Mrs. Millions thanks all of you for your suggestions. We stopped by the Borders today, and she selected Michael Frayn’s Headlong. She wanted to purchase The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, as well, but the staff at Borders was unsuccessful in its half-hearted attempt to locate the book for us nor did it appear to be on the new releases/bestsellers table, all of which seemed odd to me because isn’t this supposed to be one of the big books of the summer? Well, hardcovers are no good at the beach anyway, so maybe we’ll pick it up when we get back. That’s all for now; time to go catch a plane.
This story has been all over the news lately: British novelist Carole Matthews accepts payment from Ford Motor Company in exchange for having her hip main character drive a Ford Fiesta. They were loving this story on NPR, too. There is a pretty obvious knee-jerk response to this sort of thing: that it sullies the world of books, that even our hallowed bookshelves are being invaded by corporate sales pitches. But before we get hysterical, let’s take another look at this. The book in question, The Sweetest Taboo, bears the tagline: “Is nothing sacred?” and its cover is a giant shopping bag. So the main character trades in her VW for a Fiesta. So what. I’m sure she’s still wearing Fendi, drinking Starbucks, and eating biscuits. Matthews might as well get paid for all this product placement. It’s not as though this is Saul Bellow we’re talking about here. We should just expect, as a culture, that the literary equivalent of Spiderman 2 will include this sort of merchandising and move on. Speaking of which… after I’m done writing this, I think I’m going to have a nice big bowl of Cheerios (the official breakfast cereal of The Millions), and I’ll wash it down with a nice, cold Michelob Ultra (the official low carb beer of The Millions). Aaahhh refreshing.The Los YorkerAnd here’s an interesting story for all the disgruntled Californians who are tired of New Yorkers looking down their noses at them: the Villiage Voice reports that more Californians read New Yorker magazine than New Yorkers. To me, it’s not a question of which coast is more culturally significant, it’s that the national media should recognize that Los Angeles in particular represents the future of this country. The small segment of this city that gets all the press, Hollywood, is not, by far, the most compelling thing about Los Angeles. LA is important because of the huge immigrant population and because legislation that starts in Sacramento inevitably filters across the country. It doesn’t surprise me in the least to see how many Angelenos read the New Yorker. When I was told, soon after I began working at the book store, that Southern California is the country’s largest book market, I was very surprised, but having been in the middle of it, I see that it is true. The entertainment industry takes the scrutiny off of other aspects of LA. While the media is focused on premieres and award shows, hundreds of book clubs and readings and other literary events abound unnoticed and unsullied by the press. It’s a rather interesting phenomenon. As for the New Yorker, I have indeed noticed that they have been writing about California recently, but if I could suggest something to David Remnick it would be that he run more pieces in the vein of the one about the LA River a few weeks back and fewer pieces about Hollywood. Even better: someone should start a New Yorker-style magazine that’s all about Los Angeles.
In Russian, the term ostranyeniye means “the act of making strange.” In the early twentieth century, the idea was coined and used by Russian Formalists, authors and artists, who sought to make the familiar seem foreign — to make those who consumed their art question everyday words and forms.
Still Here, the third novel by Moscow-born Lara Vapnyar, bears very little resemblance to any of the experimental works by those Russian Formalists. But though her book may have more in common with the works of Jane Austen or Claire Messud, her satire is its own form of ostraneniye, as it successfully points out that the essential strangeness of what are now some of the most common elements of American life.
Still Here is the story of four Russian immigrants in New York City. There’s Vadik, certain only of what he doesn’t want; Regina, a formerly famous translator who has married a wealthy American man; Vica, stuck in Staten Island with her son and husband but certain she’s “pure Manhattan”; and Sergey, Vica’s husband, a former prodigy who dreams of developing an app — “Virtual Grave” — that allows people to communicate with the dead by preserving and recycling what they said online in life. Virtual Grave is Sergey’s final chance to prove himself the brilliant man he was always expected to become. Given his difficulty holding down a job, it’s a last shot at providing for his family — and so a point of tension in his already troubled marriage with Vica. The characters’ respective stories unfold and intersect as they, as a group, try to come to terms with death in a way that enriches life.
Vapnyar is not the first to use something like Virtual Grave in art. A short story in Adam Johnson’s excellent collection Fortune Smiles centered around a very similar concept, as did an episode of the hit television show Black Mirror. What makes Vapnyar’s book unique is neither the idea of the app nor the use of four friends trying to make it in New York City (Vica is obviously the Carrie Bradshaw of the bunch), but rather how these elements — a slightly forward-looking app and the perspective of four very different immigrants — are used together to “make strange” the modern world. There’s always someone having more fun on Facebook; always a better match out there on Tinder or OkCupid (in the book, the app is “Hello, Love!”); always someone wittier on Twitter. Except that, of course, there isn’t.
The book, like each of Vapnyar’s key players, is not without its faults. It’s a fresh take on an old theme, but it is nevertheless an old theme, and one that uses some old tropes—about New York City, about immigrants, about social media, etc. And there are points at which it feels more beach-read than smart satire. Of Regina, Vapnyar writes, “Being an introvert, she had trouble making friends.” It is the sort of sentence at which she herself might smirk elsewhere in the book.
Such shortcomings aside, Vapnyar ultimately offers a literary representation of the way we live now. She shows us America, the beautiful and absurd, managing to satirize it without ever losing sympathy for the people living in it, and certainly not for her four main characters. At one point, Regina, sure that today is the day she’ll start reading and writing again, puts off work to watch television; with the help of an app called “Eat’N’Watch,” which recommends the right food-show binge combination, she wastes hours and winds up disgusted with herself. In another moment, Vadik recalls the one-night-stand he had in New York City, who he left the next morning and who, he later realizes, he may have loved. The morning after, Vadik remembers that he had left his copy Hell Is Other People at the diner where he met the woman: “He had no idea where that diner was. He would never be able to find it again. He would never be able to go back there. Vadik felt a surge of panic and regret, so bad that it made his heart ache.”
The book gives us plenty on which to reflect. Would we want an app like Virtual Grave? What would it mean to control our own online presence after we’re dead? If we aren’t exactly living in the book’s universe of constant app updates and addiction, how far removed are we? It makes strange the world we think we know. But even within that — in the bounds and bonds of satire and reflection and ostraneniye — it manages to remind us of the humanity that existed before there was an app for that. One that will remain, we can hope, once we’ve moved on.
One more thing, I almost forgot. Oprah’s Book Club reappeared today with the odd selection of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. As always, there is a special new “Oprah” edition of the book. I think the cover for this one is by far her most self-aggrandizing yet, especially when you consider that this is a classic of American literature. Oprah’s cultish Book Club has, from the start, been offputting to real readers, and, despite the hiatus, it’s clear that little has changed. Maybe Oprah is trying to take the moral highground here by picking a book by a dead writer for whom winning the Oprah lottery could mean nothing (Steinbeck won’t be rocketing from obscurity to fame like some of Oprah’s previous annointed ones). Another plus: Steinbeck can’t pull a “Franzen” and complain about being selected. Furthermore by calling Steinbeck’s masterpiece “The book that brought back Oprah’s Book Club,” she can freely imply some kind of intellectual parity between the book and the Club. The phrasing of the blurb, as well as it’s huge font and placement on the cover, is just shocking, as though East of Eden. is some blockbuster of Oprah’s creation and not the staple of American fiction that most folks read in high school. It seems that Oprah is quite smug in her assumption that not only has the American public never read this great book, but we’d never even heard of it until Oprah was kind enough to bring it to our attention. Wonders never cease… Coming next week, another healthy dose of Harry Potter Mania. Open Wide.
The other night I saw a commercial for Polident denture cream. There’s a guy in a lab coat, a pretend dentist, who’s saying that a lot of people treat dentures like teeth even though dentures are much softer and more porous than teeth. Dentures, the guy tells us, are different to teeth. But why should I listen to him? Why should I even be able to stand him? Different to? This makes me nuts. Okay, so in England — the British Isles — it is acceptable to pair these words together, but we’re not in England. We spell realize with a z and not an s. We don’t have a monarchy. We are more discreet about our prejudices. In sum: we are different from the British. We might even be different than the British. But we are certainly not different to the British. What we are, I fear, is dumber than the British. Or getting dumb thanks to media that institutionalizes bad grammar. Ever seen that commercial for Burger King’s new line of fries? Forget what gross measures BK has taken to modulate its fry-frying technique, and focus on the message: Forty percent less fat, thirty percent less calories. If you want to get into it, there’s reason to argue that less in some contexts can be applied to countable plural nouns. Just not this one. Why couldn’t they have said: Less fat, fewer calories? Why? Because it’s not as punchy, not as advertisy, and not as indifferent to proper grammar, which is fast becoming a hallmark — even a badge of honor — for people trying to woo each other. Want to sell me something? Great, just be sure to put on your idiot face, first.
I have read a lot of dating profiles. A lot. Infer from this what you will while I make the following observation: no one equates proper grammar with sex appeal. On the contrary, the worse your punctuation, the more confident you seem that strangers will want to have sex with you. Does anyone on these websites know the difference between you’re and your? There and their? I teach creative writing to undergraduates and am frequently — daily — appalled by how bad their command is of basic language skills. Fast forward twenty years and I am seeing these same people advertise themselves on OkCupid. I love to travel. Its just my thing. Reluctant non-conformist, verging on the anarchist. AKA, “a prick”. Aka a truant, since this guy obviously skipped that class on punctuation and its placement. Here’s one I like: I’m “well educated”. It’s gotten so bad that one guy, in the “what are you looking for” section, writes: “A woman who knows the difference between its and it’s.” To me that’s like saying I want to date a person who knows the alphabet. When did the bar drop so low? And, really, why do I care? On the spectrum of world problems that need bemoaning, is bad grammar really one of them?
Yes. Yes it is.
For a lot of people, good grammar is like the opera — elitist and snobby. Never mind that opera tickets cost less than the nose-bleeders at almost any sporting event in the country or that the stories in opera are as Everyman as it gets: boy meets girl, boy loses girl. It’s all about perception. And if you say less fat, fewer calories, maybe people get the idea you are pretentious, and if pretentious, unpalatable. This is why so many of us don’t use capital letters when we email — because it looks stuffy. Which would all be fine were it not the case that bad grammar falls into the same category as bad prose writing, which heralds the depredation of our culture and the exaltation of fascism. Seems like a bold statement, and it is, until you reread George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” which seems every bit as urgent today as it must have in ’46 despite fascism’s being less potent now than it was then. In the essay, Orwell contends that imprecision (and what is poor grammar but the handmaid of imprecision?) allows propaganda to thrive. Imprecision allows you to say one thing when you really mean another, or at least to obfuscate whatever it is that you do mean. Imprecision favors political conformity by relieving all of us of the burden to think. When’s the last you heard a politician who made you think? All you heard were the same hackneyed phrases and idioms that say, in essence, go to sleep now, the machine’s well-oiled. As Charles Baxter writes in his wonderful essay “On Defamiliarization,” the kingdom is running smoothly because no one is learning anything.
Orwell was not actually all that big on grammar, though his grammar was impeccable. His bugbear was the debasement of the language thanks to dead metaphors, familiar phrases, euphemism, and vagueness. But I think bad grammar is equally dangerous. A commercial for Hill’s Ideal Balance dog food fear-mongers by telling me that my dog’s diet has too little vitamins. Gah, mini vitamins in my lab’s bowl! Guess I should run to the pet store right now. Similarly, next time a hurricane rolls into town and the government fails to provide adequate remuneration for people whose lives have been destroyed, I will be well pacified by the language coming out of Capitol Hill. Why worry? We’re stronger to the storm.