Monday, February 02, 2009

The Ecstatic by Victor LaValle

Anthony, the narrator of LaValle's 2002 novel, may just be the evolutionary step between John Kennedy Toole's Ignatius J. Reilly and Junot Diaz's Oscar Wao. He is morbidly obese, mentally unbalanced, and really really funny. LaValle's acknowledgments page ends with "Last, I'd like to express my affection for fat people and crazy people everywhere," and that affection which the novel wraps its narrator in is really what carries the book.

The flap copy claims the novel is in the tradition of "misfit picaresques" --a tradition I did not know existed but enjoy the thought of -- and while The Ecstatic has more of a one-thing-builds-on-the-last quality than I think of most picaresques as having, it's not exactly hooked on plot. Which means, to keep going the reader really has to attach to the narrator who holds it all together. My undergraduates and I recently tried to discuss creating likeable characters but the conversation felt a little too clinical (1 tsp. character flaw, 2 tsp. character strength, mix in one lightning scar ...)...but LaValle, in an interview with the journal Hobart has helped me see the issue in a new way. It's not likeability that characters need; it's personality. He defines voice as personality, which for my taste leaves out an aural quality of voice that feels important, but I very much like the idea of creating personable characters rather than likeable ones. After all, we often are drawn to the people who when looked at logically aren't likeable at all. And Anthony's personality is partly drawn by his physical traits (looks and actions) but much more by the things he thinks. This is what I think LaValle means by voice--what Anthony has to say is what makes him most interesting.

For example: p.44, "Disposable income was wasted on the dumb." and p.32, "To me women were like the perfect model of government: paving the roads and protecting the weak. Omnipotent. Boys without fathers say that kind of thing a lot. About their mothers. About their wives. Comparing ladies to goddesses and gold. But still I think we hate women even more than the average guy," and p.108, "...a little neon always makes me feel like I'm near people I understand."

And another small thing I appreciated--Anthony works cleaning houses. A lot of fictional women clean houses, but not a lot of (any?) men. Sometimes it's the small things that add originality.

And one last bit of trivia: Mos Def has named his latest album The Ecstatic after the novel, which he describes as a favorite. If only Mos Def wasn't so skinny, I'd pitch him for the movie. But I strongly approve when public figures reveal themselves to be fiction readers. I like it when characters in movies and tv read novels (Sawyer reading Watership Down is really what sold me on Lost) and I get peeved when I hear public figures make a point of mentioning that they don't read fiction (keep your shame secret, please). I had mixed feelings, for example, when even the intellectual/musician Andrew Bird, when asked what he read by New York magazine referenced the terrific Cabinet magazine and Saul Bellow, but made a point of saying he didn't "go for" much modern fiction. Mr. Bird, if you're out there...give The Ecstatic a try.


Rafe said...

In poking around Amazon, I noticed this description of Lavalle's first story collection: "As in Junot Diaz's _Drown_, the prose is a series of choppy, precise sentences, like jabs ("The NYU banners flapped with the wind, loud enough to sound like teeth cracking in your head"), and the stories take place in small stuffy apartments where walls are inadequate shields against the loud and inescapable neighborhood." Haven't read anything by Lavalle yet so I don't know how apt the comparison is, but interesting, especially since _Oscar Wao_ seems such a stylistic departure from _Drown_, to see Lavalle go in a similar direction in his second book.

irad said...

I agree that Mos Def would be perfect for the film. (He already played a film nerd in "Be Kind, Rewind" and Anthony has a film obsession.) And his size is not a problem because "The Ecstatic" should only be filmed as a cartoon. And only Aaron McGruder could write a script that does the story justice! So Mos (brilliant as the voice of Gangstalicious) does the voice!