annelamott

Operating Instructions (Modern Library Nonfiction #99)

(This is the second entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Melbourne.)

mlnf99It is easy to forget, as brave women document their battles with cancer and callous columnists bully them for their candor, that our online confessional age didn’t exist twenty years ago. I suspect this collective amnesia is one of the reasons why Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions — almost an urtext for mommy blogs and much of the chick lit that followed — has been needlessly neglected by snobbish highbrow types, even when hungry young writers rushed to claim transgressive land in the Oklahoma LiveJournal Run of 2006.

Lamott’s book, which is a series of honed journal entries penned from the birth of her son Sam to his first birthday, was ignored by the New York Times Book Review upon its release in 1993 (although Ruth Reichl interviewed her for the Home & Garden section after the book, labeled “an eccentric baby manual” by Reichl, became a bestseller). Since then, aside from its distinguished inclusion on the Modern Library list, it has not registered a blip among those who profess to reach upward. Yet if we can accept Karl Ove Knausgaard’s honesty about fatherhood in the second volume of his extraordinary autobiographical novel, My Struggle, why then do we not honor Anne Lamott? It is true that, like Woody Allen in late career, Lamott has put out a few too many titles. It is also true that she attracts a large reading audience, a sin as unpardonable to hoity-toity gasbags as a man of the hoi polloi leaving the toilet seat up. Much as the strengths of Jennifer Weiner’s fiction are often dwarfed by her quest for superfluous respect, Anne Lamott’s acumen for sculpting the familiar through smart and lively prose doesn’t always get the credit it deserves.

Operating Instructions — with its breezy pace, its populist humor, and its naked sincerity — feels at first to be a well-honed machine guaranteed to attract a crowd of likeminded readers. But once you start looking under the hood, you begin to understand how careful Lamott is with what she doesn’t reveal. It begins with the new baby’s name. We are informed that Samuel John Stephen Lamott’s name has been forged from Lamott’s brothers, John and Steve. But where does the name Samuel come from? And why is Lamott determined to see Sams everywhere? (A one-armed Sam, the son of a friend named Sam, et al.) There are murky details about Sam’s father, who flits in and out of the narrative like some sinister figure with a twirling moustache. He is six foot four and two hundred pounds. He is in his mid-fifties, an older man who Lamott had a fling with. We learn later in the book that he “filed court papers today saying that we never fucked and that he therefore cannot be the father.” Even so, what’s his side of the story?

This leaves Lamott, struggling for cash and succor, raising Sam on her own with a dependable “pit crew” of friends. Yet one is fascinated not only by Lamott’s unshakable belief that she will remain a single parent for the rest of her natural life (“there is nothing I can do or say that will change the fact that his father chooses not to be his father. I can’t give him a dad, I can’t give him a nuclear family”), but by how the absence of this unnamed father causes her to dwell on her own father’s final days.

Lamott’s father was a writer who “died right as I crossed the threshold into publication.” His brain cancer was so bad that he could barely function in his final days. Lamott describes leaving her father in the car with a candy bar as she hits the bank. Her father escapes the car, becoming a “crazy old man pass[ing] by, his face smeared with chocolate, his blue jeans hanging down in back so you could see at least two inches of his butt, like a little boy’s.” It is a horrifying image of a man Lamott looked up to regressing into childhood before the grave, leaving one to wonder if this has ravaged Lamott’s view of men — especially since she repeatedly chides the apparent male relish of peeing standing up — and what idea of manhood she will pass along to her growing boy.

Part of me loves and respects men so desperately, and part of me thinks they are so embarrassingly incompetent at life and in love. You have to teach them the very basics of emotional literacy. You have to teach them how to be there for you, and part of me feels tender toward them and gentle, and part of me is so afraid of them, afraid of any more violation. I want to clean out some of these wounds, though, with my therapist, so Sam doesn’t get poisoned by all my fear and anger.

This is an astonishing confession for a book that also has Lamott tending to Sam’s colic, describing the wonders of Sam’s first sounds and movement, and basking in the joys of a human soul emerging in rapid increments. Motherhood has long been compared to war, to the point where vital discussions about work-family balance have inspired their own “mommy wars.” Operating Instructions features allusions to heroes, Nagasaki, Vietnam, and other language typically muttered by priapic military historians. Yet Lamott’s take also reveals a feeling that has become somewhat dangerous to express in an era of mansplaining, Lulu hashtags, and vapid declarations of “the end of men.” Men are indeed embarrassing, but are they an ineluctable part of motherhood? It is interesting that Lamott broaches this question long after Sam’s father has become a forgettable presence in the book. And yet months later, Lamott is more grateful for the inherited attributes of the “better donor” in “the police lineup of my ex-boyfriends”:

He’s definitely got his daddy’s thick, straight hair, and, God, am I grateful for that. It means he won’t have to deal with hat hair as he goes through life.

Throughout all this, Lamott continues to take in Sam. He is at first “just a baby,” some human vehicle that has just left the garage of Lamott’s belly:

The doctor looked at the baby’s heartbeat on the monitor and said dully, “The baby’s flat,” and I immediately assumed it meant he was dead or at least retarded from lack of oxygen. I don’t think a woman would say anything like that to a mother. “Flat?” I said incredulously. “Flat?” Then he explained that this meant the baby was in a sleep cycle.

But as Sam occupies a larger space in Lamott’s life, there is an innate ecstasy in the way she describes his presence. Sam is “a breathtaking collection of arms and knees,” “unbelievably pretty, with long, thin, Christlike feet,” and “an angel today…all eyes and thick dark hair.” We’re all familiar with the way that new parents gush about their babies, yet Lamott is surprisingly judicious in tightening the pipe valve. Even as she declares the inevitable epithets of frustration (“Go back to sleep, you little shit”) and trivializes Sam (“I thought it would be more like getting a cat”), Sam’s beauty is formidable enough to spill elsewhere, such as this description of a mountain near Bolinas:

So we were driving over the montain, and on our side it was blue and sunny, but as soon as we crested, I could see the thickest blanket of fog I’ve ever seen, so thick it was quilted with the setting sun shining upward from underneath it, and it shimmered with reds and roses, and above were radiant golden peach colors. I am not exaggerating this. I haven’t seen a sky so stunning and bejeweled and shimmering with sunset colors and white lights since the last time I took LSD, ten years ago.

Being a mother may be akin to a heightened narcotic experience, but that doesn’t have to stop you from feeling.

* * *

I suggested earlier that Operating Instructions serves as a precursor to the mommyblog, but this doesn’t just extend to the time-stamp. There is something about setting down crisp observations while the baby is napping that inspires an especially talented writer to find imaginative similes, especially in commonplace activities which those who are not mothers willfully ignore or take for granted. Compare Lamott and Dooce‘s Heather Armstrong (perhaps the best-known of the mommy bloggers) as they describe contending with a breast pump:

“You feel plugged into a medieval milking machine that turns your poor little gumdrop nipples into purple slugs with the texture of rhinoceros hide.” — Anne Lamott, 1993

“I end up lying on my back completely awake as my breasts harden like freshly poured cement baking in the afternoon sun.” — Dooce, February 23, 2004

Armstrong has sedulously avoided invoking Lamott’s name in more than a decade of blogging, but, in both cases, we see just enough imagery squirted into the experience for the reader to feel the struggle. Both Lamott and Armstrong have rightly earned a large readership for describing ordinary situations in slightly surreal (and often profane) terms. (Both writers are also marked in ways by religion. Lamott came to Christianity after a wild life that involved alcoholism. Armstrong escaped Mormonism, eluding to a period as an “unemployed drunk” before meeting her husband, who she subsequently divorced.)

Next Up: Ian Hacking’s The Taming of Chance!

melbourne

Melbourne (Modern Library Nonfiction #100)

(This is the first entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list.)

mlnf100History has produced such a rich pile of devious political figures who spend every spare minute scheming and plotting their rise that today’s aspiring aristocrats, who can be found working every connection to get their kids into bright educational citadels and reliable sinecures, cannot come close to such cutthroat monomania. Yet there are also those who blunder into top office like bumpkins crashing high-class weddings through the simple repetitive act of placing one foot in front the other. William Lamb, aka Lord Melbourne, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for eight years (1834, 1835-1841) and the subject of Lord David Cecil’s generous biography, was one such man.

Melbourne was a ponderous speaker, a bookish man who reportedly dozed off in the middle of a conversation, a leader largely blind to the way people beneath his station lived, and a cautionary tale for any soul who avoids conflict. “He pondered, he compared, he memorized,” writes Cecil of Melbourne in middle age, just before his improbable political career begins, “the Elizabethan drama, for instance, he knew so well that he could repeat by heart whole scenes not only of Shakespeare but of Massinger; the margins of his books were black with the markings of his flowing, illegible hand.” Melbourne was so mind-bogglingly passive in his actions that he not only refused to intervene in his wife’s adulterous affairs, but he believed that each infidelity would pass with the fleeting speed of a common cold.

It’s easy to ridicule Melbourne and the people of that time (as the bitterly judgmental Carrie A.A. Frye and Philip Ziegler, another Melbourne biographer, have). Melbourne was cuckolded by Lord Byron. When Byron would no longer plant his flagpole in Lady Caroline Lamb, Melbourne’s wife gradually traded down in her boys on the side until she tapped Edward Bulwer-Lytton (best known today for inspiring a writing contest for wretched writing). Caroline would go on to write Glenarvon, an awful roman à clef which exposed the Byron episode and left the Lambs open to disgrace and derision. When his wife died, the lonely Melbourne sought solace with another Caroline (the remarkable Caroline Norton, a tireless crusader who would go on to campaign successfully for legislative acts rectifying the second-class status of women), there was an attempt at blackmail. When Queen Victoria ascended to the throne, Melbourne became her unlikely tutor and constant companion, wasting a good chunk of his late years because the young Queen required constant attention (much of it documented in Victoria’s journals, which are now digitized and accessible through arrangement with your library; Cecil is good enough to quote from many of these entries).

When I learned from Paul Douglass’s Lady Caroline Lamb just how abhorrently Melbourne had treated the largely forgotten badass Isaac Nathan, I began to grow less tolerant of Melbourne’s nonplussed nature. Nathan — a Jewish composer who wrote the groundbreaking Hebrew Melodies and suffered from the Jewish exclusion laws which denied him the ability to vote, run for office, or pursue justice in the courts against the scabrous opportunists who stole his lyrics, often without credit or compensation — befriended Caroline and set many of her words to music. Despite Nathan defending Caroline when she was disgraced (to the lively extent of fighting duels and even publishing a defense of her character in Fugitive Pieces after her death), Melbourne refused to pay Nathan for services rendered to the Whigs when Nathan really needed the cash, leaving Nathan humiliated and bankrupt and forced to flee to Australia, where he was to write Don John of Austria (the first opera composed and performed in Australia), became the first to research indigenous music and the first settler in this new and exciting country to be killed by a tram. (Don’t worry. Nathan died at 74. It was an accident.)

Melbourne’s clueless cruelty also emerged as organized labor became a more vocal part of British life. In March 1834, a group of laborers in Dorset started a trade-union and it was discovered that these men had administered secret oaths as part of the membership. Several of these men were arrested and sentenced to seven years of penal transportation. At the time, Melbourne was Home Secretary. Instead of overturning this remarkably harsh punishment, Melbourne asked the local magistrates about the temperament of these men. He was informed by these tendentious adjudicators that they were scoundrels. Melbourne, strictly on this point of secret oaths, confirmed this inhumane sentence. And during the next month, a group of thirty thousand marched to Whitehall to demand redress. He refused to see these leaders. And this austere decision set back the trade-union movement for years. As Cecil writes:

“So far from being criminals and revolutionaries, they were sober, respectable men enough, driven into lawless courses largely by ignorance and hunger and by the struggle to hang up their families on wages lately reduced to seven shillings a week. Melbourne was not to blame for not realizing their true characters. He was not there, and he had to trust to the reports of his subordinates.”

Melbourne also did not intervene when the revolting laborers of 1830 (during the Swing Riots) were sent to the gallows. Even Cecil is forced to accept the “painful and disturbing” prospect of an ostensibly kind-hearted man who wished to uphold the death sentence even when prisoners were not intended to be executed. Yet as callous as these consequences were, contributing to great unrest in the immediate years that followed, one has to remember that these terrible measures emerged in response to fears over recent turmoil in France and while parliamentary reform was being hashed out at a frustratingly glacial pace. There was a palpable anxiety that events across the English Channel would be reenacted at home.

How did such a man ascend to Prime Minister? Largely because there was nobody else. In 1834, King William IV needed someone who could keep variegated political factions together and, although the King didn’t care much for Melbourne, he liked him better than the other candidates. After all, this wasn’t exactly a position that you could leave open because you didn’t care for the present spate of résumés. Melbourne almost didn’t take the job. (Indeed, near the end of his stint as Prime Minister, he drifted forward with listlessness and exhaustion. Obligation seemed to be the only quality that kept him going.) An opportunistic little creep named Tom Young, who ensconced himself into Melbourne’s administrative circle through skillful cunning, was the one who played to Melbourne’s vanity and love for the classics, securing Melbourne’s commitment with the following words: “Why, damn it all, such a position was never held by any Greek or Roman: and if it only last three months, it will be worth while to have been Prime Minister of England.”

Melbourne was a weird Prime Minister. His strategy involved ridding himself of loud and querulous colleagues and keeping the new Government as calm as possible, even as he remained obdurate in his decision making. This approach did not sit well with some of the more boisterous statesmen. In a moment that could almost be pulled out of a David Lynch movie, Cecil describes Lord Henry Brougham visiting Melbourne’s house just after learning that he would not have a place in the new government. “Do you think I am mad?” shouts Brougham over and over again, his tone and gestures rising with violence as he repeats this question, almost anticipating the charismatic psychosis of Blue Velvet‘s Frank Booth. Yet the highly avoidant Melbourne could not fend off the King, assorted radicals, and any number of people who beseeched him for attention. “Damn it!” he cried to himself. “Why can’t they be quiet?” (In 1836, the aforementioned Norton blackmail episode went down, with Melbourne emerging largely unscathed even while living at Downing Street.)

I can’t entirely pardon Melbourne for some of his asshattery, but Cecil’s careful touch allowed me to understand and even empathize with some of Melbourne’s flaws, for he was also quite idiosyncratic. He stuffed his coats with endless notes. He would emit several strange sounds before beginning to talk. He would shout at random servants and ask them what time it was rather than consult a watch. These quirks allowed him to be liked by the right people, or, perhaps more accurately, tolerated because his actions were so endearingly inexplicable. Perhaps they felt sorry for him because of the Glenarvon episode, although Cecil doesn’t really address how that scandal besmirched his later life, long after Caroline was gone.

What I can say is that Cecil does such a classy job conveying the shenanigans of these often loutish patricians — the rampant adultery, the tolerated insane behavior, the strange manner that all this infiltrated British poetry and politics — that I was placed in the unusual position of fighting strong desires to throw my mind into the mire of the French Revolution, parliamentary protocol, and numerous other subjects. In the last two years, we have seen wild ideological sentiment (exacerbated by Twitter) and staunch stylistic preference (e.g., any polemical book on the lyrical essay) erode the possibilities of understanding human nuance. Melbourne reminds us that the more receptive we are to factual details that trouble or intrigue us, the more willing we are to commiserate with a person’s embarrassing qualities. Perhaps this was one reason why Melbourne was one of John F. Kennedy’s favorite books.

Cecil found both a subject and a tone that recalls John P. Marquand’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1937 novel, The Late George Apley, published just two years before Cecil’s first half of Melbourne. He tells us baldly at the end that Melbourne’s death caused no great stir during the nineteenth century’s rampantly changing atmosphere. It is a crushing realization. Like Apley, Melbourne outlived his time and took in his personal and professional regrets with a resigned agreeableness. Melbourne’s life is often a sad portrait, yet we are somehow won over by him. Cecil’s book is a welcome reminder that if we’re going to judge someone, maybe we should buffet the impulse to castigate them with a smidgen of kindness, reserving our wrath for the real monsters. Without that vital flexibility that allows us to evolve, there may come a point when we outlive our time too. Sooner than Melbourne.

Next Up: Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions!

kipling

Kim (Modern Library #78)

(This is the twenty-third entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: A Room with a View)

Three years ago, my jocular compadre Lydia Kiesling pointed out that Kim‘s festering reputation as an imperialist watermark had hindered her from a serious plunge. She rightly identified a “Post-Colonial Burn Index” for this type of literature, whereby enduring high and mighty white males braying in turgid and self-congratulatory sentences about their entitled position was an experience about as pleasant as being repeatedly kicked in the teeth by a herd of Thoroughbred racehorses that had been paddocked too long without option of rotary gallop.

While Lydia found Kim to be a pleasant surprise, I felt Kipling’s “masterpiece” to be largely repugnant: the kind of pernicious slog that turns good people into Aryan crusaders if they don’t move on quickly to something else. The book’s enticing aesthetic of geography, esoteric terminology, Arabic names, Jainist neologisms, and now commonplace food wasn’t enough to shake the deeply unsettling feeling that Kipling, despite his welcome overtures, really wanted all of India to remain subservient to the Anglo way, perhaps because this was the only way he could reckon with his nostalgia for a time long passed. This novel was his swan song to India. And while the book is sometimes an engaging adventure, it is too fraught with covert condescension.

Among many disgraceful stereotypes, Kim is a novel which describes how “Kim could lie like an Oriental,” how “[a]ll hours of the twenty-four are alike to the Oriental” and describes both “the Oriental’s indifference to mere noise,” how “Orientals understand speed,” and how a project “[falls] back, Oriental-fashion, on time and chance.” There is a Russian agent who announces late in the book, “It is we who can deal with Orientals.” (This sentiment of “dealing with Orientals” is later echoed by Hurree.) But the fun doesn’t stop there. There’s an odious drummer-boy from Liverpool who badgers Kim when he “[talks] the same as a nigger.”

This is far more insidious than Kingsley Amis writing of Kim‘s problematic meticulousness, “if he says coriander when he means cardamum I will let it go.” As my homeboy Edward Said wisely observed in Culture and Imperialism:

…yes, Kipling can get into the skin of others with some sympathy. But no, Kipling never forgets that Kim is an irrefragable part of British India: the Great Game does go on, with Kim a part of it, no matter how many parables the lama fashions. We are naturally entitled to read Kim as a novel belonging to the world’s greatest literature, free to some degree from its encumbering historical and political circumstances. Yet by the same token, we must not unilaterally abrogate the corrections in it, and carefully observed by Kipling, to its contemporary actuality.

The depictions of residents from the Far and Near East as lesser beings have been held up as criticisms of racism by some Kipling scholars. But given that the novel goes out of its way to grant thirteen-year-old Kimball O’Hara, “burned black as any native,” the luxury of swinging both ways as sahib and a boy capable of disguising himself in “native-fashion,” there’s a decidedly privileged feel to Kim’s picaresque adventures which gives any 21st century reading experience a sour and regressive taint.

So what is Kim‘s appeal? For me, the lama is the novel’s high point. He finds Kim in Lahore. He sets out with the boy to seek the physical manifestation of their respective visions (for Kim, a Red Bull in a green field; for the lama, “The River of the Arrow”). He serves as a remarkably patient patriarchal figure throughout. The novel felt more honest when Kim used the lama’s otherness to skimp out on train fare or when Kim was free to get into wild adventures without obligation or mimesis.

The sympathetic socialist critic Irving Howe is perhaps the closest in describing why the novel is still worth a soupçon of consideration. Howe observes that Kipling was “a jingo and a bully, or defender of bullies,” but identifies Kim as a work that involves seeing the world “as an apprehension of things as they are” and “accepting, even venerating sainthood, without at all proposing to surrender the world, or even worldliness, to saints.” But one of the chief frustrations about Kim is that, for all of Kipling’s erudition about India, he is blind to his own inherent prejudices.

No matter how liberated Kim may be, he is still identified by how he is seen or how he is “suited”:

The pallor of hunger suited Kim very well as he stood, tall and slim, in his sad-coloured, sweeping robes, one hand on his rosary and the other in the attitude of benediction, faithfully copied from the lama. An English observer might have said that he looked rather like the young saint of a stained-glass window, whereas he was but a growing lad faint with emptiness.

Is not Kipling complicit in how his characters are seen by the reader, who may be an “English observer” of another sort? In the gnarly opening chapters, we see Kim “flat on his belly” while a tall man stands “erect as an arrow.” And this is hardly the first time the novel resorts to a descriptive style where “erect” positioning is so closely identified to social station or caste.

Unlike Edmund Wilson, who complained about how the novel doesn’t live up to “what the reader tends to expect,” I don’t have any particular problems with the book’s inconclusive finale. Fiction has no obligation to answer everything. Kipling’s efforts to reconcile the book’s spiritual side (the Buddhist idea of the Wheel of Things, as introduced by the lama) with its espionage side (the Great Game of geopolitical conflict “that never ceases day and night”) smack of a desperate effort to sandwich disparate ingredients into a luncheon that cannot possibly satisfy everybody, let alone account for the complexities of a massive nation. It is fundamentally impossible for either Kipling or Kim to make a dichotomous choice when there is, quite literally, so much territory covered on the Great Trunk Road, on board the “te-rain,” and along the “long, peaceful line of the Himalayas.” (In deference to the lama’s portent, there are quite a number of “rivers” in this book, often through rail and road.) The Middle Way may be the “path to freedom,” but the river that the lama does eventually find cannot be found on any map.

But I am with Wilson in calling out Kipling’s failings to confront a very real crisis. I am hardly alone. Even the enthusiastic biographer Martin Seymour-Smith was to confess, “Kim is not, for me, quite the masterpiece that it is for many critics,” believing the problem to stem from the novel being simultaneously a children’s book and an adult’s book. Seymour-Smith also posits the interesting theory that Kipling’s failure to return to India and confront its considerable change is one of the reasons it is not quite right.

Kim lacks the imagination and the deft command of Kipling’s shorter fiction. But this novel was such a despondent read that I don’t think I’ll be reading this blustery Nobel laureate again for at least another decade. If I want a Great Game, I’ll drag out Cranium or Twister from the closet.

Next Up: James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake! (This will take a very long time!)

roomwithaview

A Room with a View (Modern Library #79)

(This is the twenty-second entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Brideshead Revisited)

Merchant Ivory Productions has been one of the greatest threats to literature during the past three decades. Known for producing well photographed films that put most sane people to sleep, the Merchant Ivory team has demonstrated a remarkable knack for divesting zest from the literary classics. They have ordered esteemed actors across sweeping vistas as if they are unbudgeable bovine who require vast encouragement to produce milk. They have bored more often than seems reasonable. Where Orson Welles’s Shakespeare adaptations or Iain Softley’s The Wings of the Dove or Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon or Sally Potter’s Orlando or William Wyler’s The Heiress or Corman’s Poe pictures or The Royal Shakespeare Company’s nine hour version of Nicholas Nickleby bristle with life and visual excitement, demanding that you get your hands on the source material at once, the Merchant Ivory movies are the cinematic equivalent to visiting the in-laws or steeling yourself up for a dreadful Thanksgiving or attending a funeral for someone you didn’t really know that well.

I have been dragged to too many of these goddam films over the years, often by friends who had nobody else to go with or by women who I have dated, and I have been polite. Because being polite often results in perversity. But the one thing I didn’t do, thanks to Merchant Ivory’s vacation slideshow approach to literary adaptation, was read E.M. Forster. Until now.

* * *

It all began with a bundle of notes Forster scribbled during the winter of 1901. It was his first trip to Italy, and he was forming some ideas about a novel set in Florence. There was a list of characters, a fund-raising concert as part of the narrative (later dropped), and a young woman named Lucy, who changed surnames swifter than a serial matrimonialist. There were more character lists and more drafts and more notes. Then in December 1903, Forster began referencing something called “The New Lucy Novel,” reconstructed from the Italian bones of “Old Lucy” with a new English section to match. Forster then wrote Where Angels Fear to Tread and The Longest Journey, flitting between these projects and various incarnations of the Lucy novels, before completing A Room with a View. (If you can get your hands on the edition of Room edited by Oliver Stallybrass, I recommend it. Stallybrass is more thorough about these matters than a querulous tax auditor. But while he can be humorless and overreaching, his notes provide helpful connection points.)

Forster wanted to write a romantic novel because he was interested in subverting formula. Biographer Nicola Beauman has suggested that Forster’s own fears of marriage (he was a lifelong bachelor who maintained a long-term relationship with a married policeman) undermined his self-confidence as a novelist around the summer of 1906. Perhaps this internal tension accounts for the subtle manner in which Forster’s heroine, Lucy, responds to the men who woo her.

Lucy Honeychurch — a name, I am sorry to say, which implied some pornographic starlet in my dirty mind until I remembered that I was reading a book published more than a century before — is on vacation with her cousin Charlotte Bartlett, an older chaperone who is about as much fun to be around as Pat Boone. (There is a juicy moment late in the novel, where Lucy tells Charlotte to remove a certain word from her envelopes, which is especially satisfying.) The two women arrive at a lodging house called the Pension Bertolini. They are disappointed with the room, which does not have a view of the Arno. Employing the finest passive-aggressive moves that prewar chivalry is willing to put up with, the two women finagle rooms with views from a certain Mr. Emerson and his son George.

People on vacation sometimes have to deal with louts. But in the first decade of the twentieth century, you could be ostracized for your perceived class or for displaying any modest idiosyncrasy. Thus, we see the poor Emersons, despite their potential philosophical namesake (which Forster is good enough to note in the book) and their early grand gesture, shunned for being “peculiar.”

Forster has some fun with the travel culture of the time. Everybody comes to Italy clutching a bright red Baedeker travel guide. To stray from the course is nothing short of mortifying. One day, Lucy is on her own with by an aspiring novelist named Miss Lavish, who unwittingly abandons her and takes the Baedeker with her. Lucy runs into the Emersons and, without any Baedeker, the three enter Peruzzi Chapel, where Mr. Emerson earned my instant respect by shouting “No!” when told how to interpret the frescoes by a patronizing lecturer.

“Pull out from the depths those thoughts you do not understand,” says Mr. Emerson to Lucy not long after this, “and spread them out in the sunlight and know the meaning of them.” This is actually pretty good advice for people walking in concentrated metropolitan areas looking down at their smartphones. The technology may change, but conformity remains the same.

Needless to say, this casual iconoclasm has the other tourists searching for other reasons to sneer at the Emersons. George gets pegged as some working-class interloper because he says that he works on “the railway.” But this doesn’t stop him from romancing Lucy.

The first kiss Lucy receives from George comes after she falls into an open terrace in the woods, with Forster very keen to describe how “the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves.” Nature, it seems, is doomed to ensnare you into a smooch, especially if you wantonly wander on your own. But isn’t life an adventure? It’s propriety, that troubling need to maintain a certain impression or to participate in bunk etiquette, that kills the mood.

So how does a young woman like Lucy summon her passions? It comes through the freedom to play the piano, albeit badly:

She was no dazzling executante; her runs were not at all like strings of pearls, and she struck no more right notes than was suitable for one of her age and situation. Nor was she the passionate young lady, who performs so tragically on a summer’s evening with the window open. Passion was there, but it could not be easily labelled; it slipped between love and hatred and jealousy, and all the furniture of the pictorial style. And she was tragical only in the sense that she was great, for she loved to play on the side of Victory. Victory of what and over what — that is more than the words of daily life can tell us.

Yet when Forster moves the action back to England, the words of daily life tell us everything. Cecil Vyse, a young man whose surname rightfully connotes the personality of a clamp, is as far from legitimate life as one can get. How many women were forced into marrying Cecil Vyse types around 1908? And how many unhappy marriages were saved with Cecil Vyse types getting killed off during the Great War? Our first glimpse of Lucy in the second part could almost happen on a stage. The window curtains part, and we encounter a terrace differing from the one in Florence, one “transfigured by the view beyond,” with Lucy in a rustic seat that “seemed on the edge of a green magic carpet which hovered in the air above the tremulous world.” The reader’s view of Lucy changes, but her passion remains. Yet Cecil’s own view of Lucy is “only as a commonplace girl who happened to be musical,” with Italy working some unspecified marvel in her. Forster, ever skeptical, manages to get in a few digs at this problematic practice:

An engagement is so potent a thing that sooner or later it reduces all who speak of it to this state of cheerful awe. Away from it, in the solitude of their rooms, Mr Beebe, and even Freddy, might again be critical. But in its presence and in the presence of each other they were sincerely hilarious. It has a strange power, for it compels not only the lips, but the very heart. The chief parallel -to compare one great thing with another- is the power over us of a temple of some alien creed. Standing outside, we deride or oppose it, or at the most feel sentimental. Inside, though the saints and gods are not ours, we become true believers, in case any true believer should be present.

Cecil’s belief comes from material things, from playing tricks on people, and from standing against the sanctity of life. As one character suggests near the end of the book, “He’s the type who’s kept Europe back a thousand years.” The word “medieval” pops up quite a bit in Room. Cecil is described as medieval. Churches are “built by faith in the full fervour of medievalism.” It’s even the name of a chapter. Forster expressly states that “Lucy does not stand for the medieval lady, who was rather an ideal to which she was bidden to lift her eyes when feeling serious.” So how does religion, as reflected through the clergyman Mr. Beebe, fit into all this? It’s surprisingly compatible. There is a bathing scene in which the Emersons and Mr. Beebe frolic in the splendor of The Sacred Lake, a pool that forms “when a good deal of water comes down after heavy rains” (a Flood perhaps from which to build a new Ark?). They run so free and naked, tossing their clothes with mirthful abandon, that one is heartened to find a loophole for flopping chorizos within Forster’s proper world.

Room is a paean for youthful ardor no matter what one’s age, a plea for humanity to bask in Phaethon’s shining possibilities. One wonders if Forster could have finished the novel had he still been at work when the guns of August boomed. If the novel can sometimes be too light for its own good, it’s nowhere nearly as dead as the soporific cinematic adaptations which wilt in its shadow.

Next Up: Rudyard Kipling’s Kim!

evelynwaugh

Brideshead Revisited (Modern Library #80)

(This is the twenty-first entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Adventures of Augie March)

Soak up enough art over the years and you’ll run into the cultural dichotomy, either through half-cocked introspection or cocktail party gunpoint. It’s a practice where two artists of equal merit and/or influence are positioned at opposing ends in talk, much as an oily advertising tyrant pins blindfolds on fat suburban heads to establish the next tasteless drink to slam down lacquered American throats.

The participant is forced to decide between two heavyweights. The answers are revealed among pals and peers, with shocked susurrations floating through the room like a toxic Yanni album, and the participant is put in a strange mode of defense. It is wrongly assumed that a devotee of one artist cannot possibly appreciate the other, and there are many words expended which slur the subtleties of artistic appreciation. But the practice does pass the time. In my twenties, I spent a minimum of 250 hours arguing with a Liverpudlian friend on Friday nights over Lennon vs. McCartney while sitting at a stop sipping Guinness from paper cups, awaiting the N Judah’s slow crawl up the hill into San Francisco’s empyrean drinking holes. Books were passed back and forth. Albums were played over and over, often at deafening levels. In hindsight, it’s astonishing how much musical and biographical minutiae we were able to summon up during these near rabbinical talks. I fear that I may be approaching similar levels of conversational twist with my partner, who is quite vocal about her Hammett preference while I argue strenuously for Chandler as the superior.

But here’s a cultural dichotomy likely to get me into trouble. I prefer P.G. Wodehouse over Evelyn Waugh, and this partiality, when announced, has had certain snobs declare me as a yob before I get the chance to articulate my reasons. While Wodehouse’s comic situations and character types tend to repeat over his 96 volumes (with such prolificity, how could they not?), there are few equals to the charm of his syntax, his lovable myopia to modern developments, his snazzy formality, and his genial silliness. Only a reader with an ass tighter than a hummer having a hard time with a parallel park would resist the artistic romance of the short story “The Man Upstairs” or the giddy premise of a portrait used to hypnotize the masses into eating ham in Quick Service, to say nothing of Jeeves or Blandings Castle. But the Modern Library magistrates, presumably viewing the good Pellham Grenville to be too light for their lofty criteria, decided there was no room for Wodehouse on the list. They gave three slots to a savagely precise stylist who cratered not long after the war. Wodehouse, as everyone knows, had a longer and steadier run.

So it’s quite aggravating to be forced, due to my orthodox commitment to this Modern Library countdown framework, to write about Waugh on the later novels first. My love for the early stuff is bountiful enough to avoid bringing up Wodehouse altogether. Just to be clear, if Lady Metroland shows up in a Waugh novel, it’s probably a winner. Yet because Brideshead Revisited is very much about clinging to what remains of older values and expired dreams, and because it sees Waugh hiding behind Charles Ryder looking back, if not in anger then from passive despair, as an excuse to belabor these points, I couldn’t help but think of Wodehouse’s comparatively freer manner as I sludged through this often beautiful and often maddening novel. Brideshead Revisited is also considerably more depressing if you happen to read it, as I did, shortly before hitting a birthday milestone in which that vile veneer between youth and middle age is decidedly closer to the latter and you are shuffling into inevitable adulthood while trying to find legitimate methods to retain youthful wonder.

* * *

I am writing a very beautiful book, to bring tears, about very rich, beautiful, high born people who live in palaces and have no troubles except what they make themselves and those are mainly the demons sex and drink which after all are easy to bear as troubles go nowadays.

That’s Waugh in a letter to Lady Dorothy Lygon in March 23, 1944, midway through the writing of Brideshead and shortly after a parachute accident. It’s likely he’s taking the piss out of the enterprise, for Waugh was not one to suffer fools (although he once suggested to Nancy Mitford that suffering fools was one of God’s happy responsibilities). He was up against wartime censors, spending much of his time soused out of his mind. Yet he was vehemently opposed to any efforts at Catholic reform. Some of these developments probably account for why Waugh was such a miserable bastard in his final years, and why his wartime efforts exacerbated the need to produce a magnum opus to match his prodigious intake of champagne.

It is safe to say that I did not shed a single tear for any of the assholes in Brideshead Revisited, although I was not without empathy. My salubrious contempt for people who bitch and moan when they have it all has been memorialized in several places, and I’m not likely to shake this quality anytime soon. It didn’t exactly enhance my reading experience when Charles Ryder, Waugh’s protagonist, was revealed to have the very exemplar of a free ride existence. Here is a Oxonian who lives beyond his means at school. Despite having a hearty coterie, a cushy spread, and a special friend named Sebastian Flyte (“we lit fat, Turkish cigarettes and lay on our backs”), Charles feels “at heart that this was not all that Oxford had to offer.” He complains about his neighbors, treats his servant Lunt with some disgrace, and ingratiates himself with Sebastian’s family, the Marchmains, who are “rich in the way people who are who just let their money sit quiet.” First World problems all the way.

When Charles stays with his father during the long vacation, Waugh does give us a number of masterfully executed comic moments. Charles’s father cannot comprehend that his son is short of funds, yet makes many cost-prohibitive suggestions on how a young man should live. He also has funny ideas of who “young people” are. There is the gloriously preposterous three-course dinner of humdrum quality, consumed “purely out of respect for your Aunt Philippa.” Charles’s father also manages to chase away Jorkins, one of Charles’s old acquaintances, by pretending he is American and extending this fantasy into a foolish belief that the young man will spend more time living at the family home.

Such idiosyncrasies can’t last forever. Charles receives a telegram from Sebastian that could almost serve as a six word memoir of their relationship (“GRAVELY INJURED COME AT ONCE, SEBASTIAN”), which sends Charles up to the famed Marchmain estate. The grave injury is reveled to be merely a cracked ankle bone. But the pretext leads Charles to “[believe] myself very near heaven, during those languid days at Brideshead.”

Sebastian encourages Charles to draw a fountain, a pivotal experience that lays down the flagstones for Charles’s career as an architectural painter. (He later finds uncommon success during a financial slump, publishing folios such as Ryder’s Country Seats, Ryder’s English Homes, and Ryder’s Village. But, of course, it’s the war that pushes him into glum vocational duty.) There is wine tasting, appreciation of Sebastian’s foibles (which include Catholicism and his teddy bear Aloysius), rooftop sunbathing, a trip to Italy on the Marchmain dime, and romance beneath the seams.

Not long after Italy, Sebastian is revealed as an alcoholic who requires constant attention, someone so out of control that he must be watched at all times and denied money that will surely keen its way onto a bar tab. It’s disheartening and telling that Sebastian’s dipsomania is portrayed by Charles as his most memorable quality. We are never fully informed of the dashing aspects which inspired their relationship because Charles can only reveal the true extent of his feelings through omission (and this isn’t limited to Sebastian: late in the book, when Charles has married, he is remiss to name his wife for an uncomfortably long stretch of pages). For all of Charles’s talk about memory, what is he leaving out? Has he actually learned anything?

“Inappropriate” relationships turn reductio ad absurdum when Julia, Sebastian’s sister, is engaged to marry an aspiring politico named Rex Mottram in high Catholic style. By this point, Sebastian has fled the family, besotted and quite in denial about his true feelings. Charles becomes smitten with Julia because she resembles her brother. But Rex puts the kibosh on the Catholic wedding when he reveals a secret first wife. So much for the covenant of lifelong matrimony. But Waugh doesn’t stop there. There’s a richly ironic moment when Brideshead, who is Sebastian’s older brother and has an Asperger’s-like affinity for matchboxes, finds an unlikely match and Catholic maxims are bended further.

* * *

The Catholic hold on how people should live reflects Charles’s own efforts to reckon with his present existence, which he forever compares against the past. Charles’s time with his father and the the deception Charles reveals later on a cruise ship (accompanied by some gleeful skewering of modern convenience by Waugh, including an ice swan filled with caviar and passengers who are so pampered into lax inattention that adulterous shenanigans become effortless) also illustrate the divide between old virtues and contemporary developments. But sometimes Charles’s belief in the past can be more insufferable than Jay Gatsby:

These memories, which are my life — for we possess nothing certainly except the past — were always with me….These memories are the memorials and pledges of the vital hours of a lifetime. These hours of afflutus in the human spirit, the springs of art, are, in their mystery, akin to the epochs of history, when a race which for centuries has lived content, unknown, behind its own frontiers, digging, eating, sleeping, begetting, doing what was requisite for survival and nothing else, will, for a generation or two, stupefy the world; commit all manner of crimes, perhaps; follow the wildest chimeras, go down in the end in agony, but leave behind a record of new heights scaled and new rewards won for all mankind; the vision fades, the soul sickens, and the routine of survival starts again.

To which I can only reply: lighten the fuck up. I’m as skeptical and as angry about news and developments as the next guy, but if you can’t find a happy belief in everyday magic and if you can’t reckon with relationships you should have pursued before the age of thirty-nine, maybe the problem is you. Would Charles have been happier if he had embraced candor and accepted the inevitability of change? Why does he have to be old and miserable?

Anthony Blanche, the Alfred Jingle knockoff who may be the most belabored character in all of Waugh’s fiction, is an uncloseted, flamboyant homosexual who serves as counterpoint to the secret and unspecified relationship between Charles and Sebastian. Waugh gives Blanche long speeches and “an unforgettable self-taught stammer” and has this annoying habit of being overly explicit about Blanche’s otherness:

At the age of fifteen, for a wager, he was disguised as a girl and taken to play at the big table in the Jockey Club at Buenos Aries…he had practice black art in Cefaluu; he had been cured of drug-taking in California and of an Oediups complex in Vienna.

and

He swept lightly across the room to the most prominent canvas — a jungle landscape — paused a moment, his head cocked like a knowing terrier…

Wodehouse never had to sell his readership on eccentricity this hard. On the other hand, perhaps Charles is describing Blanche this way because he is needlessly “proper.” Still, if Blanche can strong-arm his way into affluent and artistic circles, surely he’s more than just a freak. Maybe the truly depraved people are the ones who cling to normalcy like a spoiled boy holding his Gyro-Bot tight.

* * *

A mere eighteen months ago, I promised that I would respond to Lydia Kiesling’s notion of Evelyn Waugh as a “bi-curious hipster boyfriend.” So let’s get this out of the way. As of August 2012, Michael Cera’s career is in modest free fall: a benison for those of us who have long tired of his squeaky-voiced faux emo act. As of August 2012, there are still a few hipsters, although they are no longer taken seriously (not even by n+1). The smarter ones have moved to Portland or joined an Occupy movement or now write for The New Inquiry. But a sizable majority have transformed into obnoxious early thirtysomething layabouts who have no desire to grow up or grapple with serious issues, much less read an author who is challenging and/or not Caucasian. In their defense, some of them have been slammed hard by the 2008 recession and face chronic unemployment. But that’s still no excuse for slacking in the worst sense of the word.

Was Waugh a bi-curious hipster boyfriend? Not quite. He was a recovering hipster. Like any figure saddled by the deep need to abide by inflexible norms incompatible with the whims of life, he was torn and hungry and more than a little sad. But when it came to expressing his inner turmoil, he was willing to go to the mat and, like all great artists, give us plenty to talk about.

Next Up: E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View!

saulbellow

The Adventures of Augie March (Modern Library #81)

(This is the twentieth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Angle of Repose)

In 1995, Martin Amis insisted that Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March was America’s very reflection: a literary lodestone attracting all known bits of iron and reducing all subsequent ambition to blast furnace rejects. Six years later, Christopher Hitchens was more liberal about the dilemma: “I do not set myself up as a member of the jury in the Great American Novel contest, if only because I’d prefer to see the white whale evade capture for a while longer.”*

Augie March is indeed a fearsome masterpiece, but I’m inclined to side with Hitchens on the legacy question, for I would like to believe that some as yet unwritten book will change the game in ways now unknown. For now, we have Augie, which definitely stands as one of the 20th century’s heavyweights. I can state with certitude that this book will humble you, perhaps even wreck you for a time. Because nothing you read or write will feel this perfect.

I was so in awe of this novel that I was forced to read the two apprentice novels that came before (Dangling Man and The Victim), as well as Bellow’s recently published volume of letters. I needed to know that Bellow could fail like the rest of us. I needed this great human chronicler to be made more human. Dangling Man, in particular, proved to be an unexpectedly funny chronicle of a shut-in, with such declarations as “Hemmed in all day, inactive, I lie down at night in enervation and, as a result, I sleep badly.” And I was somewhat surprised to see Bellow take this book quite seriously. “I’m speaking of wretchedness and saying that no man by his own effort finds his way out of it,” Bellow wrote to David Bazelon in 1944.

* * *

But most literary people are self-important in their twenties. I swallowed Bellow’s middle period novels (Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift) during those years, but I never got around to reading the 600-page redwood that made Bellow a giant. I recall a few older strangers giving me approving nods on buses and subways. At the time, Bellow was still alive, but he was one of those writers you weren’t supposed to talk about. I had no idea why. It may have had something to do with Bellow siring his fourth child at the age of 84. I read his books anyway.

When I discovered that Dave Eggers was a huge Bellow fan (Eggers called Bellow “the person who I idolized more than anybody else” in an interview) and when I saw how The Adventures of Augie March had made Eggers’s fiction writing even more insufferable (You Shall Know Our Velocity anyone?), I became gravely horrified that Augie would have the same disastrous effect on me. (Again, I was in my twenties.) I did not want to become some smug asshole swimming in a twee cesspool. So I avoided reading Augie March in the same way that I avoided born again Christians, mass murderers, and rude moviegoers who bring loud plastic bags to crinkle.

This was a severe mistake.

* * *

No book can tell you how to live, but a great novel can kick your ass in the right direction. And I memorialize my youthful follies as minor regrets and as a plea to anyone under thirty to not make the same mistake. Read this novel at once!

The American temperament once prided itself upon initiative, innovation, and a sense of duty to anyone needing help. Augie March epitomizes all three ideals, but it is thankfully not without corruption or philandering or the need to hustle. After all, this book is set partly during the Great Depression. The gripping chapter where Augie takes his neighbor Mimi Villars in for an abortion is not only exceptionally daring for a book published in 1953, but, when Augie faces reprisals for his help, it reveals the peculiarly punitive American attitude steeped in moral judgment combined with partial knowledge of the facts.

Augie’s picaresque existence of finding odd jobs and falling in with odd characters and fretting over friends and losing lovers represents the kind of well-filled life serving in sharp contrast to today’s hipsters and go nowhere types. I am no longer in my twenties, but reading Augie did find me wondering how much time I was wasting and whether my energies needed to be focused more on the joy and love which drips in droves throughout this bawdy book.

* * *

Augie March is extremely well-observed, whether capturing a salon’s “oriental rugs that swallow sounds in their nap” or describing the way that Augie returns to Chicago to see a “gray snarled city with the hard black straps of rails” after his adventures in Mexico. It is wise, adventurous, heartbreaking, rueful, exciting, inspiring, but never mawkish. It is populated by indelible side characters such as the patriarch Einhorn, an ever-resourceful operator with a “fatty, beaky, noble Bourbon face” who serves as Augie’s father figure, the querulous Grandma Lausch who tends to the March home when Augie’s mother cannot, and Mintouchian, the avuncular Armenian who doles out some rules for living. Even Trotsky makes a cameo.

And then there’s Bellow’s nimble linguistic dexterity, in which his gift for description merges seamlessly with Augie’s expansive wisdom:

But maybe that spicy, sumptuous fish-gravy odor that belonged to the past made me too much of a critic of the present moment, exaggerating Mama’s difficulties and imagining that the Gulistan and the drapes were the softenings of a cage.

This passage comes late in the book, when Augie is wondering if he has been altogether decent to his debilitated Mama and to his developmentally disabled brother Georgie, locked away and betrayed by Augie’s older brother Simon, who spends most of the book with a missing tooth. It’s especially wistful that this is the ultimate cost of Augie’s raucous adventures: that the broken family should be so physically broken and that dear relatives should be schlepped away to institutions.

Since Augie may be fated to start a family of his own, his Adventures could be read as a Rosseau-like confessional. Rosseau hoped to make his way into heaven by telling all. For Augie, perhaps family and love may be the empyrean reward. When Augie says in the final paragraph that he’s “a sort of Columbus of those near-in-hand,” we realize his terra incognita may not necessarily be of the “American, Chicago-born” category, but more concerned with stretching the soul. And if his soul has already stretched across decades, why wouldn’t it stretch further?

* — It may be worth noting that Amis, who befriended Bellow, took Hitchens to meet the great genius. But the two distinctive writers got a bit contentious. From Bellow’s August 29, 1989 letter to Cynthia Ozick:

During dinner he mentioned that he was a great friend of Edward Said. Leon Wieseltier and Noam Chomsky were also great buddies of his. At the mention of Said’s name, Janis grumbled. I doubt that this was unexpected, for Hitchens almost certainly thinks of me as a terrible reactionary — the Jewish Right. Brought up to respect and to reject politeness at the same time, the guest wrestled briefly and silently with the louche journalist and finally [the latter] spoke up. He said that Said was a great friend and that he must apologize for differing with Janis but loyalty to a friend demanded that he set the record straight. Everybody remained polite. For Amis’ sake I didn’t want a scene. Fortunately (or not) I had within reach several excerpts from Said’s Critical Inquiry piece, which I offered in evidence. Jews were (more or less) Nazis. But of course, said Hitchens, it was well known that [Yitzhak] Shamir had approached Hitler during the war to make deals. I objected that Shamir was Shamir, he wasn’t the Jews. Besides I didn’t trust the evidence. The argument seesawed. Amis took the Said selections to read for himself. He could find nothing to say at the moment but next morning he tried to bring the matter up, and to avoid further embarrassment I said it had all been much ado about nothing.

Hitchens appeals to Amis. This is a temptation I understand. But the sort of people you like to write about aren’t always fit company, especially at the dinner table.

Next Up: Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited!

jurgenfaith

Behind the Book: Jürgen Fauth, Tom Perrotta, and Mark Leyner

There were about thirty-five people packed within the dark vermilion confines of an East Village pastime on a Thursday night. They were there for Behind the Book, an outfit dedicated to the noble practice of turning young people into readers. And while I could spot a good share who were there for the opening act, there were some swinging back hard drinks to believe a little harder in a literary clime that no longer existed. But the crowd was solemn, quiet. They cleaved to the blue glow of smartphones between acts. Because that is what introverts do when you put them in a bar.

“Good evening. Is this on?”

This uncertainty set an apropos tone for a literary evening. Jürgen Fauth, sporting beard and blue shirt and a beer bottle he clutched in his left hand, was the first at the KGB Bar. He had come in from Germany with the residue of jet lag, but he was excited to be there. He was the only reader among the three to mention his fellow readers. The big man that Fauth name-checked in his oral chronicle of cross-country driving was Mark Leyner, the third man to read that night, spending much of the night sitting without a smile not far from the low-key lectern but facing the crowd. In younger days, Fauth was careful to pack Gravity’s Rainbow, Brautigan, and a copy of On the Road when he hit the road. He confessed to pilfering the Gideon Bible from every motel he happened to stay in.

Fauth stood before the crowd to read from Kino, his latest novel. He was straight to the point in his comic take on inflation in 1924 Germany. And when the passage shifted to a mode of celebration, Fauth stopped, saying, “Oh wait, let’s drop this,” heading back to his monetary tale of woe.

Fauth’s excerpt snaked its way toward the great Expressionist film director, Fritz Lang, who Fauth’s protagonist called a “miserable son of a bitch” and “an insufferable asshole.” Did Lang really assign numbers to gestures for his actors? I don’t know, but the notion was a darkly comic one, leading quite naturally to a point in Fauth’s story where cocaine fueled a coterie of twenty-five actors who were operating an absurd monster.

If this was the stuff that Kino was about, then perhaps it was worth a read. As all this was happening, there was screaming of some not easily identifiable form downstairs. And a literary enthusiast closed the door. Perhaps this unknown soul was in need of the very faith Fauth was dramatizing. It wouldn’t be the last sound of the evening.

“Can we turn down the mike please?”

There was introductory talk of someone having the pleasure of working with Francine Prose in the Bronx, and for some reason I thought of the affluent socialites in My Man Godfrey scavenging William Powell. This isn’t a snipe at the nobles, much less Behind the Book. If it takes a figure as uptight as Francine Prose to get kids believing that having imaginary friends isn’t necessarily a crazy idea, then I’m all for throwing the persnickety into the creative conflagration.

Tom Perrotta wasn’t uptight, but he wasn’t as lively as I had hoped. The gathered crowd looked up at Perrotta like he was an avuncular man at a campfire, the glow of the light lending authority. But his approach, which involved reading five to seven words at a time with a pause of import, quickly wore thin. I have seen this tic used at too many readings. The problem may have been Perrotta’s novel, The Leftovers. Apocalyptic stories require oomph. Brian Francis Slattery understands this, which is why he often reads his work with a band.

Perrotta had no band. A blue-shirted bartender paced up and down as he read, shaking his head from side to side and pining for the next break, the next influx of singles. And who can blame him? Perrotta droned on. The bartender shifted some stray ice cubes back inside the curved perimeter of a metallic bin. Perrotta read. And read. But then he read something that might have accounted for his approach:

The more conspicuous you were, the easier it was for people to take you at face value — they just wrote you off as a couple of harmless dirtbags and left it at that.

I wouldn’t call Perrotta a harmless dirtbag. I would call him a harmless reader. Maybe he was having a bad day. Who knows? In his defense, his tale got a little better when he mentioned bullseyes appended to his characters’s foreheads. And this lifted my spirits, and it got the crowd going a bit. But his reading didn’t need to be this long.

Now that I’ve seen Mark Leyner read, I think I’ve finally figured him out. He’s the Gallagher of literature. For him, language is a mere prop rather than the stuff of being alive. He believes that offering the acronym BFV and presenting its components (“Best fisting video”) is enough for a joke to take. He believes perfunctory mentions are funny, but he isn’t willing to confront. (Case in point: From The Sugar Frosted Nutsack: “But you can’t find good shawarma in this fuckin’ town now that it’s full of Jews and Freemasons…I’m serious!”)

Here is what I can tell you about Mark Leyner from watching him on Thursday night: He reads in a young voice spoiled old that is somewhere between Jerry Seinfeld circa 1987 and a used car salesman. He has this minor uptalk. He is a 56-year-old man who really wishes he were 26, and he writes prose with the depth and maturity of a 26-year-old writer, and he even dresses this way: black tee to show off his long hours at a gym. For a reading? You’re 56. A far cry from the slick suit he once donned on Charlie Rose way back when. Leyner was fond of offering sad flourishes with his right hand that resembled a fading rapper trying to punctuate the latest lingo. But it’s more than this. Because Leyner, pushing 60, actually read the following passage before a crowd:

XOXO finds it amusing to shit on the integrity of the epic, to leave it in a state of suspended animation, a state of complete unfulfillment and nongratification, a form of eternal Tie and Tease. He wants to leave The Sugar Frosted Nutsack 2: Creme de la Sack with an epic case of blue balls. It’s XOXO‘s ultimate mind-fuck.

This is among the shoddy material that Lev Grossman recently identified as “a powerful concentrate of Ulysses.” Right. And Grossman is our contemporary answer to Saul Bellow.

What Grossman and Leyner’s boosters cannot comprehend is that Leyner has not grown at all in the past few decades. Amazingly, David Foster Wallace’s criticism (PDF) still remains applicable:

The book does this by (1) flattering the reader with appeals to his erudite postmodern weltschmerz, and (2) relentlessly reminding the reader that the author is smart and funny.

It was largely men who laughed. Some women did too. But I observed four women walk out during Leyner’s reading. And it wasn’t just to use the bathroom. They bolted. I suspect another woman might have walked out if a kindly gentleman had not encouraged her to stay by buying her a drink. Good guy. But Wallace’s second point, in particular, was there in Leyner’s delivery on Thursday night. When the audience’s attention flagged during the third part, he even resorted to growling a few choice words.

But the man’s biggest laugh came from a Billy Joel joke.

A true comic writer — a Sam Lipsyte, a Paul Murray, a Gary Shteyngart, a Sara Benincasa — would secure the grandest chuckle without using pop culture as a crutch. A true writer would share some tangible experience of what it is to be human or would have a bit of fun, as Fauth and even Perrotta did. But for the author of the bestselling Why Do Men Have Nipples?, the nutsack was adequate enough.

wallacestegner

Angle of Repose (Modern Library #82)

(This is the nineteenth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: A Bend in the River)

For more than a decade, I have nursed a grandiose grudge towards Wallace Stegner that has less to do with the eco-friendly West Coast bigshot’s literary streetcred and more to do with my own irrepressible ineptitude concerning matters of the boudoir.

You see, in my early twenties, long before social networks made it astonishingly effortless to locate a no strings attached entanglement with a few clicks and a seductive missive, I had devised the foolhardy stratagem of attending numerous book clubs, hypothesizing that some law of averages would present me with a reliable method of meeting women. Because I could read thick books fairly quick, discussing the plots and style and themes with some modest wit and intelligence, I developed the odd notion that my quasi-bravura take, seamlessly enmeshed with the views of my peers, would somehow impress the comely damsels within my reach.

The older and more experienced women saw through my ruse, but they tolerated me as some lingering specimen of youthful bravado that reminded them why they were comfortably adult. I remember one happily married woman who was nice enough to give me occasional lifts back from Berkeley and who gently suggested that I lighten the fuck up.

At one point, I was in six book clubs just to keep my options open. While I did wake up in a few literary beds through blind clueless luck and some apparent appeal which I still remain largely in the dark about, it is safe to say that my efforts were mostly unsuccessful, though not as barren as they had been previously.

Now, for reasons probably having to do with Stanford’s proximity, Wallace Stegner was then very popular in the San Francisco Bay Area. And there was one book club I attended in the Outer Sunset where the title being discussed was The Spectator Bird. No problem. I had read it and discussed it before in another book club. On this second effort, there was a chestnut-haired twentysomething who I really liked and wanted to get to know better. The discussion went well and a number of the book club members riffed off what I had to say. Then I made some observation about Joe Allston’s feelings for the Countess being a bit overblown. Because every man had thoughts about other women. Was this really so adulterous?

But I apparently phrased these innocuous thoughts in a way that proved so tasteless that I was asked not to return to the book club.

I later learned that the woman I was trying to ask out for coffee was a family values type saving herself for marriage. There had clearly been no chance.

I took my folly out on Stegner, blaming him for my misfortunes and vowing never to read the man again.

* * *

It was the glint of cash that turned Stegner to fiction writing. During the Great Depression, he had just written his dissertation on the overlooked nineteenth-century naturalist Clarence Edward Dutton. He had come to Utah to teach and was making only $1,800 a year. His wife, Mary, was pregnant. And he saw an advertisement for a novelette contest from Little Brown. Like many of the misleading get rich quick schemes bulging from any issue of Writers Digest, Little Brown promised a $2,500 prize. But Stegner was a stubborn man of will. He sat down and wrote the presciently titled Remembering Laughter, which won the prize and was published in 1937.

There was more teaching and a series of insubstantial novels, until Stegner turned to his own life for material in his 1943 novel, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, and found some success. Still, it was nonfiction’s hard objectivity which guided Stegner during these years like a maritime man following Oléron. While he turned out a steady stream of dependable short stories, he was a late bloomer when it came to the novel’s fatter form. It took the introduction of Joe Allston in 1967′s All the Little Live Things for Stegner to perfect his character model of an older man who enjoyed bitching about the flower children living it up just outside the edge of his damn lawn. Allston was Stegner’s first use of the first person, and the character would pop up again in The Spectator Bird, spawning untold frustration for at least one young punkass a few decades later.

Between Little Live Things and The Spectator Bird, Stegner wrote what is arguably his masterpiece. Lyman Ward, a historian whose legs are amputated, serves this time as Stegner’s first-person coot, and has much to say about the spirit of free thought and free love going down just outside his home (and in a nice twist, Stegner has “the sounds carry up the bare stairs,” suggesting that any vocal intercession from youthful ruffians, which include his son Rodman, are inescapable):

What kind of a loony bin have they got down there in Berkeley, anyway? What kind of a fellow is it that will let his wife support him for two years, living around in those pigpen places, everybody scrambled in together?

Stegner derided “the antihistorical pose of the young,” yet it’s worth pointing out that he did participate in the Vietnam War marches. But when the protests turned violent, he stopped, steeping his crankiness in old school values. History served as the apparent distinction between Stegner and these young muckrakers, and it also served to make Lyman Ward far more than a cantankerous chronicler.

Angle‘s other great inspiration came from the history books. Stegner discovered Mary Hallock Foote while combing through magazines and journals for a chapter he was commissioned to write for the Literary History of the United States. He researched her, uncovered her sketches and writings, republished one of her stories in an anthology, and began teaching her at Stanford. Foote was obscure enough at the time for Stegner to be pretty much the only guy singing her praises. And as it so happened, Foote’s granddaughter happened to be living in Grass Valley.

With the help of Stegner’s student, George McMurray, there were efforts to get Foote’s papers into the Stanford library. The Foote famiily gave them to Stegner, with the apparent pledge that Stegner would publish these and provide typed transcriptions. Ten years passed. There was no traction. Then sometime during the mid-1960s, Stegner decided to take these letters cross-country to his summer home.

He had his mind on a contemporary novel. But the letters nagged at him. So Foote transformed into Susan Burling Ward, who became Lyman Ward’s grandmother. Both the real woman and Stegner’s creation were illustrators and short story writers, with their creative labor in constant demand from the editors of the day. But they were similar in other uncanny ways.

For Stegner had befriended Janet Micoleau, Foote’s granddaughter. Micoleau wanted to see her forgotten grandmother revived and apparently gave Stegner permission to use the papers in any way he desired. Micoeau’s sister, Evelyn Foote Gardiner, was stunned when the letters appeared nearly verbatim in Angle of Repose. Roughly a tenth of the novel includes these letters, opening up a debate over whether or not Stegner was a plagiarist.

Stegner’s indiscretions certainly aren’t on the level of Q.R. Markham. Still, when one learns that Rodman Paul was going to publish a collection of Foote’s letters, Stegner’s response — a letter to Micoleau — does leave the moralist shaking head over Stegner’s swagger:

The question arises, must I now unravel all those little threads I have so painstakingly raveled together — the real with the fiction — and replace all truth with fiction?

If the great novelist here is so great, then why couldn’t Stegner get the reader to believe in the story without using history as a crutch? Does a novel predicated on deceit deserve a Pulitzer Prize and inclusion in the Modern Library canon? Or are all novelists inherently deceitful?

* * *

When I learned about the Foote controversy after reading Angle of Repose, I was surprised to find myself defending Stegner. I might have grabbed the pitchfork if Stegner had plucked the text from one of his contemporaries and attempted to pass it off as his own, but surely some statute of limitations kicks in after a hundred years. Would Foote have received as much attention if Stegner hadn’t written this novel? Since books have a tendency to fall so rapidly out of print, isn’t one method to ensure their long-term survival this type of revitalization?

What’s especially interesting to me is that while Stegner sees no problem being promiscuous with text, his historian hero is intriguingly prudish when it comes to being blunt about what went down with his ancestors:

It happens that I despise that locution “having sex,” which describes something a good deal more mechanical than making love and a good deal less fun than fucking. Also I don’t think anybody’s sex life, Grandmother’s included, very funny, unless you mean funny-peculiar, and Shelly didn’t mean that. She meant funny ha-ha, funny-hypocritical, funny-absurd. I had imagined that Leadville love scene, exceeding my license as a historian, because I felt just then she was fighting against her ingrown gentility and snobbery, ashamed of herself for having been ashamed of her husband, and making contrite and affectionate amends. I had meant that scene to be tender. I meant it to clear away, at least for the time, all the cobwebs. I wanted it to shine the windows and polish the tarnished feelings like a good spring house-cleaning. Which I have known a good love scene to do.

Why on earth did I let some irrational association prevent me from reading Stegner? It’s abundantly clear that he (or rather Lyman) had greater sexual issues to work out on the page.

I forgot to mention Oliver Ward (based on Foote’s husband, Arthur De Wint Foote), who is surely one of the more fascinating entrepreneurial failures in American fiction. Oliver is a man of principle (“I’m an engineer, not a capitalist.”), and this gets in the way of a lucrative scheme to make hydraulic cement that he refuses to act upon. His perpetual failure to mind the store causes him to lose a vital claim that he’s worked much of his life for. And it also makes him embarrassingly passive when he cannot stand up for himself when his hotel reservation is taken away from him and his wife on the way to Leadville, and he is reduced to repeatedly stammering “I’m sorry” when they are forced to hole up in a boardinghouse.

What’s astonishing is how Susan sticks with this man despite his repeat failures — especially when another man, Frank Sargent, Oliver’s most trusted friend, wastes most of his life to be close to her. Do her constant letters to her dear friend Augusta keep her together? Or is there something else that she (or Lyman) is not telling us? She’s hopeful in Santa Cruz (“But Oliver, if thee can make it work, I’d be willing to stay here ten years.”), says “I want this trip to go on being perfect” in Mexico, and is dedicated to her work and family throughout. But when Oliver takes to drink, she asks “Are you even sorry? Are you even ashamed?” and it takes him a good long while to respond. And in light of the terrible fate that Pricey, an Emerson-quoting Englishman who is close with the Wards, suffers, one can’t help but wonder whether Oliver is merely the same man from another angle.

In a time when many married men who have dropped out of the job market or settled for lower stations because the Great Recession has left no place for them, Stegner’s depiction of thwarted masculinity is strangely contemporary.

On the other hand, we have to keep reminding ourselves that this is Lyman Ward’s view of history, not necessarily the full truth of this marriage. If Lyman is so sure that he knows what a good love scene can do, then why is he so opaque about what may have happened between Susan and Frank? If Lyman Ward has any shot of being a bigger man than his grandfather, then why can’t he man up and confront his own failed marriage? That pivotal vantage point within Stegner’s title can apply to just about everything. And if any deep soul is doomed to fight gravity, does this not, in some sense, justify Stegner’s use of the Foote letters? Would not another author or another character have created an entirely different yet equally complex heap of willful obfuscation? Is Angle of Repose the truest expression of Stegner’s character? And if so, should we cut him some slack?

I can ask these questions with confidence. Because I know that the book club story I offered at the beginning is hiding quite a bit that I’m not going to tell you. I have purposefully kept some details nubilous because the mythology, imperfect and imprecise as it is, is mine. If we tell each other stories to live, then do we not also live to tell stories?

Next Up: Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March!

naipulblah

A Bend in the River (Modern Library #83)

(This is the eighteenth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Death of the Heart)

There are so many unpardonable cruelties collected in Patrick French’s gripping (and authorized!) biography, The World Is What It Is, that it’s difficult to know where to start in condemning V.S. Naipaul’s boorish behavior, while also praising his prowess on the page. And yet I can’t quite do that either. I’ve read A Bend in the River twice, and I have to conclude that the book’s pat pronouncements about colonialism, even with the adept take on self-deception and willful naïveté, aren’t especially staggering. By the time the shopkeeper Salim shows his colleague Indar around the African town where he lives and reveals how little he knows (“All the key points of the town I knew could be shown in a couple of hours, as I discovered when I drove him around later that morning”), it was abundantly clear to me that he would never know.

Perhaps the mid-career rise of Naipaul’s rep was all in the timing. French suggests that “[a] rising disillusion with the post-colonial project in many countries lead to Vidia being projected as the voice of truth, the scourge who by virtue of his ethnicity and his intellect could see things that others were seeking to disguise.” But Naipaul does deserve props for depicting how a revolutionary leader (referred to as “the Big Man”), even after the aloof establishment of a McDonald’s-like Bigburger restaurant and a dubious university, steers an unnamed African nation to the same scorched earth which existed before. And this, along with a sad and desperate historian named Raymond and the many ruined monuments seen from previous regimes, makes Bend a rock-hard reading experience for the strident geopolitical junkie. (When I first read Bend, I had this image of Wolf Blitzer shouting aloud passages on CNN, demanding reader responses from Romney and Santorum. I did my best to shake off this terrifying vision of the dreaded bearded bloviator. But my imagination revolted. Because not long after this, I had a weird dream where Blitzer kidnapped me and ordered me to burn all books aside from Naipaul. Blitzer then set himself on fire and began laughing like a psychotic, refusing to let me extinguish the conflagration. And I woke up. This may explain, in part, why it’s taken me many weeks to get to this essay.)

The Andrew Seal types will tell you that the novel’s appeal involves how Naipaul has demonstrated how order is not necessarily in opposition to complexity. And the academic Fawzia Mustafa has rightly suggested that Bend is very much about how one’s relationship to Africa is determined through a misread. (Miscerique probat populus et feodera jungi, a commemorative plague at the dock, is deliberately misread throughout the book.)

But this still doesn’t make up for Naipaul short-changing the African people, who are little more than crude caricatures serving this allegorical exercise. There are marchandes like Zabeth, who pick up supplies from Salim’s store and have “a special smell” that is “strong and unpleasant.” There is the houseboy Ildephonse, who becomes an ad hoc restaurant manager who turns “vacant” when his bosses leave. This leads Salim to conclude:

I noticed this alteration in the African staff in other places as well. It made you feel that while they did their jobs in their various glossy settings, they were only acting for the people who employed them; that the job itself was meaningless to them; and that they had the gift — when they were left alone, and had no one to act for — of separating themselves in spirit from their setting, their job, their uniform.

Granted, the matryoshka-like idea here is that Salim, the Indian émigré who has set up shop and plays squash at the Hellenic Club and is often clueless about how much he is reviled by apparent pals and locals, is the imperialist mirror image to what he sees. The Africans — especially the family servant Metty (nicknamed this because of his interracial background) — develop sentiments that Salim refuses to see. Even outright revolution is beyond his scope. There’s one stirring moment in which Salim visits a school with Indar and is challenged by a student: “Would the honourable visitor state whether he feels that Africans have been depersonalized by Christianity?” Yet Salim refuses to ken these kernels of discontent, later remarking, “I thought how far we had both come, to talk about Africa like this.”

So Naipaul’s novel made for a frustrating experience. On one hand, he wants to expose Salim’s inherent hypocrisy and nastiness. But I have good reason to believe that Naipaul himself embraces it, which is probably why this ugliness smoulders off the page. So while I can admire Naipual’s hard-hitting imagery (“smooth white lips of bread over mangled black tongues of meat”) and his knack for myopic maxims (“We make ourselves according to the ideas of our possibilities” and “The airplane is faster than the heart”), I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’ve been eagerly anticipating a reading life without Naipaul. (Not quite. Like a Romero zombie, A House for Mr. Biswas is on the Modern Library list at #72.)

A Bend in the River isn’t a bad book. It isn’t as overrated or as desperate to please as Midnight’s Children.* But I don’t think I would call it a classic. While one should take care to separate the author from his work, I have learned that Naipaul has largely drawn from his life. (Indeed, if you read French’s book, it can be handily argued that “V.S. Naipaul” is Naipaul’s favorite subject.) I’ve really wanted to understand why so many people would refuse to question such a flagrant sociopath. Naipaul is a good writer, but he’s certainly not great if we stack the smug scamp against Conrad, Doris Lessing, Chinua Achebe, or Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. All could easily clean Naipaul’s clock.

How has Naipaul mined from his life? One monstrous moment bubbles to the brim. Here’s Naipaul writing his mother in 1956, remarking upon a fellow boat passenger:

Poor thing, she was so frightened at the thought of travelling alone for the first time out of Trinidad at the age of thirty-five. She palled up with me and begged me in case of any alarm or trouble to come and look after her. The red nigger woman is really delightfully simple. You know, in ships, the chairs and tables are all chained to the floor to prevent them from rolling about the place when the sea gets rough. I told the woman that the tables and chairs were chained to prevent people stealing them. And, she believed it. ‘Eh, eh,’ she said, “But look at that, eh.” And again: passengers in different parts of the ship are assigned to different lifeboats (there are 6 on the Golfito). I told her that she had to find out which lifeboat was hers because, in case of any trouble, they were not going to let her get into any old lifeboat. In fact, if they found her in the wrong boat they were going to throw her into the sea. It was, I told her, the origins of the phrase ‘to be in the wrong boat.’

It is already mind-boggling enough to consider anyone who would practice such unmitigated spite towards a woman who was harming nobody. It is another thing altogether to boast about such baleful behavior to your own mother. Naipaul is clearly a man whose central pleasure involves terrorizing any figures “who are nothing” or “who allow themselves to become nothing,” to invoke, as French has with his biography title, A Bend in the River‘s famous opening.

As we read Bend, we learn that the writer and his antihero aren’t terribly different. Here’s Salim responding to poor Ferdinand, when the latter expresses a desire to find a better life studying in America:

I said, “Why should I send you to America? Why should I spend money on you?”

He had nothing to say. After the desperation and the trip through the rain, the whole thing might just have been another attempt at conversation.

Was it only his simplicity? I felt my temper rising — the rain and the lightning and the unnatural darkness of the afternoon had something to do with that.

I said, “Why do you think I have obligations to you? What have you done for me?”

The same question might likewise be addressed to the vile Vidia.

* * *

“I love you because you are so mean,” wrote Eve Babitz to Naipaul shortly after Bend‘s publication. But why should we celebrate an author who offers little more than meanness in life and in art? I ponder the type of blindsided reader who would only pine for the negative. Because it sure as hell isn’t me. Sure, I may have been seduced by Elizabeth Bowen’s brand of cruelty in the last installment, but there was enough carefully orchestrated character flinging to keep me intrigued. With Naipaul, the prose was often so slick that I felt my soul being clogged up by a BP-sized oil spill. I haven’t even brought up the unintentionally hilarious affair with Yvette, which is so rooted in preposterous male fantasy that one wonders if Vidia has ever understood women. (This is the same man who has the audacity to claim that women cannot write.)

“Carrying on” may help you negotiate the frontier, but that passive place doesn’t help you connect with other people or overcome your assumptions. That’s certainly Naipaul’s point. Yet I came away from this novel thinking that Naipaul was just as much monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens, cui lumen ademptum as his characters.

* — And since I’m being a little hard on Rushdie, in the interest of balance, I should probably relate this remarkably insensitive Naipaul anecdote. Naipaul has remained so committed to steely misanthropy that he refused to sign a petition supporting Salman Rushdie after Khomeini issued his fatwa, adding (according to the French bio), “I don’t know his books, but I’ve been aware of his statements. I found them usually left-wing and trivial and antiquated.” And he didn’t stop there. Naipaul would call the fatwa “an extreme form of literary criticism.” It’s one thing to dislike Rushdie’s books. It’s another thing to employ one’s literary sensibilities as justification for murder.

Next Up: Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose!

bowen3

The Death of the Heart (Modern Library #84)

(This is the seventeenth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Lord Jim)

“I won’t ruin it for you,” emailed my fellow Modern Library reader Steve, “but so far, that’s the 2nd worst book I’ve read for this project.” And while I was corralling my thoughts and feelings after finishing the latest tome for a project which I now realize (nearly one year after the gauntlet cleaved my happy little picnic table) will take me five to six years, I noticed that Devon S., another trusted Modern Library adventurer, served up only a soupçon more hope: “I don’t know how to judge my indifference to this book. Sometimes books are like calf leather gloves in August: sumptuous wonders of of craftsmanship and texture that we’d appreciate if only we weren’t too tired, too harried, too dull, too careless, too immature, too hot, at that moment.” Maybe so. But when the Brooklyn nights outside are 13 degrees and you’re still wondering why two stuffy high society types (one reappears very sparingly throughout the rest of the book) have chosen the “bronze cold of January” with its shivering swans, of all places, to dish dirt during the oddly loquacious opening of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, calf leather gloves in August feel as distant as last year’s milk. What the good Lydia Kiesling will have to say about Bowen is anyone’s guess.

Death is a novel quite at odds with a reader’s expectations, which is very much to its credit. Here is a book so blithe about its splenetic revelations that a cigarette lighter illuminates a telltale betrayal in the dark of a movie theater, the moment as casual as a chicken’s throat getting sliced on an abattoir assembly line. Yet even with the flashy reveal of a 20th century habit’s fire, Bowen is fixated on the “taut blond silk” of a character’s calf and fingers keeping up “a kneading movement.” If you’re thinking Bowen’s characters come off as positional objects more clay than flesh, then you’re catching on quick. At times, Death reads as if Bowen blossomed her bulb when describing a dining room’s “sideboards like catafalques” or characters who sit “with pencil poised, preparing to make disdainful marks” rather than with internal emotion. Yet even with Death‘s weird fixations on crudely general and somewhat ridiculous maxims (“There are moments when it becomes frightening to realize that you are not, in fact, alone in the world — or at least, alone in the world with one other person”) and carefree racism (“Matchett, who was as strong as a nigger”), I’d be hard-pressed to deny Bowen’s voice. In chronicling the numerous cruelties heaped upon the sixteen-year-old orphan Portia by servants and gentry alike, Bowen commits herself to an unremitting ugliness in a way rarely seen these days outside of a private party hosted by Roger Ailes.

Last year, The Rumpus‘s Charlotte Freeman described how she admired the way in which Bowen refused to save any of her characters. She asked, “Could one publish such a book now? A book in which no one is healed, in which everyone is, in fact, injured by contact with another?” Perhaps the real question to ask is this: Can a sanguine type of any stripe read such a book now? Joanthan Yardley suggested, in his fulsome praise for Death, that “[a] certain measure of experience, of exposure to life’s cruelties and compromises, is necessary for a full grasp of it.” Spoken like an unadventurous pessimist. Yet I didn’t detest the book like Steve, nor did I feel Devon’s indifference. I think there’s some credence to the idea that time and reference was Bowen’s real game with Death. Maybe Death, like many interesting books, is a Rorschach test. And if that is the case, the place to start surely is the reader’s temperament.

I’m not the type who flits through life without kenning that humans can be cruel (and I have had more than my share of this), but my approach is to be cheerful, protectively acerbic if need be. I’d rather believe that everyone — even the scabrous souls who make existence miserable, often without knowing it — has the power to be kind and decent. My earnestness may seem out of place in New York, but this is a city with a population who performs many quiet favors to strangers. And I’ve lived close to four decades with the good apples far outshining those rotten to the core. As Tracy says at the end of Manhattan, “Not everybody gets corrupted. You have to have a little faith in people.” Sensible advice. My disappointment rumbles when people choose to be mean and avaricious and subpar, especially when they do so without any corresponding set of virtues or they are driven by callow opportunism or stomp on other people on the way up or deliberately set out to destroy something dear to a decent person who isn’t doing any harm. Which is not to suggest that I haven’t sinned or that my own sense of what’s right may be another person’s wrong. (And any opportunistic pixie who props herself up as “fair and empathetic” without copping to the possibility that she may be more than a bit hypocritical in blind spots is not to be trusted. Idealogues come in several forms.) I’m not against healthy skepticism or getting revenge (although it’s better to stick with good deeds, when possible), but the idea of swallowing the bitter pill before seeking any delight, or assuming that people are driven first and foremost by malice, strikes me as a needlessly melancholy way to live.

And yet, on the page and from Bowen’s pen, these selfsame qualities are strangely alluring! So if you have a particular type of titivating heart, you may be confused by Elizabeth Bowen. I may protest Bowen’s worldview (and, after listening to this sour lecture broadcast in 1956*, I don’t think I’d want to know her), but I’m fascinated by how she could think this way. Sixteen-year-old Portia has no parents. The only family members she has to turn to are Thomas Quayne, her half-brother some two decades older, and his wife Anna, who is clinging to lingering youth in crueler, pre-Botox days. (She’s so inveterate that she finds Portia’s diary and reads it. One of Death‘s more brutal subtleties is that nearly all of Portia’s private thoughts are read by other characters. Is this Bowen’s way of scolding the reader?) Thomas and Anna send Portia away to a small town — allegedly “by the sea,” but of course not at all — so that they can have their vacation. Even if one accounts for the fact that Thomas works in advertising and has this tendency to stare at nothing “with a concentration of boredom and lassitude,” one ponders why wanton neglect would be the natural state. Yet as Bowen pushes Portia into a bigger mess — with various letters and diary entries spelling further hints of Portia’s despair; no accident that I thought of Jack Womack’s excellent and needlessly neglected novel, Random Acts of Senseless Violence, while reading these parts (Womack was kind enough to respond to my connective enthusiasm on Twitter) — it’s almost as if Bowen’s pushing the limits of how vicious she can be (which is, as it turns out, sometimes more sadistic than Evelyn Waugh). I haven’t even mentioned the disgracefully rakish 23-year-old Eddie, who not only leads Portia into sham chivalric romance, but doesn’t even know how to smooth things over, much less apologize, when he bungles things up. One of the novel’s high points is Eddie hitting the resort town where Portia is staying and causing a cringe comedy disaster that I cannot in good conscience spoil.

There’s some truth to the notion that Elizabeth Bowen may very well be the missing link between Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness and Iris Murdoch’s masterful fusing of behavioral study and philosophy. Yet as I’ve intimated above, Bowen can be curiously dictatorial and objectifying with her interior monologues:

She was disturbed, and at the same time exhilarated, like a young tree tugged all ways in a vortex of wind. The force of Eddie’s behaviour whirled her free in a hundred puzzling humiliations, of her hundred failures to take the ordinary cue. She could meet the demands he made with the natural genius of the friend and lover. The impetus under which he seemed to move made life fall, round him and her, into a new poetic order at once. Any kind of policy in the region of feeling would have been fatal in any lover of his — you had to yield to the wind. Portia’s unpreparedness, her lack of policy — which had made Windsor Terrace, for her, the court of an incomprehensible law — with Eddie stood her in good stead. She had no point to stick to, nothing to unlearn. She had been born docile. The momentarily anxious glances she cast him had only zeal behind them, no crucial personality.

A “young tree tugged all ways in a vortex of wind” sounds like an engineer maneuvering object-oriented data into a massively multiplayer video game universe. And it’s interesting how Bowen shifts from a simile into an entirely different metaphor (“whirled her free in a hundred puzzling humiliations”) before riding with geographic imagery (“the region of feeling,” “No point to stick to”) and concluding this section with highly general and irreversible conditions (“nothing to unlearn,” “born docile,” “only zeal behind them,” “no crucial personality”). While this language certainly mimics a teenage girl’s confused feelings very well, this deliberately incoherent poetic effect (the “new poetic order,” if you will) pushed me away from Portia as I wanted to relate to her. I could admire the language from an external vantage point, but I kept wondering what might have happened if Bowen had dared to give us more of Portia’s heart. Was I meant to read this book much as the young students in the photo above gaze at Bowen? Let me finish my Gauloise, my young pretties, or I shall send you to Samoa to be cooked in a white wine sauce by the cannibals! Fair for the reader or not, nevertheless, I was engaged enough with this novel to want to read more Bowen (still, given the choice, I would rather read more Iris Murdoch). I don’t think I would call The Death of the Heart a masterpiece, but it was good to find a book with a new hook to take me both outside and inside my zone. I never thought the Modern Library would have me affirming certain pockets of sanguinity.

* — Despite Bowen’s grating voice, which is so off-putting that I was compelled to open a window and happily stick my head into the frigid winter air about five minutes in before returning to the last six minutes, the lecture is still quite interesting in what it reveals about Bowen’s methods. She refers to self-conscious expression offered in lieu of description as “character analysis” and has this to say: “Two things may be remarked about the stream of consciousness as a showing of character. It does take time and it deals almost always with prosaic experience. Scenes are reacted to in a highly individual way. I don’t know whether we should ever have, for instance, a stream of consciousness novel about somebody scaling Everest. Because the scaling of Everest is quite exciting enough in itself. In the ordinary stream of consciousness, the excitement, the sense of crisis, resides in the personality. And all the other characters in the novel are likely to be very slightly out of focus.” These sentiments make me want to reach for John D’Agata, Nicholson Baker, Daniel Clowes, or Yannick Murphy and howl to the heavens. Why wouldn’t a mountain climber’s interior monologue be as exciting as the action? And yet I can’t help but marvel over Bowen championing the stylistic dialogue of Henry Green and Ivy Compton-Burnett, whereby there is often no distinction between characters, as a quality which might be altering the form of the novel itself!

Next Up: V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River!

threescompanyreading

What Characters Read Books on Television?

The above screenshot is from a Three’s Company episode called “The Lifesaver,” in which even the dimwitted Chrissy Snow could be seen reading a book. The novel is Concerto of Love (fictional, of course) and Chrissy had only reached Page 4. But it does have me wondering. In 1979, even sitcom characters who were more than a few cards short of a full deck were still committed to reading in some form. Can we say the same thing in 2010? What television reading moments have you seen lately?

UPDATE: Here are some observations from Twitter.

Ron Charles: “Isn’t that odd. There are rarely any books in their homes…”
eBookNewser: “There is an episode of the Rockford Files where Jim is reading some kind of detective novel. Tom Select is in the episode.”
Mark Athitakis: “Best-read character on a show currently on the air: Brian Griffin” and “‘Mad About You’ may be the exception that proves the rule.”
James Othmer: “Draper: Meditations in an Emergency; other Mad Men selecs: Lady Chatterly, The Best of Everything, The Sound & the Fury.”
John Williams: “I imagine Lisa Simpson is pretty well read for her age.”
Mike Cane: “Well, duh, CASTLE. But he also writes them.”
Colleen Mondor: “Has anyone mentioned Rory on THE GILMORE GIRLS yet? It was a hallmark of her character.”
Levi Asher: “hmmm … the youngest kid in “Good Times” was often seen carrying or quoting from a book … Dale Cooper … Lucy Ricardo.”

Needless Counting Exercises

Words, being silly little units of language reflecting emotional and synaptic activities, are subject to frequent bursts of growth which are known to frustrate the unadventurous reader, possibly causing a regrettable series of eructations. The ambitious novel containing many words is greeted with suspicion, as if all minds are expected to conform to some craven concision. The slim novel may likewise be received by those eagerly wishing to plant plaints, but these impatient toe-tappers are often considering the words-per-ounce (and unspoken words-per-dollar) text stat introduced by the seemingly unstoppable commercial forces of Amazon. But if the novel is any good, it will invite a return visit, irrespective of length. So why perform a counting exercise? It’s not as if you’re likely to count the number of times you make love to your sweetheart — a taboo recently investigated by Kevin Sampsell in his memoir, A Common Pornography. But you will count the number of books you’ve read in the last year or the number of pages you have left. If passion (or bodily fluids) are exchanged through such bookkeeping exercises, then is this not equally crass? A novelist has likely made love or masturbated during the creative process, likely relieving the remarkable tensions that accumulate. Some readers may very well be lucky to engage in carnal relations with the author as he eats poorly and catches a few winks in sketchy hotels during the course of a book tour. But think about this. If you cannot sleep with the novelist, you have a book in your hands that, if it is good, will elicit a similar sensation. And while you may expire after fifteen minutes in the boudoir, with a book, you may very well keep the blood pumping and the balls bouncing for several weeks. And nobody has to know. Given the established covenant between novelist and reader, one does not have to fret about adultery. For all this is perfectly legal. One may be vexed by stains, either of a literal or metaphorical nature. But then I’m the one emitting the gushing comparative point. More chaste-minded readers may consider the novel a fantasy, an escape, or an edification — and such pursuits may not necessarily drift towards the explosive rumination that I am imputing. Does one parallel lead to more dutiful marking of notches on the belt? Perhaps. But it all seems a needless counting exercise that defeats the purpose of reading.

digitalhand

Ben Macintyre: The Latest Sourpuss to Run Away From Possibilities

digitalhandThe Times‘s Ben Macintyre has mangled his mind in a senseless shower of his own hysteria. The Internet, he writes, is killing storytelling. I could respond to Mr. Macintyre’s foolish article with a vigorous list of items, pointing to such recent projects as Significant Objects, which has featured notable writers creating stories around eBay items, and Electric Literature, recently the subject of a New York Times article. But I think the more important question to ask is how such a yutz could write such an uninformed article.

Reading, last I heard, hadn’t changed much from its basic approach. While e-books continue their slow crawl into acceptance, a recent report from Bowker Publisher Services indicated that e-books accounted for only 0.6% of consumer book purchases in 2008 and 2.4% of purchases in the first quarter of 2009. Unable to extract or cite such basic data, Macintyre then makes a sweeping generalization that “we are in state of Continual Partial Attention.” And he even suggests that blog alerts hector and heckle readers. I’ve yet to see a blog alert confront a stand-up comedian, but I’m sure some giddy innovator will concoct a sentient one in this age of developing AI and emerging smartphones.

Let’s examine the data that Macintyre relies on. He cites a Microsoft research study — presumably the 2007 efforts of Shamsi T. Iqbal and Eric Horvitz (PDFs here and here) — claiming that it takes 24 minutes for a user to recover from an e-mail message alert. What Macintyre doesn’t tell you about the study is that these users were also engaged in answering email after the alerts interrupted them. Ten minutes were spent on task switches caused by the alerts, and anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes were spent returning to the disrupted task. But then, if you really needed to concentrate on an important task — particularly one as arduous as storytelling — you would be smart enough to close your email client. Iqbal and Horvitz’s findings are very helpful, and they split the task resumption time into intriguing stages. But the two researchers are investigating a multitasking environment, which isn’t always applicable to the manner in which people read and write online. What of the user who stubbornly adheres to one window or who shuts the email alerts off? Alas, that would get in the way of Macintyre’s silly generalizations, which don’t even cite the Microsoft Research findings correctly.

Having fumbled with computer science, Macintyre then relies on Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” to suggest an end to long-form reading, failing to comprehend that Carr’s article is a glorified opinion piece. Even Carr states in his article, “Anecdotes alone don’t prove much,” and later declares, “Maybe I’m just a worrywart,” which means that his article doesn’t really mean much beyond some of the quotes. But for Macintyre, Carr’s personal confession is the linchpin for “the narrative, the long-form story, the tale” as primary victim. Tell that to William T. Vollmann, who just published a 1,300 page book and has another one coming in a few months. (Indeed, later in his article, Macintyre confesses to “the astonishing range of biographical writing” in the Costa Award he is judging. But I thought the digital age was destroying all this?) Tell that to the seven women who marked up Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, who took a 500-page novel and spent several months providing interesting annotations. The annotators’ attention spans lasted over the course of three months. Here was radical change that was far from inhospitable.

Macintyre also claims that the Center for Future Storytelling was “aimed at protecting the traditional tale from oblivion.” But the CFS’s about page reveals no such eleventh-hour preservation. The CFS’s goal is to enhance the storytelling that already exists. And is it really so ludicrous to consider how emerging technologies can be used in relation to storytelling? David Lynch’s Interview Project has done just this, merging Studs Terkel-style interviews with the Web. The dude still has 68 interviews to post.

And there’s something inherently elitist about Macintyre claiming that “stories demand time and concentration,” while failing to point out that, if a story is good enough, a reader will demand time and concentration from the storyteller. If stories didn’t have that draw, then all the bars and restaurants in the world would go out of business. And with the Internet’s endless possibilities, there’s a storyteller for every reader and a reader for every storyteller. Barack Obama was indeed elected on the basis of his biography, but Macintyre has failed to observe that he was the first elected President to use online conduits to spread his origin story and raise money.

If you wish to soak up hefty tomes and you can’t understand how you can do this with the Internet, there’s this nifty thing on your computer called the ON/OFF button that you may wish to investigate. For the rest of us, there’s the endless material in Project Gutenberg and the recent partnership between the New York Public Library and Kirtas, which will make 500,000 public domain books available to anyone in the world.

But if Macintyre’s getting paid to turn out such gormless articles (he confesses that his own ability to concentrate is dwindling), then maybe he really should worry about not grokking these developments. His vitiated cry in the Times, which reads like an abandoned boy braying for his lost balloon, foreshadows his inevitable obsolescence. Let’s hope he gets with the program. Still, if Ben Macintyre buckles over because of his reading deficiencies, then I know countless people who the Costa people can call to pick up the slack. Nearly all of them are online.

countryfirst

Good Books Don’t Have to Be Read

A good book is one that we don’t actually read. And a good book is one that a writer doesn’t actually write. It’s what makes guilty pleasures so guilty. It’s what makes pleasurable guilt so pleasurable. A box of juice reeks of crass commercialism when we insert our straws and revert back to those childhood years when the school bullies beat us up and told us that only sissies read. We crave books the way that we crave boxes of juice. There is a big man holding a gun to our temple. The big man is Anton Chekhov, and he is introducing a gun that must be used later in a story and later in this article. We are not allowed to fire the gun, but maybe we might fire it one of the Grossman brothers. They are, after all, twins. This may involve partial suicide, but I am speaking metaphorically and I am perched on a giant dais. This is too complicated for anybody to understand. This is more complicated than stabbing a box of juice with a straw. This is so complicated that I, Lev Grossman, have been spending the entire morning sobbing in bed. Books make perverts of us all. I am ashamed, but I am not sorry.

It’s not easy to put your finger on what exactly is so disgraceful about our attachment to books or the idea that people are supposed to read them. Sure, the importance has something to do with the fact that there are these squiggly lines that are printed onto bits of paper that are glued to a base. But what exactly? Excuse me while I take a toke. Ah, that’s much better, even if I don’t understand my argument and even if I will never ever experience pleasure in reading again. Part of the problem is that to figure out how to read a book you actually have to open one. You actually have to write idiotic essays for the Wall Street Journal because then people will take your folderol seriously. You have to keep your head shaven and demand that all books capitulate to your own sleek reading perspective, which does not exist and which must be simpler than tying your shoe. You have to write silly books about magicians and ignore the interesting shit about genre. If there’s a key to what the 21st-century novel is going to look like, this is it: E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel — a book that frankly I don’t understand — and my tendency to masturbate to it when I can’t find the stack of Hustlers. Also, plot. Simple plot. Plot you can explain to a marsupial, with the marsupial clapping his hands in seeming comprehension.

countryfirstLet’s look back for a second and ponder where the Modernists came from. They came out of my ass. They flew out of my anus like winged monkeys. I assure you that this was a rather unsettling feeling that caused me to apply a good deal of lube when the flesh grew ruddy. They flew out of my ass because I knew they were writing good books and I knew that I couldn’t understand them and I knew that the Modernists were complicated but that they didn’t always think Plot First. Which is a little like Country First. Reading, as we all know, must subscribe to the Sarah Palin doctrine. So forget Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and all those literary heavyweights that people marvel over. They all came out of my ass and still carry that shiny and confused look. This is why they are dead. It has nothing to do with life expectancy. It has everything to do with my ass.

The Modernists went into the antique store and, ignoring the vital Plot First credo, they broke the vase. And now they must pay for their insolence. We are all the vicious and humorless shopkeepers ready to chase the Modernists out with a shotgun. How dare the Modernists make us think! How dare the Modernists improve upon literature!

There was a time when books were exciting. But then I got a job at Time and they became less exciting. And because they are not exciting to me, they cannot be exciting to you. They should not be difficult and they should not be read. I, Lev Grossman, am a drag at parties. Therefore, books must be a drag at parties. Nam Le is a scoundrel because he does not sell well enough. The next time I see Nam Le, I will punch him in the face. I don’t care how nice he is. I don’t care how much of a decent writer he is. Nam Le simply doesn’t sell as well as Stephenie Meyer. Therefore, he flew out of my ass like the Modernists. I am telling all the people who plan the parties not to have Nam Le and Lev Grossman in the same room. Surely, there will be a brawl.

The revolution is under way. And I, Comrades, insist that you do not have to read books. If you love books in any way or fail to consider the Plot First doctrine, then we will send you to the reeducation camps. We must be constantly entertained. We must not think. We must accept unquestionably that I, Lev Grossman, am correct about literature. Just look at Thomas Pynchon. Despite changing his cumbersome calisthenics, he appears on YouTube! Surely, this is a sign that the world is changing and that you don’t even have to read books anymore! If you look hard enough for clues, you too will sound like a conspiracy theorist.

This is the future of fiction. This is also the past and the present of fiction. There will be no more Modernist or Postmodernist writers flying out of my bunghole. We were trained to read good books. Now we must divest ourselves of this propaganda and become Communists!

A good book is one we don’t read. And the only articles you should be reading are written by Lev Grossman.

This article is a little too ad hominem for my tastes.

(For other responses, see Andrew Seal and Matt Cheney.)

David Ulin: A Books Editor to Be Deactivated

If you are a humorless books editor packing mundanities (while also resorting to the groundless Sven Birkerts-style grumbling about online interlopers who express more enthusiasm about books in 140 characters than you can in 800 words) into a badly written piece about just how gosh darn hard it is for you to sit down and read, then you have no business keeping your job. David Ulin’s piece is not so much an essay, as it is a confession from an out-of-touch and calcified man who clearly does not love books and who lacks the courage to take any chances. He may as well have written an open letter of resignation — not just from his editorial position, but from the rustling possibilities of books. (If you don’t have the ability to “still [your] mind long enough to inhabit someone else’s world, and to let that someone else inhabit [yours],” then you may as well sell overpriced stereo systems to unthinking schmucks.)

It has been disheartening to watch the Los Angeles Times‘s books coverage burn into mediocrity in the past year. While Sam Zell did indeed unleash any number of unsuspecting Santa Anas to fan this conflagration, the brigade trying to extinguish the fire are more content to let the foundation burn. Carolyn Kellogg’s once exuberant voice on the Los Angeles Times‘s book blog, Jacket Copy, has transformed from its early promise into soulless corporate boilerplate. Here is a recent opening paragraph from a post titled “Hello, cutie! New Sony e-reader scores on style”:

Yesterday Sony announced a new bargain e-reader: Just $199, it’ll be among the cheapest e-book readers around when it hits stores later this month. But it doesn’t look cheap — in fact, it’s really cute!

Beyond the troubling sense that one is intercepting a note handed from one bubble gum-chewing teenager to another, how is this any different from a recycled catalog description insulting the audience’s intelligence? Kellogg’s approach is vituperative in its own way, disingenuous in its abuse. Kellogg’s post isn’t so much a piece of journalism, as it is an unpaid Sony advertisement. (Kellogg, incidentally, was observed sheepishly trailing Ulin at BookExpo America and resembled not so much an independent-minded journalist, but Ulin’s executive assistant for a hopelessly institutionalized outlet. At what price an latimes.com email address?)

I have already explored at length Louisa Thomas’s unconscionably bumbling review from April. But I must ask how such pieces as Amy Wallen’s snarky assault on misfits make it into this seemingly esteemed newspaper? Much as Newsweek‘s Jennie Yabroff recently declared Richard Russo a “misogynist” because of her own inability to understand human behavior, so too does Wallen misinterpret humanity in attempting to “take down” Jennifer Weiner. Wallen cannot understand why a bank teller working at a low hourly wage might indeed find the financial lucre and an adventure of a bank robbery enticing. (When was the last time she worked a minimum wage job?) Wallen cannot comprehend how another character is attempting to corral the present with the past by revisiting place. (The fact that such snark appeared during the same week as Erin O’Brien’s moving essay about her brother makes Wallen’s piece particularly egregious.)

And at the end of last year, there were a number of surprisingly humorless pieces written by the overrated but occasionally enjoyable Brooklyn writer Edward Champion, an apparent legend in his own mind who was inexplicably assigned morose dead authors instead of the giddy subjects that serve this writer’s admittedly limited strengths.

But back to Ulin’s essay. If Ulin actually cared about anybody other than himself, then he might indeed devote his bumbling mind to another’s point of view. If Ulin truly sought contemplation in books, he would have a more tangible memory of Malcolm Lowry’s book rather than the beach he lived at. He also misreads Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time (indeed, in the very manner that Conroy warned about). Here is the complete Conroy passage that Ulin quotes from:

It was the winter of my seventeenth birthday, presumably my last year of high school. I made a half-hearted attempt to pass my courses, knowing that in any event I’d have to go to summer school to make up for previous failures. I wanted the diploma that year. I wanted to get it over with so I could leave the country, go to Denmark and meet my grandparents, see Paris, but mostly just to get away from home. I withdrew into myself and let the long months go by, spending my time reading, playing the piano, and watching television. Jean too had retreated into himself. He’d watch the screen silently for hours on end, wrapped up in a blanket Indian fashion, never moving his head. Night after night I’d lie in bed, with a glass of milk and a package of oatmeal cookies beside me, and read one paperback after another until two or three in the morning. I read everything, without selection, buying all the fiction ont he racks of the local drugstore — D.H. Lawrence, Moravia, Stuart Engstrand, Aldous Huxley, Frank Yerby, Mailer, Twain, Gide, Dickens, Philip Wylie, Tolstoi, Hemingway, Zola, Dreiser, Vardis Fisher, Dostoievsky, G.B. Shaw, Thomas Wolfe, Theodore Pratt, Scott Fitzgerald, Joyce, Frederick Wakeman, Orwell, McCullers, Remarque, James T. Farrell, Steinbeck, de Maupassant, James Jones, John O’Hara, Kipling, Mann, Saki, Sinclair Lewis, Maugham, Dumas, and dozens more. I borrowed from the public library ten blocks away and from the rental library at Womrath’s on Madison Avenue. I read very fast, uncritically, and without retention, seeking only to escape my own life through the imaginative plunge into another. Safe in my room with milk and cookies I disappeared into inner space. The real world dissolved and I was free to drift in fantasy, living a thousand lives, each one more powerful, more accessible, and more real than my own. (Needless to say, emphasis added)

Conroy read so many great writers “very fast, uncritically, and without retention!” And this is the virtue Ulin calls for! This is the method of reading that Ulin cops to — an endless and uncomprehending cacophony that is less predicated upon understanding others and more predicated upon the accomplishment-centric egos of those “who have written” rather than those who “are writing,” or those “who have read,” rather than those who “are reading.” (Shortly after this passage, Conroy confesses that this milk and cookies ritual encouraged him to be a writer.) This is the apparent “state that is increasingly elusive in our over-networked culture.” But it seems to me that if you are reading without thinking, without masticating, without having your heart and your humility and your dedication to others soar, while various internal angels and demons sing earnest hymns and ribald rockers to humanity and these are shared with others, then this is hardly a state to strive for. Ulin has confused Conroy’s ephemeral approach for contemplation. This has nothing to do with the digital age, but everything to do with personal choice, the rejection of smartphone trinkets, and one’s self-discipline.

These are disheartening statements to hear from the self-absorbed Bernaysian automaton who edits books coverage for The Los Angeles Times.

For my own part, I spend long hours disconnecting entirely from all forms of technology, applying the discipline required to understand another person’s perspective, which often humbles my own. Who cares if the perspectives are old or new? (Certainly, William T. Vollmann does not in his mammoth book, Imperial, which I continue to peck away at.) Indeed, knowing past perspectives and folkways recently erected permit one to discover how humanity regularly dupes itself. And reading Ulin’s essay allows us to understand his perspective, which comes across as that of a prejudicial and undisciplined narcissist. Or perhaps he’s just a permanently anxious man who might better love the world if he realized that his thoughts and feelings weren’t nearly as significant as he believes them to be. Or if he wasn’t busy firing people and striking “eccentric” freelancers of his list (save Tod Golberg) because he desperately wants to keep his salaried position.

Forthcoming Books

Over the weekend, the Chicago Sun-Times ran a summer reading preview in which it asked many of its contributors about books that they were looking for. Darby Dixon III has written recently about the dangers of anticipating new books. And the issue of having too many interesting books to read has caused grumblings even from the most robust readers. It’s not that we don’t want to read these books. We just don’t know when we’ll read them. Speaking for myself, William T. Vollmann’s Imperial sits in the pile, and it looks like it might devour some of the smaller books as snacks. (To give you some sense of the problem, Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist and Richard Powers’s Generosity are 50 cent bags of Doritos by comparison. Is this really fair?)

But you can’t just stick with the tried and true. There are books from emerging authors and small presses that must not be overlooked! There are good books that are being ignored. There are books that don’t stand a chance if everybody’s looking forward to the new Lethem.

This begs the question of whether we should be asking some of these these authors to stop writing for six months so that some of us may catch up on our reading and be fair to all the books. Or perhaps we should ask the federal government to bail out readers so that literary culture can thrive. Then again, it’s possible that we may approach a six month window in which there is nothing particularly worthwhile to read. And then America can be humiliated yet again with another public denouncement from Horace Engdahl that only people like Harold Augenbraum will actually care about. The rest of us will catch up with the backlog.

There’s a new David Mitchell novel and a new Scarlett Thomas novel set for publication in 2010. It just doesn’t stop, does it?

There has to be a solution to all this. And the Chicago Sun-Times is to be commended for its salubrious idea. But I’d like to take the experiment further. Instead of just listening to the experts, what about readers as a whole? If you’ve never left a comment on this website, your time to get conversational has come. What books are you looking forward to this year? Who are the authors that jazz you up? Please know that the answers aren’t limited to literary titles. This is not a snobbish query, but a curious one. Which books are you looking forward to in 2009?

tocstein

Tools of Change: Bob Stein & Peter Brantley

tocsteinThe morning started off with Bob Stein, founder and co-director of The Institute for the Future of the Book. It’s worth pointing out that for thirteen years, Stein worked for The Criterion Company, which he founded. Stein observed that he had always viewed the Criterion discs as items that he published and that this notion of “publishing” arose from a then groundbreaking video in 1980 that depicted the moving image with text on a screen. In Stein’s view, there was a McLuhan-like distinction to be made between user-driven media (books) and producer-driven media (movies, radio, and television). But because issuing a laserdisc meant giving an item to one individual at a time, it involved “publishing” it. (In fact, the early Criterion logo featured a book turning into a disc.)

The Internet, however, stretched Stein’s meaning about what a book was. While CD-ROMs offered staggering data that permitted a user to study the life of Stravinsky, the Internet, of course, imploded this notion. There began to emerge a separate sense of what a book was or could be independent of its categorization of an object. The book itself became much more important than data or content, and became very much about connecting other people. To illustrate this, Stein cited three examples: (1) Without Gods, a blog that chronicled Mitchell Stephens writing a book for a year, in which every day had a post and coteries of readers emerged who went on the journey with Stephens; (2) McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory, in which a draft of Wark’s book was posted online, with each paragraph represented by a card (and in turn generating numerous comments next to the text, putting the reader on the same level as the author); and (3) an annotated version of Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” in which twenty students annotated the book (similarly to Wark) using a WordPress plugin called CommentPress.

Stein viewed the recent experiment involving Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook as a failure to create a culture of public reading, but a success in connecting seven women together through the annotation. And Stein believed that the connection that the book had engendered was now part of the book as well. In Stein’s view, if you look at a book as an object, you effectively hide and obscure the social engagement that comes with the tome. And that social experience is perhaps more corporeal than we realize. So Stein’s new definition of a book is “a place where readers (and sometimes authors) congregate.” The authors may become leaders of communities of inquiry (nonfiction) or they may become creators of words that readers populate (fiction). To this end, Stein viewed World of Warcraft as “the best book as a place.” It is therefore up to publishers to create a future that involves building and nurturing communities for authors and their readers.

Stein’s examples certainly represent fascinating enhancements which permit a book to take on a supplemental life. And it really had me thinking about some possibilities I may employ to augment the roundtable discussions that crop up here from time to time. But is the supplemental reaction to a book really part of a book? The buzz term “social community” kept cropping up at these keynotes and panels with troubling frequency. While I’m all for the notion of the information wanting to be free, I’m wondering if these supplemental aspects truly encourage other people to think independently about these subjects, and whether open source philosophy and “social community” (soon to be trademarked, I presume) is truly open to opposing viewpoints.

My skepticism was warranted when the Digital Library Foundation’s Peter Brantley gave a presentation that came perilously close to the treacherous Speedlearn experiment from The Prisoner. In Brantley’s view, a book is a social construction simply because we create our own reading environment in our home, shared with other books, or we happen to create that space in public. Therefore, getting involved with a “social community” becomes vital to the form. Such enlightenment! I wondered if Brantley, like many readers I know, had ever read a magazine or a mass market paperback while sitting on the can, or whether his income bracket had made such a common consideration declasse. I suppose if I sat with my ass hanging out long enough, I could probably justify the amount of toilet paper on the roll as a vital “personal space” component. If someone were to pay me money to stand in front of a bunch of unquestioning techies, I could also claim to have seen a deity while reading some Talk of the Town piece in The New Yorker and attempt to persuade you that this was a religious experience that called for a “social community.” But you’d probably throw tomatoes at me and demand that the cane extract me from the stage. And rightly so.

Here was a man who presented a programmed keynote without spontaneity, even producing slides like “ah, let me explain that…” to mimic his seeming asides. It was as if the audience was there to be programmed rather than consider a viewpoint. And it was the primary reason why I decided to skip Cory Doctorow’s predictable anti-DRM rant. One of these was quite enough for me.

Among some of Brantley’s generalizations:

“A book is a social construction.”

“A book is a machine to think with.”

He even used the phrase “We’re reaching into books,” as if to suggest that the reading experience was more of a phony New Age experience in which some fifth circle might be obtained. But then in Brantley’s deense, I’m naturally suspicious of ponderous speakers who walk up and down a stage wearing a silly beret and holding a coffee cup. If Brantley had delivered his keynote in French, smoked an unfiltered cigarette, and perhaps thrown in a few passing references to the oppression of the working class, then I suppose I might have forgiven him. But he was dead serious about this.

A book may be generated by a machine and ebooks may be available through machines, but that does not mean the book itself is a machine. Nor should the reader transform into a machine. This kind of perspective may work in programming circles, where jargon and other linguistic bullshit is tossed around as casually as spitballs. But for those readers — most of us, I would gather — who see books as organic, guys like Brantley really fail to see the bigger picture. And I’ll have more to say about how the reader’s perspective — with the exception of one notable panel organized by Kassia Kroszer — has been utterly ignored by these slick and affluent concept slingers in subsequent posts.

(Photo: James Duncan Davidson)

Novel 2.0

Reports of the Web’s harmful effects upon reading habits have been greatly overstated. Two recent online projects sufficiently demonstrate that we’re only just beginning to understand what the Web can do. The first is Power Moby Dick, an online depiction of Melville’s classic novel with often very helpful annotations on the side. (The annotations resemble the colored box version of David Foster Wallace’s “Host.”) The second is The Golden Notebook Project (via), in which Doris Lessing’s novel is online and searchable. Over five to six weeks, seven critics are providing side comments for the respective pages: a form somewhere between Power Moby Dick and the many roundtable literary discussions that can be found around the Web. There is also a forum, although it appears that nobody aside from the Magnificent Seven has left comments.

I’m wondering, however, if we can’t see these dynamic experiments go further. I would be very interested in seeing the Golden project provide a place for every published thought on every particular line in that novel. Perhaps there might be a way to track words and references used by earlier writers and carried on by later writers. There could be a better implementation of the forum through a wiki, in which various readers could offer additional questions in a separate accessible area. With RSS feeds, perhaps someone with a Kindle or a Sony Reader might download the latest central version with annotations.

As I observed a few days ago, it’s fantastic that nearly all the books of yesteryear are available in some form online. But I don’t think we’re being ambitious enough. If text is scannable and searchable, then the door needs to be opened for how the reader, both common and academic, can access and annotate the text. Perhaps government funding might be put into place to hire literary experts around the nation to preserve specific literary works, perform research, and annotate them for the public. (I observe that the MacArthur Foundation has provided pivotal funding for The Golden Notebook.) What amazes me in particular about these two online projects is how neither detracts from the author-reader relationship. They respect that exclusive relationship, while accounting for the additional relationships which spring up between other readers. What we have here is an opportunity to reinvigorate the novel, to expand the audience, and to live up to the helpful hypertextual ideas advocated by Robert Coover.

Similiveritude

The scholar and the world! The endless strife,
The discord in the harmonies of life!
The love of learning, the sequestered nooks,
And all the sweet serenity of books;
The market-place, the eager love of gain,
Whose aim is vanity, and whose end is pain!

– Longfellow, “Morituri Salutamus”

There exists a maximum amount of prearranged information, cultural reconfiguration, and other artistic offerings that one can ingest before it becomes necessary to splash bracing water upon one’s face (or, to take this idea further, to permit dollops of grease to crease one’s cheeks because of a self-administered oil change in one’s figurative vehicle). This is where the frequently overlooked human experience comes into play. By venturing outside one’s domicile or spending time with other humans commonly referred to as “friends” (as they are specified in the parlance of our time), or by participating in intimate activities that involve getting out of the house because the windows have fogged up and nobody wants to talk about the pleasant musky odor known to cause roommates to scurry, one can encounter a new sheath of information or perhaps a sequence of events that is not as neatly contrived or as conveniently cross-referenced as the hallowed narrative construct. The real world is refreshingly anarchic and, depending upon your degree of involvement, can prove to be more interesting than the cultural item that purports to represent it.

It is for these reasons, among many, that books which cannot live up to life must be thrown across the room. It is for these reasons, among many, that one should strive to emerge beyond the house, speak on the phone, meet up for coffee with deranged but amicable individuals, chat up strangers, and otherwise own up to one’s responsibility to live, lest one takes the hypothetical hurling of the book across the room too seriously. (It is a mere parabolic flourish, but a pugilistic passion not to be entirely discounted!)

We speak of verisimilitude, but we don’t speak so often of its dreaded cousin, similiveritude. And if you don’t know what similiveritude is, it is not because I have coined the word. (As it so happens, I am not the originator. At the risk of adopting Googleveritude, another nonsense noun unfound through Googling, one encounters only two search terms for “similiveritude.” Some gentleman named Felix appears to be the first to bandy this about. So I’ll give Felix the proper plaudits — congrats, Felix! you were the one! can I have your baby? — and carry on with this febrile exegesis.)

You could very well be a simiiveritudinist, but you may not know it. And if you still don’t know what this word is, well, then you haven’t been paying attention to all the phonies and the charlatans laboring at “art” who refuse to admit that they have no real understanding of the world they live in, much less an emotional relationship to it. It is quite possible that they may capable practitioners of verisimilitudinous art, but this intuitive connection may very well be dwarfed by academia’s rotten institutional walls.

For the similiveritudinist, life must not only reflect art. Art is the very life itself! The similiveritudinist gravitates to an artistic representation in lieu of a stunning natural moment. He may attend an artistic function, hoping that it will fill in certain ontological vacuities from not thinking about or otherwise ignoring the world. The similiveritudinists talk with others, but the conversational topics are limited mostly to art. My empirical state has revealed that similiveritudinists are found in greater frequency in New York than in San Francisco. Similiveritudinists may be socially maladjusted, apolitical, asexual, or otherwise fond of keeping their noggins lodged inconsolably in the sand. Understand that there is no set formula here aside from highly specialized chatter. They may create callow games like “Name That Author” and they may put up photos on their websites of otherwise pleasant individuals who appear more bored than a silo stacked with accountants on the eve of the apocalypse. They may spend all their time occupying movie theaters — and I have seen more than a few etiolated souls who live for the New York Film Festival’s darkness over the past few weeks — but they cannot confess that they have enjoyed something, nor can they be authentic, stand apart, or otherwise inhabit the variegated identity within. They may indeed be employed primarily as critics, lacking the heart, the soul, the tenacity, or the talent to make a strike for the creative mother lode. The pursuit of art is, in the similiveritudinist’s mind, always a serious business. The worst of the similiveritudinists will thumb their noses at genre, popular art, or anything sufficiently “lower.” (This works, incidentally, both ways.) They believe that art, serving here as a surrogate plasma, must always be high, and that anything that falls beneath these cherished standards should be disregarded. They have perhaps inured themselves to the pleasures of a commonplace flagrance or the joys of a small child laughing as a sun sets over the playground. Joie de vivre? Try joie de livre! The similiveritudinist’s vivre, scant as it may be, is likely to be the hell of other people.

If you’re thinking that my wild ruminations here emerge in response to Horace Engdahl’s remarks concerning the current state of American literature, well, your hunch is partially correct. Michael Orthofer, a gentleman and a scholar, has already exoriated Mr. Engdahl quite nicely (as well as Adam Kirsch’s equally myopic remarks, which are perhaps a tad more pardonable because Mr. Kirsch is now out of a job and must now consort with the rabble, surviving hand-to-mouth like any other cultural freelance writer; which can’t be easy, because I suspect that many of us live more frugally and enthusiastically, and certainly less similiveritudinously, than Mr. Kirsch). So my specific reaction to Mr. Engdahl’s words isn’t quite necessary. Mr. Orthofer has already gone to town here. But I suspect that Mr. Engdahl and I might share a few grave concerns over the similiveritudinists who have invaded American literature. The crux of his criticisms suggest very highly that he may be an asshole, but he is thankfully not a similiveritudinist.

To live for culture is not enough. Culture is no replacement for the real thing. It is a helpful prism with which to find and divine certain meanings, but it is only one great piece of the living puzzle. And Mr. Engdahl is quite right to suggest that certain literary clusters within the United States have become too isolated and too insular. Did Jonathan Franzen read any other emerging author aside from the tepid name he picked from his middlebrow hat when he was asked to name his 5 Under 35 choice? We’ll never know, but his choice, which discounts the dozens of emerging voices who currently write for life and passion, is clearly that of a similiveritudinist. Likewise, David Remnick has been foolish enough to suggest that none of our celebrated writers are “ravaged by the horrors of Coca-Cola.” This is clearly the remark of a tony avocet too terrified to leave his golden perch. A casual saunter through any three city blocks reveals this ruddy symbol of the beast, the hellish mire of advertising that threatens to subsume all human moments. Has Remnick’s annual $1 million salary prevented him perhaps from, say, properly understanding what it is like to live under $30,000 a year? Or to work two jobs? Or to toil in the service sector?

If you do not know why you must tip a waiter in cash, but you can cite pitch-perfect passages from Milton, you are a similiveritudinist. If you do not know the price of a package of hamburger buns, but you’re not keeping track of how much you are blowing at Amazon, you are a similiveritudinist. If you have not skipped a meal so that another mouth can be fed, but you can describe the precise cordial to go along with a slice of pecan fig bourbon cake, you are a similiveritudinist.

Similiveritude represents everything that is wrong with American literature. Not all American literature falls under its terrible influence, and there are many literary advocates who understand its proper secondary place. To cure a similiveritudinist, you must ensure that this reader doesn’t just have a clue, but maintains an open and genuine curiosity about everything. To listen to a stranger because you are interested. To view the book as something that may be real in feeling but unreal in execution. To accept that something crazy, whether it be an elaborate series of footnotes or a moment of magical realism, is meant to happen in a book from time to time because the book is not real. More important than a critical scalpel hoping to be absolute in its appraisal is the idea of whether or not the book is applicable to the human heart, and whether or not this applicability feels intuitively true. From here, reasons and justifications can be loosened, with enough wiggle room to involve the reader.

Last month, Nigel Beale saw fit to tsk-tsk me because I had enjoyed a story involving an unhappy housewife having an affair with a 1,000-year-old woodpecker, and it had provoked an emotional reaction in me. It goes without saying that woodpeckers do not live this long and that most lonely housewives would settle for a Hitachi Magic Wand over a cuckolding canary. But the point here is that Mr. Beale, despite being a good egg, could not get beyond his own personal definitions of literature. And I fear that Mr. Beale might dip into the similiveritudinous deep end of the great literary pool because of his inability to (a) read the story to see what I’m talking about or (b) consider the story on its own terms, despite the unconventional sexuality presented. It is not a matter of Mr. Beale liking or disliking the story. That is his choice. But it is the instant dismissal of the story, and the dismissal of my reaction, that is the issue here. It would be no different if I were to dismiss a reader for, say, enjoying a James Patterson book. Now personally I loathe James Patterson’s work. But a reader has the right to have an informed reaction, even a positive one, and we have the obligation to listen to that reader’s reaction before chiming in with our own. Because there might be some intriguing personal reason for why someone prefers the story with the woodpecker or the James Patterson novel that represents a peculiar commitment to life.

Of course, abandoning similiveritude or listening to the other’s viewpoint doesn’t mean abandoning one’s artistic faculties. It merely means placing a particular way of living first: keeping an open mind and ensuring that the careful intake of culture remains a thorough but secondary occupation. What I am calling for here, quite optimistically, are more Renaissance men to inhabit a society in which there are no limits or barricades to one’s curiosity, a nation that counters charges of insularity with limitless interest, a country that can make Mr. Engdahl’s half-true claims utterly fallacious. It starts with the end of similiveritude. It continues with a series of upturned ears. It ends with an army of pro-active thinkers who value life first.

Gregory Cowles Says Gaddis “Not Difficult,” But Doesn’t Know How to Read Properly

Displaying the kind of literary hubris that David Markson once skewered in This is Not a Novel (“See Professor Bloom read the 1961 corrected and reset Random House edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses in one hour and thirty-three minutes. Not one page stinted. Unforgettable!”), the New York Times‘s Gregory Cowles claims that William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic “is not in fact all that difficult. For long stretches in this book, he was less difficult even than my sudoku puzzles.”

Gaddis may not be “that difficult” to Mr. Cowles’s perception, but its probably because Mr. Cowles lacks basic reading comprehension. You see, Cowles cites Cynthia Ozick’s “Literary Entrails” (Harper’s, April 2007), claiming that Ozick “summarized the debate and insisted that whatever the merits or demerits of experimental fiction, Gaddis himself wasn’t so tough. To prove it, she quoted a lovely passage from ‘Carpenter’s Gothic’…”

Too bad for Cowles that Ozick’s original article is available online. While Ozick did indeed offer a summary for those who were spared the literary cockfight between Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus, the passage that Cowles quotes is the one that Marcus quotes in his article. So not only did Ozick not cite the passage that Cowles quoted, but she didn’t even write about Carpenter’s Gothic in her essay! (The Gaddis novel under discussion was A Frolic of His Own and, specifically, the Marcus-Frazen wars over that book.) Nor did Ozick claim that Gaddis was easy or difficult. Her point in chiding “the boys in the alley” is that literature should not be judged on how difficult it may appear to be, but on the merits of the text. Any side fights involving readability indices, the speed and perspicacity of one’s faculties (and penis size), and the like were, as Ozick quite rightly pointed out unnecessary.

Never mind that one believes in diversion and the other dreams of potions. If the two of them are equally touchy and contentious and competitive, what has made them so is the one great plaint they have in common: the readers are going away.

I’m sure that reading Gaddis probably isn’t “difficult” if you can’t be bothered to read correctly. And Ozick’s point still holds. So long as illiterates like Mr. Cowles wax arrogantly and inaccurately about literature, the readers will indeed go away. Fortunately, the rest of us reading passionately still have it in us to be humbled and delighted by literature. (And for the record, The Recognitions was slow going for me when I first read it in my twenties. But it was worth every difficulty.)

Newspaper Accountability

The Telegraph‘s Peter Robins has, to my great astonishment, followed up on my suggestion of asking book critics what they read for fun. Robins has queried his fellow staffers, even registering the response time and emotional reactions of his colleagues. This certainly sets a very important precedent, and I do hope that other newspapers follow Robins’s example. In the meantime, it seems a fine time to ask what you, dear readers, have read for fun these days. (For my own part, I have been wildly entertained by Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels and have enjoyed revisiting a number of stories for a book I’m currently reviewing.)

Conscience and Integrity

He was a passionate devotee of David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, and many others who he sensed were writing the Great American Novel. He made acquaintances with a few of his heroes, attending workshops and the like. And he spent eleven years working on his novel. Because he needed his novel to be perfect. To his mind, this was the only way he could live up.

He didn’t realize that great novels — and indeed great art — often happen by accident. By routine. By turning around work and getting better at what you do. Even the best ball players can’t hit a homerun every time. He caused himself and a number of other people close to him some grief. It’s all there in Chip McGrath’s article. And it will all be there in a forthcoming installment of The Bat Segundo Show.

I bring Charles Bock up in light of Carrie Frye and David Ulin’s responses to the Zadie Smith controversy. Both suggest that Zadie Smith’s decision was exacted with, respectively, conscience and integrity. Anyone who writes knows that writing can be a tough and unrelenting business. That you’re going to get “no” (or, more often, no reply at all) more often than you get “yes.” Which is why it’s important to keep on writing and not let anyone stand in your way.

Now it’s certainly important to demand the best out of people, no matter how small the stakes. When friends and acquaintances offer me their manuscripts, they know damn well that I’m going to be hard and ruthless with their words. Writing is too important to be taken for granted.

But I believe that it’s also important to be encouraging with people who have the basic nuts and bolts. To leave some wiggle room for another writer to work out a problem and to find her voice in her own way. To encourage a writer, particularly a good one, to carry on writing, however difficult the process, however much the writer’s writing may not speak to you, and whatever the extant fallacies you perceive. The only way that a writer can get better at writing is to look that white whale right in the eye. To produce without fear of judgment and without fear of failure, but with an upturned ear. Judgment and failure come with the territory.

A wholesale dismissal of a manuscript without reason is less helpful than an honest and reasonable excoriation, which might provide the writer some clues on how to get better or where the writer went wrong with one person. Writing, like many things in life, benefits from failure as well as success. So I can find little conscience and integrity to Zadie Smith’s actions. Had she bothered to highlight the deficiencies of these manuscripts using very specific examples — and, for that matter, had the print people damning blogs used very specific examples — we might be having a pugnacious but ultimately well-intentioned discussion. But Zadie Smith, lest we forget, is just one voice. She is not the final arbiter of taste. The very idea that art must be perfect fails to take Michelangelo’s maxim into account: “The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.”

Casablanca, you may recall, was just another studio picture. Picasso was frighteningly prolific. On the Road was written in three weeks. Dostoevsky quite famously wrote his novella, “The Gambler,” because he had to meet a crazed deadline in order to meet his debts.

The Charles Bocks of our world are left to sweat when they might benefit from writing with a sense of urgency. They continue in this way because instead of being true to their voices, they feel the need to adhere to some ridiculously high standard proscribed by others. When the high standards should come primarily from the artist, guided in large part by an intuitive subconscious.

So what role then is the critic or the judge? I think Mencken was pretty close:

A catalyzer, in chemistry, is a substance that helps two other substances to react. For example, consider the case of ordinary cane sugar and water. Dissolve the sugar in water and nothing happens. But add a few drops of acid and the sugar changes to glucose and fructose. Meanwhile, the acid itself is absolutely unchanged. All it does is to stir up the reaction between the water and the sugar. The process is called catalysis. The acid is a catalyzer.

Well, this is almost exactly the function of a genuine critic of the arts. It is his business to provoke the reaction between the work of art and the spectator. The spectator, untutored, stands unmoved; he sees the work of art, but it fails to make any intelligible impression on him; if he were spontaneously sensitive to it, there would be no need for criticism. But now comes the critic with his catalysis. He makes the work of art live for the spectator; he makes the spectator live for the work of art. Out of the process comes understanding, appreciation, intelligent enjoyment — and that is precisely what the artist tried to produce.

Law of Averages

I hope to find more time to write at length about Charles Baxter’s extraordinary novel, The Soul Thief. Beyond Baxter nailing the relationship of “God Only Knows” to Brian Wilson’s personal development as an artist, one is tempted to read Nathaniel’s relationship with his parents in the context of this interesting essay (in which Baxter’s son offers annotated responses in relation to remembered anecdotes) contained in this month’s issue of The Believer.

There is also this striking passage, to be considered in the same context as Philip Roth’s American Pastoral moment and Richard Russo’s “wrong end of the telescope” speech from Bridge of Sighs:

But sometimes it happens that we enter a public place and find that, for once, the law of averages has broken down. We step gingerly into the darkened movie theater, the film starts, and we are the only ones in attendance, the only spectators to laugh or scream or yawn in the otherwise empty and silent rows of seats. We drive for miles and see no one coming in the other direction, the road for once being ours alone. Our high beams stay on. Where is everybody? The earth has been emptied except for us as we make our stuttering progress through the dark. We take each turn expecting that someone will appear out of nowhere to keep us company for a moment. In the doctor’s anteroom, no one else is waiting and fidgeting with nerves, and the receptionist has vanished; or we find ourselves alone in the fun-house at the seedy carnival, where, because of our solitude, there will be no fun no matter what we do; or we enter the restaurant where no one else is dining, though the candles have all been lit and the place settings have been nicely arranged. The waitstaff has collectively decamped to some other bistro even though they have left the lights on in this one. The water boiling in the kitchen sends up a cloud of steam. The maitre d’ has abandoned his station; we sit anywhere we please. The outward-bound commuter train starts, but no one sits in the car, and no conductor ambles down the aisle to punch a hole in our ticket. In the drugstore no one is behind the cash register, and the druggist has left the prescription medications unmonitored on their assorted shelves. We enter the church for the funeral, and we are the first to arrive, and we must sit without the help of the ushers. Where are they? No sound, not a single note or a chord or a melody line from the organ loft, consoles and sustains us.

Such occasions are so rare that when they occur, we often think I don’t belong here, something is wrong or Why didn’t they inform me? or Let there be someone, anyone, else. But for the duration, when the law of averages no longer applies, we are the sole survivors, the only audience for what reality wishes to show us. This may be what the prophets once felt, this ultimate final aloneness.

7 Additional Ways to Cultivate a Lifetime Reading Habit (And Become a Misanthropic Kook in the Process)

So here’s a list on how to become a lifetime reader. But this series of suggestions doesn’t perform true justice for the truly hard-core. Because this list is inadequate if we take this vital reading sector into account, here are seven more handy suggestions:

15. Have friend ridicule you during any moment you’re not reading a book. The shame will then cause you to read further, particularly if there are electrodes attached to your hands.

16. Surround yourself with more books than you can possibly read. But this is too easy a suggestion and it should be taken to the next logical level. If you wall yourself in with interesting books, then you will be forced to remove the books that surround you on all sides. Of course, in removing one book from these many walls, you will then become so interested in it and start reading it. Be careful not to die of starvation and dehydration should you choose this option. Create holes in the book walls so that straws can pass through. (And be sure to hire a valet to slip you the appropriate viands and nutritional supplements. If you don’t have an expendable income, you can always dig a tunnel.)

17. If you wear glasses, replace insides of lenses with text cutups. The nice thing about books is that they can be cut up into sections with scissors. However, this technique may be too time-consuming for the true reader, who may read the text inside the glasses after two minutes and pine for more to read. So be sure to put something truly incomprehensible in there like Finnegan’s Wake.

18. Go to pretentious cocktail parties. Ideally, these should be populated by smug intellectuals who claim to read everything and who seem to talk of nothing but books. There, they will quote chapter and verse from obscure texts and talk about some such author’s “dichotomous thematics limning the main post-postmodernist narrative thrust” and other things that are, for the most part, tough to wrap one’s head around. You may be frightened by this people. After all, you can’t even talk about sports with them and some of them don’t even drink beer. But their banter will inspire you to figure out just what the fuck they’re talking about. Ergo, more books to read! An entire nomenclature to deconstruct!

19. Remain celibate. Pay no attention to all that propaganda from the Western World. There’s nothing wrong in being a misanthrope! A partner gets in the way of reading more books. And sometimes when pursuing a reading life, there comes a time in which you have to make tradeoffs. Sure, you’ll end up jerking off twelve times a day. But that also means reading six more chapters a day than those silly people in marriages and relationships. If this causes you to become socially maladjusted, never mind the labels from others!

20. Read while walking. You’ll get more pages read each day if you read while walking. Never mind such silly things as stoplights and objects you’ll bump into. This is, after all, what peripheral vision is for.

21. Why read just one book at the same time? And I’m not talking about “being in the middle of many books.” I’m talking about setting two books side-by-side and reading them both at the same time. After all, if a tough guy can double-first two beers, surely, you can double-read two books.

Free Book Day

PW‘s Douglas Wolk reports on some of the successful efforts to turn average Joes and Janes into successful comic book regulars. Among one of the comic industry’s more enriching promotional tools is Free Comic Book Day, which disseminates samples and various issues of comics every year in May.

All this makes me wonder why the publishing industry isn’t working with bookstores to institute “Free Book Day.” With all the “sky is falling” hyperbole being tossed around by book critics and booksellers alike, would not disseminating literature on a specific day of the year be an apposite way to hook the next generation on reading?

In fact, if the high cost of printing a fat volume is a consideration, this might be a very good way of getting short stories and novellas into the public consciousness. If the publishing industry doesn’t want to take this up, then perhaps literary journals might want to coordinate with independent bookstores to remind the public that there are all sorts of fantastic stories to be read. And if not bookstores, why not publicize a Free Book Day where literary journals are handed out at subway stations or other places where people face the prospect of staring into space for 45 minutes or getting lost in a narrative?

This may seem a rather extraordinary solution, but this kind of pro-active approach sure beats throwing one’s hands up in the air and shrieking “The End is Nigh!” at the top of one’s lungs. And besides, wouldn’t it be a more interesting world — just for one day — if something like A Public Space or The Threepenny Review replaced The New York Sun as the free handout of choice?

Another Game of “Humiliation”

David Lodge featured the game “Humiliation” in his book, Changing Places, and it looks like James Tata is raising the stakes, bolding the NYT‘s “Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years” that he’s read. Since this is a better (although still flawed) list than the other one, I’m in.

Beloved–Toni Morrison
Underworld–Don DeLillo
Blood Meridian–Cormac McCarthy
Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels–John Updike
Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, Rabbit at Rest
American Pastoral–Philip Roth
A Confederacy of Dunces–John Kennedy Toole
Housekeeping–Marilynne Robinson
Winter’s Tale–Mark Helprin
White Noise–Don DeLillo
The Counterlife–Philip Roth
Libra–Don DeLillo
Where I’m Calling From–Raymond Carver
The Things They Carried–Tim O’Brien
Mating–Norman Rush
Jesus’ Son–Denis Johnson
Operation Shylock–Philip Roth
Independence Day–Richard Ford
Sabbath’s Theater–Philip Roth
Border Trilogy–Cormac McCarthy
All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain
The Human Stain–Philip Roth
The Known World–Edward P. Jones
The Plot Against America–Philip Roth

Yes, I’m sadly slack on Cormac McCarthy. And Marilynne Robinson’s two novels have been staring at me for the past year.

How to Read

No, Mr. Brownlee, you are missing the point. The Book Mistress’s response on how to read Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a perfectly reasonable one. We hard-core readers often forget that some people are thrown off guard by anything diverging from a traditional structure. Thus, a “normal” explanation for how to read something that seems so apparent to us might be of great value for them.

This doesn’t take anything away from idiosyncratic readers who are prepared to skip around from middle to end to beginning, nor does this sully those who wish to consult “The Navison Record” exclusively for answers.

We can read how we want to, we can leave your read behind
‘Cause your friends read here and I read there
And the reads are all just fine

Reading is Not a Race

John Freeman: “The sentences run to typical Pynchonian length, and the typeface is alarmingly small. One can spend 20 hours of a weekend reading this book and barely make a dent.”

From David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel:

Harold Bloom’s claim to The New York Times that he could read at a rate of five hundred pages per hour.

Writer’s arse.

Spectacular exhibition! Right this way ladies and gentlemen! See Professor Bloom read the 1961 corrected and reset Random House edition of Ulysses in one hour and thirty-three minutes. Not one page stinted. Unforgettable!