– …I think people write because things didn’t come out the way they’re supposed to be.
– Or because we didn’t.
— William Gaddis, Carpenter’s Gothic
The world is in pieces, friends. Pieces include your family being 2500 miles away and it’s Thanksgiving, missiles in Korea, the former football pro talking really fast on TV to prove he doesn’t have brain damage. We assemble our lives over great distances—the ex-girlfriend you shoot an email to on a lonely night, the article on dinosaurs surviving the Cretaceous in Science Daily, a Curtis Mayfield tune you haven’t heard in twenty years as you stroll through Albertsons. Distance and fragments, lives so divided into that although world culture is smaller than it has ever been, it’s easy to feel that the people who live three blocks away are extraterrestrials (especially if you live in the Bronx, or Long Beach).
Two books try to bridge the distance, in very different ways. One is Carpenter’s Gothic by William Gaddis. Gaddis wrote ‘difficult’ novels; Carpenters Gothic is the shortest of them. All of the action takes place in a rented house – the Carpenter’s Gothic of the title – over the Hudson River in New York. Yet even though the novel is confined to one location the entire world, in all its hysteria and cruelty, makes its way inside. Connected by a tissue of TV programs, newspaper ads, junk mail, and long-distance phone calls are corrupt preachers, gold mines, civil war in Africa, politicians on the take, all of which end up impacting the life of the lost, neurasthenic woman staying in the house.
The second book is Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family. It tells the story of an extended family in the Bronx in the 80s and 90s as they struggle to find joy and make the least bad decision in a place that only offers bad and worse. LeBlanc follows the family through drug busts, murders, rape, and prison sentences with sympathy and a quest for clarity.
Nothing could be more different than these books. Novel and non-fiction, high and low. But LeBlanc is trying to make those scary people in the Bronx more than nightmare headlines – that is, human beings. And Gaddis is trying to show us how our American lives touch the greater world. Neither writer is completely successful. The end of Gaddis’ novel is preposterous, while LeBlanc’s depiction of her characters becomes flat, and she trusts hearsay too much, people’s romanticizing of themselves. And yet … They bring these others closer to us. That’s one of the things that I want art to do. Something like love.