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Dying Laughter

Adam and Evelyn

by Ingo Schulze, translated from the German by John E. Woods
Knopf, 288 pp., $27.95
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Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Ingo Schulze at the Leipzig Book Fair, Germany, March 2007

Romance and comedy are old allies. The combination of intense emotional investment on the part of the lover with inadequate knowledge of the beloved sparks off charming misunderstandings and heartrending separations, which the power of mutual attraction then reassuringly overcomes. The reader is left with the happy impression that egoism has surrendered to the need for affection and even, in this most conservative of genres, for family and children. In their adherence to such a plot Ingo Schulze’s Adam and Evelyn and William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters are very similar. In every other respect they could hardly be more different.

Schulze is German and his fluently translated story is set in Eastern Europe just before the fall of communism and the Berlin Wall; his lovers’ vicissitudes have largely to do with their differing attitudes toward East and West. Giraldi is an American teaching creative writing in Boston; though taking us on a picaresque journey through contemporary America, his tale is most characterized by an extravagantly mannered, probably untranslatable style that blends cartoon hyperbole with an onslaught of literary allusion, parody, and spirited self-reference. If Schulze keeps the attention mostly on his characters, content to raise a smile from time to time, Giraldi never lets us forget his authorial performance, demanding a laugh, if not a giggle, every paragraph.

In his early thirties, the Adam of Adam and Evelyn is a bespoke tailor in an East German town south of Berlin, much sought after for his ability to dress women who no longer have the perfect shape. The year is 1989. Such is Adam’s attention to the female form that he feels it is part of his work to bed his clients, overweight though they may be, during their fitting appointments. When Evelyn, his twenty-one-year-old girlfriend, walks out on her waitressing job and returns home to catch Adam in flagrante, she leaves him in disgust and sets out with her friend Mona and Mona’s older cousin Michael on a long-planned vacation to Hungary for which visas have been procured in advance. Adam, however, does not accept his exclusion from the group. He gasses up his old Wartburg, one of those boxy 1980s testimonies to the technology gap between East and West, packs a tent, sleeping bags, and the couple’s pet turtle, and sets out in pursuit.

Adam is an obsessive, as his occupation might suggest, an attentive observer of everything to do with clothes and style. We learn little of his thoughts or plans but watch him make meticulous preparations, filling his coffee thermos, removing fuses from the electrical system in his house, writing postcards to customers to cancel appointments, making sure the turtle has appropriate bedding and food, collecting a straw hat that Evelyn has forgotten. When he catches up with the others he seems more concerned with the way his girlfriend is dressed and how Michael looks after his car’s upholstery than with passionate or penitential declarations. Having handed over the straw hat to Evelyn, he is then anxious as he follows the group’s car to see it carelessly crushed on the ledge under the rear window.

This attention to peripheral detail, understood as Adam’s point of view, allows Schulze to focus on the minutiae and circumstances of Communist East Germany in 1989: the difficulties obtaining gas, a fascination with unavailable Western products, names like Worker Unity Street, and the paranoia surrounding border crossings. Since Michael, in his forties, is from West Germany, the two girls, concerned that they might be suspected of trying to flee to the West if they approached the border in his bright red Volkswagen, decide to take the train into Czechoslovakia, heading south from Dresden to Prague. This allows the unwanted Adam to offer his services, first to guide Michael to the border crossing, then to meet the girls in Prague when Michael is delayed at passport control, and even to offer them his car to sleep in, since only Michael has the money to pay for a hotel. Resented by the others, the ever-helpful Adam thus becomes functional to the trip. Here he is, just before the Czech border, deliberately playing on Michael’s fear of East German officialdom:

Between Altenberg and Zinnwald …Adam drove off at a rest stop. Two men were hunkered down at a table, one of whom…was staring directly at him as if he recognized him.
Michael followed Adam into the woods. They stood side by side as they peed down the slope….
“I’ve still got one of Evelyn’s bags with me,” Michael said, not turning his head.
“That’s not a good idea.”
“You think?”
“Yep.”
“So what should I do?”
“It may be too late to do anything.”
“You think they may be taking pictures?”
“Those two guys are on discipline detail, they have to picnic here day after day.”
“Merde,” Michael said.

Supposedly, Michael is holidaying with his cousin Mona as a preliminary step to a marriage of convenience that would allow her to leave East Germany, but Adam has sensed that Michael now has something going with Evelyn. Suspicions about the nature of romantic entanglements mesh with paranoia about informers and border guards. The rivalry for the beautiful Evelyn becomes a rivalry between East and West, with Michael missing no opportunity to underline the superiority and wealth of a world where “you live better and longer” and Adam insisting that he lacks nothing under a Communist regime that has “always taken good care of us.” The debate becomes urgent with the news that Hungary is about to open its border with Austria. Flight to the West would suddenly be possible, perhaps easy.

Schulze has a light touch, keeping his prose straightforward and exciting interest by starting each new chapter with a narrative leap that often has us confused and intrigued about what has happened in the interim. Leaving Adam to sleep in his car while they move to a Prague hotel, Michael and the girls give their stalker the slip by departing at dawn; however, since Adam knows that their ultimate destination is the house of an old client of his on Lake Balaton, a Hungarian vacation destination not far from the Austrian border, it is easy enough for him to follow. Meanwhile, in a service station, a girl in damp clothes begs Adam for a lift, claiming she has just survived a failed attempt to swim to freedom across the Danube. Can he smuggle her into Hungary in the trunk of his car?

In character, Adam insists that Katja, as she is called, first launder her clothes and dress in a way that doesn’t offend his eye. The two put up a tent together. Katja thoughtfully finds a new and superior box for his turtle. As every romantic comedy requires, there is now a rival on each side of the novel’s central relationship. Inevitably, Evelyn runs into the pair when they go swimming on arrival at the Hungarian lake. Insisting that she just wants “to be left alone,” Adam’s girlfriend is not unsusceptible to jealousy.

As the group settles down in their friends’ house on the lakeside, Schulze’s plot becomes bewilderingly but believably complex. Thousands of East German vacationers are delaying their return home to see if Hungary really will open its border to Austria and thus to West Germany; there is an atmosphere of expectation. Our group also stays longer than planned. Nevertheless, when Michael starts to share a bed with Evelyn, Mona abruptly returns to East Germany; evidently it was marriage she wanted with Michael, not a ticket to freedom. The sudden imperative of a choice between East and West now becomes a test of love. Michael, anxious to return to his job in Hamburg, wants Evelyn to commit to joining him; she hangs back. However, when their car is broken into and passports stolen, it is he who is reluctant to make a romantic flight across the border without papers. Like Mona, Evelyn wants passion, not Western money. Meanwhile, Adam is invited to tailor clothes for their Hungarian hosts, including his former client, the lovely Pepi, her amorous mother, Frau Angyal, and a decidedly flamboyant friend:

He sat down on the windowsill, pulled a cigar from his shirt pocket, gave its trimmed end a quick check, and lit it. As he blew the first smoke out of the window, the three women had already lined up in front of him.

It is a situation bound to increase Evelyn’s jealousy as she worries, making love to Michael, that Adam, camping in the garden outside, may be listening.

The only person absolutely clear in her mind about what she wants is Katja. “To go some place where things function,” she declares, “where you can live reasonably. I would keep on trying, over and over, or I’d throw myself out the window.” Her reward will be a place in Michael’s car, and possibly heart, when he grows impatient with Evelyn (Easterners have no sense of responsibility to work commitments, he grumbles) and heads home. No sooner has the rival gone and the inevitable reconciliation with Adam taken place than Evelyn changes position: denied a place in college by the Communists because she was a rebel at high school, she has no future in the East; now that the border is opening, she wants to go West and study. If Adam loves her, he will follow.

This reversal is the novel’s master stroke. Adam likes his life in the East. With “powerful girlfriends who need a good tailor,” he has no need to toe the political line. Well off and at ease, he enjoys the upper hand in this relationship with a younger woman; following Evelyn to Hungary and accepting her fling with Michael, he has shown his love, but without risking anything. Now he hesitates. Her ideas of freedom are childish, he objects, she just isn’t thinking. Evelyn demands:

“Why don’t you want to go across?”
“Why should I want to?”
“Then you’re not thinking! I could say whoever doesn’t want to go across has never done any real thinking.”
“Why should I have to think about it if I don’t even want to go across?”
“Why should I have to think about it if I don’t even want to stay here? Do you have any idea just how arrogant you’ve become, how narrow-minded.”

Eventually the confusion between love and politics becomes so great that Adam despairingly demands, “Do you have any idea what we’re talking about?”

Nothing would have been easier for Schulze than to have wound up his tale at the moment, comic yet solemn, when Adam capitulates, abandons the safe life he has built himself in the East, and drives his girlfriend west in his ancient Wartburg. But the story has another eighty pages to run. In a hotel in Austria, the two find, among the many curiosities of the West, a Bible on the bedside table and read, for the first time, the story of the Fall. A long, rather forced analogy is set up between their journey and Adam and Eve’s flight from a protected paradise to a dangerous world where anything can happen. But if the comedy and fluency largely go out of the novel at this point, Schulze is courageous in exploring the effect of the couple’s move on their relationship. While Evelyn enjoys Western gadgetry and is excited to enroll at the university, Adam loses all his confidence, poise, and charm; nobody needs a bespoke tailor in the West; people buy clothes off the rack. Not only has he lost his source of income and social status, but he is disoriented by the abundance that Western capitalism thrives on. Meeting up with Katja again, Evelyn complains:

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SproutArt
William Giraldi, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2011
For him there’s too much of everything. Too many words, too many dresses, too many pants, too much chocolate, too many cars—instead of being glad that there is finally enough of everything, he says: Too much, too many, an inflation of stuff that buries everything else, the essential things, the real things.

Added to this is the anxiety of watching communism collapse back home without being able to participate. After the Wall comes down, Adam returns to his apartment in the East only to find it has been ransacked; the album recording his sartorial achievements has been torn up by vandals. Aware that his bridges are burned, he returns to Evelyn, who has discovered she is pregnant, but is not sure whether by Adam or Michael. The story closes on a somber note with the two moving into a shared apartment and beginning a new life full of uncertainty. If the most entertaining part of the novel is over well before the end, the last pages have a seriousness that lifts the story out of the realm of easy comedy.

Immediately after crossing the border into Austria and the West, Adam remarks, “It’s like I’m at a carnival, except the Ferris wheel and shooting galleries are missing.” In William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters, such entertainments are always conspicuously present, complete with funfair razzmatazz. “I met her on the Ferris wheel at the local bazaar,” the narrator Charles Homar tells us of his girlfriend, Gillian Lee. In the first of many improbable adventures Homar climbs sixty feet up the malfunctioning wheel to rescue this “tantric Mary Poppins,” entirely alone at the top:

Her odd beauty was the injurious kind, radioactive—it had physical effects on me, my anatomy in quake…. She was as if the word gustatory had grown legs and got a dress.

Very soon, the two are living together and planning to marry, their happiness marred only by “her ex-beau of four years, Marvin Gluck—Virginia State trooper, boots and all.” Marvin stalks the couple and threatens, “If you marry that baboon I’ll end all our lives.” Anxious, Charles decides to strike first, consulting his old friend Groot, a Navy SEAL, about how to commit the perfect murder. Groot appears throughout the book, always ready to equip his old friend with appropriate weaponry, in this case a combat knife, though on other occasions there will be semiautomatic rifles and explosives. In a flashback Charles remembers one of the first times Groot came to his rescue:

Back in high school, for instance, when a lacrosse-playing orangutan falsely accused me of attempting to look up his girlfriend’s denim skirt at a keg party, never mind that her legs were barely mammalian. He smacked the spittle from my mouth and I was too frightened to fight back. When Groot saw this across the yard from his vodka vantage point, he charged over and chopped the goon across the throat, at which point said goon gagged himself red and nearly fainted from air loss.

This comic-strip parody of action narrative, underscored by compulsive alliteration (vodka vantage, charged chopped, goon gagged), runs alongside a send-up of the liberal conscience; Homar is forever defending the dignity of women (“Women are not walking pussies…I’m a Democrat from New England”) and predictably condemning ugly urbanization:

The acres of green in my town had been bought by cloven-hoofed condo developers and strip malls; the piss-colored McDonald’s arches and the mom-and-pop-killing Walmart smoldered on the horizon like Chernobyl; the twenty-screen theater and the A&P so gargantuan you have to take a break in the produce aisle both replaced a baseball field where children like me went to dream and dream again.

In this monstrous world it’s hardly surprising that people behave in monstrous fashion. Charles drives down to Virginia to eliminate his rival, only to discover, on shining a “slim flashlight” into the man’s home, that

There was Marvin, lounged back in an armchair, looking at me with yawning eyes. The gray cat was arched on his shoulder, licking the bullet hole nestled in the side of his skull…. On the baby-blue curtains behind him, his blood was splattered better than a Jackson Pollock.

Marvin has killed himself for love just in time to save Charles from murdering for love.

Giraldi’s prose never ceases to draw attention to itself, seeking comedy by juxtaposing a high density of worn-out jargon from genre fiction with the most heterogeneous cultural references: “I’ve been ripping off everybody from the Sumerians to the Beats, with lengthy stops in ninth century BC Greece and sixteenth century Spain,” the narrator boasts. Charles, in fact, is a “memoirist of mediocre fame”—Homar is his arch pseudonym—who earns a living transforming his life into farce in a column for the New Nation Weekly. Chapter by chapter, what we are reading is not so much his experience as his weekly performances in search of fame and cash. Since everybody in the book is an avid reader of the New Nation Weekly, action in each new episode can be influenced by the characters’ response to already published episodes. So when Gillian leaves Charles in chapter two, it may be because she has read in the Weekly that he was planning to kill her ex. Abandoned, Charles is desperately unhappy, but still trapped in a stylistic straitjacket that obliges him to be funny:

Baffled, I dipped pita bread into my hubris and then declared that hummus was the fatal flaw that got Agamemnon stabbed in his bathtub. I thought about carving Gillian’s name across my pecs with a not-sharp steak knife, like Marvin Gluck. So this was what that maniac had been raving about.

Gillian had long been fascinated by stories of the giant squid, and having discovered that a certain Jacob Jacobi is planning an expedition to capture the first-ever live specimen, she has run off to join him. Armed by his friend Groot, Charles drives to Maine, fails to persuade Gillian to return to him, and consequently fires his automatic rifle into the hull of his rival’s boat, something that will allow him to set the next installment of his memoirs in prison where his cellmate is obsessed with the Loch Ness Monster.

That other monsters will join Giraldi’s list is an easy prediction. After a surprisingly brief stay in jail, Charles is off on an expedition to capture a Sasquatch—the huge, hairy humanoid of the Pacific Northwest—in Washington State. He has heard that Gillian and Jacobi have successfully recovered a giant squid, and hopes this analogous feat will impress. Later, he is invited to witness an alien spaceship landing near Seattle. Meanwhile, his fidelity to Gillian is challenged by a beautiful lawyer who pays off prison guards to get him alone in the visiting room and, in New Jersey, a “gargantuan superhero” who tries to force Charles to share group sex with “two Asiatic scholar slaves,” near-identical Chinese lesbians both called Mimi. While luring Charles with their lovemaking, the two discuss his memoirs, lexical choices, and the morality of writing about other people’s lives without their permission.

It gets tiresome. Not that Busy Monsters doesn’t have some good laughs, but the pressure to be funny in every line takes its toll and the constant discussion of the book’s style—“I’ve been told my sentences salsa,” Homar remarks at one point—soon grates. Toward the end, perhaps aware of the problem, Giraldi injects a little seriousness: returning to Connecticut, Homar receives a call from his mother, who tells him his father has died. Obliged to narrate ordinary scenes of mourning, Homar is at a loss:

And how should that conversation have gone exactly? Some souped-up suburban realism is what it was, with lines like “Are you doing okay, Mom?” and “Will you be all right with money?”

In the night, hearing moans from along the hallway, he sneaks out of his bedroom, imagining what? “My mother in sorceress garb trying to converse with the spirits; my mother on her mattress with a battery-operated pleasure utensil.” What he finds is “altogether different”:

My mother standing at the window, pondering the moon, embracing my father’s bathrobe, her mouth and nose pressed into the collar, she and the bathrobe swaying, ever so slightly, as if to the music of a slow dance.

This one moment of real intimacy, as the young man gets an insight into the romance behind his parents’ marriage, proves fatal to the rest of the novel: Homar resumes his “Gillian-inspired jaunt,” once more armed to the teeth by Groot and obliged now to spend the night in a haunted hotel; but at this point it is rather as if we were being invited by giggling children to watch Ace Ventura or Hot Shots! over and over and over; however indulgent you’re feeling, it seems plain silly.

Busy Monsters comes with a generous compliment from Harold Bloom on the jacket: the book, he remarks, “is rammed with life. A kind of elegiac intensity, remarkable for so young a man, pervades its harmonies.” Reading the novel’s 282 pages I repeatedly wondered what had induced Bloom to make that statement; it’s true that Giraldi’s prose is full of life, but then so are many other things that have nothing to do with good writing. As for the author’s age, rather than marveling that a man in his early thirties could write Busy Monsters, one is surprised that anyone over fifteen would want to. Such are the curiosities of Western culture that Schulze’s Adam and Evelyn, and many other fugitives from tyranny, will have to get used to.

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