So the story goes: as he read his son’s new novel, Kingsley Amis was so disgusted that Martin Amis had written himself into Money that he hurled the book across the room mid-sentence. Even allowing for the Oedipal psychodrama that characterized much of their relationship, this seems like a bit of an overreaction. And yet, I can hardly claim not to have experienced similar urges.
Writing yourself into your fiction is a device all graduate Creative Writing programs, from East Anglia to Southern California, should caution students against. How anyone made it all the way through Douglas Coupland’s JPod remains a minor mystery to me (opening line: “Oh God. I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel”). Which is not to say that all such uses are equal, and not simply because Money is a good book and JPod is not. Enter Mischa Berlinski with his fiercely original first novel, Fieldwork.
Where Fieldwork’s name-dropping differs is that Berlinski makes no mere cameo. Recall the manner in which Jonathan Safran Foer creates a fictional alter ego in his own debut, Everything Is Illuminated, and you’ll be far closer to Berlinski’s effort. Aesthetically, the novelist as protagonist is a far more defensible posture than the masturbatory cameos in Money and JPod. It’s no secret that many first novels are largely autobiographical, and there comes a point when simply admitting this is more instructive than hiding behind aliases. Certainly, the protagonist of The Rachel Papers could be renamed “Martin Amis” without compromising the narrative.
That Berlinski is the main character in his own novel is the first thing one notices about Fieldwork, but hardly the only thing one takes away. Having followed his girlfriend to Thailand, the fictional Berlinski soon hears of an American anthropologist who turns up dead in the Thai prison where she’s serving a life sentence. To provide anything beyond this rudimentary summery would do both the novel and its potential readers a disservice. Simply listing the plot details can only begin to suggest the depths of creativity on display here. Likewise, to approach Fieldwork with foreknowledge of major plot points would diminish the experience.
Berlinski piles story-upon-story, and his resulting Russian doll narrative resembles nothing so much as Robertson Davies in his prime. The wry prose is a pleasure in and of itself, but is never foregrounded at the plot’s expense. There are writers one reads for their inimitable eloquence, and there are those one turns to for pure storytelling. Berlinski’s achievement is in marrying the two, fashioning a story that thrills without condescension. Fieldwork is clearly the work of a superior intellect, but one that doesn’t shy away from juicy plot twists or exciting set pieces.
Berlinski himself worked as a journalist in Thailand, and his experiences have surely helped shape his writing. That Fieldwork is impeccably researched is beyond question, but Berlinski doesn’t flaunt his erudition needlessly. Instead, the information he’s accumulated provides a steady foundation, allowing him to write with an earned authority that never fails to convince. One need not harbor any particular interest in the minutia of Christian missionary work or the eponymous anthropological fieldwork to appreciate his accomplishment.
Resisting simplistic genre labels, Fieldwork is the type of novel that often languishes under the Literary Fiction heading. However, there are those rare times when such a work, often boosted by some prize or another, finds both critical and commercial success. One hopes, then, that Fieldwork’s National Book Award nomination will do for it what the Pulitzer Prize helped do for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. For such a wonderfully complex, yet accessible novel to not find its audience would be a shame.
The next time some aging curmudgeon, say V.S. Naipaul, declares the novel dead, someone should force Fieldwork into his hands. No art form capable of exhibiting this much vitality and this level of originality can truly be waning. That this is Berlinski’s first effort just makes his achievement all the more impressive, and all the more enviable.