I also want to talk to you this morning about a book I've just finished: Tom Rayfiel's new novel, Genius. You might remember how much I liked his previous novel, In Pinelight, and in between reading that one and this one, I've also had the privilege of looking at a draft of a novel in progress. So one thing I'm beginning to realize is that Tom is really, really good at channeling voices, even though the quality of those voices varies wildly from book to book. I find myself imagining his characters as earworms: personalities, tones, presences that he cannot get out of his thoughts but that take over his creative life in spite of whatever else he thought he was doing.
The back cover tells me that Genius was "written with the careening effervescence of Barbara Pym on crack," but the parallel that comes to my mind is Larry McMurtry--particularly novels such as Texasville and Duane's Depressed, in which the characters, major and minor, thrash through their small-town lives like branches in a gale--taking down power lines, right and left. Yet they treat themselves and their behavior--whether that be (in the case of of Tom's characters) dealing meth, or getting knocked up by a priest, or breaking the neck of an attacking pitbull, or recovering from cancer--as nearly comprehensible, as almost neighborly. My adverbs are important caveats here. Nearly and almost reinforce Tom's point that we can never actually understand anything; yet, like McMurtry's, most of his characters accept such ignorance as simple common sense. Even his central character, Kara, the brainy philosophy major, eventually allows herself to relax into that communal anti-knowledge.
I try thinking things through at the counter of Kreski's, our local luncheonette. Sometimes it helps to have a low-level murmur in the background. I am hoping that by placing myself between a discussion of hysterectomies ("They took something out of her as big as a grapefruit!") and what threatens to become a physical altercation concerning steel-belted radial tires, I will be able to arrive at an appropriate course of action. What I really need is a push. I should be calling clinics, figuring a way to scrape together money, arranging for transportation . . . Frankly, though, considering my circumstances, all that seems laughable. I pour sugar in my coffee and do not bother to stop, marveling at how the white waterfall dissolves in the sludgy brown liquid without raising the level one bit. It dispels the laws of physics and so invalidates, in advance, any attempt I might make to employ logic in solving my problems.As a person who cannot write plots, I am always amazed and impressed by people who can. I do love those hairpin turns, those comic melodramas, and that special readerly feeling of being the passenger in a car that may or may not spin off the road and hit a tree. Genius is a very funny novel that is also a very sad and ambiguous one. Most of the characters don't find resolution or higher love, and it seems likely they will continue to murder nursing home patients or seduce Mormon missionaries or whatever it was that they were doing already. In many ways, the book is an old-fashioned Dickensian romp/social document, except that Tom doesn't wrap up anything neatly. Yet as Kara says about the sensation of getting a tattoo, the novel "puts my senses on high alert, sharpens them. I am aware, even if it is an awareness of damage being done."