Book Review: Emerald City (Brian Birnbaum)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
The publication of Emerald is an impressive event: the first by Dead Rabbits Dead Rabbits Press. Birnbaum is the founder and according to co-founder Katie Rainey,"We didn't want to make those mistakes on other people's books, so Brian generously offered for his novel to be the guinea pig."A second reason for the publication is the emphasis on giving insight into Deaf culture, which Birnbaum, a child of Deaf adults (CODA), is familiar with. Emerald can be looked at with two eyes, then – what offers readers in general and what it has to contribute to disability literature.
For what it has to give to the general reading public, I am going to quote the description from the book's back cover that introduces the book's three major characters.
Set in Seattle, Emerald follows Benison Behrenreich, the hearing son of deaf royalty. His father, CEO of a multimillion-dollar daf access agency, has bribed Myriadal College officials for Benison's spot on their powerhouse basketball team, where he struggles to prove himself and compensate for his father's sins. Julia Paolanttonio has recently lost her father to a drug relapse. Her mother ships her off to live with her estranged granddad, Johnny Raciti, during the summer before her freshman year at Myriadal. Johnny offers her a deal: bring him Peter Fosch – tormented college dropout and the best drug runner west of the Cascades – and he'll give Julia's freshly widowed mother a board seat on his mobbed-up securities firm.
I use the blurb's own words not because the description is inaccurate about the characters – it isn't – but because if the potential reader depends upon the cover's writing style as a guide for what they find inside, they are in for the proverbial rude awakening. Dead Rabbits is a press that is positioning itself as the publisher of edgy, off-the-beaten path literature, and when it comes to writing style, that is what they get. Were not set in the putative present, it might well qualify as dystopian literature.
There is no doubt about Birnbaum's ability to use language. It is on constant display in the novel. When he chooses to, he is able to give the reader an easily comprehensible visual description, while still using originality in the words he chooses:
Perched on a browning slope, Bay Heights High's supports lung like schist legs over its hillside seat, facing opposite the water. Built on arid land where fell little rain and fierce sunlight, Bay Heights was idyllic with a view toward the urbane: from classroom windows students gazed out over the city…
Few readers would have difficulty with this passage. The clear language and visual imagery make it easy to take in. But this is not typical of most of the book. It is also probably the most charitable description that the city of Seattle receives. More representative of the book is:
Benison was having a day. He'd ripped from his new piece, purchased at Pike Place Market, the blown glass packed to the brim with Jonesy's ripe bud pipe, and—a world ablaze, a world in weed's luster. Time to play some videojuegos…
Most of Emerald is narrated in a sort of flippant, hip patois that will be very reminiscent for some readers of Alex, the narrator of Anthony Burgess', A Clockwork Orange. This is strongest around Peter and his drug-running colleagues, but it pervades the entire book regardless of which of the three protagonists the book in shadowing. Again, this is not because of a lack of craft on Birnbaum's part. In the novel's dialogue, he shows an ability to vary the word choice and syntax of the conversationalist who come from a range of backgrounds, ethnicities and even social classes. Conversations among Benison Behrenreich at his basketball teammates on and off the court give Birnbaum plenty of opportunity for that. Nevertheless, there is a certain underlying sense of cynicism beneath virtually every conversation.
The narrative voice is not the only point of commonality with Burgess' book. Birnbaum's three main characters are just about as likeable as Alex and his droogs. If there is a character in the novel with a humane bone in his or her body, I couldn't spot it. While that in no way detracts from the literary quality of the book -Humbert Humbert – isn't particularly likeable either, it is likely to distance many readers from them. One can only conclude that is purposeful.
Emerald is divided into three parts. This is not, as one might be tempted to think, a reflection of the three main characters and their stories. Each of the characters is involved in all of the parts. Birnbaum's structure within these parts deliberately keeps the reader off kilter, reflecting the disorderly nature of the world that its residents inhabit. The first section begins and ends in 2012, occasionally dipping into late 2011. The second jumps back to 2010 for many of the scenes, but it would be a mistake to think of this as a traditional flashback technique. It is more akin to the Philip Dick's sense of"time out of joint– or a Vonnegut character"spastic in time.– The final section returns, for the most part, to 2012 with the last few scenes edging into January, 2013. The scenes within the three sections contain headings such as "August 14th, 2010 → September 13th, 2010" but they are not sequenced in traditional chronology and they jump back and forth between the main characters. Some scenes are even given in a reverse linear order. Nor do the scenes follow any one of the main characters for too long. Cut into these scenes occasionally are other voices – a newspaper article, a letter, an email.
All of this helps to keep the reader feeling as off balance as the characters, but it also has to do the work of somehow moving the story along. There are two poles between which the entire novel swing and that is Behrenreich's involvement with basketball. The very first scene of the book ushers him into his role as a player on the Myriadal College basketball team, the last dated scene includes his final basketball game.
One might ask why Birnhaum has chosen these characters to write about. It certainly more than a case of simply throwing characters together to see what happens. He is also not asking us to try to understand or empathize with them. Peter Fosch certainly had about as horrendous an upbringing as one could conjure, but there is absolutely nothing in Peter's actions or attitudes that is going to have anyone cheering for him. Peter's disdain for his social worker probably reflects the disdain that he would have for any reader that would have sympathy for him.
A clue might be in the William Gaddis' quote that opens the novel"…we serve them better than we know, if only we exist for them to reject…accepting one thing, they must reject the other."Do those of us who travel with Peter, Benison and Julia through this book need them in order to justify our own lives? Is that why books like Emerald are necessary? It's a tempting hypothsis, but it is also one that is complicated by the novel's final sentence – which I won't disclose.
If there is one aspect of the book that was disappointing to me as someone with an interest in disability literature, it is that, coming from the pen of a CODA, the book did not delve very deeply into Deaf culture, as I had hoped. It's true that Birnbaum's Deaf characters are neither stereotypes nor used as metaphors and that is a plus, but neither do they give us any real insight into the Deaf community. Like most of the book's characters, they are either involved in shady dealings or simply not very high on the Miss Congeniality scale. I'd hoped for something more.
It's always good news to learn of a press like Dead Rabbits that is receptive to the work of disabled authors or authors who write about disability. Brian Birnbaum's Emerald is an audacious premier. While it may make some readers uncomfortable, those for whom it hits the mark will have found a press that delivers the edgy and provocative work that they are looking for. Good luck to them.
Title: Emerald City