Review: Edinburgh (2001) by Alexander Chee   Leave a comment

Alexander Chee’s novel Edinburgh deals with some difficult issues, as the book’s main character, Fee, struggles to deal first with the sexual abuse meted out by his choir master, Big Eric, and then, as he grows up, with his own identity as a homosexual man. Such problems, as one might imagine, run deep, and there is a repeated desire on Fee’s part to destroy himself, just as so many others in his life have done.

As I was reading Edinburgh, I wanted to be moved by these themes. After all, if these issues were being told to me directly, by a friend, then I would certainly be touched. But the more I read, the more I wondered: doesn’t this belong more properly in a memoir? That is to say, are these topics the proper domain of fiction?

There are some ways in which the answer to that question is a resounding “yes.” The rise of so-called “dirty realism” in the 1980s – think Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver – is a clear influence on Chee’s style in this novel, which remains detached and economical, as if to counterbalance the melodrama of the story’s content. The subject matter also occupies the familiar territory of dirty realism: sex, drugs, perversion, all the emotional fabric of everyday life filtered through the lens of the novelist.

I share the view that no subject ought to be viewed as off-limits. But there is always a twin danger when treading along the borders of transgression. The first danger, which Chee successfully avoids for the most part, is becoming too emotional, either through hysteria or sentimentality. The second, however, he does not, and that is the feeling that the reader is being blackmailed into an attachment with the story at hand.

This feeling of emotional blackmail tells me that I ought to care about Fee because of his struggles simply because they are so weighty, that I somehow “owe” him something as a reader for this pain. But the truth is, I don’t. He’s a fictional character, and his difficulties are, in the end, made up. I would bestow my compassion on a real-life friend in Fee’s situation because their pain is real, stemming as it does from the weight of experience. In the case of a novel, however, the burden lies with the author to make me care by drawing me into the story. That requires a certain level of narrative skill and seduction that Chee, presuming on my pity, does not enact.

The reality is that, in fiction, the heaviest misery comes cheaply. Writers can destroy cities, unleash plagues, wipe out worlds in the blink of an eye, all with a few strokes of the pen. Suffering – that is, imaginary suffering – is cheap because, without the sparkle of narrative interest, any reader can see that it’s counterfeit, fake, made-up.

The fact is that Alexander Chee is merely another product of the great MFA sausage factory of empty fiction writing. Yes, I know he went to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop – it may be a superior sausage factory, but it is a sausage factory nonetheless. The writing sparkles with meaningless, “poetic” phrases that sound pretty when you read them but reveal absolutely nothing. Take these sentences, for instance:

“Blue. Blue because it’s the color people turn in the dark. Because it’s the color of the sky, of the center of the flame, of a diamond hit by an X ray. Blue is the knife edge of lightning. Blue is the color, a rose grower tells you, that a rose never quite reaches. Because when you feel threatened by a demon you are supposed to imagine around you a circle of blue light. You do this because the demon cannot cross blue light.” (pp.191-2)

What on earth does that mean? Passages like these are fool’s gold: they promise some kind of profundity, but the more closely you examine them the more you realize that they are nothing but decorative nonsense.

The greatest weakness in the novel, though, is the flatness of its narrative voice. There is nothing but surface in Edinburgh, no playful sense that our first-person narrator may be lying or mistaken (he is too transparent, too insipid for that), no desire to explore alternative viewpoints or other voices. There was a moment – the advent, in the middle of the book, of another narrator – when I thought we were going to see inside the mind of Fee’s abuser, but instead it turns out to the Warden, the abuser’s son, who, in keeping with the novel’s Narcissus references, is as dully monological in his admiration of Fee as the rest of the narrative. Chee mentions Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the “chronotope” at one point, but he seems to have overlooked Bakhtin’s key idea that “polyphony” – “many voices” – is what makes a novel interesting.

So let’s just say that Chee’s attempt at blackmail didn’t work on me. It’s not that I’m heartless – but in the realm of fiction, where pain comes cheaply, you have to demonstrate some narrative skill to make me care.

Rating: 2/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

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Posted April 5, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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