Read-in-Progress: William T. Vollmann, Europe Central

While I admire sprawling, convention-defying novels, I don’t necessarily think they’re goodEurope Central isn’t necessarily good.

I probably should have guessed that Vollmann was a comp lit studentEurope Central skims the surface of German and Soviet historical and artistic currents in a way that suggests breadth, not depth, is the goal. And those footnotes! Especially in a novel, they’re a way of showing off your work. But in fiction, you shouldn’t show your work; you should bury your work, so that the illusion only breaks when the reader comes up for air. I will grant that, theoretically, a footnoted novel could be a great work of art, but it’s as much of a distraction for me as an author who toggles between dialect and textbook English.

I’m gonna finish, but: it’s a throwaway. National Book Award be damned.

The Centennial: May 7, 1915

Eran had imported two other calendars to his Google account. One was UMN’s academic calendar. The end of the week glowed neon pink: “Last day of Spring 2015 instruction.” Eran had no idea what he was doing that summer, but he was already planning his first post-teaching ice cream.

The other listed key dates in the centennial of World War I. Sepia-toned blocks, paralleling the quieter period of early 1915, were scattered sparsely among the weeks. The transports had become less frequent, and therefore less predictable – but no less intense. After late April’s transport to the beginning of the Armenian genocide, he had canceled class for a feigned flu and watched reruns of WKRP in Cincinnati all day.

Mildred had rolled over to talk about summer plans. She had been denied a summer research fellowship. She hadn’t officially switched her advisor to Xiaoyu yet, but she had told Xiaoyu about Stefan’s Hawaiian misadventure; the story had made the rounds, and had ended up tainting his students as well as him. The department had awarded the money to one of Xiaoyu’s official advisees. Eran hadn’t bothered to apply. He didn’t know what he would do, or what he wanted to do.

“So I’m going back to California,” Mildred said. “I’m thinking I’ll pick up a coding job while I’m there.”

“You’re going to end up driving for Uber.”

“I’ll be coding for Uber, thank you very much. What about you?”

Eran shrugged. “Cam said her old office has openings for temps this summer. She could put in a good word. Apparently they love her over there.”

Mildred glanced around at the remodeled patio. “Obviously they pay well. Must be nice to have upwardly mobile relatives.”

“Don’t you?”

“I have the kind of relatives who think I need to pull myself up by my bootstraps.”

“But you already did, Stanford grad.”

“Yeah, but they want me to keep going, even when I’d just like an assist.”


The torpedo was away. Hans – Eran remembered him, and knew what was about to happen – practically levitated with excitement. From the first sighting, to the moment Captain Schwieger decisively declared, It’s not many ships, it’s one ship, the entire afternoon had been historic. In Hans’s own memoirs, he thought, he would identify this afternoon as the one that led to his becoming head of the imperial navy.

(Eran spared a moment of sympathy for Hans, whose memoirs, if ever written, would have to take a different tack.)

The distant ship, Raimund reported, suddenly stopped. Moments later, the muffled boom reverberated off the hull. Hans flinched.

There’s a second explosion, Raimund announced. And moments later, another boom. Hans concentrated: had they launched two torpedoes? He didn’t dare ask.

She’s heeling over.

How many people, do you think? Hans whispered aloud. The captain swept his eyes in Hans’s direction. Hans held his tongue.

“Was that one of them?” Mildred asked. She had gone still, intent, as she did when she found her thesis. “You went fuzzy there.”

“Sinking of the Lusitania.”

“That’s right, it’s the anniversary.” Mildred offered a moment of silence. “What was it like?”

“German perspective. Good, I guess? I didn’t have to see anyone die.”

“But they died anyway.”

Yes, they did.

May 7, 1915: The German U-boat U-20 sinks the RMS Lusitania off the coast of Ireland, killing nearly 1,200 people.

Abandonment Issues: Damages

The moment I realized Breaking Bad sucked was Walter White’s first line of dialogue:

My name is Walter Hartwell White. I live at 308 Negra Arroyo Lane, Albuquerque, New Mexico. 87104. To all law enforcement entities, this is not an admission of guilt. I am speaking to my family now.

The series’s stated mission of turning Mr. Chips into Scarface doesn’t work: he was already Scarface. He thought about the cops before he thought about his family. There was no journey to go on.

I have two problems with anti-heroes in television. One is that, when it comes to TV, I want mostly comfort food. Books and movies are where I look for depth, complexity, and experiment. In TV I just want a good hang. Anti-heroes don’t provide that; they eat all the Pringles and let the cat out.

The second problem is that TV anti-heroes are often an excuse for lazy writing. I’m not sure why this is. Either the writers’ room starts chortling at its own trangressions and forgets to create characters, or the network demands splashy, teaseable moments and the writers sell out their characters in acquiescence. Either way, the pilot of Damages features the most conventionally hateful opening sequence I’ve run across. A teary, bloody, haphazardly clad Ellen (Rose Byrne) runs from an elevator into the streets of New York. Later, in an interview room, a male detective sneers about Byrne’s dishevelment. A defendant lowballs a settlement offer, to which Glenn Close’s Patty responds with a smug, “They don’t have the stomach for a verdict.” Patty lies about the status of the jury’s deliberation, manipulating the defendants into an exorbitant payout (but apparently the defendants’ actions killed children, whose stories Close trots out opportunistically – so I guess it’s okay). These scenes don’t even attempt to imagine the characters as human beings. They use sensationalism and tired dialogue to shorthand Patty as a badass and Ellen as a vulnerable innocent. As a result, neither Close nor Byrne seems to bring their A-game, since it’s hack work. Close is on the steely autopilot that seems the default mode of every CBS-crime-drama investigator. Byrne just sort of shows up.

My editing brain kicked in to wonder how Damages could have gotten off on a better foot. Ellen declines an interview with Patty because it conflicts with her sister’s wedding, but then mopes about the lost opportunity. What if she were at peace with her decision, knowing there would be other opportunities down the road? Patty becomes a cartoon character who stalks Ellen at the wedding because she’s turned on by being turned down. What if she actually saw an asset in Ellen? I found myself retooling Damages as The Veronica Mars and Irina Derevko Legal Hour – Ellen less the naïf and more the hypercompetent tyro who realizes she’s in over her heard, Patty the brash negotiator who sees no conflict between cracking skulls on the job and having a warm, satisfying personal life.

Possibly this is what the show becomes. The pilot doesn’t inspire me to find out. I watched about 15 minutes of Damages before I had to take a break, and the prospect of finishing it off is like a special form of torture. Why watch entertainment if you don’t enjoy it? I’m going back to Due South.

Abandonment Issues: Helen Simonson, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

Look, I watched every episode of As Time Goes By and To the Manor Born, and I have a complete set of Foyle’s War on DVD. I must, by necessity, cop to Anglophilia. However, even I have my limit, and Major Pettigrew is it.

As he lit the candle to warm the oil and took his leather case of cleaning implements out of the drawer, he felt much more cheerful. He had only to strip the gun down and work at it piece by piece until it was rebuilt just the way it was intended to be. He made a mental note to allow himself one hour a day for the project and he felt immediately the sense of calm that comes from having a well-designed routine.

The gun mentioned above is one of a matched heirloom pair; the other belonged to Major Pettigrew’s late brother, whose money-grubbing widow and daughter want to sell the pair off. Major Pettigrew is aghast. Heirlooms shouldn’t leave the family. He begins scheming to get his hands on the other gun. But really…aghast? THEY’RE GUNS.

Pettigrew isn’t a character; he’s a fetish object for people who love stolid elderly Englishmen. It’s great that he breaks out of his mold by falling for the age-appropriate Pakistani shopkeeper, but really – THEY’RE GUNS.

The guns are just the straw that broke the camel’s back. This, from Pettigrew’s youthful courtship of his late wife, Nancy:

He had explained to her, very patiently, that keeping one’s name and estate going was an act of love.

“If we just keep dividing things up, each generation more people demanding their share of the goodies, it just all vanishes as if it never mattered.”

“It’s about redistributing the wealth,” she had argued.

“No, it’s about the Pettigrew name dying out; about forgetting my father and his father before him. It’s about the selfishness of the current generation destroying the remembrance of the past. No one understands stewardship anymore.”

“You are so adorable when you’re being so damn conservative and uptight!” She laughed.

Arguments in favor of patrimony aren’t gonna endear a character to me. If, in its first hundred pages, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand had been a different kind of book – more thoughtful, less high-concept (intercultural love!) and England-porn-y – I might be inclined to stick around to see whether the major changes his tune. But it wasn’t, so I’m not.

Roundup: Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis; O. E. Rølvaag, Peder Victorious

Neither was terrible; neither made the shelf. Narcopolis has a great device at the end where the narrator begins sorting through Dimple’s papers. It’s like Anthony Swofford’s opening his ruck in Jarhead, only it doesn’t suck. But, as is maybe appropriate for a story about drugs, the whole book floats by in a haze and doesn’t amount to much.

As for Peder Victorious When Beret went into a rage about Peder’s theater group and bad sex poetry, well, that just reminds me why I didn’t like her in the first place. The fact that her dead husband talks her down from the ledge (by reminding her of their youthful booty calls, no less) doesn’t make up for it. I won’t be reading the third part of this trilogy.

Next up: William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central.

The Centennial: April 22, 1915

Spring had been lazy, without consequences. Stefan approved an outline and booklist that Eran immediately scrapped and rewrote. Heat came and went, unable to settle in. Green appeared.

The transports were nothing to speak of. A skirmish here, a Parliament session there, and there had been a peaceful, starlit night in Belgium, the first gentle evening of spring.

“I’ve got a meeting with Stefan next week,” Kyle said. “See if he still wants to be my advisor. If I ever come back.”

“Want me to put in a good word?”

“Nah. To be honest, I’m not sure I want to keep working with him.”

Kyle had wanted to get out of the house, but Ian and Cam didn’t want a junkie poking around in their baby’s crib. (Although Eran suspected the real reason was that they, like all reputable yuppies, had an insecure stash of Percocet in their bathroom.) So they were at Chatterbox – Minneapolis; Eran had insisted on crossing the river – playing an old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

“Fucking tanks.” Kyle made as if to throw his controller down, remembering only at the last second that it wasn’t his.

“Who else would you work with?”

“I don’t know. Doesn’t matter. The department has to give me something. I mean, I’m trying here.”

Kyle was doomed. Passively bored, unwilling to plan, unwilling to participate, lying around waiting for someone to fix it. He had willpower from circumstance: Oops, I got in deeper than I wanted, but I’m not really an addict. It would dissolve with time. Nothing would happen, as it had before. What’ll it hurt? Just one shot. The only question was: surprise overdose or lingering decay?

Eran spared a moment of sympathy for Kyle’s parents, who would not take the loss of their only child well.

“I think

Kaspar rubbed his shoulders with the heels of his hands. Hauling canister after canister to the line, by hand, had turned his entire body into a knot. He arced toward the opposing line, tensed as if to smite them with the ache.

The wind? he asked.

Not yet, said the other soldier. Eran couldn’t divine his name.

Kaspar kept watch, and the sunlight slowly dimmed.

What would it do? They had all heard stories. Some were afraid. Some beat their chests and declared that Germany would by such means win the war. Kaspar did either, depending on which attitude prevailed among the others.

It’s the wind. Now.

Kaspar opened the canister. A green cloud wafted out, taking a leisurely course toward their opponents. But puffs of wind knocked arcs and segments away from the mass. Kaspar wondered if he could adjust the canister to direct the flow. He leaned in. He breathed in. He regretted it.

He was down on his knees, coughing until he retched, seeing red. Now the ache was to push the gas out, to pull air in. He couldn’t seem to get any. Eran, knowing the consequences of staying low in the cloud, willed Kaspar to rise.

The other soldier helped Kaspar to his feet, They staggered away from the canister. Kaspar thought: But what’s going to happen to them?

        you should stay with Eran. At least until you’re back into the routine.”

“Yeah? You think?” Kyle died again. He had just missed the pizza wedge and fallen onto a Foot. “I dunno. I’d rather go work in a bookstore.”

It was Eran’s turn. He took the controller. “Your funeral.”

April 22, 1915: The Second Battle of Ypres begins. German forces opened the battle by releasing chlorine gas, in the first use of gas on the Western Front.

Read-in-Progress: O. E. Rølvaag, Peder Victorious

Like Summit Avenue or the North Woods, Giants in the Earth has always seemed quintessentially Minnesotan to this Michigan transplant. It’s not a book that I ever saw in my hometown, but I routinely run across it in the Twin Cities. In my first year here, I picked it up at a library book sale; upon reading it, I thought that Rølvaag’s prairie seemed intriguingly hostile compared to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s, that Beret was awful and Per Hansa an idiot. I haven’t re-read it, but it has kept its place on my shelf.

Peder Victorious is the second book in the Giants trilogy, and I’m not enjoying it nearly as much. I’m still not a Beret fan, but her angst is understandable given that she’s trying to hold the farm and the family together on her own, and is sidelined by the community due to her double-X chromosomes. But the bigger problem is Peder himself. His boy-hero is thus far a debit rather than an asset. I’m allergic specifically to books in which a boy is constantly chopping at the tether his mother placed on him – Nancy Atherton’s execrable Aunt Dimity series being the ur-allergen. Rølvaag understands that Peder still respects his mother, but it’s still deeply frustrating to read. I don’t know what the trilogy’s third book is about, but I don’t think I’m going to read it.

Rølvaag was a professor of Norwegian at St. Olaf College, and his son Karl was a governor of Minnesota.