After Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut declared that his career as a novelist was over, but in recent years Seven Stories Press has collected the scattered writing he has done since his retirement into small books. A new, and perhaps more substantial, collection called A Man without a Country comes out in September. Seven Stories describes it thusly: “Based on short essays and speeches composed over the last five years and plentifully illustrated with artwork by the author throughout, A Man Without a Country gives us Vonnegut both speaking out with indignation and writing tenderly to his fellow Americans, sometimes joking, at other times hopeless, always searching.”
Posting has been light because I’m nearing the end of the quarter at school, and I am in the final stages of a very big project. And posting will probably continue to be light because I’ll be heading off on vacation as soon as school is done. I’m thinking about taking my laptop with me, but even if I do, I’m not sure how close I’ll be to the Internet. I’m excited about this vacation (we’ll be joining my family at the beach in North Carolina) not just because it’ll be a much needed break from school, but also because there’s no place I’d rather read than on vacation. On a proper vacation there are seemingly endless hours to spend with your books. I also love the way certain reading experiences become associated with certain exotic locales – and by “exotic” I mean simply “not home.” For example, last summer Mrs. Millions both read Walker Percy’s classic The Moviegoer during our honey moon in St. Maarten. The unfamiliarity of that island paradise mingled with the humidity of New Orleans where Percy’s Binx Bolling is trying to keep “despair” at bay. The book and the place where I read it combined to form a peculiar sort of dreamy memory that I love. Though I haven’t even gotten the suitcase out of the closet, I already know which four books I’ll be taking with me. I plan to finish The Count of Monte Cristo on the plane ride there. I’ve been enjoying the book immensely, by the way. After that I’m going to read Belly, a debut novel by Lisa Selin Davis that will be coming out later this summer. The publisher’s publicity compares her writing to that of Jane Smiley and Richard Russo. I’m also bringing a couple of nonfiction books: David Lipsky’s account of following a class of cadets through West Point, Absolutely American. Lipsky was originally assigned to write an article for Rolling Stone about the military academy but ended up sticking with the story for four years. I’m also bringing The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, the resident business writer at the New Yorker. The book’s premise, which is borrowed from the world of economics, is that the collective choices of large populations of people are often correct, and that it’s even possible, by setting up what amounts to a futures market for ideas, to use this effect to predict the future. A good example of this is a futures market where one can bet on who will be elected president. Such markets have been very good predictors of actual events over the years. None of these books particularly strike me as “summer reading,” but I’ll just be happy that it’s summer and that my only obligation is to read.
I got a package today from my inlaws who decided to get me five books for my birthday (which was Jan. 5). They came right off my wishlist, so, of course, they’re exactly what I wanted. Two of the five are coffee-table books. I’ll be spending a lot of time with the utterly gorgeous book The World on Sunday. Nicholson Baker and Margaret Brentano have put together really nice reproductions of Joseph Pulitzer’s colorful newspaper. Baker’s foreword and Brentano’s captions really elevate the book. I wrote more about it last month. The other big book I received is a monograph, put out by Aperture, of photography by Robert Capa. Capa is famous for his war photography from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. His photographs, all in black and white, are unflinching and powerful. He’s essential to the grand tradition of war reportage. (This one actually wasn’t on my wishlist but they knew I’d like it.) In keeping with the Capa theme, I also received his illustrated memoir of World War II, Slightly Out of Focus. I also got The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux which Andrew wrote about a few months back, and Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Oster, which I think I first heard about at Language Hat.
Eagle-eyed readers looking at the cover of the soon-to-be-released paperback edition of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King may have noticed the words “With Four Previously Unpublished Scenes.” While we haven’t seen all of the new scenes, from the example below, which we obtained from publisher Little, Brown, it appears that this extra material did not neatly correspond with the finished book but nonetheless may offer some additional context. The scenes will apparently be packaged as part of a “Reading Guide” in the new edition of the book. The first paragraph below is an explanation provided by the publisher, followed by one of the four new scenes, in full.
This scene with Claude Sylvanshine and Charles Lehrl together as roommates does not align with details of the character Merrill Errol Lehrl elsewhere in the book. But its evocation of a childhood in semirural Peoria adds to the picture of that place assembled elsewhere.
Charles Lehrl grew up not in Peoria but in nearby Decatur, home of Archer Dentists Midland and Lehrl said a city of such relentless uninteresting squalor and poverty that Peorians point with genuine pride at their city’s failure to be as bad as Decatur, whose air stank either of hog processing or burnt corn depending on the wind, whose patrician class distinguished itself by chewing gum with their front teeth. Lehrl’s narrative was that he had grown up in a mobile home the color of rotten fruit across a drainage culvert from Self-Storage Parkway, an interstate spur once built for an A. E. Staley subsidiary that had closed down when the bottom had fallen out of the pork belly market and now home to mosquitoes, conferva, shattercane, and an abundance of volunteer weeds gone hypertrophic in the outwash of nitrogen fertilizers that summertime pets disappeared in. What had kept his father from being an actual alcoholic was that being an actual alcoholic would have taken too much effort. Mr. and Mrs. Lehrl had not just allowed but encouraged the children to play in the road. The neighborhood’s only going concerns were 3.4 acres of U-Lock It self-storage units and a small rendering-plant owned by a large family of albinos that seemed constantly to grow without any sort of non-albino genetic refreshment and between all eighty-seven of them could not handle more than one animal at a time. Mr. Lehrl spent the bulk of Charles’s childhood lying on the couch with his arm over his eyes. Lehrl spoke of Decatur in the summer as if he’d grown up aloft: the flannel plains and alphabets of irrigation pipes laid down in the bean fields — Peoria and Lake James and Pekin were corn, Decatur and Springfield soybeans for the Japanese — fields simmering shrilly, blind and creamy blue skies untouched by the ADM stacks whose output was invisible but redolent and, according to rumor, flammable, mosquitoes rising as one body from the system of ditches at dusk — and detailed the highlight of those summer days, which consisted of Lehrl, his brother, and his tiny sister negotiating the ditches and fences and crossing Self-Storage Parkway to climb a Big Boy restaurant’s billboard’s support and peer through the hole that was the Big Boy icon’s (a big smiling boy in a fast food cup bearing a tray’s) left incisor to watch the rendering plant’s lone cow or swine, standing chained in the crabgrass as four or more demented albino children threw rocks and broken glass at it until whatever systems inside were in place and the animal was led into a chutelike pen at whose sides several older albinos stood on cinder blocks with hammers and small-caliber rifles, at which time Lehrl and his brother and sister would climb down and try to get back across the expressway to play in the road outside their mobile home. Often Lehrl, who had grown up not in Decatur but in Chadwick, a comfortable bedroom community outside Springfield where his father had been a finance officer in the Highway and Transit Commission and his mother a five-term Recorder of Deeds, liked to reminisce about his childhood as he and Sylvanshine relaxed with one Dorfmurderer Onion lager each during Lehrl’s half-hour unwinding period (10:40–11:10) before making his preparation to go to sleep, and Sylvanshine liked to listen, interrupting only to ask small questions or express alarm at appropriate places, if only because it aroused a kind of tenderness in him that the something manifest but inexpressible in the hydraulics of Lehrl’s smile made it so paternally clear when what he was saying was not literally true. There were an enormous number of little variables and compensations that evened out their dynamics, a kind of complex mortise-and-tenon congruity to their assets and liabilities as men and ages, and though Sylvanshine had never consciously realized it, this was one reason they had become such great friends and so preferred each other’s company to anyone else’s that they had taken the step in Philadelphia of living together, despite the appearance and consequences of this appearance to which this move subjected them. It was because Lehrl was ambitious but not in a conventional way that he had suggested the arrangement, and Sylvanshine would be forced to admit that the unconventionality of Lehrl’s ambition, and the odd self-destructive quality to many of his career decisions — despite extraordinary administrative talents and uniformly high ratings from DDs in every place he’d been posted, Charles Lehrl was still a G-2 and actually subordinate in grade to many of the people he supervised — was a big leveling — and tenderness — mechanism, since Sylvanshine’s career itself wasn’t exactly on the fast track, though once he passed the CPA exam as he surely would, he would himself be promoted to G-2 and able at least to pay exactly half of their communal expenses, an equity about which Sylvanshine fantasized as he sat alone in his leather slippers and plaid robe waiting for the inevitable third piss that every one lager equaled to assemble itself and be passed so he could go to sleep without worrying that he was just going to have to get up again just as his thoughts got pictorial and loosely associated and often toned with sepia or
even a kind of salmon/yellowy visual filter, which was usually a sign that he was genuinely falling asleep and not merely kidding himself out of a fear of insomnia and the terrible fear of what sleep-deprivation often did to his alertness and concentration the next day. There is very little room in any branch of accounting for fuzziness, sluggishness, or any sort of abstraction in one’s faculties or approach to the problems at hand. It is a pursuit of exacting care and metal-minded clarity and precision. This much Sylvanshine knew for sure.
I got a neat book in the mail the other day out of the blue. It’s a smartly packaged collection of drawings by an artist named Don Nace. The book is called Drawn Out. Nace’s strokes are like dark scratches on the page, and at first glance the drawings seemed full of tiresome, and possibly adolescent, angst. But after only a few pages I found myself quite mesmerized – drawn in, as it were – by the deceptive simplicity, the deep emotion and dark humor of the drawings. Thanks to a pointer from Ron, I see that Nace has a website where he posts a new drawing nearly every day. It’s worth checking out.