Books

05.12.14

Novelist D. Foy Dubs His Debut ‘Gutter Opera’ And Who Are We To Argue?

In D. Foy’s novel Made to Break, friends go to a lake cabin and chaos ensues in the same way genres collide in a style mashup he calls ‘gutter opera.’

Made to Break, D. Foy’s debut novel, snaps. The scenes are succinct, by and large; the patter of the characters rolls right along, whether you catch their drift or not. The experience of reading is not dissimilar to tagging along with a crowd of hard-partying familiars, each well known to the other, the string of knowing allusions and rivalrous looks, the night going somewhere nobody can name for sure and nobody would want to name. Not knowing is half the fun. 

And, hey: this also happens to be the novel’s subject. 

Yet, to repurpose words spoken by The Godfather’s Michael Corleone, “If history has taught us anything, it is that you can criticize any novel.” As novels go, Made to Break registers as one unafraid of criticism. It wears its flaws like the body armor in a Mad Max movie or, better yet, Frankenstein’s network of scars. Look no further than the title: D. Foy’s fiction is the kind that could very well shatter in your hands.

You might find that you know his people, have encountered their like before: an alpha male whose entire sense of self rests on the perception of alpha-ness; a good-natured glutton for punishment whose generosity is matched only by his recklessness; a fun-loving woman whose exhausted artistic ambition drives her toward the embrace of corporate America. But Made to Break is not a venture in realism, at least not a straightforward one. The best way to describe what Foy is doing is to say he sets a cast of keenly observed characters in a landscape of genre pastiche. The real gets wrapped up in the artificial and bucks at the constraints of convention.

Akin in spirit to David Foster Wallace’s ungainly short story “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” and echoing the signature cadences of Kerouac, the narrative of Made to Break puts the machina back in deus ex, and then, in case you can’t believe your eyes, does it again: “For a single hideous moment, there in the slippery rain, surrounded by the only people I’d ever truly known and who for that reason were strangers, I saw the ruin of distinctions … There’s no such thing, after all, as the Comedown, so long as we never called it.”

A moment, though, for plot: five close friends—three guys, two gals—head to a remote cabin in the woods off Lake Tahoe to party like rock stars on the day before New Year’s Eve, 1996.  In fact, some are rock stars, or at least, as musicians, once desired to be. There is an auto accident and one of their number—the son of the cabin’s owners—ends up in a bad way. The other passenger on the ill-fated ride, Andrew Jackson Harerama vanden Heuvel, crawls from the wreckage unscathed.  Except emotionally: “Where were all the lovely people? Where were all the vermin, and where were all the stars?”

A reader senses both storyteller and critic fighting for full expression on the page, one facet overlaying the other.

Made to Break is the kind of novel where the accident victim, on waking, says in quasi-prophetic mode, “It used to be when I coughed I heard bees in my head. Now all I hear is fire.” Back at the cabin, everyone is having too much fun, or too far gone, to do much of anything on his behalf.  Besides, as in a horror movie, the road has flooded. And there is a strange Hamlet-quoting old man with a truck, a dog named Fortinbras, and a petrified monkey dangling over his dashboard. Like a critic of debut fiction, the old man wants nothing more than to aid, or deconstruct, the revelers: it is not immediately clear which. This becomes a scary brand of not knowing.

In conversation with The Paris Review in the early aughts, novelist and essayist Jonathan Lethem reflected on what compels him to write: “I’ve always been uninterested in boundaries or quarantines between tastes and types, between mediums and genres.  It’s a form of autism, perhaps. I’ve never felt I had to pick from among these things and renounce those others. Good stuff’s found across the spectrum.”

A decade down the line, Lethem’s call of the wild has resonated widely. Foy subscribes to a similar school of thought: literary, cinematic, and pop enthusiasms fill his debut to bursting. A reader senses both storyteller and critic fighting for full expression on the page, one facet overlaying the other. In that sense, Made to Break is a prototypical first work, one deeply indebted to forebears, a cauldron of echoes, an admixture in demand of future refinement.

made-to-break-foy-bookcover
Made to Break by D. Foy ()

Or so a critic might aver. Speaking with The Tottenville Review, Foy calls his school of writing “gutter opera.”  “I reached a place after a time where a single form or style or technique felt insufficient to my needs,” he said. “I wanted to create autobiography as fiction. I wanted to engage social analysis as self-ethnography.  And I wanted to write fiction as cultural criticism.  Gutter opera gave me these freedoms.”

If acting as the first critic to label his own efforts risks incarnating the mythic Ouroboros, then consider how, throughout the modern era, artists have founded movements to alert critics of their intentions and, in so doing, helped shape their own receptions.  What’s unique in this deregulated age, where anyone and everyone can be a critic (so, who, really, can claim any kind of special provenance?), is that Foy’s movement appears to be utterly his own. He is a writing school of one, and Made to Break ushers his literary energies into categorical existence.

Lethem, for his part, reflecting on the path that led from the semi-obscure pastiche of Gun, With Occasional Music to the triumph of his Brooklyn novels, stated that what he left behind to become a writer of renown was as simple or as complicated as “the writer I wanted to be when I wanted to be so many different writers all at once.” Foy’s published work, at least at present, denies such a path forward.  Made to Break revels in multiplicity, even as its narrative constantly verges on collapse—like that of a beatific thrill-seeker, stoned among the fantastic incongruous.