Mrs. Millions and I don’t get to the theatre that often, but we went to see a play on Friday that I recommend to anyone in Chicago right now. The play is called “Recent Tragic Events” and it looks at the mundane – in this case a blind date – through the lens of tragedy and shock – this blind date is taking place on September 12, 2001. I recommend the play for three reasons. First, and this is the least of the reasons, I went to high school with the director, Mikhael Tara Garver. She helped start Uma Productions in 2001, and she does a really great job putting on this play. Second, the play was penned by Craig Wright who has written for the HBO show, “Six Feet Under,” and he brings that same sensibility to this play. Mixing death and banality, he is unafraid of both the seriousness and the humor that arise in such situations. Finally, and this is where the literary relevance comes in, I recommend this play because that most prolific of authors, Joyce Carol Oates figures prominently in the production. The play’s main character, Waverly, happens to be Oates’ grand-niece, and at one point all of the Oates books on Waverly’s shelves and stacked on the floor in a pile that reaches several feet high before tipping over. For some reason I always get a kick out of pokes at Oates’ prodigious literary output. But then, Oates herself appears, played by – get this – a sock puppet, and, while I know it sounds ridiculous, it’s somehow perfect hearing this bespectacled sock name drop Salman Rushdie and John Updike. The play runs through next weekend at Chopin Theater. If you’re in Chicago, check it out.
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Because summer in Beirut was so brutally hot and because the grandparents missed their granddaughter and because the dream was still alive and I had signed up this winter for a low-residency creative writing MFA program in Tampa, which required me to travel from Lebanon to the Florida campus for 10 days in June, I began to sketch out an entire summer in America, anchored by that MFA residency and then two weeks at a writing conference four hours north of New York City. Key to the plan was leaving my daughter in Illinois, where -- with my dad's recent death -- my mom had recently bought a house on six acres, near my wife's parents, Steve and Claudia, who lived in the same small town. All three were retired, and could do pretty much anything they wanted. But the world was a big place, and sometimes you stayed where you felt most at home. Children can be an anchor. During the two weeks I was at the writing conference, where was my wife? Mostly in Yemen, where she met a boy who said he cowered in the rocks one night after what was an apparent American airstrike, waiting for daylight to try to find his father and brother. When the sun came out, he found them, scattered in pieces, a red sludge. Once upon a time, she and I lived in Turkey and Iraq. And before that, it was Saudi Arabia, where our little girl was born. Before all that, it was a big job in New York, which I left to walk along the ocean. Why did I do that? I'm still trying to figure it out. I can be a private person. Shy. It was a strange experience to hear the long-time director of the writing conference, Bob Boyers, stand in front of a room and talk about having lunch with the same guy four times a week, for 26 years. I'm not sure I've had lunch with the same guy four times, like, ever. Ever since it was up to me, I suppose, I've been on the move. Early on, it was hitchhiking across the West, fishing in Alaska, a summer doing construction in Hawaii. I made it to all 50 states, thinking that mattered. Then I took a newspaper internship in Cambodia, where I met my wife. Eventually, we made it in New York, but then I decided to take that walk. Then Kelly said, OK, it's my turn. So we moved to the Middle East. So now it's a life in Lebanon, and the decision to leave, and then the decision to attend this conference, where everyone hopes someday to succeed, whatever that might mean, but for now we sleep in the dorms. There's the green poster on the door, about sexual assault, the number to call, how you shouldn't wash your privates. The handicapped bathroom, with its flickering light and half-empty bottle of male body-wash. The thin carpet and the poster about studying abroad and the faded photo of an RA, whose favorite color is blue. Favorite hobby: watching movies. In the dining hall, it was all you can eat -- and I couldn't stop, could you? We were all getting older, larger, with sophisticated appetites, as if we were almost a different species than the highschoolers on campus for their own summer improvement programs -- dancers, jazz trumpeters, math nerds -- all of the kids chirping at some higher register, like a dog whistle or a swarm of swallows, this mad rush at lunch for the french fries, a silver tray of meat, no idea of the complications that lay ahead. I'd owned leather jackets heavier than some of them, yet that gave no obvious advantage. Some day, some of them might be 33 years old, sitting at a desk, trying to write. It wasn't easy. I wanted to finish a book. Be a good dad. Get an MFA. Be a good husband. I'd lined up a teaching job at a university in Beirut. Got an essay in a publication that might impress you. Called my mom as much as I could. I couldn't call my dad, he was dead. When do you know if it's actually starting to add up, when you can say, OK, yes, this is real, it's actually happening. Among members of the Skidmore faculty, the answers seemed different. For novelist Allan Gurganus, there was a hotel room in Iowa City, and John Cheever was pouring scotch. For Elizabeth Benedict, there was a sublet in Washington DC, and she left the oven door open, trying the keep the place warm, and when the editor visited he was appalled. Poet Campbell McGrath and his wife moved to Miami Beach, and yet the Genius Grant people managed to find them anyway. There's only so much time, and it's a big world. Wherever we are, we work at it, making decisions, and then one day -- and we may not even know when it comes -- the scales begin to tip and the waiting turns into the having done it already. Photo Credit: Flickr/geishaboy500
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The long and honorable friendship between books and beer was toasted afresh last month when a beer tavern was named after Cormac McCarthy’s sad and funny lowlife novel, Suttree. Book and bar are both located in the city of McCarthy’s boyhood, Knoxville, Tenn. Suttree’s High Gravity Beer Tavern is owned by the bibliophile husband-wife team of Matt Pacetti and Anne Ford, who have wisely made no attempt to belabor the Suttree connection beyond the name, thus keeping any potential kitsch-making at bay. The tavern is a deep and stylish space with saloon signage, polished wooden floors, an enormous rustic bar cobbled from old floors, and an appealing list of craft beer and wine. The semi-reclusive Cormac McCarthy, who lives in New Mexico, has been told about the new venture and wishes it well. Suttree follows the story of Cornelius Suttree, a quiet young man who has chosen to renounce his rich, white Roman Catholic background in order to live as a fisherman on the Tennessee River and befriend a fascinating cast of back-alley boulevardiers, each of whom is sketched with tremendous solicitude and humor. Often called “Knoxville’s Dubliners,” Suttree provides an intense, forensic snapshot into Knoxville’s streets and soul. It offers the reader no racy plot or salvific climax, just an uncured slice of life. There are parts of this book that will make you laugh and others that will make your stomach coil in anguish. And while it’s a challenging read, with large slabs of poetic prose and funny words, it also contains the great themes that McCarthy’s more celebrated novels like No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian, and The Road explore -– faith, violence, old men, death, and individual courage. Sadly, many young Knoxvillians haven’t even heard of the book. Matt has had to fend more than one query on why he’s chosen such an odd name for his bar. But for those who have read and enjoyed it, it’s not hard to see why Suttree has a special place in Knoxville’s heart. The new bar, in clientele, character, and cuisine (edamame hummus with pita chips), is a far throw from the Huddle, old Sut’s favorite boozer patronized by - prepare yourself for this lovely McCarthyian litany -– “thieves, derelicts, miscreants, pariahs, poltroons, spalpeens, curmudgeons, clotpolls, murderers, gamblers, bawds, whores, trulls, brigands, topers, tosspots, sots and archsots, lobcocks, smellsocks, runagates, rakes, and other assorted and felonious debauchees.” But is not entirely devoid of textual atmosphere. For one, it’s located on Gay Street, a hip downtown thoroughfare that features frequently and significantly in the book, and on which Suttree’s friend J Bone tells him of the death of his son, whom he has abandoned along with his wife, though we are never really told why. In another nice if unintentional touch, one long wall is painted with giant black tree trunks that recall a strange interlude in the novel when a Suttree in spiritual extremis retreats into a “black and bereaved” spruce wilderness and meets, not Satan, but a deer poacher, with whom he has a conversation that is as absurd as it is profound. Is that a crossbow? I’ve heard it called that. How many crosses have you killed with it? It’s killed more meat than you could bear. Matt and Anne have also been asked, hopefully, if their menu has a melon cocktail. The disappointing answer is no. Perhaps this is one crowd-pleasing textual connection that might be worth exploring. The melon has an exalted place in the novel because of a ridiculous but tender scene in which a young botanical pervert call Gene Harrogate steals into the fields by nights, shucks off his overalls, and begins to mount melons in the soil. He does this for several nights till the farmer who owns the melon patch shoots him in the backside. Then, mortified at the memory of the thin boy howling in pain, he brings him an ice-cream in hospital. (This tiny but extraordinary act of kindness reminded me of young Pip in Great Expectations bringing the starving Magwitch a pork pie in the marshes.) Gene ends up in the workhouse where he meets Suttree and attaches himself to him. Together, the rat-faced but likeable felon and the ascetic, grey-eyed Suttree make for a comic but charming Felonious Monk pair. Though Suttree was published in 1979, it is set in America’s decade of conformity and suspicion, the 1950s, and one can easily imagine McCarthy gleefully adding the melon-mounting scene to his already gloriously debauched House Un-American Activities Committee. Over the years, a Suttree subculture of sorts has sprung up in Knoxville among the small but ardent group of McCarthy aficionados. Local poet Jack Rentfro has written a song based on all the dictionary-dependent words in the book (analoid, squaloid, moiled, and so on); University of Tennessee professor Wes Morgan has set up a website, “Searching for Suttree,” with pictures of buildings and places mentioned in the book; in 1985, the local radio station did a reading of the novel in full; and for many years, Jack Neely, local historian and author, conducted The Suttree Stagger, a marathon eight-hour ramble through downtown interspersed with site-appropriate readings from the text. Last year, the independent bookstore Union Ave celebrated McCarthy’s 78th birthday with book readings, chilled beer, and slices of watermelon. During the party, when Neely read out the majestic, incantatory prologue from Suttree, several people in the audience who had shown up with their hardcover first-editions could be heard murmuring whole baroque lines from memory, and more than one pair of eyes misted over at the last line: “Ruder forms survive.” Cormac McCarthy was not born in Knoxville. Almost 30 years ago he moved to Texas and then to New Mexico. He’s since turned down every request made by the local Knoxville News Sentinel for an interview, though, to everyone’s stupefaction, this epitome of the anti-media whore showed up on Oprah and answered questions like: “Are you passionate about writing?” Despite his reticence, Knoxville stakes first and undisputed claim to this literary giant, and rightly so. Not merely because this is where Charlie (his birth name) went to school (Knoxville Catholic High School, where he met J Long who became J Bone in Suttree); was first published (in the school magazine); was an altar boy; went to the University of Tennessee (which he dropped out of, twice), met the first of his three wives (a poet); lived with the second (a dancer and restaurateur), and overall spent about 40-odd years of his life (longer than Joyce spent in Dublin), but because Knoxville provided the manure from which his celebrated Southern Gothicism sprang. And no novel reaps a richer, more reeking harvest than Suttree. It is, to gingerly forcep a phrase from its fecal innards, “Cloaca Maxima,” often harrowingly so. Moonshine and maggots are the holding glue in this book that opens with a suicide and ends with Suttree finding a ripe corpse crawling with yellow maggots in his bed, and whose characters consume gallons of cold beer (Suttree’s drink) and vile, home-brewed whiskey that appears to have been “brewed in a toilet.” How terrific that a bar should be called Suttree’s and what a relief they don’t serve splo whiskey. Drunks dominate this story -- a hard-bitten, loyal bunch who look out for one another despite being brutalized by poverty and racism. The ties of community are sacred in the South, and it is this fundamental sense of fellowship that binds these losers. McCarthy is an unsentimental writer, but one can detect him getting slightly moist when he describes how this magnificent string of drunks faithfully visits Suttree when he is ill and broken after his forest wanderings, without a single one of them asking “if what he has were catching.” Although Suttree is soaked in Knoxville noir, McCarthy’s most personal reference to his childhood city occurs not here but in his most recent novel, The Road. In this despairingly beautiful tale, a father and son, stand-ins for Cormac and his young son for whom he wrote the book, make their way through an almost-destroyed world swirling with ash and ruin. The pair fetch up at the father’s old house in a nameless town that is clearly Knoxville. The boy is afraid of this house with its filthy porch and rotting screens, but the father is drawn in by the phantoms of his childhood. They enter. There is an iron cot, the bones of a cat, buckled flooring. As he stands by the mantelpiece, the father’s thumb passes over “the pinholes from tacks that held stockings forty years ago,” and, suddenly, the warm remembrance of Christmases past washes over him, providing an anguished foil to his current state of homelessness. McCarthy may have scant regard for Proust as a novelist but the Proustian pull of a few pinholes is powerfully demonstrated in this passage. To Knoxville’s great shame, this house burnt down in 2009 (The childhood home of Knoxville’s only other Pulitzer winner, James Agee, has also long been destroyed). “It was very sad,” says Jack Neely, “but there was some poetry to the fact that in the last few years the house was used by the homeless. I think Cormac McCarthy would have liked that.” Cornelius Suttree would certainly have approved. Photo courtesy of the author.
"What turns out to matter most is that you write as truthfully as possible" -- Jonathan Franzen In Germany to deliver a talk on fiction, Jonathan Franzen couldn’t be more American. He is friendly and informal, casual and comfortable, approaching the podium of a University of Tübingen auditorium so packed that students are sitting on the floor in front of the podium and on the stairs between the seats. A few even perch up on the broad windowsills, two or even three students to a window. About to kick off a week-long series of lectures and discussions, Franzen has his talk printed out in a sheaf and rolled up sort of nervously in his hands. Then he realizes the Germans haven’t finished introducing him yet, have actually only finished the first half of an introduction that will describe him in ways that might be more fitting for a landscape or a panorama; proclaim him to be the most significant voice in America, an arbiter of its culture and an example of the best of its art; and awkwardly recommend him for the Nobel Prize. It is only half over and he’s embarrassed himself by standing up in the middle. He grimaces, mouths “Sorry,” walks back to his chair in exaggerated tiptoe, and sits down. Midwesterners, and Americans generally, often carry with them this suspicion of the formal and overly complicated - a fear that, other times, is expressed as a commitment to hospitality, honesty, and egalitarianism. In a piece in The New Yorker, in 2002, Franzen cringed in print at the thought of his mother asking him “if he was just showing off” with the big words in his third novel. She was, he writes, “a lifelong anti-elitist who used to get good rhetorical mileage out of the mythical ‘average person.’” In the essay, “Mr. Difficult,” Franzen finds himself caught between two models of the novel. One, which he calls “Status,” values a novel for its appeal to an elite. The harder it is, the better. The other sees the novel as a “Contract” between reader and writer. It’s the novel as an exact balance between entertainment and having something serious to say. “In my bones,” Franzen confesses, “I'm a Contract kind of person.” A great novel, according to this model, will aspire to the broad middle, neither showy and elitist nor low-brow and trashy. This is the novel that, if it were a politician, could win 51 percent of the vote. The comparison to politics is actually helpful here. If you're on the political fringe in America, you find yourself weighing two possible rhetorical moves. The first is to defend extremism, almost abstract extremism, extremism for its own sake. You deride the democratic majority, calling them "sheep," unwitting pawns of powerful forces. Thus your fringe status is a sign of the value of your ideas, marking you yourself as one of the few, the chosen, those who really understand. This is the move of anyone quoting Barry Goldwater on extremism in defense of liberty. The other possible move is to attempt to redefine everything, to re-frame the picture so that you are actually at the center. Everyone else is on the fringe, the real crazies. This is what libertarians do with their World's Smallest Political Quiz, wherein, through "just the honest magic of truth and common sense," libertarians fall at the center and top part of the map, while mainstream Republicans are a dot on the far right, along with fascists. (Liberals and anyone who doesn't think the government should be shrunk by 50 percent or more is out on the left with the commies.) The move is actually kind of brilliant, in that the reframing appears natural, and it's hard, while looking at the redrawn Bell curve, to notice immediately that the terms being used aren't quite the common, accepted ones. Jonathan Franzen ended up making something like the second move in his December 1st talk in Tübingen. He structured his talk - "Description of a Struggle: How I (Mostly) Fail to Write" - around four unpleasant, vexing, and (he said) good questions authors are always asked: Who are your influences? What are your writing habits? Do your characters sometimes take over and take on lives of their own? Is your writing really autobiographical? By way of answering them, Franzen talked about the moral struggle of writing, and - quite openly - about his own personal efforts as a writer to overcome shame, guilt and depression. "Unless the writer is personally at risk," he said, "it's not worth reading, or, for the writer, worth writing." Early on, though, Franzen made a little detour, an almost-aside, in which he attempted deftly, like the libertarians noted above, to reframe literature so that he and his project occupied its absolute center. He began by dismissing genre novels, pushing them to the one side of literature, as "a literature of diversion.” He then dismissed experimental novels, postmodern writing and "art novels," pushing them to the other side as, also, "a literature of diversion." He cast genre writing as harmless but unserious, and experimental writing as unserious but harmful. We value genre novels, in Franzen's view (he mentioned Elmore Leonard specifically), for their consistent form, and we appreciate and anticipate their repeated pattern. They are entertaining, but do not address the human condition. Experimental novels, for Franzen, are also all about form, in the sense that they overemphasize and foreground it, focusing on technical tricks and theoretical poses. They are solipsistic. They are playacting. They are too conscious of the act of communicating and modes of communication. They are not, Franzen suggested, fun or entertaining enough - and they are also not about the human condition. The upshot was that literature, this thing left in the middle ground between genre and experimental novels, must take us, humans, people, as "both its subject and dubious object." Offering Kafka as a model of what literature is and what literature should do, he said literature shows us how "to be human in the face of the awful truths of ourselves." However, problems arise from the conflation of what something is and what something should be. For one thing, Franzen's definition of the literary novel doesn't really leave space for a failed work, something that takes the human condition as its subject, but isn't successful. He also, at this point, took a little hop-skip and said literature is about "people as they really are” – as if realism were as natural as breathing. In fact, novels are not and never could be just simple reflections of reality, but are always and have to be constructions, artificial and formal mediations, interpretations. Moreover, it's not at all clear that this description of literature as being about "people as they really are" will divide writing in the way Franzen wants to divide it. It doesn't seem obvious that a story about a man turned into a bug, just to use Franzen's own example, is about humans "as they really are," in some way that, say, Leonard's story about former '60s radicals on a for-profit bomb spree is not. During the question-and-answer period after his talk, Franzen visibly recoiled when someone asked him why he hated experimental writers. "I didn't say 'hate,'" Franzen said. "I was really careful not to use that word." He did, though, describe postmodern writers, experimental writers, as his "enemies" and as enemies of the novel, people who make reading harder. He didn't name names, but did give a long list of descriptions of the writing he doesn't like, including "too self-conscious" and "solipsistic." Afterwards, I asked Franzen whether his aversion to experimentalists included his good friend David Foster Wallace. After all, everything Franzen said he didn't like could be (and has been) used to describe Wallace’s writing, and yet Franzen has never seemed to think of him as an enemy of the novel, or to cast him beyond the boundaries of the literary. Franzen offered three not entirely compatible answers, illuminating some of the unexamined tensions among the Midwestern virtues extolled in “Mr. Difficult” - hospitality, egalitarianism, and candor. First, Franzen insisted that he really wasn't decrying experimentalism, and threw out some names of experimental writers he liked. Instead, right now, he was really opposed, he said, to the "sentimentalists." When asked whom he would describe as a sentimentalist, however, he made the motion of zipping his lips and throwing away the key, which isn't exactly the best way to oppose something. The sentimentalists, he said, were writers who wrote with a sort of moral superiority. His second answer was more of a holding firm to his dislike of experimentalism while also defending Wallace, whom Franzen described as a "once-in-a-generation genius." His idea seemed to be that Wallace was able to overcome experimentalism and its limitations by virtue of his immense talent - to surpass it en route to real literature. Asked for clarification, though, Franzen gave what might actually have been his most satisfying answer. “You know,” he said, “honesty was a life and death struggle for Dave." Franzen too has struggled. He spoke very openly, in Tübingen, about his own struggle to "becom[e] the person you need to be to write the novel you need to write." And he said that his "conception of the novel is that it ought to be a personal struggle, a direct confrontation" - that the point at which writing becomes easy for a writer is where it becomes unnecessary to read that writer…. What turns out to matter most is that you write as truthfully as possible. And so Franzen’s fear of being mistaken for an elitist ultimately seems like a distraction, for himself and for his readers. If we disregard his rather conservative attempt to demarcate the boundaries that divide literature from mere writing – if, that is, we disregard his abstract pronouncements and look instead at the writing he admires, it becomes clear that he values above all the great moral effort to be honest in writing, no matter what form it takes. And here we must side with Franzen against himself. In the end, honesty is the moral project that divides good writing from bad, whatever “literature” turns out to be.