I had the good fortune of writing, for a week this past year, at a place called the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland. On the trip, I wanted to read something Irish. I wandered around a bookstore in Dublin, paging through the possibilities, trying to predict the perfect book, which I would have with me on buses, at the residency, in pubs. I considered Samuel Beckett, William Trevor, and Colm Tóibín -- then saw Flann O'Brien. I chose his first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939). To begin describing this book, it seems I have to use the words metafiction and parody, words bound to elicit as much alienation as interest in prospective readers. If those terms don't appeal to you at all, you probably shouldn't try it. But if they do, or if you're not the type to rule books out on the basis of "what you are and are not interested in," you will have a reading experience almost impossible to define through comparison. I read the book under a tree in the Irish countryside, laughing out loud at rhyming couplets about the undying friendship of a pint. I read it in a pub in a seaside village, marveling at a climactic 20-page stretch in which fictional characters physically torture their creator (himself a fictional construct) in a tone of slapstick horror that suggests a Buster Keaton movie directed by Eli Roth. And as I sat under that tree and rain fell suddenly from what had just been a sunny sky, or when I'd had one too many beers and the words began to blur, I would realize that the book -- more than pyrotechnically crafted and darkly entertaining -- was making me sad, too: reminding me (even as it had been making me forget) that the writing life is a cruel and painful one. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
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.
Some of the chiefest pleasures in a lifetime of reading fiction are those moments when you stumble upon a gem of a book you somehow missed. This happens more often than we might care to admit because reading fiction is a lot like its distant cousin, the acquisition of knowledge: the more you do it, the less of it you seem to have done. There's no shame in this. Lacunae are inevitable for even the most voracious and catholic of readers. The consolation is that the deeper you go into your life and your reading, the more precious the long-overlooked gems become once you finally unearth them. All this came to mind recently when I picked up a novel I'd been meaning to read for many years, John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor. Reading the opening words was like touching a live wire: "In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke..." I was instantly transported to another time and place, as much by the music of Barth's language – fops, fools, flitch – as by his characters and story, which were at once fantastical, venal, ribald, preposterous, plausible and flat-out hilarious. Usually a slow reader, I galloped through the 755 pages, mystified by the criticism I'd heard over the years that Barth was a difficult and needlessly long-winded writer. Here was a masterly act of authorial ventriloquism, a vivid recreation of the cadences and vocabulary, the mind-set and mores (or lack thereof) of English colonists in America's mid-Atlantic region in the late 1600's, when tobacco was known as sot-weed and those who sold it were known as factors. One such man is Barth's protagonist, Ebenezer Cooke, a feckless London poet in love with his own virginity and virtue, a dewy-eyed innocent who is sent to the cut-throat Eastern Shore of Maryland to tend to his father's tobacco holdings and, in the bargain, write an epic poem about the place. Ebenezer describes himself as "a morsel for the wide world's lions." What a gorgeous set-up for a satire. It was only after finishing the novel that I went back and read Barth's foreword, which he wrote in 1987 for the release of a new, slightly shortened Anchor Books edition. From the foreword I learned that The Sot-Weed Factor was originally published in the summer of 1960, when Barth was just 30, exactly 50 years before I finally came to it. I also learned that the novel sprang from an actual satirical poem of the same title published in 1706 by an actual man named Ebenezer Cooke. Much more interesting, I learned that this was Barth's third novel, and he originally envisioned it as the final piece of a "nihilist trilogy." But the act of writing the novel taught the novelist something: "I came to understand that innocence, not nihilism, was my real theme, and had been all along, though I'd been too innocent myself to realize that fact." This realization led Barth to a far richer one: "I came better to appreciate what I have called the 'tragic view' of innocence: that it is, or can become, dangerous, even culpable; that where it is prolonged or artificially sustained, it becomes arrested development, potentially disastrous to the innocent himself and to bystanders innocent and otherwise; that what is to be valued, in nations as well as in individuals, is not innocence but wise experience." The dangers of innocence versus the value of wise experience. Here, surely, is a rich theme for any American novelist trying to capture the impulses and foibles and follies of a nation convinced of its own righteousness – in love with its own virtue and virginity, if you will – a nation that historically has had little use for history and therefore has spent several centuries blundering its way, usually uninvited and ill-informed, into the affairs of other nations, beginning with the settlements of native Americans and moving on to the Philippines, Mexico, Guatemala, Iran, Cuba, Chile, Vietnam, Cambodia and, now, Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps no other novelist has explored Barth's theme more surgically than Graham Greene did in The Quiet American. Published at that fateful moment in the mid-1950s when the French disaster in Indo-China was giving way to the blooming American nightmare in Vietnam, Greene's novel tells the story of a world-weary British war correspondent named Thomas Fowler who can't hide his loathing for all the noisy, idealistic Americans suddenly popping up in Saigon. He reserves special contempt for an American innocent named Alden Pyle, some sort of foreign-aid operative who shows up on Rue Catinat with a head full of half-baked theories and a heart full of good intentions. Fowler, despite himself, begins to feel protective toward Pyle. He muses, too late, that he should have known better: "Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm." And therefore, of course, causing all natures of harm to himself and to bystanders, innocent and otherwise. Alden Pyle is the title character of the novel, and a perfect title it is – because you can't get any more quiet than dead. While Greene set out to illuminate the dangers of innocence in The Quiet American, Barth chose to mine its comic potential in The Sot-Weed Factor. And so innocent Ebenezer gets captured by rapacious pirates (twice) and murderous Indians, swindled, stripped of his clothing and his name and his estate – only to wind up with his virtue, if not his virginity, intact. His epic poem even becomes a hit. It's one of the funniest, raunchiest, wisest books I've ever read. While I believe it's best to let fiction speak for itself, just as I doubt that an understanding of a writer's life sheds useful light on his work, I itched to know more about Ebenezer Cooke's creator and his methods. A little digging taught me that John Barth grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where much of the action in The Sot-Weed Factor takes place, and as a young man he switched from studying jazz at Julliard to studying journalism at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. It was there, while working in the library, that he discovered Don Quixote, Boccaccio's Decameron, Petronius's Satyricon and, most tellingly, One Thousand and One Nights. Barth became intrigued with the literary device known as the frame tale, in which a character in a story narrates the story. For Barth, then, the telling of the story is the story. This explains why he has called Scheherazade, the character who narrates One Thousand and One Nights, "my favorite navigation star." She, like every writer, will survive only as long as she keeps coming up with good stories. And Barth's musical background helps explain why he channeled Fielding, Sterne, Smollett, Cervantes, Rabelais, Voltaire and other masters of the picaresque novel to arrive at the narrative voice for The Sot-Weed Factor. "At heart I'm still an arranger," Barth once told an interviewer. "My chiefest literary pleasure is to take a received melody" – a classical myth, a Biblical scrap, a worn-out literary convention or style – "and, improvising like a jazz musician within its constraints, re-orchestrate it to present purpose." This got me thinking about my other belated fictional discoveries. A few stand out, including James Joyce's magisterial Ulysses, which I'd dipped into many times but never read wire to wire until a few years ago. (What was I thinking to wait so long?) Another was James Crumley's crime novel, The Last Good Kiss. I broke down and read it after I got tired of hearing fawning references to its immortal opening sentence – "When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon." For once, the fawners nailed it. And then there was Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, which was once, according to Richard Ford, a sort of "secret handshake" among its small but devoted band of acolytes. For better and for worse, the novel forfeited its cult status not long after I discovered it, when Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were horrifically miscast as the disgruntled suburbanites Frank and April Wheeler in the big-budget movie version of Yates's masterpiece. The movie, for all its many flaws, worked in concert with Blake Bailey's biography of Yates to bring his work to a far larger audience than he ever enjoyed in his 66 years of life. Even bad movies sometimes do good things for books. It's a pity Richard Yates wasn't around to enjoy his revival. And finally there was the curious case of Flann O'Brien, an Irish writer who, like Yates, was obscure in his lifetime and will soon receive the posthumous big-screen treatment. I first heard of Flann O'Brien (the pen name for Brian O'Nolan) when I read that Graham Greene had reacted to the humor of O'Brien's novel At Swim-Two-Birds with "the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage." That sounded promising. So did the discovery that Anthony Burgess, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce were also O’Brien fans. While browsing in my neighborhood bookstore soon after making those discoveries, I happened upon the handsome Everyman's Library collection of all five O'Brien novels. Books find us as often as we find them. I bought the volume and swallowed it whole, each short novel more hilariously disorienting than the last. "A very queer affair," as the author himself admitted of his life's fictional output. "Unbearably queer perhaps." Or perhaps not. In the forthcoming movie version of At Swim-Two-Birds, Colin Farrell has been cast as the unnamed hero, a dissolute young Irishman who is writing a novel about a man writing a novel full of characters who come to life when he's asleep (including one he conceived with one of his own female characters). Frustrated by their maker's iron authority, they set out to destroy him and win their freedom. On paper this might sound un-filmable, but I thought the same thing about William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch, and the director-writer David Cronenberg worked cinematic magic with it. We can only hope that Brendan Gleeson, the director of At Swim-Two-Birds, is a sharper interpreter of O'Brien's weird proto-postmodernism than Sam Mendes was of Richard Yates's blackly unblinking realism. In the end, these belated discoveries did what all good fiction does: they illuminated the world I live in, enriched its colors, deepened its music. None moreso than The Sot-Weed Factor, because in addition to its purely literary virtues it helped me see just how different today's world is from the world that greeted the novel 50 summers ago. Today Americans who write "serious" fiction face what the Dublin-born, New York-based novelist Colum McCann has called "the prospect of irrelevance." When John Barth was hitting his prime in the 1960s, "serious" American writers faced no such worries. (I place the word serious between quotation marks because no one seems to know quite what it means as a modifier of writer, unless it means someone who is after something above and beyond the most basic and necessary thing, which is, of course, money.) Among the discoveries during my brief background check on Barth was an essay by a man named John Guzlowski, who, as a grad student in the early 1970s, was drunk on then-current American fiction – not only the mainstream realism of Updike, Bellow and Roth, but all the untamed, unnamed new writing by the likes of Barth and Pynchon, John Hawkes and William Gaddis and Robert Coover, very different writers who eventually got lumped together under a vague and porous umbrella called Postmodernism. Guzlowski went on to teach at Eastern Illinois University, where he taught a course in Postmodern Fiction half a dozen times over the course of 20 years. "Every time I teach the class," Guzlowski writes in his essay, "there is just a little less interest in looking at Postmodern novels." He might as well have said serious novels or literary novels or novels that seek to do more than titillate or entertain. Those things, as Colum McCann knows, are becoming harder and harder to sell to American book buyers, and the people who write them are edging closer and closer to the brink of irrelevance, which is a gentle way of saying extinction. John Barth and John Guzlowski have reminded me that this wasn’t always the case. There was a time, not so very long ago, when serious – and funny, challenging, mind-bending – fiction was passionately read and discussed, a vibrant part of our national life. It was a time, in Updike's phrase, when "books were a common currency of an enlightened citizenry." Those days may be gone, and gone forever, but novels like The Sot-Weed Factor will always be with us. And as I was happily reminded this summer, it’s never too late to discover them.
It's time again for spring cleaning, as well as the more enjoyable spring reading. Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading is gearing up for Your Face This Spring, which will read the entire 1200 pages of Javier Marías's Your Face Tomorrow trilogy. And Big Other is orchestrating a group read of Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds. After you finish a closet, open a book--both start next week.
To write this installment of Modern Revue, I located and reread the copy of To the Lighthouse I had in college. The shock that the novel delivered to my booze-sodden collegiate nervous system is demonstrable. My copy looks like a creature, bristling with orange post-its. Obscure marginal notes abound, many of which are enormously insightful. My favorites include: "father castrates his lighthouse," "a sexual woman, all the children = all the sex," and "what will he put in her 'bag'?" There is a liberal sprinkling of "vagina" and "phallus," and one "oh dear," presumably the moment when I called for my smelling salts. The class, naturally, was Introduction to Literary Theory. I can remember writing a paper on this novel, and thinking myself into a hole (and a headache) trying to assert what Virginia Woolf's position was on Scimitars and Fountains, The Phallus and The Lighthouse and The Vagina. But I can also remember being astonished by the novel's beauty, which astonishes me still. It is perplexing and crowded with saucy imagery, but it is full of true things. I wonder if there is a book more packed with truth, one that carries as much weight per word. I know there is no other book that caused me so fervently to say "There it is!" and mean, "You know, like, life." It surprises me that I do like this book so much. I am very sensitive to experimental narratives. There are, of course, a vast number of exceptions to this prejudice. Usually, though, if I pick up a book and the story runs away from me, I feel intensely irritated and pained. The Sound and the Fury? Agony. At Swim-Two-Birds? Agony. Brief Interviews With Hideous Men? What the fuck. To the Lighthouse walks a remarkable line, I think, forging ahead with art, but preserving clarity, and my sanity. There are a lot of characters. And there are confusing moments, especially if you are reading too fast. I had to return to the parenthetical deaths to make sure I had read correctly. But that was an amazing device; the deaths, parenthetical as they are, feel so unreal and so shocking, and then so real and so sad, much like they do in life. And before you know it, the story continues and the dead are gone, also like life. I shudder to say this, but this is a book that meant a lot to me as a woman. I liked Edan's description of the "mom book." I think her "mom book," is something I usually think of as the "lady book." Lady books are different than "chick lit" - they don't have shoes or poodles on the cover. They are also different from books that are by women, which can be any kind of book at all. Lady books feature heavy feelings with a chance of magic and sparkles, and, like Edan said, little irony. They also have no jokes whatsoever. The once and future queen of the lady books is, in my opinion, Alice Hoffman. After a high school love affair with these books, I largely renounced them. For one, many lady books sound like many other lady books. I'm not sure how to describe it, but they all have exactly the same cadence, and it's creepy. For another, I feel enough of life is dictated by one's parts that one's books needn't be. As a result of this renunciation, I hesitate to admit that I like a book for a reason directly pertaining to my sex. So many books are marketed to me as my kind of book, because they have sea anemones and clasped hands on the front. And I hate it, so it makes me wary of saying "I, possessed of a certain chromosome pairing, feel this work is important," when I do find a book that makes me feel that way. And To the Lighthouse is that kind of book, and it's a shame that I feel icky saying it. I see the novel, to some extent, as documenting an evolutionary stage in womanity (and thus, humanity). Mrs. Ramsay - beautiful, mother of eight - dies and goes, while Lily Briscoe, unmarried and "puckered," lives and stays, and finally gets to finish her damn painting. That's the story. Woolf doesn't create such a hammy, obvious dichotomy as I've done; Lily and Mrs. Ramsay (and Cam, and Prue, and Minta, and Mrs. McNab) share between them a hundred facets of the "feminine experience." That's not to say that all women must love the novel or agree with me about the feminine experience, or that men are peripheral to the novel, and that they can't "understand" why it's great (not to say either, of course, that all men are the same). That's nonsense. But it amazes me how true some of the passages feel to me personally eighty years later. I've felt so many of the things described in the book, particularly the ones that are ascribed to the female characters. I have had those "infidel ideas," imagining A life different form hers; in Paris, perhaps; a wilder life; not always taking care of some man or other; for there was in all their minds a mute questioning of deference and chivalry, of the Bank of England and the Indian Empire, or ringed fingers and lace, though to them all there was something in this of the essence of beauty, which called out the manliness in their girlish hearts, and made them, as they sat at table beneath their mother's eyes, honour her strange severity, her extreme courtesy... But I have also felt the "code": ...It behooves the woman, whatever her own occupation may be, to go to the help of the young man opposite so that he may expose and relieve the thigh bones, the ribs, of his vanity, of his urgent desire to assert himself; as indeed it is their duty, she reflected, in her old maidenly fairness, to help us, suppose the Tube were to burst into flames... Unlike the lady book, this isn't a book for women. It is a book that describes certain elements of women's lives and collective history. It's a book that should make any person think about gender and society and life and what it's like and how Woolf's vision does or does not pertain to him or her. The "code" is a two-way street after all. I'm sure there's a man out there who doesn't much feel like giving up his seat on the raft. One still encounters the Mr. Ramsay-esque artesian well of masculine need. There are still wicked, winsome Cams who grow into sullen teenagers with daddy issues. People still die in wars and childbirth and suddenly in the night. Life is still complicated and silly, for men and women alike. When I finished To the Lighthouse this time, I wished so much that Virginia Woolf was around to do the hard work for us again, that she was here to use her painful sensitivity to to the world and to take the world and set it down so we could say "There it is!" (again). But I should just be grateful that she lived to do it the first time, and that she did it so well then.