Letting ”Fieldwork” go to waste
This isn’t exactly a book review; it’s more one of those good news/bad news things. Both concern a new novel called Fieldwork, written by Mischa Berlinski and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
First the good news: This is a great story. It has an exotic locale, mystery, and a narrative voice full of humor and sadness. Reading Fieldwork is like discovering an unpublished Robertson Davies novel; as with Davies, you can’t stop reading until midnight (good), and you don’t hate yourself in the morning (better). It’s a Russian doll of a read, filled with stories within stories. The first belongs to the book’s narrator, also called Mischa Berlinski. The fictional Berlinski is a lazy-ass journalist in Thailand who makes out — barely — reviewing books, music, and men’s clothes. Mischa’s friend Josh has his own story to tell. ”You ever been in a Thai jail?” he asks Mischa over lunch, and we’re off and running.
Prison is where Josh met Martiya van der Leun, an American anthropologist who studied an obscure mountain tribe, ended up in prison for the murder of a missionary, and killed herself by swallowing a ball of opium (what a way to go).
All this happens in the first 15 pages, and I defy any reader not to press on. The core of Fieldwork is the Maugham-esque tragedy of Martiya, who loses not just one culture but two, for the oldest reason in the world: love. It’s also the story of David Walker, who leaves his missionary calling to follow Jerry Garcia and his bandmates across America. He is called back to Thailand — and his fatal appointment with Martiya — when he hears Jerry sing a hymn at a Dead concert in Eugene, Oregon.
It’s the mystery of Martiya and David that tugs the reader through these colorful, smoothly written pages. How could two such fundamentally nice people end up as murderer and victim? Berlinski eventually provides an answer that’s as shocking as it is satisfying.
If this is such a good read, what’s the bad news? That’s easy. As of March 26, Fieldwork was No. 24,571 on the Amazon best-seller list, and not apt to go much higher. The reason why is illustrative of how the book biz became the invalid of the entertainment industry, and why fiction sales are down across the board (with the possible exception of chick lit). Critics, with their stubborn insistence that there’s a difference between ”literature” and ”popular fiction,” are part of the problem, but the publishers themselves, who have bought into this elitist twaddle, are also to blame. Since we’re talking Fieldwork, take Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Publishing houses have two faces. In the case of FSG, Jekyll belongs to the distinguished company that has published such award-winning novels as Gilead, The Great Fire, and The Corrections. Hyde is the side which seems to proclaim ”Don’t read this, it’s too smart for the likes of you.”
Look at the covers. Gilead’s is a turquoise smear. The Great Fire’s is a red smear. And Fieldwork’s cover is a green smear (probably jungle) and a gray smear (probably sky). It communicates nothing.
Or take the titles. The Corrections could be about revising term papers, and Fieldwork could be a treatise on farming. In his acknowledgments, Berlinski tells us the editor hung that says-nothing title on the book. The guy should have stuck to editing. And if a writer himself can’t come up with a title that makes prospective buyers itch to pick up the damn thing, leave the job to the PR department. Both Gilead and The Corrections eventually sold well, but not because of the publisher; both won prizes, and Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections) had Oprah going for him.
I picked Fieldwork up because I saw interesting words on the flap (fascination, taboo, sexual), but when I think about how close I came to passing it by, I just get mad. As it was, I grabbed it on impulse, thinking: I know you don’t want me to buy you, you dull-looking thing, but I’m going to. Just to spite you.
Why, why, why would a company publish a book this good and then practically demand that people not read it? Why should this book go to waste? Is it because there are people in publishing who believe that readers who liked The Memory Keeper’s Daughter are too dumb to enjoy a killer novel like Fieldwork? If so, shame on them for their elitism. Hey, guys, why not put the heroine on the jacket? Martiya in the jungle at night, or embracing her lover, or dancing with the native tribe of which she almost becomes a member? In other words, why not actually sell this baby a little?
It occurs to me that publishers may confuse ”selling” with ”pimping.” If so, here’s a flash: They’re not the same. Sell this one, and you make it possible for this guy to write the next one. You’re doing him a mitzvah. And not just him. What about the ordinary reader? In case you forgot, guys, we are your friends, not unwashed, unlettered, germ-laden interlopers at the literary feast.
You don’t want to do your job? Okay, I’ll do it.
Under the drab title and the drab cover, there’s a story that cooks like a mother. It’s called Fieldwork.