Some of you may know that I’m currently up to my ears in grad school applications. Luckily, posting on The Millions has a salutary effect on me, and also, I just finished a book, so I need to write about it. Jamesland opens with Alice, great-granddaughter of philosopher William James, having an odd waking dream of a deer in her house. Alice fixates on the deer as a portent of a coming change in her life, and the very next day her life begins to change slowly and inexorably. The book does not dwell on the supernatural, though it does have a bemused dialogue with the otherworldly throughout. Mostly it is about three forty-somethings whose social and professional lives are deteriorating and reconfiguring. I’d call it a mid-life crisis, but these characters have that quality, peculiar to Californians, of being youthful, unserious adults. The book is mostly set on the East Side of Los Angeles in neighborhoods that I know well. It was great to read a book that addresses a somewhat larger Los Angeles than usual. Movie stars are around, and Hollywood is nearby, but they are just parts of the great stew of the city, things that are noticed but after a while not accorded any greater importance than things like Griffith Park or the LA River. The only other book that I have read that successfully turns LA’s flashy side into just another bit of peripheral scenery is T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Huneven is well-known in Los Angeles as the food critic for the LA Weekly, and the way she writes about food in this book is magnificent. Pete (who along with Helen, a modern sort of minister, are the other two wayward adults) is a former near-celebrity chef who is recovering from a nervous breakdown, suicide attempt combo. His character is both abrasive and charming, the type of person who makes you nervous the moment he steps into the room. As he coaxes himself back into the functioning world, he takes up cooking again, and this is the venue for Huneven’s descriptions of foods. It was nice to see that Huneven did not place this book firmly in the world of food and restaurants in the way that many writers tend to crib from their day jobs. Instead, Huneven manages to weave her knowledge skillfully into the larger narrative. The book itself is a rather satisfying meal, best taken over a few languorous days on a sunny balcony or sitting on a park bench.
Two assumptions are often made about the magnificent writer and illustrator Edward Gorey. First, that he is British. Second, that he is long dead. Although graced with a British sensibility – his work contains a distinctive London fog, a dark, in equal parts menacing and comforting Englishness about it – Gorey was in fact born in Chicago and left America only once, for a brief sojourn in the Scottish isles. And while his work seems perhaps more Victorian than modern or post-modern, Gorey actually died in 2000, and he was active as an artist and writer for the bulk of the second half of the twentieth century. I had the good fortune to be reminded of Gorey recently, when on my birthday I received one of his singularly remarkable books. Titled The Curious Sofa (the author’s name is given as Ogden Weary, a wonderful anagram), Gorey’s book is both hilarious and darkly suggestive. The book, subtitled “a pornographic work”, contains no actual pornography, if by pornography one thinks of naked people. Instead, with a mix of childish innocence and impish delight, Gorey creates eminently suggestive scenarios, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks. “Lady Celia,” for example, “led Alice to her boudoir, where she requested the girl to perform a rather surprising service.” The accompanying picture, just this side of lewd, shows Alice, her head peeking over a Chinese wall, leering suggestively at Lady Celia. One can imagine Gorey, with a crooked half-smile on his devious face, impeaching the reader that the obvious erotic reading is not the one he meant at all. This glorious impishness pops up, indeed overwhelms the bulk of Gorey’s work. His sly humor is only part of the pleasure of his books, though. Mostly, I turn to Gorey for his delightful illustrations. His evocative ink-marks, the way he draws darkness on the page, are simply fantastic. Gorey succeeds like not other in pulling you in to his own imaginative world, creating a child-like wonder that is somehow not child-like, that is mature and full and yet profoundly uncynical. I was pleased to discover recently that a documentary on Gorey’s life, shot from 1996 to his death in 2000, is currently in its finishing stages. I am excited to hear the author and artist speak in his waning years about his life’s work and what exactly he was trying to attain with his delightful drawings. I will admit, though, that while I am thrilled to see Gorey interviewed, I am loath to lose my fantasy of his British accent.
Ben Lerner can't possibly be the persona that inhabits his fiction, the one who surfaces fleetingly in the jagged word clusters that make up his poetry. This shifty, brooding character might share some basic reportable details with his creator, but the difference between them, between writer and work, serves as the primary tension in all of Lerner's writing. If works of art were about something, instead of existing self-sufficiently for themselves, this is what Lerner's work would be about: the chasm between a life lived and a thing made; the discouragement one suffers when trying to find one in the other. With his second novel, 10:04, Lerner has decisively passed from the abbey of poets, who trained him in these stark aesthetic distinctions, into the bustling town of fiction. (If 10:04 were about something, it would be about this passage.) His poetic pedigree draws attention like the priest's white collar worn at a pub. At 35, he is still very much a younger poet, precociously so, ten years after an award-winning first book, The Lichtenberg Figures, followed in 2006 by Angle of Yaw, a National Book Award finalist. He edited a literary journal and received a Fulbright Scholarship to Spain, and though it is technically impossible to determine precisely how much the latter experience contributed to Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) deals entirely with that kind of experience abroad. On his fellowship in Spain, the young Topeka-bred poet Adam Gordon worries over his incapacity for being profoundly affected by art. He stares at paintings to no avail. When Spanish translations of his poems are read at a Madrid art gallery, he is bafflingly applauded. The better his Spanish gets, the less poetic he seems around his Spanish friends. Leaving the Atocha Station, named after an early John Ashbery poem, amounts to a deeper disillusionment than in the standard artist novel, where the audience refuses to sanction the artist’s naïve ambitions. In Lerner’s discursive first-person, a provincial romantic fervor is lost on Adam as he examines the “disconnect” between his voided encounters with artworks and “the claims made on their behalf.” Lerner, on the other hand, has good company among a faction of likeminded American novelists and critics who bristle at the hidebound claims they insist are responsible for an embarrassing profusion of substandard literary product. Simple, re-teachable tropes reign because they are market-tested, while advanced and otherwise marginalized techniques are branded Difficult, because the new is never as easily digestible, or salable, as the familiar. These prose writers—anyone who wasn’t appalled by David Shields’ Reality Hunger—admire the poetry community for valuing their progressives, thus keeping pace over the last century with the vanguards of other media. In both of Lerner’s novels, there is a sense of his sentences catching up, unfurling, distending, pursuing the unclaimed experience or the unexplained artwork. He structures his fiction around passages drawn from his growing body of criticism—studies of John Ashbery and damaged or “totaled art”—as well as the writings of others, like Daniel Zalewski’s essay on Christian Marclay, designer of the 24-hour video montage The Clock, which is given a prominent thematic role in 10:04. Collage, when used in Lerner’s novels, doesn’t result in the patchwork effect applied by a proponent like Shields in How Literature Saved My Life. Lerner’s novelist sensibility is to cohere and blend, the way Norman Mailer incorporated the shards of Gary Gilmore’s prison letters into the grand cathedral window of The Executioner’s Song. The found objects discovered in 10:04—photographs, poems, epigraphs—are characters that, above more conventional plotlines in the novel, galvanize the contemplative momentum. The crown jewel of these objects—the antagonist—is a short story published by Lerner (but also his protagonist, Ben) in The New Yorker. (Other excerpts have appeared in The Paris Review and Harper’s.) For the poet in the novel, this story is a moment of concession, a means to the curse of a six-figure book deal. For Lerner, it’s a reconciliation of language. The sequence of untitled sonnet-length poems that make up The Lichtenberg Figures degrades linearly from more coherent, finished announcements to scattershot surrealist amalgams. It is more rationally conservative, more reasonable, than John Ashbery’s debut, Some Trees, published nearly fifty years earlier. Or maybe it could be seen as progressively seeking territory beyond the old familiar conservative-progressive continuum of styles. (“Perhaps what remains of innovation/is a conservativism at peace with contradiction,” Lerner half-kids.) His most recent book of poems, Mean Free Path, makes use of even shorter overlapping units or strips, fused into nine-line stanzas. The barrage of interruptions conspire to strengthen or stress the precious attractions between words. At this threshold of coherence, Lerner maintains a formal unity of concept and appearance. This formal awareness is a constant presence throughout his novels, always holding the reader at an honest critical distance from the words—critical in both senses, skeptical and art-loving. Adam Gordon, unbeknownst to him, takes us on a journey through stages of suggestion and communication, led by Lerner’s hand. His Spanish, at first, is lacking. The dialogue is paraphrased and indeterminate. Facial cues go unrecognized or misinterpreted. Adam’s mystique thrives on meaningful silences his acquaintances run with, or so he thinks. He changes his story. First, his mother is dead. Then, he says she’s dead because she’s ill. His father is a fascist. Adam is less a poet and more like one of Lerner’s poems. In Jonathan Lethem’s essay collection, The Ecstasy of Influence, he suggests that “the voices in so-called ‘nonfictions’ were themselves artful impostures, arrangements of sentences…that mimicked the presence of a human being offering sincerely intended and honestly useful guidance into this or that complicated area of human thought or experience.” It is the fictional element in nonfiction, Lethem reminds us, that makes the autobiographical question moot. But starting from words isn’t necessarily starting from scratch. This I think is the genuine motivation for collage, and also pastiche. Nothing new under the sun, but also infinite combinations and riffs. Lerner’s new poet-cum-novelist stops worrying about the novel. Lerner clearly loves it.
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Whether or not you like Haruki Murakami's newest novel, After Dark, will probably depend on how many of his previous books you have read. If you've read two or less, you may enjoy it. If you've read three or four, you will almost certainly find it tedious. If you've read five or more you're incorrigible and nothing I say here will deter you.For my part, I've read so much Murakami, it has ceased to be fun. I've read all of his books in translation, less Kafka on the Shore and South of the Border, West of the Sun, and several of his yet to be translated books in the original Japanese. My first journey into the curious land of his prose was Norwegian Wood, and liking it, I found myself drawn to his other novels, the best of which, Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, The Windup Bird Chronicle, and Dance Dance Dance, more than made up for the tepid performances of books like Sputnik Sweetheart.As in all Murakami novels, After Dark's plot is irrelevant. Nothing happens for a long time, then something creepy and inexplicable happens, then the book ends for no apparent reason, leaving any semblance of story unresolved. In the past, the pleasure in the majority of these books (with the notable exception of Dance Dance Dance, which adopted the form of a supernatural thriller) came from Murakami's almost uncanny ability to create atmosphere and capture physical longing - whether for a piece of cucumber wrapped in seaweed or for a lover's touch - with palpable virtuosity.The problem confronting Murakami's readers has always been that, despite his otherworldly talents, he has nothing to say. Nothing of any real interest or significance, at least. Although his stories often hint at a metaphysics of unreality, the books are mostly surface and, unlike one of his professed influences, Raymond Carver, seem to lack any insight into the human condition (or any other condition, really). Instead, they content themselves with cataloging the discontents of the modern age, particularly the alarmingly numerous forms of ennui, all of which, after three or four volumes, begin to bear a striking resemblance to one another.While this was all well and good when Murakami started his career, with After Dark it seems he has become so enamored of his own abilities that he has ceased to care whether what he has chosen to show us actually matters. Or is even interesting. The more I read Murakami, the less his work resembles genius, and the more it comes to resemble a symptom of autism or obsessive compulsion. As Murakami translator Jay Rubin notes in his biography Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, around the time Murakami finished A Wild Sheep Chase, he began to obsess over his writing, fearing that he might die before finishing the book, a thought he apparently found untenable. His anxiety led to a major overhaul of his life. He quit smoking, began to exercise regularly, changed his diet. Over time, his books have come to reflect this obsession with writing and not necessarily in a positive way. As Rubin explains it, Murakami works not because he has an idea for a book, but because he feels compelled to write. It's suggested that he often sits at his desk, writing whatever comes to mind, until the glimmerings of a story appear. Those who are familiar with Murakami's novels can see this process at work. Often, the first fifty to one hundred pages of his books feature characters loafing around, looking for something to do, a reflection, perhaps, of Murakami's own mental state. The result is a presumably faithful depiction of his inner life with an ironic lack of self-awareness.After Dark is no exception: characters loaf, they engage in small talk, and something weird happens on TV (but not nearly as weird as "Flavor of Love.") The one major departure from previous novels is the style, which is somewhat reminiscent of a screenplay. The story is told in first person plural, complete with metafictional references to points of view and what seem to be camera directions. The end result could be pitched as Eraserhead (IMDb) meets Before Sunrise (IMDb), minus the good parts. If it weren't for Murakami's oath to never allow his works to be filmed (which I see has been broken, with the release of Tony Takatani (IMDb)), I would wonder if the book wasn't an attempt to salvage a failed screenplay.Until recently, a few short stories and Kafka on the Shore represented the totality of Murakami's efforts to separate himself from the first person novel, the protagonists of which were all thinly veiled versions of Murakami himself, a cosmopolitan pasta aficionado with a love of jazz, Stendhal, and Dostoyevsky, and a cool, rootless detachment from all things Japanese. While Murakami should be applauded for his attempts to expand his range, they have, so far, only brought attention to the areas in which his work is most deficient: dialogue and his brittle attempts at symbolism, a personal mythology consisting of, among other things, cats and mirrors that does not fare well when set loose from the idiosyncratic workings of his first person narrators' minds. The dialogue in After Dark is particularly bad, with one character addressing a girl with the line "What's a girl like you doing hanging out all night in a place like this?" (The line is delivered in a bar and with a complete lack of irony.) Granted, the translation might be at fault, but Jay Rubin has done an admirable job with Murakami in the past, leaving us to assume the source material didn't leave much to work with. The story's alternations between the dully inscrutable and the ploddingly mundane seem to confirm this.All of which begs the question, where does Murakami go from here? With the combination of his enormous popularity in Japan and critical acclaim in the United States and abroad, he could never write another word and still be guaranteed a roof over his head and a place in the literary pantheon of the 20th-ish century (at least for the foreseeable future). And writing one, or even a handful, of good books puts a novelist under no obligation to produce another. Yet, if the Murakami Rubin has shown us is the real one, we can expect he will continue to release novels until the day he dies (and if one takes into account his considerable back catalog of yet to be translated works, much longer). Will he insist on sticking with what he knows or will he find some way to transfer his preoccupations and considerable skills into a broader fictional universe? When you find out, let me know.
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Mohsin Hamid’s new novel How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is loosely structured as a self-help book. Although, as the writer notes at the outset, “the idea of self in the land of self-help is a slippery one.” Self-help books, he writes, “are an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author.” The book follows the trajectory of a self-made man somewhere in “rising Asia,” from very poor small boy in the provinces to extremely rich old man in an unnamed metropolis. Chapter headings include Get an Education, Don’t Fall in Love, Avoid Idealists, Befriend a Bureaucrat, Be Prepared To Use Violence. Each chapter begins with a few words on these themes, often interesting and insightful — “No self-help book can be complete,” Hamid writes, at the outset of Befriend a Bureaucrat, without taking into our account our relationship with the state. For if there were a cosmic list of things that unite us, reader and writer, visible as it scrolled up and into the distance, like the introduction to some epic science-fiction film, then shining brightly on that list would be the fact that we exist in a financial universe that is subject to massive gravitational pulls from states. The opening remarks complete, Hamid dives into the specifics of the man’s story. Hamid’s characters, country, and city are unnamed in this book. The writing is often beautiful, and Hamid's political commentary remains razor-sharp. In his brilliant previous novel, Moth Smoke, he addressed the problem of economic inequality head-on, and he doesn’t shy away from it here. His protagonist’s path to filthy richness involves selling drinking water. A prospective client pitches him on a planned development where residents will actually be able to drink the water that comes out of the tap: it’ll be “[l]ike you’ve gone to Europe,” he says. “Or North America.” “Without leaving home,” your brother-in-law says. “Exactly. Without leaving home. You’ll still be here. But in a secure, walled-off, impeccably maintained, lit-up-at-night, noise-controlled, perfectly regulated version of here.” But where is here, exactly, in a book without names? Based on Hamid’s previous work, my best guess is Pakistan. There's a certain tension here between the general and the specific: my suspicion is that getting filthy rich in rising Pakistan is probably a somewhat different experience than, say, getting filthy rich in rising China. It's not at all clear to me that the story is well-served by Hamid's vagueness. The protagonist is rendered in the second person, which proves an elegant method of sidestepping the fact that he doesn’t have a name, and also has the interesting effect of turning him into a sort of avatar for the reader. The reader is addressed as “you” in the opening remarks of each chapter, and then a more specific you, the man who was born in the provinces and has come to the unnamed metropolis to make his fortune, sets out in his car and drives to the office, or takes a meeting with a bureaucrat, or sits down to dinner with his son. He is distracted now and then by thoughts of his lifelong object of desire, a woman referred to throughout only as “the pretty girl.” But this is a book that follows its characters over the course of their lives, so while referring to her as “the pretty girl” works well enough when she’s a scrappy teenager in a rough neighborhood, the moniker becomes a little jarring by the time “the pretty girl” is a successful businesswoman in middle age. As the book progresses, the structure to which Hamid has committed himself begins to seem increasingly cumbersome. The problem, of course, is that while the self-help format is somewhat general by nature, novels tend to be stories about specific people, specific situations and lives, and Hamid's latest is no exception. He might be addressing a general "you" at the beginning of each chapter, but he’s still writing about a particular life, with its particular triumphs, sorrows, and complications. That life is often beautifully rendered, because Hamid is one of the best writers working today. If Hamid has committed himself to a structure that works to the book’s detriment, that detriment isn’t fatal. How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is filled with flashes of brilliance, deeply moving passages, and the beautifully clear prose style that I’ve admired so greatly in Hamid’s previous works.
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