Nick Offerman is a jack of all trades—since leaving Parks and Recreation, he has performed in a stage production of A Confederacy of Dunces, and now he’s about to publish his third book, Good Clean Fun: Misadventures in Sawdust at Offerman Workshop. He sat down for an interview with Etsy this week.
I was excited about contributing to this list until I remembered that I mostly read celebrity memoirs and self-help books this year.
But Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach really did help me — to be kinder to myself, and to better manage stress.
I finally read A Confederacy of Dunces. I wanted to know if it was as good as everyone says, and I think it’s better. I can’t remember the last time I was so entertained by a book. I demand that the stage production with Nick Offerman come to New York.
I got really into audiobooks this year. I listened to The Sex Myth by Rachel Hills on the way to do an event with her at the Boston Book Festival, and I loved it. It’s such a smart investigation of sex in our culture, and of the significance and shame we assign to sex. Hills uses research and interviews to examine and comment on the assumptions we make about sex, and the differences between those assumptions and reality. Takeaway: your sex life, or lack thereof, is more normal than you think.
Like millions of others, I feel that I am friends with Amy Poehler. I had very high expectations for her book, and worried that I was setting myself up for disappointment. But Yes Please was everything I dreamed of — it’s so smart, so funny, and it was a pleasure to listen to Poehler (and her guests) read.
I listened to Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance, which is comforting about dating in the same way The Sex Myth is about sex. Daters will be glad to hear that dating really is harder than it was for past generations, so it’s (probably) not you. The upside is that our willingness to search for a soul mate (as opposed to settling for a “good enough” mate) makes it more likely that we’ll find one. It’s fascinating to learn about the very different dating scenes in other countries, and Ansari and co-author Eric Klinenberg give some good advice, including: stop sending lame messages (“Hey”), be strategic about where you look for dates (Ansari writes, “I was staying out like a lunatic and complaining that I only met lunatics. I realized if I was going to try to find someone to settle down with, I had to change the way I was going about my search. Instead of bars and clubs, I’d do things that I’d want a theoretical girlfriend to be into.”), and give your dates a chance — go on more second dates.
I listened to Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things while I cleaned my house, and it put a little extra pep in my step. But ultimately it was calming — the hoarding case studies made me feel great about the “creative” state of my house. Obviously I also read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and spent the year going through all of my things to see if they sparked joy (which resulted in the mess I am now “tidying up”).
And last but the opposite of least, I listened to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, and cried.
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Ever since I moved from New York to Tucson seven years ago, I’ve been restless about my reading. Some of my favorite Saturday afternoons in New York were spent wandering from bookstore to bookstore, and I liked the bookseller-favorite recommendation shelves and the back tables that held the off-the-radar titles. I miss browsing for discovery’s sake.
That’s one of the many reasons I decided to start reading the entirety of the PEN/Faulkner nominees, dating all the way back to the 1981 list. My biggest hope was that I would have the browser’s pleasure returned to me, even if the sense of discovery wasn’t really my own; a prize list is a curated one, after all. Three lists and 17 books in, the result has been a mixed bag. For one thing, books by women are scarce and books by writers of color even more so (five women and one African-American writer so far, with the added irony that these books ended up being some of the most intriguing and substantial — so much for tokenism). I’ve also been enjoying how my odd reading project inspires conversation about the books that have stuck around and how much people love or hate them. Like Housekeeping, which holds up superbly on reread and inspires warm coos of approval whenever I mention it, or A Confederacy of Dunces, which I learned not to say much about if I wanted to keep a conversation civil, or Sixty Stories, which made one friend roll her eyes and say, “That’s 59 too many.” On the other hand, there have been genuine and wonderful surprises, like Walter Abish’s entrancing and masterful How German Is It, which I had known only as the lonely, drab unreturnable New Directions paperback with the black-and-white cover on the top shelf of the Brookline Barnes & Noble where I worked years ago. I would scan it every three months with my inventory gun, but I wasn’t curious enough back then to bring it down from the shelf and rescue it with my employee discount. Right now, I’m only halfway through the 1983 list and suspect that, if I had finished it in time, I might have written something about William S. Wilson’s Birthplace: Moving into Nearness, an epistolary novel set on an island long after a nuclear catastrophe. High on style, with lushly disorienting long sentences, it’s a disarmingly complex book, made all the more enticing by its provenance (San Francisco’s North Point Press, from the time before the conglomerates swallowed up all the indies, but that’s another story).
But if “interesting” is the guiding principle here, then I have to choose August Wilson’s play Two Trains Running. My good friend from graduate school, Ken, has a completist’s temperament as well, and it was his idea to read and discuss the entirety of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle (one play about the African-American life for each decade of the 20th century). I went along with it because I know little to nothing about drama and figured I could learn something from a literary art that, at least from my fiction writer’s eye, hangs everything on dialogue and space.
Two Trains Running is set in a Pittsburgh diner in 1969. The date alone is a striking avoidance of the obvious flashpoint of the previous year, a reminder that history might be marked by our major national traumas, yet it is experienced by ordinary people living through the times right after. The central conflict is that of Memphis, the diner’s owner, who is debating what to do in light of the city’s urban renewal schemes. Does he sell or risk losing his property to eminent domain? Everyone has an opinion, from the savvy funeral-home owner West to the philosophical regular Holloway to the numbers-running Wolf, who uses the diner as his central booking site. It took several readings of the play for me to see that it privileges the diner more than characters, that each of the characters casts the space in the regret of past wishes and the urgent, sometimes already frustrated, dreams for the future. Each of the characters, of course, except for one, the fascinating Hambone, who wanders into the diner with his singular and repetitive complaint over his lack of payment for a fence he painted years ago. “I want my ham!”
The play, which I read in the spring, has lingered in my imagination all year, and it’s even withstood what Ken calls August Wilson’s Purple Rain period: “Because, except for Prince, I can’t think of another artist who packs as many punches in a row as he does with Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and The Piano Lesson.” I keep thinking about how sharply Two Trains Running insists upon a plurality of experiences and my rereading keeps me at a constant attention to how the play’s language holds all sorts of tonal ambiguities, just waiting for an actor or a director to draw them out. I’ve been inspired by how the play contrasts the sometimes naïve and boisterous impatience of youth (where the only story that matters is the one that’s happening now) with the pain of stories long held close to the chest (where what we consider “history” is still not powerful enough to muscle out the voices that most need to be heard).
I’m still missing four of the plays (Seven Guitars, King Hedley II, Gem of the Ocean, and Radio Golf), but it’s inspiring to experience a writer deeply invested with his community and capable of creating such a panoply of characters, all of them starkly different from each other. The plays have been my new poetry, pieces I can read in a single evening sitting, then reread multiple times, the music deepening with each contemplation. The accomplishment of Wilson’s Cycle is so audacious and impressive that I agree with Ken when he maintains that, had Wilson not died so early, he might have been the writer to break the American Nobel drought. We’re always too quick to believe it’s the fiction writers who have the most to tell us.
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There’ll always be a place for the sad sack in fiction, heroes of topsy-turvy Bildungsromans who regress or stall rather than develop. Call them protagonists of the comic or the failed coming-of-age tale, which has its obvious forbears in a work like Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy but also in the merciless irony of Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. In the classic version of the Bildungsroman, the hero seeks to define himself in a variety of ways — personally, educationally, professionally, romantically, or creatively if he happens to be an artist. The hero of the comic Bildungsroman tends to resist, or fail to achieve, these definitional ends. It is full of outsized characters who never quite fit into the narrative bounds imposed by the form: “Where will you ever end?” Ignatius Reilly is asked in The Confederacy of Dunces, a question that homes in on the particularly expansive comic spirit that refuses to conform or be confined to established conventions.
The same question could be put to Aldo Benjamin, who at one point in Steve Toltz’s Quicksand pleads, “My kingdom for a terminus!” Aldo is one of the two failures in the Australian novelist’s latest, an eminently successful novel about “the pilgrim’s frustrating lack of progress.” There’s a touch of Reilly in Aldo, but given Aldo’s mixture of libidinousness, thanatos, and linguistic virtuosity, Philip Roth’s priapic puppeteer Mickey Sabbath comes to mind as a closer precursor. Like all good comic characters, Aldo, a hapless entrepreneur, proves difficult to contain or circumscribe, not only because of the profusion of his misadventures but because he fancies himself as a real-life Tithonus, a “poor deathless, imperishable creature.” After a string of failed suicides — “suicide’s block” he calls it — Aldo thinks he has inadvertently caught a case of immortality: “In the face of forever, the contours of one’s life slacken and become not just poorly defined, but permanently resistant to definition.”
This indefinition proves a challenge for his friend Liam, an incompetent policeman — “I hit the siren. It startled me, as usual” — and failed novelist who is writing a book about him. Liam, noting that “[Aldo’s] existence needed room” and that “[h]e can’t tie up all his loose ends because he has an odd number of them,” eventually “[comes] to terms with the fact that there may be no place for every random anecdote and strange story about Aldo in my book.” There is a Whitmanian copiousness to Aldo evidenced in his “absurd” endurance despite and through “forty years of death throes” or in the host of oddly specific phobias he believes he has inherited from his ancestors:
…fear of unraveling rope bridges, fear of causing an avalanche by sneezing, fear of accidentally procreating with a half sister, fear of being shot in the face by a hunter…
Those fears never materialize, but pretty much every other nightmare scenario does as he is shuttled between the prison and the hospital, “two overpopulated hells.” (As he wryly reflects in the midst of one of his ordeals: “Even my subconscious hadn’t the temerity to go so far as to render me paralyzed at a rape trial.”) And yet like Mickey Sabbath, Aldo persists. He is a man of stubborn, and occasionally exhausting, exuberance. “My charm wears off like a local anesthetic,” he concedes after delivering over 140 pages of riveting, mordantly funny, and self-pitying testimony-cum-autobiography — the “short version” — to a beleaguered jury of his peers.
In her review, Lionel Shriver oddly objected to this bravura section by saying its “length strains credulity,” as if courtroom scenes have ever had more than a passing resemblance to realism. (I bet she’s fun to watch The Good Wife with.) Shriver’s critique ignores the novel’s logic of excess, which is established in the very first scene. We first see Aldo, paralyzed from the waist down after his latest accident, drinking at a beachside bar with Liam. Aldo has just come up with one of his idiosyncratic business ideas (e.g., peanut-allergy divining wand), but won’t, or can’t, tell it to Liam without first surrendering to his patience-testing compulsion to riff:
‘You know how we are such optimists that even out Armageddons aren’t final?…You know how people used to want to be rock stars, but now they just want rock stars to play at their birthday parties?…And how when someone’s coping mechanism fails, they just keep using it anyway?…And how businesssapiens are always having power nightmares?…Bad dreams during power naps…You know how when people talk of First World problems they forget to mention Alzheimer’s and dementia?…You know how unrequited love has no real-world applications?…’
These are selections from about 25 “you know” questions, all leading up to the final unveiling of his grand idea: disposable toilets, a fitting invention for a master bullshitter who always finds himself mired in the muck.
The toilet invention provides one clue, and the title a more obvious one, that Quicksand is a story of precipitous decline. Aldo is “not just the falling clown, but the falling clown who other falling clowns fall on,” a man whose life only gets worse after being erroneously charged with rape when he is still a virgin. From then on, he is constantly on trial (another dubious sex crime, murder(s)), in debt, or recovering from suicide attempts, my favorite being the “irreproachably considerate” plan he devises to take sleeping pills and slide himself into a hospital morgue drawer. Liam is slightly discomfited by watching “…a man on a decline from so low a starting point,” but also recognizes the narrative potential: “The only people worth watching are those who have reached rock bottom and bounced off it, because they always bounce off into very strange orbits.”
Aldo may be “a disaster waiting to happen, or a disaster that had just happened, or a disaster that was currently happening.” However, to be singled out for such a fate is its own kind of election. Etymologically, disaster means ill-starred, the empyrean heights determining the trajectory of mortals spiraling downward. Whether he is a modern-day Job or a tragic Greek hero who “locked eyes with the wrong god,” Aldo is a marked man both figuratively and literally. The history of his scars reveals a partial record of his singularly bad luck: “…motorcycles, skinheads, wrong turn, stray billiard ball, ambush by a part of thorns, Molotov cocktail, car antenna, gravel rash, cigar.”
Liam, on the other hand, is unmarked, a man whose own sad tale is eclipsed by that of his brilliantly inauspicious friend. Both lost sisters during adolescence, both have been “dodging success with drone-like precision for nearly two decades,” and both have not been “changed by [their] life-changing experiences.” However, Liam’s quiet desperation is ordinary. When Liam visits Aldo in the hospital after one accident, the latter instantly sees that he has the upper, or rather lower, hand: “His sad face conceded that my downward spiral had crushed his downward spiral. Ah, the pyrrhic victories of old friendships.” They spar with, aid, use, or bore one another during a friendship that is unbreakable despite, or rather because, there remains something “permanently unexpressed between” them.
We learn less and less about Liam as the novel focuses on its “natural subject,” Aldo, so that when Liam is surprised to discover that “people in general think I’m a ridiculous human being,” we do not know enough either to doubt or credit this general view of him. What can’t be called ridiculous is his devotion to Aldo, which is the only thing that keeps him from being a cipher: “You’re a good friend to Aldo,” his former teacher tells him. “That doesn’t make up for what you lack, but it’s not nothing.”
Which isn’t to say that Liam is selfless in his devotion. Like every other artist who comes across Aldo in the novel, he wants to “cannibalize” his life. An inveterate manipulator, Aldo is also an inveterate muse and obliging model; he lets himself be painted and photographed by Liam’s “copious rivals,” a group of bohemians residing in an artist’s colony, even describing his own features to a police sketch artist just for the fun of it. Portraitists circle him like vultures, sensing that his rotten life will provide artistic sustenance. “If they are artists, the truly unfortunate have a wealth of material,” reads an aphorism from Artist Within, Artist Without, Liam’s and Aldo’s vade mecum written by their old high school teacher, Mr. Morell. But what of the “truly unfortunate” supplying the material?
“Unused talent exerts downward pressure on the spirit,” is another of Morell’s nuggets. But squandered talent isn’t quite what drives Aldo, and consequently Liam, down to the level “where things get primordial.” Rather, it’s precisely by deploying his talent, which happens to be for erring, that sends the “King of Unforced Errors” back to the elemental: a barren rocky island at a remove from the society in which he was so incongruous. This tragicomic Bildungsroman fails as it should, spectacularly, its “half-human, half-crustacean” hero devolving in splendid isolation as, back on shore, the world goes calmly on.
“Frank, we gotta take that clock.”
It was May of 1989, and Tony Rihner had just finished his drink, looked across the table at his old friend Frank Tripoli, convinced this was the night the heist would go down. Frank didn’t know it yet, but these older, slightly inebriated Butch and Sundance were about to go to Downtown New Orleans and take the clock off the front of the D.H. Holmes Department Store on Canal Street.
“Frank, you know they’re just gonna throw that clock away. They don’t understand what it means!”
To outsiders, the clock looked like nothing special, just a faded timepiece one might find at a Ninth Ward garage sale or in the bargain bin at a Royal Street gallery. But for over a century, the spot under the D.H. Holmes clock had been a famous meeting place for locals. Whether heading out to lunch or gathering after Saturday shopping, friends, parents, lovers, husbands, or wives would say, “I’ll meet ‘ya under the clock” and any New Orleanian would understand.
It was even a literary landmark. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces (Tony’s favorite book) opens with Ignatius J. Reilly “studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress” under the D.H. Holmes clock.
But things were changing. Dillard’s, a Dallas-based company had just purchased D.H. Holmes, at one-time the grandest department store in the South. Sadly, it fell to the same fate as the other New Orleans shopping landmarks that lined Canal Street: Godchaux’s, Maison Blanche, LaBiche’s, S.H. Kress all shuttered their doors one by one. It was the same story over the entire nation: Elegant downtown districts abandoned for the blander air-conditioned malls and parking lots of the suburbs. The wide sidewalks of Canal Street, once brimming with men in three-piece seersucker suits and women in Sunday dresses and white gloves, were now eerily empty.
But in the stillness, the octagonal face of the old D.H. Holmes clock still glowed, a relic of a disappearing New Orleans. Tony suspected it wouldn’t be there for long.
A few days before meeting with Frank, Tony went snooping around the old downtown store. One of his first jobs was approving credit on the fourth floor in the 1960s, a time when the storefront sparkled with lights and shoppers stopped in their tracks to marvel at the displays. But now looking through the dusty windows, he saw Dillard’s workmen in white caps taking down memorabilia — the portrait of Daniel Holmes, photos of the company baseball team and images of those smiling ladies who served up sweet macaroons and chicory coffee on the first floor café — all of them thrown in the trash. In true Ignatius-like fashion, Tony decided this ignominious fate would not befall the famous clock. Something had to be done.
Neither Tony nor Frank were sentimental. But they were what New Orleans blue bloods and Yankee writers would refer to as “Yats,” native-born and raised in blue-collar families. They carried with them an overwhelming sense of civic pride along with a distinct downtown accent that sounded more like Jersey City than the Deep South; often, their colorful vernacular was spicier than a cup of Galatoire’s gumbo. To Yats, the neighborhood, with all of its traditions, customs, and characters, must be protected, because they knew they lived in a place under perpetual threat of being destroyed, whether from a hurricane, oil companies, or corrupt politicians. It’s the small traditions — from eating red beans and rice on Monday to meeting under a clock outside a department store — that remind them that some part of this sinking city will endure. Those reminders are sacred, even if they seem trivial to the rest of the world.
“Frank,” Tony stiffened with determination, “we gotta take that clock.”
Frank hated what was happening to the city just as much as Tony, but they were 40-year-old married men and Tony’s plan sounded like a fraternity stunt. “Tony,” Frank answered, “you wanna steal something off the front of a building…on Canal Street?”
“Hey, we ain’t thieves,” Tony corrected. “We’re preservationists.”
Though standing a few inches taller than Tony, Frank knew protesting was futile. Besides, this couldn’t be any more dangerous than the time Tony roped Frank into running with the bulls in Spain. Chugging down his last sip of beer through his bushy mustache, Frank agreed to the plan. They would “preserve” the clock. “But first,” Frank said, “we need disguises.”
Attempting to look the part of workmen, they dressed in light khakis, white polo t-shirts, white sneakers and white caps. They grabbed a ladder and a few tools from the garage, piled into Tony’s Buick Riviera and drove to 821 Canal Street. It was a Wednesday night around 10pm. They could hear the ruckus from the bars in the French Quarter as they set to work loosening the bolts that had been in the overhead for more than 50 years. Occasionally, a curious pedestrian strolled by.
“Aw, my lawd” one lady said, “They takin’ down the clock!”
“Yes Ma’m” Frank replied.
Another passerby just stood there shaking her head in disbelief. For nearly 20 minutes Frank stood on top of the shaky six-foot ladder battling the long rusted bolts, while Tony kept watch. Exhausted, Frank handed the wrench to Tony who took his turn with the clock.
Then, by chance, or divine providence as she believed, Sally Reeves, the daughter-in-law of the President and Chairman of D.H. Holmes happened to come strolling around the corner. “Hey!” she yelled. “What are you guys doing?”
“We’re taking down the clock Ma’am,” said Frank
“And who gave you the authority?”
“Mr. Dillard” Tony said.
“I don’t believe you. My husband’s father was the president of D.H. Holmes. Give me your IDs.”
The jig was up. Frank, whose cool demeanor and towering presence always seemed to calm people, stepped closer to Reeves and explained their plan. She faced a decision. She could either let the two amateur “preservationists” take the clock or it would belong to a Dallas real estate tycoon. The question was, which was the lesser sin? “Well, I still want to see some I.D.” She wrote down their names and continued on her way.
Relieved, and somewhat vindicated by Reeves’s decision, the two set to work again. After 45 minutes, the last bolt budged and the 23-pound clock dangled from a thick electrical wire. Frank handed Tony a pair of uninsulated shears. As Tony clamped down on the wire, electricity surged through his body almost jolting him off the ladder. The clock dropped into Frank’s arms. It was exactly 10:45.
For a second, the two could hardly believe they had done it. They rushed the clock into the trunk, threw their tools into the backseat, and took off down the street. Racing down St. Charles, under the canopy of live oaks, the old friends laughed and hollered. It was time for a drink. They pulled into the next bar they saw and raised a glass to their success. That’s when Tony decided they needed to send a message. “Frank, call The Times-Picayune!” The Picayune was the local newspaper and while not exactly a Brink’s Job, the missing clock was still a worthwhile news item.
“What should we say?” Frank asked.
“Let them know someone saved the D.H. Holmes clock” Tony said. They were, after all, heroes, a righteous if not dynamic duo in the cloak of night protecting the hallowed icons of their city.
Frank nervously dialed The Picayune. When he was connected to the city news desk he blurted out, “The clock has been kidnapped!” then hung up the phone.
It wasn’t quite the message Tony had in mind, but they continued on with a victory celebration drawing the attention of two girls at the bar. “What are you guys so happy about?” they asked. Frank and Tony smiled, proudly walked the girls out to the parking lot, and opened the trunk to show off their prize. “Holy shit,” one of the girls said, “you guys are going to jail!” Unready to face such a sobering prospect, Frank and Tony quickly closed the trunk and decided to take the celebration back to Frank’s house. There, they posed with the clock for some Polaroid pictures: bringing it through the door, pointing to the time it stopped, and lounging on the couch with it. Then they packed it up and hid it in Tony’s house.
Officially, no one knew who had the clock, but Frank and Tony told the story to their friends. On special occasions, like a backyard 4th of July barbecue or a private Mardi Gras party, they would take it out to wow the guests.
“Mr. Dillard is gonna sue you guys!” their friends would say. But Frank and Tony didn’t care. “Let him sue us. I’ll steal the fucking thing again!” Tony retorted. And his friends would erupt in laughter and cheers.
For seven years they kept the clock. Then one day they got a call from a developer named Pres Kabacoff. Dillard’s had donated the old D.H. Holmes Canal Street store to the city of New Orleans and Kabacoff, a developer and preservationist of sorts, was turning it into a hotel. Sally Reeves provided him with Tony and Frank’s information in hopes that the clock could be restored to the building. At first the guys were suspicious. “Well, even if I did have it, what would you do with it?” Tony asked. Kabacoff explained his intention to restore it to its former glory. The guys explained they didn’t want any money. All they wanted was for people to meet under that clock, just like they used to do.
A few weeks later they got an invitation to the grand opening of “The Clock Bar” at the new Chateau Sonesta Hotel. Kabacoff explained it was a temporary placement, while they finished up renovations. But Tony wasn’t buying it. He could have held on to it until the renovations were completed. The clock wasn’t meant to be a wall ornament.
Eventually, Kabacoff made good on his promise. He moved the clock back to its original place, where it hangs today. In 1997 the city of New Orleans commemorated the literary significance of the site by installing a bronze statue of Ignatius Reilly underneath the clock. But sadly, few people wander by. The hotel constructed its main opening on the opposite side of the building, facing the French Quarter. The Canal Street entrance is the back door, which they keep locked. Other than the occasional devotee to John Kennedy Toole’s novel coming to pose with Ignatius, no one meets under the clock anymore. “It just isn’t what it used to be like in the old days,” Tony laments. “This was a vibrant meeting place. And now bums piss in that corner, just behind the statue.”
But Tony has no regrets. “That clock always belonged to us, the people of the city. As long as I’m alive, it always will.”
Special thanks to filmmaker David DuBos, who contributed to this article. DuBos is currently adapting Butterfly in the Typewriter into a feature film.
Photo Courtesy of Tony Rihner.
A letter appears before the text of The Comedians, the 1966 novel by Graham Greene. The author penned the letter to Alexander Stuart Frere, his longtime publisher who had recently retired. Greene debunks the common assumption that he is the first person narrator of his novels: “in my time I have been considered the murderer of a friend, the jealous lover of a civil servant’s wife, and an obsessive player at roulette. I don’t wish to add to my chameleon nature the characteristics belonging to the cuckolder of a South American diplomat, a possibly illegitimate birth and an education by the Jesuits. Ah, it may be said Brown is a Catholic and so, we know, is Greene…[all characters] are boiled up in the kitchen of the unconscious and emerge unrecognizable even to the cook in most cases.”
Frere, of course, would not need this explanation, so why address the letter to him? Does it instead exist for the edification, or perhaps entertainment, of the reader? Greene’s letter appears without label. Is it an introduction, a preface, a foreword, or something else?
The distinctions between prefaces, introductions, and forewords are tenuous. In the essay “Introductions: A Preface,” Michael Gorra offers a useful introduction to, well, introductions. “An introduction,” he writes, “tells you everything you need to sustain an initial conversation. It might include a bit of biography or a touch of critical history, and it should certainly establish the book in its own time and location, and perhaps place it in ours as well.” Introductions often postdate the original publication of a work. Introductions turn back to move forward a book’s appreciation. Although introductions are often written by someone other than the author, they need not be objective. Gorra thinks the best introductions are “acts of persuasion — ‘See this book my way’ — coherent arguments as learned as a scholarly article but as lightly footnoted as a review.” Although they share a “review’s assertive zest…unlike a review they assume the importance of the work in question.”
Gorra remembers reading introductory essays in used, 1950s-era Modern Library editions as an undergraduate. His understanding of literary criticism was molded by this prefatory form: Robert Penn Warren on Joseph Conrad, Irving Howe on The Bostonians, Angus Wilson on Great Expectations, Randal Jarrell on Rudyard Kipling, Malcolm Cowley on William Faulkner, and Lionel Trilling on Jane Austen. Gorra notes “many of Trilling’s finest essays — pieces on Keats and Dickens and Orwell, on Anna Karenina and The Princess Casamassima — got their start as introductions.”
Gorra moves beyond definition to explain the critic’s role within introductions. They need to know “how much or how little information a reader needs to make that book available; he must achieve a critical equipoise, at once accessible but not simplistic.” That care “puts a curb on eccentricity; however strongly voiced, an introduction shouldn’t be too idiosyncratic.” Introductions exist not for the critic, but for the reader. They should be “shrewd rather than clever.” Better to “address the work as a whole” than “approach it with a magic bullet or key or keyhole that claims to explain everything.” The introduction does not unlock the book for its readers; it takes a hand, leads them to the doorstep, and then leaves.
One of the few introductions written by the book’s own author is the unconventional opening to Lonesome Traveler, Jack Kerouac’s essay travelogue. Kerouac formats the essay as a questionnaire.
His response to “Please give a brief resume of your life” traces his childhood as the son of a printer in Lowell, Mass., to his “Final plans: hermitage in the woods, quiet writing of old age, mellow hopes of Paradise.” He shifts from family detail to statements of purpose and misreadings of critics: “Always considered writing my duty on earth. Also the preachment of universal kindness, which hysterical critics have failed to notice beneath frenetic activity of my true-story novels about the ‘beat’ generation. — Am actually not ‘beat’ but strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic.”
Kerouac ends his introduction by replying to the query “Please give a short description of the book, its scope and purpose as you see them” with a nice litany of subjects: “Railroad work, sea work, mysticism, mountain work, lasciviousness, solipsism, self-indulgence, bullfights, drugs, churches, art museums, streets of cities, a mishmash of life as lived by an independent educated penniless rake going anywhere.”
We know Kerouac’s essay is an introduction because he tells us so. It is not a foreword, which, according to The Chicago Manual of Style, is also typically written by someone other than the author. Some dictionary definitions identify a foreword as an introduction. They both introduce, in the sense that they both preface the work. But neither are prefaces — in the traditional sense.
Marjorie E. Skillin and Robert M. Gay’s Words into Type doesn’t differentiate between prefaces and forewords, noting that both consider the “genesis, purpose, limitations, and scope of the book and may include acknowledgments of indebtedness.” Forewords often feel promotional. Skillin and Gay also note that, in terms of numerical pagination, introductions are typically part of the text, while forewords and prefaces have Roman numerals.
My favorite foreword is Walker Percy’s comments on A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Percy was teaching at Loyola University in New Orleans in 1976 when “a lady unknown to me” started phoning him: “What she proposed was preposterous…her son, who was dead, had written an entire novel during the early sixties, a big novel, and she wanted me to read it.” Percy was understandably skeptical, but finally gave in, hoping “that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther.” Instead, he fell in love with the book, especially Ignatius Reilly, “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.” Percy essay arrives as a pitch; no one would mistake it for a contemplative preface.
That last comment admittedly comes from the hip, owing to seduction by sound. Introduction sounds clinical. Foreword sounds, well, you know. Preface massages the ear with that gentle f. Unlike introductions and forewords, prefaces are often written by the authors themselves, and are invaluable autobiographical documents. A preface is an ars poetica for a book, for a literary life. A preface often feels like the writer sitting across the table from the reader, and saying, listen, now I am going to tell you the truth.
In the preface to his second volume of Collected Stories, T.C. Boyle soon becomes contemplative: “To me, a story is an exercise of the imagination — or, as Flannery O’Connor has it, an act of discovery. I don’t know what a story will be until it begins to unfold, the whole coming to me in the act of composition as a kind of waking dream.” For Boyle, imagination and discovery means that he wants “to hear a single resonant bar of truth or mystery or what-if-ness, so I can hum it back and play a riff on it.” He includes memories of middle school, when “Darwin and earth science came tumbling into my consciousness…and I told my mother that I could no longer believe in the Roman Catholic doctrine that had propelled us to church on Sundays for as long as I could remember.” Boyle thinks “I’ve been looking for something to replace [faith] ever since. What have I found? Art and nature, the twin deities that sustained Wordsworth and Whitman and all the others whose experience became too complicated for received faith to contain it.”
By “received faith,” Boyle means a faith prescribed rather than practiced. He later found “the redeeming grace” of O’Connor; his “defining moment” was first reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find:” “here was the sort of story that subverted expectations, that begin in one mode — situation comedy, familiar from TV — and ended wickedly and deliciously in another.” Boyle’s preface rolls and rolls — think of an acceptance speech that goes on a bit long, but we love the speaker so we shift in our seats and wait out of appreciation.
There are some gems. John Cheever, who taught Boyle at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, “was positively acidic on the subject of my academic pursuits,” but was otherwise “unfailingly kind and generous.” Cheever disliked Boyle’s self-identification as “experimental,” instead insisting “all good fiction was experimental…adducing his own ‘The Death of Justina’ as an example.”
He documents his early magazine submission attempts. He was quite successful, placing early stories in the likes of Esquire and Harper’s, but also had “plenty of rejection.” He covered his bedroom walls with the letters. He ends the preface with a return to first principles: “Money or no, a writer writes. The making of art — the making of stories — is a kind of addiction…You begin with nothing, open yourself up, sweat and worry and bleed, and finally you have something. And once you do, you want to have it all over again.” This act of writing fiction is the “privilege of reviewing the world as it comes to me and transforming it into another form altogether.”
Boyle has already elucidated some of these ideas in an essay, “This Monkey, My Back,” but for other fiction writers, prefaces are rare forays into autobiography. For jester-Catholic Thomas Pynchon, Slow Learner, his sole collection of stories, was his preferred confessional. The essay is labeled an introduction, but I think function trumps form. Pynchon’s essay is self-deprecating, contextual, and comprehensive. It is the closest he has ever come to being a teacher of writing.
The last story in the collection, “The Secret Integration,” was written in 1964. Pynchon admits “what a blow to the ego it can be to have to read over anything you wrote 20 years ago, even cancelled checks.” He hopes the stories are cautionary warnings “about some practices which younger writers might prefer to avoid.” Rather than presenting an abstract, sweeping declaration of his amateur past, Pynchon skewers each story in the collection. “The Small Rain,” his first published work, was written while “I was operating on the motto ‘Make it literary,’ a piece of bad advice I made up all by myself and then took.” One sin was his bad dialogue, including a “Louisiana girl talking in Tidewater diphthongs,” indicative of his desire “to show off my ear before I had one.” “Low-lands,” the second piece, “is more of a character sketch than a story,” the narrator of which was “a smart assed-jerk who didn’t know any better, and I apologize for it.” Next up is the infamous “Entropy,” fodder for his second novel, The Crying of Lot 49. Pynchon dismisses the tale as an attempt to force characters and events to conform to a theme. It was overwritten, “too conceptual, too cute and remote.” He looted a 19th-century guidebook to Egypt for “Under the Rose,” resulting in another “ass backwards” attempt to start with abstraction rather than plot and characters. The same “strategy of transfer” doomed “The Secret Integration,” as he culled details from a Federal Writers Project guidebook to the Berkshires.
Pynchon served in the Navy between 1955 and 1957, and notes that one positive of “peacetime service” is its “excellent introduction to the structure of society at large…One makes the amazing discovery that grown adults walking around with college educations, wearing khaki and brass and charged with heavy-duty responsibilities, can in fact be idiots.” His other influences were more literary: Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro.” On the Road by Kerouac. Helen Waddell’s The Wandering Scholars. Norbert Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings. To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson. Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. Hamlet. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene. Early issues of the Evergreen Review. And jazz, jazz, jazz: “I spent a lot of time in jazz clubs, nursing the two-beer minimum. I put on hornrimmed sunglasses at night. I went to parties in lofts where girls wore strange attire.” The time was post-Beat; “the parade had gone by.”
The essay ends on a note of nostalgia “for the writer who seemed then to be emerging, with his bad habits, dumb theories and occasional moments of productive silence in which he may have begun to get a glimpse of how it was done.” A reader taken with Boyle will forgive his trademark bravado; a reader taken with Pynchon will forgive his self-parodic deprecation. Those who dislike the fiction of either writer won’t stay around for the end of his preface — or crack open the book in the first place.
More often than not, introductory materials are welcomed because we appreciate the fiction that follows. Such expectation can cause problems. The most notable examples are the forewords of Toni Morrison’s Vintage editions, which began with the 1999 version of The Bluest Eye. In “Lobbying the Reader,” Tessa Roynon casts a skeptical eye toward these prefatory remarks. She begins her critique with Morrison’s foreword for Beloved. “Without any apparent self-conscious irony,” Roynon notes, Morrison says she wants her reader “to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population — just as the characters were snatched from one place to another, from any place to any other, without preparation or defense.” This before the reader encounters the first sentence of the actual novel, “124 was spiteful,” which becomes neutered by Morrison’s prefatory, critical self-examination.
Roynon’s love for Morrison’s fiction is contrasted with her disappointment in the forewords. She considers the essays formulaic and rushed, containing “apparently indisputable interpretations of the text…among profoundly suggestive ambiguities,” as if Morrison is hoarding her own meanings. Roynon worries that Morrison’s goal is the “desire to ensure that readers appreciate the scope of her artistry and her vision to the full.” Shouldn’t that be the experience of her readers? Morrison almost gives them no choice. The essays “demand to be read before the novels they introduce, not least because they are positioned between the dedications/epigraphs and the work’s opening paragraphs.”
Morrison’s prefatory summary for Beloved is so sharp, so commanding that Roynon thinks it threatens to undermine the novel itself: “The heroine would represent the unapologetic acceptance of shame and terror; assume the consequences of choosing infanticide; claim her own freedom.” Morrison has articulated elsewhere her reasons for contributing to the discussion about her books, but the gravity of these forewords makes readers passive recipients. What if the reader experiences the novel slightly differently? Does Morrison’s foreword negate those other readings? As Roynon notes, Morrison’s earlier critical essays would elicit, rather than close, “controversy and discussion.” By focusing on the autobiographical and the contextual, rather than being self-analytical, Morrison’s best forewords treats her readers as participants in the artistic experience, rather than people who are waiting for lectures.
Roynon’s solution is both simple and eloquent:
Were I Morrison’s editor I would urge her to cut the most explicit of her interpretations, to bury the explanations at which we [readers] used to work so hard to arrive. And I would entreat her to move all of her accompanying observations from the beginning of her books to their ends. Turning all the forewords into afterwords would greatly reduce their problematic aspects. In metaphorical terms of which Morrison herself is so fond: we don’t need lobbies or front porches on the homes that she has so painstakingly built. But back gardens? They could work.
No matter whether it is called an introduction, foreword, or preface, the best front piece written by the book’s own author encourages a reader to turn the page and start, but respects her need to experience the work on her own. William Gass’s long preface to In the Heart of the Heart of the Country is an exemplary selection. Originally written in 1976 and revised in 1981, Gass’s preface works as a standalone essay, an inspiring speech for fellow writers, and a document of one artist’s continuing struggle.
Gass reminds us that most stories never get told: “Even when the voice is there, and the tongue is limber as if with liquor or with love, where is that sensitive, admiring, other pair of ears?” His “litters of language” have been called “tales without plot or people.” Received well or not, they are his stories, the words of a boy who moved from North Dakota to Ohio, the son of a bigoted father without “a faith to embrace or an ideology to spurn.” “I won’t be like that,” Gass thought, but “naturally I grew in special hidden ways to be more like that than anyone could possibly imagine, or myself admit.”
Gass turned inward, moved in the direction of words. Lines like “I was forced to form myself from sounds and syllables” sound a bit sentimental if one is somewhat familiar with Gass, but he has always been, in the words of John Gardner, “a sneaky moralist.” Gass began writing stories because “in some dim way I wanted, myself, to have a soul, a special speech, a style…to make a sheet of steel from a flimsy page — something that would not soon weary itself out of shape as everything else I had known.” His earliest stories failed because they were written in the shadow and sound of the canon, leading Gass to wonder “from whose grip was it easier to escape — the graceless hack’s or the artful great’s?”
He broke free “by telling a story to entertain a toothache,” a story with “lots of incident, some excitement, much menace.” That story, the subject of constant revision and reworking for years, would become The Pedersen Kid, his seminal novella. Gass shares his personal “instructions” for the story: “The physical representation must be flowing and a bit repetitious; the dialogue realistic but musical. A ritual effect is needed.” Here one might think Gass is making the same sin of explanation as Morrison, but these are plans, not an exegesis of his work. These thematic plans soon eroded, and “during the actual writing, the management of microsyllables, the alteration of short and long sentences, the emotional integrity of the paragraph, the elevation of the most ordinary diction into some semblance of poetry, became my fanatical concern.” Only years and many rejections later did Gardner publish the story in MSS.
A great preface is a guide for other writers. While the biographical and contextual minutia might be of most interest to aficionados and scholars, working writers who find a great preface are in for a treat. At their best, these introductory essays are the exhales of years of work: years of failure, doubt, and sometimes despair. Gass’s preface for In the Heart of the Heart of the Country contains a handful of gems worthy of being pinned to a cork board above one’s desk:
The material that makes up a story must be placed under terrible compression, but it cannot simply release its meaning like a joke does. It must be epiphanous, yet remain an enigma. Its shortness must have a formal function: the deepening of the understanding, the darkening of the design.
All stories ought to end unsatisfactorily.
Though time may appear to pass within a story, the story itself must seem to have leaked like a blot from a single shake of the pen.
To a reader unhappy with his fiction: “I know which of us will be the greater fool, for your few cents spent on this book are a little loss from a small mistake; think of me and smile: I misspent a life.”
Gass ends with a description of his dream reader. She is “skilled and generous…forgiving of every error.” She is “a lover of lists, a twiddler of lines;” someone “given occasionally to mouthing a word aloud or wanting to read to a companion in a piercing library whisper.” Her “heartbeat alters with the tenses of the verbs.” She “will be a kind of slowpoke on the page, a sipper of sentences, full of reflective pauses.” She will “shadow the page like a palm.” In fact, the reader will “sink into the paper…become the print,” and “blossom on the other side with pleasure and sensation…from the touch of mind, and the love that lasts in language. Yes. Let’s imagine such a being, then. And begin. And then begin.”
A preface might begin as a cathartic act for the writer, but it should end as a love letter to readers. Books are built from sweat and blood, but without the forgiving eyes and hands of readers, books will gather dust on shelves: never touched, never opened, never begun.
Before we get to the pratfalls, some edifying poetry. Seldom do we walk in beauty, “like the night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies,” or move as fluidly as Robert Herrick’s Julia: “Whenas in silks my Julia goes, / Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows / That liquefaction of her clothes.” (Should Don Draper land a women’s fashion line in Mad Men’s final season, he’ll have his pitch.) We are too ungainly for such elegance and more like Maxwell, one of a hundred siblings in Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers, who stumbles into and breaks things “at a rate of about one electrical fixture, decorative serving dish, potted plant, or item of statuary every three days.” And we are too harried and with limbs too extended for the virtuous compression, contractility, and “absence of feet” lauded by Marianne Moore in “To a Snail.” By contrast, our walking is a kind of Carrollian galumphing, which, however silly, can have its own comic grace: Charlie Chaplin’s iconic shuffle or the springy jaunts of Jacques Tati, slightly hunched over like a detective hunting for clues to the strange modern world whose machinery he so often fouls up.
Film and television are best suited to exploit walking’s comic potential, and the flexible comedian best suited to perform the “mechanical inelasticity” Henri Bergson identified as a central feature of the comic. For example, in the famed Monty Python sketch “Ministry of Silly Walks” there is a certain regularity even in John Cleese’s most spastic contortions, his body transformed into a series of independently operating parts instead of an organic whole. Or take Seinfeld’s Cosmo Kramer, whose jerky rhythms make him a walking illustration of “something mechanical encrusted onto the living;” he bursts through doors as if powered by a nitrous boost. But what of funny gaits in literature? If there is something mechanical in comic walks, can novelistic descriptions capture their magic, or will they merely read like operator manuals?
Our literary ramble will not include docented tours through Thomas Hardy’s Wessex and Charles Dickens’s London; nor the strolls in Jane Austen novels during which much is usually decided; nor the flâneur, whose beguiling circumflex and suggestive treatment by Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin prove him too alluring a figure to resist constant theorization; nor the memory-inducing peregrinations in Teju Cole’s Open City, Will Self’s Psychogeography or W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Rather, our route will include those walks that are less picturesque, less momentous, less worthy of remembrance, those that in their sheer absurdity inspire derision rather than aesthetic revelation. While they can never equal the sublime physical comedy of the Monty Python sketch, these walks still complicate the relatively simple task of putting one foot in front of the other, which is after all what poetry and rhapsodic prose are about: “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
Some genealogical background is perhaps necessary at the outset. The greatest comic writer of the Greek tradition, Aristophanes, envisioned our ancestors as four-legged creatures capable of some dazzling acrobatics. Speaking in Plato’s Symposium, he explains that:
They walked upright as now, in whichever direction they liked; and when they wanted to run fast, they rolled over and over on the ends of the eight limbs they had in those days, as our tumblers tumble now with their legs straight out.
A wrathful Zeus eventually cleaves humans in two, leaving us with half our original balance to pursue our romantic search for our missing halves. Aristophanes’s myth also goes a long way towards explaining the limitations of our two-legged gymnasts, who, because of their woefully inadequate anatomy, must pad their floor routines with pointless writhing in between tumbling passes.
If we are literally half the men we used to be, we are also fallen walkers, as our greatest epic poet, John Milton, made clear in his poem about our fall. Satan was a bold walker. Only he answers the call of the fallen angel Beelzebub: “…who shall tempt with wandering feet / The dark unbottomed infinite abyss/ and through the palpable obscure find out/ His uncouth way…?” Find his way — and tempt — Satan does; as a result, the poem famously ends as Adam and Eve “with wandering steps and slow, through Eden took their solitary way.” Fallen man has stumbled across the globe in various undignified strides ever since, from E.E. Cummings’s drunken “big wobbly foot-steps,” to Prufrock scuttling across the silent seas or doddering along the beach with his trousers rolled, to Malvolio, “a rare turkey-cock” in yellow stockings and cross garters who “jets under his advanced plumes,” to Samuel Beckett’s Watt, who, in a clear Miltonic echo, experiences a “manifest repugnancy” each time his feet leave the ground for the “air’s uncharted ways.”
Jonathan Swift’s Laputans best them all with a method so ridiculous that it requires two people to execute. In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift satirizes the head-in-the-clouds quality (literally, given that the island floats above ground) of a race overly devoted to speculative thought. They are a “clumsy, awkward and unhandy people,” at least when it comes to practical considerations and anything not involving astronomical calculations. The frequently cuckholded men are so absorbed in their intellectual pursuits that if presented with a suitably absorbing scientific treatise, they will pay no attention to their wives carrying on with their sublunary lovers in the very same room (providing an explanation for the island’s name that Gulliver’s etymological investigations overlook.) But faithless wives are the least of their problems; the men can’t even walk straight without a servant called a flapper (a climenole in Laputan) walking next to them with a stone-filled bladder tied to the end of a stick. To what end?
This flapper is likewise employed diligently to attend his master in his walks, and upon occasion to give him a soft flap on his eyes, because he is always so wrapped up in cogitation, that he is in manifest danger of falling down every precipice, and bouncing his head against every post, and in the streets, of jostling others or being jostled himself.
On whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to be swatted in the face or to trip over a bush, the Laputans have made their choice. To compare these absent-minded Laputans to the phone-toting distracted drivers of today is less facile than it might seem given that Swift’s robed philosophers are steering not a car but an entire island, which they are only too happy to transform into a weapon should any of their terrestrial colonies rebel.
On the subject of eccentric husbands, I’ve always been struck by the masterful comic portrait of To the Lighthouse’s Mr. Ramsay and his “firm military tread,” a comedy that could get lost amidst Mrs. Ramsay’s — and the novel’s — “delicious fecundity.” Before his wife’s flashing needles give him a much needed “spray” of confidence, Ramsay, variously described as a tyrannical, pathetic, and magisterial figure, is most likely to be found marching on the front lawn and loudly declaiming Tennyson. At one point he almost barges into the painter Lily Briscoe’s work station:
Indeed, he almost knocked her easel over, coming down upon her with his hands waving shouting out, “Boldly we rode and well,” but, mercifully, he turned sharp, and rode off, to die gloriously she supposed upon the heights of Balaclava. Never was anybody at once so ridiculous and so alarming. But so long as he kept like that, waving, shouting, she was safe; he would not stand still and look at her picture.
Were he not tilting at easels on a sparsely populated island in the Hebrides, Mr. Ramsay could be institutionalized for such behavior, eminent philosopher or not. After Mrs. Ramsay’s death, a flustered Lily, now more cognizant of Mr. Ramsay’s pathos, can only think to praise his beloved boots when he comes to her so that she might “solace his soul.” She praises them so effectively — and Mr. Ramsay responds with such longwinded vigor — that “they had reached, she felt, a sunny island where peace dwelt, sanity reigned and the sun for ever shone, the blessed island of good boots.” Perhaps this blessed island is some version of the lighthouse rock reached by Mr. Ramsay and his children at novel’s end. After sailing over with his legs curled up underneath him like an invalid, Mr. Ramsay springs vigorously ashore, a distinctly non-comic version of the heroic stride that was so ridiculous earlier.
The protagonist of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is less lucky than Mr. Ramsay with his footware. The “lumbering, elephantine” Ignatius J. Reilly is “ready to burst from his swollen suede desert boots” as the novel begins, proving Mr. Ramsay’s contention that bootmakers “make it their business…to cripple and torture the human foot.” Reilly’s being is “not without its Proustian elements,” perhaps because he didn’t learn to walk in “an almost normal” manner until he was five years old. The obese waddle is a comic staple, but Reilly’s particular locomotive delay is key to understanding his “strange medieval mind,” his belief that touring is for degenerates and his reactionary desire for a “strong monarchy with a decent and tasteful king.” He espouses the concept of Fortuna’s Wheel, not so much because it best explains the vicissitudes of fate but because of its circular rather than linear movement. Here is Reilly walking with his mother down the wet flagstones of Bourbon Street:
Outside, Mrs. Reilly took her son’s arm for support, but, as much as they tried, they moved forward very slowly, although they seemed to move sideward more easily. Their walking had developed a pattern: three quick steps to the left, pause, three quick steps to the right, pause.
This method does give Reilly ample time to make his case for stopping at a hot dog cart, but it is also emblematic of the retarding effects of the humorous walk, the aim of which is not so much progress but rather a desultory exploration of a place’s comic possibilities — in his case, an exhaustive one, as he has only left the city confines once (disastrously, on a bus to Baton Rouge).
Lurking in Reilly’s aversion to degenerate touring is a pathological attachment to place that is positively Beckettian. Vladimir and Estragon (who has his own problems with boots) panic each time they contemplate leaving their rendezvous spot with Godot, and the protagonist in Company has “covered…some 25,000 leagues or roughly thrice the girdle [of the Earth] and never once overstepped a radius of one from home.” Given that Beckett’s characters are variously buried up to their heads in dirt, stuck in trash cans, mired in the mud, or confined to a jar on the Rue Brançion, we may forget that despite his circumscribed fictional worlds, Beckett is a great comic chronicler of human motion.
Consider Watt, which recounts the eponymous character’s employ in the house of a shadowy figure, Mr. Knott, who may be even more enigmatic than Godot. The novel begins as Watt journeys to Knott’s house in a “funambulistic stagger” that is both literally and figuratively diverting:
Watt’s way of advancing due east, for example, was to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and at the same time to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and at same time to fling out his left leg as far as possible towards the north…and so on, over and over again, many many times, until he reached his destination, and could sit down. So, standing first on one leg, and then on the other, he moved forward, a headlong tardigrade, in straight line. The knees, on these occasions, did not bend. They could have, but they did not…
Not the most efficient method, but given that the novel’s most notable event is the arrival of a pair of piano tuners who pronounce the instrument “doomed,” there is no need to rush. Watt’s odd preference for walking “with his back to his destination” is certainly eccentric, but it also displays a certain blind optimism, a faint ember of hope that he will find “the right place, at last.”
To add one final example to our menagerie of walkers, we lurch into an H.P. Lovecraft horror tale and find a stride so inhumanly macabre that it becomes almost comic (as most B-movie adaptations of the Dagon or Cthulhu mythos make clear). “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” betrays a pathological fear of “biological degeneration” that manifests itself in the narrator’s loathing of the Innsmouth natives, those “blasphemous fish-frogs of the nameless design” who hop irregularly through abandoned streets. The tale is partly about an abiding embarrassment over the clumsiness of our ancestors as they crawled forth from the ocean and were literally fish out of water. Aristophanic gymnasts these Innsmouth creatures are not. Fish-like though they may be, their motion at times seems “positively simian.” Particularly noteworthy is their “alien-rhythmed footfalls,” the “dog-like sub-humanness of their crouching gait,” as they surge “inhumanly through the spectral moonlight in a grotesque, malignant saraband of fantastic nightmare.” The narrator feels a growing and uncanny connection to the natives, and thus in a nice touch, he manages to escape partly by imitating their shambling hop. The walk, though feigned, nonetheless reveals a certain truth about his origins. By the end of the tale, and after some timely physiological changes, the narrator becomes a Prufrock with gills who can more than merely fantasize about cavorting with underwater sirens.
And thus we end the walking tour, fittingly, in the “unknown sea-deeps” whence our tetrapod ancestors first emerged to take their uncouth way.
Several years ago, I attended a screening of Kiss Me Deadly at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. Introducing the film, the critic David Thomson remarked of the peacocking protagonist, private detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), that you can always tell a fascist by his walk. Thanks to Thomson, I was primed for that strut, at once menacing and ridiculous, which so defines the film’s unsavory hero. Thomson’s comment alerts us to the way the human gait expresses who or what we are. In our tour, which to avoid excessive fatigue has necessarily excluded many a worthy ambler, the silly literary walk has proven to produce more than a good laugh. It can resonate allegorically, produce pathos, reveal character, mirror the world’s absurdity, reflect back on the work that contains it, betray an anxiety of our origins, and even indicate a political affiliation. Regardless, no matter how eccentric the walker, each is welcome on the blessed island of boots, where one can do worse than to emulate this concise description from the “Calypso” chapter of James Joyce’s comic masterpiece: “Dander along all day.”
Image Credit: Flickr/southtyrolean
I would dearly love to be able to start this piece by saying that
The Poor Mouth is the funniest book ever written. It’d be a real lapel-grabber, for one thing, an opening gambit the casual Millions reader would find it hard to walk away from. And for all I know, it might well be true to say such a thing. Because here’s how funny it is: It’s funnier than A Confederacy of Dunces. It’s funnier than Money or Lucky Jim. It’s funnier than any of the product that any of your modern literary LOL-traffickers (your Lipsytes, your Shteyngarts) have put on the street. It beats Shalom Auslander to a bloody, chuckling pulp with his own funny-bone. And it is, let me tell you, immeasurably funnier than however funny you insist on finding Fifty Shades of Grey. The reason I can’t confidently say that it’s the funniest book ever written is that I haven’t read every book ever written. What I can confidently say is that The Poor Mouth is the funniest book by Flann O’Brien (or Myles na gCopaleen, or any other joker in the shuffling deck of pseudonyms Brian O’Nolan wrote under). And if this makes it, by default, the funniest book ever written, then all well and good; but it is certainly the funniest book I’ve ever read.
And I’ve read it maybe five or six times at this point: first as a teenager, then again as an undergraduate when I was supposed to be reading other much less funny things, and then again another couple of times while writing a Masters thesis – a terrific wheeze of a Borges/O’Brien comparative reading. And I’ve just now revisited it afresh, partly to reassure myself before writing this piece that it is just as funny as I remember it being. (It is, albeit with the slight caveat that it’s possibly even funnier.) The first time I read it, I was in school, and I remember being confounded by two facts: 1) That it was originally published in 1941 and 2) That it first appeared in Irish as An Béal Bocht. And if there was one thing that was less funny than anything written before, say, 1975, it was anything that was written in Irish.
To fully understand this, I think you would probably need to have some first-hand experience of the Irish educational system. This is a country in which every student between the ages of five and eighteen is taught Irish for several hours a week, and yet it is also, mysteriously, a country in which relatively few adults are capable of holding a conversation in the language in anything but the most stilted, self-consciously ironic pidgin. (After almost a decade and a half of daily instruction in the spoken and written forms of what is officially my country’s first language, just about the only complete Irish sentence I myself can now speak translates as follows: “May I please have permission to go to the toilet, Teacher?” I don’t think I’m especially unusual in this regard, although I’m aware my ability to forget things I’ve learned is exceptional.) I don’t want to get into this too deeply here, except to say that part of this has to do with a kind of morbid cultural circularity: the reason so few people speak Irish outside of classrooms is because so few people speak Irish outside of classrooms, and that there would therefore be few people to speak it to if they did. Also, very little literature gets written in Irish, partly because (for the reasons outlined above), relatively few people are capable of writing it, and also because, if they did, the readership for it would be correspondingly small. And so the stuff that gets taught in schools tends to be a combination of (as I remember it) unremarkable contemporary poetry and psychotropically dull peasant memoir.
The great canonical presence in the latter genre is a book called Peig, the autobiography of an outstandingly ancient Blasket island woman named Peig Sayers, which was dictated to a Dublin schoolteacher and published in 1936. Successive generations of Irish students were forced not just to read this exegesis of poverty and misfortune – over and over and over – but to memorize large chunks of it, later to be disgorged and explicated at the intellectual gun-point of state examination. The memoir begins with Peig outlining what a rigorously shitty time she had of it growing up in rural Ireland in the late 19th century, and this unhappy existence is narrated with a signature flatness of tone that is maintained throughout the whole grim exercise:
My people had little property: all the land they possessed was the grass of two cows. They hadn’t much pleasure out of life: there was always some misfortune down on them that kept them low. I had a pair of brothers who lived — Sean and Pádraig; there was also my sister Máire.
As a result of never-ending flailing of misfortune my father and mother moved from the parish of Ventry to Dunquin; for them this proved to be a case of going from bad to worse, for they didn’t prosper in Dunquin no more than they did in Ventry.
For a teenager, of course, the only appropriate reaction to this stuff is the most inappropriate one, somewhere between stupefaction and manic amusement. As real and as comparatively recent as the history of grinding poverty and oppression in Ireland is, it’s still hard to read this with a straight face – particularly if, as a youth, you had to commit great thick blocks of it to memory. There’s something about the improbable combination of sober causality and delirious wretchedness (“As a result of the never-ending flailing of misfortune”; “a case of going from bad to worse”) that comes on like an outright petition for heartless juvenile ridicule. “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” as Nell puts it in Beckett’s Endgame. We should take this point seriously, coming as it does from an old woman who has no legs and lives in a dustbin.
Beckett’s contemporary Flann O’Brien understood this, too: unhappiness is the comic goldmine from which he extracts The Poor Mouth’s raw material. He is parodying Irish language books like Peig and, in particular, Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s memoir An t-Oileánach (The Islander); but in a broader sense, he’s ridiculing the forces of cultural nationalism that promoted these books as exemplars of an idealized and essentialized form of Irishness: rural, uneducated, poor, priest-fearing, and truly, superbly Gaelic.
O’Brien’s narrator, Bonaparte O’Coonassa, is not so much a person as a humanoid suffering-receptacle, a cruel reductio ad absurdium of the “noble savage” ideal of rural Irishness promoted by Yeats and the largely Anglo-Irish and Dublin-based literary revival movement. A lot of the book’s funniness comes from its absurdly stiff language (which reflects an equally stiff original Irish), but that language is a perfect means of conveying a drastically overdetermined determinism – a sort of hysterical stoicism which seems characteristically and paradoxically Irish. The book’s comedic logic is roughly as follows: to be Irish is to be poor and miserable, and so anything but the most extreme poverty and misery falls short of authentic Irish experience. The hardship into which Bonaparte is born, out on the desperate western edge of Europe, is seen as neither more nor less than the regrettable but unavoidable condition of Irishness, an accepted fate of boiled potatoes and perpetual rainfall. “It has,” as he puts it, “always been the destiny of the true Gaels (if the books be credible) to live in a small, lime-white house in the corner of the glen as you go eastwards along the road and that must be the explanation that when I reached this life there was no good habitation for me but the reverse in all truth.”
Like many of the best comedians of prose, O’Brien is a master of studied repetition. Again and again, unhappy situations are met with total resignation, with a fatalism so extreme that it invariably proceeds directly to its ultimate conclusion: death. Early on, Bonaparte tells us about a seemingly intractable situation whereby his family’s pig Ambrose, with whom they shared their tiny hovel, developed some disease or other that caused him to emit an intolerable stench, while at the same time growing so fat that he couldn’t be got out the door. His mother’s reaction to this situation is simply to accept that they’re all going to die from the stench, and that they therefore might as well get on with it. “If that’s the way it is,” she says, “then ‘tis that way and it is hard to get away from what’s in store for us.”
Individual hardships or injustices are never seen as distinct problems to be considered with a view to their potential solution; they are always aspects of a living damnation, mere epiphenomena of “the fate of the Gaels.” It’s a mindset that’s both profoundly anti-individualist and cosmically submissive. The cause of suffering isn’t British colonialism: it’s destiny. On Bonaparte’s first day of school, his teacher beats him senseless with an oar for not being able to speak English, and to impress upon him the fact that his name is no longer Bonaparte O’Coonnassa, but “Jams O’Donnell” – a generically anglicized title the same schoolmaster gives to every single child under his tutelage. When Bonaparte takes the matter up with his mother later that day, she explains that this is simply the way of things. The justice or injustice of the situation doesn’t come into it:
Don’t you understand that it’s Gaels that live in this side of the country and that they can’t escape from fate? It was always said and written that every Gaelic youngster is hit on his first school day because he doesn’t understand English and the foreign form of his name and that no one has any respect for him because he’s Gaelic to the marrow. There’s no other business going on in school that day but punishment and revenge and the same fooling about Jams O’Donnell. Alas! I don’t think that there’ll ever be any good settlement for the Gaels but only hardship for them always.
The assumption that nothing can be done about it, though, doesn’t mean that ceaseless meditation and talk about the suffering of the Gaels is not absolutely central to the proper business of Gaelicism. True Irishness is to be found in the constant reflection on the condition of Irishness. (This is still very much a characteristic of contemporary Irish culture, by the way, but that’s probably another day’s work.) O’Brien’s characters think and talk about little else. Bonaparte, at one point, recalls an afternoon when he was “reclining on the rushes in the end of the house considering the ill-luck and evil that had befallen the Gaels (and would always abide with them)” when his grandfather comes in looking even more decrepit and disheveled than usual.
– Welcome, my good man! I said gently, and also may health and longevity be yours! I’ve just been thinking of the pitiable situation of the Gaels at present and also that they’re not all in the same state; I perceive that you yourself are in a worse situation than any Gael since the commencement of Gaelicism. It appears that you’re bereft of vigour?
– I am, said he.
– You’re worried?
– I am.
– And is it the way, said I, that new hardships and new calamities are in store for the Gaels and a new overthrow is destined for the little green country which is the native land of both of us?
O’Brien uses the term “Gael” and its various derivatives so frequently throughout the book that the very idea of “Gaelicism” quickly begins to look like the absurdity it is. This reaches a bizarre culmination in the book’s central comic set-piece, where Bonaparte recalls a Feis (festival of Gaelic language and culture) organized by his grandfather to raise money for an Irish-speaking university. The festival is, naturally, an exhaustively miserable affair, characterized by extremes of hunger and incredibly shit weather. (“The morning of the feis,” Bonaparte recalls, “was cold and stormy without halt or respite from the nocturnal downpour. We had all arisen at cockcrow and had partaken of potatoes before daybreak.”) Some random Gael is elected President of the Feis, and opens the whole wretched observance with a speech of near perfectly insular Gaelicism:
If we’re truly Gaelic, we must constantly discuss the question of the Gaelic revival and the question of Gaelicism. There is no use in having Gaelic, if we converse in it on non-Gaelic topics. He who speaks Gaelic but fails to discuss the language question is not truly Gaelic in his heart; such conduct is of no benefit to Gaelicism because he only jeers at Gaelic and reviles the Gaels. There is nothing in this life so nice and so Gaelic as truly true Gaelic Gaels who speak in true Gaelic Gaelic about the truly Gaelic language.
This is followed by more speeches of equal or greater Gaelicism, to the point where a number of Gaels “collapsed from hunger and from the strain of listening while one fellow died most Gaelically in the midst of the assembly.” From a combination of malnutrition and exhaustion, several more lives are lost in the dancing that follows.
O’Brien’s reputation as a novelist rests largely on the postmodern absurdism of The Third Policeman and At Swim-Two-Birds, with their mind-bending meta-trickery and audacious surrealism. But the essence of his genius was, I think, to be found in his extraordinary mastery of tone, in his skillful manipulation of a kind of uncannily mannered monotony. Repetition and redundancy are absolutely crucial to the comic effect of his prose, and it’s in The Poor Mouth that these effects are most ruthlessly pursued, not least because they are crucial elements of the kind of story he’s parodying here – a life of unswerving and idealized tedium, in which basically the only viable foodstuff is the potato. (Breakfast is memorably referred to as “the time for morning-potatoes.”) There’s a feverish flatness to the narrative tone throughout, a crazed restraint, and a steady accumulation of comic pressure that is like nothing else I’ve ever read. Bonaparte’s recollection of his first experience with alcohol – in the form of poitín, which is of course the potato fermented to the point of near-lethality – is one of the stronger examples of this in the book. It’s also, I think, probably the greatest of O’Brien’s many great comic riffs:
If the bare truth be told, I did not prosper very well. My senses went astray, evidently. Misadventure fell on my misfortune, a further misadventure fell on that misadventure and before long the misadventures were falling thickly on the first misfortune and on myself. Then a shower of misfortunes fell on the misadventures, heavy misadventures fell on the misfortunes after that and finally one great brown misadventure came upon everything, quenching the light and stopping the course of life.
The effort to identify the comic operations of any given piece of writing – what its technology consists of, how its moving parts fit together – is essentially a mug’s game. There’s a hell of a lot to be said for just accepting that something is funny because it makes you laugh. But there’s something about the flawlessness of this passage’s mechanism that makes me want to take it apart and lay out its components. Obviously, repetition is the primary engine here – just the sounds of the words “misadventure” and “misfortune” in such close succession is powerfully amusing. And, as with the spookily O’Brien-esque passage above from Peig, there’s the mix of sober causality and delirious wretchedness. Accumulation and enumeration is, as always with this writer, an irresistible comic force. But I think the real stroke of genius here – the element that really elevates it to the level of the sublime – is how he keeps going well past the point where the joke has done its job. The funniest word here, in other words – the word that always tips me over into literal LOLing whenever I read it – is “Then …”
And maybe this is funny precisely for the least funny of reasons: because misery and misadventure rarely stop at the point where their work is done. Even when misfortune – or life, or history – has already made its irrefutable point, there’s never anything to prevent it taking a quick breath and starting a new sentence: “Then …”
Image via Wikimedia Commons
A literary controversy (or what passes for controversy in our fairly tame circle) erupted last month when the Pulitzer Prize Board elected not to award a Pulitzer Prize for a work of fiction. It was the first time they had done so since 1977. The reason why this can happen has to do with the way the Pulitzer Prize Board’s selection process works: three initial readers — this year they were novelist Michael Cunningham and critics Susan Larson and Maureen Corrigan — pore over several hundred books published in the previous year and settle on three finalists. Then they turn this list over to the twenty members of the Board, eighteen of whom have voting power (who knows why the board includes two members who can’t vote) to pick one. A majority vote among the Board is required to select a winner. This year, a majority could not come to agree on one book.
The three books nominated were: Swamplandia!, the second book by my friend Karen Russell, a garrulous oddball romp that forays into satire and surrealism; Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson, a decorated luminary on his way to becoming an old guard figure as our village elders like Vonnegut and Updike are vacating their positions; and The Pale King, the unfinished last novel of David Foster Wallace, the most energizing, polarizing, and influential literary voice of our generation, his reputation as a genius now safely beatified by his suicide.
Apparently not one of these three books was liked enough unanimously by ten people on the Board, and so none was awarded the most prestigious literary prize in America this year. “There’s always going to be dissatisfaction, frustration,” said Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, regarding the indecision. “But [this year] the board deliberated in good faith to reach a decision — just no book got the majority vote.”
When the unusual and disappointing decision was announced, the reaction among the literati—writers, I suppose, and critics, and a vast rearguard of booksellers, bloggers, and book geeks on Twitter who have greatly expanded and diversified the circle of conversation in recent years — was like the moment in the courtroom drama when the unassuming girl on the witness stand calmly says something that suddenly changes everything, and the room bursts all at once into a frenzy of barely contained whispers. What’s more, the Pulitzer Prize Board was pissing on a parade that already felt drenched. Just a few days before, the hobbits of the publishing industry had been dismayed when the Justice Department sued three major publishers over e-book pricing, siding with Amazon like Saruman sided with Sauron, whose ominous red eye sweeps across the land from his Dark Tower in that northwestern Mordor, Seattle.
Ann Patchett, a novelist who last year published a book eligible for the prize (State of Wonder, a novel as magnificent as her other masterpiece, Bel Canto), and now also a bookseller, as she recently opened an independent bookstore in Nashville (so she’s got two horses in this race) maligned the Pulitzer Board’s non-decision in a widely read op-ed piece in The New York Times. “If I feel disappointment as a writer and indignation as a reader, I manage to get all the way to rage as a bookseller,” she writes. She argues that the bestowal of a Pulitzer Prize has the power to get people excited about a book in particular and books in general, and under the shadow of our current zeitgeist, it’s a bad time to put down literature. “What I am sure of,” she writes, “is this: Most readers hearing the news will not assume it was a deadlock. They’ll just figure it was a bum year for fiction.”
Patchett’s piece is heartfelt and impassioned, and in some respects I agree with her — but what this controversy mostly did was remind me of how fundamentally I dislike the whole idea of literary prizes at all. I believe with all my soul that the concept of a board of twenty journalists — or people of any profession for that matter, it doesn’t really make a difference who they are — awarding a prize to a work of art, putting an official stamp of approval on one book and thus by implication saying the other books published that year aren’t as good, should strike us as misguided, shortsighted, and dumb.
I’m not saying this in a sour-grapes way, as a novelist who also wrote an eligible book that was published last year. If I were awarded the Pulitzer, it’s not like I’d fling it in their faces. Obviously I would kiss their feet with gratitude. I have benefited greatly from a literary prize, the Bard Fiction Prize, for which I am hugely grateful, and was nominated for a couple of others, the Dylan Thomas Prize in the UK and the Young Lions Fiction Prize here (which Karen Russell did win, by the way). These prizes can help writers out tremendously, especially early in their careers, giving them prestige, publicity, and money, and for that, they’re a good thing. But this isn’t about me — I’m making this argument not as a writer, but from a more abstract standpoint, from a big-picture view.
There was a shrewdly observant piece in n+1 that was rerun in Slate last year by Chad Harbach (whose roaringly hyped novel, The Art of Fielding, also came out last year) titled “MFA vs. NYC,” and given the headline, which pretty much spells it out, “America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?” I found the piece spot-on about its observation that our literary culture is sharply bifurcated into two contingents, one concentrated in the publishing mecca of New York City, and the other scattered far and wide across the land at various colleges and universities. Harbach is sharply critical of MFA programs, essentially making all the usual arguments against them and coming down on the side of NYC. After I got an MFA at the ur-program, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I moved to New York City, because I figured that’s where writers go, and I’ve lived there for the last few years. So I feel I’m in a commodious place from which to observe these two literary cultures, and I must say, though both the insular little MFA world and the New York City world of literary culture come with their own and different forms of attendant bullshit, there is far, far — and I mean far — more bullshit in NYC.
The difference between the two cultures becomes most profoundly evident contrasting the books that get talked about at the bar over after-class or after-work drinks, respectively. There are many books I came to fall in love with that altered the course of my writing and changed what I thought could be done with literature that were recommendations from some of my friends in the MFA program. We would excitedly talk about what we had been reading lately, or great books we had read before — it was a conversation that was happening constantly and everywhere. A quick list of things I discovered in grad school from my friends’ recommendations that hugely affected me would include the philosophy of Antonin Artaud, the poetry of Paul Celan, Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, the stories of Mavis Gallant, Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser. And I dashed out that list in part to illustrate that we were not exactly shrieking and hyperventilating about the brand-new hot young rising stars of American fiction. (Well, some of us were, but I wasn’t one of them. And indeed in retrospect I notice how most of what I just listed were the recommendations of my poet friends, by necessity bound for academia, if they were lucky, and not for the networky New York literary scene.) Of course, we wanted lustily to be those hot young rising stars of American fiction soon. But when we talked about books, we would pull out the interesting and unusual jewels of our collections the way a music geek will pull out a rare LP in a plastic sleeve. We didn’t really give a shit about what book won what prize and did such-and-such really “deserve” to win the Pulitzer? Those are the kinds of gossipy, facile book conversations you have in New York, where everything is in some way tainted with commerce. Ours were the conversations of collectors, enthusiasts, purists, of people genuinely interested in the art itself, and I miss them.
All that is by way of suggesting that literary prizes are mainly manifestations and obsessions of that buzzy New York literati hive, which can become less of a hive and more of an echo-chamber. It’s an observable phenomenon: a book comes out, which for whatever reason gathers a tsunami of critical praise that perpetuates itself — for by the time the great wave makes landfall, some critics may either be hesitant to disagree with their peers, timorously fearing that they’re missing something everyone else can see (Naked Emperor syndrome), or what’s more probable, their perception has been primped by the power of suggestion, in the same way we are more likely to declare a fine wine magnifique if we know before tasting it that the bottle cost a hundred dollars than if it cost ten. This is why sometimes quite mediocre books wind up vaunted with widespread and lavish praise, and are sometimes even buoyed all the way up to the Pulitzer. But mediocre books getting overpraised does not bother me seriously, as I would rather let ten guilty men go free than hang one innocent — it irritates me far more when truly great books are ignored, which happens all the time.
A book has a vertical life and a horizontal one. The vertical life is what happens to it up to, during, and very soon after its publication; the horizontal life is what happens as the years and decades and even centuries slide by. As the Pulitzer is awarded to a work of fiction published in the previous year, all it can take stock of is a book’s vertical life, which sometimes can be deceiving. I’m sure this helps explain some of the more embarrassing retrospective head-slaps in the Pulitzer’s history, such as when, in 1930, it awarded the prize to Oliver La Farge’s Laughing Boy — a second-rate and now utterly forgotten book by an utterly forgotten writer — for the year in which both Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury were published. It’s perfectly natural they would make that mistake; back then, Faulkner and Hemingway were not yet Faulkner and Hemingway, they were just a couple of young writers who happened to be named Faulkner and Hemingway. The Pulitzer Board would try to atone for their sin years later by awarding them both (Faulkner twice) prizes for far lesser works after their reputations were already secure. The hype of the moment does not necessarily translate into lasting luminance. Just scroll down the list of all the past winners of the prize, and count how many you’ve ever heard of. Start at the bottom and move upward chronologically, and you’ll find the occurrence of familiar names increases as we move closer to the present. This is not because the Pulitzer Board has gradually been growing wiser — it’s because we’re living now, not a hundred years in the future. Then we’ll see. We can’t help it — we’re blinded by our own times; all prizes are like that, and that is why, as a measure of what is good and what is not in art, they are not exactly the trustworthiest oracles.
Also, a twenty-member prize board may be seducible by groupthink. I trust groupthink more when we’re talking about the long and justice-bending arc of history, not twenty journalists (eighteen of whom have voting power) talking about fiction, which is not even their forte. Come to think of it, why have we been letting a roomful of people who don’t necessarily know anything about literature tell us what the best book of fiction was last year, year after year? Why didn’t they just let Michael Cunningham, Maureen Corrigan and Susan Larson pick it? I would be more interested to hear their opinions on the matter, anyway. (The 2012 board did include one — exactly one — fiction writer, past winner Junot Díaz. The only other person on the board I’d heard of was New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who I’m sure is a wonderful man but the dude writes like a clown honks a bicycle horn.)
Let me tell you a story about the problem with a group of people of about that number locked in a room trying to come to a decision about a work of art, fiction specifically. The stakes here are much smaller, but the phenomenon I believe is similar. For a short time I was a submissions reader for a fairly well-known, medium-cachet literary review. There were usually about ten to fifteen of us around the editorial meeting table. Each of us would read through the slush pile and select a few stories we liked, and then the boss would Xerox the top stories for everyone, we’d all go home and read them, pick out our favorites among those, and at the next meeting discuss which stories to put in the issue. After all our arguing and deliberation, usually the pieces that wound up being selected for publication were not the most interesting, or what I thought were the best of what we had to choose from. They were the pretty good pieces that we could all compromise on. Because a truly great and interesting work of art will have both its loving defenders and its outraged detractors, such a work is intrinsically less likely to be selected for honor by a large committee. That is the nature of good art: it provokes. I agree with Churchill that democracy is the worst form of government except all those others that have been tried from time to time, but not when it comes to lionizing certain novels over others. That I prefer to do on my own, thank you very much.
Historically, this obsession with prizes — and its grandchild, the micro-hysteria over those “best-of” lists that seasonally return to stipple the hills like dandelions — seems to be an impulse particularly characteristic of the twentieth century and beyond: the first Nobel Prize in Literature went in 1901 to the great Sully Prudhomme (what, you’ve never heard of him?), the first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1918 to Ernest Poole for His Family, the first National Book Award in 1950 to Nelson Algren for The Man with the Golden Arm, the first National Book Critics Circle Award in 1975 to E.L. Doctorow for Ragtime, and the first PEN/Faulkner in 1981 to Walter Abish for his How German Is It. I’d say the only one of those that’s still well remembered today is E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (although I happen to have read Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm — it’s pretty good).
However, there’s also an argument that this misguided impulse is not necessarily so much a modern one as an inherently human one (and we have plenty of those), when one considers that in ancient Greek festivals, prizes were given out, as they were for the more objectively measurable outcomes of athletic contests, to the best plays. But this phenomenon was in evidence even back then — that of the critics of the time failing to recognize what history would discover greatness in: angered and confused by the way he broke the conventions of Greek drama, the judges snubbed Euripides.
The next-to-next-to-last time the Pulitzer Board chose not to award a prize at all was in 1974, when all three of the readers recommended Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and every member of the Board categorically denied it. Considering what a rambunctious, rebellious book it is, and considering the long life it has since enjoyed as both a cult classic and a classic, a necessary item on the bookshelf of every druggy collegiate pseudo-intellectual on his way or not to becoming an intellectual, fiercely hated by many and by many fiercely loved (and both parties have their points), it is so fitting that that, of all books, would be bestowed this negative honor; if anything, it’s an enduring badge of coffee-shop cool, and it well deserves it Of course Gravity’s Rainbow can’t win a Pulitzer. It would be like a punk band winning a Grammy.
Here’s a question. Imagine Satan were to appear in a sulfurous cloud as the host of some Faustian game show, on which the contestants, who are artists at inchoate and uncertain stages of their careers, are forced to confront interesting spiritual dilemmas. Old Scratch says to the Young Writer, I offer you a choice between two fates. In the first, he says — and this seductive vision appears in an orb of smoky light hovering above his outstretched claw — your books are met with blazing success. Every critic fawningly gushes over your work. You’re heralded as a genius. You’re interviewed on TV and on widely-syndicated NPR programs, your phone won’t stop ringing with interview requests. Packed houses at every reading you give. The New York Times Best-Seller List. The money rolls in, you easily clear your outrageous advances. You win the National Book Award, you win the National Book Critics Circle Award, you win the PEN/Faulkner, you win the Orange Prize if you’re a woman, you win the Pulitzer. The movies based on your books hit the screens with famous actors and actresses playing your characters, and everyone says the books were so much better. This is your life. But! — and the vision vanishes — know this: after you die, after your life of literary celebrity, interest in your work will fade. None of the shadows you made will stick to the cave walls because, in the end, none of the cave-dwellers was moved to chalk its outline when it was there. Over time, the world will forget you. Or, behind door number two… The world, if it ever knew you, will forget you in your own lifetime, and you will die in obscurity, uncelebrated, unfulfilled, destitute, and bitter. But! —in the years following your death, your work will be rediscovered, and one of your books in particular will even become a classic that lives on for many generations and forever changes the landscape of our collective imagination. In other words, you’ll be Herman Melville.
Now, both of these are rare and lucky fates. If the variables were at all uncertain — if in the first case there was a chance your work would be remembered, and in the second there was a chance you’d remain forgotten — it would be a much harder decision. But I’d like to think that any artist who is truly interested in art would choose the second option in a heartbeat. I know I would, and I’m not too humble to say so. It’s the first option, not the second, that’s the Faustian bargain: heaven on earth, hell for dessert.
The reason a real artist would choose the second option over the first has nothing to do with any inner nobility — far from it; in fact each fantasy springs from the same megalomaniacal, insatiable hunger. (It’s no coincidence that Hitler was a failed painter and Franco a failed poet. The heart of an artist beats wild and greedy in the chest of every despot. It’s the very same source of energy that produces both.) It is because, while worldly recognition may be an object of lust, immortality is an object of love. As I once read in Plato’s Symposium, and was so amazed by their truth that I’ve never forgotten these sentences, “the soul has its offspring as well as the body. Laws, inventions and noble deeds, which spring from love of fame, have for their motive the same passion for immortality. The lover seeks a beautiful soul in order to generate therein offspring which shall live for ever.”
This is why, for any artist, dying in obscurity is among the worst nightmares. If I had a time machine, I would visit Herman Melville at his deathbed and tell him the good news from the future, so he might go into that good night with some sense of satisfaction. But on second thought, why wait until the very end? I’d go further back and tell him sooner, give him something to help him through those nineteen years he spent growing old as a customs inspector, his public literary career long dead in the water after the critics of his day shouted him out of town as a crackpot, though he was still returning home every night to quietly scribble out poetry and a novella that would be published many years posthumously as Billy Budd. On third thought, seeing as he was in fact working on Billy Budd, and wasn’t so frustrated he’d completely given up writing, maybe somebody already told him. On fourth thought, maybe he didn’t need anyone to tell him, because he knew he was a genius and held out hope the world might one day see it.
All in all, I would urge readers to not pay too much attention to big prestigious literary prizes. In a perfect world, I would wish for every writer a magical bag of money that is never empty (to level the financial question) and simply do away with them all: no Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, no National Book Award, no PEN/Faulkner, no Man Booker, no Nobel Prize in Literature. Let writers write, let critics have their say, let readers read, let time decide.
It doesn’t really matter, though. Even without the magic moneybags, and even with the swells of cacophonic hype surrounding all the literary prizes and all the literary darlings of any given moment, history will plod on, and the Ozymandias of now will be the half-sunk and shattered visage of later. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who never won a Pulitzer, will remain F. Scott Fitzgerald, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Booth Tarkington will remain Booth Tarkington. And anyway, I am absolutely certain there have been many writers the equal of Fitzgerald who, through their own bad luck or other people’s bad taste, were never published and never read, let alone given prizes, and it’s especially to these unknown soldiers of literature that I raise my glass. John Kennedy Toole killed himself believing he was doomed to be one of them, and he most certainly would have been, had his mother not accosted Walker Percy years later with his manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces, which went on to win a twelve-years-posthumous Pulitzer Prize. It was a nice gesture.
A young John Kennedy Toole in the Caribbean. Photo courtesy the Toole Papers, Special Collections, Tulane University.
In the spring of 1969 on the side of a country road outside Biloxi, Mississippi a blue Chevy Chevelle sputtered out of gas. A thirty-one-year-old English professor lay lifeless in the driver’s seat. One end of a garden hose had been perched in the rear window, the other end placed in the exhaust pipe.
A few hours later the phone rang in the professor’s home in New Orleans. His mother, who had not heard from him in two months, received the call she had been dreading. Her only child, John Kennedy Toole, had killed himself. She was ashamed and heartbroken, as all her aspirations for him expired into a silent nothingness…
Until she remembered, he had left behind a manuscript.
Toole had written the novel in 1963 during his last few months in the Army in Puerto Rico. Returning to New Orleans, he was convinced it was his masterpiece. He edited it for two years under the direction of Robert Gottlieb at Simon and Schuster. But he eventually gave up as his mind slipped into the snares of mental illness. For years the manuscript lay abandoned in a box atop a cedar armoire. But in 1972 his mother retrieved it and began submitting it for publication. It eventually found a champion in novelist Walker Percy. And eleven years after Toole’s suicide A Confederacy of Dunces was published.
As he had always wished, Toole’s book traveled to book shelves and into the hands of readers all over the world. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. It’s been translated into 22 languages with over 30 editions. All of this came from that document he crafted in Puerto Rico. Yet it is rather remarkable to consider that no one seems to know where the original manuscript is.
I have been researching and writing about Toole for seven years, digging through archives, interviewing his friends and family, trying to decipher Toole’s character, his fears, his desires, his angels and demons. And I have often contemplated that missing manuscript. His mother claimed she discarded all the “Gottlieb edits” in order to showcase her son’s “pure genius.” Still, seeing how Toole altered the creation that he felt defined him would certainly offer insight into his final years. But no one I interviewed seemed to know its whereabouts. The Toole Papers at Tulane University does not have it, nor does the Walker Percy Papers at UNC Chapel Hill. Some of Toole’s friends had heard that Percy’s typist threw the “badly smeared, scarcely readable carbon” away after she retyped it. Walker’s wife, Bunt, didn’t believe that story. She suspected it might be in Walker’s miscellaneous papers that had been boxed-up after his death in 1990. But the family scoured the boxes and found nothing.
I had nearly given up on the question of the original manuscript until a year ago when I interviewed Lynda Martin, the sister of Toole’s best friend in high school. “The manuscript?” she said in a soft southern accent. “Yes, well I have it in my closet here at home.” I nearly dropped the phone as she explained Toole’s mother had given it as a gift to her brother after the novel was published. When her brother passed away in 2008, she acquired it. It had a few penned-in edits, she explained, but not drastic revisions. “I don’t know what to do with it, really” she said. “I considered selling it at auction.” Christie’s estimated its value up to $20,000, if deemed authentic. She hadn’t called Sotheby’s yet. “Please” I begged, “just hold on to it. I’m on my way down.”
In a few weeks I was on a plane, heading to Louisiana, contemplating how I could come up with the money to buy the manuscript from Lynda, or at least convince her to donate it to an archival library. I asked my friend, filmmaker Joe Sanford, to join me on the drive from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. When we arrived, Lynda, a beautiful blond woman in her early seventies, showed us into her dining room where she had prepared a spread of Toole memorabilia: newspaper articles, a bottle of Dr. Nut, letters from his mother, including the note to Lynda’s brother offering him the manuscript. In the middle of these artifacts she had placed a black binder filled with hundreds of yellowed pages.
I sat down and opened it. The earthy smell of old paper wafted into the air. “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole. I ran my fingers over the letters of the title page. I could feel the impressions of the typewriter keys. I almost lept from my seat. I wanted to grab my phone to call my agent and editor in New York to confirm it was real. They were already contemplating the publicity this could gather. “Biographer Finds Long Lost Manuscript” the headlines would read. And my book would fly off the shelves.
But then, as I turned the page, my heart sank. The letters felt smooth. On the lower left corner I saw faint specks of toner, the telltale marks of a photocopier. I flipped through the pages, comparing them with images I had taken from the Toole Papers at Tulane. Toole’s mother had gifted Lynda’s brother with a photocopy of a typescript set by LSU Press shortly before publication. The “edits” in red ink were mere typographical corrections.
I sat dismayed. Looking up from the binder, I found Lynda smiling eagerly. But the smile soon left her face. I explained that she had a document with some history tied to the novel, but not twenty-thousand dollars’ worth. It was not the original manuscript, not even a copy of the original. At first she seemed puzzled, perhaps wondering how these pages could fool her and her family for so many years. $20,000 would have helped her immensely. There was a For Sale sign in front of her house. She was moving to Florida to be closer to her children, she explained. But Lynda had lived long enough to understand the limited value of things. What were these pages after all? Even if it was the original manuscript it would not embody her dear friend who had suffered such a terrible end.
We sat through an awkward silence and then she took out a little index card filled with notes. “You asked me about my memories of Ken” she said smiling. “Yes, would you mind sharing them with me?” We moved into her living room, set up the camera, and she talked about her many recollections of a curious and witty young man with aspirations to become a writer.
She told us about how he had remarkable talent for mimicry, his ability to impersonate a person’s voice, accent, gestures, everything with astounding accuracy. She talked about how he used to explore the many neighborhoods of New Orleans, observing the people and how he used to create characters from those observations, characters like Officer Romigary, Tammy from the Irish Channel, and TJ her Italian boyfriend. She laughed as she remembered how Ken, the name his Louisiana friends called him, used to sit in the bathroom listening to Lynda’s elderly next door neighbor, Irene Reilly, yell out the most offensive and colorful obscenities in all of New Orleans. Indeed, Lynda had witnessed Toole as a teenager cataloging the characters that would later appear in his novel: Officer Mancuso, Santa Battaglia, and Ignatius’s mother, Irene Reilly. And for the first time, I realized Toole had been writing A Confederacy of Dunces in his head for nearly a decade before he set it to paper.
Earlier that morning, I thought I was going to find a rare artifact of literary history, which would help me gain a clearer picture of Toole’s descent towards suicide. But Lynda’s memories were far more profound to me than dissecting how Toole edited his famous novel. Of course, I had to report to my agent and my editor that I had not found the manuscript. But I took heart in what Lynda freely offered me: a vivid portrait of a young aspiring artist, exploring a city filled with unique characters. No documents in the Toole Papers offered such a depiction, a depiction far more valuable than his manuscript.
In writing the biography of Toole, it was always tempting to bemoan lost documents like the suicide note his mother destroyed or the manuscript, especially since his letters are so few and many of his friends and family have passed away. But Lynda reminded me Toole was not a specimen to dissect. As she spoke there was a glimmer in her eyes and an enthusiasm in her voice, as she tried to capture the ineffable quality of his personality that made him so rare — a quality that readers only catch a glimpse of in his novel. He was not only a talented writer, she explained, but a treasured friend, gone too soon. It was my job to convey the complexities of his life. And Lynda’s recollections proved I didn’t need his manuscript to do that.
I still have hopes someone, someday will uncover the manuscript, hidden in a box in an attic or brought to light during an estate sale. After all, those pages hold the first impressions of the creative wave that had been building in Toole for much of his short life. But whether or not it’s found, the creative energy cranked out of his typewriter in Puerto Rico in 1963 transcends the original pages. It endures translation, criticism and shifts in generations of readers. For his novel is a parade of victorious laughter, just like those famous jazz funerals in New Orleans: the solemn dirges leading to the grave are momentary; once the deceased is laid to rest a celebration erupts, flowing into the streets, a carnival of song and dance, blaring triumphantly.
In 19th-century France, the flâneur had an undefined route but a fairly specific path: the wandering observers of Baudelaire and Flaubert (the term comes from the verb flâner, French for “to stroll”) assessed society, notably urban life, with detached interest. These days, the term gets an extraordinary amount of play in the essays of James Wood, who goes into paroxysms of joy every time an eagle-eyed idler walks around and describes the scene in an illuminating way. In How Fiction Works, he writes: “This figure is essentially a stand-in for the author, is the author’s porous scout, helplessly inundated with impressions. He goes out into the world like Noah’s dove, to bring a report back.”
One of the keys to the flâneur and his porous qualities, in my mind, is his idleness: a character engaged in strenuous work has no time to hang out and observe; his insights will have to come from elsewhere. In the 19th century, it wasn’t all that strange to designate your protagonist a “loafer.” But today, this kind of aimlessness strikes an odd chord: it is in and of itself a plot point, a defining characteristic. Flaubert’s Parisian rambler who hangs around cafes, people watching, would today most likely be called a slacker.
Towards the middle of the 20th century, writers began to refashion the aimless observer. Dissatisfaction crept in, from Holden Caufield’s angst-ridden wanderings to Ignatius J. Reilly in The Confederacy of Dunces. Some say the term “slacker” was coined as early as 1898 — during the World Wars, it referred to draft dodgers — but it didn’t gain pop-culture appeal in America for nearly a century. Born in the ’80s and raised in the shadow of Generation X, I always saw the previous generation — Marty (and George) McFly, Wayne and Garth, Bill and Ted, Jay and Silent Bob, every classroom scene in Clueless, people who used the word “whatever” on a regular basis — as the epitome of slackerdom.
But it’s my generation that seems perpetually relegated to their parents’ basements. Recently, Emily St. John Mandel reviewed Leigh Stein’s The Fallback Plan, about a young woman who graduates from college and summarily retreats to her parents’ house instead of looking for work. Stein’s protagonist has been called a slacker, but something about her doesn’t quite fit the mold: Stein herself wrote in to add, “This is just a temporary blip in her life as an otherwise successful young woman, and I hope my novel resonates with those in a similar boat: not just the perennial ‘slackers’ out there, but the temporarily lost as well. Esther’s fantasies are just that: fantasies…for successful, ambitious people, there’s a dark fantasy to just throw in the towel, give up, and eat cereal.”
I’m interested in characters that are living out that fantasy: what makes for a successful slacker novel? What propels a book when nothing seems to be propelling the protagonist? And how will the tradition of the flâneur be repurposed in the modern era — because isn’t the slacker ideally positioned for the role? I looked at two novels, published a quarter of a century and 8,000 miles apart. The first is Adam Wilson’s Flatscreen, out last month, and the second is Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August, published in 1988. They’re wildly different stylistically: where Wilson’s prose is choppy and erratic, like the cocktail of uppers one of his characters has probably just downed, Chatterjee’s sentences wind on languidly through sweltering afternoons, reminding us that despite holding a job in the Indian civil service, his protagonist is usually getting stoned. But the similarities between the books are numerous, beyond the rampant drug use. If a novel garners momentum from its characters’ desires, these two work because they are narrated by young, confused men who both want nothing more than to finally, actually want something.
When I was ten, my parents took me to a specialist to get my hearing tested. Worried that I was going deaf because I never paid attention to anything anyone said. Doctor took me into a dark room, gave me headphones. I listened to a series of beeps, raised one finger each time I heard one. Other tests too. Results were suspiciously conclusive. Nothing wrong with my hearing whatsoever.
Eli is in his early 20s, and he’s not doing much of anything with his life: “Instead of college, sank deep into my basement abyss.” He later describes himself as a “glorified townie without the glory. No rugged good looks or blue-collar gas-station-employee pride.” Class is one of Eli’s major hang-ups: though his parents’ divorce bumped his mother and, by proxy, him, down an income bracket or two, he is still comparatively wealthy, and thus doesn’t have to get a job, something he barely wants to consider. In a chapter titled “Money:” Eli sums it all up in two sentences and a bullet point: “Safe to say I wasn’t instilled with respect for the dollar. Let’s not play the blame game.”
If it’s possible to redefine the idea of the flâneur in the 21st century, Eli is probably the place to start. He wanders, sure, but he’s largely stationary. The world comes to him, through the eponymous flatscreens — computers, phones, televisions, etc. Much of the book, in bulleted list form, mimics the pace and the language of the Internet. In fact, Eli is a trustworthy observer and a good porous scout: he’s blank, ready to be inundated with modern life, and abstractly searching for something to stir up some kind of desire and kick-start his inertia. “I wanted everything to mean something. Or at least for something to mean something.”
The book is littered with pop-culture references, particularly to the movies: titles of films, in parentheses, that resemble a situation at hand, and in the final section, there’s a surprisingly affecting twist on movie tropes, in which Eli’s fantasies for getting his life together, or merely getting a life, spiral off in every direction. “Possible Ending #4 (Dark but Ultimately Life-Affirming Screwball Dramedy):…It’s possible I end up a schoolteacher for the mentally unhinged. When Kahn dies I cry fountains, realize how much I’ve learned, how much I still have to learn.”
The unemployed aren’t inherently slackers, as Leigh Stein (and I, in years past) well know. But employment doesn’t always turn a slacker into a productive member of society. Upamanyu Chatterjee’s protagonist, Agastya Sen, is a reluctant trainee with the IAS, the Indian Administrative Service, and he’s been stationed in backwater Madna, far from the megalopolises in which he’s been raised. In a way, his own disinterest and laziness offer up good metaphors for the byzantine bureaucracy of the IAS, but Agastya’s disinterest is willful, at times petulant. “He himself made no effort to know his new world; as it unfolded, it looked less interesting to him; and later, even to see how far he could extend his ignorance became an obscure and perverse challenge.”
Agastya, who is alternately known as Ogu, August, and English, a reference to the Anglo-Indians that is delicately explored, leaves his post after lunch and rarely returns, smoking a lot of weed (“Agastya, for the nth time in his life, was glad that he was stoned.”) and spending the intervening hours in the waffling of post-adolescent confusion:
He wondered at the immensity of the Indian Railways, millions of people travelling thousands of kilometres every day — why they did so baffled him. On less calm mornings, he would think about his situation and his job, why he wasn’t settling down, whether his sense of dislocation was only temporary, or whether it was a warning signal. But there was nothing specific that he wanted to do, no other job, and then with a smile he would retort, Yes, there was, design colour schemes for trains, be a domesticated male stray dog, or like Madan, even half-wish to be murdered.
Late in the book, even after he’s matured a little and begun to accept his responsibilities, Agastya still waffles. Visiting a leper colony, he thinks that he envies its founder, now renamed Baba Ramanna, “most of all for knowing, when he had been merely Shankaran Karanth, how to master his future.” Like Eli Schwartz, Agastya makes for a sympathetic protagonist because he’s so quietly apathetic, and also like Eli, his lack of convictions and essential blankness make him an ideal observer. Everyone else has chest-thumping opinions about India: his direct superior; the chief of police; his father, uncle, and friends from home; his new friends in Madna, including an outspoken cartoonist; and a couple — an Indian woman and an English man — who pass through town on a sort of pilgrimage. If the flâneur’s observations are meant for the urban street scene, I think the same principle can be applied in English, August, despite its rural setting: Agastya paints a rich portrait of the IAS, and of a country that only he seems to realize is impossible to describe, or pin down.
Both of these novels have been called “darkly comic.” The king of blurbs, Gary Shteyngart (who blurbed himself recently, saying, “Gary Shteyngart’s blurbs are touching, funny, and true. This is a blurber to watch.”), wrote of English, August that, “Comparing Upamanyu Chatterjee with any other comic novelist is like comparing a big fat cigar with a menthol cigarette.” Of Flatscreen, he said, “OMFG, I nearly up and died from laughter. This is the novel that every Young Turk will be reading on their way to a job they hate and are in fact too smart for.” They are both very funny books: Eli’s got a lot of great one-liners, and Agastya seems tuned into some perpetual joke, which he supplements with compulsive lying. In a way, the comedy is essential: an unfailingly serious book about a man who wants nothing and does very little would be pretty grim. And the humor helps Wilson and Chatterjee tackle generational concerns, because both Eli and Agastya seem convinced that their generations are the ones that will put an end to everything. “Was it true I’d missed the party?” Eli wonders. “This was it for us: reality TV, virtual reality, planes into buildings.” In the final pages of English, August, the cartoonist, Sathe, tells Agastya, “You see, no one, but no one, is remotely interested in your generation, August.”
What makes these boys, and these books, so likeable? They’re gentle, harmless, and fairly charming. They’re smart and funny and wasting their talents. They’re more than a little lost and fully aware of the fact. And in that way, they’re most of us, stripped of our responsibilities and wayward ambitions, if we even have any. They offer perfect reflecting surfaces for their respective times and places. In their lack of desires they show us what we want, as societies, and perhaps even as individuals. The reader might say, “This might be bad, but at least I want to leave my mother’s basement.”
Illustration by Dominick Rabrun.
New this week: Yannick Murphy’s latest novel The Call is out this week, as is Tom Scocca’s chronicle of expat life, Beijing Welcomes You (Both are written up in our big second-half preview). Also arriving is a new novel from Helen Schulman, This Beautiful Life, and Bed, the debut effort of David Whitehouse, which has already been a (minor) prizewinner in the UK, and which the publisher compares to A Confederacy of Dunces.
So, it’s the early hours of the morning and I’m fast asleep. I dream the following:I’m in an empty restaurant, deep in conversation with someone I’d never met before. Even in the dream, this person is meant to be a stranger – a Millions reader named Oliver. (I had recently watched a new BBC version of Oliver Twist, though the person in my dream was in no way urchinlike).He is relating to me the fascinating and sordid details of his life. After a pause, I proclaim to Oliver that I know what his “formative novel” would be: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. Though I’ve never actually heard the phrase “formative novel” before, I seemed to imply a novel whose spirit and tone most closely impacted the life that dream-Oliver would go on to lead. Not so much the plot of the novel, and not the author’s autobiography. I was apparently matching up the tone of the book with the tone of the reader’s subsequent life.I then went on to tell Oliver that my Millions colleague Garth’s “formative novel” would be David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. (I don’t know this to be true. I suspect that Garth’s passionate appreciation of David Foster Wallace planted the notion in my head several months ago. Nevertheless, dream-Garth’s “formative novel” was Infinite Jest).Oliver then asks me what my “formative novel” would be. I contemplate for a moment and then respond: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. This is a curious choice as I hadn’t read it until about five years ago, when I was already well into my 30s. Still, the accessibly off-kilter humor of the novel does seem a good fit. Had I read it at an impressionable age, I suspect that it would qualify as a close match for the tone of my subsequent adult personality.The dream then took an odd turn. I was lying on my back on the sidewalk, still in conversation with Oliver, as a pack of schoolchildren and their teacher hurdled over me, never once looking down or stepping on me.Oliver then morphed into Jack Lemmon, circa The Apartment, and I jolted awake, and reached for a notebook and pen.So: what would your “formative novel” be? This requires not just a reading of the novel, but a certain amount of self-awareness. Try to match the tone of the novel with the tone of your life or of your personality. I guess it doesn’t matter when you read it. It’s fine if you read it later in life and retroactively match it up with your life. And, Garth, feel free to set the record straight.
Book reviews are not the easiest things to write in the world. No, this is not an “oh, me, book blogging is so hard” piece. Though, judging from the New York Times Magazine’s cover story of Emily Gould last week, that may be appropriate, too. I digress.The books I read motivate me. If I am moved by one, I am compelled to write and talk about it, making sure I entice as many people as possible to check it out and share the experience. And, vice versa for books I dislike. It is tricky, however, to keep your audience interested without giving away the whole book.I became very self conscious about my book reviews during journalism school. (Hence, the lack of my verbose dispatches of old.) Picking the right words to describe a style, characters, the story flow and experience proved harder and harder. Escaping cliches, in other words, became more difficult. And that brings me to today’s theme. (This is called burying the lede in journalism.)Reading about some new releases last week, I noticed recurring themes and started to Google them. The results were entertaining – or, from a creativity point of view, dismal. My methodology is to pick a phrase and put it in quotes (e.g., “lively cast of characters”) and add the word “novel” next to it (as in: “lively cast of characters” novel).Here are some phrases and searches I found to be especially intriguing and entertaining:“captures the very essence of” novel: But of course, which novel doesn’t capture the essence of something or another? From James Bond to Jane Eyre and Fight Club, your quintessential book reviewer phrase.“an irresistible story” novel: Apply to any novel or biography. Preferably, use the phrase before the preposition “of” followed by a noun or description. Examples: an irresistible story of love, an irresistible story of two worlds, an irresistible story of justice.“lively cast of characters” novel: From the NYT to Amazon, blogs and publishers, this seems to be a phrase that all reviewers fall for at one point or another.“inner circle” memoir: Mostly for policy wonks, but applies to rock bands too.“washington insider” novel (or memoir): Same as above; applies to John Grisham novels too.”not your typical diet book”: Or is it? It appears that all your diet books are not your typical diet book.“master of suspense” novel: Too many chiefs, not enough warriors? Anyone?“emotionally charged novel”: Watch out, the next book might just “push you over the edge.” (And this is where I fall in the fold.)“timeless classic” novel: Classic or not, there is plenty of timelessness.“the quintessential novel”: Precedes descriptions like “the Lost Generation” (Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises), post-World War II New Orleans (John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces) and of the Jazz Age/about the American Dream (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby), among others.Another test you can run is breaking up and joining phrases:“most gifted storytellers” novel: Care to guess how many gifted storytellers there are?“most innovative storytellers” novel: And innovative ones?“most innovative and gifted storytellers” novel: But combine the two, and you get Dean Koontz, the only innovative and gifted storyteller.Yet, there is hope, dear Millions readers:“combustive movements”: Seems to apply only to Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution – which, by the way, is a great discourse on “turbulent politics.” (I succumb, once again.)“masterpiece in the art of fiction”: Or should we say art of magical realism? Presenting: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.Google away and enjoy the folly. And, by all means, please speak loudly when we “fall into the same trap” here at the Millions.
The New York Times whipped bloggers and readers into a frenzy with its linkbait list of the best books of the last 25 years along with A.O. Scott’s voluminous essay on the “great American novel.” The reasons why this list is silly and flawed have been discussed on a number of blogs – the panel of judges skewed male and boring, the timeframe and criteria are arbitrary, etc. What amused me about the list was that the Times made such a big production of it – with a panel at BEA, a press release, and, of course, Scott’s giant essay. It’s like the Times didn’t realize that such lists are standard filler at glossy magazines. Was the Times’ best fiction list all that different from People Magazine’s annual “Most Beautiful People” list? No, not really.The Austin American-Statesman was similarly bemused by the Times list and so it put together its own list using the Times list as fodder. It asked academics and critics to name the “most overrated” books on the Times list. The resulting comments from their judges are both thoughtful and funny. And for those of you scoring at home, the most overrated books on the Times list are A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.
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.)
It’s a balancing act. How do you express yourself within a rich tradition without resorting to cliche? The deeper you go into the tradition, into the familiar, the more blindingly original your own expression really needs to be.Take, for example, the songs of Will Oldham. A staggeringly good songwriter, his understated records resonate long after the songs end, leaving a kind of haunting humility in their wake. This is music at its freshest. And even when tapping into long-established styles of music, never do you feel that you’re listening to a musical cliche.I’ve been listening to a lot of Will Oldham lately, wishing that the same sense of freshness and subtlety had been adopted by the otherwise gifted author Wade Rubenstein in his novel Gullboy. I kept wishing that this comic novel simply had more confidence in its own inventiveness, and in its strong central story, often marred by shopworn supporting characters and cameo players straight out of central casting.At the heart of this story is a bit of magic realism. The conceit is this: Into the Coney Island lives of a good-hearted chef and his not-so-good-hearted stripper wife comes a baby on the doorstep, a child half human and half seagull. And you go along with this flight of fancy in part because the chain-of-events that led to this birth is quite cleverly set-up. Plus, this is a Coney Island it-takes-all-sorts/anything-can-happen carnival ride of a tale.And for much of the novel it works quite well, largely because the central relationship, the father/son bond, is warm and engaging. A them-against-the-world story.Well, the “them” part of this was fine. My big problem was with “the world”.The odd premise and its comical effects and possibilities should have been enough for Rubenstein who indeed writes with enormous energy. It’s a vibrantly told tale, full of bounce. All the more frustrating, then, to encounter supporting characters at virtually every turn who are caricatures. A blinded-by-money doctor, a blinded-by-power cop, shysters and hucksters everywhere you look, and drawn exactly the way they’ve been drawn in countless comic stories and on TV.Broadly drawn outrageous characters, themselves, aren’t even the problem. One of my all-time favorite comic novels is A Confederacy of Dunces, in which the central character is big, loud and outrageous, but he’s so off-the-charts original that he propels the story, rather than grinding it to a halt. It’s the difference, I suppose, between a comical character and a cartoon character.A couple of years ago, I read DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little. And while I enjoyed this comic novel tremendously, I found the depicted media circus a bit old. Not that media doesn’t deserve to be the subject of parody, but the joke, along with the one about the egotistical doctor and the parasitic lawyer have been told the same way so many times that, for me, they’ve completely lost their edge.So, then, is Gullboy good? Well, parts of it are great, and you certainly won’t get bored reading it. But you might become frustrated. Every time I felt that I’d settled into the inventive tale, the genuine comic invention would begin to be weighed down by some heavy-handed parody. Whether you think the author manages to walk the comedy tightrope depends, I suppose, on how much parody you can bear.For me, this high-concept, over-stuffed comic novel ultimately collapsed beneath the weight of its own brand of humor.
I suppose it’s what you do with luck that ultimately determines whether it was good or bad. The luck itself is kind of ephemeral, landing in your lap, ready to be spun and twisted into something more substantial. Ready to be given a direction.I was on an airplane recently – destination Norway via Frankfurt. I’d settled into my window seat, two books at the ready, pillow just so, contacts off, glasses on, and with less than five minutes before take-off there was no one, absolutely no one, sitting beside me. I couldn’t believe my luck. And then…And then, with sitcom timing, a harried and rather shell-shocked individual traveling back to the EU silently slumped into the empty seat, looked up, stared at me, and then opened a magazine. In due course our flight attendant, distinguished in a David Niven mustache, began the food service. And so it was with bemusement that I watched my seat-mate take uncertain steps to lower his dinner tray – a process he began by banging the seat in front of him with jarring forward jolts. I came to the rescue.I guess this primed me for the farce that followed. I was not entirely surprised when I saw my hapless friend struggling with his seat belt, completely mystified as to how to dislodge himself from this alien contraption. I happily walked him through the rocket science required to unclasp and separate the two parts. So it was a bit odd, then, when less than an hour later my companion tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to, well, to his seat belt area. He’d apparently neglected to take notes the first time and had once again become trapped.All of which might have bounced off me except that every twenty minutes or so I noticed his peering head swivel towards my window and then extend, ostrich-like, in front of me, past my nose and right to the window pane without a single word or acknowledgement of my presence. And when he returned to his magazine he would invariably extend his elbows left and right, jabbing me sharply in the ribs each time. Now I’m not the biggest guy in the world, but I do occupy a certain amount of space. I have mass. I don’t defy the principles of science. Were one to encounter me on a dark path, one wouldn’t simply pass through me. There would be a discernible thud.I left the plane bemoaning my fortune, but also contemplating how this fellow handles life in the real world, how he responds, and how much control he has over life’s little day-to-day torments. What if he were Norman Bray?Trevor Cole’s wonderful novel Norman Bray In The Performance Of His Life just happened to be one of the two books I brought with me to Europe, and was the one I was reading as I was being poked and prodded by my oblivious airplane friend. Norman is a middle-aged stage actor in Toronto, years past his prime and relegated to the occasional voice-over gig. On the surface he seems pompous and childlike, walking through life in a pleasantly deluded state – a kindred spirit to Ignatius J. Reilly. And while this novel doesn’t quite scale the same dizzying heights as A Confederacy Of Dunces, I found myself responding to the characters in a similar way – wanting to reach through the pages of the book and smack some sense into these guys, if only so they can begin to cope with their lot in life instead of just assuming with incomprehensible certainty that things would work out in the end. Of course then we wouldn’t have these two gloriously funny novels.Norman Bray’s problems, which he attributes to bad luck, are largely of his own doing, and the glimmer of hope at the end, which he would probably credit to his own tenacity, is in fact more a conflux of circumstances which, for once, he doesn’t sabotage. Sheer luck (which he would normally have obliviously squandered) is allowed to develop into good fortune.My airplane friend would at least have stood a fighting chance as Norman Bray, since Norman relies on circumstance to extricate him from the chaotic mess of his own creation. He’d have a harder time as Lorimer Black, the hero of Armadillo the second book that I brought with me, and my first foray into the extraordinary world of William Boyd. Thanks to my fellow writer Emre, I now have a new author to obsess over and to devour everything from.Like Norman Bray, Lorimer Black is bedevilled by circumstance, but in this case, through little fault of his own. Rather than being oblivious, Lorimer is remarkably self-aware. All the more troubling, then, to find him swept up by circumstance, his London routine twisted and tossed, and then thrown into a downward Kafka-esque spiral.But at least Lorimer – an insurance-adjuster with a mysterious past, juggling work, women and family – is aware, conscious of his juggling act, conscious of his identity, and conscious of the luck that eventually comes his way. He’s better suited to the task of accepting circumstance and turning it to his advantage.I didn’t see my airplane friend actually leave the plane. With any luck he managed it without incident. I can only hope that fortune shines on this guy and the people he’ll inevitably be around as he goes through life. They’ll all need it.
I started 2004 with Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn. It surprised me greatly as I had finished Tropic of Cancer only about a month prior and expected more of what I imagined to be crazy real life accounts – starvation, the artists’ world in 1930s Paris, heavy boozing, sex, sex, and more sex. There’s a glimpse of this, but instead of more scandalous stories, I found in Tropic of Capricorn Miller’s inspiration for Tropic of Cancer. In this heavy, philosophical work, Miller puts forth his disgust for New York and everything it represents, draws a great picture of Brooklyn during the 1920s, and shows the first signs of his status as a misfit. Tropic of Capricorn is greatly revealing as the source of Miller’s genius, and it is by no means the easy going, fun, weird read that Tropic of Cancer is.Next came two Turkish novels by Tuna Kiremitci, both of which moved me deeply. Both Git Kendini Cok Sevdirmeden and Bu Iste Bir Yanlizlik Var are pop culture page turners that also managed in depth character studies. Unfortunately, the novels are not available in English, hence I shall cut the description short.A Confederacy of Dunces was the second English language novel I read in 2005, and a mighty one at that. The genius of this novel is even quoted in the coolest movie of late, Sideways. It is rather unfortunate that John Kennedy Toole committed suicide and left us with only one piece, because after reading about the funny, and brilliantly lazy Ignatius, I am left to wonder what else Toole was capable of. Ignatius’ addiction to hot dogs, the costumes, the literary efforts, the complicated love affair, a disgruntled mother, and finally, the closing of the valves make for an amazing, laugh-out-loud read.
Believe it or not, Mrs. Millions reads circles around me, she just doesn’t feel compelled to maintain a blog about it (I know, crazy). But I was able to convince her to send along a note about the best book she read this year.A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole — Ignatius J. Reilly’s voluminous tweed trousers and accompanying ensemble are a spectacular introduction to an engaging, disgusting, provocative, hilarious, and amazing book about a ridiculous human. The density of prose and of Reilly’s hulking mass left me incredulous.Speaking of which, I got a real kick out of the Confederacy of Dunces reference in the movie Sideways.