by Juan Goytisolo
(City Lights) $10.95
Juan Goytisolo isn't interested in the novel he's writing. The premise is potentially interesting: Karl Marx and his family turn up alive and well in the present day, to see what Karl's ideas hath wrought. The resulting novel, however, is a chaotic jumble. After a brilliant opening scene in which Albanian boat people storm a ritzy Italian beach with fistfuls of photocopied U.S. dollars, Goytisolo can't seem to settle on a story. Instead, he resorts to hashing out his publishers, who want a gripping family drama. Even the characters themselves begin to berate the author and his creation (one suspects he was oppressed by contracts and deadlines). Goytisolo doesn't try to defend the book outright. Instead he implies that his purpose and method are nobler than the crass commercialism or political correctness of his critics. But he provides no evidence for this.
Moreover, Goytisolo fails to exploit the time-travel device to find out what Marx and his family think of the present day. Most of the book simply retells historical events, which, while interesting, are documented in any number of nonfiction books.
At the end of the novel, the author attends a party at the Marx estate, where a French TV crew is filming its own version of The Marx Family Saga. In the final pages, Goytisolo is deluged with faxes from grateful Albanians, who because of his authorial whim have arrived in the Dallas they used to see on TV, complete with mansions, luxury cars, and beautiful lovers. It's clear Goytisolo is a master at playing these sorts of narrative games, but in the end The Marx Family Saga loses the argument to justify its own existence. DAN TENENBAUM
by Hanif Kureishi
Hanif Kureishi's latest novel, Intimacy, could be a response to an exercise handed out in a writing workshop: "In 35,000 words or less, describe what 'intimacy' means to you." While the rest of the students turn in drivel about the quiet joys of close relationships, Kureishi decides that intimacy, to him, means exposing all of his filthy secrets and ugly emotions to the world.
The narrator of Intimacy is Jay, a 30-something man who is about to walk out on his wife and children, giving no reason other than impatience and boredom. The pages of the novel reek with the thoughts of this main character, who alternates between explicit recollections of past infidelities ("holding her arse up like a dish, my tongue in all her holes at once") and bitter mockery of his wife, a woman with a "fat red weeping face" who "thinks she's a feminist but [is] just bad tempered."
Theoretically, there could be art in this sheer spitefulness. Look at Dostoyevsky's Notes From the Underground, or any novel by Charles Bukowski--great works have often combined autobiography and fiction to produce an anti-hero, a character who is wonderfully repulsive and attractive at the same time. The key element, though, is distance: the author needs to be able to contextualize the anti-hero in order to pull literature out of anger or pain.
Intimacy fails because there is no distance between Jay, the main character, and Kureishi. Two years ago, Kureishi, like Jay, left his partner and their two young sons, flippantly insisting to the media that "it would be more interesting to go." In fact, every detail in Intimacy, from the main character's lovers to the glib dislike for his wife and children, is straight autobiography, unadapted for fiction. The attacks in Intimacy are so damaging and so exposing, in fact, that Kureishi's own mother and sister contacted all of Britain's major newspapers to express their disgust with him. But that's not why you should avoid Intimacy. You should avoid Intimacy because it is a personal diatribe that doesn't rise to literature, and reading it is about as fun and educational as listening to people you don't like bitch about people you don't know. NATHAN THORNBURGH
GIRLS ON THE RUN
by John Ashbery
(Farrar Straus Giroux) $20
There is one poem to this book: a poem written after the work of Henry Darger (1892-1972), who spindled his obsessions into 19,000 pages of an illustrated novel, The story of the Vivan Girls in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal... . Ashbery takes in hand Darger's obsessions and writes lustfully a story whose center does not hold still; the story dazzles with poetic gallop and a royal strangeness.
An Ashbery sentence is singular and alive, lifting you up into the character as though you have been pushed out on a stage. Only problem is, you might not know what you're speaking of when you catch yourself reading this book aloud. Girls on the Run is written with some ancient road in mind and the story may be the map of a still-undiscovered place. An antiquated line such as "So may it be until the end that is eternity" is given a story with a cast of future popular baby names like Dimples, Pliable, Shuffle. Ashbery is writing to our most nostalgic and futuristic of times, this half-year of century remaining.
So it doesn't make much sense. Or rather nonsense and sense are elided into something for which there isn't yet a word. Ashbery writes as though dreaming has yet to be discovered. "Does this clinch anything?" he ends the poem. "We were cautioned once, told not to venture/ out--/ yet I'd offer this much, this leaf to thee./ Somewhere, darkness churns and answers are riveting,/ taking on a fresh look, a twist. A carousel is burning./ The wide avenue smiles." Girls on the Run is a correct work of disembodied thought; it's a fairy tale torn in half. PAULA GILOVICH