Bunny Modern , by David Bowman. Little, Brown & Company, 215 pages, $21.95.
David Bowman is the opposite of Mark Leyner. I say this upfront because it’s likely that Mr. Bowman, a more or less unknown young writer with an agitated style, a screwball imagination and a comic compulsion-the kind of guy you just have to call “hyperkinetic”-will be frequently compared to Mr. Leyner, who is a cult hero on campus and the reigning king of hyperkinesia.
Mr. Bowman’s prose jumps out at you, a flash of staccato wit and freewheeling imagery. It’s easy to imagine him careening out of control, impossible to imagine him shying away from risk. Six years ago, in his wonderful first novel, Let the Dog Drive, he tried to capture a character’s severe look by comparing him to “Rudolph Giuliani, D.A.” (“Oh, that gaunt jawline! Those rigid cheeks! That humorless upholder of justice-Yes! Yes!”)
Was Mr. Bowman showing off? I doubt it. He gives the impression of being the hapless victim of his own oddity, compelled to tell jazzy, eccentric, hysterically funny stories. His novels feel like sloppy accidents that somehow turned out exactly right. It’s all very human, by which I mean two things that may be related: He’s fallible and lucky and reeks of promise; and he can write about love and literature without irony, without the quarantine of quotation marks.
Mr. Leyner, the opposite number, never leaves home without his irony. A master engineer of postmodern humor, he wraps self-awareness around tight spirals of wit to build dazzling, mazelike constructions. He cheerfully accepts that his many satiric jabs at a grossly commercial culture are themselves carefully crafted entertainment product. He never broods over paradox or absurdity. He laughs at it, packs it neatly away in expert prose, machine-tooled paragraphs, sentences eerily accurate, as though derived from scientifically tested specifications. Mark Leyner’s books (his most recent is The Tetherballs of Bougainville ) are always unabashedly about the cleverness of Mark Leyner. David Foster Wallace has noted Mr. Leyner’s “amphetaminic eagerness to wow the reader.” The eagerness is at once obvious and invisible, flawlessly disguised because the reader is indeed wowed.
David Bowman also wows the reader. But unlike Mr. Leyner, he aims to disappear. He slots you into his weird world and once you’re in, you’re meant to forget everything except the vivid strangeness screaming in your face.
Bunny Modern kicks off with a rollicking shootout in Washington Square Park. We’ve been parachuted into the near future, some two decades into the great Millennial Blackout. Electricity is history, fertility rates are kissing zero and any baby born is a rare treasure guarded by a gun-toting nanny. Before we have time to assimilate what this post-AC/DC Manhattan might be like, before we can get used to the fact that the nannies are dressed in “Lit Wear” (“Ambrose Bierce boots,” “Bret Harte duster”) and that a prominent publishing house is called Calvin Klein-in short, before we can catch our breath, we’re plunged into violence. A kidnapping is under way, decoys clutching plastic babies running in every direction. A posse of nannies, weapons brandished, wheels into action. “Man!” our narrator enthuses, “I have to tell you that the resulting gunfire is just pop! pop! pop! ” Pure pop, in fact: Quentin Tarantino mayhem well sauced with gore, cruelty brightened by the sheer fun of cartoon choreography.
The narrator, Dylan, whose father invented Lit Wear, has just caught his first glimpse of Clare, the nanny who foils the kidnapping with a fine display of pop! pop! pop! He falls in love at once, though it takes him a while to place the feeling. “When Con Ed died,” he explains, there was a collective “brownout of the heart.” Later he elaborates: “We New Yorkers, maybe all of Western Civilization, have forgotten so much about romance since volts took a powder that we’re functional idiots.” By the time Dylan gets the hang of it, he and Clare are embroiled in a ludicrous plot involving a baby who never ages, and whose seeming immortality may or may not explain the disappearance of electricity.
The plot jerks forward, its silliness made sillier by Dylan’s telepathy. He can read minds, though only women’s minds. He calls this gender-specific talent “sheldraking” in honor of British scientist Rupert Sheldrake. It’s a hokey device that allows Mr. Bowman to poke some fun at New Age theories of “morphic resonance” and at the same time claim for Dylan convenient moments of omniscience.
Other features of Mr. Bowman’s through-the-looking-glass future go down more easily. Because there are no telephones, the carrier pigeon has been “genetically resurrected by Sharper Image.” The nannies make perfect sense: They have to be kept from bonding with their wee charges because otherwise they might turn into kidnappers, so they dope themselves with Vengeance, a designer drug that sharpens the maternal urge and then twists it to unleash steely killers indifferent to the infant lives they protect.
Of course, the average gun-crazed au pair tends to dress head-to-toe in Poe-it’s shocking, toward the end of the novel, when you meet a nanny wearing an Emma Bovary.
Mr. Bowman lives for allusion. Dylan’s namesake (Bob Dylan, not Dylan Thomas) crops up every few pages. “You’re not one of those Tower Records freaks,” Clare asks, “who believe that all our current is flowing back through time to when Bob Dylan went electric at Newport?” Bunny Modern is brilliant patchwork, bits and pieces snipped from literature and pop culture, some of them sewn securely in place, others loosely pinned. The novel begins with an inversion of Moby-Dick -Mr. Bowman insists on calling his reader Ishmael. Halfway through, Dylan rinses Clare’s feet with Perrier, a brand-name update of T.S. Eliot’s ditty from The Waste Land : “O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter/ And on her daughter/ They wash their feet in soda water.”
What is the point of all this?
I believe that Mr. Bowman is at work on an anatomy of yearning, the current of desire that sparks consciousness and makes us feel most alive. In Let the Dog Drive , he tackled romantic love. He invented a delightful and tragic heroine, the divinely eccentric Sylvia Cushman, and a teenager (all teenagers are champion yearners) who aches for her. In Bunny Modern , Mr. Bowman widens the scope of his inquiry to include maternal yearning-not just what it’s like to be desperate for a child, but the whole greedy gamut of mother love. Here’s Clare, breaking the nanny taboo, bonding with someone else’s baby: “It’s a metal funnel that’s been plugged into her heart. It is Clare’s fancy that it’s slim like an old-fashioned ear trumpet. An elongated cone. Yes. A cone is leading out of her heart. And this baby is pouring unadulterated empathy up to the brim. Clare can think of only one name for this experience: Cone Heart.” Ignore the echo of Saturday Night Live’ s Cone Heads and you hit pay dirt, Mr. Bowman’s stubborn sentimental streak. Yearning is the wellspring of his writing. Incipient love, baffled love, perverted love, love that’s always a little off the mark.
Mr. Bowman is a romantic escapist. From the “plastic heart of America” (a phrase he uses in Let the Dog Drive ) he scavenges scraps of our popular culture, anything from Versace to Mr. Boston’s Official Bartender Guide .
But he yearns for something else, like the glories of 19th-century literature, especially Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson (the belle of Amherst haunts his first novel). He yearns for the grace of Fred Astaire (“Ishmael, let’s shoot up his beautiful steps like a drug or dream”). He yearns for the grit of a hard-boiled detective novel.
But mostly he yearns to tell a grand weepy love story, something along the lines of the Alexander Graham Bell anecdote he tacks on to Bunny Modern , his motley tale of the Millennial Blackout: “You know Bell invented the dial tone, the receiver, the wrong number. But did you know he also invented a telephone that sent messages with light? Yes. The telephone was a byproduct of Bell’s search for the perfect valentine for his wife. She was deaf, you see. Mrs. Alexander Bell was deaf from birth. Bell spent his life searching for a way to talk with her. He worked with light, believing he could somehow send his voice through her eyes.”
Mr. Bowman’s sentimentality is precious-and I mean that in the old-fashioned, sentimental sense of very valuable.