Going to See the Elephant, the debut novel by Rodes Fishburne, is a paean to newspapering and young love, by a writer whose ambition is worn lightly on his sleeve. It’s a fun book about being young in a new city, and introduces the reading public to a writer of great promise.Fishburne’s protagonist is Slater Brown, a Midwestern ingénue come to San Francisco in pursuit of literary fame. I can say from experience that he might have been better off staying in the Midwest, but it’s too late: he’s here on page one, and there’s nothing to do now but root for him.
Slater is a dandy of the old school. He spends his first San Francisco evening writing in an Irish bar, taking breaks to sharpen his cedar pencil with a pocketknife. After washing out as a fiction writer – he spends a tortured twelve days at it – he seeks employment at the offices of a local newspaper, the Trumpet, in a three-piece pinstripe suit and a black fedora. Strangely enough, he gets the job.
The rest of the novel details Slater’s rise to local, then national, prominence as the most talented scandal-discoverer in the history of the world, a crack newshound who makes Seymour Hersh look like a paparazzo. The mechanism of Slater’s discoveries is an unlikely confluence of a radio and the city’s bus system (the logistics serve as a mere plot device) – so while he doesn’t actually learn anything about journalism, he does learn a lot about the seedy underside of San Francisco.
This seedy underside is not really seedy – the novel eschews darkness – and bears little resemblance to the actual seedy underside of San Francisco. In fact, what’s interesting about Going to See the Elephant is that the city in the book bears only a passing resemblance to the actual City by the Bay. The landmarks are there – Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown – but Fishburne shows no interest in cataloging SF the way, say, Joyce catalogued Dublin. (Joyce is one of the protagonist’s role models and is brought up frequently.) The neighborhoods are often invented, as are the restaurants and bars. There may be a roman-a-clef aspect to all this, but I couldn’t detect it. The political scene is also oddly different from that of the real SF. The fictional mayor – an overweight, tough-talking bully with a death grip on city power – is more like Boss Tweed than the suave, slick careerists of the past fifteen years who’ve struggled to put their stamp on the city. High society has a nineteenth-century feel: Fishburne’s doyenne, Gloria van der Snoot, owes more to the cravenness of Edith Wharton’s New York than the rough-hewn Westernness of San Francisco money, much of which is still so recently minted.
The disconnect extends to cultural life as well. Fishburne has created a San Francisco that isn’t struggling just to keep one newspaper afloat, but has two major dailies and a slew of minor hangers on (like the Trumpet). His city isn’t in danger of becoming a bedroom community for Silicon Valley, but has such coherent and old-fashioned tastes that thousands of people gather for a highly-touted chess match. The novel is clearly set in the current day – there’s mention of cell phones and a super-computer the size of an iPod – but its aesthetic keeps reaching back fifty years, if not seventy-five. The mayor refers to women as “dames.” Slater sets off a citywide fad for Panama hats. A first date involves rowing a boat – not a kayak – out to Alcatraz. And, strangest of all in this parallel universe, there’s a literary agent so powerful the mayor fears him.
Which brings us to the question: Why reinvent a real city from whole cloth? I kept waiting for these fantastical storylines to justify themselves, to strip back the veneer of San Francisco and show us the city with new eyes. Or, the novel might have employed its ample exaggerations to satirize and illuminate San Francisco’s absurdities. This, however, is not the idea behind Going to See the Elephant. Fantasy here is not just technique, but content.
I suspect most readers fall into one of two camps: those who ask the questions I’m asking, who want the fantastic to justify itself by reinterpreting reality, and those who find such questions fussy. For them fantasy needs no justification, just so long as it never drags. I tend towards the first camp. This novel is clearly in the second.
What Going to See the Elephant achieves is entertaining, energetic, inventive, and fun. In short, it’s a good yarn and a lively debut, yet another reminder that the novel is an infinitely supple form.
See Also: The Rumpus.net