P: A Novel
Andrew Lewis Conn
An older Jew with wife issues spends his day wandering around his home city, before encountering and eventually shepherding a self-righteously intelligent young gentile who is metaphysically burdened by the world's weight yet immature enough to piss glibly into the wind. The odd pair embarks on a phantasmagoric epic to a home both literal and metaphoric, taking place entirely on an utterly ordinary warm June day.
Set on June 17, 1996, Andrew Lewis Conn's first novel P bears more than surface similarities to James Joyce's Ulysses--it's Conn's blueprint. His Bloom is Cornell University alumnus Benji Seymour, a 33-year-old New York porn producer who's financially floundering--from not moving to the West Coast, or to video, when the industry's tide shifted--and emotionally embroiled from the suicide of his ex-wife and former franchise star, Penny Pigeon. Conn's Stephen Dedalus is the precociously sharp 10-year-old Stephanie "Finn" Welland, a runaway fleeing private school and home life with her divorced mother. Benji's Manhattan perambulations cross Finn's cry for attention at the foot of a midtown office building, setting off an oblique odyssey to Brooklyn and back to Finn's upper west side high rise.
This Joycean gambit pays off in pure wit. Conn imbues both Finn's and Benji's internal monologues with coy allusions to their literary forbears and wry Americana (the protagonists' diminutives wink at Huck and the cinematic stray mutt who saves children). Conn also has a scholar's familiarity with his model, toying with neologism double-speak and Joyce's changing chapter schemes. (His most engaging twist turns the surreal "Circe" play into a script.)
The problem is that Conn's concept trumps his story. P's veneer is a saga of loss (Benji's ex-wife, Finn's father) and redemption, but Conn's ingenuity betrays his storytelling, sullying his more lively turns (such as calling pornography "pinot," a word masquerade almost as daft as Nicholson Baker calling erotica "rot") with leaden wordplay ("the child was jung and not easily freudened"). Worse, Benji's porn backstory reads like Boogie Nights redux or mere punch lines (the film title Lawrence of a Labia makes you wish Conn had spent as much time plotting as he did punning). This young writer unquestionably has a lively grip on how to say things; all he lacks is something to say.