A brand new blog called The Happy Booker has arrived on the litblog scene, and its proprietor Wendi is wasting no time jumping in to the fray. Also worth noting: I Read a Short Story Today in which Patrick reads and discusses a new short story (almost) every day. It’s pretty entertaining so far, but he should add comment functionality so we can get some discussion going.
My appetite for fiction comes and goes and recently it's been hard to find. It's no coincidence that during this period in which my bookmark has not moved from page 87 of Emma I've been feeling a little like Ishmael at the beginning of Moby-Dick, possessed of the urge to step into the street and begin knocking people's top hats off. I have a hard time enjoying fictional characters when I'm feeling dreary towards the people who inhabit my real life. When I think about these recent months, and other times in my life when fiction has held less appeal, it occurs to me that a yen for fiction is something like my canary in the coal mine, an early indication, when it's ebbs, that something else is wrong. Over dinner the other night I asked my wife Caroline to describe what moods, for her, correlate with a desire to read fiction. After a moment she said, "When I'm feeling stimulated, I like to read fiction, and when my life feels sterile, I don’t." This rang true to me and I think it captures one of the essential paradoxes of fiction and art more generally: that to engage it requires a withdrawal from life, but to appreciate it requires a deep immersion in that very same thing. I was feeling sterile last week on a night when I spent hours working at the very tedious task of formatting a long outline on the computer. It was the type of mind-numbing process we're all familiar with, and by the end of it I felt like a very thin man with a very narrow outlook on the world. As I tried to fall asleep that night, I found that my whole life felt like one large unimaginative outline: Bullet points for the errands I needed to do the next day, bold 14-point headings for the things I hoped to accomplish over the next five years. In this limited state of mind, the idea of reading fiction was not just unappealing—it was completely incomprehensible—in the same way that aspiration must make very little sense to a cat. All forms of desire have their natural enemies and I find that nothing saps my desire to read fiction like the Internet does. This is partly physiological—too much time at the computer withers my brain—but it's partly dispositional, too. After the last round of primaries a couple Tuesdays ago, I spent an hour reading articles about the Tea Party. When I came up for air I was in an explicitly present-tense state of mind where anything written more than an hour ago seemed to be based on a world that had already been subsumed. Novels, which require a willingness to attend to more enduring themes, don’t hold up very well by this perspective. Politics as a whole has a fairly degrading effect on my fiction drive. It's not just that it's depressing to watch the way Congress operates—it's that it's depressing in such an unredeemable way. Fiction can be depressing too, of course, but there's something intrinsically optimistic about the process by which tragedy and frailty are turned into art. There's no similar silver lining when reform legislation gets gutted by special interests, (even writing the term "special interests" I can feel a requisite vigor drain from my body), or the country slides deeper into another foreign quagmire. One friend I talked to about this said that he had the opposite impulse, that he inclines towards fiction when he can't bear to look at the world anymore. I get this, but I also think that the impulse to create fiction, and to read it, derives from a fundamentally hopeful place—in which life is interesting enough to write about and meaningful encounters remain possible. If it is ever known that the world is sliding irretrievably into ruin, I don’t think I'll be reading a novel on the way down. The more I'm engaged with life—and particularly with other people—the more I want to read fiction. At the peak of a wedding reception or in the throes of a night out when the crowd has given itself over to celebration, I often want to sneak off and read a novel. It's a contradictory impulse, to want to retreat into a book at the precise moment I am most enthralled with life, but such are the circumstances we live by. What I'm after, I think, is a kind of synergy that can only happen when I approach a novel while my body is still charged with the feeling of being present and alive. At the same time, several of my most memorable encounters with fiction have taken place when I've been my most alone. In January 2008 I spent a month in Florence, South Carolina volunteering on a presidential campaign. The days were long and tiring, but it was exhilarating to feel like I was midstream in history. Late at night I'd return to the attic bedroom where I was staying in the home of a local resident and I'd read Anna Karenina until I couldn't stay awake any longer. I've rarely had so clear a view of the outline of my own skin as I did then, reading about Anna's fall and Lenin's angst in a house where everyone else was asleep, in a town where I didn't know anyone's last name.
I saw this post at Galleycat about the mysterious transvestite cult author J.T. Leroy (Sarah, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things). As the Galleycat post suggests, there has been much speculation over the years about whether or not Leroy is a real person or perhaps simply the pseudonym and persona of another author, and the evidence remains inconclusive. Having never read any of Leroy's books, I don't have much to say about Leroy as writer, but, as a bookstore clerk in Los Angeles, I did see him (or someone pretending to be him) in the flesh, so I may have something to add on the subject of whether or not he exists.I'm probably a little off on some of the specifics, but here's what I remember. On a weekday sometime during 2002 or 2003 (see, I told you I'm a little foggy here), the manager told us that she'd gotten a call from Leroy's representative and that he would be stopping by to sign some books. We bookstore clerks, aware of Leroy's reclusiveness, mysteriousness, and even the possibility that he didn't exist, awaited his arrival with much curiosity. Many speculated that it was a hoax and he wouldn't show. But then he did. He wore very baggy clothes including a much too large gray hooded sweatshirt. The hood was pulled low over his face, which was further obscured by a disheveled blonde wig. In photos, you almost never see Leroy's face, and even though we were in close proximity to him as he signed books, none of us got a very good look at him. Nor did he talk much, mumbling one word answers or giggling nervously in response to our questions. The strange thing was, even though my coworkers and I had all seen him in the flesh, after he was gone none of us were any more or less sure that he was actually real.
I could not stop. I became a Calvino junkie and read The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount, two separate stories collected in one volume as suggested by the titles, and a book along the same lines as The Baron in the Trees. The stories are about an exemplar non-existent knight that the king's army despises because he lacks human vice, and a generous and noble viscount who is split in half during battle, hence losing his good side and becoming evil. Both are great fairy tales with a grain of cynicism, a touch of distrust bred by 20th century politics (Calvino was also a linguist and deeply involved with leftist politics, which at times caused him discomfort), and the humanist wishes of an idealist.As with Kapuscinski, I had to take a break from Calvino, and picked up Arthur Nersesian's Chinese Takeout. I picked Chinese Takeout because the picture on the book cover was of 7B, a one time favorite dive of mine that was four blocks away form our East Village apartment. It was one of those books that I kept seeing and telling myself that I would get it the next time I saw it, just because of its cover. As luck would have it, I really enjoyed the story of Orloff, the book's protagonist. He walks through streets most familiar and beloved, sells books on West 4th street (in front of the NYU library and Stern School of Business), struggles to make it as a painter, lives in the back of his van, deals with junkies, and longs for the days when the lower east side was a cheap haven for artists. A romantic and nostalgic look at the areas currently being overridden by hipsters and $150 torn diesel jeans (my personal favorites). Or (short for Orloff) still exists in Manhattan, and walks those streets and probably does sleep in the back of his van or at the rent controlled apartment of his friend from time to time. Chinese Takeout is a good New York story that one should read on the beach during a vacation or in the subway.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3
Time's book critic Lev Grossman made a splash on this week's NYT bestseller list, debuting at number nine in the hardcover fiction category with his second novel, The Magicians. The book has gotten a healthy publicity push, but strong sales numbers also suggest that readers are responding to its hook: "a kind of Harry Potter for grown-ups." I haven't read The Magicians yet, but its premise - the academic and extracurricular adventures of a contemporary East Coast Wizard - puts me in mind of an unjustly neglected fictional opus: John Crowley's Aegypt Cycle. After Matt Ruff chose Aegypt for our 2007 Year in Reading, I picked up the first novel in Crowley's tetralogy and was hooked. Wands and fairies - er, faeries - were never my thing, but I probably learned more about magic, myth, and historiography than I would have from any work of nonfiction this side of Joseph Campbell. Moreover, Crowley is a beguiling stylist, a constructor of Joycean intertextual games, and (ultimately) a passionate humanist. For several years, The Solitudes, Love & Sleep, and Daemonomania were out of print, but now Overlook Press has brought them back into print, and Small Beer Press has published the concluding volume, Endless Things. The Times points to an interview where Grossman muses about "all the things that were missing from J. K. Rowling’s Y.A. series, from sex and booze to . . . fantasy novels"; those are the very sorts of inclusions that make Aegypt so rewarding. This is not to undermine the originality of Grossman's approach; rather, it is to demonstrate one of Crowley's big ideas: that we make new stories, and new magic, out of the old. Bonus Link: Michael Dirda on Aegypt in The American Scholar.
Today, British crime photographer Jocelyn Bain Hogg stopped by the store. We had him sign copies of his intense photography book The Firm. The book is a photographic expoloration of British organized crime from the inside. These are the real life characters that Guy Ritchie borrowed for his laddish gangster films. Check out photos from the book here. Hogg followed these violent characters around for two years after he was introduced by a friend to members of the inner circle. Like many in organized crime, these guys had no problem with maintaining a very public profile, and in no time at all they delighted in having Hogg photograph them in outrageous circumstances. He described gangster holidays in Tenerife, and how he made sure to run his photographs by the "boss" before they saw the light of day. Though he claimed that he never felt as though his life was in danger, he carried himself with the nervous elation of the once condemned. The book's rocky reception from the British press caused him to no longer consider himself a journalist; instead, he sees himself as nothing more than "a man with a camera." He's in Los Angeles doing preliminary research for his next book, preliminarily titled 15 Minutes, an exploration of fleeting fame in our celebrity-obsessed culture. He said that he was especially inspired by the throngs of psuedo-celebrities (reality-TV-spawned and otherwise) that enjoy brief tenures in gossip mags and on second rate talk shows. We told him that L.A. was the perfect place to start.