Tuesday, February 2, 2010


A lot of people have been telling me that they only read books they think they'll like. Well, who doesn't? Every once in a while I look for something to read that's outside my usual taste. Every once in a great while I decide to read something I think I might disagree with, to keep from becoming curmudgeonly. Most often, though, I pick up something to read or to listen to on my commute because it's there--it's on the shelf at the library, or at the used book store.

One of my recent acquisitions in that manner was the audiobook of Wakefield, by Andrei Codrescu. I'd seen him speak when I lived on the east coast, and read bits and pieces of things he'd delivered on NPR or published as short pieces. He's a clever fellow, so I figured the novel couldn't be too bad.

I was wrong. Codrescu really is a clever fellow, and he's pulled out all the stops to make sure you know it, with this bit of fluff. He names his character after the Nathaniel Hawthorne character, gives him a Faustian dilemma (watered down for the baby boomer age), and lists some of what he considers to be the novel's literary predecessors (The Master and Margarita) just to be sure you don't miss his Peter Pan-like crowing "oh, the cleverness of me!"

And that's just the start. The character of Wakefield is clearly based, to some extent, on the author, a baby-boomer advocate of free love, "finding yourself," and making a profit in the stock market. This last, along with repeated references to Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, made me think this was a novel of the 1980's, but it was actually published in 2004.

Wakefield the character makes a living traveling around the country giving speeches. "I belong to the Ted Berrigan school of 'I can't wait to hear what I'm going to say next,' he tells the people who hire him to lecture. Ted Berrigan was a New York poet and a genius talker who lived by a maxim attributed to another poet, Tristan Tzara: 'all thinking is formed in the mouth.'"

Indeed, the novel reads like something written by an author who had no idea what was coming next. There is no real reason given for the character's travels around the country; he says he's searching for an "authentic life." The ostensible reason is that if he finds something "authentic" (a person or place to love? I wondered) then the devil will let him live. The race is supposed to start when the devil fires a starter pistol, which never happens because of hellish bureaucratic hold-ups. So the novel never really gets started, at least in terms of plot.

By the time Wakefield makes it home to his apartment and begins yelling at his neighbor to stop restoring the house next door, I was ready to join with the neighbor and his workmen in yelling "why don't you get a job?" Because he hasn't learned anything about how privileged he is or what drives the people he meets.

So I don't care what happens to him, I don't like him, I regret the hours I spent in his company. I get the feeling that if he met me, he would look out past me and everything dear to me with a quick dismissive curl of his lip. The only way he could (as advertised in Ariel Dorfman's blurb) "reveal the dark and absurd underbelly of our crazy global landscape" would be to actually see it, but he's too busy admiring himself. Listening to this book encouraged my dislike, already virulent, of the whole baby boomer generation.


Anonymous said...

I have to say I'm not entirely surprised. I think he's probably clever enough for about a minute.

Florinda said...

Well, you may not have liked the book, but I loved your review!

Jenny said...

Hahaha, this review is so satisfying to read! I used to work at the same university where Codrescu was teaching at the time, and he was MADDENING to deal with - every email just oozing condescension. I think we exchanged about four short emails the whole time I was there, and that was enough to make me really dislike him personally. I've never wanted to read his work, but it's good to know it's not worth my time anyway. :)

Jackie (Farm Lane Books) said...

I often read books that I don't think I'll enjoy and sometimes I am pleasantly surprised. Sorry to hear that it didn't work for you on this occasion. I hope it does next time!

Kristen said...

I try to step outside my box every now and again although I'm fairly certain that I won't be stepping into the pages of this one. Nothing makes me angrier than the self-conscious literary masterbation with which it sounds like this one is filled. I avoid many of the New York literati authors for this very same reason after years of reading them because I thought, and they told me, that it was necessary to read them in order to be well-read in today's literature. Pah! I'd rather stretch myself with Manga (which is a genre I suspect I would not enjoy much) than with something like this self-referential cleverness.

Jeanne said...

I do sometimes like clever writing and clever people, when they're polite, but I think readersguide pinpointed what got me about this audiobook, which drew out the experience, since I read much faster than I can be read to.

Still, I know what you mean, Kristen, about reading the NY "literati authors." Except I would much rather read them than manga, or any "graphic novel."

Jenny, glad you enjoyed this one!

Trapunto said...

Hi, I think I found you through a comment on Jenny's blog. I didn't like Wakefield either, but I think Andrei Codrescu is a good writer. His fiction suffers from poet-itis (and egotism, just as you point out--or is that the same thing?) but his nonfiction is stellar. Disappearance of the Outside is one of my favorite books; best encapsulation of the 20th century written. I think good poet-philosopher-essayists are kind the opposite of good novelists. I wouldn't want to have to sit next to him at a party, but I'd go hear him give a lecture. Or, come to think of it, maybe not, if that part of Wakefield's character is based on him too. What a jerk!

Care said...

Oh my. This was fun to read and I thank you for the warning to not read the book.