Commentary Magazine


Topic: Pauls Toutonghi

The Political Value of Novelists

Pauls Toutonghi was in San Francisco the other day to promote his new novel Evel Knievel Days when he spotted a sign above a tire store:

THE FOUR SADDEST WORDS
IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
ARE
GORE VIDAL IS DEAD

Toutonghi was immediately provoked into reflection. At a time when the “political rifts” between Americans are “both deep and intransigent,” at a time when (quoting the Pew Center) “their values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years,” why aren’t our novelists bringing Americans together? What our politicians seem incapable of doing, the novelist does in his writing on a daily basis:

The novelist is comfortable with the cognitive dissonance created by considering two opposing points of view. Anger, after all, arises from our own inability to imagine that our opponent’s view might be correct. But novelists — good novelists — are ceaselessly imaginative. They have to be. They are always considering opposing views and possibilities; they have trained their imaginations to voyage into the bleakest places, to voyage into the territory of the irrational and the wildly passionate.

So why, Toutonghi asks, are American novelists not to be found in “the mainstream of political discourse”? The short answer is that few of them are as generous to their opponents as Pauls Toutonghi. Anyone who reads much contemporary fiction — I am condemned by professional responsibilities to do so — would be hard-pressed to name more than two or three American novelists who have put any effort at all into imagining that political conservatives’ view of the world might be correct.

The locus classicus, of course, as I’ve written elsewhere, is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a celebrated novel in which George W. Bush is relentlessly bashed (even his twin daughters come in for a bashing) and the dangerous view of freedom, the evil view the novel is written to reject, is espoused by a neoconservative bogeyman.

The neocon explains that it is ethically acceptable to manipulate the media — to lie to them about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, for example — “in the service of a greater truth.” You have to resort to the expedient of lying with people “who are not only unable but unwilling to admit certain truths whose logic is self-evident to you,” he says. But don’t even those people have the right to think whatever they want? Isn’t that precisely what freedom means, even if it means that freedom is a pain in the ass?

“That’s exactly right,” [the neocon] said. “Freedom is a pain in the ass. And that’s precisely why it’s so imperative that we seize the opportunity that’s been presented to us this fall [after 9/11]. To get a nation of free people to let go of their bad logic and sign on with better logic, by whatever means necessary.”

So much for considering opposing views and possibilities. In Point Omega, Don DeLillo does not even try to imagine the interior workings of a foreign-policy neoconservative’s mind — the neocon lies about the “haiku” war in Iraq, the “war in three lines,” by silence and omission. Franzen, DeLillo, and their peers in the American literati belong to the party of Pauline Kael: they can’t believe that a Republican ever wins an election, because they don’t know anyone who has ever voted for a Republican.

In Second Sight, the seventh novel by Charles McCarry (one of the scarce American novelists on the right), a famous TV journalist finds himself at a dinner party where, during the conversation over dessert, Richard Nixon is defended. The left has “made Mr. Nixon stand for evil and they think that all it takes to be virtuous is to hate him,” his hostess says. It is “the politics of self-congratulation.” The journalist is “visibly shocked and offended.” Never before in his life has he ever heard anyone defend Richard Nixon. “It’s a good thing you only sound like that in the privacy of your own home,” he says stiffly.

How many contemporary American novelists, I wonder, are willing to voyage imaginatively into a defense of Richard Nixon? Or even George W. Bush? As I have pointed out repeatedly (here and here and here and here), Bush-bashing has become one of the most reliable conventions of American fiction. Imaginative, though? I can think of other things to call it.

The first condition of lowering the temperature on political discourse in America (that is, the assumption of good faith on the part of your opponents) is missing from any contemporary American fiction that dips into politics. Until American novelists are capable of believing that a political conservative might just be telling the truth as he understands it (or even that a political conservative might actually read them), they will continue to be, as Pauls Toutonghi laments, “relegated to the farthest margins of society — to its asylums and barrooms, where they squabble over increasingly small scraps, interrogating each other about whether or not they believe in MFA programs.” And deservedly so.

Pauls Toutonghi was in San Francisco the other day to promote his new novel Evel Knievel Days when he spotted a sign above a tire store:

THE FOUR SADDEST WORDS
IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
ARE
GORE VIDAL IS DEAD

Toutonghi was immediately provoked into reflection. At a time when the “political rifts” between Americans are “both deep and intransigent,” at a time when (quoting the Pew Center) “their values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years,” why aren’t our novelists bringing Americans together? What our politicians seem incapable of doing, the novelist does in his writing on a daily basis:

The novelist is comfortable with the cognitive dissonance created by considering two opposing points of view. Anger, after all, arises from our own inability to imagine that our opponent’s view might be correct. But novelists — good novelists — are ceaselessly imaginative. They have to be. They are always considering opposing views and possibilities; they have trained their imaginations to voyage into the bleakest places, to voyage into the territory of the irrational and the wildly passionate.

So why, Toutonghi asks, are American novelists not to be found in “the mainstream of political discourse”? The short answer is that few of them are as generous to their opponents as Pauls Toutonghi. Anyone who reads much contemporary fiction — I am condemned by professional responsibilities to do so — would be hard-pressed to name more than two or three American novelists who have put any effort at all into imagining that political conservatives’ view of the world might be correct.

The locus classicus, of course, as I’ve written elsewhere, is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a celebrated novel in which George W. Bush is relentlessly bashed (even his twin daughters come in for a bashing) and the dangerous view of freedom, the evil view the novel is written to reject, is espoused by a neoconservative bogeyman.

The neocon explains that it is ethically acceptable to manipulate the media — to lie to them about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, for example — “in the service of a greater truth.” You have to resort to the expedient of lying with people “who are not only unable but unwilling to admit certain truths whose logic is self-evident to you,” he says. But don’t even those people have the right to think whatever they want? Isn’t that precisely what freedom means, even if it means that freedom is a pain in the ass?

“That’s exactly right,” [the neocon] said. “Freedom is a pain in the ass. And that’s precisely why it’s so imperative that we seize the opportunity that’s been presented to us this fall [after 9/11]. To get a nation of free people to let go of their bad logic and sign on with better logic, by whatever means necessary.”

So much for considering opposing views and possibilities. In Point Omega, Don DeLillo does not even try to imagine the interior workings of a foreign-policy neoconservative’s mind — the neocon lies about the “haiku” war in Iraq, the “war in three lines,” by silence and omission. Franzen, DeLillo, and their peers in the American literati belong to the party of Pauline Kael: they can’t believe that a Republican ever wins an election, because they don’t know anyone who has ever voted for a Republican.

In Second Sight, the seventh novel by Charles McCarry (one of the scarce American novelists on the right), a famous TV journalist finds himself at a dinner party where, during the conversation over dessert, Richard Nixon is defended. The left has “made Mr. Nixon stand for evil and they think that all it takes to be virtuous is to hate him,” his hostess says. It is “the politics of self-congratulation.” The journalist is “visibly shocked and offended.” Never before in his life has he ever heard anyone defend Richard Nixon. “It’s a good thing you only sound like that in the privacy of your own home,” he says stiffly.

How many contemporary American novelists, I wonder, are willing to voyage imaginatively into a defense of Richard Nixon? Or even George W. Bush? As I have pointed out repeatedly (here and here and here and here), Bush-bashing has become one of the most reliable conventions of American fiction. Imaginative, though? I can think of other things to call it.

The first condition of lowering the temperature on political discourse in America (that is, the assumption of good faith on the part of your opponents) is missing from any contemporary American fiction that dips into politics. Until American novelists are capable of believing that a political conservative might just be telling the truth as he understands it (or even that a political conservative might actually read them), they will continue to be, as Pauls Toutonghi laments, “relegated to the farthest margins of society — to its asylums and barrooms, where they squabble over increasingly small scraps, interrogating each other about whether or not they believe in MFA programs.” And deservedly so.

Read Less

Review: Dreams of His Father in Cairo

Pauls Toutonghi, Evel Knievel Days (New York: Crown, 2012). 292 pages.

“Evel Knievel Days” is the name of a summer festival held every year in Butte, Montana, to honor the notorious late stunt rider who was born there. “And what a festival it had become,” exults the narrator of Pauls Toutonghi’s upbeat second novel:

It lasted for seventy-two hours on the final weekend in July. It was a circus of motorcycle daredevils and demolition derbies; the cops cordoned off most of downtown and routed the majority of traffic through the suburbs. I’m really not making this up. It seems exaggerated or unlikely or impossible. But nothing galvanized this corner of Montana like stunt jumping and the destruction of machines.

Thus does Toutonghi introduce his keynote and theme. Evel Knievel Days opens during Evel Knievel Days in 2008, but the festival is not its locus and the only daredevil is its narrator, whose exploits balance precariously on the edge of exaggeration and unlikelihood before ending with a gasp of happy relief — something like stunt jumping, come to think of it.

Khosi Saqr is the son of an Egyptian Copt who had come to Montana for an engineering degree and the great-granddaughter of William Andrews Clark (Butte’s legendary “copper king,” who appears later in the novel as a ghost). He lives at home with his mother in an falling-down house he likes to call the Loving Shambles (possibly the closest house in America to an EPA Superfund site), and works as a tour guide in the Copper King Mansion, a local museum that was once his great-great-grandfather’s house. An obsessive compulsive and something of an agoraphobic — his friends call him a hermit — Khosi has never been able to leave Butte, even though he is a “card-carrying member of MENSA.”

His parents split up when Khosi was three. Since then he has spent much of his time speculating about his father’s reasons for deserting him and returning to Egypt. “I’ve imagined entire stories for him,” Khosi says,

but they lead me to the same emptiness. And the most embarrassing thing? I’ve always wanted to say Daddy, that infantile and diminutive word. I never had the chance to say it, never got to write it on birthday cards or Father’s Day cards or letters home from camp.

The emptiness at the center of his life (“my hidden galaxy, my empty suitcase, my vacant motel room,” as he puts it elsewhere) is complicated by the fact that his father is the native of a “country on the other side of the world,” about which — about whose people — he knows nothing, despite his own Egyptian name:

I have a family tree somewhere, but I don’t know where, and it’s probably in Arabic, or possibly French, or possibly both. The past, the history of my family, is a strange and hybrid beast. On the one side [the Clark side]: exhaustively documented. I live and work in its midst. But on the other side: nothing. No body, no clothes, no cane, no toupee, no set of dentures, no artifacts whatever. Only a vocabulary that vanishes as soon as it’s fashioned into language. Only the vocabulary of exile and disappearance.

The two halves of his history come together, fleetingly, when his father resurfaces in Butte to secure his ex-wife’s signature on divorce papers. Khosi glimpses him lurking outside the Cooper King Mansion in a gray wool overcoat, despite the summer heat, but he only realizes after his father has fled again that the suspicious-looking man was his father. Khosi decides to follow him to Cairo.

From this point on — the last seven-tenths of its length — Toutonghi’s novel is filled with events that strengthen from strange to stranger. The opening chapters of Evel Knievel Days give the book every indication of being a standard second-generation immigrant novel like John Okada’s No-No Boy or Dinaw Mengestu’s How to Read the Air (two of the better examples), where the claim to originality is little more than to be perhaps the first to explore the “double consciousness” of Egyptian Americans (in animated prose).

Once Khosi arrives in Cairo, however, where people have been living for 7,000 years (as his taxi driver tells him), everything changes. Toutonghi later gives a rational explanation for the strange events: having left the U.S. too abruptly to be properly immunized against exotic foreign diseases, Khosi is bitten by a mosquito and contracts yellow fever. But the strangeness is allowed to linger for many chapters before any explanation is offered. “Sure, this wasn’t jumping over the Grand Canyon, like Robert Craig Knievel,” Khosi says of his efforts to navigate the strange city, “but for me — for me it was close.”

With a little help from the ghost of William Andrews Clark, who shows up in a Coptic Christian church to issue advice and warnings in a silly parody of movie Western slang that works precisely because it is so silly (“What are your sins, pardner?” “Let ’er rip.” “Sometimes life’s got a sting like bumblebee whiskey”), Khosi tracks down his father’s fiancée, a beautiful young antiquities dealer who does not believe anything Khosi says. (She has been told that Akram Saqr’s son died as an infant.)

Khosi is saddened to learn that his father is a liar, but worse is to follow. When his father finally turns up, he asks Khosi to pretend to be someone else. He introduces his only son as the son of a dead friend. His father’s dishonesty almost gets Khosi killed at the hands of gamblers. His mother arrives in Cairo with food from home, but things don’t improve. His father’s fiancée accuses Khosi of stealing a priceless ancient bracelet. Escaping from the police, he collapses from yellow fever and floats through a delirium in which his parents make peace with each other at last. Nursed back to health in a Muslim Brotherhood hospital, he attends his father’s wedding, confusing the guests, who can’t figure out whether he is family or a waiter. After everything, he decides to remain in Cairo instead of returning to America.

Although it is very funny, Evel Knievel Days is not a comic novel. It is a romance in pretty much the same sense that The Tempest is a romance: strange events crowd out natural events, not because the setting is a magical realm, but because reality becomes magical and strange when it is no longer conventional and familiar. Khosi’s decision to remain in Cairo cures him of his compulsions. In an epilogue, he reveals that he was on the streets during the anti-Mubarak demonstrations two and a half years later in Tahrir Square. By then, the Egyptian reality has turned mundane again. And Khosi can begin a normal life.

Pauls Toutonghi, Evel Knievel Days (New York: Crown, 2012). 292 pages.

“Evel Knievel Days” is the name of a summer festival held every year in Butte, Montana, to honor the notorious late stunt rider who was born there. “And what a festival it had become,” exults the narrator of Pauls Toutonghi’s upbeat second novel:

It lasted for seventy-two hours on the final weekend in July. It was a circus of motorcycle daredevils and demolition derbies; the cops cordoned off most of downtown and routed the majority of traffic through the suburbs. I’m really not making this up. It seems exaggerated or unlikely or impossible. But nothing galvanized this corner of Montana like stunt jumping and the destruction of machines.

Thus does Toutonghi introduce his keynote and theme. Evel Knievel Days opens during Evel Knievel Days in 2008, but the festival is not its locus and the only daredevil is its narrator, whose exploits balance precariously on the edge of exaggeration and unlikelihood before ending with a gasp of happy relief — something like stunt jumping, come to think of it.

Khosi Saqr is the son of an Egyptian Copt who had come to Montana for an engineering degree and the great-granddaughter of William Andrews Clark (Butte’s legendary “copper king,” who appears later in the novel as a ghost). He lives at home with his mother in an falling-down house he likes to call the Loving Shambles (possibly the closest house in America to an EPA Superfund site), and works as a tour guide in the Copper King Mansion, a local museum that was once his great-great-grandfather’s house. An obsessive compulsive and something of an agoraphobic — his friends call him a hermit — Khosi has never been able to leave Butte, even though he is a “card-carrying member of MENSA.”

His parents split up when Khosi was three. Since then he has spent much of his time speculating about his father’s reasons for deserting him and returning to Egypt. “I’ve imagined entire stories for him,” Khosi says,

but they lead me to the same emptiness. And the most embarrassing thing? I’ve always wanted to say Daddy, that infantile and diminutive word. I never had the chance to say it, never got to write it on birthday cards or Father’s Day cards or letters home from camp.

The emptiness at the center of his life (“my hidden galaxy, my empty suitcase, my vacant motel room,” as he puts it elsewhere) is complicated by the fact that his father is the native of a “country on the other side of the world,” about which — about whose people — he knows nothing, despite his own Egyptian name:

I have a family tree somewhere, but I don’t know where, and it’s probably in Arabic, or possibly French, or possibly both. The past, the history of my family, is a strange and hybrid beast. On the one side [the Clark side]: exhaustively documented. I live and work in its midst. But on the other side: nothing. No body, no clothes, no cane, no toupee, no set of dentures, no artifacts whatever. Only a vocabulary that vanishes as soon as it’s fashioned into language. Only the vocabulary of exile and disappearance.

The two halves of his history come together, fleetingly, when his father resurfaces in Butte to secure his ex-wife’s signature on divorce papers. Khosi glimpses him lurking outside the Cooper King Mansion in a gray wool overcoat, despite the summer heat, but he only realizes after his father has fled again that the suspicious-looking man was his father. Khosi decides to follow him to Cairo.

From this point on — the last seven-tenths of its length — Toutonghi’s novel is filled with events that strengthen from strange to stranger. The opening chapters of Evel Knievel Days give the book every indication of being a standard second-generation immigrant novel like John Okada’s No-No Boy or Dinaw Mengestu’s How to Read the Air (two of the better examples), where the claim to originality is little more than to be perhaps the first to explore the “double consciousness” of Egyptian Americans (in animated prose).

Once Khosi arrives in Cairo, however, where people have been living for 7,000 years (as his taxi driver tells him), everything changes. Toutonghi later gives a rational explanation for the strange events: having left the U.S. too abruptly to be properly immunized against exotic foreign diseases, Khosi is bitten by a mosquito and contracts yellow fever. But the strangeness is allowed to linger for many chapters before any explanation is offered. “Sure, this wasn’t jumping over the Grand Canyon, like Robert Craig Knievel,” Khosi says of his efforts to navigate the strange city, “but for me — for me it was close.”

With a little help from the ghost of William Andrews Clark, who shows up in a Coptic Christian church to issue advice and warnings in a silly parody of movie Western slang that works precisely because it is so silly (“What are your sins, pardner?” “Let ’er rip.” “Sometimes life’s got a sting like bumblebee whiskey”), Khosi tracks down his father’s fiancée, a beautiful young antiquities dealer who does not believe anything Khosi says. (She has been told that Akram Saqr’s son died as an infant.)

Khosi is saddened to learn that his father is a liar, but worse is to follow. When his father finally turns up, he asks Khosi to pretend to be someone else. He introduces his only son as the son of a dead friend. His father’s dishonesty almost gets Khosi killed at the hands of gamblers. His mother arrives in Cairo with food from home, but things don’t improve. His father’s fiancée accuses Khosi of stealing a priceless ancient bracelet. Escaping from the police, he collapses from yellow fever and floats through a delirium in which his parents make peace with each other at last. Nursed back to health in a Muslim Brotherhood hospital, he attends his father’s wedding, confusing the guests, who can’t figure out whether he is family or a waiter. After everything, he decides to remain in Cairo instead of returning to America.

Although it is very funny, Evel Knievel Days is not a comic novel. It is a romance in pretty much the same sense that The Tempest is a romance: strange events crowd out natural events, not because the setting is a magical realm, but because reality becomes magical and strange when it is no longer conventional and familiar. Khosi’s decision to remain in Cairo cures him of his compulsions. In an epilogue, he reveals that he was on the streets during the anti-Mubarak demonstrations two and a half years later in Tahrir Square. By then, the Egyptian reality has turned mundane again. And Khosi can begin a normal life.

Read Less