Tom LeClair's <em><b>Passing</em></b> Trilogy: Recovering Adventure in the Age of Post-Genre

Tom LeClair's Passing Trilogy: Recovering Adventure in the Age of Post-Genre

2009-01-16

Surveying the decline of adventure as a culturally relevant theme, Steffen Hantke argues that Tom LeClair’s Passing Trilogy finds new ways of revalidating adventure for a millennial world of bourgeois security and moderation.

1. Farewell to Adventure

Although adventure continues to thrive in popular entertainment - as thriller or action adventure film at your local cineplex - there is a sneaking suspicion that, in its literary form, its days are numbered.In the context of contemporary literature, the discursive field of adventure narratives is defined not purely by literature, but also by popular cinema - the unusually high rate of cinematic adaptations of literary adventure testifies to this intimate connection. Though I will reference specific examples from either media whenever appropriate, I am assuming that, in the formation of a tradition within popular culture, both are inextricably intertwined. After a prehistory in quest and travel narrative, in “merchant adventuring (and state-sponsored piracy) in the early modern period” (Neale 76), adventure came into existence as a distinct and recognizable genre with the age of exploration. It firmly established itself “with the spread of empire during the course of the nineteenth century” (Neale 76) as a cultural form crucial to the global expansion of certain European nations, serving as a recruitment tool for imperial service, laying the ideological groundwork for imperial ideology, and providing a repository of knowledge, in the Foucaultian sense, of the global in its multiple and complex relations with the national. Much of the twentieth century provided fertile ground for adventure, if not in the context of fading nineteenth-century imperialism, then as a response to the new global realities of the Cold War. As the traditional adventure narrative morphed into the distinctly twentieth-century genre of the thriller, especially in the form of the political and espionage thriller, which maintained the link between adventure and global travel, James Bond and Jason Bourne picked up where Richard Hannay and Alan Quartermain left off (with George McDonald Frasier’s Flashman and Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey passing the torch). For a cogent and comprehensive discussion of the genealogical progression from Haggard to Buchan, and, via Ambler, to Ian Fleming’s James Bond, see Simon Winder, The Man Who Saved Britain (2006) 28-33. Winder’s discussion throughout the entire book is infused with a sense of bewilderment and even embarrassment about the popularity of the Bond franchise, especially in his native Britain, which can be taken as an illustration or symptom of the historical obsolescence of adventure.

Since the end of the Cold War, however, adventure has had a tough time retaining its footing. Newer conceptions of post-Cold War imperialism - most notably the concept of Empire, defined by Hardt and Negri - apparently provide far less amiable opportunities for adventure than the British Empire (upon which the sun did set, eventually). Contemporary imperial bureaucracies have yet to produce their Kipling. Contemporary corporate raiders may see themselves as adventurers, but their own culture does not share this grandiose and dubiously self-aggrandizing vision. Consequently, popular narratives in search of true adventure draw increasingly from imaginary spaces and fictional histories - of Middle Earth or Narnia or the Federation of Planets - or resort to historical displacement; post-millennial Empire masquerades as the 1950s in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, or as the orientalist Egypt of the Mummy franchise. Grounded in a historically obsolete social and political context, recent incarnations of the adventure narrative, therefore, tend to be either carbon copies of their historical predecessors, thinly veiled or variously “updated,” or postmodern exercises in nostalgia. About the upcoming Guy Ritchie project featuring Sherlock Holmes, for example, Andrew Pulver speculates: “Are we to infer [from the first still available to the public] that in this gleaming new version, as they attempt to update the deer-stalkin’, cape-wearin’, cocaine-injectin’ detective, that Guy Ritchie is doing something as blatant as sexing Holmes up?” (guardian.co.uk). Pulver’s skepticism resonates with the sense that superficial modifications, however radical or revisionist they might be, cannot revitalize the adventurer as a viable cultural figure for the present day.

Outside the world of popular culture, the figure of the adventurer is hardly ever the subject of nostalgic affection. Highbrow culture, especially in the context and wake of literary modernism, has always had its problems with adventure anyway, perhaps because of its preoccupation with the life of the body over the life of the mind, or of its emphasis on plot over character or style. In highbrow fiction’s gravitational field, the adventurer has frequently been the target of postcolonial critique, the stories about him providing opportunities for deconstructing the ideologies that drive him. His exploits are literally that: acts of exploitation; and the touch of mystique that used to come with swashbuckling, with risking your life and defying death, with racing against the clock, riding to the rescue at the eleventh hour, and hanging from cliffs - that intrigue and mystery have lost their luster in an age of postcolonial rule. In fact, postcolonial thought, in its widespread effects on contemporary Western culture, has thoroughly discredited the adventurer. Whatever has survived of adventure to the present days appears as a repository of historically obsolete, chauvinist, reactionary thought. By and large, adventure has become a political embarrassment, an escapist or compensatory fantasy, palatable only when processed through modernist irony or postmodern play. Obviously, critical opinion is not quite as homogeneous as I have been suggesting; just as twentieth-century adventure in literature and film is diverse enough to include texts of all political shades and colors. In his discussion of “Social Implications n the Hollywood Genres,” for example, Jean-Loup Bourget points out that the Hollywood swashbuckler, made famous by director Michael Curtiz and star Erroll Flynn, is perfectly capable of describing “the way a colonial system rests on political oppression, slavery and torture; [both The Seahawk and Captain Blood] advocate violent revolution as the only means of destroying such a system” (56). Nonetheless, Bourget is aware that the adventure film belongs to “the genres that are often dismissed as escapist and alienating” (52), and that political heterodoxy in mainstream adventure is the result not of what Hollywood directors “can openly do within the Hollywood system” but rather of what they can “imply about American society in general and about the Hollywood system in particular” (58).

Let me quickly cite two recent examples of these polarized responses from contemporary American literature. Gary Shteyngart’s novel Absurdistan (2007) is a political satire that charts its main characters’ “adventures” in an imaginary politically destabilized former republic of the Soviet Union. Grossly overweight and largely adverse to physical action, Shteyngart’s protagonist is an odd gloss on the classic adventurer, an argument for the impossibility and absurdity of adventure. Michael Chabon’s recent novels (The Adventures of Cavalier and Clay [2005] and Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure [2008]) both feature the word “adventure” prominently in their titles. Though the return to “adventure” signals Chabon’s larger interest in the rehabilitation of genre literature, there is a sense that what might appear at first glance as nostalgia in Chabon’s efforts is, in fact, not only driven by a revisionist agenda but also strongly meta-textual, drawing on a rich body of cultural precursors (the world of superhero comics, e.g., in Cavalier and Clay).

One other factor plays an important role in adventure’s decline, though this one is less tied to current historical and social developments and more to the compensatory role that adventure has played, throughout most of its history, as a form of popular entertainment. That is to say, those readers and viewers who enjoyed adventure always had to contend with the fact that their own lives were markedly different from those of the heroes and heroine they admired. If, in fact, adventure were to arrive on the doorstep of bourgeois life, it would hardly be welcome. The excess inherent in adventure, its connection to matters of life and death, its embrace of risk and danger - all this is anathema to the ethos of moderation that defines bourgeois life. It is hardly a coincidence that the two hallmark works of literature that deal with their respective protagonist’s attempt to introduce adventure to his or her life - Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary - happen to be cautionary tales. Historically speaking, the term “bourgeois” does not fit Cervantes’ character as well as Flaubert’s, but in the final instance, Cervantes articulates a sensibility that resonates quite readily with Flaubert’s anti-bourgeois sentiment. The gallant knight and the provincial doctor’s bored wife, each seduced by adventure literature (courtly and/or romantic), come to a sorry end, their pursuit of agency ultimately incompatible with the controlled, moderate bourgeois life. As bourgeois society loses its memories of the political forms of organization that preceded it (except for the most formalized, stylized, and ritualized forms of expression), and thus from adventure’s historical origins, the discrepancy between adventurers’ lives and the audience members’ actual lives enjoying their exploits grows to a degree that draws attention to itself. How inept or unwilling we would be at being adventurers - this is satire’s take on this discrepancy; how catastrophically or fatally adventure was to affect us, were we to encounter it - this is tragedy’s take. One way or the other, adventure can no longer function as it did in the nineteenth century; reduced to the role of compensatory fantasy, it is but a pale shadow of its former self.

Though elements of the satiric mode are deployed in contemporary work such as Shteyngart’s, there was another strain of American fiction, preceding these recent literary attempts at satirizing or deconstructing adventure. As early as the 1970s, writers such as Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo were interested in adventure as a broad cultural concept, subjecting it to rigorous interrogation. See Steffen Hantke, “ ‘God save us from bourgeois adventure’: The Figure of the Terrorist in Contemporary Conspiracy Fiction,” Studies in the Novel. 28.2 (Summer 1996): pp. 218-42. Less grounded in satire than Pynchon’s work, DeLillo’s novels in particular took on the concept of adventure in new political contexts and established, for writers that were to follow in his footsteps, a thematic agenda worthy of further unpacking. At the top of this agenda are the aggressive maneuvers of multinational businesses and corporations (Running Dog), of mass tourism (The Names), and of international terrorism (Players, The Names). At the core of DeLillo’s concern with adventure is what many critics have discussed under the umbrella of “agency panic,” a term originally coined by Timothy Melley which refers to “anxieties arising out of a sensed loss of autonomy and individuality” (Pratt 300). Within these areas, DeLillo and his followers found new ways of thinking critically about adventure’s continued relevance - as a concept or ideology that influences people’s actions, and as a mode of experience, a set of expectations, an iconography, or a commodity.

2. The Passing Trilogy: Structure and Theme

Though writing of the types exemplified by Shteyngart and Chabon seems to dominate the current literary landscape, the tradition that derives from DeLillo continues to thrive. One of its practitioners is Tom LeClair, who, as a professional academic, began to branch out into fiction in the mid-1990s. How strongly LeClair’s fiction, in its intertwined publishing history, is dominated by questions about personal and political ethics becomes palpable in his stand-alone novel Well-Founded Fear (2000) For a detailed discussion of the novel, especially as a piece of political fiction, see Steffen Hantke, “Talking Back to the Owners of the World: Some Thoughts on Politics in Tom LeClair’s Well Founded Fear and Richard Powers’ Plowing the Dark. ebr: electronic book review (November 2001). , but is explored in its most comprehensive form in the trilogy of novels entitled, respectively, Passing Off (1996), Passing On (2004), and Passing Through (2008). In all subsequent parenthetical citations, the three novels will, for brevity’s sake, be identified as “POn” “POff,” and “PThrough.” All three novels are political fictions that operate within the agenda that is also at work in Well-Founded Fear, though what is largely relegated to the background in the latter novel - a metafictional awareness of factors that are rooted in popular culture rather than politics or bureaucracies - is brought squarely into the foreground of the trilogy. Its three novels provide the reader with a critical examination of the concept of adventure and how it shapes actions and perceptions in a contemporary bourgeois world. Neither nostalgic nor openly satiric in their take on adventure, the trilogy finds a series of specific contexts in which adventure seems either still possible; or in which adventure is taking place but remains unrecognized as such; or in which adventure functions as a cognitive or cultural framework used by characters to perceive and assess their own experiences and actions. More specifically, LeClair’s trilogy deals with professional sports, the culture of death and dying, international tourism, and political intrigue. Before assessing each one of these specific areas as a reflection of adventure, let me introduce the trilogy and describe some of their overarching literary and conceptual features.

In all three novels, Tom Le Clair charts a period in the life of his middle-aged protagonist Michael Keever, which is largely defined by professional change. Undoubtedly, there are changes in Keever’s personal life as well, most notably the divorce from his wife Ann and its impact on their daughter Sara. But private matters - like family relations, friendships, and romantic attachments - tend to align themselves to the stronger force of his chosen professions, as temporary or undesired as they might be. Starting out as a professional basketball player in the first novel, Keever embarks on a business venture called Terminal Tours in the second novel, and ends up - if this is an apt colloquialism for a novel with the word “through” in its title - as a writing instructor at a small business college in the final book of the trilogy. In fact, Keever’s final destination of the final installment of the trilogy is the University of Cincinnati, an institution where, not coincidentally, LeClair himself was a professor of literature (PThrough 287). None of these professional changes are clean breaks; as Keever abandons one profession and moves on to the next, sometimes by choice and sometimes by necessity, there are always overlaps, grey areas in which something or other is carried over. In these changes of professions there is a hint of the Bildungsroman, as Keever’s sense of ethics and politics evolves from one novel to the next and he gradually becomes the person he “really” is.

Though Passing Through’s jacket copy advertises it as “a stand-alone novel,” the three books form a trilogy of such topical tightness and intertextual density that one might very well speak of a single novel, broken up for thematic reasons into three seemingly discrete entities. Announced through the common trope in their titles, all three novels explore aspects of the concept of “passing” - a word put through a variety of lexical permutations by way of altering and expanding its adjunct prepositions. In the context of Michael Keever’s career as a basketball pro, the term invokes ideas revolving around social relations and networks: sharing, organizing, and connecting, but also delegating, dissociating, and exculpating. In other professional contexts, it calls upon ideas of deception (“passing oneself off” as someone else), of death (“passing on” as a euphemism for dying), of the transitory nature of human life (“passing through” an experience to emerge as a changed person). It organizes the psychology of character (someone who merely “passes through” instead of settling down and forming attachments, someone who “passes on” what he has or holds in possession), as much as the unique nature of place (geographic and national borders that organize the passing of characters from one space to another).

Beyond the significance of the trilogy’s common central character on the one hand, and of its central metaphor on the other, the least of the forces holding the three books together is strong narrative linearity. At first glance, all three novels tell one coherent story - that of Michael Keever’s life (he is in his late twenties in the first, around forty in the third installment of the trilogy). And yet, though the novels are arranged in sequence, and though events in one novel serve as causes for events in the next (e.g. an accident on the basketball court ends Keever’s career as a player, propelling him into professions increasingly removed from the game; a prolonged journey with a terminal female cancer patient leads to Keever’s attempt to free a female human rights activist from Algeria), the narrative has a tendency to move in ways that, at first glance, may appear erratic, yet eventually reveal themselves as purposefully constructed in stops and starts. This alternation between periods of stasis and kinesis - which is systematically expanded into a poetic examination of self-reflection versus mimesis, as well as a political examination of contemplation versus action and bourgeois moderation versus escapist adventure - is an aesthetic means of articulating a theme that, in its overreaching presence throughout all three novels, is a far more significant marker of coherence than narrative linearity.

The progression of Keever’s life story aside - what he himself repeatedly refers to as his “autobiography” - Le Clair takes great pains to divert readers from a singularly forward motion through the three novels. One way of diverting narrative linearity into loops is to withhold essential information, and to postpone the release of this information until the following novel. From there, it retroactively affects the understanding of the previous novel, sending the reader back in order to reassess and revise the earlier reading experience. Passing On, for example, ends with a long journey Keever is taking with a woman named Alice, a terminal cancer patient, with whom he visits a series of sites devoted to dying and the mourning and remembrance of the dead. During the journey, Alice’s health begins to improve - miraculously, one might think. The novel ends with Alice challenging Michael by asking, “ ‘Where will you take me next?’” (POn 158). As the final sentence of the novel, this suggests that Alice might live and their shared journey might continue. It is only after 66 pages of the subsequent novel that the story truly ends: with Alice dying of cancer and Keever promising that he will be there for her “until the end.”

A more striking example of this unraveling of narrative linearity would be Passing Off, which advertises itself as a memoir by Michael Keever, written, suitably enough, in the first person. The novel opens with a fictional colophon page that reads: “Passing Off: A Season in the Greek Basketball Association by Michael Keever” published by “The Full Court Press, New York” and having previously been published in Athens (5). Though the subsequent novel, Passing On, sustains LeClair’s fiction of its predecessor’s publishing history, Michael Keever, having returned as a first-person narrator, also reveals in the opening section of the novel that Passing Off is “the book Ann [Keever’s wife] wrote about my season in the Greek league” (POn 24). Though this first mention of Ann’s authorship of Passing Off comes across as somewhat nonchalant and casual, its implications are later examined in some depth: how exactly did Ann portray her husband in this novel, and why? Did she already write the first signs of their marriage’s impending disintegration into this novel - a possibility which, if true, would affect the reading of the novel to come, Passing Through, which charts in some detail Keevers’ life after Michael’s and Ann’s divorce? And, finally, what are the practical consequences of Michael Keever being publicly identified as author of a novel he did, in fact, not write? As LeClair distributes pieces of essential information about one novel throughout the other two, he undercuts both the ontological and the diegetic certainty which is necessary for readers to invest themselves fully into their linear narrative progression.

As a result, all three novels revel in uncertainty: about actual events versus their fictional representations, about characters’ perceived versus their actual motivations, and about authorship and the claims to having achieved authenticity and veracity. Of the three novels in the trilogy, it is the final volume, Passing Through, in which Michael Keever is hired as a writing instructor at Queen City College, which elevates this uncertainty to the level of overriding theme, exploring it in a series of conversations and reflections about the nature of non-fiction and its claim to grasp reality.

In their exploration of the act and process of writing, the three novels seem to be headed toward a state of absolute narrative stasis with the third and final installment. It is in Passing Through that Michael Keever’s successive professions - after the highly kinetic movements around the basketball courts in the U.S. and Greece and the repeated trips around the globe as director of Terminal Tours - have finally taken him more deeply into the process of writing. We are no longer out in the world; we are moving more deeply into the written page. While the theme of language and writing is already present in the first novel, via LeClair’s poetic use of basketball jargon and Keever’s musings on the intricacies of the Greek language, they remain firmly tied to an external reality. But from (largely unsuccessful) class excursions with his students, to the artful political and professional dodging Keever has to do within the classroom, the trajectory of Passing Through leads more deeply into the space of writing itself. After all the starts and stops, the acceleration and deceleration, the novel begins to turn inward, a movement culminating in Keever addressing his audience directly as “patient reader” while admitting that he has “scrambled chronology and saved the ‘best part’ […] for last” (PThrough 280), and LeClair addressing his reader directly in an “Acknowledgements and Disclaimers” section that opens with the admission that “it may be quixotic to append facts to a fiction within a fiction about a fact” (285). There is also a page, ostensibly appended by the publisher but potentially part of the text as well, about Tom LeClair, identifying him as the current “proprietor of the website www.terminaltours.com,” the virtual extension of Michael Keever’s Terminal Tours (287). The web site is prefaced: “Disclaimer: Please note that this web site appears in and extends the fiction of Tom LeClair’s Passing On, published by Greekworks in 2004 and Passing Through, published by Drinian in 2008. Click here for the Greekworks home page and purchase information. Click here for the Drinian home page and purchase information”. Like the rest of the novel, the “author’s page” is also paginated, which suggests that it is not to be considered as an extra-textual element of the book. The reference to the “quixotic” nature of the text is hardly coincidental; obviously, the text has moved from its most innocent assertion of authenticity - the “autobiography” of Michael Keever’s time in the Greek Basketball Association” in Passing Off - to its most complex articulation of metatextual, self-referential play at the end of Passing Through.

3. Adventure as “Waterslide Narration”

In order to discuss the significance of adventure in this ever so ordinary fictional life, it is necessary to disentangle it first from the complex and multiple encumbrances of other genres and modes. At one point or another, the three novels shift into the mode of the sports novel (DeLillo’s End Zone comes to mind), the Bildungsroman (a mode LeClair acknowledges with a tongue-in-cheek gloss in the “Acknowledgements and Disclaimers” section at the end of Passing Through: “Keever also bears no resemblance to Rabbit Angstrom, who was always a shooter” [285]), the campus novel, and the travelogue. Just like the intense metatextual inward-turn toward the end of the third installment of the trilogy, this tangle of genres and modes would appear as a hindrance to adventure’s dynamic forward thrust and thus interfere with the narrative and affective requirements of the thriller, the specific contemporary genre most easily associated with it. If LeClair has also added elements of the thriller to the mix, then these elements are not likely to dominate the reading experience, being merely one set of ingredients among many. Before examining how LeClair positions these elements of the thriller in relationship to all the other material, let me begin by discussing them first as they stand out from the rest of the text.

Despite the metafictional slowing down and the eventual narrative stasis of the trilogy, there are several key sections during which the trilogy shifts into thriller mode. The final section of the first novel Passing Off and the final section of the third novel Passing Through speed up what is otherwise a leisurely narrative pace. Passing Off ends with Michael Keever trying to cross the border into Turkey unrecognized and undetected. He has been blackmailed by the ominous Eleni (“I’ll never know who or what Eleni is,” POff 169) into providing courier services to what appears to be an ecoterrorist group he suspects plans to blow up the Parthenon. Having barely extricated himself from direct complicity with the group and its shady representative, he now carries a bundle of cash so large that it would get him arrested while trying to cross the border. Considering that Eleni has information she has threatened to make public - information that would expose a lie about his ancestry he and his agent have fabricated in order to gain eligibility to play pro-ball in Greece - his slipping into Turkey requires planning and secrecy. Given customs regulations, his freedom is at stake; given Eleni’s shadowy machinations, his life may be, too. Though LeClair did not make the reference explicit, some of the inspiration for the scene might derive from Eric Ambler’s The Light of Day, in which a border crossing between Greece and Turkey provides one of the key scenes of suspense.

Similarly, Passing Through ends with a long sequence that thrives on thriller conventions, echoing the earlier scene in Passing Off. Desperately short on money and uncertain of his professional future, Keever has agreed to help free from her native Algeria Lalla Kahina, a women’s rights activist under house arrest and the imminent threat of violent retribution from her own government. For this purpose, he enters the country in the company of a female friend pretending to be his wife; the two women are to change places, switching clothes in a hotel room, and Lalla is then to leave Algeria together with Keever, masquerading (or “passing herself off”) as his wife. While the deception in Passing Off works and Keever passes across the border into Turkey without a hitch, the ruse in Passing Through, having worked initially to allow Lalla’s departure, fails to get Keever onto his flight out. Suspected of being a journalist unfriendly to the Algerian government, he is detained, arrested, and interrogated. Only by fabricating another lie to cover up the first one, does he succeed in freeing himself - a final release that, ironically, is achieved by submitting to an exhaustive tour of Algeria’s highlights mandated by the Algerian government.

Both passages are constructed along the thriller’s conventional lines: the protagonist is in direct physical, perhaps even in mortal danger, and the pursuit of his goal has to take place in a race against the clock. In each passage, plot twists are carefully spaced throughout, deliberately delaying the delivery of a crucial piece of information to the reader. While other parts of the novels organize time quite leisurely, these passages are tightly paced and, at the expense of description and background narration, track present events in minute detail (“Ann,” Keever tells us later about the actual author of Passing Off and her literary aesthetics, “said background was unnecessary for a thriller” [POn 61]). In Chapter 16, which begins on the morning after Keever’s arrest by the Algerian police, the narrative switches from past to present tense, signaling increased immediacy and urgency; the same shift in narrative tense occurs in the scene in Passing Off in which Keever exchanges what he takes to be explosives for a bundle of money in a covert swap (the somewhat noir-ish term, with a tinge of Mamet-speak, used is “the four-o’clock meet,” POff 160). Even the dialogue in this scene has the clenched delivery and rich profanity typical of a heist film: “ ‘Listen here, you little motherfucker,’” Keever instructs the young boy who serves as Eleni’s messenger: “ ‘The deal is this. You see the package in my bag. I see the money in your bag. I throw the package into the net. You let me reach in your bag and take the money … ‘” (POff 159).

Like virtually all other generic borrowings throughout the trilogy, this use of thriller conventions - in theme, style, and narrative acceleration - is subjected to meta-textual examination in Passing Through. In a discussion with Rakshanda, one of the students in his writing class at Queen City College, Keever, referring to himself in the third person for this part of the novel, gets into an argument about the nature of storytelling. “ ‘Since the narrative is not moving,’ Michael, the athlete-literalist said, ‘but only the pages, what do you mean by [narrative momentum]?’” (28). Rakshanda replies: “ ‘Reading should be like falling down stairs. Once you start, there is no place to turn off’.” Though the “tumble and hurt” of falling down a flight of stairs appeals to her teacher, Rakshanda begs, after some deliberation about the agonistic overtones of her phrasing, “to change the metaphor.” This is the metaphor, tweaked into a striking simile: “ ‘Reading should be like one of those water slides where all you get is a little splashed at the bottom,’ Rakshanda said” (29).

Once this classroom conversation has introduced the metaphor of “waterslide narration,” it becomes self-referential for both for the novel that follows as well as for the two volumes that precede it. The metaphor is richly evocative: it implies that the narrative provides a sensation that is intense; that it suggests risk and danger, but remains ultimately safe; that the bodily sensations experienced during the ride are genuine, yet the circumstances under which they are stimulated are fake, inauthentic, fabricated; that the ride is structured in a rising arc of intensity, which does culminate in a predictable climax at the end, yet that this climax, aside from being safe, might literally be anti-climactic; and that, at the end of the experience, we are “on to another ride,” or that, in other words, we are merely passing through (PThrough 29). This transitory aspect discredits the narrative via its lack of impact beyond the actual moment of experience: it passes through us, just as we pass through it. While Keever is obviously uneasy about this metaphor and the inauthentic and misleading experience it constructs (“fun and amusement” [29] are not redeeming features), his students - like Rakshanda herself - seem perfectly at ease with it. He also realizes that “waterslide narration” is exactly what Ann, his wife, did to him when she turned him into a character in his own fictional autobiography Passing Off: “The students wanted their straight-line narratives of self to fit the commercial sluice they knew was out there, the sluice Ann had sent her craft down when she wrote Passing Off” (PThrough 29).

Though Keever may resent having been turned by his wife into an adventurer, hurtling down the waterslide of thriller narrative in the border crossing in Passing Off, he goes on to cast himself in that same role when he recreates the scene in the perilous “escape from Algeria” at the end of Passing Through. LeClair himself may side with Keever in denigrating the prototypical adventure narrative in which he has cast his protagonist, and yet his use of thriller conventions in these two interrelated key scenes of the first and the last novel in the trilogy suggests that his engagement with the material comes down neither on the side of satire nor on that of pastiche. Readers may retroactively experience the two scenes as part of a larger self-referential game, but at the moment of reading, they are clearly designed to evoke a direct, unironic response. Though the dangerous border crossing - from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes to Eric Ambler’s The Light of Day - is an utterly conventional element in the thriller’s formula, LeClair invests the specific situations in which he places Michael Keever with a high degree of verisimilitude. Detainment at the hands of a capricious government, a pervasive sense of dislocation and loss of identity as a result of geographic displacement (either as a foreign worker, a refugee, or an undesirable expelled from one’s native or adopted country) - while there are no hair-raising escapes and shootouts in the trilogy, the dangers LeClair conjures up are all too real. In the earlier novel, Well-Founded Fear, LeClair demonstrates an equally serious interest in political realities that revolve around the concept and experience of geographic displacement. The return to this theme may be given new urgency during the second term of the Bush administration when Americans traveling abroad are more than ever concerned about not being welcome wherever they go - a shift in the American self-perception that has found its most potently xenophobic expressions in some of the American horror films listed under the collective label of “torture porn.” Consequently, the decisions the characters face are ethical and political in nature: is one to interfere, through personal engagement, in political issues larger than one’s own immediate range of effectiveness? What value do symbolic actions have in this context; what value do actions have that are performed outside of institutionally sanctioned paths and procedures? How does Eleni’s eco-terrorism, designed to protect Greece and its capital from mass tourism’s devastating consequences, compare to Keever’s humanitarian intercession on behalf of Lalla? Unlike some of the more satirically-minded fiction of his contemporaries, LeClair does not undermine the seriousness of these questions by folding them into metafictional intertextual play. Instead, what I have called the “inward turn” of metafictional awareness, first, slows down the adventure narrative’s headlong rush, a kinetic energy that collects in attention and self-awareness what it pays out in thrills; second, it complicates the ethical questions by rephrasing them in the context of representational politics. Can an ethically sound action, like risking your own safety for the benefit of another person, be motivated by a desire for something as capricious, frivolous, and self-indulgently “literary” as adventure? Can Michael Keever, jailed by the Algerian government, assume that the “waterslide” of his own narrative will end with a light splashing at the end of the ride; that he will “pass through” and move on to yet another ride?

4. Adventures beyond the Thriller

The fact that the entire trilogy does not consist exclusively of thriller elements but is composed of generically heterogeneous materials, which demand a slowing down in between kinetic outbursts, is an indication that LeClair wants readers periodically to disengage from adventure. This disengagement is not to be confused with the intermittent periods of relaxation that are an integral part of the narrative inventory of the adventure narrative; their function is not to prepare the reader, in an alternating rhythm of tension and relaxation, for the next chase, escape, or altercation. Instead of a shifting between alternating phases within the same model, the temporary disengagement from adventure LeClair demands from his readers is a genuine abandonment of the thriller and its trappings. When readers are not hurtling down the waterslide, they are not on their way back to the top of the slide; they are genuinely off the ride. Once the text moves into the slower pace of a different mode - the travelogue, campus novel, autobiography, or sports novel - readers, free from the anticipation of the next ride, can reflect upon the ride: emotion recollected in tranquility, as Wordsworth would have it.

Besides their structural relevance to the critical and self-conscious engagement with adventure, the shifting into other generic or narrative modes also serves another purpose. What mode exactly the text shifts into when it abandons the thriller is not an arbitrary choice. Far from merely providing temporary relief from the kinetic thrust of the thriller, each individual mode provides a possibility, according to LeClair, for the adventure’s continued existence even under historical conditions that have rendered it obsolete or, at least, suspect. To what degree, LeClair asks, does the kinetic experience of sports, of tourist travel, of individual intellectual progress (in the classroom, on the page, and in one’s own life’s story) constitute adventure? And if it does, then are we merely to use the term figuratively (and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as in “adventures on the basketball court” or “adventures in higher education”), or is there a way to redeem it in new and unexpected ways in its literal use?

Given the fact that Michael Keever starts out as a professional basketball player, sports would be the obvious starting point for asking these questions. Does athletic performance qualify as adventure? There is the physical immediacy of the game, its “[s]weat and pressure and […] adrenaline” (POff 8), the risk of injury, of direct danger to the body, the spontaneous weaving in and out of spaces that requires unthinking kinesis, reflex, and body memory. Passing Off in particular is full of beautifully described basketball games and the moves of individual players, just as the subsequent novels, which are set in the time after the accident on the court that leaves Keever unable to continue his career, are rife with a deep, aching nostalgia for the physical experience of athletic performance.

Simply to assert that sport’s bodily immediacy and controlled dangers and risks provides one of the last available opportunities for adventure, however, would be an oversimplification - one of which LeClair, ever aware of the complexities of his own metaphors, steers clear. True, the nature of the game - much like the nature of genre in literature or cinema - provides the necessary safety that allows the enjoyment of situations which, in real life, would otherwise be too frightening to enjoy; like the printed page or the cinema screen, the basketball court is a controlled environment. However, LeClair reminds us, bodily immediacy and kinetic pleasures are not limited to this cleanly circumscribed space; they resonate with other experiences, other aspects of contemporary life. LeClair’s description, for example, of rush hour traffic out of Athens on a holiday weekend (“Ordinary defensive driving was impossible” according to the “Greek rules,” [POff 86]) recapitulates Keever’s kinetic experience of “passing through” the space of the basketball court. Even more to the point, Keever does not come naturally by his athletic “proprioception” (“the sixth sense, connecting the others, controlling balance, the key to every athlete’s body,” [POff 20]); videotaping himself, he studies his tapes, and only with the help of this meticulous analysis, which grounds his regimen of mechanical practicing routines, does he arrive at speed, coordination, and seemingly instinctual bodily control. Similarly, LeClair’s adjustments to his style whenever he describes basketball games - a style that, in its density, its flexibility, and its pleasure in the poetic possibilities of pro sports jargon, mirrors the moves of the players on the court - also draws attention to itself as a means of abstracting immediate experience from the body and recasting it as mediated experience.

Again, let me reiterate a point I have already made in another context: what appears to be a contradiction or counterpoint separating Keever’s preparation from his performance, or his body on the court from the written account of the experience, is not intended as a destabilizing irony. As an athlete, Keever is not a fake, liar, or hypocrite; his bodily experience of the game is no less real and immediate for being grounded in representational technologies and routines. LeClair’s contextualizing of the bodily experience does not ironize the possibility of adventure in athletic performance. Instead, it takes the idea that sports could be adventure, but complicates it, and thus renders it available for interrogation and consideration. If there is an answer to the question whether athletes can be adventurers, LeClair frames his responsibility as a novelist as being to create favorable conditions for answering this question - not to provide the one correct answer.

In the trilogy’s passages that deal with tourist travel - first and foremost in Passing On, the trilogy’s middle book - LeClair makes the same offer to the reader. In fact, tourist travel and being an athlete are linked via mortality: “Being an athlete, a former athlete,” Keever muses, “is what makes me sympathetic to the dying. Athletes start deteriorating at twenty, at thirty” (POn 30). Habitually dismissed as one of the least authentic experiences available, tourism at its most commercial is fraught with the language of adventure, and has thus, from McCannell to Baudrillard, been an arena in which the postmodern dilemma of authenticity and simulation appears most obvious. I am thinking here of landmark studies of tourism, Jean Baudrillard’s America (1989) and Dean McCannell’s The Tourist (1999). Again, if Michael Keever’s Terminal Tours, which provides a dying person with the last journey they might ever take, looks at first glance like a fictional company straight out of farce, LeClair clearly distances it from the satire’s pull. To people around him, like his wife or his daughter, Keever might come across as venal or ghoulish (POn 26), but we understand that they are timid or wrong, or at least that Keever himself is struggling with the same doubts. Satire would come naturally, given the obvious analogy between the tourist trip on the one hand and its destination and life and death on the other, as well as the apparent triviality or frivolity of a commercially provided “terminal tour” in contrast to a person’s final approach to death. Yet LeClair refrains from exploiting the discrepancies for satire, just as he did in the case of pro sports. But then the dying person is not the adventurer - Keever is. His experience of death is vicarious: like all adventure, it provides the thrill of risk and danger in a safely framed environment. For that, however, it is no less capable of engaging with the world on serious terms; according to Markita, one of his clients, Terminal Tours indulges a “primal whim” (35), a term beautifully balanced between the profound and the foolish.

Passing On delves most deeply into the possibilities of tourism as a source of adventure in the final journey Keever takes with his friend Alice. Alice, who used to be his physical therapist, is dying of cancer. She hires Keever to accompany her on a journey that, midway through, begins to stretch out past its intended destination, the mausoleum at Halicarnassus, into Turkey, Egypt, and India. The mad dash from one tourist attraction to the next is reminiscent of the James Bond franchise and its multiple complicities with modern tourism; it might also go back to Hitchcock’s use of famous tourist attractions (Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty) for key scenes in his films. When Alice lets Keever chose the next destination, he takes her from New Delhi to the seaside town of Alang, where “boats from all over the world are run aground […] to be scrapped” (POn152). Like the previous stops along the way, Alang is a site dedicated to death; just as the ships that end up on the beach are a metaphor of human death (“The ships are human corpses, placed on platforms for vultures to devour,” [POn 153]), so the crews of workers are literally dying. Water and air at Alang are poisonous from chemicals leaking out of the wrecks; there are no safety standards to speak off: “The shipbreakers of Alang are running suicidal risks twelve hours a day, six days a week” (POn 155). The task toward which they have turned, just as the death that awaits Keever’s clients, does nothing to add adventure to their lives. It is Keever, as observer and vicarious participant in these extreme experiences, who experiences them as adventure. While Alice and the workers at Alang are heading toward death, he gets to speculate about the recycling of the ships’ metal and the “pound of flesh that biodegrades and returns its nutrients to the earth” (POn 157). He is the one responsible for ending the novel on a transcendent note, with Alice asking excitedly, “ ‘Where will you take me next?’,” while they are both standing on the beach (POn 158). The scene is reminiscent of the famous freeze-frame at the end of Truffaut’s 400 Blows, which perpetually immobilizes the character, in a beautifully sustained paradox, at a moment of intense kinetic release on yet another beach. And yet readers of the entire trilogy will discover that this is not really the end of Alice’s story: she will die only a few pages into the subsequent novel. Passing On, however, ends with this hint at the possibility of perpetual motion because Keever decides that it should. One step removed from Keever, we, the readers, must decide whether his philosophical speculations and his decision to turn the moment into yet another “waterslide” event are frivolous or profound. Are we to grant him the epiphanic breakthrough, which allows him to “pass on” to the third and final volume of the trilogy, or do we take his speculations as a sign of emotional callousness in the face of harsh suffering and death? Have his tourist travels brought him to an authentic experience, or is he a tourist in the worst sense of the word, caught up in the spectacle yet ethically and politically dissociated? Again, LeClair refrains from answering the questions he has so carefully framed.

5. Adventure beyond all Genres?

Much has been made in recent years of the death of genre, or at least its gradual weakening. Post-genre is the buzzword. Pointing out “Hollywood’s propensity for generic hybridity and overlap” in his discussion of the action adventure film, Steve Neale makes the case that cinematic genres have started to move massively away from single distinct genres since the 1980s and ’90s (71) and toward a new polygeneric narrative that seems to transcend all inherited boundaries. This means that, by implication, there must have been an earlier period in which genres used to be, at least relatively speaking, distinct. In the Editor’s Note to a recent issue of Cinephile, Andrew deWaard suggests to read the sense of “perpetual aftermath” that dominates contemporary conceptions of genre not as a sign of its imminent demise but as an invitation for reconceptualization:

We can’t really leave genre behind anymore than we can abandon modernism or industry or structuralism - we’ve just mutated it to the point that it somehow feels new or different. Maybe we should start thinking ‘post’ as less of a temporal marker and more like computational logic. Let’s think of it as an upgrade: Genre 2.0, based on the same fundamental hardware, but with such forward-thinking software that it hardly warrants comparison. (2)

Tom LeClair’s approach to, and use of, genre in the Passing trilogy falls squarely into this model of what one might call “post-genre” for literary fiction. The hardware, as deWaard calls it, is still there, even though the software has been upgraded - to call it “forward-thinking” feels right as well. Readers are supposed to recognize the machinations of genre at work; the writing is intertextual enough, though never obtrusively so, to evoke the history of literary and cinematic adventure. The polygenericity of the trilogy, articulated as a series of shifts from one genre to another, does not undermine the validity of each single genre; instead, it follows an experimental logic. In his exploration of adventure, LeClair “tries out” genres; his moving on to the next is never a dismissal of the previous one. He is not out to abolish genres; does not exploit, consume, or use them up.

Similarly, he does not satirize adventure - neither as a desire in his main character or his readers, nor as the driving force behind a popular genre like the thriller, nor as a perceptual or conceptual filter through which we might see the world. The trilogy is not an exercise in postmodern pastiche; thanks to the use of multiple genres - some of them deriving from the highbrow realm of literary fiction and non-fiction, some of them from the lowbrow world of popular entertainment - there is no single overarching generic model LeClair purports to imitate. This sets the trilogy apart from earlier writers’ forays into the territory of popular genres, though it still shares with them a serious interest in the impact that adventure still has on the culture at large. One might think of, for example, Don DeLillo’s exercises in generic pastiche (Running Dog and The Names as thrillers, Ratner’s Star as science fiction, End Zone as sports novel).

If the Passing trilogy is never patronizing or dismissive of adventure, it is an expression of LeClair’s generosity as a writer, as well as of the skill with which he sustains the tone in all three novels. But, more importantly, it is an expression of his recognition that adventure, as deWaard points out, is an enduring trope in Western culture. If it is simply not an option just to “leave it behind,” then to criticize it makes most sense if the critique is constructive. Adventure may be maligned as politically untenable, as escapism for the immature or uneducated; its hyperbolic pace and near-mythical iconography may seem absurd in a world of bourgeois security and moderation. But then, time and again, the reports of adventure’s imminent death have been greatly exaggerated. It deserves to be taken seriously because there is a place for adventure even in a culture that tells itself that there isn’t. What this place might be, Tom LeClair’s trilogy helps us to understand and imagine.

Works Cited

Bourget, Jean-Loup. “Social Implications in the Hollywood Genres.” Film Genre Reader 3. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. 51-60.

deWaard, Andrew. Editor’s Note. Cinephile: University of British Columbia’s Film Journal 4.1 (Summer 2008): 2.

Hantke, Steffen. “Talking Back to the Owners of the World: Some Thoughts on Politics in Tom LeClair’s Well Founded Fear and Richard Powers’ Plowing the Dark. ebr: electronic book review. Online Posting <http://www.altx.com/ebr>. November 2001.

—. “ ‘God save us from bourgeois adventure’: The Figure of the Terrorist in Contemporary Conspiracy Fiction,” Studies in the Novel. 28.2 (Summer 1996): 218-42.

LeClair, Tom. Passing Off. Sag Harbor, NY: Permanent Press, 1996.

—. Passing On. New York: greekworks.com, 2004.

—. Passing Through. Huron, OH: Drinian Press, 2008.

Neale, Steve. “Action-Adventure as Hollywood Genre.” Action and Adventure Cinema. Ed. Yvonne Tasker. New York: Routledge, 2004. 71-84.

Pratt, Ray. Projecting Paranoia: Conspiratorial Visions in American Film. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2001.

Pulver, Andrew. “Is Guy Ritchie trying to sex Holmes up?” guardian.co.uk. Posted December 15, 2008. Accessed December 18, 2008.

Terminal Tours Home Page. Accessed December 18, 2008.

Winder, Simon. The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond. London: Picador, 2006.

Passing On’s bleak climactic scene provides the starting point for Stephen Schryer’s essay on LeClair’s fiction.

2009-04-02
Joseph Tabbi:

Melley’s term “agency panic,” presented in his 2008 and 2005 ebr
contributions, is an alternative to Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s “anxiety of
obsolescence” (as discussed by Anthony Enns).

2009-01-31