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?
A Salon.com piece from last week is creating a buzz among publishing industry watchers. In it, an anonymous “midlist” author bemoans the consolidation of publishing companies and the ever shallower tastes of the reading public for contributing to the demise of authors who don’t write blockbusters. Almost taunting the reader, she drops clues throughout the article, tempting diligent gossips to discover her true identity. (Were she outed, I suspect she wouldn’t mind the publicity.) First, here is the article. (Use the day pass to view the article… you just have to watch an ad first). As soon as the article was published, the gossip erupted at, where else, gawker.com. Here the speculation begins, readers begin jumping into the fray, and, finally, Gawker, wanting to put the subject to rest, guesses: Amy Bloom. As they freely admit, though, Bloom is not a perfect fit, and I’m not convinced either. I’m on the case, though. Maybe I can figure it out. As far as whether or not I agree with her: I agree that publishing industry consolidation makes for a dull literary marketplace, but I refuse to believe that quality writing, no matter how uncommercial, is unsellable. The American people are not as dumb as some like to think, but I’ll tell you one thing, they don’t like whiners. Possibly more on this later.A PunditI always enjoy hearing from people who have been willing to publicly change their opinions on things. Somehow I find them more believable than the one note folks who populate the right and the left. This is why I like reading Christopher Hitchens. He is incredibly prolific, putting out what seems like a book a year and appearing almost daily in newspapers articulately presenting his singular points of view. As an example, check out his review in Canada’s Globe and Mail of the new book by Ian Baruma (another frequently-published commentator whose writing I enjoy).
I started flipping through Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book The Tipping Point the other day. In the book, Gladwell explores the idea that all popular trends essentially behave like epidemics, and a slight change in external factors can cause a trend, like an epidemic, to “tip” and then become ubiquitous. He describes how word of mouth is an important part of why this occurs, and also how some initial shift of circumstances begins the process. I quickly realized that I see this phenomenon occurring constantly at the bookstore. The recommend shelf phenomenon that I described a few days ago is an example of this. An intitial shift occurs when I read a book and enjoy it and then pull it from its spot tucked away on the shelf. Once I have displayed it prominently on the recommended shelf, the second part of the phenomenon takes over, word of mouth. Soon, a book that was sitting, forlorn, in a tucked away corner of the store, is selling briskly and you overhear people in the aisles talking about it. Earlier, I spoke about this recommended book phenomenon somwhat disdainfully, but when viewed this way, as a shifting of initial circumstances playing out over time, like Stephen Wolfram’s cellular automata in A New Kind of Science, it is more a fascinating piece of science than indictive of society’s lemming-like tendencies.Addenda Pt. 2My good and old friend Hot Face emailed me with some addenda and additions to yeasterdays post about upcoming books. The new David Foster Wallace collection is tentatively called Oblivion and will come out in March of 2004. Prior to that, in October, he has a new non-fiction book coming out, Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. He also mentioned that Stuart Dybek has a new book coming out in November called I Sailed with Magellan. Dybek has long been highly regarded as a short story writer (here’s one called Ant), but this new book is a novel.
It’s been a moment since my last post, and I am here to apologize and explain. Ever since the fifth grade, when I took my birthday party to see the movie Outbreak and then read The Hot Zone thrice a row, I have been terrified of epidemics. Two weeks ago, my beloved and I returned from a week’s holiday in Mexico and immediately commenced moving our household to the other side of the country, in an automobile. We had spent the holiday in points around the state of Oaxaca, and then the last day we were in Mexico City, larking around the metro and holding hands with everybody.I know that currently public opinion finds the Swine Flu to be very passe, and we’ve all been reminded several times that regular flu kills a third of Americans every year, but three days after we returned from Mexico it was very scary to receive a phone call informing us of the new flu that was killing all these young people in the place from whence we came, and it was more scary when my beloved shortly thereafter developed a sniffle. What with my intense paranoia and the terrifying reportage on every website, I insisted we spend two days sitting in a seedy motel, taking our temperatures with a Hello Kitty thermometer which cost ten goddamned dollars yet recorded our temperatures at a steady ninety-six degrees. It was truly a long, dark teatime of the soul (for me, that is. The invalid was remarkably cheery about the whole thing), but it was only a cold that he had, and we are fine. However, all the furor, and the move and all, has limited my brain function; furthermore, most of my books are still packed away. So, friends, excuse this post, for it is budget, as budget, perhaps, as the motel in which we awaited our deaths. Here is my holiday/cross-country move reading list:1. The Magus. I have read and really enjoyed this book about four times. This time it sort of soured on me (or did I sour on it? I can never remember how that expression goes). The narrator Nicholas is, in the crude parlance of our times, a “douche.” This never bothered me before, but this time I found him sort of boring. Maybe it’s the fact that the novel, which is about a big elaborate game perpetrated on the narrator by some crazed rich people, is very mysterious and fast-paced and racy when you don’t know what’s going on, and once you are familiar with the plot you have more gray matter available to ponder how annoying the narrator is. Maybe it’s just not holiday reading. I do find it bizarre that it is on the Modern Library List (#93), while The French Lieutenant’s Woman is recognized only on the Modern Library Reader’s List (#30). The French Lieutenant’s Woman strikes me as an incredibly elegant and complex jewel in the crown of twentieth century literature, while The Magus is just kind of thrilling and has sexy twins in it. Am I being unfair here?2. The Things They Carried. Kind of contemporary for me. During my phase of reading about sad things I read a lot of novels about Vietnam, but it has been a long time since I revisited that period of American history. I thought these stories by Tim O’Brien were wonderful, but I don’t have a lot to say about them. I wept. War is awful. I don’t understand why anybody would want to send a young person off to kill people and die. We should stop having wars. Full stop.3. Garden of the Gods. The sequel to My Family and Other Animals and Birds, Beasts and Relatives. It pains to say this, but this third in the trilogy was kind of rubbish. The writing was careless and I got the distinct impression that Durrell needed to raise money quickly and decided to dash out something along the lines of the earlier successes. Although, in his defense, he probably needed the money to save a rare pink-footed equatorial mongoose, or some such. So, while disappointed with this third effort, I do not hold it against him.4. The Rise of Salas Lapham. I always wanted to read something by William Dean Howells, and now I have.5. The Bonfire of the Vanities. We stayed in a hotel in Oaxaca that had a classic example of the hotel/hostel library of books left behind by guests. Most of the books are in Dutch or German, the ones in English either have something to do with the Dalai Lama, or are by James Michener, or are a Tom Wolfe novel with the first sixty-three pages ripped out. I’ve read this before so I wasn’t worried about the first sixty-three pages, but I did miss them once I had gotten underway. I really get a kick out of Tom Wolfe. Everyone is reprehensible and there is no justice, but he doesn’t make me feel sad. Possibly contributing to the downfall of civilization, but super holiday reading.
Under a lank and sunsmeared sky the man took the tattered map from his knapsack and smoothed it on the grittened flat of a boulder. Over endless months the map had been worn to practically nothing, incomprehensible in parts. Mended with yellowing scotchtape, rusted paperclips. West Virginia now read West Virgin and it always made him laugh. He knew it wasnt funny, but the world had been boached and heatraped, stripped to its meanest need. No more Patton Oswalt monologues or George Saunders shortstorys. No more catchphrases or oneliners. Only he and the boy and the road and West Virgin. Tee hee.
We cross a bridge here, he said, pointing to a beansmudge in the southern corner. It looks to be about eight miles, or two kilometers. See this green dotted line? That means it’s a scenic route.
The boy smiled. Will it be pretty, Papa?
No. Everything will be dead. But we might see an interesting corpse, he said, mussing the boy’s hair. Twisted into a neat shape in a ditch or something. Or maybe even hung from a branch with its legs eaten off.
Oh boy. That sounds like fun.
Now this is the river, he said, indicating a random mapcrease. We follow the road here along the eastern slope of the mountains. These are our roads, the black lines here. See these roads? The boy seemed confused. What’s the matter, the man said.
I thought it was singular. You know. “The Road.”
The man’s eyes went wide. Where did you get those?
The quotation marks.
The boy looked at his feet. Ive. Ive been saving them, Papa.
Well you can’t just use them like that. He took the boy’s face in his hands, more roughly than intended. Everything is precious. Everything. Do you understand?
The boy looked a little bit frightened. Yes Papa. I wont ever use them again. I promise.
The man turned back to the map, shaken by the boy’s profligacy. Had he learned nothing from the unending
trudge? The harrowing woap? The rampled skoon?
Now, he said, turning back to the map. These are the state roads.
Why are they state roads?
Because they used to belong to the states.
But there arent any more states?
What happened to them?
I dont know exactly.
The boy thought about that. Everything is very nebulous, isnt it, Papa?
Yes, said the nameless man to the nameless child, gazing out at the ruin caused by some massive anonymous catastrophe. Thats how we keep things interesting.
They came upon him shuffling along the road before them, dragging one leg slightly and stopping from time to time to scratch at his mealy nethers before lurching forth again.
What should we do, Papa?
We’re all right. Let’s just follow and watch.
They walked in silence.
He really scratches at his nethers a lot, the boy whispered.
Yes he does. They must be pretty mealy.
They followed behind a good ways until he just sat in the road and did not get up again. The boy clung to his father’s arm as they neared the huddled figure. They could see that the old man’s skin was badly quimpled beneath his ragged coat. One of his eyes was burnt fully shut and his hair was but a riggled mirkin upon his charred and dadgy headskull. A piece of scalp had been ripped off, mended with mudcrusted papier-mâché. Part of an ear chewn away, as if by swarming possums. An old coathanger for an arm, the bent hook forming a rude hand. A woolen scarf that totally clashed with his pants. As they passed they saw that he wore mittens on his feet. Upon his one good hand was a shoe. He sat in silence, exploring a nostril with his coathanger. He found something and brought it out for examination, grinning at the nosecrust before going in for more. The boy kept looking back as they walked. Let that be a lesson to you, said the man, keeping his voice low. Never wear a black scarf and brown pants.
The man had carried his billfold till it wore a cornershaped hole in his trousers. Then one day he sat by the roadside and took it out and went through the contents. A few dollar bills, a pair of credit cards. A holepunched card from a coffeeshop. A photograph of his wife, radiant in white. He looked at that a long time. When he and the boy had eaten and continued into the valley, he left the billfold and the cards where they lay. A final proof of his wife given to the blind and godless void. He looked back as they walked and was overcome with grief. He had been one holepunch away from a free twelve ounce coffee.
They stood in the high chiggerfilled wheatgrass and called to him. Prancing sprites in their natty Sunday best, wispy and shauntled. Across the dancefloor of a heatdried waste where the deathberm had lifted. A lie between verities. Gumption and woe among the mumbling bindlestiffs. A feastless smorgasbord. Was, not was. Mama said knock you out. Kid kid icarus, kid kid icarus. Google it if you must. The figures sunk into their narrow earthen spriteholes, inscrutable message delivered. He woke and lay in the dark, vaguely disappointed. He preferred the dreams with vaginas in them.
Some new books that are getting lots of praise, and some excerpts from those books:Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis — review, excerptLittle Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt — review, excerptYou Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon — review, excerptCrossing California by Adam Langer — reviewAlso of note: the creation of the Man Booker International Prize has been announced. From the press release, “Worth £60,000 to the winner, the prize will be awarded once every two years to a living author who has published fiction either originally in English or whose work is generally available in translation in the English language. The first winner will be announced in mid 2005.” Now Americans will finally be able to get their hands on a Booker.
In case you haven’t been to your local drugstore and noticed that they removed all of the useful items to make way for Christmas decorations, the holidays are here. Here at The Millions headquarters we’ve got our turkey pan ready for a Thanksgiving feast. In fact, I see a lot of good food in my future… and of course the cruel flipside to all that eating is the horror of holiday shopping. There are articles coming out everywhere saying that this year’s holiday season will be big, which must make retailers happy, but there probably won’t be any rejoicing until they have the cash in hand. From my own limited observations, people already seem to be shopping for books this year, and with no clear “hot book gift” out there folks seem to be spreading the joy around, at least so far. So here’s what I’ve spotted lately in the hands of eager book buyers:In fiction Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code continues to sell at an ever-increasing rate. This sort of thing happens every couple of years, and it is pretty interesting to watch a new super-seller burst onto the scene backed by savvy marketing and a steamroller of word of mouth. Brown has now assuredly joined the ranks of John Grisham, Tom Clancy and the rest, and true to form his once forgotten backlist (Angels & Demons, for example, originally released in 2000 to no acclaim) has now hit bestseller lists. Almost like hitting the lottery. People also continue to buy some of the more bookish titles out there. I’ve already mentioned DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little which continues to sell well on the strength of its Booker Prize win, and Train an LA noir novel by Pete Dexter (which I really dug) is doing quite well also. The big newcomer, to my eyes, is Tobias Wolff whose first novel Old School (no relation) has hit shelves. There was an excerpt of this in the New Yorker way back a few months ago which I enjoyed, and people who have read a lot of his other work (the memoir and short stories) seem excited to read this new book. What is astonishing to me, though, is how big a literary name Wolff has become without, until now, having written a novel (in a day and age when readers supposedly only care about novels). I suppose this is a testament to the quality of his PEN/Faulkner Award-winning memoir This Boy’s Life and his various short story collections (Back in the World for example).Fiction is all well and good, but when people buy books as gifts, four times out of five they buy non-fiction. The reason: you don’t have to have read the book to know what you’re getting; Madeleine Albright’s memoir is Madeleine Albright’s memoir, but who knows what sordid scenes lurk in the middle of The World According to Garp. Of course one of the current big sellers, The Unexpurgated Beaton: The Cecil Beaton Diaries as He Wrote Them, 1970-1980, is full of sordid middle parts, but I think the folks giving and receiving that one know what they’re getting into. Meanwhile, in less sordid waters, the ranting Left continues to redouble its efforts against the ranting Right with Michael Moore’s sure-fire bestseller Dude, Where’s My Country?. Another big seller right now is a book that I can’t wait to read, Living to Tell the Tale the first volume of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ memoirs. Once I get to it, I’m sure I’ll talk about it a lot here. Artist David Hockney’s new book Hockney’s People is also selling well. It’s a collection of his portraits, both of himself and of his various friends and lovers. I’m not a huge fan of Hockney, but I like his portraits; they tend to be warm and interesting.Paperbacks, meanwhile, are not big sellers during the holidays, which is why I don’t have much to report on this front. The only serious paperback that has been selling really well of late is Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, which is probably piggy-backing the success of her recent memoir/family history Where I Was From. The other big selling paperbacks are destined for stocking stuffer status, which I’m sure is just what their authors hoped for. Try Russ Kick’s 50 Things You’re Not Supposed to Know for your paranoid relatives and Michael Flocker’s The Metrosexual Guide to Style for the trendy, sexually ambiguous ones.Extravagant Gift Alert: Have you seen this!?!?! How can something so silly be so expensive and…. huge (it weighs 20 lbs.!). Now if that isn’t nearly expensive or heavy enough, try this one… Still not enough? Try the “Champion’s Edition”. These heavyweights weigh in at 75lbs, by the way.
On the eve of the release of the final Harry Potter, I offer Millions readers a few brief intuitions – alas, grounded more in literary convention than in second sight – about the events to come in The Deathly Hallows.My chief intuition, based largely on the over-determined association of Dumbledore with the phoenix throughout the series, is that everyone’s favorite headmaster is not dead (X-Men, anyone?). Recall that Harry “thinks he sees” a phoenix emerge from the smoke of Dumbledore’s funeral pyre. Based on this intuition, I also maintain that Snape is not, in fact, a Death Eater, and that he and Dumbledore staged a fake murder with Harry as witness. This will allow Snape to become more deeply embedded in Voldemort’s ranks. Dumbledore’s wisdom would be too seriously undermined if Snape really and truly betrayed him. Regardless of the rightness or wrongness of this particular tea-leaf vision, more must emerge about how Snape gained Dumbledore’s trust. This will be one of the central revelations of the new book.Of lesser intuitions:R.A.B., the initials on the note found in the locket that was supposed to be a horcrux, belong to Sirius’ brother, Regulus Black, whom we have heard vaguely was a follower of Voldemort and then attempted to leave the ranks of the Death Eaters, only to be killed by them for his betrayal. This may mean that Slytherin’s locket is concealed somewhere in the Black family house that Sirius left to Harry.As to whether Hogwarts will remain open during this seventh year with Harry, I suspect that it will remain open in some capacity – if only as a larger and better fortified headquarters for the Order of the Phoenix and their allies.I hope that, in the less than illustrious cooking-sherry-drinking tradition of Professor Trelawney, I am wrong about all of these things. I think The Deathly Hallows would be a better book for it.