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.
"The gizmo, the golden, deceptive, brass-filled gizmo, was gone at last.” So reads the final sentence of Jim Thompson’s con-man sleaze-romp The Golden Gizmo, which I finished last week. Though it ran under 200 pages, the story was crammed with double-crosses, faked deaths, and a massive talking dog. There were shady gold dealers and exiled Nazis, a femme fatale and a hag of a wife. I’d been mildly confused throughout, but the ending tied things up efficiently enough. I had questions, but not many complaints. After rereading the final line, I admired the cover image: a grainy photo of hundreds being shuffled. I flipped to the last page and inspected books “Also Available From Jim Thompson.” And with that, I had squeezed all that I could from The Golden Gizmo. I returned it to its narrow gap on the shelf, scanning the books that I hadn’t yet read. But I didn’t pick a new one, not just yet. In recent months, that moment of lingering, of browsing my own library, has become one of my favorite aspects of reading. In the past, I’d immediately swap the book I’d just read for a new one, a literary chain-smoker. But now I take my time—luxuriating in possibility, enjoying expectation, and pondering what’s next with a real, idle pleasure. And after finishing the Thompson book, my options seemed endless. I’ve lately been in stockpile mode, picking up The Curious Case of Sidd Finch, Lush Life, and A Prayer For the City. A friend had given me Lonesome Dove, The Bronx is Burning, and Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life. There was The Punch, about Kermit Washington’s near-fatal swing at Rudy Tomjanovich during a 1977 NBA game. And of course, the dozens of titles—by T.C. Boyle and Frank Herbert, Pete Dexter and Chris Elliot—that I’ve owned for years and have never quite gotten to. From all of these, I happily chose nothing. Instead, I let my mind drift around the books’ edges, nourished by thoughts of what they would bring: Plimpton’s erudite humor, Price’s ordered chaos, Bissinger’s knowing outrage. I could conjure T.C. Boyle’s dexterity and Pete Dexter’s toughness. Though I denied myself the satisfaction of engagement, I also avoided disappointment: did I really need to read a 1,000-page western—or, for that matter, anything by Chris Elliot? I don’t even really like westerns, and Get a Life was axed when I was still in Reebok Pumps. Better, perhaps, to let those remain abstract and idealized. In this nebulous state, anticipation is also fed by jacket design. The Punch looks especially awesome: the cover is spare, with bright orange type over a blown-out picture of the titular incident. It’s violent, discomfiting, hard to ignore. The book looks so good that, to be honest, I don’t want to spoil things by actually reading it—getting bogged down, as I suspect I will, in the minutiae of Carter-era neurology and Kermit’s deep regret. Nonetheless, The Punch calls to me. Knowing the sex won’t be as good as you’ve dreamed is no reason to keep your pants on. Post-Gizmo, I spent five days like this—weighing my options, considering my desires. I caught up on my comic books and magazines, cleared out unread newspapers. And then, with private fanfare, I walked upstairs for a book. I’d recently bought And Here’s the Kicker, a collection of comedy interviews—but after glancing through it, I found I wasn’t in the mood. Mamet’s Bambi vs. Godzilla was enticing, but something—maybe its candy-colored fight-night cover—pushed me past. The Punch, too, would have to wait. In the end, I picked Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life. It looked breezy and smart, and had come highly recommended. I took it down, laid in bed, and began to read. It was wry and nostalgic, serious and absurd. I’d made the right choice. It even contained a line I found relevant to my dilatory new habit: “Most of us go about our duties of commerce and leisure in a state of perpetual longing.” I thought about that. My postponement of reading was a way to embellish that longing, to make it even more deliciously perpetual. After thirty years, I’d found one more way to wring enjoyment from books—even as they sat on the shelf.
Hardcovers are expensive! So, what about paperbacks. What are people buying and reading right now? Last year's addition to the Mariner Books "Best American" series of the Dave Eggers edited The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2002 was a big hit. It reprinted the best and the wierdest articles and stories culled from a wide array of publications from The Onion to Spin to The New Yorker. People are quite excited to see that another installment is out. The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2003 is once again edited by Eggers and the book features a clever introduction by none other than Zadie Smith. Meanwhile, Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, an early Oscar favorite, is already pushing sales of the book that it's based on, Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. The book gets rave reviews from everyone who reads it (and I suspect the movie will be similarly received once it hits theaters.) Also, in fiction, two big award winners are selling like proverbial hotcakes now that they are out in paperback. Last year's Booker Prize winner Life of Pi by Yann Martel shows no sign of slowing after months of steady sales. Almost every single person I know has read it by now. New in paperback is the book that was awarded last year's Pulitzer, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, a sweeping family saga with a healthy dose of gender confusion. Finally, a book that I haven't mentioned in at least a week, one of my all time favorites, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis, a future Nobel Prize Laureate if there ever was one. It's been nearly a year since I read this book, and I still can't stop talking about it. I would estimate that my endless chatter about this book has sold hundreds of copies by now, and if the people who bought it recommend it to their friends, as they surely must have, and those friends recommend it to their friends and so on, then before long we will have a worldwide Maqroll revolution on our hands, and the world will be a better place.
but I hope you don't mind if I post about a couple of things that pertain to, well, me. The first is a fantastic and fantastic looking publication called Two Letters, which contains some very worthwhile writing and art, and for which I was the literary editor. I worked on this when I lived in Los Angeles. The selection process for the art and writing ended just before I moved to Chicago, so I wasn't involved in the production of the book. I had no idea what it would look like until it showed up at my doorstep a couple of weeks ago. It looks terrific - great art and a very distinctive layout. All the writing is illustrated with subtle but expressive line drawings. I am also very happy with the writers I helped select (two of them, Cem and Alexa happen to be bloggers). If you want to pick up a copy visit the website, or, if you are in LA, please consider attending the release party at the venerable Book Soup in West Hollywood. It's on Wednesday, January 26th at 7pm. It will be fun, and I would attend if I could.In other news about me: You may have noticed from my bio on the right that I'm currently a graduate student in the Medill school of Journalism at Northwestern, and today I reached a milestone that I felt I should share (because what else is a blog for, if not for moments like this.) Today, I got my very first byline in a daily newspaper, the Daily Herald. It's a 100,000+ circulation paper that serves the suburbs of Chicago. The story isn't about books. Since I'm studying business writing this quarter, it's a business story. You'll be happy to hear that I was able, if only just barely, to keep myself from nudging the news stand guy and saying, "I'm in this," when I bought the paper today.