A review of David Goodwillie’s American Subversive that veers off into some really important and complicated and basically unanswerable questions about literature, literary reviews, overstimulation, secret weapons, and 21st century life.
1. Why don’t real lefties bomb and kill? Unless you count the Unabomber—and how can you really?—the white American left hasn’t really blown anything up since the 1970s, when the Weather Underground, who feature prominently in American Subversive, David Goodwillie’s first novel, bombed two dozen government buildings in protest of the Vietnam War. In an excellent, eponymous 2004 documentary about the ‘70s radical group, former members try to explain: “The Vietnam War made us crazy,” says one; another describes how the images from that war and what it meant about America was “knowledge that we just couldn’t handle; it was too big. We didn’t know what to do.” So why hasn’t that happened again? What would it take to turn the white left into hardcore bombers today?
American Subversive is the latest book to take on this interesting question, appealing to a progressive desire for vengeance in the wake of the Reagan-Bush-Gingrich-Cheney revolution. Where were—and where are—the Robin Hoods, the Avengers, the vigilantes of the left? Are progressives just a bunch of pussies? Goodwillie’s novel offers the dirty thrill of imagining that the radical left could be as armed and dangerous as the radical right. It’s not that the book wants outraged progressives to bomb stuff, but it has to ask: What’s it gonna take—and what are you gonna do instead?
2. Parties. Good parties are one of the great joys of Western literature, and particularly of novels that take place in white New York society. The Age of Innocence and The Great Gatsby have them, as do Bright Lights, Big City, Bonfire of the Vanities, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Underworld, and on and on and on.
American Subversive opens with such a party and hosts others along the way. All of them are fun, as the novel breathes deep and easy, running its long fingers through the 30-something world of media/gossip blogger Aidan Cole, who has entered, as he calls it, “the second stage of city living.”
These days we checked our watches, wary of the critical difference between one and three in the morning. These days we agreed with each other more than we used to… And these days we betrayed each other, too. With women, with men, with work. Our close friends—from childhood, from college, from those first anxious years in New York—had moved away or melted into marriage. Our new friends were hungrier, more successful, a bit ruthless. We’d all been here a long time now.
This is the New York City of American Subversive. Welcome to the party.
3. It’s a book about you. Maybe you were at one of these parties. If so, there are references that seem decodable—a Nick Denton here, a Susan Cernek there, some Andres Santo sprinkled in between—or at least so true to type that you can find them, or yourself, or loved and loathed ones, represented. This is one of the essential thrills of the memoir genre—Look who’s on page 43!—that works doubly well in a novel (Wait, is that some cross between me and Daniel Jones?). If so, this book is about you, was written for you, and should be fun.
If you weren’t at that party, you may be the second kind of person the novel is interested in: the white American radical, either a chimera like the novel’s Paige Broderick, who builds bombs, or a member of the broader, very real progressive community driven half-raving mad by American politics over the last few decades, mad and frustrated and ready to do something, anything, to try to reclaim the progressive dream and take our nation back. If that sounds familiar, then this book is about you and was written for you, too.
4. The chapters end well. These chapters are mostly eight or ten pages long, which is an excellent length for a chapter, especially when each chapter makes you want to read the next one. And these do. In fact, they work so well that it gives American Subversive the flavor of a genre thriller, which it is not.
The first chapter ends: “This is Paige Broderick. She’s the one responsible.”
The second chapter: “And before I knew what I was doing or why, I said: yes, I’d like that very much.”
Third chapter: “The line went dead, but her last word hung in the air. As if it didn’t belong.”
Someone is responsible. Someone says yes. Something doesn’t belong. These are all good reasons to keep reading and reasons American Subversive is a swift and effortless read.
Walter Kirn’s recent total diss of Ian McEwan’s Solar is an example of vicious but fair game: Literary stars like McEwan represent the battleground for our larger debate about what literature is, isn’t, should be, shouldn’t. But what’s the point of writing anything but a glowing review of books that blip much smaller on the radar screen? Don’t people know how hard it is to write good books, let alone great ones? Smaller books don’t need complicated musings. They need help competing with Michael Lewis and Rock Band and Fleshbot and Mad Men and Joyce Carol Oates.
The point is that, if we think literature is still worth talking about, every book is part of that debate, which is why reviews of non-blockbuster books should do one of two things: either convincingly shout to the hilltops, “Read this book!” or, in explaining why there’s no shouting, try to find larger truths about literature in a book’s strengths and flaws. Real reviews should be essays—not gladiator thumbs-up/thumbs-down, not stroke jobs or hack jobs on the writers themselves. And that’s the point, a point easily forgotten amidst what it takes to break through the noise in today’s literary marketplace: Literature is not about the writer. It’s about the book, it’s about art, it’s about life.
1. Non-fiction killed the realist novel. Balzac, Dickens, and Dreiser walked a different beat from today’s novelist. Much of the work that is done today by nonfiction was routinely done by fiction in their day; readers not only accepted that, but were thrilled that they were getting such an “authentic” peek into an absinthe-addled slum or a curio shop in London. But today the work of straightforward realism is done by non-fiction writers. We no longer need Crane to take us into war or Zola to take us into the slum because we have memoirists and documentary filmmakers who can tell their own stories in Jarhead or Straight out of Hunters Point. And that shit is real, in an age where authenticity is under siege but still more precious than ever; where readers have become more sophisticated and suspicious; where there is more competition for their attention than ever before.
American Subversive is a realist novel in a world where the realist novel is under siege from every direction; it’s the very rare contemporary realist novel like Clockers or The Poisonwood Bible that can compete with non-fiction—or with fictional film and TV that co-opts nonfiction authenticity, such as The Hurt Locker or The Wire—and such books require a supercollision of linguistic, storytelling, and research virtuosity that even virtuosos like Price and Kingsolver do not consistently have.
2. The 21st century novel needs a secret weapon. American Subversive is ambitious. It wants to tease out ideas in full view like an essay, entertain at a thriller’s pace, engage us deeply with its characters like a play, critique like crackling satire, collide the stark language of cinema with moments of unfurled poetry, document hard reality like sharp nonfiction—all within the fairly traditional storytelling form of the social-realist novel. A novel can do all that, but very few do, and most of these have a secret weapon or two: a postmodern play on genre like The Blind Assassin or The Intuitionist, a funny satirical edge like Money or A Man in Full, a narrator’s voice so unique it simply knocks us back five paces like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao or Motherless Brooklyn—something, in other words, that makes it a not-totally-realist novel anymore and gives it a chance to do the things that no other literary form can do.
It needs this not only because of what has happened with nonfiction and narrative and art but because the competition for our attention is brutal. Books do not exist in a vacuum; the fact that a book is pretty good is no longer a good enough reason to read it. Because when you choose to read one book, you are choosing not to read thousands of other books, not to watch a hundred other movies, nor skim a million other blog posts and articles. You need a reason to do that. Maybe you like novels about radicals and violence, about New York media parties, books about you. Maybe you liked Goodwillie’s memoir; maybe people you know are reading his novel. Maybe all of the above—if so, American Subversive has a secret weapon.
If not, you must decide: With millions of books in the world, and hundreds of thousands being published every year, and so many other forms of storytelling out there, is this novel a better choice than something similar that’s more thrillery, like Little Drummer Girl or 24; more edgy, like Fight Club or American Psycho; more genre bending, like What is the What or Cloud Atlas; more virtuoso-level, like American Pastoral or Black Sunday; more New York-royale like Bonfire or Bright Lights, Big City; more real, like Weather Underground or “The Insurgent’s Tale”; more classic, like The Monkey Wrench Gang or Crime and Punishment; more imaginative, like Oryx and Crake or “The Golden Monica”; more insightful, like The Ticking Is the Bomb or “Why Terrorism Doesn’t Work”; more funny, like Pastoralia or Home Land; or some other novel equipped with some other secret weapon?
As a narrative form, the novel is barreling through a crossroads where it’s choices are to go either bigger or smaller or more genre-oriented than does American Subversive. Bigger, and it veers off into the wild possibilities of fiction that no nonfiction or film can match, but runs a very high risk of seeming like a gimmicky failure (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle versus Special Topics in Calamity Physics?); smaller, and the writer turns poetically inward, burrowing deeper into character and language than other narrative can go, thereby risking irrelevance and lacking a hook for radio interviews but standing a better chance at literature along the lines of Alice Munro. More genre-oriented, and the novel can follow rules—thriller, sci-fi, romance—that restrict it but also guarantee certain expectations, deliverables, pleasures, audiences, etc., while still striving for the LeCarre or Lehane level of good writing. The middle ground is a trap. A novel must be truly great to survive here and compete with all the other media it finds itself up against. That’s why the novel must increasingly ask itself what it can do that nothing else can, or risk the fate that has befallen it: a glut of pretty good but unextraordinary literary books that want it all but struggle to compete with all the other printed media, with film, with art, with games, with life.
This is not anyone’s fault. This is just the way things are. Writers must keep striving to write the ambitious, great books they dream in their mind’s eye when they sit down to write, but they must be prepared to be disappointed when, in the madding crowd of narrative, it turns out the big world doesn’t really need a book if it’s not great enough to be truly important, specialized enough to find its niche, or equipped with a secret weapon. When that happens—and it happens far more often than not—it is time for writers to think about what we want out of writing, out of publishing, out of their lives, and make our decisions accordingly.