Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Thoughts: The Amalgamation Polka

  • My thoughts on Stephen Wright's latest.
I'm reading Stephen Wright's most recent novel, The Amalgamation Polka, and halfway through that sinking feeling hits me. You know the one; it says, "Guess what? You're disappointed and you're bored. Bail now before it gets worse."

I didn't bail -- the hell with that Pierre Bayard nonsense, says me -- and it got marginally better, but not enough for redemption.

Wright's thing as a writer is that fireworks prose, that lookie-lookie-lookie-what-I-can do stuff that makes other writers either roll their eyes or drool with envy. And when he's really kicking it, it's pretty amazing. Here's a bit from Polka that Andrew O'Hehir excerpted in his Salon review, one which took my breath away when I came to it in the novel:
Here is a sentence -- one sentence -- from an early chapter in which teenage Liberty Fish, our hero (yes, that's his name) is traveling westward with his father aboard a packet boat on the Erie Canal:

"Someone had produced a fiddle around which soon congregated a makeshift chorus of willing singers, obscure figures in black cutout against the last fading light, and then the familiar strains of 'Old Folks at Home' rose up against the night in fluidly adroit, unforgettable harmony and it was possible to believe that the world and the things of the world were connected by a melody of their own, persistent though often indistinct, traces of which could be heard lurking even beneath the sentimental cadences of a popular tune of the day, and as the final note dissolved into a pure sustained silence, all noise and motion beyond the boat, the toiling mules, seemed to cease -- even inanimate objects held their breaths -- and into that becalmed interval glided, silent as a shade, the long, graceful packet and its entranced human cargo, as through a mystic cavern hewn from nature's own stuff, and then the bow hit the strings (the opening bars to 'Turkey in the Straw') and the spell was broken, and time fell back onto the travelers' shoulders like a cloak spun of material so gorgeously fine you didn't even realize it was wearing you until it had been briefly whisked away."
I mean, damn.

But a lot of critics went ape over this thing, and while there's no denying that Wright put his back into coming up with grandiloquent ideas about how war echoes through histories both social and familial, he chooses, bizarrely, to hitch them to a whole lot of -- it honestly pains me to type this -- cliches, cardboard characters and numbing repetitiveness. Towards the end, Wright actually acknowledges the melodrama of his own plotting, but the meta effect is way too little, far too late. I think there's an idea there -- that if we're all trapped in the lockstep dance of history, like dancers we might find ourselves repeating the same steps, the steps in the book's titular dance, for example. But the predictability that comes as a price for using archetypal characters and plot complications clashes too mightily against all of the good things that Wright is onto.

The novel excels when Wright returns to one of his pet themes: family. In M31: A Family Romance, his second novel, he evokes a family of definitely criminal and possibly incestuous UFO cultists with messy but painfully familiar strokes. Despite their rampant eccentricities, the unspoken tidal pull that keeps them together is powerfully evoked. Sections of Going Native -- his best and most challenging work so far -- explore similar territory, albeit with much more satirical distance. And there are parts in The Amalgamation Polka where the unfathomable contradictions of familial love and obligation leap into startling, strident focus; the novel's most vividly effective portions come early, in passages where young Liberty's all-encompassing knowledge of his childhood home is set in relief against his mother's tumultuous moods and his father's distant yet empathetic presence.

Yet deeper characterization seems not to be Wright's game here. Distance was the approach he took in M31 and Going Native, a way to look at characters as part of a unit and part of an environment. And it worked; their stasis as individuals served the novels' themes. Going Native, for example, is a series of episodes loosely connected by repeated appearances by the novel's de facto main character: a man who walks out on his suburban family, hits the road and becomes an increasingly violent criminal. In the novel's lengthiest section, a young yuppie couple undertakes an increasingly arduous journey into jungles of Asia in search of, well, an extreme experience. Wright takes a pair of easy targets and still makes them into people you know, recognize, and empathize with. And yet he still has the skill and discipline to orchestrate their ultimate plight in a way that dovetails smoothly with his own ends. (Françoise Palleau-Papin's review of Going Native at Frigatezine is essential reading.)

But when falling back on familiar character types, he doesn't draw anything from them that surprises. Liberty, the novel's main character, is one of those passive main characters that are pulled, Candide-style, through the story as opposed to generating the story themselves, but he's not a compelling or interesting enough character to hang an entire bildungsroman narrative upon. And from there outward, it's a checklist of historical-fiction tropes: the idealistic mother who fled from myopic slave-owning parents; the wise surrogate-father farmhand; the cornpone best friend who gets exploded the second he sets boot onto battlefield, et cetera. And an early swipe at fancifulness, involving a scene in an underground lair with a man who proclaims young Liberty a knight, seems in retrospect to be an extract from another work altogether, however entertainingly rendered.

By the end, Wright's obvious powers as a writer are not enough to sustain the narrative. Idealistic Liberty finds himself on a boat to the Bahamas with his batshit maternal grandfather, and the ensuing pages of stylized, loquacious back-and-forth dialogue become simply tedious. All of this stuff is supposed to be funny, I think, but it's just monotonous; I kept thinking about how Deadwood used to do this highfalutin' stuff much better in half the time. It eventually culminates in a lookie-lookie-symbolism! suicide-by-drowning that's off the eye-rolling charts. Tack on a bittersweet-yet-optimistic homecoming coda and voila, finis. If you think you've read it before, well, you probably have.

I'm a fan; I'll be waiting at the local indie bookstore the morning Wright's next one comes out. I just hope he decides to stroll back off the beaten path, where he belongs.

No comments: