Stephen Burn considers Tom LeClair’s recent novel through the lens of the latter’s own critical work on postmodern fiction, while also excavating the novel’s relation to Faulkner’s tale of racial empire building, Absalom, Absalom!
NB: A shorter version of this review appeared in the November/December 2006 issue of the American Book Review.
Even if Tom LeClair had never written a novel he would still have had a tangible influence on contemporary American literature. His two prescient, critical books - In the Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel (1987) and The Art of Excess: Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction (1989) - achieved the unusual distinction of mattering to writers almost as much as they did to critics. When Jonathan Franzen described his ambition in writing his first novel as an attempt to create a “Systems novel of conspiracy and apocalypse” (247), he was drawing upon a vocabulary he’d derived from LeClair’s work on DeLillo. Similarly, when Richard Powers reflected in The Gold Bug Variations (1991) that “nothing exceeds like success,” it’s hard to believe that he wasn’t punning on the opening sentence of The Art of Excess (“Nothing succeeds like excess” [vii]), a book that Powers had himself endorsed. Indeed, as Scott Hermanson notes in his introduction to his ebr interview with LeClair and Powers, LeClair is one of the coded dedicatees of The Gold Bug Variations.
Having had this kind of impact with his critical work, LeClair was obviously taking a sizeable risk when he abandoned scholarly writing to devote himself to fiction, but - even though the publication of The Liquidators means he has written twice as many novels as critical studies - his criticism still provides a useful entrance to his fiction. In particular, it’s worth considering a lecture, entitled “False Pretenses, Parasites, and Monsters,” that LeClair gave at Illinois State University, and which appears now in the electronic book review. Discussing both print and electronic fiction, LeClair defined “parasitic” novels as works that “rely on and admit within themselves to relying on earlier novels.” Beginning with an epigraph from Absalom, Absalom!, and embedding multiple references to Faulkner’s book, The Liquidators is such a novel.
Set in Ohio (where LeClair works), and relayed through a first-person narrator called Thomas, The Liquidators masquerades as a roman à clef. But really this is a false pretense. The Thomas of LeClair’s novel is meant to remind the reader of Faulkner’s Thomas Sutpen, rather than of the author, himself. Like Sutpen, LeClair’s narrator Thomas Bond has children named Henry and Judith. But - more importantly for a novel about race - like Sutpen, the slave-owner whose son is part-African-American, Bond is the head of a company that mainly employs African-Americans (his “slaves”), and his DNA has provided him with a “mismatched collection of ethnic features” (23) so he is alternately believed to be white, Jewish, and African-American.
Race is a persistent subtext in The Liquidators, recurring while Bond’s story slices through the personal and the impersonal - documenting both his unhappy childhood and the history of lead - but the kernel of the narrative revolves around his company of liquidators, who tour America selling stock salvaged from failed companies. At the age of 59, Bond is separated from his wife (who wouldn’t accept his lifestyle), suffering from memory loss, and eager for one of his children to take over the company. If Henry or Judith will do what he wants, Bond can rest assured that his business (and, by extension, his conception of his self) will live on. But Bond’s family has slowly unraveled during the years that he has been on the road, liquidating, and are reluctant to get involved. In the wake of their refusals, Bond fills the book with lots of explanations to justify the travel his business requires, but LeClair places him squarely in the American grain when - on a roadtrip after he has given up the company - he encounters a man called Rip. This is LeClair’s hint that Bond’s flight from home belongs in the tradition of the classic American escape from family, and society, whose template was established by Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle.
In layering the arc of his contemporary plot over templates established by Irving and Faulkner, the narrative strategies in this parasite follow the advice that LeClair reveals (in his ebr interview) Powers gave him: “historicize.” Moving into recent history, LeClair’s allusive narrative identifies other American ancestors beyond Faulkner and Irving. Thomas Pynchon - the “master” of postmodern fiction, according to the Art of Excess (36) - is invoked when Bond describes humanity as “Slow Learners” (203), while Stanley Elkin is the book’s dedicatee, and his novel, The Franchiser (1976), provides something of a model for LeClair’s work. Like Bond, Elkin’s Ben Flesh travels around America looking for business opportunities, but Bond is Flesh’s photographic negative: while Flesh seeks franchises to build the new America, Bond seeks to profit from America’s failure; while Flesh is undone by his body (he suffers from multiple sclerosis), Bond cannot rely on his failing mind as “words and numbers” disappear from his brain’s “folds and pathways” (14). In terms of structure, The Liquidators’ looping form recalls the pattern of DeLillo’s novels, but LeClair’s book is most memorable for its prose. The narrator confesses that he “studied marketing and advertising, learned the allure of alliteration” (14), and as a consequence his prose is full of aphoristic asides, and puns that sound like the cleverest sales pitch. So when he is cursing consumerism, Bond complains that “the American ideal lost its ‘i’ and became pure ‘deal’ ” (121), and when he realizes that he’ll almost certainly abandon his family again he offers the pithy observation: “Leave and let live” (189). But one subtle irony that escapes Bond is that his own name is, itself, a pun. The OED defines bond as a “shackle, chain, fetter, manacle,” and of course this dovetails neatly with LeClair’s parasitic echo of the shackles of Sutpen’s slaves. But bond also means “a uniting or cementing force,” and, of course, this is precisely what Bond fails to be to either his family or his company.
With this kind of subtle attention to detail, The Liquidators is a clever, intricate novel, attentive to multiple meanings and ambiguities. As such, it partially fulfills the description LeClair gave in “False Pretenses” of the novel as “a monster of culture: a fabled, combinatory, unnatural, hypertrophied use of language that grotesquely deviates from normal discourse.” The pun-rich prose of The Liquidators is a radical and rewarding deviation from the redundancy of normal discourse, but my only reservation is that I wish that LeClair had indulged the monstrous qualities of his novel more. In this novel that begins with a reference to Heraclitus, LeClair approach is Apollonian, rather than Dionysian. His control of language and structure is always so present in The Liquidators that he seems reluctant to risk the anarchic monstrosity that characterizes the novels he praised in The Art of Excess. But for readers with a taste for clever details and intricate word-play, The Liquidators will escape the failures it documents.
Franzen, Jonathan. How to Be Alone. Rev. ed. New York: Farrar, 2003.
LeClair, Tom. The Art of Excess: Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1991.
—. “False Pretenses, Parasites and Monsters.” electronic book review 30 Dec. 2000. 8 Nov. 2001
—. The Liquidators. New York: Greekworks.com, 2006.
Powers, Richard. The Gold Bug Variations. New York: Morrow, 1991.