Not So Much At Home On The Range

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 19 2015 @ 11:40am

Jonathon Sturgeon, praising Ben Metcalf’s Against The Country as “one of the more necessary — and most eloquent — expressions of a distinctly American, provincial rage in some years,” names the book the “first good novel of 2015”:

Ben Metcalf’s Against the Country is a strange, essayistic, and autofictional novel that reads like a series of grievances against family, state, soil, dog, snake, chicken, corn, trash heap, school bus, and, well, nearly every thinkable trapping of life in rural America. The book is nothing short of an encyclopedia of American provincial rage in all its irrepressible hideousness. This makes it a thing of beauty.

Metcalf, who was once the literary editor at Harper’s, cultivates an archaic, idiom-damaged style that meshes two regionalisms: the clarity of Midwestern sentences (he was born in Illinois) and the unabashedly cadence-drunk prose of the American South. This makes sense, given that the book’s target is Virginia, and, more specifically, Goochland, the hilarious but honest-to-God actual name for a town where Thomas Jefferson went to school and where the author was raised.

Jason Sheehan also has rapturous praise for the novel, calling it “a book that is like a test-to-failure experiment on modern literature as a whole”:

Against the Country is a supremely challenging book — eschewing plot or, you know, anything in the goddamn world happening, and not made for relaxing with but, rather, for obsession. I read it sometimes out of ecstasy at Metcalf’s virtuoso sprays of words, working his keyboard like Horowitz at the piano (and sometimes, oftentimes, more like Errol Garner playing stride), and sometimes out of rage at its author for being so clever and persnickety and in love with the sound of his own voice and trickeries.

But regardless, it is absolutely and completely worth all investment of time and effort, because it is an undeniably beautiful object, sharp as a new razor, its wandering and deliberate plotlessness, by the end of things, congealing into something better: a story.

 

Bronwen Dickey also praises the novel, but remarks that “there comes a point when virtuosity, even at its most entertaining, simply isn’t enough”:

Unmoored from larger themes, the once-amusing winks and nudges start to grate, the footnoted asides nested within other asides become exhausting, and you just get tired of being grabbed by the lapels so forcefully and so often. Even the most devout admirer can begin to feel, after too many pages of plotless pétit allegro, stuck in some as-yet-undiscovered circle of hell with Yngwie Malmsteen or Joe Satriani: The good news is that every note in every solo is sounded with exquisite perfection. The bad news is that every note is part of a solo.

In Against the Country, that point of derailment happens in Book 5, almost 200 pages in, when the narrator abandons his social critique and focuses on his abusive father, devoting several incomprehensible chapters to the man’s middling appraisal of Salinger. … That abrupt shift wouldn’t have been so disappointing had the rest of the book not been so promising and so ferociously original, and had it not been written with such obvious, even obsessive, care. It’s possible that the final chapters are, in a nimble-smarty way that is most definitely beyond my patience, part of a prank that only Metcalf and a small clique of eccentric geniuses are in on (“Better to hate at the end of a book, I say, than to love,” Metcalf tells us at novel’s conclusion), or that fans of ultra-trippy metafiction will see these sections as a triumphant rebuke of the reader’s expectations. Oh, you want an ending? I’m sorry. Have some oddball vignettes about family dogs instead.

Adam Rosen offers a mixed review:

Life is different, we learn, in “town,” the narrator’s term for those places with a population density to rival Mayberry. Town is consistently deployed without an article or any identifiable referent, as much a state of mind as a physical location. Its civilizing nature, however, saps its power to haunt. Town may be a refuge from horror, but it is also boring. It was the country that gave us Thomas Jefferson, and corn, and the Carter Family, as the book reminds us.

At least, I think so. Themes are in here, buried beneath the thickets of prose, but Lord if you don’t have to work to find them. Against the Country presents a challenge many may relish. It offers a strange, imaginative take on our national mythology. Still, the story takes so much effort to comprehend that exhaustion sets in long before its merits can be appreciated. What we’re left with is a sense of heavy atmosphere, a vague feeling that all is far from well.