Tuesday, February 12, 2013
TO-READ I We Live in Water
The marvelous thing about Jess Walters is he rarely lets a story get in the way of a good joke. Case and point, from a story titled "Virgo," in which Trent--one of Walter's many unreliable narrators in We Live in Water--is fired from his job as a features copy editor for, among other things, manipulating horoscopes in effort to impair his ex's newfound lease on life and love, as well as that of anyone who gets caught in the crosshairs: "Taurus. Two stars: I hope your wife's cheating on you." And from that same story, unscrupulously inserted as a parenthetical: "one flimsy charge of harassment stemming from an honest misunderstanding involving the women's restroom." Walters cannot help himself. To paraphrase and repurpose Bill Murray's retrospect assessment of the first Ghostbusters, the first 50 or so pages of Walter's novel, Beautiful Ruins, are about as sharp and "Let me read this to you!" funny as a book gets, with an Abbott and Costello sense of scale and timing that gave me the impression I was reading one of the great comedic writers of our time. And I was right. As I wrote not long ago in a shelf-talker for The Financial Lives of the Poets, how I missed what has to be the most heartfelt fictionalization of the Great Recession is as lost on me as the events surrounding the financial crisis, in general. Yet, here I am, again, unsure of how I missed the more obvious fact of Walter's equally inexorable attention to truth. Which should't come as a surprise (why else are adults constantly unsure of what to do but laugh at things kids say, if not for their ability to speak the truth?), but although truth and comedy are known to play in tune, as light and shadows, it's uncommon for a teller--of jokes or truth or time--to identify both as active ingredients outright, in the process of concocting characters who sometimes can and sometimes can't live up to their own modest expectations, instead of using one to snare and satirize the other, as if narrative trajectory were dependent on revelations of truth or absurdity at the last minute for any other reason besides excusing oneself for a lack of effort and imagination. By integrating comedy with morbidity and breaking the fourth wall with what Walters himself, rather than his characters, at times, would say or think or do, We Live in Water proves to write about humanity you must start by acting human.