Sunday, January 16, 2011

Messiah, by Andrei Codrescu

I used to listen to Andrei Codrescu's essays on NPR and marvel.   His facility and cleverness with the English language left me shaking my head and wondering how a Romanian immigrant pulled it off. He must have had one hell of an ESL teacher.

The first of Codrescu's novels that I read, Wakefield, is also set in his adoptive home-town of New Orleans.  The title character, a motivational speaker, opens his front door to find Satan on the other side and proceeds -- of course -- to make a deal.  It's funny, surreal, off-beat -- the sort of view you'd expect a literary Romanian expat in New Orleans to take of American life.

Messiah was an earlier novel, published in 1999, and it's an even wackier, more Wallachian vision of the impending millennium.

There were a couple of passages which led me to wonder if Andrei Codrescu is himself a prescient, timeless messenger from another dimension.  In one scene, a manic televangelist imagines the spectre of a glorious, violent destruction of the World Trade Center towers in NY.  In another, Felicity, the protagonist, takes note of where she is:
She had known all her life that the city was below sea level, but she never stopped being startled by the sight of ships over her head. New Orleans was a bowl, hugged tightly by the Mississippi River. The levees that kept the river out were no match for a hurricane or a great flood. Felicity imagined herself floating like a gardenia in a porcelain bowl. It was only a matter of time before the people and buildings were washed away. 'We are doomed,' she said out loud; 'it's the only thing that keeps us going.'

OK, so Codrescu is not the only person to have observed that New Orleans was built in a stupid location, but this paragraph was still a bit chilling, considering that he wrote it 6 years before Hurricane Katrina hit.

The Devil makes a brief appearance in this novel, as do historical figures living in cyberspace, and angels, and they all seem every bit as real as their human associates on the pages.  The wicked televangelist conned Felicity's grandmother into handing over a $2.1 million lottery ticket.  Felicity, who refused to follow her grandmother down the road to Baptist perdition, went into the Catholic cathedral and prayed to the Virgin.  Not at all surprisingly, the Mother of God engaged her in conversation:

'All gone, all gone,' lamented Felicity, 'and me so young. And that preacher devil stole my lottery ticket!'
'Get off it,' said the Virgin. 'After what my son went through, the lottery sounds just comic.'
'Can I help it?' Felicity said, chastened, 'that I only have two modes? The despondent and the comic?'  

The story careens between New Orleans and Jerusalem as the millennium approaches and Codrescu's characters look at the state of the world, who or what might save it, and whether or not it should be saved at all.  He zooms in on the zaniness of several religions, umpteen ethnicities, the living and the dead.  I loved his jab at a fellow New Orleans author.  She may have a larger fan club and doubtless greater wealth, but not even the famous vampire novelist can escape the Romanian's impalement:

In front of Dead Star Books, a crowd of cadaverous youth dressed in black crinoline waited sullenly for Angelique Risotto, the queen of gothic. Her novels of bloodsucking had a huge following of pale, listless death lovers. She owned lots of real estate, including numerous churches, behind which she garaged the hearses that took her to book signings. The release of a new book was typically celebrated by an appearance in a coffin carried by pallbearers, from which she would leap in a red wedding dress. Angelique was as huge as a whale, and many of her starved followers looked as if they'd been half eaten by Angelique. Felicity crossed the street to give them a wide berth.  
A vocabulary addition:  sangfroid, from French, lit. cool blood:  equanimity, poise, self-control, nerve, courage, steadiness.   One of those words I'd seen, guessed at, and never before bothered to look up.

I relished the wit and the eccentricity of this novel.  It was not the Book of the Millennium, in my opinion, but I'm just a mere mortal.  Never been to Romania, don't care much for New Orleans.  Maybe that's the problem.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this. Andrei Codrescu's works sound like something right up my alley. I tried, but couldn't find a Mobi copy of Messiah or Wakening. :(


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