A few weeks back, in a review of Christopher Sorrentino’s Trance, I remarked upon the recent proliferation of novels about the counterculture of the 1960s and about its turn toward violence. The book reviews in this week’s New Yorker would seem to confirm the trend. The lead item in the “Briefly Noted” column concerns Susan Choi’s A Person of Interest, which takes as its point of departure a fictional version of the Unabomber case. Meanwhile, in an essay generous in both length and tone, James Wood reviews Peter Carey’s His Illegal Self (about the child of SDS radicals) and Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions (about “swinging London’s” revolutionary underground.)Wood suggests, with characteristic perspicuity, that the Age of Aquarius offers novelists room to explore “ideological radicalism” without having to address September 11 and political Islam. To which I say: Right on! As we at The Millions have noted before, the world-historical developments of the last decade seem to demand novelistic attention; at the same time, they’ve become so freighted with symbolic and ideological meaning as to seem inhospitable to levity, or irony. DeLillo’s Falling Man, to name one September 11 title, was hobbled by its temporal and emotional proximity to the events it considered. The farther it drifted from these events, the more alive its characters seemed.It’s worth noting, however, that the historical attraction of the Age of Aquarius predates the explosion of “ideological radicalism” into the public consciousness, circa 2001. Sorrentino, Choi, and (I’m guessing) Dana Spiotta began writing about the radical underground way back in the Clinton era, which marked, we were told, “the end of history.” Which points to another, related reason why contemporary novelists may find the ’60s so fertile. That was a time, it seems, when a classless society actually seemed like an achievable goal… when it was possible to argue, with a straight face, that “All you need is love.” For a writer concerned to dramatize ideas, this sort of political ardor is hard to resist. (Think, e.g., of Dostoevsky.) Nowadays, as Hari Kunzru’s narrator remarks, “Ideology’s dead…. Everyone pretty much agrees on how to run things.”
Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, and is a contributor to The Millions….And what a year it was: the manic highs, the crushing lows and no creamy middle to hold them together. In this way, my reading life and my other life seemed to mirror each other in 2007, as I suppose they do every year. As a reader, I try not to pick up a book unless there’s a good chance I’m going to like it, but as an aspiring critic, I felt obliged to slog through a number of bad novels. And so my reading list for 2007 lacked balance. It’s easy to draw a line between the wheat and the chaff, but harder to say which of the two dozen or so books I loved were my favorites, so grateful was I for their mere existence.If pressed, I would have to say that my absolute greatest reading experience of the year was Howard’s End by E.M. Forster. Zadie Smith inspired me to read this book, and I can’t believe I waited this long. Forster’s style seems to me the perfect expression of democratic freedom. It allows “the passion” and “the prose” equal representation on the page, and seeks the common ground between them. Forster’s ironies, in writing about the Schlegel family, are of the warmest variety. I wish I could write like him.A close runner-up was Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives. It’s been years since I reacted this viscerally to a novel, as you’ll see if you read my review.Rounding out my top three was Helen De Witt’s first novel, The Last Samurai. Published in 2000 and then more or less forgotten about, The Last Samurai introduced me to one of my favorite characters of the year, a child prodigy named Ludo. Ludo’s gifts are ethical as much as they are intellectual, and I loved De Witt’s rigorous adherence to her own peculiar instincts; her refusal to craft a “shapely” novel in the M.F.A. style.Other favorite classics included Balzac’s Lost Illusions and Fielding’s Tom Jones – each the expression of a sui generis authorial temperament – and Anne Carson’s odd and arresting translation of the fragmentary lyrics of Sappho. Every year, I try to read at least one long, modernist novel from my beloved Wiemar period; in 2007, Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers reminded me why. And from the American canon, I was smitten with Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (essay) and Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (review).Three books by short-story writers whom I’d nominate for inclusion in the American canon: Excitability: Selected Stories by Diane Williams, Sylvia by Leonard Michaels (review), and Transactions in a Foreign Currency by Deborah Eisenberg, one of my favorite contemporary writers.Of the many (too many) new English-language novels I read, the best were Tom McCarthy’s stunningly original Remainder, Mark Binelli’s thoroughly entertaining Sacco & Vanzetti Must Die, Thomas Pynchon’s stunningly original, thoroughly entertaining, but unfocused Against the Day (review), Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke (review), and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man. This last book seemed to me unfairly written off upon its release. I taught an excerpt from it to undergraduates, and for me, DeLillo’s defamiliarized account of September 11 and its aftermath deepened with each rereading.The best book of journalism I read this year was Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower (review). And my two favorite new translations were Gregoire Brouillier’s memoir, The Mystery Guest (review), and Tatyana Tolstaya’s novel, The Slynx (review).Thanks for reading, everybody. See you in ’08!More from A Year in Reading 2007
Actor Robert Englund is best known for his portrayal of Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street series. He currently resides in Laguna Beach, California with his wife Nancy and his dog Lola.Robert Englund’s Best Books of 2007 (in no particular order):The Maytrees by Annie DillardActs of Faith by Phillip CaputoThe Lay of the Land by Richard FordFalling Man by Don DeLilloOn Chesil Beach by Ian McEwanAnd… my favorite discovery of the year: Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America: StoriesMore from A Year in Reading 2007
This fall, among other pursuits, I’ve been teaching one section of “Composition & Rhetoric” at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus. I’ve led fiction writing workshops at the university level before, but this has been my first foray into expository writing. At times, I’ve found myself questioning my professorial fitness (as regular readers of this blog may even now be doing); how can I claim to explain a set of forms that I haven’t myself mastered?But when it comes to writing, we’re all apprentices (to paraphrase Hemingway), and I’ve been blessed with a group of creative, curious, and hardworking writers-in-training. Of my 16 students, 14 are enrolled in the Alvin Ailey School of Dance – which is to say that they’re well on their way to being artists in another medium. This may account for the high quality of their work.Or maybe it’s the pedagogical principle I cribbed from my quondam teacher Lawrence Weschler: Assign your students readings that you really love. My syllabus, thrown together in a single manic week in August, wound up coalescing loosely around ideas of New York before and after September 11, 2001. Even in a week when my Socratic skills failed me, my class and I would at least have the consolation of having read something complex and beautiful, like the city itself. What follows is a diary of our mutual education.Week 1: “Here is New York,” by E.B. White (from Essays)For me, this is what a good essay looks like, but at this point in the semester, I can’t quite explain why. My instructions: “Go sit in Central Park when you read this. You can thank me later.” They do.Week 2: “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” by Herman Melville (from Great Short Works) and “Bartleby in Manhattan,” by Elizabeth Hardwick (from Bartleby in Manhattan and Other Essays)One of the weird things about literary criticism at the college level is that students are often asked to write it without ever having read it. I’m hoping that this pairing might provide an object lesson in good criticism. My class, of course, prefers the story to the essay. The fiction writer in me sees this as a promising sign.Week 3: “Still-Life,” by Don Delillo (an excerpt from Falling Man originally published in The New Yorker) I tell students to treat DeLillo the way Hardwick treated Melville. That is, critically. Instead, they fall in love with him. I end up thinking more highly of Falling Man than I did when I first read it, and liked it.Week 4: “Echoes at Ground Zero,” by Lawrence Weschler (from Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences and “Against Interpretation,” by Susan Sontag (from Against Interpretation)The Weschler reading, which included photographs, leads to a discussion of reading images critically – a skill we all need these days. Then we read the Sontag, which is kind of an argument against everything I’ve been teaching them up to this point. Is this brilliant, or suicidal?Week 4: “Come September,” by Arundhati Roy (from The Impossible Will Take A Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear)Moving away from literary criticism and toward social criticism proves difficult, as many readers, myself included, find this essay frustratingly orthodox in its politics. We end up talking about “preaching to the choir,” and the failure of partisan arguments to persuade their opponents. Victory snatched from jaws of defeat.Weeks 5 – 7: The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin.Rereading this clarifies some things for me. Among them, that an essay doesn’t always have to be an argument; that it can be an exploration. This will become a theme. (Damn you, Sontag!)Week 8: “What I See When I Look at the Face on the $20 Bill,” by Sarah Vowell (from Take the Cannoli)This one doesn’t get quite the reaction I had hoped for; students find it a little didactic. Maybe I should have chosen “Ixnay on the My Way.” Still, the Vowell essay on Cherokee history does offer an example of how exposition can be structured narratively.Week 9-Week 10: “The White Album,” by Joan Didion (from The White Album)With its jagged, discontinuous structure, this memoir of the ’60s provokes the strongest responses I’ll probably get this year, ranging from, “I loved this” to “I hated this” – which is pretty much what I’ve been hoping for all semester. When I read my students’ personal essays, I’ll see that “The White Album” has challenged them to become better writers. It never hurts to expose undergraduates to a surgically precise stylist like Didion, either.Week 11: “Dancing in the Dark,” by Joan Acocella (from Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints)Yet another of those frequent occasions when the professor learns more from the students than vice versa. The dancers tell me all about Bob Fosse, and evaluate Acocella’s claims critically. In the end, most agree that Fosse’s choreography is more about power than about sex. And again, exposure to a writer of Acocella’s intelligence and lucidity can only help their prose. It’s certainly helped mine.Week 12: “Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn,” by Jonathan Lethem (from The Disappointment Artist)This should be interesting. We’re now in the middle of the research essay unit, but I’d love to see my students push beyond the conventions of the term paper; to combine research, personal reflection, and critical thought as Lethem does in this essay about a subway stop.Week 14: “Last Cigarettes,” by Marco Roth.This piece originally appeared in N+1, and has a lot to say about college, and becoming a writer. Like the Lethem essay, it pushes against the rigid boundaries of the “four rhetorical modes.” If I’ve learned anything this semester, it’s that good expository writing doesn’t always adhere to such neat distinctions. Though at times I’ve wished I could tell my class, “This is how you write an essay,” throwing them into the messy process of discovery may ultimately be a more honest initiation into the pains – and joys – of writing.
This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Looking at the fiction, it appears that some of these books crossed our radar as well:The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perotta: A most anticipated book.After Dark by Haruki Murakami: Ben’s review.Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo: A most anticipated book.The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz: A most anticipated book.Exit Ghost by Philip Roth: A most anticipated book.Falling Man by Don Delillo: Tempering Expectations for the Great 9/11 NovelThe Gathering by Anne Enright: Underdog Enright Lands the 2007 BookerHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling: Harry Potter is Dead, Long Live Harry Potter; Top Potter Town Gets Prize, Boy-Wizard Bragging Rights; Professor Trelawney Examines Her Tea Leaves; A Potter Post Mortem; A History of MagicHouse of Meetings by Martin Amis: A most anticipated book.In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar: The Booker shortlistKnots by Nuruddin Farah: A most anticipated book.Like You’d Understand, Anyway by Jim Shepard: National Book Award FinalistOn Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan: Booker shortlistThe Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid: Booker shortlistRemainder by Tom McCarthy: Andrew’s reviewSavage Detectives by Roberto Bolano: A most anticipated book; Why Bolano MattersThen We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris: A most anticipated bookTree of Smoke by Denis Johnson: Garth’s reviewTwenty Grand by Rebecca Curtis: Emily’s reviewVarieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis: National Book Award FinalistWhat is the What by Dave Eggers: Garth’s review.The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon: Max’s review; Garth’s review.
On this sad anniversary, USA Today trots out the now tired question, asking for, as if we’re all looking for it, the mythical novel that will explain and place into context the tragedy of six years ago. In this case, USA Today points out the uninspiring sales of “novels inspired by 9/11” as compared to their non-fiction counterparts, but the subtext of these articles, and there have been many in many venues over the years, is twofold.First is that the serious novel’s driving function is to make sense of our complicated world, to distill it to its essence so that years from now, when a young man asks how 9/11 felt, an old man can wordlessly slip a book into his hand. Second is this idea that every major event requires the culture to produce innumerable artifacts that are explicitly about that event. There are hundreds of films and TV shows that are primarily about 9/11, but where, the culture watchers ask, are all the novels?I wrote about this several months ago, when the publication of Don Delillo’s Falling Man led several to seek the “9/11 novel” (Falling Man deemed to have failed in this respect), and I still believe what I wrote then.I would argue that nearly every serious novel written since 9/11 is a “9/11 novel.” Writers, artists, and filmmakers, consciously or subconsciously, react to the world around them some way, and 9/11, from many angles, is incontrovertibly a part of our world. For example, even Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which is set in an alternate universe in which a temporary Jewish homeland has been set up in Alaska, is a “9/11 novel” in that it has internalized the post-9/11 sensibilities of shadowy government meddling in the Middle East and the feeling of an impending global and religiously motivated conflict. To expect a novel to explicitly place 9/11 into a context that offers us all some greater understanding of it is to misunderstand how fiction works.There may never be a so-called “defining 9/11 novel,” but there are already many 9/11 novels, some more explicitly about 9/11 than others but all internalizing that event to one degree or another. Still, since it seems likely that we will not satisfactorily settle on the one anointed 9/11 novel, writers will have a topic to dust off every year when this anniversary rolls around.
Piqued by Leon Wieseltier’s huffy take on James Wood’s exodus to The New Yorker, many commentators seemed to overlook the paper of record’s tacit endorsement of the proposition that Wood is “brutal,” blasting away at our frail eminences. Isn’t he that vicious British critic? an English professor recently asked me. In fact, Wood is anything but.In September, The Quarterly Conversation will be publishing a long essay in which I try to illuminate Wood’s shortcomings as a critic of contemporary American fiction, but it feels important to me now to note that these shortcomings arise from Wood’s fundamental virtues as a critic, namely his passion for, and faith in, literature… just as Faulkner’s excesses are inseparable from his gifts. Wood himself may not assent to E.L. Doctorow’s axiom that “excess in literature is its own justification,” but he is its exemplar.Wood incites passionate disagreement – making him a rare nut in the tepid oatmeal of our media culture – and is hard on writers who leave him wanting. Quite often, he is wrong about them. But Wood does not hate books, or even novelty. He presents a pretty persuasive platform for his criticism in his 2005 essay “A Reply to the Editors,” directed at N+1. It is, along with his conflicted review of DeLillo’s Falling Man, one of the best things he’s published recently. For as long as he’s at The New Yorker, I’ll enjoy reading James Wood, and rising (I hope) to his provocations.Isn’t this what citizenship in the republic of letters is supposed to mean? [Click to read Inter Alia #1 and #2.]
The Tourists, the debut offering from young novelist Jeff Hobbs, is a book about four college friends at Yale who, seven or so years removed from New Haven, find themselves reconnected in New York City. The tie that binds them is lust and longing, and also a certain “how did I get here?” melancholy. The permutation of sexual pairings among these four individuals is at the heart of the plot – an unlikely twist since the ratio is three-to-one in favor of the men. These relationships, including an ill-begotten marriage of college sweethearts, are governed by power and not love. It’s a vision of fading youth, punctuated by the tastelessness of the characters’ successes, the inevitability of their failures, and the rank indulgences with which they attempt to stave off their despair. But the book is not without humor, and it is full of observations about the interaction of personality, choice, and consequence. Though things do fall apart, the center, embodied in the unnamed narrator, does his best to hold, and is the one character largely unchanged at story’s end (though we are left wondering if perhaps he himself is the most manipulative of the bunch). Recently, the Millions tracked down Jeff Hobbs for an interview.The Millions: Greetings, Jeff Hobbs. Thank you for answering some questions from the Millions.Jeff Hobbs: Thanks so much, Noah. I am completely, sincerely flattered to be included on your site.TM: First of all, I couldn’t not mention this: in the acknowledgments of your book you thank your dog, Noah, for the many hours he spent curled up at your feet as you wrote. My ears pricked up at this revelation: I have the same name as Jeff Hobbs’ dog. I’ve always felt that we need more Noahs in the writing world…JH: Thanks for the shout out to my dearest friend, but he would make an incredibly dull character in a book: ever loyal, ever loving, ever ready to lick your face in the morning to get your ass out of bed so he can poop.TM: Now, The Tourists. On the back cover of your book there is a blurb in which someone uses the term “a generation at loose ends” to describe the group to which the characters belong. Is this a fair assessment? Talk a little if you would about these characters: why do their choices lead them away from self-satisfaction? What rolls do talent and privilege play in their “real world” difficulties?JH: I would call them a “generation flailing” – flailing for success, for wealth, for some small measure of renown, and for – like everyone, always – happiness. About eighty percent of current college students list either “wealth” or “celebrity” as their number one goal going into the “real” world. Our particular generation was raised to believe that we can – we should – achieve everything we want in life, and now we find ourselves suddenly deposited in towns and cities without the basic infrastructure to know what we do in fact want (i.e. what will make us happy) or the nose-to-the-grind attitude that our parents and grandparents largely had. With this book, I tried to depict four young people flailing in their own distinct ways. David has wealth but is unhappy with where it’s landed (or cornered) him. Samona has financial and domestic security but feels inconsequential in the world around her. Ethan has achieved wealth and fame, he can sleep with anyone he wants – but he’s still melancholy and alone. The narrator has achieved exactly nothing that he was aiming for on his first idealistic train ride into the city, and so he lives vicariously through the others. Without giving up too much plot, their interplay is all about people trying to change each other – and in doing so, change themselves – in flailing attempts to angle themselves toward elusive fulfillment.TM: Sex: in The Tourists the characters clack together like billiard balls, then drift away only to be thrown back in with each other when the next game is racked. The only romantic love depicted in the story is between the protagonist (or antagonist as the case may be), Ethan, and the narrator. They had a relationship in college before the narrator realized that he himself was not gay, and therefore could not return Ethan’s love. Ethan’s unrequited feelings for the narrator seem to be at the heart of his coercive sexual practices thereafter. What was your approach to the portrayal of such complex, and, for many readers I suppose, unfamiliar sexual relationships? (You artfully describe Ethan’s seduction of another man, one who is not gay, in one of the books strongest – and arguably most implausible – passages.) What if any are the differences between homosexual and heterosexual relationships, beyond surface anatomy? In what ways does a character’s sex life add specific depth to their personality on the page?JH: Another notable difference between this generation and others (at least as far as I can tell, judging from how appalled my family was upon reading this!) is a rather casual approach to sexuality. Sexual fluidity is a firmly rooted part of the culture at this point, at least in urban centers, and I worked hard to approach sexual encounters and relations this way in the book. (Perhaps going a little overboard; a reader of an early draft once advised me that, unless these people are carrying around industrial size jars of baby oil, some of the scenes are physical impossibilities.) Setting off to write a story about whether or not one person can change another person in any relationship, sexuality felt like a solid metaphor.TM: You have an understated writing style, straightforward, almost journalistic (indeed, the narrator portrays himself as simply reporting the events of the summer – with some details filled in, of course), and you are not prone to flights of fancy verbiage. But your observations can be acid, viz. descriptions of the world of high finance and those that populate it, or your sketch of the David Taylor character – how his dream of becoming a prep school teacher and coaching track yielded to spreadsheets and stop-loss orders. The ironies that you present are big ones, such as the narrator, who enjoys no financial security, possessing the largest account of self-awareness and principle of all the characters. I know you have a connection to Bret Easton Ellis; I hesitate to use the word protege without really knowing. Tell us a bit about the development of your writing. How has Mr. Ellis helped you along? What other authors have influenced your work? What are your core literary values when it comes to spinning a yarn?JH: Bret is tremendously insightful, well-read, and he possesses the keenest intellect and (more importantly) instinct of any writer I know (admittedly few, but…). He treated the first draft of the book the way an editor treats it, slashing words and paragraphs that were imprecise or didn’t belong, streamlining dialogue, and recommending books that could be useful. I will always feel indebted to his generous aid. I love Michael Chabon, Andre Dubus, Toni Morrison, Lethem, Faulkner. As far as development goes, you just sit alone in a room all day thinking, and you write under the knowledge that ninety percent of what comes out is garbage, and you keep piling up those ten percents until you have a book that feels right. “Spinning a yarn” begins with the structure, which is not to be confused with plot. If your structure doesn’t work, then you could have the most majestic prose of anyone, ever, but the book as a whole won’t stand. In The Tourists specifically, I felt the book called for a stark, sharp, journalistic voice because it is built as a mystery, and the story and characters are so isolated. So you start with scribbled thoughts and outlines and lots and lots of notes, and you create the structure – and everything else, the voice and style and POV, etc, stems from that first roadmap. So every book should have a different voice, I believe, depending on the fundamental structure the author decides to use for that book.TM: You used to live in New York, and your book is set here, but you now make your home in Los Angeles. A Brooklynite myself, I would like to know, what’s up with that?JH: NYers are so snarky about LA; it’s really not so bad out there! My wife is a born and bred Brooklynite (Fort Greene), and our heart is and always will be on S. Portland Avenue, but we went west for her work. The people and atmosphere made me pretty miserable and whiny at first (for instance, Rebecca didn’t know how to drive – a not-minor problem), and then I snapped out of it by thinking: why are you taking yourself so seriously? You live in a nice little cottage with a lemon tree in the back yard, and you can walk out your door and be on a mountaintop an hour later, and all you need to work is a pen and paper and the a corner of a room. We have very good friends who love to BBQ. And the Philadelphia Eagles can break your heart just as deeply watching them at the Rustic Tavern in Los Feliz as they can at the Dakota Roadhouse in Tribeca. Meanwhile, the dog is very, very happy to be inhabiting a place larger than 300 sq. feet.TM: I’ll stick with New York for a minute. DeLillo’s Falling Man and a host of other recent works of fiction have sparked a dialogue about “the 9/11 novel.” You touched on 9/11 in The Tourists, albeit very briefly. Do you have any thoughts about the implications of 9/11, and the course that America has navigated since then, for writers of fiction? Do you think a young writer like yourself necessarily considers the subject from a different perspective than a writer of an older generation?JH: 9/11 is so tricky for fiction because of what feels like an obligation to address that event in any contemporary story, and especially one set in or around Manhattan. It is so much a part of the national consciousness because it is so visually apocalyptic and globally far reaching. The more successful novels dealing with 9/11 and its effects have been the strictly metaphorical ones, such as The Road – books that explore the primal fear and loss embodied by that day rather than the physical event itself – mainly because it is such a stretch for written words to depict the actions and sensations that we all saw and felt that day. I think this happened with the Holocaust as well: no prose, no matter how riveting, can precipitate the same gut reaction as seeing a photo of a mass grave or going to the Holocaust Museum in D.C. and standing over the room filled with abandoned shoes. Books can take a person away like no other medium can, but horror of this scale can quickly expose the limitations; the visceral impact does not compare. As far as being younger, I can only generalize, and I do not presume to speak for anyone other than myself. Those of us in our twenties are perhaps more removed from the political, economic, etc, implications of 9/11; we as a generation are much more inclined to live day to day, without excess forward thinking, and it is easier to shut out our basic, latent terror that way. Thinking ahead to what the world will be like in fifty, twenty, ten, even five years is enough to drive anyone crazy – and especially those of us in our twenties who are still largely unestablished and insecure. We are friends and siblings with soldiers, not teachers and parents, and it feels hard to conceive of doing anything heroic on the homefront, and so we occupy ourselves by simply getting by. So while we are perhaps well-suited at dealing with the short-term implications – and perhaps to write about them if driven to – we might be less suited down the road, when the long-term implications become more clear and we find ourselves lacking the foundation needed to deal with them. I can say for certain that my attitude and all my sensibilities have changed now that I have a little family of my own. Whereas before, when all I had to worry about was myself, food, and rent, it was so easy to maintain that layer of distance to people and news and, essentially, reality. Now, married and thinking of having children, the fundamental urge to hold loved ones close – to protect and endure in a precarious universe – underlies every single day.TM: Okay, last question. You went to Yale, studied English and Literature, won some writing prizes, etc. And so, Jeff Hobbs, I ask you: who makes the better slice, Sally’s or Pepe’s?JH: At risk of cutting my already modest readership in half, I’d take the train down to Philly for a Gino’s cheesesteak over either, anytime.Thank you.
Jerome Weeks has published a long, thoughtful essay asking why all the talk about our culture needing a great “9/11 novel.” Don Delillo has this discussion back in the book pages with his new book, Falling Man, though Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Deborah Eisenberg’s collection Twilight of the Superheroes among several others are examples of so-called “9/11 fiction.” Weeks writes:Why do we expect our writers to produce the “Great 9/11 novel” anyway? Has there ever been a “great” Pearl Harbor novel — the event most often compared to the Towers’ collapse? From Here to Eternity is about all that memory can conjure up, and it surely doesn’t qualify as great.I would argue that nearly every serious novel written since 9/11 is a “9/11 novel.” Writers, artists, and filmmakers, consciously or subconsciously, react to the world around them some way, and 9/11, from many angles, is incontrovertibly a part of our world. For example, even Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which is set in an alternate universe in which a temporary Jewish homeland has been set up in Alaska, is a “9/11 novel” in that it has internalized the post-9/11 sensibilities of shadowy government meddling in the Middle East and the feeling of an impending global and religiously motivated conflict. To expect a novel to explicitly place 9/11 into a context that offers us all some greater understanding of it is to misunderstand how fiction works, as Jerome Weeks implies. What we are really looking for (as ever) is a defining novel of our time.
If I’m planning on seeing a movie, I don’t typically look at reviews of it beforehand. I prefer to go into the experience with an open mind. And even though newspaper movie reviewers don’t tend to “spoil” the key plot points, I’d just as well not know anything about the plot so that every twist and turn is unexpected. The same thing goes for book reviews. There have even been times when I’ve stopped reading a book review halfway in when I realized that I wanted to read the book being reviewed. Setting the review aside, I’ll revisit it once the book is complete.And so with early reviews of books I’d like to read trickling in, I’m setting them aside to pour over once I’ve read the books. At the top of my list is The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. I was able to get my hands on an early copy, and I’ll be eagerly jumping in as soon as I finish this week’s New Yorker. Bookforum, meanwhile, has already posted its review of the book. In the third paragraph, reviewer Benjamin Anastas writes “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is many things at once: a work of alternate history, a medium-boiled detective story, an exploration of the conundrum of Jewish identity, a meditation on the Zionist experiment, the apotheosis thus far of one writer’s influential sensibility.” I haven’t read further than that, though, as I don’t want anything to put a dent into my anticipation.Elsewhere, hungry readers have cracked into some other hotly anticipated novels. Bookdwarf has a look at Ian McEwan’s slim new tome On Chesil Beach. She initially calls it an “odd, intimate book,” but ultimately gives it her seal of approval, calling it “superb.”Anne Fernald landed a copy of Don DeLillo’s new novel, Falling Man and offers up her initial thoughts. The book is yet another entrant in the “9/11 novel” category, but Anne clearly didn’t find it hackneyed or overwrought. Instead she calls it “wonderful… excellent but not the very, very best of his work.” Later on she declares, “Oh, the marvel of watching DeLillo reveal the poisonous thoughts of an ordinary unhappy woman to us.”Finally, Haruki Murakami has a new book, After Dark, on its way. For those who seek them out, early looks at Murakami novels can nearly always be found since his books come out in Japan well in advance of the English translations. One need only find a bilingual reader to share his thoughts in English. An excerpt, however, is harder to come by, but that’s what was recently offered up at Condalmo, where Matthew Tiffany recently shared the book’s opening sentences.Previously: The above books are just a few of the most anticipated books of 2007.