Friday, September 14, 2018

More American literature I read recently - Michael Farris Smith and Sergio de la Pava

I forgot a couple.  Perversely, pathetically, since one of them is The Fighter (2018) by Michael Farris Smith, and I am a quarter way into another of his books, Desperation Road (2017), right now.

Smith is the source of the great line, which I heard him say about one of his own sentences, at a translation joust in Lyon in April, “maybe it’s not perfect but maybe it’s great,” which is useful.  These two novels are about down-and-outers in Mississippi – ex-cons, recovering addicts, aging boxers – who get tangled up in violent disasters but survive them.  What are these called in English?  The French term polar is helpful, since it includes not just mysteries but all kinds of violent crime novels.

What is interesting to me – maybe less so to Smith – is how he is trying to adapt the style of William Faulkner, and Faulkner’s many, endless, descendants, to his stories and characters.  Run-on sentences, sentence fragments, jumps in time, and surprising eruptions of the sublime, that is what I mean.  Smith will write a page or two of gritty plain prose, but once he gets into someone’s head he starts moving around.  Smith points to Larry Brown and Barry Hannah as more directs sources.  Here is how he introduces one of the protagonists:

In the southern Mississippi swamp you can watch the world awaken as the pale yellow sun edges itself between the trees and moss and widewinged cranes.  [Sentence about dragonflies]. [Now some turtles] with murderous patience and skill.  Limbs too old to hold themselves up any longer bend and break like old men accepting their marshy graves.  Reptiles slither and blackbirds cry as the early light slashes and relieves the deep and quiet night.  (Desperation Road, p. 29)

Now that is, I believe, an example of  the genuine Southern Gothic.  The guy thinking about this got out of prison about a week earlier.

Smith is good with plots, and I assume that there is some hope that he will write a book that will turn into a movie that will make some real money.  But meanwhile there are these characters who think plain thoughts in plain prose, but then sometimes think something quite different, maybe something great.

Sergio de la Pava is known for self-publishing his way to prestige with A Naked Singularity (2008), so his new novel, Lost Empress (2018) is on a division of Random House, and I suspect that the commercial interest comes from the possibility that he may someday write a real thriller, which will lead to a movie, and thus real money, since both of these novels contain within them good thrillers.  Unfortunately, in a sense, they are more like William Gaddis than Elmore Leonard, full of digressions, politics, and rhetorical flourishes.  I have stumbled across reviewers suggesting that de la Pava could use an editor.  The evidence suggest to me that he in fact has an editor, a good one, who is sympathetic to what he is doing.

De la Pava is a public defender, a thankless occupation, in New York City; where A Naked Singularity was about the court system, Lost Empress is about prisons.  Both novels are righteously angry, in places.  But then this novel is also about American football, and thus a good counter-argument to the idea that everyone is writing to some generic international audience.  A four page dialogue about the role of the cornerback was the one place I wished de la Pava would have cut, cut, cut.  Otherwise, football, why not.  Football, prison, and Joni Mitchell.  A truly surprising amount of writing about Joni Mitchell.  Please see pp. 421-2, two pages devoted to a track by track appreciation of For the Roses (1972).

Some characters are “real,” rounded and grounded, while others are more like movie characters, fantasy creatures, sometimes even speaking in screenplay form.  This split-level novel is the riskiest thing de la Pava does.  A science fiction conceit explains it, in a way that will make as many readers angry as happy.

What a pleasure it was to sink into a novel that surprised me so often.


  1. I've only read de la Pava's first one. I'm not sure I'd call A Naked Singularity digressive...more like having some anecdotes he wanted to work into the novel. Not to say some of them aren't great. I read the "one-ply toilet paper" story to my boys the other day and they were literally on the floor laughing by the end of it. (Teen boys are easy to amuse. As are adult ones like me.) Although I guess such inclusions are digressive, so I stand corrected.

  2. Right. I mean, there's a whole chunk of Singularity about a particular boxer the narrator admires. There's a recipe for empanadas.

  3. The comparison to Gaddis for digressions has stuck with me for a couple of days, but I couldn't come up with much. Although with Gaddis, in with all the mumblings and broken conversations there was always a hint or two (and sometimes more) of what was going on in order to fill in the many blanks he would leave until later to answer. Or not, as he saw fit.

    Your comparison (more Gaddis than Leonard) is apt, but I guess what's sticking with me is that Gaddis' digressions seem to serve a different purpose than de la Pava's. Not that it ultimately matters (and again, with an n of 1 for de la Pava). As I said, I'm eager to explore some more to refine and clarify. Thanks for the mental jogging.

  4. Lost Empress has a reasonably long chunk about a 911 transcriber of genius, the greatest transcriber of recordings of 911 calls ever. This section does not have the sublimity of the Byron the Bulb episode in Gravity's Rainbow, but it is good. Let me know what you think, someday.