“Walter Benjamin would have loved this guy Tom Knox. In our age of mechanical reproduction, for starters, Tom Knox is an immaculate work of artifice. He keeps cranking out books even though he doesn’t exist. Tom Knox, you see, is the pen name for Sean Thomas, a peripatetic British novelist, journalist, blogger, and travel writer. What’s more, The Babylon Rite, the fourth novel by ‘Tom Knox,’ works overtime to live up to Benjamin’s dictum that all great works of literature must either dissolve a genre or invent one.”
“Over the years, I stared at her whenever I got the chance, drawn by the way a room’s energy inevitably centered on her. She had thick grey hair, chopped short, in which she was always losing her hands. She could silence a room with those hands. I witnessed countless moments when she would interrupt someone then outline the ways in which that person was very, very wrong. And I found myself feeling both admiration and sympathy for those who had been silenced.” Karen Shepard remembers her grandmother.
Alas, whimsicality was the name of the coffee-making game, at least for a young, unsure woman. It disarmed terrifyingly angry or brusque customers. It endeared you to them by summing you up in a palatable way – you were dependably off-kilter and smiley; people looked forward to seeing you. They thought of you as their special barista, and the more charmingly odd you acted, the more you occupied this nook in their brain. You got pretty good tips, and you felt, in an otherwise frighteningly vague time, appreciated and talented. But that took its toll. Eventually my smile hung rather thin. I found myself regarding my attitude like my cell phone bill, hoping that some bubbliness – another word I detested – would rollover into these increasingly embittered months. And I felt like Hochschild’s flight attendants, who “spoke of their smiles as being on them but not of them…the smiles are a part of her work, a part that requires her to coordinate self and feeling so that the work seems to be effortless. To show that the enjoyment takes effort is to do the job poorly.
I saw (on Twitter) an assertion by no less a person than Joyce Carol Oates that reviews should include a minimum of opinion. I am not sure what all of this means for my ethics or my prospects as a book reviewer. But I’ll say it: It is my opinion that this novel is awful, and I am aesthetically or philosophically opposed to it.
You do get emotionally involved with people, even though as a journalist you’re not supposed to. But as a human being, how can you not? Particularly people who had difficult, tragic, poignant lives. But there are also people that you just wish you had known. And, of course, the painful irony is that you’re only getting to know them by virtue of the fact that it’s too late.
Read alone, the less outrageous stories to be found in this facetiously titled “guide” could be said to contain nothing otherworldly at all. The young couple in “The Ages” measure their own life trajectories against those of the elders in their neatly ordered neighborhood, and the boy in ‘Welcome to Your Life and Congratulations’ deals with death for the first time after his cat is hit by a car. These stories are not out of place, though; indeed, their inclusion is what makes the collection as a whole so alluring, so uncomfortable.