Quinn Dalton’s recent collection Bulletproof Girl contains eleven stories about women in peril. Not physical peril in the tied to the railroad tracks “save me Indiana Jones” way, but social and emotional peril. Each story is a snapshot, a day or two in the life of a woman who has come up against something in her life that is big and hard to move. My favorite story was “Lennie Remembers the Angels” about an elderly woman who is paranoid about her neighbors but turns a blind eye to her son’s transgressions. There is a physicality to her language in this story: damp heat, dark apartments and overpowering food smells. Like “Lennie,” several of the stories in the collection could be mistaken for chapters in a novel; they aren’t self-contained. Dalton is very good at fleshing out her characters, and we know their individual histories. As she leads her protagonists through their hard times, we are given stories that are as character-driven as they are plot-driven. The long title story broadens the themes the Dalton explores in the rest of the collection. Instead of one woman, we have three: Emery, May and Celeste, three generations from the same family, all at difficult crossroads and alternately comforting and pitying one another. Emery is smarting from the loss of her boyfriend, her mother May has been driven to odd obsessive behavior ever since her husband moved out, and old Celeste the grandmother is vibrant, but will not sympathize with her daughter, and instead takes them all on a macabre errand.
“Sentimental Journeys,” Joan Didion’s famous essay on the trials of the five young black and Latino men accused in the 1989 Central Park Jogger rape case, follows the template of so much of Didion’s best nonfiction: she lays out the narrative of the case as it has taken hold in the public mind, and then, taking up a sledgehammer in the shape of a reporter’s notepad, she smashes that sentimental version of events to bits. In the essay, included in her collection After Henry, Didion reminds the reader that the brutal rape of a young, white investment banker was only one 3,254 other rapes reported that year, but concludes that the point is merely “rhetorical, since crimes are universally understood to be news to the extent that they offer, however erroneously, a story, a lesson, a high concept.”
The “high concept” in the case of the Central Park Jogger, Didion says, lay in the way the crime pitted a young, white, notionally virginal member of New York’s financial elite against five teenaged members of its dark, angry underclass, who according to prosecutors and the local press, had set upon the young jogger like a pack of wild animals. “Teen Wolfpack Beats and Rapes Wall Street Exec on Jogging Path,” one headline read. Another newspaper supplied the lurid details: “One [assailant] shouted ‘hit the beat’ and they all started rapping to ‘Wild Thing.’” In a city beset by violent crime, a foundering economy, and troubling racial unrest, Didion writes, “the case of the Central Park jogger came to seem a kind of poetry, a way of expressing, without directly stating, different but equally volatile and similarly occult visions of the same disaster.”
In 2002, after another man confessed to the crime, the convictions of the five accused rapists were formally expunged, but in 1990, when Didion published the essay in the New York Review of Books, her willingness to cast doubt not only on a jury’s verdict but on the received opinion of virtually all of white New York was courageous. But such is the stuff upon which the cult of Joan Didion has been built. In her long career as an essayist, novelist, and screenwriter, Didion has made a specialty of slaughtering our most sacred cows. John Wayne, Nancy Reagan, second-wave feminists, Haight-Ashbury hippies, even her own pioneer ancestors – all these have undergone the Didion treatment, which is to say that she has laboriously detailed their public myths, their most fondly held visions of themselves, and then set about pounding those myths into submission with the truth, usually in the form of their own words.
In recent years, however, following a run of calamity that claimed the lives of her husband and only daughter, Didion has turned that famously pitiless observational apparatus inward, first in The Year of Magical Thinking, and now Blue Nights, out just this week. The Year of Magical Thinking, which chronicles Didion’s first year of widowhood after the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, became a runaway bestseller and spawned a Broadway play of the same name, starring Vanessa Redgrave. Blue Nights, though it covers similar terrain – in this case, the death of Didion’s daughter, Quintana Roo – is a much pricklier beast, and I would be surprised if it finds as many readers as her previous book.
In purely economic terms, The Year of Magical Thinking had two very important things going for it. First, coming out as it did as baby boomers began to hit retirement age, it caught the zeitgeist of an aging population just coming to terms with the losses and diminishment of old age. Second, because Dunne died from a heart attack while their daughter lay comatose in the hospital, the book put Didion in the position of the victim beset by an almost Biblical tide of woe that she had no hand in creating. In describing the kind of “magical thinking” that leads a widow to refuse to give away her dead husband’s shoes in case he should ever come back and need them, Didion, the least cuddly of authors, presented herself for perhaps the first time in her career as a woman the reader could identify with and care about.
In Blue Nights, on the other hand, Didion is not a victim, but at least putatively the villain of the piece. Quintana died of complications of a blood clot in her brain, but as Didion makes clear, she was a troubled woman who drank to excess and contemplated suicide long before she got sick, and one of the central questions of the book is whether Didion’s failings as a mother, directly or indirectly, led to her daughter’s death. In other words, Didion is once again following her time-tested template of setting out a fondly held personal mythos and then smashing it, except that this time the mythos is her own vision of herself as a good mother.
In concept, this sounds like a formula for a tough-minded examination of our society’s sentimental attachment to the myth of the perfect mother, and if any writer in contemporary American letters is equipped for such a project it would be Didion. Not only is she one of the best reporters we have, not only does she have a justly earned reputation for ruthless honesty, but she is a mother by choice. After some years of trying to have a biological child, Didion and Dunne adopted Quintana hours after she was born at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. Didion’s descriptions of the circumstances surrounding the adoption, her desire to have a child and her fears of not being up to the task, are among the most moving passages of the book. The infant Quintana spent her first two nights in the hospital, she writes,
and at some point during each of those nights I woke in the house at Portuguese Bend to the same chill, hearing the surf break on the rocks below, dreaming that I had forgotten her, left her asleep in a drawer, gone into town for dinner or a movie and made no provision for the infant that could even then be waking alone and hungry in the drawer in Portuguese Bend.
This passage sets the tone for much of the rest of the book, as Didion wrestles, page after painful page, with her own ambivalence toward motherhood. She castigates herself for being emotionally cold, for expecting her daughter to be in effect a third adult in the house, for being too busy writing books and screenplays to pay attention to the early signs of her daughter’s distress. Over and over, as if picking at a bleeding scab, Didion rehashes nightmares Quintana suffered as a young girl, weirdly solemn poems she wrote for school, a phone call she made at age five to a nearby mental asylum “to find out what she needed to do if she was going crazy.”
“How could I have missed what was so clearly there to be seen?” Didion asks herself.
The sheer repetitiveness of these questions, the way the book keeps circling back to a few snapshot memories of young, troubled Quintana, speaks with its own eloquence of the pain Didion is suffering in the wake of the loss of her family. It is hard to blame her. I am a parent, and I can only imagine how painful it must be to bury one’s own child. But as a reader I found myself wondering whether Didion’s obsessive rehearsing of the evidence “against” her wasn’t simply more of what she called in her previous book “magical thinking”? To take a Didionesque interrogative approach, couldn’t it be said that wondering whether you played some role in your daughter’s death is tantamount to wondering if your daughter’s death was somehow preventable – or, to put the point more finely, that you could have saved her life by being somehow a different person? If so, aren’t you really asking not “Was I responsible for letting my daughter die?” but instead, “Couldn’t I, by being a better person, somehow bring her back?” Or, to put it still another way, is it not true that to ask “How could I have missed what was so clearly there to be seen?” is merely another way of saying, “If I had only seen what pain she was in, she would be alive today,” and “Thus, because I do now see it, in a way, she is alive”?
I don’t know. To state the obvious, I am no Joan Didion. I am, however, fairly certain of two things. First, Blue Nights, despite some lovely writing, is finally a closed loop, a personal missive from a grief-stricken mother to her dead daughter that fails to make enough space for the reader to work as literature. Second, at least given the evidence provided in Blue Nights, Didion is not responsible for her daughter’s death. Didion may have been cold, she may have been busy, she may have even ignored some obvious warning signs, but if this book is any indication of the depth of her love for Quintana, and I strongly suspect it is, then Didion loved her daughter with every fiber of her being – and, really, what more can a parent do?
Image Credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]
Readers new to Roberto Calasso’s work often feel a bit bewildered, as if his books ought to come with a warning: This book is unlike any you’ve ever read. In addition to addressing the actual subject of the book, the reviewer must therefore explain who Calasso is, unpack his unorthodox rhetorical strategy, and provide some orientation to his uncommon perspective. This is easier said than done.
The Art of the Publisher, Calasso’s most recent work, consists of only 150 smallish and deceptively simple pages containing his speeches, essays, and occasional pieces about publishing. Briefly, he argues that publishing is an art, books are art objects, and the publisher is an artist. The publisher’s art has always been to provide the guiding sensibility for the publishing house and for the works it publishes. This sensibility is the mythos or spirit, if you will, of the publishing house. Today’s publishing houses lack this kind of vision and thus do not produce art. And the every-writer-and-reader-for-himself universe of electronic publishing cannot be art either, because it, too, lacks a guiding vision and the art object, books.
There could scarcely be anyone more qualified than Calasso to make this case, and The Art of the Publisher offers entry into his fascinating world of leading edge literati. Intellectually, he is elegant and stylish in an Italian way: traditional, subtle, original. He writes from his formidable knowledge and from his experience as a founder and editorial director of Adelphi, an Italian publishing house of exceptional depth and quality with a backlist that includes the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabokov, and Leonardo Sciascia. He considers publishing itself a literary genre. He writes erudite and highly original works on subjects few have considered, never mind named. He has an international following.
Calasso’s rhetorical method is “always a mosaic.” [Paris Review, 2012] His PhD thesis concerned the theory of hieroglyphs in Sir Thomas Browne. He says, “[The] idea of a language made up of images is connected with all of my work.” [Paris Review.] His books often begin with an image, almost a digression, that he deconstructs bit by bit as he traces its presence here and there; explicating its relationship(s) within mythology, religion, art, literature, history, languages (he knows eight), and the classics; making unexpected and seemingly effortless connections; and finally arriving at a new meaning for which the original image is now an emblem of a much larger whole. To those accustomed to a linear, PowerPoint-like arrangement of information, this “agglomerative” way of proceeding can be baffling. The following is my own attempt — not Calasso’s — to show what the experience of reading Calasso can be like:
While out walking you spy a coin on the sidewalk. You pick it up, intending to make a wish and throw it over your shoulder, a gesture that already connects you to a distant past. But, wait, it’s a gold coin with the image of a head crowned with a laurel wreath. And old. Did a coin collector accidentally drop it? You turn it over in your palm, recalling your own coin collection — the buffalo nickel, the pure silver dollars, the tiny pockets in the album. Did you know that the Smithsonian’s coin collection, the largest in the world, has more than 450,000 coins? Unfortunately, the exhibit closed years ago for lack of money. Upon closer inspection, you see that the image on the coin is likely Roman. The Romans minted coins from the 4th century BC at the temple of Juno Moneta, (the source of our word money), and they set up mints across the Empire, establishing minting practices for all time. Earlier still, Ploutos, the sometimes-blind Greek god of wealth, carried a cornucopia and dispensed riches. His near contemporary, a Phrygian named Midas, and the latter’s fairy-tale descendants had a different attitude toward wealth, one akin to the hedge fund manager’s. Along with coins and money came trade, banking, and the Medici, though the Romans had already invented checks, which are today dispatched on smartphones.
Question: When you toss the coin over your shoulder, what do you toss? Answer: Civilization. A book by Calasso is always a journey into and through civilization in the company of an expert guide.
In The Art of the Publisher, Calasso concerns himself with what the good publisher is and argues in favor of the publisher’s critical role in the furtherance of civilization through the expression of his own, highly refined sensibility. Consequently, it seems surprisingly self-evident when he says that the good publishing house is one that publishes “only good books,” i.e., “books of which the publisher tends to feel proud rather than ashamed.” Or that, as in most artistic activities, success in publishing is frequently unremunerative:
…along with roulette and cocottes, founding a publishing house has always been one of the most effective ways for a young man of noble birth to fritter away his fortune.
At this point, Calasso explores some questions in contemporary publishing the answers to which aren’t necessarily obvious.
1. Why does one become a publisher?
[Because]…publishing has always involved prestige, if only because it is a kind of business that is also an art…[and]…in order to practice it, money is an essential element.“
With respect to publishing itself, he allows that “very little has changed since [Johann] Gutenberg’s time.” He takes the reader down a rabbit hole of publishing history — typefaces, woodcuts, prefaces, publicity, and, of course, books — wherein we meet Aldus Manutius, an Italian humanist (1449-1515), the creator of “the most beautiful book ever made,” the inventor of the paperback, and “the first to conceive of the publishing house as form:
…the choice and sequence of titles to be published; the texts that accompany the books; the way in which the books are presented as objects.
In other words, the good publisher gives form to the “essential reading of his time.” This is very, very important to Calasso.
Today’s dispersed and disparate publishing business, particularly the digital universe, directly challenges Calasso’s claim that a good publisher has an essential role and is himself artist. Even among the well read, Calasso’s kind of publisher seems a relic of an earlier time. In advocating for the relevance of those very few publishers who still remain faithful to the publisher’s art, Calasso can seem like a unicorn among donkeys. Undeterred, he insists that the good publisher by imposing his judgments, his noes and yeses, his style, his taste on the available possibilities…
. . . give[s] form to a plurality of books as though they were the chapters of a single book. . . [and takes] . . . a passionate and obsessive care over the appearance of every volume.
In this way, a good publishing house becomes:
…a single text formed not just by the totality of books that have been published there, but also by all its other constituent elements, such as the front covers, cover flaps, publicity, and quantity of copies printed and sold, or the different editions in which the same text has been presented…[and this totality is]…a literary work in itself, belonging to a genre all its own.
This vision is at the heart of Calasso’s argument. It is both secular and spiritual. The “single chain” that is “formed by all the books published by the publisher” is the unique work of art that the publisher brings to the literary table. It is both tangible — the books — and intangible — a reflection of the mythos or sensibility that is expressed in the “chain” and the “totality,” which “imply other related books not written.” For Calasso this totality is numinous.
2. Couldn’t these tangible and intangible connections exist without the publisher?
For the most part, publishing today, whether print or digital, lacks the overarching sensibility that only the good publisher provides:
There would still be good and bad books, but those good books would appear as sporadic, isolated events with no congenial context into which to fit them.
Calasso’s good publisher is an endangered species in a business sense as well. In publishing today, form has become the organization chart, and mythos is merely brand power:
There are very few people today who can be given the title of publisher. They could probably be counted on the fingers of two hands. Editors, on the other hand, are many and increasing, if editors are those who discover, follow, develop, and launch a certain number of books within the catalog of a publishing house. All editors are associated with a list of authors and books as though they are theirs. This, however, does not include the form itself — the catalog, the program of the publishing house for which they work. If a publishing house is not conceived as a form, as a self-sufficient composition held together by a high physiological compatibility between all of its constituent parts, it easily turns into a casual association, incapable of triggering that magical element — brand power — that even marketing experts consider essential for achieving some degree of success.
Managers in today’s publishing houses often know little or nothing of books and care even less about form. Their mandate is profits. Calasso believes this organizational pattern precludes the publisher’s art. It is, in fact, anti-art.
3. But won’t information technology make all written works more widely available?
A little web-surfing — mine — turns up dozens of niche sites for contemporary fiction, poetry, essays, and works of art — an argument in favor of art for art’s sake as the artists contribute their work gratis. Publishers’ websites — publicity arms, really, but presented as literary hubs — display varied imprints defined by consumer preferences. Other sites are more serious literary efforts that vanish when the editor gets a paying job. Barriers to entry are low, and some sites are scarcely more than hobbies. Often, sites are cross-listed, the better to achieve a higher ranking within the Google algorithms. The result is ever more self-referential and enclosed universes. A few sites, such as this one, grow and thrive because they serve real needs.
Calasso doubts the literary value of such websites and that Google books can become the greatest library in history. Quantity is not quality. He finds Google’s ambitions totalitarian and oppressive and the implications for publishers negative:
In the face of…[immediate access to everything]…which grows wider and better every day, the publisher can only seem like a miserable obstacle.
Democratization in literary publishing isn’t necessarily desirable either:
…information technology aims toward a situation — its own utopian vision — in which, as everything is connected with everything else, the result is…[a state of confusion and disorder]…in which everyone can claim to have contributed…Whether or not a world of this kind is desirable does not, for most people, seem a question of any urgency…
The “cloud” is an apt image for this digital fog:
…if we limit the field to that of publishing, it can be said with certainty that there is one element that the cloud of knowing (or, more accurately, the cloud of information, though hasn’t the very distinction between information and knowledge become blurred?) can do without: judgment, that primeval capacity to say yes or no. But judgment was the basic founding element for the existence of the publisher…[who]…has always had the one undeniable prerogative: to say yes or no to a manuscript and decide in what form to present it. But if judgment can be easily dispensed with, this is even truer of form. Indeed, discussion about form could soon become meaningless.
4. Still, doesn’t the existence of literary sites, publishing houses driven by consumer preferences, as well as the self-publishing boom refute Calasso’s claim that only the good publisher can provide a meaningful place for literary output?
In the digital universe everyone with a computer can be his own publisher, his own arbiter of taste, his own stylist of content, his own “decider,” but absent the publisher’s taste and judgment, there can be no art in Calasso’s sense of the word. Absent the “chain,” the “totality,” the publisher’s vision, there is no form, no mythos. Writers, readers, and books bob alone on a sea of dreck.
5. Why is someone like Calasso better at choosing what to bring to our attention than we are?
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Calasso has been accused of elitism and paternalism. To be fair, however, his argument rests on more subtle grounds than simply that the good publisher is the necessary, singular arbiter of quality. Rather, he sees the publisher as having a responsibility to establish a vision and within that vision to practice his art. In this way, the publisher becomes the custodian and purveyor of what he believes is essential to his culture and time. “The gods are the fugitive guests of literature,” he says, meaning that the publisher’s mission, while secular, has a sacred element: the carrier or custodian of a mythos that guides and is reflected in the collective works he publishes. This “spirit” unites otherwise solitary authors, readers, and books. The sum of his acts as a publisher thus constitutes a form, which is, like sculpture or painting, art.
Calasso ends by returning to the image of Manutius. He wants publishers to aspire to create new books that are equally as beautiful as Manutius’s perfect book. For some this charge may seem precious and as suffocating in its imposition of critical judgment as the Internet is in its lack of discrimination. This much is certain: No other publisher today has dared to claim as his own the singular judgment and unique artistry of the publisher-artist Calasso describes so precisely. That is because the one he has in mind is himself and the art his own.