In 1981, the Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar published a novella, Max and the Cats, about a young man stuck in a lifeboat with a panther. In 2002, the Canadian writer Yann Martel won the Man Booker Prize for his bestselling Life of Pi, about a young man stuck in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Martel didn’t have to worry that his appropriation would be discovered. He preemptively tattled on himself, thanking Scliar “for the spark of life” in an author’s note and confessing, in an interview with the Guardian, “I remember thinking, man, that’s a brilliant premise” upon reading a review of Scliar’s book.
When Dr. Scliar, literary Brazil, and The New York Times finally took notice, punishment was swift and severe. No, not really. Scliar, though baffled by Martel, declined to pursue legal action. Martel persevered in his delusional belief that what he’d done was something other than a staggering embarrassment. Just last year, Ang Lee turned Martel’s pseudo-spiritual pabulum into a 3-D blockbuster. And somewhere, Martel’s fellow mega-bestselling huckster Paulo Coelho was watching and taking notes.
São Paulo’s latest is Manuscript Found in Accra.1 It should have been called Manuscript Found in Hudson News. Only a surpassingly subtle mind could divine the difference between Coelho’s book and Kahlil Gibran’s ubiquitous self-help tract The Prophet, which since its first publication in 1923 has never been out of print. Gibran is, among poets, reportedly third in sales only to Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu.
In Gibran’s book, Almustafa, a wise man, is about to leave the city of Orphalese for “the isle of his birth.” While awaiting his ship’s arrival, he fields questions from the people about, e.g., love, marriage, crime and punishment, prayer, beauty, and religion. In Coelho’s book, the Copt, a wise man, is about to stay behind in the city of Jerusalem as everyone else flees before the advance of the Crusaders, but not before they pepper him with questions about, er, the Big Questions.
Where Gibran’s mysterious tome has supplied numberless high school yearbook quotes, Coelho’s seems to have been inspired by them. By page seventy-seven the Brazilian sage has become lazy or contemptuous enough to write, as a paragraph all its own, “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” One wouldn’t be surprised to find the Copt asking, “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?”
Gibran and Coelho, when they aren’t merely stating the obvious, try to blow the reader’s mind with koan-like inversions of the obvious. Thus Gibran writes, “You have been told that, even like a chain, you are as weak as your weakest link. This is but half the truth. You are also as strong as your strongest link.” Well, no, Kahlil, you need to go back and think that through again. Coelho’s logic is similarly sloppy. “Many of us believe that we will hurt those we love if we leave everything behind in the name of our dreams,” he writes, but “those who truly want the best for us want us to be happy.” This is question-begging worthy of a seasoned cult leader: those we love are replaced by those who love us, as determined by an emotional means test. What, does Coelho think we were reincarnated yesterday?
If telepathy serves, you’re wondering whether a book like this isn’t, in fact, beneath critical attention. One wouldn’t review a rack of bumper stickers or a crate of fortune cookies. But it’s worth trying to grasp the roots of Coelho’s popularity. His success puts one in mind of the McDonald’s sign—BILLIONS AND BILLIONS SERVED—both because he’s sold about 140 million books in over seventy languages and because those books are the spiritual equivalent of Big Macs. On his Wikipedia page, you can see him in a dark suit and a Davos badge. He is also a United Nations Messenger of Peace, which is only one degree below a United Nations Ascended Master.
The mystery here lies not in the appeal of self-help or “inspirational fiction,” which will go on being a growth industry until the heat death of the universe. The mystery is why, when so much of the self-actualization prattle popular in the 1960s and 1970s has been forgotten entirely (ask a woman in her twenties about Jonathan Livingston Seagull and she’ll probably ask if he’s the guy who wrote Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), the Gibranian mode is still going so strong.
Manuscript Found in Accra is offensive less for its anemic or incoherent “insights” than because it’s so generic, so bereft of specificity or style. Granted, this approach must make things easier for Coelho’s small army of translators and publicists, but why would anybody else like it? Coelho’s breakout production, The Alchemist, is an allegory involving a shepherd, pyramids, and treasure. (Spoiler alert: The treasure is knowledge, just like in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.) It sounds like a text-based video game, not a novel, yet many a weary pilgrim shelled out for a copy.
There’s only one conclusion to be drawn: The kind of person who goes for inspirational fiction wants badly to be distracted from how hairball life can really get. Books like Martel’s, Gibran’s, and Coelho’s are a kind of literary Xanax. But a survey of recent fiction suggests that a literature of spiritual crisis, one involving recognizably human characters, may be alive and (to varying degrees) well. There is an enormous market for books that lull one into a stupor, but some readers would prefer to be slapped.
Joshua Mohr’s Fight Song, the author’s fourth novel, is a slap, albeit a cautious one.2 Its hero is not a Seeker with a cloak and a staff but rather a twenty-first-century schlub—the heavy-handedly named Bob Coffen—who can’t see why he should go on living. Perhaps Bob’s issues are what pop culture derisively calls “First World Problems,” but they are the only ones he knows, and who are we to fault him for trying to address them? We find men just like Bob in Cheever and Yates, or, in real life, nodding off on the Metro-North amid a confetti of ticket-punchings. Prick these schlubs, do they not bleed?
So runs the case for this kind of yarn. It’s a reasonable one. What makes Fight Song disappointing isn’t its suburban subject matter but how slavishly it takes its cues from movies and TV. Little wonder a reviewer remarked that it “opens cinematically with a scene fit for the tragicomic likes of Steve Carell.” Joshua Mohr has at least one mouth to feed, and that responsibility must weigh as heavily on his mind as on his protagonist’s. But the impulse to make things cartoonishly accessible is a handicap in a novelist, and Fight Song shows how difficult it is for today’s writers to wriggle free of feel-good conventions.
When Bob’s boss presents him with a “plock,” a combined plaque and clock that doesn’t actually tell time, we think of Office Space. When Bob, commuting from work on a bicycle, is run off the road by a savage, college-football-obsessed neighbor in an SUV, we picture some direct-to-DVD disaster costarring Tom Arnold that we even couldn’t watch under duress. The description of Bob’s workplace, a video game–design outfit, is oddly dated, a fantasy of foosball and bean bag chairs beamed from the 1990s tech bubble to the present. Mohr’s worst offense against realism is Bob’s wife, who’s attempting to break a world water-treading record.
Get it? The goal, apart from being unimpressive, is a symbol. Bob and his wife, much like, the implication goes, so many Americans, are treading water in their marriage. They need to reconnect, to dog-paddle their way out of a quietly despairing existence. Bob even has, as cartoon schlubs must, a harridan of a mother-in-law who is incapable of seeing his side of things: “Coffen and his mother-in-law aren’t exactly bosom chums. There’s never been any kind of confrontation or anything because Bob kowtows to her.” That her name is Erma only reinforces that we’re in sitcom territory. The sitcom in question isn’t even current; it’s in syndication on Nick at Nite.
Fight Song tumbles headlong and without apology into slapstick. Bob and his wife go to a magic-show marriage-counseling dinner- theater super-spectacular hinting at the lowbrow spiritual options available to rubes in flyover country. The magician is called Björn the Bereft. “He’s wearing a black cape,” Mohr tells us, “a black top hat. He is mustachioed.” Björn is Bereft, we learn, because his “own marriage failed” and he has “been crying nonstop for nine years.” This is why he sympathizes enough with Bob not to care when, with the help of Bob’s psychopathic Tom Arnold–cameo of a neighbor, Bob kidnaps him. “All Bob Coffen can think is this: Life coaches are not supposed to kidnap magicians.”
Where things go from here must remain a secret, not to preserve the book’s capacity to surprise but to safeguard the dignity of the critic who has given his time to Fight Song. What Mohr hasn’t done, to his credit, is condescend to or pity his avatar of middle-class, middle-American failure. He seems to be trying his best to supply a moving narrative of mid-life crisis and redemption. The particular way in which he fails to do so may be more instructive, if one examines it in the right frame of mind, than success could have been. And it must be said that Fight Song is infinitely more entertaining and/or uplifting than the gauzy—no, cobwebby—scriptures of a Gibran or Coelho.
In a movie, a sort of black comedy of spiritual growth, the hero can only exit his personal maze through an implausible grand gesture. He redeems himself by demonstrating, usually in public, that he still has it in him to act like a college student. But that’s not enough. Once his vitality is no longer in question, the gesture must be tender. In Sam Mendes’s 1999 film American Beauty—Mendes, remember, eventually adapted Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road for the screen—the Bob Coffen analogue smokes pot and lifts weights before ultimately reestablishing his Square Dad bona fides by refraining from seducing his teenage daughter’s friend. Mohr is working from this template, wherein one celebrates the Free Spirit and then, at the last minute, reaffirms an Archie Bunker normativity.
One wonders if any real-life existential crisis has been solved, or mitigated, in such crude and melodramatic terms. If not, is anything gained by the reader who watches this fantasy unspool itself? A certain kind of person will find Fight Song very funny, or appreciate what it’s ostensibly trying to do. That doesn’t, unfortunately, change the fact that anyone seeking a blueprint for realistic self-reinvention will scratch his balding pate and wonder if Mohr has ever hit a serious snag in his life. Of course, if the reader has been paying attention, he’ll guess that authentic change occurs incrementally, painfully, with gains that may not look like gains at first glance. Grown-up life’s a drag, huh?
Enter Sam Lipsyte, whose oeuvre is populated by problem children who don’t grow up, who don’t experience flash-bang epiphanies, and who serve as vivid illustrations of how unlikely the off-track life is to steady itself.
Lipsyte wrote one short story collection (Venus Drive, 2000) and one novel (The Subject Steve, 2001) before really hitting his stride with his 2004 novel Home Land. Lewis Miner, Home Land’s anti-hero, “did not pan out” and doesn’t care who knows it: The novel consists of the embarrassingly forthright updates Lewis submits to his high school alumni newsletter. Milo Burke, the anti-hero of Lipsyte’s 2010 novel The Ask, endures repeated personal and professional humiliations. And Lipsyte’s new collection, The Fun Parts, features such a sad parade of failures, addicts, con men, and degenerates that one can’t help wondering: Is Lipsyte aware that some people do pan out, and without becoming too dull for fiction’s purposes?3
If not, let’s hope nobody clues him in. Lipsyte may sound like a one-trick pony, but it’s a trick very few can pull off with his imagination, his honesty, his empathy, or his comic brio. Loserdom as portrayed in many books and movies is unfortunate but rarely life-threatening. It means, as in Mohr’s imagination, an obnoxious boss or an unbearably “alpha” neighbor. It means a romantic failure or a minor financial hardship—no wonder, since these are familiar to most anyone who works in the arts. But the problems of the stock loser, like Job’s, are never his own fault. Lipsyte’s loser is the master of his own failure. He makes poor choices. He clings to delusions. He seeks shortcuts and quick fixes. Though his circumstances will be bizarre, even absurd, we will see our own worst tendencies in him.
Two stories, “The Worm in Philly” and “Nate’s Pain Is Now,” satirize the abuse of writing by those more interested in money or fame than in art or genuine self-knowledge. “Classic American story,” begins “Worm.” “I was out of money and people I could ask for money.” The narrator’s imagined solution is to write a children’s book, uplifting and leavened with racial struggle, about a boxer named Marvelous Marvin Hagler. (Hagler is no fiction, by the way; at Jimmy’s Corner in Times Square you can see a picture of him wearing a sweatshirt that reads DESTRUCTION & DESTROY, in reference to his hands.) This get-rich-quick scheme backfires in a way that would be hilarious if it didn’t shine such a pitiless light on the psychology of an addict at the end of his rope-a-dope.
“Nate’s Pain Is Now,” also about addicts, eviscerates the addiction- or misery-memoir industry, on both the supply and the demand side. Here, the narrator, a James Frey figure whose audience has abandoned him, waxes nostalgic about the fans who used to pack out his readings:
Goth girls, coke ghosted, rehabbed at twelve and stripping sober, begged for my sagas of degredation, epiphany. They pressed in with their inks, their dyes, their labial metals and scarified montes, cheered their favorite passages, the famous ones, where I ate some sadistic dealer’s turd on a Portuguese sweet roll for the promise of a bindle, or broke into a funeral parlor and slit a corpse open for the formaldehyde. My fans would stomp and holler for my sorrows, my sins, sway in stony silence as I mapped my steps back to sanity (the stint on a garbage truck, or my first clean screw), or whatever semblance of sanity was possible in a world gone berserk with misery, plague, affinity marketing.
The overwhelming nastiness of the passage makes the point that there is no rock-bottom so deep that a jaded public won’t expect you to keep digging. The failure porn that Lipsyte mocks wants badly to be the opposite of Manuscript Found in Accra, but it’s really the same thing: the promise of revelation without the hard work of painful reflection. To endure life is not really to examine it. To examine it, whether through soft-headed parables or compromising self-disclosures, is not really to endure it, let alone learn from it. Those who pretend otherwise can only wander the earth, Melmoth-like, praying that their personal curses will lift by magic.
“The Dungeon Master,” which previously appeared in The New Yorker to many a reader’s delight and many a D&D player’s nit-picking fury, could be read as an apology for Lipsyte’s treatment of his characters. It describes a troop of nerds who prosecute their imaginary wars, their pencil-and-graph-paper adventures, under the capricious and sadistic eye of the titular Dungeon Master. The DM, like Lipsyte himself, subjects his so-called friends to whatever he feels like, but one day he goes too far, and mayhem ensues. The narrator later has a chance encounter with the disturbed DM, who asks, “Remember all the newspaper stories about how the game makes kids crazy? Makes them do horrible things?”
The narrator says yes. “Love those,” the DM says. “Take, for example, suicides. The game doesn’t create suicides. If anything, it postpones them. I mean, the world gives you many reasons to snuff it, got to admit.” The narrator demurs, and so the DM goes in for the kill: “In another age you could be a father already. In another neighborhood.”
The Dungeon Master sounds a bit like Mark Twain’s Satan in The Mysterious Stranger, goading his interlocutor into acknowledging that the fabric of reality makes for a miserably constricting garment. It’s as if Lipsyte is reminding us that, for all the creator of unpleasant fictions may seem like a sadist, he is merely aping the example set by the author of us all. That is the storyteller his characters answer to when, as in “Ode to Oldcorn,” they are forced to accept the dreams they’ll never bring to fruition, the walls they’ll bang their heavy heads against in vain.
When one considers how outnumbered are the successful and fulfilled by the stumbling and desperate, Lipsyte’s attention to the lost seems not like nostalgie de la boue so much as an act of mercy. He’s unlocked the door to the outer darkness and invited the forgotten wailers and teeth-gnashers to eat at his table.
There is nothing cinematic about Lipsyte’s work. It’s tough to imagine his novels or stories being turned into movies. The reader isn’t distracted by wondering who would direct, who would star, nor does he suspect that Lipsyte has daydreamed about it. While Lipsyte’s work, much like Fight Song, can veer into the gratingly zany—see the ending of “The Wisdom of the Doulas”—it isn’t a sitcom-friendly slapstick. The reason for all this is simple: Lipsyte’s power rests in his style, his language, which reproduces the feverish mental patter of the genuinely screwed. The action is an afterthought.
The same is true of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs: You could film it, maybe, but you would lose most of what makes it a mature and penetrating account of existential crisis.4 Messud’s prose couldn’t be more different from Lipsyte’s, meticulous and Jamesian where his is pit-stained and frantic, but she’s like Lipsyte in her reliance on language over story to work her magic. The heroine of The Woman Upstairs is a marginal figure out of the Lipsyte playbook, but her failures and anxieties are, like Messud’s style, subtler, quieter, confined to the head and heart. The drug-and-money hustle of some of Lipsyte’s more damaged specimens aren’t really up Messud’s alley.
The title is a nod to Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. Messud’s Upstairs Woman, the elementary school teacher Nora Eldridge, is a more restrained modern counterpoint to the Underground Man. But not too restrained. In her private thoughts, she is mad as hell and giving serious thought to maybe not taking it anymore:
I always thought I’d get farther. I’d like to blame the world for what I’ve failed to do, but the failure—the failure that sometimes washes over me as anger, makes me so angry I could spit—is all mine, in the end. What made my obstacles insurmountable, what consigned me to mediocrity, is me, just me. . . . I thought I could get to greatness, to my greatness, by plugging on, cleaning up each mess as it came, the way you’re taught to eat your greens before you have dessert. But it turns out that’s a rule for girls and sissies, because the mountain of greens is of Everest proportions, and the bowl of ice cream at the far end of the table is melting a little more with each passing second. . . . The hubris of it, thinking I could be a decent human being and a valuable member of family and society, and still create! Absurd. How strong did I think I was?
No, obviously what strength was all along was the ability to say “Fuck off” to the lot of it, to turn your back on all the suffering and contemplate, unmolested, your own desires above all. Men have generations of practice at this.
Nora is “over forty fucking years old” and intermittently foul-mouthed, though like any real elementary school teacher she is eager to reassure the reader that she doesn’t “swear in front of the children.” There’s plenty she doesn’t do. The type of woman she is: “We’re always upstairs. . . . We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound.” She is the Missed Opportunity made flesh.
Of these four books, Messud’s will reach out and touch and torment the largest audience. Nora’s simmering ordeal makes the reader ask not only “What haven’t I accomplished yet?” but also “Why do I feel entitled to accomplish things?” Contemplating Marianne Faithfull’s “Ballad of Lucy Jordan,” Nora says, “I always thought I’d live in Paris, Rome, Madrid . . . . It strikes me now that I didn’t dream of Zanzibar or Papeete or Tashkent: even my fantasy was cautious . . . a blanched almond of a fantasy.” It’s the fantasy of the kind of person who wasn’t ever equipped to fulfill fantasies. Messud knows this, and in her quiet way she is a hundred lashes more sadistic than Lipsyte dares to be.
If you’re thinking this sounds like a book in which nothing happens, well, you’re right and you’re wrong. Yes, the plot is plain and sedate enough to summarize in a few sentences. Nora, who seems in danger of boring herself to death, once dreamed of being an artist. This dream has been pulverized by her tiresome young charges and by her parents, a mother who required constant attention before her death and an ailing father who still does. But into this blanched-almond existence steps a family that holds out the promise of exotic potluck. There is Reza Shahid, the beautiful boy who appears in Nora’s class, gets bullied, and turns out to be preternaturally forgiving and resilient. His beautiful parents are Sirena, an internationally renowned artist, and her Lebanese husband, Skandar. Nora falls in love with all of them—separately, and in different ways—but courts Sirena’s frienship most intensely, craving a sort of artistic kinship and validation. It proves her undoing.
Little happens in the book, but that undoing sure does, so we’ll pass over it in silence. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a minor betrayal, a small-scale psychic assault, but it still flings a door wide open on Nora’s fury. Some readers—the self-actualized ones?—will see the Shahid family as insufferable people who would of course mesmerize an insecure elementary school teacher. Are they worldly? Yes—but behind the haboob of silks and spices they’re just as capable of self-absorption, bald ambition, and cruelty as anyone else. The insecure have to learn this for themselves, the hard way.
Self-help can help, but if it doesn’t hurt, it probably isn’t helping.
1 Manuscript Found in Accra, by Paulo Coelho; Knopf, 208 pages, $22.
2 Fight Song, by Joshua Mohr; Soft Skull Press, 272 pages, $15.95.
3 The Fun Parts, by Sam Lipsyte; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 240 pages, $24.
4 The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud; Knopf, 272 pages, $25.95.