The folks at Google have set up a blog dedicated to Google Book Search. Google’s plan to digitize the world’s books has been one of the most interesting and controversial publishing industry stories of the last couple of years. Is anyone surprised that it’s Google using a blog to get its side of the story out and not the publishers? Me neither.
In the back of the winter issue of n+1, you’ll find both a revised version of the defense of literary weblogs I posted here last spring and a response from Marco Roth. It speaks well of the magazine that it would publish dissent as well as invite it (which is also, of course, a hallmark of the “lit-blog.”) And, as I’m still doing my best to puzzle out some of the pros and cons of this new and evolving medium, I thought I might call your attention to an object lesson: the debate over B.R. Myers’ review, in The Atlantic Monthly, of Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke.It’s often a blessing that comment-thread controversies blow over without getting wider notice. Ideas that seem vital one week may seem irrelevant the next. But in my view, the conversation developing around Myers and Johnson – at Rake’s Progress, at The Beiderbecke Affair, and now at Ed’s place – illustrates some of the positive critical capacities of the medium.That conversation began in the kind of intemperate name-calling n+1 might deride – “B.R. Myers is Satan”; “Who’s the Wanker?” – but it has broadened to encompass a number of substantial controversies – the responsibilities of the reviewer; the state of American fiction; politics and the English language. And it has helped me better understand Denis Johnson’s prose style.When I read, and enjoyed, Tree of Smoke in June, I felt that its style was both an asset and a liability. Certainly, Johnson is an unusual stylist. And yet, when the first reviews and blurbs began to appear, I was surprised at how little attention was paid to his diction and syntax. “Prose of amazing power and stylishness,” Philip Roth said, without bothering to explain how or why. Jim Lewis’ piece in The New York Times Book Review amounted to a bizarre kind of abdication. Only John Jeremiah Sullivan, writing in Harper’s, engaged with Johnson at the level of the sentence.In my own review (which I’m embarrassed to note also references n+1; this is turning into a bad habit), I attempted to account for what I felt was Johnson’s wide margin of error. “Though there are passages and even pages through which I itched to run my workshopper’s pencil,” I wrote, “I would trade a dozen finely calibrated domestic comedies for a single chapter of Tree of Smoke.[Johnson’s] sentences and dialogue, flirting with the poetic, violate the canons of understatement. Like the sentences of D.H. Lawrence, they seem to depend on the supernatural for inspiration. They may not always find it, but they are alive to the possibilities of language.To his credit, B.R. Myers, too, would pay attention to Johnson’s sentences. Regrettably, he would pay little attention to anything else (the context in which those sentences appear, for example). His review does make a couple of copy-editorial catches: Would Buddhists think of their own icons as “bric-a-brac?” Can “someone standing in […] a noisy place hear even his heartbeat, let alone his pulse?” In never moving beyond fastidiousness, though, Myers’ Atlantic review takes on the flavor of agenda-driven cherry-picking. It attempts to persuade us, by fiat, that a sentence such as the novel’s first – “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed.” – is bad.Critiques of Myers’ motivations and methods are abundant elsewhere; I won’t rehearse them here. But I wanted to point out what lit-blogs managed to do with that last sentence, which hadn’t been done elsewhere. In an anonymous comment at The Beiderbecke Affair (anonymous because overheated and not fully thought through), I wrote: I like the way that pluperfect “had,” strategically ungrammatical, sets us up to expect something to happen in the imperfect. Something has happened, the sentence tells us. Yes, Kennedy has died, but something else…something, presumably, more personal. Thus does the book announce (quietly) its aspirations to be something more than the settled history Myers – a myopic literalist – seems to wish it was.Then a commenter named Alan (who disagreed with some of my bloviations), suggested, This is quite right. Kennedy died at 1 PM US Central Time, which would have been 1 AM in Vietnam. So the sentence “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed” is not actually trying to say that Kennedy died (perfect tense) at that time. That wouldn’t make sense. What the sentence is doing is evoking the experience of a character who is awoken in the middle of the night in Vietnam to the news that Kennedy HAD BEEN killed. This narrative immersion in a character’s point of view can also be seen in the following passage… Alan’s comment is, I think, a small but meaningful exemplar of the critical capacities of an interactive medium, and of what close-reading actually does. Were this a seminar (which, at its best, the comment-thread approximates), the instructor might be saying, “Yes. Yes!” Rather than dismiss an unusual sentence, Alan moves from a puzzle over its meaning (centered on the verb tense) to an intuition (we’ve been thrown, without comment, deep into a character’s point of view) that illuminates an important part of the formal architecture of the whole work.One wants only to add that a serious literary essay has at least two possible registers of persuasion. It can persuade those who haven’t read the book, and then it can persuade those who have. I often feel that Myers is addressing himself almost exclusively to an audience that hasn’t read the work under review, and that his aim is to convince them not to bother. Like Myers, I’ve been disappointed by Annie Proulx and Rick Moody in the past. But, having read them, I’m troubled by the gap between my experience of their work and the experience of their work Myers constructs. A good-faith critic should aim to write an essay that can be revisited after one has read the work and that will not then seem to collapse into flatulence. I admire this about James Wood. His essays are attempts to understand, rather than attempts to seem in-the-know, and they challenge me even when I disagree with them. In this way, he, too, offers a model of what literary discourse on the web can be. On the other hand, the valuable lit-blog conversation about Tree of Smoke seems to have arisen despite, rather than because of, the merits of B.R. Myers’ remarks in print.
Lulu, a self-publishing outfit, went back through 50 years of New York Times fiction bestseller lists and determined that the average age of the bestselling author is 50 and a half (via BBC). It makes sense in that the upper reaches of that list are often dominated by franchise-type writers – Stephen King and Danielle Steel are cited – whose careers plateau at a point where every book they write goes to number one, no matter the quality. A younger writer with few books under his or her belt has no reputation to ride on, but the middle-aged writer can ride on reputation to year after year of number ones. But NYT bestsellers are kind of a bore, I’d be more curious about the average ages of the winners of different prizes. Regardless, it almost goes without saying that the most exciting voices in fiction are younger than 50, except for the ones who aren’t.
Short story collections undoubtedly reign supreme as the most optimal reading material for the beach. They don’t require the mental commitment that a full-length novel does, they allow for a sense of accomplishment every time you finish one in the collection, and, perhaps more importantly, they provide breaks at precisely the right moment when you need more alcohol. If you’re planning an upcoming vacation, consider taking along J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, David Updike’s Old Girlfriends, or Lady with the Little Dog & Other Stories by Anton Chekhov. It is no coincidence that all three have several beach-themed stories, which I take as proof of the validity of my argument.
It is in the latter collection that you will find “The Lady with the Little Dog,” a story so remarkable that fellow Russian heavyweight Vladimir Nabokov called it “one of the greatest stories ever written.” I shamelessly board this bandwagon and add merely that “The Lady with the Little Dog” is the most perfect short story for the summer (Nabokov does not appear to have evaluated art using this metric).
It is 1899. Summer is in full swing in Yalta, the glamorous resort town for the glamorous Russian aristocracy. The Black Sea and the sun converge and collectively shine so bright that they blind. Gurov, our main character, lazily stares beyond the horizon in search of something. Of what? He hardly knows himself. This is how “The Lady with the Little Dog” marvelously opens up, immediately creating a drunken feeling of infinite, if somewhat ominous, possibilities. Isn’t that what summer is all about?
Gurov is a terrible human being: a lying, cheating, misogynistic — but charming! — philander. He’s an Ocean’s Eleven-era George Clooney without a soul. When he hears of a pretty little thing, newly-arrived in Yalta, he considers, “If she is here alone without a husband or friends, it wouldn’t be amiss to make her acquaintance.”
I love this guy.
The pretty little thing, the titular lady with the dog, is Anna Sergeyevna, a young Cruel Intentions-era Reese Witherspoon to Gurov’s winning Clooney. She is recently married, but like all 19th-century literary Russian aristocrats, unhappily so. What happens next is predictable: two strangers at different points in their lives, an encounter in an exotic locale, an inevitable, tempestuous affair. If it sounds derivative, it’s because every star- crossed lovers’ tale you know from 20th-century film and literature is an imitation of Chekhov’s original.
But what Chekhov does in “The Lady with the Little Dog” is extraordinary. He makes you root for the terrible human being. In spite of your better judgement, you long for Gurov to charm the girl, to seduce her, and, perhaps, to break her heart. When Anna confides in Gurov her agonies and unfulfilled dreams, he observes that “there’s something pathetic about her, anyway,” and you laugh hysterically. You feel sorry for Anna, but you decide that if she’s stupid enough to fall for this charming fraud, then she deserves to be swindled. Or maybe you are a moral person, and you don’t feel that way at all.
In any case, you will be as seduced by “The Lady with the Little Dog” as Anna is enamored with the monstrous Gurov. In the characters’ forbidden love affair, Chekhov evokes the spirit of summer: oppressive but liberating, exhausting but exciting, stultifying but intoxicating. Gurov’s life is an eternal summer, and in the summer, every day is a “thirsty day” when one does “not know what to do with oneself.” In the summer, one is particularly susceptible to the wonderful things that surround. For me, it is snorkeling along a coral reef in the middle of the Caribbean Sea; for Gurov, it is sitting next to a beautiful young woman in the dawn of light, with dew on the grass.
I think Gurov wins.
I will not spoil the entire story, but precisely when you think you know how it will all come crashing down, Chekhov surprises. If you rooted for Gurov in the beginning, by the end you’re praying that he gets his happily ever after. But Chekhov has something special planned for Gurov and Anna and the reader. Abruptly, dizzying, the story ends, leaving one gasping for air, unprepared for the solemnity of autumn — much less for the emptiness of winter.
Chekhov makes you long for summer, with all of its intensity, with all of its oppressiveness. He makes you long for a time, in Yalta or elsewhere, when the sun and the sea meet before you, when life overflows with possibilities. As “The Lady with the Little Dog” comes to a close — perhaps disappointingly, perhaps perfectly — even those who dislike the summer months will be left aching, just a little, for a few more drowsily sweltering days.
When I picked up my first Kurt Vonnegut book, Slaughterhouse-Five, I noticed the greatest literary feat I missed out on by growing up in Turkey. My friend Annastacia left a copy at our house and her boyfriend/my roommate Uzay read the book in a day, his first Vonnegut as well. Uzay was so startled that he urged me to pick it up immediately. I did as suggested and was much surprised and pleased. I have yet to read more of Vonnegut’s works but his stream of conscious style in Slaughterhouse-Five, the disjointed stories that flow together more like an epic poem, the simplistic wording that carries heavy thoughts and emotions, and the personal reflections mixed with fiction were most startling. It took me only a day to read Slaughterhouse-Five (I am usually a slow reader) and I felt that I should go back and reread it immediately to better grasp the stories contained therein. The combination of World War II stories that culminate in the bombing of Dresden, the life of a stereotypical suburban businessman in post-war America and his interactions with Tralfamodarian aliens are at times difficult to piece together. They do, nevertheless, connect on a certain, higher level, which I hope to better understand by reading more of Vonnegut’s works, following the characters that reappear in his novels and get a better sense of his outlook on matters of life and death. And so it goes.Around the same time that my friend John gave me Crash, he also gave me Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude. It took me a long time to get into The Fortress of Solitude. I picked it up in mid-summer and read about fifty pages and stopped. Then I saw The Squid and The Whale, which I liked very much, and the Brooklyn feel of it made me return to Lethem’s novel. I read another forty pages and stopped again. In the meanwhile, I was reading other books for fun or out of interest. Around Thanksgiving I picked up the novel again. I was preparing for my 2nd annual Chicago trip to visit Mr. and Mrs. Millions, brother Jozef and aunt Murvet, and I thought that a journey would be the best opportunity to turn to The Fortress of Solitude one last time. I am very glad I did, because now that I fully read Dylan Ebdus’s story I am mesmerized by Lethem’s style and the strong storyline that picks up after, for me at least, page 120 and accelerates until the reader hits the end. Dylan Ebdus is the sole white kid in a mostly black and Puerto Rican neighborhood in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Dylan, the only child of a not so successful painter and an eccentric hippie mother, is a total stranger to the culture of the block and is constantly “yoked,” i.e. bullied, humiliated and robbed, by his peers. One day Mingus Rude moves to the block with his once famous, now low profile, soul singer father Barrett Rude Jr. Mingus and Dylan become steady friends and slowly, sometimes painfully, Dylan embarks on a new path. While the first third of the novel is slow and establishes a strong setting, the second third flies by as the reader flips through the adventures of Mingus and Dylan in the ’70s, sees them drop out of high school/go to college, smoke a lot of dope, become crack/coke heads, discover and dive into music, and form their own tag team. The language is rich with graffiti, music and popular culture in the ’70s. At the third and final section of the novel the reader finds Dylan in Berkeley during the ’90s. A lot has changed except for his fascination with music and adaptation of a white-boy immersed in African-American culture life style. It is easy to empathize with Dylan as he tells his story through music ranging from Brian Eno to Talking Heads, Devo, the Temptations, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, James Brown and Curtis Mayfield. Dylan’s struggles with his insecurities and search for identity are amazing portrayals with very strong supporting characters. There also is the parallel story of Aeroman and the ring, which I am still trying to decipher and digest. I am very glad to have read The Fortress of Solitude, it is, along with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, one of my favorite reads in 2005 and I definitely intend to read more of Lethem’s writings in 2006.Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
The holidays are upon us, and I suspect that many of the folks reading this will be cutting out early this week. I think I’ll do the same, so don’t expect much in this space until 2005. I’m glad everyone seemed to enjoy the year end extravaganza. It was great fun seeing what everyone read this year. I’ll leave you with a couple of late additions and addenda before sending you off to your holiday jollification.Dan Wickett, proprietor of the Emerging Writers Network, previously gave us his Emerging Best of 2004, but he recently wrote in with some more of his personal favorites from this year. Novel: Steve Yarbrough – Prisoners of War; George Garrett – Double VisionShort Story Collections: Aaron Gwyn – Dog on the Cross; Percival Everett – Damned If I DoPoetry Collections: Beth Ann Fennelly – Tender Hooks; David Huddle – GrayscaleNon-Fiction: Steve Almond – Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America; Owen Gingerich – The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus CopernicusAnd last week, Brian shared with us his thoughts on a couple of books he enjoyed this year, but he couldn’t let me close things out without posting this:Chronicles, Vol. 1 by Bob Dylan: I lived in mortal fear that the genius of Bob Dylan – lyrically, melodically, and just plain cool-as-a-motherfuckerally – wouldn’t translate to prose. Naw, nothing to worry about. His book reads like nothing else: a smashed-up collage of history, (auto)biography, anecdote, music criticism, politics, fiction, lies, truth, and more. Dylan hangs with Chinese philosophers, New York playwrights, John Wilkes Booth(!!!), Tiny Tim, John Wayne, Gorgeous George, Bono, and, in my favorite scene in the book, during an early 60’s freezing cold NYC day, within the confines of a friend’s crash-pad, a teenaged Dylan skims through a wall of books and loses himself in ancient Greece, the Napoleonic wars, the Civil War, etc… a badass rootin-tootin’ tale of America(na) told through the eyes of one of its greatest (and most eccentric) poets.Now that sounds pretty good! Enjoy the holiday everyone. Coming after the break: a new installment from Millions contributor Andrew, the introduction of two brand new Millions contributors, my year in reading, and, yes, much, much more.