The Hare by César Aira

aira cesar hareIs it particularly difficult to write about César Aira, or am I just out of practice?

Either way, I’ve been having an exceptionally hard time composing a post on The Hare. But it’s August 31, officially the last day of a Spanish(-Language) Literature Month that was graciously extended by a whole second month, and I need to do it.

My last post on Aira, on his miracle cures, was not so positive. But The Hare is magnificent. Its plot is superficially similar to that of An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter: a Romantically educated European goes to South America and wants to see Indians. In this case, the main character is Clarke, a naturalist and geographer, and instead of painting the Indians, he wants to talk to them.

Specifically, he wants to talk to them about the Legibrerian Hare, a leporid that’s very shy, but when it does come out, it can fly. The reality of the Legibrerian Hare—and pretty much everything else in the Huilliche world—is hazy. The picaresque journey Clarke will go on in search of the hare, or the other things he’s seeking, will teach him the ultimate lesson of life for the Huilliche and Voroga, the two warring tribes whose story he’s invaded:

Clarke had never perceived so clearly the need for the novelesque in life: it was the only truly useful thing, precisely because it lent weight to the uselessness of everything.

Clarke’s whole life is later determined to be the “kind of thing [that] only happens in novels…but then, novels only happen in reality.”

There’s a lot of good absurdist stuff in here for me, but also a lot of good normal stuff. Clarke makes a young friend and they talk and have adventures. He experiences growth by confiding in others and exploring the world. People fall in love and find their lost loves and find their lost relations—you know, just like happens in any good novel.

Early in the novel, one of the Indians tells an anecdote about their leader. He ends it with a joke: “And also, to be truly spontaneous, one would have to say ‘spontaniety,’ wouldn’t one?” The narrator notes carefully:

The joke was different in Huilliche, of course, which was the language they were speaking in. But it survives the translation.

Does it? One can only wonder. After all, “[b]ooks should never be adapted. As a reader, you start thinking of all the changes they must have made, and you don’t enjoy the book.” And not only is most of the book not actually written in Huilliche, even though pretty much all the dialogue is spoken in Huilliche, but I also of course read an English translation from the Spanish. What was I saying, again? Something about the absurdity in trying to understand what anyone is really saying?

After all, The Hare is a novel, and novels are a pack of lies.

Preliminary thoughts on A Little Life

If you’ve read very much about Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel, A Little Life, over the past few months, there’s a good chance you’ve read about how she really didn’t take to editing. The stories seem proud of this—Yanagihara’s editor thought maybe there was too much difficult material in the book, but she wanted to let her readers have it. And look how successful it’s proved! In your face, editor!

I have no opinion on the matter of the allegedly difficult material, because I haven’t gotten to any of it yet. But I have gotten to a lot of material that’s making it a difficult read for me. None of those stories I mentioned above said anything about Yanagihara taking issue with copyediting, but I don’t know what else to think. Pretty much the only passages I have marked in the novel are flagged for clunkiness, general weirdness, or worse. Some examples:

“[T]hey asked for the bill so they could study it and divide it to the dollar.”

It seems to me this is trying to sound extreme, what with the studying, but then dividing it to the dollar doesn’t seem like much of anything at all. What else would they do, divide it to the nearest $10? The bill for a single dish in a dive restaurant?

On Lispenard Street: “Willem was new enough to the city—he had only lived there a year—to have never heard of the street, which was barely more than an alley, two blocks long and one block south of Canal, and yet JB, who had grown up in Brooklyn, hadn’t heard of it either.”

So, in fact, both Willem and JB are new enough never to have heard of it, because you could live there your whole life and never have heard of it. “And yet” is not the conjunction you were looking for there.

“Willem was liked by everyone and never wanted to make people feel intentionally uncomfortable….”

Intentionally Uncomfortable would be a really good band name.

“(something that, even then, he had only the slightest of interest in)”

I just can’t read “slightest of interest” without my blood pressure going up. Mostly because why? This isn’t expressive of anything, except unprofessionalism. If this is all an artistic statement about the voice of people my own age, in my own socioeconomic class, well, I don’t know what to say other than that I don’t want to read it.

But I don’t think it is that anyway.

The following two quotes appear within two Kindle pageturns of each other:

“[H]e wondered whether they [his mother, grandmother, and aunts] might be condescending to him, or just crazy. Or maybe they had bad taste. How could four women’s judgment differ so profoundly from everyone else’s? Surely the odds of theirs being the correct opinion were not good.

“There’s my brilliant boy,” Yvette would call out whenever he walked into the house.

It had never had to occur to him that she was anything but completely correct.

Now, this could be a radically unreliable form of narration—with free indirect style fluid enough to land on each of several main characters and end up seeming like a genuinely almost-omniscient third person…who then forgot what he told you a minute ago.

But there also isn’t much of anything to make me think it really is that, either. And is that a reason why the narrator would say it “wasn’t so unusual, really” for Willem to wake up alone, and a few short lines later, “[b]ut Jude was always there”? Perhaps that’s just meant to indicate Jude is a sort of background character. Not that he really seems like that.

“Jude was wearing a bright navy sweater that JB could never figure out belonged to him or to Willem….”

See, the reason I said above that I just don’t want to read this is that it clunks. I don’t believe this is the voice of my generation. I believe my generation can hear that clunk. But then I remember this is on the Man Booker long list, which is why I’m reading it.

Add to all this a tendency to have pronouns without actual antecedents that’s just irksome, and my apparently complete inability to put away my mental red pen, and I can’t get anywhere near involved enough in the narrative to actually think much of anything about that, except a general echoing of Lydia Kiesling’s essay in The Millions on the novel. But I share the incredulity some readers seem to have about the big story, even about little bits of the story. If I don’t find the interaction Willem and Jude have with a real estate broker believable, what am I going to think about the abuse later on?

I just don’t know the answer to that question. But I do think an answer is going to have to wait, because there are a lot of novels on this long list and I need to give some others a chance that this one, honestly, might never have with me.

But please, do tell me if you think these are artistic choices. I’m kind of torturing myself over it.

This is the third in a series of posts on the Shadow (Wo)Man Booker Prize. Four friends and I are reading this year’s Man Booker long list ahead of the short list announcement.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

Brethren, you can’t write no book ’bout this. Make me get this straight. You writing book ’bout the Singer, the gangs, the peace treaty. A book on the posses? You know, each one of those is a whole book. What you going write about anyway?

James Marlon Brief History Seven KillingsIt’s a good thing Marlon James doesn’t believe his character, Tristan Phillips, on the limits of the form. A Brief History of Seven Killings is among the better examples of polyphony I’ve read, and James writes an impressive number of limited first-person narrators with significantly and genuinely different voices and dialects, nevermind styles. Not only is it immediately clear which of the dozenish characters available is narrating a chapter, it’s just as clear when one of those characters changes her identity multiple times that it’s still her.

James uses the form to great effect, the plot coming together as each narrator adds a bit of information to the story. One of the narrators, Alex Pierce, is an American journalist who visits Jamaica in the 1970s, hoping to cover the Singer—Bob Marley, that is, who goes almost-unnamed throughout the novel. Eventually, Pierce will uncover a completely different mystery, which just happens to be the mystery of A Brief History of Seven Kilings itself, one in which Bob Marley plays a small yet pervasive role—again, pretty much like he does in A Brief History of Seven Killings itself.

The depth of characterization and strength of the voices cannot be overstated. The mystery is exciting and unraveled excitingly, but the greater pleasure of the novel is simply in listening to Nina Burgess’s thoughts, and Josey Wales’s, and Pierce’s too. Too many to name. James fits them together painstakingly, weaving them around each other to create just the right amount of tension, sadness, and joy.

This is the second in a series of posts on the Shadow (Wo)Man Booker Prize. Four friends and I are reading this year’s Man Booker long list ahead of the short list announcement.

The Green Road by Anne Enright

This is the first in a series of posts on the Shadow (Wo)Man Booker Prize. Four friends and I are reading this year’s Man Booker long list ahead of the short list announcement.

Enright Anne Green RoadA young man who wants to be a priest grows up to be a closeted gay man in 1990s New York, friends and lovers dying all around him of AIDS-related illneses. His sister waits for a mammogram and thinks of her children, her husband, her girlfriends, her mother, and how none of them appreciates her. Their brother is an aid worker in Africa, struggling with his white girlfriend-of-convenience over the dog she wants to keep as a pet but which offends their Muslim staff. Their other sister is a depressed new mother hiding her burgeoning alcoholism from her baby’s father.

And then their mother manipulates them all into going home for Christmas, one last time.

This is a perfectly good example of the genre, but I have read this book before. It’s hard to say what particular interest The Green Road has. There’s nothing really wrong with Anne Enright’s novel, though unoriginality could be considered a failing. It’s perfectly well written; there is competence and a sufficient amount of style to the voice. But the writing isn’t special. The setting isn’t special, the characters aren’t particularly special, and its purpose is unclear. Perhaps it is meant to be a novel of the Irish family living through the millennial boom—but that seems a thin thread to hang the whole book on considering how little of it is really spent contemplating rising real estate prices. Enright spends more energy musing on how fat everyone has become since the 80s, strangely not as a symbol of the American-money-fication of Ireland.

And the economic concerns start to feel tacked on in other ways. At Christmas dinner, when Rosaleen explains that she plans to divvy up the proceeds from the sale of her home among her children, who haven’t amounted to much, it’s almost astonishing that they agree with her. Constance, conspicuously unmentioned by the narrator at this point, has in fact been thinking for most of the novel about how “upjumped” her own husband and his family are, and drives a Lexus. The reader may be skeptical, meanwhile, that Emmett—doctor without borders more at home in Africa than at his mother’s dining table—really feels all that guilty about not having a higher net worth. Hanna has mentioned a mortgage, and while it’s sort of believable coming from Dan, he’s also just gotten engaged to his sugar-daddy-turned-true-love.

What comes after this is still more tenous, as Rosaleen has some kind of transformative experience—or something—and everything ends up okay for a while but then worse than ever and then suddenly rather wrapped up and all about Rosaleen, again. Perhaps the novel should be read more Rosaleen-centrically: it begins and ends with powerful interior moments for her. And everything that comes in between comes ultimately from her. But even when she is present, she seems just barely so, and when she’s present only in thought, even less.

I’m left with a family novel, generically peopled, in generic settings, with utterly generic themes—and a confusion about what I might be missing.

“The operational tool came from the field of publishing.”

In An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, genre is understood as a means to represent the world. Rugendas’s genre is “the physiognomy of nature,” and he believes that if he follows a set of formal rules, his landscape paintings will become accurate representations of the world he observes.

Aira Cesar Miracle CuresThere’s no painting in The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, and it may appear at first glance that there’s no art. But attentive readers may remember there is a performance at the end of the novella—and that it’s meant to construct a representation of reality.

The plot of the novella…well, to be honest I am no longer certain. I read Miracle Cures several weeks ago, and I didn’t care for it—unlike An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter before it or The Hare after it. It seems charming enough, and I believe it’s just a quirk of personal distaste. But the plot’s not all that important, because what’s important is what Dr. Aira thinks is happening, and that’s this: he knows the “miracle cure,” the panacea that can save any life, and he’s finally been induced to use it for the first time, after years of theorizing and mockery.

The miracle cure is quite simple. If, in this world, X is going to die, then the miracle “X lives” is excluded by reality. But what if it weren’t? What if, instead, Dr. Aira rounded up every fact about the universe—alles, was der Fall ist, as it were—and then excluded the ones that excluded X’s living?

Just as Dr. Aira’s theories are getting really out there, (not-Dr.) Aira lays this on us:

[I]t was a titanic task, for the listing of the facts was merely the qualifying round before carrying out the operation itself: the selection of the concomitant facts, tose that have to be set aside in order to create a provisional new Universe in which “something else” could happen and not what was upposed to happen. By the way, these exclusions and the resulting formation of a field that would serve as a different niverse had an antecedent: nothing less than the Novel itself.

Oh. Well then.

That’s not quite the end of (Dr.) Aira’s tricks, and he must go on to dance his own alternate universe into reality to enact the cure. He’s developed specific methods of doing this, and the dance is a formal one, however chaotic it may appear to those watching from the outside. Instead of painting he has movement, and instead of the key elements of a landscape he has all the facts in the universe.

One might have thought the space of representation at his disposal was going to get overcrowded, that it was going to start to get difficult to keep inserting more screens. But this didn’t happen because the space wasn’t exactly the one of the representation but rather of reality itself. In this way, miniaturization led to its own amplification. Like in an individual big bang, space was being created, not getting filled, through the process, hence within each pom-pom an entire Universe was being formed.

(Pom-pom? What? I know.)

There’s too much to really explain here, and explaining it would just be like explaining a joke anyway, and the whole small book is not much more than that (but a pretty elaborate one). And with that out of the way I can start thinking about The Hare instead.

“An order was implicit in the phenomenal revelation of the world…”

I am way behind the times in reading César Aira. I could have worked through a (tiny) shelf of his tiny novellas by now, and perhaps should have considering my love of the form. But I have finaly got under way, with An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter.

rugendas_aldeia-dos-tapuiasThe landscape painter, Johann Moritz Rugendas, is a genre painter. His genre is the landscape, more specifically, “the physiognomy of nature, based on a procedure invented by Humboldt. As you can see from the Wikipedia link above, this part is “real.” Humboldt, of course, is also real, perhaps real-er—Aira has not latched on to his life, requiring of it an episode fit for a novella. I have not read every bit of writing on An Episode in the Life by any means, but I’ve been surprised not to see any of Rugendas’s paintings reproduced elsewhere. Both of these depict Brazil as opposed to Argentina, where An Episode in the Life is set, but one does include Native Americans, others of whom are significant in the novella.

Back to genre. Aira gives a simple and brief disquisition on the value of genre itself as Rugendas and his fellow artist and friend Krause are discussing history and art.

He suggested, hypothetically, that, were all the storytellers to fall silent, nothing would be lost, since the present generation, or those of the future, could experience the events of the past without needing to be told about them, simply by recombining or yielding to the available facts, although, in either case, such action could only be born of a deliberate resolution. And it was even possible that the repetition would be more authentic in the absence of stories. The purpose of storytelling could be better fulfilled by handing down, instead, a set of “tools,” which would enable mankind to reinvent what had happened in the past, with the innocent spontaneity of action. Humanity’s finest accomplishments, everything that deserved to happen again. And the tools would be stylistic. According to this theory, then, art was more useful than discourse.

Rugendas_-_Barbacena_Caminho_para_as_MinasUseful, that is, in “understanding how things were made,” which is, for Rugendas, the purpose of stories.

I don’t know why, but it always seems a bit uncomfortable when writers so successfully meta-analyze not only what they’re doing, but also what the reader is doing. Of course, whether this passage is actually relevant to Aira’s project (whatever that might be—I certainly do not know yet) or only to Rugendas’s remains a mystery to me.

Soon after this, Rugendas has a bit of really terrible luck that will leave him severely disfigured. Essentially, his face is torn up and tentatively pieced back together, resulting in a grotesquerie of misfiring nerves and uncontrolled muscle spasms. Krause cares for him studiously, but has difficulty looking at his face, not because it is ugly but because the tools of Rugendas’s face—the features, the planes, the muscles, the expressions they come together to create—are broken.

To create a story, choose some available facts, follow a few rules about how they can be put together, et voilà. Replace the facts with nonsense and break all the rules, and you are left with a man whose speech does not match his expressions, whose feelings do not match his face. His life is based on the ultimate faithfulness of representing landscapes according to their physiognomy, but his own physiognomy has been altered to make him unreadable.

How the light gets in

“I could see this book working for you. Ignore the hideous blurbs.” It doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, but coming from Tom, a tip like that can get a book to my house, into my hands, and finished* within five days of ever hearing of it. And thus did Nicole read Kathleen Founds’s debut novel (don’t listen to the descriptions [or hideous blurbs] that say it’s a short story collection!), When Mystical Creaures Attack!

Founds When Mystical Creatures Attack“I bought it because it has a recipe for Broccomole Dip. But I think you would enjoy it for other reasons,” he went on to say. Well, yes. (I’m a little concerned about whether he actually ate the broccomole dip.) And what’s not to enjoy? First, we have a Leonard Cohen quote for an epigraph. And then, the first chapter: essays written by a class of schoolchildren to the prompt, “Write a one-page story in which your favorite mystical creature resolves the greatest sociopolitical problem of our time.”

If the prompt itself sounds ridiculous, imagine the treatment it gets from a class full of—is it high school seniors? Could be juniors. But this is more than just silliness. How many things are established in this first “chapter”?

  • The cast of characters
  • The major themes, of interpersonal harms, forgiveness, love, hate, and longing for death/happiness
  • The possibility that the English teacher is not quite right
  • The English teacher’s overwhelming concern with major sociopolitical problems
  • The way her concern with said problems plays out as the themes mentioned above
  • A good idea of the structure of the novel, which is a polyphonic narrative that could be very loosely described as epistolary, and includes all sorts of documents

Pretty good for a journaling prompt, no?

Those documents include writing assignments, actual letters, emails, second-person narrations, short stories written by characters in the novel, reality-show transcripts, agony aunt letters, insane asylum writing exercise, and, yes, recipes. A chapter of recipes. A list like that makes it sound sprawling, or at least messy, and that impression would be wrong. This is a lean little book, and all of this multitude of little items contributes meaningfully to the plot, character development, themes, and overall ambience of the novel. E pluribus unum, right here, and no joke.

The writing is funny, the story is funny, the story is painful, the story is joyous (the story is life). It eventually clearly settles around three major characters, with the English teacher, Ms. Freedman, arguably the primary one. Ms. Freedman’s mother hanged herself when her daughter was four years old, and Ms. Freedman is pretty sure she’s on her way to the same fate. Was what her mother did a choice? Is there another option open to the daughter? Founds doesn’t dance around things here; Freedman is not well, her life is not a nice place to live, and there’s no attempt to leave questions unanswered or rely on any kind of ineffable mystery or half-baked magical realism to wrap up the story. From beginning to end the narrative is a well-oiled machine.

There’s not much more to say, at least not yet, but I haven’t let you know what Founds’s “luminous” writing is like. Spoiler alert: it does not, in fact, glow. The best sample I can give you is also a testament to the tightness of When Mystical Creatures Attack! In what amounts to the second paragraph of the novel, Founds already has a remarkable microcosm of the whole.

How the Unicorn Stabbed Danny Ramirez in the Heart Seven Times, Which Is What He Deserves, for Breaking Up with Me Like That
by Andrea Shylomar

I don’t believe in anything mystical, Ms. Freedman. Not even God. You made us build that diorama of Mount Olympus, and you made us paint that mural with unicorns and butcher birds and sand toads. You said it was to show that boks transport us to different worlds, where there are different rules, and there’s magic in everything. Well what you forgot, Ms. Freedman, is that when you shut the book, you’re back in this world, and the bell is ringing, and wadded up paper is thrown at your head, and Phil Gasher is poking at your crotch with a broken pencil, and Kristi Colimote’s bitchy flunkies climb into your bathroom stall and threaten you with scissors. What you need is a book that takes you out of this world permanently. Which is called a gun, I think.

*And now, officially, written about as well. Although that took a sixth day.

The Death of the Author by Gilbert Adair

Adair Death of the AuthorI discovered Gilbert Adair because he wrote a series of parody-mysteries of famous Agatha Christie works, for example, The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, which, I should say, is hilarious and clever and a toy made to the exact specifications of a locked-room mystery lover with a sense of humor.

But I didn’t realize The Death of the Author would be basically the same kind of mystery. Not a locked-room one, I don’t mean, at least not in the physical sense. But an impossible-murder mystery, of which the locked-room variety is but a subtype.

The novella opens with a meeting between the narrator, Leo Sfax, and a young woman named Astrid. He agrees to something she wants to do, she leaves, and he sits at his computer and begins to type, and tells the reader that at that point, he typed out the four pages she has just read.

The Sfax goes on to narrate his life story starting in childhood, which was spent in pre-War France. During the German occupation, Sfax kept his head down, and he emigrated to the US a few years into the peace. There, he went from shelving and selling books in Greenwich Village to writing them in a fictional New Haven, becoming the darling of elite comparative literature departments throughout the English-speaking world. We find out that Astrid was a graduate student at his university, and that he was not her director but worked closely with her, she falling in love with his Theory—which is, by the way, the Death of the Author. Astrid has recently called a meeting with him, whose purpose he does not know. She proposes writing a biography of Sfax. He agrees, she leaves, and he sits at his computer and begins to type, and tells the reader that at that point, he typed out the forty-one pages she has just read.

One more time. But this time, Sfax says he’s been lying. That stuff about what happened in France, it was a it more unsavory than he’d like anyone to believe. He’s built his life in America, deliciously, propounding a theory that he hopes to use to exculpate himself from authorship of Nazi-tinted writings during his collaborative period. And even more deliciously, the more he tried, with efforts at obscurity, to kill that author, the more he exposed himself to eventual exposure.

The dramatic and literary climax of the novella has, I think, at least two “collapses” that I won’t outline, maybe more. A precious postmodern puzzle-piece, The Death of the Author gave me at least one thing other than the pure pleasure I take in reading such mysteries: the realization that perhaps I like them so much because they are mysteries, just like my beloved Agatha Christies and Dorothy Sayers are mysteries, and like my big book of locked-room mysteries is full of mysteries. Not because of anything profound or fashionable (or fashionably unfashionable?), but for the fun of the puzzle.

Arctic Summer by E.M. Forster

Forster Arctic SummerThe novella-length Arctic Summer by E.M. Forster is not in fact a novella but an unfinished novel. But its abrupt ending is one that fits naturally with the shorter form, and its easily tempting to treat it as a finished whole. At least I will do so, unprepared to do much else, especially with the extremely small knowledge of Forster that I have.

Martin Whitby, British Government bureaucrat, is changing trains on vacation with his wife and mother-in-law, on their way through Switzerland to Italy, when he trips and nearly falls onto the tracks. A fellow Englishman helps him up, and Whitby makes a point of tracking him down later on the train to thank him for, according to Whitby, saving his life. The young man, a certain cadet named March, thinks Whitby is making an awful lot of the thing, and proceeds on an uncomfortable conversation with Whitby about Milan and its surroundings.

Whitby is eager to please—eager to bring order wherever he possibly can, order being his life’s great work and that of his wife—and also eager to appear cultured and knowledgeable about Italy. But he’s unfamiliar with the frescoes March is seeking, ones which, as it turns out, were fashionable to go and see a generation earlier, when Whitby’s mother-in-law made her grand tour of Italy with her own husband. She is able to provide March with particulars, and once it becomes such a topic of conversation among the whole party, they basically invite themselves along on March’s pilgrimage to Tramonta, the medieval castle housing the frescoes.

March, at this point, definitely does not want to go anywhere with the Whitbys—at this point, he even believes Martin acted ungentlemanly by putting a woman in a position of disgrace—and ends up put entirely off his trip to Tramonta. He recounts the affair to his uncle and older brother on his return to England, and his uncle, who is training the brothers up to be real traditional English gentry, approves of young March’s judgment; Whitby is part of a new trend that, according to Mr. Vallumy, refuses to acknowledge the existence of good and evil and chips away at the good, letting evil in the back door, basically.

The boys have been well reared at their uncle’s knee, however, and both possess a visceral aversion even to vague descriptions of a character like Whitby’s. Nonetheless, something possesses Clesant March to call on Whitby when his older brother is about to be sent down from Cambridge; Whitby promised to help him whenever he could, and Clesant completely unexpectedly takes him up on it. But when Whitby and Clesant rush to Cambridge to defend the older March brother, Mr. Vallumy is already there insisting on his guilt—and his disgrace. Here, we see the ugliness of the March version of the right sort of person, and Whitby comes off rather better than usual when he mentally criticizes Mr. Vallumy for taking pride in, but never really loving, his nephews. Enter the abrupt ending, which, admittedly, comes at just the time things are really beginning to seem interesting.

I could talk more about the characters I wish had more to them, had Forster finished the novel. But instead I’d probably better read some of his other work.

A Squeeze of the Hand

If you read enough, you’re bound to find some strange coincidences among the literature you consume—even if you’re not specifically following a quirk or thread of literary history around on purpose. These coincidences can be small and meaningless; last weekend I happened to read the words “waistcoat” and “hazel” (as in the tree) in both Wuthering Heights and The Fellowship of the Ring on the same day. Funny! And sometimes they can be larger and, well, let’s find out if there’s any meaning there either.

I found myself tweeting a while ago the strange occurrence that I was reading back-to-back novels involving men uncomfortable and ultimately unable to give a semen sample in a fertility clinic, in pursuit of IVF treatments. There was something that seemed a little grotesque about it. How bourgeois is every freaking novelist I’m reading that there is a major fear among them of having to masturbate in semi-public? But I think that’s a superficial reaction.

The fear of the fertility clinic. Why does this seem like such a sad thing, above all? Let me begin to examine the two novels in question: The Dog by Joseph O’Neill and Arts & Entertainments by Christopher Beha.

Both are narrated by the male half of the couple trying to conceive. But in neither is a couple really trying to conceive; both are stories of men (gently) coerced (or not) into especial efforts to have a child that the woman wants only as a way of making her happy, not as an end in itself. How does the world react to such men, and the decisions they make?

In The Dog, the narrator, whose name we never learn (we learn that it starts with an X, so I’ll call him that) describes his ex-girlfriend Jenn’s righteous indignation when he first balks at and later completely bails on her plans to have a child. She sits him down for an all-night tirade about exactly what she is owed and why he owes it to her, and though he admits he didn’t much enjoy the experience, and that this is “a kid or kids who, in contradiction to her earlier feelings, Jenn now definitely felt ready to try to have,” and “changed her/our mind about the baby,” he carries the guilt of ending their relationship through the rest of the novel. Jenn’s a lawyer; did they sign a contract promising her a baby?

X explains, long after the breakup, that

[D]uring all those years of trying to do the right thing with and by and for Jenn, I never felt in the right. Always I sensed, close by, the doghouse. Not that I blamed her for this. Even as I understood the doghouse as an outbuilding of the phony coupledom for which surely both of us were responsible, it was clearly a doghouse built by me, with my name on it. Chronic self-misrepresentation and inner absenteeism are inconsistent with the performance of the duties of a loving partner.

But then, so is withholding sex, which is Jenn’s game—not to mention the little problem that she cares less about her actual, existing, living partner than about some beings she has no idea will even like her if they do appear.

For X, refusing to have a baby with Jenn means running away from his whole life, as she (or perhaps her friends) goes on to destroy his reputation, personally and professionally. He voluntarily exiles himself to Dubai, where the antics of a rich(ish) American expat enjoying the emirate’s boom make up the bulk of the events of the novel—and where, ultimately, he decides that the actions he’s taken in life (not limited to but including those with Jenn) amount to something he should be imprisoned for. Okay. As far as anything explicit in the novel goes, the worst thing he’s done is maybe facilitating some tax evasion, but if you’re looking for someone to call that unethical you should find another blog.

In Beha’s novel, narrator Handsome Eddie is a failed actor turned drama teacher, who would be maintaining a reasonable middle-class life with his wife Susan if it weren’t for her almost maniacal desire for children. “I just miss my children…. I know that sounds crazy,” she tells him, “but it’s like they exist out there somewhere—not just the idea of them—and they’re being kept from us.” These kinds of statements, along with the for-Eddie almost unbearable marital stress of strategic (and only strategic) sex, lead the couple tens of thousands of dollars into credit card debt to fund a first round of IVF treatments, which are unsuccessful. They’re broke, but Susan wants to try again, and Eddie decides against his better judgment to sell a decade-old sex tape to fund it (fortunately, he used to date a super hot and now-famous actress).

Most people would probably judge Eddie’s action unethical, though the novel makes clear that the actress was rather happier than not to have the tape out. But he did do it to make Susan’s dream possible, yet she seems to be the most angry with him. She immediately throws him out of the house, as if he’s wronged her in some way, and so begins the main bulk of this novel: a literary romp through the world of reality TV, where the plot of the novel—I mean, the plot of Eddie’s life—I mean, Eddie’s life—is determined by the interest and passions of the audience—I mean God. I’m not being flip here; Beha is brilliant in this book.

But the passions of the audience are against Eddie. His estranged wife, now pregnant with triplets, is lauded by the media and public, and not once called out as the reason behind Eddie’s actions. The fact that she doesn’t have the money to raise triplets (without a reality TV deal) is no reason to criticize her, even though it resulted from her impossible demand to do something very expensive without any realistic idea of how to pay for it (or how it was being paid for). Meanwhile, they hate Eddie no matter what he does, so he resolves to be as bad as possible to get a gig on Susan’s show.

Ultimately, this is Eddie’s salvation. His public disgrace is a complex ritual that ends in his absolution and his reunion with his beloved wife plus three bouncing baby girls. Why Eddie forgives his wife for shutting him out for her entire pregnancy is left, perhaps curiously, unexplained, but then again he never really gets angry with her about it in the first place. Like X in The Dog, Eddie believes he deserves to be punished.

And Susan gets everything she wanted and more. Her statements don’t “sound crazy”; they are crazy, crazy and horrible and certainly enough to send Eddie running screaming like X did, if he weren’t quite so in her thrall I guess. Presumably the explicitly Roman Catholic Susan vowed to stay with Eddie “for richer for poorer,” and they are too poor—considering the physical conditions—to have children. It is only the novel’s deus ex machina, which happily enough is actually meant to be a representation of God, that provides for Susan’s children, who have not only failed to indicate they want to live with her and Eddie at all, but certainly haven’t consented to growing up on reality TV—again, the only way to even pay for their diapers. If Nicole wrote a sequel to this novel, it would be about the triplets’ suit for emancipation in which their damages utterly ruin their parents’ lives.

The question seems less why these men would be uncomfortable sitting in a room waiting to send their sperm off for review, and more why they would take such a long walk down the sperm donor road at all.

Oh, right. Because the deus ex machina of Arts & Entertainments is society itself, and a solidly pro-natalist one.