Thin Rising Vapors
By Seth Rogoff
Sagging Meniscus Press
Reviewed by Jacob M. Appel
A novel of ideas is inherently a courageous undertaking.This is particularly true in the United States where parochial tastes run towards comedies of manners and realist dramas: American literature is far more reflective of Edith Wharton and Sinclair Lewis than of Thomas Mann or Aldous Huxley. In her preface to The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing—herself one of her generation's leading philosophical novelists—described the challenge of the novel of ideas as one of concealment: "[t]he book is alive and potent and fructifying and able to promote thought and discussion only when its plan and shape and intention are not understood, because that moment of seeing the shape and plan and intention is also the moment when there isn't anything more to be got out of it." The success of an authentic novel of ideas demands both a flavorful story to distract the reader andan underlying set of worthwhile inquiries. Or, metaphorically, one must hide the medicine in the applesauce. Such a rare and audacious book is Thin Rising Vapors, the second novel by Prague-based expatriate and Kafka translator Seth Rogoff.
Thin Rising Vapors is structured as a postmodern mystery. (Think Umberto Eco's The Name of the Roseor John Fowles's The Magus.) Ezra Stern, a scholar of Medieval Judaism, sets out to investigate the suicide of his childhood campmate, Abel Prager, who has isolated himself inside a lakefront Maine cabin and ingested poisonous mushrooms. Their friendship forms the emotional core of the narrative, and through roughly three decades of escapades, the complexity and singularity of that relationship shines through. So does the clumsiness of adolescent loyalty and the emerging barriers to intimacy, built into most adult friendships, that are exacerbated between heterosexual males.
Both Ezra and Abel are highly flawed. In one particularly harrowing moment, Abel's lie of omission about a fellow summer bunkmate, Leo Schulz, generates a solidarity among his companions that leads to Leo's universal ostracism. During his sojourn in the Maine woods, Abel conducts simultaneous romantic relationships with two unwitting sisters. Ezra, increasingly immersed in Abel's tragedy, grows indifferent to the needs of his own wife and children—behavior consistent with subtle hints of chronic distance from his family of origin. Yet these flaws only make the pair more convincing and the urgency of Ezra's sleuthing more compelling.
The novel is also intertextual in the spirit of A. S. Byatt's Possession. We learn Abel's story as Ezra does: through letters and poems and quotations typed by Abel on his late mother's Remington typewriter and left behind in the cabin's office and attic. Drawing upon an extraordinary breadth of familiarity with canonical literature, Rogoff pays tribute to a wide range of other novels of ideas from Robinson Crusoeto Moby-Dick. He also includes heavy doses of Henry David Thoreau. He is aided by two erudite, insightful protagonists. Huxley once warned that "the chief defect of the novel of ideas is that you must write about people who have ideas to express—which excludes all but about 0.01 per cent of the human race." Whether that precise claim is true (an argument best left to statisticians), one can safely say that Rogoff supplies us with thinkers both wise and refreshing. Early during his retreat into the countryside, Abel asks, "Who is Ahab, then, without his whale, without the endless expanse of ocean in which to hunt?" Much of the exploration that follows seeks to answer this question, doing so without losing our investment in the "applesauce" of love and intrigue. Throughout the novel, Rogoff also weaves references to the Biblical tale of Cain murdering Abel—a narrative that implicitly raises questions regarding Ezra's role in his own Abel's demise.
Yet if Thin Rising Vaporsis a novel of ideas, and a stimulating one at that, it also contains elements of a bildungsroman, albeit among the most intellectually challenging bildungsromane ever written. Rogoff brings to life the allure and mystery of summer camp, but also the unique nostalgia that summer camp engenders—both in real time and then with each passing year. Ezra observes of this particular form of memory: "What a cruel joke that a child's belief does not last, that it is replaced with a constant search for substitutes. But nothing can fill the void." Abel, whose mother has died after his second summer at camp, spends much of his adulthood seeking such a substitute. His inability to find one not only leads to his unravelling, but lures his friends and lovers toward that same vortex.
Rogoff's first novel, The Raven: A Preface, was a fascinating cerebral set piece that brought a celebrated Czech translator to his New England hometown for a tête-à-tête with a provocative childhood friend. (Full disclosure: I was invited to blurb that book by the publisher, which is how I became aware of Rogoff's writing.) The work was original, almost unclassifiably so, yet Thin Rising Vapors pushes the envelope further. It asks harder questions, raises more doubts, and drives readers to interrogate their own quests for meaning. If Rogoff's first novel was periscopic, his second novel is impressively panoramic, as though Paul Auster had reimagined The Brothers Karamazov.
Not all of the questions raised by Thin Rising Vapors, either factual or thematic, are answered in the text. Nevertheless, the novel's conclusion proves highly satisfactory. Rogoff displays a notable gift for recognizing what to share and what to withhold, and precisely when in the narrative to do each—and therein lies the novel's stirring magic. As Abel writes in one of his journal entries, "Too many perfectly fine moments are ruined by giving away the game. The unknown often needs to linger, like a fine spirit on the lips."