I just finished a stunning first novel by Berlin-based American author (and war vet) Greg Baxter, called The Apartment. There is so much that is right about this book, I’d quickly run out of space discussing it here. Wary, wise, and in language so clean it creates a kind of floating surreality, the novel embodies an accurate response to the random absurdity of human history and contemporary life on earth; a response to what the novel terms, somewhere in its own pages, “the immortality of violence.”
The moment I read that phrase, I knew it to be true. Absolutely, irreducibly, immutably true.
Now: back up with me to the moment I finished the stories and novels of the brilliantly gifted Simon Van Booy. Van Booy’s works posit a world of wounded souls who nonetheless can, and regularly do, reach out with unutterable courage past their own pain to connect with and help one another in meaningful, abiding ways. There is no speck of sentiment about any of Van Booy’s investigations: there is an abundance of tenderness. Tenderness prevails.
I knew Van Booy’s vision, too, was true. Yet it pretty much stands in direct opposition to the vision of Greg Baxter.
“What do you do about this?” I asked my husband, while we were hiking around the lake in our home city’s park. “When you read two visions, each of which strikes you in the center of your heart as unimpeachably true, though each deeply contradicts the other?”
“Welcome to postmodernism,” said He Who Has Taught That Subject as part of his English Lit instruction for a big bunch of years now.
“Construct your color chart,” he added, for an analogy. “How much blue? How much green?”
Contradictory ideas, in our postmodern awareness, co-exist like colors on a palette. And how much of each we incorporate into our own view of the big picture (speaking very simply), is up to us.
It can change every minute. It can be black with simultaneity.
It’s not restful, either. Scott Fitzgerald said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
And yet surely this is always the writer’s task: to convey that simultaneity. If we do it right, readers recognize themselves, and each other, gratefully.
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.