The Only Good Thing Anybody Has Ever Done by Sandra Newman

Phoebe Kate Foster

It's a veritable cornucopia of global contemporary culture . . . If you've been in a coma for the last few decades or recently come from another planet, this book should be required reading.

The Only Good Thing Anybody Has Ever Done

Publisher: HarperCollins
Length: 389
Price: $24.95 (US)
Author: Sandra Newman
US publication date: 2003-05
Those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.
— Nietzsche

The Only Good Thing Anybody Has Ever Done, a first novel by Sandra Newman, is about (roughly in the following order):

1. Chrysalis Moffat (a.k.a. Rosa Espuelas), who lives under her bed.

(Who among us has not considered this very action at many a juncture in our lives? Three times last month, life in the Land of the Dust Bunnies looked mighty appealing to me compared to the alternatives that day.)

2. She tells much of her story by means of lists and outlines, with parenthetical comments, digressions, and descriptions of all manner of things, relevant and irrelevant.

(How can you help but love a heroine like that -- especially if you have a tendency toward OCD or just wish to hell you were more methodical and made more sense out of the seemingly random, insignificant things that happen?)

3. Chrysalis was born in Peru and adopted as a baby under very strange circumstances by the Moffats, a couple of wealthy California eccentrics.

(California being, of course, the very epicenter of The Strange, with more weird people per square mile than any other state in the Union. Trust me. I lived there.)

4. Mr. and Mrs. Moffat die.

(Strangely, of course.)

5. Chrysalis is left alone in the Moffat mansion under her bed, ruminating about her Ph.D dissertation, a deconstructive treatment of Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, which she's been working on for almost ten years.

(Just because you live under your bed doesn't mean you can't have a rich intellectual life. And when did you last think about a fine work like Dr. Faustus, I ask you? Okay, not recently . . . well, maybe never . . . but I sometimes do, and next time, I'm going to do it under my bed. For sure.)

6. The Moffats' natural son, Eddie (a.k.a. "Rat Boy," "Sleaze King," and Jack) -- "five foot seven inches of sheer depravity" and Chrysalis's sometime-lover -- returns from a trip to Boulder, Colorado with his new best friend, Ralph, a self-proclaimed New Age guru and imminent candidate for Buddhahood.

(The only place that comes close to California on the strangeness scale is Colorado.)

7. Ralph (a.k.a. Allan Michaelson, the British-born son of gypsies) lived as a potter in Nepal, where he was led by a white cat into the mountains to meet God.

8. "The rhododendrons bled down the valley and he knew something briefly…Nothing has happened to Ralph since that time."

9. Now Ralph (bankrolled by Eddie's sizable inheritance from his parents) is going to start The Tibetan School of Miracles in the Moffat mansion and rip off all those neurotically hip Californians who think enlightenment is this year's hottest accessory for their perfect tans.

10. A Mystery Woman surfaces (a.k.a. Denise, Deesy, and D.C.) whom both Ralph and Eddie just happened to have known at different times and in different parts of the world, and been powerfully affected by.

11. For some reason, there also happens to be, inexplicably, a snapshot of her in the late Mr. Moffat's effects, too.

(It's clear he must have been powerfully affected by her, too, but that's how it is with Mystery Women.)

12. The coincidences are occurring so fast and heavy that Ralph, Eddie and Chrysalis reflect upon whether what they're experiencing are just the effects of all those psychedelic drugs they ingest or are they really, truly are living out The Celestine Prophecy.

(The reader will have to decide this one for himself.)

13. Then Chrysalis discovers the CIA's mixed up in this.

(Aren't they always?)

14. And it involves weapons of biological warfare.

(Doesn't everything anymore?)

15. And -- here's the kicker -- it's connected with the weird subculture of international professional poker players.

(About which, by the way, the reader is provided an uncommon amount of interesting information.)

16. In the end, all the characters live/die/have an epiphany and/or disappear in a flying saucer.

By now, it probably seems that the book is confusing, peculiar, improbable and hard to follow. And, to some extent, that's correct.

However, it is also charming, eclectic, entertaining, un-put-downable even if you don't quite understand what's going on, and it may well become a cult classic.

Obviously, all excellent recommendations for it, along with the following points worthy of consideration:

1. It's a veritable cornucopia of global contemporary culture. There are more pop culture references per page than in any book in the rememberable past. If you've been in a coma for the last few decades or recently come from another planet, this book should be required reading. It will get you up to speed overnight.

2. The author is being hailed as the "Vonnegut of her generation."

3. It features striking prose that reads like poetry:

Our relations were beautiful, like a foal we held in common. No one would be careless with the delicate foal. We walked down halls and they became true halls. Rooms we stood in, shone. Then it was over.

4. It has a useful appendix at the end of the book that reveals the specific strategies used by professional blackjack players, in case you're vacationing in Vegas soon and hope to subsidize your sojourn with your gambling proceeds.

5. It's laugh out loud funny.

6. It's about everything. Some of its chapters are entitled "Alien Spacecraft Section," "Back in the Bedroom: A Tenacious Burro," "Facts for Tourists: The Mosque of Al-Hakim," "You Can't Go Home Again If You've Never Been There Before," "Fucking," "More Fucking," "Morphic Resonance," "Book Report -- Beyond the Zebra by Dr. Seuss, and "What Happens to You After You Die." Now really, if you can't find something of interest there, where can you?

7. It's about nothing. And that's okay, too. Like Ralph who remarks in the book, "I do fairly well for a fake," author Newman may be very sly and putting one over on us. But like the students at the Tibetan School of Miracles, who believe what they want to believe when Ralph waves his magic silver wand (it's a spray-painted chopstick, by the way), we've paid our bucks and we've gotten our money's worth -- if not in anything of real substance, then in just savoring a damned convincing performance. Good literature, after all, may be the greatest miracle of them all.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.