'Terrorism and Tyranny' by James Bovard

'DNA: The Secret of Life' by James Watson

'Revere Beach Elegy' by Roland Merullo

'Advice to a Young Contrarian' by Christopher Hitchens

'In the Shape of a Boar' by Lawrence Norfolk

'The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde' Edited by Merwin Holland

'Martin Baumann' by David Leavitt

'The Golden Age' by Gore Vidal

'Waineright the Poisoner' by Andrew Motion

'The Book of Revelation' by Rupert Thomson

'Dreams of Dreams' by Antonio Tabucchi

'Consolations of Philosophy' by Alain de Botton

'Apologizing to Dogs' by Joe Coomer

'We Can Report Them' by Michael Brodsky

'The Young John Muir' by Steven J. Holmes

'Soft!' by Rupert Thomson

The Boston Book Review, November 1999

Loony Wars

We Can Report Them
Michael Brodsky
Four Walls Eight Windows
356 pp. $16.95

ichael Brodsky is one of those mad and too rare authors who understands to his nethermost neuron that the last thing a sentence need do is advance a story line. Forget subject and verb, and abandon any hope of diagramming even the most declarative of Brodsky's efforts (unless you have German on the tip of your tongue, in which case you're all set). Each sentence is a battle waging its own loony war, a shout in the eternal storm, a three-minute ride on the bump-'em cars we loved as children. Digressions and qualifications abound ("Bert can't help feeling — or rather he could help feeling if he cared to but only simply or not so simply doesn't care to"), and in this regard we're obviously in the maniacal grip of late Henry James. But Brodsky's particular gift, releasing brilliant one-liners, gorgeous poetry slam riffs, and ultimately a novel of unique beauty, is the suspense, the near violence of his grammatical constructions.

    Entering ready to confront him in his unchanging, what was Bert's astonishment (albeit an astonishment he allowed for from time to time and one that did nothing to mitigate the doomed sense of such unchanging ) to find the thing he was nevertheless always least prepared for: a slight change.

Our hero Bert is visiting his stepfather, impatient the old man hasn't yet passed on so that he, Bert, might ease the filial guilt he feels for feeling nothing. A director of TV commercials, Bert also awaits the assignment of his so-so career: a 30-second spot about a serial killer. What this will advertise, much less sell, remains unclear, but the old man dies, Bert gets the assignment, and we spend the ensuing novel in the elaborately discussed production of this 30-second advertisement. Some ideas are funny all by themselves, and the idea of a full length novel explicating in Lacanian detail a 30-second commercial is a marvelous slap to those deconstructionists who need one, yet so deftly done that life and death, art and its struggles are each given their due.

All the characters speak in the same voice — Stanislavsky deconstructed on the Freudian couch — and the effect is very "Pennies from Heaven": everyone opens their mouth and sings the same song of ultra self-regard. One of Brodsky's more bravura touches had to do with the conversation's id-like brutality. The most brutal ripostes are as often as not shrugged off, while the merest slip is pressed to breast like an asp. This peculiarly modern condition of the thick- and thin-skinned makes for some marvelous collisions:

    Through the corner of an eye he could see that, even from the mumble he tried to make as incoherent as possible, she'd managed to decipher his gist and, predictably, was dutifully beginning to do what she did (or thought she did) best, namely, seethe for all she was worth. And he began to — very visibly, he hoped, for once in his life (only why, with a terminal ease on his hands, did it have to be now?) — seethe back at the seething. I'm a dying woman, she confirmed piteously (as if to help get all the eggs of his self-hate into one basket), and it's here of all places you choose to bait me, her moan being so wrenching, he actually thought he loved her madly; that's what the hating boiled down to, then, if only for a split second -- but once the split second was over what she (or rather, her moan) really seemed to be saying was, Where do you come off to be seething at my seething over your turning your back on my dying?

The opening chapters are rather slow, however. Bert has altogether too much Sesame Street about him, and Brodsky, for a novelist so obsessed with subtleties (imagine the Hubble telescope trained on your living room), makes the odd mistake of asking us to believe for too long that Bert's filial indifference is inconceivable to the doctors working to keep the old man alive. Midway through, Brodsky has his immense gifts under control, and real madness is allowed to shine forth. Brodsky obviously identifies with Bert, but it isn't until Bert is granted the stage of a director's chair that he comes into his own. He brilliantly parries attacks from his angry young killer, calmly rides the roller coaster of approaching fame or oblivion, and as his stepfather's death gives way to his mother-in-law's dying, he even comes to terms with his own indifference to the fate of others — thus epiphany comes in this comic and inconclusive world.