Ed Rants and his Return of the Reluctant blog – a favorite of mine – is down because, in his efforts to publicize the wrongdoings of some racist local DJs, his site was bombarded by visitors looking for the attendant mp3s of the offending DJs. It appears as though some uncharitable linking by the India Times used up all his bandwidth and then some. Here’s hoping that Ed can get things up and running some time soon.
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.
New Millions contributor Noah, who recently wrote a review of Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land and helped answer a question (see the comments) about where to start when reading Ford's books, managed to get a question in at yesterday's Washington Post online chat with Ford. The question elicited a fairly long response from Ford, one that name drops a pair of his more well-know contemporaries. I'm quite certain that Noah is from Brooklyn but for some reason, the Post indicated his question was coming from Queens:Queens, NY: At a Barnes and Noble reading in NYC, you said, almost inaudibly because someone was mad to ask another question of you, that one of your personal favorite pieces of your own was "Communist", the last story in Rock Springs. Can you talk just a little about that story, what it means to you? Do you ever feel that Bascombe-mania overpowers your other work, like the dog that is most aggressive in pursuing the owner's attentions?Richard Ford: I don't feel like these Bascombe books overpower my other work, because they are so different from other work that I have done, and I actually value them all pretty much equally. I probably couldn't write a book or a story without thinking at the time, This is the best thing I could possibly do."Communist" I feel a lot of affection for, for several different reasons. One is its origin: that my friend Tom McGuane once asked me while we were hunting if I had ever written a hunting story. I told him I had never written a hunting story because I didn't like to read them. And he said, If I would write a hunting story, he knew some guy that was doing an anthology that would probably publish it. And so I wrote a hunting story. And from that innocent little inception came a story that was much more than a hunting story. I sort of like the humbleness of the origin. And I liked the story because it let me describe something, which is something I never do, it let me describe something I specifically experienced rather than just made up, which is an enormous number of geese taking flight, which I found was a very stirring experience both to have and to write. Two other things: I was moved by the opportunity to write the final conversation at the end of the story between the narrator and his mother, which I thought was quite an intimate relationship but that maintains the proprieties of parent and child. Finally, when I wrote the story, which was in 1983 in Mississippi, far from Montana, where the story is set, I wrote the story to an end which didn't feel like the right end although it felt like an end. And I showed the story to my friend Joyce Carol Oates, and she gave me the best advice any other writer has ever given me. She said, Richard, you need to write more on this story. Write more words. And I had to figure out what more words to write.
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The American press' characterization of the late Roberto Bolaño as a one-time heroin addict is "stupid," according to people close the the celebrated Chilean writer. The novelist Enrique Vila-Matas, in a recent El País column, joined European bloggers in suggesting that The New York Times Book Review's allusion - "Bolaño was a heroin addict in his youth" - was "a biographical error." Now, apparently, Bolaño's widow, Carolina López, has written a letter to the Times clarifying the point.The letter, which we're told will be published soon, will likely reiterate López' comments after a recent festchrift for Bolaño's work. At that celebration, the audience was treated to a dramatic reading of the story "La Playa" ("The Beach"), in which the narrator recalls his struggles to kick heroin. Afterward, concerned that there might be some confusion, López reiterated to performer Subal Quinina that "La Playa" was fiction.As we reported last week, "La Playa," published as a newspaper column several years ago, was the source for Natasha Wimmer's characterization of Bolaño as a recovering addict in the introduction to the paperback edition of The Savage Detectives. It was also the only specified source for Daniel Zalewski's earlier mention of a heroin habit in The New Yorker. (Whence, presumably, it made its way onto the Bolaño Wikipedia page). Since then, heroin has become a ubiquitous detail in the American media blitz for 2666, and though the NYTBR may be the most recent example, references can be found in sources from The Buffalo News to Time to The Texas Observer...and The Millions.As we suggested last week, the myth of Bolaño as junkie neither honors nor dishonors the work; the two long novels, over time, will prove unassailable. However, if the heroin story is false, we owe it to the man to correct the record. And perhaps in the future we should all be more careful readers.
I switched gears with Henry Miller's The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, which describes the author's travels through the South upon his return to the United States. Miller was very disgruntled when he returned to New York from Paris. He thought the outlook of the community was narrow, the morals corrupt, and the industrial greed an instrument of spiritual death. Hence, he embarked on a drive that took him down south and west to California, a trip during which he marvels at how the rural, farming South kept its soul and culture and did not succumb to the machines and skyscrapers of the North. It is an interesting account, a praise for the warm, hospitable South, and a big outburst at, and a rejection of, what the North offers. An Air Conditioned Nightmare is entertaining and deep, filled with interesting characters and encounters along the way, and depressing with regards to the industrial monster of a picture Miller paints regarding the United States.At this time, I felt the urge for a break and picked up J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories. The genius of Salinger is probably unparalleled and Nine Stories is a good testimony to it. The bizarre stories and intricate web of characters leaves the reader dazzled at the end of the 6 hours in which you fly through the pages. Nine Stories is a great collection that you can keep in your bathroom, on your coffee table or on the bedside table, and pick at any random moment for instant joy. Nine Stories put me in such a good mood that I decided to give Italo Calvino, whose Invisible Cities I read under undesirable circumstances and did not enjoy much, a second try. The novel was The Baron in the Trees. The book is one of Calvino's earlier novels and is heavily influenced by his studies of Italian folk literature. The rebellion of the heir baron to his family's strict rules places him on top of a tree, which he refuses to leave. From these circumstances a character is born who is at first considered a lunatic and then a hero, who fights fires and supports Napoleon's troops, lectures the town on citizenship, falls in love with a duchess, and meets other people who are exiled to tree tops by the Spanish church. A marvelous story, with great wit and imagination, and all the characteristics of love, chivalry, betrayal, family ties, dilemmas and unreal circumstances found in the favorite tales of childhood. A very happy book indeed.
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As I recall there was a brief burst of interest in Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo when the movie came out in 2002. It makes sense because the movie does a good job of capturing this story of intrigue and revenge, and, in fact, the novel lends itself well to the screen because it is so packed full of brilliant schemes and vivid characters. At the start of the book Edmond Dantes, a young French sailor, gets unwittingly wrapped up in the political machinations of his day, and ends up getting hauled off to the Chateau d'If, an island prison as sinister as it sounds. At this point, though we feel sorry for Dantes, we are treated to 50 or so pages of his struggle against hopelessness and his friendship with a priest named Faria. Dumas' account of Dantes time in prison is thrilling both for its emotional weight and for the ingenious plans that Dantes and Faria concoct. By the next stage of the book, when the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo begins stirring up trouble among the Parisian elite, you wonder what else could be in store, since so many adventures have already occurred. But it turns out there's a whole lot more. Dozens of characters are introduced, and though at times it becomes a bit overwhelming trying to remember who is romantically involved with whom and who is trying to kill whom, the whole massive web manages to untangle itself wonderfully in the end. The book is a real joy to read and Monte Cristo is a brilliant character. You will find him to be both enthralling and terrifying.
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If the forecast calls for snow, get ready for tweets about James Joyce’s “The Dead.” Literary Twitter’s favorite winter ritual is quoting Joyce’s lyric final line: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” I’m just as guilty as the rest. And why not? It is a gorgeous, solemn sentence. A conclusion to a masterful story; the crescendo of a funereal paragraph. Joyce’s melancholic consonance and inversion almost compels us to stand in front of a cold window and watch snow blanket the streets. Mary Gordon has called it “a triumph of pure sound . . . And he did it all when he was twenty-five. The bastard.” “No one,” Gordon says, “has ever equaled it.” No one? Perhaps no one has equaled Joyce’s grand final sentence -- but there is a greater, darker, more consuming snow story than “The Dead” out there, ready to be tweeted: “The Pedersen Kid” by William H. Gass. First published in 1961 and later collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, a handful of unusual stories set in the Midwest, “The Pedersen Kid” is suffused with snow -- as solemn as Joyce’s tale but somehow more claustrophobic. Gass began writing the story “to entertain a toothache.” That’s an appropriate anecdote. A philosopher by training and a critic by practice, Gass has always been in love with language. Words are his God. “The Pedersen Kid” is his finest offering. Unlike other stories -- like Joyce’s -- that include snow at opportune moments, Gass’s novella is suffused with snow from start to finish. Set in North Dakota, a quirky Swedish-American family makes a horrific discovery: a snow-covered child from a neighboring farm on their front steps. “The sun burned on the snow” as they rush the Pedersen kid inside and put the child “on the kitchen table like you would a ham.” They take off the child’s frosted clothes and try to resuscitate him. “Resuscitate” might not be the best word. The child appears dead, and they seem to resurrect him with a Gass-appropriate Holy Trinity of whiskey, dough, and slapping. The child soon retreats into the background of the story, as the Segren family is more concerned with understanding why, and how, the child made it through a blizzard to their home. Gass couldn’t have created a more absurd cast. Pa is a violent alcoholic who “don’t like to get waked.” Big Hans, the farm hand, is unpredictable, and lives to antagonize Pa. Ma is overwhelmed, frustrated, and afraid. Jorge, the young narrator of the story, is sarcastic and unpredictable: it is not clear if the Pedersen kid is dead, or if Jorge simply wishes the child was dead so they could be done with this mess. Snow rages outside the small home, and the kid is asleep upstairs, but the family is consumed with the desire to know the story of how the kid got there. Only Big Hans seems to have answers. He says the kid told him a stranger broke into the farmhouse. The boy’s testimony is fragmented: “The green mackinaw. The black stocking cap. The yellow gloves. The gun.” The man put the Pedersen family “down the cellar,” so the kid ran away, into the snow. The Segren family wonders if he stranger is on the way to find the kid -- the on the way to their home. Big Hans and Pa argue. Should they go to the Pedersen farm? Should they catch the killer before he ambushes them? Pa looks out the window, and says “See -- see -- what did I tell you -- snowing . . . always snowing.” He’s convinced the snow will strangle and suffocate them, and taunts Hans: “You’re a bigger fool because you’re fatter.” Pa and Hans continue to argue as they drift, with Jorge, into the snow. They enter the vast Dakota expanse like cutouts from a Beckett play. The second half of Gass’s novel is a frightening trek into the windless, unforgiving snow. “Sometimes the snow seemed as blue as the sky,” Jorge marvels, as they sink into the white stuff. Their horse scrambles to move forward. Big Hans has a shotgun and a Navy-issue .45. They trudge forward, and joke about freezing to death. “It was frightening,” Jorge thinks, “the endless white space . . . Winded slopes and rises all around me.” Jorge “could hear us breathing and the snow, earth, and our boots squeaking. We went slow and all of us was cold.” By the time they reach the Pedersen farmhouse, they are exhausted, hallucinating, their souls frozen. Back at home, Ma is with the Pedersen kid. She has biscuits, elderberry jam, and coffee. But what happens to the men at the Pedersen home is a nightmare. Jorge’s final sentence is chilling and Joycean: “The winter time had finally got them all, and I really did hope that the kid was as warm as I was now, warm inside and out, burning up, inside and out, with joy.” “The Pedersen Kid” is a wild, wacky horror story about snow that deserves to be rediscovered, appreciated -- and, instead of Joyce -- tweeted, as the snow falls upon all the living and the dead.