Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man without a Country is turning into something of a surprise success thanks to prominent TV appearances and the fact that his essays appear to strike a chord with many Americans. From today’s AP story: “The book has reached the top 10 on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com, and publisher Seven Stories Press has already more than doubled its first printing, from 50,000 copies to 110,000.” Vonnegut has also taken the opportunity to remark on the onset of old age: “He jokes, sort of, that he has ‘lived too long’ and wishes he had been finished off by a fire at his home a few years ago, from which he escaped unharmed. ‘When Hemingway killed himself he put a period at the end of his life; old age is more like a semicolon,’ Vonnegut said with a wheezy laugh worthy of a long-term chain smoker.”
Gogol's The Overcoat and Flaubert's A Simple Heart have in common narrators who are, at least initially, satisfied with what I think many would consider very meager lives. They are both poor, single, friendless, both workers whose work (a clerk who copies documents in a Russian government office, and a maid of all work in a French bourgeois household) does not seem particularly meaningful or interesting. And yet they are both content. Deeply content: "After working to his heart's content, he would go to bed, smiling at the thought of the next day and wondering what God would send him to copy. So flowed on the peaceful life of a man who knew how to be content with his fate." This is Gogol describing his hero, but the description easily applies to Flaubert's Felicité.Teaching these stories this week, I was not surprised exactly, but bemused, by the various shades of contempt my students showed toward these characters' lives - By and large, they found Akaky and Felicité sad, pathetic, depressing. These brightest of the bright seemed to view with horror the notion of being satisfied with so little, with such colorless, pleasureless lives. And who can blame them, when their own lives have already delivered so much more?Hobbes wrote, "For as to have no desire, is to be Dead." And I can see that the sort of lean, desire-less lives that Flaubert and Gogol's heroes live are a sort of death-in-life. But I also envy their contentment. Contentment - the state of having all you want - is so rare. The peacefulness of such a state seems incomprehensible to me and somewhat otherworldly. It also seems that the possession of such a state erases, for the possessor at least, what appears from the outside to be small and sad life. ("There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so," as Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.)A final note on these questions, in the form of an anecdote: Diogenes of Sinope, a Greek philosopher who lived by choice as a beggar and rejected all concepts of property, manners, and social and political organization, was visited one day by Alexander the Great. Diogenes was sunning himself on a hillside as Alexander approached and when Alexander asked if there was anything he could offer the philosopher, Diogenes replied: "Stand out of my sunlight." According to Plutarch, Alexander then declared: "If I was not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes."
One of my roommates moved out last summer, but he hasn't changed his address so we still get a lot of his mail. Every month or so he comes by to pick up another mound of ephemera. It seems mostly to be junk mail and cell phone bills, but the occasional magazine can be found jutting from the pile. Today, in fact, I couldn't help but notice the corner of the most recent issue of Esquire peeking out from under envelopes and circulars, and on that corner of glossy magazine cover I could see the words "The Best Books of 2003," so, naturally, I took a gander. It's not much of a list. They asked eight of their writers to name their favorite book of the year, so there are eight random books on the page, each with a blurb. Still, it gives us something to talk about. Here they are (with my comments, of course): Stagolee Shot Billy by Cecil Brown: I had forgotten about this book, but I remember when it came out it sounded very interesting. In the book, Brown, a literature professor at UC Berkeley, tries to discover the truth behind the legend of Stagger Lee, a quasi-mythical figure who is the inspiration for hundreds of versions of the seminal blues song of the same name. It sounds like a really interesting book, full of folklore and roots music. The book's official website offers up a couple dozen versions of the song (along with a neat map showing when and where they originated) for your listening pleasure.Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis: I feel like I spent most of the summer talking about this book. If you've been lurking around here for that long you'll remember. Several folks have called it "the book of the year," and it's hard to argue otherwise. The book is extremely compelling on many levels, even for a non-baseball fan, as it delves into psychology and economics and business. For a baseball fan the book approaches divine.What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller: I think I've mentioned this one, too. It was short-listed for the Booker Prize. In it, a prudish, old schoolteacher recounts the indiscretions of a younger colleague's dalliances with a 15-year-old student. What starts as a clearcut case, slowly turns itself inside out.Life of Pi by Yann Martel: Hmmm... didn't this book come out last year? Anyway, this one won the Booker in 2002 and has been a slow burn sensation. It was released to modest acclaim, began to sell well on word of mouth, won the Booker, and never looked back. The paperback edition still appears on many major bestseller lists. I, for one, am still dying to read it, but haven't gotten to it yet. Everyone I know who has read it (including my grandmother who is one of the "best" readers I know) adores this book about a boy and a tiger.BBQ USA: 425 Fiery Recipes from All Across America by Steve Raichlen: Mmmmm, BBQ. Actually, BBQ is a major American cultural artifact, with countless versions (at least 425) betraying the rich regional diversity of American cooking, which reminds me, some friends of mine have been working for over a year now on a BBQ documentary called Barbecue is a Noun. Sounds pretty tasty.Platform by Michel Houellebecq: Somehow it seems inevitable that Esquire would name this among the best books of the year. I know that there are some serious Houellebecq fanatics out there, but I'm afraid I don't get it.Rumble, Young Man, Rumble by Benjamin Clavell: Released last spring to stellar reviews, this book surely ranks among the top two or three short story collections released this year.Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers by Katy Lederer: I hadn't really heard of this one, but it's one of those "f'd-up-childhood" memoirs, but this time it's not about being the child of shrinks or mobsters, but gamblers instead. This sort of book has really become a genre of its own and is therefore getting somewhat tiresome; on the other hand, the jacket of this particular book features a blurb from none other than the late, great George Plimpton so it must be good.Actually, that list turned out to be pretty fun.
If you need to get your Murakami fix, but can't stomach the idea of picking up After Dark, here's your solution.Written in 1980, Pinball, 1973 was Murakmai's second novel. It was published by Kodansha and has been out of print for several years, although it's available at Amazon for a whopping $225.The book is part of the "Trilogy of the Rat" (actually four books), which begins with Murakami's first book, Hear the Wind Sing and includes A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance (probably my favorite of his books). Apparently, Murakami refuses to allow either Hear the Wind Sing or Pinball, 1973 to be published outside of Japan, which is ironic, considering both of them are, in my opinion, far superior to either Sputnik Sweetheart or After Dark. This translation, linked below, along with Hear the Wind Sing, was done by Alfred Birnbaum for Japanese readers trying to learn English.The story is classic Murakami, before that became a bad thing. A rootless man who loves Dostoevsky spends his days looking for a hard to find part for a classic pinball machine. Mysterious twins move into his apartment. There's a well and a cat. While it's no masterpiece, it's a good read for Murakami fans and those looking for a place to get started with his oeuvre.Here's a link to a PDF of Birnbaum's translation of Murakami's Pinball, 1973.Bonus link: Some fan-translated short stories I stumbled on while researching this.Update 9/17: The link to the PDF has been fixed.Update 3/8/09: The link to the PDF has been fixed again!
On my way home from work on Thursday, I was driving down Sunset Blvd. In the mornings, groggy and unobservant, I will take any old route to work as I focus mostly on getting there on time and the cup of coffee I will consume once I arrive. In the afternoons I am antsy and Sunset Blvd. provides the distractions necessary to take my mind off the ridiculous amount of time that it takes me to get home. While Los Angeles traffic is generally a constant in my mind, the entertainment provided by the prostitutes (trans-sexual and otherwise), the idle rich, and the ambulant insane are the variables that keep me from glazing over entirely. So it came to be on Thursday afternoon that I was amused, but not the least bit shocked as I watched a time-worn scene unfold as I waited at a red light at the intersection of Sunset and Highland. In front of me an over-tan gentleman in a silver BMW convertible leaned aggresively towards the healthful blonde who was sitting on a bench waiting for the bus. I was listening to my Steely Dan Greatest Hits tape, and the AC was turned all the way up. The blonde's uncomplicated smiles and nods were reflected in the Beamer guy's wraparound sunglasses, and in some part of my brain I was repeating over and over again, "please don't get in the car. Please don't get in the car." With a shrug and a smile she bounded over and jumped in, and the creepy guy recoiled back into his seat, launching into what I have no doubt was a volley of self-aggrandizing small talk. The light turned green, and we were driving. The anticlimax to this story is best heard now: he dropped her off about four miles down Sunset, at Western Ave unmolested, as far as I could tell. I know because I followed them, out of both morbid curiousity and my wierd protective nature that crops up from time to time. Plus, it was on my way home. In L.A. it seems, it is not hard to stumble upon these representative set pieces grown cliched with overuse, since everyone is an actor, professional or otherwise. In this one, which has multiple showings each day, set in the dusty, smoggy, sunny backdrop we have two characters: the not unattractive but entirely guileless leading lady who has only just arrived in the city via Greyhound in order to give chase to one dream or another meets the older, moneyed man whose false and condescending smile has from overuse etched wrinkles into his leathery face. He quickly becomes the chameleon and embodies the qualities of the dream she has been chasing. Only many years later will she realize that this dream could not have been pursued any other way. What seems like Hollywood magic when you gaze upon it from afar is really just the collective false solicitude of thousands of these men in wraparound sunglasses.When I pulled into my driveway in what is unaccountably considered a bad neighborhood, I looked skyward to see five helicopters overhead, hanging like spiders from silk. Since this constituted about four more helicopters than usual, it could mean only one thing: police chase in progress. I lack even basic cable, and this ensures that if there is a police chase going on in Los Angeles I will be watching it. If the chase happens to coincide fortuitously with one of the local news broadcasts, it will be shown on all of the channels, each from a different angle and with different commentary. I settled into channel four whose newscasters tried on their best shocked and dismayed act as they conducted off the cuff interviews with a police expert and a psychologist and tried their best to delve into the criminal mind who was giving chase (in this case it was a burly man in a florist van who had been approached by an undercover cop who seemed to think that the burly man had turned his florist van into a "motel on wheels" and all that that entails. The burly man then attempted to run over the undercover cop with his "motel on wheels," and the chase was on). The fact that the chase was occurring in my neighborhood was an added bonus, and each time the florist van barrelled down a nearby street the noise of the sirens and the droaning helicopters mingled with the sirens and the droaning helicopters on TV. For a while I laid on my couch, unguiltily entertained by all this (I have lived here for three years; I'm way past that). Then, just in time for the end of the local news broadcast, the chase reached its frothy climax. The florist van veered onto the sidewalk at the MacArthur Park subway station and the burly man got out and started sprinting down Alvarado. You could see the point at which he lost his delusions of escape (they replayed this moment on TV several times as though it were a game ending touchdown). He slowed to shambling jog, shoulders slackened, waiting for the rush of officers who were closing fast. And then it came and in an instant he was at the bottom of pile of cops.LA is well-known for it's cliches. After a while though, you begin to detect the vast complexity that underlies it all. Then, after another while, the complexity is all you can see. They key is to focus on the nuances and not the cliches themselves. The dominance of the Los Angeles cliches has given the city a reputation that is at odds with reality. One outcome of this is the perception of L.A. as a city lacking literature. This is, of course, a gross understatement. Over the past century, L.A. has produced a great number of writers. A new collection of criticism seeks to address misconceptions while discussing LA literature as it stands now. It's called The Misread City. Here is an excerpt.JulavitsOn Saturday night I attended a reading at another bookstore by young author and Believer co-editor Heidi Julavits. She read a passage from her new novel The Effect of Living Backwards. The novel takes place on a plane that is being hijacked, and makes use of copious flashbacks and flash-forwards to fill out the story. The nine pages she read were clever and engaging. During the question and answer period, she told us that she had been aided in the writing of such a claustrophobic book by two books that took on that same challenge. In the The Verificationist by Donald Antrim the narrator is enveloped in the bear hug of a colleague for the duration of the novel. The Woman Who Escaped from Shame by Toby Olson is a many layered frame story that centers on a porn ring and miniature white ceramic horses. Julavits also offered the two writers she felt most influenced by in general, Philip Roth and Joy Williams. The next day Julavits came into my bookstore and we had a nice conversation about The Believer and its astounding level of popularity.
Sloganeering rightly takes me to task for my sloppy framing of the NaNoWriMo debate - primarily the fact that I make no attempt to present the opposite point of view - and does it for me by pointing to Websnark's pro-NaNoWriMo post from a year ago.Clearly some people find NaNoWriMo useful (or at least fun) or it wouldn't still be around, but I question the idea that it's good for aspiring writers. Websnark presents four reasons why NaNoWriMo is an instructive exercise. The first three touch on the idea that if you want to be a writer, you have to stop being lazy and/or afraid and you have to write every day. This is undoubtedly true, and at the very least NaNoWriMo shows people how hard this really is, though I have my doubts that very many people continue to write every day on December 1 and beyond, which is the point, right? Essentially, I'm not convinced that there's an easy trick to learning how to write every day, or even that it can be taught at all.Websnark's last reason for liking NaNoWriMo is that "There are worse reasons to form a community than creativity," and that is about the best defense of NaNoWriMo that I can come up with as well. There certainly worse, less productive things one could do with one's time, and NaNoWriMo makes a solitary, often grueling endeavor fun and social, if only for one month out of the year. But, then, if writing weren't solitary and grueling, we'd all have novels out.