Rage Is Back is not, strictly speaking, an easy book to read. That’s not necessarily to say it’s difficult — its author, Adam Mansbach, is neither stupid nor cruel — but it runs at the exhausting, skittering pace of some of its most potent moments: a foot chase through an abandoned train yard, an aerosol can being shaken vigorously, a “world-obliterating, world-creating” drug trip through space and time administered by an Amazonian shaman. The book’s very first sentence is a full 129 words, a tangle of references to people and places the reader can’t yet know and may have to read two or three times to fully understand; from there, exposition comes in lurches and jags and self-referential asides. Rage flirts with magical realism and short story; openly acknowledges (and then briefly abandons) its unreliable narrator; is populated, like many of Mansbach’s books, by eccentrics and antiheroes and outlaws and characters in the deepest throes of some pretty heavy-duty identity crises. Even the book’s plot — which, in a nutshell, follows a group of old friends, once at the top of the scene during graffiti’s golden age, now aging and angry, on a final mission — is something of a risk: Graffiti is not only a wholly visual medium and thus one that’s hard to bring to life on a page (though Mansbach does his best); it’s also a subject that’s shot through with issues of race and class and the law. Rage‘s setting is an insular one, a world with its own tropes and terminology, a world that’s not necessarily appreciated or understood by everyone — especially, it’s safe to argue, the kinds of people who attend lectures and read literary fiction in hardcover. Taken in context, the fact that Mansbach and his publisher are billing Rage as “the Great American Graffiti Novel” can be seen as a reference to the kind of braggadocio that alternately plagues and drives the book’s characters, the impulse for shit-starting that inspires someone to write his own name seven feet high on a subway car in Krylon Hot Raspberry — or to the fact that Rage is probably the only great American graffiti novel. Either way, it’s a bold statement, but then again, Mansbach’s a bold personality.
“I’d rather write a book that some people like and some people hate than a novel a lot of people are indifferent to,” he told me, subway train squealing in the background, in a recent phone interview during one of his many — and increasingly common — trips away from his Berkeley Hills home and off to the East Coast for book tour-related events. “Throughout my career, I’ve never given much thought to audience or salability.”
The irony here, of course, is that Mansbach is eminently, demonstrably salable as an author, as the force behind 2011’s unlikeliest bestseller — the “children’s book for adults” Go the Fuck to Sleep — precisely because of his less agreeable tendencies. “People who know me, when that book came out, were like … ‘Adam’s talking Adam’s shit again,’ you know? But in this case, it tapped into the zeitgeist in this crazy way.” Despite the fact that Sleep was, on paper, an undeniably weird sell — a tossed-off, profanity-laden kids’ book that was actually wildly inappropriate for kids, distributed by a tiny publisher — even before its official release, it sold more than the three novels, graphic novel, and book of poetry Mansbach had previously written combined. But if he’s at all pissed about first cracking the bestseller list with a book that was sold at Urban Outfitters, he’s hiding it well — and Mansbach doesn’t hide his feelings well. “I’d rather be the Go the Fuck to Sleep guy than not be,” he said. “I would be an asshole if I said there was a huge downside to any of this.”
Sleep was the kind of unmitigated, unexpected, overnight success any comfortable-but-not-famous writer dreams of, the closest thing the book world has to a one-hit wonder. But it doesn’t take an incredibly close reading to see that it’s less a jokey aberration than a formal experiment with the same ideas Mansbach’s always been fascinated by: parenthood, anger, identity, adolescence, adulthood. (After all, Rage’s central emotional conflict revolves around a complicated, ambivalent relationship between father and child; if you think about it, Sleep does, too.) “Complexity is a fascination of mine,” Mansbach said. “Honesty and speaking from uncomfortable truths, characters with humanity and contradiction — those are a fascination of mine. I’m interested in paradox.”
In Sleep, that paradox is a simple, if rarely spoken, one: The truth that as a parent that you’d be willing to get between your kid and a bullet without a second thought, but, at the same time, that if she doesn’t go (the fuck) to sleep within the next fifteen minutes you could quite possibly throw her through a window. In Rage, it’s broader — “balancing art and vandalism, fame and anonymity, beautifying and destroying a city.” Rage uses graffiti as less a setting than a central character in and of itself: Mansbach loves the form too deeply to grant it anything less, loves it so much his writing reads like graffiti looks — big, colorful, dense, often profane, occasionally impenetrable. But, like any great (or Great) novel — like Sleep, even — Rage is also vastly bigger and deeper and more valuable than the sum of its (many, moving) parts: not quite easy, but not quite meant to be.