Reviews — From the November 2012 issue

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Tom Wolfe is back with Back to Blood (Little, Brown and Company, $30, littlebrown.com) and I have to confess, after wading through this multiculti, multilingual, punnyfunny Miami miasma, that it’s difficult not to cop, or ape, or otherwise mix metaphors in imitation of his style. Wolfe is the greatest master of the . . . ellipsis . . . since Céline, a writer who also transcended class, but who hated minorities. Wolfe loves minorities (he loves them like he loves italics AND exclamatories!). Or maybe that should be majorities, since Miami is probably “the only city in the world where more than one half of all citizens were recent immigrants.” Whites, or “Anglos,” are on the way out—relegated to yacht, golf, and tennis clubs, The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, and I Am Charlotte Simmons. Miami is a city, and Back to Blood a book, of “Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Russians, Israelis . . .”

Nestor Camacho is an American-born Cuban who barely speaks Spanish and barely has a job with the Miami PD’s Marine Patrol. When a billionaire’s schooner floating in the shallows of Biscayne Bay is boarded by a Cuban refugee—a legit Cuban, or, as the americanos on the force refer to him to avoid demotion for profiling, a “Canadian”—Camacho (emphasis on the last two syllables) is ordered to scale the mast to the bosun’s chair and unseat him. Traffic stalls as commuters rubberneck, newscasters idle. Being on a boat, Wolfe reports, is legally synonymous with being in the water, meaning that the refugee is a “wet foot” and can be sent back to Castro. Only if he paddles his way to American soil can he become a “dry foot” and be granted asylum. By apprehending the suspect, Camacho becomes both a hero to the cops and a traidor to his people. His father, the Caudillo: “Through shit you drag the House of Camacho!”

Back to Blood coagulates from there—but feel free to pick your own analogy: the book is as outlandish, or as aesthetically bankrupt, as Art Basel Miami Beach (Chapter 10: “The Super Bowl of the Art World”); as abundant, or as nauseating, as an early-bird buffet for randy Jewish retirees (Chapter 15: “The Yentas”); as confused as the news business (The Miami Herald: “Rope-Climb Cop in ‘Mast-Erful’ Rescue”; El Nuevo Herald: “¡Detenido! ¡A Dieciocho Metros De Libertad!”), or as conflicted as Camacho himself, who, when he’s transferred to the Crime Suppression Unit, is again accused of racism after a video clip surfaces of him busting a crack dealer.

Céline, schméline. Wolfe’s ambition is to become Miami’s Zola (the mobilities of vice) or its Balzac (the staying power of money), though his failure to top the masts of Les Rougon-Macquart and La Comédie humaine is both inevitable and acknowledged. Rather, the admission comes as blame. WASPy Wolfe, in his ninth decade, has become an immigrant too—a literary alien fleeing back to the reigns of the French Napoleons. His Professor Lantier—“a descendant of the prominent de Lantiers of Normandy” but also a Haitian diversity hire at Everglades Global University—explains:

This class was not made up of the brightest bulbs in the chandelier. No classes at Everglades Global University were. The Triumph of the Nineteenth-Century French Novel . . . hah! Balzac was too much for them. He would start a chapter with a three-page description of the interior decoration of a parlor with the aim of bringing out the social position of a family in a concrete way. Sometimes it could be very funny. But the dim bulbs in his class complained of having to look up the names of so much furniture, so many fabrics, faux-velvet curtains, Récamier sofas, Jan van Mekeren floral marquetry cabinets, dining-room tables with aprons of wood carved to imitate fringed tablecloths—too much, too much, all too much—and they drew a total blank on the matter of social position. They didn’t have the faintest awareness that they were part of a social hierarchy themselves.

With Magnificence (W. W. Norton, $25.95, wwnorton.com), Lydia Millet concludes her stupendously loopy, lurid, untitled trilogy about that other beachfront hell, Los Angeles. Reading the first two volumes is as exhilarating as lusting after a stranger. Reading the third is as exhilarating as lusting after your spouse.

Susan Lindley is a secretary for real estate developer T. (the focus of 2008’s How the Dead Dream) and the wife of IRS agent Hal (the focus of 2011’s Ghost Lights). In the first book, T.’s subdivisions threatened the existence of Dipodomys, the endangered, nymphomaniacal kangaroo rat, sending the twentysomething mogul spiraling into a crisis of ecoconsciousness. In the second book, Susan and Hal’s daughter Casey was rendered paraplegic by a car crash, Susan initiated an affair with a fantasy-baseball aficionado, and T. went native on a vacation/spirit-quest to Belize. After Hal caught Susan in flagrante, he wandered off through the rainforests, too, ostensibly to find T. but also—why not?—to find himself (and his own infidelity with a German tourist). Everybody with me?

Magnificence returns the boys to L.A.—T. tanned, Hal in a coffin, having been stabbed to death in a mugging in Belize City. Feeling responsible for her husband’s murder (Hal wouldn’t have gone south were it not for her adultery), Susan copes by smoking dope, and by redecorating a dilapidated Pasadena estate left her by her great-uncle Albert and chock-full of taxidermy: deer, bears, fish, birds, a pygmy rabbit, a skunk, a moose, and, yup, a trophy kangaroo rat. T. couples up with Casey (wheelchair sex!); Susan debases herself with landscaper Ramon (Mexican weed-whacker sex!). When T. decides to dissolve his company and redirect his fortune to philanthropy, he hires Jim, a lawyer in the midst of a dragging divorce. Jim mounts Susan under the insensible surveillance—the glass eyes and laminated ears—of her horny, haruspicated mountings.

If Wolfe’s novels look back to the antique mirrors of the French bourgeoisie, Millet’s can read like Wikipedia recaps of whatever cable original series they could—should—be turned into. The sheer size of her venture ensures its unreality: not everyone’s life involves such extremes of ugly-bumping, betrayal, disability, and loss. But all this exurban plot sprawl is mere flesh on a more serious skeleton: authorial and character discursions on resource depletion, planetary extinction, gender, and genes. Millet’s greatest achievement is to play up the disparity. The reader shares Susan’s shock at the unfairness of her trauma, and might be tempted to sublimate as she does—into zipless liaisons, marijuana, and other green politics. If Millet is leaving us a message, it’s that suffering is a shared inheritance: with big houses come big problems.

Susan’s great-uncle Albert is a fascinating absence, a bachelor doused in Brylcreem who dabbled in Southeast Asian import-export, player-piano collecting, croquet. But in Millet, all men must be converted. T. stops despoiling southern California with office parks, if only for the sake of one lucky rodent; Albert, a onetime safari hunter, stops shooting approved species, if only to perfect the stuffing of all the stuff he wasn’t able to shoot (dodos and auks) for the mantel. It’s left to Susan—and so to all the Bovaries—to clean up male messes, to conserve, desiccate, and stretch what remains of human goodness for posterity:

The men gave their tragedy to everyone else—handed it out like a gift. They gave it to the mammals, the birds and the amphibians. They handed it to whole species of trees, to the oceans and the forests, where her daughter had gone; handed it to the far-flung people who had fewer possessions. Beside them, as they handed it out, stood the wives, hostesses at the gathering—arranging the tables, placing the silver and linen, the fruit and the soup tureens. So gracious, nodding and smiling. Smoothing it all.

From overstuffed Florida to stuffed animals to a woman who stuffed herself. Anna Kavan was a British novelist and storywriter of genius, and a taxidermist of a type: a woman who’d been destroyed by men but self-preserved—with heroin, a pleasurable formaldehyde.

“Kavan” first appeared as the heroine of Let Me Alone (1930), the third novel by Helen Ferguson, later known as Helen Edmonds, earlier known as Helen Woods, born probably in Cannes, probably in 1901. By 1938, after publishing six novels, she’d internalized the discord between her Home Counties realism and her itinerant life, had a psychological break, been institutionalized, and dedicated herself to addiction. She had also come to identify with her most autobiographical, but also most mystical, character, taking Kavan as a pseudonym and then as her official surname. This new life required neither quotation marks nor husbands (both Edmonds and Ferguson had mistreated her); neither children (one died in World War II, another died in infancy, a third was adopted and abandoned) nor parents (her father died young, possibly a suicide; her mother was a vain socialite who may have sexually auditioned her daughter’s first husband). But it did require a new prose style: stripped, brittle-boned, shorn.

In the mid-Forties Kavan met Dr. Karl Theodor Bluth, a physician, writer, and escapee from Nazi Germany. He became a close friend and business adviser (after the war, Kavan earned a living renovating homes in bombed-out Kensington) and helped administer her injections. Most of Kavan’s other friends were gay, including the Welsh author Rhys Davies, who became her amateur editor. Thanks to the Rolleston Committee, tasked by the Ministry of Health in the Twenties with relieving drug dependence throughout the United Kingdom, Kavan’s most reliable dealer was the government itself. But when the vice laws changed in 1965, Kavan was forced into counseling. After Bluth died, she suffered the black market, and stockpiled all the opiates she could, dying in 1968, her head atop the Chinese lacquered box in which she kept her stash. The police, searching her home, claimed they’d recovered enough heroin “to kill the whole street.”

Over the past decade, Kavan’s corpus has been made available again. The most notable rereleases are Asylum Piece (1940), a story collection retelling the author’s first experience of being institutionalized; Sleep Has His House (1948), an account of insomnia; Ice (1967), a post-nuclear-war novel; and Julia and the Bazooka (1970), a compilation of narcotized fantasies. But the newest reprint, I Am Lazarus (Peter Owen, $14.95, peterowen.com), first published in 1945, is the best introduction to Kavan. Its fifteen fictions show the fullness of her career, from febrile impersonations of Eliot and Hardy and the even graver absurdity of mimicking Kafka to her later efforts at making them cell mates.1

1

 Kavan on their mutual konsonant: “Why does the K sound in a name symbolise the struggle of those who try to make themselves at home on a homeless borderland?”

Lazarus allows genuine characters—Dr. Pope, Thomas Bow—to enjoy the company of abstractions like “the adversary” and “advisor,” and establishes London as the capital of a private Mitteleuropa.

Throughout, Kavan’s motif, the imperiled woman, is as inescapable as her setting, the clinic or sanatorium—whitewashed, windowless, almost unfurnished, almost unfurnishable rooms where some days the patients are voluntaries and other days they’re prisoners, even if they’ve committed themselves. Nature itself becomes an inmate, convalesces. From “Palace of Sleep”:

The wind was blowing like mad in the hospital garden. It seemed to know that it was near a mental hospital, and was showing off some crazy tricks of its own, pouncing first one way and then another, and then apparently in all directions at once.

From “Who Has Desired the Sea”:

The late autumn sun came into the ward about two in the afternoon. There wasn’t much strength in the sun which was slow in creeping round the edge of the blackout curtains so that it took a long time to reach the bed by the window.

“A Certain Experience” recounts the impossibility of relating the experience of discharge, as the narrator cannot be certain that the asylum is not rather everything that surrounds it, beyond “the courtyard with its high spiked walls, where shuffling, indistinguishable gangs swept the leaves which the guards always rescattered to be swept again.” “Now I Know Where My Place Is” concerns a grand hotel the narrator either stayed at as a girl or only remembers from a photograph—though it might also be a dream or, as the previous fictions have conditioned us to imagine, yet another institution. “The Blackout” and “Glorious Boys” concern the Blitz—the privations, the darkness. During peace, “asylum” is for the insane. During war, it’s for everyone else.

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