Doppelgänger, Poltergeist

The Red Arrow BY William Brewer. New York: Knopf. 272 pages. $27.

The cover of The Red Arrow

A SPECTER IS HAUNTING AUTOFICTION. The specter of ripping off your life for your novel and not making a whole goddamn thing about it. Elizabeth Hardwick’s unnamed narrator spent her Sleepless Nights in Elizabeth Hardwick’s apartment and it worked out fine for both of them. Roth had Zuckerman and, later, “Roth,” and later still Lisa Halliday had “Ezra Blazer.” There have been abundant Dennises Cooper, Joshuas Cohen, and Dianes Williams. Sebald and Bellow—just saying the names should be enough. Jamaica Kincaid gave Lucy her own birthday. Then you’ve got the New Narrative movement of the ’70s and ’80s, plus a whole French tradition stretching from Proust to Duras to Guibert. It all went out of fashion in the 1990s, only to be rediscovered in the 2010s by Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, and Tao Lin, thereby inaugurating a very long decade that crossbred autofiction and so-called alt-lit into a single genre with legible conventions and tropes: unnamed or coyly named narrators, flat affect, ample white space, rigorous self-surveillance (calorie and milligram counts, email and G-chat transcripts), ambiguous irony, pervasive despair, and a general inability to log off. 

Where autofiction’s original intention was to destabilize the orders of truth and fiction by introducing each into the other, its later iterations (especially via alt-lit) have adhered to facticity out of a belief that fiction is no longer possible, and hardly worth the effort even if it were. In place of invention we would have curation, juxtaposition, and emphasis: the author as DJ, or Tumblr, of her own life. If this shopworn thesis has lately come to seem like a practice in search of a precept, I won’t hesitate to admit that it has generated any number of good books in its day, as well as some noteworthy antitheses: text-dense monuments to capaciousness such as Knausgaard’s My Struggle books or Megan Boyle’s Liveblog; writers like Scott McClanahan and Sean Thor Conroe, devoted alt litterateurs who nevertheless refuse to refuse the thrill of a thrilling sentence. These convergent and divergent forces push the conglomerate genre forward, chipping away at its ossified aesthetics and daring it to reimagine itself, even if itself is the only thing it can be bothered to imagine.

The Red Arrow by William Brewer is about an unnamed young fiction writer—formerly a painter—struggling with suicidal depression while failing to write a novel about a massive chemical spill that occurred in his native West Virginia in the 1990s, the defining disaster of a childhood wracked by disasters. In a conceit that I have to believe is paying cockeyed homage to Ben Lerner’s 10:04, the writer’s debut story collection was a surprise success, so his novel has been sold on proposal for a boatload of money, affording him ample  time and cash, though he still lacks the strength and patience to actually write the book.  

Brewer, like Lerner, Patricia Lockwood, and Lin before him, started as a poet. His collection I Know Your Kind was published as part of the National Poetry Series in 2017. It’s a wrenching book, a Dantean journey through an Eden reduced to ruin by opiates and coal mines, where there is “a ghost light burning lonely / in the Theater of All / That Could Have Been,” while nearby “our years chew a black tunnel through the mountain.” That notion is echoed and expanded upon in The Red Arrow: 

There is no West Virginia. The mountain that was there last year is gone this year. The forest which fed your family for a century? It’s gone. The opera houses, the old hotels—they’re empty. All the earth inside the hills? Gone. Your neighbor? He swallows medicine every morning and floats away in a cloud of bronze light. This is why it was impossible for me to capture the Great Spill, let alone the state: because there is nothing there but undulating, ever-changing space.

Having failed to write the novel but already blown the advance money, the writer ends up agreeing to work off his debt to his publishing house by ghostwriting the memoir of a famous Italian physicist, who has chosen the writer (over the house’s objection) because of the physicist’s own odd connection to West Virginia. When the physicist, known in the book simply as the Physicist, goes MIA, the ghostwriting job is threatened, which means the writer will probably get sued into bankruptcy—if his depression doesn’t kill him first. Thanks to Michael Pollan, whose 2015 New Yorker article “The Trip Treatment” instigates a major plot line, there’s a potential treatment for relentless suicidal ideation (spoiler: it’s tripping), but the Physicist is a more intractable problem. To solve it, the writer and his wife, Annie, travel to Italy, ostensibly for their honeymoon, but really so the writer can try to track down his wayward subject and salvage his gig, finances, book, and life, though not necessarily in that order.

In its aesthetics and ontology, The Red Arrow is a throwback to the pre-alt-lit tradition of autofiction as cunningly mutilated truth. And yet Brewer’s reflexive credulity toward contemporary lit-tropes (American culture is traumatic! Self-help is cool again! Shrooms are meds now!) vibes way harder with Lin’s Leave Society than Sebald’s The Emigrants. Rather than engage in Bloomian agon with the contested tradition to which he may well be an heir, Brewer tends toward evasion, hedged bets, and a patina of middle school mysticism in the vein of Hermann Hesse and Richard Bach. The Red Arrow is beautiful, ambitious, whip-smart, and achingly sad. It is at all times astonishingly confident, and never commanded less than my full attention, even when highly dubious narrative decisions left me extremely pissed off, unsure of what Brewer was playing at, of whether he had outsmarted me or himself. 

The Pollan evangelism and putative Lerner nod are emblematic of Brewer’s earnest but erratic way of paying down his literary debts. A sweet scene in which the writer takes Annie to sit on a hilltop with a sweeping view of Morgantown—with its “vivid glow and strobe of neon red on High Street; the surrounding streets named for common trees and forgotten statesmen”—seems to reference and redeem the brutal ending of Breece D’J Pancake’s “Trilobites.” Some of the finest passages in The Red Arrow are serial sentences that blossom into pages of poetic detail, delivered with an acrobatic syntactical precision worthy of comparison with the great Donald Antrim, with whom Brewer also shares an unflinching honesty about the experience of living with a brain that keeps trying to trick you into murdering yourself. But then you turn the page and hit another tedious sidebar: writing about writing, drug-trip minutiae, a commercial for Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind. 

Or Michael Herr’s Dispatches. In the longest-running and most successful gag in the novel, the writer attempts to treat his writer’s block with closer and closer rereadings of Dispatches, a classic—and, it turns out, significantly fictionalized—collection of firsthand accounts of the nihilistic horror of the Vietnam War. The writer convinces himself that this book, of all books, is going to teach him the craft lessons he needs to learn to write his novel. This is incredibly bleak and, as masterfully rendered by Brewer, a riot.

But on the whole, the decisions about where to be exactingly journalistic and where to be maddeningly coy are, well, maddening. At the end of part one, the narrator muses that, “Anything I wrote [about the spill] would’ve been both a gross understatement and, by virtue of applying a plot and structure, an elegant overstatement. There is no point exaggerating what is already horrific, said someone somewhere.” Indeed. The someone was W. G. Sebald, quoting Walter Benjamin in a radio interview with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s Bookworm, air date December 6, 2001, all of which I know because Brewer dutifully reports it in an endnote. He goes so far as to chide himself for “a slight misquote” because he subbed “what is” for Sebald’s “that which is.” Good for him for being fastidious—certainly more so than Sebald was about such things—but what is gained by saddling the fictional writer with this uncertainty, especially when the reference is one that the writer-character would have just as much reason to possess as the real writer would? Anyway, the more urgent question is not whether Sebald should be name-checked in the novel, but whether Benjamin should, since I can’t find the original quote anywhere and am inclined to suspect that Sebald made it up on the fly, and if I’m right about that then Brewer’s documentary diligence is the equivalent of trying to catch your own shadow or photograph a ghost, which come to think of it might have been the point of the “someone somewhere” attribution, which is slyly brilliant, or would be if there were any evidence within the novel that it had been done on purpose.

Things get weirder before they get better. All of the Physicist’s direct quotes are drawn from either Seven Brief Lessons on Physics or The Order of Time, by the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli. This is acknowledged in the same endnote as the Sebald thing. Cool, I guess, but—why? Are we meant to understand that the Physicist is Rovelli? Should we infer that Brewer worked on Rovelli’s books? And if Rovelli’s work is as important to this novel as Pollan’s and Herr’s is, then why displace it into the mouth of a fictional figure who finally comes into very brief and belated focus as a kind of Oz-cum-Dumbledore? Search me.

The most risible example of borrowing is from Denis Johnson’s “Triumph Over the Grave,” which in its early pages contains what may well have been his ars poetica—one version of it, anyway. Johnson, in the guise of his narrator, writes: “Whatever happens to you, you put it on a page, work it into a shape, cast it in a light. It’s not much different, really, from filming a parade of clouds across the sky and calling it a movie—although it has to be admitted that the clouds can descend, take you up, carry you to all kinds of places, some of them terrible, and you don’t get back where you came from for years and years.”

Brewer takes the first line of the Johnson passage, as well as the story in which it appears, and attributes both to a woman named LD, the writer-character’s mentor at his unnamed writing fellowship. Given how far we’ve wandered into this autofictive hall of mirrors, and given how Google works, I’m pretty sure I’ve got the goods to dox both fellowship and mentor, but let’s not be jerks. The point is that even if LD is a composite character, or a pure fiction, the one person she definitely isn’t is Denis Johnson, who really lived and died, who earned his wisdom the hard way, and who wrote these words and the story that they’re part of. I don’t care how fastidious your endnote is: giving Johnson’s work away like this is bullshit. It’s an offense to the memory of the man and well beneath the dignity of a writer as talented, compelling, and important as I continue to believe that William Brewer is, or will be when he gets past forcing pseudo-intellectual head games into works of art that are already heady enough, and intellectual enough, without them. 

I loved most of this novel. I hated some of it, and the parts that I hated I hated a lot. I would have read a Shadow Country’s worth of the West Virginia-in-the-’90s material, and/or the writings on depression, while quantum physics, poetry school, publishing-biz satire, and Michael Pollan could have all been left on the cutting-room floor. But in the end, if you’re asking me if I would recommend this book, the answer is an easy yes, because Brewer is a writer whose early promise is already proven and who may well be on the cusp of his major work. Also because when dudgeon gets this high, some second-guessing is salutary. (Now who’s hedging his bets?) Maybe the meta-dramatic struggle at the heart of The Red Arrow is that of contemporary autofiction’s ongoing attempt to escape itself, to step out of its own lengthening shadow and into the light of whatever comes next. If that’s the case—which is itself debatable—then I don’t think we’re there yet, but I could believe that we’re on the way. 

Justin Taylor’s most recent book is Riding with the Ghost (Random House, 2020).