You'd think that Curtis White, in his satirical new novel, America’s Magic Mountain, would be most interested in channeling Germany’s grand old Mann of modernism. After all, his, too, is the story of the “unassuming” young Hans Castorp, who intends just a short visit to his ailing cousin in a sanitarium but ends up staying for several years. During those years, he encounters the long-winded avatars of Decaying Bourgeois Society, debates with them the meaning of life, and becomes, in a manner of speaking, a philosopher.

Only occasionally does White, a novelist and cultural critic whose most recent book was The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves, capture the contemptuous, ironic language with which Thomas Mann frequently flogged his hero. Here, a brief aside manages the trick nicely:

“Cecile looked if not through Hans then into him far enough to see the dense little black marble that was his consciousness. But we shouldn’t give up hope. After all, the brilliant cosmos once flashed from such a dense, black dot.”

Instead, White has built his unusually dyspeptic dystopia on the foundations of George Saunders’ recent classic, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. His characters, like Saunders’, are hyper-articulate, self-referential, and vacuous, like walking televisions. They populate a world in which there are greasy fast-food joints like Daffy Duck’s Chicken, a franchise that hires desperate single mothers and then supplies them with amphetamines. Their subsequent march on Washington is dubbed “the great Duck Walk for Fast-Food Justice.”

“Pathetic, really,” White’s narrator comments. “Last straw for the corporation, too. Daffy’s declared bankruptcy while its five thousand employees were standing in the Great Mall, shivering before Lincoln’s Monument, skeletal from years of adrenal abuse, their hair pulled back in the oily buns fashionable among speed freaks.”

Of course, The Magic Mountain still provides the superstructure for White’s novel, and its particulars are cleverly manipulated to suggest a more up-to-date cultural malaise. For instance, Mann set his novel atop the Alps, overlooking Europe on the eve of its self-destruction in the First World War. White, on the other hand, sets his in a near-future, central Illinois wasteland, “among a squat range of mountains, or mountain-like things, more like hills, that had been formed by the slag heaps left behind by a now-vanished coal industry.”

Mann’s Hans is an apprentice shipbuilder from the flatlands and arrives at the TB sanitarium with a book about ships. White’s Hans is a college graduate from Downstate with a job offer from Caterpillar. He arrives at the alcohol rehab spa known as The Elixir to find in his room a copy of Mann’s novel with a half-pint of vodka hidden inside.

What ensues for our hero is a series of bilious adventures in which the grand themes of love, death, illness, and time are batted about but never fully considered. The Magic Mountain is critically neglected these days—even Hans finds it boring—but its powers should not be underestimated. To say that White’s rather-too-obviously titled update doesn’t equal its namesake wouldn’t be fair. We’ll say it anyway, though, since it’s hardly White’s m.o. to be fair.

At times, he’s positively misanthropic (“The Mayor extended a hand the size of a ham. It was an enormous, powerful, disgusting thing. It was the kind of hand one made soup stock with.”). He’s at his best mercilessly mimicking the anodyne language of academe and the church. Hans finds a pamphlet written by the Right Reverend Phinues Boyle, who discourses on the absolute right of fathers to be drunken and dysfunctional:

One of the great tolerances allowed the Father is his right to “booze.” As a theoretical matter, the Father may “booze it up” whenever he chooses. In an instance I have heard of, a father who had exceeded his own biological tolerance for booze (who took the theoretically infinite social tolerance for booze too literally) actually fell from his couch. The horrified family was legitimately anxious to know how to proceed. Who, for example, would select the evening’s television programming?

White isn’t the least bit interested in redemption for Hans, his cousin Ricky, or any of the other residents at The Elixir. (By way of contrast, a certain compassionate sentimentality runs through Saunders’ stories, more poignant than in Hawthorne but no less religious.)  Rather, he pours his energy into channeling the cultural criticism of George W. S. Trow, with all his wringing of hands over television and fatherhood, and Joan Didion, queen of the smugly authoritative scare quote. Throw in a dash of Bulgakov’s Margarita in the person of one Professor Feeling—an apocalyptic trickster who turns up everywhere, usually armed with vodka—and you get surreal moments like the one where the good professor attempts to justify his patronage of hookers. His vice, he claims, is revenge against his wife, whom he calls the Black-Tongued-One.

“The cosmos’ karmic obligations to my wife, completing the logic of her own actions (and not my ‘clownish lusts,’ the actions of an ‘alcoholic sex fiend’ as the legal depositions of the plaintiff’s camp claimed) was to introduce these aforementioned more appreciative others to the curious delights of my tantric rites.”

In The Middle Mind, White attacked a certain kind of self-righteous cultural complacency represented by Terry Gross and Charlie Rose. For his trouble, overly defensive critics attacked him for being a snob and hating democracy. He is certainly the former, but what’s the matter with that? His target is Americans who content themselves not to think, and if that’s a lot of us, then his target is big and easy but no less worthy.

“Look, try not to ask so many questions,” Cousin Ricky tellsHans as he settles into The Elixir. “Questions only get in the way here.”

America’s Magic Mountain by Curtis White (Dalkey Archive, 231 pages)
Concord (NH) Monitor, December 2004