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.
The modern novel seems to have always been about the self – so often characters are drawn from life, episodes derive from anecdotes, the narrator from the author himself. Modern writers are not slapping together memoirs and changing the names and places. They are much more graceful about it. It is more accurate to say that a certain type of novel is really a set piece constructed to illuminate the world inhabited by its author, as a lantern might shed light upon the interior of a cave, throwing some surfaces into sharp relief while leaving other nooks and crevices shrouded in shadow.In the interest of full-disclosure, I should mention that I have always been irked by Franzen’s often autobiographical non-fiction (most of it is collected in How to Be Alone). There are several bothersome things about Franzen that are revealed by his non-fiction: his inability to conceal his belief in his own inarguable specialness, a tendency to dwell on his social troubles as an adolescent, a need to divide the world into two camps (typically for him and against him) whenever he discusses anything. All in all, he has the demeanor of someone who had it rough in junior high and has now exacted his revenge by becoming successful. It just doesn’t feel graceful to me. Before I read The Corrections, I knew I would be bothered by whichever of the qualities he employs in his non-fiction were also present in his fiction.Yet, there is no way around it. Franzen wrote a very successful, very perceptive novel about what it means to be an adult in this day and age. His characters: Chip, bitterly unwilling to see his difficulties as the result of his own mistakes; Denise, sexually confused and professionally driven; Gary, who believes in family but must bully and acquiesce to mean-spirited impulses in order to serve this belief; Enid, a meddler who desperately wants her freedom; and Alfred, a proud man, decimated by disease, are typical people, borderline cliches even, that he has infused with complexity and emotion so that they are real enough to walk and talk among us. They are spectacular in their ordinariness, in the similarity of their problems to our own troubles or the troubles of people close to us.A glance at the fiction in the New Yorker in any given week will, more often than not, contain these types of characters, though not as fully realized as in The Corrections. There is, now, a tradition of this sort of story, stories about what it means to have been alive in the past fifty years. These stories are full of neuroses and addictions, the small-scale crises of individuals blown up bigger than life size. Any collection of short stories from the 1970s will include a number of stories like this. This tradition perhaps begins in earnest with the stories of Joyce Carol Oates and Raymond Carver (see What We Talk About When We Talk About Love). There are many others too, from this time; Ann Beattie is another good one. And the traditions continues up through the present with Dave Eggers, a fervent practitioner of late, and the majority of Pulitzer Prize winners from the last 25 years.This type of story or novel is adept at focusing intently upon modern life, dissecting its minutiae. These writers provide no escape for the reader, only mastery in wielding the microscope. There should, of course, be no limits on fiction, and this novel of the self should not be abandoned. In fact, it is valuable in its insights, in its pertinence to the readers’ own circumstances. However, why not embrace the limitlessness of the form, why not devote more time and energy to seeking out the stories that are waiting in the ether to be told, that are not so grounded by their concrete relevance to the experiences of the reader? This perhaps sounds like a defense of genre writing, but that too seems limiting to me. The Corrections may be the best “novel of modern life” or “novel of the self” ever written, but we shouldn’t expect excellence from that type of book alone. There are too many senseless barriers to the one thing that lies at the heart of all this fiction: imagination.
Jonathan Lethem’s new book The Fortress of Solitude comes out today. Here is my review:Now it is Jonathan Lethem’s turn to write a “big book.” The breakout success of his last novel, Motherless Brooklyn, set the stage for an eagerly anticipated follow-up. As if borrowing from the title of his previous book, Lethem’s two protagonists grow up motherless in Brooklyn. One is Dylan Ebdus, whose father is a morose and cloistered artist and whose mother is a frenetic but flaky hippy, who, before she is distracted away from their rugged corner of Brooklyn, is determined to blend her white family seamlessly into the black neighborhood. For Rachel Ebdus, gentrification is a dirty word. Next door lives young Mingus Rude, son of soul superstar Barrett Rude, Jr, a brooding musical genius who permits himself to slide into a sort of secluded decay. The two boys are ostensibly best friends, but as is perhaps more true to life, their adolescent lives intertwine, split apart, and become intimately joined as they make their way warily through a minefield of street-borne dangers. The dangers are different for each boy, more often than not according to skin color, but to say that this is a novel about race would be to simplify in a way that Lethem does not.In the second part of the novel, Dylan is all grown up, and still sorting things out. He doesn’t know what it means to have had such a peculiar upbringing, but he knows that if he weren’t white, he would probably be in prison like Mingus. His black girlfriend accuses him of collecting poor black people as she looks at his obsessive music collection and mementos from his youth.There is to this book, as there has been to Lethem’s others, a supernatural element, a fantastical token that lifts the story from the realm of reality. With the chaos that surrounds them, it comes as no surprise that young Dylan might see a homeless man named Aaron X. Doily fall from the sky, or that, having found Doily’s secret, Dylan and Mingus might become a couple of low rent super heroes. This fantasy realm never becomes the point of the story; if anything, it underscores the insurmountable mania of the world around them. Lethem’s insistent devotion to music is perhaps a more dominant trope, and the timeframe of the novel allows him to delve into soul and rap and punk in an enjoyably voyeuristic sort of way.It is exciting to watch an author like Lethem put together a largely successful, career-changing type novel. This is a deserving book that a lot of people will read. Look for Lethem to join Jonathan Franzen and Michael Chabon at the top of the youngish American writers heap.
Pete Dexter’s new book Train comes out October 7th. Here is my review:In the grand tradition of Los Angeles noir, Pete Dexter’s new novel Train, is framed in black and white by the minds eye. Yet Dexter has applied his considerable skill to softening the edges; it is delicately written noir.Train is the nickname of Lionel Walk, a black caddy at a posh Brentwood country club, whose world seems populated only by malevolent forces: the crass racism of the country club members, the criminal element among his fellow caddies, and the undisguised malice of his mother’s lover. In the same city, and yet, of course, in another world entirely, a woman named Norah is brutally attacked and her husband is murdered while they are on their yacht, anchored off the coast. Norah manages to escape into the arms of Miller Packard, whom Train will later dub “Mile Away Man,” which sets the book careening towards its inevitable conclusion. Packard is brilliantly written as both heroic rescuer and herald of malevolent chaos.The mystery inherent in this book is not of the whodunit variety – we know from the start who commits the murder on the yacht – rather it is to see which of the forces that seem to inhabit Packard will win out in the end. In fact, one of the strengths of the book is Dexter’s ability to embody his characters with such ethereal qualities. Packard seems as though he has been touched by some unmentioned force that torments him. Train, meanwhile, has been similarly touched, and though this force is of pure benevolence, one cannot be sure if it will be strong enough to lift him from his circumstances. Train turns out to be, of all things, a golf prodigy, which would be a lucrative gift for almost anyone except someone in Train’s circumstances. Instead, his unaccountable proficiency serves only to further enmesh his life with that of Packard and Norah and a blind former boxer named Plural.Train is bleak but captivating. The book unfolds in front of you, and you find yourself not wanting to look away.
Some of you may know that I’m currently up to my ears in grad school applications. Luckily, posting on The Millions has a salutary effect on me, and also, I just finished a book, so I need to write about it. Jamesland opens with Alice, great-granddaughter of philosopher William James, having an odd waking dream of a deer in her house. Alice fixates on the deer as a portent of a coming change in her life, and the very next day her life begins to change slowly and inexorably. The book does not dwell on the supernatural, though it does have a bemused dialogue with the otherworldly throughout. Mostly it is about three forty-somethings whose social and professional lives are deteriorating and reconfiguring. I’d call it a mid-life crisis, but these characters have that quality, peculiar to Californians, of being youthful, unserious adults. The book is mostly set on the East Side of Los Angeles in neighborhoods that I know well. It was great to read a book that addresses a somewhat larger Los Angeles than usual. Movie stars are around, and Hollywood is nearby, but they are just parts of the great stew of the city, things that are noticed but after a while not accorded any greater importance than things like Griffith Park or the LA River. The only other book that I have read that successfully turns LA’s flashy side into just another bit of peripheral scenery is T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Huneven is well-known in Los Angeles as the food critic for the LA Weekly, and the way she writes about food in this book is magnificent. Pete (who along with Helen, a modern sort of minister, are the other two wayward adults) is a former near-celebrity chef who is recovering from a nervous breakdown, suicide attempt combo. His character is both abrasive and charming, the type of person who makes you nervous the moment he steps into the room. As he coaxes himself back into the functioning world, he takes up cooking again, and this is the venue for Huneven’s descriptions of foods. It was nice to see that Huneven did not place this book firmly in the world of food and restaurants in the way that many writers tend to crib from their day jobs. Instead, Huneven manages to weave her knowledge skillfully into the larger narrative. The book itself is a rather satisfying meal, best taken over a few languorous days on a sunny balcony or sitting on a park bench.
I have touched upon Stephen King‘s much maligned reputation from time to time on this blog, and so it was a real pleasure to read a book that reinforced all of the things that I like about his writing. King’s aim is, first and foremost, to entertain his reader, to engage him, to reach out from the page and take hold of him. This seems like something that every writer would want to do, but how true is that really? It seems like most writers want to create something that is either “good” or “successful,” those being code words for “literary” and “bestseller,” respectively. Which writers, however, tell you again and again that they wish most of all to entertain? Few, if any, besides Stephen King have this aim. Read the introduction to Everything’s Eventual or any of On Writing or the various non-fiction pieces he has written over the years and you will see that this is true. King entertains by pulling his reader in, by talking to him from the page. If King is really rolling, as you are reading you will feel as though you are being addressed by him. The short story, with its tight structure and limited length, proves to be especially potent when combined with King’s desire to take you in. He leads you one way, then another. He steps over the line and gives you gore, but only because it is absolutely necessary, and when you finish a story you feel like you’ve been for a ride; it’s a giddy feeling. And in this book you get it 14 times. I’ve also always enjoyed King’s rapport with his readers. He is not aloof about his writing, and telling his readers about his writing seems as enjoyable to him as writing the books themselves. In Everything’s Eventual each story is either preceded or followed by a page explaining how the story came to be. There is no coyness about such things; just as there is no coyness in King’s fiction. These stories speak for themselves, they are about what they are about, so what’s wrong with a little background info? In fact, I think King recognizes that it is normal for readers to be curious about such things, and, not caring what a critic might think of such a move, he chooses, as he usually does, to indulge his readers. Why, does he bother doing this… any of this? I think it is because he is a born writer who happens to derive joy from a pastime that most people, including many of the most praised writers who ever walked the earth, find lonely and torturous. I love reading Stephen King because, in his typically insidious way, when I read his books it makes me wish that all of my reading were that fun.Shirley Hazzard‘s The Great Fire is jumping to the front of the “Reading Queue” because I have to read it for the book club I run. Also, you may have noticed that the comment function has disappeared. Blogspeak, my comment host, was run out of business by its hosting company and now all of their accounts are in the process of being transferred over to Halo Scan. I hope this happens soon because I miss all of your little voices.
I finished the book yesterday during a long afternoon spent in bed recovering from my illness. It was an especially fitting setting. The Great Fire is full of languid afternoons and young men beset by obscure diseases and weary from the war. I enjoyed the setting; the sense of war nearby, war recently ended and perhaps soon to be reignited. It was like a less bleary version of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises it also reminded me a lot of the film Casablanca, but maybe just because I happened to watch it around when I started reading the book. The book revolves around a couple of former soldiers, Aldred Leith and Peter Exley, who have been cast far and wide, to Japan and Hong Kong respectively, in the aftermath of World War II. They are surrounded on all sides by others, women and older folks, whose lives have been similarly touched by the war, and all of whom seem to be searching in vain for normalcy in the aftermath of shattering conflict. The central drama of the book concerns a budding love affair between Leith and a student of his, Helen Driscoll. Helen’s dull and menacing parents as well as the vast age difference between Aldred and Helen set up what turns out to be a fairly filmic love story. The chief drama for the reader lies both in wending one’s way through Hazzard’s elliptical, lyrical prose and in wondering whether or not the May – December romance will ever be consummated.
I came to read this book because last summer I was given, unexpectedly, a review copy of Dexter’s latest book, Train; (my review). I had never heard of Dexter at the time, but I loved the book, and when Dexter came to the book store to do a reading, I made sure I was in attendance (he turned out to be a very engaging guy) and had him sign a copy of Paris Trout for me. And now I’ve gotten around to reading that very same book. Paris Trout centers around a character of the same name. Though he is clearly a psychopath, he has money and is a business man, so his violent nature is ignored by the citizens of his small town, Cotton Point, Georgia. The book opens with an attack by Trout on a local black family. The town’s white population does not want to be seen siding with a black family against a white man, so, from then on they turn a blind eye towards Trout and allow him to bully the legal system. Also involved in this hard boiled drama are Trout’s wife Hanna and Harry Seagraves, Trout’s good-guy lawyer. The book is framed as the story of a very bad man terrorizing a sleepy town, but the amazing thing about it is the way Dexter slowly turns the tables until it becomes clear that the complacency of the townspeople is a far greater sin than the murderousness of someone who lives among them. Though it reads like genre fiction with gripping suspense and at times remarkable violence, the subtle play on the psychology of a small town elevates the book to a remarkable literary novel. Although, I should say, if this book were not as deep and were merely a legal thriller, I would still have found it to be fantastic based on the strength of Dexter’s writing. A great book. (Another Dexter post).Next UpI am now embarking upon Edith Grossman’s translation of Miguel De Cervantes’ classic, Don Quixote. After that I’ll be reading Walker Percy’s underappreciated classic The Moviegoer
The Known World feels like a book that took a long time to write. The writing proceeds at a slow but churning pace. Jones meticulously ties each character to one another, to the land, to the curious circumstances of the “peculiar institution” of slavery. We are taught in school that slavery was a black and white affair, but Jones takes great pains to describe a human landscape where such distinctions are blurry: the most powerful man in Manchester County, William Robbins, dotes upon the two children he has fathered with his slave, Philomena; Oden, the Indian, exaggerates his cruelty towards blacks to maintain his tenuous superiority; and Henry Townsend, the gifted young black man at the center of this novel, acquires a plantation full of slaves from which discord flows, imperceptibly at first. The lesson is the messiness of slavery made real by the vivid lives of each character. Over the course of the novel, Jones sketches out each character, from birth to death, using deft flashbacks and flash-forwards that are scattered throughout like crumbs and give the book a marvelous depth. In this sense, the book reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The book ends before the Civil War begins, and so the triumph of good over evil is not allowed to mitigate the brutal picture of slavery that Jones paints. Perhaps because it was so assiduously researched, this novel feels like history and it feels like life. Here’s hoping that Jones’ next one doesn’t take ten years to write.