Welcome to Kirby Gann week at the LBC. This is the first post in a discussion of Gann's Our Napoleon in Rags that will play out over the next few days, possibly culminating with an appearance by the author later in the week. Carrie and Matt (and anyone else who jumps in -- jump in, you, jump in) will have far more interesting things to say I'm sure, but for now, it's just me. Meanwhile, here's Matt's post on why he nominated the book in the first place.
I'm going to start this off by tossing off some randomish thoughts about the book and see where that goes. I feel compelled to confess that I had to start the book several times before it "took." In fact, I began to make bad jokes about how it caused comas. It seemed like every time I started to read it, during those lazy, hotter-than-hell summer days, I'd lapse into a deep sleep. This book is hypnotic, I'd say. Page 9 is an unconscious trigger: you are getting very sleepy.
So I skipped ahead to page 11 and everything went fine.
All this by way of saying that this book has a unique, dense style that doesn't hold anything back. It takes some getting used to. It doesn't give up its secrets or rhythm right away, and that's true of the book as a whole. I just reread much of Napoleon to prepare for this conversation, since it'd been a couple of months now, and found the prose practically transparent. I'm overstating -- I found it ornately straightforward and not something that I had to acclimate to at all. So maybe the heat was affecting my brain or maybe you'll have to give this one a dozen pages or so to click.
The story took a bit longer to click on the first time through, mostly due to the narrative not playing out in the expected way. Our Napoleon follows the regulars at the Don Quixote, "that sumptuous dive." If you've ever hung around in bars a little bit seedier than is probably good for you, you'll recognize it. The flap copy and even the first chapter focus us on Haycraft Keebler, a sort of rundown Emperor Norton figure, who is often at the center of the action at the Don Quixote, when he's not on the fringes of it. He takes up with a young hustler named Lambret. Once I figured out that this book was not really Hay's story, but the story of the regulars, of the DQ itself and what it represents, including Hay, it opened up into a rich narrative of community.
This novel has some interesting things to say about reality and reflections and transformation. At first glance, or in different sections of the book, we think we know many important things (maybe all the important things) about various characters. And then we get to their story, encounter their side of things, we see them change or stay the same. It's a reminder not to view the world too simply. A reminder that first glances are like a mirage, and may in fact obscure what really awaits us. The ending underscores this point -- it's both a reveal that a major minor character is narrating and that we didn't ever know it all about him either. That everything we think we've learned was really what he learned and so is suspect too. It's an upsetting, uneasy ending, the more you think about it and, wow, do I love that about this book, the way it changes upon reflection like a funhouse mirror throwing back distortions and the occasional truth. My reread made me appreciate the subtleties and richness of this book more.
The most important character in the book is the fictional city of Montreux -- a city which is wounded, stretching at its seams, down but not out. It's also Louisville, or at least a Louisville (the funhouse version?). Being a Kentucky girl, I latched onto this right away. The character of Hay, railing against the oppressiveness of society, is not what I see as the political heart of this book; he's one fragment of it, one reflection. The crux to me is the police violence aspect and how it has unsettled the community, both inside and outside the Don Quixote. This is something the city of Louisville has been dealing with for several years (at least and I can't say to what extent it still is). And so this seems to me that rarest of birds, a political novel in which real life politics are addressed and yet it never feels prosaic, forced or even like the politics upstage the people. I have no idea how directly that climate of unrest due to those incidents affected the book's treatment of the issue, but it feels spot on, nonetheless. A little excerpt from the POV of police officer Sutherland, who is a regular at the DQ, to demonstrate:
Usually I don't think much about work. People are ugly and do awful things and I see it every day and all the acts mix together in your head. You convince yourself that the implications are not worth pursuing. Sometimes they come up anyway. But this night is the only one I think of on my own, playing it again over and over. It's the only time I've been involved in a man's death, and it doesn't even matter that I knew Mather, some things you just do not forget.
You wish you could have done things differently, that life would have turned out in a different way. It sounds ridiculous, but I am being completely honest when I say that I blame the sock. A hard thing to get your head around: If me and Keach had not answered that call at the house; if the old woman hadn't been kind and just wanted to be left alone, she would not have offered us the coffee; if she hadn't had Parkinson's, Mather Williams might still be alive. It is exactly this kind of thinking that keeps me from reflecting on my job very often. Because there's nothing you can do. An old woman drops coffee on your shoe and it doesn't seem possible that this will lead directly to a man getting shot. It's like you are powerless to change anything, like life is going to play out any kind of way it wants. You want to feel like you have a direct influence on what happens to you and on what you cause to happen to others, but I wonder if we have much say in it at all.
My conscience is clean.
And there’s no specific “message” the novel is trying to put across to the reader; what I intended was to raise questions about what sort of commitments should we make to our community, what is within our power to change -- on a personal level; the primary thematic question in my mind during the writing of the book was what do we owe one another?
The novel isn’t intended to answer any of these questions; novels that claim to have answers tend to be bad ones. Finding worthwhile questions that one can put forth dramatically, in a narrative, is very hard and time-consuming work (for me at least). So my limited activism has dwindled to nothing but the writing.
That's all I got for now.