When Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude came out, there was much discussion of how the novel paralelled Lethem’s own upbringing in pre-gentrified Brooklyn. Now we’re getting the real Lethem story for those who want to compare and contrast. It arrives in the form of a book of essays, The Disappointment Artist, which comes out in two weeks. An excerpt, which depicts a young Lethem immersed in obsessions with books, movies and music while trying to come to turns with his mother’s death appeared in last week’s New Yorker (but it’s not available online). I’m beginning to wonder if this exercise in autobiography (with the New Yorker as the stage) has become a rite of initiation for American novelists who have made the big time. Most prominent among them is Jonathan Franzen, who has had a number of meandering autobiographical essays in the magazine over the last few years. I wonder what drives the phenomenon. Do people really want to know about their lives or are these novelists just good at telling a story?
I spotted this essay by James Wood in the Guardian about endings that disappoint. I agree that there is hardly anything more disheartening than a novel that just peters out at the end. To me reading a book is like making an investment. You put in the time, and at the end you hope to walk away with some pleasure. A bad ending screws up the whole arrangement. I tried to think of some really good endings and off the top of my head I came up with a couple. In terms of paying off on an investment, one of my favorites is John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany. The "a ha!" moment is almost too perfect but Irving has set it up so well that you can't help but believe it. Another great ending that comes to mind is John Steinbeck's East of Eden. After such a long journey, one almost expects the book to run out of steam, but Steinbeck magnificently collects everything together at the end and sends you out of the book with real emotional force. When I read the last words of that book and put it down, I said to myself, "Wow, that was worth it."
November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a group project which encourages participants "to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30" - (they couldn't have picked a month with 31 days?). The quality of work produced by such speedwriting is questionable at best, I'd guess, but people seem to have fun doing it, just like some people seem to have fun climbing Mount Everest or participating in eating contests. The NaNoWriMo community also employs a lot of slap on the back, "you can do it!" type of encouragement, and the Web site lets you track your progress along with the other writers participating. I can think of many, many better ways to spend one's time (and there are probably many, many better ways to write a novel), but NaNoWriMo is harmless, if a bit irritating if you stray too close to the frenzied participants.Perhaps there have always been NaNoWriMo haters (it started in 1999), but I don't recall having seen NaNoWriMo haters before this year (although that may have more to do with my studied averting of the eyes from the NaNoWriMo frenzy). However, this year I happened upon Eric Rosenfield's anti-NaNoWriMo post, which lays out a few reasons to hate the endeavor, calling it "nothing if not oblivious to the absurdity of its own project." The Rake has also jumped in to explain why NaNoWriMo is like eating so many shrimp.In the end, though, hating NaNoWriMo is both too easy and pretty fruitless, like hating hippie music or "blue collar comedy." It will always have its devotees, but the appeal of it probably doesn't make sense to most people.Update: More NaNoWriMo
The majestic tawdriness of L'Affaire Edwards had us scrambling for literary precedents - The Scarlet Letter?, Silas Marner? - but, amid the swirl of rumors, we almost overlooked The McInerney Connection. Luckily, our trusted fellow readers at The New York Times were there with the scoop: In the mid-1980s, John Edwards' apparent paramour, Rielle Hunter - then known (somewhat less mellifluously) as Lisa Druck - ran with New York's literary Brat Pack. Indeed, Jay McInerney based a book on her. Mr. McInerney told the Times that his 1988 novel, Story of My Life, was narrated in the first person from the point of view of an ostensibly jaded, cocaine-addled sexually voracious 20-year-old who was, shall we say, inspired by Lisa...This revelation was apparently enough to vault Story of My Life into Amazon's Top 500 books.In an impressive feat of commitment and/or masochism, Peter Miller of the Freebird Books and Goods blog actually sat down this weekend and read Story of My Life in its entirety. His findings are fascinating and suggestive. Of an older conquest, for example, Lisa/Rielle/"Allison" tells us, "I never thought he was very good-looking, but you could tell he thought he was. He believed it so much he could actually sell other people on the idea." And: "He seemed older and sophisticated and we had great sex, so why not?"
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