Monday, December 17, 2012

Panorama City

Oppen Porter, the narrator and protagonist of Antoine Wilson's Panorama City calls himself a "slow absorber," which is as good a way as any of describing his limited mental ability. Though Wilson doesn't ever have him offer a name for or diagnosis of his condition, he's clearly developmentally disabled in some way. And what Wilson aims to do with him in the novel ought not to work. Telling a story from the point of view of a character of limited cognitive ability who is essentially innocent and well-meaning . . . well, it smacks of Rain Man, or any of countless other works that turn their characters into nothing more than a tool for helping us understand ourselves.

Wilson saves Panorama City from that fate by actually making it Porter's story, and clearly being more interested in him and his experience than in having him enlighten those around him or help us understand our own lives. This is Porter's book, the story of his life laid down on audiotape for his unborn son, and his voice and perspective carry it. In addition, Wilson sets him in a world of Portisean strangeness, surrounded by people who, though they instantly spot Porter's limitations, can't see a bit of their own failings and monomanias. The result is funny, engaging, and even, by the end, surprisingly moving.

The following passage displays both qualities, while also giving a glimpse of Wilson's way with sentences and description. Porter has just boarded an intercity bus, and because he's tall the driver has suggested he sit in the front row. But a "scrawny old man" is taking up both seats:
He had the look, I don't know how else to put it, his face looked like that of a newly hatched crocodile. His eyes were alive and penetrating at the same time, and his mouth seemed wider and flatter than most, he didn't have much in the way of lips, his mouth was like a straight line across his whole face, and yet you couldn't shake the sense that he was, at the very corners, smiling. Papers were spread all over the seat beside him, a disorganized pile of sketches and notes and diagrams. I had no way of knowing where he had boarded, but judging from the pleasure the bus driver took in asking him to collect his papers and make room for me he had been making a mess of his papers for many miles. He managed to stuff into what he called his briefcase, which was actually a flat cardboard box, he stuffed into the box the whole pile of papers that had been the mess on my seat, somehow that briefcase was bigger on the inside than on the outside, and then he asked the bus driver if he was happy now. The driver stated that he was.
That passage also shows another way that Wilson avoids potential pitfalls with Porter: he doesn't make him falsely naive about human relations, doesn't take advantage of his disability for the sake of cheap situational irony. Porter may not be brilliant, but he's not blind to what the people around him are doing and thinking; his failures are not so much ones of perception or ignorance as of trust and kindness.

I mentioned Charles Portis earlier, as there are characters and situations--and even simple descriptions, like this one--
Nick's hair was slicked back and he had a goatee, or part of a goatee, on the point of his chin and a tiny mouth compared to the rest of his face, it was fascinating to watch him eat pizza with it.
--that call him instantly to mind. But the greater influence on the book feels like Nicholson Baker: Porter's descriptions offer a similar attention to, and surprising but apt similes for, small physical details. Examples abound throughout the book, but the point where I actually put it down and e-mailed Ed Park with joy was this paragraph:
When I reached the grocery store parking lot, I returned the cart to an area about halfway in, where carts are supposed to be returned. I pushed the cart into the back of a long line of carts, the cart in front obliged by lifting its hinged back panel, one fit into the other, and the lonely cart I'd found became one with the others, returned to where it could fulfill its purpose.
The movement from attention to detail to the granting of agency to the inanimate--"the cart obliged"--is quintessential Baker, a moment that feels less like simple description and more like an ethical stance, a statement that things, have purposes and can be made (and used) well or ill. The same, Porter would likely say, is true of people.

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