Commentary — August 1, 2011, 10:43 am

The Variety of Influence

The August 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine features an excerpt from Bonnie Nadzam’s forthcoming debut novel, Lamb. We asked Bonnie to tell us about the origins of the book, and how it relates to a certain canonical work.

Sometimes I’m asked what my novel is about, and friends or family in company glance around, silently acknowledging the awkwardness of the answer. Lamb is about a narcissistic man in his fifties whose life is in major transition, and who has to tell himself a new story in order to regain belief in his own decency. The tale he constructs casts him as the savior of a poor and rather dull eleven-year-old girl who is living what he decides is a miserable, impoverished life. He abducts her. She is complicit, even thrilled. They go west. Things happen.

I didn’t set out to write a book about an older man and a young girl. I’d had in mind something like a western and something about abuse, and something that dissected self-deception to a sufficient degree that I might forgive myself and others for some of the more egregious delusions of my youth. These intentions took the form of a destructive friendship between an unattractive, neglected eleven-year-old child and a self-absorbed, lonely, upper-middle-class man. As I imagine is the case for anyone creating a representational work of art, I went through many days of revision and reconsideration in hopes of both offering readers a new perspective on ordinary things and coming to some sort of peace about my particular past. But inevitably, Lamb’s plot evokes an old song. Oh, it’s Lolita, people say. Were you very much influenced by Nabokov?

I’ve never finished Lolita. I’m a third of the way through it right now (my second try). Initially, it worried and disappointed me that people would hear about Lamb and think Lolita. Why not think instead of the more compatible (and more recent, urgent, and culturally relevant) stories from the nightly news? Or of the preteen next door who is already cashing in on her sexuality? Or of the suburban man across the street who shifts in and out of his house, somehow bereft of the resources poured into him in the 1950s and 1960s? Who once believed in Superman and cowboys and astronauts, and who is now not only spiritually, politically, and philosophically bankrupt, but also tragically aware that he is so? I know, though, that readers will find all kinds of things in the book if they read it themselves, including, inevitably, Lolita. The opportunity to share myriad perspectives on a single story or poem — that’s what has always made me love reading and discussing books.

Nabokov’s influence arises from more than a single work, and I can’t help but point out the irony in his true influence on me: The Nabokov book I have read is his Lectures on Don Quixote, a short text that entirely captured my imagination, but that the well-regarded Kirkus Reviews dismissed as amounting to “little more than an acerbic, uninvolved study-guide — for Nabokov fanatics only.” Despite my failure to read Lolita thoroughly, I’ve always respected Nabokov’s evisceration of the common notion that Don Quixote’s desperate wanderings and faith in ideal beauty amount to just a mirthful, entertaining read. The book is at least in part “a crude and cruel catalogue of abuse” (I mean Don Quixote, not Lolita), and I admire Nabokov’s articulation of how it could nevertheless become such a beloved work in the western canon. Don Quixote, he writes, “is a kind of treatise about how meaning gets into things and lives. It is a book about enchantment, the inappropriateness of enchantment in a disenchanted world.”

After picking up the apathetic Tommie in the section of Lamb excerpted as “The Losing End” in Harper’s, David Lamb spends a great deal of energy explaining to his new and willing protégé what she has missed out on by being born in the 1990s. “In 1952,” he tells her, “the U.S. government spent about 68 billion dollars, total.” At first, she’s uninspired by his lectures. “There isn’t a wild place left on the planet for you,” he tells her. “There isn’t a code of decency or manners left for you to break. And what do you do about it? You shrug.” Lamb vows to show her what’s left of the imagined America he’s been describing. He plays with the child not because he is a predator, but because he is himself a child; his fantasies of life as a cowboy, of entitlement and adventure, have eclipsed what should be responsible adulthood, only to hurt all those he claims to love. It was that kind of hurt — and the despair of realizing I’ve caused as much as I’ve received — that most influenced the shape of my book.

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More from Bonnie Nadzam:

From the August 2011 issue

The losing end

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I sat in a taxi with Emma and her son, Stak, all three bodies muscled into the rear seat, and the boy checked the driver’s I.D. and immediately began to speak to the man in an unrecognizable language.

I conferred quietly with Emma, who said he was studying Pashto, privately, in his spare time. Afghani, she said, to enlighten me further.

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