Jeff Bursey reviews Pieces for the Left Hand by J. Robert Lennon
Graywolf Press, 2009, 212 pages, $14
One of the blurbs on the back of Pieces for the Left Hand, from a review published in the London Review of Books of March 2005, speaks of “the self-deprecating title,” and, further, assuring the reader (and the author?) that “the collection is anything but offhand...” I found this disturbing because it smacks of a day-trader ensuring clients that the company they’re buying into has been carefully vetted. The reviewer goes so far as to say that this is Lennon’s “most perfect work so far.” How much rests in those last two words. Do owners of Lennon’s previous books now feel smart for getting in early, and encouraged to deepen their investment in a rising stock?
Everywhere one looks, now, the language of quality assurance comes out of reviewers’ mouths, and in popular publications literary reviews have become consumer reports. This can be seen in the increased emphasis on readability. In Salon a piece on the recent National Book Awards underscores this, as have articles on the Man Booker shortlist in England, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize in Canada. What’s puzzling about the blurb above is that it comes from award-winning critic Wyatt Mason. He goes further:
"There is little that is excessive and much that is reasonable in the early novels of the young American writer J. Robert Lennon. At 34, Lennon, already the author of four novels, plots his books with a rigour and restraint uncharacteristic of writers of his generation. Whereas his immediate contemporaries Dave Eggers, Colson Whitehead and Mark Danielewski all thrive on – and have in part made themselves known for – work that brims with clever digression, Lennon includes only what advances his plots and broadens our sense of his characters. In an era where a species of self-congratulatory prose is often mistaken for writerly talent, Lennon’s unselfconscious style does not assault the reader with reminders of its hipness. It is perhaps for these reasons that Lennon is relatively unheard of in America, despite having written books more satisfying and moving than those by his better-known peers."
I’ll get to that “self-congratulatory prose” remark in a moment, but first I want to stay with the “clever digression” slam.
In an article on French writer Jean Rolin in The Review of Contemporary Fiction (fall 2008, vol. XXVIII), Warren Motte, citing Ross Chambers’s critical book Loiterature (1999), paraphrases Chambers’s definition of the term: “writing which wagers on the dilatory, which does not proceed directly to the points it wishes to make, but which instead proceeds indirectly, obliquely, by fits and starts, in a crab-like manner” (129). Then Motte quotes Chambers: “...[loiterature] carries an implied social criticism. It casts serious doubt on the values good citizens hold dear—values like discipline, method, organization, rationality, productivity, and, above all, work—but it does so in the guise of innocent and, more particularly, insignificant or frivolous entertainment...” (129) Perhaps Mason is saying: “Casting doubt on what the burghers and brahmins have deemed acceptable—how dare writers do that? They ought to know their place, that digressions are wrong, and that clever digressions are an affront.” There’s the hint of a prude in his review, as if John Gardner’s uneasy, censorious spirit had visited him, as it has flitted from Jonathan Franzen to James Wood, and others. This uncharitable and conservative spirit is deeply unhappy that the hegemony of realism—that “State Fiction, a part of the machinery of the political state... [that] explains to its citizens the relationship between themselves and Nature, economics, politics, and their own sexuality…” (Curtis White, Monstrous Possibility , 17)—which is found almost everywhere, and advocated constantly, isn’t hegemonic enough to crush all kinds of exploratory prose.
Now, to Mason’s remarks on what this “era” of “self-congratulatory prose” is filled with—specifically, how Lennon “includes only what advances his plot and broadens our sense of his characters.” How what Mason sees in Lennon is not just a good thing, but the preferred thing above all others, is mysterious, but not uncommon. It’s much too common, and I mean that in its many senses. Paul West is delightfully sharp on that crass, cheap and enervating sentiment that would like to whittle all prose down until it is nothing more than a varnished toothpick:
"I cannot count how many times, mostly in reviews, I have seen a sentence similar to this (found an hour ago): 'There are few flashy phrases, no authorial showiness.' Fui. That is the stuff our literature is based on, and one wonders if this, not a backlash but a thousand-fold flutter of the dominatrix’s fleecy whip, is the true backlash, aimed at teaching us to evict most of literature from its throne, asking us to write as if we were Himmler, feeding SS youths on porridge to keep them lean, taut, spare, and all the other stuff he wanted for a good SS. They are certainly among us, but not of us, these killjoys who want to denature the literary arts, deny the mind its amplitude and flair, these dogs and bitches of the manger who to use Roy Campbell’s phrase, know all about bit and snaffle but have lost the bloody horse" (“Backlash Against the Novel,” Sheer Fiction v. 4 , 165).
Amplifying those remarks is unnecessary, as they’re pretty clear. Given a choice between the SS youth and a digressive, sprawling narrator, I’ll go with the second.
However, what Mason has set up is a false choice, anyway. There’s no need for anyone to choose either of those widely separated sets of styles. Only truly dogmatic critics and readers believe everything has to be on their side. Mason has won awards for his criticism, and has written for magazines with the word new in their title, ample evidence that he’s hip and can’t be a bad reviewer. But why would he need to polarize writing? The literary world is in hard enough shape already without such pointless Manicheaism.
Maybe I digress.
Pieces for the Left Hand appeared in England in 2005 and in the U.S. in 2009. I intended to write about it in 2010 but life became very busy, and then editors classed it as too old to review. Living in a small apartment means restricting the books at hand to two book cases, and when there’s overflow decisions are made as to what to box up for removal. (New boxes join the 70 that first populated a storage room in April 2007.) Pieces for the Left Hand has remained, primarily on the desk where this computer rests, shifted from left to right side, and now, on gorgeously bright October and November mornings (and only such mornings), I can write about it. Rather than write around it, as it seems I have.
Lennon’s book bears a resemblance to Giorgio Manganelli’s Centuria: One Hundred Ouroboric Novels that came out in 1979 in Italian, and whose English translation appeared in 2005. As in Centuria, there are 100 anecdotes. There are similarities in the investigation of ideas, and in the potential for worlds of content to exist on one or two pages, but where Manganelli’s prose fizzes (in translation), Lennon’s is sedate, possessing, in John Lingan’s words, a “superficial quaintness” (The Review of Contemporary Fiction). Manganelli’s stories ride wildly in unpredictable directions; Lennon’s stories are quirky tales of action with most of the action drained out of them--second-hand action, almost hearsay, yet no less effective for that.
The 100 stories are classed in sections: Town and Country (13); Mystery and Confusion (20); Lies and Blame (16); Work and Money (9); Parents and Children (14); Artists and Professors (10); and Doom and Madness (18). While not all of the stories work, none are written in an “offhand” manner—as if “left hand” implies that what one’s getting are from the bottom drawer of Lennon’s desk—nor is the title “self-deprecating” (Mason). Re-reading the book recently reminded me of the sinister nature of many entries (though the whole also contains humour, wariness, and bitterness), and this is the “left” I believe Lennon means. Unease shadows the mundane tasks carried out by various narrators, and the small-town news, as well as the internal lives of the (seemingly) mostly male narrators.
On returning home from an outing, seeing disarray in a home that’s shared with one or more people, the narrator of “Intruder” goes through possibilities. This is the first conclusion: “More likely, I had upset [certain items] myself and forgotten.” (41) For most, it would end there. However, this figure continues,
"But in that case, there had been an intruder after all: the version of me that had done these things. Or perhaps the real intruder was the version of me that noticed the change. This made more sense, since the house as it was belonged to the version of me that had made it so, and the version of me that did not recognize it was a stranger.
"The difference was that the intruder would take up permanent residence in the house, and its true owner would never return, Then it must be so, because I am still here." (41)
In “Familiar Objects” another narrator has a particular fetish:
"There are things I see and seek out and touch so frequently that they take on an iconic degree of familiarity, such as my wristwatch and keys and wallet. I look at these items so often that I begin to see them even where they are not: my keys appear in a pile of broken windshield glass in the gutter; a gleaming quarter spied between the slats of a picnic table takes the shape of my wristwatch; my wallet can be found in a woodpile." (47)
Just as the latest strain of influenza prompts advisories for people to get a shot and to use hand sanitizer (thus making us all prey to OCD), so thinking of the person you were and the person you are, separated by a tiny incident, causes a crisis.
Vandalism on the part of a bat-wielding teenager that results in death and injury (“The Cement Mailbox”), a romantic relationship between a grandfather and his dead son’s girlfriend (“Expecting”), and a dead poet’s last work improved by a police officer (“The Manuscript”) indicate the fragility of life, the waywardness of the heart, and the fickleness of critics. Underlying those and other stories is the concept of Fortune. For the teen who took part in what some may call a rite of passage, the meeting of his bat with a solid object triggers tragedy and lawsuits. Fortune (good or bad) is set against laws, social mores, and the prevalent mood in a town, but justice is absent. People harbour resentments, as when a couple in “Get Over It” encounter townsmen “miserable” (21) forty years after a fire killed eleven children. “Driving home, we too became angry. Forty years, we decided, was more than enough time to get over it. Today the village strikes us as weak and stubborn, and we have not returned.” (21) Is this an oblique political reference to troubled relationships involving one or more countries? Is there a subtext at all?
Lennon does provide overt references to incivility in a democracy. “Election” features two mayoral candidates whose campaigns are of “such a vituperative and vengeful nature” (8) that most citizens stay away from the polls. A college student enters the fray and wins, thanks to student backing, a slogan that says “STOP THE BULLSHIT” (8) and a promise to allow liquor sales “before noon on Sundays.” (8) He wins. “It all seemed like a good joke,” says the narrator, “until I saw our former mayor, disheveled and dark-eyed, buying a six-pack of beer at a neighborhood grocery store one Sunday morning. After that, my own failure to vote seemed a terrible mistake, and I was filled with a shame and dread that linger still.” (8) This same mayor returns in “Composure” and we’re given another vantage point on his behaviour, this time in connection with a “young woman, a graduate student in semantics...” (22) Did the mayor mistake her inviting him in as a come-on, was there a physical altercation, and a noisy argument? The narrator of this story—perhaps not the same as that in “Election”—recalls seeing him shortly after the alleged event. The mayor was calm. “Whether this composure was evidence of a clean conscience or of a monstrous emotional detachment and moral corruption remains to be seen.” (23)
In “Claim,” an Indian tribe lusting after a casino has a legal treaty giving it ownership of a large parcel of land on which many people have their homes. The area’s “beloved three-term Democratic senator... out of nowhere berated the tribe for its now-moot threat [to reclaim the land], and declared that only over his dead body would any greedy Indians wave their tomahawks upon his family’s land.” (10) Legal action follows, the tribe wins its case, people are dispossessed of their houses, and the “roundly despised” (11) senator “lives anonymously with his family in another part of the country.” (11)
The lesson present in these stories is that actions and reactions that appear sensible, or at least understandable, often result in unforeseen and negative consequences. This applies to actions that strike the single or joint narrators as perverse. A man who accidentally (or providentially) made lots of money experiences troubled times when, on top of other black days, he finds out his wife has a lover. “Wasn’t it true, we asked him, that the real cause of his unhappiness was that he felt trapped by his affluence, which he knew, deep down, that he didn’t really deserve?” (“Money Isn’t Everything,” 117) This isn’t what the man feels at all: “if it weren’t for his wealth, he would probably be even more unhappy.” (117) This stance can’t be agreed with. “Though we parted that day on excellent terms, we have not attempted to contact the man since. It would be difficult to socialize with someone too stubborn to admit that money isn’t everything.” (118) Money and its effects feature in “Wake” where a man’s parsimonious ways have warped and angered his children. On his death it’s revealed that his very “tight-fistedness” (123) enabled him to leave enough money in his will for their debts to be cleared off, and to pay for an elaborate wake. His daughter is red-faced and “in a kind of fury,” (124) angry “that the old man had ruined her enjoyment by martyring himself...” (124)
At this point we suggested that perhaps her father had in fact taken great pleasure in the anticipation of satisfaction, more than he might have taken in the satisfaction itself, and we noted that he probably imagined this party with great joy, as much joy as the guests were feeling at that moment, if not more.
"This gave our hostess pause, but it was only a few seconds before she shook her head and told us that she didn’t know what we were talking about. She stalked off, angrier than ever." (124)
Most stories in Pieces for the Left Hand turn this way, some more nimbly than others, but they almost all have a sting in the tail or illustrate moral smugness punctured or compromised. For the figures in them—calling them characters would be exaggerating their solidity—there’s no escaping an arbitrary meanness. The “famous linguist” (155) of “Short” is brought low, so to speak, by his shrill voice, and the effect alcohol has on him: “he began to slur his words and lapsed into Walloon...” (155) Those who had come to hear him were “no longer impressed” (156) by his ideas, and this sort of diminishment befalls artists, labourers, those who chance upon each other and are in need of a favour, as well as men, women and children.
We are given fair warning of the menace and smallness in the “Introduction,” written by “JRL” (3), where we’re told that the author of these pieces, “forty-seven years old,” (1) liked to walk through town and country, and that those walks “[shook] things loose in the author’s mind. Dark memories of his childhood—his mother’s misery, his father’s death... Every day, for many months, he sifted through the growing pile of memories, until he had begun to tell them to himself, as stories.” (2) Darkness instead of lightness; the left hand and not the right. Such an emphasis, and the quiet purposefulness required to stay to a theme, alongside the humour, may be the very embodiment, for some readers, of a fiction that is “excessive” (Mason, above). J. Robert Lennon carries through on the introduction’s promise, or threat, and Pieces for the Left Hand has stayed with me physically, and mentally.
Jeff Bursey is a Canadian novelist, short-story writer and playwright. His literary criticism has appeared in such publications and online journals as Books in Canada, Electronic Book Review, The Quarterly Conversation, Rain Taxi, and The Review of Contemporary Fiction. His first book, Verbatim: A Novel, was published by Enfield & Wizenty in October 2010 to critical acclaim in Canada, England and the U.S. American Book Review wrote: "Let the record show that this is probably about the funniest intelligent book on politics you can get your hands on these days," while The Review of Contemporary Fiction called it "...a tour de force of verbal dexterity..."