I caught a few minutes of Fresh Air on NPR while I was out running a quick errand today. Terri Gross was interviewing David Denby, the New Yorker film critic who has a new book out. The book is called American Sucker and it is a memoir of the boom years. In 2000 Denby and his wife split, and he decided that he wanted to keep the Upper West Side apartment that had been their home for many years. In order to do this, Denby hatched a plan to buy out his wife’s share of the apartment. Lacking the funds to make the apartment his and cast adrift by the collapse of his marriage, Denby threw himself wholeheartedly into the mania of the stock market boom with the hopes that he, like so many others seemed to be doing, could hit it big. It would be the solution to all of his problems. A sort of addiction to his quest set in and American Sucker was the result. Today, Terri Gross, in her way, was trying to get him to relate his experience to some classic gambling films, Denby being a film critic and all. Denby, however, begged off and mentioned two interesting books that he feels are most analogous to the way he felt during his ordeal. Dostoevsky’s The Gambler and a somewhat forgotten Victorian classic by Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now, to Denby’s mind, best portray a sense of monetary desperation in the midst of a boom. I’m hoping that over the next few years there will be more books that look at the boom of the late nineties through a literary lens. It was a strange and fascinating time. Denby’s colleague at the New Yorker, James Surowiecki has penned a less personal book about business and money called The Wisdom of Crowds which is slated to come out at the end of May. A quick look reveals that Surowiecki has put together a readable tome meant to illustrate a principle that many economists hold dear: the idea that decisions can be made, problems can be solved, and the future can be predicted by the market. Imagine the Nasdaq but replace companies with possible outcomes. At the end of the day the outcome that is trading at the highest level is probably the correct answer to whatever problem was trying to be solved. Using markets you can, as Surowiecki terms it, unlock the “wisdom of crowds.” Last summer there was much public outcry when it was announced that one of our government agencies was considering setting a market that was meant to predict future terrorist attacks. The idea of people profiting off of this sort of speculation was abhorrent to many people and the plans were shelved, but, in The Wisdom of Crowds, Surowiecki will likely argue that the plan would have worked.
Three flights and twenty hours after departing New York, I arrived in Vilnius, Lithuania, the land of potato pancakes, sour cream, and Baltas beer, where “thank you” is pronounced “achoo,” like a sneeze. Vilnius is the city closest to the geographical center of Europe, and because it’s also at a cultural crossroads, the city has been hit hard by the forces of history. Napoleon’s army liberated Lithuania from the Russians in 1812, and during their later retreat through Vilnius, forty thousand men died. The twentieth century saw both German and Soviet rule and genocides at the hands of the Nazis and the KGB. Independence came less than twenty years ago, when Lithuania was the first of the Baltic States to throw off Soviet rule. Even now, landlocked Vilnius is the hardest of the Baltic capital cities to travel to.I came to Vilnius by way of the Summer Literary Seminars, which is currently holding its first ever Lithuanian conference. Poets and writers have traveled from as far as Australia and South Africa to take classes with writers like Lynne Tillman, Phillip Lopate, Mac Wellman, and Peter Cole. Class days are interspersed with lecture days, and all days usually end with readings. The Lithuanian stage director Gytis Padegimas spoke about the state of contemporary Lithuanian drama and how critical resistance to new playwrights keep many of them from writing. Almantas Samalaviciu, the editor of Lithunia’s largest cultural journal, traced the developments in twentieth century Lithuanian literature, from Soviet rule through the liberation. But not all of the focus is on Lithuanian literature. Catherine Tice of the New York Review of Books gave a lecture on the contemporary essay and its provinces. Max Winter of Fence and Mike Spry of Montreal’s Matrix offered guidance on publishing with North American literary magazines.With Vilnius as our campus, the history of place, as well the new sights and sounds play a large role in the conference, too. Over a handful of entries, I plan to guide you through some of the more interesting discussions and events of the conference, and intersperse some Vilnius culture as well. If you want a head start, Open Letter recently published a translation of Ričardas Gavelis’s Vilnius Poker, the preeminent postmodern Lithuanian novel. Or for more of a historical background, turn to Laimonas Briedis’s City of Strangers. I’m on Lithuanian time, which is notorious for lagging behind, but more dispatches will be coming soon.
Last fall, a student at Academy of Art University in San Francisco was expelled for writing an extremely violent short story for a creative writing class. In the fallout, the instructor was dismissed after it was revealed that she had assigned the class to read a somewhat graphic story by David Foster Wallace prior to the incident. At the end of March the San Francisco Chronicle broke the story and incited a furor among a number of the country’s literary luminaries. I first heard about this at Scott McCloud’s blog (scroll down to 4/4). McCloud had heard about the scandal from Neil Gaiman (author of American Gods and many others), who had been the recipient of an email sent out by Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket, the children’s author, after Handler was barred from speaking at the Art Academy. Handler’s forceful ejection was recounted here, where we also see that Dave Eggers and Michael Chabon are going on the attack. All of which brings us to today’s opinion piece in the New York Times, in which Pulitzer prizewinner (for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) Chabon muses in a pleasantly obscure way about being a teenager under a headline that, rather oddly, references Jonathan Lethem’s most recent novel. So, what does this all mean? Here’s my prediction: Team American Contemporary Writers will place enough pressure on the Academy of Art that it will be forced to issue a public apology. The fired instructor will get hired at another liberal-leaning university, and the expelled student will sign a lucrative book deal on his way to becoming the next Bret Easton Ellis. Most folks who are commenting on this believe that it is indicative the American fear of the teenager that lingers from Columbine. That is most definitely true, but it is also indicative of the fact that the Academy of Art University in San Francisco faculty and administration don’t seem to be very adept at handling a minor crisis, nor are they particularly well-read. Gaiman mentions this on his blog: “according to Daniel Handler they got a letter of remonstrance from Salman Rushdie, and didn’t recognize the name,” and according to the Chronicle story, “[the Academy of Art administration was] none too pleased that the instructor was teaching Wallace’s story. “Nobody had ever heard of him,” [the instructor] said. “In fact, they kept calling him George Foster Wallace.” (Thanks to my friend Brian for forwarding the Times op-ed to me this morning.)
They recently announced the finalists for the 2003 National Book Critics Circle Awards. The winners will be announced on March 4th. I tend to be more interested in “critics circle” awards when it comes to books and movies. Critics have to read or watch many more books or movies than the average person, and it is their job to pass judgment on this sort of thing. It is also important that they are not “insiders” in their respective industries, thus their choices are relatively unsullied by politics and personality conflicts. Nor is anyone really campaigning for these awards as one might campaign for an Oscar, a Pulitzer, or a Booker. Here are the nominees:FictionMonica Ali, Brick Lane (Scribner)Edward P. Jones, The Known World (Amistad/HarperCollins)Caryl Phillips, A Distant Shore (Knopf)Richard Powers, The Time of Our Singing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)Tobias Wolff, Old School (Knopf)General NonfictionCaroline Alexander, The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty (Viking)Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History (Doubleday)Paul Hendrickson, Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy (Knopf)Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx (Scribner)William T. Vollmann, Rising Up and Rising Down (McSweeney’s)Biography/AutobiographyBlake Bailey, A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates (Picador)Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards (Yale University Press)Carol Loeb Shloss, Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)William Taubman, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (Norton)PoetryCarolyn Forche, Blue Hour (HarperCollins)Tony Hoagland, What Narcissism Means to Me (Graywolf)Venus Khoury-Ghata, She Says (Graywolf)Susan Stewart, Columbarium (University of Chicago Press)Mary Szybist, Granted (Alice James Books)CriticismDagoberto Gilb, Gritos (Grove)Nick Hornby, Songbook (McSweeney’s)Ross King, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling (Walker)Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (Viking)Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)My thoughts: Brick Lane, The Known World, and Gulag continue to make appearances as finalists for major awards. None of the National Book Award winners are even listed as finalists for these awards. McSweeney’s is shown some love for its two most serious and most ambitious releases of the year. Now, if only they would take this as a cue to leave the forced silliness of their other releases behind.
The roadside hedges were gone to rows of black and twisted brambles. Burnt matchstick limbs, frail and carcassed treetrunks. A gray pond lay near the low bomus of a sorghumfield, its yieldless surface oily and wan. Ruminant bones in a shallow rocky ditchrun, faint scattered nothing. In a sunlit patch of green, a mother robin fed its chicks, a fat worm at her beak. Oh wait, check that. Sorry. All was dead.
The boy stood in the road with the pistol while the man climbed an old set of limestone steps and walked down the porch of the farmhouse, peering in the windows. He pushed his way in through the kitchen door. Lucy, I’m home, he shrieked, the Cuban accent poor from disuse. Trash in the floor. Broken saucers, a heap of old magazines. He looked them over. Jen’s Revenge. Kendra’s Baby Bump. J.Lo’s Booty Wars. The shelves bare save for a chipped Garfield mug, two rough spots where its handle had been. I too hate Mondays, he whispered. He went down the hallway, regarding himself in a broken woodframed mirror. The eyes haunted and sunk. Weatherbeaten cheeks, a matted gritty beard. He looked like Viggo Mortensen.
In the parlor, a television set in the corner. Beneath it a Sega Genesis, Battletoads still inside. Arrayed Ikea furniture, brittle and sagging as always. He climbed the stairs and walked through the bedrooms. Everything covered with ash. In a child’s room, a Tickle Me Elmo on the dresser. He went to it, lodestar of plush, the crimson jape. The man squeezed the doll and a thin laughter filled the room. Remains of joy discaptured. He took out his pocketknife and stabbed at the toy until it was no more than scrap and fluff. Breathing hard, he watched as a plastic eyeball rolled slowly across the floor and settled against the moulding. Then he went to the other rooms.
He emerged into the gray with three good blankets and the J.Lo magazine and laid it all in the cart. The boy handed him the pistol.
Was it okay in there? the boy said.
Yes, it was okay.
Were you scared?
No, the man said. Theres little left to be afraid of.
They set out along the road again and the boy looked back at the shinglefallen house that receded into haze. There wasnt anything scary inside, Papa?
There was no basement dungeon thing?
No. There was no basement dungeon thing.
Okay. The boy was silent for a moment, then looked up at him. There were no people locked in an underground room? With a secret hatch? And they were eating each others feet and hands and things?
The man frowned at the boy. No. There was nothing of the sort. Where do you get such ideas?
The boy shrugged.
They trod on, and after a time the man smiled. There was a Tickle Me Elmo though.
The boy brightened. There was? May I have it, Papa? he said.
Oh. I’m sorry. He scanned the cart, feigning concern. I must have forgotten it.
The boy tried to hide his disappointment. Thats alright Papa, he said. My rusty beancan is better anyway.
Later in the day the boy turned to him. Can you tell me about apostrophes?
What do you want to know about them?
I dont know. Where did they all go?
I dont know, the man said, and it was truth. He didnt know where all the apostrophes had gone.
In the gray and cloven coldstunt they came upon a supermarket. A few old cars in the lot, the windswept bleary goam. The man pushed the cart towards the cartstation nearest the entrance, nesting it with the others, and went inside. The boy gripped his hand. They walked slowly up and down the aisles, hoping to find something that had been overlooked. A bottle of water. A can of soup. Craisins, even. In the dustfilled refrigerator case he came upon a warm stack of Lunchables. With his hand, he brushed one clean and looked it over. The ham, cheese, and crackers each sat in its individual station, looking suspiciously fresh. The man’s eyes narrowed as he inspected the pink roundlet of ham, the tiny orange cheddarblock.
Is it okay to eat, Papa?
I dont think so, he said, laying it back with the others. There’s something not right. We’d best not take the chance.
By the door were two softdrink machines that had been tilted over into the floor and opened with a prybar, the work of colascavengers. He sat and ran his hand around inside the gutted machines and in the second one found a cold metal cylinder. He withdrew his hand slowly and sat looking at a Mountain Dew.
What is it, Papa?
It’s a treat.
Oh. What is it though?
He frowned as he looked at the garish can, its mad red typeface. I cant really say. High fructose cornsyrup. Yellow number five. A few other things. It’s good. Try it.
The man slid his thumbnail beneath the aluminum tab on the top of the cylinder, squeezing the ringside opposite with his forefinger. Leveraging at the rimple, he pushed upwards, springing the lidsheath below. There was a crisp popping noise as the ovoid sheath lowered into the canchamber, releasing the fizzing sugardrink. After flattening back the tab at the rimplejoint with his thumb, he handed it to the boy. It’s more complicated than it looks, he said.
The boy sniffed at the can, eyes batting at the fizz. It smells kind of funny.
He looked at his father uncertainly and then tilted the can and drank. An odd look crossed his face. It tastes like pee-pee.
Yes, a little bit. Sweet, sweet pee-pee.
You can have it, Papa.
I want you to drink it.
No, it’s your treat. Drink it.
The boy took another sip and they sat in silence, each in his own thoughts. The man recalled an old television show whose title now escaped him though he felt certain that two characters had been called Roz and Bull. Such happiness as he had never known. Madcap wheelings, a sundrous reverie. The judge’s sly magic. After a time, the gray light outside began to fade. We should go, the man said, lifting their knapsacks. Did you like your treat? The boy nodded and managed a weak smile. Yes, Papa. It was very good. Thank you. The man waited until the boy’s back was turned and bent to heft the can. It was still full.