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Book Review: THE INSURGENT by Noah Cicero



It’s no secret. Noah Cicero (30) and Tao Lin (27) know each other.

I think it’s even safe to say they’re friends. They help each other in strange and small ways.

Like in this article, Tao Lin calls Noah Cicero a Centipede in the Darkness, which is a euphemism for the lowest level of greatness a fiction writer can achieve in America, which could be construed as a kind of insult, a kind of debasement, but still, Tao Lin cleverly drops Noah Cicero’s name at the start of a list that contains the likes of David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, and Philip Roth.

In a sense, even though Noah Cicero is the lowest of the great, his name is somehow the most memorable, maybe because it’s first on the list, or because the centipede in the darkness is the most human, the most accessible, the critter most similar to you and me. Or maybe it’s because his name is biblical. I don’t fucking know, but Tao Lin’s namedrop worked like a calculated charm, like something destined to become a household name.

Case and point: it made Noah Cicero a blip on my radar, and here I am reviewing his prose art.

Anyhow, I’m not sure how Tao Lin and Noah Cicero met – one lives in Brooklyn, the other in Youngstown – but now that I’ve read their most recent novels I know they’re chasing the same THING.


In RICHARD YATES, which I reviewed here, Tao Lin wants to express the social boredom and meaninglessness and apathy of the Outsider without being too representational.

He bludgeons these themes into his reader using irritating Beavis and Butt-Head dialogue and so-so prose that doesn’t offer much in the way of Big Ideas or insight.

It doesn’t even sound good.

That said, it doesn’t sound bad either.

It’s just there, like a dull emotionless lump of coal.

But if there’s one redeeming quality about RICHARD YATES it’s that Tao Lin communicates this THING him and Noah Cicero are chasing not with developed thoughts and musical sentences that efficiently capture a cynical worldview, but by actually making the act of reading so dry and meaningless that the reader comes very close to dying of boredom and apathy.

Not much of an accomplishment, if you ask me, but I’m afraid that’s precisely what Tao Lin was going after, so, in some skewed and underachieved way, he feels like RICHARD YATES succeeded in doing what he set out to do.


Then there’s Noah Cicero’s THE INSURGENT.

The same ingredients of social ennui, pointlessness, and indifference of the Outsider turn the gears of this story, but, in the hands of Noah Cicero, these themes are handled thoughtfully, skillfully, and wryly.

It’s clear to the reader that Noah Cicero has mulled Big Ideas for many years, if not decades. He has mulled these Big Ideas enough to create their personifications in characters like Sasha and Jimmy and Jessica and Misail.

These people narrate indelible soliloquies that, at times, sound strained, a bit forced and ungraceful in the narrative.

But that is all right. These allegorical characters are conduits for Noah Cicero’s philosophy, which I could easily agree with but don’t want to since Noah’s world is painted in such bleak overtones.

The only bright color comes with escapism, with detaching yourself from family and friends – from society – and running free, living a life apart.

This worldview makes sense when you consider Noah Cicero’s background.

He’s a denizen of the Rust Belt, of Youngstown, Ohio, “which is a small third-world-country inside of America.”

Unlike Tao Lin, Noah Cicero can’t possibly fake the fucked way he feels about life because the dregs of life have surrounded him in his home.

He communicates most of his thoughts through the Russian immigrant dishwasher Vasily, and Asian immigrant Chang, who, now that I think about it, may or may not be partly inspired by Tao Lin, like when Chang says,

“I don’t feel Asian. I don’t, I don’t even know how to feel Asian. I look in the mirror and see Asian, but I’m not Asian.”

These 2 characters are weak little pessimists obsessed with getting laid and getting out of Youngstown.

Vasily, the 1st person, is most similar to Noah Cicero in that he doesn’t own a cell phone and he studied Political Science.

Vasily takes the reader into bathroom stalls, strip clubs, bars, shitty kitchens, the homes of drug dealers, the rooms of loose women, and across America on I-80.

There are many passages I’d like to quote in their entirety because they are so pithy and so true.

Like the character Misail Poloznev, Noah Cicero has a special way of packaging Big Ideas in digestible pills, or, as Vasily says when describing Misail’s genius,

“[Misail] was very strange like that; he was very articulate and had a huge vocabulary and was very well-read and educated. But while explaining the most extreme and profound concepts he would intermix it with swear words and common language so anyone could understand it.”

Although I know very little about the Centipede in the Darkness, I feel this is an apt description of what Noah Cicero does in his writing.

It’s something to be proud of, something worth smiling about – but not smugly – this ability to take complex ideas that most every conscious person feels in some abstract way and pin them down using simple terms and common situations that throb with authenticity.


Having said all this, why is it I saw RICHARD YATES on the shelves of BookPeople – the illustrious independent bookstore in Austin – and not THE INSURGENT?

A relevant question that, to me, could reveal a lot about Life, or, at the very least, a lot regarding how some people succeed so brilliantly where others more deserving fail miserably.

Tao Lin is no master of writing or storytelling or anything to do with craft, but of making connections, of scaling internet hierarchy, of getting seen in right places and wrong places and any places (like on TheOpenEnd).

Tao Lin is friends with a lot of small press writers, not just Noah Cicero.

He’s probably a nice guy with a certain kind of defeated charisma about him even though he isn’t defeated in any way.

He’s a graduate of NYU.

He hobnobs in Brooklyn.

Melville House publishes his lackluster shit.

He could use his writerly status to engage in all manner of internet romance.

He’s lightning-fast at self-applauding his efforts with blog links and facebook status updates/boastful tweets to his ~4,000 friends/followers.

Whereas Noah Cicero is someone and no one and no one again.

Noah doesn’t try to generate hype.

Noah doesn’t create gimmicky campaigns to get noticed, like hiring interns to spread propaganda.

Noah has ~500 facebook friends.

Noah uses his blog to often downplay and smear his accomplishments in stinky shit.

Noah maybe has a masochistic desire to be known as a loser, a down-and-out, an anonymity for time immemorial.

And all of the above is some of the reason why RICHARD YATES is in BookPeople and THE INSURGENT – undoubtedly the more fulfilling and engaging and generally better book – is nowhere.

But I know this doesn’t make Noah Cicero envious or hateful.

Nor does it make Tao Lin overly proud.

They are friends.

It’s just interesting to see how the market responds to their efforts.

Probably another reason THE INSURGENT is so invisible has to do with BLATT, its publisher, who couldn’t even mail a review copy.

Yes, I had to read my shabby printout held together by shitty staples that sometimes punctured small holes in my fingertips, holes that quickly blossomed into bright red blood droplets that the vampire in me sucked.

Still I found the reading experience pleasurable.

Now that says something.


October 20, 2010 10:55 am

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