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.
When I was a kid, I read People magazine. I mean read it. As in every week. A couple of years into my subscription, I could name the husbands of Elizabeth Taylor, the number of cars owned by Jay Leno, the blood-type of every member of the house of Windsor. Weirdly, People also taught me a lot about serial killers.This was during the era of Jeffrey Dahmer and Hannibal Lecter, and in between its celebrity puff pieces and heartwarming tales of uplift, People lingered voyeuristically over every lurid detail of every serial killing, real or imaginary, from Florida to Alaska. Even now the names are coming back to me. Ted Bundy. Aileen Wuornos. You know: People. Especially compelling, for a ten-year-old (and, apparently, for everyone else who read People) was any whiff of weird sex. Of course, from a ten-year-old’s point of view, all sex is weird sex. As all violence and loneliness and pathology seem obscurely familiar. But anyway, I gobbled this serial-killer stuff up like Halloween candy, though I knew I shouldn’t. And, as with the candy I’d stashed throughout my room, my People binges would leave me feeling sick to my stomach and rotten inside.I was doing a pretty good job repressing this, my brief and shameful fascination with serial killers, until last week, when I read Robert Graysmith’s Zodiac Unmasked. I had just seen David Fincher’s scrupulous movie about the Zodiac killer who terrorized Northern California in the early 70s. My engagement with this movie was (I thought) deep, thoughtful, moral… not at all voyeuristic or creepy or weird. Then on the way home I had to go and buy Graysmith’s book, one of the sources for the movie. I read 450 pages in just over 24 hours.I cannot with any confidence say that this is not the worst book I’ve ever read. Line by line, paragraph by paragraph, Robert Graysmith’s sequel to his bestselling Zodiac is itself a crime-scene: missing transitions, felony-grade solecisms, metaphors even more overwrought than this one, interspersed with anxious self-congratulation. It is the anti-In Cold Blood. Which makes it all the more mysterious that I couldn’t put it down.One explanation is that Graysmith essentially turns the killings into a dime detective novel, gaming the material for suspense.Another possible explanation lies in all the ways the Zodiac killings do not resemble detective novels. The clues do not line up to point in a single direction (despite Graysmith’s best efforts). Every pattern is broken. The puzzle-solving part of the mind, frustrated, cannot let go of the crime, even if the moral sense longs to. Thus we run over the facts again and again, hoping that this time, they will yield some proof and we can relax again.The brilliance of Fincher’s movie is that it dramatizes this compulsion onscreen. Jake Gyllenhaal, as cartoonist-cum-gumshoe Graysmith, offers an objective portrait of our corrosive fascination with violence. In the grip of his obsession, he resembles a ten-year old (which may explain why Graysmith writes like one). In the book, by contrast, the real Graysmith effaces himself; we are left to feel the sickly fascination ourselves. Maybe this is the more honest approach. Still, I prefer the clinical lens to the pornographic one. Fincher himself, in a couple of early scenes (as in much of his earlier work), stoops to aestheticism. But if a distressingly well-crafted murder scene lowers a veil between the audience and the victim, what can we say about a sentence like “Only the most extreme adversity could prevent this prophet of death from gloating over the proliferation of his obscene word?”Ultimately, the movie Zodiac felt more like an adaptation of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song than of Graysmith’s Zodiac writings. Like Mailer, Fincher is interested in murder as a window into human nature. And like Mailer, Fincher is as interested in the traumatized bystanders as he is in his killer. It may not be easy, watching Zodiac or reading The Executioner’s Song, to get over the creepy feeling of being compelled by the suffering of others. But at least these made me think about that feeling. Zodiac Unmasked just let me feel it.
André Aciman is, by training, a scholar of Comparative Literature. He is part of the Comparative Lit faculty at the City University of New York Graduate Center, and he assembled The Proust Project, a volume comprised of prominent writers’ insights on passages from In Search of Lost Time. But Aciman is perhaps better known as a novelist, memoirist, and essayist. Memory, its endurance and mutability, rank high among his running concerns, which is fitting given his affinity for Proust. And while memory can seem stale when taken up by a lesser writer, in Aciman’s hands it seems fresh and complex once again.
Alibis follows one previous collection of essays by Aciman, False Papers, and a memoir, Out of Egypt. Early on in Alibis, he refers to himself as, “an exile from Alexandria, Egypt.” This exile began at fifteen, when his family emigrated to Italy, and continued one remove further at age nineteen, when they moved on to New York. On the occasion of Alibis, his project is ostensibly the result of his travels, and he does indeed treat readers to lengthy reflections on Rome, Barcelona, Paris, Tuscany, and New York, among other locales. But these are not simple city guides. They are personal, searching efforts, prompted by places which hold some mythic quality for the author, places which have figured prominently in his life. On traveling with his wife, Aciman writes, “I have no tolerance for monuments…I care nothing for small picturesque hill towns…The last thing she wants is to be reminded of home; I can’t wait to pick up remnants of mine.”
In fact, Aciman views the places he visits not with the wondering, landmark-seeking eye of a tourist, but with the speculative, assessing eye of a potential resident. In “Place de Vosges,” he writes, “I come to the Place de Vosges to make believe that I belong, that this could easily become my home.” A similar impulse is revealed when he writes that the “peculiar spell” of “this dreamy Tuscan landscape” is “to make you think that it’s yours forever.” He examines this habit at length in “The Contrafactual Traveler,” and concludes that, “I ‘connect’ not by saying, ‘Isn’t this lovely, picturesque hill town beautiful?’ but ‘Do I see myself living here?’” Curiously, he steps outside himself when considering New York (“New York, Luminous”), where he has lived for many years, instead imagining the reactions Walter Benjamin might have had, if only he “hurried and crossed the Pyrenees before the Nazis closed in on him.”
Place itself is a door to other concerns for Aciman – the role of memory in particular, as well as how we form our identities across years and experiences. If his concerns sound weighty, he balances them against a fluid, engaging style, one equally suited to handling painful memories and dear ones alike. He opens with “Lavender,” a memory piece organized around his relationship with scent. “Life begins somewhere with the scent of lavender,” he writes. “My father is standing in front of a mirror. He has just showered and shaved and is about to put on a shirt.” From there, Aciman traces his life through the scents he has worn. One fragrance recalls an evening when he met his mother downtown in Manhattan, while another is all he remembers of the woman who offered it as a gift, years earlier. Places return to him: Brattle Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts on a snowy evening; a tiny shop in Florence, where the walls are lined with tiny drawers, each holding a different scent. The fragrances also point up how far he has come and how much he remains unchanged. “Me at 16 and me at 32: twice the age and yet still nervous about calling a woman,” he writes, and later, “I had so much going for me at 34, why then was I longing to be who I’d been at 17?”
Throughout Alibis, Aciman uses his chosen subject matter as a means to examine himself. He is not a famous man, but his treatment of his assets and shortcomings is never less than even-handed. At times it verges on the hyper-critical. The most remarkable outcome is that this course of deliberate reflection on how we form memory prompts the same impulse in the reader. Aciman determinedly unravels the thread of memory, questioning even the factual accuracy of his own previously published accounts.
This course of questioning is perhaps the most curious, and initially the least felicitous, part of Alibis. Aciman refers to his own, previous work on several occasions, even quoting from it once, a choice which is initially jarring. In “Rue Delta,” he refers to an episode from Out of Egypt, his last walk in Cairo, which he had written previously as a time he shared with his brother. His retelling in the memoir casts him alone on the walk. This is not the first time Aciman has explored the dueling versions of the tale, but he goes a step further this time, teasing out the inventions common to each version. The snack he claims to have had? A fabrication, either as falafel sandwich or Ramadan pastry. His brother disappears from the latter version of the story, but a more significant revelation emerges – the walk so minutely examined, never occurred, alone or in company. But because Aciman’s control is so total, he manages to render irrelevant the question of whether he is lying in his first two accounts of the night; instead, the matter of how he fashioned his memories of Egypt ends up far more compelling. He recalls a return visit to Cairo in the mid-1990s, and a trip down Rue Delta, and finds himself unable to summon an image of the street at night without his brother in it. His “true” memories of the street are lost, and the fictionalized version now holds all the piquancy once contained by the storefronts and scenery which surrounded him daily in youth.
Alibis is a slim volume, but this is testament to Aciman’s economy of language, and the preciseness of his observations. Whether exploring the limitations of his faith in “Barcelona” and “Reflections of an Uncertain Jew,” or reflecting on the changed circumstances after his sons have all left for college in “Empty Rooms,” Aciman’s work is consistently thoughtful and unsentimental. Maintaining that tone, particularly on a series of journeys to the past, is no small feat. But André Aciman is a writer in full command of his powers. He meets these demands deftly, without breaking stride. Alibis is a quiet, unassuming triumph. All that’s left is to wonder where Aciman will take us next.
My New Yorker is David Remnick’s New Yorker. The magazine was around my house off and on when I was young. My sister and I, ignoring the witty captions, used to use the magazine’s iconic cartoons as a sort of coloring book, spicing up a droll bedroom scene with our 24-color set of magic markers. As a high schooler with half-formed thoughts of a literary life, I began delving into the fiction each week, but it was only a matter of time before the rest of the magazine’s contents began to tempt me, though I remained utterly unaware that I was discovering the magazine at its point of greatest turmoil, the Tina Brown years. By the time I went to college, I was an avid consumer of the magazine, though without the time to give it my full attention. Once I graduated, however, with only the responsibilities of undemanding jobs, I was able to give in and have read the magazine, more or less in its entirety ever since.The Tina Brown era ended and David Remnick took the magazine’s helm around the time I became a New Yorker regular, and he, to a certain extent, epitomizes my New Yorker. Beyond Remnick’s editorial influence, any contemporary reader of the magazine has become familiar with his thorough profiles which tend to alight on a few different topics that he has covered closely over the years. Many of these are collected in his recent volume Reporting, which came out last year and is now available in paperback.The book divides the articles, which are all taken from his years at the New Yorker, into five sections covering, roughly: politics/news, literary figures, Russia, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and boxing. Nearly all of the articles in the collection are the long, in depth profiles that New Yorker readers will be familiar with. In Reporting, Remnick’s subjects include Al Gore, Philip Roth, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (twice), Vladimir Putin, Benjamin Netanyaho, and Mike Tyson.These profiles are impressive in the access they offer – we have dinner with Al and Tipper, visit Roth’s writing retreat, and play chess with Lennox Lewis. Taken together, one also notes that these profiles most prominent quality is their workmanlike thoroughness. Remnick takes us into his subjects’ homes but he also grabs quotes from dozens of peripheral characters in his quest to offer as well-rounded a picture as possible. There’s nothing flashy about Remnick’s writing – he won’t wow you – but then again his writing carries none of the annoying tics that mars some of his colleagues’ work. Here I’m thinking of Adam Gopnick’s tendency to view everything through the eyes of a parent or Anthony Lane’s dandyish fussiness. For anyone who aspires to practice long-form magazine journalism, you could do a lot worse than starting with Remnick as a model.My favorite part of the book was the last section on boxing. Here Remnick was able to drop some of the necessary serious that his other subjects demand and substitute it with some color. Setting the scene for the 2002 Tyson-Lewis fight in Memphis, Remnick writes:On the night of the fight, the skies of above the Pyramid were choked with helicopters. It took a long time to get through the metal detectors and professional friskers, though it seemed that the women of uncertain profession, along with their raffish masculine handlers, were accorded more courtesy than the rest of us. There were certifiable celebrity types all around, mainly film stars like Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Samuel L. Jackson, and a flotilla of NBA players. There was much relief in finding out that one hadn’t been given a seat behind Dikembe Mutombo or Magic Johnson.In fact, Remnick’s boxing pieces would have made for a nice, slim volume on their own. But Remnick doesn’t seem like the type of reporter who, as he ages, will pursue writing only about his particular interests at the expense of taking on a broader array of topics. In its variety of subjects, Reporting is an ideal slice of Remnick’s work.