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.
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.