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.
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Given Flaubert’s obsession with style and craft, any translation of Madame Bovary into English requires not merely competence but a touch of full-on windmill-charging madness. Lydia Davis has this madness, tempered by a Flaubertian fastidiousness and dedication to language. The results are exhilarating.
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James Wood is a kind of literary mentor to me. He seems to be able to take murky notions floating around in my head and articulate them with casual precision, as if he wrote from the tip of my tongue. His compact volume How Fiction Works –– which I read in a single sitting on a bus from New York to Boston –– is one of the loveliest and most concise primers on fiction I’ve come across. But if that book was too stuffy for some (like Walter Kirn, who, in his review for The New York Times couldn’t suppress his disdain for a critic of Wood’s ilk, who “flashes the Burberry lining of his jacket whenever he rises from his armchair to fetch another Harvard Classic”), Wood’s essay collection The Fun Stuff displayed a more personal side. In essays like “Packing My Father-in-Law’s Library” and “The Fun Stuff: Homage to Keith Moon,” Wood shows how emotionally resonant and stylistically idiosyncratic he can be. Add to this his remarkable considerations of Edmund Wilson, Lydia Davis, W.G. Sebald, and Geoff Dyer, and you have a well-rounded book that should quiet anyone suspicious of a term like artist-critic. But if suspicions still abound, here is Wood’s newest work, The Nearest Thing to Life, taken from a series of lectures given at Brandies and the British Museum. This book, which manages to be even slimmer than How Fiction Works, also manages to be even better. The Nearest Thing to Life is as close as we’ll ever get to a manifesto from the British-born New Yorker critic. Contained in the book’s 134 pages is a passionate defense of criticism, a memoir of Wood’s early life and influences, and an insightful study of the meaning of fiction. This should all be old hat by now. Every year, new books arrive promising some meditation on fiction’s quintessence, and though many of them are useful and even well written, they rarely offer truly fresh observations. All of which makes The Nearest Thing to Life that much more remarkable. Wood succeeds so well because of his knack for recognizing defining contradictions. Consider the way he unpacks the duality of fiction through the lens of religion: The idea that anything can be thought and said inside the novel –– a garden where the great Why? hangs unpicked, gloating in the free air –– had, for me, an ironically symmetrical connection with the actual fears of official Christianity outside the novel: that without God, as Dostoyevsky put it, “everything is permitted.” Take away God, and chaos and confusion reign; people will commit all kinds of crimes, think all kinds of thoughts. You need God to keep a lid on things. This is the usual conservative Christian line. By contrast, the novel seems, commonsensically, to say: 'Everything has always been permitted, even when God was around. God has nothing to do with it.' Wood loves fiction because of its “proximity to, and final difference from, religious texts.” Fiction, he writes, “moves in the shadow of a doubt, knows it is a true lie.” And although we believe in the veracity of a novel’s world, this belief “only resembles actual belief.” These are ideas I’ve written about before but never with such sure-footed clarity. Wood, in this wonderful book, is able to exude dispassionate scrutiny with personal expression, a rare feat indeed. James Wood was born in Durham, England, in 1965 but has for the last 18 years lived in America, specifically Cambridge, Mass., where he teaches at Harvard. His standing as a foreigner leads to a lovely meditation on what Wood refers to as “homelooseness:” “Exile is acute, massive, transformative; but homelooseness, because it moves along its axis of departure and return, can be banal, welcome, necessary, continuous.” For Wood, this is one of contemporary fiction’s most prevalent themes, the search for a semblance of home in an increasingly global community. A glimpse at many of the well-acclaimed American novels from the past decade or so proves his thesis: from Jhumpa Lahiri to Junot Díaz to Teju Cole to Gary Shteyngart, some of our most lasting recent fiction has come from immigrants, emigrants, exiles, expats, a diasporic smorgasbord. Wood returns here to Aleksander Hemon, a writer Wood greatly admires and about whom he has written repeatedly, and one can see why Wood feels such a connection to the Bosnia-born Hemon, for exiles, no matter what their origin, all share this in common: wherever they are isn’t home. Or, as Hemon himself puts it in The Lazarus Project: “If you can’t go home, there is nowhere to go, and nowhere is the biggest place in the world –– indeed, nowhere is the world.” But perhaps Wood is best in this brilliant book when he writes passionately and tenderly about criticism itself. First, he distinguishes what he calls “writer’s criticism” from “academic literary criticism.” Though English studies began in universities around World War I, criticism has been around for centuries, but, as Wood points out, “it existed as literature” by writers like Samuel Johnson and Samuel Coleridge and Virginia Woolf. Academia, with its claims to dispassionate engagement, can’t quite capture the beauty of literature. “A lot of the criticism I admire,” Wood writes, “is not especially analytical but is really a kind of passionate redescription.” Though he doesn’t use the term, Wood calls for criticism as testimony, a creative and revelatory way to pay witness. Consider the example Wood provides here. Virginia Woolf attends a lecture in London given by the art critic Roger Fry, and she describes the way Fry pauses while studying one of his slides. Suddenly, a word strikes him “as if for the first time” and in this moment the audience sees something important, something the critic does not see: himself. For two hours they had been looking at pictures. But they had seen one of which the lecturer himself was unconscious –– the outline of a man against the screen, an ascetic figure in evening dress who paused and pondered, and then raised his stick and pointed. That was a picture that would remain in memory together with the rest, a rough sketch that would serve many of the audience in years to come as the portrait of a great critic, a man of profound sensibility but of exacting honesty, who, when reason could penetrate no further, broke off; but was convinced, and convinced others, that what he saw was there. It is a remarkably beautiful passage, one that captures criticism at its most moving. Wood, though, fails to point out that Woolf is doing the very thing she attributes to Fry: she is convinced, and convinces other, that what she saw was there. This is testimony about testimony, one artist enraptured with other artists. Wood captures Woolf who captures Fry. Criticism (and art, for that matter) is nothing if not endless, complex description of our own experiences with literature, and our descriptions of other people’s description. In many ways, literature is a path paved by paraphrase. Oscar Wilde, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, wrote, “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not the sitter.” In keeping with this notion, The Nearest Thing to Life gives us a profound portrait of an inimitable artist.
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