NY-based readers are invited to “Step Inside the Book” at a reading/party I’m doing this Friday with Alex Rose (The Musical Illusionist) and Alex Itin (Orson Whales). Alex will be working his narrative/surroundsound magic, Other Alex will be screening his multimedia books, and I’ll be showing art and reading fiction from A Field Guide to the North American Family. Drinks are on the house, I’m told, so if you’re free, stop by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Swing Space, at 125 Maiden Lane, between 7 and 9 p.m. We now return to our regularly scheduled programming…
Zoltán Abádi-Nagy: The Faustian pact with the devil is nothing but giving up originality, isn’t it? And vice versa, a painter, Wyatt, manipulated into selling his soul, giving up originality, is bound to be Faustian, besides being emblematic of the artist’s position in a corrupt, manipulative, counterfeit world. Is this a correct interpretation of Wyatt’s central function as a Faust figure?
William Gaddis: It is, yes, originality also being Satan’s “original sin” if you like. I think also, further, I tried to make clear that Wyatt was the very height of a talent but not a genius — quite a different thing. Which is why he shrinks from going ahead in, say, works of originality. He shrinks from this and takes refuge in what is already there, which he can handle, manipulate. He can do quite perfect forgeries, because the parameters of perfection are already there.
—“The Art of Fiction No. 101,” The Paris Review, Winter 1987
Writers, if you can call them that, are cowards. They are afraid of being too different from one another. Easily the most pernicious lie they tell themselves is that they have a calling — that they belong to a metaphysical caste with others like them in some ineffable way. This quality may not be something within their powers to describe, as they’d be the first to admit, but that won’t stop them, for they are writers. They will find the words. By an irritating logic, writers may be accidentally correct in this belief of a species-wide likeness, the likeness being that silly belief.
When there is no writing out there to speak for itself, the writer talks about writing. Maybe they write a story about it. Or an essay. Or they read a story/essay about writing, which is an elegant way of avoiding writing, because it provides a writerly fog that nearly simulates writing itself. It’s all very tiresome, because of course you can’t properly write about writing — you just drone on about “the process,” or your close attention to the texture of this world, or your drinking problem, or whether MFA programs destroyed the craft (as if there was anything to destroy). Leaving aside the obvious benefits of a good writing workshop — deadlines, clashing viewpoints, sex — it’s clear they feed the fantasy that writers can coexist at a single set of coordinates. They allow a frivolous, narrow habit to resemble a vocation.
This has already been written about, exhaustively, and writing about it further will only encourage more of that same writing. When a writer writes what we’ll call a book, that book is pitched and sold as a book in the model of other books that came before, and the writer is identified as a writer happily related to several successful writers. This is utilitarian shorthand after a fashion, but it also reinforces the fear of originality. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis blurbs its author as both “heir to the shredding wit and poignancy of Dorothy Parker and the shrewd surrealism of Donald Barthelme” (Donna Seaman, Booklist) and a writer whom there is “no one like” (Catherine Holmes, The Post and Courier). Well, which is it?
Admitting that language succeeds through contagion and mutability, it seems redundant to insist that no writer is truly original. But in despairing at that unattainable, likely unpublishable ideal, writers retreat too hastily into the traditional romans-á-clef, the same stunt journalism that a cycling of taste demands. The reasoning appears to be: if you can’t be a unique writer, have the markings of a generic. Glamorize your squalid room in the bohemian part of a bright metropolis. Peddle opinions on the books you read (if you read). Consort with other writers.
Except how friendly can two writers be? They are jealous of each other’s luck, scornful of each other’s methods. Slander flies thick behind backs. And because writers can focus on the business of books while overlooking books themselves, there is little need to have arguments about what has actually been written. Instead of Nabokov gleefully demolishing Dostoyevsky’s idea of the psyche, or David Markson noting mystic “bullshit” in the margins of DeLillo’s novels, it’s an unpacking of a critique of the hyperbole around Jonathan Franzen. This would be writing, not feeling.
What dark, original feelings writers have — and suppress in the interest of community — are purged as the calculated outbursts of token enfants terribles and bitter old cranks (the former smoothly becoming the latter, as Martin Amis can attest). To parse a book’s account of reality, consciousness, and time is to fly too close to the sun; the stakes are simply too high. Better to pigeonhole the prose style. To fetishize the small, lovely sentence. To address the writer’s eccentricities off the page, which he or she is transparently eager to name. Writers, assigned to write about other writing, skip over the gut reaction to nitpick, evading the biggest questions posed. Frightened of their problematic voices, they adopt synthetic tones, stripped of all that troublesome bias but saddled with its outcomes regardless. A century after William James, no one will confess to having a temperament.
You could have ignored the remarks above, and no harm would have befallen you. They are not especially provocative, in that there is nothing to provoke. It is unclear who should actually care what they mean. None of them are meant to suggest that things used to be different, or will soon change, because who knows how things used to or will be. Writing is just what some people do, whenever they stop writing about it. It is an art, as Gaddis had it, for which we can set the parameters of perfection. Why we should want to is, for the moment, beyond answering.
Image credit: design.mein/Flickr
People are reading non-fiction, too. The big debut this week is Joan Didion’s new book Where I Was from. It’s part family history, part historical exploration of “where she was from,” the perplexing state of California, a fertile subject for analysis if ever there was one. People are already waving this book above their heads and extolling its virtues much in the same way as they did with her earlier book, Political Fictions. Another politically minded author garnering a wide readership is New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, whose op-ed pieces from the last three years have been collected in a single volume entitled, The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century. As the title indicates, his columns chronicle the collapse of the prosperity of the previous decade, and the former economist from Princeton feels that the current administration deserves much of the blame. If that’s too heavy, there are some less serious books that are or will soon be best sellers. Among them is a peculiar book that comes to us by way of England. Schott’s Original Miscellany by Ben Schott is an astoundingly clever and thorough little collection of trivia that manages to strike the perfect balance between being informative and being fun. For example, go to the official miscellanies website and get the official scoop on how palmistry works, and then feel free to troll around for other odd info at your leisure. Meanwhile, the more musically minded may have caught Martin Scorsese’s seven-part documentary about the blues which is currently airing on PBS. Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick helped compile the companion volume to the documentary entitled, Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey, an attractive book that features new essays by David Halberstam, Hilton Als, Suzan-Lori Parks, Elmore Leonard, and others. And finally, all this talk of books about music reminds me of Chuck Klosterman. I may have mentioned a few weeks ago that I was reading Klosterman’s first book, Fargo Rock City, a terribly clever book that seeks to make a case for heavy metal in the annals of music history. The book started strong, and I found myself laughing out loud once every couple of pages; however, by the end, Klosterman’s personality, which is as much on display as the subjects about which he writes and which is an odd mix of self-effacement and shameless arrogance, began to grate on me. To make things worse, right after I finished the book, I read a couple of horrendous reviews of his new book which brought into even clearer focus what had bugged me so much about Klosterman. Nonetheless, the ranks of readers devoted to Klosterman’s absurd and witty social commentary seems to be growing, because his new book, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto seems to be selling at an ever quickening clip. Stayed tuned for the next installment… Paperbacks!
When I was in high school, I was quite enthralled by Edgar Allan Poe. I’d been familiar with his most famous stories from a young age (I remember being particularly haunted by “The Cask of Amontillado”), but in high school I had the opportunity, poked and prodded by teachers, to delve deeper into some of the lesser known (or perhaps just less famous) stories, as well as his essays. The assigned reading begat extracurricular reading, as it sometimes did for me, and in looking for more Poe, I came across the one novel he ever wrote, an appropriately peculiar book, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. It turned out to be a bizarre maritime tale rich with allegory and supernatural elements, not to mention cannibalism and geographic oddities (with particular attention paid to the mysterious Antarctica).It’s one of those books that stuck with me even though I don’t remember all that much about it, but I hadn’t thought about it for a while until Mrs. Millions asked me the other day if I’d ever heard of it. As it turns out, this is the book that Paul Theroux reads to Jorge Luis Borges in The Old Patagonian Express (as Mrs. Millions mentioned in writing about the book this week.)This juxtaposition led me to read up on the book at Wikipedia and elsewhere. I came away with a few nuggets: for example, I discovered that Jules Verne – in a fan fiction sort of turn – wrote a sequel to Pym called An Antarctic Mystery. Pym also inspired writers like H.P. Lovecraft, who drew from it in his book At the Mountains of Madness, Yann Martel, for his Booker-winning Life of Pi, and Rudy Rucker for The Hollow Earth. It also turns out that Borges once called Pym “Poe’s greatest work.” I think my copy is still tucked away at my parents house somewhere, so I’ll have to dig it up at some point. In the meantime, the full text of the book is available online.
If I had any sway in Hollywood, which I don’t, I would currently be urging Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers and the brass at Warner Bros. to begin an aggressive Oscar campaign for Where the Wild Things Are. But not for the actual film, no way (maybe cinematography). I’m talking about the trailer. I know, I know. Trailers can’t win Oscars, much less be nominated. But what if it wasn’t submitted as a “trailer,” but as a “short film?” A really short film. A film that run less than two and a half minutes in length. Why not?
I hate to say it, but the film left me cold for the most part. However the trailer was and remains to be a revelation. I remember sitting in the theater and seeing it the way I remember seeing full-length films. It all begins so quietly, forest sounds and footsteps. We see Max, in his famous wolf suit, being carried by one of the Wild Things. As if to prepare the audience for the experience that is to come, the Wild Thing says to Max “I really want to show you something.”
In the remaining 90 or so seconds we learn that Max is a lonely child, he runs away from home, takes a boat over rough seas to an island full of Wild Things and has many adventures. That is the book. The pace of the trailer speeds up, emphasized by the brilliant musical backdrop Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up”. I was so hoping to hear this song in the finished version, but that didn’t happen. As we near the end, nearly every character is running, playing and behaving like real children behave. Spike Jonze says that this is a film about childhood, not necessarily a film for children. If he is talking about the trailer, he is absolutely right.
One of the main criticisms of the film has been the argument that there simply wasn’t enough content in the source material to warrant a feature film. After seeing the film, I spent the better part of two weeks trying desperately to find some way to disagree. But I can’t.
Part of this could be attributed to the ridiculously high expectations I brought with me into that theater. What was I really expecting, some sort of transformational experience? Yep. Call me crazy, but I was absolutely certain that I would have some sort of epiphany by the time the end credits were rolling. Why? That damn trailer.
I won’t say that I was depressed about the overall film experience. But then again, I can’t think of any other accurate way to express how I felt. A few days ago, for reasons I can’t explain, I felt the urge to see the trailer again. There have been several versions since that first one, some edited differently, some made for television. It took a few minutes to find the original cut. But when I watched it again, I realized that I had no reason to be depressed. Sure, the film was a letdown, but I didn’t need it. The experience I longed for was fully contained in this little gem. The emotions, the energy, the music, it was all there. The same way a tight little pop song can be more effective and memorable than a lengthy concept album, this trailer captured the spirit of Maurice Sendak’s book in its entirety.
I don’t regret my Where the Wild Things Are experience in any way. I’ve come to think of the full-length film the way I think of those indulgent overlong director’s cuts that always seem to show up on DVD. I know what the real film is and it doesn’t bother me at all. I feel bad for Spike Jonze, but I don’t blame him. He set out to make something great, and in a roundabout way, he has. He has created one of the best (and certainly most expensive) short films in the history of cinema. And I, for one, am thankful.
I’m sitting in a Barcelona internet cafe in the completely empty non-smoking section… The smoking section is packed. It’s only noon though, so it seems like most of the city isn’t really awake yet. We are staying about four blocks from Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. It is under construction as it has been for decades, and it is a bizarre building to look upon. Over the next couple of days we will see some of Gaudi’s other work. Today: art museums and La Boqueria, Barcelona’s massive open air food market. I had hoped to get a lot of reading done on the plane, but the trip was so grueling that I didn’t accomplish much. I worked my way through the first issue of The Believer, McSweeney’s magazine about books and other fluff. Heidi Julavits’ article about the lost art of book reviewing is the high point, after that it’s mostly uneven to dull. But, hey, at least the folks on Valencia keep churning out new and interesting projects. Til next time…
Sorry about the infrequency of updates. I saw the Walkmen play two nights this weekend. The new songs are great. The new album will be called Bows and Arrows and it’ll be out some time next February.If you’ve read much of this blog, you’ve probably noticed that I am a fan of food writing (Jeffrey Steingarten, Calvin Trillin, and Jonathan Gold are my favorites), and all too often I find myself allured by a brand new restaurant that I can’t possibly afford. Food writing, more than any other type of journalism, tends to dwell upon the personality of the writer, and so as I devote untold hours to living vicariously, I get to know my food writers pretty well. For quite awhile now I have enjoyed weekly imaginary meals with LA Weekly food writer Michelle Huneven. She’s eloquent and friendly and thorough; not as adventurous as her predecessor Jonathan Gold, but sometimes a peaceful and upscale imaginary lunch is exactly what I’m in the mood for. So, naturally, the other day when I saw that she had a new novel out, I was intrigued. It’s called Jamesland, and it was put out by Knopf (a good sign). Then I noticed that the LA Weekly published an excerpt, which I promptly read. It was surprisingly good, compelling enough to make me want to read the book. You can find the excerpt here.You may have heard of “the original club kid,” James St. James. He arrived in New York City towards the end of the Warhol heyday, and with his cadre of maniacs, built a new “scene” from the ground up. It was Studio 54 for the next generation: drugs, sex and a taste for the macabre and bizarre. Fast forward a few years: a murder has shattered the fantasy they created for themselves, and James is spiraling into drug addiction. At this point he decided to write a book: it is half memoir, half true crime account of the “clubland murder.” It came out a few years ago under the title, Disco Bloodbath. Then this year it was made into a (profoundly forgettable) movie called Party Monster. Though the movie is bad, the book is not, and now it has finally been released as a paperback (and retitled Party Monster: A Fabulous But True Tale of Murder in Clubland). It’s hard to find a book more fun than this one.A new issue of my favorite magazine came out. The latest installment of Colors is devoted to slums. In classic Colors fashion, their eye is unblinking, yet they do not dwell upon misery or pass judgment, instead they focus on how these hand made cities are an example of human ingenuity and a will to survive and live a life of dignity. Where there is beauty and humor to be found in these places, Colors finds it. These people are everyone, the magazine seems to say.