Waxing Press

Book Review: Passing Off by Tom Leclair

book reviews, tastemakingIan WissmanComment

Despite its slim spine, Tom LeClair's Passing Off brings the enormity you might expect from the man behind the concept of the Systems Novel--in its 175 pages there's ideas about language (English and its Grecian etymologies), ancient world as home, destruction of the ancient world in the modern world, pollution and ecology, the real threat of global warming, what it means to be a developed nation, deep, deep knowledge of basketball and how the game is played, written in effective, quick language that moves fast like the game, multi-valent and layered "deceptions" or "passings off" to trick the reader, the characters, the players. Basically, it's a book brimming with stuff.


If you you're attracted to Greece and Athens, LeClair paints the life of the Greeks in a unique, non-Romanticized way that the West rarely sees, giving great insight into the culture and its tics. The book has prescience, too, into not only the Greek economic woes we've seen in the past decade, but the true threats of global warming, especially to a place like Greece so reliant on its booming tourism business--what happens when the beaches are gone?

In 2007, I took a solo trip to Athens while I lived in London. A student of his, I actually got a lot of recommendations from LeClair about how to effectively spend my time in the Ancient World. Like most tourists, I was attracted to and enchanted by the promise of the ancient, but when I arrived I was met by a polluted, confused and post-modern mangle that was exciting and abuzz in a very different way. My expectations were flouted, but I learned many important lessons those days alone in Greece. The book took me back to those days walking the smoggy streets, thick with stray dogs and men flicking worry beads. Alone, atop the Acropolis, I asked an older French woman and her husband if she would take my picture in front of the Parthenon. She smiled and obliged at my clumsy gesturing. A strange moment of unmitigated trust in a foreign land with a foreign stranger and no shared language. When I had the film developed, I came to find she had framed the shot so that my whole body was in the shot with only just suggestions of the Parthenon in the background. At first I was saddened that I didn't have a real iconic shot of me in front of one of the most iconic wonders of this wonderful world--even if the structure was enrobed in scaffolding and hideous at the time--but then, I took closer consideration and realized how well composed and beautiful the photograph was, how it's the only one from my time in Greece without other people in it. Just me and the Parthenon. It captured so much of the country's juxtapositions: modern and ancient--an ancient city on a hill with gridlocked traffic toxifying the air, literally melting the faces off of the history hanging above it, loneliness in a crowd, familiarity in a strange land and strangeness in a familiar setting. In other pictures from the top of the Acropolis, the brown haze of pollution stinks out along the horizon. But I couldn't help but love it.

I'm being tangential here to talk about Greece as a special place, because this book does that too. It is. Anyway, if you like literary games of deception and language, of ecology and terrorism, of art and sport, then Passing Off is not to be missed.

Passing Off is the first in LeClair's "Passing" series, followed by Passing On, and Passing Through. Coming next year from Waxing Press will be the series' conclusion with Passing Away.