Stone Arabia Roundtable — Part Five

(This is the fifth of a five-part roundtable discussion of Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia. Additionally, Spiotta will be in conversation with Edward Champion on July 20, 2011 at McNally Jackson, located at 52 Prince Street, New York, NY, to discuss the book further. If you’ve enjoyed The Bat Segundo Show in the past and the book intrigues you, you won’t want to miss this live discussion!)

Additional Installments: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four

Edward Champion writes:

In an effort to address Paula’s question about Stone Arabia’s significance in the Revolutionary War, I located this biography on Google Books published in 1884: Colonel John Brown: His Services in the Revolutionary War, Battle of Stone Arabia.

The first paragraph intrigued the hell out of me:

The residents of the Mohawk valley will ever feel a deep interest in the career of Colonel John Brown, who in the fall of 1780, under the inspiration of a lofty patriotism, came with his Berkshire Levies to this valley, to protect its fields from pillage, its dwellings from conflagration, and its early settlers from the cruelty of a savage foe. This interest is doubtless enhanced by the consideration that when he first engaged actively in the business pursuits of life, he was a resident of this valley, and that he fell while fighting heroically on one of its battle-fields, near which his ashes now repose.

Now doesn’t that sound a bit like Nik’s Chronicles? This got me thinking about whether Nik’s Chronicles represent a new lofty patriotism, or whether the act of plucking a lily (Paula’s question causing me to plunge further, not unlike Ada’s documentary filmmaking) from the vast swaths of electronic fallow is really what Spiotta is remarking upon. If the Battle of Stone Arabia can’t be remembered, if Colonel John Brown’s heroic actions stand no chance of being committed to memory (and we’re arguably living in a nation where our political figures commit more historical gaffes than ever before), then does Nik stand a chance?

I’m glad that Susan has brought up one overlooked facet of the book: Denise’s tendency to diagnose from the Internet (Spiotta’s own answer to WebMD?). It’s a woefully insufficient and darkly humorous response to the present healthcare crisis. You don’t have the dough for a doc, but maybe you’ll stand a modest chance with unreliable online info. Perhaps there are unseen Battles of Stone Arabia going on around us —- people dying or getting sick or, in Denise’s case, seeing their emotional life break down because this is the new method with which we survive by our bootstraps. “Pain tourist” is indeed a suitable term.

As Porochista says, even in her refreshingly honest takeaway, it’s not just the points about memory that drive this book. It’s about a place associated with a Revolutionary War battle -— maybe not on the level of Bunker Hill or Valcour Bay -— inevitably transforming into a small hamlet with an Amish contingent (the very opposite of war) without anybody truly observing the changes. So perhaps there remain remain plenty of under-the-radar facets of our culture hiding in plain sight! Like Judith, I feel the impulse to go to the library and drag books off the shelf when there is a name or a memory pertaining to another subject. And yet there’s no way that any Chronicles, or any life, will contain it all! I wasn’t kidding when I said that I would “read forever or die trying” when I threw down the gauntlet for the Modern Library Reading Challenge. Maybe this is why, when it comes to life and it comes to literature, perhaps we really do have the obligation to finish it.

Thanks again to everybody for such a great discussion!

Robert Birnbaum writes:

I read Stone Arabia (a title I expected nothing from) as the story of a savvy and functioning middle-aged white woman narrating (reliably?) the story of her life, which includes an idiosyncratic and increasingly dysfunctional brother, a mother whose faculties (and thus her ability to live independently) are diminishing and a grown-up daughter who seems the healthiest in this cast of characters (she got out and moved away from the family’s melodrama).

In the context of this story, I find Denise admirable for her support, her concern for her kin and for her sensitivity to the outside world (the mother arrested for taking her infant to a bar, her reaction to Abu Ghraib, the Chechnyan school tragedy, and one other instance I have now forgotten). I wonder if any of us had anything more than a a passing reaction…

On the other hand, I don’t have much sympathy for Nik. He may or may not be talented in an accessible way. (And I don’t award him much for his ability to mimic various elements of the creativity business.) I am not certain whether he was easily thwarted by any resistance to his ambitions (on the verge of success, his band was apparently sabotaged by one of those sharpies with which the record business is infested), but his nearly three decades as a barkeep in a Los Angeles dive bar is, at best, evidence of a pathetic lack of self-preservation. His substance abuse, which he refers to as his consolation, provides ample evidence that, whatever the obsession to fantasize a life of creativity means in his life, it does not offer (much) relief for what ails him. Did Nik kill himself? By that point in the story, I had stopped caring.

Denise’s (failed?) relationships don’t strike me as particularly telling, except in the pleasure she derives from escaping into the world of old movies with her useful paramour Jay. Her concerns about her mother’s decline meld into her not unreasonable midlife anxieties of her own mental diminishing. That’s life. She appears to be a caring mother — either I missed it or her bringing up the younger Ada was not part of this narrative.

Apparently, Stone Arabia was sufficiently engaging for this group of dedicated readers to call forth a plenitude of analysis and interpretation as well as some brainy cultural references. I thought the title fell slightly short of being useless in my reading and the cover art may have referenced the quintessential punks, the Sex Pistols. But the cutout newspaper typography was not original to them -— not to mention, did I need to get these references to Nabokov and Byron to reasonably enjoy Ms. Spiotta’s meticulously spun tale? Also, while Nik’s (artful?) mimicry could lend itself to hypertextual adaptations and flourishes, I think such gimmickry is incidental.

Hmmm….did I like this book? Not in particular -— though I respect Dana Spiotta’s rendering, I am not much impressed with what I see as Nik’s parroting of the music business. That his sister is devoted and supportive turns out to be too small a story to really engage me. I certainly do not regret reading this and I am pleased to confirm the variegated subjectivity, which I note this group of readers brought to this Medusa-headed conversation.

Darby Dixon writes:

Here’s a handful of tossed-off points, because I can’t help myself:

  • Does Jay actually like Kinkade? Or was that more of an ironic thing, a quirky little thing that happens between a couple? I’ll be able to actually review passages over the weekend, but I suspect I either read this point wrong the first time through or I read it way differently than everyone else did.
  • How does Spiotta do with endings in general? This is a question for those familiar with her whole body of work. Again, full disclaimer: it’s been a while since I read Eat the Document, but I kind of remember question marks going off over my head around that book’s ending.
  • The idea that women should be behind other women writers 100% makes me feel like I need to go read a stack of Tom Clancy novels. I mean, I know, I know. But. (It’s a perpetual point of shame that I’m not reading enough women writers, etc., etc., etc., embarrassed my current stack is male-dominated, etc., etc., etc., to be rectified in the coming weeks/months/years, etc., etc., etc.)
  • I like Ed’s notion of Stone Arabia representing an unknown place in plain sight. The history we’ve lost is, what, billions of times more in pure quantity than the history we’ve kept? Reading The Chronicles as a form of patriotism seems a little like a reach to me. Nik is free to do what he wants. And if he wants to spend his life writing a fake story about himself that nobody reads, well, people have died so he can. Are there more depths plunge into here?
  • Speaking of Nik (because he’s the flashy guy who can’t help but steal attention from anyone else in the room) has the term “self-portrait” been used here yet? I ask because, in my current drawing class, we’re working on self-portraits. And I spent four hours last night staring at a three-foot-high developing rendering of my own face, Nik couldn’t help but come to mind. His Chronicles are essentially a self-portrait in words, aren’t they? (What’s to stop me from critiquing my own artwork?)
  • Speaking of myself -– and by extension, all of us -– on a meta level, I’m totally fascinated by the weird tension between reading the book as a text and reading it as a reflection of ourselves. Not that I have anything interesting to say about that, other than I like it.
  • And there are so many other things I want to ponder, review, and discuss further. Ed and all, you may have ruined me for books for which I can’t participate in a roundtable like this. Thank you!

Paula Bomer writes:

Ed: I agree that Stone Arabia is not a random place she picked, nor a random title. Spiotta is far more deliberate than that and she loves hidden meanings.

I thought it was pretty clear that Jay’s love of Kinkade was ironic.

Whether I liked this book or not? I’m happy I read it. I found the second half very engaging. It had some weaknesses, but very few books don’t. Emily Nussbaum wrote that Mary Gaitskill’s first novel “flawed” and disparaged it. I love that novel, love it, and I know it’s flawed. I think Stone Arabia is a very smart book, brimming with the author’s intelligence and compassion. Quite frankly, the flaws are minor in comparison to its strengths. In general, I doubt it’s a book I would have picked up on my own, but I’m very glad I did, thanks to Ed. I should read more things that aren’t my thing (meaning, I need to stop rereading Tolstoy, Greene, Gaitskill, EJ Howard, and so on). 

Bill Ryan writes:

Does Jay actually like Kinkade, or was that more of an ironic thing, a quirky little thing that happens between a couple? I’ll be able to actually review passages over the weekend, but I’m suspect I either read this point wrong the first time through or I read it way differently than everyone else did.

We never get a lot of info on whether or not Jay’s in love with Kinkade. We only know that his “obsession” was “pure.” Jay “wasn’t a very good looking guy.” He wore sweaters that gave him “an off-putting, almost creepy diminutive effect.” Just about the only positive thing Denise has to say, other than his between-the-lines, non-threatening nature, is that his obsession is pure. We get that in the Kinkade and the James Mason movies. Denise goes on to say something about how the world is full of “fake obsessions” and there’s little that’s more terrible to her than faking an obsession. We would hope it’s an ironic obsession, but aren’t “irony” and “purity” antonymic? 

Denise says, “I am drawn to obsessives.” No shit.

Sarah Weinman writes:

This is both on-track and off-track, but it’s interesting to juxtapose Porochista’s question (“but did you like the book?”) with Darby’s observation about Stone Arabia taking place in 2004, the year of Facebook’s birth, with all the talk of memory and fakery and the sheer number of intense personal narratives we’re sharing (and how I feel tremendously honored to be one of the share-ees, so to speak). Because even though I didn’t think that it was Spiotta’s intention, the mere fact that I’m connecting these disparate strands demonstrates why Stone Arabia is so damn relevant and necessary: it’s a book to admire, that inspires both deep emotional responses, but also this wealth of analysis that travels as far back in the past as 1780 and as far forward as, well, 2011. When we’re all thinking about what it is to be “authentic” and “true” and whether the word “like” has been corrupted by Facebook (and also the word “friend”) when “follower” is now a social media buzzword more than a description of someone leading disciples (which, in this case, means Nik is the cult leader and Denise is his ardent acolyte; I will refrain from stretching this metaphor to needlessly thin Jesus/Paul comparisons, however).

Truth in art has been on my mind — in particular, with respect to documentary films. The last few I’ve seen have really cemented my belief that the form is suspect, that it is impossible to have a reliable narrator, and that facts are wilfully misrepresented and contradicted with a Google search or two. Which, of course, makes fiction “truer” — at least to me. So when Spiotta explores memory, its boundaries, and its limitations, her quest becomes that much more meaningful. Sure, there’s artifice. But there’s also tacit acknowledgment of this artifice. We can’t trust “facts” and “truth.” So why not do something greater, whatever that entails?

Roxane Gay writes:

Does Jay actually like Kinkade, or was that more of an ironic thing, a quirky little thing that happens between a couple? I’ll be able to actually review passages over the weekend, but I’m suspect I either read this point wrong the first time through or I read it way differently than everyone else did.

I didn’t get the sense that Kinkade was an ironic thing that develops between this couple. Because Denise and Jay weren’t that kind of couple. They were all business. So they couldn’t even have the kind of interaction that would make this strain of charming irony and history possible. The way Jay was written makes irony, on his part, rather implausible. Or maybe I just really hate the character and Kinkade so much that I’m hoping there’s no irony in the obsession.

Paula Bomer writes:

Roxane: I’m very curious (and I did try reading all of the comment threads; so maybe you’ve already explained this) as to why you dislike the Jay character.

I think that irony — or kitsch — is implicit in the Kinkade collecting. It serves as a counterpoint to the writing of music that includes “Soundings.” It is the opposite of that sort of “art.” I honestly believe that Kinkade himself made his work with a strong sense of kitsch, knowing that he was mocking “real” art. As little as I know of LA — and I appreciate all the people who have commented on the LAness of this book — people in LA are much more likely to gravitate to this type of art and the collection of items that may seem lowbrow, than the classical musicians I know in Vienna.

I’m going to throw out some ideas that I don’t completely believe. Delillo. Spiotta loves him. I’ve never managed to get through one of his books. My bad, for sure. But let’s say I see this book as a woman’s book wrapped in a man’s book. There could be many reasons to do this. Women’s books are not taken as seriously because they deal with the domestic. Men’s books deal with world issues, with structure and language, and with abstract notions. Hey, men are better at math. So Spiotta utilizes this slightly weird framework, chews on ideas (as opposed to the inner lives of humans). She contemplates ideas of art, the meaning behind these ideas, and history (thanks Ed, for elaborating on the title). She’s mocking, she’s ironic, and so on. But to me, the meat of the book is the story of a damaged family. A woman wrapped in a man. Yet it’s a woman’s voice, wrapping herself around a man’s self indulgent life. There is so much “bothness” in this book — a favorite term of mine, coined by David Foster Wallace.

I read as many male writers as I do female writers. I often feel that male writers — and maybe “often” is unfair, maybe “sometimes” is a better word here — use technique and literary pyrotechnics to avoid getting at the emotions that rule our daily lives.

All of the above is offered to continue the discussion. I’m truly on the fence about it. But I felt the need to throw this out there.

Porochista Khakpour writes:

Paula: Interesting!

I’m not sure I agree on the gender divide stuff at all ( for one thing no male writer I know has touched Gertrude Stein in levels of experiment). Interestingly enough, I would have killed for more literary pyrotechnics here! The opportunity was there and it was not taken — at least not all the way. She made a gesture in that direction but backed away from really going there…which, yes, my beloved (maybe favorite writer) DFW would not have done. But since I don’t trust today’s big publishing climate,  I have to consider, to be fair,  that maybe Spiotta wanted things to be more experimental and she was pushed out of it. Who knows? From reading her other book, I’m inclined to think she shied away from it. Even Egan I wanted to be more experimental! We need female experimental writers to be recognized because lord knows they are out there. The industry allows white males to be more wild and intellectual and experimental; the industry recognizes and nurtures the desire in them. So I think we all have to write about things greater than just ourselves and our own personal experience. (I mean, without fail, nine out of ten editors want me to dish on minority female experience, are interested in reading me for anthropological insights on the Iranian-American experience, want to hear me go on about men and dating and relationships because I am still “youngish,” etc.)

And finally, I want to confirm that it’s true that LA people have a high tolerance for cruddy, campy, and kitschy shit. Maybe even Kinkade garbage. But Kinkade, while he must have realized he may profit from the joke, was not originally in on it, I believe. At least that’s what the 60 Minutes segment on him once made me believe.

Alex Shephard writes:

Apologies about entering this (really, really insightful and wonderful) thread so late! I’ve been on vacation this week, and have a sinus infection that’s left me feverish and incoherent. Hope I don’t derail anything.

I want to talk about cliche, kitsch, and rock music. From the very first sentence, Nik’s story is explicitly linked to the dominant narratives of the “golden age” of rock ‘n’ roll, the 1960s — “he changed in one identifiable moment.” A Hard Day’s Night is cited by a number of groups (esp. the seminal LA band, The Byrds) as a formative moment in their evolution; similarly, John Lennon and Paul McCartney have linked their decision to begin playing music to a moment just after seeing Jailhouse Rock (“now that’s a good job,” John Lennon would say later about Elvis). The sudden appearance of a guitar, and it’s immediate transformation into an object of obsession, is also inked onto the pages of rock lore. Over the course of Stone Arabia, Spiotta links Nik’s experience — his actual experience (the manipulative managers, the strange left turns, the substance abuse) and his Chronicled experience (the motorcycle crash, “every person who did see them live seemed to have formed a band of their own,” the substance abuse) to dominant (and very cliched) narratives that characterize so many biopics and biographies about rock music, both popular and underground. Interestingly, these narratives, manipulative and often tacked on as they are, are what define the “authenticity” of ’60s and ’70s rock music. It’s why The Killers grew mustaches and went out into the wilderness to record their second album, why The Kings of Leon will always remind you of the fact that they’re all related, and how they grew up traveling the Bible Belt with their preacher father. At this point in time they’re kitsch narratives — harkening back to a time that never really existed, imitating a narrative that was already mostly a lie.

There are Easter eggs — connections to archetypal rock lore — on almost every page of this book, and the relationship between the narratives that run through The Chronicles (perhaps also a nod to that perfect rock “memoir” of (probably) mostly fiction, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles) and the narratives offered by musicians and journalists to explain rock music is crucial to my reading of the novel. What happens when you have a series of fake narratives that echo real ones that both signal authenticity and are, frankly, composed of bullshit? These are narratives that either heighten or diminish reality, that often make reality seem more dangerous and comforting at the same time. This, in my mind, is the connection between Nik Worth, Denise’s anxiety about her memory, Thomas Kinkade, and the “Breaking Event” chapters. Each provides a narrative that converts “real experience” into something that both signals a kind of authenticity and that is kitschy. They all are meant to “identify and fulfill the needs and desires of his target audience,” to borrow a description of Kinkade’s work. The Aladdin Sane birthday cake also illustrates this connection nicely. 

Of course, Worth is positively subterranean, and the conflict between life underground and the rock ‘n’ roll dream narratives within The Chronicles is what I find most interesting about Stone Arabia. Nik is as authentically underground as it gets, but both his “real” life and his second life in The Chronicles all mirror cliches. He’s authentically underground, while also exemplifying the inherently inauthentic narratives that determine one’s status as authentically anything. In his interview with Ada, he says “Imagine doing whatever you want with everything that went before you. Imagine never having to give up Artaud or Chuck Berry or Alistair Crowley or the Beats or the I Ching or Lewis Carroll? Imagine total freedom.” Of course, all of those things show up as formative cliches for the Beatles, Dylan, and Morrison (among many others). Perhaps Nik’s project is a way of trying to free himself from anxieties about authenticity itself, an attempt to both hold on to talismans and rid himself of their power? And what is authentic experience anyway? That’s the dominant question of the Breaking Events chapters, and a crucial one within the novel itself. 

My fever is back, though. So I’m going to cut off here. A few quick notes before I go: 

  1. When thinking about Nik’s life and music, I kept thinking of people like Brian Wilson, Roky Erickson, Syd Barrett, and Daniel Johnston. Interestingly, all of these artists are mentally ill. I’m not suggesting Nik is mentally ill. I’m just somewhat surprised that I kept instinctively making the link. Did anybody else have that experience? I suppose it may just be that these people all spent significant time “underground.” Arthur Lee, the Godfather of L.A. underground, was also on my mind. 
  2. I have no idea what Nik Worth’s music sounds like. While I had my problems with the Richard Katz sections of Freedom, I ended up getting an idea of what The Demonics and Walnut Surprise (easily the worst fake band name ever) sounded like. His list of influences was diverse (and aweseome! Can, the Incredible String Band, and The Residents? Sweet. He does lose points for hating on Wings, though.). Denise and The Chronicles tend to use genre (or cliche!) as a substitute for description: “power pop,” “progressive” “unique sound to counter to both commercial progressive rock and punk rock,” “dark lyrics and art rock dissonance,” “fatal hooks and crafted melodies,” “unique, intense,” “proto-glam,” “crystalline gorgeous harmonies got them compared to the Beatles,” “perfectly rendered songs of herartache and youth,” “unprecedented path of experiment and innovation,” “full of cryptic and hermetic references,” “Who would have guessed what we were all waiting for was a collection of atonal, arrhythmic assualt compositions mixed with concept sound poems?” “A Futurist sound experiment, a dada poemlet.” That’s just what I found in the first 94 pages. None of it helps me hear Nik’s music, though I do think some of it is relevant to what I talked about earlier. 

There are three songs that were on my mind when I was writing this post:

Wilco – “The Late Greats” (The best band will never get signed / K-Settes starring Butcher’s Blind / Are so good, you won’t ever know / They never even played a show / You can’t hear ’em on the radio)

Bad Company – “Shooting Star” (The ultimate rock success cliche song!)

And a parody of the Bad Company song (and others like it) by America’s Beatles, Barry Dworkin & the Gas Station Dogs (as performed by Ted Leo)

Dana Spiotta writes:

Thank you to Ed for doing this roundtable. I am so grateful for all the time everyone put into the discussion. I knew this was a book that would elicit complicated reactions, but I was so pleased to see people found so much to discuss. What thoughtful and interesting responses. How generous you all are to read the book so carefully. With so many books in the world, and so many other things demanding attention, a novelist is extremely lucky to get serious readers.

I can’t help imagining Nik getting the roundtable treatment for his life’s work. He would love it. It is glorious to have deep and long attention to your work. But then he would hate it — because you can’t control responses. People bring their whole long lives to it; it is as subjective and complicated as any creative act. That is one of the book’s concerns: artistic creation and response. Nik would have fun making up his own roundtable, and part of the fun I had in writing the book was taking an artist’s desire for control to an extreme. Maybe there’s no one who is more of an obsessive control freak than a novelist. You sit in your room and play god for years. Then you emerge with this crazy thing — not unlike Nik’s Chronicles, which is a kind of long autobiographical novel. You live in this made-up world as you are creating it. Everything you do and are interested in relates to your secret world. At least that is how it works for me. It takes over my dreams and my rhythms and my speech. Its defects become my defects, which can be a little traumatizing. For me, writing novels is a strange and antisocial thing to do. But I feel more attentive and closer to people when I am writing. So it is complicated. In this book I was interested in the world within the world, and the cost of being close to a person who does that kind of work. So the first big question you all asked — is Nik a “real” artist? Of course he is. Who can say he isn’t? Which doesn’t mean he isn’t a narcissistic freak. I was quite deliberate about leaving the quality of his work ambiguous. I was mostly interested in his devotion. The challenge was suggesting this lifelong, hyper-elaborated art piece. (It meant writing as Nik pretending to be someone else, a sort of double fake that still had to be convincing. It couldn’t be boring or badly done. So Nik is as self-reflexive as I am, he likes contradictions and inside jokes. For example, the irony of his wanting to escape criticism but then needing to create a kind of mean snarky critic within so it feels real to him.) I showed various clips from his Chronicles, but I needed to leave a lot out because I wanted, as I describe below, to focus on Denise’s perceptions of it. I wanted to show just enough, but I didn’t want the novel to be the Chronicles. I didn’t want an iPad app with his music and album covers. That is one possible way to go, but I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want this to be a novel of tricks and games. I really didn’t want it to be cheeky and cute and merely clever. I wanted it to be about being human, about how humans cope with the given terms of this cultural moment, and I wanted it to be about family: the hermetic, complicated, intimate, and relentless idea of family. Even the novel’s very deep concerns about memory and identity are rooted in the strange romance of family.

I am only interested in writing about things I haven’t figured out. In other words, I usually start with a question. And rather than discovering an answer as I write, I try to make the question as deep and complicated and honest as I can. The momentum, if it exists, is in that increasing complication. I think some people perceive this as ambivalence — I tend to undercut everything with its opposite — but I don’t see how anyone meditating on anything deeply can feel only one way about it. People in my novels have strong desires, but they don’t only go in one direction. So I think I begin with ideas, and then it changes as I get into it. In Stone Arabia the inaugural idea was of an artist who doesn’t achieve success in the world, but then he keeps going. And like many isolated artists, he has one person who believes in him and acts as his audience, in this case a sibling. So I wanted to see what that was like twenty-five years in. And I wanted him to be the real deal, but I also wanted him to be a “loser.” I wanted it to be as complex as family is: a long elaborated relationship from which there is no end (or beginning, for that matter).

I started with that. Then, as I was working, I realized that the sister — the audience — would narrate it, had to narrate it. And the thing became a novel of consciousness. As a writer I am really interested in the depiction of consciousness in fiction. I think the novel describes — enacts — the experience of a mind better than any other medium. I also like how a novel is relentless and inescapable the way a mind is. (I really like that you can’t click through to something else. Of course you can always throw the book across the room.) I wanted the book to be claustrophobic and distorted by emotion and doubt and subjectivity. As I worked I wanted the story to be emotional — practically deranged with emotion — but I also wanted it to be unsentimental and uneasy.

All of the structural decisions came out of these concerns. I wasn’t trying to be experimental or conventional. I wasn’t concerned with realism or metafiction or postmodernism. I think of those things as a reader sometimes, but as a writer I try to be more intuitive. I try to “go to the jeopardy” as Gordon Lish used to say (or that’s how I misread him to suit my purposes). I try to be brave about proceeding despite my own shortcomings and limits. All I can do is make myself relentless. My deformations are my own — just go there and go deep. So the form came out of necessity. The form came out of my interest in the interplay of Denise’s consciousness and the idea of a long elaborated fantasy life. Of course the shape also came out of the difficulties, failures, and deceptions of using language as an organizing force. How to tell a story necessarily becomes part of the novel’s deep concerns. Since the novel largely consists of a first person “written” narrative created by a mostly self-taught and self-conscious woman on the edge of emotional collapse, I really needed those third-person narrative breathers (primarily at the end and the beginning) to frame it, even if they never move all that far from Denise’s consciousness. Denise, Nik, and Ada all have specific language strategies. The challenge was in distinguishing all these documents and pieces without losing the connective thread of the human emotion. I don’t know how close I came to achieving my ambitions for this book. But that is what I was going for. I like having everything at stake, and then if I fall short (and I always will), I still end up somewhere interesting.

By the way, I did not see Nik as mentally ill at all. Maybe that shows how crazy I am. He is fully aware of what is real and what isn’t. He is certainly an alcoholic (by an decent standard), but he is unapologetic and I see him as a resister. He has found a way to be the person he wants to be. He seems immune to the judgment of others. He is deeply unconventional and eccentric, albeit very self-obsessed. I admire Nik’s ability to create his own artistic world. He was supposed to quit and get a real job, or he should have gone out and promoted himself. But he isn’t interested in that, and he pays the price. He isn’t bitter — he has been content in his odd way. I personally hate the way novelists are expected to self-promote. How everyone is expected to self-promote. I hate feeling helpless about how to sell books to people. Wah wah wahhh, right? That is another thing Nik has going for him. He isn’t full of self-pity and complaint.

Of course your life is never just your own, and your choices have consequences. I am obsessed with consequences, and what moral — yes — obligations we have to each other. So Nik makes a decision in his life to be intransigent and live at the margins. By the time he is fifty, he is falling apart. I was very aware that these characters lived in America of 2004. A specific time and place. There is no room in the US of recent years for people to live eccentric lives, especially as you age, because of money. Money was one of the big complicating factors. I wanted this to be a book where money weighed on everyone. (I thought of Joyce and how he wanted no one in his books to be worth more than 1000 pounds. He wanted to have Bloom and Stephen counting every penny. He wanted the ultra-realism of money and bathrooms. So far I have left out the bathrooms, but I too have no interest in the lives of the rich.) Health insurance, second mortgages, food stamps, WIC, medi-cal assisted living. I wanted the details of money to play a big role. Because one reason being an artist is so difficult is because of money. And especially without national health insurance, trying to live at the margins becomes nearly an act of suicide as you age. Denise and Nik didn’t get the education they should have had, given their potential. Their mother always had to work, their father left, so they are under parented. They are almost feral children, self-taught and self-raised. Money was clearly a big force against them. I do think being an artist — especially if you are not a mainstream artist, or a born promoter — is harder than ever. I chose Topanga for Nik’s garage because it is one of those American places with a history of off-the-grid artists, a place that encourages eccentricity. Good luck finding a cheap place there now, and good luck trying to live like a bohemian anywhere.

I don’t see Nik as a bad guy. He is just an eccentric human being. Denise gets a lot out of being his sister. She made different choices. She had a kid — which I think made her more responsible as well as more ordinary. But it also gave her so much comfort, and it gave her a concern for the future and the world beyond her own life. Partly the book became about how we manage to comfort ourselves in the face of mortality. As we start to fail, how do we cope? Denise is trying to cope. I think her anxiety gets located in the barrage of information and media she subjects herself to. Another thing that came up in writing the book is the difference between information and art. Nik’s work — whatever its worth — is satisfying and something she understands. She gets all the inside references and it is meaningful to her. She is moved by it. But the flow of intense and relentless information, the bombardment of the external, is really annihilating for her. It is not all that far from Nik’s substance issues. She should resist it, but she can’t. It is destructive. It is chaotic in an infertile way. She becomes stronger when she writes her Counter Chronicles, when she answers back, when she addresses/organizes things with the force of her consciousness. (This is also like novel writing for me, a way to answer back.) Another question the book is interested in is How do we resist the parts of the culture that will annihilate us? How do we stay human? And I think Nik has one way — a kind of retreat — and Denise’s is another. She tries to look at the world and figure it out. She even tries to dive in. The end of the book — the Stone Arabia scene — came up organically. She is, in fact, approaching a different place mentally, and she is also reacting — as Paula said — to her profound grief about losing Nik (and her mother). She leaves her home and reaches — bodily — out in the world. The novel is interested in consciousness, but also how the body relates to memory and mind. Her watching a body fail (Nik) and a mind fail (her mother) puts these connections in high relief. Denise is losing it, and she makes a kind of desperate leap. I wrote that scene slowly and carefully. I knew it was a risk, but it had to happen. Denise tries to reach out beyond herself. And I knew, as it happened, that her desire for connection would fail — of course it would — but I knew she would try. And Stone Arabia was the place where people disappear (her connections are associative), so it tied into Nik, and it was far away and so different from her life. People are like that, we are — we think geography will change our lives. That physical distance will give us spiritual distance. So she fails, but it is touching to me nonetheless. I chose that town because I discovered it driving one day. It felt magical to me. (I suppose I have that magical belief in place as well. If I lived here, I would be different. It is true and it isn’t. Just as Mina runs away in Lightning Field only to return. She has changed and she hasn’t at all.) I was resisting this idea of an epiphany, a revelation. But I also didn’t want it to be simply an anti-epiphany. I wanted her to go, she had to. I wanted it to be a raw gesture. I wanted it to be about our desire for something to change, which we have, and how the idea can almost be enough, failed or not. Stone Arabia itself is an austere, beautiful place with a long, mysterious history. It has this evocative name — both solid and exotic. I love that name, Stone Arabia, and the sound of it, the feel in the mouth as I say it, it draws me in. It is beautiful, which is reason enough. After, Denise goes back to what is left. She steps out so she can step back in. Maybe she can even be somewhat content with what is left. Not the Chronicles — which are almost a burden — but her daughter, her own life, her endurance, her mind.

So the first part of the end is about adult longing, and the last part of the end is about childhood longing.

The very end was intended as a memory/reverie. I wanted to end on the art, the glimpse of transcendence you can get from art. But it is fraught and melancholy, because it is in the deep past. The very end contains a mini version of the whole book — Nik leaves her (or she leaves him). She is alone with her thoughts. I didn’t plan it that way, it just came out and then I noticed it when I read it all together. Young Denise puts on some music she has never heard before from a band she doesn’t know. She goes from her desire for another to her own desire for herself to just pure desire. It is response to art as a kind of salvation, but it is located in longing and a glimpse of possibility. I wanted it to be innocent. I wanted the last note to be the (remembered) innocent longing of a young person.

The book had to end with a memory, as the novel is also a novel of memory (as any novel of consciousness is). She has the physical experience of being in her old house — memory for her is located in the body as well as the mind. Then she has this vivid dream of the past. The irony, of course, is that Denise has an excellent memory. Her fears are not rational. She does remember.

Thank you for reading the book. And thank you if you got through my rambling response to your responses. Writers are the worst readers of their own work, right?

— Dana

PS I agree with Alex that Nik shouldn’t have been hating on Wings. But that was very young Nik. Adult Nik loves Wild Life. (And you are dead-on about Nik’s use of rock-and-roll tropes and clichés. They are deliberately planted all through his Chronicles. I wasn’t sure if many people would get all the references, but it doesn’t matter if you do or you don’t. It made it feel right to me as I wrote it. Nik would have all these tropes in his head and play with them.)

PPS Sorry, I forgot a few things. I meant to say that all the interpretations are interesting, and I wouldn’t want to shut down any possibilities. Novels are meant to mean different things to different people. Explaining a novel also feels like a really bad idea for the novelist. (One last parenthetical: as far as what is given in the book, Nik doesn’t commit suicide. He does kill himself in the Chronicles, but in his real life he just leaves, which is very different from killing yourself. I was toying with this Ray Johnson idea of enacting your own death as an [insane] assertion of art over life. But then I realized Nik can, and would, have it both ways. He would author his own death in the Chronicles [because the Chronicles are high romantic drama], but he would just disappear in his actual life. How could he resist writing his own obituary? It is what he has been working toward his whole life.)

Stone Arabia Roundtable — Part Four

(This is the fourth of a five-part roundtable discussion of Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia. Additionally, Spiotta will be in conversation with Edward Champion on July 20, 2011 at McNally Jackson, located at 52 Prince Street, New York, NY, to discuss the book further. If you’ve enjoyed The Bat Segundo Show in the past and the book intrigues you, you won’t want to miss this live discussion.)

Additional Installments: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Five

Susan Straight writes:

Dear Everyone:

A little intimidated. Not going to lie. And my late entry wasn’t intentional. We had a death in my family — a young cousin murdered — and a big funeral. Ed, thanks for being patient. And I’ve enjoyed following this intelligent, wide-ranging conversation from all of you, which helped a little with my sadness.

So death and abandonment and the landscape of southern California and the idea of fame and obscurity were foremost in my mind during these past two weeks I read the book.

During this same period, I read two Ross Macdonald novels. Because I had this feeling that Dana Spiotta had an interesting, concise/succinct tone echoing Macdonald, a way of describing a person just as sharply and perfectly as he did. People often overlook his California. Writers haven’t overlooked Spiotta’s Southern California — Casa Real, Hollywood Boulevard, the clubs, Topanga and the Valley — but she still did things with them that I liked.

I liked that Nik and Denise were opposites. She cleans rigorously; he hoards obsessively. She lives in the Valley, land of quiet desperation and anonymous-looking tract houses and condos; he lives in Topanga Canyon, in one of those cliched post-’60s residential appendages in an artsy wooded place, replete with his tools and guitars (I love how she makes fun of it when she visits him on Page 100). She has lukewarm sex, as has been pointed out, with Jay, who is the opposite of true art with his Kinkade-loving self; Nik has himself and whoever wants him. Or he is just above any needs. Denise feels intense emotional attachments with total strangers because of the Internet and television; Nik feels nothing and has no interest in strangers. Nik cries over their father when he dies; Denise wants to feel that too and stares at the photo of someone who feels a total stranger to her until she can cry as well.

What I thought about at night were Nik and Denise’s scenes with their father, and their mother, and their children. In a few places, I thought Spiotta was fairly Flannery O’Connor-like, especially in the childhood places, when I reread the book. “He would have been a great uncle,” Nik says to Denise of their father. Their father doesn’t live with them, he visits. He won’t eat with them, he drinks a scotch. He doesn’t love them, he dies.

So after that, Nik loves the guitar, and himself. Why not?

I love the night when Denise watches Nik remake himself with a scarf. I love the way they’re both feral children and teens, like I was in southern California back then — although my knowledge of the music in the novel, as you can see by this post, is minimal since I grew up in a neighborhood where everyone listened to Al Green, Funkadelic, and Little Anthony and the Imperials, or Lynyrd Skynrd and AC/DC. Van Halen — that’s Pasadena. But I always approach novels as I do any art. My immersion into Nik’s music and The Chronicles was foreign, like the first time I saw Constable’s English landscapes, but pleasurable.

Odds: I liked “pain tourist” and the idea that Denise goes to SymptomSolve.com (is that a real site?) to learn about “déjà vécu,” or fake memory. That sounds so damn fake. Half the memories in the novel, or all of them, could be fake. I thought it was weird that she goes back to Casa Real at the end and talks about memory palaces, since Tony Judt’s excellent memoir is called The Memory Chalet. The Judt memoir and Mira Bartok’s memoir, The Memory Palace, were everywhere this spring, reminding me how obsessive American culture is about memoir and memory, and not fakeness or that fine line between any of it. Spiotta seems to make fun of all that — with The Chronicles, with her own “journey” to meet some woman who she doesn’t even know (if she really took that trip), and with Ada’s film.

Ends: Did he kill himself? Did she “break up with him” and we just didn’t know it? Of my siblings — three half-siblings, five foster siblings, four step-siblings — only one was my actual full brother. He and I were as opposite as Nik and Denise. He was a master marijuana grower, famous for eighteen varieties before anyone else could grow weed, and he was invisible — no Social Security number, no phone, no driver’s license, tax ID, nothing. Ever. He never even got a tattoo — he said to me once fifteen years ago, “What the fuck could anyone put on their body that hasn’t been done before?” He was the absolute antithesis of American social media and culture today. He died in 2002, and I think of him every day, and how he’d make fun even of what I’m doing right now — typing this, telling strangers what I think about a stranger’s book — because the only thing that mattered to him was clan and weed.

So, as the sentimental contributor, Spiotta’s novel haunted me on several levels for these past days. Nik, his sly yet pathetic rejection, his courtship of fame yet not fame, his obsessions, Denise’s sad mirror dance and dutiful caretaking, the way Casa Real exists in not fake memory in a better way than anything else that came after…

Porochista Khakpour writes:

Thanks for the stimulating comments (though I too have not read some of the recent ones just yet) and thanks so much to Ed for including me on this panel with such intelligent, vibrant, and interesting “peeps.” And I thank Ed doubly for his selection of Dana Spiotta -— a big point for my literary female author team, especially a literary female author with some experimental inclinations, a club I perhaps presumptuously like to belong to.
 
So given that, what I’m going to say next might surprise you: all week I’ve been fighting the strong temptation to write Ed, and Ed alone, a note to say that I need to withdraw from this. That I read the book, that I have even reread it, and that I don’t feel like I can speak well of it. For too many reasons to get into here, I’ve suddenly turned into one of those writers who is suddenly scared of speaking her mind. In my defense, this is very much the opposite of what I used to be not too long ago (and there is even ample Internet evidence of how this has landed me in trouble). Suddenly, I see something in the “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” adage. I can say several nice things, but, if there is even a chance that the not-nice might outnumber the nice, why would I go there? Especially in times like these: when I, as a woman writer, should be 100% behind any woman writer who came before me. Especially one who is undoubtedly my superior, one who is adventurous and somewhat experimental. Who am I to go there? As an artist and as an academic, I probably make the worst critic: one hand trying to do this stuff myself and the other hand teaching too many of her predecessors as a professor of literature (including Experimental Fiction and, of course, creative writing) to even look at this stuff freshly and fairly.  What use is it for me to publicly denounce any aspect of this book?
 
And then I got to a truth that will save me, here and maybe everywhere. What use is it when it’s my problem, not hers? I usually cringe when people bring their personal experiences into the discussion (though I found the nostalgia and even the tears many of you shared very lovably human, all making me rethink from a sorta needlessly stern MFA poker face distance). But I’m about to do it big time (and don’t worry, I make myself cringe too).

I related to this book a lot. And not just this book, but Spiotta’s first book, Lightning Field, too. (I reviewed Lightning Field in 2001 for a highly superficial glossy, and I think the review was mixed. But I definitely remember feeling uncomfortable while reading it and relieved when it was over — though my twenty-three-year-old reviewer self probably wasn’t old enough to just fess up that it was my problem, not hers.) I am a suburban LA kid. Plus a wannabe punk and an ol’ baby scenester, the type that lived for music yet bought ripped T-shirts at malls and probably played Groupie #1 more in memory than in reality. A poseur through and through. Plus, even more specifically here, I have a brother who’s a bit of a rock ‘n’ roll prodigy, who is also my best friend. Sure, I’m in my thirties. And I’m a product of growing up in the ’80s and ’90s — unlike Denise in her forties, growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. But I feel very much a Spiotta subject: as much as any of her characters. And the Los Angeles she writes about is very much mine: dystopian, dark, and dismal LA; the quieter, more dreary, and desolate side of my other LA, which is also the unbearably dark but more manic LA of Less Than Zero. I get where she’s coming from and I hate where she’s coming from. It’s an LA I very much ran away from at eighteen.
 
(Incidentally, though I don’t live in LA anymore, I read most of this book on a particularly June Gloom-y beach day in Malibu -— my kind of anti-beach-read -— and I’m composing this on the road, on the drive from LA to Santa Fe. This parenthetical also doubles as a plea to forgive typos and grammatical glitches.) [ED: Don’t worry. That’s what I’m here for.]
 
So this is a long way of disclaiming that one of the only explanations I can come up with for why I have this tendency to not love Spiotta’s work is because it must hit too close to home. The ambience is often too harrowing for me because it works. Spiotta nails some aspect of my reality that I can’t handle. Give me a million gritty New York City epics, but nothing will make me feel more dirty, scarred, and disconsolate than a slim Spiotta volume. I’m probably going to have to avoid her next book, the way that, as I get older, I’m less and less likely to linger before a mirror.
 
Exhibit A: This book works. Just not for me, which matters almost not at all. But this still must be stated before I ramble on.
 
Lightning Field was saturated in Los Angeles, literally dripping with consumer name-dropping, and LA facts and figures. It was lyrical to the point of reading like a long poem which meditated on all things Angeleno. Stone Arabia is less on that end of the spectrum; it focuses on time rather than place. Post-9/11, War on Terror-era American life is in it everywhere, competing against the sepia of Nik’s former and fake lives, which Denise has been an arguably key figure in. Maybe this setting feels less personal. Because I lived for all the SARS stuff, the Abu Ghraib mentions, the Kerry name-drops, the YouTube comments, and all things of the last decade. They felt authentic and accurate, sans irony and kitsch. Nothing vintage, retro or camp about it — unlike some of the Angelophilia and Angelophobia within Lightning Field. It is the past that we are still entwined with. But we can somehow see it outside of ourselves. Spiotta rendered this well: not too hot or too cold, but with a sort of narrative nonfiction cool that really glitters in the best realist fiction.
 
So, as I mentioned, I’m getting more personal than I’d like to about anything that even pretends to be a textual analysis. But here’s another point: this book seems rooted in something concerning the personal that hinders it (more on that later -— I’m talking about Page 237, of course). Without this, I cannot entirely grasp what compelled Spiotta to write this in the first place.
 
It can’t just be the points about memory, which feel clear and easy and, at its weakest points, a little all too done for me — not unlike the meditations I read by advanced undergrads who are prone to too much reflection. I don’t even want to comment on the thematics here — partially because you all have done a lovely job and I think all that can be said has been said, but also because, aside from some of the digging that some of you have diligently done, this was the most pedestrian part of this book for me.
 
So let me swan about the fringes. To piggyback on some of your comments about the cover, let me ask about the title: why oh why Stone Arabia? Like many aspects I why-oh-why’d about, it seems simply stylish, edgy, and hip. (A Thurston Moore blurb anyone?) But was there anything else? Why tag it with the small hamlet in upstate New York? It was one of the least moving and most artificial moments of the book for me: not the epiphany or some unforgettable twist and turn warranting the title treatment. Now I don’t want to overdue emphasis on titles -— another personal commercial break. I personally suck at them (Levi, an old Google alert once told me you thought my own novel title was “wretched!”). But this is a book that demands dissection. Or it makes the reader feel like they should be. So why who can blame Levi for leaping to Ada Lovelace? This was a theory I enjoyed, though I’m less eager to cling to this as Spiotta’s intention.
 
My favorite parts of the novel were the brother and sister relationship, as several of you highlighted. Jay (Kinkade was a good joke for a sentence, but for the main character trait of an otherwise invisible character, it was total overkill), Ada (she seemed most effective as the personification of a blog, that emblem of our contemporary culture), and the mother (a device to further discuss memory and what lies past our conscious and subconscious distortions of it, its ultimate organic failing) were all presences that felt like distractions that were, at best, bland and, at worst, irksome.
 
So Nik and Denise, Denise and Nik, the love story and tragedy of star-crossed siblings. Certain things, of course, become inevitable. Like heartbreak. So did anyone else feel like his suicide felt somehow like a copout? (Despite not having a proper MFA, I realize how this echoes the most tiresome smartass at the MFA roundtable.) Again, I wonder if it’s just me. I read all these student stories every year, which all seem to end in suicides. Is it my workshop-worn pedant PTSD that provokes an automatic knee-jerk response to a story that ends or nearly ends in suicide? I guess I’m more interested in what would have happened if Nik had survived himself -— a story that starts there might become even more twisted. I’m wary of this point though, because I do think Nik was mentally ill and, at the least, a longtime sufferer of a very agitated depression. Suicide is a plausible end to that story, but there was something so familiar about that move that it almost felt fatalistic. I knew this was going to happen way too early. So when it happened, it evoked (at best) the dreaded “meh.” And hell, maybe I’m just a sucker for a story that defies the forces of its own gravity.
 
Like I said: This is my problem, not Spiotta’s.
 
The other aspect I enjoyed is the minutiae —- the sentences, the turns of phrase, the interesting adjectives. I like the microcosm here, but have reservations about the macro. Spiotta can write sentences for sure, really interesting and “true” ones, but the sum total sometimes disappoints me. I think it’s simply a matter of us speaking similar languages but having very different concerns — even as we come from some of the same places as people and as writers: California, the post-9/11 era, etc.
 
And also: I don’t think it’s wrong for you guys to mention Egan. There will undoubtedly be comparisons. I admire both brilliant female authors for doing something outside of the oppressive, psychological-realist, American female author “norm” (I’m mainly avoiding a word that roughly rhymes with “piglet”). But Egan seems to wear it more naturally for me and goes further into true feral experiment. Thus, her book becomes infectious and addictive. Goon Squad hooked me in a way I did not feel here.
 
Which brings me back to Robert’s original comment: Would I have finished it? I have to be honest and say maybe not. The heart of it, the Chronicles, just didn’t feel interesting to me. I think the mix of disappointment and aha I felt at the Author’s Note says it all. Spiotta does not hide this being an homage to her stepfather. And it always disappoints when writers say “based on a true story,” even if they mean roughly so. I felt, as I often do with the true-story-based, that the truth held the author back somehow. Something felt very tame to me in this book, a mannered way of approaching something that wanted to be postmodern, as Darby ventures, but never gets there. Usually the architecture and style indicate that to us. Here the central plot point — the Chronicles — were supposed to make it experimental, but it felt mismatched to me. It wore the clothes of experimental fiction but seemed to have the heart of the most conventional commercial fiction. That hybrid need not be a bad thing of course, but it felt at odds for me for whatever reason. And I know I must sound like the badly pierced Manic-Panicked hanger-on I was, but somehow it felt like something of a normal rendering the world of an other. It felt at times more encyclopedic than insider. Not that authors have to live the tales they want to tell, of course. (Let’s avoid even caring about the basis on a true story so close to home for her.) But I think they have to make the call that they are the best vessels for certain stories (example: I would be the wrong writer to write the historical fiction I desperately want to write because my talents do not lie there at all, as much as I want them to). And while I was reading, I couldn’t help but think of several other authors I would have rather had in charge of this story. Maybe I mistakenly sensed a timidity or uneasiness in the author’s hand at taking charge of this story, but after the Author’s Note I really started to wish her stepfather was a writer of literary fiction.
 
I guess one question I have that I can’t determine from the comments is: did you guys like the book? The more I read, the older I get, the more that very basic question interests me.  Perhaps all the thoughtful excavation of the text implies that most of you did. As for me, I would say I’d recommend Spiotta without reservations, but this book with some substantial ones -— though I’d emphasize that I may very likely be the worst critic possible.

Did I mention how badly I wanted to love this book, Ed?!

Roxane Gay writes:

You said quite a few things that interested me, Porochista.

I did like Stone Arabia, but I did not love it. The parts I did not love made me angry. 

I enjoyed this book for a lot of weird, small, personal reasons. My mother makes me diagnose all medical concerns for her and my father via Dr. Google. So I related to Denise using the Internet to self-diagnose. I spend an inordinate amount of time on It was one of those human details I enjoy in fiction. As someone just past her mid-thirties, the stuff about an aging parent, managing adult sibling relationships when you’re very close with your siblings, grappling with middle age or at least the onslaught of it, all of that was also relatable. It was, in many ways, easy to like this book. I also liked the level of detail with which Spiotta chronicled The Chronicles; though as I noted in my first message, I really wanted the book to deal more with The Chronicles on a design/conceptual level. You really expressed my reservations with regard to The Chronicles in that it was dressed up as experimental work but surrounded by a rather commercial traditional narrative. As I read this book, I thought of Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point, which had this great interactive feature where the text contained these symbols, leading the reader to a companion website with metatextual bits. Something like that could have been done with Stone Arabia. In this day and age, the multimodal possibilities for a book like this are endless. I was disappointed to see that kind of creativity overlooked.

The ending faltered and was rather disappointing. After Nik lives, the book pales. Just as Nik was the center of his sister’s world, he was the center of the book even if our understanding of Nik was mediated through his sister. It was as if Spiotta lost her enthusiasm for the book when she didn’t have Nik to write about. The final chapter, set in 1972, was a smart choice in that we had the opportunity to see one final glimpse of Nik and Denise when they were at their most magnificent. Everything about the final chapter was decadent and dripping with Los Angeles cool. I couldn’t get enough of it. I also thought the last line was fierce. I felt it in my teeth. However, the ending preceding the ending was frustrating and strange. When Denise visited Stone Arabia, I wanted something more from that moment. The awkwardness of it did, I suppose, speak to the inherent awkwardness of going from watching the news to pursuing those people whose lives make the news. But, other than that, there was no… logic to that narrative direction. The scene felt rushed and ill thought out, as if Spiotta had written herself into a corner from which she could not extract herself. It didn’t stand up to the rest of the book in tone or substance. That part of the ending almost read like it belonged to a different book entirely.

I chose to ignore the title. Because if I thought too hard about the title, I got angry. I can think of any number of titles that would have worked better. That, of course, is what all armchair quarterbacks say, but still, Stone Arabia? Every once in a while, I’d try and make sense of the title to no avail and then I tried to make myself forget it again because it was too irritating. My reading process is a vicious cycle.

Many of the plot threads seemed to fade into the background without resolution. I don’t demand resolution from a novel but the lack of resolution in this book drove me to distraction. While it was a nice twist for Nik to just up and leave that felt a bit easy. I really wanted to know where he went and how he acquitted himself. There were other ways to resolve his story without killing him. Ada’s storyline, the mother’s storyline, these too faded away weakly and we were left with Denise unmoored, and then Denise as a young, young woman wanting it all so bad. I struggled mightily with these ambiguities. 

The romantic relationship between Denise and Jay was a cop-out. It depressed me thoroughly. A perfectly interesting woman who, based on the story, seems pretty hot, stuck (even if by ennui) in a drab little relationship with a guy who wears cardigans and loves Thomas Kinkade made me want to punch myself in the face. This is not to say that hot women don’t end up with cardigan wearers but in Los Angeles, she has options and I would have been more interested in a middle aged woman having a satisfying sex life with an interesting person or a bad boy or even a nice guy. Jay was… the color of water. It truly upset me to see a middle aged woman having a clichéd, dissatisfied sex life with a guy who seems really quite revolting. I just could not with that. To see how she ended up, juxtaposed with her interesting sexuality when she was younger was far too much of a disconnect. People don’t change that much, especially when they love music.

I find it interesting, Porochista, that you say that, as a woman, you should be 100% behind any woman writer. I have struggled with this too, at times: this idea of solidarity when we have so much evidence about the ways in which women writers are fighting an uphill battle in the publishing industry. However, that attitude does women writers a disservice. The vagina does not exempt us from critique, nor should it. Women don’t require special handling or consideration. (I know that’s not quite what you’re saying.) As a writer, I don’t want my writing to be supported by other women just because I’m a woman. I don’t want my gender to have anything to do with how my writing is received. Unless money is involved. (I kid. Sort of.) I want my writing to be supported because it’s great. If a critic doesn’t think my writing is great, I’ll cry about the negative review, curse the reviewer to hell, and drink to make it better. As a book reviewer, I rarely write negative book reviews. Because life is too short. If I don’t like a book, I don’t talk about it publicly (there are exceptions). Because I’d rather spend what little time I have writing about books I love. This approach raises questions. How can you trust the judgment of a critic who loves everything? I don’t know. But for every book I review, there are three or four books I’ve read, gathering dust and going unreviewed because I really dislike them. Even though I don’t feel obligated to be 100% behind any woman writer, I do spend more energy promoting/reviewing books I love written by women. It is the one modest thing I can do. And I’m happy to have a few platforms available to me to do so. I liked Stone Arabia just enough to review it, but I’d rather be honest in my review and address some of the weaknesses I perceive in the book.

Judith Zissman writes:

Did I like the book? Almost, but not quite. 

My biases: I loved Lightning Field, liked Eat the Document, work in the music industry, have contentious relationships with my brothers, and am fascinated by the subjectivity of memory — to the point where I help organize an annual conference on personal archiving. 

Things I adored about this book: 

  • All of the constructions of memory: the packing and unpacking, the deliberate obfuscations, the way our brains break down in parallel with our bodies, the ways (as Susan mentioned above) Spiotta renders childhood so perfectly tinted.  I’m with Ed that Ada must reference Nabokov — the urge to pull my copy of Speak, Memory off the shelf to find the exact parallels is tempting.  What does it mean to create memoir, autobiography, chronicles, archives, and documentaries? How does Spiotta’s constantly shifting narrative call attention over and over again to this construction?  The Nik/Ada interaction also clearly references Orson Welles’s F is for Fake, his fictional biographical documentary film and a masterpiece of shifting subjectivity.
  • As in her previous books, Spiotta’s Los Angeles feels absolutely real to me — in the sense that Los Angeles itself only ever feels half-real to me. All of the cities within cities, the shiny surfaces, the movie-lot facades, the shimmering light.
  • Spiotta’s gorgeous nimble language. Tiny scenes and phrases stick with me from each of her books. She’s incredibly graceful and electric in unexpected places, and there are such moments in this book that are perfect and breathtaking.

Unfortunately, the things that are perfect and breathtaking for me are are not at the level of the story or the characters, but rather the commentary on things like the nature of siblinghood, or the way you feel memories in your body, or a description of a place.  I don’t like the characters — the secondary ones, like Jay and Ada, are sketched so broadly, and the main ones, Denise and Nik, didn’t connect for me either, at least as adults.  And maybe this is deliberate — one expects the recounting of childhood to be hazy and the present vivid. Perhaps this is a deliberate inversion, some Alzheimer’s-like filter where the past is vivid and the present flat, but oh so flat. The first half of the book was really a challenge for me to care about any of these characters.  Had I not committed to finishing the book (I very much enjoyed the existential “to finish or not to finish” questions you’ve all raised this week), and had I loved Lightning Field so much that it has stuck with me for ten years now, I would have abandoned Stone Arabia early on.  

Another digression re: Lightning Field vs. Stone Arabia:  It is interesting to consider a body of work vs. a piece of work — either as a creator or as a fan — and I am intrigued by the ways Spiotta touches on this in this book. 

I am very much enjoying this discussion, and look forward to seeing where it goes from here.

Stone Arabia Roundtable — Part Three

(This is the third of a five-part roundtable discussion of Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia. Additionally, Spiotta will be in conversation with Edward Champion on July 20, 2011 at McNally Jackson, located at 52 Prince Street, New York, NY, to discuss the book further. If you’ve enjoyed The Bat Segundo Show in the past and the book intrigues you, you won’t want to miss this live discussion.)

Additional Installments: Part One, Part Two, Part Four, and Part Five

Lydia Kiesling writes:

First of all, thanks, Ed, for putting this together and for giving me a reason to read something new.

Levi, I was interested to hear your thoughts about Nik: specifically, that he can in no way be considered an artistic success. It actually never occurred to me that he could be seen as anything but, since my rather rudimentary sense about what makes an artist is largely based on (a) being really weird and (b) creating a body of work.  Item (b) is crucial here.  I’m not saying Nik Worth is Emily Dickinson, but I think there is always something compelling about a person who puts in such an astounding amount of work for a limited or nonexistent audience, at the expense of health, happiness, and personal relationships (Nik also fulfills another category in being a dick and causing his family heartache).  Of course, the fact that the only judgments of Nik’s musical output come from his sister and niece (they laugh about this over pink champagne) is suspect.  That said, the nature of Nik’s work — the cross-referencing, the album art, the storylines — takes him out of traditional musicianship and cleverly elides the necessity of getting a ruling on the merit of his output.  If someone spent thirty years ruining his health and his sister’s finances writing a twenty-volume novel sequence, we have to see the novel to know whether it was “worth” it (see what I did there?).  But in Denise’s descriptions of Nik’s output and the alternative reality he has created for himself, he’s more of a performance artist than a musician. It’s a convenient way of leaving us (or me, anyway) unable to decide whether Nik is a genius or what.  I’m sort of on the “genius” side, but I guess it doesn’t matter so much.  

While I’m on your comments, Levi, I was also intrigued by your Byron-Augusta reference. I don’t have siblings. So I don’t know what’s what about brother-sister relationships. But Denise and Nik have something that seems more like an unsatisfactory romantic relationship, without sex, and with one partner withholding commitment, household contributions, etc. As another panelist pointed out, Jay fills the sex niche. The fact that Jay is, in and of himself, not your average sex-niche-filler — for one, he has very specific, effete interests that he and Denise actually share — is, to me, a testament to the overwhelming power of the sibling relationship here.  Which is not to suggest that Denise should just be happy that she has a man. But Jay seems like a good fit.  How often to you meet a guy with an unavailable 1950s film in the trunk of his car, a film that you actually want to watch too?  (Maybe it’s a Los Angeles thing.)  So this Jay is kind of a character and maybe a catch, but she’s just not that into him.  We don’t know what Denise is like when she is in love — with the father of her child, with her second husband.  We only know what she is like in love with Nik (she’s “Little Kit Kat, the wonder tot”).

What else?  I get a kick out of the fact that we are discussing this remotely (and that when I received the first response, I was in the middle of uploading Facebook photos).  I’ve never met you fellow readers. I Google you to see what you’re about, and I owe the Internet to my very presence on this panel.  Like Ada, and later Denise, I identify “audience” (such as it is) in page counts, or in disembodied comments, which could, for all I know, be left by one intrepid, shape-shifting troll.  I think Spiotta deftly invites us to consider the new confusion about fame and art/not-art in the Internet age, without belaboring the point.  She gives a couple of sample inane comments on her daughters’ blog, for example, and for me these conjured up a decade of confusion and anxiety and gratitude to the Internet.  Nik’s work and persona make it onto the Internet and generate interest, but people who use the Internet, or who try to cultivate their own small fame plant, know how little his 5,000 YouTube hits might turn out to mean in the long run.  He hasn’t been made. He’s just been archived in the digital cabinet of curiosities (did I steal that phrase from Denise?).

Darby, I love your comments about Stone Arabia as a non-postmodern novel with postmodern stuff in it.  As I read, I kept thinking that I should feel as if I were deep in Paul Auster territory (frustrated, scared).  Despite its frames and edgy preoccupations, the novel felt like a good old-fashioned look at relationships.  The plot and the external details of the characters’ lives were, I thought, sort of incidental.  I didn’t buy the trip to Stone Arabia — it didn’t feel necessary to me.  The fun-uncle dad and Ada’s married lover are just stand-ins, Daddy Issues props.  What really moved me was Spiotta’s ability to transmit a feeling that might be your own — sadness over a parent, anxieties about memory and loss.  I have to say I did a little crying over this novel (the crying factor is not the only thing this novel shares with some episodes of This American Life, incidentally).  Most of all, I immediately recognized the sense of yearning, what Spiotta calls want, that she transmits through Denise.  I was amazed at the way she was able to recreate the humming-wire feeling of adolescence — the way you want to destroy your ears with loud music, and be beautiful, and do something.  And maybe, because I read this book, this is why I had two beers, put on headphones, and revisited some seminal tracks of my high school years the other day.

To add one more name to the mix, Sam Stone: original bassist for the Demonics, ruined veteran in the John Prine song of the same name. Take it or leave it.

Levi Asher writes:

I like your criteria for what it means to be an artistic success, Lydia.  When you put it that way, I can’t disagree.  But yes, I was surprised to find Ed focusing on the question of whether or not Nik had artistic integrity, because it had never occurred to me that anybody could be impressed by Nik’s career — and I mainly mean this in relation to what the characters in the book must feel, not so much to what readers can feel.  Even if we can be impressed by Nik (though, like Darby, I wasn’t — been there, done that, was embarrassed about it), I still feel sure that Denise, Ada, and their Mom were not proud of Nik.  And most importantly, Nik wasn’t proud of Nik.  Maybe some of Nik’s girlfriends were for a few minutes.  Anyway, Roxane’s reference to the TV show Hoarders hit it exactly right for me — I was planning to bring the same comparison up.  Nik is a “funny obsessive,” like the people we gawk at on Hoarders, and that’s what’s sad about his YouTube popularity.  

A couple more things: I’m glad Lydia said she doesn’t buy the trip to Stone Arabia, and I’d like to take this further — did that trip across the country even take place?  It seems unreal.  I wonder if the author put that “trip” there (and named the book after it, sans any explanation or justification) as a signal that this narrator is more unreliable than she may otherwise seem.  What do all of you think the book’s title is supposed to mean?

Finally, to answer Darby’s question about the album cover: well, I think Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols must be the reference point for an album cover with titles composed of kidnapper-style cutout letters.  An ironic reference point, since this album helped introduce punk rock to the world (and thereby helped to kill Nik’s earnest mid-1970s musical innocence).  

Edward Champion writes:

I’m fascinated by Levi’s obstinacy here, which I now feel compelled to rectify in light of Roxane’s sharp observations about Nik being “a blogger before there was blogging.”  Levi seems to be pushing the notion that artistic integrity is inexplicably connected to commanding the respect of an audience.  To which I reply: is the respect of one person (in this case, Denise) enough to justify artistic integrity?  In other words, what kind of artistic integrity are we talking about here? You’ll note in my opening salvo that I mentioned the “right side” of artistic integrity.  And since Diane has brought up the abominable Lee “Lux” Smith — the increasingly extinct (and banned?) incandescent who is described by Denise as having “long lurked at the periphery of the various Los Angeles scenes,” who has “always had his icky fingers in an anthology or documentary,” and who started off as a songwriter, penning a few jingles for a group called the Ginger Jangles — I’m wondering if Lux might have ended up on the “right side” of what I’m going to style “exclusive artistic integrity” if he had not pursued money or had not been so content to crown crap as hype (such as the “uncomfortably handsome singer from Canada”). 

Diane suggested that Stone Arabia was “about loving somebody who is incapable of returning that love.”  Well, what better description is there of the fan’s temperament?  What’s interesting is that Spiotta doesn’t quite get at the issue of how the artist must smile and nod when presented with a fan’s unabashed (and uncurated) ardor.  But I’m going to go out on a limb and offer the theory that Spiotta’s “exclusive artistic integrity” — which all of us are capable of, even though it’s become increasingly harder to find outsider art in an age in which nearly every phenomenon goes viral or becomes a sensation “known by all” — is what ultimately puts an elaborate response to art (which Nik’s Chronicles may very well be, as some folks here have already mentioned) on the same footing as art.  I think this fits in with Lydia’s idea of being impressed by “a person who puts in such an astounding amount of work for limited or no audience.” (And, Lydia, isn’t that just what we’re doing with our respective efforts to read the entirety of the Modern Library 100?  I’m now raising the champagne flute in deference to another quirky soul!)  I think Our Man Birnbaum is smart to bring up the idea of how we can even complete the prospect of reading or writing about a book.  How many of you feel that the act of artistic engagement has become almost a full-time job these days?  And do you think Nik has created the ultimate solution for this?  I guess I have more sympathy for Nik as a “funny obsessive” than Levi does.  Keep in mind that Nik is creating these personae in order to survive — even though his own diminishing returns swell like gout.

I also feel that I must intervene in the apparent “disagreement” between Bill and Diane.  Why can’t Jay live “in the moment” (there’s a phrase that defines polyamory for you) and be a fill-in? Keep in mind that you’re talking to a guy who spent thirteen formative years in San Francisco.  I saw quite a lot of this type (and even slept with a few): the person who throws herself into an affair or an unusual sexual arrangement (and Jay does fulfill the role of a secondary, doesn’t he? who do you think Denise’s primary partner is in this polyamorous relationship?) that feels “different” or “alternative” from the apparent norm, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s right for that person.  Remember, this is “an affair without urgency or agenda, it seemed.”  It seemed!  Two key words suggesting that Denise knows exactly what she’s getting into (who wouldn’t with Thomas Kinkade, the most unsubtle American artist, involved?), but doesn’t wish to be honest.  What does Denise really want?  I mean, she tells her own daughter, “So you are eighteen, on quaaludes and dressed like a whore — I don’t have to explain that this often led to a less than fulfilling outcome for young women.”  What we’re pussyfooting around here in this discussion is how Denise’s relationship with news headlines and photos is just as problematic.  Not especially fulfilling, yet very much an “outcome” rather than something that can be changed.  Or can it?  Darby has brought up Jennifer Egan (it was bound to pop up), but, since we’re establishing comparisons with last year’s books, I’m almost tempted to compare Denise’s journal against Patty Berglund’s “Mistakes Were Made” in Freedom.  To my mind, this seems a more fitting parallel, if only to see how Denise is both oblivious to the root cause while very aware that memory might very well provide some pivotal context for it to emerge, whereas Patty is ostensibly ordered to write the damn memoir by her therapist.  Is a greater cure for the unfulfilled life likely to emerge from active straightforward writing?  Perhaps. But what happens if you’re living in the shadow of a brother who will always write more “elaborately” than you?  If Denise really is the book’s emotional core, as Darby suggests, then I’m wondering the degree to which Denise’s legitimate feelings can be asphyxiated by a bustling culture of commentary — to which all of us here are quite pleasantly guilty! 

To briefly return back to the “Ada” dance that Levi and I were involved with, I’ll see your Ada Lovelace and raise you Nabokov’s Ada!  With Nabokov, you’ve got some reliable incest, a hundred years of history, and a manuscript contained within a book.  Fun for the whole family!  Did the Stone Arabia trip actually happen?  Well, do you speak Stone Arabic? 

Darby Dixon writes:

Finally, to answer Darby’s question about the album cover: well, I think Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols must be the reference point for an album cover with titles composed of kidnapper-style cutout letters.  An ironic reference point, since this album helped introduce punk rock to the world (and thereby helped to kill Nik’s earnest mid-1970s musical innocence).

I’ve obviously totally outed myself as not having a punk rock background, pre- or post-popularizing, yes? The red in that cover is now the red in my face.

Bill Ryan writes:

Levi briefly touched a question I wanted to ask: 

How do we take the narrative interludes that break up the Counterchronicles? Are they from the some omniscient presence who drifts over Denise’s shoulder? Denise’s Id? The way they literally interrupt sections of the book, the jarring quality of being pulled out of the first-person “looking back” and tossed into a third-person “present” — is this “reality” as Denise would prefer we all stick to? Or is this all another rabbit hole within Nik’s Chronicles? It struck me as odd that we’d begin with Nik’s letter, then never once step back into the Chronicles

It seems like the author calls so much attention to the act of making art — that the vast majority of the book is neatly sectioned off as pieces of “art,” whether diary-style Counterchronicles or those odd, ordered “permeable events” — but then the narrative sections are just “there.”  

I’d guess that I’m sniffing at the wrong scent on the wrong tree in the wrong forest, but still, it caught my attention. 

Darby, at least you have the stones to admit your lack of punk. I spent the majority of my high school and early college years pretending I’d lived with a permanent sneer during the Whitesnake and the Damn Yankees years, and loved (or even knew about) the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag. 

On the Jennifer Egan note, I’ve a plainer question for people in the know: to what degree can/does the publisher dictate how much Egan-ness (or, for another example, Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) can go into a book? I’d guess that, relatively speaking, those sections that require the PowerPoint presentations or photographs (or even blank pages!), anything that isn’t simply text, would cost more to produce — if for no reason other than that these sections take up space where words would traditionally go. Would someone with less clout than a Jonathan Safran Foer or a Jennifer Egan get away with inserting pictures or lines and graphs or a silly drawing of a kitty cat in a “traditional” novel? Case by case, I’m guessing, of course. But I wondered if the author had wanted to put more of the Chronicles into the book, if her editor would’ve “gently persuaded” her to stick with text only? 

Apologies for drifting off into hypotheticals, but I was interested in the push-pull of the actual business decisions and how they reflect the “vision” of the artist. Like if we would have benefited from seeing more of the Chronicles, and the author’d created the work, is this a case where multimedia, or even ebooks, would be a better medium for the story? Would it be tacky to add “to see more of Nik’s art, go to www.StoneArabia.com”? 

Paula Bomer writes:

I’m getting into the discussion late and honestly was unable to read everyone’s responses — which I plan to do later — but I wanted to just give my few reactions to the book itself and then to the few responses I was able to read before the week was over.

I agree very much that this book is about Denise primarily, and that Nik is her obsession, but frankly, we learn very little about him and only see him through the eyes of others.

I found the first half of the book slow going but was won over with the second half. I realize Spiotta — in many ways, with the idea of the Chronicles, Ada’s film, her Counterchronicles, etc. — is trying to examine storytelling, truth, and memory. I found the most compelling parts to be the first person Denise, writing the Chronicles — and the small framing device of third person, although symbolic, almost not necessary. For one, the voice is exactly the same. Secondly, I got confused and the payoff — when I figured out what she was doing — didn’t feel huge.

I wondered about the whole chewing on purity and authenticity in art — obscurity vs. well known, impenatrable music; Nik’s experimental style, the ridiculousness of “Soundings” (those were funny; I find that parts of this book are very slyly mocking). Because Spiotta clearly wants an audience. And as someone else here mentions, this book, despite all of its framing, is a conventional, realistic tale of a family. And I like that. I like that much more than the framing, just as I generally like more-or-less conventional pop music. (I’ve been listening nonstop to PJ Harvey’s new record about World War I: here is a woman who does whatever she wants, with no real regard for stardom, and has a real career anyway. She’s a successful Nik, a less “fuck you” Nik.)  Compare this with Laurie Anderson, who I loved in high school. Can we talk about how many people, and not just myself, grow out of the novelty of “boundary pushing” or people trying to do something different and “new”?

I agree this book is as much about memory as it is about middle age: how we feel our lives slipping away, how Denise’s mother’s mind is slipping away. I was really moved by the way Denise takes her mom’s medicine, and fears her own memory loss, because of her mom’s illness. This is the exact same thing going on with me. My mother has severe dementia and I keep thinking I’m developing it. Which brings me to the intense bonds of family that this book is also about. Nik became all that Denise had because of the loss of her father and her mother working nonstop. And, to me, that is the ultimate tragedy of the book — not being able to move on because you never had enough. Someone mentioned that Jay is a lukewarm fuckable Nik. That’s an interesting point. Denise can’t have a healthy relationship — a real committed one — because she committed to Nik. I see these types all the time. They make all sorts of excuses about why they aren’t in healthy long-term relationships, but it’s often as simple as not being able to break with their primary families. I never had a wedding, but the symbolism of a father “giving away” a daughter isn’t just a symbol.

Lastly, I like how people mention the reality of their own lives coloring their reactions to certain aspects of this novel. I recently went through a massive revision to try to make an editor happy. I haven’t elevated the obscure outsider art since my teens or maybe my twenties. And, even then, I didn’t elevate it much. But so many people do. It’s an interesting issue with art, but, as I believe, one that I believe is secondary to the human issues in this book.

Regarding The Ontology of Worth, whether Nik’s work is worth anything, the Fakes, and the question of authenticity in relation to Nik’s work (in particular the Fakes phase), I truly feel that these are questions that Spiotta leaves unanswered for a reason. I don’t believe she thinks there are any answers. And if this is the case, I agree with her for the most part.

Lastly, people have commented on the Stone Arabia ending/title issue. I agree that it seems slightly off, but I read it as a not-so-subtle (and I love how not-so-subtle much of this book is) way of having Denise deal with her grief and sadness about the love of her life (Nik) by projecting her emotions elsewhere. She grieves through the news, and even, God bless her, the Lifetime Movie Network, which I obsessively watched — meaning six hours a day — after my dad died. So it works for me on that level, even if it feels a bit forced. Grief makes us do strange things. If life is stranger than fiction and fiction has its own rules, perhaps this can be too lifelike, feeling slightly off in the land of fiction.

Also, does anyone want to chime in about the significance of Stone Arabia? Historically, it was a famous spot during the Revolutionary War. But is Stone Arabia’s obscurity part of its importance? That’s a good metaphor for the book, I think.

Darby Dixon writes:

“I’m not familiar with Spiotta. So I did not know what to expect from this book. But I found it very timely. I read Nik as a blogger before there was blogging…”

That, Roxane, is an awesome insight/reading, which prompts my own incredibly half-cocked response. Is this an apropos place to mention that Facebook was launched in 2004? Facebook itself stands firmly against the kind of identity-manipulation games that Nik plays through his Chronicles. Video killed the Radio Star. Mark Zuckerberg killed Nik Worth.

Flash back to the Net (or your local BBS scenes or whatever) in the late ’80s and ’90s (and however further back it went; yes, I was young when I first stumbled into it at speeds nearing 300 baud), when it was possible to be whomever or whatever you wanted to be. You could recreate your identity from whole cloth for an active audience of anyone technologically elite enough to join in.

Today, that model of identity has lost. We demand the truth about you (far be it for you to be more complex than you need to be, James Franco, cough cough) and we’re tying it all up into any available social network. What you are is the sum of all the actions you take online. Nik is a relic — if he tried to do the Chronicles as a Net piece, complete with invented reviews and reviewers, he’d eventually be outed, labelled a fraud, and run out of cybertown. (Is there a band working today that doesn’t have some modest thread of legitimate authenticity in their relationship to the world?) Not that it isn’t or couldn’t (or shouldn’t) be possible to do that today. I suspect there’s still a chance one could spend the time required to make an alternate life seem real. But.

This is where I begin to question and probe my own interest in Denise as the emotional core of the book. From this angle, she reads as a full subscriber to the post-Facebook model of identity, authentic, honest, sincere in her presentation of her identity to the world. And, yes, that may have always been the mainstream model all along. She is the future, and she desires the comfort of a future in which the people on the television are real people with real problems (problems that she could, in theory, help solve). She desires a future in which she is nothing but herself, her real self, and her fears of senility or dementia play against that. A sick mind that gets it wrong would interpret her to be more perilously close to being like Nik than she might like. (Though he does what he does for his own reasons, at least). Is it ideologically telling that I used the word “wrong” like that? Am I revealing my own issues with sincerity? In reading Denise as someone unable to be anybody other than who she is?

Stone Arabia Roundtable — Part Two

(This is the second of a five-part roundtable discussion of Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia. Additionally, Spiotta will be in conversation with Edward Champion on July 20, 2011 at McNally Jackson, located at 52 Prince Street, New York, NY, to discuss the book further. If you’ve enjoyed The Bat Segundo Show in the past and the book intrigues you, you won’t want to miss this live discussion.)

Additional Installments: Part One, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five

Darby Dixon writes:

A lot of interesting stuff so far. I’ll start off with my own opening thoughts — which pick up a few points from this discussion, I think — though there’s plenty more here for me to consider in more detail.

I’d like to start by looking at the book’s cover. Which — if this is in any way a novel about music or any sort of glory days in which the cover as a physical artifact actually means something — is hardly a bad place to start. But I find the cover of this book troubling for two particular reasons. Is the cover poorly executed? Or, more hopefully (and perhaps more likely), do these issues point to aspects or views of the book that I missed on my first reading?

Consider the treatment of the title and the author type on the front cover. I’m not referring to the copyright mark placed after Spiotta’s name, a witty winking question mark that pays off with a dot-dot-dot-exclamation-point within the novel itself.* Rather I’m looking at the supposed handmade quality of the cover. If it is meant to allude to Nik’s self-made album art, why does it have to look so Photoshoppy? This cover never stank of real glue or caused any paper cuts. Why not?

What also bugs me — and you’ll have to see it by taking the dust jacket off your hardback copy and stretching it flat on the table in front of you — is that the background is mirrored from the front to the back. The distress along the top inside flaps is the tell. I can’t think of a good reason why it had to be this way.

Why then this postmodern take on the handmade? I ask because I did not read this book as a postmodern novel, although I guess there’s postmodernish stuff inside it. There’s some framing going on and a little bit of self-reference. But it felt well-contained to me; the effects are just means to an end. This is essentially representational work; neither Nik nor Denise feel like ciphers or “texts” to me, but, rather, realist characters with real issues drawn in a real manner: each drawing himself or herself into being. Maybe the mirrored back cover is a superfan-level Easter egg, a nod to whatever mirroring is happening between Nik and Denise. They are two creators, two storytellers: one far more gung-ho and self-assured than the other. But as I type that thought, my internal editor is all like, “Uh, really?” So.

So. Am I missing layers of irony and self-reference and other postmodern gobbledygook? Or do I have a legitimate desire for a cover that gets more real, more DIY? Is this a bit more of a scorched mess?**

Full disclosure: I came to this book (and this book discussion) a skeptic. I read Eat the Document because it sounded like the kind of book I was supposed to read. And, while I don’t remember hating it, I don’t remember loving it either. Stone Arabia mostly won me over though for various reasons. In time, I’ll get back around to Document and give it another shot (and pick up Lightning Field along the way). It didn’t hurt Arabia‘s case that my current reading project involves a stack of 1,000 page+ books. Being able to sit down and read Arabia over the course of a single weekend? Well, it read like an absolutely blissfully quick short story; so much so that, due to miscalculation on my part, I didn’t realize the ending was the ending until I turned the page and found no more story following it. (That ending. I’d like to swing back around to it in more depth later in this discussion, with anyone who is game.)

This book worked for me less as a novel about art and rock and success, and more for me as a novel about memory and time and how we use both to tell ourselves the stories of our own lives.*** Levi has offered quite a bit to chew on in this regard, and I’m still chewing on it myself. For me, what I think bumps the memory issue up on the queue is the fact that everything in the novel is filtered through Denise’s consciousness: either directly through her writing or indirectly through her point of view. She sees the kind of failing memory in her mother that might await her in later years, and it’s scared the wits out of her.**** She’s anticipating the downfall that awaits her and she’s struggling to arrest it before it can arrest her. In some way, she’s highly jealous of Nik’s apparent freedom from that; his ability to make his own story up has to be a severe kick in the sibling rivalry gut. But what can there be of it now? It’s funny how little left there is of their mom to approve or disapprove of the actions of either sibling. It’s a bit of a tragedy of impending morality. Denise and Ada also act a bit like Horatio to Nik’s Hamlet. If the journals and the albums are Nik’s heroic acts, the documentary and the Counterchronicles are their stories, at least the stories that people might actually get to hear.

This is where all the Nik stuff comes into play for me. Where it really works is in its service to a story about memory, about making memory, and about making a story out of the life one is living. Is Nik a success? Neither commercial nor popular. Okay, is Nik a success as a brother? As a son? He seems too self-involved for that.***** No doubt this is a book as much about time as it is about memory, if indirectly. To pull off the projects that Nik pulls off; well, it requires massive amounts of time and effort and dedication. (A twenty album cycle! Not five, not ten. Twenty! You can’t do that while holding down a productive day job and taking care of your sick relative.) In this regard, he’s a success in a completely logical way. He did the things he set out to do. He succeeded, at whatever cost. He only needed a small handful of people to witness it, to make it real, and, even then, he never seemed especially interested in their actual reactions.****** In a day and age when fame and fortune appear right around the corner for everybody willing to fart out a lolcat-style meme, there’s something admirable about that. Is this a withdrawal from reality or a redefinition of reality? A determined, self-defined vision of reality? Could this book have been set in 2011 rather than 2004? Perhaps today, Nik’s “success” might feel all the more anachronistic. How much of this is happening right now that we don’t know about and aren’t supposed to know about?

In going on about Nik like that, I realize I’ve detracted a bit from my belief that Denise really is the emotional core of the book. She is, though, in some strange way, the character I felt myself most identifying with; or at least she’s the one I sorta rooted for. It’s something I’m trying to unpack for myself still; and for some reason I keep coming back to that crushing pile of debt she has been accumulating while taking care of her ailing brother******* and her ailing mother. You can’t buy memory, but having money on hand to try doesn’t hurt. More on this later in the discussion, I hope.

* — The whole author/artist-as-brand conversation is probably worth a couple thick discussion threads alone. I’ll admit that, as a current student in real art classes trying to make real art, I found the Thomas Kinkade stuff funny. Painter of Light, indeed. Paint this, Mr. Success Pants.

** — Is there a rock album cover that inspired this treatment that I’m not aware of? I’ll admit to missing vinyl the first time around due to youth, and, due to finances, neglecting the recent indie-hipster resurgence this time around. So my personal cover art experience is largely based on a 90’s and early 00’s CD collection. I know, I know. The big beautiful vinyl cover square is superior as a means of conveying the visual side of an album. But I think the folded up CD liner sheet gets (or got) a bit of a short shrift; how much earlier would I have hit the hay in high school if I’d been strictly focused on homework instead of occasionally pulling out one of those squares, unfolding it panel by panel to find the secrets contained within? How much has music’s impact on me been minimized by the lack of something, anything, physical to go with it? I, for one, miss accidentally cracking jewel cases. But I just can’t see finding time and cash enough to put a record player in anytime soon.

*** — Reading Nik as simply musician-creating-for-no-audience felt a bit “meh” to be, taken at face value. I mean, I’ve done the same thing, on a smaller scale; made stuff nobody’s listened to, I mean. It’s not that interesting a thing to me. Music is for ears! Music-as-music is better when other people hear it and like it. Or am I being overly simplistic (or obtuse?)

**** — Having seen some of those issues in the last decade in my own family has been similarly both terrifying and sobering. My dreams of my writing career eventually actually starting and lasting me well into late in a long, healthy, productive, and active mental life? I dunno. What will I think of this discussion fifty years from now? How shamed will I be in my distraction from blogging about the books I’ve been reading, from more actively keeping journals, from taking more pictures? What bundles will I leave behind that tell some small portion of my story, to whomever might be around to hear it?

***** — I’m not passing judgment there. I’d only be passing judgment on myself. I’ve got a lot of guilt bound up in my relationship to art, in the hours devoted to potentially fruitless pursuits that may have been better spent with loved ones or what others might call “doing good”: doing charity work or hopping a plane to a distant city to help someone other than myself. What good is that unpublished novel, or that self-portrait tucked away in a closet for the rest of my life? I can’t pass judgment on Nik because in some ways I wish I was him, the jerk.

****** — Oh, the crummy, crummy jerk.

******* — The selfish dick.

…and of course I realize immediately after I hit “send” at least one thing that I meant to (and forgot) to clarify: if I’m critical of that cover, I’m also so, so, so, so, so glad to see it was conceptually relevant to the contents of the book! This could have easily been yet another one of those blurry photos of a woman with her face turned away from the camera or cropped out of the frame. And maybe some flowers or something like that. Yawn. I praise the concept (and that red really is the right red, somehow, isn’t it? the kind of red you just want to curl up with in your hands while listening to it on a gigantic pair of headphones, no?) while raising an eyebrow at aspects of the execution. (I’ve had similar love/hate issues with the covers for Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, a book I badly need to reread, because, yeah, duh, there’s things to compare and contrast between these books; sadly I think the deck is stacked against me this next week. But, suffice it to say, I’m an self-acknowledged Egan fanboy, yes, and Spiotta, I think, is up to something else with her book. So it’s probably unfair of me to try to pick a book I prefer to another. If this was a Tournament of Books thing, I would politely and ethically rescind my position on the brackets. But! I’d very much like to see the two books sit down at the bar, grab some drinks, and talk shop. Is that what I’m saying? There’s enough bourbon here for both.)

Ahem. Carry on!

Robert Birnbaum writes:

I am struck by the realization that the more vocal of the aggregation who read on this planet expend a lot of verbiage and hand wringing about the prospects of books, literature, reading and what not. So it should not go unsaid that this opportunity for a diverse, spirited group of readers to commune is a joyful affirmation. So thanks for that, Ed Champion.

I am lucky to have, for the most part, the freedom to choose the books I want to read. While this is not a totally unblemished blessing, it is an immeasurably wonderful one. So the books that I pick up tend to reach my hands and eyes in almost infinitely (a large number) manifold ways. Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia came to me via Eddy’s latest literary initiative. But there is a context for reading this book — since, for me, reading takes place within my life and not as stepping out of it. If you know what I mean.

In the short period before picking up Spiotta’s tome, I had read two books — which pulled me in different, if not opposing directions. I picked up the ARC of Lydia Millet’s new opus, Ghost Lights, and delved in, propelled by the nimble and ironic prose. I found myself about two thirds of the way into this tale of a disenchanted IRS employee who embarks on a mission to Central America for his equally disenchanted wife. I was losing interest. But being close to the end, I finished the book. Besides a mildly surprising ending, I was not impressed or engaged.

In the meantime (or the same time), I had one of my periodic conversations with Jim Shepard, The Wizard of Williamstown). Part of our talk hit home immediately:

RB: I no longer feel compelled or obliged to finish books.

JS: Yeah, that’s really characteristic of a life spent reading. I am struck, when I talk to students or younger writers how much —- I guess I remember that feeling too —- how much they feel like, “No. If I got this far, in I want to say I did it [finished]?” 

RB: There is always the occasional book that it takes longer to figure out.

JS: That’s the danger. If you bail too soon. I try to give books every possible reason to keep reading. But I don’t any longer feel bad about bailing. It’s not anger or contempt -— it’s “I think I get the idea here.”

In that same chat, Jim mentioned that he was reading and impressed by Bonnie Jo Campbell’s story collection, American Salvage. Which prompted me to pick up the copy of Campbell’s novel, the one that had been previously dispatched to some pile of miscellany.

Wow, this is a book that grabbed me from the first page. And though its resolution was profoundly satisfying, I was a little bereft to leave the lush and variegated world of riverfront Michigan.

So the next book I picked up was The Secret History of Costaguana by Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vasquez — mostly because I had tried to read his American debut, The Informers, with little pleasure. Another chance for Vasquez, and a trip to beleaguered Colombia with Joseph Conrad as a character, seemed enticing. And I was digging my way in when I received Stone Arabia and remembered my intention of participating in another Ed Champion extravaganza.

So with no background (except some dust jacket info), I began to read. I reached Page 92, impressed by Spiotta’s precise and nimble prose but not engaged by the characters. Not unhappily, I had to put down the book to read Josh Ritter’s Bright’s Passage in preparation (such as it was) for my chat with Ritter (sweet and charming kid, by the way).

And then came Eddy’s first invitation (incitement?), which I may or may not have responded to with the clarity that I hope to exhibit in these later offerings. At that point, having read about half the book, I was clear that, had I not committed to joining a discussion, I would not have gone on reading Stone Arabia.

I don’t by any means see this as a negative assessment of the book. It wasn’t my kind of story. Plus, I already have to deal with the deaths of close friends, aging parents, and worries about losing my memory (and, ultimately, my mind) in real life. Plus the call of the unread always haunts me.

But then did I read the book in its entirety without other narratives impinging? As you can see, my thoughts so far about this book are so far mostly about my thoughts.  

I see Part Two of this mission, where I now read what others have said and where I may arrive at something more objective (or less subjective) about Dana Spiotta’s book. That’s narcissism, isn’t it?

Bill Ryan writes:

I suppose, since everyone is pretty much throwing their own interpretive bowling balls in this opening frame, I’ll do the same. I’m going to fire off a half-cocked argument in which I can this very moment poke holes. And what fun is a discussion if someone can’t be completely wrong? 
 
I’ll start off (with apologies) by disagreeing with Diane — I think Jay is slightly more than a fill-in. He’s the fuckable opposite of Nik. Denise and Jay deliberately ignore each other’s memories, and actively avoid discussing their histories. They prefer to live (cringe for cliche) “in the moment,” and seem to survive as a couple so long as they both agree to do as much. With Nik, there’s nothing but history, “shared knowing.” Jay teaches the next generation about art, Nik makes it for an audience of two or three.  Jay brings her Kinkade’s schlock (seriously, take a look at Bambi’s First Year for a lurid example of Kinkade’s art) that “piles up in her garage.” Nik brings art that she treasures: a mere taste of the art that’s piling up in Nik’s garage. She fucks Jay (albeit lukewarmly), finances and forgives Nik, and ultimately carries his torch. We get no news of poor balding Jay and his “off-putting, almost creepy” sweaters.
 
I think here we get Denise’s answer to Sarah’s question about the value of art, purity, etc.: Thomas Kinkade’s “art” vs. Nik Worth’s music and Chronicles.
 
The only thing that Denise really appreciates is Nik’s art, and seeing him carry that art to its conclusion was Denise’s self-imposed destiny. Nik “is” his art, for better or worse. Denise is his art’s audience. Just as it’d be unthinkable for me to tell Richard Serra what shape his next giant metal sculpture should take, Denise ultimately can’t stop Nik from following through with his art.
 
Denise admits that she’s complicit in Nik’s downfall. She is, if not pushing, then enabling Nik towards whatever end he comes to at the end of the book. Her need to write her own history of the events preceding “the crisis” meant to read as a pardon for her part in Nik’s death. Like Sarah mentioned, she’s rewriting family history in the Counterchronicles to fit the history she needs to forgive herself for Nik’s apparent suicide. An alibi.
 
That might also explain her need to get it all down, beyond just her failing memory. Even when she should “call someone” when she’s almost certain her brother’s killed himself. She has to write, she has to formulate a reality in which she isn’t a complete failure. Her brother’s sarcastic note about her being a “writer, now” could also be read as a grim prediction and condemnation of her rewriting history.  
 
Throwing on my pop psychology hat now, Denise can’t stop him because she’s afraid to upset whatever mixture of drugs, alcohol, and psyche come together to create the art she alone can appreciate so well. Nik’s “concessions,” his need to “get off his face, out of his head, expand, shut down, alter, spin, fly, sleep, wake up, float” was there as long as Denise could remember.
 
Denise has her own “concession.” Nik, his music, his art, his life, is her life’s concession. If everyone lives with these consolations, and if the non-stop dissociative drugging was Nik’s consolation, Denise was willing to accept those terms so long as she could feel the “consolation of recognition” that she felt in Nik’s art. Because Denise is ultimately empty. She fills herself with whatever she can — she regularly “possesses” these “permeable moments” that wrack her with guilt and empathy. Again, I read these moments as further attempts to convince her audience (us? herself? Ada?) that we should forgive her, the patron saint of lost musicians. She’s so useless that she ends up crying on the doorstep of the woman she’d flown cross-country and driven hundreds of miles to “help.” How could she help Nik? 
 
Finally, when Nik’s gone, Denise becomes the de facto arbiter of Nik and his art. Now, rather than just his audience, she’s his curator. “It’s hard to believe [Nik and his art] is really gone,” Denise says. “But there is this.” 
 
“What remains,” says Ada. 
 
“And what I remember, of course.” 
 
I’d be hard pressed to think of a more dismal life than correcting YouTube commentators, but this is what Denise is finally left with. Maybe it’s enough, negotiating the Chronicles and Counterchronicles. It sounds like a sad fate to me. 

Roxane Gay writes:

I’ve enjoyed the conversation thus far. I’ll just ramble through some thoughts on this book

I’m not familiar with Spiotta. So I did not know what to expect from this book. But I found it very timely. I read Nik as a blogger before there was blogging. The Internet makes it very easy for artists and writers and musicians, and even people who are none of these things, to chronicle their careers or lives obsessively — whether those careers or lives are real or imagined, interesting or quotidian. It was interesting that Ada actually was a blogger and Denise stayed apprised of her daughter’s interior life via blog, while staying apprised of her brother’s interior life through the Chronicles, or his retro blog. Nik and his imaginary life, the Chronicles, blogging, social networking, sharing what we’re watching on Twitter — all these things speak to Sontag’s thoughts on living as having one’s life recorded. And this, along with the idea that we are not truly alive and can’t be remembered if we do not leave artifacts behind documenting that we were, indeed, here. Documenting our lives also connects to memory which was such a dominant theme in this book. Denise became the documentarian of many lives — her own, her mother and brother’s lives, sometimes her daughter’s life, sometimes the lives of strangers in how she followed the news. At times, I felt like she saw her responsibility as bearing witness. 

I don’t know if Nik is an artist, but he certainly performs the part of the artist very well. I was fascinated by the sheer extent of how he chronicled his imaginary career and the obsessive attention to detail, and how Spiotta was able to convey the obsession so convincingly. I would not say Nik is an impostor as much as he is a coward. He believes in his art enough to make it, but he doesn’t believe in his art enough to push it beyond the claustrophobic community he has created himself — people who, for the most part, have a certain obligation to love and appreciate his art. I thought of Hoarders, which airs on A&E, as I read this book. The show follows people who hoard trash, dolls, beer cans, and other strange ephemera that holds some deep emotional significance, even as it threatens to drive these people from their very homes. I read Nik as hoarding this chronicle of his imaginary life, slavishly devoted to the upkeep of that imaginary life even in the face of what would be deemed, by many, as abject failure.

Edward asks what our judgments are worth when so many people are providing their own commentary and it is a good question: one that people in many fields are asking. Social media, the Internet, and what have you have made it possible for everyone to be a critic. So we have to ponder the value of criticism when it has been diluted the way it has in recent years. Nik himself proves that everyone’s a critic when he solipsistically reviews his own albums. He certainly takes that solipsism to a new level by sometimes critiquing himself negatively, but I find his project to be the ultimate expression of this notion of anarchic, overly democratic criticism — both creating art and then providing commentary on that very same art. Who does that? If a self-published writer (who is already pretty marginalized in the publishing world) were to then review her own work, the response would be swift and merciless. There’s a real tenderness, though, in how the people in Nik’s life view his Chronicles and self-criticism. It would be easy to think of Nik as a deluded, obsessive genius or impostor or coward but there’s also more to him. He demonstrates a real awareness, for example, when he articulates that he knows precisely the slant Ada will take in her documentary. He knows how he appears but remains undeterred. There’s something to that.

I would have loved to see more done with the design of this book. I kept wanting to see more evidence of the Chronicles other than the brief glimpses we were given. There was a real opportunity here to do something conceptually interesting and that opportunity was missed. 

Stone Arabia Roundtable — Part One

(This is the first of a five-part roundtable discussion of Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia. Additionally, Spiotta will be in conversation with Edward Champion on July 20, 2011 at McNally Jackson, located at 52 Prince Street, New York, NY, to discuss the book further. If you’ve enjoyed The Bat Segundo Show in the past and the book intrigues you, you won’t want to miss this live discussion.)

Additional Installments: Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five

This week, Dana Spiotta’s third novel, Stone Arabia, hits bookstores. Spiotta is previously the author of Lightning Field and Eat the Document and also appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #28. Reluctant Habits will be devoting the entire week to authors, journalists, critics, bloggers, and various readers discussing Spiotta’s book further. We’ll be serializing the conversation in five chunky installments from Monday through Friday.

Edward Champion writes:

I don’t want to give away the ghost from the outset (although it’s possible that I may be remarking on a spectre), but it’s interesting that a novel depicting how we respond to art should begin with an epigraph from Jean Dubuffet, who believed very much in the idea of lower art (specifically images and paintings) possessing greater authenticity and humanism than loftier cousins, while ending on the ultimate image wish fulfillment: in 1972, Nikolas Kranis (aka Nik Worth and possibly the sketchy Nik Kat) is photographically positioned as rock star paragon for his sister Denise and his then girlfriend Lisa.  But that artistic status is also there in the order of his room, the makeshift coffee table, and the sundry posters arranged in “idiosyncratic” spots throughout his garage studio.  So the big burning question I have for you good folks, one I’ve been dying to ask you for weeks, is what you think this all amounts to.

Here we have Nik, a musician who has devoted decades of his life (1970s-2003, a time period that intriguingly matches how long it took Brian Wilson to get around to finishing Smile, which I bring up because the Wilsons features prominently in Spiotta’s previous book, Eat the Document, and also because the gloriously hallucinogenic “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” now blasts through my speakers; but I digress) to two bona-fide private projects: the Chronicles, a written compendium of journal entries, press clippings, and assorted articles in which much of the biography has been fabricated (and which contains, moreover, any number of inside jokes and prevarications), and The Ontology of Worth, a twenty album project released in descending order (last volume timed with his fiftieth birthday) to Nik’s immediate circle of family and friends.  For Denise (our primary guide through this book) or Ada (Denise’s daughter, a documentary filmmaker who soon beings work on Garageland, a Nik documentary named after a notable Clash song that begins “Back in the garage with my bullshit detector…”) to make sufficient sense of this, they must wade through a bogged labyrinth of invented personae, cruel parodies mimicking and meticulously referencing their real lives, and other wetware manifestations that serve in lieu of the truth (Nik, washed out rock star suffering from gout, reliant upon family handouts, brittle vocational truth not revealed until very late in the book). (“Versions of Me” indeed!)  So we are forced to confront difficult questions: Is Nik, who is clearly capable of impressive encyclopedic insularity, building up to his own masterpiece akin to Smile?  Or is he, as many of the characters in Spiotta’s previous novels have been, an impostor?  Some go-nowhere bum to be pushed into reality or an unhatched autodidactic genius who requires encouragement?  Is Nik’s private work, emerging from the house he calls Cafe Real (perhaps with a shit-eating grin or a “smiley smile”), more humane and authentic in its lower and personal efforts than his efforts to pin down power pop through The Fakes or glam aspirations with The Demonics?

On the other hand, what right do any of us have to make judgments on artistic intentions — even the fictional ones contained within this book?  Just to be clear on this, I certainly don’t wish to hinder any of you from doing so!  But to my mind, Spiotta promulgates a legitimate question: What are our judgements worth when so many people (including the characters in this book) are talking over the cinematic soundtrack, providing their own commentary?  (Even Nik is seen writing “while someone is talking to him.”)  That goes for the YouTube commenters seen near the end of the book, who present their own theories and are mostly interested in the old Fakes footage, as well as the “scripted” interviews from Ada’s film-in-progress — a stylistic technique Spiotta also deployed in Lightning Field. To what degree is the text that Nik or Denise present commentary?  And if Nik’s Chronicles are “a private joke he doesn’t have to explain to anyone,” why then has he (or, for that matter, Spiotta) layered the joke with so many inside jokes (some explicitly mentioned, such as Neil Young’s Skyline Drive; some not, such as the Garageland reference I pointed out above)?

Would we be more satisfied accepting art on its own emotional terms?  That’s a big question too.  Because just look at the serious grief Denise offers in response to the news cycle, the ostensible “reality” that she feels compelled to confront.  She can’t even name Lynndie England as she takes in the Abu Ghraib photos, but, much as many (including Nik) speculate on Nik’s character, she finds herself fixating on England’s “storm chasing,” even after Denise confesses that she “eluded any explanations.”  Perhaps this is the ultimate response to Debuffet.  And if we want to bring up Susan Sontag’s “Regarding the Torture of Others” into this discussion, to what degree do you think Sontag’s thoughts (“To live is to be photographed, to have a record of one’s life, and therefore to go on with one’s life oblivious, or claiming to be oblivious, to the camera’s nonstop attentions. But to live is also to pose. To act is to share in the community of actions recorded as images.”) inform this novel or even our experience beyond the novel?    Must we accept all this if we wish to have a relationship with art?  Has the advancement of artistic creation and artistic commentary made us merely Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents, Voluntary Missing Adults, or (to offer a pleasantly overreaching take on the book’s affinity for acronyms) inversions of “dad” (Ada) who feel compelled to shoot attention-seeking video instead of seeking “basic words of familiar vocabulary hid behind missing letters”?

I realize that’s quite a lot to trot out, especially since I haven’t mentioned Denise’s twin concerns of aging and declining memory, to say nothing of the book’s frequent concern with trading off accumulation for elimination.  I’ll leave others to remark on some of this before I jump in again.  But I can’t resist closing this jam-packed opening with Spiotta’s joke about Denise having a “sort-of boyfriend” named Jay, who teaches art history (and sometimes film). This is a pretext to get laid and watch James Mason films in lieu of actually living outside the house.  But the truly sad thing is Jay’s interest in Thomas Kinkade and how this meaningless affair is, for Jay, an excuse to maintain a minimum of grooming habits.  I have to ask whether you folks think there’s anything redeemable in this relationship.  Or is this relationship, like many of the distractions presented in the book, a reflection of some new dull narcotic and wholly insufficient existence in bloom?  Perhaps it’s something referenced to the Stones’s “Dead Flowers” — an especially bleak song representing the Stones’s effort to shift to country that Nik likes to play every New Year — “I’ll be in my basement room, with a needle and a spoon.” Steering from your natural voice creates some fairly rocking material, but at what gloomy cost? Another of Spiotta’s inside jokes, especially since the Stones refused to play this song live for quite a long while.

Sarah Weinman writes:

There is so much to unpack in Stone Arabia, and, by extension Ed’s wonderful and jam-packed opening salvo, that it almost threatens to do my head in! As such, I’m going to do an end-run and touch on a couple of topics Ed didn’t bring up, with the hope of circling back a little later on.

First is the idea of audience, and even that idea, as filtered through Spiotta’s novel, goes off in a number of different directions. There’s young Nik playing and posing to his girlfriend Lisa and Denise, the image Spiotta returns to in a big way at the end of the book (and which led me to a particular conclusion about the book that I’ll get to in a bit). Obviously, there is Nik’s choice to conduct his massive project more or less privately, with Denise as his primary audience, commentator and admirer. There’s Ada and her documentary, wishing to bring her uncle into the light of a greater audience. All have intentions, noble and selfish, thoughtful and venal – and that’s one of the many things that so impressed me about Stone Arabia, which is that it tackles the notion of whether the expression of art is “purer” with a tiny audience while also subverting it. Does art function in a vacuum? Is “selling out” a less worthy or more worthy goal? Spiotta simply presents possibilities here, but it’s up to us, as readers, to come to our own judgments, and then, in reaching them, get hoisted by our own petard because we sought some element of rightness or wrongness here.

Then there’s the relationship closeness of Nik and Denise: she’s his closest confidante and supporter, he’s the conduit by which she can express her own nascent artistic desires, or think she can. There’s some double-fold work here, because, on the one hand, brother-sister closeness seems to resonate a little less in literature than same-sex sibling relationships — unless there’s some cliched element like “brother protecting little sister from bad boyfriend” or vice versa. (I love, too, that the deepest love in Stone Arabia is familial — brother-sister, mother-daughter — and romantic attachments are almost incidental, never measuring up in terms of emotional power.) But in this case, Nik and Denise are both protecting and perhaps enabling each other: if Denise wasn’t around to be Nik’s #1 admirer, might he have reached that larger audience? Or was her active support really the only way for him to produce those many albums and to stay on the “right side” of artistic integrity? And is Ada, Denise’s daughter, representative of Denise’s admiration the next generation over, or is she part of some weird familial artistic triangle that will upend everything?

Based on what happens to Nik — his disappearance and his canny self-obituary, seemingly left for Denise to find after he’s gone — it seems like the explosive triangle is the likeliest option. But again, I love that Spiotta leaves it open for interpretation. Which is ultimately why I read the end of Stone Arabia as Denise’s attempt to rewrite her own family history, to put Nik on some kind of artistic pedestal while also finding a framework to focus her own thwarted ambitions. (“I feel like I am him, this is my little edge of want.”) Or, to riff off of the “impostor” idea Ed mentioned, Nik and Denise’s artistic output are the same, manifold in different expressions, and even if it turns out that this whole massive project may be in Denise’s head, a manifestation of shifting (even failing) memory, or that she essentially created “Nik Worth” so she had a more legitimate way of expressing her artistic self (which would also help explain her evasion on camera when talking to Ada — her own daughter! — about the so-called origin events of how Nik came to be a rock star) it still doesn’t negate the artistic truth of what’s been expressed. Or, to state it more simply, does it matter who created or who expressed art when the art itself carries so much meaning for whomever experiences it?

I came away from reading Stone Arabia wanting to experience art more fully and more deeply, but also caring a little less about the semantics of it all. There’s so much to rewrite and rework and reshape that, ultimately, it’s the context any audience member or reader or observer brings that adds vital truth to it – especially if the bonds are so strong, so familial, as to attach even greater importance to what’s being created.

Levi Asher writes:

Well, I think I’ll take a cue from Sarah and avoid responding to Ed’s impressive questions (because I don’t know how to answer these questions) and instead kick off with my own first impressions of the novel.  There will be time to circle back in this roundtable later, I’m sure.

First, unlike Ed and possibly Sarah, I never entertained for a minute the idea that Nik Worth could be considered an artistic success, or that he could be seen as having any artistic integrity based on his extremely weird decision to fork off a fantasy career as a rock star after the evident failure of his real career as a rock star.  

He is a gigantic success, in my opinion, as the central character in this novel — I love the character (and, since it happens I’m nearing the age of fifty myself, and am also grappling with the gap between my own fantasy career and reality career as a writer, I relate to him more than I want to admit).  But Nik Worth could not have seen himself as a success, and neither Denise nor Ada nor anyone else could possibly have been proud of him.  His retreat into fantasy seems to me a mild analog to schizophrenia. His decision to detach himself from reality and find solace in a world of sarcastic self-reference is like Alonso Quijana’s decision to become Don Quixote. And everybody knew that Don Quixote was mad.

I think Ed and Sarah have done a better job than me of analyzing the many connections in the novel — I didn’t think about Brian Wilson, though I did think of Spiotta’s great Eat The Document often while reading Stone Arabia — but I did form one strong impression that neither Ed nor Sarah focused on.  To me, it’s obvious that this is a book about memory. There are five characters in the book: Denise, Nik, their mother, Jay the boyfriend, and Ada. They form a pentagon of attitudes about memory.

Denise feels everything, remembers everything, takes responsibility for correcting everybody else’s memorial imperfections.  She’s not only her family’s conscience, but also the conscience of the world, and she both suffers mildly for this and rewards herself for her honesty.

Nik, of course, is remarkable for his protest against truth.  He doesn’t like the world, he doesn’t like the way New Wave and power pop and MTV destroyed the operatic classic rock visions of the great 1970s, and so he tells the world to fuck off and departs from reality: first mentally (when he begins the Chronicles) and then physically when he drives off with his car and guitars into complete oblivion.

Their mother represents the tragedy of memory — she needs it as much as all of us do, but it has left her, and she’s struggling without it.

Jay the boyfriend represents the same escape impulse as Nik Worth, but he escapes in a more “normal” and socially acceptable way: by absorbing himself in Thomas Kinkade paintings, elegant 1950s cinema, and friendly lukewarm sex.

Ada the cheerful filmmaker-daughter represents the youthful fascination of memory.  Charged with creative spirit, but too young and unformed to obsess (yet) over her own thoughts, she feeds rapaciously on Nik’s quiet insanity, turning it into YouTube fodder.  The fact that she barely seems to care when her uncle disappears demonstrates the lack of depth — a condition of the very young, I suppose — of her own memory at this point, though of course the crises of life await her.

That’s my first takeaway.  The other thing I want to say about Dana Spiotta’s writing is that, more than anything else, I appreciate reading a novelist who truly understands the grand masterpiece proportions of 1970s rock music.  An Aladdin Sane birthday cake, indeed!

I will attempt one response to Ed’s avalanche of conversation-starters.  Ed suggests that the name Ada is an inversion of “Dad,” which is intriguing, and I’d like to hear more examples of acronym-play and inversion-play in this novel.  However, I’m completely sure that Dana Spiotta named this daughter after a famous daughter named Ada.  Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron, and was notable for her own work on early computer prototypes.  The computer language “Ada” was named after her, and since computers do nothing but operate upon memory, this connection supports my idea that the whole book is about memory.

But the reference to Ada is a clever inversion of a different kind, because, of course, Ada’s father Lord Byron was widely believed to have had a sexual affair with his sister.

Diane Leach writes:

I’m with Levi — I’m not touching Ed’s analysis. 

I had a strongly personal reaction to this book.  My brother is a professional musician who, until recently, worked exclusively in Los Angeles. My brother deals with much of the bullshit Nik endures, though, unlike Nik, he is functional and earns a living.  I also found this difficult from the same standpoint Levi did: at 43, I find myself gaping at the yawning pit between my “real” writing career and the one that did not happen.  

I interpreted Nik’s retreat from the music business and the conventional definitions of artistic success (this may be self-serving on my part) not as failure, but as a decision. Nik is clearly a brilliant guy whose talents would permit him to do whatever necessary to attain broad popular success.  Look at the Lux Smith interlude — Los Angeles is full of these guys. Nik is hardly the type who will tolerate such people. Is retreat a form of purity? I suppose it depends on what one wants from her art.  The great ballerina Suzanne Farrell, in her biography Holding On to the Air, writes that she hardly intended to spend her life dancing in her living room.  Does this make her art better or more important than Nik’s?  I don’t think so.  Our current artistic culture — in all the arts — is too often a definition of the lowest common denominator.  Where would a polymath like Nik Worth fit?  In today’s culture, he’d be reduced to a “niche market.”  

Interesting to me that nobody noted that Stone Arabia was about loving somebody who is incapable of returning that love.  Though Nik loves Denise, as he ages, the relationship moves from siblings on reasonably equal footing to a caregiving situation.  Denise is also left as sole caregiver of her mother; Nik rarely even visits.  We’ve all known or loved Niks — people who are so gifted, so charismatic, that we fall for them and continue to accept bad behavior long after we should have cut them off. Think Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, or the dazzling lover or friend who took your life over, fucked with your head, and who is now gone (interesting how so many of these people end up dead). But this type continues to absorb too much available brain space.  Denise is fully cognizant of Nik’s shortcomings, particularly his drug abuse:

If it came up at all between us, it was usually because I decided I wanted him to change his habits out of simple health…He would simply tell me that this was his consolation.  And what could a sister say to answer that?

Yet she defends him to Alize:

“This is a person, if ever there was a person, who will not change.  I promise you, all you have is all you will ever get…”

Denise sticks around. Alize does not. 

The changes in POV are interesting too.  Here is a book-within-a-book, possibly two books: the third-person narrative focusing on Denise, Denise’s frantic first-person correction of Nik’s extensive Chronicles.  Atop all this is Ada’s film, which is posted to the media of the moment: YouTube, where Nik’s life becomes an object for public dissection.

Spiotta throws in a lot (to borrow a word from the book) about perviousness of media.  The news, such as it is, has become inescapable.  Those hideous crawl strips throwing more information at us even as we watch Chechens attack children.  We turn off the televised images of Abu Ghraib only to find them on the Internet. Denise is aware that her tears are self-indulgent, but cannot stop crying.  Perhaps her obsession with news is a way of coping with the loss of her family — it’s far easier to cry over the suffering of strangers.  Then again, how are we to cope with the endless procession of horrors? 

Ada is very much of her generation: specifically, younger adults who don’t recall life before the Net.  They post extensively on their own lives and the lives of others; there is a compulsion to document every moment publicly.  Her decision to be a filmmaker is not surprising.  Nor is her blogging.

As for Jay, he seemed to me an aside. His twee obsession with Thomas Kinkade kitsch and lukewarm kindness means Jay lacks the capacity to harm Denise.  He’s a warm body.  Given that all of Denise’s energies are tied up in Nik and her mother (Ada is independent enough that Denise arguably needs Ada more than Ada needs her), she hasn’t room or inclination for anything more in her life. 

One more note before closing this missive: As the book moves toward the end, we realize Nik is going to commit suicide.  Denise decides she cannot stop him.  She would never interfere with what she knows to be a carefully thought-out plan.  But she goes on to say she was meant to “endure.”  To see things through — aging, burying their mother, taking full responsibility for Nik’s archives.  “I would stay, waiting for the terms to unfold around me.  That’s the price you pay for staying around.”  Or, that’s the price you pay for compromising, for accepting the mortgage payments, the dental appointments, the day job with health insurance, from turning away from the uncertainties of the artistic life.  The page left me sad.  Nik’s life may not have been what he wanted — it’s hard to say — but Denise’s love and devotion leave her with scarcely little happiness.  

Our Next Installment: Part Two features a footnote-charged cover dissection from Darby Dixon, thoughts on reader obligation from Robert Birnbaum, insights into concession from Insulted by Authors’s Bill Ryan, and connections to hoarding from Roxane Gay.

The Bat Segundo Show: Gary Shteyngart II

Gary Shteyngart appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #352. Mr. Shteyngart is most recently the author of Super Sad True Love Story. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #121 and was ambushed by a Noah Weinberg type earlier in the year.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Too old and too much of a hack for Conde Nast’s cryogenic chambers.

Author: Gary Shteyngart

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You’ve probably seen this video of this 11-year-old who’s being cyberbullied by 4chan. Did you hear about this? She’s going by the name of Slaughter. And there’s a video where her dad is shouting in the background. And it’s truly horrifying. Surely, I think people would still value their privacy to some degree. Or they would say, “This is going way over the line.” Harassing people. Providing every bit of personal information. I mean, that’s got to trump any seduction by technology.

Shtyengart: Who knows? Things happen so quickly. Our values are changing so quickly. I mean, one of the things that this book doesn’t state, but maybe believes, is that change is okay. Change is going to happen. The end of slavery was good. Racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia — the dilution of all these things in states outside of Arizona. That’s good. But change happens quicker than we’re able to accommodate it. Because we are really flesh and bone and certain whatevers going on in our heads. But there’s only so much we can do. And when we’re addicted to constant change that’s changing at a breakneck speed, what happens when the change overruns us and begins to condition this group mind that we have brought together? It begins to condition us more than we condition the group mind. That can be very depressing. I mean, going back to the television people — when television was revealed — there was a similar worry. But what this does is a little more insidious. It takes away our privacy, for one thing. But it also deputizes all of us to be writers, filmmakers, musicians. Which sounds lovely and democratic. But when a book ceases to become a book, when a book becomes a Kindle application, when it become a file — how different is it in the mind of somebody from any other file that you get? Sitting there at your workstation — if you’re a white-collar worker — all you do all day long is receive bits and bits of information. And in some ways, you begin to privilege these bits of information. But in another way, one email is as good as another. It’s all just coming at you. Streaming at you. You go home. What’s the last thing you want to do? The last thing you want to do is pick up a hard brick like the one I’m holding right now, open it, and begin to read linear text for 330 pages. It’s the last thing you want to do. Who the hell would want to do it? And I think that because America is such a market economy, there’s still a real love of storytelling. That’s why you look at something like The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men. You know, what they’ve done is they’ve very cleverly — and they’ve talked about this — they’ve repurposed fiction — the way it used to exist between covers — in a way that can be transmitted inside an eyeball, in a way that satisfies our craving for storytelling. But without all the added benefits that you get from a book.

Correspondent: Hmmm. Well, I don’t know about that. I mean, to some degree, by having jokes and by writing an entertaining book — which I think this is an entertaining book…

Shteyngart: Thank you.

Correspondent: …you are kind of contributing towards this entertainment-oriented storytelling.

Shteyngart: That’s right.

Correspondent: What makes you different, eh?

Shteyngart: Well, you hit the nail on the head with your big hammer. I still believe that fiction is a form of entertainment. In my crazy world, which may not exist, I’m still hearing about a book that I have to read. And I’m getting out of bed. And I’m running to the bookstore. And I’m buying it. In the way that people run to the cineplex. I’m excited. And that’s what I want fiction to do. If it doesn’t entertain me, then it’s work. When I was researching parts of this book, I had to read a lot of books that were not entertaining. And they were work. What worries me is the academization of literature. When it becomes just an academic pursuit, where we sit around, we create serious works that are then discussed by serious people in serious settings, and the entertainment value is nil. And we become a small tiny society that’s obsessed with things. In other words, we become where poetry is today. Utterly irrelevant. Beyond a certain beautiful wonderful circle of people. And the poetry hasn’t gotten any worse. The poetry’s great. And the fiction hasn’t gotten any worse. Some of it is amazing. But the way we approach these things has become too serious.

Correspondent: Well, to what degree should books be work? I mean, I’d hate to live in a world in which Ulysses was banned simply because it was considered to be too much work. I find it a very marvelous journey to just sift into all those crazy phrases and all that language. But it doesn’t feel like work to me. And I don’t think it feels like work to everybody. And we still have Bloomsday and all that.

Shteyngart: I’m not talking about Ulysses. I’m talking about self-important crap.

Correspondent: Like what?

Shteyngart: Well, I’m not going to say.

Correspondent: Ha ha! Very convenient.

Shteyngart: Very convenient. I’m not going to say. Madame Bovary. Talk about a page-turner. I can’t put that thing down. I read it all the time. Jesus Christ, and there’s still part of me that thinks, “Don’t do it. Don’t do it, Madame B. Stay away from that schmuck.” Because it’s so damn involving. It’s brilliant. It’s funny as hell. You know, the apothecary. There’s so many elements in it that are working. It’s perfectly researched. The language is just right. It doesn’t — I suppose it could be considered work. But it’s not any more work than one needs to do in order to gain the maximum enjoyment and understanding of these characters.

Correspondent: Yeah. But isn’t there some sort of compromise? Aren’t you trading something away for this happy medium? Are we talking essentially to some degree about approaching books and literature as if it’s a middlebrow medium?

Shteyngart: Oh what does it mean? Middlebrow, lowbrow, highbrow. These brows. I raise my brow at those brows.

Correspondent: Very bromidic

Shteyngart: The whole bromidic stuff is nonsense. What makes Jeffrey Eugenides or Franzen’s works — what makes them stay in our minds? They use whatever language they want. If they need to deploy highfalutin language, they’ll do it. If they need to use street slang, they’ll do that. The range is always there. And you try to capture a world. A place and time you try and capture as best as you can with the best people who you can deploy. The best characters you can deploy doing them. And to do that, you need to care about these people. Maybe I failed. But I certainly have tried with Lenny and Eunice more so than with anyone else. I’ve tried to live inside their skin. I’ve tried to make myself feel the love that they both have toward each other in this very difficult world. And you know, that doesn’t sound highbrow. But to me, it’s the most important thing I can do with my art.

(Image: Morbinear)

The Bat Segundo Show #352: Gary Shteyngart II (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

Ellen Ruppel Shell’s CHEAP — Part Four

cheaprt4(This is the fourth of a five-part roundtable discussion of Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. Other installments: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Five.)

Edward Champion writes:

I’m going to attempt to address as many of these interesting points as I can, even as we await Levi’s answer with book before him and take up Miracle Jones’s sensible advice on how to live cheap.

Early into the discussion, Peggy mentioned that she thought Ruppel Shell hadn’t entirely considered the idea of community-based commerce.  I’d like to go further and suggest that the fault doesn’t entirely lie with Ruppel Shell, but with Nicholas Kristof’s blunt sentiment (quoted in the book) that “anyone who cares about fighting poverty should campaign in favor of sweatshops.”  For anyone who’s curious, and to partially answer Whet’s question, Kristof’s entire piece can be read here.

kirstofIn her endnote, Ruppel Shell points out that Kristof’s been pro-sweatshops since the late 1990s, co-authoring articles titled “Two Cheers for Sweatshops: They’re dirty and dangerous.  They’re also a major reason Asia is back on track.”  (Rather interesting, this attention-seeking and extremely callous subhead appears to have been expunged from the New York Times’s archive.  But it’s also worth observing that Ruppel Shell is careful to call Kristof “a generally insightful and sensitive reporter.”)

The workers who toil for long and dangerous hours in such hidden economies are very much on my mind, for I am presently doing my best to work my way through William T. Vollmann’s massive Imperial.  It isn’t just a matter of time always being reframed as a monetary value.  It’s the way in which we defend our lifestyles, whether it’s assuming that a book attempting to plunge deeper into an important issue is “telling us what we already know.”  And it’s evident in the way Kristof writes such pat summations as:

This is not to praise sweatshops. Some managers are brutal in the way they house workers in firetraps, expose children to dangerous chemicals, deny bathroom breaks, demand sexual favors, force people to work double shifts or dismiss anyone who tries to organize a union. Agitation for improved safety conditions can be helpful, just as it was in 19th-century Europe. But Asian workers would be aghast at the idea of American consumers boycotting certain toys or clothing in protest. The simplest way to help the poorest Asians would be to buy more from sweatshops, not less.

Our enviable lifestyles would appear to trump any and all inquiry into those who toil to sustain it.  We think that, if we mention a sweatshop, we can purport to comprehend what it is like to toil and suffer in that sweatshop.  But how are we any better than Kristof in our assumptions?  To what degree does contributing to the labyrinthine network of cheap cut-rate goods produced in exploitative situations actually help the Third World?  Should we be concerned with our Faustian bargain?  And did Ruppel Shell, as Peggy has suggested, not adequately represent these many labor categories by degree?  No, the Walmart worker can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods.  But then the sweatshop worker can’t afford to shop at Walmart.  Does consumer confidence help the worker who is below us?  Or is this all part of the same Shell game?

Which brings us to the issue of necessity, both real and fabricated, initially raised by Colleen and expanded upon by several others.  Like Miracle Jones, I too admire Ruppel Shell’s personal honesty.  And I think that understanding and vocalizing the ways in which we spend money are just as important in understanding the bigger economic picture.  If such an approach amounts to “telling us what we already know,” then I would say this:  If I asked each of you to publicly report the annual income that you entered into your 1040, then chances are you wouldn’t do it.  That would be an invasion of your privacy.  If I asked each of you to tell me precisely how you spent your money over the last week, complete with an itemization of costs and expenses for each day, chances are that you probably haven’t kept track.  And yet, thanks to those dependable Gruen transfers, we’re happy to cling to a remarkably shifting sense of the deep discount deals we’re getting.  To the point where Amazon consumers have been tagging eBooks with $9.99 tags because that’s the price they now want to pay.  Never mind that, as Publishers Weekly reported back in May, Amazon actually loses money at that price point.  Does Amazon get a fair pass, as Miracle Jones suggests?  Yes and no, I think.  One could make a similar case for Starbucks.  On one hand, I wish that Ruppel Shell had delved into Amazon’s parasitic stranglehold on the industry.  But at the possible risk of comparative oversimplification, I think it could be argued that IKEA’s ubiquity falls into more or less the same rub.  As documented by Ruppel Shell, like Amazon, IKEA spends a tremendous amount of time framing the message, whether in the form of a twee Spike Jonze commercial or a slick and colorful catalog.  More questions to the group: Should we look at discount culture on a case-by-case basis?  Or is this all monolithic?  (Yes, Amazon is online and caters to convenience.  IKEA, on the other hand, is a big box store.  Should it matter whether we physically or virtually participate in these Gruen transfers?  The labor is still unseen, whether it’s Amazon workers being exploited, as the London Times reported back in December, or IKEA’s illegal cutting.)

nikeoutletTo address Erin’s track suit dilemma, after thinking about this a bit, I’m inclined to agree — particularly in light of Our Man in Boston’s provocative remarks about elites and elitism.  But I’m wondering if Ruppel Shell’s stereotypical descriptions are somewhat defensible, because outlet stores, discount stores, and shopping malls are, by way of their respective designs, spaces that prey upon our cognitive abilities to process numerous aesthetics.  I don’t want to let Ruppel Shell off the hook on this point — and certainly Janet Maslin didn’t by suggesting that Ruppel Shell needed to “bring a professor of marketing to a Nevada outlet mall to tell her that bargains are phony,” although I think this anti-intellectual assessment isn’t entirely fair to what Ruppel Shell dug up.  Much as casinos are specifically designed to keep us gambling (no clocks, no windows, lots of lights, free drinks), I’m wondering if outlet stores might be working in a similar way.  Consider this 1998 article from Retail Traffic, which outlines very specific design decisions to convince the customer that she’s getting a good deal.  It’s quite possible that this may be just as vital, if not more so, as brand name manipulation.  And so I ask some of the pessimists in the peanut gallery this: If the book “tells us what we already know,” then just how aware are you of a store’s aesthetics when you go shopping?  Bargain hunting may very well be a harmless American pastime for some, but if we’re more concerned with price and acquisition (instead of say the human souls who work at the store or the way the store is designed), then it would seem to suggest that we don’t know as much as we think.

Good Christ, I’ve been a wordy bastard.  And I’ve only just begun to address all the interesting thoughts on the table.  So I think I’ll stop for now, see what others have to say about all this, and return later, possibly after Levi has offered his informed answer to Colleen’s question (which I certainly look forward to hearing!).

Colleen Mondor writes:

I did want to point out one thing about bargain hunting. A lot of people bargain hunt at garage sales and thrift stores (I have seen some amazing things scored this way), which is another deal altogether and not at all related to bargain hunting at IKEA or Walmart. There can, in fact, be different types of bargain hunters and I don’t think they should all be grouped together in one large mass.

There’s one other interesting idea to think about as we consider poor in this country: how you live poor depends on where you live. Miracle’s rules would certainly not work in Alaska where poor folks eat King Crab and catch wild salmon, shrimp etc. — food that would be considered beyond the reach of the poor and/or middle class in the Lower 48.

And many middle class and rich folks love their pit bulls too. I’m just saying.

Robert Birnbaum writes:

Books like Cheap, et al raise the question that subsumes the pretext for the traditional liberal education (i.e., “knowledge is power”). By the way, David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College 2005 oration is worth looking at on this point.

The relentless (some might use the banal modifier “24/7”) chimes of commerce create such a shitstream of noise that whatever we think we know is disabled in the face of the symphonic chord (think Mahler’s 10th): BUY THIS, BUY NOW.

Some of you all sound like you think you are immune. Good for you. I’m not. Not that I am siting on a pile of junk. But I am sitting on a pile. Did I mention the hoodies, the socks, and the caps?

The only antidote I have found effective is exhibited here:

Also, for those of you unaware of John Crowley, his new opus Four Freedoms should, if there is a modicum of reward for good works in this disinterested universe, gain him a proper audience.

Erin O’Brien writes:

(1) “Sex, conversation, art, and games are what actually make people happy.”

“Become cheap. Don’t fight it. Go so deep into cheap that you become competition for these eeeeeevil discounters. Become so cheap that you are affordable to everybody in all your favorite activities (sex, conversation, games, art), both rich and poor alike. You will have a good life.”

Miracle, I see that you are a genius like me. Remind me to send you my zucchini soup recipe. And as a side note: DO NOT purchase inexpensive marital aids. Just trust me on this one. Contact me off-list for more specific information.

A related Erinism: Buy your plates for $0.50 a piece at a garage sale. You’ll never have a matching set, but, once in a while, you may be able to afford to plop lobsters on them.

pokerchips2(2) Ed, regarding casinos, the poker chips are a trick as well. Your money has been subtly taken from you from the get go and you’re left with piles of inane plastic disks that go up and down with each spin of the wheel.  To me, credit cards are a not-too-distant relative: a thin piece of plastic that magically gets you stuff, stuff stuff!

(3) Her Amazon comments aside, Ruppell Shell didn’t poke very hard at the implication of the Internet price comparison and the way it’s changed price shopping forever.

(4) On bookshelves:

So I’m on one of my endless walks and I pass some guy’s garbage pile. There’s two bookshelves in it.

“Shit,” I say, because they’re pretty good books shelves.

I keep walking, hoping that the bookshelves will be there after I’ve walked the 2.5 miles back home and returned with my Mini Cooper in order to heist the cast-off loot. As luck would have it, a buddy of mine is drives by and pulls up next to me to say hello. He’s in his pickup.

So, yeah, I have cheap bookshelves.

IKEA? I’ve never been to IKEA. Why would I drive all the way to Pittsburgh to go to someplace called IKEA?

Levi Asher writes:

I’ve now carefully reread the IKEA chapter, and I’m ready to respond to Colleen’s question from last week.

First, I think Janet Maslin scooped my answer when she wrote this in her mostly negative review of Cheap:

At the end of a chapter largely devoted to the horrors of Asian shrimp farming, she describes being in a Red Lobster restaurant with friends and being enlightened enough to eschew cheap shrimp in favor of chicken. Yet cheap chicken-farming isn’t any less ghastly. It just doesn’t happen to be addressed by this book.

I consider myself a very socially aware person. And I definitely think it’s important for me to make personal choices that are not harmful to others, or to the planet’s ecosystems.  Of course, this is easier said than done.  We each have our own ways of dealing with this uncomfortable truth.  My own brand of social awareness places heavy emphasis on issues of global politics, war, and genocide. These are probably my own “pet topics,” and I think it’s interesting that the last time Colleen and I disagreed about a book, we were discussing Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke.  I felt Baker’s book presented a very powerful argument that the Roosevelt-Churchill strategy in World War II led to far greater death, destruction, and genocide than was required to defeat Hitler, while Colleen (I hope that I am remembering correctly) did not feel the book presented a solid argument.

I also vividly remember one of the biggest disagreements I’ve ever had with Ed Champion.  I thought Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine presented a solid and important argument about the insidious underlying purpose of the American misadventure in Iraq, whereas Ed had nothing but criticism for Klein’s work.  So it’s funny that now Ed and Colleen seem to be bowled over by the arguments in Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap, while I stand here saying, “What?”.

cabinI don’t think Cheap is a bad book, and I like Ruppel Shell’s basic mission in making us aware of the choices we make when we shop.  But her case against IKEA, like many of the cases presented here, feels underdeveloped.  She writes of declining forests and environmental sustainability problems, but this is a problem for all woodworking industries.  She ends the chapter by swooning over a heavy (non-IKEA) oak bookshelf, but this bookshelf was also made by cutting down a tree. And even though it will last longer, Ruppel Shell knows there are not enough antique bookshelves around to furnish the world. Sure, if IKEA is committing environmental offenses, then these ought to be addressed and stopped. But Ruppel Shell only hints (and never establishes) that these offenses take place more at IKEA than at any smaller furniture provider.  She also shows us that IKEA does try to be environmentally conscious, that they “use every part of the tree”, monitor their suppliers, etc.  I see innuendo weaved into these sentences. But I find no clear case, no smoking gun.  And Cheap is not a book about the environment or about the problems of an overpopulated world. So the environmental points especially come off as half-baked and incomplete to me. 

What I was trying to point out in my earlier post here is that IKEA has an appeal beyond dumb cheapness.  It is a positive lifestyle choice for people like me — mobile adults who like to travel light.  If IKEA has problems — environmental problems, labor problems, quality problems — than these problems should be addressed and solved.  But nothing I read here seems to add up to a call for a wholesale rejection of everything IKEA represents. I could take Robert Birnbaum’s suggestion and build bookshelves out of spare planks and bricks — but, Robert, have you ever seen photographs from the Chinese and South Indian infernos where bricks are produced?  It’s not a pretty picture.

Finally, I have to complain about some shoddy work on Ruppel Shell’s part in this IKEA chapter.  On pages 126 and 127 she goes on at some length about the Spike Jonze commercial that reminds consumers that furniture has no feelings, and then points to the irony that IKEA tries to create an emotional attraction to furniture by giving its pieces pet names.  Then, on page 140, she repeats the exact same point, as if we’d never heard it before.  “Doesn’t a name connote intimacy? Of course it does, and IKEA knows well the power of intimacy to move us.”  It’s hardly such a powerful point that she needs to fully develop it twice in two separate parts of the book.

Often, when I read Cheap I felt as if I was being filibustered.  Going on about the trivial issue of IKEA giving cute names to its objects, Ruppel Shell specifically mocks the store for “naming a wok after a girl”.  But, reading the notes for the chapter, I discover that the wok in question is called “Pyra”.  Clearly, this wok is named after the Greek term for fire, as every consumer who sees a wok named “Pyra” will understand. Ruppel Shell couldn’t find a better example than this?  I don’t understand why she didn’t at least pick a better example (say, a bookshelf named “Billy”).  It’s ironic that a polemic against “cheap” should have such problems with quality control.

I also feel personally put off after reading and rereading Ruppel Shell’s lush paean to the sturdy oak bookshelf “groaning with books” that her friend bought after rejecting the IKEA lifestyle.  My cheap bookshelves “groan with books” too.  Ruppel Shell’s poor friend will spend the rest of her life lugging that heavy piece of furniture around. This book absolutely fails to inspire me to want to follow her example.

Nina MacLaughin writes:

In response to Robert’s point about immunity to the chimes of commerce. It’s impossible to be immune; even if you’re a conscious shopper, sensitive, responsible, the siren song (or “shitstream of noise”) penetrates.

pricegougeA quick example (and I’m on the side of folks who appreciated Ruppel Shell’s personal anecdotes): There was a Whole Foods located less than a 10 minute walk from my house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I passed by the store on my walk home from work. It was where I bought my food. I knew it was more expensive, but it was a matter of convenience. Time and money. It was worth it to me to spend the extra bucks to save myself some out-of-the-way trip to a cheaper spot. About three months ago, I moved to Somerville, and the closest supermarket is an expansive, always-crowded Market Basket. It’s got all the same brands as Whole Foods. My first time inside the store, buying the same combo of foods, and more or less the same brands that I would at Whole Foods, I was staggered at how much less it cost. What would’ve been $18 at Whole Foods was a little over $7 at Market Basket. Unbelievable. There is definitely a delight in that. And yet, somewhere in the back of my head, there’s been a gnawing sense that the veggies are saturated with pesticides, that the yogurt is rife with hormones, and that it’s cheaper at Market Basket because the food is poisoned (obviously a little overstated, but you get the idea). And I’ve been sort of wowed about this, in the sense that, holy shit, Whole Foods has done a pretty powerful job marketing themselves. It also speaks to the the complications of price and worth and quality and value that Ruppel Snell explores. Would I rather pay $3.49 for a pint of cherry tomatoes at Whole Foods? Or $2.10 for the same pint at Market Basket? I’d rather pay less, but it does put a doubt — a completely irrational doubt — in my head. Am I getting something that isn’t as good (or, in the case of food, something that isn’t as safe)? Is this doubt borne from the power of Whole Foods’ marketing (and my action buying into it) or the mysteries of price and quality? Or a combo that is hard to know? Whatever it is, it’s certainly interesting to consider.

Edward Champion writes:

To respond quickly to Levi:

(1)  Maslin actually got that detail wrong.  She was never in a Red Lobster restaurant with friends. I’m surprised that not a single fact checker at the supposed Paper of Record got off his ass to grab the book, flip to the “Red Lobster” entry in the index, and confirm that Maslin was indeed quite wrong.  (Damn those bloggers sitting in basements in Terre Haute!)

(2)  My problems with Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine had more to do with her assumptive approach to the subject — specifically, tying nearly every one of her investigations to the “shock doctrine” brand name after the fact.  As Richard Flanagan suggested in his novel, The Unknown Terrorist, journalism is not a sudoku puzzle. It was not unlike Gladwell’s “tipping point” or Anderson’s “long tail.”  Ruppel Shell’s book, on the other hand, demonstrates substantive journalism, as can be gleaned from the solid and often detailed endnotes.  (I mentioned, for example, the fairness she gave to Kristof.)  I do have problems, as others have pointed out, with some of Ruppel Shell’s quasi-elitist descriptions.  But if we look to the facts, the findings, the quotes, and the data, I believe that there’s much here in this book to consider, whether you think you know where you stand or not.  And as Birnbaum said a few messages back, some of you think you are immune.  (I’m sure as hell not.)

booksandbookshelves(3)  The many problems with IKEA, and it is all thoroughly documented in the “Death of a Craftsman” chapter (and I would suggest consulting the endnotes), is that it represents one of greatest manifestations of discount culture.  IKEA’s founder is Ingvar Kamprad. He is the seventh richest man in the world, but he still haggles with vegetable vendors and he still flies coach. IKEA has single-handedly altered Western ideas of interior design, perhaps to the same degree of Postrelian plaudits rightly derided by Jackson.  Let me tell you a story.  When I moved from San Francisco to Brooklyn, I had to leave behind all of my bookcases.  These bookcases were hand-built by a team of craftsmen in the Castro.  A place I highly recommend, if you’re ever in the market for bookcases in San Francisco, called Books and Bookshelves.  The guy would custom-design them for you.  And these shelves were built like houses.  They wouldn’t wobble or fall apart like the IKEA bookcases.  I was able to store a considerable amount of books, while ensuring that I had some wall space in my apartment that wasn’tt occupied by books. When I moved cross-country, I was forced to get rid of these shelves. I initially put up a Craig’s List ad for $50 a pop, which was a little less than one-third of the price that I paid for them.  Very few people wanted them. And some people emailed me thinking they were IKEA bookcases.  They literally hadn’t experienced bookcases built out of real durable wood.  When I couldn’t get any buyers for the last few, I gave them away on the street.  And again, people came up to me — in a seemingly civilized city like San Francisco, no less — asking where I had obtained these bookcases.  They pounded the sturdy wooden sides.  And I told people that they could store their DVDs in there if they wanted to. 

The upshot is this.  These people were mystified by real oak bookcases.  Yes, the bookcase was made by cutting down a tree.  But the difference is this.  These bookcases last decades.  An IKEA bookcase, by contrast, falls apart within a few years (at best) and the amount of wood is wasted.  Furthermore, the discount culture keeps IKEA running around the world and engaging in illegal and decidedly non-eco friendly cutting practices.  You tell me how that’s a positive lifestyle.  Would you rather spend $200 on a sturdy bookcase that will hold thick Vollmann books and last a lifetime?  Or $90 on a Billy bookcase that will fall apart because its not made to hold anything other than thin mass-market paperbacks (at best)?  If your main complaint, Levi, is that Ruppel Shell’s poor friend is going to be lugging around a heavy piece of furniture every couple of years, well, that’s a specious position to take, given all the interim years of sturdy quality.  But if you’re happy with your paper-thin particle boards, Levi, by all means, sing a song to IKEA.  At the end of the day, we’re all singing hymns to the corporate empire.

Robert Birnbaum writes:

A quick question: Are the IKEA shelves actually made of wood or particle board?

By the way, in between Eddie’s elitist custom book shelves (suitable also for CDs) and the IKEA items,  are the inexpensive unfinished pine shelves that I’m sure are available in every city in the mainland USA. You can even paint them colorfully so as to distinguish your self as artsy. Or is it craftsy?

Erin O’Brien writes:

“But her case against IKEA, like many of the cases presented here, feels underdeveloped.”

And when you consider that some event references in Cheap happened just a few months ago, it’s obvious that book was turned around at lighting speed. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it as I read it, but Cheap felt dense and rushed at the same time, perhaps because Ruppel Shell is very smart and Penguin wanted her to write very fast. I suspect Penguin didn’t want to wait around too long only to see the recession cool its heels, along with the sales of this book.

Peggy Nelson writes:

I will have to strongly disagree with the voices who argue that books like this are hypocritical luxury items, preaching to the converted readers who have enough disposable income that they can indulge themselves in a little passive system-bashing before bed.   I disagree.  The work of demystification is lengthy, heterogeneous, and necessary. And it has taken, and will take, many books, many websites, and a significant amount of talking so that we can see clearly what we are dealing with.  This work does not take the place of social/economic activism, but doesn’t delay it or prevent it.  Demystification runs parallel to activism, and is just as necessary.  Empowering people without a clear analysis of exactly where they are in the system only paves the way for greater misery, and perhaps does more harm than good as people become discouraged, decides that the culprit is greater awareness itself.  
 
I have been trying to stay abreast of the economy and our respective places in it, ever since I was a labor activist in the late ’80s. But there are still things I do not know — for example, the historical trajectory of retail commerce, its philosophy, and its pervasiveness — that I learn from books like this one.  Cheap doesn’t go as far as some other books, either in reportage (like Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed) or in systemic analysis (like Rushkoff’s Life, Inc.), but it does occupy its role well.  My only qualm was the book jacket. That fast-food yellow is repellent.  I know it’s about cheap, but does having it look cheap further its aims?
 
In terms of Kristof’s pro-sweatshop arguments, we heard a lot of those arguments in my union days too.  “Well, they’re better off than they were.” Or words to that effect.  This was not made to justify a $12 hoodie purchase, but as part of a global labor discussion. Should we be reaching across national borders to organize? (Yes.) And did we? (No.) (I was with the UAW organizing clericals during that time.) 
 
profitmagI think that this is a difficult argument to combat within the framework of a growth economy.  Companies need to get bigger. Companies need not only profit, but profit that’s greater than the last quarter, and a profit rate that’s continually increasing.  Buy more, spend more, acquire more, consolidate more, grow more, more, more.   This philosophy of “More” (maybe that’s the next catchy title in this series!) does not align itself well, if at all, with other values — like preserving and maintaining limited resources on the planet — and accommodating, perhaps even promoting, other types of values, such as community, creativity, being loved, and playfulness (with kids or just generally).
 
I credit the environmental movement with giving this analysis greater scope by demystifying systems on Planet Earth, including global and regional and micro, and showing not only the interconnectedness of natural systems, but the interconnectedness of natural, economic and cultural systems.  Without a general framework of sustainability (instead of “More”), I think the way out is not possible.  But within sustainability, I think discussions like this can be actively fruitful.   Levi, you are right in pointing out that, despite following the IKEA supply chain back to China and Romania, Ruppel Shell does not fully explore or incorporate the environmental angle here, and that she needs to.  I think that’s part of her not addressing the larger overarching points, as I’ve mentioned before.   Even smaller, more spotlight-style books like Cheap need to set themselves up correctly in relation to the larger themes, indicating where they fall within a larger spectrum of analysis and action.
 
(Re: my personal experiences with IKEA. I too move around a lot and don’t want some giant antique monster as a bookshelf.  But I also dont’ want to support clear-cutting even in places I can’t see.  I’m going to have to do some investigating of my own when it comes time to get my stuff out of storage again.)

Levi Asher writes:

Ed, you’re correct that Janet Maslin slipped up in describing Ruppel Shell in a Red Lobster when she decided to solve the problems of the world by ordering chicken instead of shrimp.  It was a seafood restaurant, not a Red Lobster.  BUT … the spirit of Janet Maslin’s point remains completely valid.  The only reason Rupell Shell was able to feel comfortable ordering chicken instead of shrimp is because she had been studying the problems with shrimp instead of studying the problems with chicken. 

And, Ed, that’s nice that you like heavy furniture so much.  I also know that you like heavy hardcover books, and that you don’t mind lugging around heavy video equipment book conferences.  Milan Kundera wrote eloquently of the choices we make between “heavy” and “light” lifestyles.  I am decidedly a “light” person, and I will indeed continue to sing songs of love to IKEA.  We haven’t even talked about the great Swedish meatballs and lingonberry jam yet.

Jackson West writes:

Well, apologies for my strident tone.  Ed has a way of managing to time these roundtables to my mood and frame of mind rather ruthlessly. Last time, with the Human Smoke roundtable, I was literally in the process of losing my last family link to the era described in the book with the death of my grandmother.  This time, I’m essentially living with my parents off in the hinterlands after finally drowning under the cost of living in San Francisco and figuring I needed to get out of the pool long enough to let some invoiced checks arrive for a breath of fresh financial air. (Good news. It seems I’ll be selling microwaves for General Electric soon, if a tad indirectly. But I digress.)

I think what I was trying to get across is that in a book like this, which attempts to elucidate a history to explain contemporary reality, a teleology is implied.  In this case, the implied argument is this: In a society where everything is easily commodified and competition becomes one of quantity over quality, invariably there will be a race to the bottom in terms of both pricing and marginal profits. Environmental and social degradation hijinks ensue.

This is, in Ruppel Shell’s estimation (and many of our estimations), a bad thing.  Of course, there was a guy way back in the industrial revolution, a student of capitalism if you will, who also noted the trend.  What was his name again?  Something German.  Got a lot of people worked up. Led to some bloodshed (though, of course, not nearly as efficiently as that wrought by capitalism). Now he’s pretty much persona non grata in the wake of a bunch of nationalist revolutions that ended in autocracy, but cloaked their intent in his ideology.

Hence, like the Kristof example above, there are those who would defend the depredations of a sweatshop because they believe, “Hey, at least it ain’t feudalism!” (And of course, they’re not the ones sweating.)  This is a sentiment which, oddly enough, the likes of Lenin, Friedman, Trotsky, and Rand would agree. It’s like the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers getting together on the issue of gun control.  Counterintuitive, but true.

The problem is, when an industrial capitalist society bent on growth at all costs essentially runs out of room to grow — as it has now that it is truly global — then what’s next?  Well, for starters, it seems that wages stagnate even as productivity grows.  Because “sweatshops for all!” really means just that — an equilibrium in which which the working class works for crappy wages to produce cheap shit to sell to the rest of the working class, with the difference accruing to the owners of the means of production.

Progress!

But in America we still have the luxury of sitting on the fat side of the trade balance, meaning our working class can maintain the delusion that they’re actually middle class because just look at this sweet bedroom set I just bought on my credit card even though I’m underemployed and lack health insurance.  A delusion that we’re only too happy to perpetuate, to misquote Dick Cheney as Malcolm X, by any means necessary.  Again, Ruppel Shell lays this all out (and succinctly so). I’m just paraphrasing.

In all this aspirational class alienation, however, a petit bourgeois strain of thought persists. And I felt that this impulse formed the crux of Ruppel Shell’s concluding arguments.  Namely, that if we return to the somewhat sentimental capitalism of our forefathers (and they were all fathers), we can turn back to a Jeffersonian ideal of libertarian utopia.  The argument goes something like this: “Capitalism isn’t bad, per se. Just industrial capitalism. And if it weren’t for the state colluding with certain corporations to corrupt the market, we wouldn’t be in this unsustainable clusterfuck that we’ve now found ourselves in.”  Also: Sex slaves.

The funny thing is that my homelessness brought me to the family cabin as very much the prodigal son. I’ve actually found myself in what I imagine to be something near the image of postindustrial capitalist utopia that Ruppel Shell and her peers seem to be pining for — a small scale organic paradise with broadband Internet.  A sort of info-agrarian mash-up of self reliance, sustainability, and all the free porn you can stand.  For those who’d like to stay in the cities, well, you’ll be making the porn (natch) and selling the advertising in order to pay for the delicious goats and tomatoes that rural types bring to market.

Perfection!

To go back one last time to my original entry, the question that’s bedeviling me (and, to Ruppel Shell’s credit, it would probably not be so damn devilish if I hadn’t read her book and instead was rubbing myself sore with the porn and such) is whether there are enough cabins to go around, or whether this enlightened and entrepreneurial information age that our best and brightest are so eagerly striving for will simply be crushed under the weight of peak oil and slums and drought and war and all the sins of the industrial age which we (and I mean we, us here, and presumably Ruppel Shell’s intended audience) love to hate.

But I think trying to answer that is my book to write, in which case I may milk the middle class for my piece of the pie and buy a garden of my own to tend. And maybe a shotgun to keep the hungry hordes off my garden. The freeloading Commie bastards.

Ellen Ruppel Shell’s CHEAP — Part Two

(This is the second of a five-part roundtable discussion of Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. Other installments: Part One, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five.)

Kathleen Maher writes:

cheaprt2I am not quite finished reading Cheap, but I have to admit that I’m finding it more interesting than I expected, seeing that I generally don’t read non-fiction and can’t stand shopping — especially for bargains.  

I enjoyed the quick history of American department stores and such trivia as the invention of the price tag.  But it’s hard to imagine this book will capture the popular imagination in the way that other quasi-academic books have (Malcolm Gladwell, et al). The sum of all these anecdotes and quasi-scientific studies seems like a great big “Well, duh. Cheap? You get what you pay for.” 

Miracle Jones hit the nail on the head with his preliminary preoccupations: First, that there is some downright weird stuff in Cheap that weakens Ruppel Shell’s argument, like the masturbation studies and the flying excrement neighborhoods.  And second, as Miracle so aptly put it, I suspect most of America lives in a perpetual “Gruen transfer,” mindlessly wandering in search of the next siren call.  I live in a cheap shopping district in Manhattan and I’m seeing shoppers walk by my window right now.

So I am stuck with a feeling that I know all this already. Ruppel Shell portrays our culture with a certain perspective that most of us may not have appreciated before, but it’s still the same old picture. A culture of mass consumerism in which intelligence, wisdom, quality, and beauty are devalued and degraded.

The depressing fact is that Ruppel Shell is preaching to the choir. We readers, the shrinking “elite” who take the time to actually read, know what she’s talking about. But can we possibly have any effect on the global corporations who are ramming the culture of cheapness down our throat?  I doubt it very much. Global capitalism is brutal, ruthless, and backed by overwhelming military might. Ruppel Shell may be right in her assessment, but Cheap probably won’t make an impact. (Of course, the pertinent question here is: Will it sell?)

Colleen Mondor writes:

Levi: I’m curious. Does reading Ruppel Shell’s sustainability argument about IKEA change the way you perceive your shelving units? Since you are someone who is aware that you are getting a “cheap” product and you’re fine with it because it works best for your purposes, did her discussion of its larger cost come as any surprise? And does it affect how you feel about the product or company?

Edward Champion writes:

I’ll have a lot more to say in response to the many interesting points offered so far. But I wanted to reply very briefly to Levi’s remark on not seeing the problem or the ethical violation of fixing prices. I’m wondering what he (and others) think of the following episode from Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide. The book is a tad too popular science for my tastes, but it does feature a very interesting profile of Herman Palmer, a Bronx financial counselor who helps working-class people manage their debts for a nonprofit organization.  One of Palmer’s chief strategies is to cut up a debtor’s credit card and place the plastic remnants in a large jar containing other shards.  Here’s the excerpt outlining the pernicious pitfall:

When Herman talks about the people who have been helped by his financial advice, his face takes on the glow of a proud parent.  There’s the plumber from Co-op City who lost his job and started paying rent with his credit card.  After a few months, his interest rate was above 30 percent.  Herman helped him consolidate his debt and get his expenses under control.  There’s that single mother who couldn’t afford daycare.  “We helped her find other ways to save money,” he says.  “We cut her expenses by enough so that she didn’t have to charge everything.  The trick is to notice whenever you’re spending money.  All that little stuff?  Guess what: it adds up.”  There’s the schoolteacher who racked up debt on ten different cards and paid hundreds of dollars every month in late fees alone.  It took five years of careful discipline, but now the teacher is debt free.  “I know the client is going to be okay when they start telling me about the sweater or CD they really wanted but they didn’t buy,” Herman says.  “That’s when I know they are starting to make better decisions.”

Most of the people who come to see Herman tell the same basic story.  One day, a person gets a credit card offer in the mail.  (Credit card companies sent out 5.3 billion solicitations in 2007, which means the average American adult got fifteen offers.)  The card seems like such a good deal.  In big bold print it advertises a low introductory rate along with something about getting cash back or frequent-flier miles or free movie tickets.  And so the person signs up.  He fills out the one-page form and then, a few weeks later, gets a new credit card in the mail.  At first, he doesn’t use it much.  Then one day he forgets to get cash, and so he uses the new credit card to pay for food at the supermarket.  Or maybe the refrigerator breaks, and he needs a little help buying a new one.  For the first few months, he always manages to pay off the full bill.  “Almost nobody gets a credit card and says, ‘I’m going to use this to buy the things I can’t afford,'” Herman says.  “But it rarely stays like that for long.”

According to Herman, the big problem with credit cards — the reason he enjoys cutting them up so much — is that they cause people to make stupid financial choices.  They make it harder to resist temptation, so people spend money they don’t have.  “I’ve seen it happen to the most intelligent people,” Herman says.  “I’ll look at their credit card bill and I’ll see a charge for fifty dollars at a department store.  I’ll ask them what they bough.  They’ll say, ‘It was a pair of shoes, Herman, but it was on sale.’  Or they’ll tell me that they bought another pair of jeans but the jeans were fifty percent off.  It was such a good deal that it would have been dumb NOT to buy it. I always laugh when I hear that one.  I then have them add up all the interest they are going to pay on those jeans or that pair of shoes.  For a lot of people, it will be around twenty-five percent a month.  And you know what?  Then it’s not such a good deal anymore.”

These people aren’t in denial.  They know that they have serious debt problems and that they’re paying a lot of interest on their debts.  That’s why they’re visiting a financial adviser.  And yet, they STILL bought the jeans and the pair of shoes on sale.  Herman is all too familiar with the problem: “I always ask people, ‘Would you have bought the item if you had to pay cash?  If you had to go to an ATM and feel the money in your hands and then hand it over?’ Most of the time, they think about it for a minute and then they say no.”

Levi Asher writes:

Colleen, I want to give this a well-thought out answer, but I’m away for a few days without the book in front of me.  I want to reread those sections of the book and then respond in a few days.

Erin O’Brien writes:

We readers, the shrinking “elite” who take the time to actually read, know what she’s talking about. (Kathleen Maher)

I drink shitty beer. Does that affect my newfound “elite” status?

I live in a suburb just south of Cleveland. The Walmart I shop at is about 6 miles away. It’s adjacent to Parmatown Mall, which you can visit vicariously here.

walmartI only go to Walmart when I need to buy Suave shampoo, Saran wrap, Q-tips (I buy the generic ones) and two or three dozen other really irritating things. I usually put said purchases on my credit card, which I pay off monthly in order to earn the one percent rebates.

There used to be another Walmart about 8 miles away. It was built on a landfill. The landfill started leaking noxious gasses that were finding their way into the land of Low Prices. They had to close that Walmart.

In each of the older toilet tanks in our home, you’ll find plastic bottles filled with water and sand that displace some of water therein and lessen the volume of every flush. We put these bottles in right after we moved into this house almost 17 years ago. We conserve everything where we can, but neither my husband nor I would ever leave less than a 20 percent tip. Since we do not want our kid to have to take out a college loan, there is no AC in our house. Vacations are long weekends to places like Mammoth Cave. And if you think my beer is shitty, you should try a cup of my coffee. I drink it with a smile.

Life. Is. Beautiful.

Peggy Nelson writes:

Ed, I’m glad you brought the credit card angle up, which is totally insidious. Ruppel Shell doesn’t get into it much, perhaps because she’s so focused on discount retail.  If anyone has time, I highly recommend the documentary Maxed Out. (You can watch it online via Amazon and also on Instant Play on Netflix.) [EDITOR’S NOTE: With great respect to the lovely Ms. Nelson, I’m afraid I must note the discount culture irony. The film is also available on DVD, but at a higher price. Do the filmmakers get more of a cut through the DVD or the cheaper on-demand option?]

familycreditcardCredit card companies target the poorest, and least credit-savvy, segments of the population to make their money.  They do not make money on you if you use the card responsibly and pay in full every month, or if you hold it in reserve only as an emergency fund.  They do make money off you if you run it up to the limit and then only pay the minimum, or, better yet, miss payments and run up fees and penalties.  

Providian anyone?  Capital One?  MBNA, who is one of the top contributors to the Republican Party?  These predatory lenders have a business model that’s just like the check cashing places out by the strip mall. Once you’re in their system, you will pay and pay and pay.  Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard bankruptcy lawyer interviewed in Ruppel Shell’s book, plays a large role in Maxed Out too, explaining how this works.  It is counterintuitive. How can they make money off the little people who have almost none?  And yet, they do.  Lots of it.

This all plays into something in us that is very difficult to resist. And I’ve been there, as have some of you. Hey, a little extra for free!  Just for now.  This will so help me out, get me over the hump, and I need some stuff.  Yeah, I have to pay it back, but only eventually. And I can do so in little bits.  Meanwhile, the total climbs higher and higher. Until things are worse than at the beginning. And now you don’t need a little help. You need a lot.  And they’ve started calling your family. And your boss.

There is one more insidious thing about credit cards (well probably more than one) — you need one for your social reputation.  I don’t mean that as some abstract thing.  You need one to rent a car, to buy an airline ticket, to stay in a motel, to rent an apartment (in some places), and, in some places, even to get a job.  You need one as a second ID, the “real” ID, that validates your active membership in society.  Without a credit card, you have no reputation (or worse, a bad one).  You cannot do things.  You are suspect.

Kathleen Maher writes:

Erin, so maybe you’re not elite — it’s my problem. The truth is, I’m so elitist that I don’t even like fireworks. Even as a child, they impressed me as bombs bursting in air–more martial than anything else. We’re free to accept or reject superficial labels like “down to earth” vs. “elitist.” I certainly didn’t mean to insult anyone.

I did think, however, that this book — which so carefully describes the lengths that shoppers will go (the outlet malls, for one) to score a designer label or a brand name — was referring to the “elitist” that runs rampant in so many psyches. Or maybe not. I don’t shop at outlet malls. It’s not worth the time and trouble. And here again, I can be called an elitist for not joining the outlet crowd.

To me, elitism is not a soul-sickness. It’s not a vice. It’s more a matter of not being able to get with the big group. Not belonging; not joining. I know there’s the connotation that real elitists think they’re better. I do not think I’m better. I do think I’m different. And admitting that sets me up for criticism, as if by different I mean special. I don’t necessarily mean special. Just different.

Erin O’Brien writes:

suaveadKudos to Peggy’s “great unasked question” and the subsequent points she raises. Life Inc. sounds like a book I need to visit. But I need to bellyache about the government for a bit anyway. As Ruppel Shell copiously notes in her book, many of us are hard-wired to find a good value or a good price. To that end, I shop at a discount grocer and Walmart.  But I also ride pretty far left of center for a reason. I just don’t think that enough people will shop responsibly or self-regulate to make a difference. I try to be conscientious and I try to conserve. Many others do. But it is simply not enough. This is why we need government. I want legislation that supports fair minimum wage. If the best price around is a few cents more in order to pay that wage, I have no problem shelling out $1.25 for my Suave shampoo instead of $0.99. Furthermore, I’m happy to pay taxes that support Medicaid and food assistance. I’d love to see Medicare gradually expanded to relieve the private sector of the choking health care/health insurance behemoth. I’m all for college becoming part of the public school system. I’m for a government that supports effective regulation and inspection of imported food and goods. The list goes on and on. Yes, I know all this means more taxes. I’m okay with that. I am happy to have a little less in order to live in a society that respects and values human dignity. Sorry about the flag-waving, but somewhere along the way, taxation became a dirty word and unfettered capitalism/consumerism became the new golden idol. Call it the bastard child of Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics coupling with eight years of Bush’s crazed deregulation.

I am not naive. I know the lobbyists, the big corporations, and the big money are all staggering entities. There’s also plenty of regular red-blooded Americans who would decry every assertion in my previous paragraph. They usually vote Republican. All I can hope for is that the blue push which we saw in the last two elections starts the juggernaut moving slowly but surely leftward.

A few more notes:

I thought Ruppel Shell’s recounting of discount retailing history was interesting, but that she devoted too much space to it.

Sarah: Point well taken about publishers wanting books such as Cheap to be personalized. Unfortunately for me, Ruppel Shell’s brand of personalization did not necessarily warm this subject matter.  For instance, when she references people “wearing T-shirts emblazoned with slogans” on page 97, the tone felt condescending. That’s purely subjective on my part, but there it is.

Regarding the notes, I did find them valuable, but also distracting. I always knew they were lurking back there. Whenever I came upon something that intrigued me (the liquified manure for instance), I had to decide whether or not to interrupt my read and see if there was more to be had in the back of the book. When there was worthy content, I had to wonder why Ruppel Shell didn’t just incorporate it in the general text.  The notes also struck me as just one more reason that we should be reading ebooks. We all seem to be able to handle embedded links online. Books like Cheap beg for the convenience of a click and a shift of the eyes instead of the intrusive page fumbling begged by the elaborate notes. But all that said, 232 pages of text followed by 63 pages of acknowledgments, notes and bibliography was stunning to me. Of course, had this been an eBook, I wouldn’t have been comparing the thickness of pages devoted to text to the thickness of pages devoted to explaining said text, now would I?

Colleen Mondor writes:

Honestly, while we could pick out certain points we wish were expanded upon or not, I think the purpose of the book was to make the general reader think before they buy. We haven’t talked much about the social history Ruppel Shell presents here on department stores and malls. This was all very interesting — especially how outlet malls in particular are designed to keep people moving and to a certain degree uncomfortable (no covered walkways, etc.). I also thought that her passages on pricing and the example of the mattresses was very well done — we don’t want an inexpensive mattress; we want an expensive mattress that is priced inexpensively (even though the prices are all, to some degree, made up).

One thing I was worried about was that this would be a big Walmart bashing book. But it’s not. I appreciated that Ruppel Shell even framed Whole Foods in a less than flattering light. It’s not as if people need to aspire to go there for the good stuff. Ruppel Shell makes a point that the expensive stores are just as culpable as the dollar stores in manipulating the public.

wholefoodsTo me, that was rather key in the book. It also addresses this “elitism” issue. (That is a word that I think will be a lightning rod for some time due to the election.) Ruppel Shell’s point seems to be that the bargain idea crosses socioeconomic lines. While a bargain for some folks might seem crazy expensive to some (the Whole Foods example), it is still another person’s bargain. But then, as she explains in various ways, the bargains are revealed not to be bargains at all — either in their value to you (they won’t last long or flat out aren’t worth it) or in the true cost to others (or the environment, etc.). Levi is right that, for some items and some people, a cheap price for a short-term purchase may be worthwhile. But as Ruppel Shell shows, there is still the fact that the true price isn’t being exposed to the American consumer. It’s like how some of us are enjoying cheap energy while West Virginia and Kentucky pay with environmental destruction, health problems, etc.

I think Ruppel Shell did a very good job of writing a thinking person’s book that will appeal to anyone who shops — in essence, to pretty much anyone. You could argue that folks who have to buy cheap because they don’t have much money wouldn’t bother reading this book. But I don’t think that’s true. As I stated earlier, that’s the life I was brought up in. And I know that both my parents would be very interested in this book. No one likes to be manipulated. And at its heart, this is what Ruppel Shell is exposing.

I thought the endnotes were excellent also. But as a historian, that’s something I look for in a book like this one.

Robert Birnbaum writes:

Here’s the OED (that’s the Oxford English Dictionary for you non elitists)

elite noun & adjective. Also élite. L18.
[ORIGIN French élite, use as noun of fem. of obsolete pa. pple of élire, †eslire from Proto-Romance var. of Latin eligere elect verb.]

► A noun.
1 The choice part, the best, (of society, a group of people, etc.); a select group or class. L18.

K. M. E. Murray Oxford still catered…for the social elite, who could afford to go to the University as a…luxury. R. Rendell She…spoke of her family and its immediate circle as of an élite.

social elite: see social adjective.

► B attrib. adjective. Of or belonging to an elite; exclusive. M19.

 elitism noun advocacy of or reliance on the leadership or dominance of a select group elitist adjective & noun (a person) practising elitism 

Here’s American Heritage:

e·lite or é·lite 
n. pl. elite or e·lites
A group or class of persons or a member of such a group or class, enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic status: “In addition to notions of social equality there was much emphasis on the role of elites and of heroes within them” (Times Literary Supplement).
The best or most skilled members of a group: the football team’s elite.

e·lit·ism or é·lit·ism 
n.
The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources.
The sense of entitlement enjoyed by such a group or class.
Control, rule, or domination by such a group or class

I am pretty certain that I am an elitist — and people, I think that all of you are too.

This pow wow, as such things are inevitably driven to, has devolved into a cross-hatching of confusions and personal defenses. That’s all understandable, as examining human behavior reveals all manner of anomalies, illogics, and base behavior; none of which we are comfortable admitting are parts of our own persona (in the spirit of [sort-of- ]full disclosure, I own more socks, baseball caps and hoodies than anyone should).

Bad boy Eddie introduced the subject of our behavior around credit (cards). That’s a whole other ball of wax— and whatever irrationalities are manifest you can bet that the shylocks and the money changers have worked out an elaborate rigging of the system so that we (you and me) can’t win. Remember: The House never loses.

Levi talked about the practicality of IKEA. Which makes sense. Except you can, for example, do bookshelves for less (cement blocks and lumber and unfinished pine shelves). May be that’s too much work. Personally I think IKEA and such outlets contribute to a stultifyingly dull sense of habitat.

jimmychoobahTo me, the big unaddressed issue is how we perceive value. Price is not about value. And I don’t think it ever really has been. What determines the price of a Hermes scarf, a Brioni suit, and Jimmy Choo shoes? Workmanship? Quality materials? Or the campaign that convinces some people that $5,000 or $6,000 is okay? Or that $25 or more is the price of a good cigar? (By the way, with workers, farmers at the bottom of the pyramid of production of luxury goods don’t fare better than the those making whatever products end up in Walmart, which, by the way, is no great bargain past a select number of items that are promoted.) And apropos of nothing, Whole Foods is vastly overpriced and oddly managed. (Did you read about the Whole Foods worker who was fired for planning to eat a tuna fish sandwich? Then Whole Foods tried to impede his collection of unemployment comp.) But Whole Foods is apparently well branded. I work part time at a Trader Joe’s and I can declaim on this subject at length if prodded.

Anyway, there will not be a revolution — certainly not by consumers. (By the way, Cheap is part of a long line of books about (us) dumb and benighted consumers going back to Vance Packard’s Nation of Sheep in the early ’60s.) Nope, the correction that will dismantle the mass market will be the slippery downward slope of peak oil and the reconstitution of society circumstantially deprived of energy to sustain the oil-based industries and products. Which is to say that James Howard Kuntsler (The Long Emergency) has me convinced.

For those of you who believe that reading these types of book make us smarter consumers, well, good luck.

P.S. One thing that continues to bother me is the rapid decline in the price of books (clearly an example of the disparity of price and value). Go to Amazon and see what some recently published books are being offered at. And remainders! There’s a surefire way for the book publishers to commit suicide.

Nina MacLaughlin writes:

Janet Maslin has some dismissive things to say about Cheap in the New York Times, where she pairs it with Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future of a Radical Price. “Neither author is entirely to be trusted,” Maslin writes. “And neither author has written a book that is as sharp as its one-word catchy title.”

I wonder about Robert’s most recent point about whether these sorts of books can actually be effective tools of change, and whether these books can serve in making us “smarter consumers.” I think I may tilt more towards Robert’s pessimistic take. Being more aware is one thing. We know now that we should care whether our apples were flown all the way from Argentina, and we know that it’s not a good thing to pay $4 for a T-shirt if it means that 11 year-old kids were involved in making it. But being able to care about the backstory of a product — the circumstances it was made, how far it had to travel to arrive on the shop’s shelf, &c — and being able to make choices based on those facts are two completely different things.

But this feels like a pretty obvious point, and so did many of Ruppel Shell’s examples. Some of her examples were mildly illuminating (the shrimp discussion, for example, if only for its gross-out factor). But as Janet Maslin points out in her response to the book, Ruppel Shell boasts that she decides to opt for chicken over shrimp at a Red Lobster dinner. As Maslin writes, “Yet cheap chicken-farming isn’t any less ghastly. It just doesn’t happen to be addressed by this book.” It’s all about picking your battles, I guess.

I have been thinking a lot about what Levi has said about IKEA and disposable shelves. It makes some sense, and, not to overstate the case, perhaps it helps in making us less attached to actual things (even if they do have cute Swedish monikers). For me, though, as someone who loathes shopping to an extreme, I think I’d rather pay a little more for the shelves, if only to avoid having to go back to IKEA to buy replacements.

Kathleen Maher writes:

I’ve finished reading the book, and I enjoyed reading the history of buying and selling stuff in this country and just how we got to the grotesque place we are today. Many of Ruppel Shell’s investigations into cognitive psychology either confirmed my intuitions or struck me as obvious. For example, I am already acutely aware that the “Winner Takes Nothing.” I know about deforestation, the pitiful working conditions, and these policies the world over. I’ve tasted that muddy, medicine-tinged shrimp. And while I may have been naive about that one word, I know full well that nobody around here is a “worker.” They’re associates and representatives with whom I’ve shared three-hour there and three-hour back bus rides. Except they get off the bus at the Woodbury Mall while I continue to the next stop to visit a friend who rents a bungalow outside Monroe, NY during the summer.

In the evening, the same passengers join me on the bus returning to the city. They’re now weighed down with glossy Dolce and Gabba shopping bags, along with (and there’s no real way not to notice) Coach, Tommy Hilfiger, and Versace shopping bags. And aside from whatever name brand clothing and leather goods these people may have bought, they’ll carry those high-end, name brand shopping bags around on the subway until it’s time for their next day trip to the designer outlet mall.

Overall, this book made me as anxious and as unhappy as shopping does. Count me an extreme case of HNFC: If I happen to hit upon a “bargain,” I do not enjoy it. I do not feel richer and frankly it would amaze me if the pleasure paths in my brain lit up. For I am all too aware that my personal bargain means another person’s loss. Yet I’m no happier knowing I’ve lost money in an institutionalized swindle.

When I’m feeling tougher, I don’t have time to figure gains and losses in percentages of pennies. As I’m more apt to see it, I indulge myself in that luxury — without counting pennies. For if I were truly poverty-stricken, I would need to empty trash bins, as people are doing right now outside the Dunkin Donuts across the street. My shopping cart would be the one I’d somehow procured in order to spend my days and nights accumulating recyclable waste and other junk. Scrounging for “bargains” feels like the high-end version of that activity. And as Ruppel Shell says, it’s work.

The extinction of craft and creativity for the sake of “smarts, drive, ambition, and speed” depresses me. A world without appreciation for craft, skill, and patience is not a happy one for me. Give me fiction and I’ll get out of here.

P.S. Nina’s remark about “cheap chicken” awoke a horrifying description I once read about how corporations breed poultry so that their beaks are barely existent. The birds’ throats are then wired open and liquefied feed, antibiotics, and hormones are poured into them, propelling the already genetically engineered birds to grow up faster and fatter in dirtier quarters.

Flying Roundtable: Stage Four

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

Edward Champion writes:

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

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

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

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

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

Anne Fernald writes:

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

Exasperating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nick Antosca writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt Cheney writes:

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

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

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

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

Nick Antosca writes:

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

Robert Birnbaum writes:

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

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

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

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

Anne Fernald writes:

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

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

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

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

When reading for pleasure, bail at once! 

Brian Francis Slattery writes:

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum writes:

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

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

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

Nigel Beale writes:

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

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

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

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

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

Megan Sullivan writes:

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

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

Flying Roundtable: Stage Three

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

Kathleen Maher writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nigel Beale writes:

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

Here is my early take:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreams free us from purposefulness.

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Green writes:

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

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

Sarah Weinman writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jason Boog writes:

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

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

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

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

Flying Roundtable: Stage One

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

Introduction

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

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

Sarah Weinman writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edward Champion writes:

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

  — From the introduction to Leaving Small’s Hotel

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

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

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

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

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

Brian Francis Slattery writes:

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello?” said my father.

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

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

“Hi, Dad,” I said.

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” my father said.

“Will you accept a collect call from Peter?”

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

“It’s me,” I said.

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

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

“How do you propose to do that?”

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

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

“I’ll be home on Tuesday,” I said.

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

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

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

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

Human Smoke — Part One

(This is the first of a five-part roundtable discussion of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke. For additional installments: Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five.)

Nicholson Baker’s latest book, Human Smoke, hits bookstores on Tuesday. And we will be devoting the entire week here to discussing the book.

But I’d like to start by dedicating this roundtable discussion to Arthur Saltzman, the late author of Understanding Nicholson Baker. I had approached Saltzman to participate in this discussion, but I learned from his partner, Joy Dworkin, that he passed away a few months ago of a brain hemorrhage. He was only 54. So I devote this discussion to his critical work on Baker and offer Joy my most profound condolences.

Edward Champion writes:

hsmoke1.jpgNearly everyone I’ve talked with about Human Smoke has insisted that it’s a departure for Baker. And I apologize, noble group. They came for my views and I DID speak out! (Apologies to Pastor Niemoller.) But aside from the lack of exuberance and perverse wordplay (no “assive-aggressive” here!), I don’t necessarily think this is the case. There is certainly Baker’s concern for details here. And when I consider that moment in The Fermata when we learn that Department of Defense funding is behind that bizarre sex laboratory or the humane qualities of the Death Watch Beetles parable in The Everlasting Story of Nory, I have a suspicion that Baker’s contextual and pacifistic sentiments have been building up for some time. Perhaps even before the Bush II administration. (And I’ll leave the theory over whether Human Smoke is, in some sense, a response to the hostile reception to Checkpoint for another to explore.) Consider also also Baker’s essay, “Clip Art” (contained in The Size of Thoughts), in which Baker responds to Stephen King’s charge that Vox was a “meaningless little finger paring” by pointing out that Allen Ginsberg had sold a bag of facial whiskers to Stanford and that, therefore, parings could not be “brushed off as meaningless.”

So the first query I have is whether you think Baker’s David Markson-like juxtaposition of historical data — adhering to a very specific timeline — is sufficiently objective. Does subjective interpretation here fall upon the reader? To what degree is Baker responsible for it? I’m also wondering if Baker is, in some minor sense, playing chicken a la King. I was certainly angered, saddened, and agitated by what the book presents — particularly many of the lost opportunities at peaceful negotiation and how obdurate decisions led to horrible consequences — but part of me pondered whether some of the anecdotes here could be willfully reframed, much like the “paring” scenario, and whether this tactic was entirely fair in some instances. I think of Gandhi’s amazing December 24, 1940 letter to Hitler, in which he suggests, “We have found in non-violence a force which, if organized, can without doubt match itself against all the most violent forces in the world.” While certainly Gandhi could back this up with his own efforts, I’m wondering if the circumstances of Nazi Germany and the Schutzstaffel’s deadly realities even allowed for the peaceful resistance he championed.

The issue of responsibility — whether the so-called “good Germans” should be castigated because they couldn’t prevent this from happening — has long been an issue taken up by second-generation Holocaust historians. (Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners comes to mind.) But I was fascinated by the ways Baker pins this on political ideologies. He doesn’t outright blame people. He seems to suggest, particularly with Churchill’s suppression of The Daily Worker (eerily preceded by socialist Richard Stokes asking why British fascists are in prison without trial while The Daily Worker appears on newsstands only one month before!) that an intellectual environment of hindering, restricting, and junking certain opinions led the world down this road. (This shares much in common with Baker’s preservationist instincts, seen in Double Fold and his recent article on Wikipedia for the New York Review of Books.) What do you folks think about all this? To what degree is Human Smoke a response to the “good German” charge? To what degree is it a polemic FOR intellectual preservationism?

Also, what do you folks make of the cast of characters here? Christopher Isherwood, Chips Channon, and Victor Klemperer were just some of the many individuals here whose personal developments I found fascinating to track. And, of course, Churchill’s gusto for war and Roosevelt’s antisemitism come off particularly bad. But if Baker is presenting us with a capable crew of good guys and bad guys, as every narrative requires, do you think he’s done a decent job? But this has us returning to that question I presented earlier about subjective judgment! So I’ll shut my maw for now. Because I’m very curious what you all have to say!

Sarah Weinman writes:

Ed has offered so many interesting questions that my only response now is to ignore them and start with my take, responses to follow later on.

First, some context: I approached Human Smoke feeling a sense of guilt for how I had treated Baker’s last book, Checkpoint. I’d never read his work before and rushed through it just so I could have an opinion along with the rest of the print and online peanut gallery, but I never shook the feeling that I’d given the book a bad rap, that Baker embedded far more than my mid-twentysomething brain detected. I’m planning to revisit that book soon, and my point here is that even if Human Smoke wasn’t written as a direct response to the reaction to Checkpoint, my read of it probably reflects some desire to correct a perceived wrong, or at least concoct a more intelligent response to what Baker was after then.

Which brings me to now, the book at hand. Human Smoke seems set up to be a nearly 500-page Rorschach test, carefully designed so that whatever preconceived notions the reader brings to it will produce an equal response of shock, praise or vitriol, depending on the circumstances, political (or apolitical) leanings and the like. In my case, it’s not so much a question of whether I agree or disagree with Baker’s precis, but that my pre-formed thoughts about World War II, my dim knowledge of certain events and greater knowledge of others, creates the context for me to evaluate it. On the one hand, I think it’s phenomenal. On the other hand, as I gulped down carefully laid anecdote after anecdote, forcing myself to put the book down because I wanted a breather from the cauldron of anger, depression and mind expansion that gave me so much to think about and the beginnings of a pounding headache, I couldn’t help wondering what Baker had left out. I’ll give an example, which also illustrates the Rorschach I just described: as I turned the pages and learned more about Roosevelt’s anti-Semitism and the inexorable rise of the Nazis, I first wondered when Stephanie von Hohenlohe would make an appearance. She was Hitler’s Spy Princess after all, someone who not only had the ear of the Fuhrer but whose popularity in New York and San Francisco social circles (not to mention affairs with several high-ranking government officers) so riled up Roosevelt and the FBI that she spent the bulk of the war in an internment camp. Granted, Stephanie’s threat level may have been minimal, but considering she created such a stir during the exact time period Baker chronicled, the run-up to Pearl Harbor and just beyond, her omission struck me as odd – until I realized that this omission would probably be noted only by me.

Still, the “chicken a la king” feeling that Ed describes was very much on my mind, not just in terms of whether Human Smoke can truly be an objective read but in giving the reader the chance to make certain connections. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that my understanding of how the US-Japanese conflict dovetails with Hitler’s murderous tramplings through Europe still remains on the dim side, except that Roosevelt & co., it seems, was waiting for a good excuse to break an election promise to stay out of the war without having to strike first. Although I was struck by Baker’s juxtaposition of Roosevelt’s early anti-Semitic vitriol with later policies, I’d have liked a bit more development of this connection as it seems to jump from the early 20s to late 30s without much preamble. But this, too, made me wonder if Human Smoke may have once been twice the length, and thus twice the opportunity to be wolfed down like potato chips. (as a side point, Baker remarked in an interview – I can’t remember which one now – that he’d like to write a suspense novel of some sort. Perhaps this is it?)

More on the connections theme, I wonder if I was the only one to fixate on events taking place on September 11, or if this is an almost automatic thing to do now. Churchill decrying Hitler’s “indiscriminate slaughter and deconstruction” in 1940; Lindbergh’s much-booed speech the next year, the same day that Roosevelt made his “shoot on sight” speech. Is there a greater metaphor of looking for patterns that simply aren’t there, looking for reasons to go to war to enact, at human level, a game in one’s mind?

I agree with Ed that Churchill comes off very, very badly in Human Smoke. Almost as if he was well and truly pissed that World War I had to end and his power had been taken away, so the only way he could live and function was to do whatever he could to get war going again. Reading this made me rethink WWII from the Allied point of view; I’d always thought WWI was the pointless war, WWII with more of a firm rationale. But maybe there were simply more Archduke Ferdinands, more manipulated opportunities and missed chances at peace. Or maybe peace was never an option because Hitler and the Nazis were ready to propagate at all costs.

But in spite of my criticisms, there is one major reason why Human Smoke is a major work: it forced me to think about World War II at the detail level, on the day-to-day basis that everyday people faced when they woke up in the morning, read the newspaper, listened to the radio or huddled in a basement after a bombing or starved to death in a concentration camp. Baker’s done his best to take a noise-laden topic and distill a relatively clear signal out of it, one that promotes a certain viewpoint by the juxtaposition of particular events, of course, but still a clear signal. In doing so, I couldn’t help but flash forward to our time. The signal to noise ratio is far, far worse, with so many more and different types of media to sift through. How on earth can anyone concoct a clear signal out of what we’re going through now?

More later, as I’m looking forward to what the rest of you have to say.

Levi Asher writes:

Hi everybody —

My reading of Human Smoke went in a completely different direction than Ed’s. I take this as a dead-serious non-fiction book, in the style of Double Fold but with the increased intensity of an even more painful subject matter. I am a huge Nicholson Baker fan, but I do not detect that Nicholson Baker intended to put a lot of Nicholson Baker into this particular book. I think he has a big argument to offer, and this book is not about the writing — it’s about the argument.

The argument, as best I can boil it down, is this: despite the cozy myths of American/British grace in World War II (or “the Good War”, as we call it), Churchill and Roosevelt actually escalated and inflamed the war at many points, and also avoided many opportunities offered by the (losing) Axis powers to discuss a peace settlement that could have avoided future horrors. Despite the earnest efforts of many pacificist organizations and individuals, Roosevelt and Churchill insisted on the most militant approaches to problem-solving possible.

Churchill comes off particularly badly in this book, and I wonder if the book will be received with as much controversy as I think it will. Myself, I think this book is important because World War II books are such a cottage industry these days, and are more and more of the feel-good story variety every year. After I finished Human Smoke, I
went to my neighborhood Barnes and Noble to site with some history books and independently validate some of these facts. I was amused to find two entire shelves — two full 5-row shelves at Barnes and Noble — devoted to World War II books.

(I’m attaching a photo of this)

ww2books.jpg

When I tried to look for hard facts inside these books, though, I found lots of repetition, lots of nostalgia, and lots of blood and guts and B-29s and turret shells. But I didn’t find much actual history, certainly not of the investigative kind.

That’s one reason I think Human Smoke will be an important book. I’m very interested to hear others’ reactions.

Brian Francis Slattery writes:

Hello everyone,

I believe I’ve met exactly none of you in person besides Ed, and feel I should apologize for this. If you need to know more about who the hell I think I am, my website is here (www.bfslattery.com). But don’t feel like you need to know more.

Ed brought up a very large number of points, and while I was typing my response, Sarah and Levi brought up even more; I’ll take on the ones that coincide with the direction my own thoughts took while I was reading Nicholson Baker’s excellent new book.

> > So the first query I have is whether you think Baker’s David
> > Markson-like juxtaposition of historical data — adhering to a very
> > specific timeline — is sufficiently objective.

Is objectivity what Baker was going for here? I found his narrative here to be highly subjective, particularly given the basic questions he says he sought to answer (in the afterword): Was World War II a “good war”? Did waging it help anyone who needed help? Merely asking these questions, as Levi pointed out, is taking aim at the assumptions
upon which the United States’ national mythology about World War II is built, and Baker doesn’t stop there. Baker patiently dismantles the saintliness of both Roosevelts (Eleanor is an anti-Semite before page 25 is reached) and Churchill and lets the question linger as to whether Hitler was indeed bent on world domination. By the end of the book, at least in personal temperament, Churchill and Hitler are portrayed as more similar than different (p. 320; see also the Gandhi quote p. 407). And Baker goes to some length to suggest that higher-ups in the U.S. government at least strongly suspected that a Japanese attack was imminent and kind of sort of provoked them into it. All of these points and many others seem designed to chip away at the understanding of World War II that most Americans have: that Roosevelt and Churchill were the good guys and Hitler and the Japanese the bad guys; that the United States entered the war only after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Etcetera.

Not that I’m scolding. Just saying that I don’t think Baker was trying to be objective at all, and more power to him for it. I like to see national myths pulled apart and examined, and I think that, from an analytical perspective, it’s what paficism–which Baker also aligns himself with in the afterword–is particularly good at doing.

> > I’m wondering if the circumstances of Nazi Germany and the
> > Schutzstaffel’s deadly realities even allowed for the peaceful
> > resistance he championed.

I think this question can drive you absolutely crazy if you stare at it for too long.

> > The issue of responsibility– whether the so-called “good Germans”
> > should be castigated because they couldn’t prevent this from happening
> > — has long been an issue taken up by second-generation Holocaust
> > historians. (Goldhagen’s HITLER’S WILLING EXECUTIONERS comes to mind.)
> > But I was fascinated by the ways Baker pins this on political
> > ideologies. He doesn’t outright blame people. He seems to suggest,
> > particularly with Churchill’s suppression of The Daily Worker (eerily
> > preceded by socialist Richard Stokes asking why British fascists are in
> > prison without trial while The Daily Worker appears on newsstands only
> > one month before!) that an intellectual environment of hindering,
> > restricting, and junking certain opinions led the world down this road.
> > (This shares much in common with Baker’s preservationist instincts, seen
> > in DOUBLE FOLD and his recent article on Wikipedia for the New York
> > Review of Books.)

It also shares much with historian Christopher Browning’s take on the Holocaust. When I saw those ideas emerging in the book, I turned to the bibliography, and sure enough, Baker cites four Browning books–if I read the bibliography correctly, only William Shirer beats him by weight in the secondary-source department.

Christopher Browning and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, dueling historians, went back and forth for a while over many aspects of responsibility for the Holocaust, but–at least as I understand it–one of the key points was whether there was something unique to the German character that allowed the Holocaust to happen, or whether the whole perpetrator-victim-bystander-objector dynamic is something more…innate to humans generally (I despise using the word “innate” here, but it’s late, so I can’t think of anything better).

Personally, to the extent that my own opinion is worth anything, I have always sided with Browning. I found Hitler’s Willing Executioners to be more vitriol than anything, and in some ways I find the premise too easy–too hard on the Germans, too easy on everyone else. By contrast, Browning’s account, at least in Ordinary Men, which I
remember most vividly, is at once much more sympathetic and much more chilling.

On one hand, he suggests that many people, in fact, did not kill unarmed defenseless people even when ordered to; that many who did once never did so again, deserting the army or facing death themselves in the process; that in order to make the Holocaust happen, Hitler essentially had to create an army of psychopaths to do his bidding,
and even then had to mechanize because there weren’t enough people willing to do the slaughtering at the scare he required. There is some hope in that idea, a faint glimmer of it underneath all that horror.

But the flip side is that Browning’s account doesn’t absolve us. After I read his stuff, I came away with the distinct suggestion–I think with a great deal of humility on Browning’s part–that none of us really knows what we would do in such circumstances. It is very easy to judge now; much harder to actually intervene when faced with
terrible situations, even when the moral choice is clear. (Raise your hand if you’ve booked your one-way ticket to Darfur. Okay, now raise your hand if you’ve been to New Orleans to help with post-Katrina recovery. Those of you who have raised your hands are better people than I.) The even darker corner of Browning’s ideas is that the Holocaust is, alas for us all, not a unique historical event–which, sadly, the multiple genocidal episodes since World War II have borne out. The dynamic that Ed summarized so well–the restriction of ideas, of fitting everyone into tight little boxes the better to alienate
with–can be seen in the former Yugoslavia under Milosevic; it can also be seen in Rwanda, and, I imagine in many other mass killings that I know less about than I should.

> > To what
> > degree is it a polemic FOR intellectual preservationism?

I confess that I don’t know what you mean by this, Ed. But random thoughts, off of Ed’s, Sarah’s, and Levi’s responses:

1. Does Churchill come off as bad, or simply human? A deeply flawed man, a product of his time and own personal experience? Put another way: Is Baker turning him into a monster, or is he just stripping away the myth that surrounds him? I’m asking–I don’t know enough about Churchill to say.

2. Regarding national myths again, it struck me that it would be really interesting to put HUMAN SMOKE together with your average U.S. high-school textbook that covers World War II. Then your average U.K. textbook. And German textbook. And Japanese textbook. Where would the greatest discrepancies lie? Which country whitewashes its own history–its aggressions or complicity in aggressions–the most? Which aggressions or complicities in aggressions does Baker himself leave out the most? And–assuming that he researched far more than ended up in the book–why? How did he choose what to put in and what to leave out? And what were the most painful omissions?

All right, off to bed. Good night, all. And hopefully I’ll meet you all eventually.