Facing West from California’s shores

Danny Karlin

  • Ransom by Jay McInerney
    Cape, 279 pp, £9.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 224 02355 1
  • Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
    Flamingo/Fontana, 182 pp, £2.75, April 1986, ISBN 0 00 654173 9

Lee Van Cleef! I remember him in A Fistful of Dollars, where he had the respectable native occupation of bounty hunter, and a gun (with a natty set of attachments) which came in a flap-down case. Now he is ‘starring’ in a late-night series (Mondays on Central) so awful that the TV Times is ashamed to give any programme details except its title. It’s called The Master, and Mr Van Cleef plays a ninja warrior – an adept of the black Japanese arts of espionage and assassination – who tours America righting wrongs in the company of a fresh-faced American side-kid. Here, too, Mr Van Cleef is kitted out with deadly accessories – not firearms, but ninja weapons, from sword to spiked throwing wheels (for narrowly missing people and burying in door jambs), plus of course his feet and hands. The first sight of the game old boy dealing with a roomful of rednecks in bionic slow motion made me rub my eyes. But no. Spitting Image is on the night before.

Elderly troubleshooters have tended to be just that in America – shooters. John Wayne in True Grit creaked in the saddle, aimed straight, and punched people in the usual places. He uttered platitudes, but at least they were home-grown platitudes. Why was it felt necessary to dress Mr Van Cleef in preposterous robes, issue him with a Mysterious Sign which he wears around his neck, and make him utter Oriental Wisdom?

The American thirst for authenticity is as strong as ever. Not for nothing does the world’s most successful synthetic drink advertise itself as ‘The Real Thing’. But where is ‘the real thing’ to be found? Is there an ‘American’ authenticity, a native source, or must everything be borrowed, everything imported? Bob Dylan’s ‘Union Sundown’ (Infidels, CBS, 1983) opens with a sardonic catalogue –

Now my shoes they come from Singapore
My flashlight’s from Taiwan
My tablecloth’s from Malaysia
My belt-buckle’s from the Amazon –

and voices a cry, ‘They don’t make nothing here no more,’ which applies as much to ideas as to things. Not that the idea of importing wisdom from the East is new in America. Thoreau and Whitman, both advocates of ‘stepping westward’, also took ‘passage to India’; among modern American writers, the Californian Gary Snyder has notably followed. Stepping westward from California lands you in

a school for monks of the Rinzai branch of Zen Buddhism, in Japan. The whole aim of this community was personal and universal liberation. In this quest for spiritual freedom every man marched strictly to the same drum in matters of work and meditation. In the teacher’s room one was pushed across sticky barriers into vast new spaces. The training was traditional and had been handed down for centuries – but the insights are forever fresh and new. The beauty, refinement and truly civilised quality of that life has no match in modern America.

This comes from a short prose piece in Snyder’s Turtle Island (1974), but it could just as easily – apart perhaps from its humourless tone – come from Jay McInerney’s new novel, Ransom, whose eponymous hero has fled ‘modern America’ for the ‘beauty, refinement, and truly civilised quality’ of a traditional Japanese school. Not a school for monks, but a karate school, a place of combined ‘work and meditation’ nonetheless, with a similar ‘teacher’, the sensei. Here, too, discipline is the key to harmony and self-fulfilment:

   The sensei clapped his hands and it was time to begin ... Ito led the stretching and calisthenics, the others facing him in two lines. Ransom concentrated on duplicating his every move. With years of scrupulous imitation he might gain possession of the discipline.

The book is full of such rituals: mastering an un-American art of living is, after all, a venerable American strategy. Hemingway’s characters have aficion, know how to behave in European bars and streets, are loved by their concierges (who detest other Americans); they are members of a fraternity whose code is unspoken and intuitive. In Japan, Ransom is similarly set apart from the ordinary run of gaijin, or foreigners. The simple actions of his everyday existence are described in cadences which suggest his kinship with the Nick Adams of Hemingway’s Big Two-Hearted River:

   When the water boiled, Ransom removed the kettle from the gas and filled his teapot, pouring the rest into the tin basin in the sink. Made of soapstone, the sink tended to turn green around the edges in summer. He topped the basin with cold water from the tap, then lathered up his shaving brush. With a clean bathtowel he wiped the mirror over the sink. He shaved his upper lip first and poured a cup of tea. When he was done, he rinsed out the basin and hung it on the nail over the sink, then poured out another cup of tea. He went into the other room, folded up his futon and stashed it in the closet, from which he took a broom. He opened the sliding doors onto the terrace and swept the tatami, which glowed yellow in the patch of sun. Dust teemed in the light. The sweeping didn’t take long. That was one of the advantages of small quarters.

Visiting Americans, of course, whose cultural ignorance and crassness are on display, come in for the other Hemingway style, the put-down. McInerney’s first novel, which I discuss below, has a quotation from The sun also rises as its epigraph, and Ransom does a passable Jake Barnes for the benefit of a couple of tourists who come – a nice touch, if a bit obvious – from Rochester, ‘the home of Kodak’:

He introduced his wife, Elizabeth, and said:

‘This young man here is an old Japan hand.’

   ‘Oh, wonderful. We can pick your brains for ideas. Would you recommend the Temple of the Golden Pavilion?’

      ‘I’m afraid I’ve never been there.’

      ‘It’s famous,’ she said.

      ‘I’ve heard it’s very nice.’

Such characters have no function in the story other than to demonstrate their lack of understanding – not just of Japanese culture, but of Ransom’s irony and understatement, qualities which McInerney, like Hemingway, associates with being foreign. Ransom lives and eats in the native style; his adoption of karate symbolises a belief (of which The Master is a debased and hollow version) that the Japanese way of doing things is superior to the American because it is sanctioned by tradition: it has been ‘handed down for centuries’, in Snyder’s admiring phrase, without becoming second-hand or subject to degeneration, ‘forever fresh and new’.

That this view of Japanese culture is an absurdity, which combines ignorance and idealisation of the past, does not detract from its other kind of truth, the truth which belongs to a powerful and persuasive fiction. McInerney’s handling of this fiction is comic and self-aware. Ransom’s Japan is shot through with Western influences. In one episode, Ransom has to use his skill at karate to fight off a horde of teenagers who mistake him for one of the Rolling Stones. He works for the A-OK Advertising Agency and English Language and Conversation School; he repeatedly notices the ‘twisted English’ which surrounds him, in slogans, on hoardings, in his Japanese students’ mouths. Not only that, but there are Japanese people pursuing the mirror-image of Ransom’s desire to find in another culture the source of authentic ritual. He frequents a bar where a Japanese band plays nothing but the blues and looks to Sonny Boy Williamson as its sensei: ‘for them, the spirit born in red delta clay out of the souls of black ex-slaves was universal and redemptive ... Ransom thought them admirable, if faintly comic.’

But there is a problem even with McInerney’s sophisticated presentation of Ransom’s situation. It arises from Ransom’s belief that he can attain his goal, in the phrase quoted above, by ‘duplicating’ the moves of his teachers, by ‘scrupulous imitation’; or, as Snyder put it, by ‘marching to the same drum’. What has happened to the other Thoreau – the one who heard ‘the music of a different drummer’? Some American writers see the country’s vaunted individualism, the priority it gives to singular exploits, as part of its death-wish. McInerney equivocates here, and not just because Ransom is, for much of the time, self-conscious about what he is doing, and therefore that much further away from doing it.

Ransom’s Nemesis in the novel, the ex-Marine DeVito, is a savage loner. He puts up with the discipline of martial arts training in order to acquire violent skills. He pursues a vendetta against Ransom, haunts him through the novel, and at the end kills him; he does this with a treasure of Japanese art, a 16th-century samurai sword, which he steals from a Buddhist temple in whose grounds he lives. And yet, at the same time, each is the other’s double: the very triviality of De Vito’s motive for hating and killing Ransom points to this aspect of the story. Ransom practises the mental and physical discipline of karate in order, as his name suggests, to expiate the guilt of a past failure and betrayal; he is also in flight from his manipulative father, who has sold out his (dubious) talent as a writer and made it big in Hollywood. DeVito, too, has fallen from grace in the past, and hates his father (and all ‘tyrannical authority’); the civilised middle-class American and the redneck barbarian share a predicament and a response. Only Ransom’s friend, Miles Ryder, the unintentional cause of his feud with DeVito, represents a different approach. Ryder has settled in Japan, married a Japanese woman, and makes a good living selling imported Wild West outfits. He has assimilated easily because his original identity is not at issue. At the end, he is even thinking about going home, but it’s no big deal: he’s got nothing to prove either way. Ransom and De Vito, on the other hand, are figures of imbalance and desire. They have brought with them to Japan a discontent which cannot be assuaged. Like Cain and Abel, they are the orphans of a living father.

McInerney had already experimented with this theme in his first novel, Bright Lights, Big City. This is the second first novel I have seen recently which has been compared with The Catcher in the Rye, the other being Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero. Neither of them is remotely as good as the comparison makes out: but Less than Zero (‘Snorting Coke in LA’) has less right to it than Bright Lights, Big City (‘Snorting Coke in NY’). Ellis’s teenaged hero, Clay, suggests that a marginal humanity and a minimal faculty of moral choice may survive the ordeal of being a rich kid in LA, where the ‘phoniness’ so dreaded by Holden Caulfield is sickly and violently rampant. But neither Ellis as writer nor Clay as narrator suggests the comedy which is so essential to Salinger’s book – a comedy of which Holden Caulfield is only partially aware. As a writer, Ellis just does the one thing, tediously well; it is a perverse tribute to his powers of construction and consistency of style that not one of his repetitive moves is wasted. He does not have McInerney’s range, and it is to McInerney’s credit that he tends to overreach.

Bright Lights, Big City is the story of a young man whose carefully constructed identity cracks up in the course of a few frenetic New York days and nights. To the outside world (everyone in his world is outside) he presents a cliché of youthful success: he works for a ‘leading’ magazine, he has ‘ambitions’ as a writer, he is married to a ‘glamorous’ model. In fact, he is about to lose his job for incompetence, he can’t write, and his wife has left him. These troubles are compounded by guilt and grief over the death of his mother. The gap between the image of himself which he has projected and tries desperately to shore up, and the facts which he is forced, in the end, to face, is the territory of the book.

The story is told in the present tense, by a narrator who uses the second instead of the first-person. It’s a device which McInerney milks for more than it is worth, but it is worth something. Here is the narrator describing himself:

When you were growing up you suspected that everyone else had been let in on some fundamental secret which was kept from you. Others seemed to know what they were doing. This conviction grew with each new school you attended ... If you ever go into psychoanalysis, you will insist that the primal scene is not the encounter of parents in coitus: it takes the shape of a ring of schoolchildren, like Indians surrounding a wagon train, pointing their vicious little fingers to insist upon your otherness.

McInerney’s grasp of contemporary psychoanalysis may be shaky, and the style uncertain (‘the encounter of parents in coitus’ is a curiously stilted phrase), but the image of the Indians surrounding the wagon train is finely chosen. It’s an American icon, all the more powerful here for being significantly distorted; the wagon train figures, not as a group of people facing a rival group, but as a single beleaguered individual; the children are Indians, not just because ‘children are savages,’ but because the Indians are the true owners of the land; with his shyness, sensitivity, insecurity, and shiftless father, McInerney’s narrator does not belong in America. He joins the Indians when he grows up, and goes whooping around the wagon train with the best of them; but he knows that he has merely ‘succeeded in faking everyone out’, and he lives in fear of being ‘discovered a fraud, an impostor in the social circle’.

In some respects he reminds me of Otto, in William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, the playwright who only plays at writing, the adept of pretence and posture. But for Otto there is no redemption. For McInerney’s narrator, on the other hand, despite the loss of his wife, his job and his manufactured self, hope is held out. McInerney is at his weakest trying to fill in these features of his narrator’s background. The magazine in whose Department of Factual Verification the narrator works is meant to be a spoof of the New Yorker: it is feebly done, and so is the account of the narrator’s failed marriage to a vacuous Mid-Western model. The problem is that the narrator must be both the subject of the story and its witty, knowing author; he must sparkle in one role even as he falls flat on his face in the other. There is also a woman who seems crudely invented to stand, beyond the book’s last page, as the hero’s reward: she is fatally the product of a sentiment with which the book should have nothing to do.

In the scope of its ideas, Ransom is definitely an advance on Bright Lights, Big City: but the first novel is much more adventurous in style and structure. There is nothing in Ransom to compare with the narrative method of Bright Lights, Big City: instead, the book reads as though it had been designed for conversion, with the minimum of adjustment, into a conventional screenplay, with much clumsy use of the flashback. (Bret Easton Ellis, incidentally, handles the flashback with much more skill in Less than Zero.) Nevertheless, though not as striking, Ransom is a stronger, and in the end a more disconcerting book. Bright Lights, Big City does not feel to have earned the redemption, however tentative, with which it ends. Ransom’s abrupt death, at the end of Ransom, is more convincingly the American destiny of a stranger in a strange land.