THESE DAYS, WITH virtually every book on the store's shelves designed to stop traffic, it's high time that old 1940s classic, How to Read a Book, got a '90s update: a radical revision--something like How to Read a Book Like a Person--that does away with textual concerns altogether and guides readers through all the dazzling surfaces, effusive blurbs, and dense author bios of the hypermodern novel.
Take Todd Wiggins's zeitgeist, an obvious contender for Handsomest Book of the Moment: sawed-off and shiny, dispatching entirely with a dust jacket, this Paula Szafranski design is so hip that upon cracking its pages one almost expects to encounter the blast of a perfume ad. The back-cover blurbs promise "pitiless clarity and bristling energy," "a picaresque Gothic video," and praise "the Pynchonesque dynamic." That last business is worrisome and should give the potential reader pause; "Pynchonesque" as an adjective used to describe any writer other than Thomas Pynchon is a backhanded compliment at best. It simply means the book is messy and long and full of Jeopardy-level information on everything from astronomy to theology to the sitcoms of the '70s.
Still, so fetching is the Szafranski look of zeitgeist that the urge to take a peek takes over. Inside the front cover one learns that Wiggins is 28 years old and has spent some time in New York working as "an editor and literary agent before moving to London to write full-time." None of these sorts of info should be good news to anyone but Wiggins. When an author's age is mentioned in a bio's first line, it's not a good sign, and almost surely clears the deck for a breakneck display of precocity. If the diapered genius also lets slip that he is a product of, say, Bard College, then it's a pretty safe bet that the mildly appreciative blurbs on the back jacket are by writers who are or have been on faculty at Bard.
Despite these suspicions and misgivings, zeitgeist is a mighty handsome book. And now, like a good boy having finally gagged down the last bites of chipped beef on toast so he can be excused from the table, I can tell you that zeitgeist is also a terrible book, the latest painful attempt by a fledgling writer to pour five gallons of piss into a quart jar.
The shill for the book boasts that "A more unlikely cast could hardly be imagined," and while that may be true, it's not to the book's credit. Our narrator is Venus Wicked, failed novelist, "existentialist call girl and self-styled autodidact." The book opens on December 31, 1999 with poor Venus sitting all alone in her cold apartment, waiting for the midnight execution of a friend, Prophet, "a black cyberpunk terrorist." Venus is in a contemplative mood: "Americans rarely study the past," she muses, "and still less do they understand it. The omphalos lies somewhere between the present and the near future. We are disciples of the phenomenal; the noumenal hold no sway." A moment later she is lamenting her failure as a writer. "Time has betrayed me, having brought not perspective but rather a lingering anoesis that leaves me gravid with apocalypse and yet unable even to miscarry. Once merely inarticulate, I am now, at age twenty-four, confined to a silence that feeds on the last of my tabescent youth.... I'll be the first to admit that my writings have been nothing more than inchoate, epigonic gestures, hapless fragments of abandoned whimsy that reveal no truths except my own verbal bankruptcy. Have a glance through my oeuvre; you'll find the same three sentences recurring on every page:
I do not want to grow old.
I do not want to die.
I hate everyone.
Beyond that, I have nothing of importance to say."
The omphalos? Anoesis? Tabescent? Epigonic? Venus is a blowhard with a ridiculous name. Her relentless self-loathing gets old fast, but is nonetheless easy to empathize with: She's easy to loath. And wait 'til you meet the rest of the cast: First is--get this!--a schizophrenic Jewish priest with a sex addiction, who enters the action as he's fleeing the robbery of a crackhouse. At a stoplight in Harlem he forces his way aboard a Mustang convertible piloted by one Dorian Bray, a perpetually horny Welsh philosopher whose masterwork, The Theory of Everything, has been rejected by every major publisher. In the passenger seat is the aforementioned Prophet, "resplendent in white boubou, fez, and wire-rimmed glasses." Together--inexplicably--this threesome sets off for California. Along the way they pick up Lucky, a "lesbian martial artist" fleeing an incestuous tangle with her mother, as well as our narrator Venus, herself fleeing a gang rape at the hands of a stag party full of sailors.
This is a world where everyone has spent countless nights curled up with the great theologians and poking around in the OED with a magnifying glass. There are all the usual pop references and farcical set pieces, the, um, Pynchonesque paranoia, the absurd acronyms and song parodies. There are random italics and bold face and a barrage of clichés. There are even clichés about clichés. It's all packed in here--incest, necrophilia, race riots, phalloplasty, psychotropic meds, gang bangs, a priest orgy, a bacchanalia of naked cops, an erotic-asphyxiation victim fed to an anaconda, a chomped-off penis, and a hideous little scene involving a colostomy bag. The whole mess culminates in--Ha! Talk about irony!--a massacre at an NRA convention and a grossly earnest execution scene straight out of every lousy prison movie ever made. The list of writers capable of balancing satire and profundity is a short one. A very short one. Todd Wiggins is not on it.