Beginners' Luck 

When first-time novelists net gigantic advances, does their work stand a chance of living up to the hype?

It was William Shakespeare (or was it the Earl of Oxford?) who wrote that a beggar's book outworths a noble's blood. This might be true, but is a law professor's first novel really worth $4,200,000? The folks at Knopf obviously think so, because that's the advance they offered Yale's Stephen L. Carter. Granted, it's a two-book deal comprising this summer's release The Emperor of Ocean Park and its as-yet-unwritten sequel. One of the largest advances ever offered for a debut work of fiction is the result of a bidding war between four major publishing houses that began about a week after they received copies of Carter's manuscript. The bidders, it is said, were excited by its genre-spanning scope as a literary judicial thriller and by its characterizations, seldom seen in modern fiction, of upper-middle-class African Americans.

Dutton paid Hari Kunzru, a former associate editor of the British edition of Wired magazine, an estimated $1,000,000 for the US rights alone to a similar two-book package that includes his debut novel, The Impressionist, which hit American stores this spring. Considering the relatively meager $450,000 advance that Houghton Mifflin is rumored to have paid for Everything Is Illuminated, another debut that appeared this spring, its author Jonathan Safran Foer might well be fuming.

Aren't authors supposed to labor in obscurity for years anymore, eking out unhappy lives as patent clerks and printers' devils, publishing the odd volume here and there to no acclaim until the world realizes what a fool it's been to have ignored them all this time? Well, it might be going too far to claim that suffering and poverty are indispensable ingredients in the formation of a great artist, but it's still a bit disheartening to think that throwing big money at a book is all it takes these days to turn it into an authentic Literary Sensation. Any art that happens to get made in that process seems beside the point.

But let's stick with the good news for now: art still gets made. Everything Is Illuminated is a complexly structured novel with plenty of compassion, wit, and humor: heart and brain skewered together on a funny bone. The present-tense part of the story follows a young man named, coincidentally enough, Jonathan Safran Foer (sometimes referred to simply as "the hero") as he travels across the Ukrainian countryside in search of the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. This part of the book is narrated in the hilarious accidental poetry of broken-English-filtered-through-a-thesaurus by a young Ukrainian translator, Alexander Perchov, who accompanies the hero on his journey. (In Alexspeak, an attractive woman's breasts are an "unmalleable bosom"; a guide dog is a "seeing-eye bitch.")

That alone might have been enough. But as if it weren't, interspersed with this present-tense narrative is a more fabulistic tale of the hero's imagined ancestral line stretching back to an orphaned water-baby in Ukraine in 1791, and including the grandfather for whose savior the hero is searching. This might sound confusing, but it's a testimony to Foer's talent that he manages to make it all coalesce without ever baffling or, by a long shot, boring the reader. Foer, who became a protégé of Joyce Carol Oates while at Princeton, is only 25 and the word "wunderkind" springs irresistibly to mind, but it would be a shame to let a silly word get between you and this wonderful book.

Conversely, put everything you can between yourself and The Emperor of Ocean Park. Don't let the big advance fool you. Though the advertising campaign seems to have paid off for Professor Carter, keeping the book on national best-seller lists for the past two months, Emperor doesn't succeed on any level other than that of marketing.

Its ostensible plot concerns a law professor's attempt to unstitch the mystery behind the death of his father, a once-prominent judge who fell from grace when his ties to organized crime were revealed. From this basic outline the reader might be tempted to expect a tightly plotted legal thriller, something along the lines of John Grisham or even Erle Stanley Gardner; but Emperor is too discursive and slowly paced to pack any of the moment-to-moment excitement typically associated with that genre.

This, then, might coax readers to surmise that Carter is going for a more literary work, exploring Bigger Themes, albeit within one of the Lesser Literary Formats -- and Carter definitely has some pretensions of doing just that. The novel's narrator ponders weighty issues in nearly every chapter, from race relations to marital fidelity to filial responsibility. He suggests at various points that the plot is somehow constructed around an elaborate Nabokovian chess metaphor but, when finally unveiled, Carter's chess-to-real-life correlations are tenuous at best. It's simply not profound that there are black and white chess pieces just like there are black and white people. Admittedly, Carter is trying to fit a lot into this novel, and the scope of his aspiration must be admired. If the prose weren't so unconscionably trite, the reader might actually be able to enjoy the spectacle. As it is, however, the sensitive reader might be ultimately unable even to finish a book in which good people who are "real gems" interact with evil people who have eyes like "twin coals" and wherein a narrator who constantly notices the clichés spoken by other characters still "sees red" whenever he gets angry.

When the protagonist of Kunzru's The Impressionist falls into hackneyed behavior or dialogue, at least the reader knows that Kunzru is in control of his plot and prose; the baroque contortions of his sentences elsewhere in the novel show that he could do better if he wanted, and that when he's being trite he's doing it for a reason. The story begins in Agra, just a short jaunt from the Taj Mahal, in 1903. During a fornicationally fortuitous flood, a British officer and a Brahmin woman happen to conceive the main character, who then spends 350 pages passing from identity to identity: from high-caste Indian boy to child prostitute to upper-class white Oxford student to anthropologist in Africa and beyond, with a few minor stops in between. (Kunzru, born and raised in England by an Indian father and a British mother, is himself an Oxford grad.)

It can be a bit difficult to really care about this protagonist precisely because of this protean sheen, but being cared about is not his main function; rather, he's here to provide Kunzru with an excuse to take the reader on a tour of strange milieus featuring compelling and well-crafted supporting casts. And though he occasionally toys with some big ideas about imperialism and racial identity, the end result is essentially little more -- or, for that matter, less -- than an entertaining and capably written picaresque of the early 20th century.

And now back to the beggar and the noble. Was Shakespeare -- or the Earl of Oxford -- right when he wrote that the book of the former is worth more than the blood of the latter? It's hard to say. Because gigantic first-time advances create nobles today by way of best-selling novels. The Emperor of Ocean Park, for one, is worth millions of dollars. Its author has the check to prove it. But if that's the case, then money is neither the only way nor the best way to measure value. And maybe that's the real lesson in all of this.

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