DH: About midstream through this exceptional novel, I realized something obvious that maybe I should have noticed before. None of its central characters have to be at a desk at 9AM or on a factory floor at 8AM. Indeed, neither avant-film director Mimi nor her sometime estranged daughter Violet, nor the legendary, lesbian, new wave writer, Eleanor, reaching for the last chapter of her maturity, who is texted by everyone else as “Picasso”, nor Romeo Byron, who defines cinematic sexuality in our age and overtures this story already dead from an orgy of self-destruction, probably, is obliged to keep any commitment to anybody that they don’t have the impulse to keep in these near breathless, cocaine-powdered pages.
But who the fuck cares? I couldn’t put this narrative down. It’s not even clear that characters who have died are actually dead. They probably are, but you can’t be absolutely sure. They’re artists. Do artists die? Or do they escape somehow into their texts, film frames or by loping slowly around the next city block, their final fate fastidiously unclear. I loved that. Like I loved that Jonathan would put the name of my beloved cat friend, Little Stinky, R.I.P., in a forthcoming novel. Thanks Jonathan, because you have the power. In a material age that respects only money and a general leveling-down, that refuses to take any kind of transcendence seriously, we have the artists and writers of this novel, making magic that’s outside the rim.
Toxicology flashes forward and back with dazzling agility. But you always know exactly where you are in the story. JH leaves tags, names, nouns, an atmosphere, that’s distinct to her great tableaux. So when you’ve hopscotched out of one narrative space into another and maybe back again you never lose your place. In JH’s storyteller’s brain is the true compass. Likewise for the narrative voice shifts, sometimes a first person, sometimes in third, Hagedorn uses whatever works at the time, not having to explain or set up anything. Except for the opening page or two with its death of film star Romeo B, there’s no obvious scaffolding, nothing clumsy. The illusion is that anything goes. It’s an open writing discipline.
Emily/Eleanor: The Guys have recently paid some attention to Stewart O’Nan’s forthcoming Emily, Alone, about last days as a state of mind in the person of Emily, a cloth coat Republican spinning out her waning recollections in a smallish Pennsylvania town. There are no small lives or all human lives are small. Take your pick. It’s an extraordinarily moving portrait of a decent old lady.
In Toxicology’s Eleanor, doyen of a fading literary modernism, we have anything but a modest, retiring figure. And Eleanor is no Republican. My gosh, are we so partisan these days that even our literary characters have party labels? But in O’Nan’s Emily Alone and Hagedorn’s Toxicology are two of the most moving presentations of what it means to reach the swan song, especially for a woman, that I have ever read.
That makes them true descendants of Hemingway’s Old Man and The Sea, no matter what the gulfs are in style and gender. Look forward to them. Emily, Alone pubs in March and Toxicology pubs in April. Both are from Viking. Same editor? No way!