Howard Norman’s Intro to Paradise or Eat Your Face

Here’s Howard Norman’s lovely introduction to SFWP’s upcoming title, Paradise, or, Eat Your Face by Alan Cheuse.

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I read these novellas the way one might the most highly esteemed Edo-period Japan triptych: in its entirety the screen orchestrates a wonderful story, but each panel has an autonomously provocative immediacy, and is itself deeply gratifying. And allow me to suggest that the most stalwart unifying element between these novellas is the act of writing itself — to say the least, Cheuse is preoccupied by the severe paradoxes and intimate consequences of a writing life.

In the title piece, “Paradise, or Eat Your Face” — and believe me, the word paradise is used in a way so as to subvert every convenient notion of it — Alan Cheuse achieves the very incarnation of Chekhov’s concept of a novella: that it should contain the force and ambitions of a novel, replete with full portraitures, but has to compress — and deftly camouflage the actual passing of — time itself. After all, one is allowed fewer pages! In part sponsored by Cheuse’s signature gift for constructing a story-as-biography, in “Paradise, or Eat Your Face,” we follow the life of Susan Wheelis, a travel writer so available to erotic recklessness (existentially she is in dire straits ), that despite the fact that travel writing is about place, Wheelis seems almost chronically dislocated. It might be said that her very soul is without portfolio. In presenting Susan Wheelis to us, Cheuse is arguably as empathic a writer as he has ever been. When an assignment takes Wheelis to Bali, she becomes vulnerable to, amongst other things, rather exotic predations, right up until readers are spun hard back to words in the title (“eat your face”), as the story ends on a note of arresting strangeness.

The Mexican-born quarter-Jew Rafe Santera (Rafe might be construed to mean raffish) is at the heart of the second novella, “Care”. Cheuse portrays him as a timeless sort of romantic figure, though with a tinge of philosophical misanthropy (as in his platitude of seduction, “If you want a woman’s body you have to court her soul.”). This novella tours us through Santera’s life from his utmost intellectual and physical charisma (he is a marvelous problem of puer aeternus) to — the most harrowing of declines — his being a stroke victim (though miraculously his libido recovers at full-tilt) attended to by one of his many great women adorers. Set primarily in Berkeley and the Central American rain forest, at its center “Care” is a highly unusual and, in indispensable ways, a politically incorrect love story.

In the third novella, “When The Stars Threw Down Their Spears and Watered Heaven with Their Tears”, we are with the writer Paul Brunce who “had never been one for cannibalizing his life to use in his work.” However, readers will be grateful that Alan Cheuse has chosen not to keep to Brunce’s principles on his behalf, and tells us everything about Brunce’s family life writ large (“the drug-toting philandering prick of a father of ours”). Every page of this novella is full of life; and yet the whole is struck through with a kind of elegiac anticipation. This is a great story, a fearless story about art and life, and the need to keep thinking about both without cease. And a singularly impressive thing about it is the way Cheuse seamlessly folds in the deeply affecting life of Brunce’s sister, Mira, who after much suffering, ends up in a sanitarium. In words, Cheuse is a marvelous watercolorist — in turn pointillist and impressionist — of physical and cultural landscape, and always has been, in stories, novels, memoirs, and travel writing. In this third novella, for example, the coast of California around Santa Cruz is definitely a place where Cheuse’s narrative imagination intensely comes alive. It is a beautiful experience how exactingly he renders the place.

Erudite, emotionally honest, and without a hint of sentimentalism, these novellas often suggest in various tonalities of comprehension that the very act of being alive is essentially tenuous. At times Cheuse seems to be convinced, too, that character is indeed fate, and that all we can really do is try and live as fully as possible every minute of every day, a quite practical philosophy, to my mind. But what I want most to say is that Alan Cheuse — by intuition and naturally from years of coming to knowledge of himself as a writer — has chosen the perfect form in which to convey the stories he wants to tell: The novella. And while Cheuse writes about the here and now, the living present, the recognizable world, still what is sometimes sent down a reader’s spine is a frisson far colder than one finds in any orthodox or even unorthodox ghost story. This is to say that the powerfully written lives of Alan Cheuse’s characters in equal measure haunt themselves and us.

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