The Bat Segundo Show: Eric Kraft

One of the difficulties of managing so many projects is that I continue to forget that I am committing some of these conversations to video. So I must now atone for the slightly delayed missing component. If you missed out on the elaborate roundtable discussion for Flying, or you don’t have the 2+ hour investment to listen to the three-part podcast (Part One) (Part Two) (Part Three), or you just want to get a sense of how much remarkable vivacity Mr. Kraft has, then the above four-minute video excerpt should offer a dutiful encapsulation of what became, over the course of March, quite a momentous undertaking. And if you haven’t yet picked up Flying, and wish to plunge into some crazed postmodernist fun that may keep you occupied for some time, well, the bookstore still awaits.

(For those who tire of my continuous Kraft boosterism, don’t worry. This will likely be the last post related to Mr. Kraft for quite some time.)


The Bat Segundo Show: Eric Kraft, Part Three

Eric Kraft appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #270.

Eric Kraft is most recently the author of Flying. This is the third of a three part conversation with Kraft about all of his Peter Leroy books, an epic of more than a million words which Our Young Roving Correspondent was insane enough to read. These podcasts tie in with a roundtable discussion of Flying involving numerous people.

(To listen to Part One of this conversation, go here. To listen to Part Two of this conversation, go here.)


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contemplating the stamina of listeners.

Author: Eric Kraft

Subjects Discussed: Writing about a location when not being at that location, intermittently returning to Babylon to absorb some details for Babbington, the limitations of revisiting place, having too many facts at one’s disposal, mysterious dark-haired girls, Peter Leroy’s muses, the gradual augmentation of swagger, seducing the audience, misheard literalisms, whether or not a meal has feelings, Boston Phoenix restaurant critic Robert Nadeau and B.W. Beath, the “warm and cuddly” label attached to Kraft’s work, perverse impulses and the telling of the tale, the source of the odd smell in Matthew’s apartment in Reservations Recommended, Kraft’s delivery of a letter to Jean Shepherd and a subsequent radio show based around that letter, dwelling more on the recent present, going to towns that have interesting names, Leroy’s influence on the memories of Kraft’s friends, efforts to make Kraft a famous writer, the effect that Random House’s purchase of Crown had on Kraft’s books, making a big score with a commercial book, dealings with Amblin, writing the Inflating a Dog screenplay, Donald M. Murray’s My Twice-Lived Life, the relationship of socks to a writer’s output, Madeline’s position on mismatched socks, self-congratulation and repetition, how to become an experienced tequila drinker, the semantics of “cult audience,” whether or not Kraft gets bags of cash in the mail, caring about an audience, the jokes that the Krafts wish they heard in bars, waiting for the dialogue to come, being in control, and the burden of holding onto scraps.


erickraftCorrespondent: Has it ever occurred to you to try and make a big score in terms of writing a completely commercial book? In an effort to get people attached into the Peter Leroy universe? Or is such a thing absolutely impossible? Or did you, in fact, try to do this and it turned out to be so quirky and eccentric?

Kraft: (laughs)

Correspondent: I’m just curious.

Kraft: Where is it? I’ve forgotten which book it is.

Correspondent: Oh yeah. One of the books where there’s the publishing meeting. I think it’s the first one in Manhattan.

Kraft: It’s in Leaving Small’s Hotel, where Peter’s publishers want him to add more blood and gore to the Larry Peters series. And he can’t do it. It doesn’t work out that way. He keeps turning in quirky Larry Peters stories. And I’m much the same way. I don’t think I could possibly do it. I haven’t bothered wasting my time trying to do it. And the other way I’ve managed to shoot myself in the foot so very well is in the matter of film sales. When Herb ‘N’ Lorna was released and was reviewed on the front page of The New York Times, I got a call almost the next day from Amblin — Steven Spielberg’s company. And I spoke with people there. And we had a number of interesting conversations. And I think perhaps, in the second or third phone call, I said, “Of course, the one thing that’s of great concern to me is that, because I have plans for all of these characters, there are many, many other things I want to do with them. I would have to retain control of the characters.” There was a silence. And essentially after that, a click!

Correspondent: (laughs) Oh my god.

Kraft: It wasn’t quite like that. But it was almost like that. That the matter was at an end.

Correspondent: Wow.

Kraft: And there have been other little explorations from Hollywood and so on. And I’ve basically said the same thing. However, now that I’ve brought the characters along as far as I have, I’m ready. So…

Correspondent: Well, this makes me curious about a parallel universe in which you would open up a Happy Meal and get a piece of erotic jewelry. That would be very good for America, I think.

Kraft: I think that the marketing rights are something we’d really have to — yeah.

Correspondent: But simultaneously…

Kraft: And Leroy Lager, I think, would be launched as well. A poem on the back of each bottle.

Correspondent: Simultaneously, you did write a screenplay for Inflating a Dog.

Kraft: I did.

Correspondent: So you were actually trying to have a big score here. Or at least some sort of film out of the deal.

Kraft: Actually, that was a time when there was no work for us in educational publishing. I couldn’t find any work at all. And I had a lot of time on my hands. And I was thinking, “What can I do that might bring in some cash?” So there were two things that seemed to me like brilliant ideas. Write a screenplay based on Inflating a Dog. And approach Eli Zabar about turning the shopping experience at the Vinegar Factory into something like a treasure hunt, where I would write descriptions of the foods that would lead people from one thing to another.

Correspondent: (laughs) It would confuse them.

Kraft: An astonishing day would be Eli Zabar whizzing around town from one shop to another. But he almost liked the idea.

BSS #270: Eric Kraft, Part Three (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Eric Kraft, Part Two

Eric Kraft appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #269.

Eric Kraft is most recently the author of Flying. This is the second of a three part conversation with Kraft about all of his Peter Leroy books, an epic of more than a million words which Our Young Roving Correspondent was insane enough to read. These podcasts tie in with a roundtable discussion of Flying involving numerous people.

(To listen to Part One of this conversation, go here. To listen to Part Three of this conversation, go here.)


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Astonished by the celerity of interlocutor and author.

Author: Eric Kraft

Subjects Discussed: The notion of roles in the Peter Leroy books, King Lear, Peter Leroy’s alternative universe, the Muddleheaded Dreamers Motorcycles Club, Marlon Brando, the halfway house between the real world and the imaginary world, geek swagger, adjusting to contemporary folkways when writing about the 1950s, whether truth is findable within limitations, the old definitions of novel, Herman Melville, Pandora in the Congo, Perry Melville’s The Raven and the Whale, increased emphasis on formalist structure in the Leroy books, borrowing structures from other books, Raskol vs. Raskolnikov, being informed by other literary work, Don Quixote, on not knowing narrative details in advance, the risk of losing spontaneity, writing in the predawn hours, martinis at 5:00 PM, the North American Proust Society, the concern for construction in the Leroy books, Peter and Albertine shifting from hotel proprietors to hotel occupants, having twenty titles for future books, the Peter Leroy books on CD-ROM, uphill battles with publishers, why the Leroy books went out-of-print, cross-references and hyperlinks, the epidemic of vidiocy, Kraft’s changing views on online annotation, and the future of the book.


erickraftKraft: Peter’s alternative universe at the time of Flying is located at something like 1960 in our universe and in our America. And at that time, the definition of the roles available to a boy his age were quite rigid. And the number of options was quite narrow. Things were not as fluid, certainly as they are now. And that’s one of the things. When I put myself back in the time from my life that was going to have to serve as the basis for Peter’s, it was something that I reacted against and found laughably limiting. At the time, it was frustrating and annoying. But now, from distance, in how much has happened and how many more options are open to a boy like Peter, it seemed laughable. And so it became essentially laughable. But you know, a lot of those roles were defined not directly, but by various cultural artifacts. You mentioned the MDMC — the Muddle-Headed Motorcyclists Club — and Johnny is the leader of that. Well, Johnny — the portrait of Johnny when you first see him — is exactly Marlon Brando in The Wild Bunch. I mean, there he is. With the same sort of cab driver’s cap and so on. So I very deliberately littered the ground with these references to the kind of cultural role-defining models that existed at that time.

Correspondent: But the MDMC is something of a halfway house between the real world and the imaginary world. It’s almost as if a swagger, which is a big component of this particular book, is something that is presented as an almost alternative form of swagger. I would call it “geek swagger,” which has come an increasingly acceptable notion in contemporary culture. But it also brings to mind what you just described in your answer. And that is you’re writing from your own memories filtered through Peter Leroy, and you’re writing from a time in which folkways are different, mores are different. The way in which we accept things are different. So is the artificial universe the way to find this halfway house? Similar to the MDMC? In order to create a “true” narrative? What’s the situation here?

Kraft: Well, this is the question I’m constantly asking myself. I know that there is an essential truth running through these books somewhere. If I could only find it. (laughs) There’s a time where I thought I was directly heading for it. That I knew it would be something that lay between Peter’s world and my world. And that I probably had a much better chance of success at displaying it if I focused on Peter’s world. Because mine would be an attempt at an honest memoir. And it’s impossible to write an honest memoir. It’s impossible to write a true memoir. As you said, every perception is a misperception to begin with. And from there, it just becomes more and more of a distortion. Can’t be done. However, if you work on the reflection instead, you may be able to adequately suggest the truth of the underlying facts. But finding them is the work of the reader. So because I’m so involved with this, I can no longer quite tell whether that truth is findable, is discoverable. I hope it is. And one aspect of it is, for example, this limiting effect of the roles that society was forcing on people back then. You saw it. So it was there.

Correspondent: Sure. But simultaneously, I might also counterargue that, because the form of this book is different from most novels, that truth, that verisimilitude, really shouldn’t matter so much. So, in a sense, you are both looking for the truth while also redefining what the truth is. And I’m wondering. This must create a dilemma for you when you’re writing any of these particular books. How do you go in and set yourself straight? This is the real I know, and this is the imaginary. We can go Lacan on this.

Kraft: This is a delicious dilemma. This is part of the pleasure of making the books. And I hope it’s part of the pleasure that the reader takes from them. The way I play with verisimilitude is, I hope, a way of scattering treats for the reader. I think it’s what I call absurd verisimilitude. Let’s drop back a bit. Here we are in Edgar’s Cafe. Well, at the time of Poe and Melville, the word “novel” was not what we use it for now. A novel was a true account. A novel would be what we call a memoir today. When Melville wrote Typee, he announced, “This was a novel. It’s all true! It all happened to me!” The opposing form — what we would have in opposition to memoir now is a novel. What was in opposition to a novel was a romance. And what made a romance succeed was not so much the flights of fancy in it, but what at the time people called resemblance. Verisimilitude essentially. Achieved primarily through accumulation of minute detail. Well, that’s what I do. There’s accumulation of minute detail. But my details, I hope, are details that lead the reader to say, “But this is preposterous!” Sometimes, if it works really well, there’s a time when the reader says, “Yeah, yeah, this is real,” and then has that “couldn’t possibly be.” One of the most rewarding moments was at a book club when I was talking with people about Herb ‘N’ Lorna. And after all discussion was over, and we were having coffee and pastries, a woman said, “I just have to confess something. Because this is really hard for me to admit this. But until about ten minutes into your talk, I thought this was all real. I thought this was a biography of two people.” So that was success.

BSS #269: Eric Kraft, Part Two (Download MP3)

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Flying Roundtable: Stage Five

(This is the fifth of a five-part roundtable discussion of Eric Kraft’s Flying. Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four can also be read. Many thanks to Eric Kraft and all the participants for their time and careful attentions.)

Eric Kraft writes:

Thank you, Ed, for organizing this roundtable and assembling such a diverse and interesting group. I hope that they will find at least some of what follows as interesting as I found their remarks.

Peter as Dreamer (for Sarah Weinman)

At one point in “Do Clams Bite?” one of the novellas in Little Follies, Peter speculates that his pursuit of impossible dreams, his attempts to become airborne one way or another, and the subsequent feeling that he’s been a fool for trying might result from the influence of his ancestors, Black Jacques Leroy and Fat Hank Leroy:

Broadly, being like Black Jacques means, I think, letting yourself be seduced by your dreams, pursuing them, sending them flowers, and never noticing, or caring, that people are laughing at you behind their hands, never even quite noticing, at last, that you’ve made a fool of yourself. And being like Fat Hank means being ashamed of a dream, sneering at it, pushing it away, abandoning it as foolishness, and having it haunt you, having it leave a cold, empty spot right behind your breastbone, as if you had swallowed an ice cube when you drained your drink. But the two strains have become so mixed and confused along the Leroy line (if they were ever really distinct, for there was some Hank in Jacques and some Jacques in Hank) that the voices of Black Jacques and Fat Hank sometimes speak to me at once, and I can’t always tell which is which.

kraftrt5To me, Peter’s essential effort is to recover what he has lost to time, what time has taken from him. He can’t, of course. He’ll fail again. He fails at most of what he attempts, and yet, in the telling, in his accounts of his failures, there is that sense of buoyancy, for those who feel it. It is, I think, meant to be a gift, a gift from Peter to you. He manages in the reconsideration and reconstruction of his past, his failures and his losses, to rise above them, and he’s happy to take you with him, if you will allow him to.

Peter would agree with Henry James about the difference between realism and romance. James said, in his preface to the New York Edition of The American, that romance deals with “experience liberated, so to speak; experience disengaged, disembroiled, disencumbered, exempt from the conditions that we usually know to attach to it and, if we wish so to put the matter, drag upon it.” In a lighthearted image, he likened the effect of romance to the lifting power of a lighter-than-air balloon: “The balloon of experience is in fact of course tied to the earth, and under that necessity we swing, thanks to a rope of remarkable length, in the more or less commodious car of the imagination; but it is by the rope we know where we are, and from the moment that cable is cut we are at large and unrelated: we only swing apart from the globe—though remaining as exhilarated, naturally, as we like, especially when all goes well.” And then he turned to the art of the romancer: “The art of the romancer is, ‘for the fun of it,’ insidiously to cut the cable, to cut it without our detecting him.”

To get that balloon airborne, Peter makes a lifting gas out of memory and art.  He has referred to his books as “memoirs with inventions,” and in the preface to Passionate Spectator he wrote about a life both examined and imagined:

For the obsessive memoirist, the actual living of life is a blessing and a curse.  Diurnal existence, with its quotidian comings-and-goings, provides the raw stuff, the basic and essential substance of the memoir, and that fact, the utility of life as lived in providing the ingredients for the memoir-baker, if only at the daily-bread level, makes life worth living, but the mind is not content to eat life raw, so the stuff of daily life is just grist for its mill, and the mind requires some time to do its grinding.  The memoirist requires some time to do the writing, and the revising, and the re-revising and on and on until the life in the memoir, the life on the page, has found and memorialized what wasn’t evident—perhaps wasn’t even there—in the chaff of the lived day.  I guess that’s not quite right.  I suppose the mind does eat life raw, but in the manner of a ruminant, cycling the stuff round and round again, chewing its cud until the mash is digestible.

For the memoirist who invents as much as he records, living life is only half the fun.  Life is a rough draft.  The mind remakes it, revises it, and rewrites it, unwittingly through memory, deliberately through the imagination.  To what we have actually experienced we add our thoughts about those experiences, and we transform them in the process: the unexamined life is not worth living.  We also transform our actual experiences by including in our accounts of them not only the facts but also the possibilities: the unimagined life is not worth living.

The Partnership of Kraft and Leroy (for Ed Champion)

Our little partnership is as nothing compared to the corporation of collaboration established by Fernando Pessoa.  Here’s George Steiner on the curious case of Pessoa and his others (from “Foursome: The Art of Fernando Pessoa,” The New Yorker, January 8, 1996):

It is rare for a country and a language to acquire four major poets on one day. This is precisely what occurred in Lisbon on the eighth of March, 1914. .  .  . It remains one of the most remarkable phenomena in the history of literature.

Looking back on the event (in a letter of 1935), Pessoa tells of “a trance whose nature I cannot define. .  .  . My master had appeared inside me.” Alberto Caeiro wrote thirty-odd poems at commanding speed. These were followed, “immediately and totally,” by six poems by one Fernando Pessoa. But Caeiro had not sprung into being alone. He had two principal disciples. One was Ricardo Reis, and then [as Pessoa himself put it]:

Suddenly, in antithesis to the appearance of Ricardo a new individual burst impetuously onto the scene. In one fell swoop, at the typewriter, without hesitation or correction, there appeared the “Triumphal Ode” by Alvaro de Campos—the ode of that name and the man with the name he now has.

I created, therefore, an inexistent coterie. I sorted out the influences and the relationships, listened, inside myself, to the debates and the difference in criteria, and in all of this, it seemed to me that I, the creator of it all, had the lesser presence. It seemed that it all happened independently of me. And it seems to me so still.

Pseudonyms, noms de plume, anonymities, and every mode of rhetorical mask are as old as literature. Motives are manifold. They extend from clandestine political writing to pornography, from playful obfuscation to deadly serious personality disorders. The “secret sharer” (Conrad’s familiar), the supportive or threatening “double,” is a recurrent motif—witness Dostoyevski, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Borges. .  .  . Multiplicity, the ego made legion, can be festive, as it is in Whitman, or darkly self-ironizing, as it is in Kierkegaard. There are disguises and travesties that the most minute scholarship has never pierced. Simenon was unable to recall either how many novels he had begot or under what early and multiple pseudonyms. .  .  . As Rimbaud proclaimed, in his instauration of modernity, “‘Je’ est un autre”: “‘I’ is another.”

Destruction and Preservation (for Ed Champion)

Yes, there definitely is a tension between, one might even say a kind of argument, and eventually collaboration, going on between, destruction and preservation, and what Mario Vargas Llosa called, in The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary, “real reality” and “fictitious reality.” He says:

The system of dualities around which the fictitious reality is organized is not built upon what dialectics calls the identity of contraries, but, rather, on their reciprocity: they are not eventually united in a superior synthesis but instead coexist as different elements, which nonetheless attain full reality only as a function of each other . . . while neither of the two loses its identitity in an intermediate, hybrid blend; . . . and it is this relationship of antagonistic fraternity, of jarring proximity (like that of the scents of lemons and of decaying human flesh in Jaffa) that fascinates Flaubert.  As his memories of the courtesan of the Nile and of the cemetary in Palestine prove [see letter to Louise Colet, March 27, 1853], such dualities are possible in real reality.  In the fictitious reality they will be necessary.  In real life they may manifest themselves; in the fiction, things, persons, and events will give the impression of manifesting themselves only through dualities, in the form of contrast, as in these cases, or in the form of resemblances.

I think Peter agrees.

The Impossibility of Objectivity (for Brian Francis Slattery)

The diagram below illustrates in schematic form the situation of the author within the world and of the author’s worlds within the author’s brain, including the author’s imagination.


The area outside the outermost ring represents the ambient reality through which we all move and from which we get everything we know of everything there is.  This is what Emerson called “the actual world—the painful kingdom of time and place.”  For Peter Leroy, who is a fictional character, it is a place not quite so real as ours, though still a kingdom and sometimes painful.

The first ring is the author’s persona, a thin protective shell around the author within.  Notice, however, that the ring of persona is gray and fuzzy, as are all the areas in the diagram. These qualities in the schematic, grayness and fuzziness, are meant to indicate (1) permeability, the fact that information can pass through an area (in both directions) and (2) imprecision, the fact that the boundaries of the regions are ill-defined, not sharp and precise. So, the persona is a kind of semipermeable membrane, through which information about the real world can pass into the region of the author and through which the products of the author can pass into the real world.

So, all the ideas, and all the characters, in the author’s mind began as perceptions; however, all perceptions are misperceptions, because our senses simplify and distort what we perceive, and, an instant later, the intellect has further distorted and simplified the already simplified and distorted perception and categorized it and filed it for reference in the memory, so that it is now only a recollection of a perception, a shadow of its former self, and—by some mysterious process still poorly understood despite the best efforts of students of consciousness—these memories begin an apparently inevitable drift toward the region of the imagination, where they are massaged and amplified and bent and twisted until they are scarcely recognizable as the offspring of the bits of the outside world that gave rise to them.  Thus, Scrooge’s undigested bit of mutton becomes the Ghost of Christmas Past, and thus there are no immediate experiences, and thus there are no characters drawn directly from life.  The stuff of fiction, all of it, is conceived somewhere in memory; that is to say, somewhere along the path from the real world to the region of the imagination.

Luis Buñuel said much the same thing in far fewer words in his autobiography, My Last Sigh (apparently written, at least in part, by Jean-Claude Carrière):

Our imagination, and our dreams, are forever invading our memories; and since we are all apt to believe in the reality of our fantasies, we end up transforming our lies into truths. Of course, fantasy and reality are equally personal, and equally felt, so their confusion is a matter of only relative importance. . . . I am the sum of my errors and doubts as well as my certainties. 

Nice Books Finish Last (for Matt Cheney and Eric Rosenfield)

Regarding the book’s being too “nice,” I think that Peter might say something like this:

Suppose someone could look down on the life of a man from a great height, . . . how many disasters would he see in store for it!  Man’s birth is painful and sordid, his upbringing wearisome, his childhood fraught with dangers, and his youth hard-won with toil.  Old age is a burden and death a harsh necessity; armies of disease close their ranks around him, misfortunes lie in wait, ill luck is always ready to attack.  There’s nothing without its tinge of acute bitterness, quite apart from all the evil things man does to man, such as the infliction of poverty, imprisonment, slander, dishonor, torture, treachery, betrayal, insult, litigation, and fraud. . . . However, I am here, and with a mixture of ignorance and thoughtlessness, often with forgetfulness when things are bad, or sometimes hope of better things, with a sprinkling too of honeyed pleasures, I bring help in miseries like these.

He’d be quoting, of course. He’d be quoting Folly, in Erasmus of Rotterdam’s Praise of Folly, but I think the words could as well have come from Peter, if he’d thought of them first.

Peter’s childhood friend Matthew Barber disliked Peter intensely because he and Peter seemed not merely to see life differently but at times to be seeing different worlds. At one point, they are both examined by the school psychologist at the Babbington Central Upper Elementary School. Peter reports the results in “The Fox and the Clam,” one of the novellas in Little Follies:

Of Matthew, Mr. Grundtvig had written: “One is struck at first by his attitude of blank despondency, his apparently chronic melancholia, but one is delightfully surprised to find that this somber little fellow actually has a lively imagination and a well-developed comic sense.”

Of me, he had written: “Although on the surface he appears to be unbelievably naive, with only the most frivolous and trivial thoughts, one discovers upon closer inspection that he has depth, that he harbors a profound understanding of the absurdity, the pain, and the misery of modern life.”

Matthew went beyond wanting to punch Peter in the face. He actually tried to drown him. Here’s Peter’s account of the incident, from the preface to Reservations Recommended:

It happened one summer when we were boys at summer camp together. There we took a course of instruction in lifesaving. Matthew was not a strong swimmer. I was. In the final test, each boy had to swim from shore to the middle of a small lake and bring back a victim, another camper who had paddled out in a canoe, thrown himself into the water, and begun thrashing convincingly. The instructor impressed on all of us the likelihood that the victim would resist help, and he urged the boys playing victims to resist fiercely, to work themselves up to a witless panic. Matthew played victim to my lifesaver. By the time I reached him, treading water had tired him. The panic he simulated was very convincing. He fought me with a furious irrationality that I couldn’t tell from the real thing. I couldn’t get a grip on him, but he certainly got a grip on me. He pulled me under, and I was taken by surprise, caught without a breath. When I fought free of him and regained the surface, I was gasping, spluttering, and humiliated. A maniacal fire flamed in Matthew’s eyes, and he reached for me again. I turned away from him and swam back to shore. The instructor pulled Matthew into his rowboat. Neither of us ever got our lifesaving certificates.

There is also the possibility that Peter is a fool.  Here is Folly again:

Doesn’t the happiest group of people comprise those popularly called idiots, fools, nitwits, simpletons—all splendid names according to my way of thinking?  Perhaps what I’m saying seems foolish and absurd at first sight, but really it’s a profound truth. . . . They are . . . untroubled by the thousand cares to which our life is subject. . . . Now, foolish sage, please count up for me all the nights and days when your soul is tortured by anxieties—heap all your life’s troubles in one pile, and then at last you’ll realize what the evils are from which I’ve saved my fools.  Add the fact that they’re always cheerful, playing, singing, and laughing themselves, and bring pleasure and merriment, fun and laughter to everyone else wherever they go as well, as if the gods had granted them the gift of relieving the sadness of human life.

If Only No One Died (for Kathleen Maher)

For me, Peter’s memoirs seem to be almost completely about loss. It is true that no one dies in Flying, but over the course of his memoirs Peter loses everyone who is dear to him, and those who are dear to him lose those who are dear to them. His mother loses the love of her life when Buster Leroy is killed in World War Two. She settles for his brother, Bert, who is forever unhappy knowing that he was her second choice. Peter loses his maternal grandparents, Herb and Lorna, and discovers after their deaths that he never really knew them, never knew the secret that they kept throughout their lives. Peter admits that his best friend, the best he has ever had, is his childhood imaginary friend. Peter loses his great-grandmother, his paternal grandparents, and the man who played a mentor’s role and may have been his actual father. His mother never achieves the self-respect she yearns for, and when Peter tries to help her win it, he fails, and the enterprise sinks. Peter and Albertine struggle to make a go of Small’s Hotel, but they fail, and they lose the hotel. And Peter knows what will happen to him if he loses Abertine: he will become the Matthew Barber of Reservations Recommended.

At the beginning of “The Static of the Spheres,” one of the novellas in Little Follies, Peter recalls listening to radio dramas in bed, with the radio under the covers, late at night, when he was a boy:

Of all the programs that I listened to on that radio, I can remember only one clearly: one about a boy about my age who lost everyone who was dear to him—his mother and father and grandparents and a clever younger sister with a voice like a flute—in a shipwreck, and was left alone, entirely alone, on an island somewhere warm and wet and windy, and called out for them in the night, calling against the persistent, overpowering sound of the wind and the sea, and listened in despair for the sound of their voices through the crashing surf and howling wind.

I think that what Peter is trying to do at many points in his memoirs is to use memory and imagination to enable him to hear those voices from the past through the noise of forgetfulness and the static that comes from all the clutter that accumulates in a life.  Why does he have to add imagination to memory?  I think he tried to explain why when he described his grandmother’s technique with a slide rule in the same novella:

Gumma was fondest of the cursor. From her first off-season job installing screws in the shiny little metal frame that holds the cursor in place on the stock, she had worked her way up to chief checker in the cursor department.

Despite the effort that Gumma and her dedicated crew put into making the hairlines in the cursors fine and straight, the slide rule remained an imprecise device. For discovering the final digits of an answer, the user had to rely on interpolation, on imagination. It was this quality of the slide rule—its bringing the user not to an absolute, indisputable answer, but only within the realm where the answer could be more or less accurately imagined—that won Gumma’s affection, that made working with the rule as intriguing a pastime as reading detective stories. What Gumma understood at once—and she was always just a bit annoyed by the fact that she couldn’t get anyone else to regard this fact with quite the awestruck reverence that she did—was that the hairline in the cursor did not reveal the answer to a problem: it concealed it. The edges of the hairline defined the limits of the range within which the answer lay; therefore the answer itself was under the hairline somewhere.


Flying Roundtable: Stage Four

(This is the fourth of a five-part roundtable discussion of Eric Kraft’s Flying. Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Five can be read here.)

Edward Champion writes:

“There was beauty below them, inarguable and unique — many fine things built for the contentment of hardy men — and there was decadence — more ships in bottle than on the water.– but why grieve over this?  Looking back at the village we might put ourselves into the shoes of a native son (with a wife and family in Cleveland) coming home for some purpose — a legacy or a set of Hawthorne or a football sweater — and swinging through the streets in good weather what would it matter that the blacksmith shop was now an art school?  Our friend from Cleveland might observe, passing through the square at dusk, that this decline or change in spirit had not altered his own humanity and that whatever he was — a man come for a legacy or a drunken sailor looking for a whore — it did not matter whether or not his way was lighted by the twinkling candles in tearooms; it did not change what he was.”  — John Cheever, The Wapshot Chronicle

kraftrt4We’ve had many interesting opinions on this book.  In favor of Kraft, we have Sarah Weinman, Brian Francis Slattery, Kathleen Maher, Jason Boog, and me.  Against Kraft, we have Matt Cheney, Robert Birnbaum; and Dan Green.  On the fence (or perhaps on the wing) are Nigel Beale and Anne Fernald.
Brian has suggested that Kraft is “playing on the same playground as Proust, Nabokov, and several centuries’ worth of other fiction writers and continental philosophers.”  And Sarah has evoked Jean Shepherd. But I think Kraft falls somewhere in between.  He’s not a full-blown fabulist.  But with his libidinous asides and unusual epitaphs and ephemera, I don’t think he can be entirely pinned down as a folk narrative hero (but certainly there is a pining from Peter Leroy to be pinned as a legend).  Perhaps a better comparative point is John Cheever (Mr. Birnbaum: I’m sure you’ve read him!), who was neither one nor the other.  Much like Cheever’s “The Swimmer” offered a grand fusion between realism and surrealism, with the sense of time attached to the narrative becoming an amorphous expanse.  Neddy Merril’s quest begins in a suburb.  And perhaps Bolotomy Bay is similar to Cheever’s pool.  The headline writer at The New York Times mistakenly declared Cheever “The First Suburbanite” in a recent issue, but such an emphasis clings needlessly to where these stories are set.  While Nabokov rather famously declared that he needed to know the lay of the land before writing a narrative, I don’t think these rules apply to Kraft.  And with the shifting nature of the characters throughout the Leroy narrative (composites? real or invented?), I don’t think it really matters.  My question to the naysayers and the fence-sitters, asked with genuine curiosity, is this:  What precisely has prevented you from putting yourself in the shoes of a native son?  (And, Matt, I’m not talking about the sentences, but the perspective.  While I agree to some degree with Kathleen about the folly of proceeding forward with something you hate, are you so sure that Peter Leroy is so nice?  Consider his selfishness.  Consider that Albertine is, to a large degree, Peter’s enabler.  Consider the prevarications that he is applying to real people.  Is playing with the truth so amicable?)

I agree with Brian that Kraft’s jokes would go over well in bars.  But I would answer that the bars in question no longer exist in the present.  Perhaps they are entirely illusory.  Let us consider the DVD that Peter and Albertine discover entitled “Jack and Jennifer’s Dream.”  Here is a scenario in which Jack and Jennifer, who run a hotel with a “former-tumbledown-millhouse look,” not only implore our happy couple in the present to enjoy themselves, but present a slim paperback book called “The Story That Is Jack and Jennifer’s.”  We are presented with a story detailing how the Yucatan Honeymoon Midnight Snack came to be, and it’s terrible.  Mind-numbingly naive.  You simply cannot trust it.  Kraft then follows this with the DVD found in the room, where the dream becomes a pitch to open a franchise.   It’s a sad and hilarious moment.  Something that suggests that these nonexistent dreams can now only be communicated through some bizarre entrepreneurship.  The desperation contained within this pitch suggests very much that dreams, even terrible and aimless ones, do matter very much.  But perhaps these dreams are only attainable through the confines of fiction or Leroy’s “memoirs.”  So while Brian may chide our good Marcel for inhabiting his cork-lined room, what’s worse?  A tangible set of volumes (a set of Proust in lieu of of a set of Hawthorne) that emerges from this sense of dreaming or unimaginative authorities attempting to rectify or place monetary value on such seemingly aimless drifting?

As to Sarah’s question about earnestness, I’m going to have to disagree with her.  And it may be because I had a slightly different reading interpretation than she did.  Peter is certainly making a earnest effort (that niceness that Matt mentions) to tell a good yarn, but is he really being all that earnest?  The lovely aerocycle may be an amicable chatterbox, but, instead of Peter presenting some of his more negative feelings, the Spirit of Babbington is largely a place for him to kvetch.  And Peter betrays the Spirit by leaving her the garage.  That particular moment was especially sad and moving for me.  Because it represented an emotional transference of what Peter doesn’t have the courage to confess in his memoirs.  This imaginary manifestation, who exists in the past almost as a surrogate Albertine (with the stewardess coming in to fill that role later), becomes nothing less than a dumping ground.  And that, irrespective of the positive places that Kathleeen brings up, seems to me especially tragic.  The idea of dishonoring the wonderful entity that you created in your imagination.  Very much like Don Quixote.  But unlike Quixote, Peter isn’t really mocked for his efforts.  He’s secured an entire subjective realm through his memoirs.  But should not some of this be challenged?  Should not some of this be mocked?  Is it entirely fair to Peter to have him continue like this?  Shall we send a case worker over to the Kraft household to ensure that he is treating his creations well?

Maybe this is also where the chapter headings that Jason likes so much come into play.  Is it really fair for Peter to label a chapter “THE SECOND MOST REMARKABLE THING IN THE LIFE OF CURTIS BARNSTABLE” when the event in question is really just a replay of the cropdusting scene from North by Northwest?  I mean, it’s Peter here who asks Curtis, “Does that sort of thing happen often around here?”  “Never,” Curtis replies, “In fact, before that, the most remarkable thing I ever saw around here was you.”  As a guy who likes people a lot, I find this especially troubling.  Curtis’s two most remarkable things are (a) Peter (a facsimile of the real invented out of whole cloth) and (b) a facsimile of a famous movie scene.  Is Peter so self-absorbed that he cannot “remember” what was really great about Curtis?  What made him so interesting?  What made him a three-dimensional being?  Given incidents like this, the ephemera of schematics, magazine ads, and the like becomes more haunting. What right does Peter have to introduce ephemera when his characterizations of the real center first and foremost around him?  Or is this the lot of every novelist?  I’d be curious to hear what you folks had to say on the subject.

Anne Fernald writes:

I have enjoyed reading and eavesdropping tremendously and have finally more than half the book under my belt. “Taking Off” was slow going indeed, but I am enjoying it more and reading it faster — both seem to help.


Exasperating would be my one word summary of the Flying trilogy, or what I’ve read of it so far (that would be a bit more than half). I don’t always hate the narrator, Peter Leroy, although I find him cloying. It’s just that the writing is just good enough to make me keep reading and yet, it misses just often enough to make me wonder if my time might be better spent some other way.

For a novel that depends so heavily on boy’s adventure lit, a novel about flying and escape and travel, for a picaresque, these failings are not small.

The successes are not small either. It is really funny and some of the social critique is spot on, some of the observational comedy is genuinely funny. But I don’t find it as funny as Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to An End, even though this is a much more ambitious, richer, and more allusive book.

Part of the problem is with me: it’s an occupational hazard of my life that I’m reading Kraft’s Flying next to, on the one hand, Ulysses and To the Lighthouse for my teaching, and mountains of the bureaucratic reading of professors (applications, student writing, copyedited book reviews) on the other. Plus, in addition to being in over my head, I am a very, very slow reader and this is a book to gobble. The book is indebted to the big novel of great ambitions without a doubt: it’s full of Shandeisms and Joycean play. But the alternation between memories of the youthful “flight” and the adult reenactment in “On the Wing” rarely arrive at the kind of momentum of the alternation between Mr. Ramsay in the boat and Lily painting at the end of To the Lighthouse — a much more modest journey, but one with tremendous, mythical implications within the book. Time and again, as I page through Ulysses and then return to Flying, I’m struck by how much more Joyce loves Bloom — and makes us love Bloom — than Kraft loves Leroy.

I totally disagree with Sarah’s sense of the heart and mind being widened by the book: I feel myself in the company of a solipsist. I think it’s no coincidence that he has a deep fondness for blowhards, for those loud soliloquists who hang out in bars and diners.

I think Kraft is proud of Leroy and amused by Leroy, I wonder if he is Leroy, but I don’t feel the same intense joyous fondness emanating from Kraft for Leroy nor from me for Leroy.

Sometimes, I even wonder if they are characters to him. It bothers me, for example, that shortly after her release from hospital from a fractured pelvis, Albertine is willing to go along with Peter’s search for a spot to make love en plein air. I’m sorry to be so dogged, but that injury felt really real to me — funny, but also a smart way of showing off their connection, Peter’s failings — and I wanted a line that assured me she was recovered enough for such an adventure. (I know how flat-footed and dumb that sounds, but it broke the illusion for me in ways that were not good.)

Still, there are things that keep me reading and will make me finish the trilogy. I love the trope of the dark-haired woman, always coming on to him, always available, always an anticipation of Albertine; and I love Albertine’s wresting the “truth” of this apparition out of him. In general, I love the intertextual moments where, as Ed promised, the boundaries of memoir and fiction get stretched to their limits. One of the weaknesses of “Taking Off” for me was the lack of such moments of interpretive doubt-casting in the final third or so. I have never read such a funny funny take on the pitiful ways in which small towns try to make their Cheapo Sleepo chain intersections distinct: he has brochure language, of franchises and of unique tourist attractions down pat.

But must there be so many of them? It’s just so damn long. I have a little more patience with it than Dan Green, though if I weren’t reading it for y’all, I think I’d have given up. And then, Sarah’s putting it in the context of the fifties and Kathleen’s elucidation of why Astaire in a blurb is apt was a lot more helpful to me than all the other yammering on about the heavyweights of the history of the novel.

That’s it for now. I am, as Ed suggested, decidedly on the wing.

Nick Antosca writes:

Apologies for weighing in egregiously late, I’m afraid I overestimated my ability to go without sleep for large portions of February.  I have only just finished reading, but my delay in getting to this point so was not, as seems to have been the case with others, and others, a result of disinterest or discontent with the book.

My reaction to the first pages was kind of like Matthew’s — uh-oh, the scent of whimsy ahead, and so many pages to go, dear god, the voice and apparent content of this book don’t seem to justify its thickness and weight… but I came around.  In the end, I enjoyed it a great deal, even though my experience was fragmented and I probably would have gotten a richer experience by devouring it in a couple sittings, as Sarah (and others?) did. 

Flying seems Nabokovian in its playfulness but not in the deftness of its prose, which is extremely clear and easy-to-read but not what might be considered “transcendent” or “transporting” (despite the journey it describes, ha).  It’s light and clever and farcicial.  And maybe that’s why I kept having the nagging weightiness of content vs. volume of tome issues.  That is to say, while I thought the voice was entertaining/amusing/really-well-done, I kept saying to myself, “Does it justify this much?  This book is so long!”

One thing that delighted me were the subversions of expectation that happened simultaneously on multiple levels.  I particularly liked the moment right near the beginning when Peter’s getting ready to making the aerocycle in the garage and he very unrealistically hopes that all his friends, who’ve begged off, will show up to surprise him with their dedication and support, etc.  When he won’t get out of bed yet because he’s “giving his friends time to surprise” him we feel a little pity for him, since we know that it’s a foolish hope; and when he tries to believe they’re assembling outside under his window and convinces himself that the reason he can’t hear them is because “evidently they were a stealthy bunch, those friends of mine,” we’re amused by the extent to which he’s willing to rationalize to avoid acknowledging the fact that his friends don’t want to spend an uncomfortable day abetting his quixotic adventure.  But the joke seems to be on us when he goes downstairs… and they’re all there waiting with his father!  On immediate further reflection, though, do we believe that they really showed up?  Is the appearance of the ready-to-assist mob of friends (and the teacher) just an extension of the delusional expectation that they might show up?  If Peter’s willing to delude himself a little bit, why not delude us a lot?

Others have taken issue with the figures and captions.  I liked them.  I liked the drollery of captioning them with lines taken directly or almost directly from the text as through they were scientific illustrations from a scholarly paper. 

I found the brunettes a little eerie, in a very pleasing way–a sort of reverse-Vertigo effect, with the woman who inspires them appearing later and perhaps as a construct or amalgamation — the epitome of the available brunette.  What Peter really wants is a perfect foil, so does he conjure one up on the page because she could never exist?

Also, I have to say I’m going to read Flying again — in a sunny place, in a warm time of year.  Context is much.  It’s a cold and stressful time of year, and simultaneous with this I’ve been reading Brian Evenson novels and Helter Skelter, the Charles Manson book by Vincent Bugliosi, as well as doing readings from my novel that just came out which is about a drowned boy who throws up monster dogs.  Flying, I think, didn’t quite fit in, and I had to get into a different mindset every time I picked it up, so I’m honestly very excited to read it again under more salutary conditions.

Matt Cheney writes:

A quick note this time, because much of what I would say has been said quite well by others, most recently Ann and Nick.  I’m still inching my way through the book, but my progress is feeling asymptotic at this point, so I doubt I’ll get to the end, but I have certainly developed a better appreciation for the novel(s).  My own preferences, proclivities, and prejudices as a reader keep me from being able to embrace Flying with any great enthusiasm, but the responses of the enthusiasts here are certainly helping me expand my appreciation for it.

Ed directed a question toward me that is, I expect, central: “…are you so sure that Peter Leroy is so nice?”  He suggests it’s a matter of perspective rather than sentences, and I expect I would agree if I could get past the sentences (by which I mean, I suppose, tone and diction, but the part of me that is revolting against reading the book keeps muttering the word “sentences” in my mind’s ear).  Clearly, Leroy possesses many of the qualities of a picaresque rogue, as Jason suggests, and there’s an interesting tension between his presentation of himself and the “reality” that we can guess at beneath the layers of that self presentation.

For some reason, alas, I just can’t draw much energy from that tension in Flying.  Though, with Ann, I find Leroy’s narration cloying, that’s not an immediate deal-breaker for me, because cloying narrators can be quite interesting — the problem is what she describes next: “it misses just often enough to make me wonder if my time might be better spent some other way.”  Once that wondering begins, I can’t continue, because yes, there are other things I’m reading right now that I’m finding more rewarding.

Nick’s coming around has given me hope, though.  If he can make it through Flying while also reading Helter Sketler and Brian Evenson, I’ll keep giving it a shot and hope for more connections.

Nick Antosca writes:

I had trouble with dramatic tension, or lack thereof, too.  Somewhere early on, I decided not to hold it against Kraft simply because that wasn’t what he was up to.  No fair judging the writer (in most cases) for failing to do what he never tried to do, and so forth.  In fairness, I have the same trouble with Pale Fire, a novel I deeply love and respect, which has games aplenty, but which has zero tension or what we might consider dramatic momentum.

Robert Birnbaum writes:

This has been a fine exchange and I especially want to commend the pro Kraftians for their zealous  advocacy and scrupulous exegesis.

In one of my conversations with the immensely enjoyable British badboy of letters, Will Self, the subject of his confrontation on a radio program with an English writer of a reactionary bent came up. That writer had a new tome, of which Self, admittedly, had read only a few hundred pages. Self’s adversary took umbrage at Self’s failure to read the book in question in its entirety—to which Self responded, “Did it somehow turn in to War and Peace after two hundred pages?”

On a number of occasions I have arranged to meet an author before I read their current opus — and to my dismay, I found the reading unfruitful. But feeling honor bound to forge ahead, I would  — and on occasion I would actually stumble across some kind of code-breaking element and achieve a more felicitous result from my reading. A reward for diligence…

The point, finally, here being what confronts most if not all of us in beginning a new book — what is the fair and respectful threshold of escape for a book with which we are not having a fruitful experience? I ‘d be interested in hearing /reading whether my fellow roundtablers have anything approximating a rule of thumb.

Anne Fernald writes:

In reviewing, I think it’s essential to read the whole thing in order to offer a convincing and fair presentation of just how a book failed or succeeded. If it’s truly awful, I skim. But I cast my eyes on every page.

In a roundtable, like this one, or in broadcast journalism (as in the hilarious but awful Self example), I’m more forgiving of quitting and less thorough skimming.

I felt strongly that I’d just have to beg off this roundtable with an admission of failure unless I finished the first of the trilogy; once that was done, I just kept turning pages: I found that I had some momentum. And I kind of liked it.

If I were the author Self skewered, I’d feel sorely aggrieved: and I think, rightly so. Still, Self’s point, which Kathleen (I think) made earlier with her 100 pages rule of thumb, is right: once you’ve given a work enough of a shake to determine its goals, scope, ambitions, and achievments, it’s ok to bail.

When reading for pleasure, bail at once! 

Brian Francis Slattery writes:

I’m sorry to see this discussion go. It’s funny to me that that something as good-natured as Flying should be so divisive. This seems to be further support for Ed’s remark that Kraft isn’t as nice as he seems on the surface; clearly he’s pushing some buttons. Because nobody here has suggested that the book is, you know, stupid. Kraft is a good writer and a smart guy, and it seems that what frustrates people about him is that he never Gets Serious. For instance, why would someone write such a long book that stays so breezy throughout? Aren’t light, comic novels supposed to be short? Why is he screwing with us like this? Even more interesting, those of us who enjoyed the book can’t quite seem to put our fingers on what we like about him. I compared him to Proust and Nabakov, yet as several people have pointed out, the comparison doesn’t really work—which I agree with, but hey, a guy’s got to start somewhere. Then there’s the Hardy Boys/1950s Americana stuff—but that doesn’t cover the games Kraft plays, either.

What I’m saying is that, in some ways, Kraft is something of an original, the sort of guy for whom books by other people only somewhat prepare you to read. He throws together stuff that doesn’t usually get thrown together, and none of us have been quite able to make anything of it. If Kraft were already part of the canon, with imitators and devotees all over the place, we might have the word Kraftian to describe it, because little else would do. Kraft’s doing his own thing, and whether you like it or dislike it, you have to admit that he has a thing he’s doing.

In some ways, Kraft reminds me of John Crowley, another author that some people really like and others find totally maddening. Both set up expectations only to foil them; neither play by rules we’re completely familiar with; both seem to be following a different kind of logic, but refuse to reveal what exactly that logic is—and both seem to like it that way. There’s an interesting second discussion to be had about that, about why we haven’t been able to talk about Flying in the same way that we usually talk about books. Perhaps an interesting critical essay to be written—again, if Kraft were part of the canon, we’d have dozens of such essays—that goes through Kraft’s many novels to pull out the common threads among them and the logic that might weave them all together. I’m not an academic and don’t quite have the mind for that style of reading. But I would love to get a look under the hood of Kraft’s work one of these days, to see how the gears turn.

Robert Birnbaum writes:

I take exception to Brian’s statement “Because nobody here has suggested that the book is, you know, stupid. Kraft is a good writer and a smart guy, and it seems that what frustrates people about him is that he never Gets Serious.”

The fact that Kraft and his effort have not been negatively assessed, I think, stems from a lack of interest. I can’t comment on whether Kraft is smart and a good writer — the first and only threshold has been whether I found him readable — which I did not.

Seeing the author respond to this discussion gave me the possibility that the scales might be removed from my eyes. In short, no go.

Nigel Beale writes:

Somerset Maugham in his introduction to The Ten Best Novels of the World said that the novelist had the right to demand of the reader sufficient imagination, some power of sympathy and  “the small amount of application that is needed to read a book of three or four hundred pages.” He also said that a novel is to be read with enjoyment. If it does not give that “it is worthless.”

I wouldn’t say Flying is worthless, however, I’m now twenty pages from the end of “Taking Off,” and still sitting on the runway, not particularly looking forward to the flight. The book, as I mentioned earlier, is amusing enough, but amusing in a TV sitcom sort of way. A few smiles, but a sense that first I could be spending my time much more enjoyably elsewhere; second that the dialogue is inferior to that which I participate in day to day with my more animated, intelligent friends…so why waste the time; why apply myself when I know that rewards are greater elsewhere?

Unless of course, as someone else has said, I’m missing something. Every so often an intriguing concept rears itself in the text, the fallacy of significant coincidence for example: “coincidence is not merely commonplace but constant, a pervasive fact of life and all existence,” which in itself is “ceaseless motion, an uncountable number of events, happening all the time, with an uncountable number of them occurring coincidentally at any moment.” “‘we regard those events as directionless and meaningless until one of them affects us”…we then interpret all events in light of that one that has affected us…

But then this thought, instead of being torn apart, examined, exampled…just sort of drifts off into the fog which hangs over this meandering stream of a story…sure, perhaps the narrative itself is supposed to show and tell and fill out the meanings and themes associated with these big ideas…but if they do, I’m afraid the connections are too loose for me to want to tighten them up myself.

Not sure if I will find the second wind that took Anne to the end of this trilogy.

Megan Sullivan writes:

I’m a late chimer in because I had many problems with this book. Matt’s thoughts echoed mine completely. I made it through the first two sections but have yet to finish the book. Even the obvious set pieces that I know are meant to be funny I don’t find it funny at all. I found a good rhythym at the end of the first section and the beginning of the second, but then it started to drag as the journey progressed. I’m not sure that I have Anne’s fortitude to finish.

I felt Kraft winking at me the entire time I read Flying and that annoyed me. The false cheeriness and throwback language felt flat to me. It’s just not my cup of tea. We can’t all like every book. At least one good thing that came out of reading Flying–this discussion which I’ve been finding very illuminating.


Flying Roundtable: Stage Three

(This is the third of a five-part roundtable discussion of Eric Kraft’s Flying. Part One, Part Two, Part Four, and Part Five can also be read.)

Kathleen Maher writes:

kraftrt3Regarding the comparison of Flying to Proust (whose “Swann’s Way,” I almost struggled through); Nabokov (whom I admit enjoying); and Pynchon (never got past 100 pages) — these are blurb-writers’ selling points. The blurbs also compare Kraft’s writing to Fred Astaire’s dancing. You may be disinterested in Astaire’s Hollywood dance routines, but accusing him of “lead” feet? Not right. Suggesting Astaire was difficult to follow or understand? Unlikely.

Kraft writes easy prose. True, he employs serial references to high and low culture. But love him or hate him, Kraft has rhythm.

And although, I suggested Matthew Cheney might want to hang it up for another day, I’ve thought of another approach. Harold Brodkey was a writer who annoyed me so much I used to rip into his stories with furious curiosity and even a kind of vengeance.

Most of you may not be old enough to remember him. Harold Brodkey died of AIDS in 1996 and was published in The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books, where he wrote book reviews and letters to the editor in the same convoluted, highfalutin voice in which he wrote his stories.

His Wiley Silonowitz “stories” were long even for the old-style New Yorker. They appeared as quasi-memoirs or roman a clef concoctions about growing up with an adoptive family. The ones I remember best damned the mother and/or sister, despite hints that the father molested him. Then in The New Yorker of 1995, Brodkey wrote a nonfiction “confession” that he was dying of AIDS, which at that time was shockingly honest.

If there happen to be others here who remember Brodkey, you’ll know his writing taunted us with the memoir/fact/fiction issue. Except it wasn’t scandalous back then. Nobody expected literature to sit in the witness box and tell the whole truth and nothing but. Readers expected literary work to show us what mattered rather than what indisputably happened.

Nigel Beale writes:

I, with Matthew, am having trouble taking off with this book. Have been slowly taxiing along now for some 70 pages, hoping to leave the ground.

Here is my early take:

It’s a pleasant enough meander through mind and memory –- reminiscent of DF Wallace in a way, though not so self obsessed, so claustrophobic, so micro-managed.

Funny, perhaps because of the initial Sterne quote, the first few pages reminded me of The Sot-Weed Factor. Playful. Not as engaging or funny, but certainly lighthearted enough to entertain. And faux grandiose in this way: “I have tried, during some of those telephone interviews, to correct a few errors of fact and interpretation, but my efforts have been dismissed with the condescending politeness that we employ with those whom we regard as having had their wits enfeebled by time.”

In addition to its theme, there’s also an amusing mock heroism to the writing that recalls Don Quixote. I like the passage above too because it sums up, I think, Peter’s sense that ‘truth’ doesn’t really matter. That regardless of what he may say, his interlocutors will interpret his story in ways they want to; just as the media treats its facts.

This leads to an examination of how the present re-writes the past: consciously, purposefully. In the case of “Babbington – Gateway to the Past,” it recreates an image of itself “as it never was.” Embellishing the truth — lying, for cold. commercial purposes — and unconsciously – honestly recalling detail which may or may not be accurate, versus dishonestly. At one point, Peter talks about remembering in a way that is honest “overall,” but at the same time inaccurate, “vague about details.” Telling a version of the truth, but one that allows people to believe what they want to believe. “Far from the version I planned to tell them.”

Peter flew a total of 180-200 feet on the way out to New Mexico, but he’s not about to dispossess his fans of the “heroic” image that most seem to hold of him as a fearless, resourceful adventurer.

Apropos of this, “Proust famously pointed out that we cannot remember what has not occurred; he might just as well have pointed out that we cannot digress from a route that we had not intended to take.” If people want to see my escapade as heroic, who am I to disagree…they aren’t listening anyway…and in fact, I kind of like the positive attention.

Kraft then gives us various takes on truth, memory, and dreams to contemplate:

Dreams free us from purposefulness.

Memory serves as a refuge from a painful present. There’s also a curiosity to notice what wasn’t initially noticed.

Memory/imagination as a flying machine, assembled from scratch, or from pieces cut from lived life.

Kraft’s prose to this point lacks Proust’s limpid beauty; his consistent, soft, sensual phrasing; but there are hints: I’m impressed with this for example: “the leisurely ascension of the morning mist from the slack surface of the river.” Slack! Very nice.

Hopefully more to come, for this, in large part, is what keeps me reading a book, along with its humour, and the strength of its ideas, how well they provoke debate.

I’ll check in after another two hundred pages or so, hopefully in totally engaged mode… For now, I look forward to hearing from others.

Daniel Green writes:

I’m hesitant to even interject my response to the book at all since, if anything, I find it even less compelling than either Matt or Robert. My problem is similar to theirs, however: the writiing is, well, boring, the character’s voice so “nice” the effect, at least for me, is simply eye-glazing. (The long stretches of superflous dialogue don’t help, either.) I’m sorry to say I couldn’t get even half of the way into the first novel before knowing that finishing the whole thing would be a hopeless task.

This is my usual response, however, to “clever” novels whose cleverness doesn’t permeate to the level of stylistic liveliness. The supposedly “quriky” story (which in this case for me never rises above mere whimsy) is told in such a bland and earnest way I never find myself engaged by it. My criticism can thus be taken as perhaps just a consequence of my particular reading preferences. Those who don’t share them can listen instead to the other voices in this conversation.

Sarah Weinman writes:

Flying has proved my rule that the authors most likely to make an impression are the ones that polarize people. And clearly, this book has polarized, what with me, Ed, Brian and Kathleen in the “positive to the point of evangelism” corner and everyone else who has chimed in so far, well, not having that reaction.

It does, I think, come down to voice, so let me bring up Matt Cheney’s question about it: “My problem with Peter’s narration is harder to define, but I can say that the voice seems awfully, well, nice.  Like Leave It to Beaver or My Three Dads.  Perhaps this is because, given how fragmented my reading of the book has been, I haven’t been able to get enough sense yet of what’s at stake within it, where its edges lie, and so perhaps I’m missing some big irony or subtle clues to an unseen darkness.”

Kraft’s books, or at least the ones I’ve read, are written in a kind of deliberate throwback to the narration style that permeated a lot of American literature and storytelling in the 1950s. And since Flying (and most of the Peter Leroy books, for that matter) purport to be a memoir of 1950s boyhood, it then takes on the boyhood narration characteristics of those time. The best example of this, far and away, is Jean Shepherd. No one really talks about Shep all that much anymore and it’s a damn shame, but to wit, he hosted a radio show for years (the heyday was the ’50s, on NY-based station WOR) that was listened to by practically *every* boy of a certain age, usually under the covers when parents thought they were asleep. Shepherd recounted stories – purportedly true, but heavily embellished – of his alter ego’s adventures in Hohman (really Holman) Indiana, but he also did crazy stuff like convince his audience to storm bookstores and order a book that didn’t exist, propelling I, Libertine to the bestseller lists before it was written. And of course there is A Christmas Story, which is based on Shepherd’s tales and after being a minor cult favorite is now aired religiously, wall-to-wall, every Christmas on cable channels.

Why this digression? Because if you don’t like or don’t care for Jean Shepherd, Eric Kraft may not be your thing. But Shep was the thing for so many people of a certain age, many of whom never got to see the sights of NYC. Shep had the knack of capturing the Americana flavor even though he lived an urbane, proto-beatnik existence in Greenwich Village (before decamping to Florida) but beneath the whimsy of his humor was a pretty nasty streak. Kids shot their eyes out with bb guns or glued their tongues to freezing poles. It all looked like the gloss of niceties, but beneath that gloss was the beating heart of how kids could be cruel and other dark impulses.

It’s pretty hard to be earnest now, or at least ape the trappings of earnestness, because irony and showy styles are so common as to be mind-numbing. Or you end up with commercial earnestness like The Story of Edgar Sawtelle — a good book, but if you poke beneath its Hamlet structure and love of dogs, there isn’t really all that much embedded underneath. But Flying? It certainly looks smooth and easy because Kraft’s using a seemingly accessible style in order to engage (or, obviously as it’s turned out, not engage) the reader, but his is the subtle satire of an earlier age that is so little practiced no wonder some fail to recognize it.

More soon, but I hope others who haven’t yet responded will weigh in. And I suspect there’s more common ground between the two camps than we think! Or maybe I’m just a damn optimist, but I can’t help it.

Jason Boog writes:

I wanted to say thanks to Ed for including me on this spirited round-table. It will be something to behold, all the pro-Leroy and anti-Leroy folks on the same virtual page. First of all, Sarah writes: “Kraft’s books, or at least the ones I’ve read, are written in a kind of deliberate throwback to the narration style that permeated a lot of American literature and storytelling in the 1950s.” As a fan of the old Hardy Boys mysteries, Mad magazine and radio dramas, I cheered when she reminded us of those primary influences.

I spotted a “throwback” as well. Kathleen Maher brings up Don Quixote, noting: “Cervantes was skewering the popular (and purportedly kitschy) adventure stories that were popular in the early 17th century.” He was playing with a form that I think has everything to do with Flying — the picaresque. I think Peter Leroy is a great-great-great grandson of the picaresque hero.  I’m not the fancy English major I once was, but Wikipedia lays it out pretty well: “The picaresque novel (Spanish: “picaresca”, from “pícaro”, for “rogue” or “rascal”) is a popular sub-genre of prose fiction which is usually satirical and depicts in realistic and often humorous detail the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his or her wits in a corrupt society.”

However lovable Peter Leroy may be, nobody can deny he’s a lying, scheming, cheating “roguish hero”—both as a boy and a man. While his memoirs take fantastical leaps of logic, the actual events seem to depict his misadventures in “realistic and often humorous detail.” As we can see by his struggles as a penniless flyboy bartering with garbage dump bums, busty hotel workers, and disenchanted French literature professors, Peter fits the “low social class who lives by his wits” part.  As for the “corrupt society,” he’s tooling across Atomic Age Cold War America, where smart young boys are recruited by Kraft’s chilling brochure on page 54, corrupting kids with space race militarism: “YOUTH OF AMERICA! UNCLE SAM NEEDS YOU! … We need a new generation of whiz kids who can build rockets, satellites, and fearsome weapons for us!”

But you know what I love about the picaresque more than anything? The subtitles. This prose form developed the fine art of demarcating episodic adventures with subheadings like: “In Which Our Dashing Hero Meets The Damsel Of His Dreams And Loses Her To An Untimely Accident.” I’ve loved the technique since I was a kid, and I played with them in my novel writing. When I read Spaceman Blues by fellow Kraft-work analyst Brian Francis Slattery, I loved how he broke up his hallucinatory book with literary headlines. I ended up interviewing him about how he wrote those episodic subtitles. He cited William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch and Andrei Bely’s Petersburg as the most helpful examples of the form. With dazzling headline breaks like: “Paneling, a Thought Experiment” (p. 146) and “Dreams of a Professional Fool” (281), I hereby add Kraft to Slattery’s list of literary headliners.


The Bat Segundo Show: Eric Kraft, Part One

Eric Kraft appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #268.

Eric Kraft is most recently the author of Flying. This is the first of a three part conversation with Kraft about all of his Peter Leroy books, an epic of more than a million words which Our Young Roving Correspondent was insane enough to read. These podcasts tie in with a roundtable discussion of Flying involving numerous people.

(To listen to Part Two of this conversation, go here. To listen to Part Three of this conversation, go here.)


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Searching for his alter ego.

Author: Eric Kraft

Subjects Discussed: The relationship between Kraft & Leroy, reexamining and reimagining biographical details through a fictional hero, MTV and the 1950s, acts of liberation and the shared mind, the Larry Peters books and the gaps between the chapters, references to other books, the love affair between Peter and Albertine, the stewardess and the dark-haired lady, alter egos, Matthew Barber and B.W. Beath, the many twins throughout the Leroy books, being taken back to an earlier conception of the work, Mark Dorset, characters who knock on the doors, Porky White, aerocycles that does not fly, being able to talk with machines, the burdens of memories and stories being tinkered with, aging and dreaming, memories that trigger events, whether misrepresented representations can be defended, maternal grandmothers and erotic jewelry, the importance of digressing, whether every dreamer needs a muse, Albertine as an enabler, exploring the possibility that Albertine doesn’t exist, strangers vs. maps, Phileas Fogg, the conflict between living life and getting it written down, finding the humor in losing people, “printing the legend” while taking a stance for truth, dogboarding accidents, life as “the first draft of memoirs,” and auditors vs. readers.


Correspondent: Peter sets up this journey early on. He includes a helpful explanation and a chart that indicates his need to digress. He writes, “To digress, you must begin by traveling a route that will get you where you intend to go. You must have a goal and a plan for achieving it in order to depart from it. You cannot digress from the right path unless you are already on it.” And yet Peter does acquire a number of maps obtained from gas stations. He then tapes this up on the wall. And then he decides to do away with these maps. And he writes, “Having no map forced me to ask directions of strangers, and along the way I learned that doing so leads to fascinating exchanges, exchanges that are, more often than not, useless, but fascinating nonetheless.” But then, he writes that if he has to take his journey all over again, well, he would do so without a map. Because he’s decided in hindsight that maps are more trustworthy than the advice of strangers. So it seems to me that there’s a conflict going on here. Almost a tragic conflict. Because on one hand, he wants to digress. He wants to meet these particular strangers. On the other hand, if he had to do it again, he would do it through this kind of topographical thrust. And he becomes just as trapped by living on that particular structure and avoiding the digression, if he goes that particular route. So what of this notion of revisiting a possibility in hindsight like this? When Peter buys the candy bars also, it’s Albertine who comes up to the clerk and expresses the magic of receipts. And it’s a wonderful little passage. But this leads me to wonder if Albertine is something of an enabler so that Peter can occupy this disparity between what he did in this past (allegedly) and what he’s coming to terms with in the present, which might also be further tinkering as well.

erickraftKraft: Yes.

Correspondent: And what he insists he would do now if he had that particular chance again. I mean, could Peter even function without her?

Kraft: (laughs) No!

Correspondent: I’m wondering though if it’s your suggestion that every dreamer along these lines needs a muse? I know that’s a lot to throw at you. But go for it.

Kraft: Yeah. An enabler certainly she is, and muse she certainly is. She also grounds him. In the best sense. In ensuring that if his head is in the clouds, then his feet are somewhere near the ground at least. And she, at the same time, encourages him. She establishes for him a space within which he will be free to let his imagination roam. He wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything much in this life without her. Clearly, when he was a boy before they met, he attempted many things. Nearly none of them ever worked out as he hoped they would. Or even worked out at all. And that’s a pattern that is extended into his mature — can we dare to call him mature? Into his later life anyway. But Albertine, she smiles lovingly at his quirks and follies and the strange things that she tries to do. But she’s also there to say, “Peter, it’s time to calm down, sit down, and look at this rationally.”

Correspondent: But simultaneously, one might also consider that Albertine may also be a figment of his imagination. Certainly that’s what I thought.

Kraft: How dare you! (laughs)

Correspondent: Well, I’m telling you. You’ve been holding back on this whole meetup between her and Peter!

Kraft: You’ve found something that hardly anyone has even dared to suggest. But I have asked myself several times whether that could be the case. I’ll just ask the question. I don’t have an answer for this yet. Is Albertine Peter’s way of keeping himself under control to a degree? I don’t know yet.

Correspondent: It’s certainly possible.

Kraft: I don’t know if I want to explore that much more, but it’s certainly possible.

Correspondent: But since he is in the process of concocting composite characters like Raskol, his childhood friend, since Matthew Barber is fictive sometimes and possibly real in some sense, and since you have constantly avoided the question of how he met Albertine, this is why…

Kraft: Although, that’s coming up!

Correspondent: I know that’s coming up. I know you’ve settled that.

Kraft: But even if you read it, you’ll still be asking yourself whether he might not have concocted this. And I’ll be asking myself too.

BSS #268: Eric Kraft, Part One (Download MP3)

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Flying Roundtable: Stage Two

(This is the second of a five-part roundtable discussion of Eric Kraft’s Flying. Part One, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five can also be read.)

Matt Cheney writes:

kraftrt2I’m going to throw another topic out there for discussion, because I’m only one third of the way through Flying and I’m struggling.

Here’s my question: What do you make of the narrative voice?  Or voices, if you identify them differently?

I ask because I’ve been reading the book off and on for a month now, but have only just begun On the Wing, not for lack of effort, but for the fact that all the way through Taking Off I found myself gritting my teeth — I utterly hated Peter Leroy, mostly because of the way the book’s sentences rang in my ears.  The writing seemed to me slick, even smarmy, and all I wanted to do was get it out of my head.  I kept trying to put my finger on what it was that bothered me so much, that made me grit my teeth as if I’d OD’ed on Smarties, but I didn’t get very far in my quest to figure out what was making me react in such a strange way.  The closest I came was when I decided I found the captions to the pictures annoying.  I liked the pictures, particularly the doctored pictures of old magazines and books, which were clever and surprising, but the captions weren’t usually necessary, and I resented being given redundant information.  I wanted them to do something more, to be in some sort of conflict with the pictures or the narrative, to add complexity rather than just tell us stuff we already knew.

But that’s primarily a problem for me only with the captions.  My problem with Peter’s narration is harder to define, but I can say that the voice seems awfully, well, nice.  Like Leave It to Beaver or My Three Dads.  Perhaps this is because, given how fragmented my reading of the book has been, I haven’t been able to get enough sense yet of what’s at stake within it, where its edges lie, and so perhaps I’m missing some big irony or subtle clues to an unseen darkness.  (Which says more, I expect, about me than the book — “pleasant” is not, for me, a term of praise for art.)  Perhaps On the Wing and Flying Home will add some vinegar.  I haven’t yet been able to make myself care about Peter’s various embroideries of the apparent “truth” within the novel’s story because I haven’t yet been able to figure out why it matters whether he’s “truthful” or not, or what effect this should have on me as a reader.

Or maybe it’s just that the book is comedic and I don’t get the comedy.  (Is it comedic?)  It hits me in a similar way that Confederacy of Dunces, another book I found far more annoying than amusing, did, and maybe there’s some sort of litmus test for this kind of thing — I know plenty of people who find Confederacy uproariously funny and great fun to read, but I’d rather spend a day watching water boil than read that book again.  Similarly, I adore Catch-22 and know plenty of people who would rather read Confederacy of Dunces whilst standing in boiling water than read Heller’s novel, so…

It’s late at night and I’m rambling; my apologies.  I merely wanted to ask you all for some reports of your reading experience of the book — I don’t know if it will help me get beyond my allergy to Peter Leroy, but I am honestly curious to know how people perceived the book’s narrative voice — charming? engaging? amusing? enthralling? — because I feel kind of stuck in how I first heard it, and there’s no way I’ll make it through the next two novels if I continue to hear it that way.

Kathleen Maher writes:

I’m speaking to Matthew Cheney first, because his message pops up first in my gmail.

If you’re beginning On The Wing, and Peter Leroy grated on you all through Taking Off, I doubt you’ll enjoy you the rest of it. If it irks you, I would put it down. (Ed may not agree with me on this, because if you push forward, hating it, you might contribute more to the roundtable than all those saying, “It’s so great, so hilarious!”) Generally, I make it a rule to give a book 100 pages–I’m a writer, not a book reviewer–and past that, if I don’t like it, I put it on the shelf. A year or two later, I might try it again. Frequently, it’s that second or third time that the book grabs me.

This has convinced me that fiction is even more subjective than real life, which strikes me as so subjective that (quoting Sarah and Ed and Brian) it compares to walking on quicksand.

In reference to Ed’s question about Peter possibly being tragic, notice that: No one dies; Albertine has proper health coverage; and Peter is far better off as a muddleheaded dreamer than Big Bob, once head of the Muddleheaded Dreamers Motorcyle Club now the “world’s foremost [clinician] for Pre-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.”

Dr. Bob Wylie suggests a tragic if tangential Quixote-type more than the self-aware, self-conscious but all the happier for it Peter Leroy.  Although once you bring up “swagger,” Ed, I see various parallels between Peter Leroy taxiing the country in Spirit and Quixote charging on horseback. I read Don Quixote in college and at that time found it likewise hilarious, perhaps because the teacher presented it that way. Cervantes was skewering the popular (and purportedly kitschy) adventure stories that were popular in the early 17th century. I’m sure there must be dissertations galore comparing those cheap oral tales with DC or Marvel superheroes and/or the 1950s real-life versions of Kraft’s Bold Feats magazine. 

Easy to imagine that someone might not be in the mood for these hi-jinks, Matthew. And because Kraft does deftly address high and low culture, questions of taste, time, and philosophy in such a seamless, fast-paced style, his prose might come across as “slick.” But that’s the risk anyone takes telling stories.

I promised my husband to keep this short. Ha-ha. The poor man suffered along as I insisted upon trying to read passages out loud to him, but mostly giggled..

Among my favorite passages is the one where Judge Whitley takes Peter outside and questions him about Faustroll.

“You have sailed in the doctor’s boat, across the Squitty Sea?…soujourned in the Land of Lace?…

“You don’t want to go waving this book around. People are going to take it the wrong way….”

Then, too, as someone who too late in life attemped rollerblading too fast and too often, giving it up only after a few full-fledged concussions and a shattered wrist, I especially relished the dog-boarding business.

Robert Birnbaum writes:

Well, fellow bibliolistas,

Since I began to read Flying by Eric Kraft late last month — an author previously unread by me — I have begun ten or twelve books, 6 or 7 of which I read to their ends.  So, it seems clear this narrative hasn’t exactly captivated me. Like Matthew, I find a few things about this novel unfelicitous — not the least, the, what I experience, kind of leaden exuberance and as Brother Cheney opines, smarminess.

It occurs to me I was asked to participate in another one of Don Eduardo’s roundtable confabs — around Pynchon’s Against the Day. Which I see as having a similar tonality — also unpleasing to me

Like Kathleen, I see it as perfectly fitting that there is a panoramic range of response — exactly what makes a  convincing case for the subjectivity that attaches to fiction (and other things)

I am struck, and a bit bedazzled, by the high wattage of the illuminating discourse — which, if it signals the type of book this is, makes it even less likely for me to complete.

I noticed that Proust and Nabakov’s names were bandied about — also writers I have not (I am still trying to account for any significance to the fact I have read virtually no Updike— I have learned to offer this guitlessly) — though I would wager I have read more Nelson Algren than most people.

It is, of course, pleasing that a number of readers enjoyed this writer and have things to say and that other people have things to say about those other things. The whole point is I gather indeterminate —as the immortal Thomas Waller shrewdly observed, “One never know, do one?”

I will dip into this book, perhaps even advancing to various places in the novel — though from what I have read in the commentary, this story seems to be intricately constructed and interwoven with all manner of minute details and cutesy nomenclature. I will certainly look forward to the polylogue, as many of the contributors are people known to me to be sensible,  erudite and useful observers.


Flying Roundtable: Stage One

(This is the first of a five-part roundtable discussion of Eric Kraft’s Flying. Here’s Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five.)


kraftrt1This week marks the release of Eric Kraft‘s Flying, a collection of three novels that include Taking Off, On the Wing, and the previously unreleased Flying Home. This trilogy forms the latest set of volumes in Kraft’s ongoing series of books set in the Peter Leroy universe, which Kraft has devoted more than a million words to. Peter Leroy is a dreamer who has been writing his “memoirs” about growing up in a town called Babbington, New York. But his stories tend to be wild lies. And if Peter is committed to the pursuit of a certain form of truth, why then are his “memoirs” such elaborate yarns? Why is there also so much corresponding ephemera in these books?

In the case of Flying, we see two differing narratives. The young Peter builds an aerocycle (that curiously does not fly) and travels cross-country in the 1950s. The older Peter, in the present day, is likewise traveling across the nation with his wife Albertine in an Electro-Flyer. Many of the stories presented in these books conflict or even revise previous incidents that have appeared in the Leroy chronicles. And in an effort to unpack Flying further, we’ve enlisted an able team of readers to offer their thoughts on Kraft’s work. There is also a three-part podcast interview with Kraft coming later in the week as well.

Sarah Weinman writes:

I wanted to open the discussion with a quote from the end of On the Wing because, to my mind, it not only sums up the book but a general state of mind:

If strangers should come into your midst, strangers passing through, visitors from afar, take them in. Try to feel their loneliness, the terrible isolation of outsiders in an alien culture, and if they seem odd to you, if the things they say and do seem disturbingly different from the things that you and your neighbors say and do, please realize that in their loneliness those strangers may be clinging for consolation to familiar customs and trying desperately, awkwardly, ineptly to ingratiate themselves with you. Don’t reject them. Welcome them. The foods they eat, the ideas they hold, the emotions they feel, and everything they hold dear may be weird and worthless to you, but they are neither weird nor worthless to them. Open your hearts. Open your homes. Let the strangers in.

It’s hard not to feel like your heart and your mind is opened while reading all of Flying. I know both of mine certainly expanded beyond their natural limits. “Buoyant” was the word I kept thinking of while reading the book, for a number of reasons – it brings to mind a sense of uplift, like the Spirit that Peter Leroy creates and concocts to get him away from Babbington and on to New Mexico; a sense of wonder at how much Kraft builds into what looks on the surface to be rather straightforward prose; the longstanding back-and-forth, years in the making, between Peter and Albertine in their older years; and the way in which Kraft forces the reader — or at least me — to accept the fullest possible spectrum.

Peter is a dreamer, a creative type, his heads in clouds like those depicted on the book’s cover. His quest to be airborne is harebrained and strange and yet it enables him a sense of heroism that persists in Babbington, perhaps longer than it ought to, as his late-in-life journey with Albertine to retrace those younger steps proves. But without Albertine as his anchor, Peter’s impossible dreams might not be able to be interpreted, or would be so extreme as to lose their context. She grounds him, but just enough so that his sense of buoyancy isn’t in danger of being stifled. And together, they encounter a whole host of strangers in their travels, like the couple named Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, greeted with disbelief by the hotel clerk until the man offers a name change to Darrow (yeah, I love little jokes like that.)

But the real buoyancy comes from the way Kraft blurs the lines between what is real and what is not. Take the alternating structure of then (Peter writing his memoirs of the aeronautic trip, and later his account of attending the science institute) and now, with Albertine wryly checking in to find out what is the truth — or at least, what truth Peter is willing to admit to her (or to himself?). “I can poke and probe and bring something back, and then I can add to that whatever else comes drifting in on the wind, and out of what I actually remember and what comes drifting in I can make something that resembles a memory,” Peter says early on when Albertine implores him to describe the flight “beyond which I was going to make things up.” A simplistic view of Flying is that it explores the murky terrain between real and fake, but I think that notion takes away a lot of the beauty of the line-blurring. Even though I gobbled the book up in two sittings, I couldn’t ignore the feeling of walking on quicksand, with the threat of being swallowed up by the fuzzy lines of Peter’s heightened reality examined at close level. There are a lot of wonderful tricks to obfuscate that murkiness, especially in Flying Home when Peter is engaging in all sorts of madcap adventures with his young friends and the trick of a camera focused on a girl he has a crush on. But even there, reality is less interesting than imagination, as Peter describes in relation to another girl named Andrea, thanking her “for saving me from falling in love with an immaterial ideal rather than a real girl….the dark-haired girl I was falling in love with was not a girl at all. She was not the one in the window that I’d seen from the observatory, and she was not in any of the ones that I’d met or seen or thought I’d seen on my trip from Babbington to Corosso. She was a creature of my imagination, my dark-haired Galatea, sculpted from a memory of a dark-haired girl I’d seen sunning herself on the foredeck of a lean blue sloop when I was eight…” And who is “the dark-haired girl who had made me notice-or imagine – all the others?” Kraft, writing in Leroy’s voice, hints it will be Albertine, but that too seems to be part of the reality/fiction blurring…

One more thing, because it’s all too easy to wander down alleyway after alleyway getting lost in thought and analysis — which, I suspect, is part of Kraft’s intentions with Flying and the other Peter Leroy books (so far I’ve read two others, Inflating a Dog and Reservations Recommended, both very different but of course, forever linked up.) It’s hard not to put Flying in context with the plethora of memoirs, real or fake, on the market these days. Peter Leroy seems to tip his hat with constant references to confession and expiation, but there’s a limit to how much he’ll confess and how much he’ll make up. But Kraft also doesn’t want the reader to settle on binary conclusions: Peter Leroy is making things up therefore he is a fake, or he’s telling a good story therefore he’s a genius. No, the wonderful thing about Flying, about all the Peter Leroy books, is how they inhabit the in between spaces, looking at the margins and the scribbled notes that are both visible and invisible to the naked eye. Trusting in one truth means missing out all the others. And really, when it comes right down to it, one never knows, does one?

Edward Champion writes:

“It is a curious kind of partnership, Kraft & Leroy.  The usual descriptions — author and character, ventriloquist and dummy, left brain and right brain — are inaccurate and inadequate.  When we were just beginning to work together, Kraft may have thought that in me he had merely found a way to write about himself, and I may have thought that I had found a ventriloquist who was willing to play the straight man while I got the laughs, but as time has passed, each of us has found himself liberated by the other, and each of us has found that to a certain degree he has become what he is through the agency of the other.  We are not the same person, though we share a mind.”

  — From the introduction to Leaving Small’s Hotel

To launch off Sarah’s point about how the aperture of a reader’s heart and mind is sharply widened upon reading the Flying trilogy, I think we should likewise explore the notion of the alter ego, and how this creation of identities ties into the telling of the tale.  In all of the Peter Leroy books, we are presented, on a basic level, with an author created by an author.  A memoirist who is committed to a wandering organization of memories, but who requires confirmation from his trusted wife, Albertine, who may or may not be a fictional construct.  Very often, this creation within creation requires alter egos within alter egos.  Passionate Spectator proffers a scenario in which Kraft begets Peter Leroy, who, in turn, creates Matthew Barber, who, in turn, creates B.W. Beath.  (This, in itself, recalls the comparatively simpler nesting of Barber/Beath in Reservations Recommended, which is, rather interestingly, predicated upon the form of a restaurant journey experienced by Barber and written up by Beath in his newspaper reviews.)  We learn throughout the books that Peter Leroy’s childhood friend Raskol (named after Dostoevsky’s often hallucinatory prevaricator) is an invention.  Matthew Barber may be real in these books, but he also serves as a stiff conformist counterpart to the “real” Leroy.  (In the Flying trilogy, while Leroy journeys to New Mexico in his nonflying aerocycle, it is Barber who opts to fly by commercial airliner.  Where Leroy glories in the hops, or stages, of the journey, Barber requires a flight in one go.) 

In the later Leroy books, we have also seen a greater concern for a formalist structure.  Whereas the earlier books feature an introductory interjection from Peter in the present, the later books present alternating chapters of Peter and Albertine in the present and Peter in the past.  Leaving Small’s Hotel, which is almost a prototype for what Kraft pulls off in the Flying trilogy, sees Peter and Albertine about to sell off their hotel.  In the spirit of Scheherazade, Leroy tells a new chapter every night of his life in the fifty nights leading up to his fiftieth birthday, hoping that these episodes will serve as a draw to new customers, and Kraft juxtaposes Leroy’s struggles to fix a decaying hotel in the present with a story from the past involving Leroy trying to construct a Flying Saucer Detector and communicate with the town of Babbington through an underground radio network.  The destruction that lives in the present is bolstered by the construction from the past.  We see this theme crop up in the Flying trilogy as well, but Peter and Albertine seem to embrace the inevitable end to their memories in the present.  Instead of operating a hotel, they check into many rooms at other hotels.  They are very much strangers passing through (as we see in the passage quoted by Sarah) and they attempt to convey their joy to others, such as the amusing episode with the clerk, in which Peter cadges off power to recharge the Electro-Flyer and Albertine explains the delight of receipts (“It’s a caprice of mine — saving receipts.  I keep them in albums — the other people keep photographs.  They are mementoes, tokens of the fleeting moments of my life.”). 

I’m curious what your thoughts and feelings are on Leroy’s need to collect. Why it is so essential to Leroy’s need to tell the tale?  If Leroy gets his memories wrong, he somehow manages to authenticate it with various clippings, photos, and other minutiae.  But is he really authenticating it?  Or is he less of an exuberant hero and more of a tragic Quixote?  Why is memorializing the past so important to Leroy?  Does he need the past to accept the unexpected developments of the present, such as the rather bizarre notion of dogboarding?  Or is he memorializing the past because the present is too unkind to him and does not wish to regard him?  And if the past is so important, why then must he avoid confronting the truth through these alter egos?  The reader may very well enjoy the adventure, but if the relationship between Leroy/Kraft and his readership is predicated upon auctorial liberation, are the many minds offered here to share stories undermined by the inherently self-serving nature of the project?  Or must we welcome all these characters because life is just as much about listening and welcoming odd and possibly lonely strangers who we must not reject?

There is also something quite interesting in the way Kraft’s blurring of the real and the fictive subverts odd little truths throughout his books.  Leroy’s unusual paraphrasing of Lao Tzu (“A journey of a thousand li begins with a single step”) in On the Wing suggests that the little maxims we categorize under Taoism may not necessarily help us understand the true nature of the universe.  Or that the true nature of the universe cannot possibly be understood through any form of philosophy.  Lao Tzu certainly doesn’t get Leroy very far.  But the talking Spirit of Babbington, whether hallucinatory or imaginative, helps Leroy to get his bearings.  Likewise, the typo on the Kap’n Klam sign (THE HOME OF HAPPY DINNERS!), which has the stiff Matthew Barber (again, an alter ego; but perhaps one debilitating to Leroy’s ebullience) quibbling over whether dinners have feelings, suggests that the joys of imagination can sneak up on us even through a misheard literalism.  Is imagination a surrogate for philosophy?  Or does the only sane response to an ever-shifting America involve escaping into dreams like Peter Leroy or Walter Mitty?  I’m also curious about how you folks felt when reading this book.  As Sarah suggests, there is indeed a strange simultaneous feeling of joy and walking on quicksand.  (Kraft’s constructs have a tendency to sneak up on you.  There were times in which I had to put the book down, so that I could properly process the story beneath the story, and the alter egos behind the alter egos.  And yet wandering through Leroy’s imaginative terrain proved terribly intoxicating.  I felt a strange compunction to remain puzzled by the inconsistencies.)  But I’d like to propose that this is because Kraft is attempting to give the reader a visceral feeling of imaginative detachment.  Perhaps to some degree, this detachment makes up for the self-serving nature of the curious Kraft & Leroy partnership cited above.  Or maybe he’s suggesting that we’re all pretending like Leroy in an effort to survive.  We all have our roles and it’s just possible that if all of us revealed the totality of our interior hearts and minds in a book, and confessed what we wished to remember, that we might likewise accuse each other of being as egoistic as Leroy. 

I’d also like to get into the notion of “swagger” as it recurs throughout the book, particularly with the MDMC and the strange count at the institute.   But I think I’ll step aside for now, and let others offer their summation of the many threads within this quite intriguing volume.

Brian Francis Slattery writes:

Sarah, I was delighted that you started with the passage you quoted, because one of my favorite moments in the whole trilogy happens immediately after and because of it:

“…Open your hearts. Open your homes. Let the strangers in.” I paused. In the hush, I could hear sniffles. Then I asked, “Would anyone out there be willing to put me up for the night?”

That little passage made me laugh so loud that I woke my poor wife, who gets up much earlier than I do. In the course of reading Flying, I actually woke her many times by laughing too much and too loudly; she has grown perhaps to resent Eric Kraft for the hours of sleep she’s lost.

I realize that Sarah and Ed are zeroing in on the meat of the book, the sort of epistemological questions about truth and memory and the like. I don’t mean to derail that conversation, either. But the thing that stands out for me about Kraft — who is playing on the same playground as Proust, Nabokov, and several centuries’ worth of other fiction writers and continental philosophers — is how damn funny he is, and not in a no-really-it’s-funny way, like you have to be with some books when you want to encourage certain people to read them, but really actually funny. Kraft’s jokes would go over well in bars; they’d be funnier after three drinks than after one, and I mean that as a serious compliment. The riff about Peter’s father creating an early remote for his TV; the several scenes in various restaurants (“‘What if I’m allergic to something [in the food]?’ I asked. ‘What are you allergic to?’ ‘Penicillin.'”; “The man of the family ordered at once: ‘Corned beef hash, poached eggs, biscuits, home fries, sausage, bacon, a pork chop, extra gravy and a beer.’ He thought for a moment, then said, ‘Make that two beers.'”); the collect call to his father near the end–these and many more are out-and-out hilarious.

At first, the sort of epistemological stuff and the funny stuff struck me as not having much to do with each other, apart from making Flying both smart and super-entertaining. But as the trilogy went on, I started more and more to see the humor as a tool that Kraft uses to talk about the questions about truth and memory that he’s interested in. Take a look at that collect call, the one Peter makes to his dad near the end of Flying Home:

“Hello?” said my father.

“I have a collect call for Mr. or Mrs. Leroy from Peter,” said the operator. “Will you accept the charges?”

“Peter?” said my father, as I’d known he would.

“Hi, Dad,” I said.

“Will you accept the charges?” asked the operator.

“I’m not sure,” said my father. “How much will this cost?”

“Dad, please accept the charges. I need to talk to you.”

“Young man, stop talking,” said the operator. “I’m going to have to cut you off if the other party will not accept the charges. Are you Mr. Leroy?”

“Yes,” my father said.

“Will you accept a collect call from Peter?”

“How can I be sure that this is really my son?”

“It’s me,” I said.

“Young man,” said the operator, “if you speak again, I will cut you off.”

“Can I just say something to convince my father that I’m his son?… I just want to identify myself.”

“How do you propose to do that?”

“I’ll tell him something that only I would know.”

“All right… go ahead young man,” the operator said.

“I’ll be home on Tuesday,” I said.

“Will you accept the charges?” asked the operator.

“I’m not sure,” said my father. “He doesn’t sound like my son. Of course, it’s been so long since I heard from Peter that I can’t be sure. His voice may have changed…. Peter would be calling to ask for money. I’m sure of it.”

First off, of course, it’s funny — in fact, one of my cousins had told the same joke at a family gathering just a few weeks before I read this passage, about how in the days before cell phones they’d use the automated collect-call service to send messages to their parents from pay phones (e.g., “Will you accept the charges from I’ll Be Home at 11?”). But now look at the passage again, this time with your armchair philosopher’s cap on. This little piece of conversation drives straight at the heart of the books–“the notion of the alter ego, and how this creation of identities ties into the telling of the tale,” as Ed put it. In Flying, the tale creates the identity as it goes along, and it’s important that it’s done with such lightness. The big question of “who is this” or “who am I,” whether asked by the author (whoever that is) or one of the characters–a question that so many of Kraft’s predecessors treat with such seriousness — Kraft treats as a game, and the way Kraft plays it, at least to me, it’s a lot more like kickball than like chess. It’s wonderful and refreshing, and in the context of the many works that have preceded it, it seems to have a really nifty point to make (here’s where I really start flying by the seat of my pants). Complete objectivity is, after all, impossible. Your memory of damn near everything is almost certainly faulty in some way or another. And if you spend all your time in a cork-lined room agonizing about it (sorry, Marcel, sorry!), you’ll never take that trip, or have that beer, or let that stranger in.

But it’s not just Kraft telling his predecessors to lighten up. Frank Mankiewicz, George McGovern’s campaign manager, famously said that Hunter S. Thompson’s coverage of McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign was “the least factual and the most accurate.” Both in the fictional world of the book and the relation between Kraft and Leroy, how much does what really happened matter? I don’t know; but it seems to me that we learn so much more about who Peter Leroy is because he lies, and lies, and lies again, than we ever would have if he stuck to telling the truth.


Roundtable Discussion: Eric Kraft’s FLYING

kraft-flyingBeginning on March 2, 2009, this website will be kickstarting a lengthy roundtable discussion of Eric Kraft’s Flying over the course of the week. (For those hoping to follow along with the discussion, this is the same week that the book comes out.)

Who is Eric Kraft? Well, as I learned when enlisting roundtable participants, a lot of people aren’t all that aware of him. In fact, I only found out about the guy by accident about a decade ago, when I stumbled upon a series of paperbacks labeled The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy at City Lights. I flipped through the pages, and found a number of pleasantly fabricated pictures, diagrams, and illustrations, ended up purchasing a number of these books, and began reading.

Peter Leroy, as it turned out, was a guy in the present writing his “memoirs.” Except that these memoirs are fabricated from hazy childhood memories. Or are they more accurate than can be believed? One of the pleasant side effects is that the lie of the “memoir” often reveals ebullient truths about the human condition. But we never quite know how much of this is invented and how much of this is true. Why is Peter’s wife, Albertine, so patient with his imaginative condition? Or is this likewise a put on? One character, Matthew Barber, is a miserable toy executive with an alter ego named B.W. Beath who he impersonates when he reviews restaurants for the newspaper. In Reservations Recommended, we initially believe Barber to be real. But we learn in that book, and, most notably in Passionate Spectator, that he is fabricated and that the alter ego within the alter ego is of great importance to the “real” Leroy.

Now my description here suggests that Kraft’s novels are needlessly complicated and will give you a headache. But they’re really not. What’s especially striking about Kraft’s work is that none of these postmodernist tricks come across as exceptionally showy. His books are perverse, funny, obsessive, entertaining, and sometimes quite heartbreaking.

But Kraft hasn’t quite found the great audience that he deserves. And one of the reasons I maintain this website is to draw attention to overlooked and underrated authors.

So in a few weeks, we’re going to have about fifteen people here discussing Kraft’s latest book. There is also a separate podcast interview with Kraft in the works, in which I will do my best to conduct as definitive an interview as I can. (I have read all ten books in the Leroy series. This is the first author interview in which I have conducted this kind of insane preparation.)

The book that we will be discussing is Flying.

Flying is composed of three novellas (“Taking Off,” “On the Wing,” and the previously unpublished “Flying Home”) and follows Peter Leroy’s pursuits, as he sets out to build a flying motorcycle that will carry him to such exotic places as New Mexico. Each novella takes on one part of the journey, and the “journey” often involves numerous side quests and other divagations. But how much of this adventure is by design? What of the reconstructed Babbington Historical District that looks suspiciously similar to the Babbington in which Peter Leroy grew up? And what does all of this have to say about memory, permanence, and experience?

Well, we hope to answer these questions and more when the roundtable discussion begins. Until then, keep watching the skies!

Putter Patter Silver Platter

Hugh Hefner plans to auction off his black books. Among the entries? “Big blonde from ‘Wild Women of Wongo.'”

Brian Stillman remembers Hal Clement.

Stories from Eric Kraft at The Hamptons.

Life working at B&N (via Maud).

Sad news from Ohio: Almost half of the third-graders failed a reading test, with a wide gap in race. And in Scotland, half of the 14 year-olds failed a national writing test. Writing of an altogether different sort might be in the horizon for NYC subways.

And a comparative oldie, but a goodie: J.M. Coetzee’s Nobel speech.

[1/20/06 UPDATE: What I didn’t know at the time was that The Wild Women of Wongo was a bona-fide film directed by James L. Wolcott (no relation as far as I know to the blogger) and not a secret codeword at all. This Wolcott, apparently born in 1907, is still alive. But which of the blondes did Hugh Hefner bed? Further, the black book question raises other issues, such as whether other celebrities’ black books are worth auctioning. And is Hef’s black book the closest we get to Casanova’s memoirs?]