I’ve put off writing this review for a couple of weeks now. Normally I’d preface it with the usual disclaimer, e.g., “I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review,” but I’m starting to wonder if anyone can truly maintain impartiality when they’re given free books/clothes/services/etc. I mean, for goodness sake, I communicated with the author directly via email! It seems unnecessarily cruel and vindictive to write a damning review of the book, even if that’s what it deserves. It puts me in an awkward situation, and I generally try to avoid those. So, from this point forward, I don’t plan on accepting any more free books in exchange for reviews, because I prefer that my book-bashing be guilt free.
But I feel obligated to write a review of The End of the City. And, who knows, maybe a negative review will be useful to the author in the long run.
Based on the title, the front cover, and the brief descriptions I read of the book, I half expected David Bendernagel’s The End of the City to have a post-apocalyptic setting. It does not. But the writing style is so opaque that it took several chapters before I could discern that the book was, in fact, set in a contemporary Washington D.C. suburb.
Tip #1: It is generally useful to let your readers know the setting of your story as quickly as possible. Unless, of course, you’re doing something wickedly creative or intentionally disrupting the reader’s expectations, such as in absurdist fiction. Unfortunately, neither is the case with The End of the City, whose opening paragraphs read as follows:
“In the beginning, there is nothing.
In the end, the same.
This is a place. It is in the middle, and that’s all.
A place called Reston. That’s the slogan. It’s printed on the phone book. Check it out. Watch as the cover changes — last year’s photo of Lake Anne by night, lantern light reflected as scribbles in the dark water, is replaced by this year’s photo of Barton Hill with its birch tree spine scrubbed of its yellow leaf cover by winter wind…
2001: the phone book that changed everything (and nothing).*
*Please note that I read the Kindle edition, so unfortunately I don’t have page numbers for the quotes.
There’s a lot more about the phone book, along with some random interjections that make no sense because zero context has been offered regarding the story. Eventually, a date is offered: September 2002. The faux Catcher in the Rye narrator is faux drunk at kickoff party for senior year of high school. Ben Moor is captain of the cross country team and something of an athletic prodigy. He also lost his father the year prior, sometime around September 2001, and is struggling to recover despite the fact that he and his father didn’t have the closest relationship. He has a younger brother, Bobby (nicknamed Bobby Jihad for no apparent reason), and a mostly out-of-the-picture mother who, we are to understand, doesn’t do or say much of anything because she’s depressed.
Ben is allegedly drinking spiked ginger ale at the party. He sees a cute girl across the room, Kitty, and proceeds to stumble down the front stairs, then fall into the bushes and contemplate his lot. The strange stream-of-consciousness narration style, coupled with a constant hodgepodge of obscure and well-known science fiction and pop culture references, lends the text a jolting, spasmodic tone. It’s almost impossible to tell what’s going on, who’s being discussed, how quickly time is passing, and whether Ben is lying about certain elements of his life. It’s frustrating, to say the least, and for seemingly no reason.
Remember how I said Ben fell down the stairs because he got drunk at the party? Well, this is how that brief episode is recounted:
Know this: I am going to stumble down these stairs. It’s been written. Bobby Jihad slices another lime. The wedge fits back but can’t go back. This party, meanwhile, is dead and doesn’t know it yet. I land on the ground, in a thicket of prickly green cables and berry clusters, on my back with my face to the stars. My skull hurts. My ribs hurt. My crooked-out hand opens, and the bottle rolls away. I’m banged up in multiple ways, and the season hasn’t even begun. Hurt from the get-go. Hurt in the future. These pains happen in sequence and all at once. It’s string theory.
The universe begins with an explosion. It ends with an implosion.
A heart valve bursts. A collision crushes a black sports car.
Jet fuel goes up. Two towers collapse.
A dream is assessed and found to be without value. It must be woken up from. Abandoned. Or destroyed.
I should have stopped there, when I was 3% of the way through the book. But I persisted, thinking that, surely, it would start to make sense at some point. Maybe when Ben sobered up, so, too, would the book.
And then I started chapter two.
It turns out that Ben is one of two people narrating parallel story lines. In 2002, Ben runs cross country and muses about death and nihilism and pop culture and describes every single thing that happens to cross his mind. In 2011, an unnamed assassin shoots someone called Bando and then feels guilty about it. As I wrote in my notes, Who is Bando? Why was he shot? Who is the narrator who shot him? Is he a bad cop? He’s not a cop? Who is Jenner? Why is the narrator, who apparently killed Bando, riding in the car with Jenner? What is going on?!
The perspective shifts in each chapter, alternating between 2002 (Ben) and 2011 (assassin). The two story lines are not integrated, not in the least. But, occasionally, there are bizarre overlaps between the world of Ben Moor and the bleak landscapes that the unnamed assassin inhabits. For example, Ben is learning German in high school. Suddenly and inexplicably, the assassin starts to express a handful of his thoughts in German. Back at that party in 2002, Ben was mesmerized by the way Kitty lit a match using the zipper on her jacket. Then, in 2011, the assassin makes a random reference to the way Kitty struck the match — What in the hell is going on?! Ben owns an ill-fitting suit from Men’s Warehouse. The assassin does, too. The assassin apparently survived a catastrophic car wreck. Ben’s father died in a car wreck. Wait a minute.
I tried to organize my thoughts and compiled a list of possibilities:
1. Is the assassin an imaginary, alternative version of Ben’s dad?
2. Is Ben the assassin, 9 years later?
3. Is Ben imagining the assassin? Is the assassin a tool for Ben to work out his grief?
4. Is the assassin an imaginary version of Ben? Does Ben wish he could be an assassin, powerful and swift, seemingly without a care in the world?
5. Is the assassin real? Is he Ben’s father? Did Ben’s father survive the crash, and then become an assassin?
6. Does the assassin know that he’s Ben’s father? Was he too ashamed to go back to his family? Or does he have amnesia? Has he forgotten his former life?
7. Did Ben’s father have connections to the mafia? Was the assassin riding with him in the car when it crashed? Did the assassin survive, even though he wasn’t supposed to?
8. Is the assassin a completely unrelated entity? Are the two stories genuinely parallel? Do they happen to offer the same lesson, communicated by two different narrators?
9. Is this a time-travel novel? How does the assassin know random things about Ben’s life, and vice versa?
I considered each of these possibilities multiple times while reading the novel. The thing is, I am still not sure which of these scenarios, if any, the book was trying to convey. I got to 50%, thought, ok, surely by the time I reach 60% I’ll know what’s going on. I reached 60%; nothing. 70%; nothing. At 75%, something like an explanation was offered.
This is what happened.
Two nights after his father’s funeral, Ben sits alone, in the dark, in a chair in the living room. Suddenly, Ben hears something hit the window. He goes to investigate and discovers that a bright red cardinal killed itself by hitting the glass. The bird sparks an epiphany of sorts, and Ben “invents” the assassin.
…there was something out there. Someone I couldn’t make out but recognized regardless. He did not emerge from the darkness. He did not speak, but I could hear him all the same… He had seen all that I had seen but from different angles. He was there when my father’s body was placed in the white marble tomb. He had seen my mother cry, seen my brother sit down next to her and place his hand over hers. It seemed to me then that he had been there through all of it, that each minute of my life we had only missed one another by seconds, like young Kent and the Man of Steel, always together and forever separate. He knew of God sending small birds to their deaths through darkness… He knew death like I now knew death… This energy in the darkness — this madman — he was my life’s secret witness. I imagined the bird’s pulse fading away, his energy spreading through the glass that had repelled him. I closed my hands into fists, for I discovered what would be the subject of a thousand subsequent dreams, an antihero, an alter ego, the assassin.
But this doesn’t resolve my questions. Ben calls the assassin an alter ego, but is he the alter ego of Ben, or of Ben’s father? Furthermore, I still want to know about the ginger ale. Why are both Ben and the assassin constantly chugging ginger ale? Is it ginger ale? What alcoholic drinks are made with ginger ale? Let’s see. You can combine vodka, ginger beer, and lime to make a weird version of a Moscow Mule. Is is a euphemism for Ciroc, which the assassin buys at one point? Or, despite the fact that both narrators keep insisting they are drunk, are they really just drinking non-alcholic ginger ale? And if so, why?
But I’m forgetting Iraq, of course, and 9/11, which are also part of the story, and also not part of the story.
Ben and his brother are obsessed with 9/11. Bobby records news footage of the Twin Towers falling down and watches it over and over. Ben casually mentions 9/11, the Iraq War, and his father as though they are related.
I’m Ben Moor,
Looking at a mountain of the same name,
Pushed into its present form by eons [sic] old subterranean activity,
Magma escaping the mouths of ancient volcanoes,
Lava once molten now frozen like carbonite,
A reminder of cosmic matter coalesced, unsolvable mysteries
I can’t settle on a reading of the wreck,
My dad’s or everyone else’s.
That’s why we watch the towers collapse again.
Then, several chapters into the book, it is revealed that Ben’s father did not, in fact, die during the attacks — either in New York or in Washington D.C. — but had a heart attack while driving on the freeway that lead to a car crash. His association with 9/11 is tangential at best. Ben’s father was a lawyer working with a company whose office was destroyed when the Twin Towers fell, but he died some time after 9/11, while driving back from a meeting in New York City. Confused? The way the book is written, though, you would think that Ben blames the terrorists for his father’s death.
Near the end of the book, and shortly after Ben’s red cardinal revelation, the assassin visits Ground Zero in New York — even though it has absolutely nothing to do with the story — and attempts to extract several crucial life lessons from his visit.
I’m at Ground Zero.
New York, New York.
Multiple square blocks brushed like a blank slate.
Concrete the color of bone powder.
Emptiness fraught with unrealized intentions:
Firemen going to save brothers left behind, lost
When the building folded like an accordion.
Nurses trying to revive people without discernible pulses,
Signs of life:
Civilians running and running
And failing to outrun a column of ash,
Asbestos, paper records of secured transactions reduced to confetti, the air full of bits,
Like a television signal that will never be collected into any home’s set.
Forms buckle, become pixels
Falling and flying in multiple directions, jamming individuals’ attempts
To locate themselves in space.
Is the center of a city?
I do not object to books that attempt to explore the repercussions of September 11th in creative and fictionalized ways. I do, however, strongly condemn random interjections of unrelated tragedies, pseudo-poetic passages that have no place in otherwise (supposed to be) conventionally written novels, and generalized accounts of atrocities that simultaneously cheapen and appropriate others’ misfortunes. Ben thinks about the Iraq War from time to time, which I suppose makes sense; after all, high schoolers living near D.C. were no doubt inundated with reminders of 9/11 and the War on Terror on a daily basis. But there is no reason for him to peg his sadness to the calamity of the war as a whole. There is no reason to send the assassin to Ground Zero. He is an American assassin working for a private, non-military, unidentified company. He has absolutely nothing to do with 9/11. Attempting to link dead birds, the color red, the Iraq War, a father’s death, the cross country team, ginger ale, a curly-haired girlfriend, an imaginary assassin, frisbees, and time travel ends up being as jumbled as you would expect. It is not profound, but it thinks it is. It is not inventive, but it thinks it is.
I often felt, while reading this book, like I was having a stroke. I started taking pictures of the text to refer to later. I read sections of it out loud to my sister via Skype, looking for confirmation that I wasn’t crazy — the book was. Other reviewers have likened The End of the City to Junot Díaz’s masterpiece The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which is an insult to Díaz. Díaz successfully invented an entirely new and audaciously fresh writing style, but Bendernagel’s writing is confused, garbled, and uncontrolled. If the quotes included above have not convinced you, here is one final, damning example:
But scouring the rubble of my mind, my history, there are no signs of a primordial unity. There is no ancient crystal of which we are only shards. We may be wanderers, but there is no Eden from which we have been cast out, to which we can return. The Big Bang is a pinhole camera, drawing the light of a past universe through its aperture, now a reflection of a reflection that will someday be reflected again. And now it’s all explosion, all asteroid field, going back forever, continuing forever, and it’s jamming my shit, overloading my hard drive, each data bit rattling around my black box skull like a .22 caliber bullet, all I know coming out in stolen phrases, recycled material, filtered through me, run through my clenched teeth, not just recycled, 100 perfect recycled, formed into language, like heroin laced and shaped into porcelain dolls for transport across the border, bite-sized intoxicants fit for speech bubbles, word boxes, text messaging. The name’s Moor, Ben Moor.
According to the epilogue, which I read because I was desperate for answers, Bendernagel worked on the book for over ten years. I couldn’t believe it. Ten years to produce something with so little clarity? I found an interview with Bendernagel conducted by Scott Whitmore, which shed some light on the situation. According to Bendernagel:
During my first year of graduate school in the early 2000’s, I wrote two short stories that were (on the surface at least) very different from one another. One, entitled The Human Highlight Reel, is about a teenage athlete who is angry over the loss of his distant father. The other story, which shares the novel’s title, The End of the City, is about a nameless assassin who suspects his teacher is trying to kill him. Neither of these projects was entirely successful as a short story, but when I put them next to one another I felt I had something really compelling; I had stumbled upon a novel. The book’s two stories are in dialogue with one another—overlapping, contradicting, and supporting each other as the narrators reveal their feelings on loss, survival, and heroism.
This, I think, was the primary mistake: trying to shove together two stories that — in spite of what Bendernagel may have thought — have very little to do with each other. It’s extremely difficult to use “loss” and other abstract emotions to link disparate stories and situations. I’ve seen it done successfully only a handful of times, and only in cinematic format (e.g., Babel, Pulp Fiction, and Requiem for a Dream). It’s difficult enough to tell one story well, and if it’s your debut novel, then you’re basically strangling yourself trying to communicate two.
My main advice would be: Don’t write two separate stories and then try to combine them. Work on a better dialogue-to-text ratio; i.e., have the characters engage in conversation more frequently, instead of filtering the story through (an) unreliable narrator(s) jumbled stream of thoughts. Don’t drag in current events unless they are legitimately related to the story. Abandon the majority of the pop culture references, especially the obscure ones. Don’t attempt to build profound connections across the space-time continuum; Christopher Nolan attempted that with Interstellar and look at the mess that turned out to be. More relevant, perhaps, is the case of David Mitchell, an extremely talented writer who attempted to write an opus with Cloud Atlas; his conceptually & structurally simpler Black Swan Green is infinitely better. Read fewer experimental novels; focus on classics and conventionally written books in order to bring clarity and focus to your writing. Chill out. Think about what you want to convey before you start writing.
The thing is, I don’t object to the core concept of the book — in theory. It makes sense that a kid suffering from his dad’s death would invent a superhero, an assassin, an alter-ego, as a way to work through his sorrow. But I still don’t know what happened in The End of the City. And that’s not ok.
Overall rating: 1/5 stars
Photos of the Kindle by G.