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?
Okay, here’s the thing: I’m not usually this inattentive. As a matter of fact, I’ve often prided myself on being a focused, interested listener. So it was with astonishment that I found myself lost in a memory of my own, not five minutes after author Clare Morrall began to read. Don’t blame her. She’s a fine reader, and indeed, from the part of the reading that I paid attention to, a fine writer as well. But it’s scarcely my fault either.She was introducing us to the principal characters of Natural Flights of the Human Mind whose lives would intersect along the Devon coast when suddenly, in the narrative, she drew our attention to a dinghy in the water. And then she mentioned the dinghy again. That’s all it took – and I was gone. I was suddenly ten years old, on holiday with my mother and father in Virginia Beach. My mother and I had taken our inflatable dinghy out for the afternoon and we were a fair distance away from the shore when we realized that the current was getting stronger and no amount of frantic paddling would right the course. Small and rather lopsided, I wasn’t the most accomplished oarsman. Then, adrift for what seemed like ages, we saw my father walking all the way out to our wayward craft, his head never once submerging, and then pulling it back to the shore, shaking his head while his human cargo was alternately sheepish and dumbfounded.So this is what played out in my head while Ms. Morrall progressed with her own dinghy-related narrative. If I were reading her story, I would simply have flipped back the requisite number of pages and resumed her tale beginning from where my attention was diverted. But I couldn’t very well interrupt her public reading and ask her to repeat.I was jolted back into her world, or at least to the no-man’s land of the auditorium, but I was hopelessly lost. I looked around and saw dozens of people, their eyes glued to the stage and their emotions being maneuvered this way and that – a chuckle, a gasp. I could’ve been one of them. I can chuckle and gasp with the best of them, but I simply couldn’t re-connect with her tale. It had passed me by. My own memory-narrative, however, was right there, within reach, and I had been paying full attention to that, so once again, while the reading progressed in that strange world around me, I resumed my own narrative – thinking about how each summer from when we immigrated to Canada when I was two, up until my mid-teens, we’d pack up the car and begin exploring our new continent, first tentatively throughout Ontario and then gradually, over several summers, Quebec, the Maritime provinces, and then down along the eastern seaboard from Maine to the Carolinas and points inland. Over several years we claimed dozens of cities and towns as our own.Even the most conscientious listener (and again, by that I mean me) must have an assortment of trigger words which will stop him dead in his tracks and spirit him away to some memory – a narrative itself, and one no less rich than one committed to the printed page. Tough competition for any author giving a reading. The worst thing would be for Ms. Morrall to take my negligence personally. Short of not using the word “dinghy” there’s nothing she could really have done to prevent this. The trigger was just too strong; and the memory powerful enough to trample on even the best public reader. It’s surprising, really, that with all the memories floating around in my head, each with its own set of trigger words, that I’m not spirited away more often.The funny thing is that with other art forms, this “spiriting away” would be acceptable, even encouraged. It’s high praise when a painting or a piece of music transports you somewhere else. But the printed word, especially when recited, is a fickle mistress. It tempts you with it’s suggestive powers, but then as soon as you succumb to the temptation, as soon as you’re transported somewhere else, it leaves you behind, lost and adrift.
I’ve got an affinity for diagrams. I find the books of Edward Tufte fascinating, and my interest in such things extends even to the “infographics” contained in most newspapers. I like the idea of distilling something complex down to a visual representation.And what is more complex than Finnegans Wake, which was the subject of a dense and mysterious-looking diagram from the book Vision in Motion by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Richard Kostelanetz highlights the diagram in an essay about Moholy-Nagy, about whom he writes “Need it be said that no other modern artist wrote as well about literature?”Kostelanetz goes on to write “What Moholy established in Vision in Motion was a model of writing about all the arts as a single entity, to be called art, whose branches (literature, painting, etc.) were merely false conveniences conducive to specialization and isolation.” (via)This multi-discipline approach would seem to be of particular use in our multimedia world. It’s brings to mind another creative attempt to parse a complex work of literature via non-traditional means: the Pynchon wiki.
I’ll be on Minnesota Public Radio show Midmorning tomorrow (Thursday) for a discussion of newspaper book sections and blogs. Also appearing on the show will be former LA Times Book Review editor Steve Wasserman. The segment starts at 11am Eastern and I’m told that I’ll be on from 11:30 until noon.Those of you not in Minnesota can listen in online here. Hope you enjoy it.
Millions contributor and ardent Canadian, Andrew Saikali, dropped me a line to let me know that Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish journalist and one of my favorite writers will be on the CBC Radio program Writers and Company this Sunday, June 5th. If you’re interested, you can listen live by clicking through from here. (Check that page to see when it will air in your time zone.) It appears as though the show will also be available here for download for a week after it airs on Sunday.
Los Angeles-based readers are invited to attend Rhapsodomancy on Sunday night, a reading series at the Good Luck Bar in Los Feliz. I will be reading, along with poets Jericho Brown and Ching-In Chen, and comic book and prose writer Sina Grace.Here are the other details:Sunday, April 19, 2009Doors open at 7:00 – Reading begins at 7:30pmThe Good Luck Bar, 1514 Hillhurst Ave., Los Angeles, 9002721 and over only $3 suggested donation at doorThere will be a cash barYou can RSVP at [email protected] (not required, but appreciated). I hope to see you there!
Lots to report… first in Max’s writing news, the new issue of period magazine has been posted. It features the little piece I posted here earlier about Dodger Stadium. I like it, but it sure seems awfully short up there on the page. At any rate, it’s a pretty neat little online mag, eclectic and just for fun. Now, on to more pressing matters. I had a full and eventful last 3 days. On Friday, I saw The Yeah Yeah Yeahs at the Henry Fonda Theater. It was the second time I’ve seen them, and I was more or less equally as disappointed as I was the first time I came to LA. I still enjoy the music, and I think the EP is great little chunk of rock and roll, but they don’t seem to have the heft to carry a show in venues as large as the theaters they’ve been playing in LA. In fact, in vast cavernous spaces like the Henry Fonda and the Palace (where they played their first LA gig) the rock energy sounds hollow. Plus, I’m not really into Karen O’s onstage antics…. I mean I love onstage antics as much as the next guy, but it seems like she’s just mugging for the camera.On Saturday, quite unexpectedly, I had a remarkable, unforgettable experience. While I was working the cash register Gabriel Garcia Marquez came into my bookstore. I was floored. He is absolutely one of my heroes, perhaps my favorite writer of all time (or as I have occasionally phrased it “the best writer of all time”). He wandered slowly around the store, taking his time, looking at various books. When he came up to the register, another, younger gentlemen joined him, and he translated for me as I talked to Marquez. It turns out that he speaks very little English. Mostly, I talked to him about Maqroll since Alvaro Mutis is one of his oldest friends, and since I love that book so much. Plus I felt a little strange about talking to him about his own books. He told me that there will be no more novellas about the Gaviero and his friends, but that Mutis continues to write poetry in which Maqroll plays a central role. He also signed some books for me, including the Spanish-language edition of his autobiography which he inscribed “Para Max, del amigo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez 2003”.How fucking cool is that! I also got some signed copies of his other books. They have quickly become some of my most prized possessions.Last night, Easter Sunday night, I went back to the Henry Fonda to see The Faint and Les Savy Fav. I had never really heard The Faint, but I’m really into Les Savy Fav, and I’ve been dying to see their legendary live show. They didn’t disappoint: lead singer Tim Harrington’s antics (remember: I love onstage antics as much as the next guy) had a charming easter motif to them, and he made good use of chocolate bunnies and jelly bean filled plastic eggs. For the last song, he brought a few dozen people on stage and everyone really rocked out. The Faint followed, and while I don’t really get their electro-goth sound, their video projection light show was impressive… plus the kids really seemed to dig it. Finally, if you haven’t checked it out already. Go to 3wk It’s the best internet radio in the world.