Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Josh Barkan and the Literature of Failure

Of all the topics available to writers, failure might be the most rarely written about, and it's not hard to guess why. Even the most depressing topics; war, death, squalor, hate, fascism, prejudice, etc, allow for some kind of victory for the protagonist and provide a payoff for the reader. Regardless of what happens, these topics always allow for progress and improvement, so that, at the end of the work the reader feels as though the characters got something out of the experience.

But for an author to accurately explore failure, that progress can't happen, because once some kind of success is gained from the events that presentation of failure is compromised. You can't call a protagonist a failure if he or she gets something from his or her experiences. Furthermore, there's no moment of payoff for the reader, no event in the book where the reader can say "This is what we're supposed to get from the book," and no emotional release from the struggles of the protagonist. The reader has to find some way to develop through reading about failure, rather than through any provided epiphanies from the protagonist or the author. So writers tend to avoid the topic, so much so that I can only think of three protagonists I've read that are true failures.

First is Tyrone Slothrop from Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. In the beginning it is believed that Slothrop has some powerful psychological connection to the rocket development program in Germany. He's recruited as a spy, sent into Germany, subjected to psychological testing, and by the end, well, he's an unshaven grifter (at most) whose story concludes long before the end of the novel.

The next is George Harvey Bone from Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square. Bone is a decent somewhat likeable, but ultimately pathetic character who is a borderline alcoholic with a split-personality. He becomes enraptured with Netta, a selfish, manipulative, would-be actress who strings Bone along for free drinks. Ultimately, Bone's melancholy conquers both of his personalities and his suicide is made all the more poignant by the glimmer of kindness that Bone still shows, by asking for someone to watch his cat in his suicide note. This kindness, though, was always in Bone, and he neither woke up to Netta's maliciousness nor developed as a person through his struggles against alcohol and mental illness.

Then there is Hal Incandenza from David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. Hal Incandenza is an intelligent, talented, tennis prodigy with a wildly dysfunctional family. When the novel opens we meet Hal after some kind of major mental breakdown. At a college interview, most likely his last chance at getting into any college, all his attempts to talk come out as incomprehensible screaming. The story then follows Hal (and dozens of others) through the events that lead up to Hal's breakdown, but we never see the direct cause. The book ends before the moment of Hal's breakdown and readers can only guess at what ultimately happened. So not only is Hal denied any chance of redemption, but there is also no way to evaluate the breakdown in terms of its ultimate cause.

Josh Barkan's first novel Blind Speed, and his protagonist Paul Berger enter this slim shelf in literature. Paul is a drummer but his band didn't quite make it; is a teacher, but he couldn't get tenure at a community college; and is a writer, though he's never finished, let alone, published anything. He happens into a New Age retreat while researching gun-shows in the Midwest, and gets a portentous (and accurate) palm reading from a guru named "Buffalo Man." Paul flounders throughout the novel, yet he never really does anything wrong. He takes his fiance to a reenactment in Concord, MA and she is wounded in a freak accident. He does copious amounts of interesting research for a book (about the modern American response to failure), but never even gets the first chapter done. He solicits the help of a ghostwriter, who turns some of Paul's research into an article on Jackie O, that never gets published. He is kidnapped by group of fake eco-terrorists as a political ploy to bolster his brother's Congressional campaign, and his attempt to expose his corrupt brother is brushed off by the media as the wailings of an emotionally broken, jealous young man. He returns to Buffalo Man to exorcise the palm reading but does not complete the tests Buffalo Man sets for him.

In all of this Blind Speed raises another issue you don't see broached much in literature; one can be a good person, always try one's best, have good intentions, and still fail. For some reason, some people don't have what it takes to succeed and exploring this idea makes Blind Speed a challenging, often uncomfortable read. Barkan mitigates this challenge by making the book very funny, by making Paul charming (if a little pathetic), and by engaging intelligently with contemporary politics. However, he doesn't let readers get away from the fact that one can do everything right and still end up baffled by life and its consequences. Josh Barkan will be reading at Porter Square Books on July 17th at 7pm. You can read more about Josh at his blog Josh Barkan: Blind Speed.

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