John McPhee books are like crack for the curious. He mines his topics, usually some slice of America or Americana, for all the minutia that the curious crave, diversions and details and especially lists. In Looking for a Ship he turns his pen to the United States Merchant Marine, already a dying institution when McPhee wrote the book in 1990. He manages to secure a spot as a PAC – Person in Addition to Crew on the Stella Lykes for a voyage from port to port down the Pacific coast of South America. The topics he dissects are many: the histories of his fellow seamen, the tribulations of the Merchant Marine, the astonishingly various contents of the hold, and the port towns they visit seen through the eyes of a sailor, to name a few. Interspersed in the story are tales of pirate attacks and boat wrecks, not to mention a discription of the ship’s engine room that will make you sweat just reading it. In this book, as in all his others, McPhee is pitch-perfect, taking the reader down any interesting digression encountered in the narrative, extracting wry humor from his observations, and digging deep into the personal history of any fascinating person he encounters. His books are biographies of a place and time.
If life is a novel, death is an editor. It strikes through every extraneous detail. It erases periods of divagation, inactivity, and muddle. What’s left is the stuff of obituaries and of eulogies: stories that fit together with a retrospective snap. Applied to public figures who spend their lives “on message,” this tendency to condense may even represent a kind of fulfillment. Writers are an odd subspecies of public figure, however – an expansively private one – and when a writer dies, our journalistic last rites run the risk of cutting his million-word testimony down to a stingy clutch of nouns. Thus David Foster Wallace and John Updike, the two greatest literary losses of the last year, get reduced to “difficulty” and “depression” (in the former case) and to “virtuosity” and “complacency” (in the latter).Another quirk of writers, though: they bequeath us the tools we need to reach our own conclusions, without the mediation of professionals. For those disinclined to snap judgments, the death of a novelist may invite a long – even leisurely – period of reconsideration. Meandering through the back catalogue (it’s all back catalogue now) even longtime readers may stumble on a different writer than the one they thought they knew.This spring, I found myself returning to Updike’s fiction of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and I was startled by how it diverged from my memory of it. In particular, I was bowled over by the strangeness, the reckless compassion, and the emotional power of Rabbit Redux (1971). Late in life, Updike published a slimmer novel called Terrorist, which met with distinctly mixed reviews. Reviewers found fault with Rabbit Redux, as well, Updike confesses in his introduction to the Rabbit Angstrom omnibus. But, in its ardent engagement with the revolutionary zeitgeist of Nixon-era America, Rabbit Redux now looks to be Updike’s great novel of the age of political terror.The novel, the first sequel to the celebrated Rabbit, Run, opens with Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, American Everyman, more or less reconciled with the wife he abandoned in the earlier book. Updike lovingly describes the creature comforts that surround the Angstroms in Penn Villas, a middle-class suburb of decaying Brewer, Pennsylvania: their “flagstone porchlet,” their “door with its three baby windows arranged like three steps, echoing the door-chime of three stepped tones.” Their son Nelson is on the cusp of puberty, astronauts are about to make a moon landing, and all is right with the world, or at least hunky-dory.Rabbit soon discovers, however, that his wife, Janice, is contemplating an abandonment of her own. Now a working woman, she has succumbed to the charms of her coworker, Charlie Stavros. Stavros shows her an emotional and sexual solicitude Harry has never been capable of. The hell of it is, Harry can’t bring himself to hate Janice, or even her lover, an upwardly mobile, politically progressive ethnic food aficionado who seems to hail from some distant, shag-carpeted planet. Updike – the poet laureate of infidelity – can’t bring himself to hate the adulterers either. Indeed, both author and protagonist take Janice’s sexual awakening as an opportunity to interrogate the Eisenhower-era values of which Harry Angstrom is a repository… and to find them, in their inflexibility, wanting.Updike, who openly admired many of those values, has sometimes been characterized by writers to his left as a reactionary. However, a bravura early scene in which Angstrom and Stavros debate the war in Vietnam exposes this as a caricature. We sympathize with Stavros, who “‘can’t get too turned-on about cops bopping hippies on the head and the Pentagon playing cowboys and Indians all over the globe.'” He tells Janice, of Harry, “‘See how little and tight his mouth gets when he talks about politics?'” And we sympathize with Harry, who claims not to think about politics. “‘That’s one of my Goddam precious American rights,” he says, “not to think about politics… And it really burns me up to listen to hotshot crap-car salesmen dripping with Vitalis sitting on their plumped-up asses bitching about a country that’s been stuffing goodies into their mouth ever since they were born.” To which Charlie retorts, “‘I want to follow your reasoning. Tell me about the goodies we’ve been stuffing into Vietnam.'”More than Bellow in Mr. Sammler’s Planet (that other great response to ’60s-era unrest, and surely an influence here) Updike is willing to interrogate his own biases, to exercise negative capability. He seems to conclude that politics are personal on both sides of the ideological divide. Rabbit can’t disentangle the message from the messenger; Stavros can’t see what a lousy messenger he is. Which doesn’t mean they can’t try. Stavros will eventually try to persuade Janice to return to her husband. And Harry will touchingly parrot Stavros’ point-of-view later in the book, in an attempt to enlighten Janice’s father. Indeed, by this point, Rabbit Redux has assumed a form borrowed from the counterculture Updike is supposed to have hated: the consciousness-raising session.The middle section of the book, wherein Janice moves out of the house – is a long, strange, irresponsible trip. Harry begins smoking dope and exploring the down-and-out side of Brewer. He entangles himself with a teenage runaway named Jill and a petty criminal-cum-black-nationalist named Skeeter. Updike’s willingness to hurl himself into the thicket of American race relations is remarkable. “The bus has too many Negroes,” Harry thinks, at one point.Two of the men in the shop are Negroes, Farnsworth and Buchanan, you didn’t even notice; at least they remember how to laugh. Sad business, being a Negro man, always underpaid… But against these educated tolerant thoughts leans a certain fear; [Harry] doesn’t see why they have to be so noisyThis is what the world of many white male characters in novels might look like, stripped of political correctness and bad faith. I can imagine readers who are black, or are women, or both, taking exception to Jill and Skeeter, who hover somewhere between character and symbol. But Harry’s re-education at the hands of these outcasts, his awakening to the sources of his own basic good fortune, precipitates a real change in him. Perhaps it even precipitated a change in suburban readers, circa 1971, as a novel more deferential to pieties or circumspect about stereotypes could not.A prominent critic condemned a later Updike novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, for its “theological complacency.” For all I know, he may have been right. But this verdict is far too narrow to contain the vast corpus Updike left behind. Rabbit Redux shows a writer willing as few other American novelists are (Norman Rush comes to mind) to suspend judgment on his characters’ political, philosophical, moral, and theological failings – to love them anyway. Indeed, it is characteristic of Updike that the “rhetoric of social protest and revolt… antithetical to [his] Fifties education” (as he puts it in the omnibus introduction) aroused not his defenses, but his curiosity.Agitated by the times, his limpid prose in this book approaches the visionary. Near the end, Harry thinks of Jill, now gone, and remembers “her daughterly blind grass-green looking to him for more than shelter.” We are reminded, adverbially, of the daughter Harry lost in Rabbit, Run. Yet even in his redoubled grief – that extraordinary, comma-less catharsis – there is some hopeful green stuff woven. Rilke wrote that beauty was merely the beginning of the arc of terror. Rabbit Redux suggests a corollary: that terror may sometimes be the beginning of the arc of beauty.
Ben Lerner can’t possibly be the persona that inhabits his fiction, the one who surfaces fleetingly in the jagged word clusters that make up his poetry. This shifty, brooding character might share some basic reportable details with his creator, but the difference between them, between writer and work, serves as the primary tension in all of Lerner’s writing. If works of art were about something, instead of existing self-sufficiently for themselves, this is what Lerner’s work would be about: the chasm between a life lived and a thing made; the discouragement one suffers when trying to find one in the other.
With his second novel, 10:04, Lerner has decisively passed from the abbey of poets, who trained him in these stark aesthetic distinctions, into the bustling town of fiction. (If 10:04 were about something, it would be about this passage.) His poetic pedigree draws attention like the priest’s white collar worn at a pub. At 35, he is still very much a younger poet, precociously so, ten years after an award-winning first book, The Lichtenberg Figures, followed in 2006 by Angle of Yaw, a National Book Award finalist. He edited a literary journal and received a Fulbright Scholarship to Spain, and though it is technically impossible to determine precisely how much the latter experience contributed to Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) deals entirely with that kind of experience abroad.
On his fellowship in Spain, the young Topeka-bred poet Adam Gordon worries over his incapacity for being profoundly affected by art. He stares at paintings to no avail. When Spanish translations of his poems are read at a Madrid art gallery, he is bafflingly applauded. The better his Spanish gets, the less poetic he seems around his Spanish friends. Leaving the Atocha Station, named after an early John Ashbery poem, amounts to a deeper disillusionment than in the standard artist novel, where the audience refuses to sanction the artist’s naïve ambitions. In Lerner’s discursive first-person, a provincial romantic fervor is lost on Adam as he examines the “disconnect” between his voided encounters with artworks and “the claims made on their behalf.”
Lerner, on the other hand, has good company among a faction of likeminded American novelists and critics who bristle at the hidebound claims they insist are responsible for an embarrassing profusion of substandard literary product. Simple, re-teachable tropes reign because they are market-tested, while advanced and otherwise marginalized techniques are branded Difficult, because the new is never as easily digestible, or salable, as the familiar. These prose writers—anyone who wasn’t appalled by David Shields’ Reality Hunger—admire the poetry community for valuing their progressives, thus keeping pace over the last century with the vanguards of other media. In both of Lerner’s novels, there is a sense of his sentences catching up, unfurling, distending, pursuing the unclaimed experience or the unexplained artwork. He structures his fiction around passages drawn from his growing body of criticism—studies of John Ashbery and damaged or “totaled art”—as well as the writings of others, like Daniel Zalewski’s essay on Christian Marclay, designer of the 24-hour video montage The Clock, which is given a prominent thematic role in 10:04.
Collage, when used in Lerner’s novels, doesn’t result in the patchwork effect applied by a proponent like Shields in How Literature Saved My Life. Lerner’s novelist sensibility is to cohere and blend, the way Norman Mailer incorporated the shards of Gary Gilmore’s prison letters into the grand cathedral window of The Executioner’s Song. The found objects discovered in 10:04—photographs, poems, epigraphs—are characters that, above more conventional plotlines in the novel, galvanize the contemplative momentum.
The crown jewel of these objects—the antagonist—is a short story published by Lerner (but also his protagonist, Ben) in The New Yorker. (Other excerpts have appeared in The Paris Review and Harper’s.) For the poet in the novel, this story is a moment of concession, a means to the curse of a six-figure book deal. For Lerner, it’s a reconciliation of language. The sequence of untitled sonnet-length poems that make up The Lichtenberg Figures degrades linearly from more coherent, finished announcements to scattershot surrealist amalgams. It is more rationally conservative, more reasonable, than John Ashbery’s debut, Some Trees, published nearly fifty years earlier. Or maybe it could be seen as progressively seeking territory beyond the old familiar conservative-progressive continuum of styles. (“Perhaps what remains of innovation/is a conservativism at peace with contradiction,” Lerner half-kids.)
His most recent book of poems, Mean Free Path, makes use of even shorter overlapping units or strips, fused into nine-line stanzas. The barrage of interruptions conspire to strengthen or stress the precious attractions between words. At this threshold of coherence, Lerner maintains a formal unity of concept and appearance. This formal awareness is a constant presence throughout his novels, always holding the reader at an honest critical distance from the words—critical in both senses, skeptical and art-loving.
Adam Gordon, unbeknownst to him, takes us on a journey through stages of suggestion and communication, led by Lerner’s hand. His Spanish, at first, is lacking. The dialogue is paraphrased and indeterminate. Facial cues go unrecognized or misinterpreted. Adam’s mystique thrives on meaningful silences his acquaintances run with, or so he thinks. He changes his story. First, his mother is dead. Then, he says she’s dead because she’s ill. His father is a fascist. Adam is less a poet and more like one of Lerner’s poems.
In Jonathan Lethem’s essay collection, The Ecstasy of Influence, he suggests that “the voices in so-called ‘nonfictions’ were themselves artful impostures, arrangements of sentences…that mimicked the presence of a human being offering sincerely intended and honestly useful guidance into this or that complicated area of human thought or experience.” It is the fictional element in nonfiction, Lethem reminds us, that makes the autobiographical question moot. But starting from words isn’t necessarily starting from scratch. This I think is the genuine motivation for collage, and also pastiche. Nothing new under the sun, but also infinite combinations and riffs. Lerner’s new poet-cum-novelist stops worrying about the novel. Lerner clearly loves it.
Wait a second. No, seriously hold on. Just a few more minutes.Oh. Sorry. It’s you.I apologize for being late. Well, I only partially apologize. It is to be expected, really, with the Fourth of July striking and the World Cup ending.Yes. The World Cup. Sorry about my rudeness a little earlier – I’ve been busy for the past few weeks attempting to will my adopted club (England) to win (they didn’t) and commit my arch-enemies (Brazil, Argentina) to lose (they did).With all of these distractions, both footy-wise and not, it was difficult to get any books read this past month. Yet (you’ll be happy to know) I did complete a few. And while the most noteworthy book might have been Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn, I found that my favorite – my book of the month – was Sean Wilsey and Matt Weiland’s The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup. By far.Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not some crazed soccer fan. Once every four years, I rediscover international soccer – primarily, the World Cup. And every four years, once the tournament is over, I promptly lose the love I had displayed just months before. I always mean to stay in touch once the World Cup is over, but I never do. I don’t know enough about European clubs and can’t find coverage of United States soccer, so I just lose it all together. But for a month and a half, I’m an expert.That’s what led me to buying The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup.Wait. What exactly does this “guide” entail? That’s easy. It’s 32 essays by 32 different writers about the 32 countries that participated in the 2006 World Cup Finals. And of the heavyweights showed up: the essays range from David Eggers’ gym teachers (who call soccer a communistic cesspool) to Aleksandar Hemon’s unfortunate mix of sex and soccer. Nick Hornby struggles with the choice between club team (London’s Arsenal, which employs a vast number of the French national team) and country (England, of course). Does he root for England? Or does he root for his Arsenal players? Sukhdev Sandhu thinks Saudi Arabia’s too soft, while William Finnegan laments the loss of Portugal’s best surfing spot – thanks to modern culture and, in part, soccer.But wait – there’s more! On top of 32 great essays, Franklin Foer (Jonathan Safran’s brother – any regular reader of this column knows of my fascination with the entire family) describes the government most likely to win a World Cup ala his book How Soccer Explains the World. And it’s got all the numbers – useful demographic information on each country, past World Cup winners and the records of current World Cup participants, and the likelihood of each team to win. It’s great for everyday soccer fans, and invaluable for the every-four-years fan, like myself.Amazingly, there’s a common theme outside of the typical “Go Team Go!” narrative. At the World Cup, everyone, regardless of country, has a chance. Once the ball is kicked off, all teams are on equal footing. No monetary means will secure your team a victory. Rich soccer teams can buy all the talent they want – AC Milan, Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea – but only citizenship will get you a World Cup championship. Just the allegiance to your country. And every country can build a team. All you need is a soccer ball and a flat pitch.It’s called the beautiful game because it’s the joining of athletics and the pure will to win. Sure, there will be 0-0 ties. But the defensive stops, the fight to get to the goal, the sheer determination that leads to a cross pass that is beautifully set up by some guy that wasn’t even there ten seconds before and then kicked into the back of the goal – that’s sport.And that’s why this book will continue to be a valuable addition to my library years after France (hopefully) beats Italy (boo!) tomorrow. It’s not just a guide to this World Cup, but it’s a guide to the desire of winning. The passion of being a fan. The ramifications of a single goal, of a clean sheet, or of a beautiful penalty kick. (Where are you now, David Beckham?) Most of all, it’s a beautiful synopsis of the game itself, of its strange gravity and powerful importance.Because this is more than just a game.”The joy of being one of the couple of billion people watching thirty-two nations abide by seventeen rules fills me with the conviction, perhaps ignorant, but like many ignorant convictions, fiercely held, that soccer can unite the world.”Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, June
Before I say anything about Kenneth Slawenski’s compelling but adoring biography of J.D. Salinger, I have a question: does anyone really, really understand just why Seymour Glass blows his brains out at the end of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”? The editors of The New Yorker didn’t, although they eventually published it. John Updike didn’t, but that didn’t keep him from calling the story a classic. Vladimir Nabokov thought it was an “A-plus story” but never said why. The story was published in 1948, three years before The Catcher in the Rye, and it’s been confounding readers ever since.
You remember what happens. A married couple, Seymour and Muriel, are vacationing in Miami. Muriel, pretty but vapid, sits alone in a hotel room, drying her nails and talking on the phone to her mom, who wants her to come home. The mom thinks Seymour is crazy. She cites instances, says something about the army releasing Seymour from the hospital too soon. Muriel shrugs it off and talks about fashion. Meanwhile, Seymour is on the beach talking to Sybil, a little girl he has come to know. They talk about Muriel, whom Seymour doesn’t seem like. Apropos of nothing, Seymour quotes T.S. Eliot. Seymour and Sybil take a raft and hit the waves. He tells her about bananafish, which crawl into underwater caves, eat so many bananas they can’t get out, and die. Sybil claims to see such a fish and Seymour suddenly decides to go back to shore. He heads for his hotel room. On the elevator up, he accuses another guest of staring at his feet and being a God damned sneak about it. He goes to his room, sees Muriel asleep on the bed, puts a gun to his head and fires. End of story.
WTF? Critical analysis seems to turn on the little girl’s name: Sybil, therefore Sibyl, the mythological seer. Slawenski, a good if somewhat stiff reader of Salinger, offers an even more complicated theory that suggests Seymour spent too much time reading Eliot and Blake. Both ideas may be perfectly correct, but they ignore the fact that Seymour packed the gun to begin with, beside which Eliot and mythology just seem like so much literary filigree. Presumably, Seymour feels trapped, like the bananafish, but the events of this day offer less than perfect motivation. It’s not clear even Salinger knows why Seymour killed himself, because he keeps coming back to it in subsequent stories, as if there’s something he forgot to say, some detail he meant to add.
The story is the kickoff to Nine Stories, a classic collection distinguished by ambiguity and ellipsis. It was also the beginning of a long journey. In the 25 years of Salinger’s publishing life, Seymour was his constant companion, evolving in seemingly autobiographical ways as the author became more immersed in Eastern philosophy. He’s the brilliant spiritual loner, too preoccupied with the next world to connect with this one, and in death he becomes a ghost his family cannot exorcise. In Franny and Zooey, Seymour’s little sister has a nervous breakdown on the road to spiritual perfection. In Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters, a hilarious social comedy, brother Buddy recalls the disastrous events of Seymour’s wedding day. In Seymour: An Introduction, Buddy circles around his memories of Seymour, trying to make some sense of him. It’s Salinger’s most direct effort to say who, what or why Seymour is, and it’s a numbing experience; little more than an endless ramble, and quite the longest novella ever written. Buddy mentions a short story he wrote in the late forties, where Seymour “not only appeared in the flesh but walked, talked, went for a dip in the ocean, and fired a bullet through his brain in the last paragraph.” But the Seymour of the story, he says, was actually more a reflection of Buddy himself, written not long after Seymour’s death, after the both of them had “returned from the European Theater of Operations.” The story, he says, was written using a German typewriter.
In other words, Seymour (or Buddy, who seems to be channeling him, even though he gets little more than static) was tormented by what he saw in the war, as Muriel’s mother suggested, specifically in Germany. That seems like it should be the last word, except that it’s not. We still have Salinger’s bizarre final testament to Seymour: “Hapworth 16, 1924“, which landed with a thud when it appeared in The New Yorker in 1965, taking up a whole issue and marking Salinger’s final publication.
It’s composed of seven-year-old Seymour’s impossibly brilliant 65-page letter home from summer camp, in which we learn that he has already died and been reincarnated several times. It was a strange, unbelievable prequel: the young man who killed himself in a Miami hotel room was actually a homegrown Dalai Lama! As character development goes, it feels desperate. It was also a retread, as the young Seymour isn’t all that different from the title character of Salinger’s story “Teddy,” another child genius touched by some kind of Zen-like divinity.
After that, the clock stopped. Salinger was dead as a writer but, in his Seymour-like way, lives on. His books have never gone out of print, and his earliest and best work remains distinct, irreplaceable, and influential. By the time he got to Hapworth, alas, he had eaten his last banana. He was 46, holed up in a remote house in tiny Cornish, N.H., living off royalties that by the mid-1980s were bringing him about $100,000 a year. He devoted what turned out to be the next half of his life to saying nothing and saying it loud enough for all the world to hear. Rumor had it he still wrote and even completed a few novels, but that remains to be seen, or not seen.
Reading Salinger’s biography is a little like reading the fiction: the more time you spend in his company, the more anxious you are to leave. As far as telling the story, this book has a lot of merit. Slawenski collates all the known facts, tracks his movements over the years, and shows how his art was shaped by both World War II and religion. He does an especially good job of putting Salinger’s experiences in context, particularly where his military years are concerned.
On the other hand, he lacks detachment. He doesn’t hide the warts, but he doesn’t always notice them. To paraphrase Updike paraphrasing Salinger, he loves the author more than God does. He does a very thorough job, however, and it’s not his fault that his subject turns into such a fusty, frosty, petulant bore.
The book starts off quite interestingly, as Slawenski presents a young man who was a little like Holden Caulfield, the narrator of Salinger’s most famous novel: born to an affluent Manhattan family, he attended prep school, and was a bit of an outsider. Far from being a self-loathing manic-depressive, he was arrogant and cocky. The family called him Sonny. He was tall, lanky, affable enough to serve on the entertainment staff of a cruise ship, and he got dates. Among his early conquests was Oona O’Neill, daughter of the playwright, whom he found attractive and classy but also vain and dull. When she dumped him for Charlie Chaplin, he turned her into Muriel Glass.
Readers know Salinger on the basis of the four slim books he allowed into print, which together give the impression he’s never been anything but mature and polished. The 22 stories that make up Salinger’s apprentice work apparently tell a different story; as described here – and Slawenski makes one wish they don’t stay uncollected forever – they were largely commercial fiction that showed promise and occasionally impressed the right people.
When the story “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” was accepted by The New Yorker in 1941, Salinger was poised to enter the big leagues. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the magazine postponed publication for five years; the story of a rich kid on a date in Manhattan, where he does a lot of drinking, talking and crying, suddenly seemed irrelevant. While the delay was a crushing blow, it probably helped Salinger in the end. He joined the Army and took his character Holden with him. He would see extensive action in the war and participate in key events: he was in Normandy on D-Day, when a full two-thirds of his division was wiped out, spent a bleak winter fighting off Nazi forces in the Hürtgen Forest and, thanks to his command of the language, even worked in counterintelligence as his regiment moved into Germany.
“The notion of J.D. Salinger rushing from house to house, seizing villains, and grilling them under naked lightbulbs might appear absurd to us today but that is exactly what happened,” Slawenski writes.
After thinking he had seen the absolute worst the war had to offer, he helped liberate Dachau. “You could live a lifetime,” he later said, “and never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose.” In the end, he would receive five battle stars and the Presidential Unit Citation for valor.
Through it all, writing in barracks and foxholes, he was finding Holden’s voice. What began as a series of stories would eventually be shaped into one long picaresque tale about a troubled kid with a messianic complex, wandering through Manhattan, pondering society at its most phony and the city at its most vomity.
“I know this boy I’m writing about so well,” he told an early editor. “He deserves to be a novel.“ The story took on a tragic dimension; the specter of dying young – like Holden’s brother 10-year-old brother Allie, who remains forever innocent — hangs over the novel. The novel’s famous final lines were Salinger’s own answer to why he would later find the war so hard to talk about: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”
The novel that resulted, The Catcher in the Rye, is a masterpiece of narrative first person voice: self-observant but not always self-aware. Holden reveals himself in ways he fully intends – cynical, smart-alecky, funny, romantic – and ways he doesn’t, exactly; he’s immature, annoying, and at times a bit of a phony himself. He speaks in a jazzy, rhythmic argot of goddam, moron, “like a bastard,” “kills me,” “depressed the hell out of me,” and ”sexy,” which can mean either attractive or horny. It’s a voice as genuine as Ishmael, Huck Finn, Humbert Humbert, or anyone else you care to name.
The war affected other Salinger stories as well. Like Sergeant X in “For Esme, With Love and Squalor,” Salinger suffered from what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder. Also, in a strange life- imitates-art-imitates-life twist, he supposedly fell in love with his first wife, Claire, because she embodied his imaginary war orphan, Esme, and would serve as the inspiration for Franny Glass.
During this time, Salinger, who was raised in a joint Catholic-Jewish household and had embraced Zen Buddhism, studied the 1,000-plus pages of The Gospels of Sri Ramakrishna, which completely changed his game. It was the book that proclaimed the gospel of Vedanta, a monotheistic religion that absorbs a lot of religious traditions, “accepting all faiths as being valid as long as they lead to the recognition of God.” As Slawenski explains: “The aim of Vedanta is to see God, to become one with God, by looking beyond the shell and perceiving the holiness within” – all of which he started working into his fiction from that point, most successfully in Franny and Zooey.
The two long stories that make up this novel have a fascinating publishing history, as both were published separately in The New Yorker and one almost didn’t make it. Fiction editors William Maxwell and Katherine White couldn’t stand “Zooey” and rejected it. Editor William Shawn not only overruled them, but also worked on the story with Salinger for months. Both stories were a huge success with readers; much less so with critics, who found both characters a couple of preening, self-absorbed, condescending ninnies – views which Norman Mailer suggested “may come from nothing more graceful than envy.”
I think the novel is the best exposition of Salinger’s own religious quest, and in a curious, roundabout way reminds me of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead; it erases the line between “religious novel” and “novel about religion.” It’s also very energetic. Slawenski ably digs away at the novels Vedantic ideas, but he misses the fact that it’s so dramatically, irrepressibly alive. He misses Franny, the greatest college girl in American Literature, with her spiritedness, her “irreproachably Americanese” figure, and her thoughts running a mile a minute as she burns through one cigarette after the next.
Speaking of which, it’s one of the greatest cigarette-smoking novels ever written. Everyone smokes like a freight train; every cigarette has character, every puff has an idea. Smoking is what releases the torrent of thoughts between the two characters as they thrash out the possibilities of praying without ceasing. Zooey drags on his stogie “as if it were a kind of respirator in an otherwise oxygenless world.” It may also be the first novel where there really is such a thing as chicken soup for the soul.
If Slawenski doesn’t always feel the verve of Salinger’s fiction, he does feel his pain, which is considerable. The man was besieged by enemies from every corner. Over and over in this book, I found myself wondering: how it is that a brave, dedicated Nazi-hunter, a genuine inglorious basterd, could get so completely sidetracked by editors who make suggestions to his precious copy or reject it, or publishers who want to pimp out his books with crass covers, or a crummy Hollywood adaptation of a story, or media invaders or readers showing up on his lawn. For a veteran of Hürtgen and Dachau, it seems like small potatoes, and nothing unusual for anyone bent on being a successful writer. But J.D. was simply not the kind of guy to weather the frustrations and get back to his typewriter. He lived in a small world that demanded unswerving loyalty. If you’re an agent like Dorothy Olding, who protects his privacy with your life, or an editor like William Shawn, you’re on the side of the angels. If you’re Story magazine editor Whit Burnett, who bungled an anthology that Salinger was banking on, or his English publisher Jamie Hamilton, who made the mistake of letting a bad paperback cover slip his notice, you’re alienated forever. Slawenski is so quick to take Salinger’s side in all this that at times he sounds like a posthumous enabler.
As far as the facts go, I found little to question outside of one: the news that “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” published in 1948, inspired Lolita would likely come as a surprise to Nabokov, who was writing his masterpiece at least as early as 1947 (longer than that if you include the early draft from 1939).
Anyone looking for clues to Salinger’s lost years is going to be disappointed: 40 pages covering 45 bland years of marital battles and legal troubles. Perhaps that’s all there is. Maybe, as Buddy Glass once said, “where there’s smoke there’s strawberry Jello, seldom fire.”
It creeps up on me in the middle of a Friday, like the gnawing sensation of possibly having left the oven on: I haven’t been reading enough Lynne Tillman. Thus I don’t know if there’s a precedent for this charming, maddening, brilliant, painstaking, and utterly mesmeric book. Certainly, there are shades of Hemingway and Stein and Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance here, passages on textiles reminiscent of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, Jamesian syntactical snarls. But the voice of Tillman’s fifth novel, American Genius, A Comedy, strikes me as sui generis. And it is the voice, gradually and then suddenly, that gives this novel its form, its heft, its suspense, and its unique quality of beguilement.Along the way, American Genius offers an effulgent answer to the question Benjamin Kunkel posed in N+1‘s recent symposium on American writing: Whither the psychological novel? The opening pages throw us into the mind of an as-yet-unnamed narrator who muses on food, farts, Eames chairs, the Manson family, her own family, and skin, among other things. In fact, this woman’s consciousness acts not like a brain but like a skin – “the body’s largest organ,” she points out. That is, her genius is not for solving problems, but for registering them. She is, as she puts it, “sensitive.” Which is another way of saying clinically neurotic. She has trouble living in her own skin, and retreats to the life of the mind.Eavesdropping on her quotidian obsessions, we slowly gather that she is middle-aged, that she has studied and taught American history, and that she has endured the loss of many loved ones. And, importantly, we learn that she has checked in to an enigmatic New England retreat for scholars, all of whom seem to be in crisis somehow – Chataqua via The Magic Mountain. An eccentric cast of characters – a man who, like my college roommate, lives nocturnally; a woman longing to commune with Kafka’s dead lover, a man who lugs his laptop to breakfast – seems to promise drama, or, like the title, comedy. The precise nature of this scholarly colony, and the narrator’s precise reasons for being there, hover at the periphery of her consciousness, and thus at the periphery of the novel. But, in the absence of a traditional plot, our questions – Why did the narrator’s brother run away from home? What is the nature of her crisis? Why this obsession with dermatology? – serve as hooks, drawing us deep into the fabric of the prose.And what prose it is. Unlike some other experimental novels, American Genius unfolds in sentences so clear as to be pellucid. Like a sensitive skin, Tillman’s language registers every flicker of doubt, every shift in the book’s emotional weather. Simple clauses, phrased perfectly and spliced with Kafkan commas, double back to bite their own tails, or to measure the tension between past and present, or to erupt, via figures of speech, into fullness of feeling. Here, for example, is the narrator – Helen, it turns out (surely not the Helen of Tillman’s earlier novel Cast in Doubt?)- ruminating on therapeutic massage:When I’m in the place I call home, where I have a young wild cat and an old, frail mother who may or may not miss me, I see a Japanese therapeutic masseuse, whose attitude toward the body is vastly different from the Polish cosmetician’s, who twice has massaged me with gentle strength and kneaded my body respectfully, though she may not respect it or me. The Japanese masseuse acts against my body, she forces it to comply, as if trouncing a truculent enemy, and I can see her wringing her hands and canvassing my legs before moving toward them, to exact revenge.And here is Helen remembering her father:I watched my father charcoal broil while sitting on the grass or on the poured concrete steps that led from the blue and gray slate patio to the storm door to the back of the house, where my mother pushed her arm through the glass, and he was happy broiling steak over a fire, which he composed of briquettes and newspaper but never doused with fuel, which would, he explain, ignite it quickly but ruin its taste.The cumulative effect of these quiet surfaces, punctured by the abrupt humor of the masseuse’s imaginary adversary or the horror of the mother pushing her arm through the glass door, is at once soothing and hair-raising. The reader is charmed and made anxious, as Helen is. Her sentences, apparently evenhanded, turn out to be deeply subjective, and in the spaces between periods, much is repressed, withheld, or held for later. Ultimately, we come to know her not as we know characters in novels, but as we know others, or ourselves… which is to say deeply and incompletely, intimately and mysteriously.But American Genius does not merely aspire to the level of character study or prose experiment. By juxtaposing Helen’s personal concerns with her scholarly ones – or, more aptly, razing the distinction between the two – Tillman is concerned to craft a national novel. “I wanted to go for it,” she tells Geoffrey O’Brien in a Bomb Magazine interview, “[to] fully write about who and where we are – or, even, how to think about being an American now.” There is a feminist daring in the way Tillman goes about her work, eschewing battle scenes or historical pastiche in favor of awkward encounters in the colony’s dining hall, private memories of watching the Kennedys on TV. Still, as in Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica – a book whose form and mission complement this one’s – a vivid sense of the Zeitgeist emerges. Tillman reaches the apogee of her powers in bravura passages where world-historical events and painful memories and wry observational comedy are all braided together, shot through with Helen’s obliquely sad sensibility. And when events in the residents conspire, as they must, to goad Helen out of her inertial rut, the smallest action feels charged with the weight of centuries.In case I haven’t made this clear already: Lynne Tillman is a writer in full command of her effects. I am reminded of my recent and belated discovery of the short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg Twilight of the Superheroes, who also made me want to kick myself for having overlooked her work for so long. These writers’ mastery is so evident (and so hard-won), that to critique either feels almost like arguing with her sensibility.Nonetheless, I’m contractually obligated to record my quibbles (that is, Max has me chained in the basement here at The Millions and is withholding my gruel). The first – really more of an open question – concerns the deployment of Helen’s considerable erudition. Usually, her factual disquisitions seem to spring organically from her private fixations – that is, from her character. Nonetheless, I found some of the more undigested chunks of learning, particularly those explaining various medical conditions, to be slack places in the novel. At times, I felt the hand of the writer directing her narrator’s consciousness to areas of thematic fertility. Is Tillman researching this? I thought. Or is Helen thinking it spontaneously? Given the generally seamless illusion of life created here, calling attention to its status as a composed artifact felt like a mistake, however interesting. These bumpy passages generally smoothed themselves out after page 100, and perhaps it’s a case of the book teaching one how to read it. Nonetheless, in a novel as deserving of broad readership as this one is, the dips into the encyclopedic may present barriers to entry.Another initial hurdle arises from the setting. As a present-tense peg on which to hang the narrator’s past, the constrained environment of the intellectual colony at first seems to limit the book’s dramatic possibilities. As in a campus novel, there’s a faint plumminess to the surroundings, and one wonders how Tillman will reconcile the ambitions of the title – American Genius – with a setting so socially attenuated… so uppercrust. That she does is a testament to her immense gifts. The novel took possession of me about a third of the way through, when Helen decided to explore beyond the confines of the colony. And it didn’t let go until the end. Even afterward, at night, in bed, I’ve found myself missing the cadences of Helen’s sentences, the surprising and bewildering turns of her mind.Unlike some other ambitious novels I can think of, American Genius doesn’t require that the reader be a genius, too. It doesn’t try to overwhelm its audience – at least not with shock and awe tactics. Nor does it condescend to us. What it does require is patience. Readers eager for plot, dialogue, characters delivered in a single stroke… the sturdy appurtenances of conventional fiction, will have to open themselves to American Genius, to surrender to its magic, to trust. But they will be richly rewarded. And perhaps even changed.Sidebar: Recent “American” Novels:American Purgatorio by John Haskell (2004)American Desert (2004) by Percival EverettAmerican Skin (2000) by Don De GraziaIn America (2000) by Susan SontagPurple America (1997) by Rick MoodyAmerican Pastoral (1997) by Philip Roth