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By John Domini
Red Hen Press / ISBN: 978-1-59709-076-6
(UPDATE, FEBRUARY 2009: For those coming across this in the future, since this review I have also written a review here of Domini's A Tomb on the Periphery, as well as conducted a two part interview with him for the CCLaP Podcast.)
Well, whaddya know -- January 8th and already one of my New Year's resolutions is shot all to hell. See, I promised myself this year to try to get through enough artistic projects to be able to publish five essays here a week; and that means reading roughly 100 to 150 pages of any particular book each day, or in other words a book every two or three days, punctuated with occasional movie reviews and personal essays to make up the difference, a schedule I frankly usually have no problems with at all. Ah, but then I come across a book like celebrated academic writer John Domini's Earthquake ID, and the next thing you know I'm down to 35 pages a day, suddenly finding myself facing day after day when I don't actually have a completed book to review; and that's because this book is one of those kind of novels, one of those dense metaphorical things that the academes love so much, with the same kind of careful, loving attention to each and every word that you usually only find in poetry. And thus does my reading rate slow to a crawl, simply so that I can soak up every word and make sure I understand the rich, multilayered story being told; and thus is it suddenly January 8th and I haven't published a review in three days, because of it taking me an entire week longer to actually finish the thing than I was expecting. Damn you, John Domini!
In fact, today's book is as good a time as any to delve more into an assertion I've made here several times before, now that I've been reviewing books professionally for about two years now, and am learning more and more about how the literary world works -- that so-called "mainstream fiction" or "literary fiction" or "general-audience fiction" is in fact just as much of a narrowly-defined genre as any so-called genre work, with the same kinds of rules and topics and touches that make any fan of that particular genre swoon, and that the reason this particular genre has become known as the "most important" one (i.e. the "serious" one, the one that wins all the awards) is because it's the genre academes love the most, the exact people spending the most time thinking about literature and handing out those awards in the first place. Take this inarguable fact, for example, that just like most "lit-fiction," Earthquake ID is much more interested in establishing an intriguing setting and complex characters than in following a traditional three-act plot; and that's because those who think about literature the most find this the part of literature where one is most able to make interesting and illuminating observations about the human condition, which most academes believe is the main point of literature in the first place. And this is versus the "And then they did this, and then they did this" nature of constructing a three-act plot, which the argument goes is precisely why "genre novels" do concentrate so much on plot, because they just naturally have less interesting observations to make about the human condition. Or like I said, so the argument goes.
To be more specific, the book is an examination of one Barbara Lulucita, and an ultra-detailed look at her unique yet relatable life: middle-aged American east-coast intellectual, devout Catholic and church-related counselor, now with her husband and five children in the exotic city of Naples, Italy, helping the place rebuild from a recent natural disaster that destroyed much of the poorer, immigrant-heavy districts. The book clearly concentrates much more on us learning as much as possible about Barbara, about what makes her tick and what her relationship is to her church, her family; and if this were a typical lit-fiction book, that's all this story would be, with academes fawning all over its "meta-texturalism" and non-academes grumbling about how "nothing happens." But like I said, this is actually a much better-than-average lit-fiction book, and one of those reasons is that Domini has injected a fascinating, unsettling detail into the middle of it; turns out that their middle child Paul, a sickly eleven-year-old who already has trouble navigating the ins-and-outs of normal society, has since arriving been regularly exhibiting what seems like the religious ability to heal people through the laying-on of hands, starting with fixing his dad after a mugging on their very first day there, from what witnesses could've sworn was actually a bit of brain matter oozing out of the side of his head wound.
This allows Domini to then add to the complexity of everything else going on in the story, making it a much more exciting thing than the usual academic snoozer; under this NEA-grant-recipient's very capable hands, this suddenly miraculous ability of her son's ends up flavoring Barbara's relationship with her newly adopted local priest, with the shady UN "advisor" who is technically her husband's boss, even the city itself and the way her family interacts with it. Because that's another major hallmark of literary fiction versus genre work; Earthquake ID is as much a portrait of Naples as it is a fictional narrative story, with the city itself becoming just as much a character as any of the humans we meet. This is where the book has already received a lot of critical praise, and it's easy to see why; because Domini paints an astoundingly magical portrait of the city by the time he's done, offering up such unique comparisons as the neighborhoods' gossipy nature to a group of teens gathered around a MySpace page, showing us an accumulated mass of four distinct cultures that make up this three-thousand-year-old space, showing how you can personally touch them each again with each new Neapolitan sub-basement you crawl through in the city's labyrinthine underground. And that's the main difference between a book like this and, say, Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, and why one is so goose-bumpingly good and the other such a hacky mess; because Domini is a master of describing the flavor of a city, the tone of that city, the spirit of that city, instead of merely describing the same pictures that any of us can see at Flickr, or rattling off statistics that any of us can read at Wikipedia.
But like I said, make no mistake -- it's the quality of the writing itself that is the main reason to pick this up, yet another thing that you can say is a truism about all of lit-fiction, a subject at which this multiple award-winning author excels. (For those who don't know, Domini's CV is like an academe's wet dream -- publishing credits with The Paris Review and GQ, flowing praise from NPR, a critic gig with The Believer, former jobs at Harvard and Northwestern, even with this particular book being published by a special academic non-profit, one that concentrates on astonishingly written yet commercially questionable contemporary novels.) Because the fact is that Earthquake ID is one of those books I only come across once or twice a year, the kind that make me get a funny feeling in my stomach about halfway through, this absolute certainty all of a sudden that I'm in the presence of greatness, that I'm currently reading what will be known in another century as one of the best-written books of our times. It's a hard emotion to rationally describe, so let me just put it like this, that the last time I felt this way was fourteen months ago, while reading Denis Johnson's National Book Award winner Tree of Smoke; and if you're an obsessive fan of that book like I am, you'll know exactly what I mean by mentioning that gut-socking feeling you sometimes get with great books like these, that intensely personal pleasure that feels almost like a secret, like a brilliant secret you've come across and don't want to share with anyone else.
But of course that's silly; as a champion of the arts, I of course want you know about books like these, and in fact highly encourage you to check this one out if you get the chance; and in fact just next month I'll be reviewing yet another of Domini's novels, the newer A Tomb on the Periphery which apparently is part two of a story cycle related to today's book, which is why I was sent both titles at once. And in all fairness, there are things to warn you about too, and various annoying things about lit-fiction that Domini is also guilty of here; just to mention one very well-known example, his dialogue for the most part is extremely stilted and unrealistic-sounding throughout, pretty much the main reason the book didn't get a higher score here today than it did. I'm okay, though, with overlooking things like that with books like these, ready to dismiss them as necessary drawbacks to the great things that come with reading such titles; because the fact is that with stories this meticulous and poetic, of course every aspect of that story is going to be meticulous and poetic, even stuff like dialogue that is normally supposed to come out as more realistic than this in order to be truly effective.
As I've been learning recently more and more, there are strengths and weaknesses to any type of literature one decides to become a fan of, not just the hacky excesses of genre work that are usually held up as the main example; this is part of the very definition of being a fan of the arts, is to decide what things about the arts you're the biggest fan of, which things you'll overlook in order to enjoy the things you particularly love. And the fact is that a couple or several times a year I really love coming across books like these, deeply academic creatures that slow my reading rate to nearly zero, that hijack my entire publishing schedule here at CCLaP and make me scramble for a whole week afterwards, tearing through a bunch of tiny books just so I can get caught back up. In my case such books are a special treat only, like smoking a twenty-dollar cigar on your birthday; when the time does come, though, for that high-end literary cigar, Earthquake ID should certainly be on any book lover's must-read list. It's a real pleasure to get to recommend this today, and needless to say I'm highly looking forward to tackling Domini's next book in a few weeks.
Out of 10: 9.5
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