Some character or other in Jonathan Lethem’s “Motherless Brooklyn” repeats the phrase “the proof is in the pudding” as the ultimate guide to authenticity, to knowing that something is genuine, real. We want our fiction to resonate with reality too, and “Motherless Brooklyn” is one of those novels that strains so hard to capture the world you can almost hear its jaws snapping.
I read two novels this weekend, one of which felt true, and one which felt like counterfeit to me. Oddly enough – or not at all – the true one was the farthest from realistic. “Concrete Island” by J.G. Ballard is allegory, straight up, and makes no bones about it, even references Robinson Crusoe directly as if to say, ‘yes I know exactly what I’m doing here’. A superficial waste of a man is speeding in his superficial waste of a car along the “motorway” and careens off it, sliding down the embankment and crashing to a halt amidst a pile of similarly wrecked and abandoned cars. Surrounded by steepness above which loom the elevated highways, he is trapped, in the middle of the city, in this ‘island’.
Ballard tosses in a few general details, not the names of the roads, not the names of places or buildings other than London. The only fact we know is that it is London. He doesn’t cement the story in time either. It’s sufficiently modern. There are cars and motorways and office buildings in the distance. There are lights and planes overhead sometimes. He describes only the wasteland in great detail, the ruins of a a neighborhood that was decimated to make room for the roads, the tall weeds, the rubble, the garbage, the piles of discarded tires. This is the landscape in which we make ourselves at home.
By contrast, “Motherless Brooklyn” is replete with names and places. Every neighborhood in Brooklyn and some in Queens are given appropriate shout-outs. Every kind of shop, every kind of ethnicity, every single variation of new york underbelly cliche finds its pigeonhole in this recipe collection of nostalgia. It’s enough to make you cry uncle. What stopped me in my tracks was a mere detail, the fact that the mobster handed out twenty dollar bills gave me pause, because I was the age of the character at that time and at that place and I know very well that twenty dollars is seriously overpaid. I made two dollars an hour in those days as a teenager. Twenty for a couple hours of moving boxes? I didn’t buy it.
I didn’t buy it, and I didn’t by the Tourette syndrome, which gave the author an excuse to pretend to write like James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake. “Look at me playing with words! I can make the spin around and do tricks!” Drove me nuts.
In the end it seemed to me the opposite of proof being in the pudding. Instead, the pudding was a mess of reasonable doubt. I kept finding myself saying “I doubt it” like the old truth and dare game we used to play as kids. I don’t believe it. You’re making it up. This is bullshit.
When you find yourself disbelieving a novel, it’s an odd feeling. Of course it’s not real. It’s obviously and self-evidently not real. It’s a novel for heaven’s sake! But I believed a lot more in “Concrete Island”. I never found myself saying, “nah, who would do that?” because clearly Robert Maitland would. He did! That guy was spiraling down so fast! It worked for me. And I want to believe. That’s why I read fiction. I want to be convinced and go somewhere else and be there. I don’t want to be pulled out of it by false notes and clumsy pretension and clunky execution. If you’re going to build a world, build a real one, where reality is not measured by any yardsticks that come from outside of the story or outside of the characters but is only generated from within, from the heat of its own internal combustion.