I doubt that many potential book buyers check out the author’s acknowledgements when considering a purchase, so I would like to take the liberty of quoting the last sentence from Rodes Fishburne’s at the close of Going To See The Elephant:
And special thanks to the San Francisco Police Department for recovering this manuscript when it was stolen from the author’s car.
The inferences that I would have drawn from that sentence had I read it before reading the book would have turned out to be correct. The author tends to flow with the world, not try to swim against it, which does sometimes create problems. Sardonic humour is for him an excellent coping strategy. He probably has a playful streak that occasionally might get excessive. He has more than a deep affection for San Francisco.
Going To See The Elephant is an engaging, entertaining romp of a first novel that captures all those traits. It is also a “journalism” novel, set around a reporter and another hapless newspaper; a book that came to my attention in a comment from “Former J Prof” in the discussion section of Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. Like Rachman’s book, which I loved, it is a very worthy addition to the “journalism canon”. And more: a tribute to a wonderful city.
One more bit of tease before getting into the actual review, this time from “A Note on the Title” which precedes the novel proper:
In 1858, if the reader had lived in New York City, or Abingdon, Virginia, or Hayes, South Dakota, or any other large or small town in the United States, and a friend had stopped by one afternoon to inquire into your whereabouts, your mother might have said: “He’s going to see the elephant.”
This meant you’d headed west to participate in the gold rush. The elephant was fame, fortune and, with a little luck, luck itself.
The gold rush is long over, but San Francisco has always had an “elephant” to attract the adventurous. For my generation, it was Haight Ashbury, the Diggers, the San Francisco Mime Troupe and a lot of recreational drugs. Fishburne’s novel, published in 2009 and with some definitely other-worldly plot developments, is ample proof that the current era has its own version.
Slater Brown, 25, has arrived from somewhere in America, notebook in hand and, following an $87 ride in a bicycle taxi to the centre of the city (he has “a 250-pound trunk full of first-edition nineteenth-century novels” which makes the pedalling a bit tough), is determined to make his mark as a writer:
For San Francisco’s most recent arrival, there was so much to capture: the city’s bright streets, the shimmer of water just beyond the tallest buildings, the clangor of the cosmopolis. He wanted to see it all — everything — first. Fast and messy. Like running through a museum of great paintings. There would be time to circle back later, to double-check, to consider thoughtfully. But just now he wanted to eat the city.
Preferably with both hands.
I want to write something that will last forever. Something future generations will read with great delight. As if putting their fingers on the pulse of a ghost.
He’d been in San Francisco for exactly forty-seven minutes.
Reality, in the form of totally running out of money, takes less than two weeks to arrive. He is searching half-heartedly and hopelessly for a job that involves writing, when he stumbles across the premises of The Morning Trumpet, once a thriving daily newspaper, now “a gold rush holdover (some called it a hangover)”, reduced to publishing as a weekly: “Currently the newspaper was printed on paper so thin that it was not uncommon to see people trying to read it in the shadow of a building or the corner of a bus shelter — anywhere to keep the sunlight from bleeding through and running the stories all together.”
Slater manages to get a recruitment interview and, much to his pleasant surprise gets hired. The editor-in-chief, Maynard Reed, doesn’t even look at the plagarized clips that Slater has labourously transcribed — rather he is transfixed at the notion that the young man across the desk from him will be the “star” that returns The Trumpet to its former prominence. From Slater’s point of view, the job is an acceptable start to immortality — after all, Hemingway, Orwell, Dickens and Balzac all started out as journalists.
Alas, it doesn’t work out that way. The two functioning editors of The Trumpet, as opposed to the visionary editor-in-chief and his dream of stars, have seen a never-ending troupe of new hires walk in through one door of the office and quickly and permanently exit through another. They are “lifers” in the business, resigned to failure with no other options. They don’t even bother to give Slater an assignment, sending him out onto the streets with the guidance of “go find us a story and you might be our lokul-item man”. If you don’t know the business, that is the shorthand for the junior reporter who wanders around doing “streeters”, interviews with ordinary citizens which supposedly add the human touch to the newspaper’s coverage. Anyone who has ever actually done a “streeter” (yes, it was my first assignment as a summer reporter) knows what hell it is. Ordinary people are, well, ordinary, which is hardly news.
Slater wanders around hopelessly (much like the tryout Cairo stringer in The Imperfectionists if you have read that novel) until he comes across a hand-written sign at San Jose’s Taqueria Espectacular, a Mexican restaurant now being run by Chinese immigrants:
Specializing in questions few understand
Open daily for 50 minutes during lunch
A.M., as he was sometimes known, actually is an accountant for a Spanish insurance company, but he moonlights on his lunch hour offering, for a small fee, to answer any question posed, as long as “yes” or “no” is an acceptable answer. Slater waits in line and asks his question (“Should my story for the The Trumpet be about San Francisco?”) and gets a “Si” in response. More important, on the way out, A.M. gives him a small pocket radio.
And with that, Going To See The Elephant is truly underway. Fishburne has skated close to the edge of reality up to this point — from here on in the novel soars into the surreal and absurd. I don’t want to spoil, but here are a few bullets on what is in store for the reader:
— the radio leads Slater to his Highly Reliable Source (Nirvana for any aspiring reporter) and he will achieve the momentary fame that is possible for a journalist and become a significant force in San Francisco. Alas, journalism does not produce immortality which, of course, is his long-term goal.
— The Trumpet will prosper. Not only will the newsprint be of higher, less see-through quality, there will be more pages and an opportunity for expansion and a return to daily publication. All three of the editors would be very much at home at Rachman’s Rome newspaper, if I can be allowed another reference to The Imperfectionists.
— a world-respected (mad) scientist and inventor, Milo Magnet, in demand at forums ranging from Davos to Washington, not to mention corporate boardrooms and strategic planning retreats, will become a major factor in the book. Milo’s current project is creating computer-generated, but real-life, climate effects ranging from fog banks to hail storms to tornados. It is very much a work-in-progress, but headway is being made.
— Callio, a 23-year-old, beautiful chess prodigy — undefeated and on her way to becoming the world champion — will enter the novel as a potentially disruptive love interest.
That’s a fair number of “elephants” and the reader is required to grant the author a lot of licence to allow the story to go on — trust me, it is worth it. Fishburne keeps the narrative going at a breakneck pace (I’ve only highlighted a few of the characters) and the book never lacks for immediate action, but that is not really what the novel is about.
While the absurd story is fun and the characters more than engaging, in the final analysis this book is a tribute to San Francisco and its history of attracting those in search of “elephants”. You only have to visit the city once to understand that attraction — and each succeeding visit only serves to broaden the understanding. And if you have never been there, don’t worry. Fishburne uses his absurdity and surrealism to underline his love for the city and the version that he creates is rewarding in itself.
So, those thanks in the acknowledgements to the San Francisco Police Department for recovering the manuscript are well-deserved. Buy this book and tuck it on the shelf. And the next time you are looking for a read that is a) more than enjoyable b) laugh-provoking c) pleasantly absurd d) challenging and e) set in a place that makes you want to be there immediately, take it off the shelf and give it a read. You won’t be disappointed.