After some email discussion, it appears that the consensus is that Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is the lone book by a young writer from the past few years that will have the staying power to last generations. [Embarrassing author’s note: due to an unhealthy aversion to hype and a disproportionate dislike of Franzen because of his self-involved non-fiction, I have until now held out against reading this book. Now chastened, I will begin reading it by Monday] Meanwhile a couple of folks followed my lead to add some names to the slightly older than 50 category. Garth suggests Salman Rushdie (age 56), who is undoubtedly a highly skilled writer, but one who I think may be better remembered for his role as a pawn in the Ayatollah’s dalliance with contemporary literature, and less for any of the particular novels he has written. He does have an incredibly attractive wife though. Brian meanwhile suggested that the late W. G. Sebald (dead at age 57) is sure to be considered an indispensible, classic author one day. As is often the case, his already stellar reputation as a writer jumped up a notch as eulogizers strained to deliver Sebald the praise that he surely would have recieved, parcelled out over the remainder of his years, had he not died. As so often happens, Sebald’s untimely death may boost him towards immortality in the eyes of readers. His reputation aside, he is undoubtedly worth reading: both Austerlitz and The Emigrants are highly recommended.
Watch out! Vonnegut is definitely habit-forming!
-From a Dell Books Advertisement for Welcome to The Monkey House, 1974
On a recent morning, I boarded a New York subway car, glancing at the riders as I settled into a seat. A homeless man slept in a corner; three skate rats hovered above him, snickering greasily. A few others read tabloids with Manhattan disinterest; an Orthodox wife corralled her squirming kids. Despite the varied scene, I was most interested in the man sitting across from me. He was roughly my age, and was intently reading a book. I looked away—then, with blasé nosiness, went back for the title: Bluebeard, by Kurt Vonnegut. The man was absorbed, no doubt reading it for the first time. I turned away again, mild jealousy creeping in. I wish I could do that, I thought.
I wished this not because Bluebeard is a great book—though it’s close, one of Vonnegut’s best late novels—but because it was a Vonnegut. It’s been years since I’ve read him, and in the weeks since that train ride, I’ve come to see how much his work once meant to me, and how much I miss it now.
I discovered Vonnegut, unoriginally enough, in college. In a small used bookstore, long since vanished, a row of hardcovers caught my eye. I knelt and came up with Breakfast of Champions. The title was written in tiny aqua type; underneath, much larger, was the author’s name, in an appealing Cooper font. The name “Kurt Vonnegut” was both familiar and intrinsically appealing: spiky, ugly, and elegant. As I flipped through, I found crude pen drawings—tombstones, cows, an asshole. In between were passages like this:
Sparky could not wag his tail—because of an automobile accident many years ago, so he had no way of telling other dogs how friendly he was. He had to fight all the time. His ears were in tatters. He was lumpy with scars.
The humanoids told Don that if he went home with a whore, she would cook him a meal of petroleum and coal products at fancy prices.
A dinosaur was a reptile as big as a choo-choo train.
It seemed sad and strange and new. I was in. I gave five dollars to the smiling elderly clerk, walked it home, and, splayed in my beer-stained beanbag chair, flew clean through it. As it turned out, I’d been right: Breakfast of Champions was crushingly sad, thoroughly strange, and unlike anything I’d read. It was anguished by our mindlessness, but laced with knowing glee. Despite its outraged pessimism, it was quite a lot of fun. I needed more.
I returned to the bookstore and made its Vonneguts mine. A different second-hand shop kept their KVs behind the counter, as liquor stores do with their best stuff. The books back there were more expensive, but I didn’t care. Could I have those? I asked. Yes, please. All of them.
Though I read other authors in the months that followed, Vonnegut was the magnetic core of my reading world. I jumped from the brilliant (Cat’s Cradle) to the good (Player Piano) to the blah (Jailbird) to the brilliant (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater). I was troubled by Mother Night, addled by Slaughterhouse-Five. On a visit home, I found Hocus Pocus on my father’s shelf, and promptly stole it away. Even at their leanest, Vonnegut’s stories worked by wheeling massive concerns—annihilation, fate, the return of Jesus Christ—through bloated cartoon worlds. He hit the pleasure centers with sickening ease; the junk was strong. I read his short stories and essays, interviews and speeches; I painted an elaborate gouache portrait of him. I befriended a collector of “Vonnegut ephemera” who claimed to have been a character in Slapstick. I pushed the books on others, then fretted for their return. I read The Eden Express, his son’s psychosis memoir. And then, within a year or so of finding Breakfast of Champions, I was done. It had been like bingeing on mangoes.
In this way, Vonnegut’s virtuosity was its own detriment: having fallen so hard for his humor-glazed rage, I had no choice but to rip through everything. There are plenty of other authors who I’ve liked just as much—T.C. Boyle, say, or Michael Chabon—but with them, I’ve never felt the completist urge. Riven Rock, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and the rest have been set aside for the future. But Vonnegut disallowed such patience. Once I began, the existence of more fed a steady, low-grade mania.
It’s a testament to his skill that in the years since, I’ve never become embarrassed by that mania. There’s a tendency to disown one’s teenage enthusiasms, to feel that our supposed refinement has made us somehow wiser. To be sure, I’d rather sand off my nose than read Skinny Legs and All to the strains of Jethro Tull. But Vonnegut, though best-loved in the days of beanbag chairs and Escher prints, is different. Unlike Pirsig or Meddle or Jäger, he transcends the collegiate—too sternly pissed to be relegated to a rash and eager past.
So I’ve resolved to reread the man. I’ve taken my favorite Vonnegut novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, down from the shelf. To my surprise, having it so near has made me anxious, as if an ex-girlfriend has returned. Its tattered front cover is taped to the spine; its pages are flaky and tan. The back cover says that “Only recently has the general public become aware of his unique genius.” It’s old and frail, but its words remain pungent, tragic, insane:
“And then they tied me to a stake, burned me alive, and dumped my ashes into the nearest stream. As I say, I haven’t been back since.”
Perhaps you’ve heard the recent news that Random House is suing to recover a $300,000 advance from P. Diddy for an autobiography he failed to deliver back in 1999. In the Guardian, Blake Morrison argues that Random House’s litigousness represents a departure from gentlmanly publishing practices of the past. It is most certainly the only article that I’ve ever come across that manages to find what P. Diddy and Marcel Proust have in common.Of course, P Diddy is not a poet starving in a garret. In fact, thanks to his business interests, which range from ownership of Bad Boy Entertainment to the Sean John clothing line, he could probably afford to buy every garret in Manhattan – and still have something left over. Moreover, Random House could put that £160,000 to good uses – to encourage a first-time novelist, for instance.Still, a worrying precedent is being set here. What will the world of literature come to if every late-delivering author is held to account? Authors have been slow to deliver ever since Moses came down from Mount Sinai with his tablets of stone (40 days and nights late, according to his editor). In the 19th century, those who failed to produce their promised magnum opus ranged from Coleridge and de Quincey (both of whom suffered an opium habit) to Casaubon in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, with his grandiose plans to write a scholarly Key to All Mythologies.In the 20th century, it was Proust who set the appropriate tortoise pace.Link
I’m going to Buffalo for a wedding this weekend, so you may not hear from me for a couple of days. But if you are in dire need of something to read in the intervening time, allow me to make a suggestion, or two. Most people have read one or two books by Kurt Vonnegut, and most people enjoy them. Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, and Cat’s Cradle are probably the most widely read Vonnegut books. Most folks enjoy those books, and then never read any Vonnegut again. This is a big mistake! There are number of other amazing Vonnegut books, so allow me to present to you the best of the rest (along with brief descriptions): The Sirens of Titan (“The richest and most depraved man on Earth takes a wild space journey to distant worlds, learning about the purpose of human life along the way.”); Galapagos (“A small group of apocalypse survivors stranded on the Galapagos Islands are about to become the progenitors of a brave new human race.”); Hocus Pocus (“A small, exclusive college in upstate New York is nestled along the frozen shores of Lake Mohiga… and directly across from a maximum-security prison. The two institutions manage to coexist peacefully, until 10,000 prisoners break out and head directly for the college.”); Welcome to the Monkey House (“This collection of Vonnegut’s short masterpieces share his audacious sense of humor and extraordinary creative vision.”); and finally God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (“Eliot Rosewater, drunk, volunteer fireman, and president of the fabulously rich Rosewater foundation, is about to attempt a noble experiment with human nature… with a little help from writer Kilgore Trout.”)
Attention prospective authors: not to discourage, but the number of books coming out each year is getting out of hand. According to Bowker, a company that compiles and distributes bibliographic information, approximately 175,000 different books came out in 2003, a rise 19% from the previous year. Many believe this “book glut” is at least partly to blame for the financial woes of many publishers. Here’s the full press release with all the facts and figures. Following up on the comment that Edan left under yesterday’s post. Missing novelist, Helen DeWitt, author of The Last Samurai, has been found in Niagara Falls. Here’s the article. Look for Dan Chaon’s first novel, You Remind Me of Me to be a hot read this summer. Janet Maslin gets the ball rolling with her warm review in the New York Times.BookspottingWhen: Evening 05/26/04Where: The gym at George Washington UniversityWho: A girl on one of the stationary bikesWhat: Catch 22 by Joseph HellerDescription: “Catch-22 is like no other novel we have ever read. It has its own style, its own rationale, its own extraordinary character. It moves back and forth from hilarity to horror. It is outrageously funny and strangely affecting.”When: Late 05/26/04Where: At the bar at Cantina Marina on the waterfront in downtown Washington, DCWho: A man in a suit, puffing a cigar, sipping his drinkWhat: The Prince of Providence by Mike StantonDescription: “Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Stanton tells the incredible story of Buddy Cianci, America’s most colorful mayor, in this classic story of wiseguys, feds, and politicians riding a carousel of crime and redemption.”
Kurt Vonnegut fans will be interested to know that a collection of previously unpublished non-fiction is set to be published by Penguin in April, a year after his death. From the catalog:Armageddon in Retrospect is a collection of twelve new and unpublished writings on war and peace. Written with Vonnegut’s trademark rueful humor, the pieces range from a visceral nonfiction recollection of the destruction of Dresden during World War II – a piece that is as timely today as it was then – to a painfully funny story about three privates and their fantasies of the perfect first meal upon returning home from war; to a darker and more poignant story about the impossibility of shielding our children from the temptations of violence. This is a volume that says as much about the times in which we live as it does about the genius of the man who wrote it. Also included here is Vonnegut’s last speech, as well as an assortment of his drawings, and an introduction by the author’s son, Mark Vonnegut.I’m also told that Mark Vonnegut’s introduction, “sheds some light on their family life and Kurt’s writing habits.”
An article in the Wall Street Journal talks up some of the drawbacks of the 8 DVD-ROM Complete New Yorker set:Web-savvy users accustomed to navigating easily through online content find The Complete New Yorker a bit of an anachronism. Each page of content is literally a picture of a magazine page. Readers can’t copy text from a story and paste it elsewhere. They can’t search for keywords within the text of articles, only within titles and abstracts. If they want to jump from issue to issue, or article to article, they first have to go back to the index and sometimes change DVDs.The problem obviously isn’t the technology, it’s the 1976 law that requires publishers to get permission from free-lancers before republishing their work in another medium. The lawyers have determined that anything before 1976 is fair game to be converted into a new format. And while most publishers negotiated away the rights of free-lancers in this realm in the mid-1990s, there still remains a legal limbo for material published in between the two dates. Based on case arising from a similar set put out by National Geographic in 1997, by simply creating digital versions of the magazine pages, publishers are in the clear, and this is the route that the New Yorker has taken. The article linked above also looks at how this issue is affecting similar archiving efforts by other venerable magazines like Harper’s Magazine and the Atlantic Monthly.(via and via)