There are certain writers who never seem to have got the critical attention they deserve. This is not because they are bad, but because they are not easy to write about. Their work is eclectic, gathering a hodge-podge of ideas from all over the place, jamming the most diverse elements together, telling it all in a distinctive, idiosyncratic voice. They are usually comic writers (comedy is notoriously difficult to write about, depending so much on timing and touch that it can be made to seem flat and idiotic by a ham-fisted critic). They are often short story writers, their occasional forays into the novel tending to make little mark perhaps because their trademark play with ideas depends for its impact on the speed and immediacy of a short story and does not suit the sustained development of a novel. Think of R. A. Lafferty, Howard Waldrop, perhaps Kelly Link, and perhaps also Eliot Fintushel.
A dead giveaway is that Fintushel's stories—sharply funny, fizzing with ideas—tend to attract epithets such as "crazy," "quirky," or "unique," and his writing gets compared to a fistful of writers who have no obvious characteristics in common. In the blurb for this, his first novel, for instance, Jack Dann describes it as a collaboration between P. G. Wodehouse, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Harlan Ellison, and Woody Allen. Frankly, anyone who knows the work of those writers would realise that such an unholy collaboration would result in an almighty mess. And this novel is not an almighty mess . . . well, not quite.
It does read, however, like a crazy, quirky short story that got away from the author and grew way beyond its natural length. Every so often there will be a distraction that goes on just a bit too long, or a dialogue between secondary characters that lasts for several pages and does nothing but show what a wacky bunch they are (and since every single character in the book, from the threatening Mafioso right down to the cat, is wacky from the moment they are introduced, we don't really need to be shown all this). Add in the repeated phrases—the narrator tells us so often that her idea of heaven is "breakfast with the ones you love" that one starts to long for lunch, or dinner, or perhaps even a fast—and you get the sense that a pretty good novella has been bulked out artificially to qualify as a novel.
Our narrator is Lea Tillim, in her midteens and living alone in an unnamed city where she works as a waitress in a second-rate restaurant. She has, in her own words, killed her face, or to put it another way she has trained herself to show no emotion, believing that thus the world can have no effect upon her. In how she crops her hair and dresses, she shows an aggressively ugly face to the world: the world has not been kind to Lea Tillim. As the novel opens, her only two relationships are with her cat, who talks to her in a language only Lea can understand, and the Yid. The Yid, who we soon learn is called Jack Konar, is a two-bit punk and heroin dealer who also believes he is one of the Chosen of the Chosen. As such, he and a dozen others are to be taken into heaven by God Tetragrammaton aboard a spaceship that Jack is even now building in a forgotten, walled-off room at the back of the local Sears and Roebuck store. Actually, to say he is building it in the room is misleading: the room is the ship. It has to be carefully decorated according to a very particular plan: golden ceiling, mirrored floor, pictures of the pyramids on one wall, pictures of naked women on another, the curtained-off holy of holies at one end and facing it the abyss where God's ship will dock when the room is complete. Lea met Jack when she saved his life, because Lea has the secret ability to kill people with her thoughts and so rescued him when one of his drug deals went wrong. Now she's helping him to build his ship, because she is so disenchanted with life that she hopes he will take her with him.
So far we have a situation of weirdness upon weirdness: talking cats, killing people by thought, God's spaceship, that might be no more than the delusions of a couple of alienated youths. As long as Fintushel hesitates about whether any of this is real or not, the novel remains edgy and involving. Unfortunately, his pacing is all wrong for a novel. Instead of letting the readers be intrigued by the situation, he all too soon makes it plain that everything is meant literally. From that moment on he has to load more and more weirdness onto a frail and shaky structure just to keep the thing moving at the headlong rush he has established. The Mafia discovers Lea's secret skill and sets her up to fix a boxing match, but she ends up disabling the wrong fighter, so all at once a Mafia boss is on their trail. Meanwhile ten disparate men appear who turn out to be the Minyan, or Jack's secret guardians, and one of their number is Lea's long-lost brother. Then Lea's sweet, frail landlady turns out to have the same skill at killing people as Lea does. And finally the devil himself turns up, taking over the body of Lea's brother, single-handedly fighting off the Mafia, the Minyan, and the Lea's landlady's Marquetry Circle. In case you're wondering, the cat has quite sensibly legged it by now. I think I would too, it all gets just a little too weird for its own good.
Parallel to this is the story of Lea's reconnection with the world, which should be the humane counterpoint to the fantastic happenings. But again Fintushel gets the pacing wrong. Just at the point where it would happen if this had been a short story, she suddenly and for no apparent reason starts to grow her hair, put on more feminine clothes and even wear makeup. It's over too quickly, and for the rest of the novel, though Fintushel keeps stopping to tell us how much longer her hair has grown, he has lost the dramatic point.
One other thing is worth pointing out because, well, to be honest you can't miss it. Lea and her brother are explicitly not Jewish; much is made of that all the way through the novel. Yet Lea's narrative is not only laced with Yiddish words, it is told with the bounce and rhythm of Yiddish, the self-deprecation, the misdirection, the exaggeration familiar from New York Jewish comedians. It's Fintushel's shtick, and it gives his short stories their particular verve and character. But at novel length, and coming from a non-Jewish narrator, it becomes rather tiring. (By comparison, Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, another novel that looks forward to the coming of God Tetragrammaton, uses a Yiddish narrative voice at far greater length without it ever becoming obtrusive or grating.)
By the time everything is resolved in a way that is totally predictable from the moment we realise that nothing in the novel is metaphorical the reader feels exhausted, not from the emotional strength of the book but from the remorseless bang-bang-bang of incident, the succession of determinedly quirky characters, and the one-pitch narrative voice. In a short story this would all have been vivid and vivacious, further proof that Eliot Fintushel is one of the most distinctive short story writers of his generation. And there are enough set-piece scenes and sparkling passages of dialogue that remind you how good he can be when fully in control of his material. But at novel length you are just left wondering why he let himself stretch the whole thing out beyond its natural size.
Paul Kincaid is the coeditor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology. His book What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction is forthcoming.