Man Gone Down, by Michael Thomas

impaclgotemplate1ThomasWhile I very rarely abandon a book, I’ll admit I closed Man Gone Down at page 275 for the last time — with about 150 still to go. When I was in the newspaper business and we did content surveys, there was usually a box that said “not written for people like me”. That is the box I would have checked for this book. Don’t take that as a total rejection of the book — I would have checked the same box for Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger last fall and it won the Booker prize. And since this book is the last of eight IMPAC finalists for me, I thought it should at least be acknowledged before we start the contest — come back tomorrow for details on that.

Perhaps a better comparison would be another Booker winner, James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late, a book that certainly has its fans. Like Kelman, Thomas’ character has just about everything going against him and the book explores why. Unlike Kelman (a book that I did finish), there isn’t a whole lot of swear words — then again, Kelman’s writing is more precise.

So rather than punishing myself with another 150 pages and then producing a review that is not going to be of much value to anyone, here instead is a link to the New York Times review of Man Gone Down which I think is not only positive, but a very reasoned description of the book. Perhaps it is “written for people like you” after all.

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15 Responses to “Man Gone Down, by Michael Thomas”

  1. Trevor Says:

    I remember reading the NY Times review and then when the book was listed as one of their top five books of fiction that year. When I got a hold of it, I didn’t get more than a few pages before putting it down for something else. It wasn’t because the book was bad; it was because something else was more appealing at the time. Looks like I was saved!

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Part of me wishes I had made the same decision and saved myself some reading grief. The premise of the book has merit — the central character (a black who was bused to a “white” school in Boston, later gets into a mixed marriage) is mistreated by the world around him and the “action” of the book consists of him stumbling around Brooklyn for four days, with a lot of remembering of his bleak past. The problem is that none of the characters get developed and the main man becomes increasingly unattractive — to the point where I was starting to think he deserved his fate (hence the similarities in my reaction to The White Tiger and How Late It Was, How Late). Since both the polemic and its victim were annoying me, abandoning the book seemed the best course — as the Times review and recommendation indicate, others may find the politics of it more attractive than I did.

  3. alison Says:

    This is a book I picked up for Trevor’s reasons – I had read the NYT review, and also saw a lot of positive reader comments. I went about 10 pages or so and just wasn’t dran in to the story or the characters, even hough the premise seemd promising. And like Trevor, I had other books calling. I’ve finished a few othr books since and not had the serire to return. And won’t

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    The NYC review is worrying in places, definitely well reasoned though as you note. What was it exactly you bounced off of Kevin? What persuaded you it wasn’t one for you?

    I ask in part as it doesn’t sound like one for me either, but I’ve yet to place exactly why not.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I think my response to Trevor above pretty well sums up why I found it time to put the book down.

  6. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Thanks Kevin, I had read that, but clearly it hadn’t registered properly.

    Characters need not of course be sympathetic, but without a sympathetic character something other is needed to retain the reader, here there isn’t such.

    A definite miss for me then.

  7. stephanie Says:

    Sadly, by not finishing the book, and by expecting the narration to fit into some preconceived expectations, I think many of the readers have missed the true genius of this novel. But that’s not entirely the fault of the commenters.

    Several of these responses mention the New York Times review “American Dream Deferred,” which claims “One of the bigger questions posed by the novel is how to pursue the American and other dreams when the realities of race stand so mightily in the way.” But the narrator’s journey doesn’t concern itself with the American Dream all that much. Expecting the novel to provide a commentary on the racial identity of the American Dream would surely leave the reader disappointed and confused.

    In order to appreciate why Michael Thomas’s narrator is the way he is, the reader must stop trying to make him into a modern-day “Invisible Man.” The Ralph Ellison similarities exist, no doubt, but to say the book “leans heavily on ‘Invisible Man’” (as the NYT does) to critique American society is a bit of a stretch. The novel’s worth lies in its examination of an individual, not that individual’s views on American society.

    To understand the narrator’s story, the reader must stop trying to view him as the “Invisible Man.” Instead, examine the story for what it actually is: a story of personal development written in the modernist literary tradition. Instead of viewing it as a discussion of racial identity or the insufficiencies of the American Dream, look at its influence from T.S. Eliot. Reading this book as a modernist novel, instead of some sort of coming-of-age tale, will allow you to see the book in an entirely different light.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Stephanie: Thank you very much for a most perceptive comment. I admit that I probably approached this book with the wrong attitude and I am heartened to be able to host a comment from someone who not only approached the book in a different way but found it worthwhile (as many readers obviously have). Thank you for filling in the gaps in my totally inadquate approach — your thoughts about the “misleading” NYT review are dead on, I think.

  9. Rick P Says:

    I largely agree with Kevin’s initial comments on this. I did manage to struggle through it but it was definitely a struggle.

    I also don’t think it was written for someone like me as I didn’t enjoy it and found the narrator and his attitude really grated on my nerves.

    There are great episodes in the book i.e. the golf game for money that he doesn’t have and the confrontation at the construction site when one of the bosses uses a racial slur.

    I did find the stream of consciousness approach to be incoherent and the self pitying was nearly intolerable.

    I admire the effort and the concept but it just wasn’t for me.

  10. Tarpley Says:

    The general consensus, that I even think Stephanie would agree with, is that Man Gone Down is not a pleasant read. Like the poetry of T.S. Eliot and every other Post-Modernist work, the reader finishes having dozens more questions than he or she had after finishing the first chapter. In Man Gone Down, Thomas dangles uncertainties in the story’s conclusion: Has the Narrator reconciled completely with his wife? Has he completed whatever task he “stumbled around Brooklyn for four days” pursuing (as Kevin so accurately put it)? Are we optimistic for the Narrator’s future or do we think his “damage” is irreparable?

    Thomas’s point is that we don’t know. This is intentional. That’s post-modernism. Can anyone definitively say what the hell’s going on in The Wasteland?

    If Kevin and his followers aspire to be convincing literary critics, I urge them to not discard works they find troubling, confusing, or just plain boring. Whether they agree with Post-Modernism’s inclusion into mainstream literary categorization, it’s here to stay and boasts legions of followers and fans. Reviewing is not meant to be easy or pleasurable at all times, but if you undertake it, finish it. Perhaps you all should give Man Gone Down another try, and suffer through the text just like the Narrator suffers through his own life. The novel, I promise, contains undiscovered lessons yet.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Your point is well taken, tarpley. In my previous journalistic life, I was a literary critic for a number of years and, were I still in that role, I would not only have finished this book, I would have approached it in an entirely different way. Although, I must admit, my first step would have actually been to suggest to the assigning editor that the review might better be assigned to someone who both knows and appreciates this kind of literature more than I do.

    Your comment gives me the opportunity to say that this blog does aspire to represent itself as literary criticism. It is one avid reader’s observations about books that he has read and liked or disliked — and why he thinks he holds that opinion.

    Man Gone Down is the only “abandoned” book for which I have done a post and that was because I had promised to read all the IMPAC finalists (and this book did win that award). My learning from that is that I won’t be promising to read all of any finalist list again (even if that is a personal goal). I’m not a literary critic, I’m a pleasure reader — and if I find a book boring, I reserve the right to stop reading it, even if I know others think it is great.

    I will say that in the final analysis I am glad that I admitted my failure to finish in a post — both Stephanie and you have used these comments as a venue to explain a very different (and very legitimate) interpretation that was beyond my ability. In that sense, I think my own frustration with the book has proved to be worthwhile.

  12. Samantha Says:

    One particularly troubling aspect of the New York Times article is the conclusion it reaches in the end: “Thomas is adamant that the rich are truly better off than the poor — not because they have more stuff, but because they are spared the indignity of perpetually having a hand out. Of always asking.” I do not believe that is the position advocated by the novel, evidenced by the heightened sense of social awareness the narrator takes throughout; his attitude is that of scorn for the very system itself, as he plays his part in the “social experiment” of his life passively. That is to say, he does not perceive himself as losing his dignity, but rather play-acts his expected role with a distanced perspective. This is particularly apparent on page 238, as the narrator takes upon the role that the school administrator “needs to hear from; raggedly black me. I scroll through my voice bank, hoping to find the one that will, for her, match the man. Down in the quagmire of assumption and stereotype—to find a model of her mind.” If the narrator is actually affected by the “indignity of perpetually having” or “always asking” for a “hand out,” he would not attempt to wear the costume of stereotype to try to get what he wants—effectively playing the system and in doing so, mocking and ridiculing it—but would rather make a special effort to break out of it in order to save himself from the shame the NYT article speaks of. If readers open the book thinking that the author’s message is “the rich are better off after all” and “welfare is indignity,” then of course they would be turned off. That interpretation masks the brilliance of the true message the author delivers through the narrator’s incredible social awareness.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Samantha: “…play-acts his expected role with a distanced perspective.” With the caveat that I did not finish the book, I certainly agree with this description. Indeed, rather than finding “the narrator’s incredible social awareness”, I found play-acting which effectively distanced me from the book. Given the well-argued responses here and elsewhere, other readers obviously did not share that problem.

  14. Nicole Says:

    I read a recent interview of Michael Thomas, also from the New York Times, which helped me to change my perspective completely while reading the book. The link to the article is http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/23/books/23thomas.html?pagewanted=all.

    The quote I read took a completely different take on the title that I hadn’t considered before. Thomas describes how “the title actually comes from a passage in which the narrator compares himself to Beowulf trying to make his way across ‘an ocean of memory’ that is ‘deep, almost frozen and swimming with monsters.’” At first, I also believed the original New York Times article (and the book cover) that said it was a story about a “Fallen American Dream” and disliked the book when reading it with this in mind. But once I was able to connect it to Beowulf, I was able to sympathize with him much more easily. Beowulf is a hero expected to kill off all the monsters he encounters, right? Well, this applies to the narrator because of society’s high expectations of him, and he feels as if his fall, just like the eventual fall of the hero Beowulf, is inevitable. This idea destroys him psychologically though, making him the monster Grendel as well.

    The last few chapters of the book made the entire reading experience worth it for me because there is a section when the narrator describes his therapeutic meditation in a river where both he and the reader come to a better understanding of his situation. Water is often used as a symbol of the unconscious in literature, and Beowulf similarly descends down into the water to kill a bigger, stronger monster who was Grendel’s mother. He also must constantly fight his mother’s overly high expectations and his mother-in-law’s bigotry. In this way, Man Gone Down is not an anti-American Dream story about a man fallen from grace, but rather one about a man who descends down into his unconscious and must learn how to battle the monsters in his life. If read in this way with a new understanding of the title, I think one could get a lot more out of it since battling one’s own monsters is something we can all relate to. Definitely worth finishing!

  15. Kelsey Says:

    Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of Man Gone Down is the role of psychological trauma in the narrator’s life. I agree with Stephanie; the novel reads much better in light of the modernist literary tradition. Often, I think we are too quick to assume a good novel must constantly engage a larger social or political project. However, the narrator’s relationships to black women, white women, colleagues and family are all crafted by a series of past traumatic events. He’s grown up in a verbally and physically abusive household. He constantly grapples with memories of sexual assault in his youth. If you’re willing to give the novel another go examine the moments psychological and physical trauma destabilize the narrator’s psyche. A reader can just be frustrated when the narrator chooses to spend a few hundred dollars on name-brand jeans instead of making a down payment on an apartment for his family. Or one can look more closely at how these types of decisions connect to past experience and shape his world-view.

    Modernist writers employ particular writing techniques in psychological defense of something too painful to bear. Seamlessly, the narrator drifts in and out of memory, always butting recollections against the realities at hand. Perhaps this writer is trying to impose some order in a chaotic world. The challenge of the novel is in the way the narrator meticulously attempts to cover his psychological tracks, not reveal too much, while oscillating between states of apathy and incomprehension. He wants you to feel sorry for him, then he doesn’t. I’m not entirely sure a reader is supposed to feel “satisfied” by the end of the novel, but I believe it’s best to focus on the narrator’s complex psychological journey as he works through his identity.

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