Bellow – Humbolt’s Gift

Humboldt's GiftDrifting Along Some Fine Writing

Bellow, Saul. (1973). Humbolt’s Gift. New York: Penguin.

The story is about the life of a New York City writer who makes it big, but is haunted by the memory of his writing mentor, Humbolt, who taught him everything, then later scorned him for his commercial success. The story is told first-person, past tense, by Charlie Citrine, the young writer. For most of the book he reminisces about his friend Humbolt, and what he taught him, and meant to him. Along the way, he waxes existentially philosophical about life and especially about the artist’s place in modern society. This is done with fine language and often fine humor.

The characters are unique, full of  idiosyncracies. Citrine is detached, someone who was surprised by his sudden success as a playwright but thinks of himself as an established writer, yet really has no serious ideas and no motivation to write anything else. He feels vaguely guilty about that, but not guilty enough to write anything. Does that mean he has “risen above” the commercial compulsion to perform, or does it mean he is mentally bankrupt?

His lackadaisical attitude extends to his relationships. His wife divorces him and wants a fat settlement, which he sees as a minor annoyance; his girlfriend takes advantage of him, which he suspects, but pretends not to; he gets involved with a mobster who wants him to produce a certain play. The reader is always thinking, “Don’t do it, Charlie! Can’t you see the situation is nuts?”  But Charlie doesn’t see anything normally; he’s not quite there. He prefers to withdraw, to ruminate and reminisce, giving the author a chance to pontificate on modern (mid-century) society.

There are some thought-provoking themes to consider. One is about the relationship between a student and a mentor. It can takes a long time to get out from under the shadow of a powerful mentor. Bellow explores this relatively unusual kind of human relationship.

Another theme is the old dichotomy between art for art’s sake, and commercial art.  Citrine makes a lot of money with his writing, but that’s “not his fault,” he says.  By contrast, Humbolt, his mentor, died penniless. Humboldt wanted to raise the esteem of poets and writers in American society, yet he schemed like a Soviet politician to dethrone an English professor at Princeton so he could take his place. Nearly all of Bellow’s characters, including Charlie, are conflicted and disoriented. Maybe that’s what makes them so fascinating.

While the characters are enjoyable, there isn’t much of a story. Nothing really happens in the novel. Near the end, Charlie learns that Humbolt has bequeathed to him the rights to a screenplay they had written together in their youth (the title’s gift), and that leads to some tension, courtroom drama, and humor. Overall though, the plot is weak to non-existent.

Bellow’s (Charlie’s) observations about American life are dated now. Having Charlie take a helicopter across New York with Robert Kennedy doesn’t generate any frisson today. Comments about Adlai Stevenson and about the Soviet Union don’t hold much irony and actually deaden the narrative. That’s a hazard of writing political and topical issues into a novel. Urgent as they seem at the time, they rarely age well.

The book is an enjoyable read just for the fine writing. You read it as you would a prose poem, not as you would a mystery novel, and you go with the drift of the words and enjoy it for what it is. Bellow won the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the National Medal of Arts. He is the only writer to have won the National Book Award for Fiction three times.

Carey – Parrot and Olivier in America

Parrot and OlivierA Light Romp Through Early America

Carey, Peter. (2010) Parrot and Olivier In America. New York: Knopf.

Alexis de Tocqueville was a French aristocrat, philosopher and historian shortly after the French revolution, in the 1830’s. He hated the Bourbon king who was restored to the throne (the counterrevolution), so though he was a noble, he was always in hot water. He escaped to America, where he traveled and made notes. On his return to France, he published Democracy in America (1835), a sociological and political-science essay still admired today.

Carey writes a fictional riff on that life, creating Olivier de Garmont, a young nobleman after the French revolution who fears for his life. He escapes to America, accompanied by his 50-year-old secretary, Parrot, a French-speaking, working class Englishman, son of an engraver who was caught printing counterfeit French currency. Thus the highest of aristocracy and the lowest of scoundrels are tied together in a buddy story.

Though Olivier and Parrot view each other with contempt, they develop a friendship over time, travels and adventures in America. Olivier is puzzled by America, where people do not have servants (slavery stays at the edges and doesn’t figure in the story). He is shocked and disdainful of the raw American culture where people are obsessed by making money. Parrot, however, is exhilarated by the opportunities, but lacks the resource to break free of Olivier and strike out on his own. They describe their experiences in the New World in alternating chapters.

The reader gets a feel for New York and Boston in the 1830’s. Carey’s historical research feels very real, from the food, the clothing, travel, housing, the financial dealings, barroom fights, romantic relationships, and the granularity of everyday life. As a historical novel covering early 19th century New England, it is illuminating and fascinating.

There is no real storyline. The two protagonists have trials and tribulations and grow older. The fun of the novel is in the historical imagination and in the witty writing. Individual episodes are affecting and often complex, but with the structure of a romp or a road trip, it is not a developing drama. The characters don’t change over time, nor does the social environment, so the reader must be content with the scenery, which is interesting and often funny. The writing is also edifying to a reader’s vocabulary. You will need your dictionary.

Charming though the story is, a political dark side is completely glossed over. Olivier’s aristocratic views and sensibilities are undermined by the morally illegitimate status of any aristocracy. He reviles the lower classes for their lack of education, for being dirty, crude, and ambitious, but as with all aristocracy, is unaware that his class rides on the backs of the workers, exploiting them, and depriving them of education, leisure, and self-sufficiency. So Olivier’s views of America are interesting not for any insight, only in demonstrating the ingrained lack of self-awareness that still characterizes the American financial and political aristocracy today.

Chieh – A Long Stay in a Distant Land

Long Stay Distant LandCute Immigrants

Chieng, Chieh (2005). A Long Stay In A Distant Land. New York: Bloomsbury.

This quirky, multi-generational family story begins in southern California. The Lum family are middle-class Chinese-American. Louis works for a magazine but moves back home to tend his father after his mother is killed in a traffic accident. The father has vowed revenge on the driver that killed her and Louis has to talk his father out of it. But then Uncle Bo disappears, suddenly moving to Hong Kong to see what the Old Country is really like, and also to escape his suffocating grandmother. Louis goes to Hong Kong to find Bo, where additional adventures ensue.

The novel is advertised as a comedy, because the reader is supposed to be amused by the zany antics of the Lum family. The humor is dry but degenerates to cute. The basis of the humor is that members of the family are not completely acculturated into America, or Hong Kong either, so they make mistakes in both cultures with charming misunderstandings and mispronunciations. In that sense the humor is condescending.

Consider this example, when Bo joins the Boy Scouts.

Melvin decided Bo had to learn to start a fire before his first Scout meeting. “A basic skill he needs to know.”

“Are the other boys going to ask him to start a fire for them when they meet?” Esther asked. “Is he going to have to bring them the head of deer, too?”

…Bo’s first fire-making lesson began with Melvin placing a piece of cloth at the end of a stick. He lit the cloth with a match and then tossed in into a coffee can to snuff out the flame. Bo watched silently.

“What are you doing?” Esther asked.

“Charring the cloth,” Melvin said.

“Why?” she asked.

“It’ll catch sparks that Bo will make. It’ll burn easier after it’s charred.”

“You just lit it with a match. If you didn’t put out the fire, you would have fire.”

“Yeah,” he said.

Cute, cutesy, and mildly humorous in a child-like way. The scenes are deadpan, giving the reader plenty of distance to look down his or her nose at the cute immigrants. I found it not only tedious, but slightly offensive. Also, notice how the clunky tagging of every utterance in the dialog parallels the family’s clunky use of English.

It’s a well-reviewed book by an up-and-coming young author, but I found the writing loose, the humor predictable, and pointless contrived scenarios clever for the sake of being clever. If there is a serious theme in the novel, it is the expression of what it’s like to be a person (and a family) caught half-way between two cultures. I didn’t hate the book; it just left me indifferent.

Kunzru – Transmission

transmission-hari-kunzruLight Satire From a Thin Story

Kunzru, Hari (2004). Transmission. New York: Penguin.

Arjun Mehta is a computer nerd in India who is hired by a recruiting firm to work as a programmer in America, his life’s dream come true. He ends up at a software security firm in Seattle, testing for computer viruses. He is incredibly naïve and nerdy, which makes for some humorous observations about American life, especially in the software business. Arjun manages to befriend a tattooed, punky woman who works nearby at Microsoft. As is inevitable in the computer tech business, there are layoffs, and Arjun faces not only loss of job, but also of work visa, and the prospect of being sent back to his village in India in disgrace. So he writes a little virus, called “Leela,”  and inserts it into the network, thinking he will later be the hero to discover and defeat it, thus proving his worth and saving his job. Instead, the virus goes out of control and spreads internationally, causing near collapse of financial, transportation, and other industries worldwide. Arjun goes on the run before the authorities figure out he was the perpetrator.

Meanwhile, two other stories are interwoven with Arjun’s basic tale. One is the story of a young, rich, egocentric, incompetent, self-blind, drug-fueled executive, Guy Swift, who runs a “brand management” startup.  He babbles wonderful nonsense to clients about “total brand mutability” tracked with his proprietary “brand mutation maps” that lets customers “identify with the brand holistically.” It’s funny satire. Alas, Guy is unable to satisfy his venture capitalist funders when his computers are brought down by the Leela virus.

A third story line concerns a Bollywood film star named Leela, who is tormented by reporters who suspect the virus was a publicity stunt. She was Arjun’s favorite movie star, and he named the virus after her. He sends her a note to apologize, but that reveals his identity to the authorities, sending him into hiding. Leela’s story is the least interesting, providing a few jabs at easy targets like image-crazed producers, mob-backed financiers, and temperamental actors, but without the sharp satirical bite of the other two stories.

I find it unsatisfying when a novel lacks a strong, causally-driven story line running through the middle. Like many recent novels, this one ends by fading away. Did the authorities catch Arjun and hold him responsible for the virus?  We never learn. There is no resolution of whatever dramatic tension had been built up.

The novel presents some engaging characters but the story goes nowhere. The result is some funny satirical bits but an unsatisfying experience overall.

Greenberg – Manufacturing Depression

Manufacturing DepressionIs It Wrong To Be Unhappy?
Adams, W. A. (2010). [Review of the book, Manufacturing Depresson]. PsycCRITIQUES – Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books, September 1, 2010, Vol. 55, Release 35, Article 1.

Author and psychotherapist Gary Greenberg has a strong opinion about depression:  except for very extreme cases, he insists that depression is not a disease, is not explained by biology, and does not need to be cured, by drugs or anything else.  Greenberg rejects and even ridicules the medical model of psychopathology and its labeling of suffering as disease.

Instead he argues that depression is a legitimate response to a savage world, a way of being, not a disease.  If you think of it as a disease, then the so-called symptoms have no psychological or spiritual significance; they are meaningless. 

“if depression is not, in short, about your transactions with the universe, but only about whether or not you have the signs of the illness, then there is only one thing left for it to be: an internal dysfunction, as stupid and brutal and meaningless as diabetes or cancer” (p. 252).  

That is a conclusion he cannot accept, and he urges readers not to accept it either. He wants to “own” his depression, not be afflicted by some arbitrary disease that means nothing. But despite what he would wish, the possibility that depression is actually just a stupid disease is a logical possibility. 

Mfg Depression  Click to see full text of the review


Faulkner – Sanctuary

Sanctuary_FaulknerA Barely Coherent Mystery

Faulkner, William (1931).  Sanctuary. New York: Vintage.

Often billed as Faulkner’s commercial whodunit, this novel hovers on the edge of unintelligibility. But, it’s a “classic,” so what do I know.

Temple Drake, a young, well-off college student in Prohibition-era  Mississippi, is a wild party girl. Her drunken boyfriend takes them both to a bootlegger deep in the woods to get some drink. He becomes fall-down drunk, gets beaten up by the other men there, and leaves, abandoning Temple. She gets raped, and in the commotion, a black man, Tommy, gets killed. Popeye, the bad guy, takes Temple to a whore house in Memphis, where he rents her out. Meanwhile, another black man, Lee, is accused and jailed. His lawyer, Horace, believes evidence-based reasoning will free him, but Lee is wrongly convicted when Temple lies on the stand.  Lee is  burned alive by an angry crowd. Horace skulks off, defeated. Temple remains oblivious.

That could, in principle, be an interesting mystery story, but there are two major problems with Faulkner’s telling of it. One is that characters are generally unmotivated. They are crazy, drunk, insane, or just weird, so they can do and say all sorts of surprising, unexpected things, because they are not normal people. Faulkner is known for his characterizations of irrational, almost sub-human animals that inhabit his fictional Southern landscape, but that doesn’t make them interesting or believable. When there is little causal connection between events in a story, you don’t have a story, just a collection of scenes. Some people don’t mind that, but it doesn’t work for a mystery.

Secondly, Faulkner uses a writing style that deliberately obfuscates the story line, the characters’ motivations, and even their identities. Almost every scene starts off with a series of unresolved pronouns so you don’t know, can’t know, what the hell’s going on until you read a few more pages and deduce (if you are a close reader) which characters are even in the scene, let alone what they are doing there. Example, from the opening of chapter 7:

“From somewhere beyond the lamplit hall she could hear the voices – a word; now and then a laugh; the harsh, derisive laugh of a man easily brought to mirth by youth or by age, cutting across the spluttering of frying meat on the stove where the woman stood.”

That’s a charming Faulknerian sentence except the reader does not know who “she” is or who “a man” is, or who “the woman” is. We don’t know where the description is located in time or space, or why. It can be deduced by further reading, but when every scene opens with such deliberate misdirection, it seems that Faulkner has contempt for his reader.

On top of that, all the scenes and chapters in the book have been put through a shredder then reassembled in random order, (Faulkner admits as much in his personal papers), so there is almost no chronological order to anything that happens. The result is a series of vignettes that, while often intriguingly written, do not add up to a coherent story, let alone an enjoyable one. If you insist on reading this book, you should first  print out a list of characters (such as found on Wikipedia), so you have a chance at understanding. Unless you enjoy crossword puzzles.

Cunningham – The Hours

the_hoursFan Fiction Goes Mainstream

Cunningham, Michael (1998). The Hours. New York: Picador USA

Fan fiction rarely gets published, but Cunningham’s The Hours somehow managed it. Fan fiction is written by fans of characters in stories created by someone else. A fan-writer produces elaborations and alternatives based on the established characters for fun and for the amusement of other fans, who presumably have read the original.

The Hours is Cunningham’s homage, to use a more generous term, to Virginia Woolf’s classic novel, Mrs. Dalloway. In the original 1925 novel, Clarissa Dalloway was an upper-class London matron who considered socializing to be an art form. That novel shows one day in her life, shopping for flowers and preparing a dinner party for her husband, Richard. She clings to her status and refined sensibilities but secretly worries if she wasted her life by marrying wealth, rather than by choosing her youthful sweetheart, the unpredictable adventurer, Peter, or even the wild and irreverent Sally, her childhood girlfriend. Mrs. Dalloway’s anxiety about her life choices as she faces aging and death, animates the novel.

In The Hours, Clarissa Vaughan is a 1990’s New York woman who is called “Mrs. Dalloway” by her friend and former lover, Richard, a renowned poet dying of AIDS. She is seen buying flowers and preparing a dinner party for Richard. Is she conflicted about her life choices, as was the original Mrs. Dalloway? Yes, because the narrator says so:  “…she is now revealed to herself as a meager spirit, too conventional, the cause of much suffering.”

A fundamental flaw in The Hours is that the narrator tells us what characters feel and believe, without much, or any evidence. Woolf’s novel was an exercise in stream-of-consciousness writing, in which the reader had direct access to the characters’ thoughts and feelings. Cunningham is not much interested in stream-of-consciousness, so his narrator just declares what characters think and feel. The result is hollow.

In modern writing an author often bridges a character’s stream-of-consciousness to a narrator’s description using a method called free indirect discourse, in which the narrator’s voice merges with the character’s voice from time to time, but Cunningham executes the method poorly, as in this example:

“She isn’t jealous of Sally, it isn’t anything as cheap as that, but she cannot help feeling, in being passed over by Oliver St. Ives, the waning of the world’s interest in her and, more powerfully, the embarrassing fact that it matters to her even now, as she prepares a party for a man who may be a great artist and may not survive the year. I am trivial, endlessly trivial, she thinks.”

The first sentence is the voice of the narrator, inside Clarissa’s head. The second sentence is Clarissa’s voice. I find the passage clunky, in part because of Cunningham’s choice of a first-person present narrator, which makes the narrator merely voyeuristic rather than authoritative about characters’ inner thoughts, unlike Woolf’s first-person, past narrator.

Maybe Cunningham relies heavily on narrative telling rather than characterological showing because his story is so ambitious. There are two other major characters.  Virginia Woolf is in 1923 London, struggling against depression on her last day, while writing her novel, “Mrs. Dalloway.” In the course of her ruminations, she decides that Clarissa Dalloway will kiss another woman (Sally), command tea and dinner tables as an art form, and not kill herself. The Mrs. Woolf character is only interesting to fans of the original novel and to readers who know Woolf’s biography, but taken objectively, it is the least interesting character in The Hours. Of course fan fiction necessarily rests on a foundation of wink-wink, nudge-nudge, so this is perhaps an unfair criticism.

The third main character is Laura Brown, a suburban housewife in 1949 Los Angeles who suffers from “feminine mystique syndrome,” mid-century middle-class conformity and meaninglessness. She is pregnant with her second child and we see her half-heartedly baking a birthday cake for her husband, because she must, and being secretly obsessed with the novel, “Mrs. Dalloway,” which she has half-finished. She has passionately kissed another woman (not Sally) and worries about that. Contrived though the character is, her life is the most well-observed of the three and for that, the most interesting:

“She loves her husband, and is glad to be married. It seems possible (it does not seem impossible) that she’s slipped across an invisible line, the line that has always separated her from what she would prefer to feel, who she would prefer to be. It does not seem impossible that she has undergone a subtle but profound transformation here in this kitchen at this most ordinary of moments: she has caught up with herself.”

If we ignore the narrator’s tendency to tell us what Mrs. Brown feels, rather than letting her speak or behave for herself, we can admit that this passage does spotlight a genuine and important existential moment, all the more so because in the context of having just baked a meaningless, sagging cake, we realize that her epiphany is essentially untrue: she is NOT happy to be married and she has NOT caught up with herself. That’s good stuff.

It’s worth noting also how Cunningham peppers his prose with parenthetical expressions as in the quote above, but fails to realize that in the original novel, characters’ behavioral action was backgrounded by putting it in parentheses, to emphasize the foregrounding of the stream of consciousness. In other words, Woolf had a purpose for all the parenthetical expressions, but Cunningham just uses them as window dressing.

Having read and enjoyed “Mrs. Dalloway,” I cannot un-read it, so it’s impossible for me to imagine what a naïve reader would get out ofThe Hours. There are many well-observed moments that might sustain reading. An example is when a character enters Clarissa’s and Sally’s apartment:

“Sally and Clarissa live in a perfect replica of an upper-class West Village apartment; you imagine somebody’s assistant striding through with a clipboard: French leather armchairs, check; Stickley table, check; linen-covered walls hung with botanical prints, check; bookshelves studded with small treasures acquired abroad, check. Even the eccentricities – the flea-market mirror frame covered in seashells, the scaly old South American chest painted with leering mermaids – feel calculated as if the art director had looked it all over and said, ‘It isn’t convincing enough yet, we need more things to tell us who these people really are’”

Nabokov – Lolita

Lolita.largeWonderful Language, Dull Story

Nabokov, Vladimir. (1955). Lolita. New York: Vintage 50th Anniversary Edition.

This is a book whose reputation precedes reading. Everyone knows the story of a middle-aged man’s sexual obsession with a twelve-year-old girl. Humbert Humbert, a European gentleman, confesses his perversion in a diary or memoir, in which he sometimes slips into the second-person voice to address the reader directly, for example, to plead for merciful judgment. He is not an amoral psychopath. He knows his obsession with prepubescent “nymphets” is socially wrong, but can’t help himself, he says.

In America, he rents a room from a woman whose daughter is Lolita, the nymphet of his dreams. To gain access to her, he marries the mother, then considers killing her, but she conveniently dies in an accident, leaving Humbert the sole guardian (possessor) of Lolita. They go on a road trip during which time he has complete sexual access to her, keeping her almost a kidnap victim under his jealous gaze. Lolita, it turns out, is not sexually naïve and cooperates with Humbert in exchange for toys and candy. Sexual contact between them is described but never “shown” in graphic detail. The book is pornographic in concept but not literally.

The second part of the book is a long travelogue of their journey through the US in 1950 or so. Descriptions of cheesy motels, restaurants, and gas stations are perfection of the art of literary observation. Nabokov’s language throughout is creative, playful, humorous, and diverse, with plenty of untranslated French expressions (I think Humbert was supposed to be Swiss), and the occasional poem. Literary and historical allusions abound, making the novel a pleasure to read.

In fact Nabokov’s writing is the only reason anyone should read this book. Unless you happen to be a pedophile, you will find the story uninteresting and dramatic tension just barely showing a pulse through manufactured mini-crises that are more humorous than tense. Humbert repeatedly declares his heartfelt love for Lolita, even as he sexually abuses her. But we don’t believe for a moment that Humbert has any concept of love beyond his own selfish obsession. There is nothing to make us connect to Humbert except his clever language and foppish mannerisms. Likewise, Lolita is a snarky, dirty, rude, and undereducated youth who reveals no interior life. So we have two cartoon characters tossing about clever language for 300 pages.

In my opinion, the  scintillating language and insightful description justify the entire novel. But as an interesting or dramatic story, or as a character study, or as an exercise in unreliable narration, the book falls flat.

Some readers say they are repelled by the basic concept of a pedophile acting out his fantasies, and are unable to read the book. I can understand a reader objecting on aesthetic or technical grounds, but not on moral grounds.  Such readers (or non-readers) are afraid of their own imaginations, a truly scary proposition.

We read Lolita sentences like these:

“She was, obviously, one of those women whose polished words may reflect a book club or bridge club, or any other deadly conventionality, but never her soul; women who are completely devoid of humor; women utterly indifferent at heart to the dozen or so possible subjects of a parlor conversation, but very particular about the rules of such conversations, through the sunny cellophane of which not very appetizing frustrations can be readily distinguished.”

“…Charlotte …thought my mirth improper; but otherwise her autobiography was as devoid of interests as her autopsy would have been.”

“We passed and re-passed through the whole gamut of American roadside restaurants, from the lowly Eat with its deer head (dark trace of long tear at inner canthus), ‘humorous’ picture post cards of the posterior ‘Kurort’ type, impaled guest checks, life savers, sunglasses, adman visions of celestial sundaes, one half of a chocolate cake under glass, and several horribly experienced flies zigzagging over the sticky sugar-pour on the ignoble counter; and all the way to the expensive place with the subdued lights, preposterously poor table linen, inept waiters (ex-convicts or college boys), the roan back of a screen actress, the sable eyebrows of her male of the moment, and an orchestra of zoot-suiters with trumpets.”

Writing On The Road

iron-man-2It’s a helluva struggle to write anything on a road trip. Finding the time is one problem but the far bigger issue is finding the brain. It’s hard to focus.

In the morning I have a visceral urge to hit the road, even though there’s no rush. Why am so I eager to get from Amarillo to Tulsa?  Because the point of the journey is to get somewhere. Otherwise, you’re not on a journey, you’re wandering. How could I possibly sit in a motel room until noon when Tulsa beckons?

At the end of the day, after hours of highway driving, I don’t have the mental energy to form a single thought. The creativity’s gone. The brain is missing.

So I realize, to my horror, my writing depends on familiar settings and habits. I’m like Iron Man: useless without my exoskeleton, and not even as witty as Robert Downey, Jr. Of course he has writers.

I’ve written reasonably good material at conferences. When I’m settled in a spot for more than 24 hours, I can do it. So it’s not the foreign environment that kills me. It’s the intense vigilance of highway driving. Keeping an eye on Jackknife George growing ever larger in my mirror, an old guy with thick glasses driving a dirty white 18-wheeler, lurching from side to side in the lane, probably been driving all night. When I stop for gas he gets ahead and I have to dart past him again then watch him slowly creep up on me again like something out of an early Spielberg movie.

The short-term memory goes on long road trips. I can hardly remember the road sign I just read, let alone two ideas I wanted to associate. I don’t think it’s possible to write without short term memory. But maybe I should force myself to do it. The result might be interesting.

Doctorow – Ragtime

RagtimeWildly Overrated

Doctorow, E.L. (1974). Ragtime. New York: Penguin.

This impressionistic portrait of New York in the early 1900’s has been widely praised as a “classic,” and has been made into a movie and a Broadway show. I can’t understand the acclaim.

The story is roughly centered on the life of an upper-class family in New York, but dozens of other sub-stories flare up and die down around them. A rich socialite who married for money defends her husband who killed her lover, a famous architect. For no reason at all, she takes up with an impoverished Jewish immigrant and his daughter. Anarchist Emma Goldman appears and “liberates” her from her corset. Harry Houdini appears when he accidentally runs his car into the rich family’s yard. Sigmund Freud appears on his visit to Clark University in 1909. William Taft wins the presidency. Henry Ford has lunch with J.P Morgan. And so on, and on, and on,and on.

Toward the end of the (300-page) novel, a black man becomes enraged by an act of racial discrimination and finding no satisfaction in the legal system, turns to violence. That’s the only dramatic move in the entire novel, and it’s supposed to show America’s “loss of innocence” and rising awareness of racism. But that is pure nonsense, as anyone who knows anything about American history (and Black history) can attest. There never was an “age of innocence,” except among the profoundly ignorant, a condition that persists today.

I think the reader is supposed to be charmed, or possibly amazed, at the intermingling of fictional and historical characters. Maybe that was a literary innovation in 1975, I can’t remember. Most charitably, I can say this literary style has not aged well.

The writing is pedestrian. Quotation marks are dispensed with, so I guess that’s a sort of innovation, but the language is mundane, the narration predictable and the descriptions full of empty abstraction. There are few memorable scenes or turns of phrase, and there are so many characters, you can’t even remember them, let alone identify with any of them, so the emotional effect of the work is nil.

If you don’t know the social history of America during this period, it seems you would be mystified by all the random comings and goings. If you do know the history, you would be stupefied by its unimaginative recitation. Children might like the book because it gives easily digestible access to reasonably accurate history, though without insight.