February 19, 2009

The Review

Susan Sontag famously called Jean-Luc Godard a "deliberate destroyer of cinema," and I have no doubt that she meant it as a well-deserved compliment. She welcomed his decidedly unconventional and often nonexistent narrative structure, his refusal to garner the audience's sympathies or fulfill its expectations, and his ability to layer several stories within the context of the larger plot. Pressed, during a debate at Cannes, to admit the need for a beginning, a middle, and an end, Godard responded, "Certainly, but not necessarily in that order.”

Neal Pollack, a significantly less erudite—but occasionally insightful—cultural critic, has argued that "Rock, like literature, must destroy itself."

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Prelude to a Super Airplane, the debut novel by actor/screenwriter/producer Brian Spaeth, seems determined to destroy the novel as an art form. This is an admirable, lofty sentiment, one that calls to mind a select group of writers whose masterpieces drastically changed the literary landscape for generations: Swift, Flaubert, Joyce, Pynchon, David Foster Wallace. The trouble with Mr. Spaeth is that I’m not at all sure about his knowledge of his literary predecessors or his intentions in thoroughly reinventing their models.

His destructive tendencies are not hard to miss, and manifest themselves in two broad categories: tone and technique.

Tone. Mr. Spaeth begins by confessing a total lack of familiarity with the process of writing a novel, and suggests that he hasn’t read too many either. This is fine: most of the world’s best writers never workshopped their stories or studied under more accomplished writers in MFA programs, but this is also moot because I’m prone to believe that the naiveté he displays about the modern novel is a ruse, meant to simultaneously lower the reader’s expectations and positively influence the reader’s overall reaction to the book. He seems to want the reader to enjoy it as a big joke, as something he didn’t try very hard to write and therefore something in which you shouldn’t invest too much intellectual or emotional stock. But once you’ve accepted it on those terms, he wants you to admire its ambition and refreshing approach.

Narrative technique (this a multifaceted onslaught). Mr. Spaeth blatantly flaunts the standards of narrative technique at every opportunity. He is no idiot; he may not be very familiar with the efforts of his contemporaries in the literary world or the landmark novels that influenced their writing, but he has written scripts and certainly understands the conventions of storytelling. Perhaps he finds them unsatisfactory, but I’m inclined to believe that he finds them merely boring.

To wit: though it is no longer innovative for a writer to inject himself, and his reflection on the writing process, into the plot—Diderot did this masterfully in Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, and Martin Amis did it just as masterfully two hundred years later in London Fields—he insists on doing this and even suggests that this might be just the shakeup novels need. (An unspoken comment he seems to be making is that novels are no longer valuable as commodities.)

Every so often, he interrupts the plot to comment on the tiring nature of the writing process, and reminds the reader that he’s a brash novice. He includes transcripts of chat conversations conducted over Facebook, and relates conversations he had about the novel-in-progress with friends and family members. In chapter two he includes a personality quiz that he asks you to fill out right in the book and then scan or photograph and email to him (he puts the email address right in the body of the text) so that he may judge all of the quiz answers submitted to him and, someday, take the person with the best answers out for lunch. These gimmicks reek of the eye-rolling endeavors undertaken by the likes of George Saunders (who, admittedly, has won the Macarthur “Genius” Grant) or the insufferable Tao Lin, but in Mr. Spaeth’s hands they are amusing and do add interesting dimensions to the more ancillary aspects of the plot.

The plot itself surrounds the invention of a forty-seven-story Super Airplane. The narrator is one Brian Spathe, who is undeniably the author, albeit an enhanced, hyperbolized version (hence the spelling change—though he ascribes that to legal concerns). The main action takes place in 2012, just after the election of a decidedly pro-airplane (there is no anti-airplane contingency, instead there is a pro-flying car element) president. Mr. Spaeth (the author) makes a valiant effort at in media res, striving to thrust the reader into the suspense surrounding the Super Airplane’s controversial, closely-watched first flight, much in the same way Homer thrusts the reader right into the thick of Odysseus’s perilous journey home to Penelope. The trouble is that the story is quite sprawling, involving dozens of characters whose lives, we’re slowly shown, will eventually converge on the tarmac beneath the world’s most ridiculously, obscenely large airplane. The plot moves forward through flashbacks and sideways excursions, and with very little velocity. I’m a firm believer in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Creative Writing 101” rules, and the last (#8) is one that Mr. Spaeth would have been wise to abide by:

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

That said, the diversions and plot hiccoughs are, just like the gimmicks and conceits, not only entertaining, but essential to the novel as a whole: they lend it a rather cinematic, episodic aura, and encourage the reader to look for clues and make connections that the author intentionally understates. He trusts the reader, has faith in his or her intelligence, and in an era when a writer like Roth is so skeptical of his reader’s ability to make sense of a metaphor that he repeats and extends it to the point that he—the author—has unintentionally made himself visible in the novel, and so concerned with getting the message across that he slips into a didactic tone, it is nice to know that at least one writer enjoys challenging and engaging and interacting with readers.

Most of all, Prelude to a Super Airplane is funny. Mr. Spaeth has a penchant for sophisticated absurdist humor that cloaks itself in blunt simplicity. The jokes are deadpan and earnest; they seek to poke holes in the thick layers of irony that so many other young writers hold dear. The narrator maintains a delicate balance of quiet self-confidence and self-deprecation, frequently pointing out that he’s “deceptively muscular” and strikingly handsome, but also demonstrating a boyish tendency to fall in love at first sight. He’s tough and beautiful, but he’s also tender and lonely, and struggles to keep each of his base desires (impersonal, widespread adoration on one extreme, and personal companionship on the other) satisfied without neglecting or focusing on either too much. As a narrative technique, I’m suspicious of its value, but the comedic tone the narrator creates with these passages is unarguably crucial.

He’s fond of a brand of repetition that very clearly veers into the realm of the silly. This is not Javier Marías slowly revealing the meaning of the title of his book Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by working it into the narrator’s thoughts and reactions to the world at only the most perfect moments (Tomorrow in the battle think on me…tomorrow in the battle think on me, and fall thy edgeless sword…tomorrow in the battle think on me, and fall thy edgeless sword: despair, and die…despair and die*) Nor is it as simplistically resonant as the aforementioned Vonnegut’s repeated line “So it goes,” in Slaughterhouse Five. It’s an aggressive form of repetition and superfluous explanation. He repeats the same words several times in the span of a few sentences, but rearranges them to define each other. For example:

If this were college, Calvin Stadiums was big man on campus, and Petey Skippen was big man on campus who wasn’t as big as the other man, who was bigger, and named Calvin.

Page 66 of the text, as another example, features the phrase “simple manual labor” three times, “major beverage company” three times, and the word “nagging” four times. He uses the adjectives “raw” and “savage” in succession any time either one of these words might make sense in a particular context, and intentionally (he warns the readers early that he will do so) misuses the ubiquitous and often misused adverb “ironically.”

Mr. Spaeth is also keen to lampoon and allude to certain aspects of contemporary American culture, working in recurring references to a Harry Potter/Twilight type of novel series called Andreanna Marsupial. A basketball player named Petey Skippen is clearly based on Scottie Pippen. The passengers on the imaginary airline’s are assigned individual numbers, and a key character is Passenger 57, the title of a dreadful movie starring Wesley Snipes that—you guessed it—takes place on an airplane. Bruce Willis is a character, and there’s a shamelessly commercial director named Brad Radby, whose style seems to be a combination of the worst aspects of Michael Mann, Ridley Scott, Michael Bay, and—worst of all—Brett Ratner.

Lastly, as a student of the written word, I feel compelled to point out that he’s particularly fond of perversely elongated gerunds (“actoring” and “lawyering” are used countless times) that, despite my indignation at their recurring appearances—or perhaps because of it—do manage to make me smile.

Prelude to a Super Airplane is bombastic, saccharine, convoluted, and self-serving, but it is also slyly affecting and addictive. The reader is aware of each and every gimmick—and of the writer’s presence—at every turn, but rather than turning the reader off, they manage to be endearing. Mr. Spaeth succeeded in destroying the novel, but like Sontag, I believe that an artist's intention is a crucial factor when considering any artistic undertaking, and I’m unconvinced that he intended to destroy it in order rebuild something more magisterial in its ashes. But perhaps I’m deconstructing the book too much. After all, Godard’s films, specifically those that Sontag referred to, are, much like David Lynch’s last few films, best understood and enjoyed when the concepts of linear plot and “traditional technique” are temporarily suspended. Instead I should move my seatback to a reclining position and enjoy the in-flight entertainment for what it is: a more than pleasant way to pass some idle time.

* From Act V of William Shakespeare’s Richard III