If we are to believe Daniel Handler, his second book, Watch Your Mouth, is not really a novel, but an opera. In the first half, at any rate, the narrator, Joseph, claims that the story is an opera and sporadically includes stage directions and intermissions as his tale of postadolescent bonking gradually unfolds into a nightmare of incest and carnage. In Part Two of this hiply contrarian book, Joseph recovers from the horrifying events of the opera in segments loosely based on the rules of a 12-step program. He is also persecuted for his role in the tragedies of the first half, which, true to its operatic overtones, may or may not have “really happened.” Metafiction, anyone?
It’s the summer between Joseph’s junior and senior years at Mather College. He and his girlfriend, Cynthia Glass, are living together with her family in Pittsburgh. Both of them have taken jobs as summer counselors at a Jewish day camp called Camp Shalom. Their relationship is a cauldron of raging hormones and uncontrollable urges. They’ve expected to share a room where they can continually consummate their desires. For Joseph this is the whole point of spending the summer in Pittsburgh, “the only city in America able to compose [Mr. Yech], an internationally-recognized face of distaste.” But when Gramma Glass finds out Cyn and Joseph plan to sleep together, she blows a gasket and the two are forced to arrange their hot trysts in the attic.
Joseph and Cynthia’s quasi-pornographic activity soon takes a backseat, so to speak, to his realization that most of the Glass family have a voracious sexual appetite—for each other. On Joseph’s first night in the house, Cynthia’s dad brings up “intergenerational sex” while washing dishes:
Having sex with your daughter doesn’t make sense, of course not, not if you think of it as having sex, no. But even though it involves some of the same actions . . . it’s not the same thing as having sex. . . . If I hit you on the head with a frying pan, would you call it cooking?
It quickly becomes clear that most members of the Glass family have rationalized themselves out of conventional morality, alluding constantly to their Ronde of intergenerational sex. Then, suddenly, Cynthia is murdered by a golem, a clay effigy of Jewish mysticism generally brought to life to avenge anti-Semitism. Here it is conjured by Gramma Glass to avenge the orgy of distorted Freudianism embodied by a girl called “Cyn.” Oh, the reader begins to understand. Watch Your Mouth is one of those young-adult incest-comedy gothic Jewish porn opera novels! And that’s only Part One.
Obviously, Handler has assembled some very difficult formal problems for himself. The conceit of merging a novel with an opera is a promising one, and Handler tries to find ways to make the fusion structurally interesting, dividing sections into “acts” and “scenes.” But Handler’s asides describing woodwind interludes, props, and set changes get winky and distracting as they accumulate. We’re supposedly at the opera but we don’t have an assigned seat. Mostly we’re in the “audience,” but sometimes we’re with the “actors” onstage, or even backstage. Here, if Handler could have found a way to better integrate his operatic idea with his material, we might have gained some insight into the value of attending the opera—or this novel.
Many of the book’s clever ideas remain similarly murky. Part Two takes place in a California town called Pittsburg—no h—where Joseph has gone to hide out. He takes a job in the New Age section of a bookstore and discovers, after picking up a book titled Breaking the Spell, that he’s “in crisis.” By the time the police track Joseph down to question him about Cyn’s death, Handler’s violations of the writer-reader contract have become truly unsubtle. For example, here’s the narrator admitting that topping the bloodbath of Part One will prove difficult: “When you’re stuck in a story, a famous writer of detective fiction once said, have two guys come through the door with guns. And the funny thing is, that’s exactly what happened.”
Wuh-wuh. The Martin Amis of London Fields might get away with that. Maybe Dale Peck. But Handler’s style doesn’t seduce like either; it’s too casual and slaphappy for its self-reference to be swallowed whole. But save for Joseph, the characters of Part Two do swallow it whole. The two police officers interrogate our hero viciously about his role in the opera, as if they believe it really happened.
For Handler, this is a neat Russian doll trick, raising all kinds of quasi-Borgesian quandaries about truth and the power of fiction. Distilled to its essence, though, the moral is simply that it’s foolish to confuse fiction and fact. It smells like hypocrisy for a novelist to make such a point, since mixing truth and lies is a very important part of his job description. In fact, reading Watch Your Mouth is like accepting a cigarette from someone who proceeds to describe exactly how smoking causes cancer.
You may be amused at Watch Your Mouth‘s willingness to shock and witty framing devices, but the end result of its genre busting and commentary on the elusiveness of truth is a cartoonish narrative obscured by too many conceptual contraptions.