Wide Awake in America
(Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill · hardcover · $24.95)
Andrei Codrescu is an undeniable genius of the spoken word. This widely acknowledged fact isn't merely due to his thick-as-a-brick Romanian accent, although that definitely doesn't hurt him. Anyone who's heard Codrescu's essays on NPR or elsewhere knows this guy is capable of brilliantly unpredictable commentaries on the human condition. At his best, there's no one better. Like Nabokov, Codrescu is one of those remarkable immigrants who somehow managed to acquire a facility with the English language that transcends all but the very best native speakers.
Codrescu's spoken essays are dense and literary, yet he knows how to entertain the masses. Although he's dabbled in fiction and poetry over the years, those experiments have never quite met with the same adoring response he's received for his wildly anarchic essays.
In his latest novel, Wakefield, Codrescu attempts to integrate his natural facility with the spoken essay into a fictional narrative. The results, though frequently enjoyable, are a mixed bag.
Named after a character in a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story, the titular protagonist earns his living as a motivational speaker who specializes in making his audiences feel worse about themselves. Wakefield is extremely smart, he's got a way with the ladies, and he knows lots about architecture. Unfortunately, he can't seem to find any purpose in life.
At the beginning of the book, he receives a visit from the Devil. Arrogant enough to believe he can outsmart Satan himself, Wakefield strikes a vague bargain with the Prince of Darkness. In one year he must discover a way to inject some genuine meaning into his meaningless life. If he can do that, he'll be spared the inferno.
For the rest of the novel, we follow Wakefield across the country as he interacts with groupies, billionaires, lesbian supermodels and Russian taxi drivers. Some of the best segments of the book are transcripts of Wakefield's largely improvised speeches to corporate audiences. These rants are dazzling in their intellectual dexterity even if, on reflection, they seem largely meaningless. Although Wakefield rarely utters anything truly profound, his method of speaking is so instinctive that you can't help but love the guy. For Wakefield, delivering these lectures is a spiritual catharsis.
The structure of the book gives Codrescu dozens of opportunities to exhibit his greatest strengths as a literary artist. Wakefield is intended as a novel of big ideas, Codrescu's valiant attempt to make sense of the chaotic noise of late 20th century American culture. Wakefield has plenty of fun moments, but the novel doesn't quite work as either a narrative or a coherent analysis of our current state of affairs.
In some ways, Wakefield seems more like a mishmash of disconnected essays than a novel. That's largely because Codrescu's anti-hero is a lot like Codrescu himself. It's much less important what he says than how he says it.
The novel's primary flaw is that Wakefield is never fully fleshed. Perhaps because of this it's hard to care whether or not he finally manages to pull one over on the Devil himself. That said, his latest novel does contain several bursts of vintage Codrescu. For his most loyal fans, that might be enough.