Jake Silverstein: Nothing Happened
Not all books need to be important, and Nothing Happened is successful in style, tone and execution.
A successful formal experiment, Nothing Happened And Then It Did combines fact and fiction in a story that is charming, but could make you seriously depressed.
When I found Nothing Happened on the new books table I was, I think, justifiably skeptical: the subtitle, “A Chronicle in Fact and Fiction,” immediately suggested a publishing industry gimmick; and the cover with two pictures creating a sequential narrative, one of a barren desert landscape, the second that same landscape now dotted with red balloons, suggested something unbearably corny. But Sherman Alexie’s quote on the back of the dust jacket pushed me from mild interest to annoying curiosity. Of course, everyone is playing with the blurred line between fact and fiction these days (as they have since Contre Sainte-Beuve) but Nothing Happened presents an original approach.
In a way, Nothing Happened works in the opposite way that typical works combining fiction and autobiography do: the reader doesn’t have to spend any time wondering what is “real” and what isn’t, because it’s plainly laid out in the table of contents. Although one still spends time wondering what really happened during the fictional sections, the book is more about how reality becomes fiction and the relationship between the two rather than confusing the reader by mixing autobiographical information within fiction. It is an obvious gimmick, but Silverstein is successful in creating his narrative. While the fictional chapters are far-fetched, the book achieves its implicitly stated goal: it works as a single narrative, in tone and structure.
But the formal ambition of the book is more compelling than the stories themselves. The non-fictional essays appeared in Harper‘s as single pieces and were apparently more successful as such. But the fiction falls short, and serves little purpose other than to fill in the gaps and lengthen the story. While the tone of the writing stays consistent, the fiction reaches a bit farther outside of reality than I was willing to go. This is probably entirely subjective–I found little interest in the treasure hunt that was the focus of the fourth chapter (fiction), while the Poets Society meeting in the third (fact) was the most fascinating and well rendered part of the book.
Because of this relative deficiency in content, it’s hard not to see Nothing Happened as just another experiment in the fiction vs. reality theme that may be the most universal obsession of prose writers since Cervantes’ Don Quixote. It is unlikely, without the word “fact” on the cover and contents page, that I would have found enough interest in the story itself to read it as fiction; nor would I have read it as non-fiction for that matter. I was already comparing it to so many other books before I even began reading. Like Philip Roth’s Zuckerman books, which implore the reader not to read them autobiographically, while giving us every reason to believe they are. Or Bret Easton Ellis’ Lunar Park, which starts with the protagonist Bret Easton Ellis, the author of American Pyscho and Less Than Zero, and ends with a whole bunch of craziness. Or Jonathan Safran Foer, who went to the Ukraine looking for his family history and a story to write, and, not finding one, made something up (this is a gross simplification of Everything Is Illuminated).
What’s depressing about Nothing Happened in relation to the rest of these books is that it makes the practice of writing stories seem just a little superficial. In the beginning of the book, Silverstein tells us that he moved to a remote town in west Texas in order to find stories that no one else had access to. But what is the point? Do these stories, about Silverstein’s failures as a poet, a Mexican town’s first McDonald’s, a dangerous car race, really need to be told? Unlike the books mentioned in the previous paragraph, these stories are light on social relevance. Obviously any story holds a certain amount of interest for the reader, but there’s an overwhelming feeling of pointlessness, a feeling that the driving force behind the writing of these stories is simply the author’s desire to be a writer.
Perhaps this is a cynic’s approach. Not all books need to be important, and Nothing Happened is successful in style, tone and execution. Reading the book is not depressing at all. Over thinking its place in the history and practice of prose writing is what got me down.
Sherman Alexie published a story in the June 21, 1999 issue of The New Yorker, which featured something like twenty short stories as the “future of fiction,” called “The Toughest Indian in the World.” I was fourteen when I read it, and it completely shocked me. I don’t want to spoil the ending, so I’ll just say that something unexpected happens, something that might not shock me now, but was unfamiliar to me then. Alexie has always been one of my favorite writers, in part because his fiction so deftly incorporates autobiographical elements. As a fourteen-year-old reading that story, I couldn’t stop thinking about whether the conclusion of the story was real, if it had really happened. If it hadn’t happened in real life, then Alexie had reached. He had written something purposefully shocking to make a story. It felt like a terrible contrivance. I wanted to believe it was real.
That experience is relevant because it was Sherman Alexie that really sold me on Jake Silverstein, so I carried that naive expectation that Nothing Happened would be satisfying in some similar way. “The Toughest Indian in the World” is a tough story, and the reader’s confusion is part of what makes it hard. In comparison, Silverstein’s book is too clean. It is cool as a comment on the process of writing fiction, but the fiction that that process produced doesn’t live up to the theory.