Tuesday, October 1, 2013

We All Sleep in the Same Room - Paul Rome (2013)

That said we never had a creative writing class together, and had we, I would have included him on the short list of best student writers I had read while in attendance at that institution, alongside, oh, Paul Rome, Adam White (technically from Dartmouth), Xenia Viray, and Jordana Rothman--and it bears mentioning that they all came from the same single class out of the eight or so I took.
-Review of Eeeee Eee Eeee (11/26/08)

I don't want to spend this entire review comparing Paul Rome to Tao Lin, but it's unavoidable.  I never had a writing class with Tao, but I had one with Paul.  It would have been fun if all three of us were in that same class--but that above quote suffers from slight inaccuracy: Adam White was not in that class.  I studied with him in Paris in 2003 and he just happened to write a novel while we were there that contained flashes of greatness.  The class to which I was referring was taught by Chris Spain.  I do not want to air dirty laundry but I cannot resist: Mr. Spain did not like me.  During one class, my peers gave comments on a story I had written while I joked quietly with a friend I brought in as a guest of the class (whom I also would list among the "best student writers" I knew if we had not suffered an "epic" falling out two years later).  Mr. Spain did not appreciate my gesture, as he felt it was enormously disrespectful.  He tore into me in the "notes" he handed out during the next class.  His "notes" were classic and I still have most of them saved somewhere.  They were his prescriptions for good writing, though he was always quick to mention that he was probably wrong about everything anyways.  He was very modest.  And in time, of course he was right: I needed more humility.  My ego was too big.  It was good to have too big of an ego, and maybe I would make it big after all, but more likely I would suffer a serious reality check before that happened.  Of course he was right.

Now I realize that 9 1/2 years ago, I had no clue what I was doing.  I majored in Writing and Politics at Gallatin because I liked it when people told me I wrote a good story.  There was no practicality to the matter.  In hindsight it was a colossal waste of $160,000 ($180K?) and I would be much better off today had I gone in for IT or Science or Economics or Business or almost anything else.  I was very much an epicurean.  I lived for the present and did not think of the future, unless it was a future where I was a rich and famous author that got away with being a big slacker throughout most of his adult life.  

Paul Rome acknowledges Chris Spain at the end of We All Sleep in the Same Room, along with a couple other MFA-preppers, saying, "their teachings resonate."  I would have done the same thing in my first novel, except I never wrote an acknowledgments section because nobody ever thought it was good enough to publish.  And to be fair, it is a bit of a mess, and people have told me I am a terrible writer because I do not believe (super-strongly) in the virtues of revision.   I think Paul and I differ on this count:

"After attending NYU's Gallatin School, Rome began his first novel.  Surviving countless edits and multiple formative relationships, We All Sleep in the Same Room is due for release by Rare Bird Books on October 15, 2013." 

That is from the "about the author" section of the press materials I received.  By my count, that is an 8 year gestation period.  And I guess this is where I start with my review: We All Sleep in the Same Room is engaging, humorous, insightful, and memorable.  And it's all over much too soon.

At 179 pages with fairly large type, it reads more like a novella than a novel.  And I have no problem with that!  I subconsciously listed Paul first in that line at the top of this post because the stories he wrote in class seemed effortless.  He has apparently made something of a name for himself in Bushwick with the readings of recent short stories he has written.  I've enjoyed them all!  In particular I remember a funny story about a "bromance" involving bird watching in Prospect Park.  And while this novel has a lovely arc, and builds and builds to a powerful climax, I must admit that I was let down by the ending.

I will do my best to avoid "spoilers" because it is a rare moment on Flying Houses indeed where we review a book two weeks before its release date.  

The main character is Tom Claughlin, a labor lawyer living in Manhattan, near Union Square.  He is married to Raina, and has a 3-year-old son named Ben.  As the novel opens, Tom is watching Ben being carried around by their new babysitter, Frank.  And here it is perhaps worth noting that I am glad Paul includes a male babysitter in the story.  Babysitting is not an equal opportunity profession, and there is little good reason for its rampant sexism.  

I wasn't sure what kind of novel this was going to be when I started it.  It struck me as almost some sort of mystery or detective thing, along the same lines as Paul Auster's New York Trilogy. But in fact it lands squarely in the "literary fiction" category.  

I don't want to give away the plot (it pretty much comes down to a few bad decisions) but the novel splits time between Tom's work life and his home life.  It is written in the first person, and spare.  It flows beautifully.  It reads like a charm.  It's endearing.  It's a pleasure to behold.

But I am sorry.  I cannot get over the ending.  This book has enormous potential and then the ending comes.  Some people may like the ending a lot.  I don't.  I can't help but compare it to "Breaking Bad," since that is the most topical "ending" as of this date.  I liked that ending because it wasn't a WTF ending.  WTF endings sometimes work best, and I have even tried a couple times to use them.  And maybe I'm just getting older, but I like to feel some closure at the end of a book.  Complete and total closure may be too much because a book is sort of different from a movie or TV show--it plays in your mind and seems to exist in a peculiar environment created by both your imagination and the author's.  As such the characters can seem even more real and ending their story can seem like their death and make you sad.

That Paul is able to accomplish this in his first novel is remarkable.  The novel seems plucked out of real life.  I couldn't help but thinking about my cousin and his wife, who are pushing forty and have a four-year-old and a two-year-old and all share a small apartment in Brooklyn Heights.  This vision of "small family life" in NYC is delightful--but it has a certain dark side that I won't get into.  

Usually I like to excerpt the especially beautiful passages, but there's not much I can include.  There's really not.  Like I said, the entire novel is a pleasure to read, and there is such a logical progression from sentence to sentence that nothing ever feels awkward or forced.  I can, however, point out one thing I am almost 100% positive is a mistake:

"'And you're happy for me?'
"I'm taking the bar soon, in January.'
'Wow.  So soon.'" (119)

Tom should be responding, "Really?  I thought you could only take it in February!"  I don't mean to be snarky but I mention this primarily because today I found out that I passed the Illinois Bar Exam.  So this is my own little memento on Flying Houses to remember a special milestone day.  But yes, the bar exam is administered in February and July--and from what I understand the last two days in each (except in California where it is 3 days).  Thus even though this novel takes place in 2005 (Hurricane Katrina is mentioned twice, along with a transit worker's strike) and perhaps it might be theoretically possible for there to be an earlier test date, I highly doubt that.

But to make up for that admittedly minor blunder, there is an excellent account of labor law litigation that I know several of my labor-obsessed classmates would read with interest.  It is a relatively small case, but the way it evokes passion in Tom is one of the highlights of the novel.  I was going to excerpt a passage from the climactic scene, but I will not spoil it.  All I can say is that Paul shies away from the typical portrait of litigation in mass media and goes for something much more realistic.  Perhaps it seems a bit like, "that's it?" but in that case it is true to life.  

In the case of the ending, however, the "that's it?" feeling is much more pernicious (for me, at least).  Because I feel like this novel is close to perfect.  I love the scene in McCarren Park, I love the scene at The Polar Express, I love the scenes at Tom's law firm, and I love the scene at the Christmas Party.  And then, something happens.  We don't exactly know what.  The reader can guess.  But it's not clear that's what really happened.  

Thus, We All Sleep in the Same Room suffers only from its WTF ending.  As I've said, I could be completely wrong about this.  I know the MFA contingent is a fan of WTF endings, but I don't know where Paul fits in with the MFA contingent.  He has not gotten his MFA and the question is, is he going to?  

When I reviewed Eeeee Eee Eeee, I interviewed Tao Lin.  I kind of wanted to interview Paul, too.  But I don't have many questions for him.  I would just ask him if he was going to get his MFA.  I'd imagine not.  Most people seem to do that to get their first book published.  Paul did it on his own.  And he did a good job of it.  Why get the MFA?  Because you can always improve your writing?  Maybe, but I know that 9 1/2 years ago Paul was a natural and nothing has changed.  I would not be surprised if Paul follows this up with a collection of short stories, since I would expect him to have a pretty good portfolio by now.  

But the big, big, big question: who is better--Paul or Tao?  Tao is an acquired taste.  Truthfully, Tao is more of an original, just because of the bonkers marketing machine that is his internet presence.  Paul is more of a "one size fits all" writer.  I don't want to say one writer is better than the other, but I will say that We All Sleep in the Same Room is better than Eeeee Eee Eeeee and Richard Yates and about as good as Shoplifting from American Apparel.  I have not read Taipei, though to be fair Tao did try to send it to me, but it is published by Vintage (i.e. "big-time") and Vintage does not care about Flying Houses (though Random House may...).  I have read that Taipei is Tao's best book yet, and that perhaps should be compared to this.  But it will need to wait.

Regardless of who is better, let Paul Rome become as famous as Tao Lin.  Let all of the NYU alumni of the Class of 2005 go on to fantastic, wonderful lives and careers where they create beautiful art.  I will look forward to reading all of Paul's work and I hope he goes on to construct a powerful oeuvre.  It is at least fun for me to pretend I was friends with people before they got famous. 

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