Just Because It’s Boring Doesn’t Mean It’s Bad: The TFT Review of Christopher Bollen’s The Lightning People
I’m not really a fan of Andy Warhol, but I do like some of the things he said, which I chalk up to the old joke about the broken clock being right twice a day. If I’m remembering correctly, he once said, describing one of his own films, that just because something is boring, it doesn’t mean it’s not good. That quote came to me many times while I read the beautifully written but slightly ponderous debut novel The Lightning People by Christopher Bollen.
Bollen, an editor-at-large at Warhol’s magazine, Interview, tells the stories of a loosely connected band of New York City residents (mostly young and unsatisfied) post-9/11, and the same demographic who might subscribe to Interview. And The Lightning People is populated by characters you might imagine Bollen interviewing. Artists, mostly: writers, actors (my second-least-favorite type of artist), and one awkward photographer (my least-favorite). But also business people, snake experts, and conspiracy theorists. All of the characters get generous backstories (sometimes, I thought, a bit too generous) and interior lives, and the book adds up to 360 pages filled with small type. Which is pretty long for a first novel.
The Lightning People is certainly ambitious in scope. It has an interesting beginning, in which Bollen humorously binds the characters’ lives in Manhattan together using an urban legend. (Supposedly, the lack of the Twin Towers post-9/11 made it more likely that Manhattan residents would be hit by lightning. I fell for this literary trick, and spent the rest of the novel wondering when someone was going to be struck by lightning for real. When no one was, I realized how clever – and Warhol-like – the tactic was.) And it tells a worthy story of New Yorkers adrift in their city after a tragedy, but before any sort of resolution.
What it also has is some amazing prose. Every page of the novel contains striking imagery and beautiful lines. “Alexandra hissed,” Bollen writes. “’More nostalgia, the worst, most malicious strain. She stroked his cheek with her knuckles in consoling condescension, and her eyes hardened like she was dispensing some sage advice to the obstinately naïve.” It’s lines like these that kept me turning the pages, wishing I had a highlighter. Sort of like how I felt watching the Warhol movie about the Empire State Building, being awed by the light changing on the building’s face, but bored to screaming that’s all that happens in the movie.
About all those characters. The best-drawn of them, Joseph and Del, have recently gotten married, and Del has drama at work, where she works with snakes (literal and otherwise), while Joseph tries to forget a kind of prophecy of death: the male members of his family tend to die at the age of 31. If these were the only main characters in the novel, I would have been happy. Their marriage and the secrets that each is hiding from the other are plausible, and their boredom (and boring-ness) make sense. But more characters pile on top of these central two, and Bollen tells their stories with what appears to be a wildly varying degree of interest. William is sort of a bitter, washed-up actor, not getting calls from his brassy booking agent anymore. (Zzzz.) Madi is a businessperson who begins to develop a conscience, which makes her question her line of work. (And also would seem to make her belong to the realm of science fiction, if businesspeople of recent memory are any barometer.) Raj is Madi’s brother, a photographer who’s probably the least developed or sympathetic character in the book. He takes pictures of architecture, but secretly yearns to have a big art show.
One thing that really impressed me about Bollen’s characters was his effort to make the cast so diverse. There are Indians, Midwesterners, one native Greek. Maybe Bollen is making a point here about the uniformity of most characters in the typical “New York novel.” And, despite the characters’ seeming familiar, they all (mostly) are there for concrete, sensible reasons. The one exception, interestingly, is the sole gay character, Quinn. Bollen, who is gay, could surely have made this character the most interesting one in the book, but instead … there is no polite way to say it: Quinn is an embarrassing cliché. He’s a washed-up old queen living amidst “old photographs and dusty bric-a-brac,” fawning over a young, straight man, and HIV-positive, of course. When Quinn meets even further ignominy later in the novel, it almost seems like too much is being piled on this poor character.
Without giving away the novel’s ending, The Lightning People ends with a central mystery being resolved, and the characters moving on from twin tragedies. There’s some great, surprising stuff in the final chapters. For one, the novel’s villain gets away unpunished. There’s a visit to Greece, a chapter with some of the best writing in the book. Oh, and Raj has his big show! But then the paintings don’t sell, and so he must change, which he does, to his and Bollen’s credit.
I’m always tempted to see a novel like this as a “generational” novel, like Bright Lights, Big City, perhaps – a novel that seeks to tell the story of a time and of a type of person by telling the stories of a few. While Bollen cleverly throws a few bones to that trope – with his large cast, some drunkenness, and the general malaise of these pretty people – I choose to believe that Bollen merely wanted to tell a specific tale of specific people alive at a certain time. In this, he has succeeded.
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