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The mystery of an academic novel-within-a-novel.

Jan 19, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 17 • By DAVID SKINNER
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It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

Eerie, no? And of course, tragic. Reading the lecture today one realizes that here is a man who thinks about killing himself, but at the moment is persevering, finding the power to affirm life. And yet cold as it sounds, Wallace the writer remains fair game as much as anyone, including some other youngish widely hailed geniuses--Dave Eggers and some other writers are also fingered as graphomaniacs in Gone Tomorrow--who resemble John Henry Mallon in one respect or another.

In Gone Tomorrow, however, death comes for the old writer in mysterious circumstances. Kluge sets up his novel to suggest a murder mystery, but then dashes the expectation as if to say that the greater mystery concerns Canaris's work as a writer. Is it immortal, like his one novel that regularly appears on those 100 Best lists beloved of magazines, or is it "here today, gone tomorrow"--a forgotten worthy, perhaps, like An Operational Necessity by Gwyn Griffin, which sits on a bookshelf in Canaris's house?

An interesting difference separates the book Canaris is said to be writing, The Beast, and the one Kluge offers the reader, Gone Tomorrow. The latter is much shorter and can contain within its shortness the essence of the much longer work. A synopsis of The Beast comes through as Canaris revisits important episodes in its writing: a visit to Germany to research the town where Canaris's father was born; a visit from a former student, now a bestselling author, who helps Canaris get the creative juices flowing again; and memories of the old Hollywood where German Jews fleeing Hitler came to continue their cinematic trade. Seen like this, The Beast truly seems to be a great book. But in its sprawling plan one might notice the endless makings of the infinite novel Kluge criticizes.

Another act of compaction takes place when Canaris takes his girlfriend on a trip around the world. Kluge can write beautiful travel journalism--and does so for National Geographic's Traveler--so taking the reader around the world would not have been out of the question. But instead we get the happy-hour telling of a round-the-world trip. One need not be a philistine to consider such short cuts more inviting.

Where The Beast may be great art capable of spanning continents and decades, Gone Tomorrow is something more modest and yet thoroughly pleasurable: a solid academic comedy; a moving consideration of what it means to join a community and say, despite reservations, Here is Where I Belong; and a warm thank-you note to writers famous and forgotten for the reader's reward of a good lean book.

David Skinner is a writer and magazine editor in Washington.