STATS: BOOK / STEPHEN WRIGHT / 305pp. / 1994
Not by THAT Stephen Wright (and having nothing to do with NATIVE SON by Richard Wright), though all three are good. Rather, a super cool story-collection-as-novel or vice versa from way before those were super cool. #13 on Larry McCaffery’s “20th Century’s Greatest Hits: 100 English-Language Books of Fiction” list, and the first really surprising entry (the ones up until then tending to be things like Ulysses, The Public Burning, and The Sound and The Fury) … so the point at which that whole list starts to earn its reputation as an unusual thing listing unusual (and generally fantastic and not always listed) things. Wright is often chalked up there with Pynchon and DeLillo (and blurbed glowingly by them), but the boilerplate seems to be that he’s never quite gotten the readership he deserves … so read him if you want. He’s really good.
I like an interview where he says that, writing this book, he basically melted down an entire novel per chapter. You can tell; it’s that dense.
It’s a strange concept, at once very simple and barely a concept at all: in the first chapter, a suburban Chicago guy named Wylie decides he can’t take it anymore and wanders away from a Richard Yatesy garden party at his house one night. I guess this is him Going Native, because what follows is a series of increasingly lurid melted-novels, ranging in subject and lead role from a crackhead to a porn party to some serious roadhouse and then Vegas noir to the longest and best part deep in the bush in Burma … all of which are linked only by everyone getting slaughtered at the end. We only sort of glimpse Wylie here and there throughout, just enough to assume that he’s doing the slaughtering under various guises as his American sojourn gains speed and he gets ever farther from who he’d been pretending to be back in Chicago and closer to who he really is, or else just closer to total dissolution and not being anyone or anything at all except a complete fucking maniac.
The real emotional effect is the sudden and senseless violence against the people of each section, some slimeballs and some extremely sympathetic, all rendered in hi-enough-def to get us totally wrapped up in their lives. That’s surely the way violence is, irrelevant to the people it happens to and yet totally definitive of how things actually turn out for them, as opposed to how they would have turned out if they’d remained on the course they were on.
Celebrity, drugs, nihilism, movies/videos, exoticism, America as trashy pop ideal vs. actual hellish ‘scape, getting away from yourself in a lot of bad ways … you can say whatever about themes, but it’s really the scummy waters they all keep twining through that make this trip worthwhile. There are moments when the whole thing flirts with dating itself into a kind of Society of Spectacle / Natural Born Killers 90’s media overload screed, but Wright is a sharp and serious and funny and just all-around hardcore enough writer to write his way through this most of the time.
I think this is my favorite line, describing the raw bar at the porn party: “Fleshy tones seemed to predominate, dead sea creatures on ice, skinned but not cooked. If fire … marked a crucial interaction between the human and the divine — of which cooked food was the symbol and celebration — then this raw medley indicated that tonight he and his fellow guests were on their own among the bare facts of one another.”
And sort of while we’re on the topic: “I’ve often wondered, what if, in order to function in intercourse, it were necessary that a man’s organ become, not hard, but soft — mushy, squishy, yucky soft. Think about it.”
I don’t know. I do know you gotta hand it to Robert Coover for this blurb: “Imagine a pornographic twilight zone of beebee-eyed serial killers, drug-stunned pants-dropping road-warriors and ‘marauding armies of mental vampires,’ a nightmarish country of unparalleled savagery, where … the monster image feed is inexhaustible … ”
“Was there ever in the whole warped universe of male weirdness a man as plain weird as you?” Basically a great book to read whenever you start to feel like America is going off the rails and want to see that confirmed by someone who’s freakishly good at describing things, rather than by cable news.
“Be careful … the way is filthy with creeps.”