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TBTS Reviews: In Between Days

October 23, 2012

I remember the last time Philip Roth accidentally ruined a book for me. The author had put out a well-received short story collection, one which I read and thoroughly enjoyed, which built in me an anticipation of his forthcoming first novel. A year, more or less, passed between the first book and the second, and when it came I snatched up the galley and ran off with it. I promised myself I’d get to it next, right after I finished another prize, a secondhand copy of the best novel of Philip Roth’s later years, American Pastoral. I spent a couple of weeks in the grip of that book, watching a master construct and then destroy a man’s life, a man, a one-time golden boy and school hero, Swede Levov, who had invested everything in his only daughter Merry only to have that daughter radicalized in the fever swamp of the nineteen-sixties and then turn into a murderer, a terrorist, a bomber who for poor reasons plants an explosive in the post office of a sleepy town outside Newark. When I was done – worn out, breath-taken – I turned to this young man’s book next. And it isn’t his fault, not strictly, that I had placed his book next to a great mountain and saw it for a small hill. That book was Justin Taylor’s The Gospel of Anarchy, a decent effort, a punk-lit kind of book that in another light might have looked better but next to American Pastoral looked exactly like something a recent MFA graduate in need of something to dent his student loans would produce. Taylor had written a book with too much in common with something greater – namely, a squalid backdrop of lives on the fringe, nuisances, neighborhood threats the locals couldn’t wait to get rid of, too much like the collection of junkies, dropouts and cultists the Swede’s daughter ends up living with in the final chapters of American Pastoral for me to refrain from the comparison. And so a book I so wanted to love looked so much lesser than I hoped.

And now, damn him, but Philip Roth has done it to me again.

In Between Days, Andrew Porter’s much-anticipated first novel after a well-received short story collection, The Theory of Light and Matter, which I have not read but which drew comparisons to Richard Ford, Raymond Carver and John Cheever, names which do not (or at least ought not) drop lightly. I read about Porter’s unadorned, simple prose style and his skill at using it to illuminate his characters’ lives and minds. I even liked the title – hey, sue me, I like The Cure.

It started off promisingly enough. It’s a family story, which is common as grass these days, but good writers can find something rare in the commonplace, so I wasn’t going to discard it for that alone. It features a freshly-divorced couple in their fifties, a man on the downward slope of a once-great career in architecture and a woman who had given too much of her life to him, and their college-age children, a young gay man with a promising career as a poet who is debating whether to go forward with an MFA and a daughter who has suddenly been expelled because of her involvement with what appears to have been a serious crime on campus. I watched as Porter set the stage, but once it was set, I watched the characters not do a whole lot on it.

This book made me think of two things, and neither one of them does Porter any favors. The first, as I’ve said, was American Pastoral. That book casts a long shadow, it seems, at least on my personal landscape, but as soon as I saw that the story involved a young woman in serious trouble who is contemplating bolting from everything she’s ever known and everyone and every place she’s loved to escape whatever consequences await her back at the expensive northeastern university she was forced to leave, the saga of the Levov family came to mind. While Roth focused entirely on the father and left his daughter’s mind mostly unknown and unknowable, Porter gives us an up-close view of Chloe Harding’s thought process, and unfortunately, she comes across as a rather silly girl who makes her choices for annoyingly bad reasons. Maybe it’s that Porter is too coy about exactly what it is that happened on campus – we don’t get a clear picture until very late, and by then the cause is lost – but Chloe comes across as a girl willing to throw her whole life away for the promise of romantic love, which would have seemed silly a hundred years ago and certainly does today. Porter doesn’t give her the dignity of a young woman facing a hard choice, but instead makes her face an easy choice and choose poorly. Indeed, in the end Porter shows us that Chloe’s culpability is mostly in her head, that her fears are mostly unfounded, which ought to make her choice poignant and interesting but instead comes across as letting her off the hook too easily. Her father Elson is no Swede Levov, and she is no Merry. Meanwhile, her brother Richard’s decision about his MFA program – seriously, this is his crisis? – is handled in such a way as to leave the reader without any sense of investment in the character, and the problems of Elson’s and Cadence’s broken marriage seem too much like every other divorce story I’ve read to make me notice the differences. By the end I wondered whether I had just seen someone with a case of the write-what-you-know disorder that so commonly affects MFA graduates, and I wondered whether I was being horribly unfair to Porter, who had clearly impressed so many people with his short stories. I wondered whether I shouldn’t back off from being hard on him – after all, it’s not like I have an acclaimed collection of short stories, or even one acclaimed short story to my name.

But that led me to dwell on something else. For a while now, critics from abroad have dismissed American literature as too inwardly focused and too small-bore to be taken seriously, too focused on entertainment over weighty thoughts. It’s easy to shrug off that kind of thing as the kind of snooty thing highbrow Euro types who pretend their favorites are, you know, readable, might say. And certainly, if Americans excel at anything anymore, it’s in entertaining themselves, so we do produce some whiz-bang literary page turners, even if they get dismissed by critics abroad for being about the same damn thing as what we just saw and what we’re going to see next (see Franzen, Jonathan.) But it’s not someone like Jonathan Franzen – or even, by some accounts, Philip Roth – that makes me wonder if those critics are right. It’s something like this, something in the mid-list, produced in an environment where hundreds of new writers are minted every year in MFA programs across the country, where the talent pool ought to be both broad and deep enough to produce something to make the snooty Euros take notice and instead seems to produce more of the same, more people writing what they know and not venturing far from the point of view of people just like them. Our writers too often choose comfort and safety where they should be taking risks. To use a tired baseball simile – but hey, it’s October, and I’m on record as a diamond-head, so I, too, will write what I know – they step up to the plate hoping only for a single, something accessible and publishable that might take a bite out of the student loans, promising they’ll try for the home run in a later inning. I’ve seen it dozens of times now, and it’s disheartening to recognize it so quickly. And so again I wonder if I’m being too hard, if I ought not have more empathy for my fellows in that position, if I shouldn’t just admit that’s what our publishing industry and our education system has forced our national literature to be. And if it were an unknown writer from Random State University, I might do just that by using a free online resume builder. But Porter hails from the storied Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the best of the best, the place that produced the molds we’re still using today. To even get in there, he had to already be better than good. He played it too safe, and it shows – in fact, at its worst, In Between Days comes across as the product of a born short story writer writing a novel because novels are what the market demands, but having no idea what to do with three hundred pages. It’s another small-bore story, another marble in a pile of marbles when its author was hoping to produce a cannonball. And having attempted to write fiction myself for the last five years, I have to admit I’m just as guilty as the rest, and like the rest, I don’t have the first idea what to do about it except read another book.

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