Crust by Lawrence Shainberg

Two Dollar Radio, 2008
Walker Linchak elevates nose-picking to an art form, a religious experience of sorts that deserves study on a number of levels: metaphysical, psycho-social, sexual, and most humorously, technical.  Unfortunately, Lawrence Shainberg, in his satirical novel Crust, which follows Linchak, a writer of mammoth, we presume disposable, tomes with names like The Complete Book of Terrorism and The Complete Book of 9/11, on his rise to nose-picking stardom and academic acclaim, is unable to pull off any of those levels in an interesting way, with the possible exception of his technical and biological descriptions of the sensation of “crust removal.”  Two Dollar Radio, the publisher of Crust, has laid out the book more like a wiki entry than an academic study of boogers, complete with footnotes citing fictional essays and books and interviews and blogs and vlogs, and pictures of Shainberg’s characters, diagrams showing correlation between crust size and adhesion, and some rather funny doctored pictures of George W. Bush dressed in his “Mission Accomplished” flight suit with a piece of snot hanging from his outstretched finger, or being tortured by hooded Anti-Nasalist terrorists.

This is the stuff of a New Yorker humor column, and the thing that unites every New Yorker humor column is brevity.  Shainberg could have complained about Bush and the oversaturation of media in a much shorter piece that both would have left his readers interested and gotten his point across better.

Walker is married to a type-A publishing executive whose obsession with media borders on insanity, but not surprisingly resembles the futurists and online-ists that fill our trains and our board rooms, who would have all of us constantly clicking our scroll wheels or iPods or Kindles for the latest update in our personalized RSS feed chain.  Okay, we get it, and this subject is fascinating, but deserves more subtlety and care than a novel about nose-picking can provide.  Walker rapes her with nose-picking early in the book.  He makes her dig deep in her nostril, until she’s ready to vomit, and Shainberg tries to makes this moment of silliness into some revelation for Walker. 

“Nasalism has given me no greater gift than the surge of love I felt for her now.  If you have read her memoir, you know that much the same was happening for her.  Like so many couples who’ve long been together, we often forgot our friendship, how much we actually liked each other.  If it weren’t for picking, we might never have remembered.”

In the November 20, 2008 New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith put forth two paths for fiction in the twenty-first century.  She chose Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland to represent the first path, the well-trod path of lyrical realism.  For the second path, a sort of philosophical fiction where the implied reality, or the suspension of disbelief involved in reading the first is unnecessary and irrelevant, she chose Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, a novel ostensibly about amnesia and the need to recreate those few moments of clarity and comfort we’re afforded in our lives, but with no real characters and no narrative reality to make the reader care.

Shainberg’s Crust falls in line with McCarthy, but where McCarthy’s disembodied themes are resonate and heartbreaking, Shainberg’s are goofy and forced.  He shows the uselessness of information aggregation, the vapidity of mass media obsessions.  All of this is wonderfully summarized on the front cover of the paperback edition, the word ‘Crust’ written in Google’s rainbow serif.  He speaks through George W. Bush’s mouth to show us that we never should have voted for the man – not once and certainly not twice.  But what’s easier or more unsubstantial than puppet satire.  Shainberg is even personally mean-hearted towards Bush and America, when he has the former president say, on national television, “How is it possible that at a time when you needed, more than ever, a president with maturity and wisdom, you chose a man with no experience, no qualifications, a dry-drunk pickaholic who showed you time and again that he wasn’t up to the job!”  We don’t want to defend Bush from criticism.  We don’t even want to defend him from this type of satire.  We just get bored with 200 pages of it.  Bush answers his own question with Shainberg’s thesis.  “I’ll tell you why!  You’ve got so much information coming at you that your head is spinning out of control!  TV, movies, Internet, newspapers, magazines.  You’re under attack!”

Maybe we are under attack.  But Crust seems like just another weapon in this arsenal.  Good novels don’t slap the reader in the face with their messages.  A great satire would create a real world with the detail and tangible characters necessary to make us care about anything, even nose-picking.

MICHAEL BUOZIS was born in Los Angeles, grew up in Pennsylvania, and now lives in Brooklyn with his girlfriend Alison and their cat Brady. His stories have appeared in Able To... and The Benefactor.