Considering that the book that catapulted him to fame is a “children’s book for adults” titled Go the Fuck to Sleep, mounting an argument that Adam Mansbach’s work is unpredictable is difficult. But that’s the thing with the writer who just put out his fourth novel, Rage Is Back, and will celebrate with a launch party tonight at Brooklyn’s powerHouse Arena; the titles throw you off (save for Go The Fuck to Sleep, which is really just about tying to get a kid to, well, go the fuck to sleep). You see a title like his novel The End of the Jews, and you’re likely to assume the book has some deep philosophical or socio-political meaning behind it, rather than a warm and historically rich family tale that’s equal parts Michael Chabon and Saul Bellow, or something akin to an American-Jewish version of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. The same goes for 2005’s Angry Black White Boy — you think you have some clue what you’re getting into by judging the book by the words on the cover, but you get something else entirely.
I bring up titles with Mansbach while we’re sitting in a Brooklyn Heights coffee shop. I mention that compared to his previous works, the title Rage Is Back is almost a little tame. But exactly how important is the title, especially to a novelist, I ask, citing examples from the post-Raymond Carver What We Talk About When We Talk About Love school of titles, or ones that might seem profound to the writer, but perplexing to the reader. “You can call a book Freedom if you already have this platform where people are hyping you up as solution to America’s dearth of novelists,” he tells me. “If you’re Franzen, you can have sort of this pompous, vain title.”
When I ask him how much thought he puts into a title, Mansbach tells me that “Go the Fuck to Sleep began as a title, or as a joke how I’d write a book called that.” With his latest book, Mansbach says, “I had this title in mind,” and then goes on to explain the title ties into the real-life history of New York City graffiti writers making “comebacks” in the 1980s, after the city cycled through a series of misguided attempts to curb the constant stream of subway cars getting tagged.
It makes sense that Mansbach would write a novel that intertwines graffiti artists with a story about family. It makes sense because hip-hop culture, race, and family are three of the overarching themes in all of his work. What is evident as soon as you start reading Rage Is Back is that Mansbach is one of the few writers capable of taking those subjects and writing something that comes off as organic and fun to read, less than forced and over-researched. What is unexpected, however, are the different influences and genres Mansbach plays with as he tells the story from the point of the teenage narrator, Kilroy Dondi Vance.
Robeto Bolaño is one of the authors Mansbach tells me he was reading prior to writing Rage is Back. The late Chilean writer, whose work has been cited as part of the long line of South American writers who sprinkled magic and mythology into their stories of everyday life, was one of Mansbach’s biggest influences. I note a similarity to another East Coast-born Jewish writer who escaped to California, Jonathan Lethem. Mansbach acknowledges the comparison, and also notes that the drop caps that start each chapter of his latest book were drawn by Lethem’s brother, Blake — one of the all-time great New York graffiti artists who goes under the name of “KEO.”
Like Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, Mansbach’s latest has bright flourishes of urban magical realism. And also like Lethem’s book, you can clearly hear the characters’ voices as you read through Rage is Back. I mention Mansbach’s ability to step outside of his own cultural background and give credible voices to New York characters of all different races. He says, “I think language is usually at its most interesting and dynamic at its fringes and cutting edges.” He pauses for a moment, takes a sip of his coffee, which at that point had grown cold, and continues, “I think there’s a lot of residual, old-guard literary gate-keeping around the way characters speak, and particularly the notion of a multi-literacy; like an ability to code switch, an ability to move between high and low culture, and modes of expression.” Mansbach points out that some authors are slapped on the wrist for trying to break out of culturally-imagined linguistic constraints, while others — he cites New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani comparing Junot Diaz to “David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West” — are praised for it.
Beyond the literary labels and sub-genres, Mansbach is a writer who, much like Lethem or Nathan Englander (who has added playwright to his resume), likes to challenge himself by working within different literary mediums. He lectures, has written essays, poetry, and short stories that have appeared everywhere from Esquire to n+1; he tinkers with screenplays, and later this year will move into the world of commercial fiction with his debut thriller, The Dead Run.
Mansbach likes working on different projects and getting out of his comfort zone from time to time, but it is the novel where he goes through the greatest pains to find completion, and finds the most reward. He admits that Rage was a little easier, a bit more organic than his past novels; and it shows throughout the book’s 304 pages. It also shows that Mansbach is in his groove. Maybe that’s because he can now afford that precious little bit of breathing room writers crave, thanks to the unprecedented and unexpected success of one of his works; but reading his latest book or hearing him speak shows it’s something more than that.
Rage Is Back is another example of Mansbach’s ability to be unpredictable. You can read into the title and think you have some sort of idea of what’s inside, and you could have read all of Mansbach’s works prior to it and think you have an idea of what and how Mansbach will write. But then you find yourself finishing the book and realizing Rage is Back is totally not what you expected, and that’s one of the things that make the book so wonderful to read.