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May 5th, 2004 Steffen Silvis | Books
 

Bone Settlers

Portlander Jonathan Raymond's new novel unearths two Northwest friendships from two different centuries.

     
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Worlds away but on the same plot of land, two friendships form that will set in motion violent events beyond their control. Jonathan Raymond's first novel, The Half-Life, begins with a chuckwagon cook picking his way through the vast forests surrounding Fort Vancouver and ends with a budding filmmaker settling in for a matinee at Cinema 21. In between lies the history of the Northwest--in particular, greater Portland--compressed into an impressionistic study in which the past seeps pentimento-wise into the present.

For nearly a decade, Raymond, 32, was an important figure on Portland's culture scene, as at home in galleries as in clubs. The former managing editor of Plazm and current associate editor of Tin House magazine now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. But the city of his youth, Portland, holds a lasting fascination.

In Raymond's novel, two sets of friends--Cookie and King Lu in the 1800s, Trixie and Tina at the end of the 1900s--are searching for meaning in the unsettled and ever-shifting Northwest landscape. Overall, the book suffers from some first-novel tendencies: The parallel stories don't always resonate with each other successfully, while the writer's lyrical style occasionally leans toward self-conscious, pretty writing.

Yet in its ambition, The Half-Life clearly marks the debut of a young novelist who is serious about writing down the bones, moss and bedrock lying beneath our feet. WW spoke with Raymond last week.

WW: What inspired The Half-Life?

Raymond: One of the biggest inspirations was my friend Mike Brophy, a great citizen and artist of Portland. His whole body of work really helped me look at the landscape in a deeper way and pointed me toward some of the more mysterious foundations of Northwest history. Happily, one of his paintings ended up as the cover of the book. Another big inspiration was Sherwood Anderson, whose book Winesburg, Ohio I fell in love with a few years ago. There's a quietness and modesty to it, and yet a real, unflinching perversity as well, that I really wanted to draw from. Also David Wojnarovicz, an East Village artist of the '80s, who wrote a poem that became one the keynotes of the book. Then there's Trixie Belden mystery novels, a Joseph Conrad story, The Secret Sharer, which appears in much-mutated form in the opening chapters, the story of Kennewick man, lots and lots of things.

Is Half-Life a "regional" novel?

Absolutely. There's a great quote by Walter Benjamin that kind of sums it up, I think: "The superficial inducement, the exotic, the picturesque has an effect only on the foreigner. To portray a city, a native must have other, deeper motives--motives of one who travels into the past instead of into the distance. A native's book about his city will always be related to memoir; the writer has not spent his childhood in vain."

You wrote last year in The Organ that "the regional defines its residents' perspectives on the most fundamental level." How has the Northwest defined your views?

I think that living here gives a person a certain vantage point on larger rhythms of culture and history. I think it's interesting the way we get everything here--fashion, music, art, all the trends--but not necessarily at the same time as everyone else. Things tend to get here late, or somehow damaged. It starts to dawn on you that history occurs in these weird lurches and halts and missed connections--nothing like the grand sweep they teach you about in high school. That's a big idea, though.

Half-Life is very cinematic in structure and chronology, and is, certainly in the modern story, very concerned with the making of a film. Are you offering a critique of the way cinema completely informs the way we view the world?

"Critique" might be too strong of a word, but I'm fascinated by the way that images work in our society, their proliferation and circulation. People aspire to the cinematic to the point where it's become some kind of ontological category. And as someone involved in creating images, it's hard not to internalize that in some way. Sometimes I think of movies and literature as this singular, awkward, two-headed creature, or like two people in a three-legged race, tied at the leg. There's so much of literature in the movies, and so much of movies in literature, that it's hard to say where one starts and the other ends.

So are modern novels novelizations of unmade films?

That is a very distinct possibility. Certainly, part of my own writing ambitions come out of a frustrated filmmaking impulse. And if it is the case--that novels are just unmade movies--I don't see a big problem with it. A lot of people, writers in particular, like to feel superior to movies, or view them as some kind of enemy. I don't think it behooves the novel to turn away from film at this point. That seems almost like turning away from everything.


The Half-Lifeby Jonathan Raymond(Bloomsbury, 356 pages, $23.95)

Raymond will be reading at Powell's Books on Friday, May 28, and at Broadway Books on Tuesday, July 13.

 
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