December 5-11, 2002
By Nicola Barker Ecco Press, 544 pp., $27.95
Behindlings is a meandering novel about a leader of a cult who is literally followed by his people: They walk a couple hundred feet behind him everywhere he goes (thus, "behindlings" -- a wittier description than followers). As the multiple characters tail their leader, Wesley, they pop into a shop for some bread or a bit of cake, or examine his virtues and failings on a nature hike. Some behindlings are crusty, others erudite, others young and ripe to be remade in someone else's image. Wesley calls them his "witnesses," and acknowledges that many are "unwitting" and "witless." But he feels a strong need to be watched as well.
Barker's smooth, smartly articulated British prose reads as if she did in fact follow a bunch of mixed, unsavory types around and took copious notes on their comings and goings, then invented a traveling cult to explain their random shamblings. Forward motion itself is very much a theme in the book, as is watching your step. While there is plenty of acceleration in some regard, plot and character do not reap the benefits of all the forward motion; it's the prose that drives the reader on. As reading is a stationary, fixed activity, reading Behindlings may give you a sense of motion sickness as you follow these characters, all vying for a glimpse of what they perceive to be greatness. Tag along for the ride until the action (or motion) reaches a full, surprising stop.
The Ice Beneath You
By Christian Bauman Scribner, 234 pp., $13
In New Hope author Christian Bauman's first novel, civilians are not to be trusted. Benjamin Jones is a young Army private who, after a harrowing turn in Somalia, returns to the United States looking for purposefulness amid rootlessness. What he finds is cheating, child pornography and emotional dishonor.
Like Gabe Hudson's Dear Mr. President, The Ice Beneath You examines our recent military history from a semi-autobiographical perspective tinged with irony. Both books look at the alienating technologies that distance soldiers from the cleaner, easily distinguished heroism of ground combat in wars past. Even in Somalia, the experience of war is mediated through television: "It's like MTV," one soldier comments. But too often Jones does not see his reality reflected on CNN, and when he leaves the army and moves to Washington state looking for work, he is dismayed to encounter people who have never heard of Somalia or the conflict. Jones is looking for a soldierhood, a sense of bravery and honor that may well be extinct.
Bauman's pure prose suits his naturalist approach. While Ice employs changing perspectives -- shifting from first to third person to omniscient narration -- Bauman keeps a deceptively light, measured hand on the proceedings, remaining absolutely faithful to his characters.
Familiar to the war story is the bonding between Jones and his platoon mates, the dreariness and disorientation of countless days in a foreign country, performing tasks that are more often mundane than mercenary. But what is striking about Jones' story are the tiny minefields that are laid along the way, microscopic psychological bombs detonated by the realization that the war is never really over for anyone who has fought it. With unadorned honesty, Bauman has illuminated us.
Thief of Souls
By Ann Benson Delacorte Press, 482 pp., $23.95
Ann Benson is a novelist (and needlepoint/bead artist!) who specializes in time travel. As in taking something scary from the past (her first book dealt with the Black Death) and making it even scarier by reinterpreting it in the present. In Thief of Souls, Benson takes on the history and myth surrounding 15th-century French nobleman Gilles de Rais, known more commonly today as Bluebeard. De Rais fought alongside Joan of Arc and was one of the richest men of his day, but is mostly known for allegedly having raped, mutilated and killed anywhere from 40 to 300 young boys. Thief of Souls fluctuates between 1440, where we follow de Rais' fictional childhood nurse, Guillemette le Drappière, now an abbess working for the Bishop of Nantes and investigating the strange disappearance of little boys near her all-grown-up former charge's estate, and 2002, where L.A. detective Lany Dunbar takes on a missing kid case and stumbles onto what appears to be a serial kidnapper.
You'd think the parallels between the hunt for monsters old and new would be clunky and cheesy -- and sometimes they are. But Benson does a remarkable job of subtly outlining the similarities between Guillemette and Lany's situations, while managing to weave suspense into a gory tale essentially about two open-and-shut cases. (We all know Bluebeard's a bad guy, and Lany's suspect is pretty much a sure thing early on in the book.)
Benson's attempts at social commentary both hit and miss. Her treatment of the question of childhood abuse leading to homicidal behavior later in life feels like a Lifetime Original Movie, but the parallels she draws between 15th- and 21st-century public and media frenzies over high-profile crimes are fascinating. Benson's clearly done her research -- the historical sections are extremely detailed, including actual dialogue from transcripts of de Rais' trial -- but she often falls into the trap of using over-dramatic and over-descriptive language to set a catch-all "period" tone. Thief of Souls may satisfy historical fiction fans more than mystery buffs, but Benson is on solid ground with both.
The Adventures of Lucky Pierre: Director's Cut
By Robert Coover Grove Press, 405 pp., $24
One of the early lessons I learned while clerking at the late, lamented Tower Books outlet on South Street -- after being told the location of the "customer service device," an axe handle, underneath the counter -- was of the sheer quantity and specificity of porn the store offered. Brian, the magazine guy, was hugely and justifiably proud of the extent of the store's magazine collection, which stretched from the average glossies to special-interest trade mags to photocopied, hand-stapled samizdat zines. The porn section comprehended most any version of desire available in print, from middle-of-the-road pneumatics to distasteful German and disturbing Japanese stuff. The guys who, dressed in suits and ties, would come to the counter with a stack of auto and audio journals with the latest Bitches with Whips tucked in the middle, became common several-times-weekly customers. For all the variety of that magazine rack, though, and despite all of the kinks on display, the magazines showed a surprising sameness: There are only so many combinations, so many ways the parts can fit together.
Such repetitive and quite honestly boring sameness is the thing that cripples Robert Coover's The Adventures of Lucky Pierre, which is ultimately too plotlessly postmodern for its own good. Coover's writing is occasionally gorgeous, as with his opening description of a filmic shot of a bare rear end that moves from a tight close-up suggestive of barren landscape to a full, long-shot rosy ass. But his novel, which follows a vaguely futuristic adult-film star through a cycle of nine co-star/partner/director/muses during a wintry existential crisis, makes for an involuted, overwritten, and too-clever-by-half exercise in repetition. Like the magazine rack at Tower, Coover sets out to provide a panorama of pornographic quirks and kinks, filtered through ponderous self-impressed artistic prose. But there are only so many ways one can describe a cock, and for my money, you're better off with a copy of Roget's Thesaurus than with Lucky Pierre.
By Douglas Rushkoff Soft Skull Press, 336 pp., $16
The story of the Internet, according to the common wisdom, boils down to a tale of betrayed promise. Once a brilliant idea, then a revolutionary new media worth reckoning with, the Internet has become (for most of us, studies have shown) a quicker and more convenient way to keep tabs on our poor investments and to stay abreast of the sales at the Gap. Ten years ago, hypertext was going to revolutionize human consciousness; five years ago instant reporting was going to kill the newspaper. Now we simply have different flavors of CNN. There are still true believers out there, though, and Douglas Rushkoff, prophet of "open-source Judaism" and author of Exit Strategy, is a true believer.
The Soft Skull Press edition of Rushkoff's new book -- which, incidentally, is a beautiful volume, well-designed and nicely printed -- straddles the line between print and electronic media. The text of the book has already been published online, which Rushkoff notes precluded interest from mainstream publishers. But Rushkoff terms his work an "open-source novel," on the model of Linux and other independent collaborative software efforts, and considers the storyline just a jumping-off point for the text's real experiment.
The online version of Exit Strategy invites readers to contribute explanatory footnotes for an imagined 23rd-century edition. The ink-and-paper book that results from this ultimately makes for a better experimental report than a novel. Rushkoff's base story lacks much weight: Hero Jamie Cohen's transformation from outlaw computer hacker to twentysomething investment banker back to hacker merely supplies a run-of-the-mill techno-conspiracy plot. It's less a novel than a platform for promulgating Rushkoff's ideas on technology, already better-developed in Media Virus and his work at Adbusters. The midrash of footnotes Rushkoff has selected from the online commentary is more interesting, both as imaginative projection and as an index of Internet wonkery. (They abound, stereotypically, with references to Star Trek and the "oddly accurate foreshadowing" of The Matrix.) But ultimately, bound between covers, the book hardly reads like a new-media exquisite corpse. Rushkoff's text remains the dominant voice, his "collaborators" just incidental ornamentation, and the open-source potential of the book delivers nothing more than an ordinary story in an inventive new package.