Somehow I waited two months to take a look at the “best of 2003” column from my favorite book critic Jonathan Yardley. For him 17 rather interesting books make the cut, and his two picks for best of the year are The Known World by Edward P. Jones and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s memoir Living to Tell the Tale. Both of these are on the reading queue, and I’m very much looking forward to reading them. Here is Yardley’s column.
“If an ox begins to sicken,” Cato the Elder writes in his treatise on Roman farm management, “give him without delay a raw hen’s egg and make him swallow it whole. The next day make him drink from a wooden bowl a measure of wine in which has been scraped the head of an onion. Both the ox and his attendant should do these things fasting and standing upright.” This passage has stuck with me, for reasons I don’t entirely understand, since the time I first read it, whenever that may have been. I’m less interested in the questionable medicine it prescribes than in the image of the ox and his attendant -- who, on the farm described by Cato, was most likely a slave -- together: the attendant going about his work, the ox patiently enduring his ministrations. The two at once familiar and yet gazing across an unfathomable distance of incomprehension as they stand facing one another, both unfed save the ox’s hen’s egg and measure of wine. I’ve been thinking of the passage often lately, as my novel, That’s Not a Feeling, is, to my surprise, filled with animals. The novel is set on the rural campus of a boarding school, so it isn’t entirely unexpected that animals should appear. But a brief catalogue of non-human animals seen and discussed in its pages would include deer, bees, ducks, a turkey, cats, a caterpillar, a goat, a pig, some chickens, an owl, two wasps, a peahen, horses, bats, some birds that are not further identified, and a snake. This seems to me, if not quite excessive, then at least curious. It’s the kind of thing I try not to think much about while I’m writing, but now that the book is in its final form, I don’t really see what harm it can do. In the eighth of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, the poet contrasts animals’ way of being in the world with that of people. “The creature gazes into openness,” he writes, in A. S. Kline’s translation, “… and when it moves, it moves / in eternity, as streams do.” Humans, however, are always looking inward, “our eyes are / as if they were reversed.” I’m sure that making this type of distinction is not what I was up to. First of all, I find it too romantic, too idealized. And the animals I’ve written about aren’t the free, sure beasts described by Rilke. They are often frightened, in the wrong place, or sick, like the ox in Cato. In this way, they are mirrors of the human characters in the book, who are also often unsettled, ill at ease, or worse. And these characters’ confusion and anxiety is analogous to the opacity that, it seems to me, exists between people and animals. “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him,” Wittgenstein says. I take this to mean that a lion’s life, his experiences and concerns, are so foreign to us that even if he shared our language, we wouldn’t know what he was talking about. Just before making this point in the Philosophical Investigations, a point I think we can safely assume applies to all animals and not only to lions, Wittgenstein discusses the transparency, or lack thereof, between people. He says, “…one human being can be a complete enigma to another.” And, Freud might have added, a complete enigma to himself or herself as well. This begins to feel more like what I may have been after, populating the margins of my book with unsteady animals. They stand (or crawl, or fly) as reminders that proximity doesn’t dispel mystery. Just as Cato’s ox and his attendant can live and work together without claiming to know one another completely, we can live among animals and among people without assuming that we comprehend them. This is less a philistine’s incuriosity about his surroundings than a degree of humility as regards the limits of our understanding. Just as psychoanalysis shows us how we are always telling the truth though we do not know the truth, and can be ourselves -- can’t help being ourselves -- though we remain strangers to ourselves. And yet we are never so resigned that we stop trying to find out more. I like the way animals in books, what John Berger called “animals of the mind,” can serve as emblems of this. From the meadows and the trees, they gaze out at the human characters, who cannot help but wonder what it is the animals see.
Among the few movies I've seen in recent months, Sideways was one of the best. The director, Alexander Payne, has made a career out of bringing quirky, character driven novels to the screen. This time, the source material was a novel by the unknown and struggling Rex Pickett. According to this article from the Guardian, Rejected by 15 publishers, Sideways was still without a home when Payne happened to read the manuscript and liked it. Even with the possibility of a movie in the works, Pickett had to work hard to get it published. St Martin's initial reluctance turned out to be quite lucrative:Then, finally, a publisher bit. "A lot of people think the book was only sold because it got made into a movie," Pickett says. "That's not true. It was bought when there was no guarantee it was going to be a movie. So that rankles me a little bit." Apart from anything else, the film's uncertain status meant that the book deal wasn't worth much money up front. "St Martin's Press paid me almost nothing. But that did mean my advance, what little it was, was earned out very quickly. Now I get a dollar for every copy sold!" He still sounds slightly giddy at the thought.I haven't read this book, and I've heard that it's just so-so, but I love the Rex Pickett rags to riches story.
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Two weeks ago, the presidential commission appointed by President Obama to investigate the causes of the Gulf Oil spill released its final report. Have you read it yet? Neither have I. How different from the days and weeks following the release of the 9/11 Report. Debates about how well this newest presidential report assigns or distributes blame for the disaster in the Gulf appeared briefly in the press, then disappeared. Have we already lost interest in this catastrophic oil spill, or is it possible that the report itself is to blame for our fading interest? When a tragedy on this scale strikes, a familiar pattern follows. A time of confusing and conflicting news stories is followed by a call for an independent investigation, followed by an inquiry, and then, many months later, a report. A great deal of hope—for explanation, reform, redemption—is placed in this inquiry and report-writing process. But what exactly is the role of a government report? It attempts to be the truth, but is not always complete. It presents a story, but not always the one the most people believe. Most fail to reassure because the public considers them either politically motivated or the product of bureaucratic compromise. A review of presidential reports (the first dates back to the George Washington administration and its investigation of the Whiskey Rebellion) suggests that the right balance between a punitive, backward-looking function—“How did this happen? Who is to blame?”—and a forward-looking hope for prevention—“How can we make sure this never happens again?” is important but difficult to achieve. If a commission lays blame too heavily, the report is easily dismissed as a political maneuver. When the Roberts Commission blamed Adm. E. Kimmel and Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short for leaving Pearl Harbor vulnerable to air attack from Japan, the two were demoted. But many thought they were being scapegoated by President Roosevelt to cover up military mistakes, and Kimmel and Short were later exonerated. On the other hand, if a report appears not to find enough blame, it is easy to disbelieve. The Warren Commission’s conclusion that the Kennedy assassination was the work of a lone gunman resulted in decades of conspiracy theories. We live in a report-saturated age, the news often filled with the findings of the latest commission assembled to examine every tragedy, accident, or misdeed. In this national library of government documents, the 9/11 Report stands out, exceptional in its aim for and achievement of narrative excellence. With a novelistic opening chapter titled “We Have Some Planes” and a first sentence that doesn’t sound much like a government report—“Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States”—it felt like a hybrid. This led some to worry about the role art can or should play in such a work. Writing in the Threepenny Review in the spring of 2005, Dan Chiasson asked, “What is the connection between style and policy, style and cultural memory—style and truth?” He wondered if the narrative panache of the 9/11 Report would foreclose further discussion. I think time and the release of other, lesser reports shows that we discussed the 9/11 Report more than any other. The 9/11 Report’s emphasis on style was not completely without precedent, though the report it reminded me of is not well-known. When the UK investigated the largest civilian tragedy of WWII—a massive crush that occurred in an air raid shelter in East London in 1943—a lone magistrate was asked to investigate and in three weeks produced a report noted for its style and admired for its objectivity. The report stopped short of ascribing individual blame, yet like the 9/11 Report and now the report into the Gulf Oil spill, suggested the disaster could have and should have been avoided. The Bethnal Green report was suppressed until after the war, but when it was released, the writer was knighted and promoted to Chief Metropolitan magistrate. Our report writers aren’t eligible for such rewards, but why not? Handling the question of blame deftly requires art. Concrete finger-pointing in all but the clearest of cases leads to the charge of scapegoating, political influence, and a morass of misdirected blame. To tell a complex story well requires the tools of art and literature. Perhaps the wisest, most powerful reports contain some version of an idea expressed in the preface of the 9/11 Report, a line I admired: "We want to note," the Commission wrote, "what we have done, and not done." A compelling admission of incomplete work or an acknowledgment that our perception of blame will change over time? It might just be the room our thoughts need when all the fact-finding in the world still doesn't make sense of a tragedy. So why don’t we reward our report writers in a literary fashion? I think someone should fund a prize for “best government report issued in the previous calendar year.” If we gave an annual report prize, perhaps we would receive more artful reports, and they would, in turn, be read by more than a handful of journalists. This September will see the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and as we begin to ponder what an appropriate commemoration will look like, I hope we won’t forget this legacy of the well-written 9/11 Report. It did not answer all our questions, but it got an enormous number of people reading and thinking. By contrast, the report into the Gulf Oil spill seems to be disappearing without a trace. Future report writers, take note.
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In the comments to the last post, Erin left a note about "depraved" Amazon reviews for Family Circus books. With a little Googling, I was quick to discover that this was something of an internet legend, dating back to the late-nineties when pranksters started leaving all sorts of silly reviews for Bil Keane's anthologies. There's even mention of them in Wikipedia (as of this writing.) Sadly it appears that most of the reviews have been expunged, but I was able to find a few that were subtly wierd enough to elude the censors:For What Does This Say?: Yeats once wrote, "None other knows what pleasures man/At table or in bed." Bil Keane, however, seems to have found in his latest 'Family Circus' opus a treasure-chest of pleasures for each and all of us. There are some who chafe at the seeming repetitive themes within Keane's major works; I would respectfully submit that all great stories are about life and death, love and loss, fear and triumph. If not Keane, then so go Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz and Callimachus, too, for good measure. It is not originality that spawns thought and wonderment; it is the vessels of those themes (Billy, Grandma, Barfy, PJ) that inspire and enlighten. Keane, as carrier of these vessels, reminds us of a truth so eloquently immortalized by Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Some books leave us free and some books make us free." In 'What Does This Say', it is clear that the tome achieves the latter, with gusto and aplomb.For Smile! With The Family Circus: Though universally popular with critics, Smile! has never been commercially successful. It's been in and out of print -- mostly out -- so this hardcover 30th anniversary edition is an especially welcome event to discerning FC readers. Along with his day job with United Features Syndicate to produce the more commercial Family Circus strips we know and love, Keane labored on Smile! on evenings and weekends from 1966 through 1972 in a cathartic period when he confided to friends that he had to complete Smile! before the effort killed him. Smile! is Keane's FC adaptation of the legendary unreleased Beach Boys album of the same name. Keane met Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks at the Fillmore West in late 1966 and quickly the three became inseperable. The next six months were a happy, artistically productive time for the three, and it's during this time that most of the widely-bootlegged Smile! demos were recorded. Unfortunately Parks and Wilson had a falling out in February 1967, after each discovered that Keane had been sleeping with the other, and the lovers' betrayal ended the Beach Boys' Smile! sessions. Wilson spent the next year in solitude, finally giving up on Smile! without giving a public explanation. Keane, having been spurned by both Wilson and Parks, returned to the comfort of the Family Circus to lick his wounds. Some critics have derided Keane as "the Beach Boys' Yoko Ono" for his unfortunate role in the Smile! sessions. Nevertheless, Keane's book remains the only fully-realized version of the work that the three men envisioned together in late 1966. Music historians trying to guess how the bootlegged Smile! demos would have been pieced together need look no further than this book.And for Kittycat's Motor is Running: I weep for Jeffy. The language, however base and stomach cramp inducing, does the job of transporting the reader to the suburban hell that only Keane can imagine. The amount of ennui overflowing from this wasp-ish family of innocents staggers. If you cannot see their pain, you are blind. I am Jocasta, my eyes bleed for the family circus.
One of the interesting things about being the author of an obscure blog is seeing how much I influence world culture. A day doesn't go by without my opinions being parroted on music video channels and being reprinted on the backs of cereal boxes. Why just the other day I happened to be watching opening round action of this year's NCAA Basketball Tournament, and I couldn't help but hear CBS Sportscaster Dick Enberg describe as worthy of Don Quixote, a speech that Mike Gillespie, coach of the 16th seeded Florida A&M Rattlers, was giving to his team before sending them out on the floor to face basketball powerhouse Kentucky. I, of course, immediately assumed that Enberg made this comment because, as an avid reader of The Millions, he knew that I was reading the Edith Grossman translation of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, and reading along at home, he felt comfortable throwing the literary reference into his broadcast. Or there is another explanation that, I will concede, is equally plausible. Don Quixote, like other literary first ballot hall of famers, Hamlet, Gatsby, and Holden Caulfield, is so ingrained in the public consciousness that such a reference will be understood by nearly all who hear it. Not bad for a 17th century Spanish epic. Enberg was using the name Don Quixote the way most folks do, to describe a foolhardy quest. And yet it would seem that Enberg was implying that there was something noble in all this, to use another often cited reference, something akin to David and Goliath. Before I ever cracked open the book, I had this impression as well, that there was something noble about this knight who wears a bowl on his head and tilts at windmills. I see it a bit differently now, even though, admittedly, I am only a quarter of the way through the book. Certainly in telling the story, Cervantes is turning the idea of chivalry on its head, and in doing so is nobly attempting to undo some of the harmful social mores of his time, but the character of Quixote isn't particularly noble. In fact he is a rather sad specimen who is either totally mentally ill or utterly incapable of recognizing the consequences of his actions; probably he is a little of both. So far, he has inadvertently caused a servant boy to be beaten by his master, he has bludgeoned a number of innocent passersby, and he has allowed his faithful squire, the very likeable Sancho Panza, to be repeatedly thrown to the wolves. In fact, I am starting to see that it is perhaps a disservice to compare the coaches of underdog basketball teams and others who embark on impossible quests to Don Quixote, who, I should also mention, is turning out to be rather unhygenic. Better that these noble folks be compared to Cervantes, who, even 300 years later is still managing to take on the big shots. Like I said, though, I'm only a quarter of the way through. Once, I have finished, and once I have read the Harold Bloom essay that precedes the text, I may have different take on the whole thing, so stay tuned, America.
The people behind the JT Leroy* scam (our other literary scam), must be happy about the breathing room that the James Frey saga has given them. But is that it? They were called out by the press, but does it end there? As far as I know (and please correct me if I'm wrong), there has been no public declaration by Savannah Knoop, Geoffrey Knoop and Laura Albert in which they come clean, apologize and promise to donate all their ill-gotten gains to charity. Frey did it; shouldn't they?Meanwhile, adding to the list of people who are unburdening themselves of their unwilling involvement with this scam, actress Ann Magnuson, with whom I had the pleasure of discussing Leroy during my recent trip to Los Angeles, lays out her correspondence with Leroy and also discusses how the scammers demeaned the state of West Virginia.*Now that we know Leroy isn't a real person, I suppose I should quit making his name boldface, a stylistic treatment that I usually reserve for real people.
Tonight's installment of the Pacific Standard Fiction Series here in Brooklyn features two Millions favorites: Paul Beatty, author of Slumberland and The White-Boy Shuffle, and Matthew Sharpe, author of Jamestown and The Sleeping Father. Books will be for sale on-site, and drink specials will be chosen by dartboard. The reading starts at 7 p.m. at Pacific Standard. Hope to see you there!Bonus link: Matthew Sharpe's "Year in Reading" 2007