I started looking for books to nominate the moment I found out I was a nominator for this round of the LBC. At first, I thought I should probably try for something that was sort of fantasy-ish or science fiction-ish, because that's the general focus of my own weblog, The Mumpsimus (with a heavy emphasis on the -ish). So Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners was at the top of my list for a while, because it's smart and delightful. But there were a few reasons it didn't quite seem to fit our criteria, so I then thought about Jane Alison's magnificent Natives and Exotics, which I found intellectually engaging and beautifully written.
And then there was Kirby Gann's Our Napoleon in Rags, a book that is not as delightful as Magic for Beginners and not as intellectually engaging as Natives and Exotics, nor is it by even the ishiest stretch of the imagination SF or fantasy. Nonetheless, it was a book that haunted me for days after I first read it. I read it again right before I had to announce my nomination to the group, and felt more certain than ever that this was the book I wanted to be associated with this quarter.
I think I first heard about Our Napoleon in Rags via Mobylives, but I don't actually remember. I had never heard of Ig Publishing before reading the book, and I know I'd never seen it in a bookstore. It was just one of those books that happened to find its way to me, by luck or magic or happenstance, with the aid of an online bookseller and my devoted friends in the post office.
I have to be honest: there were moments when reading Our Napoleon in Rags when I thought it was going nowhere, adding up to nothing, and in all likelihood a waste of time and paper. This was the fault of mistaken expectation about what sort of book I was reading. The novel begins well, with opening paragraphs that drop us right into the book's central setting:
The nights at the Don Quixote -- that sumptuous dive -- held darker than nights elsewhere, even if the club sat huddled within the smacked heart of the city. As in the rest of America (and for most Americans), this heart rarely became an object of attention and care, more fretted over than attended to, arteries hardening without complaint, a condition forming without the host's knowledge. Like the biological heart, one remained aware but avoided the subject. One leaves the heart alone and hopes for the best.The problem for me when I first began to read it was that I came to the book expecting the one promised by the description offered by the publisher, which begins:
We are in Old Towne, the broken-streetlight district in Montreux where dark house-stoops offer no welcome. Most of the light that sparked through the leaded wave windows of the Don Q was of the flashing variety, red and blue and sometimes white -- vascular colors. The regulars called the Don Q the heart of Old Towne, thus making it the heart within the heart.
Can one man change the world? Haycraft Keebler, self-appointed savior of humanity, believes his mission is to inspire the people to rise up against the powers that be. And he will use any idea that springs from his bipolar mind -- distributing a "revolutionary" newsletter, covering debris and trashcans in gold, instigating a bus crash -- to achieve his goal of social equality for all.Thus, I thought I was about to read a kind of cross between A Confederacy of Dunces, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Les Miserables.
Once I figured out what the book actually was, and stopped measuring it against my expectations, I began to truly enjoy it. It is not so much a novel about one character -- Haycraft is important, yes, but so are many other characters -- as it is a novel about a milieu, and, we discover at the end, a novel about memory and impermanence. It is not nearly as comic as I originally expected it to be, though there are funny moments. It is more of an elegy than a ballad, more sketchbook than mural. It is not a grand and rollicking satire of America or Capitalism or Other Important Things, nor is it, as the publisher's description ludicrously goes on to say, about "the hot button issues of mental illness, homosexuality, police violence, and racism". Aside from the unfortunate linking of homosexuality to mental illness, police violence, and racism, this description is entirely inaccurate because while those "issues" are present in the book, they are there not to be commented on or parodied or have the imbrications of their ideoscapes problematized -- they are there, instead, because the book portrays particular people in a particular place; it is a portrait of ways of living and dying, a portrait of how people pull joy and even moments of triumph from the general struggle of getting through each day. Think Chekhov, not Gorky.
The chapters in Our Napoleon in Rags sometimes read like unfinished short stories, and at first this is disconcerting. It seems at times as if Kirby Gann is trying to show us how sensitive he is, how attuned to nuance, and a reader who did not finish the book could be excused for thinking so. The story grows by the accretion of details, images, and moments, some of which overlap, some of which are left hanging, like late nights only hazily remembered.
Also, the ending changes everything. I won't reveal what it is here, because it's worth discovering on your own, but the last couple of pages of the book require us to re-evaluate everything that has gone before. I enjoyed reading the book a second time quite a bit, because I could read it with the news from the ending in mind, and this showed the narrative to be quite cunningly constructed and more complex than it appeared on a first reading.
The ending has proved frustrating for some readers, and while I like it a lot, I certainly can understand how people find it contrived or annoying. Novels are, by their nature, contrived (or else they wouldn't be either fiction or art), but what each reader is willing to suspend their disbelief for differs from each to each. I didn't feel the ending gimmicky, because I liked the effect it had on the book, and I thought it pushed the novel's incidents toward multiple interpretations: how much credence do we give to different characters' ideas of changing the world, and how much do we care about such idealism ourselves? Our Napoleon in Rags haunted me long after I read it because I found myself returning to questions it raised in my mind about delusion, imagination, generosity, regret, affection, love, and, well, yes: changing the world.
If you're interested in Our Napoleon in Rags, we will be hosting a week-long discussion of it starting October 10.