Going Native

Going Native

by Stephen Wright

Wylie Jones is set: lovely wife, beautiful kids, barbecues in the backyard of his tastefully decorated suburban Chicago house with good friends.

Set, but not satisfied.

  • Language: English
  • Category: Fiction
  • Rating: 3.56
  • Pages: 320
  • Publish Date: April 12th 2005 by Vintage
  • Isbn10: 140007942X
  • Isbn13: 9781400079421

What People Think about "Going Native"

When her exhausted husband finally walks in, exchanges greetings, pours himself drinks and listens to Tommy-Gerri banter, not long thereafter Rho sends Wylie out to pick up charcoal for the grill. Then when Tommy and Rho go off to wiggle a funky dance next to the garage, Wylie asks Gerri, Would you excuse me for a minute. Curiously, Rho always pictured Wylie as an average kind of guy - go to work, play with the kids, watch shoot, chase, crash movies on TV. Although Rho had to admit, as when after a shower, a naked, dripping wet Wylie chased her through the house snapping a towel, he never knew when to stop! The next seven chapters are separate short stories linked only by the appearance, usually popping up toward the end, of a stolen 69 Ford Galaxie and its driver, a heavyset indistinct figure with his pale gray eyes, a man starting out as Wylie Jones but assuming different names, including the name of that suburban house guest, Tommy Hanna. By the way, Mister CD owned that Ford Galaxie Wylie made off with serves him right, the woman-abusing sleazeball! In order of their appearance: psychopathic hitchhiker wielding a knife, hotel owner obsessed with making his own combination horror and sci-fi movie, sexual pervert filming unsuspecting couples as his contribution to the flourishing XXX hardcore porno industry, two female sexual mystics dealing with the fantasies of Las Vegas brides and grooms (one of these gals provides a high point in the novel by her recognition that love from the heart is guaranteed indestructible), a husband and wife, two Hollywood actors, travel upriver to Borneos heart of darkness only to return to LA to discover the deeper meaning of raw, senseless violence, a much married beauty living the high life in her oceanfront mansion.

(*I am not a busy man.) So. By way of forestalling my review of this great book, and to avoid making plain the fact that I don't really know what to say about it, I will begin by reviewing its blurbs. Yes, critics and authors of 1994 were evidently so blindsided by the twisted richness of Stephen Wright's hyper-stylized prose that they felt compelled to respond in kind, with some hilariously colorful attempts at describing the novel's disturbing, media-crazed perspective on life in the Gen-X fast lane. Sounds fucking awesome, but then you read the book and realize there are two problems: (1) Coover rips off several phrases directly from Wright (not just the quoted one about vampires, but also "monster image feed" and the kicker about the good guys being the scariest ones of all) and (2) Coover is kind of overstating the violence and horror of the book (a recurring theme of these blurbs): there's one serial-killer who appears in only one chapter, the marauding-vampire bit is only a metaphor, and there are in fact a number of "good guys" who remain more or less good (though many of them are women). I mean, there's a fair share of crime, and one of the book's eight chapters concerns a serial killer, and most of the characters are operating under the influence of violent-media saturation, but c'mon, we're not talking about blood-soaked grindhouse gore, we're talking about a very brainy, multitudinous postmodern novel. Maybe I'm being stupidly literal here but I think the blurbist carries a certain responsibility and if you're going to induce people to read a book by saying words about that book then the words should probably make sense on a literal level. This is just a list of items that appear in the novel followed by a faux-clever dirty joke, "red white and blue-balled," that means absolutely nothing in the context of the book. It's no surprise that cyberpunk progenitor William Gibson dug this book: Sure-footed, loose-limbed, lyrical, perverse, and deeply, alarmingly funny, Going Native is just about as dead-on crazy as the American novel so desperately needs to be if the form intends to survive the century. I'll just do one more, from the San Francisco Chronicle, though I could keep going all day, there are so many of these: Daring...a disturbing look into the nether world of American culture....Many of Wright's sentences haunt the reader's mind and demand contemplation....The work of an accomplished writer who may soon be regarded among the top echelon of contemporary American novelists. (In-the-know folks like Mike Reynolds know better, of course.) As for the "nether world of American culture" stuff, I mean, yeah, kind of, but there's gotta be a less annoying way to talk about that aspect of the book. An orgasmic fistfight in the back alley of the American nightmare!) The book's structure would probably land it on Joel's "stories-no-wait-a-novel-no-wait" shelf, an approach that I have complained about on this website before. Hmm. There is one character who pops up in each chapter, linking them all on a literal level; it's possible to view this book as a road novel told from every perspective except the protagonist's. And while you never know quite what you're gonna get when you start a new chapter -- I don't want to get into plot specifics with this book, because part of the fun is the surprise factor of its self-replenishing conceits -- you do figure out at a certain point what kinds of stories you're being told, and the book proceeds as smoothly as a novel. Warm up your parsing muscles, this is a complex motherfucker: The birth was an event of unspeakable proportions, a wild ride among significances memory couldn't recapture without damage: the cosmos was knotted in ligatures of pain; unravel the threads, liberate the stars whose blossoms promise ease from the agony of time; astounding the revelatory force of torment that carried her, teensy squeaking her, up and up, through ceiling and roof, out into space, out of space, to the cold chamber of the dark queen with the patchwork face of old nightmares who leaned from her throne to tell Jessie something she did not want to hear, and as the thin blue lips began to move, Jessie shrank back in horror, spinning down onto a point so dense the soul's implosion was averted only by a nova cry of life surfacing, and she opened her wondering eyes upon the holy puckered countenance of a new daughter, in whose glow the visions of her mad journey toward this sight began evaporating as cleanly as morning dew. That's not necessarily representative -- it's probably the longest sentence in the book, and by necessity it's a bit ungainly -- but it shows you how far and how deep Wright's use of language goes to illustrate his themes. Even a second-rate DeLillo novel like Mao II has 2,300 ratings -- 15x as many as Wright's masterpiece. And to re-read this one; though I basically never re-read books (already way more new-to-me stuff than one lifetime can accommodate), I'd be disappointed in myself if I never re-read this, both to gain a fuller picture of how its individual pieces fit together and to re-engage on a micro level with Wright's gloriously complex sentencework. (FYI: Prominent/weirdo critic Larry McCaffery places Going Native all the way at #13 on his list of the top 100 fiction books of the 20th century.

If aesthetics of pop culture cinema were applied to the everyday life the reality would've turned into a nightmare.

The big strength of this book, at least according to me, is the frenetic, chaotic-yet-precise quality of the writing; the prose perfectly matches the ideas that Wright is trying to get across. I could probably quote all day without finding the really good ones that I failed to mark, but hopefully that selection is illustrative. One more note: somehow the most thematically appropriate and amusing little touch in this book is the repeated extra-level appearances of none other than Jack Nicholson--who could be either more decadent or more American? But most of them I'd rather read than see, because his prose gets that good.

Part Don DeLillo, part David Lynch, part insanity, Wright's nightmarish headtrip of a novel is a dazzling if somewhat confusing (after the halfway point at least) voyage of self-recovery through the dark underbelly of a twisted America.

This is partly due, I assume, to his small output, just four novels in over thirty years: Meditations in Green (1983), M31: A Family Romance (1988), Going Native (1994), and The Amalgamation Polka (2006). So far Ive read Meditations in Green and, more recently, Going Native. Meditations in Green deals centrally with Nam, alternating between chapters taking place during the war and chapters following a veteran after the war. Nam is never mentioned by name in Going Native but the title seems to be a reference to Apocalypse Now, a film which is explicitly quoted by a character at one point (Never get out of the boat.) You could write a whole dissertation just on this possible connection, but suffice to say that Wright seems to be drawing some parallel between wartime Nam and contemporary American society, subverting the idea that Nam ever really ended. In Meditations in Green scenes of nightmarish violence are juxtaposed with surreal humor to paint a searing portrait of the madness of Nam; likewise, the carnivaleque humor of Going Native only amplifies the novels profound existential unease.

It's taken me a while to organise my thoughts on it, and the next book - Ellroy's My Dark Places suffered from being so different it was like reading another language (although I'm fine with it now). I loved the marvellous re-creation of a drugged up night which starts: The smouldering pipe passed between them in a volitionless glide, like an object at a séance, each repetition a re-enactment of their meeting one bright windy afternoon, sizzling white clouds blowing past in pieces, carrying with them but sometimes found it overblown - this sentence carries on: for this one day at least, that late summer malaise of extended-mode lives and wilted options thousands of vacations were designed to avoid. I was a little sceptical of the overblown nature of some of the writing, but Wright knows exactly what hes doing, and by the end I was completely won over, the last two chapters I read on a train back from London (been to a study day) and not even the beautiful woman sat opposite could distract me (for long).

Going Native is a novel of eight interconnected short stories that follow Wylie Jones across the United States after he leaves his family for no apparent reason but to escape the monotony of middle America. Wright's novel is a triumph of storytelling, reflecting an escape from the stifling prison of this American life in eight independent chapter-stories that each contain the ghost and repercussions of a protean character who is both at the center of and completely absent from each piece. Plot is perhaps the most compelling part of this novel, structured with an overarching story that covers the entirety of Jones' journey from within eight cyclical mini-plots that divide the eight chapters into separate miniature snow globes of narrative. Whether through stories of the mainland banality of everyday life, or the recounting of an experience far abroad, these tortured characters can only experience and justify a life through drugs, sex, cash, or violence in an emotional confusion steeped in a perpetual search for the American dream - identified by and almost defined by escape through these very experiences. Perhaps the most blatant of these examples is when, instead of chemically, violently, or sexually leaving their boring lives in chapter seven, Drake and Amanda literally remove themselves from America to examine their personal and spiritual selves in a primal setting. When they return to the United States, they regale their guests at a dinner party with their stories of wonder and adventure while feeding them native foods they brought back none of which they mention eating while they were away and each of their awakening moments are somewhat humbled. And even though the guests "can't believe (Drake and Amanda are) even the same people," it is in Amanda's final moments after the party is slaughtered by Tom Hanna (Wylie) and his new fling Kara that Amanda wonders about all of the things that they went on their spiritual journey to discover.