First, fiction. It almost goes without saying that people are still reading The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem, but last week I noticed some other new fiction making inroads among the reading public. Mailman the fourth novel by J. Robert Lennon takes its title from the occupation of the main character, Albert Lippencott, “a loner who reads the mail before delivering it.” Ever since I read Thomas Pynchon’s paranoiac masterpiece, The Crying of Lot 49, I’ve thought that there is a wealth of material that might be mined from the machinations of the Postal Service. When you look at it in a certain way, mail is a pretty crazy thing; billions of pieces of paper crisscrossing one another invisibly from one end of the world to the other and so many stories in those letters. Also proving popular, due at least in part to impeccable reviews, is The Known World by Edward P. Jones. And lastly, lots of people are looking to read Charles Baxter’s latest, Saul and Patsy. Like his previous novels, Baxter’s latest is thoughtful, reflective and “quietly triumphant.” Several of my trusted fellow readers have singled out Saul and Patsy as a book they are dying to read.
I’m in the middle of the most recent National Book Award winner The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. It’s an oppressive book both in style and content. Each description comes with an aside or a qualification. When one character, a young Australian soldier, relieves himself on the side of the road during a break in a drive across the Japanese countryside, Hazzard describes it this way: “The young driver, profiting from the hiatus, had meanwhile peed behind bushes.” Everywhere there are these odd little inclusions like “profiting from the hiatus.” The book is about the occupation of a shattered, destroyed, and conquered place, specifically the Allied occupation of post-war Japan. There is still everywhere the lingering hysteria of war, which Hazzard, like the occupiers she describes, tries to forget or ignore by imposing a false civility on the situation. The interplay of the conquered and the conquerors thus leads to dense language and curious juxtaposition. The Great Fire reminds me a lot of what was probably the first truly difficult book I ever read, Graham Greene‘s, The Power and the Glory. In that book, the “civilized” is a priest and the uncivilized is the tropical criminality of Mexico. Luis Bunuel once suggested to Alvaro Mutis, purveyor of his own brand of magical realism and author of the incomparable The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, that it is not possible to write a gothic novel that is set in the tropics. Mutis supposedly refuted this by writing The Mansion & Other Stories, though I can’t comment because (as of yet) I have been unable to lay my hands on that book. So, at this point, I would have to agree with Bunuel. In order to invoke the tropics one must also invoke the oppressiveness of the conditions there; content dictates style, which brings me back to The Great Fire. Though the book is not set in the tropics, its setting is oppressive, and thus so is the writing. And though I’m only a little ways into the book, it doesn’t seem like this is a bad thing.
In the comments of the last post, Laura asked about a new novel by Zadie Smith called On Beauty. There’s no release date yet for the US, but I suspect it will be close to the UK date, which has been set for September. The Guardian has described it as “a transatlantic comic saga,” but I haven’t seen anything else regarding the subject matter. Smith is also writing a musical about based on the life of Kafka with her husband Nick Laird as well as a non-fiction book called Fail Better that will come out in 2006.Of all the books mentioned in my preview post, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close seems to be generating the most excitement. Among those excited is my mom, who was inspired to dig up some links to some old interviews with and articles about Foer. These may help you pass the time until his new book comes out: an interview with Robert Birnbaum at identitytheory.com, an interview with Decode Magazine and a profile in The Jewish Journal.UPDATE: Found this story when reading back through the archives at Conversational Reading. It asks when America’s fiction writers will take on the subject of 9/11. While I think it’s an odd request — I’ve never been under the assumption that fiction writers are expected to pen novels ripped from the headlines — we will soon have such a book: Foer’s new novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. From Houghton Mifflin’s description of the book: “Oskar Schell is an inventor, Francophile, tambourine player, Shakespearean actor, jeweler, pacifist. He is nine years old. And he is on an urgent, secret search through the five boroughs of New York to find the lock that fits a mysterious key belonging to his father, who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center.”
Anybody who read William Langewiesche’s book The Outlaw Sea or is simply interested in the modern day high seas should take a look at Brendan Corr’s photo essay from Foreign Policy magazine. It chronicles ship breaking in Bangladesh, the process by which the world’s tankers and freighters, ready to be retired but unwanted by any developed nation, are dismantled by hand for scrap metal. It’s remarkable and post-apocolyptic and when I heard it in Langewiesche’s book (I listened to it on audio) I couldn’t quite visualize it because it seemed so outlandish, but these pictures tell the story.
Jennifer 8. Lee in the New York Times describes the “Washington read.” A practice in which Washington insiders peruse the index of a current political best seller, Plan of Attack or Against All Enemies, for example, to see if they have been mentioned. It is sort of a test one’s own importance inside the beltway, and many, prematurely certain of their own historical significance, are crushed to find that they have been omitted from history’s first draft. Washington, however, does not have a monopoly on such practices. I lived in Washington D.C. for most of my life before moving to Los Angeles, and I have observed many times the similarities between the two cities’ chief industries. I don’t know if I coined this analogy, but I’ve always thought that politics is just Hollywood for ugly people. And so it makes sense that I discovered, over the last couple of years, that there is such thing as a “Hollywood read.” It usually goes something like this: an older guy stands at the front of the store flipping through the latest Hollywood tell-all. He is deeply tanned and his shirt is unbuttoned to reveal tufts of silver chest hair. He is wearing ridiculously oversized sunglasses and smells of cigar smoke. He leans over to me and points to the book and says, “I used to work with this guy,” and then he goes back to scanning the index to make sure his old buddy mentioned him. Samuel Fuller’s posthumously published A Third Face generated this reaction. And those in the music biz went straight to the index of Walter Yetnikoff’s Howling at the Moon. Last fall, a mention in Down and Dirty Pictures by Peter Biskind meant that you officially matter in today’s Hollywood. But to have been mentioned in Robert Evans’ The Kid Stays in the Picture indicates a special sort of notoriety.