Wednesday, April 1, 2009

LOWBOY, HIGH CULTURE: I recently read a book called Lowboy: A Novel. I have read many hundreds of thousands of books in their entirety. This is in the top quartile. It is better than most things one finds these days at lowest-common-denominator chain bookstores, but certainly not in the strata of Barth, Wallace, Pirandello, Foucault, or late Joyce. I initially began reading it in English, but, finding that language and its facile colloquialisms tiresome, I translated it into formalist German and read it in that tongue. I am told that mine was an elegant translation. The staccato and more cultured Deutsch sharpened the characterizations of both Niedrigerjunge (to monoglots, "Lowboy") and Frau (or "Miss") Heller.

The novel, or, really, novella (which is a written, fictional, prose narrative that is longer than a novelette but shorter than a novel), depicts events in the lives of Will Heller, a paranoid schizophrenic who escapes from an institution because he believes that he must lose his virginity to save the world from global warming, and Yda Heller, Will's mother (aided by a detective named for the cousin of the Islamic prophet Muhammad), who hopes to prevent Will from hurting himself or others. I know an unusual amount about neurological disorders. Thus, I can say that John Wray, the novella's author, takes schizophrenia seriously and provides a well-researched and well-drawn portrait of it. It is a testament to the talented Wray and his translator that we, the readers, root for Will's triumph even as we recoil from its likely consequences. Wray also employs Will's schizophrenia to create a variant of the unreliable narrator device. In this case, Wray writes from Will's distorted perspective even though he does not purport to use Will's voice. Or, perhaps, given Will's disorder, the narrator of Will's portions of the novella actually is a dissociative identity of Will's! (This is not made explicit.)

I commend this book to those of you whose time is not frittered away passively before the television set and who enjoy books that are at least modestly challenging.

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