The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


After hearing his interview with Terry Gross on FRESH AIR, I immediately put in a request for Scott Spencer's WILLING. I knew nothing about Spencer, and I only learned from the radio program that Spencer had written the novel ENDLESS LOVE (on which the Brooke Shields film was based--but Gross was quick to say that the novel was SO MUCH BETTER than the film) and also A SHIP MADE OF PAPER, which I'd heard of but never read. The novel is a first-person narrative from the point of view of a 37-year-old freelance writer/loser whose girlfriend cheats on him and who "lucks" into, through a magical uncle, an all-expenses-paid, $135,000 two-week "sex tour" of Nordic countries. Avery Jankowsky, the narrator, is a self-pitying, self-deluding creep, and the majority of the meat of the novel consists of the nerdy, nebbishy Jankowsky's interactions with the hypermasculine members of the sex tour. Jankowsky lucks into a very lucrative contract to write a book on this tour, and so he spends most of the tour telling himself that he's just there to stealthily take notes for his book and NOT to take part in the sex aspects of the tour, but of course his resolve crumbles. It's a short book, and Spencer utilizes several pretty seriously contrived plot devices to move the story along (some of which don't really go anywhere). I found the novel pretty disappointing, in the end. The prose is magnificent: Spencer is an effective stylist, but in constructing Jankowsky's voice Spencer really shows his talent: Jankowsky is a writer, and judging from the narration of the novel and one excerpt of his writing a pretty good one, and I ended up surprised that Jankowsky wasn't more successful given the really sharp observations he makes. This, of course, plays back into character construction, underscoring the fact that Jankowsky's failures aren't due to lack of talent but rather to character flaws (which are on full display in the novel). As a character sketch it's great. But as a novel that one is drawn to because of its sensationalistic plot and setting, it's kind of a failure. We want more: Spencer must have done his research into this sordid world, and into the vilest kinds of testosterone-fueled behavior that capitalism can enable, and we just end up wanting more of this.



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