Something Happened, and Then It Didn’t

By Eli Gottlieb

Published March 04, 2010, issue of March 19, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Nothing Happened and Then It Did
By Jake Silverstein
W.W. Norton & Co., 231 pp, $23.95

There are many good reasons to avoid reviewing books you don’t like. Among the principal ones are that books are so damnably hard to write and so easy to disparage. There is also the feeling of kicking an object — the book — when it’s down, if by “down” one means multiply threatened by the frictionless encroachments of electronic media and the swiftly shrinking global attention span. To this, add concern for hurting the feelings of the author, particularly if the author, by all accounts, is a nice guy, and especially if you yourself have been an author and on the receiving end of dumb, tendentious opinionating by people who you believe unqualified to tie your shoe.

Lone Star: Editor of Texas Monthly, Contributing Editor to Harper’s Magazine and now book-length chronicler, Jake Silverstein
Lone Star: Editor of Texas Monthly, Contributing Editor to Harper’s Magazine and now book-length chronicler, Jake Silverstein

All of that reared its head before the eyes of this reviewer when he was assigned the task of weighing the merits of “Nothing Happened and Then it Did: A Chronicle in Fact and Fiction.” As it turns out, the reviewer (me) disliked the book intensely, and found it almost impossible to plow through the thing without falling, repeatedly, asleep.

Why? The book begins with the premise that it will alternate chapters of first-person fiction and fact as it chronicles the young author’s picaresque comings and goings through the small towns of the American Southwest and Mexico, and with this, commits its very first blunder against clear thinking. What is the point of such a wearisome post-modern exercise? If the idea is to somehow underline the frangible nature of text-based reality, then surely a better way could be found than to produce in the reader merely a dull confusion about whether or not the author is recounting the truth or “making things up.”

Without bringing too much epistemological horsepower to bear on the situation, there’s this other little point to keep in mind: It doesn’t matter what the author does, meta-fictionally or not, if the author isn’t possessed of that fundamental prerequisite of readerly interest: a live mind. In the imagined words of attorney Johnny Cochran, “If the voice annoys, it’s all just noise.” Not that the voice of author Jake Silverstein in this book annoys. It’s simply boring. The style in which it expresses itself could best be described as “serviceable.” The thematic bridges it makes between subjects are heavy-handed and uninspired. Narrative momentum — with the exception of the very first chapter or two — fails to gather. In the words of Gertrude Stein, the book “has a certain syrup, but it doesn’t pour.”

This is especially sad because Silverstein, or his persona in the book, seems to be a very likeable fellow, interested in all the right things, on the side of all the liberal pieties, fair-minded, openhearted, curious, and engaged. But why, then, does he say of a small Mexican town, “the nights were cold and the days were hot,” or describe one of the most important decisions of his life thusly: “My plan was to become a journalist. It was not my first plan. My previous plan had been to become a poet, but several years into this plan I had begun to feel that I was spending too much time sitting alone with a pad of paper, and not enough time in the world. Journalism, though I had no experience in it, seemed like a good way to be in the world.”

When I read these lines for the first time, I thought that surely they must be intended ironically and that the flatlining prose concealed a radical agenda. Because why, otherwise, would a reputable publisher take the time to release this stuff into the wider world? But no, the book simply plods along in its cheerful, diligent, cud-chewing way, occasionally throwing readers the bone of a sharp observation or a fresh phrase to keep them from slipping entirely asleep, as it recounts the protagonist’s work on a small Southwestern newspaper, his work with a treasure hunter, his research into the story of journalist Ambrose Bierce, and his attendance at a poet’s conference and an auto race.

Finally, as the far-fetched coincidences mount and the picaro proceeds forward in his unflappable way, with no larger wisdom arriving to make saving sense of his adventures, a kind of supervening blankness enters the reader’s brain. This is similar to the condition suffered by the elderly subjects of Oliver Sack’s book Awakenings, who, as a result of encephalitis, remain in animated suspension, paralyzed but alert, until freed by the injections of the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Alas, no dopamine arrives to save the reader of Nothing Happened and Then It Did. There is only, blessedly, the last page.

Eli Gottlieb’s latest novel, “Now You See Him,” is available in paperback from Harper Perennial.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.