of speaking—“trains of sticky sentences that round up thoughts as broadly as a vacuum.” The narrator’s father used it to make money, while the guy we’re listening to deploys it for sexual and gastronomical ends, but even if it serves low ambitions the tone makes The Marbled Swarm a more writerly novel than Cooper is often given credit for producing.

Novelists have a way of making madmen hyperarticulate; it’s a way for the novelist to recruit readers into being more patient with the craziness than they might otherwise be. Lolita might be one relatively contemporary example; Bret Easton Ellis‘ serial-killer tale American Psycho and Joyce Carol OatesJonBenet Ramsay riff My Sister, My Love would be more recent ones. In the latter two cases there’s a slightly off-kilter pitch to the prose that highlights how bad things have gotten: Think of the doofy, obsessive record reviews that Patrick Bateman writes in American Psycho or the heavily footnooted and recursive writing by Oates’ narrator. (Of course, those comparison points would be too conventional for a writer more interested in Burroughs or Sade.)

Cooper’s twist on the theme is to make his narrator not just hyperarticulate but hyper-self-aware—to the point where, ironically, we’re able to stick with him even though his actions are more repulsive than anything in Nabokov, Ellis, or Oates. “My [version of the] marbled swarm is more of an atonal, fussy bleat—somewhat marbled yet far too frozen tight and thinned by my loquaciousness to do the swarming it implies,” he writes. But lest you think he’s displaying false humility: “Still, it seems to be a sleeper hit with guys my age and younger, or at least with the majority who tune in once they’re weakened by my stunning looks.” He knows where he fits in; what’s creepy is how he decides where to fit.

The Marbled Swarm isn’t plotted so much as it’s designed to be a negotiation with the reader: How patient will you be with the scenes of rape and young men who fantasize about being run over by steamrollers? If the narrator can admit his failings as a narrator, will you stick with him a little while longer? “I should be out of kilter, so I’ll try to wreck the next few pages of my story in some self-effacing fashion,” he writes later in the novel as the body count rises. By turns, he’ll confess to “this mannered spiel to which you’ve grown accustomed,” or his “fetish for rerouting sentences that plummet at their points into Chinese puzzles.”

That’ll keep you curious till the end—at least, it kept me going as the grotesqueries piled up. The downside—to get back to that “conventional novel” business mentioned up top—is that this linguistic seductiveness doesn’t lead to much of a resolution. The narrator experiences little in the way of transformation or judgment, except one that he passes on himself: “I’ve failed the marbled swarm as I semi-understand its rules an premise.” Cooper told the Paris Review that the novel was written like a piece of music: themes and motifs “would be emphasized or de-emphasized at different points, mixed into the foreground, middle ground, or background, being moved around constantly so the reader’s attention would be directed all over the place.” That all-over-the-place aspect is the novel’s main frustration, even more than its gross-out gestures; the sole comfort is the curiously shattered and undeniably intelligent narrator who’s serving as tour guide.