“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.”
T.S. Eliot, from “Tradition and the Individual Talent”
Many novels, particularly first ones, contain elements taken from the author’s own experiences, an influence, no doubt, of the popular maxim, “Write what you know”. The phenomenon is so prevalent, in fact, it has generated a great deal of scholarship, and new literary biographies—which focus on the links between life and art—seem to get published every year.
There’s nothing wrong with this approach to reading, per se. Nevertheless, when a general reader comes to a novel and looks for the factual in the fictitious, he or she may, unwittingly, cheat themselves of the pleasures novels offer. That is, if readers find themselves wondering “Did this really happen?” and “What will this character’s real-life counterpart think?” and so forth, they are not completely accepting the novel as an imaginary work, and the main objective of fiction—to provide a reprieve from the world and its problems—is prevented from being achieved.
This personal-history factor becomes a problem of sorts, unfortunately, when we first open Nick Fowler’s debut novel A Thing (or Two) About Curtis and Camilla, thanks in part to the biographical sketch that appears on the dust jacket: “Fowler, a musician….grew up in Tallahassee, Florida [and] graduated from Cornell University”. Like the author, you see, the novel’s protagonist Curtis Birnbaum is a rock musician, a north Florida fugitive and a Cornell grad. And thus the expectation that this book—like Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, or, for that matter, Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous—is yet another example of autobiography—passed off as fiction—doesn’t seem to be an unreasonable one.
Readers will probably spend more of their time contemplating and enjoying the book’s fictional truths, rather than wondering and worrying about its historical veracities, however, once they start reading A Thing (or Two) About Curtis and Camilla. And this is largely because Fowler’s story about a New York rock ‘n’ roller’s short-lived affair with a beautiful woman strays into fantasy too often to be considered a literal translation of his own experiences. Coincidences, for instance, often occur with almost magical timing, and his characters tend to be grotesquely selfish and self-absorbed, not unlike the personalities that appear in other surreal novels like, say, Kafka’s The Trial or Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. But while the conditions and circumstances that afflict the characters are strange, their agonies, of loneliness and alienation, are universal; and Fowler’s story aches with a hurt many people, who’ve loved and lost, should recognize.
Of course, the argument might be made that writers create unusual situations and characters when they are not able to render experience otherwise. Fowler, though, is a good, perhaps great, craftsman and, when he wants to, he constructs his images, scenarios and crises with simplicity and precision. Consider this fine passage: “I watched their cab wander into the wide, elegant din of Lafayette Street. Just as I was about to turn away, Camilla’s head twisted back around. And as she looked at me through the dark shrinking rear window, the soft jewel of orchid aglow in her hair, she touched the glass”. He also plots his story along an easy to follow (and enjoy) U-shaped pattern, that tracks (or, rather, leads) Curtis as he descends into and subsequently ascends from suicidal self-loathing.
But this novel is far more than a collection of oddballs moving along a conventional dramatic arch. For example, Fowler often reveals his knowledge of great writers and, following the example set by T.S. Eliot and other modernists, alludes to and emulates them. In the opening section, for instance, Curtis meets a precocious neighbor, a young girl named Little Green (a reference, by the way, to a Joni Mitchell song). Charismatic, tough and damaged, Little Green quickly arouses Curtis’ protective, paternal affections. Sound familiar? Salinger created a similar scenario in his great story “For Esme¢—With Love and Squalor”. And though we might be tempted to call homage such as this derivative, it seems likely that Fowler is behaving a lot like Hemingway, who often mimicked writers in order to display his talent.
This ambitiousness—this Oedipal disposition—becomes more obvious, perhaps, when we look at a passage that appears late in the novel. Here, Curtis, destitute and humiliated, stands on top of a record company office building, planning to jump. He decides not to, however, and the publicity he creates wins him a recording contract. This allusion will be missed, though, if we aren’t familiar with Don DeLillo’s novel Great Jones Street, which chronicles a self-destructive rock musician as he attempts to escape from and destroy his career. As the story starts, he explains, “[T]he only natural law attaching to true fame is that the famous man is compelled, eventually, to commit suicide”.
The frequency of these attempts at recognizing and besting older writers (and their frequent success) probably reveal more about Fowler’s personality—and his past and his points of view—than any biographical sketch. They also contribute to the suspension of disbelief, the narcotic forgetfulness, that distinguishes enjoyable reading experiences from unpleasant ones. In short, Fowler, as he ceaselessly strives to “make it new”, transcends the limits of influence to create a solid, distinct and admirable work of art.
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