In November of last year I was invited to speak at a symposium on the work of Don DeLillo. I chose the title for my talk — “Don DeLillo and the Sentence” — without really thinking too much about it. It was only after I’d fired off this title to the conference organisers that it occurred to me to wonder why it had suggested itself so readily And I realised that for me — and perhaps for a plurality of DeLillo’s readers–this is what DeLillo’s work chiefly means. For many of us, to read fiction of Don DeLillo is primarily to encounter a series of extraordinary sentences.
At various points in my life I’ve taken apart DeLillo’s sentences, to see how they worked. I’ve tried to write sentences like them. I even went so far as to publish a short story, ten years ago, that amounted to a pastiche of the DeLillo manner. This story featured a glazed and helplessly ironic narrator recounting events in what I then took to be a coolly postmodern style. (The subject-matter of the story was not, I should say, especially DeLilloesque: it was about a group of college students on a sex-and-drugs holiday in Majorca.) That story now languishes in deserved obscurity. I mention it now because it illustrates something essential about my own relationship, as a reader, to DeLillo’s work. He is, for me, one of the reigning monarchs of the sentence.
As I drafted my talk. I decided to perform an experiment: I wrote down as many Don DeLillo sentences as I could remember without looking them up. There were quite a few:
Fame requires every kind of excess. I mean true fame, a devouring neon, not the sombre renown of waning statesmen or chinless kings. – Great Jones Street
Weapons have become godless since then. – Running Dog
It is all falling indelibly into the past. – Underworld
They got him for his speed. – End Zone
Tides of ash-light broke across the spires. – Great Jones Street
For a long time I stayed away from the Acropolis. It daunted me, that sombre rock. – The Names
He mastered the teeming details of bird anatomy.” – Cosmopolis
That I could remember these sentences wholesale isn’t just a testament to my superhuman powers of recall (though it is also that). I know, from speaking to other DeLillo readers about his work, that they, too, have their personal anthologies — the DeLillo sentences that still loiter in the memory, long after the books have been closed. Looking at my own list of DeLillo sentences, I was struck by how few of them were gnomic epigrams. Epigrams, of course, are designed to be memorable: the epigrammatic writer, from La Rochefoucauld to Oscar Wilde, is the quotable writer, and DeLillo has always been a diligent epigrammatist. From The Names: “What ambiguity there is in exalted things. We despise them a little.” From Amazons, the novel DeLillo published in 1980 under the pseudonym Cleo Birdwell: “If a man’s name sounds right whether you say it forwards or backwards, it means he went to Yale.” There’s no knack to recalling epigrams; they are designed to be recalled. So, I remembered “Weapons have become godless since then” from Running Dog — firmly in the epigrammatic mode — but I also remembered an apparently trivial sentence from Cosmopolis: “He mastered the teeming details of bird anatomy.” The reason I remembered this sentence – the reason I find so many of DeLillo’s sentences memorable – is, I think, because it appeals to what T.S. Eliot called “the auditory imagination” in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933) :
What I call the ‘auditory imagination’ is the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back, seeking the beginning and the end. It works through meanings, certainly, or not without meanings in the ordinary sense, and fuses the old and obliterated and the trite, the current, and the new and surprising, the most ancient and the most civilised mentality.
“He mastered the teeming details of bird anatomy.” What’s memorable about this sentence is its deployment of assonance: the way the ee in details picks up the ee in teeming, seeming audibly to multiply those myriad details – the sentence is elongated by those long, rhyming ees; but this elongation is bracketed by two sharp As: mastered and anatomy. Aurally speaking, this sentence is choreographed to perfection; and visually, it is perfectly balanced: the act of mastery, and the crisp mention of the thing mastered, contained between them those unruly “teeming details,” so that the sentence itself enacts Eric Packer’s mastery – and enacts, also, his larger mastery, of the mysteries of global finance.
You can do this sort of thing with any number of DeLillo sentences. Look at the opening lines of The Names: “For a long time I stayed away from the Acropolis. It daunted me, that sombre rock.” I could note the Proustian echo in that “For a long time”; I could note the heavy, ponderous assonance of “daunted,” “sombre,” and “rock” that aurally mimic the physical presence of the Acropolis. These sentences are memorable because they have been engineered with precision: they are elevated into the range of the epigrammatic because they are densely packed with extractable ore, and designed to awake a response in the auditory imagination by penetrating, as Eliot puts it, “far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling.” To read DeLillo at the level of the sentence – as I have done and continue to do – is to encounter a level of linguistic sophistication we rightly call poetic. Rereading Great Jones Street while I was writing this paper, I was struck afresh at how purely original DeLillo’s sentences are. Like Melville – like Bellow – like surprisingly few writers, even those generally accounted “great” – DeLillo has fashioned a prose idiolect of quite striking sophistication and range. His sentences are works of art in themselves; they reward close study; they give enormous aesthetic pleasure.
I am not, of course, the first person to observe that Don DeLillo writes great sentences. Even James Wood, in his sceptical review of Underworld (published in The New Republic in 1997) describes DeLillo’s prose as “richly exact.” And Wood, in fact, is sceptical of DeLillo’s work, in part, precisely because of what he sees as its focus on smaller units of fictional composition – the sentence, the setpiece, the purple patch. For Wood, Underworld – and DeLillo’s work in general – amounts to “a collection of lavish fragments, set down in a maze.” And Wood, I think, awakens us to a curious risk inherent in admiring DeLillo chiefly for his sentences. In a fascinating essay, “Half-Against Flaubert,” originally published in The New Republic in 1999, Wood presents a case against the kind of sentence-fetishism inaugurated, as Wood sees it, by Flaubert. Prose that lavishes attention on each of its sentences enforces, for Wood, “the tyranny of the detail,” and gives rise to a prose “broken into units of hard sensation, and merely swiping at life.” And I think there is an aesthetic risk that comes with valuing a writer chiefly for his sentences – the way I value Don DeLillo. Works of literature are, of course, made up of sentences – there isn’t anything else – but there are other units of composition, from the paragraph to the chapter to the form of the novel itself; and the valuing of sentences tout court can, I think, very easily confine us within a rather claustrophobic, New-Criticism-type box – can leave us blind to other spheres of aesthetic and ethical experience. In other words, there are risks as well as pleasures, in responding to an author in this way (as merely a purveyor of marvellous sentences).
This is precisely the theme of a short story by Jonathan Lethem, first published in The New Yorker in December 2007. In “The King of Sentences,” the narrator and his girlfriend, Clea, are aspiring writers who work in bookstores (as the narrator puts it: “We worked in bookstores, the only thing to do.”) Clea and the narrator are sentence-fetishists in embryo:
This was the time when all we could talk about was sentences, sentences—nothing else stirred us…Punctuation! We knew it was holy. Every sentence we cherished was sturdy and Biblical in its form, carved somehow by hand-dragged implement or slapped onto sheets by an inky key. For sentences were sculptural, were we the only ones who understood?
They central joke of the story is that Clea and the narrator persist in understanding sentences in terms that go beyond the aesthetic – to the political, the ethical, and even the sexual:
A good brave sentence (“I can hardly bear your heel at my nape without roaring”) might jolly Clea to instant climax. We’d rise from the bed giggling, clutching for glasses of cold water that sat in pools of their own sweat on bedside tables. The sentences had liberated our higher orgasms, nothing to sneeze at. Similarly, we were also sure that sentences of the right quality could end this hideous endless war, if only certain standards were adopted at the higher levels. They never would be. All the media trumpeted the Administration’s lousy grammar.
There are a lot of sly things going on in this passage – I pause to note the hidden joke about Roland Barthes’s concept of jouissance (reduced, here, to its most absurd essence: a sentence that literally makes you come). We might also note that this story about sentence-fetishism is itself composed of sentences that are frequently bathetic, or anticlimactic – a nice irony. “The sentences had liberated our higher orgasms, nothing to sneeze at” – this sentence, fairly typically, scales rhetorical heights before collapsing into cliché. The central joke, of course, is the idea that scrupulous attention to sentences can carry profound political and ethical consequences – a fine parody of one of the unspoken ideas animating the work of I.A. Richards and the New Critics, but also, of course, a joke about idealistic young aspiring writers, who value literature – and literary sentences – so intensely that they are gripped with missionary zeal. At this level, “The King of Sentences” is a satire on the blindness of a certain way of reading – a way of reading that is passionate, incoherent, fetishistic, and focused almost exclusively on the sentence. And I recognise this as one of my own ways of reading – more specifically, I recognise it as one of the ways in which I read Don DeLillo.
Idealistic young writers are, of course, prone to the exaltation of their chosen writers above all others, and this is very much the case with Clea and her boyfriend. They worship one writer and one writer only: the man known as the King of Sentences.
Others might hail kings of beer or burgers—we bowed to the King of Sentences. There was just one…The King of Sentences gave no interviews, taught nowhere, condescended to appear at no panels or symposia. His tastes, hobbies, and heartbreaks were unknown, and we extrapolated them from his books at our peril. His digital footprint was pale: people like that didn’t care about people like him…In the same loft where we entangled, Clea and I drove ourselves mad reading the King of Sentences’ books aloud, by candlelight, when we ought to have been sleeping. We’d tear the book from each other’s hands for the pleasure of running his words like gerbils in the habitrails of our own mouths.
There are a couple of obvious models for the figure of the King of Sentences. He might be Pynchon. He might be Salinger. But I don’t think so. There are a few clues that lead me to believe that, a few biographical and bibliographical details aside, the King of Sentences is Don DeLillo. We know, of course, that Lethem admires DeLillo – that as a younger writer, he learned to write in part by imitating DeLillo’s sentences. Lethem’s third novel, As She Climbed Across the Table (1997), is, in fact, a carefully-wrought DeLillo pastiche. And from what we learn about the King of Sentences, he bears a striking resemblance to DeLillo – particularly to the elusive, publicity-shy figure DeLillo cut in the decades before Underworld was published. Here are some clues. Clea and the narrator discuss the various editions of the King’s books that they have collected:
We owned his titles in immaculate firsts and tattered reading copies and odd variant editions. It thrilled us to see the pedestrian jacket copy and salacious cover art on his early mass-market paperbacks: to think that he’d once been considered fodder for dime-store carrousels!
There are indeed some early mass-market paperbacks of DeLillo’s books (Running Dog, End Zone, even Ratner’s Star) that display “salacious cover art” – the mass-market paperback edition of Amazons, from 1981, shows a woman naked from the waist down, attired (left foot) in a hockey boot and (right foot) a slingback shoe. Lethem, an avowed collector of mass-market paperbacks, would know these editions well. There is also Clea’s name, which may or may not allude to the pseudonym DeLillo chose when he wrote Amazons – Cleo Birdwell.
Of course, whether or not the King of Sentences is DeLillo is only tangentially important. DeLillo’s presence hovers behind Lethem’s text because, I think, DeLillo is so famously and distinctively a writer who appeals to sentence-lovers, with all their blindnesses, hubristic ideals, and narrow-minded cerebrations. What’s centrally important is Lethem’s sophisticated assault on the pieties and pretensions of his sentence-fetishist protagonists. At length, overwhelmed by their obsession, the narrator and Clea track the King of Sentences down to Hastings-on-Hudson, a small town in Westchester in Upstate New York (which is, according to a profile published in the Daily Telegraph in 2003, more or less where the real Don DeLillo keeps a home). They stake out the King’s Post Office box – and, just as expected, the King himself arrives. Their conversation, naturally, is disappointing:
“Let me be clear. I have nothing for you.”
“Take us home.”
“Not on your life.”
“We came all this way.”
He shrugged. “When’s the next train back?”
The sentences that emerged from his mouth were flayed, generic, like lines from black-and-white movies. I tried not to be disappointed in this stylistic turn. He had something to teach us, always.
Nonetheless, the King does deliver the occasional extremely DeLillo-like line of dialogue (“I eat only what my housekeeper prepares. A disproportion of sodium could murder me at this point.”) Eventually, the narrator and Clea follow the King of Sentences back to a room in the local hotel, where, in a budget room, he asks them to strip:
We stripped, racing to be the first bared to his view. I’d lose the race either way, for Clea had rigged the game: she had written a sentence on her stomach in blue marker. The sorcerer lately couldn’t recall whether he was a capable sleeper or an insomniac. Brilliant, I thought bitterly. The King stared. I saw Clea’s pubic hair through the eyes of the King. Clea’s bush was full and crazy. I thought, I will never see it again without seeing the pubic hair at which the King of Sentences once glanced. The King said, “Insomniac, I believe.”
Once the two are naked, the King of Sentences shreds their clothes, in “a weary frenzy of destruction,” and walks out the door. As he leaves, he says: “That’s all, you ask? Yes, that’s all. That’s more than enough.” And in the story’s final sentences, the narrator remarks that now he understands “just what it takes to be King. How much, in the end, it actually costs.”
This is, I think, a brilliantly dark and amusing fable about the risks inherent in making grandiose aesthetic, ethical, and political claims about what are, after all, only sentences. (It is also, I think, a riff on Henry James’s famous line, from “The Middle Years”: “We work in the dark, we give what we have…The rest is the madness of art.”) Significantly, we never get to read a single sentence written by the King of Sentences; we meet him only as a bland avatar of white American masculinity – with an accompanying sexual rapacity, or interest in crude sexual power, that we might see as typical of a certain generation of white male American novelists (though not, I should think, of Don DeLillo). Lethem’s interest is in exposing his young literary idealists to the enigmatic textures of the real – the real, in this case, being that which goes beyond mere sentences, into realms of ethical experience that they have only begun to explore.
For me, “The King of Sentences” is a warning about a certain narrowly passionate way of reading. No matter how marvellous the sentences, Lethem reminds us, we should be careful to see beyond them. We should look at what a sentence points towards, as well as at what it does. It is, I think, the kind of lesson that DeLillo’s work itself repeatedly teaches – or would teach us, once we begin to look beyond those carefully engineered, verbally rich, instantly unforgettable sentences.
“Isolation, solitude, secret planning,” Don DeLillo once prescribed. “A novel is a secret that a writer may keep for years before he lets it out of his room.” DeLillo’s description of his plot for Great Jones Street strikes a similar note: “a man in a small room, a man who has shut himself away, and this is something that happens in my work — the man hiding from acts of violence or planning acts of violence, or the individual reduced to silence by the forces around him.” Mao II, Libra, even DeLillo’s misunderstood football novel, End Zone, include characters who have receded from the world to be reborn.
Some might call that paranoia. When the public world fails to reveal its meanings to us, we retreat into our private rooms, our private minds, where there are infinite schemas and explanations. We are the only skeptics of our own souls. A secret is only as good as its ability to be exclusive, and yet a conspiracy theory is only as good as its ability to be inclusive. Whereas his contemporary Thomas Pynchon might share these sentiments, Pynchon has chosen to be a jester, while DeLillo has a deadly serious endgame.
Years ago, a Jesuit told me that he had the same journalism professor as DeLillo when he studied at Fordham. The professor showed the Jesuit one of DeLillo’s term papers. I never asked about the paper’s content or style; it felt like I had been given a slice of a secret, and that was enough. It turned out to have been an open secret: the professor, Edward A. Walsh, had kept the paper to show budding writers. Yet the tension of a secret that somehow can also be easily found captures the DeLillo mystique. He writes but he does not teach. He gives interviews, but they are clipped and often vague. He lives in the city but seems to somehow live outside of it. He is not hiding, but he is certainly not trying to be found.
Zero K, DeLillo’s newest novel, is like one of those open secrets. To say that it is not groundbreaking would be to misread the purpose and progression of his canon. The major constellations of DeLillo’s work are White Noise and Underworld; the former for its ability to capture his culture’s paranoid moment, and the latter for a son of the Bronx to finally, and fully, examine the place of his birth and youth. Zero K is an extension of DeLillo’s developing themes, but it places a darker color upon them.
Billionaire Ross Lockhart, his second wife, Artis, and his son Jeff are the three central characters of the novel. Ross says “everybody wants to own the end of the world.” It soon becomes clear that he means the end of our own world, but for a man like Ross, the end of the self is the end of the universe. Artis, much younger than Ross, is terminally ill. Ross has been financing a mysterious project that includes “cryonic suspension,” something he admits is not a new idea, but one “that is now approaching full realization.” The project is called The Convergence.
Reading DeLillo without understanding the themes and concerns of a Jesuit education is like walking onto a basketball court thinking you can run the ball without dribbling. DeLillo joked that he slept through Cardinal Hayes High School, and that the Fordham Jesuits taught him how to be a “failed ascetic.” This is exactly the type of thing an Italian-American from the Bronx would say (I would know). One of DeLillo’s running influences has been Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, whose concept of the Omega Point posits that the universe is evolving toward an ultimate convergence of systems, a perfect consciousness. DeLillo examined the concept in End Zone through the obsessions of narrator Gary Harkness. As Stephen J. Burn notes, DeLillo returned to Teilhard’s writings for Ratner’s Star, and even considered titling four other novels Point Omega (the inversion means the same) — Mao II, Underworld, The Body Artist and Cosmopolis — before using the title for his short 2010 novel.
This is not to say that Zero K is a Jesuit or Catholic book. Zero K might be DeLillo’s most agnostic novel, a work that takes Teilhard’s superstructure and strips it of God and Christ and other signifiers. If anyone portends to be God in Zero K, it is Ross, or the mysterious Stenmark Twins, whose philosophies about war, death, and the afterlife put flesh on the skeleton of the Convergence.
If Ross needs men like the Stenmark Twins to offer a narrative to his cryonic project, he needs his son to bear witness. Jeff soon realizes that Ross wants him to be there with him when Artis dies. It is a strange tinge of vulnerability for a man who left Jeff and his mother when Jeff was 13: “I was doing my trigonometry homework when he told me.” Jeff has never quite forgiven him, but is able to keep both his mother, Madeline, and Artis in high esteem.
The facility is full of screens that lower from the ceiling and play silent images of destruction and suffering. This is another of DeLillo’s trends: the screen as projection for the man in his small room. Players opens with a screen: the showing of an on-flight film, which includes golfers attacked by terrorists. A 24-hour gallery repeat of Psycho opens Point Omega. Then there is the metaphorical screen of End Zone, the canvas blinds that are wrapped around the Logos College practice field so that Coach Creed can hide his players.
The desert facility is otherwise described in spare terms, which does make for a rather slow first half to the novel. Patient readers are rewarded when DeLillo develops the dynamic between father and son, which is surprisingly refined by Jeff’s relationship with Artis. She seems unafraid of her unknown future, and that unsettles Jeff. An archeologist, she thinks of finding her own self at her reawakening. Artis, in a true way, needs the Convergence to give her a second chance. Others opt for Zero K, a “special unit” of the facility” that is “predicated on the subject’s willingness to make a certain kind of transition to the next level.”
The same method that slowed the first half of the book gives a surreal quality to its second half. As Jeff describes it, the Convergence facility exists outside of time, “time compressed, time drawn tight, overlapping time, dayless, nightless, many doors, no windows.” I have always thought DeLillo is at his most masterful when he starts changing our atmosphere, when he puts us in the “dense environmental texture” of the supermarket in White Noise. It usually happens halfway through is novels, and Zero K is no exception. At the midway point we realize that Ross has a deeper plan for the Convergence and his son, and its drama pushes the book toward its conclusion. Sadness might seem too sincere an emotion to ascribe to a novel written by a postmodernist, but Zero K pushes its readers to feel. It is almost impossible to not. With its confluence of screens, strange artwork, empty rooms, long hallways, and shaved hands of those soon to be frozen, Zero K creates an experiment, and we, its subjects, feel pulled to interact.
A man in a small room, obsessed with the present and yet somehow existing outside the scope of time: this is DeLillo’s concern. “Isolation is not a drawback to those who understand that isolation is the point,” one character says in Zero K. DeLillo’s new novel, particularly its end, is a slight pivot for the novelist. Yet when a writer is able to capture so many of our anxieties on his pages, a pivot can be profound.
Detroit may not be cranking out the fire-breathing cars or the finger-popping Motown hits the way it used to, but the Motor City has been inspiring some splendid writing in recent years. The latest addition to this long and growing shelf is Matt Bell’s stirring second novel, Scrapper, a book that gets its hands dirty wrestling with the wreckage — both material and human — of a once-mighty city.
Kelly is the novel’s titular scrapper, a loner who cruises the city’s abandoned heart, known as the zone, looking for metal he can salvage and sell. It’s lonely, dangerous, back-breaking, and marginally criminal work, but Kelly does it without complaint. He isn’t living any sort of real life, just “wallowing in the aftermath of terrible error.” Even so, he proves to be a savvy guide to the city’s underground economy, the contours of its decline. He knows, for instance, that the decline began long ago, as in, “Nearly two million citizens in 1950 but then fewer every year.”
He knows about emptiness: “The farther he moved toward the center of the zone the more the neighborhoods sagged, all the wood falling off of brick, most every house uninhabited, the stores a couple thousand square feet of blank shelves, windows barred against the stealing of the nothing there.”
He knows about the relative value of scrap: “A hundred pounds of copper pipe paid more than double a truckload of steel.” And he understands the gradations of the city’s scrap yards, from legitimate to flagrantly illegal: “The unofficial yards kept unofficial hours. You could show up in the middle of the day and find the place deserted, show up at midnight and find three guys playing cards, getting high, cutting scrap. They paid a fraction of the price, the price of no questions asked.”
Such details are important because they ground the novel in a very real and very sinister world. Reading Scrapper, you don’t so much enter a conventional fictional world as you succumb to a fugue state, or a fever dream. Bell is a brave writer, willing to work without a safety net on a high wire of his own making. He stumbles from time to time, but that doesn’t diminish this novel’s admirable ambition.
The story gains steam when Kelly meets a girl at a bar and they begin a relationship. An emergency dispatcher, she knows cars and she loves the local hockey team, the Red Wings, which is to say she’s a true Detroit girl. In time Kelly learns that she’s suffering from an unnamed progressive disease that has the markings of multiple sclerosis, which will provide a test for his love and his mettle.
The story finally soars when Kelly makes a horrifying discovery: a naked 12-year-old boy chained to a bed in the sound-proofed basement of an abandoned house. He frees the boy, takes him to the hospital, and watches his own simple life mushroom with complications, including the suspicion that he was involved in the boy’s abduction, and his mission to seek vengeance against the abductor. These complications lead to a nearly schizophrenic split in Kelly’s personality, between the rapacious scrapper and the high-minded “salvor.”
There are stumbles, as I say. Sections narrated in the second person by the kidnapper feel contrived. A sudden shift to first-person narration by Kelly is jarring. Two sections — one set in Cuba, the other in the Ukraine — add nothing to the story. In the former, a terrorism suspect talks like a Don DeLillo character on a bad Cosmopolis day: “In your country, if I had shot a man in my youth, could my crime be almost an accident, an inevitability, an unavoidable outcome of a system?…A crime, yes, but the crime of having been younger, less educated, less patient. There would be those who would protest my harsh treatment.” No one talks like that, and I have no idea why this man is in the novel.
But such missteps are minor compared to this novel’s larger virtues. Kelly was a state champ wrestler in high school, under the tutelage of a demanding, abusive father, and now he takes up boxing. This leads to a bravura boxing match, during which Kelly absorbs a vicious beating and Matt Bell proves he can write like a dream, can make boxing a metaphor for a way to live life:
How to protect yourself from the blow you can’t see coming. This was what the other boxers talked about…(b)ecause it was the blow you couldn’t see coming that knocked you out. If you stared into every punch you could never be put down. The illusion of control. Self-determination in battle. Kelly didn’t believe in anything else he’d once believed in but he thought he might believe in this.
For such insights, Bell acknowledges his debt to On Boxing by Joyce Carol Oates.
Maybe the finest thing about Scrapper is the way in takes us into a deep-pore underworld that’s rarely explored in even the best books about Detroit. Paul Clemens has written beautiful and sad stories about the decline of blue-collar Detroit, but Scrapper is something new, a book by a writer willing to explore worlds so dark you need a miner’s helmet to navigate your way.
The novel’s publication coincides with the appearance of a wonderful new non-fiction book by David Maraniss, a Detroit native, prolific author, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. His Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story offers a vivid snapshot of the moment when Detroit reached its peak, from late 1962 to early 1964. Meanwhile, Dominique Morisseau continues to write wrenching plays set in Detroit’s glorious and turbulent past. There have recently been insightful books on Detroit by Anna Clark, Mark Binelli, Charlie LeDuff, Scott Martelle, John Gallagher, and others. And Angela Flournoy’s terrific debut novel, The Turner House, the story of a sprawling Detroit family’s crumbling home place, has just been long-listed for the National Book Award.
With Scrapper, Matt Bell has joined some fast — and fast-growing — company.
Two debut novels – one freshly published, the other on its way to becoming a classic – have reminded me that for the past century American writers and artists have been obsessed with that shimmering, sexy, liberating, lethal contraption known as the automobile. Small wonder. Is there a more potent metaphor for American restlessness, for the American hunger for status and sex, for the American tendency to wind up, broken and bloody, in a ditch?
In a thesis written in 2007, a doctoral candidate named Shelby Smoak neatly summed up the role of the automobile in American fiction as a way for characters to experience “violence, sacredness and consumption.” Reversing this order, cars give writers and artists a way to talk about that unholy troika: status, escape (including sexual escapades), and death. In the bargain, the automobile, which introduced the concept of planned obsolescence back in the 1930s, is the shiny embodiment of American capitalism’s relentless quest to make consumers hunger for the next new thing, whether they need it or not.
The first of the two debut novels that brought all this home to me is Lot Boy by Buffalo native Greg Shemkovitz, just published by Sunnyoutside Press. It’s the story of Eddie Lanning, a twentysomething fuckup in Buffalo who works as the titular lot boy, performer of the lowliest tasks at the Ford dealership founded by his late grandfather and now run by his father, who’s dying of cancer. All Eddie wants to do is hook back up with his former girlfriend and get the hell out of Buffalo. To finance his escape, Eddie’s working a scam selling hot auto parts from the dealership, which inspires this rosy portrait of the local scenery:
To get here, you have to go through a shitty part of South Buffalo to get to an even shittier section, until you cross a bridge into the wetlands and fields and eventually hit the rundown industrial lakeshore. Seeing all this decay and frozen debris pass by my windows, I realize that the only reason anyone would come here is to sell stolen auto parts to somebody who would only come here to buy them.
Among its many virtues, this novel offers a peek behind the curtain of a world few people have experienced – the claustrophobic, corrupt, filthy, noisy, inefficient and mind-numbingly banal world of a Big Three car dealership. Reading Lot Boy, you’ll find yourself rooting for Eddie’s escape, while coming to understand why the American automobile industry went so far down the toilet that the U.S. taxpayer had to reach in and pull it out. Here’s the terse but uplifting author note at the end of this winning novel: “Greg Shemkovitz left Buffalo.”
Theodore Weesner, who died on June 25 at age 79, published his debut novel in 1972 to foam-at-the-mouth critical praise but modest sales. The Car Thief is the sometimes brutal, sometimes tender story of a troubled teenage boy named Alex Housman whose biography has much in common with Weesner’s. Alex’s hard-drinking mother abandoned him in infancy, and after spending some time in foster care he’s now growing up in a Michigan factory town, living with his alcoholic father, an autoworker. To give his “uncounted” life some account, Alex steals cars and takes them on aimless drives before abandoning them and stealing again. It’s the only means of self-expression available to a boy in such stunted circumstances. Here’s the novel’s opening:
Again today Alex Housman drove the Buick Riviera. The Buick, coppertone, white sidewalls, was the model of the year, a ’59, although the 1960 models were already out. Its upholstery was black, its windshield was tinted a thin color of motor oil. The car’s heater was issuing a stale and odorous warmth, but Alex remained chilled. He had walked several blocks through snow and slush, wearing neither hat nor gloves nor boots, to where he had left the car the night before. The steering wheel was icy in his hands, and he felt icy within, throughout his veins and bones. Alex was sixteen; the Buick was his fourteenth car.
There is not a shred of sentimentality or self-pity in this book, and it never sinks to the dreary level of a treatise on “the juvenile delinquent problem.” This is a work of art, fuelled by all those purloined Buick Rivieras and Chevy Bel Airs. In the end, like Lot Boy, it is less a coming-of-age story than a story about our shared yearning to escape.
Here are a dozen other writers and artists who have used the automobile to tell stories about Americans on their way to escape, status and death, sometimes all three. This list doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive. Feel free to offer your own additions:
New at The Point: an incisive look at Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis that calls it “the most prescient American novel of the past fifteen years” and asks,”is it possible to mount any meaningful resistance to capitalism on the level of culture?” The latest print issue features this essay as well as a symposium on privacy, and will be launched at a release party in Hyde Park on Saturday night.
“Experience has fallen in value. And it looks as if it is continuing to fall into bottomlessness.””It is no longer intelligence coming from afar, but the information which supplies a handle for what is nearest that gets the readiest hearing.” -Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller.” Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn.When it comes to a reputation for difficulty, the book business is second only to the restaurant business… and no one has yet figured out how to run an online restaurant. The ascendance of e-commerce – along with the consolidation of corporate capital, the real estate bubble, and a host of concurrent factors – has over the last 15 years profoundly altered the reading lives of Americans. The changes are not exclusively for the worse; in the small town where I grew up, for example, it’s become a hell of a lot easier for a high-school sophomore to get his hands on a volume of, say, Angela Carter. But, as the recent documentary “Indies Under Fire: The Battle for the American Bookstore” suggests, the mercantile landscape grows increasingly inhospitable for independent booksellers. A recent spate of high-profile bookstore closings underscores the point (via Ed).Why does this matter? After a Joshua Ferris reading at an independent bookstore the other night, a friend of mine proposed that our cultural lives are forged by a confluence of information and experience. Information – that Rolling Stone gave the album Born to Run five stars, for example – is a perfectly reasonable way to get a handle on a work of art. But to experience “Born to Run” exploding off the Delaware Memorial Bridge at night, in the summer, with the windows down and a person you love in the passenger’s seat, is to find it seared forever in one’s soul, like Marcel’s madeleine.The corporate book-purveyor, armed with the best market research money can buy, directs information toward consumers. If I want to find out what Barnes & Noble thinks New Yorkers are likely to want to buy, the downstairs tables at the Union Square B & N can’t be beat. And there are fine books on those tables. But as Walter Benjamin observes, “The acquisition of books is by no means a matter of money or expert knowledge alone.” The experience of the Barnes & Noble – quality controlled, wood-veneered, perfectly odorless – disappears as soon as one is out the door.A great bookstore, by contrast, is a staging ground for experience. The experience of the zealous clerk. The experience of the comely fellow browser. The experience of seeing Gordon Lish’s first book of stories nestled against Eudora Welty’s in a teetering pile, and reading the first page of “For Jerome” in situ, and feeling that private excitement of the mind. The experience of entering something larger than oneself… the republic of letters. As public libraries downsize stacks in favor of internet kiosks, this last experience, so important for so many of us, is increasingly the preserve of the independent bookstore.Here in New York, the indie isn’t dead – far from it. Passionate owners and managers and employees understand that they’re not just making sales, but making room for an experience. As a way of thanking them, and celebrating the arrival (finally!) of spring – and in the spirit of Walter Benjamin – I herewith offer a highly selective walking tour of my favorite bookstores in New York. “I have made my most memorable purchases on trips, as a transient. Property and possession belong to the tactical sphere. Collectors are people with a tactical instinct; their experience teaches them that when they capture a strange city, the smallest antique shop can be a fortress, the most remote stationery store a key position. How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!” -Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library,” trans. Harry Zohn.Stop 1: Gotham Book Mart (16 East 46th between 5th Avenue and Madison Avenue)If my wanderings these days took me further uptown, I’d probably have some more stores to single out. As it is, I’ll start with the Gotham Book Mart. This venerable institution, featured in a sexually charged scene in Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, is also John Updike’s favorite bookstore. This is, as far as I know, all that these two men have in common. In addition to fantastic selection of used & new 20th century literature, the Gotham boasts rare memorabilia, antiquarian treasures, and the best selection of literary magazines you’ll find anywhere… period.Stop 2: The Strand (828 Broadway at East 12th.)Having got your fill of midtown, amble down Broadway past 14th St. Now we’re really in book country. The Strand, another New York institution, advertises “8 miles of books,” but it feels more like 16. A recent redesign has stripped away some of the flyblown, foxed, and watermarked pleasures of shopping in The Strand, but the vertiginous sensation of being surrounded by millions of cheap books remains… a feeling like playing hooky with a slight fever. Be sure to troll the Parisian dollar stalls outside, as great finds abound. Half-price review copies are great if you’re looking for contemporary fiction. The Strand remains a wonderfully terrible place to go searching for a specific book… I never leave empty-handed, but generally spend several hours and several dollars discovering volumes I wasn’t planning to buy.Stop 3: St. Mark’s Bookshop (31 3rd Avenue at 9th Street).Continuing downtown, forgo the cramped Astor Place B & N in favor of St. Mark’s Bookstore. You can’t turn around in this fantastic shop without elbowing a brilliant intellectual… they’re drawn here by the shelves full of recondite critical theory, post-New York School poetry collections, and cutting-edge art books… and by the feeling of rubbing elbows with the East Village denizens who penned them. Pick up some Slavoj Zizek, enjoy the condescension of an existentialist clerk… and be sure to wear your plastic-framed glasses. You’ll emerge feeling 15 IQ points smarter.Stop 4: The folding tables on W. 4th St. (W. 4th between West Broadway and Mercer)Okay, not strictly a bookstore, but what’s better than lollygagging on a sidewalk on a sunny day and discovering W.G. Sebald? Prices are negotiable, and the guys who sell the books make even the most hardcore bibliophile look minor league.Stop 5: Oscar Wilde Books (15 Christopher Street between Greenwich Ave. & Waverly Pl.)The country’s oldest gay and lesbian bookstore has been serving the West Village for more than 40 years. For founder Craig Rodwell, a “gay and lesbian bookstore” was not a clearinghouse for erotica, but rather a bookstore whose shelves spoke to the lives of the gay community. The store has been central to advocacy efforts for gay rights and, in the 80s, recognition of the growing HIV/AIDS crisis. Many a young poet has worked the register here, and a recent program invited authors like Michael Cunningham to spend an afternoon clerking, offering patrons a unique chance to chat informally with their favorite writers. Or was that Three Lives I’m thinking of? (154 W. 10th at Waverly Place)Stop 6: Unoppressive, Non-Imperialist Books (34 Carmine St. between Bedford and Bleecker Streets)This tiny shop on Carmine St. seems to run largely on remainders. Thus, prices are low, low, low. The sensibility is well-represented by the name. Here’s the place to find Zen esoterica, punk rock poetry, and various books from the political left. And you don’t have to worry about your money going to right-wing PACs. Much like…Stop 7: Housing Works Used Book Cafe (126 Crosby St. between Prince and Houston) Having worked up an appetite, stop into this gorgeous loft space on atmospheric Crosby St., and buy soup or a knish or coffee… for a great cause. This bookstore, staffed by volunteers, stocked with donations, sends 100% of its proceeds to its parent organization, Housing Works, which provides medical care, job training, housing, and other services to New Yorkers with HIV/AIDS who have faced homelessness. It’s truly an amazing project, and boasts some of the best literary programming in the city… like a recent reading/concert featuring Jonathan Lethem in conversation with George Saunders. Free! Of course, I’m biased, as Housing Works signs my paychecks.Stop 8: McNally Robinson (52 Prince St. between Mulberry and Lafayette)McNally is maybe the most lavishly appointed bookstore in the city. Here, much attention has been paid to the aesthetics of the literary experience. Book displays feature small presses that produce beautiful books, like Coach House Books or Archipelago Books. The fiction section used to be arranged nationally (French, German, English, etc.), but is now, alas, alphabetical. Still, it’s hard to leave McNally without something lovely. If you’re not sure what to read, a friendly and knowledgeable staff is eager to share its favorite titles.Now, across the Brooklyn Bridge to Stop 9: BookCourt (163 Court St. between Pacific and Dean)BookCourt is not only my neighborhood independent bookstore, it’s the very model of a neighborhood bookstore. The selection of books and periodicals is large enough to meet everyone’s interests, and well-curated enough not to be overwhelming. Displays are tailored to the neighborhood’s reading habits… the BookCourt top 10 is always strikingly different from that of any bookstore in Manhattan. Benches on the sidewalk out front offer a comfortable place to crack open one’s latest purchases.Stop 10: Freebird Books & Goods (123 Columbia St. between Kane & Degraw)This ur-used bookstore is where I took in the above-mentioned Joshua Ferris reading, and so I’ll defer to Mr. Ferris for a description: “There’s creaking hardwood floors, a pleasant dog on a thrift-store recliner, and the inimitable smell that comes of old comforting books long shelved back to back. It’s my favorite used bookstore in New York because it gets everything right: the big plate-glass window, the bell on the door, the enviable view of Manhattan, and the always well-stocked fiction section. Plus, a palpable feeling that you’re in a place where books, no matter how old, are alive and well. […] Open Mic, special guests, and food and drinks, including Moxie soda (oldest in America) and corndogs. Freebird is the kind of place that reminds you of why you read, why you wander New York streets in search of something, and why you know it when you find it.” (via TEV)And now my feet are tired and it’s time for a beer and a corndog. But if you want to keep exploring, you should check these out, too (commenters, please feel free to add to this list):Community Bookstore and Cafe of Park Slope (143 7th Avenue Brooklyn, between Carroll and Garfield Streets)Spoonbill & Sugartown (218 Bedford Avenue Brooklyn, between North 4th and North 5th Streets)Nkiru Books (68 St. Marks Place Brooklyn between 5th and 6th Avenues)