Here in Iowa City, the only town in America whose economy is fueled entirely by football, alcohol and literature, we get more than our share of readings to attend. While I don’t make it to all of them, I did manage to hear Marilynne Robinson read a few weeks ago. Ms. Robinson is an enchanting reader, and her new book Gilead was atop many “best of” lists for 2004. As anyone who has read a review of Gilead knows, it is Robinson’s first novel since Housekeeping was published 24 years ago, and the way many in the media talk about it, it might as well have been 224 years ago. While Robinson has written two non-fiction books about such varied topics as John Calvin and Great Britain’s nuclear policy, Gilead is indeed her first new work of fiction in many years. But so what? I for one would like to see more authors take their time between novels. One of my favorite writers, J.F. Powers, wrote only two novels and wrote them nearly 30 years apart. They’re both nearly perfect, and I don’t find myself wishing he wrote more. In fact, the scarcity makes it that much more likely that I’ll actually read one of his books a second or third time, something I rarely do. I don’t think I’ll find myself diving into Kingsley Amis’ very fine Old Devils as I’ve been poisoned by the vast sea of mediocrity that separates that book from his masterpiece Lucky Jim. So hats off to the Marilynne Robinsons, the J.F. Powers, and the Donna Tarts of the world. I sometimes wish we had a few more of them and a few less mediocre novels.
The search for the person who will fill what is perhaps academia’s most prestigious creative writing job, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is in its final stages. Four finalists have been announced, Richard Bausch, Lan Samantha Chang, Ben Marcus and Jim Shepard. Each will have an audition of sorts, which includes a reading, a mock workshop, and a talk on craft. Some friends in Iowa have been filling me in on this last part of the selection process, which got underway with Bausch’s visit to campus on February 10.I’m told that the process, itself, is somewhat odd, since it’s more of a performance than a way to discern teaching ability. During the mock-workshop, Bausch zipped through three stories in and hour and a half, faster than the typical workshop pace, and he digressed from the stories at hand to tell some stories of his own. He quoted some of his favorite works and seemed genuinely passionate about books and the writing life. He said he teaches patience, not writing, and said there are two rules to fiction: you have to use words and you have to be interesting. Though his commentary was somewhat liberal, Bausch’s critiques of the stories at hand were traditional, with specific recommendations about tone and pacing. For the public reading later in the evening, Bausch read a recently completed, as yet unpublished story, and during his “talk about craft,” he talked about memory and dispensed his 10 Commandments of writing, which included – to paraphrase – doing the work is the only thing that matters. Not if it’s good or bad, but that it gets done, everyday.Stay tuned for the next dispatch in a couple of weeks.
When I picked up my first Kurt Vonnegut book, Slaughterhouse-Five, I noticed the greatest literary feat I missed out on by growing up in Turkey. My friend Annastacia left a copy at our house and her boyfriend/my roommate Uzay read the book in a day, his first Vonnegut as well. Uzay was so startled that he urged me to pick it up immediately. I did as suggested and was much surprised and pleased. I have yet to read more of Vonnegut’s works but his stream of conscious style in Slaughterhouse-Five, the disjointed stories that flow together more like an epic poem, the simplistic wording that carries heavy thoughts and emotions, and the personal reflections mixed with fiction were most startling. It took me only a day to read Slaughterhouse-Five (I am usually a slow reader) and I felt that I should go back and reread it immediately to better grasp the stories contained therein. The combination of World War II stories that culminate in the bombing of Dresden, the life of a stereotypical suburban businessman in post-war America and his interactions with Tralfamodarian aliens are at times difficult to piece together. They do, nevertheless, connect on a certain, higher level, which I hope to better understand by reading more of Vonnegut’s works, following the characters that reappear in his novels and get a better sense of his outlook on matters of life and death. And so it goes.Around the same time that my friend John gave me Crash, he also gave me Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude. It took me a long time to get into The Fortress of Solitude. I picked it up in mid-summer and read about fifty pages and stopped. Then I saw The Squid and The Whale, which I liked very much, and the Brooklyn feel of it made me return to Lethem’s novel. I read another forty pages and stopped again. In the meanwhile, I was reading other books for fun or out of interest. Around Thanksgiving I picked up the novel again. I was preparing for my 2nd annual Chicago trip to visit Mr. and Mrs. Millions, brother Jozef and aunt Murvet, and I thought that a journey would be the best opportunity to turn to The Fortress of Solitude one last time. I am very glad I did, because now that I fully read Dylan Ebdus’s story I am mesmerized by Lethem’s style and the strong storyline that picks up after, for me at least, page 120 and accelerates until the reader hits the end. Dylan Ebdus is the sole white kid in a mostly black and Puerto Rican neighborhood in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Dylan, the only child of a not so successful painter and an eccentric hippie mother, is a total stranger to the culture of the block and is constantly “yoked,” i.e. bullied, humiliated and robbed, by his peers. One day Mingus Rude moves to the block with his once famous, now low profile, soul singer father Barrett Rude Jr. Mingus and Dylan become steady friends and slowly, sometimes painfully, Dylan embarks on a new path. While the first third of the novel is slow and establishes a strong setting, the second third flies by as the reader flips through the adventures of Mingus and Dylan in the ’70s, sees them drop out of high school/go to college, smoke a lot of dope, become crack/coke heads, discover and dive into music, and form their own tag team. The language is rich with graffiti, music and popular culture in the ’70s. At the third and final section of the novel the reader finds Dylan in Berkeley during the ’90s. A lot has changed except for his fascination with music and adaptation of a white-boy immersed in African-American culture life style. It is easy to empathize with Dylan as he tells his story through music ranging from Brian Eno to Talking Heads, Devo, the Temptations, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, James Brown and Curtis Mayfield. Dylan’s struggles with his insecurities and search for identity are amazing portrayals with very strong supporting characters. There also is the parallel story of Aeroman and the ring, which I am still trying to decipher and digest. I am very glad to have read The Fortress of Solitude, it is, along with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, one of my favorite reads in 2005 and I definitely intend to read more of Lethem’s writings in 2006.Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
I am pleased to report that Tin House Books will soon be publishing a long-awaited volume of Zak Smith’s Gravity’s Rainbow Illustrated. The book features one illustration for every page of the Penguin edition of the Thomas Pynchon novel – a total of 760 allusive, elusive images. Release is scheduled for November 28. Gravity’s Rainbow Illustrated will not, of course, feature the text of the novel on facing pages, but should fit neatly on bookshelves beside the dog-eared paperbacks of junior Slothrops everywhere. A limited-edition, signed hardcover will likely appear as part of a larger print run, to be distributed well and widely. Steve Erickson pens the introduction.Serendipitously for Pynchoniacs (Pynchofiles? Pynchaholics?), Pynchon himself is also supposed to release a book that month: the sprawling, 960-page (?) Against the Day – as Ed reported back in June.I know little about the Pynchon book… having followed Pynchon rumors for a while back in the 90s, I’ve decided to not allow myself to get excited about the novel until it’s in my hands. But a book of Zak Smith’s illustrations is something I’ve been longing for ever since the 2004 Whitney Biennial, where I first saw them mounted. All 760 of them, on one wall. Even before I knew what they were, the meticulous draftsmanship and vivid colors and narrative urge of the illustrations pulled me across the gallery like a tractor beam. Or like Disney World beckoning to a child initiate… a kind of how-long-will-it-take-to-experience-all-of-this effect. I think I only had time to look at like 30 of the images. Then I read the little plaque – Gravity’s rainbow – and thought… I want to take this home with me. I want to read these pictures, over and over. I looked in vain for a print version in the gift-shop, and then on line. I even resorted to clipping the handful of illustrations that ran in Bookforum’s Pynchon tribute last year and wedging them into the pages of my Gravity’s Rainbow. So I was pretty excited to learn at a reading last night by the poet Alex Lemon (whose book Mosquito is also published by Tin House) that the complete project would be published right in time for my birthday.Which presents a conundrum: do I then plunge back into Gravity’s Rainbow again, or do I save my attention for Against the Day? Is it sane, or even possible, to read 1,720 pages of Pynchon consecutively? Wait… did I say I wasn’t allowed to get excited?[Note from Max: Garth, whose musings have appeared at The Millions from time to time, has joined us as a contributor – his bio will appear with the others shortly. This is his first post in that capacity.]
As has been the tradition for the last several years, The New Yorker closed out 2008 with a fiction double issue. But astute readers may have noticed that this year’s installment was markedly slimmer than that of years’ past.Perhaps it is common knowledge, but I was surprised to discover a few years back that it is not the amount of “news” that principally determines the length of individual issues of newspapers and magazines. The length is actually determined by the amount of advertising that’s been sold. This is why, for example, issues of dot-com-focused Wired magazine were nearly as fat as phone books at the turn of the millennium but slimmed down considerably soon after.The New Yorker is one of the enduring success stories of magazine publishing and is generally able to command attractive advertising rates only dreamed of at other publications, thanks to its affluent and “thought-leading” mix of subscribers, but even The New Yorker may be feeling the ad spending pinch that is impacting the entire media industry right now.This year, the year-end fiction double issue came in at 120 pages. That’s noticeably smaller than the 154 pages in 2007 and 2006 and the 152 pages in 2005.The New Yorker has been exempt from the barrage of negative headlines about the news business, but in 2009, readers used to a hefty helping of long-form journalism and fiction may find themselves with a slimmer serving each week.