JANUARY 14, 2015
WHEN A WHITE GUY releases a thick new novel with lots of fancy blurbs, it’s natural to wonder: is it one of those books? — one of those vibrant contemporary polymath epics with lots of characters, which all reviewers are required to describe as “hysterical realism,” “maximalism,” “recherché postmodernism,” or “kind of like Franzen”? Bonita Avenue, the debut novel by the Dutch author Peter Buwalda, has seen tremendous success across Europe, and it settles the question swiftly: the first eight pages drop references to competitive judo, competitive rowing, knot theory, Richard Feynman, Robert Capa, Luitzen Brower, the physiology of cauliflower ear, and the “single-lens reflex” of horseflies. The parochial title belies its globalized setting, as characters zip between Enschede, Lindebeek, Shanghai, Berkeley, San Francisco, and Los Angeles on all manner of high-speed transport.
Bonita Avenue is a family chronicle that’s set around the turn of the millennium and told from the points of view of three characters: Siem Sigerius, a renowned judo-whiz-turned-math-genius; his cynical, independent stepdaughter Joni; and Aaron Bever, Joni’s feckless photographer ex-husband who’s beset by clinical psychosis. The basic plot, established in the first chapter, is this: after Siem discovers Joni on a softcore porn website, Joni and Aaron’s marriage crumbles, the family scatters, and Siem kills himself.
If the plot sounds thin for a 500-plus page book, it’s because the novel is less concerned with unfolding a series of events than in painstakingly detailing every intervening moment from all three perspectives. In 19th-century fashion, all characters are announced with a ream of physical description, if not an extended biography; this is how we learn about Joni’s boss’s father’s political leanings, her business partner’s father’s failed bid at stage magic, and her childhood friend’s mother’s geographical ignorance. Buwalda has a talent for the cutaway, stepping out to fire off an anecdote before merging back into the narrative. This talent is especially useful as his novel is largely made of digressions that unfold in flashbacks from an inert present tense in which the estranged characters reflect on their past. The structure allows Buwalda to hop around heedless of chronology, and charges some scenes with dramatic irony, though the present-tense scenes do feel like a drawn-out epilogue because the characters do little except sit around and feel wistful.
Subplots abound — two involve Siem’s homicidal son from a previous marriage, and a fictional avatar of the hardcore pornstar Sasha Grey, who also supplies one of the book’s epigraphs: “Y’know, I am to you what the gladiator was to the Roman citizen.” The uneasy duality of sex and violence binds together the novel’s teeming plotlines, and is present from page one, with Aaron and Siem’s awkward first meeting. Aaron wants to impress his girlfriend’s dad, whom he reveres; thing is, Aaron has taken a candid nude photo of Siem that’s become a tabloid sensation and Siem knows all about it. Adding to that, Aaron will soon be shooting softcore photos of Joni in the attic, and he’ll see Siem’s obese wife naked and binge-eating chocolate sprinkles later that night. Since we know most of the plot from the beginning, this Mexican standoff of shame is what supplies the novel’s tension: instead of what-happens-next? we have, how-did-we-ever-get-here?
The book’s themes, too, are launched in the opening scene with a description of Siem’s cauliflower ears, the disfigured remnants of his judo career, a gnarliness he can’t hide. In all their efforts to conceal and deny their carnal ugliness — Joni’s porn career, Siem’s previous family, Tineke’s obesity, and Aaron’s mental illness — Bonita Avenue’s characters damn themselves to infidelity, exile, blackmail, stalking, and murder. Although pulpy at times, the novel is sensitive to the crosscurrents of tenderness and aggression present in covering a body and stripping it, killing a body and burying it.
Bonita Avenue’s abundance of rich, lively anecdotes is evident on every page, but so are its stylistic defects — the writing is unobtrusive at best, hackneyed and clunky at worst. I can’t say whether this is due to a bum translation (though Jonathan Reeder’s effort has been hailed as note-perfect), or whether the Dutch is likewise fumbled, but the crushing density of clichés can make it read like the sample passage on an editing quiz. The reader is served stale McNuggets like “flat as a pancake”, “hard as nails”, “clean as a whistle”, “chucked out on his ear”, “stiff as a board” (twice), “screaming blue murder” (twice), “driven up the wall” (twice). Still more clichés are wreathed — and not improved — in elegant variations, like: “on the ceiling of Rusty’s head, a fluorescent lamp sprang on,” or “the Semtex in his brain had finally exploded.”
But maybe we’re better off with clichés, because when Buwalda indulges his own figurative impulses, he goes from uninspired to unintelligible. His errors range from the awkward, as when Aaron “nearly hit the roof with fermented craving” or Joni’s “spikes of tousled hair framed a face like sweaty old cheese that begged for sympathy”; to the mixed: “Like a coiled spring, he bolted into the next room”; to the enigmatic: “His beard growth would make an evolutionary biologist’s mouth water.” Occasionally all these vices will converge into a Giger-esque monstrosity: “internally he sprinted as fast as he could to the edge of the long-kept secret, pushed off from the dusty sand and leapt, limbs flailing, over the cliff of profound silence [. . .].” (And how does the other character in this scene respond? She “did not bat an eye.”)
No, craft isn’t everything, and subpar writing has never kept a book from going platinum. Sometimes Buwalda even delivers an elegant description of an erotic model’s “patent leather pumps in every jellybean color,” or of marital sex as “something they talked about like it was an overgrown lawn that needed mowing.” But sloppiness is the rule, and you can see it in his use of pet words like “waltz” or “matt” (as in “matt-black” or “matt-glass”); in how one character’s “nakedness is infinite”, and three pages later his “nakedness is intensified.” And then there is Buwalda’s shortchanging of non-white characters — the Asians here are “repressive,” “slanty-eyed,” “yellow,” and “mayonnaise-yellow.” This is writing that relies on evoking existing associations rather than inventing new ones.
Such carelessness inevitably leaches into the novel’s action. When any character gets anxious, you can bet his hands will be “sweaty” or “clammy”; if he’s sad, you’ll hear that “tears welled up in his eyes”; if surprised, his “jaw dropped open”; if angry, he’ll swear or break something (though it’s almost endearing how Joni ruins food whenever she’s upset). Buwalda is annoyingly eager to spoonfeed the character’s emotions to us: of a man who has just killed his son, Buwalda writes: “He is shattered.” To accommodate all this emoting, a bunch of overkill dramatic gestures get shoehorned in, which can be amusingly abrupt. I write summary notes on each page of books I’m studying, and consequently I have one section labeled: S considers suicide / S fondles clothes / S pisses / S wanks / S runs through glass door.
It sounds sordid, but compared to the typical thriller, Bonita Avenue is pretty tame. And that’s a problem for a book that aims to present a vision of total abjection underlying the veneers of respectability. The most pungent stuff that Buwalda offers is run-of-the-mill undergrad-shtupping and creepy wanking. The violence is nothing you can’t see on primetime network television. A good example of this tameness comes when Aaron successfully stuns his therapist by describing what it would be like if she discovered her son made porn, pretty much the saltiest passage in the book:
[Imagine] crisp photos of Ingmar and his hard cock. […] And if you type in your credit card number you can have access to thousands of photos showing the vast assortment of meat and plastic that gets rammed up Ingmar’s spit-lubed anus — as long as it takes for that handsome face of his to contort into a grimace and his smooth-shaven dick to ejaculate. The following Sunday you see them again, your son and his boyfriend, but this time in the flesh. They’re coming over for dinner.
No experienced therapist would be rattled by this sort of provocation, and neither would most readers — not now, and not 40 years ago — yet her jaw drops open for about a paragraph. It’s not that Buwalda has to compete in an arms race of filth, it’s that one gets the impression he expects our jaws to drop, too. One would expect, from a book that so confidently immerses readers in judo, scientific academia, business logistics, mental health care, and even the porn industry, we’d get plunged into a benthic trench of filth, especially when Buwalda introduces a fictional version of San Francisco’s Kink.com Armory building. But he balks, as if succumbing to the same destructive shame that overwhelms his characters. Therefore it’s fitting that the libertine Joni, a hardcore porn veteran, expresses her envy of the fictional Sasha Grey — someone with not merely the will but the desire to go as hard as she wants, without apology.
That’s one of the liabilities of information: it’s addictive, you expect more, and more can always be supplied, to a novel’s disadvantage. James Wood, progenitor of the “hysterical realism” tag, used to complain that the info-overload in such novels displaced their humanity; after he was forced to acknowledge Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections amended that deficiency, he still dismissed it as “wide rather than deep, and smart rather than subtle . . . [it] suffers from a desire to put too much in.” Franzen himself seems to agree, having argued that “when information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it,” though this has not really stopped him from authoring four of those novels.
I find systems novels as fun and impressive as a lot of people do, but they often make me wonder what the purpose of facts in fiction is, anyway. Beyond its basic mimetic/descriptive functions, in-depth information is also a trick writers use to build readerly confidence: if I’ve mastered real estate and nitrocellulose, then I probably know a thing or two about humanity, right? And the impression that the novel is enriching its reader with the news of the world doesn’t hurt either, although the idea of consulting literary fiction for practical instruction is laughable. Even the myriad articles and studies about how fiction enhances empathy or improves brain connectivity seem like liberal techno-utilitarian pieties justifying an essentially useless activity; plus they fail to capture the appeal of all literature. We read Borges because of empathy? Nuh-uh.
It is worth asking how (or whether) facts bear on understanding anything at all in fiction — as the narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping quips, “Fact explains nothing. On the contrary, it is fact that requires explanation.” The conventional literary take on human nature deals with qualities like personality, mood, desire, values, thoughts, consciousness, memory, and social status. To different degrees these have been complemented (or challenged, depending on your stance) by the more external quant view: consumption patterns, passively logged activity, documentation. These two spheres overlap in the hazy category of “detail”: those bits of concrete information about a character’s birthmarks or living room, the tracing of his genealogy and connections, his fleeting thoughts and encounters.
These anecdata comprise a huge part of Bonita Avenue, with its glosses on knot theory, the combinatorics of Sudoku, real estate negotiation, and so on. Sometimes they serve the story: when Aaron goes on a jazz history binge to impress Siem, it conveys both his neurotic desire to please and his manic obsessive personality. More often, though, they don’t color character, develop motif, progress story, or even get a second mention. The info is there because it’s “interesting,” providing the same quivers of diversion that make us refresh Facebook or spelunk Wikipedia, while ostensibly fleshing out the world the characters live in. But without relevance to the story, it’s ornamental; in a novelistic sense, the facts are not true. In this novel about the destructive allure of sex and violence, the real shameful titillation comes from bingeing on sprinkles.
- The closest I could get to teasing this out: humans descended from early primates, early primates were hairy, much like a man with a fast-growing beard; therefore an evolutionary biologist would salivate at this visual confirmation of his training?
- Since these descriptions all come through Siem’s perspective, you could argue that it’s just a subtle way to characterize him as casually racist, but there’s no other textual reason to believe that.