Flying Roundtable: Stage Three

Posted by in Flying, Kraft, Eric, Roundtable

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

Kathleen Maher writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nigel Beale writes:

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

Here is my early take:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreams free us from purposefulness.

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Green writes:

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

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

Sarah Weinman writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jason Boog writes:

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

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

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

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

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