I’ve decided to reinvent The Millions. The blog world is crowded. I cannot possibly add to or improve upon the innumerable blogs out there that are about music or politics. So many of the things that I have a casual interest in are covered so obsessively in the blog world that it is hard to find something to write about in any sort of compelling way. Nor do I have much interest in cataloging my daily life. I know from experience that my life is capable of producing, tops, a paragraph or two of mildly amusing reading every few weeks, which does not a blog make. Plus, I would like to try to lure some people into reading what I write, and writing about what I ate for lunch today will likely not do the trick. As for the two of you (you know who you are) who read this blog regularly, I hope you will not be disappointed by my change away from that format. And finally, after some thinking, I have figured out what these changes will be. The Millions will be about books. For a book lover without a whole lot of free time (not to mention money) it can be very hard to consistantly find new and interesting books. To do so, in my experience, requires reading dozens of book reviews weekly and trolling book stores looking for the new and interesting (or the old and interesting). The internet improves this process slightly, mainly by cutting out some of the time required, but it offers little help in locating a book that you might like to take a look at. I have yet to find anyone that has had much luck with Amazon’s recommendations. I recently realized, though, that I am singularly qualified to write a blog about books. I work in a great little book store and therefore, in pursuit of my paycheck, I see with my own eyes the hundreds of books that come out weekly and I read reviews in dozens of newspapers and magazines. Finally, I have always loved books and I have always loved telling people about books, and now I have myself a little blog that can serve both of these loves. I hope to update several times a week, if not daily, and hopefully this thing will be chock full of interesting books at all times. So there it is… it feels good to get started on this thing, and if anyone has any comments, questions or suggestions let me know.
Earlier this year, when the CIA’s style manual was released online (pdf), writers and editors across the web took note. Bureaucracies are often criticized for propagating opaque prose — the kind of double-speak that pronounces very little with an abundance of words. But here were CIA directives that sounded far more like Strunk and White than big government.
Keep the language crisp and pungent; prefer the forthright to the pompous and ornate.
Favor the active voice and shun streams of polysyllables and prepositional phrases.
Be frugal in the use of adjectives and adverbs; let nouns and verbs show their own power.
The stylistic advice was surprisingly insightful, applicable to novelists and bureau chiefs alike. As with all in-house style guides, there was also plenty of real estate devoted to the specific semantic battles at hand:
Use hyphens (not en dashes) in the compounds designating Russian submarine classes when the compounds are used adjectively. If the meaning is clear, refer to these submarines by the class designator alone. Yankee-class, Delta-class, Victor-class, etc.
Specific usage guidance is, of course, the hallmark of the in-house style guide. It attempts to systematize and make consistent the thousands of choices writers and editors make across the organization’s publications and websites. Should it be Web or web, Internet of internet, the Oxford comma (Tom, Dick, and Jane) or the AP-style comma (Tom, Dick and Jane)?
Many style manual enthusiasts — myself included — came away from reading the Directorate of Intelligence Style Manual and Writers Guide for Intelligence Publications impressed with its thoroughness, precision, and literary authority. It was a far cry from the stereotype of greybeard bureaucrats churning out impenetrable tomes of officialese.
In Steven Pinker’s new book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, he argues that opaque prose is not a product of dubious intentions. Bureaucrats and business managers aren’t trying to sound smarter or more important than they really are, just as tech writers aren’t trying to provoke an aneurism when they write cryptic wi-fi installation instructions. Pinker sets aside the “bamboozlement theory” of bad writing and, instead, settles on the Curse of Knowledge as prime mover and impediment — a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.
As an antidote for stuffy or impenetrable prose, he offers us the paradigm of “classic style,” a model articulated by the literary scholars Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner in their book Clear and Simple as the Truth. According to this model, “a writer of classic prose must simulate two experiences: showing the reader something in the world, and engaging her in conversation.” In order to achieve this, the writer must enlist the sensibilities and imagination of the reader. It’s not that far from Flannery O’Connor’s idea that fiction is like an essay that makes an argument to the reader’s senses. The argument is clear and concrete; there is something to see. The prose becomes a window onto the world.
In addition to debunking the idea that there’s a widespread conspiracy among fussy prose writers to delude their readers, Pinker also suggests that the grammar and usage police are often unnecessarily grumpy and shortsighted. “Language is not a protocol legislated by an authority but rather a wiki that pools the contributions of millions of writers and speakers, who ceaselessly bend the language to their needs and who inexorably age, die, and get replaced by their children, who adapt the language in their turn.” The language grows and adapts to our needs and it never stagnates. Strunk and White might have condemned contact as a verb because it seemed “vague and self-important,” but Pinker defends its very indeterminacy: “…the vagueness of to contact is exactly why it caught on: sometimes a writer doesn’t need to know how one person will get in touch with another, as long as he does.”
Pinker is on a mission to remove the heckling usage purists from the back of the linguistics classroom. As a psycholinguist and cognitive scientist, Pinker turns out to be oddly at ease when arguing that declining language standards — if they are declining at all — will not result in the fall of civilization. He’s not arguing for the abandonment of rules and guidelines, but for a middle way — “…writers will do themselves a favor, and increase the amount of pleasure in the world, if they use a word in the senses that are accepted by literate readers.”
If there are impediments to a clear, evocative, and forceful style, they can be organized under a few descriptive headings: metadiscourse (the classic, self-referential preamble about why this topic matters), the burden of cliché, the curse of knowledge, false reasoning, apologizing, mixed metaphors, a blindness to the engineering of syntax. Zombie nouns, a term borrowed from the writing scholar Helen Sword, deserve special scrutiny. This apocalyptic vision occurs when the writer turns a “perfectly spry verb and embalms it into a lifeless noun by adding a suffix…rather than postponing something, you implement its postponement.” Sword and Pinker call them zombie nouns because “they lumber across the scene without a conscious agent directing their motion.”
You can feel Pinker having fun on the page as he slays the demons of soggy prose and the purist’s irrational scorn with equal zeal. Ultimately he’s not just interested in explaining why pedants get it wrong when they say “describe yourself in 50 words or less” should be “describe yourself in 50 words or fewer.” He’s happy to school us in the misapplication of the count noun rule, but he’s happier when enticing us to reverse engineer the web of words and meanings imbedded in a beautiful passage. Language is personal with Pinker and he even offers us a passage written by his novelist wife so we can meditate on its loveliness. This is ultimately why style matters in the first place, Pinker argues, because it allows us to create a window onto the world for others to look through. The CIA’s correct hyphenation of a Russian submarine class is part of that, but so too is the expansion of clarity and beauty.
Jonathan Franzen seems to have always known what kind of writer he wanted to be when he grew up. His underrated first book, The Twenty-Seventh City, published before he was thirty, managed to synthesize the warring impulses of postwar fiction – toward black comedy and intimate lyricism, toward domestic realism and busy narrative, toward the personal and the political – in a language of aphoristic wit, journalistic specificity, and lapidary precision. The Twenty-Seventh City was a little bit of everything, without seeming like the average of anything.
Notwithstanding his subsequent (and public) hemming and hawing about the social vs. the domestic, the difficult vs. the hospitable, art vs. entertainment, Franzen’s ambitions have proven remarkably stable since then. Every seven or eight years, he brings out another dense and dazzling slab of pages – another panorama of American life viewed through the prism of the individual conscience. With 2001’s The Corrections, he would seem to have perfected his method. It won the National Book Award, pissed off Oprah, and sold a million billion copies. Our recent poll of authors and editors singled it out as the best novel of the last decade.
What could it possibly mean, then, to say that Freedom, his long-awaited follow-up, finds Franzen maturing? Surely not that he is more confident at 50 than at 40. (It’s hard to think of a novel more confident than The Corrections.) Nor that Freedom is more or less expansive, or that it represents, in the canned phraseology of newspaper reviews, any kind of “stunning departure” in substance or in sensibility. Rather, the novelty of this novel – the richest reward it offers us for our patience – is the deepening of the author’s moral imagination. One thinks of flavors ripening over a slow boil, of instruments changing as they age. To put it another way, in Freedom, Franzen’s blues are bluer. The ironies are stronger, the pain more mysterious, and the characters more given to change.
Like its predecessors, Freedom can be read as a species of family novel. Unlike them, it is, at heart, a love story…though Franzen cannily muddles the terms of the genre. The lovers in question are Patty and Walter Berglund, parents of two and members in good standing of the urban gentry of St. Paul, Minnesota. But it is not at all clear initially that Patty loves Walter – or, at any rate, how Patty loves Walter, or how well Walter knows Patty. It is, moreover, not at all clear that we should care. A bravura overture, “Good Neighbors,” introduces us to the Berglunds through the eyes of their fellow gentrifiers, offering a mordant catalogue of the foibles of “the Whole Foods generation.” The satire is delicious, but also offputting. We come to agree with community sentiment, expressed in the free indirect third-person Franzen favors: “There had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.”
Immediately afterward, however, Freedom takes a sharp turn: it plunges us into Patty’s point-of-view. Seeing through her eyes Walter – and their son, Joey, and Walter’s best friend, the charismatic rock musician Richard Katz – we are shaken from our comfortable judgments. And then, in long, subsequent sections that follow, we move into Richard’s head, and Walter’s, and Joey’s, and back to Patty’s, each time having to adjust our understanding of this core quartet, the married couple and the manchildren who come between them. Franzen has played this inside-outside game before; The Corrections shuffled us serially among the Lamberts. Here, though, the sharper disjunctions between the various perspectives make the stereoscopic effect at once deeper and more unsettling. Between the outward and inward lives of these characters is a chasm we begin to wonder if we will ever bridge. Which is, of course, exactly the chasm Walter and Patty will have to bridge.
First, though, we hopscotch through time. We explore the Berglunds’ formative years (their meeting at college, Patty’s rape, Walter’s alcoholic father); the flickering, destabilizing presence of Richard in their lives; their move to post-September 11 Washington, D.C.; Joey’s and Walter’s entanglements with the conservative powers of that city; and the slow dissolution of the Berglund marriage under the familiar Franzen formula of depression, anger, and explosive sex.
If this sounds heavy, it should be pointed out that Franzen is one of our funniest writers. His sense of humor, too, constitutes an inside-outside game. When Patty, years later, “envies and pities the younger Patty standing there in the Fen City Co-op and innocently believing that she’d reached the bottom,” we are both the wiser, older self (how bad can things really be, in the Fen City Co-Op?) and the “innocent” younger one. Franzen has a wonderful way of boiling down this kind of perspectival comedy even further, into a little bouillon cube of diction: “Joey was staggered by the quantity of hardcover books and by the obviously top quality of the multicultural swag that Jonathan’s father had collected during distinguished foreign residencies.” “Multicultural swag” is funny – we catch the superficiality of Joey’s hosts, and a flicker of glib self-awareness in Joey. A lesser novelist might have stopped there. But the agrammatical “obviously top quality,” tucked away nearby, is funnier. For all his efforts at savoir-faire, Joey is also ingenuous, in ways he can’t quite see.
For Franzen, as for the Buddhists, understanding, whatever pieties it may traduce, is the supreme act of compassion. And to understand people in all of their contradictions is, perforce, to be ironic. To speak of the “likeability” of Freedom’s characters is thus to miss the moral project completely. Joey is a product of his generation; as another character observes, there is “something Reaganite” about him. But because the novel cares enough about him to inhabit his consciousness fully, we care about him, too. We are laughing at once with him and at him. And with and at ourselves.
Such anthropological laughter is a constant in Freedom. The novel picks up and probes everything it comes into contact with, managing in the process to take apart a goodly portion of what currently constitutes American life. It’s not that Franzen “knows a thousand different things,” as James Wood has suggested the contemporary American novelist seeks to – he’s no Tom Wolfe, thank heavens. But he is curious about everything: Volvo maintenance, phone sex, alt-country, iPods, college life, Leo Strauss, NCAA women’s basketball…
Franzen’s curiosity – his wish to welcome the world into his book – at times becomes overly antic, in a way that sits less easily against Freedom‘s midlife sobriety than it did in The Corrections‘ atmosphere of oxygenated adolescence. Joey’s excursion in South America as a would-be war profiteer is like a less compelling version of Chip Lambert’s sojourn in Estonia. And the coal-company conspiracy that envelops environmentally-minded Walter in the middle of the book is far less effective, as political commentary, than the tensions within Walter’s own family. One thing Franzen does not seem to know particularly well is Washington, D.C., and there is an opacity to Walter here that we don’t feel with Walter elsewhere, or with Joey, Richard, or Patty. (It is surely worth mentioning that Franzen writes more persuasively and attentively about the inner life of women than any male American novelist since Henry James.) But Franzen has the wisdom not to strand Walter inside the Beltway.
Against the urban densities where the Berglunds have chosen to make their lives, Freedom keeps returning to a family cabin in the Minnesota woods where they seek respite. And it is a mark of Franzen’s growth as a novelist that he keeps letting them find it – letting them breathe. Here, for example, is Walter, late in the novel, but early in his life:
Seventeen years in cramped quarters with his family had given him a thirst for solitude whose unquenchability he was discovering only now. To hear nothing but wind, birdsong, insects, fish jumping, branches squeaking, birch leaves scraping as they tumbled against each other: he kept stopping to savor this unsilent silence as he scraped paint from the house’s outer walls.
And here is Patty, twenty years later and 300 pages earlier, just before her life falls apart in earnest:
She took War and Peace out to the grassy knoll, with the vague ancient motive of impressing Richard with her literacy, but she was mired in a military section and kept reading the same page over and over. A melodious bird that Walter had despaired of teaching her the proper name of, a veery or a vireo, grew accustomed to her presence and began to sing in a tree directly above her. Its song was like an idee fixe that it couldn’t get out of its little head.
In the delicate mirroring of these passages, Franzen insists on nothing. Instead, he lets meaning, the elusive thing, emerge through momentum, like widening circles from a pond-tossed rock. The songbird’s repetition echoes Patty’s, and its idee fixe is really hers: the “vague ancient” impulse to sleep with Richard. Moreover, the grassy openness of the place Patty calls “Nameless Lake” speaks of a freedom neither Patty nor Walter can find in the “cramped” confines of the nuclear family, or of the society of which it is a microcosm. Freedom, in its intertwining personal and political aspects, is Freedom‘s explicit concern. It should be noted, though, that the bird the novel keeps coming back to (and that graces its cover), is a blue one, allied not so much with freedom as with happiness. Franzen’s real quarry here is the vexed relationship between the two. In the space of the Minnesota woods, the Berglunds are – like Richard on the road or Joey off at college – free, but alone.
Ultimately, in these and other moments that call to each other across time and across the space of the novel, Franzen also allows the patient reader to see what Walter and Patty cannot: that they are made for each other. I cede the floor to James Baldwin:
Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.
It is the surprising grace – in every sense – with which Franzen evokes Patty and Walter’s love that marks Freedom as the work of a master. Readers looking for the pleasures of The Corrections will find all of them here, in force. But they are also likely to come away from this novel moved in harder-to-fathom ways – and grateful for it. Which is to express the hope that, amid the general childishness of the cultural scene he skewers so lovingly, Jonathan Franzen and his audience may be growing up together.
It’s been a tough month for New York Times executive editors. Just as Jill Abramson is let go, a harsh, thinly-veiled portrait of Howell Raines pops up in The Transcriptionist, Amy Rowland’s debut novel about a Times-like paper called the Record. Raines, fired in 2003 in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, makes his fictional character debut as Ralph, an unpopular, Yeats-quoting, panama-hat wearing southerner marked by his self-absorption: “Everything the man writes is a ten-thousand word ode to himself.”
Perhaps a Times writer is already gathering material for a roman à clef about the Abramson drama and preparing to similarly skewer its villains. In the meantime, let us reacquaint ourselves with some past and present examples of the “press novel,” that curious subgenre whose motto could be “All the news unfit to print.”
In Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, William Boot, the guileless author of the “Lush Places” country column, is mistakenly sent to report on a “very promising little war” for Lord Copper’s Beast. When his mission ends in unexpected success, a young man asks him for professional advice. The aspiring reporter has been using his spare time to imagine lurid stories and how he would handle them. “But do you think it’s a good way of training oneself — inventing imaginary news?” he asks William. “None better,” William distractedly replies, more interested in owls hunting “maternal rodents and their furry broods” than in the tenets of good journalism.
A classic bit of Waugh humor, but one that speaks to an affinity between the two very different storytelling modes, the novel and the newspaper, “that daily report on the idiocy and the brilliance of the species,” as Tom Rachman puts it in his press novel, The Imperfectionists.
The press novel spoofs the occasional fictional quality of journalism; its tendency to narrate chaos using certain pat phrases (“embattled” leaders ruling over “restive” regions with “roiling” protests), its fanciful headlines, and comical errors. And yet the inevitable comedy of press novels often masks a certain weariness stemming from the fusty, hard-drinking culture, from declining readership, from men and women burnt out by a long career of telling too many stories in the same way.
The Imperfectionists, about “the joys of trying to put out a non-embarrassing daily with roughly five percent of the [needed] resources,” has fun with its journalists, who are “as touchy as cabaret performers,” and its lax copyeditors (“Sadism Hussein” slips through). However, like the poor basset hound named Schopenhauer who meets his end on the same day the struggling paper does, its dominant mood is melancholic.
In Jim Knipfel’s The Buzzing, the “Kook Beat” reporter Roscoe Baragon’s dogged investigation into an outlandish conspiracy indicates that he may need a break from “doing virtually nothing but phone interviews with insane people.” While the cantankerous veteran’s unhinged quest is awfully amusing, it is also a bit wistful: the last gasp of a certain kind of romanticized reporter, one who learned his craft sifting through financial records in a dumpster rather than in Columbia’s Journalism School.
Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning most clearly exploits the press novel’s comic potential while conveying a sense of enervation. When he is not stockpiling crossword puzzles or wracking his brain to “think of a headline with no more than ten characters for a piece about the dangers of the exaggeratedly indifferentist liturgical tendencies inherent in ecumenicalism,” an editor named John Dyson is trying to cultivate a television career as a cultural commentator: “He would keep the liberal thoughts in his left-hand pocket, he decided, and the provocative ones in his right-hand pocket.”
There are delightfully disastrous television appearances, absurdist press junkets and witty flourishes, but the darkening morning sky under which the novel begins never really lightens. When “poor old Eddy Moulton,” who puts together the nostalgic “In Years Go By” column, dies in the office, his personal effects end up in the trash and he is quickly forgotten by his colleagues who endured his shtick yet never really knew him.
They were like a self-sealing petrol tank; when sections were shot away they closed up automatically and filled the gap, spilling not a drop of the precious communal spirit.
Frayn’s newspaper community is built on interchangeability. Even editing copy is mechanical: “It’s just a matter of checking the facts and the spelling, crossing out the first sentence, and removing any attempts at jokes.”
Which brings us to Rowland’s The Transcriptionist, the latest addition to the press novel genre and whose protagonist Lena is actually mistaken for a machine by some of the reporters who phone in their stories to her. Indeed, the years of copying have made Lena into something of a machine, “a human conduit as the words of others enter through her ears, course through her veins, and drip out unseen through fast-moving fingertips.” Lena presides over the seldom-visited Recording Room of a New York paper called the Record, its color “old opossum or new pumice, the color of newspaper without ink.” The windows haven’t been opened in three years, and in a telling detail, the connection on her transcriber’s phone is clearer when she mutes herself.
As Rowland delves into the alienating effect of being besieged by other people’s words, it is perhaps fitting that her own novel is haunted by literary forbears: Jose Saramago’s questing functionary in All The Names (“The errors of copyists are the least excusable”); George Eliot’s famous passage from Middlemarch about the merciful limits of human sympathy, our deafness to “the roar which lies on the other side of silence”; Italo Calvino’s dictum that the ear, rather than the voice, commands the story; and the spiritual yearning of Nathaniel West’s Miss Lonelyhearts. The feud between Chaucer and his scrivener even comes up during Lena’s adventures.
Amidst this literary parade, the ghost of Bartleby, that “pale young scrivener clerk” with a penchant for maddeningly polite refusals, also lingers. Bartleby the Scrivener is especially relevant not only because of its alienated copyist but also because it concerns precisely those stories which stubbornly resist being told. Melville’s narrator is compelled to attempt to account for his thoroughly “unaccountable” clerk — that is, one who refuses to fulfill his responsibilities and one for whom “no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography.” Even the final explanation for Bartleby’s behavior, which leads to him wasting away in the aptly named Hall of Justice, “The Tombs,” is only a “rumor”; he had apparently been laid off from a traumatizing job at the Dead Letters Office sorting through missive which, “on errands of life…speed to death.” (The Transcriptionist is similarly infused with Thanatos — a walk across Bryant Park, briefly used as a graveyard, occasions a musing over whether “a few shards of anonymous bones still lie beneath the grassy lawn.”)
Lena’s own opaque biographical subject is a woman she reads about in the paper who swam across the moat of the lion enclosure at the Bronx Zoo and let herself be mauled. As the article succinctly, if chillingly, puts it: “The Associated Press reported that the woman had been partly devoured.” Lena recognizes the picture as that of the blind court reporter with whom she had a brief encounter outside the New York Public Library, in full view of its majestic though perfectly harmless lions. Seeking to prevent the woman from being buried anonymously in a potter’s field, find out what drove her to embrace so ghastly a fate, and write her story so that she is not simply “perished, printed, recycled,” Lena investigates the woman, whose job, like her own, involves “listening to other people’s tragedies all day.”
As should be evident from the description, The Transcriptionist hews closer to the insistent lugubriousness of Miss Lonelyhearts than the farce of Scoop, though even Rowland’s saturnine tale pauses every now and then to lampoon longwinded editors and mock a vain, slippery reporter bearing a striking resemblance to Judith Miller.
If there is one flaw it is that the novel, so concerned with hearing, is itself a kind of echo chamber. Motifs are struck and then struck again, until whatever resonance they might have built up gets muted. (To take the pride of leonine references: lions maul a woman whom Lena met outside of a library guarded by lions, which spurs Lena to meditate on her childhood fear of roving mountain lions.) One almost wishes that Rowland let some of the background noise, false starts, and stammers inherent in transcription creep into her novel, which too often states its theme clearly and unequivocally: “Listening doesn’t make us disappear. It just helps us recognize our absurdity, our humanity. It’s what binds us together, as the newspaper binds us and before that Chaucer’s tales and before that Scriptures.”
I prefer an earlier and more ambiguous statement that coyly plays on Prufock’s measuring out his life in coffee spoons. Lena calculates that “thirty thousand newspapers equal a life,” a reckoning that for me at least has transformed a pleasant morning ritual into a daily Memento mori.
Image via Wikimedia Commons