Thursday, September 29, 2005

A Great Writer is Set to Return - Trust Me, You Ain't Ready

I may be the only one doing this, but I'm taking special note of the date February 14, 2006. I'm not talking about Valentine's Day, although I will celebrate mine and be grateful for it. I'm talking about the valentine that fans of serious literature are going to receive in the form of a new novel from one of the very best, and certainly the most under-lauded, writers in America today. The writer is Stephen Wright, and the new novel is The Amalgamation Polka. Mark this down: this novel WILL be the subject for a blog posting here in the future, as its author is right now. I was fortunate enough to study with Wright when I was getting my MFA at The New School, and he served as the mentor for my thesis project. I'm still working on my skills, but I'm very fortunate to have worked with such a fine writer.

I have been gathering materials rapidly in an attempt to research a nonfiction piece about Wright, which is not going to be an easy project, but I feel like I want to take a shot at it. Stephen Wright is very little known among most readers as far as I can tell, yet his three novels all register among my favorites and are certainly among the best literature this country has to offer in the last 75 years. It's a tragedy that so few people have consumed his work in the past, compared to celebrated literary heavyweights like Don Delillo, T.C. Boyle, Philip Roth, E.L. Doctorow, Toni Morrison, and those types. Some of those writers I like, all of them I respect; what I'd like to submit is that Wright belongs in their league, if not beyond it.

If you don't buy that, try reading his stuff. But I don't advise it if you're weak of heart, squeamish, or easily offended by honest portrayals of this country and the culture of madness we've created through the 20th century and into this one. Wright will not coddle his readers. You should not, alas, feel good when you finish one of his books (except, perhaps, if you experience a renewed belief in the possibility of great writing in the American canon) if you are a citizen of this country. America, ultimately, is under his intelligent scrutiny in all three books, even though their subjects at first seem radically different.

Wright's first novel, 1983's Meditations in Green, is a sui generis examination of the tragic mess that was the Vietnam War as it slouched towards its end, sometime around 1970. Based on Wright's own experience as an intelligence analyst in the war, it takes a broad view of the conflict from the perspective of the distance required in intelligence work, from which anything can seem casual, inconsequential and remote. Detachment is a key theme in the work, as Griffin, Wright's protagonist, attempts to find ways to endure the madness of the war itself, in flashbacks, and the post-war adjustment to civilian life in urban squalor. Through drugs, hallucinations, and mental gymnastics, Griffin navigates his way through the foggy, cold-hearted veteran's existence while grappling with increased disorientation and despair. Wright's use of metaphorical plant imagery throughout the novel provides the key ingredient to this brilliant, brutal work, as the collision between the natural and human-driven world, between drug-induced illusions and concrete reality, threaten both his characters and the 'before-my-time' ease of most younger readers who might tackle the book. If we think there are no lessons to be learned today from such a novel, we aren't really looking at the broader picture, I'm afraid.

Wright took what appears to be a radical turn in 1988's M31: A Family Romance. I only wish I could have somehow experienced the reception of this novel when it appeared, but alas, I was concentrating on going off to college at the time. Too bad I wasn't good enough for Princeton, where Wright was teaching when this novel emerged. Those who bothered to take notice of the book must have really scratched their heads - unless they were perceptive enough to see right away what some perspective has proven: that Wright was taking another look at the same subject, a distorted, twisted, and confused America. Only this time, Wright's focus was not on war abroad but domestic combat, family life, splashed with the outlandish colors of obsession and the crazed UFO sub-culture. Inspired by a magazine piece he had written about a cult in California (which eventually turned into the doomsday Heaven's Gate cult, where all the members, believing they were going to another world, committed mass suicide), M31 is the story of Dot and Dash, a celebrity couple on the UFO scene who spend their time whisking around to share their experiences on TV talk shows and at conferences. When they're not on the road, they're raising their three children in an abandoned church in the middle of rural Iowa. Their eldest son is frighteningly sullen and may be turning into a brutal murderer. Their youngest daughter, Zoe, is autistic, and her seizures are enthusiastically interpreted by her parents as communications with the galaxy M31. Their family dynamics and rituals are presented in an apocalyptic tale that is bizarre and hilarious, yet sometimes brutally frightening, especially after a wandering couple of tourists stumble on their unsual abode and decide to stay for a while. As strange and 'out there' as this story might seem, Wright's prose is razor sharp, and one notices that he is again indicting the confusing, morally capsized culture that we have created for ourselves in this country, in beautiful language and hilarious, crisp dialogue.

If these books - which were extremely well reviewed, but sold little - were not enough to firmly establish Wright's reputation, at least critically and among his peers, 1994's Going Native eliminated any doubt. An astonishing tour de force, this terrifying, hilarious and difficult novel was poorly marketed, virtually ignored by the general public, and a commerical failure. But it remains a brilliant artistic achievement. A road fable, it features eight separate chapters, long stories within the overall 'story', each of which are connected only in passing (literally) by a psychopath who travels under the name 'Wylie' - one of numerous cartoonish references in the novel. The opening chapter introduces him as a suburban husband and father at a mindless dinner party. We follow blindly along, while ominous clouds gather in the narrative, until we witness the man 'snap', disappear from his deck chair, walk through his house, and out the front door, for good - 'like the present tense,' Wright pens, 'Daddy was gone, gone.' The rest of the novel is a furious On the Road thrown into a blender with a horror film, drenched in blood, drugs, sex, and satire. Wright introduces drug addicts, pornographers, lesbian parents, truckers and filmmakers and tells their sordid tales, while his serial killer whisks by in the background, only pausing to inflict thoughtless and random acts of violence. Wright's ambition and scope in this novel is immense and admirable. He has no intention of giving us a thrilling joyride of a book: he wants us to squirm, as we recognize a culture and a country that could only be our own, and squirm we do. It is decidedly not offensive for the sake of offense: the writer's aim is much higher than this. Going Native is a forceful experience, one that is not for all readers, but will remain lodged in the brain of those who take it on.

I don't know the reaosn why it has taken Wright 12 years to produce a new novel. I can think of some possibilities. When I worked with Wright in 2000, he told me at that time he was writing the novel, but he clearly works very slowly and meticulously - the carefully crafted prose of any of his previous novels is evidence of the fact. Wright does not write an errant sentence. In addition, in 2000, his last novel had been long forgotten, and he was virtually unknown. His first two novels were out of print and he was holding down one treaching gig. I think he was pretty down on his luck, he spoke of depression to me, and I was only a student, not a friend. The Amalgamation Polka will be a book that ressurrects his literary reputation, I have absolutely no doubt. I am personally hopeful that he finally gets broader recognition and a larger readership from the new book. He was a distant, eccentric man to work with, but he read my work closely, gave me sound advice, and his writing deserves to be experienced.

The new novel, a Civil War period piece, will not be light on bloodshed nor on irony for these dark times. It will hit hard, count on it. I am prepared for the experience, but I doubt readers who decide they'll give him a try on reviews or word of mouth will be. That's a good thing. Wright is the kind of writer whose work can and should come as a jolt.

1 comment:

Duke Altum said...

I commented to Mutt (after I had seen this post) that if any writer deserves to be "blogged" over and discussed at length in these times, it is certainly Stephen Wright. I remember at the time when Mutt was working with Wright, he would tell me tales of his eccentricities, funny things he'd say or do in class, critiques he's offered of Mutt's own work, etc. I was always interested, but pretty much for Mutt's sake -- I never bothered to read any of his books. Eventually Mutt got to reading them and his sharp reader's eye & ear recognized them for what they definitely are: fiction of the first rate, unlike anything that any other contemporary writer is producing. He told me this repeatedly, and I did take note of it, although I was slow to track down one of his books and give it a shot. Well, long story short, one day Mutt basically cornered me and let me know in no uncertain terms that I (as another serious fan of good fiction) needed to read one of his books as soon as possible. I took his advice, reading both 'Meditations in Green' and 'M31' in pretty close succession. I was very impressed by both and told him so.

But it was not until I read, again at Mutt's repeated urgings, 'Going Native' that I recognized Wright as a brilliant fiction writer. Let me just add a few comments then to his on this astounding novel, just to further emphasize its importance and lament its poor reception.

I truly believe that 'Going Native' is one of the most important American novels to be written in the last 30 years, at least. It is, as Mutt indicates, a travesty that almost no one has even heard of it, let alone read it. After I read it I remember telling Mutt, in a burst of enthusiasm (but not exaggeration), that if I were ever to teach a course on American culture & society at the turn of the 21st century, 'Going Native' would definitely be on the required reading list.

As Mutt hinted at in his post, the novel presents a very disturbing, even harrowing, portrait of a culture on the brink of moral and spiritual collapse. Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, "if God does not exist, all things are permissible," and Wright's novel can almost be read as a wild, chaotic case study of this concept. Wright's ghost-like psychopath Wiley drifts through the backroads, interstates and pleasure palaces of America with chilling nonchalance and indifference, leaving a trail of blood in his wake. And yet, we only see him on the periphery of the story -- the real meat of this powerful funhouse-ride of a novel are the stories of the characters whose lives, unfortunately, happen to intersect with his. Each life Wright presents to us is more bizarre and twisted and lonely than the next, and we get the feeling as we inhabit their minds for a chapter that everyone is lost, everyone is unfulfilled, and no one is destined for a happy ending. Wiley seems like nothing more than a symbol for an absurd, unfeeling universe, a wraith through which the empty winds of spiritual desolation blow and moan. Wright could have left it there and still would have written one of the most forceful and chilling novels of the last several decades. But in his last chapter, he peels the curtain back a bit and gives us more of a glimpse of who this man is, and though his rampage and his motivations remain a mystery, we at least get the feeling that there's more to his story than meets the eye.

Wright is truly a writer of extraordinary talents, and though his subject matter can be disturbing and brutally frank, his precise prose and keen insight into the spiritual chaos of our time make his work well worth reading and pondering.