There’s nothing in the contract poets sign when they start writing for the ragged edge that says long prose is a no-no. And yet, so few poets take a chance on breaking into the genre the publishing business keeps giving the goodies. Michael Friedman’s Martian Dawn is a cool, sly sestina of a novel, working from such end words as module, biosphere, Rinpoche, blowjob, solipsism and Monstro to create a world so genial you’ll almost forget you don’t live there. Though the title cues sci-fi, the subplots skew chi-chi, the action equal parts Chateau Marmont and the Ritz Carlton on Mars.
Julia was aware that Richard was pulling a Pygmalion routine on her, though awkwardly at best. She sort of liked it. He was attempting to teach her about the finest things in life — how to dress, how to eat in fancy restaurants, how to converse with people “in the business” — not realizing that she was already quite advanced in these departments. Though only a high school graduate, she was a voracious reader and had bootstrapped herself quite an education.
Richard had also introduced her to Tibetan Buddhism. Through his fame, he had become friendly with the Dalai Lama. He had his own meditation instructor, with whom he met every afternoon, usually at home but occasionally at a local Buddhist center. He talked of taking Julia to visit a community of Buddhist practitioners in the mountains outside of Boulder, Colorado.
Yes, that Julia, that Richard, but also their characters Edward and Vivian: “Julia’s identity, Richard reflected, had in some sense become so fused with her public persona as to be indistinguishable from it.”
Friedman takes this set-up to the next level, introducing several more couples in quick succession: Dirk and Monica, sparring Naropa grads watching their relationship crumble in the biosphere; Walter and Svetlana, astronauts finding a thrill in the space station; Morty and Alice, the Hollywood producer and his analyst slipping from transference to a relationship; and Cap and Monstro, the Yale Club alkie and, well, the whale he has a thing for. And it works. Though the ever-important first chapter wins with a combination of pitch-perfect upgrades of Dan Brown-style sentences and celebrity journalism, the novel only really takes off when the screenplay-ready repartee kicks in.
“Walter, he is good lover?” Svetlana asked Sylvia.
“I beg your pardon?” Sylvia said. She was annoyed with the turn the conversation had taken, but for Svetlana it was just getting interesting.
“Boris bores me. He is so dull.”
“I’m sorry to hear it,” Sylvia said.
“How did you and Walter meet? I would like Walter — I mean, I would like to meet man like Walter.”
“Walter and I have known each other forever. We met in Houston. How about you and Boris?” Sylvia didn’t trust Svetlana and was reluctant to provide her with anything but the most general information.
Svetlana followed suit and pared her story down to the bone. “I lived in Moscow when I meet Boris. I see what I want —- I grab it.”
Kremlin II floated 400 miles above Earth. The titanium skin of the space station stretched over an aluminum frame in the shape of a large glazed doughnut.
That’s how we meet Svetlana, who telegraphs trouble with bigger dots and dashes than any movie actress. And that’s about it for Sylvia, except as a pang of Walter’s conscience. Lucky for her, the (absent) center of this poetic narrative is just as pleasant a place as any other. The stories and subplots intersect unpredictably and satisfyingly, the action shifting from the Yale Club to the Naropa Institute to a screening room on La Cienega to a tour bus on Mars. Characters stick around as long as they keep making an impression. Genres mutate. And that’s about it for Friedman’s liberties with the reader’s expectations — above all he wants to make you smile. As methods go, it’s good enough; none but a blockhead ever read except for pleasure, anyway.
Speaking of reading, what’s the point in a poet directing our attention to long prose unless something interesting is going on with the words? Readers of Myla Goldberg’s novel Bee Season will recall the Easter egg-like spelling challenge words hidden on most every page of that book. Friedman, whose prose poem “Matter” begins with the sentence, “The sign taped on the trunk said ‘free,'” has played a similar trick every few pages of this mild masterpiece, sneaking his trademark doubletake words into otherwise straightforward sentences, words such as cofounder, minivanity, gurgling, belied. Admirers of John Ashbery’s poetry, too, will note Friedman’s fondness for the great amnesia-inducing trick of simultaneously summarizing and erasing the action by placing a cliché at the end of a paragraph: “Before long, a thick fog had descended on the group.” “It was a Mexican standoff.” “‘Walter, you know I only want best for you,’ she said.'”
The poets of the New York School do apparently take an oath to observe — and disregard — the distinction between parody and homage. Friedman is nothing if not an elder of the order, his delight in both the bold lines of genre and the wry side of interpersonal dynamics placing him somewhere between the Kenneth Koch of The Red Robins and the James Schuyler of What’s For Dinner. Influence is too dreary a subject to apply to such a lively poet, though, especially one who’s gone to the trouble of creating an almost self-sufficient — and thoroughly readable — world. Martian Dawn is not only one of the funniest novels to come out of American poetry, it’s one of the most entertaining books you’ll read this year.