July 27th, 2008 5:33 pm | by JOHN MINERVINI News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP

TOME RAIDER: All About Lulu


Every Sunday, WW writer John Minervini brings you the latest in book reviews, author Q&A's and Portland literary gossip. Click here to join the Tome Raider mailing list.

Six-word Summary: Quirk for quirk's sake? I'll pass.

There is a frustrating tendency in contemporary American fiction to use quirk as a cure-all. Having trouble developing your characters? Give them strange idiosyncrasies. Don't know where to take your plot? Try something weird.

To my mind, quirkiness is the literary equivalent of a seasoning. Added to the right book, it helps to draw out themes and distinguish certain characters. But even the best salt won't improve mediocre ingredients.

One wishes that author Jonathan Evison had spent more time on the dish itself and less time seasoning it. His debut novel, All About Lulu (Soft Skull, 338 pages, $14.95), features a plot and key themes essentially borrowed from Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. And even copious amounts of quirk—for instance a pair of bodybuilding twin brothers and a concrete Brontosaurus in the middle of the desert—fail to cover this essentially derivative story.

The Plot: Introduced at the age of 10, stepsiblings Will and Lulu quickly form an unhealthy attachment—she is his goddess; he is her worshiper. For a few years, they succeed in playing doctor behind the backs of their unsuspecting family, but at the age of 15, Lulu balks at the incest and attempts to isolate herself from William. As you might expect, he won't let her go, and over the next 10 years his relentless pursuit essentially wrecks her.

Of course there are other plot elements. For instance, Will becomes co-proprietor of a food cart called Hot Dog Heaven, masterminded by a hilarious Soviet defector called Eugene Gobernecki. Will also develops a latent amateur enthusiasm for philosophy and enjoys some small-time success as an overnight radio DJ. All this takes place against a backdrop of Augusten Burroughs-esque family absurdity: father Big Bill is a bodybuilder, and twins Ross and Doug take turns trumpeting meaty farts through their matching neoprene shorts. But none of these unrelated subplots adds anything to the novel, save humor. They're all just quirk.

And as previously mentioned, most of what isn't quirk is reheated Lolita. The first basis for comparison is, of course, thematic: a male possessed by a selfish lust knowingly destroys the life of a teenage girl.

Like Humbert Humbert, Will stakes out Lulu's bedroom door and keeps an elaborate 8-volume diary of her comings and goings. Entries from this “Book of Lulu” comprise the most obvious echoes of Lolita. Other sentiments and even phrases—for instance Will's rhapsodies on Lulu's smell or his stolen moments of erotic passion—are basically Nabokov on the cheap. Compare, for instance, Lolita's “[n]ew, heaped-up hairdo” with Lulu's “uneven bun” or Lulu's “fleshy delicate thing” with Lolita's “delicate velvety delta.”

Perhaps most troubling is the moral vacuum in which Lulu takes place. Whereas Humbert Humbert narrates Lolita out of deepest shame for what he did to an innocent girl, Will ultimately fails to acknowledge how his relentless pursuit of Lulu has hurt her. Despite the fact that Lulu cuts herself and even attempts suicide, Will's actions are never considered in their moral dimension. As far as writing goes, that's downright irresponsible.

What we have here is a case of genre identity crisis. It's not that William and Lulu don't belong in a book—they just don't belong in this one. All About Lulu positions itself as a novel's novel: a cymbal-crashing, tear-drenched tennis match of the fates. As you can imagine, it doesn't live up to its own high standards.

In Portland: Jonathan Evison will read from his book All About Lulu at Powell's City of Books on Tuesday, July 29, at 7:30 pm. PLUS: Check out next week's installment of Tome Raider for an interview with Evison.
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