Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Satire of America

All Her Father's Guns by James Warner

Intelligence starts with understanding there are at least two sides to every question. Higher intelligence believes you accept this, but strive to choose between conflicting viewpoints in the pursuit of truth. It means believing there's such a thing as truth, which today requires a leap of faith. Very few writers are able to make that leap, though some approach it partway.

James Warner shows signs of having a first-rate intelligence. The chief sign is the novel's great satirical wit. One reviewer has called the novel "exaggerated." In its depiction of America (specifically, California) it really isn't. America might be the most purely mad Barnum and Bailey civilization that ever existed.

"A transvestite drove past in a classic Bentley, followed by taxis bearing alternating advertisements for Web development tools and downtown strip clubs."

Warner, an expat Brit, sees the madness and nails it in his novel.

"I marveled at California's ability to combine ruthless efficency with fantastic fickleness. They believe in their right to self-discovery, to be their own designer brand-- aren't these the same ideas that make California the most high-tech part of the world? Aren't the entrepreneurship and the craziness two sides of the same coin?"

The story is told through the alternating viewpoints of two characters, bland author stand-in Reid Seyton, and Cal Lyte, the hyper-mad libertarian-conservative father of his girlfriend, Lyllyan. Cal is a rich investor absorbed with an eccentric ladyfriend, Viorela, and a legal dispute with his even more eccentric ex-wife.

Reid, if not a cipher, is a passive actor. Not quite a sponge. Which leaves the book to be dominated by Cal.

The satire is put over by a sharp writing style and quick pace. Warner keeps things fast-moving, his writing always intelligent and clear.

I'm not a fan of dense prose, which I long ago learned is a cover for the writer having few ideas and little intelligence. In these instances the writer gives so many nonessentials that you eventually realize it's all nonessential. Wordiness mistaken for art. The smart writer with something to say knows how to say it, and how to get straight to the point. Communicating that something, those essential ideas, lessons, insights, is the goal. James Warner does this.

Most writers today are plodders. They're sober-serious about every sentence, every word. When they try to communicate a thought, like Jonathan Franzen in his novels, it's done with deliberate sober-serious plodding ploughhorse earnestness, always from one viewpoint, the angle and intensity remaining strictly flat. Not a movie with three dimensions, and scarcely with two. Even this takes an enormous effort, a tremendous expenditure of the author's limited mental capacity to get to that point, then you're hit over the head with the massive unwieldy book.

The best writer of them all, William Shakespeare, stood above all plodders. His brain moved very fast. His characters sparkled with wit. His genius was his ability to shift gears and keep his work in balance; to laugh at his characters one minute and cry with them the next. No easy task.

James Warner has wit. He's a sharp guy. Knows all and sees all. But he allows himself to become trapped by his own ability. By his wit.

It's like reading issue after issue of The Onion newspaper. After awhile the sarcasm becomes spiritually deadening. Stifling. Adopt this attitude full-time and you see the entire world and everyone in it through this cynical prism. A prison. You end up believing in nothing and no one.

Warner's dilemma is that he hands his novel to his most fascinating character, Cal Lyte, a walking and talking cartoonish compendium of mad American flaws. Having given him the book, about halfway through Warner tries to turn Cal into something resembling a real person. It doesn't quite come off. A tricky feat to pull off, no doubt.

I'm reminded of the excitement generated way back when Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City came out. Here seemed to be a writer with the goods. The first two-thirds of the short work had style and verve. Wow! you thought. Knows all and sees all, and describes it with knowing, winking humor. Then the author tries to get serious, to close the game out-- to close the sale with the reader-- and of course he can't do it. McInerney has failed to do it with book after book since, and maybe has given up.

The problem with satire that shows a crazed universe and destroys everything in it is that, in my narrow opinion, you need to provide a way out. This is an insane universe but some of us hope for a hint of a way out, a ray of sanity somewhere.

This is quibbling. James Warner is a talented writer. All Her Father's Guns is a fun read. It's hard to ask for more. Let's hope Warner's next novel tops it.

PUBLISHER: Numina Press
REVIEWED BY: King Wenclas

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