Orient, Christopher Bollen – A Review.

As we drive out of the city and into the suburban village of Orient, it might be that cool, clinical score that Thomas Newman provided for American Beauty (1999) that provides a soundtrack for the opening of Orient. Mills Chevern, a nineteen year old foster ‘child’, is arriving into Orient village on Long Island ‘mostly innocent’. Whatever your standing on prologues, a 10 page first-person prologue is the only time Mills gives his own account of what precedes in the next 590 pages. Mills is an outsider, outlier, a suspect before he is suspected as he asks in the prologue “what seems lost, In he growing storm of blame, is how I got there in the first place.” In a post, a couple of weeks ago, a precedent of this review in a way, I asked what is happening to the now not-so-comfortable lives of the suburban middle classes. There seems to be a return to a post-war kind of realism. We know who they are, but we don’t know what they mean in this post-recessional, post-postmodern age.

Mill is adopted by Paul Benchley, a long-time bachelor and resident of Orient. You wonder if anybody can be technically fostered at the age of nineteen, which the Orient community greets with a whispering frenzy on the day of Pam Muldoon’s garden party. The Muldoons are established Orientites, and In our close-knit villages we all know these locals who seem to hold a powerful nexus in their communities.

Not long after Mills’ arrival, deaths happen. It’s a foreboding atmosphere for Mills and the reader, and he is immediately one of the suspects. Who’s America is this? There are certainly elements of realism, where early modern Fitzgerald meets hypermodern Franzen. If, at the end of Franzen’s prologue to Freedom (2010), as the neighbours watch the dissolution of the afflicted Berglunds, “they just don’t know how to live yet,” Orient’s answer would be a much more cynical one than Freedom eventually offers. Like Freedom it is a long book, and although Orient has been eschewed by some as a thriller, there are a steady succession of ‘gripping’ events, but it would be unfair to linchpin it as a thriller. Instead Bollen builds up the drama at a sustained rate, increasing the suspicion and intensity. Mills is already in too deep in a world that is not made for him; the family world, the constant of Orient that is family, and as Mills is drawn into it, it’s apparent that he is bringing the unsettling storm with him from the city. There is a threat underlying the gleaming facade of American family life, and they’re desperately trying to eradicate it before they get eradicated. Away from the thrilling aspect, this is the real subject of Orient – ­ family.

Bollen uses Paul Virilio’s quote “The invention of a ship is also the invention of the shipwreck” as an epigraph. I’ve not read many books where the epigraph seems to frame the book so aptly, and the ensuing chaos that follows as Orient begins to fall apart. Orientation is ironically central to Orient; maps, geography and the conflict within it. Where does the conflict come from? Typically, everything points toward the nineteen year old orphan, and all his differences to the rigid straitlaced Orientites. At first, and echoing those films of the late nineties, there are homoerotic undercurrents, as Mills makes an advance on the Muldoon’s son Tommy. In the way that American Beauty did, it becomes something like the fantasy of the other that these rigid structures do not allow, the object of blame, and Mills is that. He is not just the hatred and the phobia, he is also the desire and the wonder of the other. “Tommy had taken him for some kind of street hustler, with his earring and his city background, and his trip out here under the charitable wing of an upstanding neighbour like Paul Benchley.” But then there is the disappointment, that these people we so firmly believe are different, are the reasons for our downfalls, are more similar than different, regardless of skin colour, background, affluence. It’s as if hate is the stock response. Mills is the provocateur without being provocative, a catalyst against everything that Orient is trying to preserve – “He felt suffocated by the mother in front of him and embarrassed by Paul’s display of protection,” as he himself is uncomfortable in this stable environment, one of the few times Bollen lets us inside Mills’ head.

Western liberalism seems to have a tag-line: how could this ever happen to us,and that’s what the murders on Orient do. As Bollen continues to dismantle Orient and many western myths as they search for the reason why (artists, terrorists, gays are all part of the blame), it is not the enemy within, but the enemy we create ourselves to cover up own fallacies. No matter what the derivation of the word ‘homicide’ is, it certainly sounds like it features the word ‘home’. As our western nations continue their wars of imperalisation, this seeps down into the psyche as the problem abroad covers up the one at home. As Tommy observes, America must be a superpower if, even when it loses its wars, it still remains a superpower.

Bollen asks Virilio-esque questions from his characters, “When do the defense measures of a paranoid country become their own agents of self-destruction?” The answer to that question would be that it seems to be happening. Beth, a one-time artist, and some-time mother strikes up a kinship with Mills as they investigate the murders, is married to a Romanian-emigre artist. By looking online, she diagnoses herself with Neurasthenia:
“At the bottom of the entry, a donning footnote: Americans were said to be particularly prone to neurasthenia, which resulted in the nickname Americanitis.” We self-diagnose ourselves with our own problems – we are creating the diseases we are trying to battle, like poverty and terorism. Beth is pregnant at the start of the novel, and is still pregnant at the end of it. Bollen seems slightly cynical of motherhood, but it is as if Beth is trying to delay the gestation and the arrival of a child into this world.

For all our beliefs in technology, how it is enhancing the world, for all our myths of connectedness that it brings, globalisation is the creator and the antithesis of it all, despite what its name implies. Beth is overriden by her motherly and creative instincts to Mills, how she wants to connect in a natural way but can’t,

One was to mother him, to buy him lunch or simply press her palms to his forehead. The other was to paint him…It had been so long since she had felt this way – inspired. She sped east on Main Road, racing toward the tip, afraid at any minute that she’d lose the sensation, this happiness for the company of a stranger who reminded her why she’d once enjoyed painting strangers in the first place. To love them, to – that horrible technological term now ruined for all time – connect (Bollen’s italics).

Only connect, which was of course central to Forster’s (1910) novel about the contrasting lives of social classes, it is ratcheted up from Howards End  and the homage to it by Zadie Smith (On Beauty, 2008). There is the sense of the new and the old in Orient, the conflicts of the city and its outskirts, art and the technological, and ironically in Bollen’s style, the conflict of the literary and the genre. His multi-layered narratives are as if to try and make these characters ‘live in fragments no longer’.

If the invention of the ship also means the invention of the shipwreck it also means the invention of a lot of similes and metaphors for Bollen to use. His prose really is enviable at times with a skill both for the polemical and the poetical: take this from the prologue “Each window was flooded with the reflection of water,” – superb. Yes, Orient is surrounded by water, and although geography is more important to Orient to any other book i’ve read this year, you can sometimes feel yourself drowning in the constant imagery of water and the elements that seem to occur on every other page. With this diverse cast of characters and subplots, you do sometimes feel that it is what is holding it together. But only rarely does the structure keep, and Bollen, to his own skill keeps it going.

This is a remarkable achievement though; an immensely satisfying experience by an immensely skilful writer. As there are elements of genre fiction, Bollen typically uses certain tropes of it, and maybe Bollen should be wary of not becoming a Joyce Carol Oates mash-up of the literary and the genre fictions, because he is an artist with potential for great successes. Many will not begrudge him though if he does.

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since, said Nick Carraway, the eponymous narrator of The Great Gatsby (1925). How the residents of Orient need that old fashioned, parental advice now.

Orient (609 pp.) by Christopher Bollen is released in April 2015 (£16.99 rrp.). Thank you to Simon & Schuster for providing a review copy

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Modern Day Marvels

If you have not seen American Beauty or Fight Club and do not wish to have the endings spoiled, then it would be advisable to watch them before reading this.

Midlife crisis: an easily applied term to any middle aged male of thinning hair who spontaneously buys a bright red sports car. That is probably what made Kevin Spacey the perfect (or unperfect person) to play Lester Burnham, a man seemingly going through the motions above. His droll, drab voice-over introduces you to his droll, drab existence as an advertising executive in middle class suburban America. Crisis itself is though seems to be the key word of our times.

Everything seems to be in crisis. In this material world everything about Burnham’s existence is grey, beige, lifeless – material; his house that he shares with his wife Carolyn (Annette Benning) is a dull mixture of creams and greys, and indeed she remarks in her job as a realtor trying to shift a house that is anything but what she says it palatially isn’t “a simple cream could lighten things up”, stood in a cream suit that does not lighten anything up.

The film’s narrative and Lester’s crisis is driven by the arrival of his daughter, Jane’s (Thora Birch) friend Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), as he watches a cheerleading sequence (in Chaplin-esque hats), that begins several fantasies of Lester’s involving Angela, and the film’s key motif – vibrant, red petals. Many allusions have been made to Nabokov’s Lolita and Dolores Haze, and whilst she represents the prohibited, repressed fantasy of a middle aged man, she is also perhaps a hark back to the age this film’s characters are trying to live. The age when advertising was an exciting, and believable venture; when white middle class American’s were the government’s people to lead the country forward, and not the varied, and diverse ethnicities and orientations that Carolyn shows round her house; when Coca Cola was becoming the worlds most prevalent and ubiqitous company, but a benevolent, representative one; the age when America and American’s, and even Britain had a true belief in their country and their principles.

Angela Hayes is not the only object of desire as Lester’s daughter Jane is continually filmed by her new neighbour, Ricky (Wes Bently) on his cam recorder. Ricky lives with his passive mother Barbara (Allison Jarney) and Bigoted ex-marine Col.Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper), who displays his attitude to all when he meets a gay couple who live on the street (“we’re partners” they say to Frank on the door who replys with “so what’s your business?”).

And so the Burnham’s comfortable suburban life they’ve forged for themselves begins to implode as Carolyn catches Lester masturbating in bed, off one of his many fantasies about Angela. American Beauty echoes the films of its time in this respect, particularly Fight Club (1999, David Fincher), as middle aged, middle class men questioning their existence bluntly tell their bosses they no longer want their jobs, using blackmailing powers to secure a good pay-off. Lester takes a job at a fast-food restaurant.

Rather than it being life changing decisions that affect the Burnham’s that some have noted (if anything they just become more immersed in the world they live in; Lester joining Mr Smiley’s, a stand in for McDonald’s if anything, but he is just lower in the chain) they submit to their prohibited fantasies. It is difficult to determine how cynical Mendes is being of fantasies on Freudianism, like Nabokov in Lolita was. Jane, who now seems so far removed from the nuclear family that American Beauty seems so intensely investigative of, finally begins a romantic affair with Ricky, about the time his relationship with Lester is developing. Ricky, who is obssessed with home footage (as if a precedent for the imminent, internet, youtube age) and filming Jane, shows Jane one of his videos, what he believes is the most beautiful piece of camcorder footage he has filmed – a paper bag floating in the wind. It is here that Jane submits to Ricky, and realises him for what he is. Not the weirdo, or asshole voyeur, but a man obssesed with finding beauty in his own way, tired of the grand movie projects he has undoubtedly seen in the media saturated age (Ricky’s room is like a black and white negative, filled with video tapes, and it’s the film with the plastic bag, that is one of the few pieces of colour that the characters watch, the utter banality of it rendered in colour. Television features a lot in American Beauty, but most of them are black and white images).Jane’s fantasy, like most other teenagers is to be beautiful, and the television and films, are the modes that are seen as beautifying, but here she has found a man and a medium that makes her beautiful for what she is, as the film is concerned with the typical archetype of beauty in Angela – a young, submissive blond nymph.

It is not just the Burnham’s who are submitting to their fantasies and projections. Col. Fitts is becoming concerned with his son, Ricky’s, behaviour. Going through his possessions (an inversion of what Ricky does to his possessions when finds the Nazi plate), he finds footage of Lester working out in his garage, a chance happening after he had been filming Jane. From this Col. Fitts deduces that his son is gay. As he waits for him in his bedroom, after Ricky has returned from Lester’s, and again, where Fitts mistakenly assumed that his son was performing an act of fellatio on Lester. Fitt’s hits his son, when Ricky baits him with a fake confession, and can embark on his on voyage of freedom with Jane to New York. Angela denounces this and in doing so Ricky uncovers her own primordial fear – the she is ‘ordinary’. She is no beauty, she uses friends like Jane to boost her  image. The next shot is of Angela, sat on the stairs viewed through the banister, evoking the recurrent image of imprisonment in the film. She is now trapped and condemned to this idea of beauty that she thinks she has forged, but rather what has been cultivated by those around her. She really is Low on the dotted line.

It is the revelatory, and maybe slightly cheap, fantasy of Fitts that brings the biggest shock. As Lester is doing pull-ups in his garage (mimicking the self-satisfying, and gratifying masturbatory action we see of Lester at the beginning of the film, Lester has found just another way to gratify himself rather than enliven himself), unaware of what is going on in the house around him, Fitts is seen approaching his garage. He opens the door to the torrential, biblical rain outside, perhaps reminiscent of another film of it’s time – Magnolia­ (1999, P.T.Anderson) – that also features flowers as its central motif, symbolic deaths and approaching deaths, to Fitts in a white t-shirt. Contrary to the violence we expect of Fitts, he kisses Lester, whom calmly turns him away. Fitts turns around, and walks away.

When we return to Lester’s death at the end with the denouement in mind, he is looking back on the rest of his life, philosophising on simple yet poignant metaphysics, that a reasonably educated, middle-class man might try to get at in wistful later life. But Lester’s mid-life crisis wasn’t in mid-life, Lester was at the end of his life; in fact going from his narration, orbiting the suburbs (god-like, ethereal, no?) he is already dead. Like the films of that era it focuses on these symbolic deaths, but unlike Fight Club, the gun is a very real embodiment that kills the character, and not his alter ego. Lester actually lives his alter ego, in an inversion of The Usual Suspects (also starring Spacey) where the narrator or creator of the illusion (also Spacey) has to create the creation of his other characters for his survival. Tyler Durden has to realise his creation, is subconscious (a film also heavy with homoerotic references) to finally exist as a person. Lester however must die for his creation, because he is the one who ultimately lives it.

So, unlike those films about men who don’t really exist, and about men who really don’t want to exist, who cannot exist in their manifestation, we are left wanting, and striving for Lester to exist, which brings the sadness in the denouement of the film. We’re not left wondering about the mystery of his existence because of his death, just what he could have finally made of it, and what we can make of our own mysterious plenitude, not in some grand, pseudo-revolutionary escapist style like Fight Club, just how and what makes our lives matter to others, in the small immaterial, and ultimately beautiful aspects of life.

Now as we move forward 15 years later, the subject, rather than the setting of the middle-class American home is a prominent one. In this post-financial-crisis globalised society, the problems seem to have become internalised in the home, using Gone Girl and the game-playing, killing instinct is within. I’m using Fincher’s, 2014, film version as an example; it’s as if the set from American Beauty is being used, dull, grey, life-less, but all the problems lie within the marriage. This has also transcended literature, as in front of me I have a review copy of a book by Christopher Bollen called Orient (released in April 2015, review coming up in the next few weeks). It Is distinctly set in the real-world middle class lives of Americans on the outskirts of New York. It is a sprawling work, touching 600 pages, that calls into the old cliché of the great American novel (or the great global novel it should now be called). To borrow a Thomas Kuhn term, the American novel seems to undergo paradigms, and right now we seem to be in the Jonathan Franzen paradigm, who seems to either be the most marketable, or the most suitable chronicler of the times.

American Beauty, as I suggest above, goes against the trend, because it is about a man who ultimately wants to exist but cannot, as if this is not the way the world works anymore (the black and white photos, the homoeroticism). It is preceding the idea that this comfortable world is coming under threat? The fantasies of the other maybe; terrorism, gays, immigrants, feminists, artists, orphans, absolute anything (Orient overtly touches on this), anything that threatens to destroy the sanctity of it. But it is as if the family is the last domesticity of the real. As we come out of postmodernity, artists now return to the family as a way of returning to the real. Franzen’s Freedom (2010) certainly did this after The Corrections (2000). What is being done is, is rather than the mechanics being broken down, the illusion is being created again, only to be dismantled in the way the realists an early moderns constructed and revealed the secrets lying beneath. But it’s as if now the family can not just go on as it is; it not just about the father’s who can just go out to work because there are all these other presences and antagonisms, and the fact that there are also no jobs to go to.

One of the key precedent’s set for this was Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997); Roth’s superb work about a successful man Swede Levov, inheritor of his father’s glove company who sees his daughter, Merry become political fanatic. As the blurb states ‘overnight Swede is wrenched out of the longed-for American pastoral and into the indigenous American berserk’, and that is what seems to have happened – the west’s safe capitalist pastoral has now been interrupted, maybe even shattered and what we’re witnessing is the wake of this. I think to quote at length the ending of American Pastoral would be sufficient (not necessarily a spoiler as such, but if you don’t want the ending spoiled don’t read this next bit)

“Marcia sank into Jessie’s empty chair, in front of the brimming glass of milk, and with her face in her hands, she began to laugh at their obtuseness to the flimsiness of the whole contraption, to laugh and laugh and laugh at them all, pillars of a society that, much to her delight, was rapidly going under – to laugh and to relish as some people, historically, always seem to do, how far the rampant disorder had spread, enjoying enormously the assailability, the frailty, the enfeeblement of supposedly robust things.
Yes the breach had been pounded in their fortification, even out here in secure Old Rimrock, and now that it was opened, it would not be closed again. They’ll never recover. Everything is against them, everything and everyone that does not like their life.”

There is obviously a great irony in all this. All these writers and directors are male, it’s as if their sanctity is under threat at the same time, and underscores the hypocrisy of the world they’re dismantling, but are still limited in their effect of. That passage precedes it all, and although Roth’s setting was 1968, it speaks a truth of now, written in 1997. Those final few paragraphs for me, set up what has followed in the past 15 years, and poses the questions that now novelists and artists try to answer. Will they recover? Is this why the world seems to have been Marvellised, why there are so many superheroes on our screen now, as we look for new heroes, new fantasies to save us, or at least save our minds, because like the picture above, maybe people are tired of the responsibility of being role models. Our fathers are not our heroes any more (look at the existential paternal anxiety of Don Draper in Mad Men). To paraphrase Franzen in The Corrections, who does this leave to be ordinary, in the grey, beige world of crisis.

A review of Christopher Bollen’s Orient is coming up in the next few weeks.