Monday, July 8, 2013

A Smuggler's Bible

A Smuggler's Bible, Joseph McElroy
Read: 23 June to 5 July 2013
5 / 5 stars

Ho. Lee. Shitsnacks, I am in love.

I initially decided to read this book for two reasons: The first, to see if I like McElroy enough to warrant dropping a hearty lump of money on one of those few exorbitantly priced copies of Women and Men floating around the internet; the second, to justify preordering Cannonball. When I realized that a three-digit price tag is a bargain for the pleasure of feeding both my library and my brainmeats more than a thousand pages of McElroy's words and heady but human observations, and when I ordered his newest novel within a few dozen pages of being enthusiastically enchanted by his debut one (and then danced with joy when I found out its release date had advanced by a week), I knew I had found something special. To say nothing of the fact that I eschewed all other books (save for 33 pages of Proust) and, truthfully, all other uses of my time while rolling in the myriad readerly pleasures to be found in A Smuggler's Bible. This book consumed me and my desire to do anything that didn't involve reading it.

If pressed, I would insist that this is a book about solipsism. It's about how the effects of which drive the self to seek certainty of others while looking for assurance of the self's existence in examining the lives of others. It's a road map through the pains one takes to accomplish both while really only achieving one and it's a testament to the discoveries that can't avoid materializing into stark clarity during such a journey. It is, strangely, proof that we'll only learn the true nature of our own selves by taking an objective stroll through the daunting terrain of self-assessment via others' perspectives, as we are just as uncertain of everyone's existences as they are of ours.

As a wholly unexpected bonus, the influence McElroy had on DFW is practically dripping from every page: It is so evident, in fact, that I didn't even need the internet to assure me of the former's impact on the writing of the latter (though I do get a thrill from those always-welcome times when facts actually validate my suspicions). There are so many moments when the main character, David Brooke, sounds eerily like Hal Incandenza that it delivered a swift kick of déjà vu right to the heart, from David's attempts to be of the same world as those around him while knowing that he's just going through the motions to his tendency to be in a moment merely in the physical sense while existing everywhere but the immediate now. Another character, who also bears a striking resemblance to Himself's youngest son in the way they both devour and retain dictionary entries with a prodigious recall, makes the following observation:

... he verbalizes easily. Yet David doesn't really know how to talk to you. Either he butts in and speaks for ten minutes straight--intense and blind and using phrases like "Of course, ultimately," "complex awareness," "in fact in my opinion." Or he doesn't come back to you at all, just gives you "um-hum, um-hum" after each of your sentences and sometimes in the middle.

There is, indeed, a Wallace-colored thread binding together the characters and voices that comprise A Smuggler's Bible, and it is Hal's thirty-years-prior doppelgänger. David unites the key figures from various points in his existence first by assembling a slice-of-life biography in eight parts about a number of them -- some told from the person's perspective, some with him assuming the second-person voice to narrate the story of another, some expressed in a choir of commingling voices (which results in pages of unattributed text that is conveyed flawlessly, thanks to how distinctly McElroy draws all of his characters and shapes their voices in the context of their roles -- which I can only guess is a taste of the Women and Men to come), all assuming that he knows enough about them (and, with a total recall that alienates him from them, he actually does) to get into their heads well enough to speak for them. He then takes it one step further: Not content to let their voices join in such a passive manner as dictated by his pen alone, he creates a chain letter of sorts to force them all into awareness of each other, forcing each link in his epistolary string to acknowledge those before and after themselves with a letter of their own (and in one deliciously hateful character's case, some religious tracts).

David, for all of his laborious efforts in cataloging the memories of those who have unknowingly provided the fodder for his eight manuscripts, is, indeed, completely unsure of himself. While each of his eight ostensibly non-autobiographical stories blossom and influence each other in ways that I couldn't help but compare to the later works of Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller and also, of course, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, the narratives wedged between each longer reflection reflect how David can't even find cohesion in his own mind. He speaks of himself in a wholly schizophrenic manner, almost violently chastising himself as a voice outside his primary consciousness for allowing his wife to look at his eight memoirs before he's even allowed himself to give them one last editorial perusal of approval -- he, in fact, seems to hate his wife when he speaks of her as this voice that exists separately from but still inside himself.

There are so many roads to take to self-discovery -- say, like half-faking amnesia to see what the get-well letters from others will reveal about the times you've spent together or being allowed otherwise off-limits peeks into acquaintances' and family members' honest impressions of you (though these letters will persistently, disappointingly, though perhaps unintentionally betray more about the writers and their concerns about the parts of their own existences that don't pertain to their relationship with you) or half-listening to everyone to whom you speak, knowing full well that you'll retain every word they speak and every non-verbal cue they issue regardless of how insincere or distracted or downright cold you appear to them.

Writing eight installments of memories ranging from one's own parents and wife to the single-voiced crescendo of a boardinghouse's tenants and staff may seem like an attempt to see the world from other pairs of eye but inserting oneself into each story to varying degrees of importance and purity of intention eventually becomes obvious as another tool of self-examination, proof that one can reach certainty of one's own existence by proving one's significance or prominence, however fleeting, in the Venn diagram of shared personal experience. Each narrative is, indeed, a different way of expressing uncertainty of others on a large-scale and how such doubt is mirrored on the smaller, intensely personal level. Can you trust your own past, both the one you've lived and the one you've inherited from your progenitors? Is the group opinion more valid than the individual's, bearing in mind that the group is objective but the individual knows the difference between how it looks and what it is? Is a person really two different people when you consider their supporting role in your life but their leading on in their own?

This book is one of the few times I read the introduction before diving headfirst into the novel proper, and it was enough to encourage me to continue with that trend. Or it may leave me woefully unfulfilled from the high expectations with which it has burdened me, as I landed on the TOC page already breathless with a cramp in my scrawling hand and having crammed miles of annotations choking the margins of the Roman-numeraled pages. This is the kind of book that encourages long-winded discussions about absolutely everything because it has that broad of a scope and that imperative of a message. This is what required reading for humanity looks like.

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