IMPRINTS 2: Jeff Hobbs, Steven Hall, Joan Didion, Richard Yates, John Gregory Dunn…
You will have heard of Jeff Hobbs, 27-years-old, Yale class of 2002, Delaware born and Brooklyn bred, Bret Easton Ellis protégé, blonde, handsome, dog loving and, with The Tourists, first time novelist. Not a quiet beginning: “A Modern ‘Gatsby’?” was the Los Angeles Times headline. USA Today wrote “’The Tourists’ is your ticket to snide fun in Manhattan.” Blood in the water if ever there was blood in the water.
Or you won’t have heard of Jeff Hobbs at all—debut novelists remain debut novelists, especially if they stay hiding out in West Hollywood before during and after their book release. But Imprint’s has a weakness for first novels: Where else do you get to see the seams and the fuck ups and failed risks and deaf ears and awkward resolutions and panicked interludes, the vanity and the influences and need to be liked so clearly?
As it happens, this sort of young transparency and vulnerability is not just the subtext or meta-subject of The Tourists but the main subject itself. Hobbs’s unnamed narrator is on the brink of thirty, a struggling and low-impact freelance writer in New York, subject to a “jadedly self-aware fading of ambition” and still very much in the grip of his college days at Yale. At the heart of his obsession are three classmates: Ethan Hoevel, a successful gay designer with whom the narrator, though straight, had a junior year affair; David Taylor, former college track star and current hedge fund drone; and Samona Ashley, his achingly-attractive black wife and the object of the narrator’s secret and unrequited love. Imagine any given coupling between these four, and you’ve guessed at least a quarter of the plot.
Though they combine, they cannot connect. Hobbs’s epigraph is drawn from DeLillo’s The Names: “To be a tourist is to escape accountability… You’re able to drift across continents and languages, suspending the operations of sound thought.” Later, Ethan will describe the predicament like so: people, “as long as they keep moving and don’t stop to think, they’re only tourists.”
Each deals with their isolation almost an impossibly archetypal way. Ethan builds, as a senior project, a kind of sculpture in which he takes “the most beautiful and magical of worldly phenomenon—motion—and strip[s] away the beauty and the magic until there’s nothing left but a form—black and smooth and shapeless—that he controls.” The narrator is equally blunt: “the flaw that incapacitated me… was that New York hadn’t taught me yet how to be alone.”
David and Samona will be recognizable to anyone who might have read Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road: he, the young man full of potential in the midst of recognizing his true mediocrity, she, still in love with the man her husband is swiftly leaving behind and still dreaming of a fresh, promise-filled start even as their relationship grows poisonous. Those who might’ve missed the reference are saved on page 154, where the book actually shows up: one of David Taylor’s co-workers is seeking a plot summary in order to talk a girl into sex.
The Tourists is an impossible read in exactly this way: Hobbs cannot let a single character, prop, or scene go by unfreighted, weighing his otherwise real, if sketchy and two-dimensional, characters with ruthlessly schematic concerns. Concerns that as far as revelation and thoroughness are flat or worse: the jock who peaks young, the manipulative artist who cannot love, the woman doomed to settle, and the writer who cannot help but intrude on the lives of those around him. If these people actually exist, let alone have much else to tell us about our own, actually lived lives, I’d be shocked.
More ambitious but remarkably similar in terms of its warts is Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts, another first novel. Where Hobbs has yet to move past Ellis and McInerney and DeLillo, Hall is in thrall to their contemporaries: Paul Auster, Haruki Murakami, and Mark Danielewski, to name three. “Stories are all we’re ever left with in our head or on paper,” Hall writes. “Clever narratives put together from selected facts, legends, well edited tall tales with us in the starring roles.” It is out of this healthy narrative skepticism that Hall writes his novel.
The Raw Shark Texts begins with a wink-and-nod and a virtual blank page. Eric Sanderson wakes up in an unfamiliar room with no memory of who he is or why he’s there. Following notes he evidently left himself, he pieces things back together, to an extent, by talking with a therapist and reading letters his old self mailed to him before his (their?) mind was wiped clean. The Raw Shark Texts is subsequently set up as a noirish mystery, complete with femme fatale: with the help of a mysterious young woman named Scout, Sanderson must reconstruct what happened to him and keep it from happening again.
Two main threads ensue: a backwards looking narrative, pieced together from journals, that tells the story of the first Eric Sanderson’s sojourn on the Greek Island of Naxos with a girlfriend, the pointedly named Clio, and a second narrative that moves from the present forward. As Hall writes, “It isn’t just the past we remember, it’s the future too… only the knife edge of the present is ‘hard’ to any degree. Past and future are things of the mind, and a mind can be changed.”
Hall is obviously obsessed with the slipperiness of narrative and the way words can encompass, shape, and define reality. Thus Sanderson is simultaneously hunting and fleeing from a Ludovician, “an example of one of the many species of purely conceptual fish which swim in the flows of human interaction and the tides of cause and effect.” The Ludovician, in other words, is a word shark, and it is this shark that has already stolen the first Eric Sanderson’s memory and is coming back for seconds.
If this sounds both charming and heavy-handed, it is. In the finale, the actual words on the page begin to migrate, and eventually, take the form of a shark that swims, flipbook style, directly at the reader—a trick cribbed, to good effect, from Danielewski’s House of Leaves. (Also, according to Mark Sarvas, from Jaws.)
Hall, like Hobbs (though The Raw Shark Texts, both in its quality of writing and in the quality of its thought, is far less debut-esque than The Tourists), is hamstrung by his own ideas. The word “meme,” as in “a curved, rising signifier, a black idea fin of momentum and intent cuts through the distance between us in a spray of memes,” may be a useful one, but it is torture in prose. The fitfully told love story between Sanderson and Clio, and to a lesser degree between Sanderson and Scout (who may in fact be Clio), makes up the book’s best passages, though they are also the most naked and undecorated. Hall has big ideas about literature, worthwhile ones too, but they become the altar upon which his novel is sacrificed.
“Technique is easily learned,” writes John Gregory Dunne in a piece on screenwriting called “Tinsel,” collected in his 2006 collection Regards. “But most instructive of all is seeing the bad movies of good directors. Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, Antonioni’s Red Desert, Peckinpah’s Major Dundee, Penn’s The Chase—in each there is a moment or sequence that stands out in such bold relief from the surrounding debris as to make the reasons for its effectiveness clear.” The same could be said, quite easily, for the first novels of talented writers.
This instructive moment, however, is not likely to come to you while reading Regards: Dunne’s too good. One of the unremarked on pleasures of reading his wife, Joan Didion, is that in her early pieces the seams do show; the effort and the reach is evident, if only occasionally. Dunne is, for both better and worse, more polished. Regards is utterly readable, streamlined, charming, convincing, lived, seductive, funny, and touching—short, perhaps, of the heights at which Didion routinely dwells, but comforting in it steadiness.
This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country. The San Bernadino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernadino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the costal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus wind breaks and works on the nerves.
That one’s from “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” Didion’s 1966 piece on the 1964 Lucille Miller spousal murder case. The second is Dunne’s, from a 1983 piece called “Dealings,” about the movie business:
This is a Hollywood story. It begins in Switzerland. It has stopovers in London and New York. It ends in Burbank and in Brentwood Park. Most of it takes place over the telephone. It is about money and it is about power and it is about pride and it is about vanity. It is about a deal. And it is with a deal, a succession of deals, that a motion picture gets off the ground.
In those two paragraphs is everything you need to know about how Didion and Dunne differed, and about what they had in common. With Didion, it is all about place, about atmosphere, about detail. With Dunne, though he shared his wife’s interest in place, it is about nailing it down—not eventually, through the accumulation of fact or the accretion of suspense, but now and with clarity.
Dunne evidently shared his wife’s fascination with detail, and with the right detail, but in his hands the irony was generally wielded playfully. A favored technique was the neutral discovery of a detail, an innocent noun observation, and then its perfectly timed and delayed return as an adjectival clause. About WCI and Steven J. Ross, the company and the man who were in the mid-80’s on the verge of acquiring Time magazine and who did the deal in 1990, Dunne writes “WCI maintained four Gulfstream corporate jets, a Hawker Siddeley, and three helicopters, and there was a fully staffed vacation house in Acapulco for executives and favored movie and recording stars stocked with $24,000 worth of tennis shoes in every size and color.” A few thousand words later, as Dunne is describing the slow capitulation of Richard Munro, then the Time CEO, and Nicholas J. Nicholas, then the Time president, to Steven J. Ross, he writes: “Ross wanted to synergize, and so did Munro and Nicholas, and in the end they were no match for a man who kept $24,000 worth of sneakers in a vacation pad.” That’s pure writerly swagger, and entirely characteristic.
Dunne’s comic timing is a different version of the Didion-trademarked ironic detail: call it the novelist’s adjective, the embellishment on an otherwise straight story. This is the sort of ability we worship in certain friends, and Dunne has that quality about him: he is always present in his own stories, always a character, always bringing his own personal experiences to bear on his subject. This is why anecdotes and themes repeat, over and over, in Regards—Dunne is essentially telling the same story, over and over again, the story of himself and his own life as he lived it.
So, like Hall, no outside to his text—but no inside, either. Dunne understood better than anyone that life off the page always came first. The writing was just putting it down.
Opening image from Falling Man, Richard Drew, 2001