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.
In 2001, the New Yorker treated faithful readers to Fierce Pajamas, a comprehensive survey of humor culled from the 75-year history of the magazine. When I heard about this, my well-honed cat-like reflexes snapped into action and, three years later, I bought the book. These short pieces, known as “casuals,” include parodies, absurdities and flights of fancy. They showcase the wit of some of the giants in American humor – from E.B. White, through S.J. Perelman and George S. Kaufman, on up to Steve Martin. And along the way, two of my favorites – Woody Allen and James Thurber.As is often the case with anthologies, I wind up seeking out more complete works from specific writers. In this instance I was led back to my own bookshelves, to the dusty ‘A’ section in the top-left corner of my wall, for my small but complete trio of Woody Allen books. This necessitates the use of a stepladder because in addition to being obsessively organized – fiction alphabetized by author, then chronological within each. I won’t even get into what I do to my non-fiction – I’m also quite short and can’t actually reach the top shelf of anything in my apartment.Getting Even, Without Feathers, and Side Effects collect Woody Allen’s written humor from the mid 60s through to the late 70s, in 5-year chunks. I think you can get them all in one volume now, but I’m quite partial to my pocket-sized second-hand paperbacks – perfect for explosive bursts of laughter on the subway. There’s hardly a page without some jaw-droppingly hysterical absurdist musing, non-sequitur, or parody of some philosophical tract or of a psychological case-study. Even a few one-act plays for good measure.Getting Even contains “The Metterling Lists” – essentially a collection of Herr Metterling’s laundry lists, spun-out Woody-style into a psychological and biographical profile. And “The Gossage-Vardebedian Papers” – a succession of correspondence-chess letters, each one more politely sarcastic and seethingly hostile than the last.Without Feathers includes “God” – a now-classic one-act play in which an actor and a writer are on stage bemoaning the lack of an ending to their Greek play. “Audience members” join in the scenario and eventually the melee includes cameos by a wayward Blanche Dubois, and one Mr. Woody Allen, the Creator himself. Reality is turned on its head, then rolled up in a ball and shot through a hoop in this Pirandello-esque comedy.Side Effects has “The Kugelmass Episode” – a hilarious story in which our hero, with the help of a magician, escapes his humdrum world and retreats into the lusty pages of Madame Bovary for a succession of romantic encounters with Emma, confounding Flaubert’s readers and scholars with the sudden presence of a balding 1970s New Yorker in Emma Bovary’s boudoir.Fierce Pajamas also led me to the “Ts,” to my somewhat haphazard collection of James Thurber books. Many years ago, my good friend Doug Holland, always a step or two ahead of me, introduced me to the world of Thurber. Humorist, cartoonist, editor, James Thurber was a mainstay of the New Yorker for decades.Out of the half-dozen books I have, my pick would be My Life and Hard Times, a humorous memoir written by Thurber in the 1930s, replete with illustrations by the author, looking back on his youth in turn-of-the-century Columbus. Deceptively gentle and low-key, his stories often build to a frenetic climax. A common theme is how misunderstanding leads to rumor leads to panic. Seems simple. Yet no one does it quite like him.A few weeks ago, as I was thinking of what to say about Thurber, fortune shone as my fellow Millions-contributor Patrick posted a great piece about the Paris Review, and in particular “The DNA of Literature“, a treasure trove of archived interviews that you can read on their website. I’ve been exploring this site in the weeks since then, and one of the first things I came across was a great interview (pdf) from 1955 with James Thurber himself!In it he speaks of his astounding memory and how he can juggle hundreds of details in his mind. And of how he never knows until he’s typing away exactly how his stories will develop. He talks about the “New Yorker style” of humor in which you take your initial gleeful idea, your hilarious impulse, and then rewrite it, playing it down. Thurber also reflects on Harold Ross, the great Editor of the New Yorker, an unread man with bloodhound instincts who demanded clarity of his writers, and, to a man, kept them from being sloppy. Thurber also talks about his wife, his sounding-board, who it seems prefaces everything she says to James with “Goddammit Thurber…”Always writing, always crafting the perfect phrase, always keeping it concise and clear, Thurber was the consummate New Yorker humorist. His humor took over his body. So much so that when turning a phrase over in his head, his daughter grew so concerned with the look on his face that she asked her mother: “Is he sick?” to which Thurber’s wife reassured her: “No, he’s writing something.”
This is a story about how China Miéville opens eyes. It begins in Detroit in the 1950s with a boy who flat loves to read, who can’t get enough of Dr. Seuss, the Hardy Boys, and the Flash (Marvel and Zap Comix will come much later). He reads an actual newspaper every day, and he cherishes his first library card the way kids today cherish their first iPhone. (This doesn’t make him wiser or better than kids today, just luckier.) When the boy’s mother enrolls him in the after-school Great Books Club, he’s thrilled to discover such “grown-up” writers as Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London, Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle, then Hemingway’s quietly complex Nick Adams Stories.
Some 50 years later that boy is me, a writer who has spent his life reading novels and short stories that can fairly be regarded as the offspring of that Great Books Club – what some people call “literary” fiction and others call High-Brow Rot. This dutiful quest for quality has familiarized me with most of the pantheon’s usual suspects, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But it left little time for supposedly inferior “genre” or “mainstream” fiction. Only a few things seeped through – the addictive crime novels of my fellow Detroiters Elmore Leonard and Loren D. Estleman; a few best-sellers that rose above the herd by being deeply felt and sharply written, such as Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent and Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. As for science fiction and fantasy, only select boldface masters reached me – Verne, Wells, Tolkien, Huxley, Orwell, Ballard, plus the trippy paranoia of Philip K. Dick. I’ve read too few contemporary poets – Philip Levine and Fred Chappell are beloved exceptions – and I’ve never read a western, a vampire novel, a bodice-ripper, a self-help book, a political or showbiz memoir, or a single piece of chick lit. Overall, a pretty limited roster, and on bad days I began to suspect that my high-mindedness had blinded me to whole worlds of reading pleasure.
And that, conveniently, was when China Miéville came into my life.
He was recommended by a friend who has been a life-long fan of fantasy and science fiction. I trusted her because she’s smart and she made a documentary movie about William Gibson in the 1980s, when Gibson was helping forge the “cyber-punk” sub-genre of science fiction. At her urging I read Gibson’s early short stories, and I was blown away by their prescience and hip wit, particularly “The Gernsback Continuum,” “The Winter Market,” and “Burning Chrome.” To top it off, the writer who coined the term “cyberspace” didn’t even own a computer. He wrote on an old manual typewriter. My kind of Luddite!
Despite the pleasant surprise of reading Gibson’s short fiction and Neal Stephenson’s splendid SF novel Snow Crash – what’s not to love about high-tech skateboards in the service of on-time pizza delivery? – I had modest expectations when I opened China Miéville’s first novel, King Rat. Published in 1998 when the author was just 26, it tells the story of a Londoner named Saul Garamond who is wrongly suspected of murdering his father. He’s sprung from his police holding cell by a mysterious creature in a gray overcoat, the furtive, foul-smelling rodent of the book’s title. What ensues is a mind-bending journey across London’s rooftops and through its sewers as Saul learns that he’s part human and part rat and therefore a vital weapon in the war against a murderous Pied Piper figure who wants to annihilate all of the city’s rats and spiders. It ends with an orgy of violence at a Drum and Bass rave called Junglist Terror.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the novel. Was it just a delicious stew of weirdness? Was it an allegory about the need for solidarity among the underclass as it fights prejudice and oppression? Whatever it was or was not, the book whetted my appetite for more.
While King Rat was a respectable debut, it barely hinted at what was coming. Perdido Street Station, published in 2000, anointed Miéville as a star of the fantasy genre – or the “New Weird” – and gave birth to a cult following. The novel is an astonishment, the work of a writer with a fecund, feverish, inexhaustible imagination, a brilliant world-maker. We are on the world of Bas-Lag, in a suppurating cesspool of a city called New Crobuzon, where humans and strange races and brutally altered convicts called Remades jostle and thieve and whore under the eye of a vicious, all-seeing militia. The city festers around the spot where the River Tar and River Canker meet to form the River Gross Tar. It’s peppered with evocatively named precincts – Smog Bend, Nigh Sump, Murkside, Spatters – and rail lines emerge like an evil spider web from the titular train station.
There are human frogs called vodyanoi, half-bird half-men called garuda, green-skinned cactus people, and intelligent beetles called khepri. People get strung out on shazbah, dreamshit, quinner, and very-tea. In their midst, a rogue scientist named Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin receives an unusual commission: a garuda needs a new set of wings because his were hacked off as punishment for some obscure crime against the garuda code.
And then there’s Mr. Motley, the crime boss who commissions Isaac’s khepri girlfriend to immortalize him with a life-size statue fashioned from her spit. Mr. Motley is one malevolent eyeful:
Scraps of skin and fur and feathers swung as he moved; tiny limbs clutched; eyes rolled from obscure niches; antlers and protrusions of bone jutted precariously; feelers twitched and mouths glistened. Many-coloured skeins of skin collided. A cloven hoof thumped gently against the wood floor… “So,” he said from one of the grinning human mouths. “Which do you think is my best side?”
Then, just when you’re starting to get your bearings in this otherworldly world, Miéville brings in the slake-moths. These are flying beasts that use the pooling light on their wings to mesmerize their human prey, then proceed to suck the dreams out of their skulls, leaving behind drooling, inert zombies. For good measure, the slake-moths then spray the city with their excrement, fertilizing a plague of nightmares. A simple question comes to propel the galloping narrative: Will the humans and constructs and Remades of New Crobuzon find the will and the way to defeat the ravenous slake-moths? The answer makes for one very wild ride.
Perdido Street Station would have been a career peak for many writers, but Miéville was not yet 30 and he was just getting warmed up. In 2002 he returned to Bas-Lag with The Scar, but instead of revisiting the dank alleys of New Crobuzon he took to the high seas, where two New Crobuzon natives have been captured by pirates and sequestered on Armada, a vast floating city made of lashed-together boats, all of it dragged slowly across the world by tug boats. As they plot their escape, Bellis Coldwine, a gifted linguist, and Silas Fennec, a vaguely disreputable adventurer with curious powers, piece together the great mystery and mission of Armada: its rulers are working to raise a mythical mile-long beast from the deep, the avanc, so they can lash it to the bottom of the city and move at much greater speeds – toward… what?
Once again the fauna is irresistible: the Lovers, the autocratic couple who rule Armada and cement their bond by constantly giving each other identical scars; a Remade with octopus tentacles grafted onto his chest who gets gills cut into his neck and becomes an amphibious human; huge mosquito women who split open their prey (hogs, sheep, humans) and then suck them dry; amphibious cray who inhabit underwater cities festooned with seaweed topiary and 8-foot tall snails; a human killing machine named Uther Doul; and, of course, the monstrous avanc. Together they propel a rollicking, swashbuckling adventure.
By now my original questions were coming into focus. I realized Miéville was not writing allegories, in which things stand for something else in order to convey a deeper, unstated meaning. Miéville’s humans and hybrids and monsters are not symbols; they are simply what they are, and they demand to be taken literally. This was stunning to me, and I realized it would not have worked if Miéville were not so good at creating unforgettable characters and creatures, at making sentences, at telling compelling stories. I also realized that a couple of themes run like strands of barbed wire through all the books: the dubious merits of demagogues and messiahs, and the vital importance of resisting absolute power. These are grand themes, and in Miéville’s hands they help turn good books into great ones.
He expanded on these themes in Iron Council (2004), in which a group of renegade workers commandeer the construction of a railroad that is crossing the continent, crushing everything in its path in a mad quest for profit. With a civil war erupting back in New Crobuzon, the renegades succeed in traversing the uncharted, forbidding continent, ripping up the tracks behind them and re-laying them in front as they inch along, writing history. The train itself, this Iron Council, soon goes feral. It’s led by Judah, a master at making golems out of dirt, corpses, air, even time, and eventually it must decide if it should return to New Crobuzon to help the revolt, or continue on its epic journey. Interrupted by a long flashback in the middle, the novel is more overtly political than its predecessors, with a subtext about the pain of unrequited love between saintly Judah and a male disciple named Cutter. It’s both brutal and tender, with plenty of monsters and combat and high adventure, but fans and critics were sharply divided.
After its publication, Miéville cited Iron Council as his personal favorite among his books. It’s not hard to understand why. The writing is lean, free of pyrotechnics, fearless, a sign that the writer has attained full confidence in his powers, in his characters, and in the weird world they travel through. Miéville no longer had anything to prove to himself or anyone else. What writer wouldn’t revel in such liberating self-possession?
Miéville was entitled to a breather, and he took it in 2007 with Un Lun Dun, a delightful children’s book that posits there are “abcities” that live alongside real ones – London has Un Lun Dun, and then there’s Parisn’t, No York, Lost Angeles, and others. Into Un Lun Dun come two London girls, Zanna and Deeba, lured to the abcity because, as they learn, Zanna is the much-coveted Shwazzy (a play on the French word choisi, or Chosen One), who supposedly possesses powers that will help the residents of the abcity defeat the virulent Smog. This noxious organic cloud, fed by London’s pollutants, threatens to burn everything in Un Lun Dun – books, buildings, people – then inhale their smoke, increasing its size and power and knowledge until the abcity vanishes.
One of Miéville’s themes – the dubious nature of messiahs – is cleverly tweaked here when it turns out that Zanna is a zero and Deeba, the unchosen one, is the true heroine. As Alice did in Wonderland, Deeba fearlessly negotiates the wondrous abcity with its donut-shaped UnSun, its flying double-decker buses, its “moil” buildings (Mildly Outdated in London) made of discarded TVs and record players, and Webminster Abbey, a church made of cobwebs. She teams up with a kindly bus conductor, a talking book, a cuddly milk carton named Curdle, and the binja, protective trash bins that know karate. Their battle against the Smog and its devious human allies draws on Miéville’s twin strengths – his boundless imagination and his ability to whip a narrative into a frenzy. He even illustrated the book with deft pen-and-ink sketches.
Next came The City & the City (2009), which, though it just won the 2010 Hugo Award, strikes me as the weakest of Miéville’s novels. It’s essentially a noir police procedural set in a pair of intertwined cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, which occupy the same space but never interact. Under threat of severe penalty, citizens of each city learn to “unsee” the other. Miéville is to be applauded for resisting the temptation to get too comfortable on Bas-Lag, in London or in Un Lun Dun, but for me the novel is a one-trick pony, under-worked, thin. Not everyone agreed. The novel won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Locus Award for best fantasy novel of 2009.
Miéville returned to London with this summer’s Kraken, which is the German plural for “octopus,” and a bit of a misnomer because the novel’s titular creature is actually a giant squid. When it disappears mysteriously from the Natural History Museum, a curator named Billy Harrow is drawn into the police investigation and soon finds himself in the other London – a netherworld of cultists, magickers, angels, witches, stone cold killers, and some people who are trying to engineer the end of the world. One of them is a talking tattoo. Another wants to erase the achievements of Charles Darwin. More than a few people believe the giant squid is a god. The novel is Miéville’s grandest achievement to date, brainy and funny and harrowing, its pages studded with finely cut gems, such as: “The street stank of fox.” And: “The presence of Billy’s dream was persistent, like water in his ears.” And: “All buildings whisper. This one did it with drips, with the scuff of rubbish crawling in breezes, with the exhalations of concrete.” This other London, Miéville writes, is “a graveyard haunted by dead faiths.” Like all of his worlds, it is not merely plausible, it is engrossing precisely because it demolishes old notions of plausibility and writes its own. In other words, it’s an eye-opener, a revelation.
By the time I finished reading Miéville’s novels I had come to understand that what matters most about fiction is not somebody else’s idea of what’s great, what’s good or, worse yet, what’s good for you. What matters is a writer’s ability to create a world that comes alive through its specifics and then leads us to universal truths. Miéville engages me with his writing because he is brilliant and because he cares about me as a reader, and this, I’ve come to see, is far more precious than a book’s classification, its author’s reputation, or the size of its audience. As the late Frank Kermode said of criticism, Miéville understands that fiction has a duty to “give pleasure.”
He does this by working that fertile borderland where pulp meets the surreal. He’s an equal-opportunity plunderer of the high and the low, mining not only the texts of his chosen genre, but also mythology, folklore, Kafka, children’s literature, epics, comics, Melville, westerns, horror, and such contemporary pop culture totems as graffiti, body art, and Dungeons & Dragons. For all that, his worlds are surprisingly low-tech, more steam-punk than cyber-punk, which speaks loudly to the Luddite in me. People use gas lamps, typewriters, crossbows, flintlock rifles, and bulky “calculation engines.” There are no spaceships, death rays, or other threadbare hardware that furnishes so much old-school SF. The one exception is a witty nod to “Star Trek” in Kraken, including some acts of teleportation. But it’s the exception that proves the rule.
Best of all, Miéville’s worlds are not governed by tidy morality any more than they’re governed by the strictures of hard realism or hard science fiction. Virtue is not always rewarded and evil often goes unpunished, which is to say that his weird worlds have a lot in common with the world we’re living in today. In fact, weirdness for Miéville is not something that exists outside reality; it’s just beneath, and next to, and right behind, and inside of the everyday. “‘Weird’ to me,” he has said, “is about the sense that reality is always weird.” In the end, his fantasy novels are not about otherworldly worlds, not really. They’re about the possibilities that are all around us, waiting for someone to open our eyes so we can see them. Someone with the imagination and the writing chops of China Miéville.
For him, weirdness is not an end in itself, but a means to a much higher end. He has said that his “Holy Grail” is to write the ripping good yarn that is also sociologically serious and stylistically avant-garde. The only better description I’ve heard of his writing came from a fan who wrote that, in Miéville’s books, “Middle Earth meets Dickensian London on really good acid.” Perfect.
As fine as it often is, Miéville’s writing is not flawless. Especially in the early novels, over-used exclamations become tiring, such as “By Jabber!” and “godspit!” A handful of words get worn to the nub, including “judder,” “drool,” “thaumaturgy,” and “puissance.” Some predators “predate” their victims instead of preying on them. Miéville – godspit! – has been known to use “impact” as a verb, which ought to be an international crime. And like many middle-aged faces, his prose would benefit from a little tightening here and there. But these are quibbles, and they should have been addressed by a halfway competent copy editor. Besides, they’re a bit like walking away from a sumptuous banquet and bitching that the shrimp weren’t big enough. No writer is perfect, mercifully, but a few, like Miéville, start with a bang and just keep getting bigger and stronger and weirder and better. That’s as much as any reader has a right to ask of any writer.
Word is getting out of the genre ghetto. Even the Decade-Late Desk at the New York Times gave Miéville the full treatment after the publication of Kraken – an interview in his London home that duly noted his middle-class upbringing, his shaved skull and multiple ear piercings, his degree from the London School of Economics, and his numerous literary prizes. “And,” the article concluded with tepid Gray Lady praise, “his fan base has come to include reviewers outside the sci-fi establishment.”
True, as far as it goes. But the Times article barely touched on what might be the most startling aspect of Miéville’s career to date. Rather than trying to distance himself from the fantasy genre, he has embraced it. Another writer who has done this is Neal Stephenson. “I have so much respect for Neal on that basis,” Miéville once told an interviewer. “I could kiss him. So many writers perform the Stephenson maneuver in reverse. They perform the (Margaret) Atwood – they write things that are clearly weird or in the fantastic tradition, and then they bend over backwards to try to distance themselves from genre.”
Not China Miéville. Which is why I’ve written this mash note – to thank him for helping me see that genre books, that any books, can be great, and for teaching me to quit worrying and just kick back, relax, and realize it’s totally cool to love the monsters.
The Compleat Angler, Izaak Walton’s 1653 book (pdf) of practical advice, poems, songs, and dialogues about fishing, ends with the intonation “study to be quiet.” The phrase comes from the first book of Thessalonians. Walton would likely have been familiar with the King James Version of the phrase, which reads, “And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you.”
The connection between fishing and religion remains. Holly Morris notes in her wonderful essay, “Fumbling After Grace,” “both fishing and writing are largely acts of faith: you believe that there is indeed a rich run of ideas lurking below. The convoluted first drafts, the false casts and hooked branches are all a part of some cosmic ritual designed to seduce a shiny gem to the surface. You get a nibble and your mind sings as you play the idea and reel it in. Only sometimes is it a keeper.” Faith is what brings anglers back to shallow streams, and what brings writers back to imperfect drafts.
Faith might also allow anglers and writers to release. The narrator of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish,” “caught a tremendous fish,” and admires her take. Her meticulous description makes the fish singular, and reveals the pride of a catch as “victory filled up / the little rented boat.” She ultimately lets the fish go, well aware that this exact dance might be repeated. After all, were the fish not free to begin with, fishing would not exist. In “Trout are Moving” by Harry Humes, freedom happens “past midnight,” when those who would seek fish are asleep. Humes imbues a mystical element to the trout’s movement, but also connects the fish to humans. The trout turns in the water, but it is not panicked or startled; rather, it is “just a sinking away / through the ordinary morning stillness / of the house.” Halieutic works might be often surreal, but the actual sport of fishing is tactile, like writing.
Both manual actions “can give you hand cramps.” Holly Morris finds deeper connections between the pursuits. Anglers and writers share a “masochistic urge to wake in the predawn hours and stumble with loaded thermos toward an icy cold stream to catch something you ultimately let go,” which “is not dissimilar to the quirky yearnings that guide a writing life.”
Some of my favorite writers at the sentence level–Ernest Hemingway, Thomas McGuane, and Jim Harrison–find similar connections between writing and fishing. For Stephen L. Tanner, Hemingway’s trout fishing in Paris was emblematic of his transition from journalism to fiction writing, from “having memories to creative remembering.” His literary representations of fishing abound, including The Old Man and the Sea, the calm and communal scenes between Jake Barnes and Bill Gorton in The Sun Also Rises, and the adventures of Nick Adams in “The Big Two-Hearted River.” But I have always been most interested in lines from Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway’s non-fiction account of bullfighting, that capture the paradox of fishing: “we speak of killing a trout with a rod. It is the effort made by the trout that kills it.” No matter how skilled or well-equipped an angler might be, the fish is in control.
Of course this leads anglers to seek even more methods to tip the scales in their favor. For Thomas McGuane, “tools of elegance and order, developed and proven in the sporting life, are everywhere useful.” Fishing is not simple recreation; it is a way to combat against the “fragmentation and regret” of daily complacency, a “way of looking at the world.” Owing perhaps to the “particular culture” of his Irish-Catholic upbringing, McGuane recalls the ritualistic approach of an old fishing buddy: “He had a bailing can that was an old Maxwell House can, cut off in this perfect way. Always went there. Oars went there. After you anchored the anchor went here, the line was coiled there. [His old wooden rowboat] wasn’t worth a hundred dollars. It was nearly all he had, but it was so deeply ritualized that it had a kind of glow.”
In the preface to The Longest Silence, his collection of essays on fishing, McGuane strikes a conservationist tone, concluding “we have reached the time in the life of the planet, and humanity’s demands upon it, when every fisherman will have to be a riverkeeper, a steward of marine shallows, a watchman on the high seas. We are beyond having to put back what we have taken out. We must put back more than we take out.” He revels in the otherness of anglers. The sport “is extremely time consuming. That’s sort of the whole point.” In our high-speed moment, “anglers, as a kind of preemptive strike, call themselves bums, addicts, and maniacs. We’re actually rather quiet people for the most part but our attitude toward time sets us at odds with our own society.”
There are two levels of time embedded in McGuane’s discussion. First, the desire to exit daily strictures of appointments and responsibilities, when our time is owned by others. The second level includes the micro bursts of focused time within the angling act, a sport that shifts from hours of waiting to swift moments of drama. That attitude toward time is shared by writers, and few are as adept at manual shifting between sentences as McGuane. His early novels, particularly Ninety-Two in the Shade and The Sporting Club, move between sarcasm, violence, and sublimity. McGuane’s friend and fellow novelist, Jim Harrison, shares a love for fishing, and the skill of literary transition. A Good Day to Die, his acerbic short novel, begins with the most ominous author’s note in history (“Certain technical aspects of the handling of explosives have been deliberately altered and blurred to protect innocent life and property.”), shifts to an epigraph from Rainer Maria Rilke (“Each torpid turn of this world bears such disinherited children to whom neither what’s been, nor what is coming, belongs.”), before settling into the prologue, where a hungover narrator awakens in a boat off Cudjoe Key, wanting to “catch the incoming tide and what fish would there looking off that huge sandspit toward the rank mangroves.” The novel’s wayward characters binge on drugs and sex, and fishing is the only salve, the only possibility for a soul.
In his own life, Harrison says “when you bear down that hard on one thing–on your fiction or your poetry–then you have to have something like cooking, bird hunting or fishing that offers a commensurate and restorative joy.” More than even McGuane, Harrison has been reduced by some critics as the prototypical macho writer. Yet Harrison rejects “sorry bumpkin mythologies.” The best anglers are the “most modest,” and never “identified their sports with our culture’s banal notions of manhood, which is a matter of costumery rather than substance.” Harrison’s sclerotic characters are also costumes. He wonders why “is it macho that I like to hunt and fish? I’ve been doing it since I was four. I have always thought of the word macho in terms of what it means in Mexico: a particularly ugly peacockery, a conspicuous cruelty to women and animals and children, a gratuitous viciousness . . . critics have an enormous difficulty separating the attitudes of your characters from your attitudes as a writer.” One can feel Harrison pushing back against comparisons with Hemingway, who he once said seemed like a “woodstove that didn’t give off much heat.”
We do not need to love our forebears to have been formed by them. What Hemingway, McGuane, and Harrison all share is a stylistic tendency to be both methodical when describing action, but also to layer narrative asides. These aberrant pockets of dialogue or description that might be pared by other writers give flesh and fire to their stories. Anglers spin yarns, and a good tale needs sufficient detail, along with enough oddity to warrant repetition. Fishing begins with base materials, as listed by the narrator of Harrison’s A Good Day to Die: “An open face Shakespeare Ambassador reel and a stout casting rod with a tackle box full of daredevils, pikie minnows, jitterbugs, mepps, spoons. And wire clip leaders.” But the sport becomes art when those materials and equipment are in able hands.
I have neither the skill nor the experience fishing of these writers, but I share their appreciation for the sport. I grew up fishing in suburban New Jersey, where lakes and rivers dot the flat landscape. We had to renew our licenses each year, and safety-pin them to our baseball hats. Back then fishing was a way to relax after basketball practice, or to avoid doing AP Calculus homework. We caught more sunnies than bass. It wasn’t fishing; it was fooling.
I only got serious about fishing when I got serious about writing, as an undergraduate in central Pennsylvania. I fished the Susquehanna River each morning with friends. I borrowed my brother’s chest waders, and stood in the current for hours, often without real results. A local fisherman told me to use a topwater lure called the Purple-D. “Two sets of hooks. Purple head, bright red eyes. Big bass like it, they jump up and grab it.” Not me. I never caught a bass, walleye, or anything else using it.
It is a small comfort that for even the best anglers, the vast majority of time on a river is spent waiting. The sequence of catch and keep, or catch and release, constitutes a fraction of time. And yet that is why anglers return. It was why I skipped class to stand in a river and cast above a rocked hole. It was why my wife and I studied old maps at the county library to find forgotten trails that led to small ponds. Fishing, like writing, is a stab at permanence in a world of waiting.
Water, sunlight, shadow, hunt, patience, search, silence: the elements of fishing are perfect fodder for writing, but they can also lead to sentimental lines and sentences. For every hour I spent in the soft current of Penn’s Creek, comfortable and warm in my waders, there were days when catfish snapped my lines. Fishing and writing hindsight are much the same. As Stephen L. Tanner says, “some of the best trout fishing is done in print rather than in streams.” Writing and fishing are both art forms built for optimists.
When Jim Harrison arrives at a fishing destination, “a number of centuries drift away. There’s no conscious sense of the atavistic, only that everything you’ve learned in school, university, your business life is of no use to you now.” I feel that sentiment when I run at an old moss farm near my home. The land is state-owned. Unkempt paths curl into the woods. One trail leads into a lake. There is no end; it simply goes into the water. I usually turn around. There is always so much to do. But some days I want to run straight into that silent lake and stand waist-deep. Fishing is not merely recreation; it is a source of creation. It is an art. I will always be haunted by waters.
Image via pagedooley/Flickr
In a 1978 debate with William Gass at the University of Cincinnati, John Gardner said the fiction of Anthony Trollope is rarely taught “because it’s all clear.” In contrast, “every line of Thomas Pynchon you can explain because nothing is clear.” The result: “the academy ends up accidentally selecting books the student may need help with. They may be a couple of the greatest books in all history and 20 of the worst, but there’s something to say about them.” Gardner warned that “The sophisticated reader may not remember how to read: he may not understand why it’s nice that Jack in the Beanstalk steals those things from the giant.”
Neither Gardner nor any other single critic is the final word on what belongs in a classroom, but I admit some deference to his voice. His books The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist were influential to me as a young writer, and his playful debate with Gass has been invaluable in showing my students the tension within American fiction during the late ’70s. Yet Gardner’s polemical On Moral Fiction soured me a bit. He opted for a bullhorn where a flute might have been more appropriate. Gardner’s critical shouting was a show, a way to carve out a niche for his own literary identity. In a later interview with The New Orleans Review, Gardner is more measured: he calls Pynchon “a brilliant man, but his theory of what fiction ought to do is diametrically opposed to mine, and while I think he’s wonderful and ought to be read — besides which it’s a pleasure — I don’t want anybody confusing him with the great artists of our time. He’s a great stunt-man.”
I end my senior AP Literature course with the stunt man. The first text I give my students is Gass and Gardner’s debate; we finish with The Crying of Lot 49 by Pynchon. Between Gardner and Pynchon, the students read a significant amount of poetry, as well as novels by Graham Greene, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, William Faulkner, and plays by Eugène Ionesco and Jean-Paul Sartre. I end with Pynchon because his fiction is difficult, dated, and frustrating: exactly what my students need to read before they go to college.
Difficult, dated, and frustrating requires some explanation.
Pynchon is difficult because of his syntax. Consider the first sentence of The Crying of Lot 49: “One summer afternoon, Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.” Pynchon’s sentences are labyrinthine and recursive: full of noise. As his sentences become paragraphs, and his paragraphs span pages, the novel becomes a whirlwind of paranoia; a test of a reader’s endurance and patience.
Pynchon is dated. The novel’s first chapter contains references to The Shadow and Lamont Cranston, parodies of television legal dramas and ’60s local radio station DJs, and Timothy Leary’s consciousness-bending theories. The next chapter introduces Miles, a manager of a local motel, who is “maybe 16 with a Beatle haircut and a lapelless, cuffless, one-button mohair suit,” whose band is called “The Paranoids.”
Pynchon is frustrating. Although my students read difficult books, ranging from Morrison’s layered representation of trauma in Beloved to DeLillo’s absurd mash-up of linguistics and football in End Zone, each previous novel builds toward a resolution. Pynchon tricks, trips, and nearly pummels the reader with herrings of every color. Oedipa’s search is continually diverted with distractions, and that’s before she learns of The Tristero or Trystero, the multinational, historical conspiracy that has culminated in an underground postal system, W.A.S.T.E.
Pynchon has written six novels since The Crying of Lot 49, so why teach this early book that Pynchon himself said was a work “in which I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I’d learned up till then?” Because I know that students, pushed by a teacher who believes in them, will rise to the difficulty of the material presented.
We read Pynchon for the same reasons that others might not.
Pynchon’s difficult syntax forces students to juggle two methods of reading: reading for language, and reading for content. That previously quoted first sentence has a lot of noise, but it is not cacophonic. Pynchon’s convoluted syntax mirrors Oedipa’s increasingly chaotic world. His sentences force students to rethink their assumptions about the purposes of not only traditional prose, but also experimental language. I do not intend Pynchon’s work to convert them to more postmodern interests in literature; rather, Pynchon’s fiction is like a literary workout that forces them to build from the ground up as readers. When students read easier works of literature, they might become deluded into thinking that all language is employed in the service of clear communication. Pynchon’s paradoxes make them return to other, non-literary texts with a bit more skepticism and independent thinking.
Although Pynchon’s references and comedic timing within The Crying of Lot 49 might feel dated, the novel helps students understand mid-’60s American fiction, particularly work from the West Coast. One might update the curiously self-deprecating band The Paranoids for our present as Big Data, a Brooklyn-based act founded by Harvard graduate Alan Wilkis. In a recent interview with NPR, he spoke about his “paranoid electronic pop project,” and how “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the Internet.” Big Data’s great debut album, 2.0, leads with “The Business of Emotion,” a send-up of the “Facebook mood experiments:” “Feel good, make you feel good / I’m looking for emotion so I know just what to show you.” Students realize that, more and more, they are becoming Oedipa, buried in data: “They knew her pressure points, and the ganglia of her optimism, and one by one, pinch by precision pinch, they were immobilizing her.”
Finally, student frustration with Pynchon evolves into curiosity. Rather than becoming angry at Pynchon’s lack of linear progression and profluence, students are often intrigued by his parlor tricks. For years they have been taught to unearth and discover meaning in texts — English educators love to use manual labor metaphors, but don’t always want to get their hands dirty — yet The Crying of Lot 49 makes students consider what happens when a work of art might not have any traditional secrets to reveal. The movement toward skills-based education in the humanities has also created an effort-return mentality: the expectation that a text can, or should, be distilled into a single sentence. Don’t we want students who know how to handle messes?
There are many other difficult novels that could fit the aforementioned criteria. What is special about Pynchon and The Crying of Lot 49?
Published in 1965, Pynchon’s novel fits nicely within the decade of media theorist and “electronic prophet” Marshall McLuhan’s essential works: The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), Understanding Media (1964), and The Medium is the Massage (1967). As Mark Greif notes in The Age of the Crisis of Man, his excellent consideration of American fiction between 1933 and 1973, “Pynchon [puts] a TV set in every room of his fiction — often to drive the action.” McLuhan’s “electric light” illuminates Pynchon’s fiction.
Oedipa is the protagonist that McLuhan might dream of, a woman thrust into an electronic world she did not create but is forced to understand. Early in the novel, Oedipa and Metzger, her part-time lover, part-time legal mentor, visit The Scope, a nightclub on the outskirts of Los Angeles with “a strictly electronic music policy.” A “hip graybeard” explains “They put it on the tape, here, live, fella. We’ve got a whole back room full of your audio oscillators, gunshot machines, contact mikes, everything man.” As Oedipa drives through San Narciso on a Sunday, “She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit.” Oedipa’s world is wholly electronic; in fact, considering Pynchon’s sensibility as a jester-Catholic, holy electronic.
My students watch McLuhan’s 1976 appearance on The Today Show and are entertained by his dissection of the presidential debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. “I never saw a more atrocious misuse of the TV medium,” he quips, and calls the moment when the sound cut during the debate a “rebellion of the medium against the bloody message.” If the bloody message is linear, progressive, and climactic storytelling, Pynchon’s novel is rebellion through performance. Greif notes that “‘Man’ as a being and a concept is put into jeopardy for Pynchon, not first by high-technological machines or weapons but by the use of ordinary materials and the creation of mundane objects — the changing status of the parts of men, and the insertion of inanimate things into their bodies and daily habits.” I don’t want students to smash their iPhones, but I do want them to think twice about what type of data they offer their devices.
At its worst, Pynchon’s prose is a beautiful failure. At its best, Pynchon’s prose is revelatory. I agree with Greif that, in the end, The Crying of Lot 49 and Pynchon’s canon as a whole are concerned with data: “whether remains are transmitted beyond each individual communication, buried in the material facts of the founding of the system of communication, and whether this residue may shadow and smudge the prospect of those who join such a system, without them even knowing it.” Not a bad lesson for students to learn, somewhere between thinking of giants, beanstalks, and other noise.