I love finding old pocket paperbacks in thrift stores. That’s how I ended up with a 1960s-era British pocket Penguin edition of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. On the cover, the price is listed as “3’6” which, though I’ve been to England, I can’t decipher. On the first page, in pencil is the price – 50p – wanted by some British used book dealer years ago, and in pen, the name of one of the book’s former owners. I myself got the book for around fifty cents or a dollar from one of the neighborhood secondhand shops, and though I’d love to keep it on my shelf, I’m tempted to release it back into the wild so it may continue on its journey. The book does indeed fit in my pocket and so was a good one to take on my recent trip to Los Angeles. I read the book in its entirety on the plane ride home. I love reading books like that, in one sitting while in transit, because it feeds into a romantic notion I have of what I might spend my days doing if I had no other responsibilities. But, of course, I have responsibilities and so does Tommy Wilhelm, the protagonist of Bellow’s book. Wilhelm, a failed Hollywood actor living in a New York hotel a few floors removed from his father, appears to be nearing the low ebb of a long downward slide. He has lost his job, owes money to his wife (who won’t give him a divorce), rarely sees his children, fell out with his mistress, and is so nearly penniless that he must ask his father to cover the rent. Tommy’s father, Dr. Adler (Tommy changed his name in Hollywood), sees his son as a big baby. Seize the Day reminded me of both Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. All the books of ruminating, somewhat pathetic male protagonists who appear to live their lives mostly in their heads. Wilhelm ruminates mostly on sorrows of lost opportunities, yet the book is shot through with humor as well, especially as Wilhelm gets more and more wrapped up in a stock market scheme. Bellow’s book is sad and funny and deserves to be read far more than it is. (Special thanks to Millions contributor Patrick who first pointed me to this book years ago – it just took a little while for me to get to it.)
1. Lars Iyer's first three novels -- Spurious, Dogma, and Exodus -- formed a loose trilogy, although each stood on its own. The books concerned a years-long conversation between a fictional writer and lecturer in philosophy, Lars, and W., his friend, tormentor, and colleague. They longed for nothing more than a truly original thought, or at least for a guide: someone who might either help them to think or, failing that, someone who might at least let them watch while thinking occurred on the premises. Leaders came and went: Do you remember how he spoke?, [W.] says of our first leader. His seriousness? He wasn't swayed by us. Our idiocy was annulled. Just for a moment, we were quiet. Just for a moment, idiocy was interrupted and we were calmed. It was marvelous, W. said. In Iyer's new novel, Wittgenstein Jr., the cast is different -- the characters this time around are a class of Cambridge philosophy students, who mostly move in a first-person-plural herd, and their young professor, upon whom they bestow the nickname Wittgenstein on the first day of class -- but many of the concerns are the same. The longing for an original thought, for profundity, for intellectual flight. The tension between a) the aforementioned longing and b) a certain undergraduate tendency to fill the pages of the philosophy notebook with drawings of penises, which is to say the tension between whom you wish you were and whom you actually are. Thought as transcendence. The commercialization of higher education. The friction between the desire to think -- to really think -- and the baffled philosophy student’s self-loathing desire for someone else to do the thinking for them. But in the new novel, a leader has finally appeared. The professor lectures before a class that drops from 45 in the first week to 23 in the second, from there to 18, and finally to a tenacious but utterly baffled 12: None of us understands the problems he is wrestling with, we agree. None of us can follow his method -- what is he looking for? Not all of us care, of course. Mulberry is drawing cocks in his notebook. Guthrie wears sunglasses over closed eyes. Benwell groans audibly when Wittgenstein asks him a question. No one’s sure whose idea it was to call him Wittgenstein, but it seems somehow fitting. He is a maddening teacher. No one quite follows what he's trying to convey. But he seems, in some essential way, like the real thing. 2. Wittgenstein Jr. begins in the first-person plural, and it takes some time for the narrator, Peters, to emerge from the crowd. Once he does, the book shifts gradually from we to I, from a crowd of students to Peters alone. He emerges as a fully-realized character only toward the end. This unusual structure could be seen as a mirror of the transition from adolescence into adulthood, but it also serves to echo one of the book's major concerns, which is the way sustained dedication to a rigorous discipline can separate a person from the rest of the world. From one of Wittgenstein's early classes: He tells us about the vistas of logic. About logic’s austerity. Logic makes you lose the world, he says. Logic drives you away from the world, into the eternal ice and snow. How to survive alone away from the world, in the land of ice and snow? Is there a way to live out there without being eaten alive? I'm reminded of a moment in Marilynne Robinson's magnificent Gilead when the narrator, a minister, reflects on this order of thought: I have wandered to the limits of my understanding any number of times, out into that desolation...and I've scared myself, too, a good many times, leaving all landmarks behind me, or so it seemed. And it has been among the true pleasures of my life. 3. But Wittgenstein doesn't want to remain in the desolation, or to retreat from it; he wants to travel through it, to pass the limits of his understanding, beyond logic itself, to think himself to the end of philosophy and step out into a clean and altered world on the other side: What will he say when the last words of philosophy are spoken?, Wittgenstein wonders. What will he say, when the spell of philosophy has been broken? He’ll say nothing, he says. He’ll open his eyes. He’ll look up at the sky. He’ll laugh. The year at Cambridge passes; Wittgenstein's students drink themselves into oblivion at house parties and pass out on lawns and worry about the future, fall in and out of love and OD on exotic combinations of banned substances, act out scenes from Shakespeare and go for walks with Wittgenstein and try to understand what he's talking about. As the months pass, Wittgenstein’s lectures grow darker. There are classes where he hardly speaks at all, and when he does, he's often alarming: “There is a cost to thought, he says. He’ll pay with himself. He’ll sacrifice himself.” Where the book falters slightly, in my opinion, is in its narrative tension. The Spurious trilogy was largely plotless, and was none the worse for it: plot was very much not the point. Here, the outlines of a plot appear, when Wittgenstein’s students begin to fear that he’s suicidal and move toward trying to save him. But this tension fades out, and other threads assume prominence; later it seems that this wasn't so much a fully realized plot as a gesture toward plotting. But this is a minor qualm, and the novel is stunning. Wittgenstein Jr. is Iyer's strongest book to date. He has again managed to write a book that’s funny, unexpected, and profound, and his prose is suffused with a calm beauty. The book functions beautifully both as a story about a haunted young professor -- a leader of the kind who appears once in one’s intellectual life and then is remembered forever after -- and a portrait of the last few frantic minutes before adulthood.
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‘Tis the season of back-to-school, back-to-work; back to various labors of love and life. In that vein, I recommend two books, in two Parts, on the subject of work – literary, intellectual, manual. Today, Part 1, I give you former Poet Laureate Donald Hall’s Life Work. Life Work has been a beacon for me since my early days of writerdom. I came to the writer’s vocation late and from off-the-map, which has contributed to a general awkwardness around the word “work” – a word reserved, in my experience, for that which involves antagonism, obligation, and toil; and which generally refers to a physical destination as opposed to an activity. (Syntax is everything in the statement, “I am going to work.” Is the second part a verb infinitive or an adverbial prepositional phrase?) “Ok, off to the gulag,” my partner jokes wryly as he heads to his downtown office. Surely, he is going to work; what the hell will I be doing all day? “Once, in a headlong sentence I clearly intended to say ‘life,’” Hall writes of a therapy session during dark years of marital meltdown and alcoholism, “but by mistake…said ‘work’ instead.” This recollection illuminates the theme of Hall’s beautifully crafted meditation cum memoir: the lost sense of work as integral, devotional, absorbing; distinct from labor, including but not limited to “what we do to feed ourselves and keep ourselves warm,” and, if not nobler than the toilsome sufferings of humankind through the ages – Hall cites, for example, Mexican farm laborers, 19th century merchant sailors, black American slaves – then indeed no less. Work. I make my living at it. Almost 20 years ago I quit teaching – giving up tenure, health insurance, and annual raises […] I worked like crazy to pay tuitions and mortgages – but because I loved my work it was as if I did not work at all. There are jobs, there are chores, and there is work. Life Work takes the form of life (and work) in real time: “Today makes a week of Life Work.” Hall pulls back the curtain on his daily regime, his “best day”: up at 4:30, coffee, dress, drive out for the paper (this is rural New Hampshire), breakfast, then at the desk until “I feel the poetry juices drying out.” A household chore, more coffee, and on to prose. By 11am, the writing work is done; now lunch, then a short nap, after which he and his (second) wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, “know what we will do next. How nice to be old enough, living together and alone, to make love in daylight...” If all this makes ye industrious urbanites want to retch, Hall anticipates your repulsion: I worry that my enthusiasm over work, over the best day […] will seem to a saturnine or grumpy reader the ultimate in complacency […] Why is happiness unforgivable? […] I make for myself a golden age. Only depressives make a golden age; or maniacs create a golden age because their dark brother lurks behind the barn. But he does not anticipate what comes next: Part I of Life Work ends in early April; 10 days later he begins Part II, having been diagnosed, in the interim, with liver cancer. The book shifts markedly in tone henceforth, and yet an even deeper fidelity to inquiries regarding work takes hold. “I realized I had always worked in defiance of death.” We learn of family histories (generational transitions from manual, to white-collar, to creative work), the sculptor Henry Moore’s model of work, and Hall’s journey in Christian faith (the work of the spirit). The book ends three months after it began, with Hall about to start chemotherapy: we are suspended in uncertainty with him, as he works on short projects “which absorb me as much as any work can.” Seventeen years after publication, we know “the ending.” Hall survives cancer, but it’s his beloved wife Jane, 20-some years his junior, who dies of leukemia two years later. How profoundly prescient was Hall’s understanding of “work” as the avatar for “life,” as the two of them confront ruthless mortality together. He writes: “There is only one long-term project.” Coming up: Part 2, in which a philosopher-motorcycle mechanic makes the case for the cognitive riches of manual work, for living concretely in an abstract world.
Talk is cheap; speech is luxe. Speech is sheltered by sacred authorities, like the United States Constitution and Justice John G. Roberts. Speech comes with the sexy modifiers, like “hate” and “free.” You can never have too much of it, since as Louis Brandeis said, the remedy for bad speech “is more speech.” Speech -- for lack of a better word -- is good. Speechwriting is more ambivalent: speech filtered through the counterfeit instincts of American politics, through the undignified pressure of the news cycle, through the mind, throat, and ego of another human being. Psychologically, it’s a kind of Munchausen by proxy. Culturally, it’s glamorous and dishonest in the same way art forgery is. And like most things, most of it is neither good nor important. The Speechwriter, Barton Swaim’s new memoir, is a deeply humane study in both the romance and the dissonance. Swaim worked for a term for Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, the one with the Argentine mistress. Swaim didn’t find out any sooner than anyone else -- he didn’t write Sanford’s public apology -- but The Speechwriter's heart is in the way it processes that humiliation. After all, for every politician who falls, a dozen staff fall in microcosm. After Sanford offered his aides a muddled “I’m sorry,” one rants, “If you do say anything, it should be more like, ‘Sorry I flushed all your work down the toilet, people. Sorry I made you all a joke. Sorry about your next job interview, the one where you’re going to be brought in as a curiosity and then laughed at.’” But the book, if a little melancholic and at times a little cruel, isn’t bitter. The Speechwriter is Swaim’s graceful way of resolving what four years of mediocre writing, written for a mediocre man, meant. “In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin,” his epigraph reads -- Proverbs 10:19. Swaim’s political career started with a very American impulse. Reading one of Sanford’s op-eds, it occurred to him: I can do better than that. He dashed off a cover letter that was “deferential but terse, and said something like ‘I don’t know that much about state politics, but I know how to write, and you need a writer.’” Sanford agreed. He was “very interested in this larger idea of a brand,” he said (Sanford, Swaim reports, could never resist referencing a “larger notion”). He wanted the slick stylings he saw in the work of other politicians, since -- it’s a truth widely acknowledged -- no one writes their own stuff. “Every speech he gives,” the governor muses about another big name, “every op-ed or whatever, sounds the same. Not the same, like boring the same. From the same source, consistent. I like that. It’s about consistency. You always know what you’re getting.” Sanford, you’ll notice, couldn’t word his way out of a paper bag. Still, the governor’s writings and remarks are the best parts of the book. Swaim has an uncanny instinct for writing poorly on purpose, an indispensable talent for any speechwriter. Reading Sanford’s old op-eds, Swaim says, “It worried me that I didn’t hear much of a voice. What I heard was more like a cough. Or the humming of a bad melody, with most of the notes sharp. One sentence stands out in my memory: ‘This is important not only because I think it ought to be a first order of business, but because it makes common sense.’” And no, this isn’t a training montage type of book where Swaim will push the governor to new rhetorical heights. “I wasn’t hired to come up with brilliant phrases,” he realizes. “I was hired to write what the governor would have written if he had had the time.” For what it’s worth, Swaim is plainly a gifted writer. His professional experience shows in a firm, easy command of language; with disciplined consistency, his sentences do what they’ve been ordered to do. There’s a smooth economy to his prose, which rarely staggers or overheats. If it isn’t always lyrical, it still has a lean charm that more writing should. Talent lends him credibility while he chips affectionately away at his profession’s ego. Speechwriting is culturally celebrated for both its influence and its secrecy. In an episode of The West Wing, Joshua Malina asks Rob Lowe, “You’ve ghosted for Senators, movie stars, I think the King of Belgium one time. Do you say anything?” Lowe answers, honorably, “Speechwriters don’t do that.” Because of omerta maybe. But here in reality, flattering profiles of speechwriters are a booming genre in political journalism: cf. “State of the Union Speechwriter for Obama Draws on Various Inspirations,” “Worldly at 35, and Shaping Obama’s Voice,” “Meet the ghost hunter and horror novelist who writes Sen. Rob Portman’s speeches,” “Meet Matthew Scully, Paul Ryan’s vegan speechwriter.” Swaim doesn’t deny the sex appeal. After Sanford delivers the first speech he’s written, he fantasizes, “I would soon be indispensable. I would study the questions faced by this great, graceful statesman, and I would suggest to him what he would say.” But the grace notes are mostly smothered by the indignities. “Sometimes he’d forget which products had been drafted for him and which he’d written himself,” Swaim says of the governor. Sanford had a ritual way of shooting down drafts, and “didn’t like to accept a document without first dismissing it as worthless. Provoking a fight with the staffers who’d written it was his way of figuring out whether or not it was what he wanted.” In short, he misused his staff casually, not that Swaim blamed him: “It was as if you were one of those pieces of cork placed in the mouths of wounded soldiers during an amputation. The soldier didn’t chew the cork because he hated it but because it was therapeutic to bite hard.” But to a gratifying extent, The Speechwriter isn’t interested in settling scores. Swaim clearly feels affection for Sanford and his fellow staff. The book’s care and sympathy, often, cuts deeper than its criticism. He extends the governor every credit, even after his decline and fall: “He was everything a politician should be -- a politician in the best sense of that word, if it has a best sense.” In other words, if writing for him was a long, deepening disappointment, that wasn’t Sanford’s personal failure. The book’s indictment is broader. “Why,” Swaim asks, “do we trust the men who make careers of persuading us of their goodness and greatness?” With soft despair, he resolves, “They may be lauded when they’re right and venerated when they’re dead, but they should never be trusted.” Where does that leave speechwriters? Fundamentally, speechwriters work to short-circuit the great safeguard of American democracy: our aversion to professional politicians. It would be a little ignoble if we didn’t invite exactly this kind of suasion. We want, desperately, to be convinced we’re wrong about our leaders, and it’s our democratic irrationality that we open ourselves up for persuasion every election cycle. Citizens stoke the national appetite for speech, and speechwriters ensure there’s enough to go around. That makes The Speechwriter urgent reading, for both its literary and civic merits. If you ask to be fooled, it teaches, don’t claim to be shocked, shocked when you invariably are.
I had a hell of a time picking my book of the month this time around. This happens every few months, and I'm always better off for the difficulty in choosing my favorite. One month I will go through four books and have a definitive favorite - a book that I'll recommend to friends, etc. The next, however, I'll manage to read three books that are not only better than the one I picked the month before, but are good enough to make my preliminary "best of the year" short list. It never fails - I'd have more balance in my life if I had read them a month apart, but it never happens that way.This month my choice was between Everything is Illuminated (Jonathan Safran Foer), Hard Laughter (Anne Lamott), and Other Electricities (Ander Monson). Hard Laughter was good - better than I had expected it would be - but it was the easiest one to leave off. Many months it would have been my favorite (I'm a sucker for books that are 80% conversation) but this month it had too much to compete against.Foer and Monson fought it out in my mind until I realized something - I've already picked Foer as a Book of the Month - my first one, for The Unabridged Pocketbook of Lightning. So, by process of elimination, Ander Monson won the right to have his book selected.I first heard of Ander Monson through the LitBlog Co-Op's "Read These Books or Die" Winter 2005/6 campaign and was extremely interested in its use of indexes. I was intrigued enough to request it from our local library, and to my surprise they purchased a copy and put my name at the top of the list.Mr. Monson, you can send me a thank you anytime.Really, Other Electricities is like no other book I've ever read. It's not quite a novel, but it's also not quite a short story collection. It's somewhere in between - a group of essays and short stories that all interplay with each other; all create another piece of a grand novel. It's a series that is bound by one theme - the lives of a small town shortly before and shortly after the death of a girl. Her accident - she and her prom date were drowned in a frozen lake after they attempted to drive on it - binds every character together to the point where each story, regardless of the protagonist, is ultimately connected.The resemblances to Fargo and Twin Peaks are evident. And while Other Electricities may not have been inspired by Laura Palmer and Marge Gunderson, there are a lot of similarities in their worlds. In fact, the episodic nature of Monson's overall story cries out for the comparisons. Much like Twin Peaks was a collection of odd characters whose lives intertwined; each of these stories overlaps and peeks into the life of this town in the years leading up to and following the death. The setting is Coen Brothers, but the town could have been created by David Lynch.Don't think that this is a simple knock-off, though. Monson creates a complex town that's filled with failed dreams and eccentric people - the group of bored and rutted kids that nearly always drinks too much, gets themselves stuck in the middle of a frozen lake, and commits murder. It's cold, and the town has adapted to it. There's mystery in the air, not to mention a vast array of disappointment.The variety in the style and length of each story in Other Electricities helps create a mosaic of voices and lifestyles; each character brings a new revelation about their small town, about death, and about growing up as a teenager in the middle of domestic tundra. Everyone gets their say.The layout of the book is wonderful. Monson charts out every character and connects each in a web, then gives an explanation of the themes and characters - both artistically and satirically. An index not only helps reference common ideas but also gives a little insight into the relationship between Liz, the drowned girl, and her prom date - a relationship that isn't mentioned directly. You can cross reference to your heart's content.It's amazing to think of these stories on their own - they're all very good, but as a whole there are ideas and themes that aren't even mentioned; are simply implied by the connections between stories. I've never felt so cold, and I've never desired to go wandering through a small town, around a lake, and into the city center during a vicious snowstorm as much as I did after reading Other Electricities.Well, it's snowing outside. I guess I could start now.-Corey VilhauerBlack Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar.