Friday, March 28, 2014

Bad Teeth, by Dustin Long

Dustin Long and I share a lexicographical aesthetic. In his new novel Bad Teeth, Dustin shows a delight in diction and syntax, which I expected, but I don't know if I expected him to display it so frequently or majestically. Whether it's the hilarious portmanteau color "bleen" or the descriptive "shy suggestion of a mustache," the author's joy in writing is evident in this book.

There's also a delight in ideas. I'm not sure if Long is a fan of Kurt Vonnegut, but Bad Teeth shows us Long employing a technique favored by Vonnegut: putting story ideas within a novel (Long might more directly derive it from Pynchon, based on the references in this book, but I'm less familiar with Pynchon). Vonnegut, who had great success as a short story writer in the heyday of magazine fiction, admitted that he didn't write short stories later in his career because that heyday was long past. So when he got an idea he would just write about it in whatever novel he was working on, attributing it to his alter-ego Kilgore Trout. Long has more than one alter-ego in this sense. He's got Magnus Valison (carried over from his previous novel Icelander, more about which below), the most likely analogue to Trout, but he also peppers Bad Teeth with writers whose stories we learn about along the way. There are stories within stories here. In this sense, Bad Teeth is a novel about how sometimes it's really difficult to explain what something is about.

If I were to offer real criticism of this novel, I would say that there are too many ideas in it. We almost don't get time to stop and think about one before the next one is upon us. Luckily, Long returns to ideas periodically, giving them a new spin that makes what we've already read feel like it was just a warm-up for the real discussion. In this sense, Bad Teeth is a novel about context.

Long has a way of following characters who seem tangential at first but who then play an important part. At first I found this frustrating, but all you have to do is keep reading to rid yourself of that feeling. Not only do these tangents pay off, often plot-wise and always thematically, they are part of the point. In this sense, Bad Teeth is a novel about how we make sense of things.

In Icelander, Long deploys footnotes in interesting ways. He does the same in Bad Teeth, though with end notes (at least on the Kindle). If his novels were about their plots, the footnotes would be strange precisely because the plots often resolve themselves there, hidden from those who don't read every word. In this sense, Bad Teeth is a novel about its own perspective.

I really liked reading Bad Teeth. The prose is confident. The characters have depth. It has interesting things to say about ideas that often occupy my mind, like the relationship between belief and action, the way we make meaning in our lives, the point of literature, and understanding other people's perspective. In this sense, Bad Teeth is a novel about what it takes to get through life, day after day.

Icelander is good, too. There's a passage about Thor in it that made me very, very happy. There's also an invented society that lives beneath Iceland. In that sense, Icelander is a novel about Ethan Hawke. If you want that sentence to make sense, read the book.

Dustin has recently begun a blog. He will be in Bloomington on April 3 to read from Bad Teeth at Boxcar Books.

Full disclosure: Dustin and I are friends. Though he moved out of town several years ago, we've kept in touch.

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