William H. Gass loved words. “A word is a wanderer,” he wrote in “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses.” “Except in the most general syntactical sense, it has no home.”
Gass longed to make worthy homes for words. He often chose lists.
Lists were his secular litanies. Lists allowed Gass, who always longed to be a poet, to ladle his words into natural meter.
We are lucky if we find a sentence or paragraph to hold onto—as a reader, as a writer. We write them on index cards and impale them into cork board. We let them collect dust under a lamp. We are strangely blessed if we can find a writer who can carry us even further—through a book, through a life.
I return to Gass like a pilgrimage. His final offering, The William H. Gass Reader, is a gift. Nearly a thousand pages of his essays about writers and artists, his theories about fiction, and selections from his novellas and novels.
When I say Gass loved words, I mean he genuinely, audaciously, absolutely loved words. Language seemed an infinite gift that he grasped. A typographic deity.
“I am an octogenarian now and should know better, but I recently let a sentence reach print so embarrassingly bad its metaphors seemed frightened into scattered flight like quail.” He was not afraid to fail.
“Skepticism was my rod, my staff, my exercise.” Gass was pessimistic. He was clothed in doubt.
Yet that skepticism, as it does with the best critics, gave foundation and significance to his celebrations. You cannot love words without also loving writers. Gass loved writers.
He loved Gertrude Stein. Her play, her power. “There are texts,” he writes in “Fifty Literary Pillars,” “and there are times, and sometimes both are right and ring together like Easter changes.” He thought Stein “did more with sentences, and understood them better, than any writer ever has. Not all her manipulations are successful, but even at their worst, most boring, most mechanical, they’re wonderfully informative. And constantly she thought of them as things in space, as long and wiggling and physical as worms.”
We need critics who can admire. We need critics who can feel awe.
Gass loved: Plato (“His dialogues are among the world’s most magical texts”). Virginia Woolf (Her diary “alters your attitude toward life”). James Joyce (“Finnegans Wake is the high-water mark of modernism, and not to have been fundamentally influenced by it as a writer is not to have lived in your time”). Samuel Beckett (“Beckett wishes to save our souls by purging us—impossibly—of matter”). Katherine Anne Porter (“From her first tale to her last, she was in complete command of her manner—a prose straightforward and shining as a prairie road, yet gently undulating, too”).
Gass makes us want to read more, and to read better. He believed reading was an athletic act.
He was not an athlete. But as a boy, he was a member of a speed reading team, and in “On Reading to Oneself,” in his typical self-deprecating form, he writes of how he learned to read as an act of love. He writes of how the “speeding reader drops diagonally down across the page, on a slant like a skier; cuts across the text the way a butcher prefers to slice sausage, so that a small round can be made to yield a misleadingly larger, oval piece.”
His vision of the world was always slightly bent. He turned us toward his curves.
He thought we were a mess. “Evil,” he wrote, “is as man-made as the motorcar.” He didn’t have much faith in us—our track record has not been particularly splendid—and concluded, “we shall probably be eaten by our own greed, and live on only in our ruins, middens, and the fossil record.”
He knew what we are capable of, and it scared him.
In an essay on Ezra Pound, Gass wrote of how Pound, in his later years, apologized for his anti-Semitism, calling it a “mistake” and some “suburban prejudice.” Gass’s rebuke is powerful: “The tone of that repentance is all wrong, suggesting that Pound had made some error in arithmetic on his tax forms which turned out to have unpleasant consequences. Anti-Semitism is not a ‘mistake’ or even a flaw, as if it left the rest of its victim okay and in good working order. As with racism, a little does more than go a long way; it goes all the way.”
Peel aside his play and Gass, truly, was one to trust.
What can a Catholic learn from an agnostic Protestant? More than I could ever imagine when I discovered Gass as an undergraduate—I devoured (to use his word) “The Pedersen Kid,” which is rightfully included in full within this Reader. I would never be the same. We both have an affinity for the word soul, and let me not parse our differing theologies: I appreciate the contours of his unbelief, for they live within a state of wonder.
What a wonder it is to make a world of words.
“Words are with us everywhere. In our erotic secrecies, in our sleep. We’re often no more aware of them than our own spit, although we use them oftener than legs.” Words “lift our spirits—these poor weak words. They guide and they coerce. They settle fights, initiate disputes, compound errors, elicit truth. How long have we known it? They gather dust, too, and spoil in jokes which draw our laughter like the flies.”
While a graduate student at Cornell, where he studied philosophy, Gass took a course with the legendary M. H. Abrams, a seminar course on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The students read not only the Biographia Literaria—but also “every book it quotes from, mentions, alludes to.”
Gass said the method “taught me how to read, how to reread, even how to overread.” He learned “never to rely on secondary sources, but to trust only primary ones—a teaching that leads directly to this ideal: write so as to become primary.”
1. Not too long ago, the idea that “you are your brain” was the revolutionary mantra of a handful of scientists, but today it raises hardly an eyebrow among the general public. The brain has become, for many, synonymous with the biological machinations of the self, and the self-knowledge promised by neuroscience has ignited a hunger to understand how it weighs in on age-old questions: Do we have free will? How do we make decisions? What happens when we fall in love? Why do we make art? Imagine, Jonah Lehrer’s polymathic new book is poised to feed this hunger. Blurring the lines between science writing, self-help, and cultural criticism with virtuosic ease, Imagine explores fields as disparate as neuroscience, sociology, and urban planning with the promise not only to explain how creativity works, but how you, too, can use these secrets to unlock your own creativity, and how we can collectively build a more creative culture.
The book ranges across a dizzying array of examples of the creative process, from Bob Dylan to the team at Pixar to the tech boom in Tel Aviv, creating a mash-up of anecdotes, science reporting and associative interjections from the humanities. In the second chapter alone, we get the guy who invented Scotch Tape; a psychologist who uses EEG to study the brain while people solve puzzles; a neuroscientist who studies insight; a passage from David Hume; a neurologist who is studying daydreaming; the invention of Post-Its; the classic children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon…and the list goes on. To say that the density and diversity of sources marshaled here are impressive would be a massive understatement. As in Proust Was a Neuroscientist and How We Decide, Lehrer has invited an eclectic mix of guests to his dinner party, and getting them all in the same room to see what happens is a rare achievement. But his real talent lies in the way he plays all these sources off each other in order to build a coherent argument, leaping from the story of how Barbie dolls were born when an American housewife saw a pornographic doll in the window of a German cigar shop to how seeing ones’ work with fresh eyes is “one of the central challenges of writing” to the neural pathways involved in reading and writing in order to demonstrate that “the only way to be creative over time — to not be undone by our expertise — is to experiment with ignorance, to stare at things we don’t fully understand.” To cap off this particular moment, Lehrer offers a toast to the poet Samuel Coleridge, who said he attended public chemistry lectures in London to “renew my stock of metaphors.”
Imagine uses the same mash-up method that was so successful in How We Decide, but the science of creativity simply isn’t as developed as the science of decision-making. Because of this, it turns out that Lehrer’s tried-and-true method doesn’t work quite as well. The difficulty with pinning down creativity — scientifically or otherwise — becomes obvious when you consider the diversity of anecdotal examples in the book. Is writing a song comparable to coming up with new uses for glue or solving a puzzle that has only one correct answer? Is the person who writes twenty cookie-cutter novels engaged in the same activity as the person who writes one book so unprecedented that it changes the trajectory of literature? Are any two creative processes really the same? At most, it seems that one could point out patterns, but Lehrer boldly sets his sights on formula.
Imagine argues that “creativity is a catchall term for a variety of distinct thought processes” and that by understanding these processes we can all learn to be more creative. The more people you talk with, and the more diverse those people are, the better. Companies that wish to encourage creativity should have everyone use a bathroom in a centralized place, like Pixar does. If we want to be a more creative society, we should lighten up on copyright laws and share ideas, like they do in Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv. The scope widens until, by the end, Lehrer is advocating policy changes in areas such as education, copyright law, and immigration. He argues, for example, that because immigrants submit a disproportionate number of patent applications in the U.S., it seems that, as measured by the metric of patents, at least, more immigrants could make America a more creative country.
Trumpeted as “something of a popular science prodigy” by The New York Times, Lehrer has become a translator and ambassador, someone readers trust to explain what is going on in all those ivory towers full of beakers and cell cultures and genetically-engineered mice. Besides his two hugely successful books, he is a contributing editor at Wired, a frequent guest on WNYC’s RadioLab, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, and a science columnist for The Wall Street Journal. For many readers he is the face of science in popular culture. And for good reason. He has repeatedly proven his skill at wrestling complex scientific ideas into nuanced and accurate discussions accessible to non-scientists. Take, for example, his excellent Wall Street Journal column in which he writes insightfully about the limitations of fMRI, a widely used brain-imaging technology with difficult-to-interpret data that ignites heated disputes both inside and outside scientific circles. Lehrer is also an expert and captivating storyteller, and Imagine aims high in grappling with the extremely difficult task of communicating subtle and complex ideas in an engaging way.
But Lehrer’s role as liaison comes with a degree of responsibility; most readers trust that he is explaining science accurately and drawing reasonable conclusions based on the data at hand. Lehrer’s polished style, affable enthusiasm, and obvious intelligence make it tempting not to question the science as he sees it. All the more troubling, then, that right from the outset of Imagine there are signs that science may be taking a backseat to story:
Most cognitive skills have elaborate biological histories, so their evolution can be traced over time. But not creativity — the human imagination has no clear precursors…The birth of creativity, in other words, arrived like any insight: out of nowhere.
If there are any truths in biology, one is that nothing arrives “out of nowhere.” For almost the whole recorded history of science, people believed that we may be the exception. For years, scientists thought we were different because we use tools. Not so, as it turned out. Chimpanzees have us there. And gorillas and orangutans and some other primates. And birds. And elephants. And a few bottlenose dolphins. Even ants use grain to carry honey. Until very recently, many scientists thought language set us apart, but in the past ten years, researchers have observed precursors to human speech in primate vocalizations and striking similarities between how infants learn to speak and songbirds learn to sing. Even self-awareness, a treasured feature of human consciousness, is no longer considered unique to humans. It’s tempting to think that we are special, but today most researchers agree with Darwin’s eloquent observation that humans are animals, too; we are different in degree rather than kind. There’s no reason to think that creativity will be the exception.
The real problem is that claiming creativity’s exceptional status makes for a better story: if creativity is what sets us apart from the animals, understanding this faculty is tantamount to unlocking the mystery of who and what we are. As Lehrer writes, “Until we understand the set of mental events that give rise to new thoughts, we will never understand what makes us so special.” This claim raises the stakes for the book. The problem is, it’s probably just not true.
These few sentences set off some unexpected alarm bells, so we decided to take a closer look at some of the science upon which Imagine is built, specifically neuroscience, as that’s what Lehrer is best known for and where his greatest expertise lies. In the fourth chapter, for example, Lehrer assembles an impressive array of anecdotes and neuroscience results to explain why “letting go” is “an extremely valuable source of creativity.” “The act of letting go,” he declares, “has inspired some of the most famous works of modern culture, from John Coltrane’s saxophone solos to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings.” So how does letting go, Lehrer asks, lead to creativity? “The story begins in the brain,” he claims, and turns to a neuroimaging experiment in which jazz pianists were asked to improvise new tunes while in a brain scanner. During improvisation, the scanner picked up a surge of activity in a brain area previously linked to self-expression. At the same time, the scientists also observed a sharp decrease in brain activity in an area previously linked to impulse control. Lehrer concludes, “This suggests that the musician was engaged in a kind of storytelling, searching for the notes that reflected her personal style…The musicians were inhibiting their inhibitions, slipping off those mental handcuffs.” At first pass, this interpretation sounds pretty convincing: the self-control center of the brain shuts down to clear the path for unfettered self-expression.
Except that it’s impossible to draw that conclusion from the data at hand. This is an example of a common logical fallacy that plagues the interpretation of neuroimaging data. Say you notice a crowd of people at your neighbor’s house one night, and then find out she is throwing a party. You can correctly conclude that whenever your neighbor throws a party, there will be people at her house. On another night, you again notice a crowd of people at her house, and you conclude she is throwing a party — but this time you’re wrong. She is hosting a church group. While you can conclude that a party means there will be people, you cannot conclude that people means a party.
This reasoning fails because brain regions, like houses, have many functions. If you scan the brains of 100 people while they add 2+2, and in every case the same little patch of cortex jumps into action, it’s safe to infer that the cognitive act of adding 2+2 is related to activity in that brain region. So far so good. (What the region might actually be doing — adding, focusing on the number 2, catching errors — is whole separate problem). It’s tempting to say, then, that every time researchers observe that little patch of cortex lighting up, it must mean that the person in the scanner is engaged in adding 2+2. After all, it’s the 2+2 part of the brain, right? That’s where intuition can lead you astray. There is not a measurable one-to-one mapping between any brain region and any particular cognitive process; the same little patch of cortex is likely involved in multiple functions, just as a house can be filled with people for many different reasons. So when you see the patch of cortex light up under the scanner, you can’t say the person is adding 2+2. Likewise, if a brain region previously linked to “self-expression” lights up while improvising music, you can’t say — as Lehrer does — that the musician was “engaged in a kind of storytelling.”
This claim is all the more surprising because Lehrer is clearly familiar with this logical fallacy. In the Wall Street Journal column about fMRI data mentioned earlier, he offers an elegant discussion of this very problem:
Consider an op-ed piece recently published in the New York Times, which used fMRI results to demonstrate, purportedly, that people “literally love their iPhones.” The evidence? When the researchers showed subjects a video of a ringing cellphone, a part of the brain called the insula exhibited a spike in activity. Because previous studies have linked the insula with feelings of love, the authors concluded that the gadget had become a “romantic rival” for husbands and wives.
But here’s the problem: The insula is also activated by feelings of disgust and bodily pain. It plays an important role in coordinating hand movement, maintaining balance and monitoring bodily changes. In fact, activity in the insula has been implicated in nearly a third of all fMRI papers. Because the brain is such a vast knot of connections, it’s often impossible to understand what’s happening based on local patterns of activity. Perhaps we’re disgusted by our iPhones, or maybe the insula is just preparing the fingers to move. The pretty picture can’t reveal the answer.
So what’s going on? It’s baffling, really, that in Imagine Lehrer makes statements so similar to ones he thoroughly discredits in his column.
And the problems continue to arise. Near the end of the same chapter, Lehrer presents what appears to be the most convincing piece of evidence yet that inhibiting self-control enhances creativity. He reports a study in which the researcher used a harmless technique called TMS to disrupt brain activity in regions previously implicated in impulse control while the subjects drew sketches of animals. Before TMS, Lehrer reports that their drawings were “crude stick figures.” But during TMS, they exhibited “strange, new talents.” Their figures were “suddenly filled with artistic flourishes.” The section concludes with the comforting bromide that we all have inner artists, if only the brain’s inhibitory mechanisms wouldn’t “constantly hold back our latent talents.”
We were curious to see these “before” and “after” drawings, so we looked up the study. Upon viewing the drawings we felt a bit misled by Lehrer’s claim that dampening activity in the brain area he connects to impulse control led to “strange, new talents.” These before and after drawings, for example, seem to be just slightly different versions of a horse:
One might even argue that the saddle in the “before” drawing on the left represents an “artistic flourish” absent in the “after” drawings on the right. In the paper, even the researchers themselves did not claim to have observed any great shift in artistic performance. They concluded that the technique “did not lead to a systematic improvement in naturalistic drawing ability,” although the drawings did show a “change of scheme or convention.” These less-than-definitive results, coupled with the fact that the details of how TMS affects brain activity are poorly understood, renders any hypothesis about this brain area and “creativity” speculative. The researchers do argue for such a link elsewhere, and even if this unproven hypothesis turns out to be true, to say that this study supports the chapter’s claims that “the timid circuits of the prefrontal cortex keep us from risking self-expression” is still problematic. The book is representing speculation as fact. While isolated moments like these may or may not be indicative of a larger pattern, they do raise doubts about both how science is represented throughout the book and the way it is used to support Lehrer’s claims.
If dubious interpretations of scientific data appeared only once in Imagine, it might be a worrisome fluke; but they appear multiple times, which is cause for real concern. Lehrer steps over the line again when connecting amphetamine use to creativity. He states that “Because the dopamine neurons in the midbrain are excited…the world is suddenly saturated with intensely interesting ideas.” Such definitive statements imply that neuroscience has already charted a causal course from neurotransmitter chemistry to a complex cognitive process — which simply isn’t true. That it should have come from a writer who so clearly has the ability to write about science critically and intelligently still comes as a bit of a surprise.
All writers who translate neuroscience for the general public today work under a tremendous pressure to provide easy answers. And it’s not just writers who feel this pressure. So do scientists. It’s possible that Imagine is reflecting the sometimes unsavory habits of scientists who are worried about getting the sort of results that will ensure the millions of dollars in funding necessary to continue their research and move forward in their scientific careers. These habits often bleed over into the way scientists relate their work to journalists. The researcher who had subjects draw the “before” and “after” horses was quoted in The New York Times as calling TMS “a creativity-amplifying machine.” This sort of comment implies a causal link that has not yet been scientifically established, and it can tempt journalists into overstatement. Nevertheless, it is the job of the science writer to represent science as it is, to report on the often ambiguous reality of the scientific process — not to suggest certainty where it does not exist, even if it may seem more appealing to readers.
Everyone is looking for answers. By understanding the brain, the thinking goes, we can better understand ourselves and therefore change — our habits, diets, workplaces — in order to be better, happier versions of ourselves. This promise fuels neuroscience’s great popular appeal. However, while today’s neuroscience offers a deeper understanding the brain than ever before, it is still incomplete. It is far from providing the answers, or advice, that readers might find most satisfying. In the introduction, Imagine promises to deliver “what creativity is…how creativity works” and how “we can make it work for us” by revealing different types of creativity at work in different regions of the brain. This promise defies the reality of current brain science: despite the incredible progress of the past century, scientists really know very little about how the organ works, and can only postulate how neural mechanisms might be related to mind and behavior. People are looking, too soon, to neuroscience for answers.
We need good translators of science to the general public, and Lehrer has the public’s ear and the public’s trust. He is at his best when putting his considerable talents to the task of telling a story that is true according to the facts as we know them, rather than telling a story people want to hear.
Zoe RollerDecember 9, 2009 | 2 books mentioned4 min read
Comic books and outsider art share an unspoken kinship. Both were once reviled as the products of deranged minds, unfit for artistic recognition, but both are finally achieving legitimacy. Outsider art now generally refers to untrained artists working outside the mainstream art market, but it began as a condescending term for the art of children, the insane, and socially marginalized groups–until recently, the supposed readership of comic books. Films like The Soloist and In the Realms of the Unreal make the unhinged, destitute savant a recognizable trope, and Hollywood is discovering that the “graphic novel” end of the comics spectrum can be just as popular as the standard Marvel fare. Alan Moore’sWatchmen was crowned one of Time’s 100 Best Novels, and fine writers like Harvey Pekar, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, and Alison Bechdel are getting their due as well.
I hope Mark Beyer’s work will find a place in the canon. His masterpiece Amy and Jordan brings the aesthetic and neurosis of outsider art to comic books. Amy and Jordan is a series of four panel strips that ran in the free paper New York Press from 1988 to 1996. Beyer published a few books, but Amy and Jordan disappeared without a trace (except perhaps for boxes of newspaper clippings saved by devotees), until Pantheon released a collection of 292 strips in 2004. The resulting book is a treasure of the comics medium.
Amy and Jordan has only three recurring characters: the eponymous couple and Amy’s sickly son Ba Tilsdale, who dies of neglect but occasionally returns as an ominous statue. Amy and Jordan’s relationship is antagonistic, yet they’re resigned to being stuck with each other–somewhere between Akbar and Jeff and Vladimir and Estragon. They share a decrepit apartment (critics speculate that they live on the Lower East Side) and slog through various mediocre jobs. Each strip chronicles a mysterious or unfortunate occurrence. The minor, disheartening tribulations of urban life–navigating the subway, run-ins with weirdos, vermin–take on monstrous proportions, and the city becomes a horrific carnival of disaster. Amy and Jordan are menaced by “demons carrying carving knives” and gigantic insects, and plagued by poisoned food. Many of the strips combine ordinary annoyance with surreal violence: when Jordan goes outside to ask a crazy man to stop screaming, the man responds unexpectedly: “He’s wrapped his snakelike tongue around my body. I’m paralyzed. I can’t move! Well it’s good. Now Amy can sleep unmolested.” Beyer’s stilted, clunky dialogue makes even the most disturbing events funny, and his characters’ reactions to tragedy are gruesomely pragmatic. Upon discovering that their neighbor’s apartment is full of murdered children, Jordan equivocates: “He’s a mean, spiteful, bitter, ugly old man. When he dies nobody will care. On the other hand maybe I’m wrong. I suppose he has some endearing traits.” Amy and Jordan’s pre-Giuliani New York is full of abandoned babies, suicidal neighbors, and malevolent children. Watching the parade of downtrodden souls trudging past their window, Amy concludes, “The world is a horrible place filled with terrible people.” This is grim stuff, but Beyer’s fantastically inventive artwork keeps his world from sinking into despondence.
Beyer’s artwork pushes the comic strip format in a tradition extending back to Winsor McCay, the creator of Little Nemo in Slumberland, who distorted and destroyed the panels in his strips. While many comic strip writers simplify their characters into a few recognizable pen strokes, Amy and Jordan’s malleable forms reflect the instability of their world. His work displays many characteristics of outsider art, such as horror vacui, the need to fill every millimeter of space with detail, and obsessive repetition of shapes and patterns. His work is very similar in theme and content to that of Martín Ramírez and Madge Gill, two heavyweights in outsider art. It is also beautiful, exciting work. His bold black and white compositions and bizarre images create an indelible impression on the reader. Beyer is untrained, and can be considered a legitimate outsider artist, but he is unusual in communicating equally well in image and text. Henry Darger wrote the world’s longest book, but his images are more powerful than his text. Beyer balances the tone of his dialogue and depiction perfectly–the ultimate feat for a graphic novel. His cityscapes are oppressively whimsical, their disintegration into pattern creating a mood of menace.
Urban horror is a favorite theme of comic books. The Dark Knight captured the hatred and fear of the city that characterizes “edgy” comics like Transmetropolitan. Although I love Batman, the squalid city always struck me as a dishonest, conservative simplification. Amy and Jordan’s urban hell is free of Manichean dichotomies, and its everyday absurdity is more realistic than Gotham. Rather than battling evil or gleefully embodying it, Amy and Jordan are just as ambiguous as the city. Their moral code is constantly in flux, responding to their situations or capricious urges. Jordan bandages a bleeding stranger with his shirt, and boasts “Don’t ever let it be said that I’m not a great humanitarian!” Later, he tries to sell Amy’s crying son in a pawnshop. The protagonists’ relationship is similarly erratic. Both seethe with resentment, plot against each other, and blame each other for their degradation; yet sometimes they are almost sweet. Jordan brings Amy a teddy bear (unaware that it’s infested by termites), and Amy reassures Jordan, “I don’t think of you as dung, even if everyone else does!”
Beyer’s ghoulish visions turn what is probably crushing personal trauma into art. Most outsider art is a compulsive attempt to maintain the artist’s sanity, and this desperation is palpable in Beyer’s gallows humor and frantic crosshatching. Too many comics coast on manufactured nihilism, but Amy and Jordan feels like an act of exorcism, transmuting real anguish into entertainment. It is a testament to the the survival instinct. Amy and Jordan fly through life on irrational optimism, and it seems that creating them lets Beyer do the same.
There is no greater way to spend your summer than flat on your back on the hot sand or in a chaise lounge by a pool (preferably with nearby waiters serving adult beverages). So while you’re laid out and baking this season check out these books whose landscapes and characters are bone-dry, desolate, charred, or wasted. The relentless emptiness, absence of morality, and anesthetized and vacuous characters will provide a different kind of “trashy” beach read. The ennui will be a perfect complement to your cocktail.
Play It As It Lays follows the trajectory of Maria Wyeth, a burnt-out actress bouncing between Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and the Mojave Desert. The lovers, ex-husbands, and friends in Maria’s orbit take opiates and gin for menstrual cramps, rent apartments when the plumbing in their Beverly Hills mansion backs up, and wash up in motel rooms in the desert on the edge of movie sets.
Play It As It Lays is precise, highly controlled, and, at least on the surface, utterly devoid of emotion. Her narrators report, they do not emote. What distinguishes Didion’s work is the polarity of that highly controlled narrative voice set against the utter disarray — “disorder was its own point” — of the worlds her characters inhabit. In other words, Didion composes scenes of excess, disintegration, and violence using a voice utterly devoid of all three.
Polarities are Didion’s specialty — vulnerability and toughness, exposure and privacy, detachment and emotion, despair and hope — and her utilization of them injects her work with an extreme sense of pressure.
The emotional weariness of her characters and their sense of doomed fatalism belie not just a wicked survival instinct, but also a sense of hopefulness – albeit a hopefulness whose origins and presence they themselves do not understand. It is Maria, the infamously detached protagonist of Play It As It Lays who says, “I know what ‘nothing’ means, and keep on playing. Why, [her friend] BZ would say. Why not, I say.”
Cassandra Edwards, a brilliant, intense Berkeley grad student, is hell-bent on sabotaging her twin sister Judith’s wedding, and returns to her family’s ranch in the foothills of the Sierras to do just that. Cassandra’s first person narration is utterly spellbinding and it takes no effort for the reader to understand how Judith falls for Cassandra’s manipulative charm over and over again once we so easily do the same (think verbal pyrotechnics).
Cassandra is at once conniving, self-aware, frantic, irrational, despondent, lucid, adoring, and shockingly sympathetic. Her neurotic attachment to her sister as some extension of herself, their lush-of-a-retired-philosophy-professor father, and their willfully oblivious grandmother make for a family story like none other. As Cassandra discovers that that her force of will is not enough to keep the people she loves in orbit around her, her sense of order and ties to reality begin to crumble.
Baker’s writing, like her protagonists, is vivacious and funny as hell and the dialog is as good as it gets. Cassandra is totally nuts and incredibly sympathetic — and you will be completely enraptured by her.
I have a friend who a reads Another Country every year, and I can totally see why. This is a book that contains worlds, and has something new to offer up with each reading.
Set in Greenwich Village, Harlem, and France, Another Country centers around six people who are all, in some way, connected to Rufus Scott, a jazz drummer in New York City. Baldwin’s cast of characters leads us into the weeds of their lives, and we are privy to things that we should never see and won’t easily forget. Another Country is haunting and the pictures Baldwin conjures are searing.
Thematically, it touches on pretty much everything: race, sexuality, gender, class, passion, love, loss, grief, friendship. You name it, it’s in here. It’s a book about how we hurt and need each other in equal measure; the ways in which we entwine ourselves into the lives, and the bodies of the people we love. The things we pay for, and how we pay. The Washington Post dubbed this book, “An almost unbearable, tumultuous, blood-pounding experience.” And really that sums it up perfectly.
Born to movie star parents in the Golden Age of Hollywood, the unnamed narrator of A Way of Life Like Any Other grew up in the (kitschy) lap of luxury on the family estate, Casa Fiesta. “Was there ever an ass so pampered as mine,” he wonders at the outset of the novel? But the glory days are over. His parents’ careers have disintegrated and their marriage has come apart. In the wake of his former life this man-child struggles to make a path forward for himself.
A deadpan, cutting, and catty comedy of manners, O’Brien uses a razor sharp and devastating wit to talk about the world and the family his narrator came up in. A surprisingly moving coming-of-age story laced with a healthy dose of glitter and camp.
The only book on this list that has a sort of cooling effect, The Summer Book is an unsentimental series of vignettes that opens a window onto the lives of six-year-old Sophia and her grandmother who are spending the summer on a small island in Finland after Sophia’s mother dies. Pretty much nothing happens in this book: attention is focused on minutiae and things are handled from an emotional remove that we’ve come to expect from the Swedes. The writing is crisp and somewhat distanced and experiences are observed rather than felt; to wit:
Every year, the bright Scandinavian summer nights fade away without anyone’s noticing. One evening in August you have an errand outdoors, and all of a sudden it’s pitch-black. A great warm, dark silence surrounds the house. It is still summer, but the summer is no longer alive. It has come to a standstill; nothing withers, and fall is not ready to begin. There are no stars yet, just darkness. The can of kerosene is brought up from the cellar and left in the hall, and the flashlight is hung on its peg beside the door.
According to The Independent (London),” The Summer Book manages to make you feel good as well as wise, without having to make too much effort… [it] says so much that we want to hear in such an accessible form, without ever really saying anything at all.” If that’s not the perfect summer read, I don’t know what is.