The first element that stuck out to me was the novel's narrative voice, and at first I wasn't sure I liked it. Here are the first few paragraphs:
But I don't want to talk about the dead guy.There's something too polished in the tone and rhythm of those paragraphs, a certain awareness of performance, as if the narrator is trying awfully hard to have a particular effect, like somebody who really wants you to like them but doesn't want to come off as desperate, so ends up turning into a self-parody, or at least a bore. That oh-so-dramatic opening paragraph. The names of as-yet-unknown characters dropped like gossip so we can pretend to be in on the conversation. The world-weary pose of "Everybody's got one."
It's Sunday, Memorial Day weekend, the year 2000, and I'm in the East Village, counting my pulse. My heart beats too fast. You can hear it over my breathing, like a remix where the bas line, pushed way forward, thrums whatwhat, whatwhat. It's the caffeine talking. I'm drinking black tea in a coffee shop, fueling up for another hundred years, and reading Saul Bellow's Ravelstein, about a dead guy. Everybody's got one. Mine's Zack. He's buried in Queens, behind Queens College, where I teach. Though he's been gone six years, his voice is still in my head, hectoring me, raw with complaint. Whatever, as Justin says. Why stress? Everyone is headed for a graveyard in Queens. In the meantime, I try not to hear Zack too clearly or think about Justin, who is sleeping in my apartment. I crept out this morning without waking him, then came here for my morning caffeine fix. "Friends don't let friends go to Starbucks," says a sign on the counter, where a skinny kid pours my fourth cup of Earl Grey. He's wearing a knit cap indoors and a T-shirt that says GUIDED BY VOICES.
"That's me," I think, going back to my seat. I'm returning to Ravelstein, trying to turn down the volume on Zack's rasp and Justin's drone, when I look up and do a double take. Strolling into my neighborhood cafe is my high school best friend, Richie McShane. Richard, son of Shane. He's in a hurry, and he's headed for me.
And yet I kept reading. Maybe because it was New York. Maybe because I was tired of reading about worlds where everybody's heterosexual. Or maybe I intuited what I consciously realized later: the voice is entirely perfect for the character, whose name is Tom, who teaches creative writing, and who admits he sometimes poses as being far more masculine (and perhaps world-weary) than he can really pull off.
I wouldn't continue reading a book in which I found the voice annoying no matter how appropriate it seemed to the character. (After all, I'd just abandoned Alessandro Piperno's The Worst Intentions because the idea of having to spend 300 pages with the narrator was more than I could bear.) Tom's voice became for me not annoying, but surprising and addictive. By page 16, I was already dog-earing pages with passages I wanted to come back to, things I wanted to savor or save. Here's the passage that caught my attention on that page, in which the narrator, Tom, talks about the boy back in his bedroom, Justin:
Well, I'm a gay man writing fiction. If I were Dennis Cooper, I'd cut him up, but tenderly. If I were Edmund White, I'd rhapsodize about his ass. If I were Genet, we'd be in prison. If I were John Rechy, talking to Justin would cost me fifty bucks. Gore Vidal would make me kill him. Mary Renault would pretend he's Greek, and we'd be headed across the Peloponnese in golden chain mail. In Proust, he's a girl; in Tennessee Williams, I'm the girl; in Colette, we're both girls. Gertrude Stein would turn him into a verb phrase. Virginia Woolf would give him a sex change. Oscar Wilde would have him sit for his portrait, and I'd paint it, and then he would never get old, which is terrible, because I keep aging, and if he's not going to touch me when he's twenty-five and I'm forty-one, what will happen when he's twenty-five and I'm sixty? I want him to age. I don't care about his youth. I'd like somebody in my life to age the normal way, not thirty years in seven months, but slowly, in stages, whether he wants to touch me or not.A paragraph that begins with fun metafictional play ends with an honest and, for me at least, affecting statement of yearning and loss. Cleverness meets pathos, and much gets said, both stated and implied.
Any writer who can do so much in one paragraph is a writer worth paying attention to, and by that point I was hooked. I kept dog-earring pages, moments when I laughed out loud, moments when I was struck by the surprise of a particular phrase, tone, or idea, something I didn't want to lose along the way. Here's one from page 46:
Irony is conservative, after all. It's a way of preserving the past, storing your innocence in a display case long after you realize that the hope itself might have been the inciting crisis in your string of irretrievable losses.The book has a strong narrative drive (propelled, yes, very much by the voice) and a complex structure of present-becoming-past-becoming-present, but it's also got some of the best epigrams (or shall we call them zingers?) of any contemporary novel I've read in quite some time. This is appropriate, too, since every chapter gets an epigraph, as does the book itself, and most of them are perfect in their new context, amusing or even moving. Tom lives an intertextual life, and this causes him struggle, certainly, as people are not texts -- but words and sentences, pages and books are also central to how he understands himself and, perhaps more importantly, how he makes sense of the world where his actions affect people's lives, and people respond to his actions much more than they do to his texts.
I mentioned the structure, and that's something else that is impressive about What I Did Wrong. Many bad novels shuffle back and forth between a character's past and present, using the past as mysterious signifier or Freudian barometer, a foundation from which to build a shoddy house of pop psychology. Even plenty of very good novels get weakened by utilizing the past as an obstacle to be overcome, abjuring complexity and ambiguity in favor of comfort and neat resolution (this was my objection with the ending of Generation Loss, a book I found sometimes breathtakingly impressive otherwise). In many cases, this is a matter of taste and worldview, and one reader's epiphany is another's cop-out, but with What I Did Wrong, I'm happy to have an easy-to-point-to reference for a novel that I think uses a character's past to enrich the story -- indeed, to constitute the story -- rather than as a way to strain for drama or sympathy, or to create a problem that needs to get solved.
It would take much more than I am willing to write to really chart out how the different time periods of What I Did Wrong interact from chapter to chapter, how information accrues in the reader's mind, how Tom's perception of events and people changes both obviously and subtly, how almost paragraph-by-paragraph the book moves both forward and back. Reading the first few paragraphs I quoted above is a different experience after finishing the book, and not just because we know a whole lot more about who Zack and Justin and Richie are, but because we also can judge Tom's tone and circumstances from a more informed vantage point. But that's just an extra bonus produced by the back-and-forth, the play of memory against present moment against other memory, the layers of life that sit like silt between the novel's lines and clog the gears of each shifting tense. The effect is one of opening up, not closing off; its the effect of a long novel, and yet this is not a long novel; rather, a craftily compressed one, and all the better for it.
The past in What I Did Wrong has meaning and effect, yes, but indefinite and shifting ones -- it's a past to be cogitated rather than digested, a past with pull, like a moon or a trawler. It's full of algebra rather than arithmetic. Tom knows this:
The waste of whatever is already lost surrounds us. Up the West Side is the elevated highway that Robert Moses built, abandoned and rusted in the sun. Is anything more comforting than ruins? I don't miss the past, I miss the ghost of the past, industrial remains, the crumbling piers of the Port of New York. I miss how the city used to live with its garbage plainly in sight as you walked along the Hudson River, in the light of the giant neon Maxwell House Coffee cup dripping its last drop over and over into Jersey. When I first moved to the city I thought the bitter smell of coffee grounds along the West Side was a chemical response created by abrasion of river air against New York brownstone, but Mark told me it came from the Hoboken coffee plant. "Chemical air/ sweeps in from New Jersey/ and smells of coffee": Robert Lowell. Mark likes facts, but I prefer debris.I don't mean to make the book seem like a prolonged downer. It could have taken itself too seriously, and Tom could have been insufferable, but instead there's plenty of deprecation amidst the insights, plenty of breeze to blow away every approaching fog. The book is more humane because of this, but also more effectively philosophical -- and it is, among other things, a novel of ideas -- because no concept gets to dominate without at least a little bit of undercutting, no philosophy gets to puff itself up to the point of exploding its guts over every scene. Fools are often wisest (at least in Shakespeare), and there are sufficient moments of foolish wisdom in What I Did Wrong to make it wiser than most of its companions on the shelves.