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Philosophical riffs, and 'Lowboy' on the subway

April 26, 2009 |  1:00 pm


At today’s L.A. Times Festival of Books fiction panel “The Breaking Point,” discussion veered towardthe heavily philosophical, with novelists John Haskell, Hari Kunzru, John Wray and Antoine Wilson weighing in on matters of social realism, sense of self and unreliable narrators.

Wray noted that one of the many risks of tying a narrative into the larger social scheme of things is that “you could end up writing a sort of polemic, where the novel gets burdened with your own opinions.” This is certainly not the case in “Lowboy,” Wray’s third and latest novel, where his main character, a 16-year-old schizophrenic who’s gone off his meds, takes to the subway, and whose unraveling mind begins to paint a surrealistic perspective of the world around him.

Wray, 37, wrote much of the book on New York subway trains, as he said, wearing a pair of “enormous, ridiculous, noise-canceling headphones.” He’d finished his second novel, “Canaan’s Tongue” and felt completely spent and wasn’t sure what his next book would be about and was “very afraid that it was going to be crap.”

The subway, with its complete disconnection from the world of e-mails and ringing cellphones, actually turned out to be a far less distracting environment than, say, Wray’s apartment. He described the experience of riding the rails with his laptop as a kind of college sophomore experiment in immersion, laughing that “actually, it turned out to be completely unnecessary.”

The setting of the modern MTA differs completely from Wray’s first two books, “The Right Hand of Sleep” and “Canaan’s Tongue.” They deal, respectively, with a World War I deserter returning to his Austrian village on the eve of World War II, and a gang of mystic, Mississippi River slave traders trying to avoid the Civil War.

In his Esquire profile of Wray, Tyler Cabot writes that “Canaan’s Tongue” “is big and nasty and fat with fantasy and the supernatural. The influences of Sherwood Anderson replaced by Thomas Pynchon. And yet the result is another astonishingly transportive experience, delivered in a voice that at times feels molded from the mud of the Mississippi, yet with an extrasensory sheen.”

-- George Ducker

Photo credit: Bebeto Matthews

Click here for more photos of the book festival.