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Cheap Thrills from 9/11

By (July 1, 2008) No Comment

The Garden of Last Days

By Andre Dubus III
W.W. Norton & Company, 2008

Quickly searching Google, I’ve found that the phrase “taut suspense” renders about 25,600 results; in contrast, “loose suspense” gives us 59 results, and most of them hail from sentences like, “it should have just been a claustrophobic lethal-snake-on-the-loose suspense movie”. The phrase “flabby suspense” produces only 5 results. So Andre Dubus III can take some comfort in the notion that he’s breaking new ground with his awful third novel The Garden of Last Days.

Surprisingly enough, this saggy thriller begins rather well—Dubus initially generates true suspense in the first half of the novel by stringing together short, pithy, exciting chapters that often end in cliffhangers. Moreover, the basic plot has such a clear-cut and alarming premise—in September of 2001, a stripper is forced to bring her child along to work the night one of the 9/11 terrorists pays the club a visit—that no one would guess that the book turns into a bore. The Garden of Last Days, however, is an over-plotted, meandering, often witless, and frequently offensive novel, and its promising opening gambit only leads to tedious back-stories, long descriptions of uninteresting, minor characters, repetitive internal monologues, and lame-brained commentary on gender, responsibility, and identity. If only Dubus had cut 235 pages!

It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely when the book becomes a tiresome, unappealing mess, but the root of the problem lies in Dubus’ tendency to create hugely unlikeable characters (who consistently make self-centered, stupid decisions) and then to shame the reader into liking them after tragedy strikes (due to their own bad choices) by dwelling on their sob stories and hard luck for pages and pages and pages. For instance, the novel begins with the stripper April (whose stage name is Spring) rationalizing her decision to bring her 3-year-old daughter Franny to work after her babysitter Jean has a panic attack:

But even in September, Thursday was a big money night, seven to eight hundred take-home, and that’s what April concentrated on as she drove, Franny’s chin starting to loll against her chest—April made herself think of that fat roll of tens and twenties she’d have at closing, how she’d fold it into the front pocket of her jeans then go to the house mom’s office off the dressing room and give Tina a hundred before she found Franny in her pj’s on Tina’s brown vinyl couch, and she’d try not to think of the walls above Tina’s desk covered with the dancers’ schedules and audition Polaroids of naked women, some of them under postcards from girls who came and went.

From the start, April knows that she’s making a poor choice, but she does it for the money. Dubus stresses her greed at several points throughout the story: “April was making ten thousand dollars every month and had grown to love, need, and depend on that.” She labors to delude herself that she has Franny’s well-being in mind. The very fact that she knowingly exposes Franny to other strippers whom she disdains—“bitches April had nothing to do with”—and leaves her under the distracted care of the strip club’s “house mom” pegs April as a negligent and dangerous parent. Nevertheless, Dubus expects the reader to sympathize with this woman because we find out later that her husband left her, she once was raped, and she momentarily goes crazy with grief when, in the novel’s central event, Franny is kidnapped at the club. But does her remorse excuse her behavior? Do her past problems? Is there any particular reason she couldn’t have looked up a babysitter service in the Yellow Pages?

Aristotle observes that tragedy doesn’t work if audience feels little sympathy for the protagonist—you don’t pity a person, like April, who deserves to come to grief. Instead, we’re more likely to appreciate the kidnapper’s warped and indignant rants about her: “Spring should fucking thank him for taking the time to drive this girl away. She should get down on her knees to him. But she won’t. The best he could hope for was to scare the living piss out of her.”

Ironically, Dubus offers an excellent example of a tragic heroine in his previous novel, The House of Sand and Fog (1999). Here, tragedy befalls Kathy Nicolo because she doesn’t open her mail. This understandable oversight results in her losing her house, and even her representative at legal aid cannot believe that the state evicted her so quickly. “Five hundred dollars? They evicted you from your house for that?” she says, and we sympathize with her amazement. Homelessness makes Kathy a suicidal, needy time bomb who harasses the house’s new owners. Although the novel left me with mixed feelings about Kathy because her actions cause so much pain for others, I viewed her as a basically good, if depressive, person to whom bad things happened. Kathy doesn’t choose homelessness—it’s thrust upon her.

But The Garden of Last Days’ presentation of a working mother as a selfish, avaricious victim is only one example of the novel’s rampant misogyny—every woman in the novel finds herself dependent upon or abused by men, and Dubus suggests that strippers and prostitutes choose their professions because only they understand the true, subjected place of women in society and intelligently profit from their hard-boiled knowledge of the “real world.” In one of a never-ending series of flashback sequences, we find that April first considered becoming a stripper because she was being sexually harassed by her boss at Subway:

April squeezed by Fuad to make the sandwich. He didn’t move and she felt him against her ass, him and the keys and coins in his pocket…. April turned to leave, and the woman touched her wrist. “If you’re gonna get treated like that, you should get paid for it, honey.” She nodded in the direction of the office. “I get fifty up front before I let ‘em get that close. And look at you; Jesus, you could make a ton over there. A ton.”

The theory that a woman who gets harassed in the workplace should at least get paid for the harassment strikes me as so backward that it beggars commentary. Of course, in a book full of scenes with battered, powerless women, it’s difficult to choose which incident is the most stomach-turning. Is it the one starring Deena, the wife of the eventual kidnapper A.J.? A.J. beats her twice in front of their son, and she can’t decide if she overreacted by throwing him out of the house and getting a restraining order. Or should we save our sympathy for Jean, a good woman who can’t stop having panic attacks because her husband (upon whom she depended) has died? Or maybe we should feel most sorry for A.J.’s mother Virginia—we read every detail of her brutal rape, after all. The relentless labeling of women as whores, sluts, cunts, and bitches is of course disturbing as well, but perhaps the greasy heart of The Garden of Lost Days is revealed by the fact that not even a 3-year-old is spared from the novel’s incessant slurs: “[A.J.] smiled at [Franny] in the mirror. He liked her spunk, but what would come of it? Spunk turns to sassy turns to bitch turns to whore. Just like her mama.”

To be fair, the male characters in Dubus’ novel don’t come off much better. When A.J. squeezes a stripper’s hand, a bouncer breaks his wrist and throws him out on the street. At this point, A.J. begins making a number of remarkably foolish, greedy decisions. He breaks his wife’s restraining order; he tries to extort money from his boss by claiming that his wrist was actually broken at work; he decides to “help” Franny by kidnapping her, drugging her with Benadryl to keep her quiet, and eventually locking her in a stranger’s parked car. During this protracted subplot, A.J. never doubts that he is a good, hardworking man:

His escort deputies were on either side of him…A.J. only heard the words still sitting in his head like toxic waste—eighteen months. A year and half before he even got a hearing, never mind a trial? And for what? For doing the right thing? For trying to do something good?

A.J.’s narcissism and ignorance overwhelm the reader, and his lengthy (and wearisome) internal monologues don’t make him any more sympathetic—they only demonstrate the depth of his stupidity.

Tacked onto these chauvinistic subplots is the storyline involving Bassam, a strip club customer who eventually flies a plane into one of the Twin Towers. There is a special crassness in the way that Dubus exploits 9/11 to inflate his novel with purported significance. You sense, in fact, that he really just wanted to write about victimized strippers, but added the 9/11 terrorist in an attempt to transform a pulp porno-thriller into relevant Literature. The time spent in Bassam’s head feels perfunctory, dull and disconnected from the rest of the novel. There’s no suspense here either: in spite of his omnipresent foreshadowing of 9/11, Dubus somehow manages to make the tragedy anticlimactic.

The Pink Pony strip club, reportedly frequented by Mohamed Atta

Throughout these scenes, the reader vainly searches for reasons why they exist apart from the naked marketability of the subject. There is a fouling sense that Dubus is putting forth another deeply unsavory individual (a bomber!) as some kind of victim, and that the long passages detailing Bassam’s religious beliefs appear next to the seedy storylines about boorish Americans to make his extreme hatred of Western culture somewhat comprehensible. As he does with every other character, Dubus gives Bassam a back story that is supposed to explain away his actions and motivations: he has decided to attack America because his brother Khalid who liked Western culture—or at least Van Halen—drove too fast, and died in a car accident:

David Lee Roth, an American Jew, he wore a cowboy hat like this whore, and he filled their heads with a nothingness that only made Khalid drive faster, faster…. Khalid jerked the steering wheel, the auto of forbidden music turning over once, twice, three times, his body thrown so many meters to the west, away from Makkah, the American Jew still singing inside the crushed chassis.

In addition, Dubus makes a point of showing that all Muslims aren’t terrorists by including a scene in which Bassam’s strict father, Ahmed al-Jizani, attempts to teach Bassam the true meaning of jihad:

“So you have taken up jihad?”
“Yes, Father.”
“Do you understand what this means?”
His father looked at him as he had always looked at him, as if all the sons before Bassam had been the best. “Tell me then, what does this mean?”
“It means I am prepared to die for Allah.”
“No, that is not jihad. That is a lower meaning of it.” His father sipped his tea, his eyes on him. “What did they teach you at this place?”
“The Truth, Father. They taught me the Truth.”
“And what is the truth, Bassam? Who can know the truth but Allah?”….
“You have never been a bright boy, Bassam, so you must listen to me carefully. Jihad is this: it is struggle within yourself, that is all.”

While one can appreciate Dubus’ decision to humanize Muslims for an American audience, the explanation that Bassam commits mass murder in order to prove himself to a pressuring, disapproving parent strikes me as terribly reductive. Moreover, I don’t understand Dubus’ choice to pursue A.J.’s story rather than describe Bassam’s in more detail. Why spend so much time depicting an angry, obtuse Floridian when you could deepen the portrait of the terrorist who dominates the beginning and end (if not the sluggish middle) of the novel? For a moment, it seems that Dubus might be trying to draw some connections between A.J.’s and Bassam’s views towards women, but Bassam actually ponders killing “indecent” women while A.J.’s feelings only approximate extreme irritation—there’s no meaningful accord beyond that both men are despicable.

In the parts of the novel when Dubus actually does focus on Bassam, the character spews violent, religious vitriol as well as continual self-doubt (again using one of Dubus’ preferred descriptions of women):

“At the bar whores smoke cigarettes. He makes himself think of cutting their throats, how the short blade must be forced into the skin below the jaw. The artery there. He does not care if they feel pain, for anyway it will be brief, and he does not worry of their souls burning for they have brought it upon themselves. But to kill bodies he has never lain with—this is what weakens him”

This back-and-forth between hatred and the sexually-charged tenderness he feels towards several American women (including April) plague Bassam’s thoughts for the entire book (with relatively little change or development for hundreds of pages), and I suppose that Dubus might be toying with the reader’s expectations: “Will he abandon his mission?” But everyone knows that the terrorists flew into World Trade Center, and so there’s no real suspense. We already know he eventually decides to murder innocent Americans.

The attacks happen within the timeframe of the book, but Dubus chooses not to cover any of the events of 9/11 besides Bassam passing through the security checkpoint at Logan Airport and April finding out the news later in the day. Perhaps this decision saves the reader from reliving any of the horrible events, but it seems odd to develop dramatic tension by setting a narrative on September 6th through September 10th, 2001 without covering the event itself.

Or maybe Dubus’ intentions don’t even merit speculation—this is a “9/11 novel” that cares less about 9/11 than about pole-dancing, after all. After the attacks, April’s recollections of Bassam are simultaneously unlikely and shallow. “Like a boy,” she thinks, “Just some drunk and lonely boy.” Yet Bassam had scared her at the strip club—why does she only remember him as lonely? April doesn’t act (or in this case remember) in a believably human manner—are women supposed to be humans in this novel? In the end, Dubus paints the terrorist like any other frat boy, and his novel is not much more than a puerile prank played on the reader.

Sharon Fulton is a PhD candidate in English literature at Columbia University. She is working on a dissertation about the role of animals in the literary dream-visions of the late fourteenth-century.

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