One of the good things about working at my bookstore is that I can peruse any magazine I want without having to pay for it. Today’s unlikely canditate was Vogue which I was skimming looking for anything by my favorite food writer Jeffrey Steingarten. No dice. Instead I came across an article about NPR’s Anne Garrels who NPR listeners will recall from her gut wrenching reports from Bagdhad during the war. According to the writer of the article Farrar, Straus & Giroux will be releasing Garrel’s book about the war, Naked in Baghdad, this September. Something to look forward to. In other news, I’m about to get my phone number put on the new nationwide do not call list because there are few things that I dislike more than telemarketers. Have a good weekend…
News that Stuart Dybek, a great and overlooked short-story writer, had been awarded a MacArthur grant sent me back to the archives of the now-defunct Fabulous World of Hot Face for this review of 2003’s I Sailed With Magellan. As you can see below, I recommend that Dybek neophytes may want to skip around in this collection, or start with The Coast of Chicago.I Sailed With MagellanLike the Joyce of Dubliners, Stuart Dybek writes with an exquisite sense of place and an amazing sensitivity to the dreams and dislocations one encounters in the borderland between childhood and adulthood. His last work of fiction, The Coast of Chicago, is one of my favorite books, and I approached I Sailed With Magellan with high expectations. If The Coast of Chicago, with its unified setting, its young-to-old chronology, and its careful patterning (alternating short stories with lyrical “short shorts”), seemed more like a latter-day Winesburg, Ohio than a mere collection of stories, I Sailed With Magellan feels more like a group of very good stories than the “Novel-in-Verse” its title page insists it is. Here, Dybek preserves the setting and tone of his earlier work, but organizes his stories loosely around a central character: Perry Katzek. Like Kerouac’s Jack Duluoz, Perry seems pretty clearly to be a stand-in for his author, and the richness of lived experience fills to bursting the strongest stories here – “Song,” “Undertow,” “Blue Boy,” and “Je Reviens.” All four offer glimpses of Perry’s childhood in the Bronzeville section of Chicago. Another excellent quartet of stories – “Lunch at the Loyola Arms,” “Orchids,” “We Didn’t,” and “Que Quieres” – show Perry in various stages of a deferred maturity, and although they seem slightly less finished… well, so does adulthood; I’ll call it “evocative disarray” and chalk it up to authorial intent. Throughout, images and characters recur in the background. We see again and again morning glories and the spray of fire hydrants in summer and Perry’s uncle Lefty. These devices may justify the inclusion of “Breasts,” a novella largely unrelated to Dybek’s attempt at bildungsroman, but here, Dybek indulges his weaknesses – stagy dialogue, purple eroticism, and scenes and characters seemingly lifted from TV.Even sans “Breasts,” I Sailed With Magellan doesn’t succeed as a novel. Broken into discrete chunks, Perry’s journey seems stripped of causality. For example, his mother’s madness – alluded to in several stories – can remain, in a story collection, undramatized. In a novel, however, such a powerful influence on the protagonist wouldn’t remain merely implicit. Other experiences that seem to lie at the heart of Perry’s (and perhaps Dybek’s) character stay in the background, as well, and while Dybek gestures in a few stories toward focusing this book on the relationship between Perry and his Uncle Lefty, the uncle disappears for long stretches. It is always a pleasure to read Dybek, and some of his best work is here, but I Sailed With Magellan argues less for a reenvisioning of the novel’s possibilities than the creation of some genre between collection and novel that might serve Dybek’s intentions better than the “Novel in Stories” seems to.
One of the interesting things about being the author of an obscure blog is seeing how much I influence world culture. A day doesn’t go by without my opinions being parroted on music video channels and being reprinted on the backs of cereal boxes. Why just the other day I happened to be watching opening round action of this year’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, and I couldn’t help but hear CBS Sportscaster Dick Enberg describe as worthy of Don Quixote, a speech that Mike Gillespie, coach of the 16th seeded Florida A&M Rattlers, was giving to his team before sending them out on the floor to face basketball powerhouse Kentucky. I, of course, immediately assumed that Enberg made this comment because, as an avid reader of The Millions, he knew that I was reading the Edith Grossman translation of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and reading along at home, he felt comfortable throwing the literary reference into his broadcast. Or there is another explanation that, I will concede, is equally plausible. Don Quixote, like other literary first ballot hall of famers, Hamlet, Gatsby, and Holden Caulfield, is so ingrained in the public consciousness that such a reference will be understood by nearly all who hear it. Not bad for a 17th century Spanish epic. Enberg was using the name Don Quixote the way most folks do, to describe a foolhardy quest. And yet it would seem that Enberg was implying that there was something noble in all this, to use another often cited reference, something akin to David and Goliath. Before I ever cracked open the book, I had this impression as well, that there was something noble about this knight who wears a bowl on his head and tilts at windmills. I see it a bit differently now, even though, admittedly, I am only a quarter of the way through the book. Certainly in telling the story, Cervantes is turning the idea of chivalry on its head, and in doing so is nobly attempting to undo some of the harmful social mores of his time, but the character of Quixote isn’t particularly noble. In fact he is a rather sad specimen who is either totally mentally ill or utterly incapable of recognizing the consequences of his actions; probably he is a little of both. So far, he has inadvertently caused a servant boy to be beaten by his master, he has bludgeoned a number of innocent passersby, and he has allowed his faithful squire, the very likeable Sancho Panza, to be repeatedly thrown to the wolves. In fact, I am starting to see that it is perhaps a disservice to compare the coaches of underdog basketball teams and others who embark on impossible quests to Don Quixote, who, I should also mention, is turning out to be rather unhygenic. Better that these noble folks be compared to Cervantes, who, even 300 years later is still managing to take on the big shots. Like I said, though, I’m only a quarter of the way through. Once, I have finished, and once I have read the Harold Bloom essay that precedes the text, I may have different take on the whole thing, so stay tuned, America.
Nicole Krauss is back with her first novel in seven years. Forest Dark “interweaves the stories of two disparate individuals — an older lawyer and a young novelist — whose transcendental search leads them to the same Israeli desert.” The cover of Krauss’s new offering sports cool blue waves (dunes?) and the now-ubiquitous yellow, centering a truly killer blurb from Philip Roth. Krauss was a National Book Award and Orange Prize finalist for Great House, and The History of Love won the Saroyan Prize for International Literature. Forest Dark will be published by HarperCollins on September 12.
This is my very first entry on my very first blog. I want to use this as a place to put my writing “out there” into the world. I’ll be writing about music, sports, art, politics, and my unremarkable (but deeply fascinating to me) daily life.
To begin: It is a strange time right now. After months of banter and argument we attacked Iraq. In the long period that led up to this most folks quickly formed an opinion one way or the other and then as the barage of information and insights and new developments came to light, they adjusted their views many times. Some stayed at the extremes while others, like myself, wavered uncomfortably in the middle. I want to believe that we are doing the right thing, and so far I’m pretty sure that I’m not deluding myself. Here in Los Angeles, most folks are either uninformed and uninterested or are badly misinformed and delight in disseminating incorrect information and adding their own personal, implausible spin to things. A good example of this was the anti-CNN rally that took place at Sunset and Cahuenga today. I find it amusing and more than a little bit frightening that so many folks derive so much satisfaction from from deriding something like CNN. To claim that CNN spouts propaganda and is a puppet of the government betrays a fundamental disconnect about the very country in which these people live. If they believe that the current government is the bad guy, then, thanks to the protections of the Constitution, the competition between the multitudes of news sources out there, and the ability of every citizen to seek out news from whatever source he or she please, CNN is one of the good guys. In fact, they have no choice but to be the good guy. The Constitution grants them the freedom to report what they please, and even if the government tried to stifle a major news story, CNN would have too mcuh to gain by being the first to break the story. They would do their best to report accurately because it pays off for them in increased viewership. And in the end, they have the force of law behind them anyway. All that this protest in LA really accomplished was the closing down for the day of many retail establishments along Sunset, which I’m guessing resulted in lost wages for the people working in the Staples, Jack in the Box, and Bank of America among others. Not to mention the traffic that they backed up. Does this accomplish anything aside from negatively affecting the lives of your fellow citizens. I don’t think so. I just hope that this is all over soon, and that we are doing the right thing.
In the back of the winter issue of n+1, you’ll find both a revised version of the defense of literary weblogs I posted here last spring and a response from Marco Roth. It speaks well of the magazine that it would publish dissent as well as invite it (which is also, of course, a hallmark of the “lit-blog.”) And, as I’m still doing my best to puzzle out some of the pros and cons of this new and evolving medium, I thought I might call your attention to an object lesson: the debate over B.R. Myers’ review, in The Atlantic Monthly, of Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke.It’s often a blessing that comment-thread controversies blow over without getting wider notice. Ideas that seem vital one week may seem irrelevant the next. But in my view, the conversation developing around Myers and Johnson – at Rake’s Progress, at The Beiderbecke Affair, and now at Ed’s place – illustrates some of the positive critical capacities of the medium.That conversation began in the kind of intemperate name-calling n+1 might deride – “B.R. Myers is Satan”; “Who’s the Wanker?” – but it has broadened to encompass a number of substantial controversies – the responsibilities of the reviewer; the state of American fiction; politics and the English language. And it has helped me better understand Denis Johnson’s prose style.When I read, and enjoyed, Tree of Smoke in June, I felt that its style was both an asset and a liability. Certainly, Johnson is an unusual stylist. And yet, when the first reviews and blurbs began to appear, I was surprised at how little attention was paid to his diction and syntax. “Prose of amazing power and stylishness,” Philip Roth said, without bothering to explain how or why. Jim Lewis’ piece in The New York Times Book Review amounted to a bizarre kind of abdication. Only John Jeremiah Sullivan, writing in Harper’s, engaged with Johnson at the level of the sentence.In my own review (which I’m embarrassed to note also references n+1; this is turning into a bad habit), I attempted to account for what I felt was Johnson’s wide margin of error. “Though there are passages and even pages through which I itched to run my workshopper’s pencil,” I wrote, “I would trade a dozen finely calibrated domestic comedies for a single chapter of Tree of Smoke.[Johnson’s] sentences and dialogue, flirting with the poetic, violate the canons of understatement. Like the sentences of D.H. Lawrence, they seem to depend on the supernatural for inspiration. They may not always find it, but they are alive to the possibilities of language.To his credit, B.R. Myers, too, would pay attention to Johnson’s sentences. Regrettably, he would pay little attention to anything else (the context in which those sentences appear, for example). His review does make a couple of copy-editorial catches: Would Buddhists think of their own icons as “bric-a-brac?” Can “someone standing in […] a noisy place hear even his heartbeat, let alone his pulse?” In never moving beyond fastidiousness, though, Myers’ Atlantic review takes on the flavor of agenda-driven cherry-picking. It attempts to persuade us, by fiat, that a sentence such as the novel’s first – “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed.” – is bad.Critiques of Myers’ motivations and methods are abundant elsewhere; I won’t rehearse them here. But I wanted to point out what lit-blogs managed to do with that last sentence, which hadn’t been done elsewhere. In an anonymous comment at The Beiderbecke Affair (anonymous because overheated and not fully thought through), I wrote: I like the way that pluperfect “had,” strategically ungrammatical, sets us up to expect something to happen in the imperfect. Something has happened, the sentence tells us. Yes, Kennedy has died, but something else…something, presumably, more personal. Thus does the book announce (quietly) its aspirations to be something more than the settled history Myers – a myopic literalist – seems to wish it was.Then a commenter named Alan (who disagreed with some of my bloviations), suggested, This is quite right. Kennedy died at 1 PM US Central Time, which would have been 1 AM in Vietnam. So the sentence “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed” is not actually trying to say that Kennedy died (perfect tense) at that time. That wouldn’t make sense. What the sentence is doing is evoking the experience of a character who is awoken in the middle of the night in Vietnam to the news that Kennedy HAD BEEN killed. This narrative immersion in a character’s point of view can also be seen in the following passage… Alan’s comment is, I think, a small but meaningful exemplar of the critical capacities of an interactive medium, and of what close-reading actually does. Were this a seminar (which, at its best, the comment-thread approximates), the instructor might be saying, “Yes. Yes!” Rather than dismiss an unusual sentence, Alan moves from a puzzle over its meaning (centered on the verb tense) to an intuition (we’ve been thrown, without comment, deep into a character’s point of view) that illuminates an important part of the formal architecture of the whole work.One wants only to add that a serious literary essay has at least two possible registers of persuasion. It can persuade those who haven’t read the book, and then it can persuade those who have. I often feel that Myers is addressing himself almost exclusively to an audience that hasn’t read the work under review, and that his aim is to convince them not to bother. Like Myers, I’ve been disappointed by Annie Proulx and Rick Moody in the past. But, having read them, I’m troubled by the gap between my experience of their work and the experience of their work Myers constructs. A good-faith critic should aim to write an essay that can be revisited after one has read the work and that will not then seem to collapse into flatulence. I admire this about James Wood. His essays are attempts to understand, rather than attempts to seem in-the-know, and they challenge me even when I disagree with them. In this way, he, too, offers a model of what literary discourse on the web can be. On the other hand, the valuable lit-blog conversation about Tree of Smoke seems to have arisen despite, rather than because of, the merits of B.R. Myers’ remarks in print.