Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Lassitude as Literature: Wearisome "Soul Thief"

I just finished reading Charles Baxter's latest novel,The Soul Thief, and I'm unhappy with it. It seemed so phlegmatic and depressive, and as several reviewers have noted, the plot device that concludes it is cynical, unimaginative and disappointing. The plot, in which a character named Nathaniel Mason is creepily shadowed by another man, creepily named Jerome Coolberg, has two parts: one situated in Buffalo, New York, in the Seventies, when the "identity thefts" occur, and another in the Nineties, when Mason and Coolberg meet up in LA.

It's not as if the book is devoid of pleasures -- it is, after all, Charles Baxter at the loom, and as a much-revered writer's writer, he indisputably knows how to weave John Gardner's "vivid and continuous dream."

As a part-time Angeleno, I was quite fascinated and amused, for example, by how Baxter's disheartened protagonist describes LA. Here is how he sees LA's airport, appropriately some might say abbreviated LAX, through which I've traveled about 40 times over the past eight years:
Although most airports seem to have been designed by committees made up of subcommittees, and are inevitably unattractive and unsightly, Los Angeles International has an exuberant ugliness all its own. The atmosphere of non-invitation is quite distinctive, as if the city's first representative, its airport, is already disgusted, perhaps even repelled, by the traveler. The recent arrival might well imagine that he has landed on the set of a low-budget futuristic film, most of whose main characters will die horribly within the first forty minutes. The pods, as they are called, are careless maintained, and an odor of perfumed urine wafts here and there through the bleary air.

The enervating experience of LA continues in the protagonist's (to me) hilarious take on the thinly disguised (I think) Chateau Marmont (or maybe the Beverly Hills Hotel), which Baxter calls "The Fatal Hotel" ("Celebrities have died there," his host tells him as if assuming the torpid Nathanial has a taste for morbid fun):
...For such a famous place, known for its hospitality to louche celebrities of every stripe, the Fatal seemed rather drab, even seedy. It advertised its own cool indifference to everything by means of dim Art Deco lamps and shabby antique rugs. Indifference constituted its most prized form of discretion. To the left of the entryway sat an ice plant. A dusty standing pot with a sunlit cactus in it, close to the elevators, matched the ice plant for pur floral forlornness. They were emblems of four-star neglect. In front of me, and to the right of the front desk, was a brown Art Deco sofa that looked as if it could have used a thorough cleaning. Scandalized, I saw stains.

Oh, snap! as Jon Stewart would say. Those stains! That's Baxter at his sharply observant best -- but unhappily, Mason's adrenaline in response is among the most energetic moments of the book.

Here's my fantasy, wholly based on conjecture, of what was happening to Baxter -- an old friend from the Eighties in Michigan and a much-cherished teacher in the Warren Wilson program when I went through -- when he wroteThe Soul Thief. I imagine that the experience of seeing his wonderful novel Feast of Love translated into the relatively pallid movie version made him feel violated. I imagine that it felt as if the hard labor of creation was twisted and and its loveliness ripped off. I imagine if he ever went to LA to consult on the making of the movie that it would have struck him, Charlie Baxter, very much as it did the dyspeptic Nathaniel. And I imagine that's why this novel, which never sees enough light, or like an iPhone that's not fully charged and can't quite pull in the call, is the dim and depressive reverse image of The Feast of Love.

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