Amends: A Novel
by Eve Tushnet.
Paper, 330 pages, $14.
Eve Tushnet’s self-published debut novel Amends is at full gallop out of the gate:
J. Malachi MacCool was born in Berkeley, California, in the last decade of the Cold War, to parents who deserved better. He had a dilapidated body and a face like the last days of the Raj: jowly, discredited, eager for the final defeat.[…] His favorite term of praise was “civilizational,” and he lived by the creed, “Alcoholism is what raises man above the utilitarians.” The J stood for Jaymi.
What follows this introduction to our first character, a self-destructive conservative intellectual, is 326 pages of snappy satire that is full of intelligence, wry humor, and actual—as opposed to feigned—insight into a variety of contemporary cultural peculiarities.
The book begins at a collective nadir in the lives of a number of principal characters who don’t seem destined to experience zeniths. In addition to Jaymi there is Emebet, homeless Ethiopian immigrant and mystical Christian believer who begins her narrative journey by waking up under a urinal full of dripping ice; Sharptooth, a two-years-clean former heroin addict who “identifies” as a wolf; Medea, a playwright “accused of being a lesbian because it was the only way she could get away with writing what she did;” Dylan, a rowdy 17-year-old Junior Hockey star; and Colton, a gay black man with the body of an Adonis who works for a sinister collections agency.
These six people are asked to join the cast of “Amends,” a new MTV reality show set in a communal rehab facility where cast-members come on for a month of televised treatment. Just as in “The Real World” or “Jersey Shore,” “Amends” features regular group activities, shared chores, and a confessional in which characters are contractually obligated to exposit their thoughts daily. Viewers comment on the show’s episodes in threads at “idiotbox.com,” and embarrassing events ramify across the Internet through viral memes and A.V. Club analyses.
The most consistently enjoyable feature of Amends is its surface-level sheen. Tushnet writes with allusive and associative density; given that by some miracle these laterals don’t slow down the reader, the effect is dazzling. With a canny cultural spectator’s voice—one that readers of Tushnet’s essays and reviews will find familiar—she parses where others fear to parse. Sharptooth and Medea are the hard sells, here: these send-ups of the excesses of identity politics and feckless artistic self-absorption require the most knowledge to maintain as viable ironic iterations of types rather than unfair cartoons.
Tushnet’s public identity as a celibate Catholic lesbian critic and commentator gestures at the number of vertices in the shape of her own personality; writing Amends must have required a considerable imaginative effort, but not a heroic one, as would have been the case with almost all of her peers. Tushnet demonstrates convincing fluency in the dialects spoken here—of Colton’s archly suave intimations, of Medea’s wanton creative brilliance, of Jaymi’s smirking and haughty intellectualism, even of Sharptooth’s infinite hermeneutic of oppression—and pits the competing vocabularies against one another in fruitful contests of will.
Somehow, the characters are not lost within their types; although the genre requires Tushnet’s writing them into broad aspects, there is a recognizable basis of unpredictable humanity in each character that prevents our complete detachment from them. There are moments of real feeling in a budding romance, a high-stakes meeting with alienated parents, a late and unexpected tragedy. That a novel slanted towards observation and social insight can produce a handful of real feelings, too, is no mean feat.
Amends is a feast for the mind first, however, and the feast begins with the book’s quips. I am not sure I can pick out a favorite line, although most of them involve the playwright Medea. At one point, Medea “[shoots someone] a look like Sarah Palin shooting wolves from a helicopter.” Later, she mentally catalogues someone as “a hole-punched condom of a person.” Then, too, there are a number of blink-and-you-miss-it jokes, as in this subtle comment about the negative opinion of Medea’s gay fathers towards an older woman she dated while in high school: “She enjoyed bondage and discipline; worse than that, she smoked.”
Tushnet’s satirical ear is well-tuned and helps her to paper over the environments of her characters with pitch-perfect slogans and titles. What conservative intellectual—Tushnet would know—hasn’t written for a place with a name like Hound & Gentry, The New Flâneur, or Tempus? A motivational inscription in the “Amends” facility reads: “GROW BIG OR GO HOME.” Emebet, recalling a desperate time at a crisis pregnancy center, looks over a display of pamphlets:
Was the Sex Worth It?
STD: Sexually Transmitted Depression
Jesus Was a Bad@$$: Meet the Man Who Raised More Hell Than You Ever Could
You Wouldn’t Do It to a Puppy. Why Would You Do It to Your Baby?
Choosing Life on a Budget
Most cutting of all, the title that stopped me mid-page: “Having His Baby: What a Lovely Way to Say ‘I Forgive You’.”
This last barb reminds us that though Tushnet has plenty of fun with Sharptooth and Medea, she doesn’t pull her punches when her targets veer to the right. Jaymi cuts at least as ridiculous a figure as Medea does, although it is interesting that he dons his conservative villain garb with an outrageous appropriation of Todd Beamer’s “Let’s roll” in the service of an argument against the regulation of lead-based paint in children’s toys. Had Jaymi plumped for a less cartoonish cause—by voicing some kind of opposition to a hot-button social justice cause, for instance—he may have become irredeemable in the eyes of many readers. Tushnet is shrewd in picking his battles for him.
Formally, Amends has more strengths than weaknesses. The reality television setting is more of a thematic conceit than a meaningful dramatic one; though producers and set crew are a continuous background presence, their involvement in the lives of the “Amends” cast doesn’t seem to disturb or alter the personalities of the people being filmed. Lacking is John Jeremiah Sullivan’s insight into what is on authentic display in today’s reality television: people who are “caught in the act of being on a reality show.” But I have to believe that taking this self-reflective tack as far as Sullivan does—or as Christopher Beha does in his own sharply satirical novel about reality TV, Arts & Entertainments—would have drained the color out of Tushnet’s characters.
There’s plenty of other meta play in the book, from the recapped “idiotbox.com” threads (which occasionally anticipate criticisms a reader might have of the preceding action) to a board meeting late in the book in which the producer is called to account for the dropping off of the show’s attention to Ana. Ana is a production assistant introduced with the principals in chapter one who rarely makes an appearance after. Tushnet could half-jokingly speak for herself with the producer’s explanation: “I didn’t want to create an easy outlet for the audience’s empathy. I wanted them to have a look at the world the way our talent looks at it.”
And this she does. In this addict’s world of manipulation, broken promises, and lies, is it possible to make amends? Here, Tushnet’s Catholicity is most evident: no, her characters discover, it is not. Their moral accounts—and ours—cannot be leveled on the balance; sin has a parasitic reality that can’t be undone with belated expressions of virtue.
But with all the insincerity of an alcoholic, and even with irreparable wrongs in one’s wake, it remains possible to say “I’m sorry,” and to establish a relationship thereby. So says Emebet, the character to whom Tushnet gives the last words of the book. The wrongs are real, but so is forgiveness, and in light of the ultimate love that awaits us, Emebet thinks, “Maybe … it will not be so bad to be seen for what we are.”
Martyn Wendell Jones is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the printed or digital pages of Books & Culture, The Englewood Review of Books, First Things, and numerous other publications. He lives with his wife in Toronto, Ontario. You can follow him on Twitter: @MartynWendell