Monday, February 22, 2010

George Williams' Degenerate

by George Williams

(10: 8/50, N: 1/10)

"It was the dumbest show I'd ever seen. No such New York existed, nor could it, even if it wanted to. It was New York's greatness not to endure such people. I imagined the hollow dummies run down by laughing cab drivers, who back up to finish the job."

The entry below will openly analyse George Williams' Degenerate and address specifically its possible themes, symbols, and intent. No plot-related spoilers will be divulged.

It's difficult for me to begin this entry for a handful of reasons. Surprisingly, I'm not wrestling with an urge to be more kind or more objective, but rather trying to resist the urge to write an out-and-out book review. This blog will be sloppy. You have been warned.

Here's what Degenerate (pronounced however you choose, really) is: A stark, critical examination of a decaying America. Set upon a pre-millennial backdrop, with the end of the 20th century in full-view, it carries the reader across a country littered with museums and graveyards and infected by lusty adolescence. It depicts a stubborn, obstinate culture that refuses to acknowledge its age, and foreshadows a dim future for subsequent generations. Thematically, it's a challenging, and arguably important novel but you can't bet the house on a theme.

Degenerate's narrative is a tenuous, off-putting thing that, when functioning at its best, resembles something like a middle-of-the-road crime novel, not in the quality of the prose, but in the structure and overall effectiveness of the narrative. Nothing in the novel ever feels exactly solid: plot, as it were, seems to be non-concern for Williams. The story will travel the road it will, and check off thematic supports like they were road-side attractions. It's a confusing ride, quite honestly. The plot is convenient when it needs to be, and some things just sort of happened at some point. Chekhovian omissions, or reader's haze, I couldn't say. Probably a bit of both.

Williams, and I say this both as a reader and a former student, can also be a difficult pill to swallow. His opinions aren't always conventional; occasionally they can even seem out of touch with reality, but its their extremism that makes them fascinating, and often entertaining to read. The sitcom Friends (see above) is made reference to multiple times in the novel. Williams is likely the sole person in America with such disdain for the show, but he uses that disdain swimmingly.

I find myself asking: Who would I recommend this to? And the answer is anyone who hates modern American culture, and can tolerate literature that reads like a fever dream. I don't quite know what happened, how it happened, or exactly why it happened, but the reality painted is frightening and maybe worth it regardless. The late novel symbol of America is perhaps one of the most acute I've ever seen/heard/read.

Color me ambivalent, and excuse me if I fudge my amazon review.

Up next: Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh


  1. Interesting. Given the sort of fiction he assigns us to read for class, I'm not surprised at this novel's themes, world view, or even apparent disregard for straightforwardness. I've not read it, but Williams's is having a book signing at Ex Libris in a week or so, so I might pick it up, dunno. We'll see!

  2. If you do end up reading it, I'd love to hear what you thought about it. I should probably warn you: The novel has a strange attitude toward puncuation, and isn't entirely clean as far as errors go. I think the proof readers at Texas Review should be fired.