When I was in college, I became excited about some poets, Frank O’Hara, Tennyson, C.K. Williams, and some others. This interest stemmed from a poetry class and from hanging around too much in the local used book store. But I’ve never been grasped by poetry, there’s something too arbitrary about it for me. Still, Some poems by Williams in the New Yorker piqued my interest and I picked up his collection, The Singing, which went on to win the National Book Award. There are handful of very moving poems in this collection. Williams’ best poems are grounded by concrete imagery, and they are engagingly anecdotal. But there are too many poems in this book that aren’t tethered to earthly things at all, and it is difficult for the reader to reach them. He writes engagingly about growing old and about war. The best in the collection is called “The Hearth.” It can be found here.
Chuck Klosterman is the king of pop culture. No other writer has evidently spent so much time having smart conversations about The White Stripes, “The Sims,” or U2. Books like Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs helped elevate discussions about pop culture from who’s sleeping with whom or fanboy arguments over which Pixies record is better, as Klosterman found esoteric connections between AC/DC and ABBA, or Nirvana’s In Utero and the Branch Davidian disaster. It was Klosterman’s odd, poignant observations that made me pick up Killing Yourself to Live in 2005 (that and the premise of visiting sites where rock stars died — I was kind of morbid then), and I still thank Blender for publishing a short review of the book. Books like this, or Eating the Dinosaur or Chuck Klosterman IV, made obsessing over pop culture cool. He deconstructs episodes of Saved by the Bell, dissects the importance of Morrissey to the Mexican community, and convinces people that heavy metal matters. Even his banter about sports was tolerable for the sports illiterate. I no longer had to feel embarrassed about caring more about what was happening in music and movies than about NASA’s latest discovery. The way Klosterman includes anecdotes from his life shows we’re all a little obsessed with pop culture, and that it’s okay.
Six books later and he has me mulling over questions like what TV show will most represent life in the 21st century? Which musician will be the face of rock music? Will the multiverse theory sound more plausible? With But What if We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present as if it Were the Past, Klosterman takes a break from dishing on pop culture to consider the way we will be remembered in the future, by people who view our present day as the past. I was skeptical when I first heard the concept of the new book and suspected that it would be complex and hard to follow, like his last book, a treatise on villainy called I Wear the Black Hat. Klosterman didn’t quell these fears by opening with “This is not a collection of essays.” And he’s sort of right. The book is more like a college research paper: he presents his argument, provides examples, and cites from interviews he’s held with people like Neil deGrasse Tyson and David Byrne in hope of bringing readers around to his brand of thinking. But even as he’s presenting complex scenarios, like why we don’t know everything about gravity or whether it’s possible our life is just a simulation, he brings the humor and wit prevalent in his writings on pop culture. And Klosterman can’t help but turn to pop culture to help clarify his arguments.
Though most of his arguments are well thought out and complete, there are a few that aren’t so clear. In the chapter “The Case Against Freedom,” Klosterman talks about how some parts of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence are outdated and how no efforts have been made to update them, bouncing from claims that Barack Obama is the greatest president to people having the right not to vote. These observations are interesting, but they feel like tangents distracting readers from the overall mission of the book. Meditations on the posthumous legacy of pro-wrestlers like Macho Man Randy Savage are witty and smart in Klosterman form, but difficult to relate back to his original argument. Even Klosterman seems concerned that we’ll lose the thread, and repeats the purpose of the book several times throughout.
Klosterman’s interviews with experts are a highlight of the book. He talks about how rock music will be remembered with Ryan Adams and asks Kathryn Schulz and Junot Díaz and George Saunders what kind of writers will be recognized in the future. His conversations with Neil deGrasse Tyson and string theorist Brian Greene prove to be fascinating, if creepy, measured discussions of whether life might be a simulation. The interviews balance out the book: it’s a testament to Klosterman’s credibility as an observer of modern life that he was able to loop in so many bright lights.
So what are his findings? For television, he throws readers for a loop, shunning “Golden Age of Television” shows like Breaking Bad and House of Cards for, of all things, Roseanne. The musician that will ultimately represent rock music is Chuck Berry and the writer that will be most remembered is someone totally unknown. His choices may seem jarring, but they make more sense as they’re unpacked. Roseanne wasn’t picked for the great writing; rather Klosterman feels it most represents our reality. The show’s family members didn’t look like they stepped out of a modeling agency, their house was often messy, and they weren’t afraid of bickering. Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” is the epitome of rock ‘n’ roll; “simple, direct, rhythm-based music. Even John Lennon once said “If you tried to give rock and roll another name you might call it Chuck Berry.” And the writer who’ll be remembered in the future? Both Klosterman and Shultz argue it’ll most likely either be someone totally unknown or currently unappreciated, based on retroactive views on Moby-Dick and Anna Karenina. These conclusions don’t come easy. He goes through various choices for each and spends time working why they would and wouldn’t be appropriate, as if trying to convince himself.
Klosterman’s conclusions hold up pretty well. He attacks the argument from various angles and provides different examples to convince both readers and his interviewees. Some of his arguments are more well thought than others; though the Roseanne conclusion makes sense, Klosterman spends more time arguing why certain shows don’t make the cut than explaining his pick. He doesn’t address those who don’t see themselves represented by Roseanne or point out that, in the end, the show was all inside Roseanne’s head (bringing it back to Neil DeGrass Tyson!). As he talks through his choice, even he seems unconvinced, and ends the chapter defeated, saying he doesn’t know if he’s right at all. Nonetheless, the chapter is one of the most engaging in the book.
Though he may convince readers, he doesn’t always convince his peers. Both Ryan Adams and Jonathan Lethem disagree with his findings on Chuck Berry, with Adams arguing it’s not the inventor that matters, but rather “the symptom of the thing that was set in motion,” e.g., Twitter rather than Twitter’s creator. Kathryn Schulz actually seems to change Klosterman’s opinion regarding writers. He originally argued the writer to be remembered will be someone totally unknown until Shultz said “The likelihood that the greatest writer will be known but not fully appreciated?…That would be more like fifty-fifty,” at which point he beings to argue from her point of view. Often times Klosterman will play devil’s advocate to challenge the expert opinion; sometimes they’ll change their opinions, sometimes not. Klosterman allows himself to be swayed, and allows himself to be wrong. The ebb and flow of opinions shows how difficult Klosterman’s project is, and how charming a writer he can be.
I’ve been thinking lately about adulthood. When it begins, what expectations we might reasonably have of those just entering through its gates, and how we represent it in our fiction. I realized recently that virtually all of the coming-of-age stories one encounters — okay, most of the ones I’ve encountered — involve growing up too quickly. There is the traumatic incident after which childhood is over and life will never the same (John Knowles’ A Separate Peace and about a million other books, few of which are as good as Knowles’), the creepy secret that heralds the end of innocence (Allison Espach’s The Adults), the sleazy secret that gets you institutionalized (a recent book I’d mention if naming it in this context wouldn’t give away the plot), etc. It’s an interesting feature of Leigh Stein’s debut novel, The Fallback Plan, that she takes precisely the opposite approach.
The Fallback Plan concerns a girl — difficult to think of her as a women, because she’s an adult only in years — who’s growing up too slowly, who doesn’t want to grow up at all, and who, more to the point, is so coddled that she doesn’t really need to. Stein’s narrator, Esther Kohler, is a recent graduate of the theatre program at Northwestern. Esther’s feeling is that in the absence of either a job or a trust fund, her options are between moving back in with her parents or “suffering the rancid fate of a nomadic couchsurfer.”
She chooses the former, camping out in her childhood bedroom while she figures out what to do next. This wasn’t anyone’s original plan, but she’s secretly relieved to be back at home. The adult world proved to be a bit much, actually. It would be nice, she thinks, to never have to be a part of it, to never have to suffer the hassle of work, to be taken care of forever. She smokes pot with her friends, takes recreational Vicodin, and spends a great deal of time hoping to develop “a chronic illness that would entitle me to monthly checks from the government, tender sympathy from my loved ones, and a good deal of time in bed with the collected works of Frances Hodgson Burnett.”
It’s a tricky proposition, the Peter Pan novel. A subset of readers will smile — or wince — in recognition of an adolescence that extends far into one’s 20s, a hazy longing for the comforts of one’s childhood home, a desire to return to one’s parents after college and hold on to ease a little longer.
But there’s another subset of readers to whom that first subset seems, well, frankly a little soft. My tribe didn’t have any particular prospects either, but we worked our multiple low-paying jobs, we balanced shifts at coffee shops with days at school while we sank into student loan debt, we swept floors and made lattes and washed dishes, we put up with bad roommates and cockroaches. We took buses and trains to our lousy apartment shares in dangerous neighborhoods, we lived on noodles and did our laundry in the bathroom sink during those last few days every month before rent was due. Because we had to, and because our understanding of adulthood was that you’re supposed to make your own way in the world, and that it isn’t supposed to be easy.
I’m not romanticizing this. It isn’t unreasonable to want to skip most of these experiences, especially the cockroaches and the unstable roommates. I’m trying to explain why it’s easy for someone like me to dismiss a narrator like Esther Kohler, whose idea of a job search involves dropping off résumés at exactly two places and then printing up some dog-walking flyers that she doesn’t distribute.
But then, I do have tremendous respect for authors who are willing to present unlikable narrators, and what Stein is laying out, in prose so lucid and simple that she makes it seem effortless, is a variation on American young adulthood so common that it does, I believe, deserve a place in our literature. A 2010 Pew Research Center study found that 85 percent of that year’s college graduates planned on moving back in with their parents. It would be heartless to imagine that at least some of those graduates weren’t exactly thrilled with this prospect.
Moreover, the world has changed, and unemployment statistics suggest that the always-complicated business of trying to become an adult is probably harder now than it was when I was Esther Kohler’s age. This is what I tell myself, anyway, because I don’t want to believe that 85 percent of 2010 college graduates — or any percentage, actually, when I think about it — moved home because being an adult is kind of hard and they just don’t really feel up to it quite yet.
What to reveal, when: it’s one of the trickier parts of plotting a novel, and it’s an area where I believe The Fallback Plan falters slightly. Fictional characters don’t have to be likable, but they do have to be interesting, and there is nothing overwhelmingly captivating about a lethargic young person who just doesn’t particularly feel like growing up and who kind of wishes she had some kind of a permanent disability that would excuse her from work for the rest of her life, who feels entitled to a room in her parents’ house and food from her parents’ refrigerator.
But the picture changes somewhat when, some distance into the book, the circumstances of Esther’s last year of college become clear. This isn’t just a shiftless, entitled girl who doesn’t want to grow up. She’s a shiftless, entitled girl who doesn’t want to grow up and who has mental health issues of sufficient severity that she was briefly committed the previous spring. A character who I’d struggled to care about was cast in a suddenly altered light. She does want to avoid the adult world, but also she’s suffered tremendously there.
Esther’s parents are somewhat less interested in Esther remaining a teenager forever than Esther is. When they decide to start charging her rent, Esther takes a job as a babysitter to a neighborhood family, the Browns, who have recently suffered an unspeakable loss. Esther had met Nate and Amy Brown the previous winter, at a holiday party thrown by her parents.
They had a baby and a toddler at home with a sitter, but that was the last night when Nate and Amy Brown had two children on Earth. They returned home to find that the baby had died in her sleep. Now Nate works long hours and Amy stays home with their surviving daughter, four-year-old May. At first glance, the family is surprisingly functional, but the more time Esther spends with them, the more obvious the fault lines become.
Amy and Nate are disconnected from one another, still reeling, and both begin to treat Esther as a confidante. Nate stays late at the office. Amy spends hours locked in the attic, working on a mysterious project. Esther finds herself falling in love with little May. Stein’s sensitive treatment of the Browns’ grief and disconnection is the strongest part of the book. Esther’s gradual realization that she has to face the complications of the adult world is carefully rendered and a pleasure to read.
Why did J.M. Coetzee write The Master of Petersburg?
I mean this as an existential question; the purpose of the novel itself is unusually explicit: not content to be merely “Dostoevskian” in tone, Coetzee’s protagonist actually is Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the story is a fictional account of events in Dostoevsky’s life prior to, and leading to, his writing of the novel Demons. In that way, Master of Petersburg is a sort of reverse mathematical problem. Given a set of factors, it is a matter of simple calculation to derive their product. But what if you start with the product – can you work backwards to discover the original sum from which that product was derived? The possibilities, particular with a large, complex figure, would be infinite. Here, the novel Demons is the product, the effect, the outcome. And from the known answer, Coetzee imagines the unknown questions.
Set in Russia in 1869, Master of Petersburg follows “Dostoevsky’s” grief-stricken return to St. Petersburg after news of the death of his stepson, Pavel, for whom he felt a profound though inscrutable love. While living in Pavel’s old room, he develops a sexual relationship with Pavel’s old landlady, the widow Anna Sergeyevna, along with a fascination with her adolescent daughter, Matryosha. As he becomes increasingly enmeshed in the enigma of his stepson’s death, he discovers Pavel was a member of the nihilist Sergei Nechayev’s revolutionary gang. Nechayev, who is living in hiding, has all the while been scheming to trap Dostoyevsky so to exploit his fame as an author by forcing him to write a pamphlet endorsing the Nechayevite philosophy. Out of these ultimately ambiguous social and political interactions, Dostoevsky begins writing a new novel, ostensibly Demons, in the last chapter of the book.
This plot lies at the murky intersection between fact and two fictions, Coetzeean fiction and Dostoevskian fiction (i.e., Demons). Several elements are based in fact: Dostoevsky did have a stepson named Pavel, who was likewise something of an enigma, although he survived his stepfather. Sergei Nechayev was a real Russian nihilist and revolutionary, and his association with the 1869 murder of a fellow student, Ivanov, partly inspired Dostoevsky to write Demons, where he portrays such idealists of his time as demonic. But the story also draws from the plot of Demons itself, most heavily from “At Tikhon’s,” a chapter originally suppressed by Dostoevsky’s editors, in which the character Stavrogin confesses to having once seduced his landlord’s 12-year old daughter, Matryosha, and driven her to suicide. And finally, to this heady mix Coetzee adds some fiction of his own.
You have to give Coetzee credit for this undertaking, this deconstruction of both the power and process of writing. As a prominent South African writer, no doubt Coetzee was keen to examine the political power of the authorial voice, through Nechayev’s belief in the import of having a famous writer pen the words of a revolutionary pamphlet – and the extreme measures he would take to bring about such a coup. Equally contemplated is the personal power of writing, as it is a means for “Dostoevsky” to access his son, to “give up his soul” so as to “meet him in death.”
But when it comes to the process of writing, you can’t escape the fact that this is not Dostoevsky writing about Dostoevsky writing. It is Coetzee writing about “Dostoevsky” writing. Given this structure, it’s Coetzee’s own role in solving the reverse mathematical problem that compels above all. Why did he choose what he did, from fact, from Dostoevskian fiction, and from Coetzeean fiction? Moreover, Demons is not a novel in a vacuum: many of Dostoevsky’s real-life inspirations are documented, yet Coetzee replaces several of these with fictional inspirations of his own design. Is Master of Petersburg then an account of a fictional writing process? Or is Coetzee laying his own writing process bare?
It’s nearly impossible not to be sidetracked by these thought experiments while reading Master of Petersburg. The fact that much of the (Dostoevskian) fictional parts of the plot are dedicated to Demon’s excised chapter involving the young girl’s molestation is particularly distracting. Coetzee is not alone in holding Stavrogin’s confession as integral to Demons: while some think that Dostoevsky himself was dissatisfied with the confession, others view the forced excision of what was an indispensable chapter as rendering the novel morally asymmetrical. But the extent to which “At Tikhon’s” aligns Demons is not my issue; rather, it is “Dostoevsky’s” largely unexplained tendency to continually attach a sexual subtext to the young girl Matryosha’s interactions, whether with Nechayev, with a sort of version of Pavel that he imagines in the future, or even with himself.
[Dostoyevsky] has no difficulty in imagining this child in her ecstasy… This is as far as the violation goes: the girl in the crook of his arm, the five fingers of his hand, white and dumb, gripping her shoulder. But she might as well be sprawled out naked…
It’s eventually jarring how Coetzee deliberately (and repeatedly) advocates that “Dostoevsky” would be prompted by his own perception of a young girl as above all a sexual object to conceive of the particular molestation scene described in Stavrogin’s confession. I’m not implying this rings false (though it’s somewhat overdone), just that it highlights the major weakness of Coetzee’s particular form of the reverse math problem as fiction: the reader is often far more preoccupied with why Coetzee made his choices than with the choices themselves.
This brings me back to my original, existential question: why did Coetzee write Master of Petersburg? It’s an inspired project, but by its own premise it is merely an experiment, a study, rather than a novel. Coetzee has been criticized for his metafiction before: his 1986 novel Foe, which weaves its plot around Robinson Crusoe, drew him criticism for being a disappointingly politically irrelevant work coming from one of South Africa’s most lauded writers. The New York Times concluded that “the novel – which remains somewhat solipsistically concerned with literature and its consequences – lacks the fierceness and moral resonance of [Waiting for the Barbarians] and [Life and Times of Michael K]…”
However, my criticism of Master of Petersburg is of the literary, not political, variety. Countless excellent novels have been inspired by existing works, but though Coetzee’s writing is stunning, the story, composed of curious but ultimately inconclusive events, never takes hold. It offers much by way of intellectual exercise, but on its own fails to satisfy. More autonomous novels similarly fashioned out of vague questions and ideas contain a central truth or truths that are not merely valuable, but in a sense new, and that have thus driven the author to sit down to write. Here, the underlying purpose, the answer, exists in another novel altogether. And as it turns out, Dostoevsky’s answer is more interesting than Coetzee’s questions.
Pete Dexter’s new book Train comes out October 7th. Here is my review:In the grand tradition of Los Angeles noir, Pete Dexter’s new novel Train, is framed in black and white by the minds eye. Yet Dexter has applied his considerable skill to softening the edges; it is delicately written noir.Train is the nickname of Lionel Walk, a black caddy at a posh Brentwood country club, whose world seems populated only by malevolent forces: the crass racism of the country club members, the criminal element among his fellow caddies, and the undisguised malice of his mother’s lover. In the same city, and yet, of course, in another world entirely, a woman named Norah is brutally attacked and her husband is murdered while they are on their yacht, anchored off the coast. Norah manages to escape into the arms of Miller Packard, whom Train will later dub “Mile Away Man,” which sets the book careening towards its inevitable conclusion. Packard is brilliantly written as both heroic rescuer and herald of malevolent chaos.The mystery inherent in this book is not of the whodunit variety – we know from the start who commits the murder on the yacht – rather it is to see which of the forces that seem to inhabit Packard will win out in the end. In fact, one of the strengths of the book is Dexter’s ability to embody his characters with such ethereal qualities. Packard seems as though he has been touched by some unmentioned force that torments him. Train, meanwhile, has been similarly touched, and though this force is of pure benevolence, one cannot be sure if it will be strong enough to lift him from his circumstances. Train turns out to be, of all things, a golf prodigy, which would be a lucrative gift for almost anyone except someone in Train’s circumstances. Instead, his unaccountable proficiency serves only to further enmesh his life with that of Packard and Norah and a blind former boxer named Plural.Train is bleak but captivating. The book unfolds in front of you, and you find yourself not wanting to look away.