June 3, 2008

Book review: "All Shall Be Well...," by Tod Wodicka

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All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well
By Tod Wodicka
Pantheon/Random House / ISBN: 978-0-375-42473-1

The longer I'm a full-time arts critic, the more I'm starting to realize just how important the following three facts about the arts are, things I had always suspected when I was an artist myself but am now coming to understand with a certainty now that I'm a reviewer:

--Within traditional Western storytelling, the single biggest debate of all is over whether to emphasize the plot of that story more, or the characters;

--The main difference between so-called "genre" projects and so-called "mainstream" ones is that the former emphasizes plot more, while the latter emphasizes character;

--And of all the great artistic projects throughout history -- not necessarily the most popular of their times, but the ones that keep getting picked up by new readers each decade -- almost all of them feature a unique and strong balance between the plot and characters of that story.

All Shall Be Well..., by Tod Wodicka

It was something I was thinking about a lot, frankly, while reading through American expat Tod Wodicka's outrageously entertaining debut novel, the humorous yet brutal examination of antisocial academic eggheads known by the unwieldly title All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well; because it is precisely one of those books I'm talking about in my third point above, one that creates complex-enough characters to satisfy any literature professor but with enough of a strange and unique plot to keep all the beach and airport people happy too. It's one of those books that makes you think, "Ah, yes, this is what contemporary literature can do when it's absolutely on top of its form" -- it is hilarious, it is heartbreaking, it tells a tale you'd never come up with in a million years on your own, and along the way manages to indict your own worst behavior without ever completely condemning you (or that is, if you're a cranky egghead into obscure hobbies yourself...and why would you be at this website if you aren't?). It is one of a handful of books I come across each year that reminds me of why I opened CCLaP in the first place; precisely so I could recommend books like these, books that need the extra publicity, books that profoundly hammer home what's so great about intelligent artistic projects, and why you should always hold out for the smartest novels and movies and television shows that you can.

Raised in upstate New York, schooled in the UK, now living in Berlin, Wodicka takes us on a similar geographic journey with All Shall Be Well... -- it is the story of full-time Medieval re-enactor Burt Hecker, and the transatlantic adventures that happen to him over the course of a few months in 1998. And make no mistake, Burt is easily one of the most inventive, fascinating, frustrating, complex characters you will come across in a contemporary novel; failed history teacher, frustrated academe, he at once comprises every single trait about such people that drive the rest of us batsh-t, while still being an instantly compelling character who you simply must know more about with each passing page. And it's this, frankly, that makes fans of so-called mainstream literature fans in the first place; because the fact is that there's a lot for us fellow arrogant nerds to learn about ourselves through the story of Burt, a character so incredibly well-fleshed-out by Wodicka that he almost literally comes alive in front of us. I mean, this is a man so completely out of touch with his modern surroundings, he even considers orange juice a sufficiently OOP (out of period) detail that should never grace his life; a man who owns exactly one modern suit, one modern sweater, who basically sees the rest of humanity as a teeming nest of filthy breeding meatsacks.

But see, just like the rest of us cranky antisocial intellectuals, Burt simply must live in the modern world at times, whether he wants to or not, which is where the pathos of this novel comes in; because Burt simply isn't a very good person, when all is said and done, a person who wants to be good but who obliviously wallows in his weaknesses and vices just too much to be so, and then masks it all in arrogance and a sociopathic hatred of the world so that he never has to acknowledge his own failings to himself. Hmm, sounding familiar, anyone? In fact, it's pretty amazing what Wodicka does with Burt here in All Shall Be Well..., precisely because he is having his authorial cake and eating it too; he is presenting to us a sympathetic character who is also an unredeemable a--hole, a character who will immediately remind any history-loving intellectual of both the best and worst traits about themselves, and most importantly never comes to an ultimate conclusion for us as to how we should think of him. Because let's face it, it's easy for any lover of the intelligent arts to sympathize with Burt's plight -- born in the wrong moment of history (or so he believes), it's obvious that Burt actually wouldn't be that bad of a guy if you had only met him in the year 1300 or so, back when a lot less niceties were expected of your fellow humans, back when Burt would be not much more than your typical sh-t-covered monk, living in isolation in some hilltop monastery in the wilds of western Germany.

Because that of course gets us to the flipside of All Shall Be Well..., and why I say that this is so much better a novel than a typical academic-friendly character study; because the storyline itself takes us on a deliciously bumpy ride not only through the cultured 19th-century confines of upper New York, but the actual wineries and monasteries of western Germany's Rhine and Mosel regions as well*, through a convoluted plot that sees our anti-villain slapped with a court order to attend a New Age Medieval all-woman chanting workshop, because of an "incident" involving the copious drinking of mead and the stealing of a modern car (or "time machine," as he drunkenly refers to it). And see, the bubbly middle-aged Oprah-watching chanters of this New Age group just happen to be obsessed with the Medieval saint Hildegard von Bingen; and 1998 just happens to be the 900th anniversary of Saint Hildy's birth; and so the whole group has decided to go on a trip to western Germany to join an entire planet's worth of bubbly New Age middle-aged housewives in celebrating this anniversary; and this is what's convinced Burt to go through with the plans that fuel the majority of this book's plot, which is to sell all his belongings and secretly emigrate to Germany on a whim, not completely sure what he's going to do there besides wander through the endless grape fields of the region and pretend that he really is living in the Middle Ages.

Hah? Wha? Come again? Yeah, and this is just the beginning of the oddness known as the All Shall Be Well... storyline; before we're done, we've ended up in a catacomb hipster music club in Prague, a Victorian mansion on the Atlantic Seaboard, and all kinds of other interesting situations, interacting with everyone from suave Brazilian womanizers to Polish experimental rockstars, from cocktail-swilling socialites to earnest "it takes a village" Midwesterners. And in this, you might want to compare the book to a more well-known one like, say, Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys (which is also a movie starring Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire); that is, both ostensibly take on a rather obvious situation that by all rights should make most smart people groan ("Gee, another story about a snotty academe -- just what the f-cking world needed"), but both successfully pull them off precisely because of the quirky and inventive plotlines that were created. This is something that so many academic writers simply don't get, the thing that drives me the craziest about so-called mainstream or academic literature; that the telling of a story is ultimately supposed to be an entertaining experience, no matter how much of a "piece of art" you want to also make it, and that the most successful artists out there concentrate just as much on a well-done plot as they do on well-done characters.

And then finally, there's this brilliant fact about All Shall Be Well..., that the type of story it is actually changes over the course of the manuscript; that at first it is a truly laugh-out-loud satire of arrogant academic nerds, but then by the end becomes a rather serious drama about a specific individual, one who is in actuality a lot more monstrous than we realized at first, which is why I call Burt an "anti-villain" here instead of the typical "anti-hero." Because the fact is that Wodicka uses a well-worn literary gimmick absolutely masterfully here, our old friend the unreliable narrator; as our story continues, as the people around him start mentioning stranger- and stranger-sounding things, we realize that Burt as our first-person narrator has not been telling us the entire story about what's been going on. We learn, for example, that there's actually a pretty good reason that he is currently estranged from his two adult children, that they're not just the whiny kids that Burt makes them out to be at the beginning of the book; we learn that there's a good reason one is now a divorced Trekkie, the other a hipster expat musician, known for playing blaring free jazz on a series of handmade instruments that he learned how to create during his own Medieval-reenacting childhood. We learn that there's a reason Burt always seems to be sucking on a bottle of his home-brewed mead; there's a reason he made his police-noticing drunken time-travel excursion in the first place, the one that led to his court-ordered time with the New Age chanters.

Now, unfortunately I cannot give this book a perfect score of ten, which I was highly tempted to do, because there are simply too many small elements that could've been better; for example, Wodicka spends too much time in the middle of the book recollecting Burt's ex-wife's childhood memories, passages that have no relevance to the rest of the story and that should've been cut before publication. (Then again, Wodicka has admitted in a past interview that his original storyline would've produced a two-thousand-page book, instead of the slim 260 pages it currently is, so maybe we should be glad for the restraint that was shown instead of the moments he lapsed.) My point, though, is that when you combine all the things mentioned above -- the ultra-smart characters, the ultra-unique plot, an exquisitely imagined personal style that is almost spot-on perfect -- you're left with a rather amazing book, one of those novels that make smart fans smack themselves on the forehead and yell, "Why don't books like these ever get picked by that freaking Oprah?" Like I said, that's a big part of why I started CCLaP in the first place, as a way of promoting absolutely brilliant projects that for one reason or another fall through the cracks of the mainstream artistic world; and All Shall Be Well... is definitely one of those projects, one I recommend that all of you intelligent fans of the arts check out without delay.

Out of 10:
Story: 9.6
Characters: 10
Style: 10
Overall: 9.8

Read even more about All Shall Be Well...: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*And speaking as someone who has spent an extended period of tourist time in the Mosel and Rhine regions, can I just mention how absolutely dead-on perfect Wodicka is with his description of the area? This is what I meant the other week, in fact, when I criticized Elizabeth Kostova for the crappy so-called "travel writing" found in her own debut novel The Historian; in her case, she basically does nothing more than physically describe the same view anyone could see in a postcard, while Wodicka paints an indelible portrait of what it's like to interact with villagers in that region, of what it feels like to go walking through the endless waves of grape fields there and drunkenly stumble across crumbling Medieval monasteries in the middle of the woods (both of which I've done in real life, so I know at least a bit of which I speak). There's something really magical about the western rural wilds of Germany, for those who have never been; if nothing else, And All Shall Be Well... shows what exactly that is, and why it can be so surprisingly fun sometimes to spend time in such "podunk" Rhineland towns as Koblenz, Cochem and Mainz.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:36 PM, June 3, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |