The success of The Failure by James Greer

Posted by @ 6:51 pm on April 21st, 2010

The Failure is a hell of a book. Greer is a funny writer, a smart writer, and a talented synthesizer of contemporary life with an older kind of storytelling. It’s greatest success, though, is its chorus of voices.

The plot, briefly: Guy Forget has discovered a scheme to make money on the internet, but he needs start-up cash. Unable to secure it from family, he decides that, with his friend Billy, he will rob a Korean check cashing business.

Much of the book is dialogue, characters in conversation, with little scene setting beyond the précis masquerading as a chapter title at the beginning of each section. The book moves back and forth through time and location—the introductions for each paragraph are the signposts that put the writing that follows in context. With no moments to stop and look at the scenery, as it were, the weight of the novel is right there on the characters. The book is concerned with a different kind of location. The location of the relationships between its characters.

Guy and Billy are the book’s down-at-heel Abbott and Costello. Guy, like all great losers, considers himself moments away from the win that will change his life. Billy, his dim bulb partner-in-soon-to-be-disastrously-failed-crime.

Let me ask you a question: who do you think would win in a fight between a squirrel and a cat? said Guy.

-Depends on the cat, obviously, said Billy. -But in general the cat. I had a cat once, used to kill squirrels and bring them back to the house, as presents, or trophies, or something…

And so it goes.

There are the conversations between these two. Guy has a girl named Violet, and they talk. Guy talks to his brother Marcus at one point, looking for money. Through those dialogues, we locate Guy. We locate Billy. We locate Violet. Marcus.

Then there is the books villian, Sven Transvoort. He locates himself, usually. His chapters are monologues. Rants, really. As Guy and Billy feel a little like Bouvard and Pecuchet, Sven has a sinister Tristram Shandy aspect to him: too smart for his own good, too comfortable hanging on to perceived—and real—slights. Quoting Sven:

Violet had been brought up to think that nothing she did could in any way be held against her, because she was entitled to act however she thought fit. Her sense of entitlement derived partly from some innate personality quirk, possibly inbred, but was equally the fault of a world that granted girls of a certain age and a certain bearing and a certain way of moving through the world—as if they were the still center of that moving orb—an almost limitless degree of slack.

And the there is a “not entirely omniscient narrator” who has a couple of chapters of—what? his?—own with the reader. And the chapter introductions. They seem “not entirely” but “still mostly” omniscient. This voice locates the space in which the reader and the book interact. Its brief intrusions keep us on the map.

So, like Blake says, go see James Greer on tour. He has written a really good book. And, having seen him read to an audience, I can also say he’s a good reader.


Greer was the bass player for Guided By Voices for a time. Guided By Voices were from Dayton, Ohio. I was thinking today about a band I haven’t heard in forever, Cleveland, Ohio’s My Dad Is Dead. Here’s a My Dad Is Dead video:


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