Portrait of the Author as a Revolutionary: Matthew Flaming Reviews Ian Spiegelman’s Everyone’s Burning

The marketing of a modern novel is a funny thing. The sheer number of books released every year makes book marketing a vital component of the publishing business; without publicity of some kind, a book is virtually guaranteed to disappear without a ripple into the depths of library stacks, single discounted copies on used-bookstore shelves the only remaining monument to the fact that here toiled a writer for years, alone in a room with all the words.

In the case of large presses, the most promising books receive something like mass marketing: print ads in magazines and on subways, prominent displays in bookstores and supermarkets. But despite the importance of marketing, literary snobbishness suggests that there’s something, well… inappropriate about trying to sell books as if they were Kraft food products. So more subtle and imaginative marketing tools are often used by highbrow presses and indy publishers who can’t afford a spread in Harper’s. Dave Eggers, for example, gave tours of his neighborhood to the public; Neal Pollack gave readings in public bathrooms.

The marketing attached to Ian Spiegelman’s first novel, Everyone’s Burning, is a masterpiece in this genre of the subtle sell. A Google search returns almost as many results about the publication party for the novel (held at a strip club) or the author as about the book itself. In fact, although Everyone’s Burning has received relatively little mass-marketing as such, world of this slim volume spread through the alt.literary community like…. So that the sum total of all the attention paid to this book is that: if you think Exquisite Corpse is cooler than the Paris Review, you’ve heard (or will hear) that this is the novel to be seen reading.

At the center of this propaganda is Mr. Spiegelman himself. A former writer for New York magazine and a gossip columnist for Page Six, it makes sense that Mr. Spiegelman is well acquainted with the mechanisms of publicity. The recipe used by Mr. Spiegelman is a time-tested and reliable one:

1. Decry the deplorable state of self-indulgent modern literature.
2. Condemn a number of well-known writers.
3. Demand that literature return to addressing issues of real emotional and social importance.
4. Present self as answer to these demands.

Through a number of interviews to this effect (most notably the one at MobyLives, which is a fantastic read, incidentally) Mr. Spiegelman has effectively positioned himself as an authorial Bad Boy Revolutionary, ready to take on the bloated establishment.

So what does all this have to do with a book review of Everyone’s Burning? Shouldn’t I just shut my trap and get on with the thumbs-up/thumbs-down already? Maybe so, but the fact of the matter is that authors these days are sold as much as the books they write – and when a writer starts making Big Statements about what a novel should do, particularly a first novel, the polite separation of auteur and text begins to effectively disappear.

“I think there’s a real problem with what literature is in America right now,” Mr. Spiegelman told MobyLives. “And it’s that, you look at any other medium, you look at movies or music, and they address these situations that almost every suburban and urban neighborhood is a war zone…. And then I read what is on the New York Times Bestseller List, and it’s, well I’m a college professor and I’m having trouble with my wife.”

What Mr. Speigleman wants, I think, is a writing that does away with academic politeness in favor of gritty reality. He wants a writing that has the mass appeal of movies and the social urgency of political commentary…. And well, basically I think he has a point. The obsession with self-referential cleverness that came into vogue in the 1990’s seems to me like the same road to oblivion that poetry marched down when poets started writing to each other instead of to the public. Pages and pages signifying nothing but: look at me, I’m writing Lit’rature! Look at you, you’re reading Lit’rature! But in throwing down this gauntlet, Mr. Spiegelman has created some fairly hefty shoes for his book to fill – and the truth is that in these terms, Everyone’s Burning is at best a mixed success.

The book follows the misadventures of Leon Koch (nicknamed Crotch) and his motley band of friends in Brooklyn and NYC. The novel paints a landscape of despair and maladjustment: Mr. Spiegelman’s characters are the products of abuse or boredom, alienated and disaffected into a perpetual adolescence. Everyone’s Burning has no plot to speak of – only one episode after another, often out of chronological order – and if it has a theme, it’s the struggle of his characters to avoid the terrible burden of taking responsibility for their own lives and histories. All of Mr. Spiegelman’s characters are incomplete and in pain; all are looking for something – a something that they almost, but never quite, find in the oblivion of drugs or the oblivion of sex. And nothing is resolved, really, except through death. No answers present themselves, there are no easy outs here. As far as the gritty reality of broken youth goes, Mr. Spiegelman has it nailed. He writes:

I stood up in front of Carrie. Venages had his back to the storm in his boxers and socks with the snow blowing around his head, his shoulders, sticking to the hair on his arms.
“Look at me, slut. Look at me!”
She lit a cigarette, laughing. “Look,” she said, “he’s all naked.”
He was so scrawny, the snow clung to his body everywhere, made it bend and twitch like a broken machine. The blade shivered against his wrist and the air turned to mist around his mouth – we were nothing but shapes to him.
If he’d had anything in him, he’d have gone ahead and checked out, but he was a retard, he was a little girl – he dropped to his knees crying, folded up in the white wind, waiting for someone to come help him.
And someone came for him. It was Carrie, she got down there with him – something made her go, the same thing that put Jeanie Riley’s hand in an old fucker’s rotting teeth. They couldn’t help themselves, that thing that made them go – I knew what it was, and I had it too, I hated it.
Watching Carrie lead Venages into her and Jenny’s bedroom, I felt it screaming around inside me and I stared into a black spot, and emptiness – swearing to myself there’d be a way, something I could do, some way to twist my mind so that I’d never feel it again.

So Mr. Spiegelman’s writing is moderately clever and fun to read. Watching Leon and his friends do drugs, drink themselves into oblivion, commit suicide and have lots of kinky sex is immensely enjoyable – this is Kerouac without all the bits about Zen and the American Dream, Alexander Trocchi minus the heroin and Bohemian ideals. And Everyone’s Burning practically crackles with the ambition of a first novel – remember the feeling of being nineteen years old and a writer and knowing that, goddamnit, words can change the world? That sense of eagerness suffuses every page.

Of course, this is a story that’s been done a thousand times before. Last year Greg Everett’s Screaming at a Wall, for example, told a nearly identical tale with arguably more authenticity and originality. But like a good kung fu movie, it hardly matters if we’ve seen it all before – this is literary candy, an afternoon read that leaves you feeling a little dirty and a little energized from the sheer youthful vitality of the writing. That is, if it weren’t for the shadow of Mr. Spiegelman’s Big Statements about literature. Because although Mr. Spiegelman talks about the need for a new kind of writing, there’s nothing particularly original about Everyone’s Burning. Troubled kids do drugs and hurt themselves and each other? Not exactly news.

The only aspect of this novel that’s innovative is Mr. Spiegelman’s explicit descriptions of kinky sex and unfortunately these are mostly delivered in a disaffected style that deprive them of much power, erotic or otherwise. Yes, there’s an honesty here – the fact that some kids, like the protagonist of Everyone’s Burning, turn to S&M as a way of refusing responsibility for their own sexual pleasure. But this is a slim observation on which to hang a cry for literary revolution, and although members of the S&M community might welcome this openness in writing about a normally taboo topic, Mr. Speigleman’s portrayal effectively turns the lifestyle into a disease.

In twenty years, maybe, when Mr. S has a few more novels under his belt, it will be great to read Everyone’s Burning as the fiery juvenilia of our hero. Right now though, Everyone’s Burning needs to be read not because of Mr. Spiegelman’s revolutionary rhetoric but in spite of it. Rather than the beginning of a new American literary movement, this novel is a cover of an old favorite tune, performed by a promising newcomer.

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