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BOOK REVIEW

To pick the brain, pick the nose first

Crust A Novel Lawrence Shainberg Two Dollar Radio: 228 pp., $15 paper

October 12, 2008|Tod Goldberg | Tod Goldberg's books include "Living Dead Girl," "Fake Liar Cheat" and "Simplify."

The REALITY of writer's block is that of all the possible maladies a writer might encounter, it's by far the least lethal. It may place a rather high emotional tax on the writer -- though Richard Ford once said the best way to avoid it in the first place is to not concede that it exists -- but it's less physically debilitating than carpal tunnel syndrome or eye strain or even the requisite lower back pain that haunts those who spend hours sitting and not writing. In "Crust," Lawrence Shainberg's dystopian satire, writer's block leads narrator Walker Linchak, one of the world's most acclaimed writers (two National Book Awards, a Pulitzer and talk of a Nobel for his works including "The Complete Book of AIDS" and "The Complete Book of 9/11"), to transcendental heights of wisdom by virtue of, well, picking his nose.

"How many memoirs, how many poets have celebrated this moment?" Linchak says at the precipice of "the crust's" removal, after he's already realized that the picking has opened in him a clarity long missing, his depression lifted, his ability to perceive the world amplified, his level of concentration focused to a pinhole precision. "Not for nothing have so many related the sensation one feels at this moment to those produced by cocaine or alcohol or surfing the Internet." Soon, he has his wife Sara picking too, and her revelation is both sickening (she vomits from the intensity of the experience) and arousing, as she finds herself revisiting her nose with a more private result. And of course the need to explain his experience -- known afterward as Nasalism -- and to give voice to the consciousness he calls "the Founder" that now exists in him cause Linchak to start blogging about it all.

Shainberg isn't merely interested in poking fun at New Age experiments in self-actualization; rather, he's keen to explore how technology and trends have redefined both who we are and how we interact. In his previous works, most notably his novel "Memories of Amnesia," Shainberg distilled clinical detail into readable narratives that entertained and engaged. Here, in a near-future America, he laces his work with a scientific and philosophical examination of what nose picking achieves for those who've become its most ardent fans -- including George W. Bush, who comes to realize his failures as a leader as a result of his own nasal mining. Shainberg telegraphs the media explosion that surrounds the onset of Nasalism via the ever-present bursts of technology that surround our lives, followed by the secondary movements one might expect (PostNasalists, et al.) and the eventual hypocrisy that picking finally engenders right down the line toward heresy.

Because Shainberg posits "Crust" as one of Linchak's own writings on the topic, the work reads at times like the very academic texts it mocks, but that's the challenge found in producing a novel like this, a postmodern examination of the self that teases the very idea of postmodernism. "Crust" is heavily footnoted, but not in an ironic way, apart from having Linchak note an exceptionally amusing sendup of writing workshops penned some 20 years ago by Shainberg himself, and thus when it devolves into some abject silliness (particularly concerning President Bush), the academic tone falls out of sync.

There is a thin line between absurdity and farce, and Shainberg is at his finest when he hedges toward the former so that "Crust" becomes that rare bit of lampoonery that is both humorous and smart without devolving into winking smugness.

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