Books

Saint John of the Five Boroughs by Edward Falco

This is another dilemma of postmodern realism in fiction: the culture which insists that everything is important saturates the form of the novel itself.


Saint John of the Five Boroughs

Publisher: Unbridled (original)
ISBN: 978-1-932961-88-1
Author: Edward Falco
Price: $16.95
Format: Paperback
Length: 432 pp.
Publication Date: 2009-10
Amazon

Edward Falco digs a hole for himself in the opening section of his new novel, Saint John of the Five Boroughs. Like many American writers of the past 30 years, Falco endeavors to accurately portray the TMZ-obsessed world of pop culture so that he can liberate his protagonist, Avery Walker, from it—it, in this case, being also the vacuous party scene of a massive state university where football players are celebrities, bitchy roommates want the scoop on the night’s hook-ups, and alcoholic, hipster losers wear T-shirts that read “Kill Me” on their chests like targets.

To establish this world by the narrative force of fiction, Falco has to drag us through its OMG-moments vividly and over some length of time. But vividness alone doesn’t guarantee engrossment, and soon the reader is happy to oblige that T-shirt’s command.

Taking shots at the shallowness of campus culture is, of course, a slam-dunk, which is the point: after she sleeps with a star of the football team and the novel’s brooding anti-hero, a visiting performance artist from Brooklyn (‘natch), on the very same night, Avery becomes disgusted by the narrow-mindedness of her peers and hops on a hog for Brooklyn with the anti-hero stranger, Grant Danko. Having suffered through her roommates’ conversations, we can’t help but root Avery on her way. But even if Avery is at least self-aware enough to know that, like her Penn State peers, “her beliefs [are] formed more from Fraiser and ER than religion and philosophy,” she still remains a character whose beliefs have indeed been formed by Frasier and ER instead of religion and philosophy.

Accurate? Perhaps, but again, accuracy doesn’t guarantee the reader’s interest. There are two ways we can still be intrigued: to be convinced of the worthwhile religion and philosophy within pop culture (the DeLillo Method), or to understand, as readers, that Avery is wrong about herself. Otherwise we’ll be asked to wade through another 300 pages of a self-discovery akin to filling an empty swimming pool. A dicey proposition, and one Falco’s novel anticipates.

Avery’s flight to Brooklyn with Grant sets the rest of the novel’s plot into motion. Avery’s mother, a lonely widower who finds no comfort in her friends, either, seeks out her wayward daughter. Kate is aided in this quest by her brother-in-law Hank and his young wife, Lindsey. The catch? Hank has been sleeping with Kate, rather stoically. Meanwhile Avery is neatly taken under the wing of Grant’s successful creative friends, including Mei Mei, a “world-renowned” visual artist, even though we’re told they’re a tight-knit bunch to the point of snobby exclusivity. Avery’s middling success threatens Grant, a failed writer and apparently not much of a performance artist, and, seeking stability and money, he turns to his uncle, a Mafioso.

If it sounds a bit soap-operatic, it is, but in Falco’s hands, at least the adults’ contradictions are convincing: Kate hypocritically chastises her friend for sexing up a recently-separated parishioner; Hank loves his wife, but cares for Kate like the extended family she is; Lindsey, possibly the novel’s most interesting character, dotes on her Alzheimer’s-afflicted father and her young son despite her regrets, nascent alcoholism, and the sudden grief caused by the death of her brother, Ronnie, in Iraq. Their lives are complicated enough to have contradictions; we have a sense of when they are skimming their own surfaces, diving to the murky bottoms of their psyches, and are most pleased when they are aware of the fathoms between.

That each of the ‘adults’ has his or her own narration seems like a safety net lest we become bored or turned off by the points of view of Avery or Grant. A shrewd tactic, if we weren’t so aware of it. This is another dilemma of postmodern realism in fiction: the culture which insists that everything is important saturates the form of the novel itself—its tactics, its structure, its writing at the sentence level—and the result is a too-liberal use of point of view, a many-tentacled plot, and overwhelming detail which impresses and entertains only if you don’t question its importance. (And we’re not talking about maximalist style; Falco hasn’t tried to write Underworld.)

The novel lacks depth of field and the reader’s ‘eye’ doesn’t know quite where to look. Hence, in Saint John of the Five Boroughs, an accurately realistic but unimportant conversation between Kate, Hank, and Lindsey about hotel prices in New York drags on without any subtext. For the same reason, Avery is able to be enamored of the ‘complexity’ of Grant, who seems only cluttered. Bits of plot and character get lost in the wash, like Avery’s feelings about her deceased father, or Lindsey’s problem drinking, or the rushed resolution to Hank and Kate’s affair.

If Falco’s authorial eye sees too indiscriminately, the panorama is at least lively, especially once the novel settles into Manhattan and Brooklyn. For Avery the city is predictably new, entirely about possibilities, while her mother sees only its threats and Grant and his cohorts are comfortably ambivalent to the city’s hustle and sprawl. In one memorable scene, however, Lindsey confronts Times Square post-Disney, circa-Bush, and the billboards urge her toward a desire to desire.

Falco’s writing is at its most relaxed in Lindsey’s point of view. Soon she confronts a pair of war protestors dressed as Bush and Cheney, and the novel feels deliriously up-for-grabs. But as she’s about to chase them down, a police officer steps in her way, as if the novel must intercede to keep Lindsey on track.

The promise made by the uniquely American brand of hyper-rich, dizzying realism is that anything can happen, and yet in Saint John of the Five Boroughs, characters stay too true to their programming. Experiments never become more than dalliances, and even the more surprising moments—a decision to uproot, a suicide attempt, a sexual foray with Mei Mei—never threaten the novel’s course.

In moments of conflict, when speech between lovers naturally becomes more obscure and frenzied—when a slip of the tongue can have disastrous results—Falco’s characters say exactly what they’re thinking in a too-realistic artlessness. “You’re behaving like a coward,” Kate tells Hank in New York as their affair continues to disintegrate, “and Lindsey is behaving like a fool.” Hank responds that Kate is being “way over the top. Keep in mind you’re stressed too.” In this tumultuous moment, Kate replies like she’s in debate club, “I’m stressed but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. I’m sorry for talking to you like this, but it’s crazy, Hank.” Unfortunately it feels anything but crazy. No one has the bad manners to even interrupt each other.

The one character who promises the most chaos may be the novel’s most staid and least likable. For a 37-year-old performance artist who used to call himself Saint John of the Five Boroughs and who lives in the hub of all-things-cultural (or so we’re told, again and again), Grant Danko is surprisingly naïve and unimaginative. Like most of the novel’s characters, he’s wed to a traumatic past, but his only plan is to work his way into his uncle’s business, hoping to climb from the runner job that almost got him killed to some vague position of power that will almost certainly get him killed.

Uncle Billy laughs in his face. Getting schooled by his uncle and his uncle’s lieutenant, Albert, are Grant’s most entertaining scenes; his relationship with Avery is dull, his jealousy borders on paranoia, and his work, entirely in his past, not particularly groundbreaking. Submerged in thought, he offers pedestrian observations like “Time was so fucking weird, the way it went slow and fast simultaneously.”

Not until late in Saint John of the Five Boroughs do we discover which Saint John Grant and his author have in mind. Fittingly, for a novel filled with people searching for their identities, Saint John of Patmos is a contentious, vague figure in history who competes with John the Apostle and John the Presbyter for the dubious distinction of writing the Book of Revelations. Like his namesake in Falco’s novel, his character is less interesting than the context in which he lived and the greater story he serves.

Grant Danko and the other characters in Saint John of the Five Boroughs may adequately represent the lives of people living in these schizophrenic-yet-bored times, but they never do more than represent. That is the danger of realism in fiction: the portrait is true, but rarely affecting as a story.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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