Haskell’s latest book blurs the line between fact and fiction, action and meditation, telling a story or a series of stories while at the same time reflecting on what they mean.
The subject is ballet, about which Haskell is knowledgeable and astute. He builds the book around five classics—La Sylphide, Giselle, La Bayadère, Swan Lake, and Petrushka—using them to frame a broader narrative that takes place in contemporary Los Angeles. For Haskell, identity is a key issue (his 2009 novel, Out of My Skin, revolved around a Steve Martin impersonator who feels himself become indistinct through his imitation), and he writes deftly, meaningfully, about the fluidity of experience and the self. “You make adjustments to where you thought you were going, and who you thought you were,” his narrator, who has suffered a grievous personal loss, tells us, “and this is my direction, I thought, the direction I find myself going, and what I have to do, or what I have to be, or somehow what I am, is ahead of me.” The same, of course, is true for all of us, which is what gives his novel its urgency. And yet, as the book develops, it shifts direction, coalescing around a loosely formed plot involving gangsters and a gambling debt. It’s not hard to see what Haskell’s up to; the ballets he describes, and integrates into his text, involve betrayals, false or lost loves, the irrevocability of circumstance. Still, if melodrama is central to these dances, it is less effective on the page. The more the story turns toward the narrator’s entanglement, the more we lose sight of the larger, even existential, questions with which Haskell intends to engage. “When I said before,” he writes, “that I wanted my life to be like a dance I meant it, of course, metaphorically. You can dance sitting down. Or weaving between pedestrians on the street. Sometimes I like to get in my car and just drive, more or less mindlessly, without destination, going straight if the light is green, turning if the light is red, following the dictates of the world as manifested by the signals of the world.”
What Haskell is describing is conditionality, which is a thrilling notion, but this only makes it more disappointing when the book becomes, more or less, a conventional crime story in the end.