Idylls of Complicity
by Carl Watson
review by Jim Feast
Idylls of Complicity
by Carl Watson (Author)
Spuyten Duyvil (December 10, 2015)
$16.00 US pbk | $21.62 CDN pbk | £10.60 UK pbk
242 pages, 5.1″ x 7.8″, Fiction
Carl Watson’s brilliant new novel, Idylls of Complicity, the second volume in a trilogy, has a lot to say about role playing. People play them: “Kathe was a neo-Marxist working in advertising – direct mail, actually, but she pretended it was mid-level retail and that it was a ‘creative’ position.” And people try to escape them. “That’s what drives the tourist industry … to get away from that kind of second-order experience, to get back to a one-on-one relationship where everything is new and now.” Being a tourist, it’s suggested, one would shed one’s role like a discarded snake skin.
However, less often stated, in this novel, which charts the adventures of constantly-vexed-with-each-other lovers Sophie and Frank is this point made by the narrator Frank: “Sophie Walker/Wagner and I could be part of a genre.” What’s never stated is what this genre is.
As I see it, roles only take place in relation to a (equally stereotyped) plot. Volume one of Watson’s trilogy, Backwards the Drowned Go Dreaming, takes on the American biker myth epitomized in the Steppenwolf song “Born To Be Wild” that begins, “Get your motor running / Head out on the highway.” I put it like this in a review in the Brooklyn Rail (Dec. 2012). Backwards is “a re-imagining of On the Road and other mid-century odes to the highway, updating them to a period after the rebirth of feminism.” This updating involves making women equal partners as rebel spirits. Women “no longer appear as the marginal bottle-washers and nuisances that populate Kerouac. They now have their own street cred and, even, outlaw idols.”
Backwards modifies the mold of earlier Beat novels by centering on a hero who lacks the funds, modest as they were, that fueled the Beats’ trips, hence he opts for a motorcycle, not car, for his pilgrimages, and, as mentioned, he takes a woman as equal partner, thus breaking with the homo-sociality (not homosexuality) and anti-feminism which was key to the Beat universe. Now getting on the road was only one of the Beat narratives. Another, as suggested by Idylls, is on the plane. The Beats and associates were always bumming through North Africa and India on voyages that entwined noble and ignoble activities. Their most high-minded reasons for going were to study Eastern religions up close and involve themselves in various (particularly Buddhist) religious disciplines. More low-minded reasons for going were to smoke as much hash as humanly possible and ditto, for bedding under-aged boys.
Now the poverty and heterosexuality of Watson’s heroes mean they cannot literally follow the Beaten path, but there’s another, even more significant difference between then and now, which shapes the whole book, which takes place in both Chicago and India, and serves as the author’s profound comment on the 1980s. (Volume One commented on the 1970s.)
The typical Beat, going to Tangier, for example, would make a first stop at Bowles house, at Burroughs house or at some other acquaintance for orientation. That is, the Beats had a like-minded, drug-puffing, poetry-writing network of expatriates to call upon as soon as they landed in a foreign port. By contrast, in the 1980s when Sophie and Frank get to Mumbai, there are no companionable expats around to help them out and so they are drawn into a web of various local touts and flimflam men, such as Sonny Valentine. As Frank comments, “You make friends with someone like that and the next thing you know you’re going to their house for dinner. Then you’re babysitting their kids. Pretty soon you’re bound and gagged in their basement.”
As you can imagine, all the canons of Beat travel writing are violated. The couple spends more time drinking Lord Ganesha Lager than smoking hash, the narrator ends up with a 14-year-old girl (not boy), and they see little of the inside of temples. Still, the most telling departure is the lack of any approachable expat community. (It’s worth noticing how this is in stark contrast to the depiction of the East in Bonny Finberg’s Kali’s Day where entwining of expat and native life in Nepal is rendered with such subtlety and empathy.)
But there’s even more to it. One might say that part of the reason for the disintegration of the couple’s relationship in India is their isolation. They have no one outside of each other to bounce their thoughts and anxiety off. This suggests that if they just stayed home, all would be well. However, in Chicago – and this is one of the book’s profound points – the “community” of Bohemians while offering some degree of companionship and support, is also something of an infernal machine.
Let’s think about this sentence from early in the book. In the arts community, “This gave birth to the ‘call your bluff’ syndrome … whereby everybody tried to out everybody else as a poseur.” Now if young people wanted to be artists, writers, musicians or engage in some other creative endeavor in the 1970s, they would have been able to survive by working, part time gigs (like the apple pickers in Backwards) and devote most of their time to artistic apprenticeships. Young people, in the 1980s, who want to follow similar artistic roads, have to get full time jobs, as Kathe does. Yet, they still see themselves as primarily creators. Doesn’t this mean, then, that their sense of self is corrupted? Not that a few couldn’t have been a Wallace Stevens or a William Carlos Williams, creating masterly art while working long hours at a straight job. But if you are living in a milieu where everyone you know claims to be an artist but accomplishes damn little – a key scene depicts Sophie and other female friends elaborating plans for “an entire miniature golf course composed of opera singers’ heads,” which ends up never getting funded – isn’t it hard to believe you are one of the chosen? This is a socio-psychic situation in which it is quite tempting to distinguish oneself (a real artist) from others by sniping at them as poseurs.
Back to the earlier point. If the India section shows in painstaking detail the slow-motion shattering of a relationship, the Chicago scenes uncover the way an essentially fratricidal community (if I may use fratricidal here to refer to internecine strife between both sexes) undermines while seemingly supporting its members.
The difficulty, already mentioned, goes beyond needing to bolster one’s self-worth by casting others as poseurs. There also exists the situation Bourdieu outlines in The Field of Cultural Production, which, incidentally, has been applied to the American contemporary literary scene by Jerome Sala. As Bourdieu explains, in the literary field writers fight over limited cultural capital. In Chicago, the funding is scarce, so a great project like the operatic golf course is not sponsored, and everyone is a competitor for what little money is left. So the “call your bluff” game is also a way to undercut others vying for scarce pieces of the pie. Same for the idea of others are compromising their art. “Another common argument [used to put others down] centered on ‘selling out.’” This can also weaken competitors.
This exposes the second theme (beside the recap of the Beat predecessors) that the rot in the Sophie/Frank relationship can partly be blamed on the lack of a positive community both abroad and here.
The book’s analysis is exquisite, punctuated with irony and deft verbal formulations. And Watson differs from most contemporary U.S. novelists, and in this resembles Europeans such as George Eliot or Proust, in that he gives as much attention to thinking about why something occurred as to describing what happened, telling not showing. In a lesser hand, this violation of the supposedly basic (and anti-intellectual) principle of composition might be problematic. But Watson’s careful integration of analysis with story, with his characteristic wit and insight, makes for a stunning read.
So in Idylls, we have a tour de force depiction of a couple on the ropes in which we witness the blows, but also examine the weave of the ropes (the social background) in a novel that is structured to cut against while playing with the tropes of the Beat Eastern travel narrative in amazing and unexpected ways.
Copyright © Arthur Kaye, 2012
Jim Feast with Ron Kolm wrote the novel Neo Phobe (Autonomedia), and has written a number of health books with Gary Null, including Germs, Biological Warfare and Vaccinations: What You Need to Know (Seven Stories). He belongs to the Unbearables writing group and has co-edited four of their anthologies, the most recent being The Unbearables Big Book of Sex.
Arthur Kaye’s photographs can be viewed online on his website, what’s in a word?