Walter Linchak, the somewhat irritating narrator of Lawrence Shainberg’s Crust, is a writer, a public intellectual, and the decorated author of The Complete Book of AIDS, The Complete Book of 9/11, and The Complete Book of Terrorism—”The Completes,” for short. Half DeLillo’s Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler studies at College-on-the-Hill, and half Christopher Hitchens, Linchak is a model pundit for a post-9/11 age: death-obsessed, long-winded, addicted to Googling himself, and, on the sly, an inveterate nose-picker.
He’s also creatively stanched, with the exception of a blog he keeps: “an account of writer’s block which, for candor and anguish, surpasses any we have on record.” On the morning that Crust begins, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author awakes with a “crust,” one that’s “large and dense and high” in his right nostril. Its eventual extraction, in full view of his naked and sleepy wife, Sara, will prove to be the revelation that unblocks Linchak and sets Shainberg’s novel into motion.
Crust, which takes place in the near future, posits a world in which scholars across the globe study “Nasalism,” as if it might one day cure cancer. “Each of our nasal secretions,” writes Linchak’s eventual mentor, Robert Fawck, of the esteemed MIT Rhinology Department, “is an opportunity to confront the essential ambiguities of self and identity.” In Sara’s case, the confrontation with her husband’s nasal secretion sends her vomiting to the bathroom. Afterward, pondering the encounter on her way into work, she has a sudden orgasm. Soon, both Linchak and his wife are snorting, and then shooting, a crust-generating drug called Rhinobate—first discovered by a Central American tribe, the Coribundi, for use in a nose-picking ritual known only as the “Extracto Sancto.”
Unsurprisingly, for a book so relentlessly steeped in late-20th-century paranoid lit (Crust is studded with footnotes, diagrams, illustrations, exegeses on neurological theory and informational glut), there is, inevitably, a conspiracy afoot. The mega-conglomerate Murgate, Linchak’s publisher, devises a plan to use its various properties—which include MTV, Microsoft, and the New York Knicks—to “legitimize the product,” in an attempt to market nose-picking to the masses. Nicole Kidman is brought on as the face of the campaign; George W. Bush, a crony of Linchak’s since the days when the two shared a room and “at least one girlfriend” at Yale, gives an impassioned testimonial to Larry King. “This thing in your nose . . . it’s attacking you!” the ex-president tells a live television audience. “What’s more natural than fighting back?”
But the target here is elusive: Murgate’s scheme is revealed, then abandoned and banished from the novel, never to be heard from again; Shainberg’s ambitiously large frame shrinks as Linchak researches the minutiae of picking for his newest project, to be titled The Complete Book of Nasalism. Sara becomes obsessed with the practice, engaging in constant, ritualistic probing. A confrontation is surely coming between the two of them, some crucial, devastating indictment of Linchak’s patently empty intellectualism and Sara’s helplessly avid addiction. But when their showdown arrives, at the book’s end, it’s pointedly anticlimactic.
Crust is about mindless compulsion, or the digital stretch for oblivion, or a comment on the jaded habits of a citizenry that’s had its private domain annexed by omnipotent admen. Judging from the whimpering way his book subsides, even Shainberg doesn’t seem to really know. Pick one.