I’m going to post three short things regarding the NY Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani. They are mostly lies and venom, except one, the third, which is God’s truth. All of my recent posts, including this one, are part of a 2,000 page (very much hypothetical, or 3/4 hypothetical) mega-novel/memoir/meditation. I am so irritated by Kakutani’s hypocritical review of Dave Wallace’s posthumous book, The Pale King, that I’ve decided to share these now. After all of her dumb reviews in which she dismisses boring postmodern “game playing,” she can praise Wallace now that he’s buried (or, as that self-serving punk J. Franzen reports in the New Yorker, spread around a wilderness site that he’d never visited and maybe never heard of (the more I think about this, the more appalling it is)).
Books of the Times December 10, 2020
A review by Michiko Kakutani
All at Once (e.novel only) by Curtis White
Published by Absolute Optics and Laser Technologies
For readers who remember Curtis White’s last novel, they will recall a coy, self-indulgent, and highly self-conscious work. That work, The Owl Who Curled Toupees (ha-ha), was not much more than the tittering of the eternal adolescent. It was like the remains that are swept up after the circus elephants have left town. It was so painfully self-aware that it is a wonder that he was even able to shape the words with his pen. The reader is only surprised that writing the book didn’t send him into a coma. If the novel could be said to have a “style,” it is the limp style of performance anxiety. (White revealed in an interview with Fresh Air host Terry Gross that this is something he himself is painfully familiar with, and that all of his books are confessions of sexual impotence, or, as Gross put it, “a cry for help”. Not that this bit of autobiography helps the reader like this book any better.)
Imagine my astonishment, then, on cracking open his new magnum opus (my e-reader actually makes a tiny cracking sound when I start a new book–so cute!). At better than 2,000 pages, I was anything but optimistic. But from the first this novel was a joy to read. White showcases an impressive literary toolkit, every essential storytelling skill plus plenty of bells and whistles. Actually, it’s almost all bells and whistles, but never mind that, the important thing is that All at Once provides a picture window on modern life, and about time!
The story concerns a man, Ned Beaumont, who discovers that his marriage to a younger woman has been a mere illusion. What he discovers is that she, Marie, has met a man, Tommy Boy, at an on-line dating service, and has been having sex with him. The new couple announces at dinner that they have ambitious plans to create a website of their own where they will invite “guest stars” over to have sex with Marie for later posting on the web. They ask Ned to be the web master. The site is called “Doozy.com” (although in the course of the book the name seems to change without explanation to “Dinger,” “Dandy,” “Delite,” “Doggy,” and even, when things get really grim, “Dungeon”). A first-person narrator, Ned provides harrowing accounts about three confused, searching people capable of change and perhaps even transcendence. White limns the delicate, finely articulated consciousness of even the most disturbing characters, even Tommy, who is most often referred to as “that patch on a man’s ass”. But even Tommy’s humanity is never abandoned. (For me, he was more than sympathetic; he was admirable. And this in spite of the fact that he is only quoted once in the book when he says, apropos of a memorable moment in the front seat of his car, “She does NOT know how to jerk a guy off.”)
Truly, it is as if White has made a deathbed conversion and dropped the precious posturing of meta-fiction and returned home, the prodigal son, to the riches of the American novel, in the American grain, in the rich vernacular of the American voice. (For goodness sake, there is even a boxer named Jake who hooks up with Marie and then breaks poor Tommy’s jaw!) The miracle of it all is that the novel takes place entirely within a network of computers. Literally, inside. But how richly it is felt! How striking, resonant and finally familiar the drama!
Perhaps the most moving section, one that touches every modern life, concerns Ned’s attempt to find his wife when she disappears into an enormous cloud-site, something so vast and metaphysical that it seems to transcend all of the thousands of personal computers in a thousand separate family dens that in theory make up this ethereal world. The long, mournful searches among the Web’s seedier dives are some of the most painful, revealing, and finally beautiful passages in the long history of the novel. One has to think back to Goethe’s Dr. Faust descending into the nether world in search of Helen of Troy for something of similar power.
One minor complaint: Ned is said to be led on this search in the twilight of the Web by a “homunculus” who seems not to be much more than an intense dot of light in a glass phial. For all White’s painstaking and detailed realism, some of the descriptions of the homunculus in his little test tube, or whatever it is, “walking down a brick staircase” are hard to swallow.
Still, Curtis White’s All at Once is a masterpiece, the “last possible work of literary gigantism,” as he says. All at Once is an indelible portrait not only of our time but of any time.
(For John and, in memory, Gil)