I know this is old news, but I thought I’d give my brief thoughts on the stories from the New Yorker debut fiction issue. I wasn’t bowled over any of the stories, but I was most impressed by Umwem Alpem’s “Ex-Mas Feast,” not so much for writerly virtuosity as for the glimpse of the exotic the story provides. Perhaps because so many short stories seem to be set in the suburbs, I am always drawn to stories set in faraway places. I was somewhat less impressed by Karen Russell’s “Haunting Olivia,” which I thought would have been a more successful story if it had been half as long. I did, however, enjoy how Russell injected a bit of the surreal into her story. I was also dutifully shocked upon discovering that she is only 23 years old, even though I should know that the New Yorker loves to find these fiction savants. Least interesting of all to me was Justin Tussing’s “The Laser Age,” which, at first glance, I thought was going to be a story of the twisted not to distant future, but instead was just another mismatched boy-meets-girl tale.
In the back of the winter issue of n+1, you’ll find both a revised version of the defense of literary weblogs I posted here last spring and a response from Marco Roth. It speaks well of the magazine that it would publish dissent as well as invite it (which is also, of course, a hallmark of the “lit-blog.”) And, as I’m still doing my best to puzzle out some of the pros and cons of this new and evolving medium, I thought I might call your attention to an object lesson: the debate over B.R. Myers’ review, in The Atlantic Monthly, of Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke.It’s often a blessing that comment-thread controversies blow over without getting wider notice. Ideas that seem vital one week may seem irrelevant the next. But in my view, the conversation developing around Myers and Johnson – at Rake’s Progress, at The Beiderbecke Affair, and now at Ed’s place – illustrates some of the positive critical capacities of the medium.That conversation began in the kind of intemperate name-calling n+1 might deride – “B.R. Myers is Satan”; “Who’s the Wanker?” – but it has broadened to encompass a number of substantial controversies – the responsibilities of the reviewer; the state of American fiction; politics and the English language. And it has helped me better understand Denis Johnson’s prose style.When I read, and enjoyed, Tree of Smoke in June, I felt that its style was both an asset and a liability. Certainly, Johnson is an unusual stylist. And yet, when the first reviews and blurbs began to appear, I was surprised at how little attention was paid to his diction and syntax. “Prose of amazing power and stylishness,” Philip Roth said, without bothering to explain how or why. Jim Lewis’ piece in The New York Times Book Review amounted to a bizarre kind of abdication. Only John Jeremiah Sullivan, writing in Harper’s, engaged with Johnson at the level of the sentence.In my own review (which I’m embarrassed to note also references n+1; this is turning into a bad habit), I attempted to account for what I felt was Johnson’s wide margin of error. “Though there are passages and even pages through which I itched to run my workshopper’s pencil,” I wrote, “I would trade a dozen finely calibrated domestic comedies for a single chapter of Tree of Smoke.[Johnson’s] sentences and dialogue, flirting with the poetic, violate the canons of understatement. Like the sentences of D.H. Lawrence, they seem to depend on the supernatural for inspiration. They may not always find it, but they are alive to the possibilities of language.To his credit, B.R. Myers, too, would pay attention to Johnson’s sentences. Regrettably, he would pay little attention to anything else (the context in which those sentences appear, for example). His review does make a couple of copy-editorial catches: Would Buddhists think of their own icons as “bric-a-brac?” Can “someone standing in […] a noisy place hear even his heartbeat, let alone his pulse?” In never moving beyond fastidiousness, though, Myers’ Atlantic review takes on the flavor of agenda-driven cherry-picking. It attempts to persuade us, by fiat, that a sentence such as the novel’s first – “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed.” – is bad.Critiques of Myers’ motivations and methods are abundant elsewhere; I won’t rehearse them here. But I wanted to point out what lit-blogs managed to do with that last sentence, which hadn’t been done elsewhere. In an anonymous comment at The Beiderbecke Affair (anonymous because overheated and not fully thought through), I wrote: I like the way that pluperfect “had,” strategically ungrammatical, sets us up to expect something to happen in the imperfect. Something has happened, the sentence tells us. Yes, Kennedy has died, but something else…something, presumably, more personal. Thus does the book announce (quietly) its aspirations to be something more than the settled history Myers – a myopic literalist – seems to wish it was.Then a commenter named Alan (who disagreed with some of my bloviations), suggested, This is quite right. Kennedy died at 1 PM US Central Time, which would have been 1 AM in Vietnam. So the sentence “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed” is not actually trying to say that Kennedy died (perfect tense) at that time. That wouldn’t make sense. What the sentence is doing is evoking the experience of a character who is awoken in the middle of the night in Vietnam to the news that Kennedy HAD BEEN killed. This narrative immersion in a character’s point of view can also be seen in the following passage… Alan’s comment is, I think, a small but meaningful exemplar of the critical capacities of an interactive medium, and of what close-reading actually does. Were this a seminar (which, at its best, the comment-thread approximates), the instructor might be saying, “Yes. Yes!” Rather than dismiss an unusual sentence, Alan moves from a puzzle over its meaning (centered on the verb tense) to an intuition (we’ve been thrown, without comment, deep into a character’s point of view) that illuminates an important part of the formal architecture of the whole work.One wants only to add that a serious literary essay has at least two possible registers of persuasion. It can persuade those who haven’t read the book, and then it can persuade those who have. I often feel that Myers is addressing himself almost exclusively to an audience that hasn’t read the work under review, and that his aim is to convince them not to bother. Like Myers, I’ve been disappointed by Annie Proulx and Rick Moody in the past. But, having read them, I’m troubled by the gap between my experience of their work and the experience of their work Myers constructs. A good-faith critic should aim to write an essay that can be revisited after one has read the work and that will not then seem to collapse into flatulence. I admire this about James Wood. His essays are attempts to understand, rather than attempts to seem in-the-know, and they challenge me even when I disagree with them. In this way, he, too, offers a model of what literary discourse on the web can be. On the other hand, the valuable lit-blog conversation about Tree of Smoke seems to have arisen despite, rather than because of, the merits of B.R. Myers’ remarks in print.
Last fall, a student at Academy of Art University in San Francisco was expelled for writing an extremely violent short story for a creative writing class. In the fallout, the instructor was dismissed after it was revealed that she had assigned the class to read a somewhat graphic story by David Foster Wallace prior to the incident. At the end of March the San Francisco Chronicle broke the story and incited a furor among a number of the country’s literary luminaries. I first heard about this at Scott McCloud’s blog (scroll down to 4/4). McCloud had heard about the scandal from Neil Gaiman (author of American Gods and many others), who had been the recipient of an email sent out by Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket, the children’s author, after Handler was barred from speaking at the Art Academy. Handler’s forceful ejection was recounted here, where we also see that Dave Eggers and Michael Chabon are going on the attack. All of which brings us to today’s opinion piece in the New York Times, in which Pulitzer prizewinner (for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) Chabon muses in a pleasantly obscure way about being a teenager under a headline that, rather oddly, references Jonathan Lethem’s most recent novel. So, what does this all mean? Here’s my prediction: Team American Contemporary Writers will place enough pressure on the Academy of Art that it will be forced to issue a public apology. The fired instructor will get hired at another liberal-leaning university, and the expelled student will sign a lucrative book deal on his way to becoming the next Bret Easton Ellis. Most folks who are commenting on this believe that it is indicative the American fear of the teenager that lingers from Columbine. That is most definitely true, but it is also indicative of the fact that the Academy of Art University in San Francisco faculty and administration don’t seem to be very adept at handling a minor crisis, nor are they particularly well-read. Gaiman mentions this on his blog: “according to Daniel Handler they got a letter of remonstrance from Salman Rushdie, and didn’t recognize the name,” and according to the Chronicle story, “[the Academy of Art administration was] none too pleased that the instructor was teaching Wallace’s story. “Nobody had ever heard of him,” [the instructor] said. “In fact, they kept calling him George Foster Wallace.” (Thanks to my friend Brian for forwarding the Times op-ed to me this morning.)
Mayor Daley announced the latest “One Book, One City” selection for Chicago today. I don’t know if anyone pays much attention to these recommendations now that the OBOC craze has faded a bit, but the book is worth reading. The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark is a somewhat forgotten classic from 1940, a spare but stirring tale of morality in the lawless Old West. I recommend it highly whether you live in Chicago or not.
At first glance, Beaux Arts Video didn’t look like much. A cramped storefront on Tenth and Spruce Streets in Philadelphia, it was a few hundred square feet of worn carpet, handmade shelves, and ceilings that dripped when it rained. The front of the shop, bright and neatly kept, was devoted to new releases; a larger, scruffier section, down a short flight of steps, held the rest of its aging stock, VHS to DVD, classics to pure dreck.
Despite its shortcomings, Beaux Arts managed a modest greatness. Its overstuffed racks spoke like an ardent fan who loved Tootsie, Marty, and Zardoz pretty much equally. When my wife and I moved to Philadelphia in the summer of 2001, we found ourselves there most nights, our eyes aglaze with choice. Kirsten browsed upstairs, moving slowly from row to row; I poked around downstairs, searching for something weird: Delicatessen, Logan’s Run, maybe A Boy and His Dog. A section of “Great Directors” included Hawks, Wilder, and for some reason, Zemeckis. A shadowy horror section held oversized VHS cases that I’d invariably inspect while muttering, “What the fuck is this?” This was where I discovered some of our culture’s crowning glories: Invasion of the Blood Farmers, Humanoids From the Deep, and Basket Case 3: The Progeny.
The early 2000s were a time of growing pressure for Beaux Arts, and it worked admirably to keep up. Rather than add porn or Jujubes—tactics that succeeded briefly for some small video stores—it responded with cinematic novelty, as if that might stanch the bleeding. They stocked the obscure, the foreign, the Criterion-collected. Short of a spike in Tarkovsky rentals, these would never turn a profit, but their presence made a statement: someone, at least on one corner of one city, still tried to give a shit.
By the latter half of the decade, though, the slide was irreversible: if Blockbuster had been injurious, Netflix was a cancer. And so was On Demand, Hulu, and the thousand other ways we now put stories before our eyes. Suddenly, the shop was superfluous; it might as well have sold whale oil. I’d sometimes spend twenty minutes there, seeking hidden treasure, and become acutely aware that I was the only customer.
Inevitably, Kirsten and I drifted away from Beaux Arts as well, an act of civic hypocrisy. We lived in a city in part because of places like Beaux Arts—shops and parks and streets that, like remote island flora, cannot exist elsewhere in exactly the same form. Beaux Arts had Lance, the quiet and amiable manager, who ran a site inspired by films that disturbed him as a kid. A shoebox near the register was filled with scraps of paper, each bearing a title—Alphaville was one—for the indecisive renter. A dry-erase board behind the counter, its margins filled with doodles, bore a list of new releases. When a movie was out, a frowny-face was drawn next to its title. In the last couple of years, there were very few frowny faces, and we were rarely there to see them.
Say what you will about the dehumanizing effects of technology—I’m not kidding here; I will never tire of it—but its speed and ease eventually erodes all argument. Rather than walk a few pleasant blocks and chat with a friendly clerk, we clicked and clicked and clicked until Beaux Arts finally fell. The decline was graceless and swift.
First, prices rose. Then the “Recent New Releases” section gave way to shelves of snacks—sad, hand-bagged Ziplocs of almonds and cashews. Last came the sale of “Vintage Entertainment Ware,” half of the store inexplicably given to antique snifters and china. My “What the fuck is this?” was now reserved for the shop itself, and I instinctively stayed away. Its desperation was too plain.
The “Final Days” signs went up a couple of weeks ago. A sheet of paper taped to the door read, “All DVDs $2.00.” I went in to see if, like the boy in The Giving Tree, I could strip my old friend of everything as it died of what I’d caused. The leavings were appropriately grim: Stuck on You, Corky Romano, disc two of Kirstie Alley’s Big Life. I wasn’t disappointed, though; I didn’t really want anything. Since we’d opened our account a decade before, the concept of ownership had changed. The impressive stoutness of a two-tape set—Nixon or Titanic—now seemed faintly insane. Home DVD collections were beginning to feel like clutter, and I needed no more of that. My eyes ran across the shelves. This was where my wife and I had fallen for Paul Newman, Katherine Hepburn, Freaks and Geeks. It had brought us Miyazaki and Kurosawa, Ashby and Altman. I’d once run here in the rain to get more episodes of Six Feet Under.
Such a thing would never happen again. Through no fault of its own, Beaux Arts had become a room full of junk. I nodded to the clerk, who I didn’t recognize, and got the hell out of there. Beaux Arts Video was dead—and despite all it had given me, I felt a shameful relief.
(Image copyright the author)
It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned Alvaro Mutis here. His book, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, is one of my all-time favorites. Unfortunately, though Mutis deserves to be counted among the greats of Latin American literature, aside from Maqroll, not much of his work is available in English, which is why I was excited to see that he’s written the forward to a new book that sounds interesting in its own right. The Adventures of a Cello follows the path of a cello known as the Piatti that was made by Antonio Stradivari in 1720. According to the book description:Over the next three centuries of its life, the Piatti cello left its birthplace of Cremona, Italy, and resided in Spain, Ireland, England, Italy, Germany, and the United States. The Piatti filled sacred spaces, such as the Santa Cueva de Cadiz, with its incomparable voice. It also spent time in more profane places, including New York City bars, where it served as a guarantee for unpaid liquor tabs. The Piatti narrowly escaped Nazi Germany in 1935 and was once even left lying in the street all night.Since 1978, the Piatti has been owned by Carlos Prieto, the author of this book and friend of Alvaro Mutis.