by Andrei Codrescu
ISBN: 0002005794

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A Review of: Wakefield
by Michael Harris

The best candidate we have for the real Doctor Faustus may be the Johannes Faust who obtained his B.A. in divinity at Heidelberg shortly after the 16th century wrenched into gear. Imprisoned for one of many nasty deeds, Faust promised to remove the hair on the face of a gullible chaplain without the aid of a razor. A salve of arsenic was provided, removing both hair and flesh in one. Half a millennium later, writers still eat that one up.
Not one to miss out on a good thing, Andrei Codrescu's latest novel, Wakefield, joins the ranks of Faustian remakes. Wakefield purports to play off Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1835 story concerning one man's deal with the devil. But Faust lore cannot be refashioned without a nod at the familiar ghosts of Goethe, Marlowe and the rest of the gang. Indeed, part of Codrescu's project here is the negotiation of past architecture (literary, psychological and physical) as it butts horns with the desires of the autonomous artist.
A tandem between tradition and new talent is the desired outcome. Wakefield (the novel's hero as well as its title) references Faust and The Master and Margarita in the opening pages, even while he pours the devil a second (expensive) whiskey and negotiates a year-long lease on his life. Well-steeped in the classics, Wakefield offers his soul to the devil as payment for a life badly lived. "You're assuming, dear sir," replies the Diablo, "that you have one."
This is a fantasy in which the soul as currency' bargain is called into question by a fearsome problem: Do we-so digitized, virtualized and refashioned beyond any biblical comprehension-even have a soul to barter with? At any rate, the devil doesn't want it if we do, and demands of Wakefield "a thing, pure thingness, something that proves you found this so-called true life. Beyond that, the vortex of terror and self-doubt my simple request has created in you is adequate compensation."
Armed with nothing but a pair of contrapuntal attributes-namely, chutzpah and anxiety-Wakefield thus launches on the great American hunt for "authenticity." A soul, or, rather, its objective correlative, is the prize. Thus, Codrescu indeed welds the classic and the novel in this neo-Faustian tale. R.P. Blackmur called this infidelity between old and new "wooing both ways." And Wakefield is nothing if not a wooer.
In fact, our hero inexplicably gets laid at every port he calls in. Keeping in mind that he is a character on the run from the Devil's intentions, his attractiveness may be nothing more than the "emergency-lust" syndrome that bound those archetypes of romance, Keannu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, in the motion picture Speed.
As he skips from American city to American city, all of them fictional but recognizable, Wakefield toys with the heartstrings of any woman in a fifty-foot radius. (There is a pair of lesbians near the end, granted, who manage to plug their noses against his pheromones.) So why waste pages on love when we're here to watch the Devil's Race? Wakefield, a divorced loner, has his own misgivings on romance. "It makes people euphoric and delusional."
Perhaps love will lead him to the better self he so earnestly chases? Fat chance. At a West Coast stop on Wakefield's speech tour, he meets and has sex with an embarrassingly wealthy woman named Sandina ("I named myself after the Sandinistas. You know, Nicaraguan rebels. Youthful folly.")
In a devilish inversion of Adam and Eve's exit from Eden, Sandina and Wakefield enter her garden, unabashed by their nakedness, and goof around in her aromatic steam bath. Instead of an apple, Sandina feeds Wakefield champagne. He steals the fancy soap from her bathroom as thanks and hightails it in the morning. Onto the next city, the next haphazard conquest!
Meanwhile, the ex-wife (complete with runaway daughter) nags at Wakefield's consciousness from the sidelines-"real life" impatiently waits for the midlife crisis to run its course.
And Codrescu's reader, likewise, waits for something even vaguely concrete to serve as rudder through Wakefield's exploits. The contemplation of architecture pops up repeatedly, a catchall metaphor for any design or structure. But this novel fails to provide a real emotional synergy. We are lost on a sea of bon mots and epigrams. At times, Wakefield seems to be as contrived a catalogue of philosophy as the infamously encyclopedic Sophie's World. It is equal parts forced and charming, though. There may even be a camouflaged mannerism at play.
That said, the project is an unwieldy one and Codrescu does not shy away from its complexities. How to create a synthesis from the American mulch? In one city, Wakefield befriends a billionaire from ex-communist Hungary; in another, he meets an Imaginary Archeologist (who discovered the cat-run city of Gatobolis). Topics range from Bill Clinton's penis to the Idiot's Guide books to bombings in Belgrade with only consistency of tone to assure us we haven't picked up a different novel each time.
And Codrescu does not allow poor Wakefield to take refuge in any of those idiosyncratic cul-de-sacs, either. The story chugs forward. In Douglas Coupland's essay "Under the Big Black Sun" the iconoclast writes, "There is no other Past on which we can rely. There is only Whatever Comes Next, and that is what we believe in." Surely that thoroughly Western sentiment is at the root of this novel's anxiety.
While Wakefield flounders about, lecturing spontaneously (for exorbitant fees) to executives about Art, America and Architecture, we begin to wonder whether survival and change are, indeed, the perennial American achievements. Marcel Duchamp's caustic quip leaps to mind: "The only works of art produced by America are its plumbing fixtures and its bridges." Codrescu would appear to agree.
Our paunchy, pale Wakefield blinks his way through a hundred unique buildings, each an orgy of quotes from past buildings ("I believe that buildings have multiple, borrowed souls," muses a journalist in the novel). But Wakefield, like Coupland, believes only in Whatever Comes Next. He longs for an architecture without architecture. "I want a house that's mobile but stationary, situated in a safe place without borders."
True to its content, Wakefield the novel wrestles the same paradox as Wakefield the hero. The novel is pulled taut between, say, Hawthorne's "Wakefield" and Codrescu's own vision. As a longtime National Public Radio commentator, a poet, essayist and professor at Louisiana State University, Codrescu has honed that vision of his to provide us with an x-ray of America's celluloid and silicone. Yet perhaps too much is sacrificed here? Codrescu desperately portrays "the now" at the expense of narrative structure. The book dazzles, to be sure, but does it boast the staying power of Codrescu's bestselling The Blood Countess?
Part Gothic remake, part Medieval Romance, part Parable for Troubled Times and one tiny part Psychological Thriller, Wakefield is a complicated, dirty cocktail. Perhaps it could have been more carefully presented, but there is no denying Codrescu's signature taste.
He has a habit of enlisting phantasmagoric casts, to cut through the pretense of daily minutiae and reveal what lies beneath. Of his hero, Codrescu writes, "He's convinced that though reality may be a construct, it's built on something else, something authentic, and that he can discover it." Here's hoping.

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