1.One of the most poignant of all passages in English literature occurs in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, serially published between the years of 1759 and 1767, when its author Laurence Sterne wrote: “████████████████████████████████████ ██████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████” Such is the melancholic shade of the 73rd page of Tristram Shandy, the entirety of the paper taken up with black ink, when the very book itself mourns the death of an innocent but witty parson with the Shakespearean name Yorick. Said black page appears after Yorick went to his doors and “closed them, – and never opened them more,” for it was that “he died… as was generally thought, quite broken hearted.”
Tristam Shandy is more than just an account of its titular character, for as Steven Moore explains in The Novel: An Alternative History 1600-1800, the English writer engaged subjects including “pedantry, pedagogy, language, sex, writing, obsessions… obstetrics, warfare and fortifications, time and memory, birth and death, religion, philosophy, the law, politics, solipsism, habits, chance… sash-windows, chambermaids, maypoles, buttonholes,” ultimately concluding that it would be “simpler to list what it isn’t about.” Sterne’s novel is the sort that spends a substantial portion of its endlessly digressive plot with the narrator describing his own conception and birth. As Tristam says of his story, “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; – & they are the life, the soul of reading; – take them out of this book for instance, – you might as well take the book along with them.”
Eighteenth-century critics didn’t always go in for this sort of thing. Dr. Johnson, with poor prescience, said “Nothing odd will do long. Tristam Shandy did not last,” while Voltaire gave it a rather more generous appraisal, calling it “a very unaccountable book; an original.” Common readers were a bit more adventuresome; Moore records that the “sheer novelty of the first two volumes made Tristam Shandy a hit when they were reprinted in London in the early 1760s.” Sterne arguably produced the first “post-modern” novel, long before Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Central to Tristam Shandy are its typographical eccentricities, which Michael Schmidt in The Novel: A Biography describes: “mock-marbling of the paper, the pointing hands, the expressive asterisks, squiggles, dingbats…the varying lengths of dashes.” None of those are as famous as poor Yorick’s pitch-black page, however.
It’s easy to see Sterne’s black page, its rectangle of darkness, as an oddity, an affectation, an eccentricity, a gimmick. This is woefully inconsiderate to English language’s greatest passage about the blankness of grief. Sober critics have a tendency to mistake playfulness with lack of seriousness, but a reading of Tristram Shandy shows that for all of its strangeness, its scatological prose and its metafictional tricks, Sterne’s goal was always to chart the “mechanism and menstruations in the brain,” as he explained, to describe “what passes in a man’s mind.”
Which is why Tristram Shandy’s infamous black page represents grief more truthfully than the millions of pages that use ink in a more conventional way. Sterne’s prose, or rather the gaping dark absence where prose normally would be, is the closest that he can get to genuinely conveying what loss’s void feels like. What’s clear is that no “reading” or “interpretation” of Yorick’s extinction can actually be proffered, no analysis of any human’s death can be translated into something rationally approachable. Sterne reminds us that grief is not amenable to literary criticism. For anyone that has ever lost someone they loved, seen that person die, you can understand that there is an inability for mere words to be commensurate with the enormity of that absence. Concerning such emotions beyond emotions, when it comes to “meaning,” the most full and accurate portrayal can only ever be a black hole.
2.Black is the most parsimonious of all colors. Color is a question of what it is we’re seeing when contrasted with that which we can’t, and black is the null zero of the latter. Those Manichean symbolic associations that we have with black and white are culturally relative—they are contingent on the arbitrary associations that a people project onto colors. Yet true to the ballet of binary oppositions, they are intractably related, for one could never read black ink on black paper, or its converse. If with feigned synesthesia we could imagine what each color would sound like, I’d suspect that they’d either be all piercing intensity and high pitches, or perhaps low, barely-heard thrum—but I’m unsure which would be which.
Their extremity is what haunts, allowing either only absorption or only
reflection, the two colors reject the russet cool of October and the blue chill
of December, or the May warmth of yellow and the July heat of red. Black and
white are both voids, both absences, both spouses in an absolutism. They are
singularities. Hardly anything is ever truly black, even the night sky awash in
the electromagnetic radiation of all those distant suns. Black and white are
abstractions, they are imagined mathematical potentials, for even the darkest
of shades must by necessity reflect something back. Save for one
thing—the black hole.
As early as 1796 the Frenchman Pierre-Simon Laplace conjectured the existence of objects with a gravitational field so strong that not even light could escape. Laplace, when asked of God, famously told Napoleon that he “had no need for that hypothesis,” but he knew of the black hole’s rapacious hunger. It wouldn’t be until 1916 that another scientist, the German Karl Schwarzschild, would use Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity to surmise the existence of the modern black hole. Physicist Brian Greene explains in The Elegant Universe that Schwarzschild’s calculations implied objects whose “resulting space-time warp is so radical that anything, including light, that gets too close… will be unable to escape its gravitational grip.”
Black holes were first invented as a bit of mathematical book-keeping, a theoretical concept to keep God’s ledger in order. However, as Charles Seife writes in Alpha and Omega: The Search for the Beginning and End of the Universe, though a “black hole is practically invisible, astronomers can infer its presence from the artifacts it has on spacetime itself.” Formed from the tremendous power of a supernova, a blackhole is a lacuna in space and time, the inky corpse of what was once a star, and an impenetrable passage from which no traveler may return.
A black hole is the simplest object in the universe. Even a hydrogen atom is composed of a proton and an electron, but a black hole is simply a singularity and an event horizon. The former is the infinitely dense core of a dead star, the ineffable heart of the darkest thing in existence, and the latter marks the point of no return for any wayward pilgrim. It’s at the singularity itself where the very presuppositions of physics breakdown, where our mathematics tells us that reality has no strictures. Though a black hole may be explained by physics, it’s also paradoxically a negation of physics. Obvious why the black hole would become such a potent metaphor, for physics has surmised the existence of locations for which logic has no dominion. A cosmological incognito if you will, where there be monsters.
God may not play dice with the universe, but as it turns out She is ironic. Stephen Hawking figured that the potent stew of virtual particles predicted by quantum mechanics, general relativity’s great rival in explaining things, meant that at the event horizon of a black hole there would be a slight escape of radiation, as implied by Werner Heisenberg’s infamous uncertainty principle. And so, from Hawking, we learn that though black may be black, nothing is ever totally just that, not even a black hole. Save maybe for death.
3.“Black hole” is the rare physics term that is evocative enough to attract public attention, especially compared to the previous phrase for the concept, “gravitationally collapsed object.” Coined by physicist Robert H. Dicke in the early ’60s, he appropriated it from the infamous dungeon in colonial India that held British prisoners and was known as the “Black Hole of Calcutta.” In Dicke’s mind, that hot, fetid, stinking, torturous hell-hole from which few men could emerge was an apt metaphor for the cosmological singularity that acts as a physical manifestation of Dante’s warning in Inferno to “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
Dante was a poet, and the word “black hole” is a metaphor, but it’s important to remember that pain and loss go beyond language, they are not abstractions, but very real. That particular Calcutta hole was in actuality an 18-foot by 14-foot cell in the ruins of Ft. William that held 69 Indian and British soldiers upon the fall of that garrison in 1756, when it was taken by the Nawab of Bengal. According to a survivor of the imprisonment, John Zephaniah Howell, the soldiers “raved, fought, prayed, blasphemed, and many then fell exhausted on the floor, where suffocation put an end to their torments.” On the first night 46 of the men died.
What that enclosure in Calcutta signified was its own singularity, where meaning itself had no meaning. In such a context the absence of color becomes indicative of erasure and negation, such darkness signaling nothing. As Lear echoes Parmenides, “Nothing can come of nothing: speak again.” There have been many black holes, on all continents, in all epochs. During the 18th century the slave ships of the Middle Passage were their own hell, where little light was allowed to escape.
In Marcus Redicker’s The Slave Ship: A Human History, the scholar speaks of the “horror-filled lower deck,” a hell of “hot, crowded, miserable circumstances.” A rare contemporary account of the Middle Passage is found in the enslaved Nigerian Olaudah Equiano’s 1789 The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Penned the year that French Jacobins stormed the Bastille, Equiano’s account is one of the rare voices of the slave ship to have been recorded and survived, an account of one who has been to a hell that they did not deserve and who yet returned to tell tale of that darkness. Equiano described being “put down under the decks” where he “received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experience in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat…I now wished for the last friend, death.”
There’s a risk in using any language, any metaphor, to describe the singularities of suffering endured by humans in such places, a tendency to turn the lives of actual people into fodder for theorizing and abstraction. Philosopher Elaine Scary in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World argues that much is at “stake in the attempt to invent linguistic structures that will reach and accommodate this area of experience normally so inaccessible to language… a project laden with practical and ethical consequence.” Any attempt to constrain such experience in language, especially if it’s not the author’s experience, runs a risk of limiting those stories. “Black hole” is an affective metaphor to an extent, in that implicit within it is the idea of logic and language breaking down, and yet it’s all the more important to realize that it is ultimately still a metaphor as well, what the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago described as “the dark infinity.”
David King in The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia provides a chilling warning about what happens when humans are reduced to such metaphor, when they are erased. King writes that that the “physical eradication of Stalin’s political opponents at the hands of the secret police was swiftly followed by their obliteration from all forms of pictorial existence.” What’s most disturbing are the primitively doctored photographs, where being able to see the alteration is the very point. These are illusions that don’t exist to trick, but to warn; their purpose is not to make you forget, but rather the opposite, to remind you of those whom you are never to speak of again. Examine the Damnatio memoriae of Akmal Ikramov, first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, who was condemned by Stalin and shot. In the archives his portrait was slathered in black paint. The task of memory is to never forget that underneath that mask there was a real face, that Ikramov’s eyes looked out as yours do now.
4.Even if the favored color of the Bolsheviks was red, black has also had its defenders in partisan fashion across the political spectrum, from the Anarchist flag of the left to the black-shirts of Benito Mussolini’s fascist right and the Hugo Boss-designed uniforms of the Nazi SS. Drawing on those halcyon days of the Paris Commune in 1871, anarchist Louis Michel first flew the black flag at a protest. His implications were clear—if a white flag meant surrender, then a black flag meant its opposite. For all who wear the color black certain connotations, sometimes divergent, can be potentially called upon; including authority, judiciousness, piety, purity, and power. Also, black makes you look thinner.
Recently departed fashion designer, creative director for the House of Chanel, and noted Teutonic vampire Karl Lagerfeld once told a Harper’s Baazar reporter that “Black, like white, is the best color,” and I see no reason to dispute that. Famous for his slicked-back powdered white pony-tail, his completely black suits, starched white detachable collars, black sunglasses, and leather riding gloves, Lagerfeld is part of a long tradition of that fabled French design firm. Coco Chanel, as quoted in The Allure of Chanel by Paul Morand and Euan Cameron, explains that “All those gaudy, resuscitated colors shocked me; those reds, those greens, those electric blues.” Chanel explains rather that she “imposed black; it’s still going strong today.”
Black may be the favored monochromatic palette for a certain school of haute couture; think black tie affairs and little black cocktail dresses—but the look is too good to be left to the elite. Black is the color of bohemians, spartan simplicity as a rebellion against square society. Beats were associated with it, they of stereotypical turtlenecks and thick-framed glasses. It’s always been a color for the avant-garde, signifying a certain austere rejection of the superficial cheerfulness of everyday life. Beats like Allen Ginsberg in his epic poem Howl, with its memorable black cover from City Lights Books, may have dragged himself through the streets at dawn burning for that “ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo,” but his friend William S. Burroughs would survey the fashion choices of his black-clad brethren and declare that the Beats were the “movement which launched a million Gaps.”
Appropriated or not, black has always been the color of the outlaw, a venerable genealogy that includes everything from Marlon Brando’s leather jacket in The Wild One to Keanu Reeves’s duster in The Matrix. Fashionable villains too, from Dracula to Darth Vader. That black is the color of rock music, on its wide highway to hell, is a given. There is no imagining goth music without black’s macabre associations, no paying attention to a Marilyn Manson wearing khaki, or the Cure embracing teal. No, black is the color of my true love’s band, for there’s no Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, or the members of Bauhaus in anything but a monochromatic darkness. When Elvis Presley launched his ’68 comeback he opted for a skin-tight black leather jumpsuit.
Nobody surpasses Johnny Cash though. The country musician is inextricably bound to the color, wearing it as a non-negotiable uniform that expressed radical politics. He sings “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down, /Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town.” Confessing that he’d “love to wear a rainbow every day,” he swears allegiance to his millennial commitments, promising that he’ll “carry off a little darkness on my back, /’Till things are brighter, I’m the Man in Black.” Elaborating later in Cash: The Autobiography, cowritten with Patrick Carr, he says “I don’t see much reason to change my position today…There’s still plenty of darkness to carry off.”
Cash’s sartorial choices were informed by a Baptist upbringing; his clothes mourned a fallen world, it was the wardrobe of a preacher. Something similar motivates the clothing of a very different prophetic figure, the pragmatist philosopher Cornel West, who famously only wears a black three-piece suit, with matching scarf. In an interview with The New York Times, West calls the suit his “cemetery clothes,” with a preacher’s knowledge that one should never ask for whom the bell tolls, but also with the understanding that in America, the horrifying reality is that a black man may always need to be prepared for his own funeral when up against an unjust state. As he explained, “I am coffin-ready.” West uses his black suit, “my armor” as he calls it, as a fortification.
Black is a liturgical, sacred, divine color. It’s not a mistake that Cash
and West draw from the somber hue of the minister’s attire. Black has often
been associated with orders and clerics; the Benedictines with their black
robes and Roman collared Jesuits; Puritans and austere Quakers, all unified in
little but clothing. Sects as divergent as Hasidic Jews and the Amish are known
for their black hats. In realms of faith, black may as well be its own temple.
5.Deep in the Finsterwalde, the “Dark Forest” of northwestern Switzerland, not far from Zurich, there is a hermitage whose origins go back to the ninth century. Maintained by Benedictine monks, the monastery was founded by St. Meinard. The saint lived his life committed to solitude, to dwelling in the space between words that can stretch to an infinity, a black space that still radiates its own light. In his vocation as a hermit, where he would find the monastery known (and still known) as the Einsiedeln Abbey, he had a single companion gifted to him by the Abbes Hildegard of Zurich—a carved, wooden statue of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Christ, who was himself clutching a small bird as if it was his play companion.
For more than a millennium, that figure, known as the “Lady of Einsiden,” has been visited by millions of pilgrims, as the humble anchorage has grown into a complex of ornate, gilded baroque buildings. These seekers are drawn to her gentle countenance, an eerie verisimilitude projecting some kind of interiority within her walnut head. She has survived both the degradations of entropy and Reformation, and is still a conduit for those who travel to witness that material evidence of that silent world beyond. Our Lady of Einsiden is only a few feet tall; her clothing is variable, sometimes wearing the celestial, cosmic blue of the Virgin, other times in resplendent gold, but the crown of heaven is always upon her brow. One aspect of her remains unchanging, however, and that’s that both her and Christ are painted black.
In 1799, during a restoration of the monastery, it was argued, in the words of one of the workers, that the Virgin’s “color is not attributable to a painter.” Deciding that a dose of revisionism was needed alongside restoration, the conclusion of restorer Johann Adam Fuetscher was that the Mary’s black skin was the result of the “smoke of the lights of the hanging lamps which for so many centuries always burned in the Holy Chapel of Einsideln.”
Fuetscher decided to repaint the statue, but when visitors saw the new Virgin they were outraged, and demanded she be returned to her original color, which has remained her hue for more than 200 years. Our Lady of Einsideln was not alone; depictions of Mary with dark skin can be found the width and breadth of the continent, from the famed Black Madonna of Czestochowa in Poland to Our Lady of Dublin in the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church; in the Sicilian town of Tindari, to the frigid environs of Lunds Domkyrka Lund Cathedral in Sweden. Depending on how one identifies the statues, there are arguably 500 medieval examples of the Virgin Mary depicted with dark skin.
Recently art historians have admitted that the hundreds of Black Madonnas are probably intentionally so, but there is still debate as to why she is so often that color. One possibility is that the statues are an attempt at realism, that European artists saw no compunctions about rendering the Virgin and Christ with an accurate skin-tone for Jews living in the Levant. Perhaps basing such renderings upon the accounts of pilgrims and crusaders who’d returned from the Holy Land, these craftsmen depicted the Mother of God with a face that wasn’t necessarily a mirror of their own.
Scholar Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum has her own interpretation of these carvings in her study Black Madonnas: Feminism, Religion, and Politics in Italy. For Birnbaum, the statues may represent a multicultural awareness among those who made them, but they also have a deep archetypal significance. She writes that “Black is the color of the earth and of the ancient color of regeneration, a matter of perception, imagination, and beliefs often not conscious, a phenomenon suggested in people’s continuing to call a madonna black even after the image had been whitened by the church.”
China Galland in Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna, her account of global pilgrimage from California to Nepal, asks if there was in the “blackness of the Virgin a thread of connection to Tara, Kali, or Durga, or was its mere coincidence?” These are goddesses, which as Galland writes, have a blackness that is “almost luminous,” beings of a “beneficent and redeeming dark.” Whatever the motivations of those who made the statues, it’s clear that they intended to depict them exactly as they appear now, candle smoke and incense besides. At the il Santuario della Madonna del Tindari in Sicily there is a celebrated Virgin Mary with dark skin. And just to dispel any hypothesis that her color is an accident, restorers in 1990 found inscribed upon her base a quotation from Song of Songs 1:5, when the Queen of Sheba declares to Solomon: “I am black but beautiful.”
6.Very different deities of darkness would come to adorn the walls of the suburban Madrid house that the Spanish painter Francisco Goya moved to 200 years ago, in the dusk of the Napoleonic conflicts (when Laplace had dismissed God). Already an old man, and deaf for decades, Goya would affix murals in thick, black oil to the plaster walls of his villa, a collection intended for an audience of one. As his biographer Robert Hughes would note in Goya, the so-called black paintings “revealed an aspect of Goya even more extreme, bizarre, and imposing” than the violent depictions of the Peninsular War for which he was famous. The black paintings were made for Goya’s eyes only. He was a man who’d witnessed the barbarity of war and inquisition, and now in his convalescence he chose to make representations of witches’ sabbaths and goat-headed Baphomet overseeing a Black Mass, of Judith in the seconds after she decapitated Holofernes, and of twisted, toothless, grinning old men. And, though now it hangs in the Museo del Prado, it was painted originally on the back wall of the first story of the Quinta del Sordo next to one window and perpendicular to another, was his terrifying depiction of a fearsome Saturn devouring his own young.
In the hands of Goya, the myth of the Titan who cannibalized his progeny is
rendered in stark, literal, horrifying reality. For Goya there is no forgetting
the implications of what that story implies, his Chronos appears as shaggy,
wild-eyed, orangish monstrosity; matted, bestial white hair falls uncombed from
his head, and past his scrawny shoulders. Saturn is angular, jutting bones and
knobby kneecaps, as if hunger has forced him to this unthinkable act. His eyes
are wide, and though wild, they’re somehow scared, dwelling in the darkness of
I wonder if that’s part of Goya’s intent, using this pagan theme to express something of Catholic guilt and death-obsession, that intuitive awareness of original sin. It makes sense to me that Saturn is the scared one; scared of what he’s capable of, scared of what he’s done. Clutching in both hands the dismembered body of a son, whose features and size are recognizably human, Chronos grips his child like a hoagie, his son’s right arm already devoured and his head in Saturn’s stomach, with the Titan biting directly into the final remaining hand. Appropriately enough for what is, after all, an act of deicide, the sacrificed god hangs in a cruciform position. A fringe of blood spills out from inside. His corpse has a pink flush to it, like a medium rare hamburger. That’s the horror of Chronos—of time—emerging from this undifferentiated darkness. When considering our final hour, time has a way of rendering the abstraction of a body into the literalism of meat. Saturn Devouring His Son hung in Goya’s dining room.
His later paintings may be the most striking evocation of blackness, but the
shade haunted Goya his entire life. His print The Sleep of Reason Produces
Monsters, made two decades before those murals in the Quinta del
Sordo, is a cross-hatched study of the somber tones, of black and grey.
Goya draws himself, head down on a desk containing the artist’s implements, and
above him fly the specters of his nocturnal imagination, bats and owls flapping
their wings in the ceaseless drone that is the soundtrack of our subconscious
irrationalities, of the blackness that defines that minor form of extinction we
7.The blackness of sleep both promises and threatens erasure. In that strange state of non-being there is an intimation of what it could mean to be dead. Telling that darkness is the most applicable metaphor when describing both death and sleep, for the bed or the coffin. Sigmund Freud famously said of his subject in The Interpretation of Dreams that they were the “royal road to the unconscious.” Even the laws of time and space seem voided within that nocturnal kingdom, where friends long dead come to speak with us, where hidden rooms are discovered in the dark confines of homes we’ve known our entire lives. Dreams are a singularity of sorts, but there is that more restful slumber that’s nothing but a calm blackness.
This reciprocal comparison between sleep and death is such a cliché precisely because it’s so obvious, from the configuration of our actual physical repose to our imagining of what the experiences might share with one another. Edmund Spenser in the Faerie Queene writing “For next to Death is Sleepe to be compared;” his contemporary the poet Thomas Sackville referring to sleep as the “Cousin of Death;” the immaculate Thomas Browne writing that sleep is the “Brother of Death;” and more than a century later Percy Shelley waxing “How wonderful is Death, Death and his brother Sleep!”
Without focusing too much on how the two have moved closer to one another on the family tree, what seems to unify tenor and vehicle in the metaphorical comparisons between sleep and death is this quality of blackness, non-existence of color the same as non-existence. Both imply a certain radical freedom, for in dreams everyone has an independence, at least for a few hours. Consider that in our own society, where our totalizing system is the consumerism which controls our every waking moment, that the only place where you won’t see anything designed by humans (other than yourself) is in dreams, at least until Amazon finds a way to beam advertisements directly into our skulls.
Then there is Shakespeare, who speaks of sleep as the “ape of death,” who in Hamlet’s monologue writes of the “sleep of death,” and in the Scottish play calls sleep “death’s counterfeit.” If centuries have a general disposition, then my beloved 17th century was a golden age of morbidity when the ars Moriendi of the “good death” was celebrated by essayists like Browne and Robert Burton in the magisterial Anatomy of Melancholy. In my own reading and writing there are few essayists whom I love more, or try to emulate more, than the good Dr. Browne. That under-read writer and physician, he who both coined the terms “literary” and “medical,” among much else besides, wrote one of the most moving and wondrous tracts about faith and skepticism in his 1642 Religio Medici. Browne writes “Sleep is a death, /O make me try, /By sleeping, what it is to die:/And as gently lay my head/On my grave, as now my bed.” Maybe it resonates with me because when I was (mostly) younger, I’d sometimes lay on my back and pretend that I was in my coffin. I still can only sleep in pitch blackness.
8.Far easier to imagine that upon death you go someplace not unlike here, in either direction, or into the life of some future person yet unborn. Far harder to imagine non-existence, that state of being nothing, so that the most accessible way that it can be envisioned is as a field of black, as being the view when you close your eyes. That’s simply blackness as a metaphor, another inexact and thus incorrect portrayal of something fundamentally unknowable. In trying to conceive of non-existence, blackness is all that’s accessible, and yet it’s a blackness where the very power of metaphor ceases to make sense, where language itself breaks down as if it were the laws of physics at the dark heart of the singularity.
In the Talmud, at Brachot 57b, the sages tell us that “Sleep is 1/60th of death,” and this equation has always struck me as just about right. It begs certain questions though: is the sleep that is 1/60th of death those evenings when we have a pyrotechnic, psychedelic panoply of colors before us in the form of surrealistic dreams, or is it the sleep we have that is blacker than midnight, devoid of any being, of any semblance of our waking identities? This would seem to me to be the very point on which all questions of skepticism and faith must hang. That sleep, that strangest of activities, for which neurologists still have no clear answers as to its necessities (though we do know that it is), is a missive from the future grave, a seven-hour slice of death, seems obvious to me. So strange that we mock the “irrationalities” of ages past, when so instrumental to our own lives is something as otherworldly as sleep, when we die for a third of our day and return from realms of non-being to bore our friends with accounts of our dreams.
When we use the darkness of repose as metaphor for death, we brush against the extremity of naked reality and the limitations of our own language. In imagining non-existence as a field of undifferentiated black, we may trick ourselves into experiencing what it would be to no longer be here, but that’s a fallacy. Black is still a thing. Less than encouraging, this inability to conceive of that reality, which may be why deep down all of us, whether we’re to admit it or not, are pretty sure that we’ll never die, or at least not completely. And yet the blackness of non-existence disturbs, how couldn’t it? Epicurus wrote as an argument against fear of our own mortality that “Death… is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”
Maybe that’s a palliative to some people, but it’s never been to me. More of
sophistry than wisdom in the formulation, for it eludes the psychology of being
terrified at the thought of our own non-existence. Stoics and Epicureans have
sometimes asked why we’re afraid of the non-existence of death, since we’ve
already experienced the non-existence before we’re born? When I think back to
the years before 1984, I don’t have a sense of an undifferentiated blackness,
rather I have a sense of…. well…. nothing. That’s not exactly
consoling to me. Maybe this is the height of egocentricity, but hasn’t anyone
ever looked at photographs of your family from before you’re born, and felt a
bit of the uncanny about it? Asking for a friend.
In 1714, the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz asked in the Monadology “Why is there something rather than nothing,” and that remains the rub. For Martin Heidegger in the 20th century, that issue remained the “fundamental question of metaphysics.” I proffer no solution to it here, only to notice that when confronted with the enormity of non-existence, prudence forces us to admit the equivalently disturbing question of existence. Physicist Max Delbrück in Mind from Matter: An Essay on Evolutionary Epistemology quotes his colleague Niels Bohr, the father of quantum theory, as having once said that the “hallmark of any deep truth [is] that its negation is also a deep truth.” Certainly, the case with existence and non-existence, equally profound and equally disquieting. If we’re to apply colors to either, I can’t help but see oppositional white and black, with an ambiguity to which is which.
9.If there can be a standard picture of God, I suspect that for most people it is a variation on the bearded, old man in the sky trope, sort of a more avuncular version of Michelangelo’s rendering from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Such is an embodied deity, of dimensions in length, breadth, and width, and also such is the Lord as defined through that modern heresy of literalism. The ancients were often more sophisticated than both our fundamentalists and our atheists (as connected as black and white). Older methods of speaking about something as intractable as God were too often pass over in silence, with an awareness that to limit God to mere existence was to limit too much.
In that silence there was the ever-heavy blossom of blackness, the all-encompassing field of darkness that contains every mystery to which there aren’t even any questions. Solzhenitsyn observed that “even blackness [can]… partake of the heavens.” Not even blackness, but especially blackness, for dark is the night. Theologians call this way of speaking about God “apophasis.” For those who embrace apophatic language, there is an acknowledgement that a clear definition of the divine is impossible, so that it is better to dwell in sacred, uncertainties. This experience of God can often be a blackness in itself, what St. John of the Cross spoke of in his 1577 Spanish poem “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Content with how an absence can often be more holy than an image, the saint emphasized that such a dark night is “lovelier than the dawn.” A profound equality in undifferentiated blackness, in that darkness where features, even of God, are obscured. Maybe the question of whether or not God is real is as nonsensical as those issues of non-existence and death; maybe the question itself doesn’t make any sense, understanding rather that God isn’t just black. God is blackness.
10. On an ivory wall within the National Gallery, in Andrew Mellon’s palace constructed within this gleaming white city, there is a painting made late in life by Mark Rothko entitled Black on Grey. Measuring some 80 inches by 69.1 inches, the canvas is much taller than the average man, and true to its informal title it is given over to only two colors—a dark black on top fading into a dusty lunar grey below. Few among Rothko’s contemporaries in his abstract expressionist circle, that movement that moved the capital of the art world from Paris to New York, had quite the sublimity of color as he did. Jackson Pollock certainly had the kinetic frenzy of the drip, Willem de Kooning the connection to something still figurative in his pastel swirl. But Rothko, he had a panoply of color, from his nuclear oranges and reds to those arctic blues and pacific greens, what he described to Selden Rodman in Conversations with Artists as a desire to express “basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom.”
Black on Grey looks a bit like what I imagine it would be to survey the infinity of space from the emptiness of the moon’s surface. These paintings towards the end of the artist’s life, made before he committed suicide by barbiturate and razor blade in his East 69th Street studio, took an increasingly melancholic hue. Perhaps Rothko experienced what his friend the poet Frank O’Hara had written about as the “darkness I inhabit in the midst of sterile millions.” Rothko confirmed that his black paintings were, as with Goya, fundamentally about death.
In a coffee-table book, Rothko’s work can look like something from a paint
sample catalog. It does no justice compared to standing before the images
themselves, of what Rothko described as the phenomenon of how “people break
down and cry when confronted with my pictures.” For Rothko, such reactions were
a type of communion, these spectators were “having the same religious experience
I had when I painted them.” When you stand before Black on Grey, when
it’s taken out from the sterile confines of the art history book or the
reductions of digital reproduction, you’re confronted with a blackness that
dominates your vision, as seeing with your eyes closed, as experiencing death,
as standing in the empty Holy of Holies and seeing God.
With a giant field of black, the most elemental abstraction that could be
imagined, this Jewish mystic most fully practiced the stricture to not make any
graven image. He paradoxically arrived at the most accurate portrayal of God
ever committed to paint. For all of their oppositions, both Infinity and
Nothing become identical, being the same shade of deep and beautiful black, so
that any differences between them are rendered moot.
Image credit: Unsplash/David Jorre.
Imagine organizing a small get-together, a few friends and acquaintances at a neighborhood bar. It’s all very low-key. The day comes; friends arrive. You order cocktails. You chit-chat. In walks the President of the United States, with secret service, trailed by a herd of photographers. Suddenly, you are at a very different sort of party.
So it was with my journey into the world of nuclear weapons. I started researching and writing my book in 2008; we were not, then, living under threat of nuclear temper tantrum. The possibility that someone might actually use an atomic weapon again was a comfortably remote risk. I wasn’t dealing with current events; I was just interested in the people who made nuclear war a possibility—people who ended up with immense power not because they craved it but because of particular skills and talents they had. With this distance, I could do the research necessary to write about them without having nightmares.
A lot has been written about nuclear war. I have a shelf of history, biography, and popular science books about the weapons, their creators, and their evolution. From the newly re-popular Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep to Cat’s Cradle, Red Alert (inspiration for Dr. Strangelove) to Gravity’s Rainbow, there is a rich fiction of the arms race and the post-apocalyptic landscape, heavily steeped in satire and speculation. Through all this, one can come to know an awful lot about the types of explosions humankind has learned to set off, and just how destructive they might be.
It is one thing to have that kind of knowledge when it’s all a thought experiment. It’s something else entirely when leading experts agree the chances are, once again, non-trivial. Now that Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un have arrived, I am at a very different sort of party.
This decade has seen some wonderful literary novels set after apocalyptic events. Think of Station Eleven (pandemic), and of Gold Fame Citrus (catastrophic drought). If we stretch the decade a little, we get the unspecified but possibly nuclear apocalypse of The Road. These books deal intimately with the aftermath of a dreaded event. There is very little room for comfort, and they don’t traffic in the will-it-or-won’t-it anxiety that we live with in the real world; in these books, it will. It did. And it’s every bit as bad as we thought. I can only imagine that writing that kind of book is like staring into the sun.
I don’t have the stomach for that. Instead, I wrote around the edges of disaster. My book is pre-apocalyptic; it is set in this world, not in the one that may come. The central question is not what it will be like when it arrives, but rather what does the mere possibility, the capability, do to us? It’s still a novel about the possible end of the world as we know it, but its approach to that topic is oblique. And my disaster of choice was one that seemed, unlike drought or pandemic, remote and unlikely. It was behind us, not ahead. It was a safe choice.
Now the world has taken that safety away. It has catapulted my comfortably distant topic into startling relevance. It has left me with more information than I really want, in this environment, about exactly what a nuclear war would entail. Those details I spent so long collecting are fodder for the nightmares I thought I was avoiding, triggered every couple of weeks by some fresh story on the news.
The first book I read, before this project was really underway, was Freeman Dyson’s Disturbing the Universe. In it, Dyson recalls time spent with the great physicist Richard Feynman, who had originally refused to work on the bomb and acquiesced only so Adolf Hitler wouldn’t get it first. He remembered Feynman sitting on the hood of his jeep in the desert, joyfully banging on a set of bongo drums to celebrate the success of the Trinity test, the first nuclear bomb ever exploded. Not long after, Feynman turned his back on military work, realizing that, in Dyson’s words, “he was too good at it and enjoyed it too much.”
Next, I dove into American Prometheus, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s gripping biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. I had downloaded the audiobook; I listened to it walking around in bright sunshine on the campus of the University of Arizona, where I was getting a master’s degree. As his life went on, Oppenheimer was clearly haunted, and he, in turn, haunted me. I can still hear the narrator’s voice in my head when I walk up the mall in the middle of the campus, among the palm trees and the oblivious undergraduates.
These were men who were responsible, in a startlingly direct way, for the fate of our world. They knew just exactly how much trouble we were in—because they helped put us there. They felt, evidently, that they had to. But did they? Clearly, both came to doubt that as their lives went on and they had to live with it. This is something, at least. My head might be full of kilotons, of radiation burns, of calculations about radius and wind speed, but at least I don’t have choices to make about any of this. Whether we survive this has nothing to do with me.
A few years later, deep into the writing process, I was living in Helena, Mont., where there wasn’t much to do in the winter if you don’t ski. One snowy Saturday I went to an estate sale, for something to do. It was largely picked over by the time I arrived, but I found, in a back room—it must have once been the study, though there was no furniture—a treasure trove. There was a whole wall of books with titles like Explaining the Atom (published 1947), Early Tales of the Atomic Age (1948) and The New Force (1953). I took home a paper grocery bag full for $5. Going through them that night, I noticed that inside the cover flap of Nuclear Theft: Risks and Safeguards (1974), someone had underlined the following: “The design and manufacture of a crude weapon is no longer a difficult task,” and “The authors evaluate current methods of guarding materials and find them inadequate.”
The house had belonged to one of Helena’s wealthy old families, and the matriarch had lived there until the end. I have no way to know the nature of her obsession, if it was even hers, or if the collection had belonged to her husband who—you know these things when you live in a city of 40,000—had died a few years earlier. Maybe it had once been his; maybe she, in her last lonely years, had gone through each chilling volume, reading the passages he’d marked, to take some small comfort in the fear of something that, unlike the condition of the grand old house whose floors had started to rot, or her famously strained relationship with her daughter, or the idiots taking over the local city council, she couldn’t do a damn thing about.
Here, I found anxiety not just of the scientists, but of a fellow reader who had amassed this collection a generation before I was born, when the threat had also been real. A reader who must have found some comfort in this area of study, some pleasure. A reader who, given the context in which I had acquired her books, had lived and died in a world that, without regard to her worry, had survived every threat to its existence.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
I was hooked on Daniel Riley’s debut novel from the moment I heard the premise: Suzy Whitman graduates from Vassar in 1972 and heads to the beach town of Sela del Mar, California, to follow her married older sister, Grace, into life as a stewardess for Grand Pacific Airlines.
My mother grew up in the South Bay, the part of California that Riley has lightly fictionalized in Sela del Mar, and I knew I would eat up every detail of a beachside, Watergate-era coming-of-age. But Fly Me, for all its period trappings, tells a much darker story than its sun-soaked setting would lead you to expect. Suzy soon finds that Grace’s new marriage to Mike, an unemployed journalist desperate to found the next great American magazine, is already rocky. Meanwhile, her parents are facing challenges of their own back in upstate New York. Determined to help the people she loves, Suzy finds herself drawn into a life of running drugs between the coasts — just as the nation-wide epidemic of skyjackings reaches its peak.
Riley met me at a bar in Williamsburg that obliged us by playing a steady stream of seventies rock, including many songs referenced in the pages of his novel. We talked about southern California, USC football, and subtle sexism in our parents’ generation (and also, spoiler alert, in our own).
AB: I wanted to ask you about the original seed for this book, because there are so many different things I could imagine as your entry point. Did you begin with the place, or the era of skyjackings, or the character of Suzy?
DR: My grandmother’s cousin, basically my “third grandma,” was a stewardess in the late fifties. She grew up in Los Feliz, went to USC, flew for United, and then worked in PR for LAX for decades. She helped establish the Flight Path Museum in Los Angeles. It’s a cool museum; all the volunteers are former flight attendants. I went for the first time right after I graduated from college, and I got to screw around with all these great books and resources they had there. That was sort of the very, very start of the book. Looking back at some of the notes and ideas I had back then almost feels like looking at cave paintings.
AB: So it felt like that trip to the Flight Path Museum was your way in?
DR: It was really a confluence of things. There were all these women who had flown around when I was growing up. I would always play in the annual Clipped Wings Classic golf tournament with former stewardesses. Those were mostly women who were one generation older than the characters in the book, but that younger generation was around, too. They were the moms of kids I went to school with. And my mom and her two sisters were not stewardesses, but they all worked as travel agents for long stretches. Everybody around was involved in the airport and flight and travel, in some way.
AB: One of my favorite images of Suzy from the novel’s opening is the image of her planting her skateboard in the sand and watching the airplanes.
DR: In a way the book really started for me because I used to be that person plunked down in the sand, watching the planes take off over the bay, seeing if I could guess the destination for each one. My mom always knew the flights by their numbers because she would book the tickets, and you could tell by the color of the tail.
When you grow up in California, especially in these places by the beach, the late sixties and early seventies are not far, at any moment. That stuff is in the trees, it’s in the air. Everything is an Instagram filter already. Also, certain parts of a southern California beach town look exactly like they did then. The beach doesn’t change.
So you start stacking all of that up, and you think, okay, I can build a story out of this. You start with what is familiar. It also came from feeling that nobody writes great books about the beach communities in southern California! It’s under-served by literature, this place that’s perfectly served by television and film.
And then, I had the fact that 1972 was the heaviest year of all for skyjackings.
AB: I’m surprised that isn’t talked about more. Maybe it is, and I’m just ignorant, but especially given the fact that airline security has been a huge issue for most of my adult life.
DR: Oh, yeah. It was that specific moment, when 1972 became 1973, when they basically said, we have to start instituting some sort of security. And guess what: all the skyjackings stopped! Because people couldn’t just walk onto a plane anymore with guns, bombs, and knives.
It was sort of sporadic and then all at once, because of the copycat effect. I read some excerpts from a sociological study by David G. Hubbard called The Skyjacker: His Flights of Fancy that discussed the psychological profile of the people that did this. In all cases, it’s people who feel that all of their options and lanes and lines have been severed.
AB: You have Suzy reading a quote from Renata Adler’s story in the 1972 fiction issue of The New Yorker: “I think when you are truly stuck, when you have stood still in the same spot for too long, you throw a grenade in exactly the spot you were standing in, and jump, and pray. It is the momentum of last resort.”
DR: Exactly — it drives these people to whatever they’re looking for, whether that’s to go to Havana to be with Castro, or needing some sort of retribution for something that happened in Vietnam. There were a lot of vets who did this, actually. It’s that idea of the push to the edge. And in that sense, then — of course this time period is populated with dozens of people like this.
AB: Did you chart the book’s plot in advance, while you were writing?
DR: I find it completely mystifying, writers who say that they write without sort of a destination in mind. That would be a total disaster for me. It has to be driving to something so that you can thread in whatever you need to do to earn the end, hopefully. So that if you go back and start from the top again, it hopefully feels completely surprising and also entirely inevitable.
The other challenge while I was writing was that I was changing so much as a writer. I mean, in your twenties you’re probably changing more than you do at any point, I think. I feel like six or seven different Dans wrote this book.
AB: There’s a quote from Keith Gessen about watching Chad Harbach re-write The Art of Fielding over a period of years: “With a long novel…it might take six months or a year to go through and re-write the whole thing to your satisfaction. By then you’d have changed again and want to start re-writing the beginning. The book could begin to swallow itself.”
DR: It’s like the guy who paints the Golden Gate Bridge. When he’s done with it he just starts over again, because it’s already corroded. As recently as September, in my last pass before the galley, I was rewriting. There was just stuff written across nine years, and I wanted it all to fit together, to bring it all to a uniform place.
AB: The book is full of period detail, but I’m curious what research you did into the daily professional routines of a stewardess in 1972.
DR: That really goes back to my visit to the Flight Path Museum. They had diaries there, and even the super cheesy ones that were really vague — “it was the best of times” kind of stuff — even those were useful. Every once in a while, you get a great detail.
There was a book that was a bestseller in 1967 called Coffee, Tea, or Me. It was allegedly written by two stewardesses, but it later turned out they were fictional and it was written by a man. It was a lot of cliched, exaggerated stuff, but you can at least get a feel for what was in the air.
There was also a great book called Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants, by Kathleen Barry, that was more about the legal history. After the time period of the book, during the mid-seventies, all of the things that are the most egregious and haranguing in terms of equal rights in the workplace are brought to the Supreme Court. All the things that they can be fired for: height, weight, makeup. The stewardesses not being allowed to get married.
AB: There are a lot of period set-pieces in the book, especially the 1973 USC Rose Bowl game. Were those in there from the very beginning?
DR: Well, for me to write a truly authentic story about southern California beach towns, even though it’s seemingly irrelevant, I couldn’t write about that without writing about USC. It’s just the most pervasive thing there is.
My parents didn’t go to USC, but everyone we know did. So, you can pick at things you actually know about. But no one’s going to mistake my life for this life. I didn’t set out deliberately to not write a book about Dan in the nineties in the South Bay. But I’m really relieved, in a way, to just let the book be another thing. No one’s saying, you know, oh, you must be Suzy.
AB: Are you getting questions from people who assume that Suzy is based on your mother?
DR: A little bit, but I explain how little they have in common biographically. Suzy’s a combination of a few things. I had never explicitly thought of it before this, but while I had a great dad — the opposite of an absentee father — I was really raised by a lot of women. My mom had two sisters, and their mother was a single mom. She was divorced in 1960. I was surrounded by all these independent women, and I think a lot of that stuff fed into Suzy’s character. She’s going to work on cars, she’s going to build things, make things. She’s going to take control of something.
I didn’t realize how unique that sort of collective of women was until I started thinking through this character. So Suzy doesn’t feel exceptional to me, but she does clash with your more traditional type.
I was interested by what happens when you manipulate a character who has never at any point in her life had complete control of something. And then you tease her with that control, until you slowly have all the men in her life take that away, prod her, push her over that edge.
AB: I was wondering how you saw that interplay between Suzy and men. In the book, she’s often being circled in a somewhat predatory way.
DR: In many ways, if I put myself in my mom’s or my aunt’s shoes, or in the shoes of any woman who’s told a story from that time, it’s obvious that major, terrible things can happen. But it’s the more subtle things that I feel personally most distanced from. It’s still that way today. The part that’s most obvious to see is when someone is profoundly sexist. It’s a different thing when there are just other, really subtle things going on. Even something like her father trying to protect Suzy from the news — things that are little, more subtle digs.
AB: You repeat one image twice – the idea of being able to taste someone else’s blood in your mouth. When you use it for Mike, he’s discovered that Thomas Pynchon lives nearby and it has to do with thwarted ambition, jealousy. But with Suzy, you use it during a moment when she might be in actual mortal danger. It’s a really economical way to show us that, you know, Mike being backed into a corner is a very different thing from Suzy being backed into a corner.
DR: Yes. With the character of Mike, it was fun to think about what happens when you dial him to the worst type of that guy. When you have somebody who feels like he was on the right career path, but it’s beginning to slip away.
And then you put Thomas Pynchon writing Gravity’s Rainbow in Manhattan Beach in 1969 — he was living in what was then El Porto. It’s part of Manhattan Beach now, and it’s the most still-untouched part. They actually filmed part of the movie for Inherent Vice there because you can find houses that look exactly the way they did then. Nobody knew he was a writer. He was just a former Navy guy, living there, buying his meat at the meat market.
But for Mike, that’s just the ultimate thing that guts him. I am suffering here, telling everybody that the reason I’m failing is this place where nobody could possibly get anything serious done. And then this doorstop novel comes out, and it was written right there.
AB: I was reading this book the week that James Comey was fired, which was a bizarre experience since the book unfolds in the year before the Saturday Night Massacre. I wondered about the shadow of Richard Nixon that looms over the novel. How did you strike that balance, making sure that the political turmoil of that year was brought to bear on the characters but also kept in the background?
DR: I tried to create this condition where Sela del Mar sort of had this bubble built around it — where only news that affected one personally might seep in. The beach towns in southern California can still feel that way — a little separate, a little apart. A town like Sela del Mar can yank you away from the news a little bit — draw you into a warm bath, drain the tension out of your shoulders, and recalibrate your priorities.
I’ve noticed that this year, even, when I go home to visit. The way in which folks I know in my “regular” life pay attention, minute-by-minute, to breaking news — that watchdogging and hyperventilating just seems a little less present at the beach. People go outside, they put their phones down. It’s possible to disappear into some different rhythms. It’s not complete indifference; everything political just feels a little distant. I think Suzy’s father says it in the book when he visits California — the news feels wrapped in gauze.
I think part of it, too, is just an overwhelming confidence in the protections provided by the state — the size and strength of California then and now allows one to feel not so caught up in the national narrative. I wrote a piece about the California secession movement this winter, and though there was obviously plenty of anxiety in that deep blue state about the Trump Administration, there was also this feeling among secessionists and non-secessionists alike that what was happening in Washington was just further proof of something many Californians had believed for a long time: that what happens way over there has nothing to do with what’s happening here.
I recognize only in retrospect how removed I was from the news at times growing up. We were three hours behind, way out at the farthest edge.
AB: I loved that they get free beers at the bar on Election Day, if they can prove they didn’t vote.
DR: That detail was not something I’d ever heard, but it made perfect sense. It fit perfectly within the logic of all this. It is interesting though, because I feel like a lot of this stuff still rang true when I was growing up, but I don’t know if it does anymore. It feels like it would be impossible, now, for it to feel quite so disconnected out there.
AB: Well, Manhattan Beach is also so much ritzier, now.
DR: Oh, it’s way ritzier. Hollywood is now down there, all the athletes live down there. It just doesn’t feel like it’s at that same sort of remove. But growing up, I didn’t know anything about the rest of LA. We would go to museums or to Dodger games once in a while, but I had no idea what the map looked like. But you don’t feel isolated in the way that you might if you were in a prairie town, or somewhere like that.
When I would hear that people had family in Virginia, as an elementary schooler, I was like…What? Why? And if anybody left, it was so strange. It was so cordoned off.
There’s a reason that most of the books written about beach towns that are really good are often crime or murder mysteries. Because it’s so easy to shatter that thing that anybody feels, when they’re just hypnotically looking out at the water.
There’s a dirty secret tucked away in Thomas Pynchon’s novels, and it’s this: beyond all the postmodernism and paranoia, the anarchism and socialism, the investigations into global power, the forays into labor politics and feminism and critical race theory, the rocket science, the fourth-dimensional mathematics, the philatelic conspiracies, the ’60s radicalism and everything else that has spawned 70 or 80 monographs, probably twice as many dissertations, and hundreds if not thousands of scholarly essays, his novels are full of cheesy love stories.
Personally, I like the cheesy love stories. If reading a Pynchon novel is like running a marathon, then the love stories are the little gooey snacks that you pick up at aid stations. You could probably finish the run or the novel without the gooey parts, but having them raises your spirits and gives you the energy to cruise to the end. Still, I know the love stories are dirty secrets because I spend an inordinate amount of time in the world of Pynchon studies. I’ve read through mountains of work on his novels. I’ve written one of the aforementioned dissertations, a few of the essays, and one of the monographs. I’ve presented papers on Pynchon at academic conferences. I regularly teach a semester-long class on Pynchon. I hang out sometimes with other Pynchon scholars. And I notice that the love stories are never discussed openly. We get together after class, we gather in conference break rooms, we share a beer and confide in each other. We say things like, “I think Maxine and Horst make a better divorced couple than they do a married one” and “I’m so happy that Kit and Dahlia finally got together. I sure hope it works out.” We talk of characters as if they’re real people, and we talk about ourselves as if we’re characters. But we never write about the love stories.
What Pynchon scholars do write a lot about is sex and its relationship to death in his books. This is natural, especially when we’re talking about a war novel like Gravity’s Rainbow. Sex and death are inherent in our conceptions of war. Everything about modern warfare is riddled with sexual imagery. We’re constantly shoving, thrusting, or otherwise forcefully inserting dick-shaped objects into places where they’re not wanted, then triggering them to explode. War is such a homoerotic enterprise, so laden with the language and imagery of rape, that Pynchon couldn’t avoid it if he wanted to. And one thing that’s clear to everyone who reads Gravity’s Rainbow: he doesn’t want to avoid this. The novel is many things. Among these things, it’s a 760-page-long dick joke.
But I don’t want to talk about dick jokes, here. I want to talk about Pynchon’s love stories.
My favorite is the one between Roger Mexico and Jessica in Gravity’s Rainbow. They’re minor characters in the context of the novel, but they come about early in the book, before you know which characters the narrative will focus on and which ones will fade into the background. Their role in the plot is negligible. In short, Roger is a statistician for a governmental organization called the White Visitation. His statistical mapping of the V-2 bomb strikes in London is an exact match of protagonist Tyrone Slothrop’s map of girls he’s slept with in London. This correlation leads the White Visitation into pursuing Slothrop. The hijinks of the novel ensue.
Pynchon could have dealt with the correlation in a sentence or two, never having to name Roger Mexico or give him a role. Yet four of the first 21 chapters are dedicated to Roger and Jessica. The first section ends with Roger’s meditation on the future of their relationship. Even if their love affair isn’t important plot-wise, the attention it is given and its placement in the novel suggests that it’s important on some level.
When we first meet the couple, Roger is starting to sag under the weight of the war. Jessica is tougher. She teases him, saying, “Poor Roger, poor lamb, he’s having an awful war.” Even so, Roger is smitten. He has “the feeling of actually being joined” on some spiritual level with Jessica. In a novel full of the occult, séances, clairvoyants, astral travelers, and telekinetics — which Gravity’s Rainbow is — this type of metaphysical connection can’t be taken too lightly. And Roger doesn’t take it lightly. Even though he’s a statistician, a specialist trained in the cold, rational world of numbers, he recognizes that “here is the first, the very first real magic: data he can’t argue away.” In the midst of the chaos of a world war, Roger and Jessica have found a way to fall in love. In the midst of the chaos that is a Pynchon novel, readers find a way to fall in love with them.
Book reviewers have a long history of attacking Pynchon for his flat characters. Roger and Jessica are susceptible to this criticism. Neither is given much of a history. We don’t know where they grew up or who their parents were. Chapters are told from their perspectives, but we’re given only glimpses into their fear. Their desire — the most compelling thing about characters in fiction — doesn’t stretch much beyond their desire to stay alive among the falling bombs, to share this moment of love for as long as it lasts. Who are they, then, other than young Brits in love against the backdrop of World War II?
In their final chapter together, Roger worries about Jessica leaving him. He’s convinced she’ll go back to her lieutenant boyfriend, who represents everything that’s wrong with the war and the ideology behind it. Roger sees the relationship between him and Jessica as representing the only thing that makes him want to keep living among the falling bombs. He wants to hang on to it, but he’s convinced he can’t. He believes Jessica will go back to the lieutenant and “remember Roger, if at all, as a mistake thank God she didn’t make.” He can’t take this. He knows the end of the relationship will feel like a death. This is a death he can’t abide. And so the reader is set up for the typical end of the first act of a romantic comedy, when the characters who are so right for each other hurtle toward their relationship’s doom.
On the one hand, Roger and Jessica can be read as a stock characters. Roger is a man afraid of love and war and anything beyond his control, so he retreats to the safe space of numbers, to the world where objects obey rational systems. Jessica — like any female lead in a romantic comedy — is the free spirit who allows Roger to abandon his illusions of control and live life, if only for the moment. On the other hand, Roger and Jessica bring in a lot of the third dimension. Roger seeks some control among the chaos, but not that much. He relies on his statistical analyses. He makes sense of the bombs using advanced mathematics. Still, he’s open to the spiritual, the unexplained, the metaphysical. He’s always up for the madcap and romantic. It is he, after all, who yearns and mourns most for the relationship. And for a free spirit, Jessica isn’t that free. She enjoys her tryst with Roger, teases him, and finds ways to laugh and love in the face of bombs and a world war. Yet she doesn’t completely let go of her lieutenant and a life in which she’ll “become a domestic bureaucrat, a junior partner.” In other words, Roger fears that she’ll trade both her independence and her job for a postwar role as a lieutenant’s housewife. Jessica does little to disabuse Roger of this notion.
The first time I read Gravity’s Rainbow, I didn’t think about the criticism of Pynchon’s flat characters or the scholarship about the bomb as a metaphor for our sexual attraction to death. I thought a lot about Roger. I thought a lot about love. Roger Mexico, to me, was more than character. He was my doppelgänger in the book.
I was 25 during that first reading. Roger was around my age. Like me, Roger was very intelligent about a narrow field of things. He was obsessed with ideas that most people chalk up as obscure, academic, irrelevant. These ideas helped him make sense of the world — a better sense than most people make of their own surroundings — but they’re still ideas that are culturally dismissed. For him, it was statistics. For me, it was novels. In my mind, we were a pair of savants bumbling through some difficult years. We both were in middling places in our lives: Roger a mid-level statistician at poorly-funded government research center; me a graduate assistant at a poorly-funded state school. And, regardless of any intellectual feats we may have tackled on a daily basis, we were both idiots when it came to emotional intelligence. Both of us were deeply in love and far too incompetent at relationships to foresee anything but a doomed future.
The fact that Roger was enmeshed in a world war while I was plodding through grad school didn’t dissuade me from seeing the similarities in our situations. My presence in graduate school felt like a furlough to me. It sounds melodramatic for me to say it now, but at the time I really felt like I was in a class war. I’d grown up in a blue-collar world. I started working for my father on his construction sites when I was 13. During summers when my white collar classmates were going to the beach or swimming in backyard pools or heading off to summer camps or just sitting in air-conditioned rooms, I took on a series of grunt jobs for various construction crews. Mostly, I worked as a framing carpenter. I did this through high school, my undergrad days, and a couple of years after getting my B.A. By the time I headed off for graduate school at age 24, I’d spent half my life working construction. In my corny, early-20s way, I saw my series of non-union construction jobs in Florida as a time spent in the infantry, another example of poor people giving their lives so rich people can get richer.
The funny thing about reflecting on it now, 20 years later, is that objective research partially supports my corny point of view. More American construction workers died in on the job during any year of the Iraq War than American soldiers died in Iraq. The same can be said about the war in Afghanistan. The same can be said about both wars combined. Outside of the statistical side, there’s this: I worked on a four-man framing crew in 1987 and a five-man crew in 1989. Of those eight carpenters, I am the only one alive today.
There was a longstanding joke among the members of one of the framing crews I worked on: if you were in your early-20s, you were middle aged. Because who the hell was going to make it to 50, anyway?
If I live five more years, I’ll be the only one.
So the bombs were different for me, but I felt like any love I might feel in my early-20s was tinged with a backdrop of death, and an early death I was warding off just barely.
Roger was an outcast at the White Visitation. The others were all mystics of some sort, predicting the future, speaking with the dead, tapping into the mysteries of the human brain. Roger, with his rational statistics, fit in about as well as I did in a graduate school full of rich kids whose graduate program ranking was being boosted by scholarship kids like me.
But what really made me relate to Roger was Jessica. I, too, was dating a woman who’d just ended a relationship with a guy who, by all cultural standards, was a better choice than me. My girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend had his own business. He made real money. He could’ve supported my girlfriend as a housewife or graduate student or many other things. He didn’t spend his days with a nose deep in a 760-page novel full of rocket bombs and other erections.
My girlfriend and me, like Roger and Jessica, were in a temporary space. War or grad school. Neither ever really ends, but personal involvement in it typically only lasts a couple of years. We’d all drifted into these worlds where the rules seemed different, where we could indulge in love and dreams and spirit until the cold austerity of life takes over. Like Roger, I wanted the world, or at least the romance within it, to last. Like Roger, I felt like losing my girlfriend would feel like a death. Facing the doom of our affair felt like facing my own mortality.
At least that’s how I thought then. This cheesy Pynchon love story was exactly what I needed.
I was a young man at the end of the century. Cultural stories about love were dominated by television sitcoms and romantic comedies. In the former, people thrust together by circumstances beyond their control grate on each other’s nerves until they finally realize they’re in love. In the latter, love was portrayed as a co-dependence catalyzed by scenes of stalking (really, go back to any of them and imagine those events happening in real life. Lloyd Dobler would’ve been arrested with his boom box; Sally would’ve changed her phone number and gotten a restraining order long before Harry sang karaoke into her answering machine).
When I read Gravity’s Rainbow in 1996, it was the first time in my life when a man I respected told me a story about love in a real way. It was the first time great art gave me permission to be sincere. Roger Mexico gave voice to so many of those corny thoughts that kept me up at night.
For me, this story worked on a personal level. I stuck with that girlfriend. I’m married to her now. I probably would’ve found a way to give myself permission to love her whether I’d read Gravity’s Rainbow or not. Still, when I reread the novel now — which I do more than I should admit — I love those early sections with Roger and Jessica. They connect me to an earlier version of myself. They remind me of my wife’s Jessica days. They also remind me that, beyond all the depth we mine from novels, there’s that connection — so simple and human — that brought us into the books in the first place.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
I wish I knew why the U.S. Army never tried to weaponize old photos. When you look at the government’s history, which includes such episodes as the gay bomb, it’s difficult not to conclude they’ve researched nigh-on everything, to the point where you could justify a grim variant of Rule 34. If it exists, in other words, the Army has attempted to kill with it. Yet, as far as I know, our top military minds never tried to kill people with embarrassment. I guess even the cruelest officer has a flicker of basic decency.
I read a lot this year, enough so that I’m not embarrassed about it, but I didn’t read all that many books in total, which seems like a bit of a paradox. How can I call myself a reader if I read so few books in that time? The answer, I think, lies in a photo, taken when I was 15. I’m contorting my face in a dimly-lit hall in my high school. My style, generally speaking, is that of Kurt Cobain, not because I’m some kind of super fan but because I’m sad and oblivious. I have unkempt, greasy hair, my shirt is ugly and baggy, and the cargo pants I’m wearing are somewhere near 80 percent pocket. I make it clear with every gesture my patron saint is Luc of Ennui. In my arms, a pile of books, so fat my elbow is a right angle. If you look at my friends, you’ll see they have around the same number of books in their arms, yet somehow I’m the only one who’s struggling not to fall over. Look closer and you see the culprit — one book in my pile is a doorstop.
When I was a freshman, that book was Ulysses. When I was a sophomore, Gravity’s Rainbow. At some point in ninth grade, I decided huge books were key to being smart and attractive, a thought so wrong I could write my own huge book meticulously debunking it. I was That Guy, more so than I could possibly know, and I hope I satisfy your schadenfreude when I say I barely understood what I read. I plowed through these massive tomes and got maybe two pages of meaning. What I did get, however, was a taste for the rhythm of huge books, which can be summed up as: you’ll be here for months, perhaps even years, so you might as well get comfortable, like a tenant.
All this explains why, around the the time Can’t and Won’t came out, I felt the stirrings of a deadly, ancient urge, the warblings of my sullen Inner Teen. “Hi there, douchebag,” said the teen, his posture terrible. “Why not read ALL the stories written by Lydia Davis?”
“Okay,” I said. “Please learn to shave and use deodorant.”
I bought a copy of Collected Stories that day. Altogether, it took me four months to read, which begs a simple question: was it worth it?
Please. Is it worth it to give money to charity and feed stray puppies in the street? Is it worth it to exercise and strive to live true to your values? To ask me if it’s worth it to read Lydia Davis is a bit like asking me if it’s worth it to learn new languages. Both activities are self-evidently nourishing, and no one needs guidance to see that.
For 30 years, since Break It Down was published, Lydia Davis has been churning out a singular, high-quality product, taking seemingly no detours into other, lesser breeds of stories. If Can’t and Won’t is any indication, she’ll be keeping it up for a long time. Early works like “French Lesson No. 1” are just as inventive and sly as things like the more recent “Idea for a Sign.” There is, I think, no “bad” Lydia Davis, in much the same way there is no bad Scottish tweed, or no bad bottles of new Jameson whiskey. Her stories reliably function as literary submersibles, dropping readers canyon-deep in a bracingly smart frame of mind.
The problem with reading huge books is it’s hard to start a new one after you finish. By then, it feels like a sort of betrayal, a break in a hallowed routine. That’s why I chose something broadly similar in the form of New American Stories. I’d read a few already, among them “Home” by George Saunders, but the contents (ably picked by Ben Marcus) supplied me with a whole new roster of writers to mainline. Chief among them were Rebecca Curtis, Said Sayrafiezadeh, and Rebecca Glaser, but I was perhaps most floored by Maureen McHugh, whose story in the book is best described as futuristic Chinese noir. The warp-speed “Going for a Beer” shows Robert Coover is still going strong, and “The Arms and Legs of the Lake” gave me a grounding in Mary Gaitskill. And, of course, there’s the 78-word-long “Men,” a Lydia Davis story that appears in Can’t and Won’t.
I therefore spent the bulk of my reading time on two pretty hefty collections. One was 0.1 percent Lydia Davis while the other was 100 percent. Did I have a good year? I don’t know. Do you like Jameson?
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Mom stood in front of the stove, left hand on her hip, right hand holding a spatula. Golden batter bubbled on the griddle. I stood to her side, leaning against a cabinet. She watched me watch her.
Although I now eat browned pancakes, knowing that the color delivers taste, as a boy, I craved golden pancakes. I couldn’t stomach a touch of dark. The front pancakes on the griddle would stay yellow, but each pair leading to the back carried a tan hint. My mother stacked those at the bottom, hoping that I would someday become less picky.
I spread butter across the light pancakes and drenched them in syrup. I put my mother through so much stress those weekend mornings. I have since apologized to her, but I know, now a parent myself, that my apology was appreciated, but not needed. Breakfast is love.
Literature and breakfast are both slow arts. Early morning arts that unfold while the world is still groggy and optimistic.
John Mullan collected 10 of the best breakfast descriptions in literature for The Guardian, although his list skews heavily British. From James Joyce’s Ulysses: “A kidney oozed bloodgouts on the willowpatterned dish: the last.” J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit gives us “Two whole loaves (with masses of butter and honey and clotted cream) and at least a quart of mead.” Mullan calls a selection from The Warden by Anthony Trollope an “ecclesiastical morning feast:” “there were eggs in napkins, and crispy bits of bacon under silver covers; and there were little fishes in a little box, and devilled kidneys frizzling on a hot-water dish.” The most unusual entry on the list is from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, the smell of Pirate Prentice’s apartment: “the fragile, musaceous odour of Breakfast, permeating, surprising, more than the color of winter sunlight.”
Save for a few years of college, I have lived in New Jersey my entire life. Other than corrupt politicians and housing New York sports teams, my state is best known for its breakfasts. Those meals are best found in three places: food trucks, delis, and diners.
New Jersey diners are satellite churches. Food as ritual. You settle into meals there. My ideal diner trip starts with coffee. Orange juice on the side. Chocolate chip pancakes with syrup and butter. I let the butter mingle with the syrup while I turn to the eggs. There are two choices: an omelet with bacon, green peppers, onions, and cheddar cheese, or Eggs Benedict. I choose the latter when I am feeling royal. I am usually dressed in a sweatshirt and sweatpants, as if I came from an early morning ice hockey practice. Eating is an athletic event for me. I am the youngest of four, so I have always eaten with elbows out, hoarding my take. My wife is entertained by my eating. I sit spread on one side of the booth, surrounded by plates. I even love the toast soggy with butter (the toast is not good, but it is like ice in a drink, a needed, cool break). I feel like the sow at the end of Sylvia Plath’s poem: “stomaching no constraint, / proceeded to swill / the seven troughed seas and every earthquaking continent.”
The syntactic tendencies of Cormac McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner make for great food description. Consider this, from McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain: “They were all at the table eating when Billy pushed open the door and came in. Socorro came and took the plate of biscuits and carried them to the oven and dumped them into a pan and put the pan in the warmer and took hot biscuits from the warmer and put them on the plate and carried the plate back to the table. On the table was a bowl of scrambled eggs and one of grits and there was a plate of sausage and a boat of gravy and bowls of preserves and pico de gallo and butter and honey.”
I met my wife in college, and some late nights that blurred into early mornings led us down Pennsylvania backroads. We found a diner with a domed vestibule, lit blue at the peak and red around the base. My Catholic sense seeks symbolism in all offerings, so I wasn’t sure if it was blessed or base to take in so much food before dawn. I ordered eggs sunny side up with home fries, and Jen got an omelet. We ate, and we laughed, and then we drifted back into the dark. To fall in love in college is a gift. It is the chance to bottle freedom of soul, to open that gift when needed most, years later.
“I’ve always wanted brook trout / for breakfast.” From “Looking for Work” by Raymond Carver.
Breakfasts should be a time of celebration. We are still alive. We can again go to the table.
“Mornings were better than evenings, for Father and Grandfather. Father always made us breakfast: fresh eggs that he had traded for (he and Grandfather both despised the sound and smell of chickens, though Grandfather was not above staking one out in a field to try and lure in a hungry hawk or eagle he wanted to watch).” From “The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness” by Rick Bass.
“A dinner party, coffee, tea, / Sandwich, or supper, all may be / In their way pleasant. But to me / Not one of these deserves the praise / That welcomer of new-born days, / A breakfast, merits.” From “Breakfast” by Mary Lamb.
Christian Wiman’s elegiac “Sitting Down to Breakfast Alone” ends with these lines: “All stories stop: once more you’re lost / in something I can merely see: steam spiriting out of black coffee, the scorched pores of toast, a bowl / of apple butter like edible soil, / bald cloth, knifelight, the lip of a glass, / my plate’s gleaming, teeming emptiness.”
In “Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast” by Hannah Gamble, the speaker asks someone to come over: “This morning I need four hands— / two to wash the greens, one to lift a teakettle, / one to pour the milk. This morning, one little mouth / will not do.”
“My mother said you can always tell when someone’s middle-aged when they tell you that breakfast is the most enjoyable meal of the day.” — Reynolds Price.
“I don’t eat breakfast, never have ever since as a child I was forced to eat my grandmother’s boiled oatmeal every single morning.” — M.F.K. Fisher.
Gertrude Stein’s prose always makes me hungry. She wasn’t afraid of food as fodder, but more importantly, her layering of detail and recursive images feel like a fork whipping eggs in a bowl, or a spoon turning oatmeal. She writes of “A shining breakfast, a breakfast shining, no dispute, no practice, nothing, nothing at all.” And: “Anything that is decent, anything that is present, a calm and a cook and more singularly still a shelter, all these show the need of clamor. What is the custom, the custom is in the centre.” In “Breakfast,” her letters evolve into a diary of digestion: “What is a loving tongue and pepper and more fish than there is when tears many tears are necessary. The tongue and the salmon, there is not salmon when brown is a color, there is salmon when there is no meaning to an early morning being pleasanter. There is no salmon, there are no tea-cups, there are the same kind of mushes as are used as stomachers by the eating hopes that makes eggs delicious.” Delicious. She achieves so much more, but as a pleasant start, Stein’s prose forces us to leave words on our tongues a bit longer. To let phonemes dissolve rather than chewing them into worthless noise.
“And so, she cook’d their breakfast to a tittle; / I can’t say that she gave them any tea, / But there were eggs, fruit, coffee, bread, fish, honey, / With Scio wine, —and all for love, not money.” From Don Juan by Lord Byron.
What constitutes a sad breakfast? Poor food. Poor mood. A rushed swallow, a cold coffee, or burnt toast that could be crumbled to ash. We should all be thankful for each bite, bitter or bold, but if food is art, then good taste is worth achieving.
Phillip Larkin’s “Waiting for Breakfast, While She Brushed Her Hair” is as melancholic a breakfast poem as I can imagine. The title is the poem’s first line, so that “waiting” becomes a droning act. The narrator looks out the hotel window, where wet cobblestones “sent no light back to the loaded sky.” He initially concludes: “Featureless morning, featureless night,” but the poem becomes more complex with each successive stanza, and ends with a question. There is no breakfast.
Archibald MacLeish’s “Hotel Breakfast” begins in the same melancholic mode as Larkin: “On a stale morning / in a miserable winter town in Illinois / neither of us ever heard of.” The narrator’s companion is “sipping a sticky cup of some…tepid brew.” MacLeish also ends with a question, delivered “heartsick with a mortal fear — / What brings you here?”
What brings me here?
Best pork roll sandwich I’ve ever eaten: deli in Chester, N.J. A sin that I can’t remember the name. I worked summers for The Seeing Eye, and once a month we made the short trip from our Morristown campus to the breeding station in Chester. I had to look forward to a hot afternoon weed-whacking brush that would sting my arms and neck, but heaven came first. Two eggs draped in cheese. Pork roll peppered on both sides. Ketchup. Sliced and oiled potatoes with diced onions. Soft Kaiser roll. We picked-up our sandwiches and sat on overturned cartons in the garage. Among the last month’s clippings pasted to the floor and the smell of gasoline, we feasted.
I look forward to Jen’s weekend breakfasts all week, but now our breakfasts are tactical. We have twin toddler mouths to feed. Babble has been replaced with pointed requests: food, food, and more food. They want whatever is about to enter out mouths. Becoming a parent has meant that sharing is not simply kindness; it is sacrament. We feed the girls, and then it is our turn. Work and stress and travel are distant memories. We sit in front of the pancakes patterned with chocolate chips and the bacon, and know that breakfast is a form of communion. If you love someone—if you want that love to take shape, to be able to hold it in the air—eat breakfast with them.
Bonus Link: “Cooking with Hemingway” by Stephanie Bernhard
Image Credit: Pexels/Julian Jagtenberg.
The life of a writer is hard, because money.
There comes a time, usually after you’ve gone four days eating nothing but ramen noodles (and you’ve contemplated selling all of your valuables and subsequently realized that you have none), when you have to literally sober up and assess the facts. With a stack of unpublished short stories and the wreckage of three or four novels somewhere inside my laptop, with a day job as a cook, I was tired of the whole show. Writing, rejection, writing, rejection. Exhaustion, hard drinking, further exhaustion, rejection, the hardest drinking.
How, having worked my entire life writing fiction no one reads, can I make any money with this skill? This one skill I’ve troubled to cultivate? This one skill that I love? This art?
A few weeks ago I turned, pointed by a friend, to the world of Kindle romance/erotica where, I was assured, there was money to be made. Seventy percent of profits from each story sold would be mine, and the price for a single story was set generally at $2.99. This friend who recommended me explained that she made an extra $500 to $700 a month, and others made much more. Some lucky people you’ve heard of have even made millions. Signing up was free and all Amazon required was a little tax information. Following that, all I had to do was be willing to remorselessly pump out paranormal pornography like nobody’s business. Could I accept this challenge?
I read Dostoevsky for pleasure, I read Juvenal, I read Big Billy Shakes: of course, I thought, of course I can write shape-shifter erotica, and I can do it goddamn exceptionally.
I began this life-changing journey with an attempt to define the word erotica, because I’d never read or written anything with that explicit label before. How in depth are we talking? How specific does this genre get? Erotica had always reminded me of the word “pornography” dressed up for a night at the opera. (Though I don’t really mind the word pornography either: the next time you see a porn video, picture James Joyce’s ghost hovering in the background moaning sensually.) I thought I knew what I was dealing with, having heard a lot about 50 Shades of Gray and dinosaur erotica and all that from the zeitgeist and other grotesque corners of the Internet. I thought that erotica could be as explicit as regular pornography, but it also required a more delicate, emotional touch. This turned out not to be true. After doing some important, serious research, I found out that actually erotica could be just regular old smut, and so I was free to ignore romance and focus instead on the repeated use of the phrase “hard as iron” and descriptions of how hot peoples’ breath was.
I first had to choose my hook, my concept. Perusing the available archives on Amazon’s Kindle section, I quickly learned that there were thousands of erotic short stories available written by willing, easily excited amateurs like myself, and I would have to distinguish my work if I wanted any of that sweet, sexy cash. A lot of the stories had a hook, usually involving paranormal creatures, or just regular creatures, creatures that shape-shift into human form and then have amazing sex with other people (that transformation is very important: apparently overt bestiality, or rape, are banned from Kindle short stories, so, you know, there’s a line drawn somewhere). These shape-shifter sex creatures could be anything from dolphins to bears to whales. Moby-Dick joke. Because I had to put in my due diligence, I decided I’d have to read and research some of these stories, to help settle on a concept and structure for my own sex-melee. I ended up investing $2.99 in a shorty story by Olivia J. Rose titled “Dominated by the Dolphins” (I almost couldn’t decide between this one and “Humped by the Humpback“). I read the whole thing and I can honestly tell you that I don’t even know what I’m talking about anymore. I’ve definitely never read anything like it. But the main takeaway was: who the hell am I to judge if someone wants to get their rocks off, and nobody’s getting hurt? That’s not such a bad thing. You go for it, Olivia Rose. Not every book needs to be Heart of Darkness, and if you’re story is a BBW shape-shifter erotica called “Dominated by the Dolphins,” I’ll have to insist that it has nothing to do whatsoever with King Leopold’s Congo.
Deciding my hook was by far the worst part. I couldn’t decide. Every nook and cranny of paranormal genre junk was already occupied with hundreds of stories filled with passionate creature-based sex: goblins, werewolves, phantoms, steampunk vampires — I wanted to choose a relatively untapped market, but that wound up being impossible. There are no viable untapped markets in Kindle erotica, pretty much like in regular internet porn except in regular internet porn there are no unviable markets. I basically just settled on a bunch of different genre ideas that I then gracelessly mashed together into the uninviting stew that became my first ever explicitly erotic short story. It involved ghosts, it involved dragons, and it involved a secret underground sex club. I wrote it kind of in a trance, but whatever, it doesn’t matter: sometimes you’ve just got to try all available options to pay your rent, and sometimes that entails making compromises.
Tip to win readers over: describe your erotic short story as an uninviting stew.
Before I began writing, though, I knew I had to settle on a pen name. It’s not that I wasn’t inordinately proud of the fact that I was willing to write erotica for hot, iron-hard cash, but I wasn’t exactly interested in advertising it with the name I’d carry for the rest of my life. So I decided to use a pen name, and it would have to be appropriately romantic, because people buy erotic short stories from writers with names like Michelle Cox and Sheena O’Mara, but they definitely don’t buy erotica from writers with names like any male name. There’s a difference between a female and a male writer of erotica, and that difference is porn. So, once again stymied by the brute realities of capitalism, I asked another friend if he had any ideas for a suitable pen name for an author of romantic/erotic fiction. He suggested several: Horatio Mancleever and Orpheus Baccarat being the only I guess printable ones. I tried to ease him into more feminine territory. I can’t tell you what name we eventually settled on, because I don’t want to give away my true identity to my loyal readers, but I will tell you it was a female name and it was slightly less ostentatious than Orpheus Baccarat. A foolproof plot, a totally viable scheme. An extra $500 a month! I was ready. (Meanwhile, it had been almost a year since McSweeney’s received my novella and I’d heard nothing, and the clerk at the corner liquor store now greeted me by name).
The actual writing process was semi-described above. Mainly a fruitless thrusting of words onto the page, a relentlessly sweaty, uncomfortable affair, I wanted to get the whole dumb thing finished as soon as possible. I knew, setting out, that there were a few phrases I definitely wanted to use (“sweltering heat of his animal eyes,” “sturdy as a buffalo,” “a ruined hellscape of exquisite sadness,” etc.) but before writing I had almost nothing in the way of hard beginning-middle-end type stuff. And as soon as I did begin writing the thing, the goddamn thing, I realized that a life spent reading postmodernists and 19th-century Russians had somehow not in the slightest prepared me for the work of generic, workmanlike eroticism. Sure, Gravity’s Rainbow is chock full of weird sex, but to match the right tone, the tone solely focused on sexy time and not acts of eternal recurrence or V-2 mechanics (which needless to say rarely ever come up while I’m, uh…performing sexual functions…I don’t know what language I’m allowed to get away with here) I needed to devolve a little bit, let the writing hang out, forget about descriptions of candlelight or monologues about metaphysics, and instead head straight into the dark heart of bodily fluids and hot breath.
I asked an ex-girlfriend what kind of erotica she’d read if she read erotica and she was confused by the entire scheme, declined eventually to answer. I was on my own, so after an aggressive caffeine binge and a few days spent trying to imagine what this whole thing could possibly mean for my life I bashed out a rough draft of dirty, filthy smut. A couple embarrassing revisions later, and I was done. It was exhausting, but it was also liberating, and not even in a sexual way: if poverty’s a fact, I’m going to game the system any way I can, especially if it’s harmless and entails giving pleasure to other people — in fact, although it was never the kind of pleasure I ever imagined my writing would give people, I felt absolutely terrific, in the end, that I was maybe giving them any kind at all. Weirdly enough a second ambition had twined itself, in stunted form, to the central one of cash: I want to help some people. I want to help some people get off.
Is that how pornographers feel? Am I a pornographer? “Who cares?” as J. Joyce would say. If nobody’s getting hurt I’ll write whatever smut’s required of me when the bills need to get paid.
The last step was designing a cover, by which point I was too exhausted to care. Also, stock photos and photoshop are expensive, so I slapped together a piece of generic art provided by Amazon’s design program. Then I threw the thing up there and tried to forget about it, tried instead to dream about piles of weird voluptuous money, wheelbarrows full of it, and people across the country having a grand old time reading what I’d written.
Somehow, everything went terribly wrong.
In terms of monetary gains, I initially checked my Amazon reports every few days, but had to stop after a while. It was just too depressing. By the end of its first month online, my heartbreaking little story had managed to rope in a grand total of three readers. Which, to be fair, is more readers than I’ve ever had for any other piece of fiction I’ve written in my life. Unfortunately or fortunately, they left no reviews. The only mark to know they’d been there at all was the goddamn blue uptick on the Amazon sales graph. (Blue means that the reader is someone with a Kindle Unlimited account, so they can read your story for free, i.e. no royalties.) It came to me that I might have underestimated the fact that the market is so glutted with stories written by half-assed people like me, nobody’s going to plunk down three bucks for the opportunity to even laugh at it. There was too much. I was one more drop of irrelevant smut in an Atlantic of erotica. I’d thought that just publishing this thing with minimal effort would somehow grant me at least hundreds of paying readers, but now, somewhat removed from the fever that afflicted me while I wrote it, that seems literally insane. What kind of lunatic thinks he’s going to make hundreds or thousands of dollars by self-publishing a 20-page story about a dragon sex club? But when you’re desperate for cash, it’s simpler to believe almost anything. How could I not want to hold onto that? It’s practically un-American to not believe that you can get rich quick with minimal effort and erotic know-how.
My dreams faded. I got up and went to work again, every day. Every day there were no readers, there was no excess money coming in. I worked and went home and worried about rent, groceries, like I’d always done. In the immortal words of Henry Hill, “I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”
That was basically the end of it.
Throughout this great experiment, I’ve realized a few things. Most importantly I know now, despite Dostoevsky and friends, that I don’t have any of the ambition necessary to become a successful erotic writer. It would require me to continually write and publish a bunch of stuff that at the end of the day I find so boring, I’d prefer getting paid to correct automotive textbooks. I don’t have the drive to just pump this stuff out, build a fanbase, because it doesn’t in the slightest matter to me. That’s, I guess, the difference between the hundreds of pages of fiction I’ve written, for no monetary compensation whatsoever, and the 20-page erotic story which totally exhausted me. Even right now the idea of sitting down and churning out another of these things makes me want to take a nap. Once the story was actually finished, and there was no money to be made, all ambition tied to it evaporated, and now I’m left pretty much where I began. Ruthlessly lazy, without much money, and stuck for the foreseeable future at an annoying day job. Like pretty much every other writer in the world, I imagine. Maybe there are no get-rich quick schemes, if you’re not passionate about what you’re writing. And if you’re writing erotica, you’ve got to be passionate, you’ve got to be sturdy as a buffalo.
But just because it didn’t work for me doesn’t mean the option isn’t out there for others. Other poor, unlucky writers with superhuman ambition: I’m talking to you. Even if I made no money off this whole charade, what can you do with it, you heroic pornographers? Why not give it a go? Lord knows the world could use more smut. But don’t think of it as smut, think of it as sexual healing. After all, who doesn’t need some excess cash? And who doesn’t need to get off? We’re writers, goddammit, but we’re still human beings. Wants and needs abound everywhere, you can’t avoid them. The hardest drinking one day gives way, hopefully, to opportunity, and maybe you can make some people happy. At the very least they might see the title of your story in the Kindle store, your ridiculous, strange little story, and they might laugh before moving on — and that’s good enough, hell. You’re published. You’re the real deal.
Ain’t nothing wrong with getting off.
Image Credit: Flickr/Fadil Elmansour
Last year, as we noted here, the source material in the Oscar category for Best Adapted Screenplay was immaculately fiction-free. All five screenwriters looked elsewhere for inspiration — to memoirs, investigative journalism, reportage, and, weirdly, to an earlier screenplay which, under the arcane rules of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, qualifies as “previously published or produced material.” I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: that last nomination was a little too inside-baseball for me. But don’t forget, we’re dealing with Hollywood here.
Before last year’s Oscar went to John Ridley for his adaptation of Solomon North’s memoir, 12 Years a Slave, I suggested that the writers of adapted screenplays needed to start mixing a little fiction into their reading diets. In 2014, I’m happy to report, they did. A very little. A grand total of one of this year’s five finalists for Best Adapted Screenplay drew on a work of fiction.
It wasn’t always this way. As recently as 1998, all five Best Adapted Screenplay nominees were inspired by novels. (The statue that year went to Bill Condon for Gods and Monsters, based on Christopher Bram’s novel, Father of Frankenstein.) Through the years, the scripts of Oscar-winning movies have been based on novels by a gaudy galaxy of literary talents, including Jane Austen, Colette, Jules Verne, Henry Fielding, J.R.R. Tolkien, Sinclair Lewis, Harper Lee, E.M. Forster, Robert Penn Warren, Larry McMurtry, Mario Puzo, Ken Kesey, Michael Ondaatje, and Cormac McCarthy.
But the novel is now in retreat — and not only in Hollywood — as screenwriters and moviegoers turn their gaze to movies based on established franchises, comic books, graphic novels, musicals, non-fiction books and magazine articles, TV shows, memoirs, and biographies. There’s nothing inherently wrong, or particularly new, about such source material. Screenwriters have been adapting scripts from comic books at least since 1930, and filmmakers have always favored a “true” story (or, better, yet something “based on a true story”) over fictional stories. That’s because “true” stories are easier to write, make, and sell. I would argue that they’re also less likely to amaze than stories that come from a gifted novelist’s imagination.
So I say fiction lovers should rejoice that this year Hollywood is paying homage to something — to anything — produced by a novelist. It doesn’t happen every day (or, obviously, every year), and it’s becoming increasingly rare as Hollywood continues to play it safe while trying to connect with an audience that’s less and less likely to read serious fiction.
This year’s finalists for Best Adapted Screenplay are:
The writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson based his script on Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name. Purists could argue that Anderson has settled for Pynchon Lite instead of the heavy goods (Gravity’s Rainbow, say, or V., or even Mason & Dixon). Let’s not quibble. Anderson has streamlined Pynchon’s novel while remaining true to its spirit, which is the essence of a successful adaptation. We get a fine facsimile of Pynchon’s wake-and-bake private eye, Doc Sportello, played with zest by Joaquin Phoenix in sandals and sizzling muttonchops. Doc’s search for a missing real-estate developer takes him through a post-Helter Skelter L.A. labyrinth of surfers, hustlers, dopers, and other less benign parties. It may be Pynchon Lite, but I’ll take it any day over Toy Story 13.
“I couldn’t give a fuck about the Iraqis,” Chris Kyle wrote in American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History (with ghostwriters Jim DeFelice and Scott McEwan). “I hate the damn savages.”
The screenwriter Jason Hall captured Kyle’s machismo and his Manichean worldview in his screenplay for American Sniper, which found the ideal director in Clint Eastwood, no stranger to the notion that evil is at large in the world and it’s the duty of good men to use any means, including deadly force, to crush it. Kyle claimed to have killed more than 250 people during four tours of duty as a Navy SEAL sniper in Iraq (160 are confirmed), and he was not inclined to apologize for his work — or even ponder its moral ambiguities. Neither was Eastwood. Kyle was shot dead at a Texas gun range by a fellow veteran in 2013. American Sniper has taken in $250 million so far at the box office, and it has further divided a country already deeply divided over our forever wars. Michael Moore hated the movie; Sarah Palin loved it.
The Imitation Game
The screenplay for The Imitation Game is the least faithful to its source material of this year’s nominees — and therefore probably a lock to take home the Oscar. Graham Moore’s script was adapted from Alan Turing: The Enigma, a biography of the brilliant British mathematician Alan Turing, written by the brilliant British mathematician and gay rights activist Andrew Hodges. In telling the story of Turing’s heroic work breaking World War II German codes, Moore and director Morten Tyldum have gone the predictable Hollywood route, turning Turing into an ur-nerd, which he was not, and making him dapper, which he was not. (Turing, according to Hodges, was eccentric but likeable, and a bit of a slob.) But this is Hollywood, and so Turing, as played by the mesmerizing Benedict Cumberbatch (who is up for a Best Actor Oscar), is turned into a cartoon: he’s the heroic gay misfit struggling against an uptight homophobic society. The movie ends on this note: “After a year of government-mandated hormonal therapy, Alan Turing committed suicide in 1954.” There is, however, no conclusive evidence that Turing committed suicide, and much ongoing speculation that he died accidentally, or even was murdered. But this is Hollywood, where complexity must never get in the way of a good cartoon.
The Theory of Everything
Stephen Hawking’s first wife, Jane Wilde Hawking, wrote a queasy memoir about the joys and trials of being married to an award-winning cosmologist who suffers from debilitating amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. That book, Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen, became the basis for Anthony McCarten’s screenplay for The Theory of Everything, which tells the story of the couple getting married, raising three children, separating, marrying other partners, and somehow remaining close through it all. Felicity Jones, who got an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Jane, told an interviewer, “That’s why I love Jane and Stephen, because they seem like very English, uptight, repressed people from afar. But as you get closer, they’re these extraordinary bohemians, these people who have adapted and changed and lived a very unusual life.”
Last year the controversy was over Before Midnight, writer-director Richard Linklater’s third installment in the ongoing romance of another pair of extraordinary bohemians. The screenplay, written by Linklater and his stars, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, qualified as adapted because it was based on the earlier screenplays.
This year the controversy belongs to Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, which tells the story of an aspiring drummer and his fanatical, abusive teacher. Back in 2013, in an effort to raise money for the project, Chazelle showed an 18-minute segment of the unfinished film at Sundance, where it won the prize for Best Short Film. The prize attracted money, and last year the completed, 107-minute feature won the Grand Prize at Sundance. The Writers Guild of America designated the script “original;” but based on its metamorphosis from short to feature, the Academy placed in the “adapted” category. Call the screenplay what you will, this shoestring movie, shot in just 19 days, has been nominated for a stunning five Oscars, including Best Picture. If you’re fond of Cinderella stories, this one’s for you.
Which brings us back to novels and screenplays. Four of this year’s eight nominees for Best Picture are based on adapted screenplays. The only adapted screenplay that didn’t also get the nod for Best Picture was the one based on — you guessed it — a novel by Thomas Pynchon.
Image Credit: Flickr/Prayitno
One particular image from Baked by Mark Haskell Smith, that of a young Mormon missionary in flagrante delicto with a “Megamillionaire pop-rock chanteuse,” persists in my memory. There is bondage involved. And testicle shaving. It was with this image in mind that I began Smith’s new novel, Raw: A Love Story. I hoped to find that same ribald humor, not to mention a few delightful plot twists. I wasn’t disappointed.
The day I bought Raw, I also wrote my own fiction, got my eyebrows waxed, started a contemporary literary novel by a writer who lives in Brooklyn, read a few book blogs, purchased a cappuccino made by a man in polka dotted Oxford shirt, posted a photo of my son to Tumblr, read some Dr. Seuss to that same son, and watched an episode of Millionaire Matchmaker (which, by the way, has totally gone downhill since assistants Destin and Rachel left the show). Such a rich cornucopia of experience, if I do say so myself! If your days even remotely resemble my own (and if you’re reading this, well, I bet they do), then you will find great pleasure in Mark Haskell Smith’s depiction of our contemporary diversions and obsessions, both the high and the low.
The book stars one Sepp Gregory, a reality TV star with killer abs he loves to show off. He’s just published a book — a “fictional novel” as he calls it — and it’s a megawatt hit. Of course, Sepp didn’t write the book — hell, he hasn’t even read it, he’s too busy doing crunches and obsessing about the erectile dysfunction that’s plagued him since he got dumped by one fellow cast member and then another. Sepp’s publisher hired an aspiring novelist named Curtis to ghostwrite Sepp’s masterpiece, but in this world, ghostwriting is a closely-guarded secret. In sweeps Harriet Post, the most bookish book blogger in all of book town, ready to tear the whole sordid apparatus apart. As she says to a friend, “He wrote a book? He can’t even wear a shirt.”
If the plot sounds absurd, that’s because it is, but the book’s over-the-top, swinging-from-the-chandeliers storyline is partially what makes it so entertaining. Crazy stuff happens, and it’s a joy to be inside the drama. The more technicolor the plot, the more addictive it becomes. That same addictive quality, however, threatens to turn the novel into the kind of reality TV you love to hate and hate to love. The threat is what matters here, and Smith knows it; that Raw bends in the direction of unreality but doesn’t quite complete the contortion is what makes his novel so effective. While the satirical depictions of Sepp and Harriet invite you to laugh (and laugh and laugh) at their blind spots, they don’t prevent you from feeling compassion for these people. Sepp forgets he has a mind, and Harriet forgets she has a body, and Smith presents these conundrums with a cheeky tenderness.
If all of the above isn’t enough to entice you to read this romp, how about this: Ladies and gentlemen, Raw is the first novel to namedrop The Millions! (Clearly, we have arrived.) It also mentions The Rumpus, Jacket Copy, Gravity’s Rainbow, Book Soup, Changing Hands Bookstore, Heidegger and more. Pair those references with a list of fictitious reality TV shows I’d totally watch with horror and glee, and you’ve got yourself one helluva good read.
Two years ago I wrote a holiday gift guide for writers after I realized that I had a drawer full of blank journals that I had never used, all given to me by friends and family wanting to support my writing habit. I knew I couldn’t be the only writer with this particular surplus, so I decided to draw up a list of items that writers might actually use. I repeated the exercise in 2012, coming up with ten new suggestions. This year’s list is an updated version of those two lists, now all in one place with a few new items added to the end, for a grand total of 25 writer-friendly gifts.
1. A Cheesy New Bestseller
One of the best presents I ever got was a hardcover copy of The Nanny Diaries from my roommate. I really wanted it, but there were over 300 people on the library’s waiting list and I wasn’t going to shell out $25 for something I was unlikely to read twice. The funny thing was that I never told my roommate that I wanted to read The Nanny Diaries. She just guessed that I had a secret craving for it. Of course, it can be as hard to gauge your friend’s taste in pop culture as it is in high culture, but it’s better to guess wrong in the pop culture arena, because your friend is more likely to exchange it for something she likes better. Whereas, if you give her Gravity’s Rainbow, she’ll keep it for years out of obligation.
2. Good lipstick
Writers are often broke. If they have $30 to spare, they are going to spend it on dinner, booze, or new books. Not lipstick. But writers are pale from spending so much time inside and could use some color. Make-up can be a tricky gift because it suggests that you think your friend’s face could use improvement. That’s why it’s important to go to a department store make-up counter and buy something frivolous and indulgent, like a single tube of red lipstick or some face powder or blush in a nice-looking case.
3. Foreign language learning software
Most writers wish they knew more languages. It can also be relaxing to be rendered inarticulate in a new language, in that it offers a real break from personal expression, nuance, and irony. At the same time, learning a new language sharpens your native tongue, and expands your vocabulary. It’s sort of like cross training.
4. A Bathrobe
John Cheever famously donned a suit every morning in order to write. But as Ann Beattie revealed, and as a generation of bloggers already knows, most writers wear awful clothing while they are working. Help your writer friend out by giving her a beautiful robe to cover up her bizarre ensembles. Even if she already has one, she probably hasn’t’t washed it in a long time, and could use another.
5. A Manicure
I bite my nails, especially when I’m writing. I’ve noticed that a lot of other writers have suspiciously short nails, too. Manicures help. Also, manicures get writers out of the house and out for a walk.
6. “Freedom”, the internet-blocking software
“Freedom” is a computer program that blocks the internet on your computer for up to eight hours. I don’t understand why it’s effective, since it’s relatively easy to circumvent, but as soon as I turn it on, I stay off the internet for hours at a time. (There is also a program called “Anti-social”, which only blocks the social parts of the internet, like Facebook and Twitter.)
7. Booze, coffee, and other stimulants
Find out what your friend likes to drink and buy a really nice version of that thing. If your friend is a coffee or tea drinker, find out how he brews it and buy him really good beans or tea leaves. Even better, find out what cafe he frequents and see if they sell gift certificates.
8. Yoga Classes
Yoga does wonders for anxiety, depression, and aching backs, three afflictions common in writers. Most yoga classes also incorporate some kind of meditation practice, which is also very helpful.
9. A pet
This is not a gift to be given casually and definitely not as a surprise, but if you live with a writer and you’ve been on the fence on whether or not to get a furry companion, consider this advice on how to be more prolific, from Muriel Spark: “If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat… The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.” Another prolific writer, Jennifer Weiner, recommends dogs on her website, where she’s posted a list of tips for aspiring writers. Dogs, she explains, foster discipline, because they must be walked several times a day. Furthermore, Weiner notes, walking is as beneficial for the writer as it is for the dog: “While you’re walking, you’re thinking about plot, or characters, or that tricky bit of dialogue that’s had you stumped for days.”
10. Freezable homemade foods: casseroles, soups, breads, and baked goods.
This is a potentially Mom-ish gift, but if your friend is on deadline, a new parent, or just far from home during the holidays, a home-cooked meal could be a lovely gesture. I emphasize freezable because it should be something that you make at home and leave with your friend to eat later. If you can’t cook, buy a pie.
11. A hand-written letter
When I first recommended this gift, two years ago, I pointed out that a lot of writers still get rejection letters through the U.S. mail, so it would be a nice change of pace to receive a note from a friend. But over the past couple years, I’ve noticed that magazines are sending most of their rejections via email. However, that simply means that a handwritten card would be an even more astonishing and special occurrence.
12. The Gift, by Lewis Hyde
The Gift examines the role of artists in market economies and is the perfect antidote to all the earnest, helpful guides that aim to teach writers how to be more publishable, saleable, and disciplined. Where most writing guides make writers feel they could succeed if only they were more productive and efficient, The Gift argues that productivity and efficiency are market-based terms that have little meaning in gift economies, which is where many creative writers exchange and share their work. Another way of putting it is to say that The Gift makes writers feel less crazy.
13. A Bookshelf Portrait
If every bookshelf is a portrait of its owner, then why not commission an actual portrait of a bookshelf? That’s what Your Ideal Bookshelf allows booklovers to do, offering hand-painted portraits of “the books that changed your life, that defined who you are, that you read again and again.” If that seems like too much pressure, you can purchase prints of other people’s ideal bookshelves, as well as drawings of ideal bookshelves organized by genre, subject, and author. Harry Potter fanatics can find portraits of the entire series, while home cooks can choose from several different shelves of culinary classics. The creators of Your Ideal Bookshelf have also produced a book, My Ideal Bookshelf, which showcases the favorite bookshelves of a variety of writers and artists, including Patti Smith, Junot Diaz, Miranda July, and Judd Apatow.
Bookends are underrated. Not only do they keep books from falling off the shelf, they allow you to make a bookshelf anywhere — on a desk, in a windowsill, or atop a bedside table. Even ugly bookends end up being used, so go ahead and spring for ones in the shape of golden pigs or poodles.
15. Clothing With a Literary Print
Last year, I highlighted the prints of fashion designer Mary Katranzou’s fall 2012 collection, which included a dress whose bodice was dominated by a red Olivetti typewriter. This year, I was hoping to recommend Tommy Hilfiger’s library shirt dress, but unfortunately, it is already sold out. (Maybe you can find it on ebay.) For a more reliable purveyor of book-inspired clothing, check out Out of Print, an online shop that sells tee shirts and other items that feature “iconic and often out of print book covers.”
16. An Elaborately Beautiful Book
2012 brought Chris Ware’s graphic novel, Building Stories, a book that was included on several “Year In Reading” lists, and which got me thinking about other beautifully designed books: Anne Carson’s poem Nox; Lauren Redniss’s biography of Marie and Pierre Curie, Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout; and Vladimir Nabokov’s unfinished novel-in-index-cards, The Original of Laura. To this list I would like to add two 2013 titles: David Rakoff’s novel-in-verse: Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish and Samantha Hahn’s book of illustrations of fictional heroines, Well-Read Women.
17. A subscription to Journal of the Month
Literary journals! There are so many of them, and so many of them are good, and almost all of them would like you to read a copy before you submit your stories to them. Journal of the Month helps writers sample a wide variety of journals by sending subscribers a different journal each month. Each month’s selection is a surprise, and you can buy subscriptions of 3, 6, or 12 months. You can also choose to receive magazines on a quarterly basis.
This unusual, practical, gossipy, eclectic, and highly entertaining anthology is a collection of assignments for fine arts students. But it’s unexpectedly useful for writers, too — or, at least, it was useful to me, helping me to think about the writing process in new ways. I bought if for my brother-in-law, who teaches drawing, but found myself unable to put it down after reading a couple of entries. With contributions from art teachers, art students, artists, and art professionals, Draw It With Your Eyes Closed delves into the creative process of artists by focusing on their art school training. If there’s an equivalent to this book from the world of creative writing MFAs, I’d love to read it, but I doubt it’d be as raucous or mischievous.
When I was growing up, my parents had a slang dictionary, which I dorkily consulted in order to learn the meanings of certain colorful insults. But I quickly found the dictionary to be more interesting when I browsed beyond the curse words. The Dictionary of American Regional English is kind of like the slang dictionary except that it is six volumes, and based on fifty years of research. The final volume was completed last year, an event that one of its founding researchers did not live to see. Long a resource for editors and lawyers, it’s the kind of book that any word nerd could appreciate.
20. A Quill Pen
Okay, this is a ridiculous gift idea, I admit it. But with the current enthusiasm for typewriters going strong, can quill pens be far behind? There are hundreds on Etsy, from turkey feather models to Harry Potter-inspired models.
21. A Fireplace
According to poet Adam Kirsch, “Every writer needs a fireplace”:
On publication day, an author should burn a copy of his book, to acknowledge that what he accomplished is negligible compared to what he imagined and intended. Only this kind of burnt offering might be acceptable to the Muse he has let down.
The ultimate in old-school technology, a fireplace (or perhaps, a fire table?) allows writers to dispose of unsatisfying drafts in a dramatic fashion. Sometimes the trashcan icon at the bottom of your computer screen just doesn’t feel definitive enough.
22. A Place to Write
Virgina Woolf said it best when she wrote that a woman “must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Poet Brenda Shaughnessy put a somewhat finer point on it in Poets & Writers, when she speculated that the happiness of her marriage to fellow poet Craig Morgan Teicher depended on a shared rented writing studio:
This might be the true secret of the sane poet-couple: Rent writing space. Make it as private as possible. This single thing has completely changed our lives.
How do you give someone a place to write? It could mean finding someone a cubicle in your office, renting a studio, lending a summer cottage or winter cabin, helping someone to finance a residency, or simply rearranging a shared space to make room for a bookshelf, a comfy chair, or a desk.
If you are the spouse of a writer and the two of you have a small or even medium-sized child (or children) here is a foolproof gift idea: Take yourself and the kiddos away for a long weekend. Go to the grandparents, the zoo, the casino, wherever. Leave early Friday morning; do not come back until late Sunday night.
24. A Donation to a Literary Charity
A gift to the literary community is a gift to your writer-friend. Almost all literary magazines, libraries, and writer’s residencies are non-profit organizations. You can also help build and create new literary communities by donating to a charity that promotes literacy. Here is a partial list of groups whose work brings books, literature, and writing resources to those who might not otherwise have access (please feel free to leave additional suggestions in the comments): First Book provides new books to kids; Reading Is Fundamental delivers books and reading resources directly to the homes of families in need; 826 National is a network of free writing centers (pioneered by author Dave Eggers); Literacy Partners is a New York City-based non-profit that helps adults learn to read; and finally, Books Through Bars, another non-profit based in New York City, provides books to prisoners.
25. A Blank Journal
I realize I am contradicting myself with this last recommendation, but earlier this fall, when I was interviewing Dani Shapiro for The Millions, she mentioned that she often starts new projects in a fresh notebook, saying “there’s such freedom in a notebook.” Her comment made me think of my drawer full of blank journals, those gifts I never used but for some reason cannot not give away. I always thought I kept them out of guilt but maybe the truth is that I keep them because they are hopeful reminders of the freedom that writing can provide—that sense of openness and possibility that comes not only at the beginning of projects but sometimes in the midst of composing a sentence. So, go ahead and give your writer friend a beautiful blank notebook. She may never write a word in it but will likely keep it as a symbol of the elusive beauty of the writing process.
Possibly inspired by YiR alum Elizabeth McCracken, who tweeted out tips for applying to MFA programs last week, Zak Smith (the man who painted every single page of Gravity’s Rainbow) tweeted a series of tips for aspiring art critics. Among other advice, he dictates to his tweeps: “If Andy Warhol could have made it, do not write about it.”
Samuel Richardson’s 1747 novel Clarissa is a famously long book. At 1,499 pages, My Penguin Classics edition resembles the phone book of a medium-sized city. Next to it, War and Peace looks positively spry. Moreover, War and Peace has Napoleon and the siege of Moscow, to say nothing of Prince Andrei and Pierre and Natasha. Clarissa’s plot covers exactly four points: “How Clarissa, in resisting parental pressure to marry a loathsome man for his money, falls prey to Lovelace, is raped and dies…” reads the text on the back jacket.
I was in my early twenties when I read the book for the first time. It was the late 1990s, and I had moved to New York after college. I worked as a reporter for a financial newsletter and lived in a tiny, purple-painted studio in the East Village. I don’t remember how many evenings and weekends I spent devouring the book, but my memory is that I was in a state of absorption the whole time, going through the motions of my job, but alive mostly when I was at home or on the subway with the book in my hands. While reading, I turned again and again to that paltry, unpromising jacket synopsis, certain that the person who wrote it must be not only something of a killjoy but also an exceedingly poor reader, confused about the very events of the book. Lovelace, with all his good qualities, with all his charisma, wouldn’t really rape Clarissa, would he? And Clarissa couldn’t actually die at the end. No way.
I was seduced not only by the novel’s plot (which could easily have devolved into melodrama) but by the intelligence of Richardson’s voice — the relentless, dialectical thoroughness with which it plumbs the characters’ shifting psychological states. Watching Clarissa and Lovelace come together and pull apart, misread, disappoint, under- and overestimate each other is fascinating. Clarissa is perhaps the first great psychological novel, in any language. It is also deeply moral. Clarissa, like various Austen and Eliot heroines, embodies Kant’s dictum that to be truly good, one must be not warm-hearted but rational. She assiduously evaluates her actions by the light of the imperative to do only what is justifiable from the perspective of an impartial third party. Her virtue, much heralded within the novel, is not of the narrow-minded or sanctimonious sort. It’s far more impressive, even to a skeptical modern reader.
I was so impressed that for years after I read the book, I identified as a Richardsonian. This was no small thing for me. I was at a point in my life where my job seemed completely separate from who I really was or wanted to be. I had aspirations of writing a novel, but my attempts to do so had all inspired the opposite of confidence (a trend that would persist for many more years). For me, reading novels was not only a central preoccupation but the primary way I exercised my intelligence. Matters of taste meant a lot; to a large degree, I defined myself by them.
In practice, becoming a Richardsonian boiled down to a couple of things: searching for a copy of his then out-of-print Sir Charles Grandison and looking slightingly on those who preferred the picaresque comedies of Henry Fielding. Fielding was Richardson’s contemporary and his rival. In 1741, Fielding wrote a parody of Richardson’s Pamela. In Richardson’s novel, Pamela is a paragon of virtue, a young maid lustily pursued by her employer who heroically resists his immoral advances. In Fielding’s book — called Shamela — she’s a scheming social climber who declines to become her employer’s mistress because she hopes holding out will win her the brass ring (as it were): marriage to a wealthy man.
There was little love between Richardson and Fielding in their day, and there remains today a divide between their fans. Nor is this debate quite as arcane as it may at first sound to those who aren’t actively interested in 18th-Century British male novelists. The Richardson vs. Fielding question is commonly used as a shorthand to talk about two distinct and ostensibly competing types of novels. Richardson represents the traditional realist novel with its emphasis on characters’ inner lives; Fielding’s exuberant, wide-ranging yarns are often seen as a precursor of the more formally inventive Modernist and post-Modernist novels. Richardsonians tend to see novels in the Fielding tradition as juvenile — full of showy gamesmanship but lacking in deeper meaning or seriousness, especially about character. Fielding’s devotees meanwhile see Richardson as long-winded and humorless, a moralizing, didactic prig; the novels in his line are complacent and limited, implicitly (or explicitly) bourgeois.
For years, this schema sounded pretty much right to me. I’d read Fielding’s masterpiece, Tom Jones. I’d even enjoyed it. The book tells the story of Jones, an infant foundling taken in and lovingly raised by a rich man, named (in the allegorical manner of the age) Mr. Allworthy. A jealous rival contrives to ruin Jones in Mr. Allworthy’s eyes and separate him from his one true love, the beautiful Sophia Western. Cast out, Jones goes traipsing across England, precipitating a series of baldly comic misadventures among robbers, recluses, revolutionaries, and — yes — gypsies. Along the way, Jones consoles himself for the loss of Sophia by engaging an assortment of ladies in various farcical sexcapades. Finally, the villain’s treachery is revealed, Jones and Mr. Allworthy are reconciled, and he and Sophia are married. And lest you hate me for the spoiler, I can assure you that from the first few pages of Tom Jones, you just know — from Fielding’s tone — that this is a book in which all will end well, the way you knew when watching Three’s Company that the misunderstanding would be cleared up by the end of the episode. In other words, Tom Jones is a comedy.
I appreciated comedy — in theory. Just as I appreciated the novel’s vitality and color and its aphoristic observations (e.g., “fellows who excel in some little low contemptible art are always certain to despise those who are unacquainted with that art”). I was in principle willing to overlook its contrivance-laden plot and mechanistic love story, in which the libidinous but big-hearted Tom and the angelic Sophia are kept from living perfectly happily together only because of the viciousness, greed, and lust of others.
But on another level I relished Tom Jones’s weaknesses of plot and character development: they were ammunition. And as a Richardsonian, I felt defensive. To be a Richardson person is to be on the side of the squares: the cool kids seem to be off reading Delillo or Pynchon. And whatever one might say about Tom Jones’s flaws, it’s nothing compared to what an ill-intentioned Fielding acolyte can do with Clarissa’s page count, its squeamishness about sex, its didacticism and painstaking, sometimes plodding earnestness. Even Clarissa’s strengths — attention to psychology and to individual consciousnesses, highmindedness, and moral sensitivity — seem not especially literary, at least not to a certain type of reader. The book’s selling points aren’t purely aesthetic. Clarissa is full of observations whose power depends less on their linguistic virtuosity than on their truth — that is, their accuracy in capturing something about the human condition. (This does not exactly impress the kind of readers for whom the word “truth” must only ever be flagged by scare quotes.) Nor is Clarissa in any way political; it touches neither on systems nor on economics. Which means: there goes one way a novel can assert its importance.
There is, of course, a gendered component to this. It’s not that Delillo or Pynchon and other writers said to be in the Fielding vein are exclusively male tastes — I was introduced to Delillo in college by a female friend — but back then it felt to me that the readers who had the most assurance, who took for granted that they were the most sophisticated, the best arbiters, were almost all stringy-haired guys with French cigarettes dangling from their mouths and dog-eared copies of Gravity’s Rainbow on their bedside tables. They were the Angry Young Men that Jonathan Franzen described in his New Yorker essay “Mr. Difficult,” and they had not worried themselves for weeks about Clarissa and Lovelace’s romantic troubles. If they had read Clarissa at all, they were more likely to discourse pompously about its old-fashioned technique — Clarissa is an epistolary novel — or its historical significance (Clarissa was one of the first mega-bestsellers, a huge hit, particularly with women). About the actual content, they seemed dismissive.
In retrospect, I can see that these young men had their own reasons to feel insecure: If the realist psychological novel is the less avant-garde taste, it is also the culturally and commercially dominant mode. But because at the time I felt vulnerable, like the besieged party, I took a keen and in retrospect unseemly pleasure in blows struck against Fielding and his ilk. There was Samuel Johnson, who famously despised Fielding’s work, arguing (the critic Allen Michie tells us) that he created “characters of manners” while Richardson wrote “characters of nature.” (Lest there be any doubt as to which Johnson preferred, this statement clears it up: “Characters of manners are very entertaining; but they are to be understood by a more superficial observer, than characters of nature must divine the rescesses of the human heart.”) I could also feel smug in pointing to contemporary allies, like Franzen, who in “Mr. Difficult” also recounts his move away from post-Modernist indifference, or even hostility, to the pleasures of the traditional realist novel. ([P]ostmodern fiction wasn’t supposed to be about sympathetic characters,” he wrote. “Characters, properly speaking, weren’t even supposed to exist. “[C]haracters were feeble, suspect constructs, like the author himself, like the human soul. Nevertheless, to my shame, I seemed to need them.”) Even the critic James Wood appeared to be on my side, criticizing various post-Modern novels and favorably contrasting Richardson’s “seriousness about human activity” with Fielding’s “rapid, farce-like, overlit simplicity.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Several months ago, I re-read Tom Jones. That is to say, several months ago, I walked around for a couple weeks in a state of rapture, pushing the book on anyone who’d listen.
The merits I’d once granted so patronizingly this time hit me with astounding force. That color! That vitality! Here, for example, is Tom eating dinner: “Three pounds at least of that flesh which formerly had contributed to the composition of an ox was now honoured with becoming part of the individual Mr. Jones.”
One of the characteristics of a great novel is that it is dense with the kind of fresh thought and observation that give the reader pleasure. Whether the pleasure is of the “haha” sort or the “aha” sort is less significant than the sense that the book is packed, that it seems to brim with ideas. (If you doubt this, just take a look at the first several pages of The Great Gatsby and notice how many fresh, smart and varied ideas are contained in those elegant sentences.) In lesser novels, the writer seems almost arrogant, as if he had a few ideas he was so impressed with that he thought they could carry an entire book.
Fielding delivers delightfully pointed observations in abundance. Here he is gleefully pointing up a bit of pompousness. The virtuous Sophia is being lectured by a self-satisfied aunt. Sophia declines to argue. Fielding writes,
“Argue with me, child!” replied the [aunt]. “I do not indeed expect it. I should have seen the world to very little purpose truly if I am to argue with one of your years. I have taken this trouble in order to instruct you. The ancient philosophers, such as Socrates, Alcibiades, and others did not use to argue with their scholars. You are to consider me, child, as Socrates, not asking your opinion, but only informing you mine.” From which last words the reader may possibly imagine that this lady had read no more of the philosophy of Socrates than she had of that of Alcibiades.
When Sophia decides to run away from her father’s house because he and her aunt threaten to make her marry a man who is not Jones, she enlists the help of her maid, a woman named Honour. Sophia and Honour plan to sneak out in the middle of the night with only what they can carry. But as the moment of their elopement nears, “a very stubborn difficulty occurred”–namely, Honour has second thoughts:
When a lady hath once taken a resolution to run to a lover, or to run from him, all obstacles are considered as trifles. But Honour was inspired by no such motives; she had no raptures to expect, nor any terrors to shun; and besides the real value of her clothes, in which consisted a great part of her fortune, she had a capricious fondness for several gowns, and other things; either because they became her, or because they were given to her by such a particular person; because she had bought them lately, or because she had had them long.
This is the kind of detail we expect in a novel that pays close attention to character. It is also smarter than it may seem at first, less of a throwaway. It tells the reader something about Honour, about the tack of her mind, something we won’t forget, and it does so not by sneering at her but simply by listening in on her.
What it tells us is central to Fielding’s project. Where the beautiful and noble Clarissa inspires selfless devotion from all but the most hard-hearted of her servants, the beautiful and noble Sophia has to make do with more ordinary levels of commitment. Not that Honour doesn’t appreciate Sophia’s gentle disposition and generosity. She does—inasmuch as those qualities make Sophia an easier and more pleasant boss. Honour is not hard-hearted, but she is busily going about her own life; in her mind, she isn’t playing a supporting role in Sophia’s story but starring in her own.
Honour isn’t exactly complex — none of the characters in Tom Jones is. Yet the book as a whole feels richly and abundantly peopled in large part because Fielding is so very clear-eyed. For all the gags (girl fights, damsels tied to trees and rescued in the nick of time, intercepted letters, pocketbooks accidentally dropped and luckily found by just the right person), Fielding has a keen eye for social life, for the social organism. Consider an innkeeper, whom everyone in the village believes to be a “very sagacious fellow… [who is] thought to see farther and deeper into things than man in the parish.” Is this because the man’s neighbors are uniquely capable of ferreting out true merit? Probably not, according to the bemused narrator:
[The innkeeper’s] look had contributed not a little to procure him this reputation; for there was in this something wonderfully wise and significant, especially when he had a pipe in his mouth — which, indeed, he seldom was without. His behavior likewise greatly assisted in promoting the opinion of his wisdom. In his deportment, he was solemn, if not sullen and when he spoke, which was seldom, he always delivered himself in a slow voice.
This lack of sentimentality toward the common people makes for humor, yes — but it is no more farcical than George Eliot’s salty observation, in the first chapter of Middlemarch, that “the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.”
Fielding gets a lot of mileage from the human tendency to misread — to, say, mistake external trappings for intelligence or principled decisions to act against self-interest for weakness or stupidity. Time and again, Tom and Sophia are misunderstood by people less noble-minded than they are. Sophia, in particular, is accused of liking Tom only for his handsomeness — she is told that there are other, better men out there, that she has a shot of attracting even a titled suitor. Tom is likewise told that there are equally beautiful, equally wealthy women who might not give him so much trouble in the catching as Sophia does. The people who advise Tom and Sophia, who see themselves as wise (and who are often older than the young lovers) generally lack the moral capacity to understand them. These counselors imagine that Tom and Sophia’s claims of great and disinterested love are as hollow as such claims would be if they themselves made them. Watching Tom and Sophia get lectured at by a parade of self-satisfied boobs makes for good comedy — but it’s not slapstick. It is a way of acknowledging absurdity, laughter as a sardonic response to life’s inevitable humiliations and iniquities.
Nor is this passage slapstick. It comes fairly early on, when Tom, not yet sent away, is wandering drunkenly around Mr. Allworthy’s grounds. He runs into an old flame, a woman he recently found in bed with his tutor. But on this particular evening, she and Jones banter for a few minutes and then, as Fielding daintily puts it, “retire to the thickest part of the grove.” At which this point, Fielding launches into cheerful commentary:
Some of my readers may be inclined to think this event unnatural. However, the fact is true and perhaps may be sufficiently accounted for by suggesting, that Jones probably thought one woman better than none, and Molly as probably imagined two men to be better than one. Besides the before-mentioned motive assigned to the present behavior of Jones, the reader will be likewise pleased to recollect in his favor, that he was not at this time perfect master of that wonderful power of reason, which so well enables grave and wise men to subdue their unruly passions, and to decline any of those prohibited amusements. Wine now had totally subdued that power in Jones…To say the truth, in a court of justice drunkenness must not be an excuse, yet in a court of conscience it is greatly so; and therefore Aristotle who commends the laws of Pittacus, by which drunken men receive double punishment for their crimes, allows there is more of policy than justice in that law. Now, if there are any transgressions pardonable from drunkenness, they are certainly such as Mr. Jones was at present guilty of; on which head I could pour forth a vast profusion of learning, if I imagined it would either entertain my reader or teach him anything more than he knows already.
It’s hard to resist Fielding’s affable urbanity, his drollery and air of bemusement, not to mention his light touch with the classical reference. Yet Fielding is also admonishing us not to condemn reflexively, to be more truly just — more commonsensical.
For all his levity and playfulness, his love of “amours” (the more ribald the better), Fielding is, like Richardson, a writer whose moral consciousness is almost always in evidence. Apart from the exhortations to be better judges — more discriminating, less likely to be deceived by appearances—the book is packed with old-fashioned life lessons, delivered in the form of sermonettes, like this one:
The wise man gratifies every pleasure and every passion [in moderation], while the fool sacrifices all the rest to pall and satiate one. It may be objected that very wise men have been notoriously avaricious. I answer, not wise in that instance. It may likewise be said, That the wisest men have been in their youth immoderately fond of pleasure. I answer, They were not wise then.
Of course, there are things that Richardson does well that Fielding doesn’t come near. When we read Clarissa, we come to believe in Clarissa and Lovelace far more than we ever believe in Tom or Sophia; we don’t merely root for them the way we root for Cary Elwes and Robin Wright to beat the bad guys and reunite in The Princess Bride. That’s in spite of the fact that Clarissa is excessively — almost impossibly — scrupulous, and Lovelace is, ultimately, a villain. Clarissa and Lovelace come to feel real in large part because the inner workings of their minds are so ingeniously, so convincingly delineated: Clarissa’s complicated machinations, for example, as she balances her attraction to good-looking, intelligent and gallant Lovelace against her aversion for what she correctly suspects is also part of his character (untempered vanity, a capacity for deception that is, in fact, revolting). Or Lovelace’s vacillation between his spontaneous admiration for Clarissa and his twisted, doomed desire to win her love without actually treating her very well. (He wants her to love him so much that she will relax her standards — even though the reader can’t help but suspect that if she did he would immediately lose respect for her.) We watch, riveted, as the two of them parry. There are so many moments when it seems that, with all their intelligence and charm and self-possession, they may yet prevent things from going completely awry, but alas…they’re fucked. Fits of pique and pride cause each to do that which brings out the worst in the other. And then there’s the end. The end! I won’t say much beyond what’s on the back jacket. All I’ll say is that it’s haunting.
I don’t think anyone has ever been haunted by Tom Jones. Delighted, for sure, but not haunted. Does that mean that Clarissa is a better book? I’m surprised to find that I’m not sure anymore.
What doesn’t surprise me is that I much preferred Richardson when I was in my early 20s. If guys like Franzen, with their early love of difficult texts, were angry young men, I was what might be called a melancholic young woman. As much time as I spent reading and thinking about novels, I also spent a lot of time brooding about my personal life, specifically about boyfriends and ex-boyfriends and would-be boyfriends. I devoted as much ingenuity as I had at my disposal to the project of figuring out these slippery characters, trying to get a handle on who they were and make sense of their behavior. How could this one be so sensitive about art and politics and such a dick to women? How could that one have fallen for someone so vacuous? I also scrutinized myself — wondering where my overriding concern with relationships came from, what it meant, if it was something I should try to overcome in the name of becoming a better, more fully realized human being. If I turned to novels in part to distract me from these questions, I also turned to them for insight. I hoped they would shed light on what I grappled with. And because certain types of questions, about relationships and psychology and personal ethics, dominated my mental life, they seemed to me like the essential questions, the deepest ones.
These days, when I re-read books I read back and notice the notes I made in the margins, I am often struck by how humorless a reader I was. Rarely did I put a check by a joke — but if an author ever let drop an observation about the nature of love or the effect of solitude on the soul, rest assured that I double underlined it. An alarmingly high number of sentences I singled out for special approbation were proclamations that included the phrase “the human heart.” The truth was that I was so focused on amassing a certain kind of insight that I had very little time or energy to spare for anything else. A book like Tom Jones would naturally have seemed to me to be merely “fun” — by which I meant it was for shallow people who didn’t care so much about what was Really Important.
The reading I did in those years was incredibly meaningful. I don’t know that I will ever read so intensely, so hungrily again, and I did indeed learn a few things from those pronouncements about the human heart. But over the years, something has shifted in the way I read and respond to fiction. Humor has become a higher priority. I’ve become more sensitive to pleasures that are “merely” aesthetic — a well-turned phrase or an apt observation that sheds light into a particular character, even it isn’t of profound or generalizable import, even if it only gets something right about how a young servant would feel about leaving behind her gowns. And apparently I’ve become someone who can’t stop talking about how great Tom Jones is.
But I’m not the only one who has changed, moved toward a more catholic middle ground. Those lovers of Pynchon and Delillo, the angry young men whose sense of their own sophistication so aggravated (and intimidated) me? It turns out that a fair number of them have also moved away from their earlier positions. I don’t just mean Franzen and the re-assessment he described in “Mr. Difficult.” I can think of several men I know who have come to embrace some of the more psychological novels they once eschewed as “domestic” and “trivial” — and “feminine.” The critic William Deresiewicz describes just such a shift in A Jane Austen Education.
I’m in no position to say I told you so. How could I be, when I too have come to see my former position as smug and narrow in its dismissiveness toward books that weren’t exactly the type of books I liked best? My old approach, I see now, meant I undervalued not only Tom Jones, but also a wide range of books that don’t happen to foreground romantic relationships, from Billy Budd to The Trial.
I can no longer call myself a Richardsonian, except in the most promiscuous, non-exclusive sense. But maybe it’s time to stop reveling in this particular distinction. Tom Jones and Clarissa are both excellent books. For this particular reader at least, it’s going to be Richardson and Fielding instead of Richardson or Fielding. And who knows? Maybe one of these days, I’ll even give Gravity’s Rainbow another shot.
From October of 2008 to May of this year, America’s Greatest Self-Published Novelist was a guy from New Jersey named Sergio De La Pava. Clearly, this was a title that begged certain questions — sort of like being America’s Best Left-Handed Barber, or America’s Funniest Nun. Nor was De La Pava’s claim to it undisputed; in terms of sales velocity, Amanda Hocking and E.L. James would have blown him out of the ring, and C.D. Payne (Youth in Revolt) and Hilary Thayer Hamann (Anthropology of an American Girl) had racked up strong reviews well before Hollywood and Random House (respectively) came calling. But what Hocking and James were selling was fantasy of one kind or another, and even Payne and Hamman kept one foot in the junior division. The main event — at least as De La Pava saw it — was several weight classes up, where Dostoevsky and Melville and Woolf had battled penury and anonymity and madness to make literature that might endure. And with the great Helen DeWitt in transit from Talk Miramax to New Directions and Evan Dara’s Aurora Publishers falling into a gray area, De La Pava’s first novel, A Naked Singularity, was left more or less in a category by itself: a 690-page XLibris paperback that could withstand comparison with the classics.
I first heard about the book in the summer of 2009, in an email from one Susanna De La Pava, of Amante Press. She’d read something I’d written about Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men; if I liked “both underdogs and meganovels,” she suggested, I might want to check out A Naked Singularity: “a debut work of literary fiction that combines fascinating and complex themes of morality, crime and theoretical physics.” The pitch was unusually thoughtful, but its failure to mention the book’s author seemed odd, and Amante Press wasn’t ringing any bells. When a web search for “naked singularity amante” turned up a coincidence between the author’s last name and my correspondent’s, I thought, A-ha! A vanity project! Did I want to “add it to [my] reading pile?” No offense, but Jesus, no!
If this sounds discriminatory, the fact of the matter is that every reader is. Our reading lives, like our lives more generally, are short. With any luck, I’ve got enough time left between now and whenever I die to read or reread a couple thousand books, and only rough indicators to help me sort through the millions of contenders. I may be breaking a critical taboo here, but the colophon on the spine is one of those indicators. The involvement of a commercial publisher in no way guarantees that a given book isn’t atrocious; I’d be safer just sticking with…well, with Melville and Dostoevsky and Woolf. Over time, though, a given imprint amasses a kind of batting average based on its degree of overlap with one’s tastes. (My Benito Cereno and Mrs. Dalloway might be your The Hunger Games and A Game of Thrones, but that’s an exercise of taste, too — one the folks at Scholastic and Bantam are happy to facilitate.) More importantly, the layers of editorial oversight at these imprints help to filter out hundreds of thousands of manuscripts that aren’t likely to overlap with much of anyone’s taste. To open my reading queue to pay-to-publish outfits like iUniverse or Trafford Publishing — to be forced to consider (and here I’m just plucking titles at random from a recent iUniverse/Trafford Publishing ad in The New York Review of Books) Cheryl’s Kidnapping and Her Odyssey, or Breath of Life: The Life of a Volunteer Firefighter, or Letters to the Editor That Were Never Published (And Some Other Stuff) — that way lies madness.
Then again, to cling to a prejudice against mounting evidence is its own kind of madness. Some time after Susanna De La Pava’s email had disappeared into the bottom of my inbox, I came across a review of A Naked Singularity by Scott Bryan Wilson at The Quarterly Conversation. “It’s very good — one of the best and most original novels of the decade,” was the leading claim. This in turn sent me back to a piece by Steve Donoghue at Open Letters Monthly, which I vaguely remembered Ms. (Mrs.?) De La Pava linking to in her email. “A masterpiece,” Donoghue declared.
These raves got my attention, because The Quarterly Conversation and Open Letters Monthly are venues I’ve written for, and that cover the kind of books I tend to like. It’s worth noting that both (like The Millions), started out themselves as, essentially, self-publishing projects; maybe this is what freed them to devote resources of time and attention to A Naked Singularity back when when Publishers Weekly and Slate wouldn’t. Over the years, by exercising a consistent degree of quality control, each had amassed credibility with its audience, and this is exactly what the business models of Xlibris and iUniverse prevents them from doing; neither has an incentive to say “No” to bad writing. To, in other words, discriminate.
So anyway, I exhumed Ms. De La Pava’s email and asked her, with apologies, to please send over a copy of A Naked Singularity. It was time to apply the first-paragraph test. Here’s what I found:
Hmm. Maybe it was time to apply the second paragraph test.
My getting out or what?!
Okay. Paragraph three. Here goes:
Eleven hours and Thirty-Three minutes since meridian said the clock perched high atop a ledge on the wall and positioned to look down on us all meaning we were well into hour seven of this particular battle between Good and Evil, and oh yeah, that was Good taking a terrific beating with the poultry-shaped ref looking intently at its eyes and asking if it wanted to continue. We were what passed for Good there: the three of us an anyone we stood beside when we rose to speak for the mute in that decaying room (100 Centre Street’s AR-3); and in that place, at that moment, Evil had us surrounded.
There were things here that excited me, from that plucked chicken of a referee to the Sunday-matinee rhythms of the closing lines. I also thought I detected, however, a dose of self-indulgence. (Why not just, “It was 11:33?”). I read on, through a digression on the Miranda Rights, and then 40 pages of dialogue between night-court defendants and their lawyers. Both were good, as these things went — edifying, amusing, and reasonably taut — but I still couldn’t figure it out: aside from demonstrating how smart the author was, where was this going? And here’s the second place where the imprimatur of a commercial press, and all that goes with it, might have made a difference. Had there been some larger cultural pressure assuring me my patience would be rewarded, I would have kept going. As it was, I abandoned the book on my nightstand.
It would likely still be lying there, had I not gotten wind last fall that A Naked Singularity was about to be reissued by the University of Chicago Press. At this point, the story around this novel seemed too interesting for me not to give the story inside it another try. Or, to put it another way, the constellation of extraliterary signals was shining brightly enough to propel me past those first 40 pages, and then another increasingly engaging 100. I devoured what remained in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, 2011.
And it’s a funny thing about those extraliterary signals — superficial, prejudicial, suspect, but also a natural part of the reading experience. Up to a certain point, they’re unavoidable, but beyond that, the accumulated effect of sentences and paragraphs starts to outweigh them. In this case, I won’t say that certain caprices of De La Pava’s prose (not to mention all those missing commas), faded into invisibility. On the whole, though, a good big novel lives or dies at a level far removed from considerations of teachable “craft” — the level Henry James and Michel Houellebecq gesture toward when they speak, in different contexts, of “intensity.” (i.e., as James’ preface to The Ambassadors puts it, “The grace to which the enlightened story-teller will at any time, for his interest, sacrifice if need be all other graces.”) And at that level, A Naked Singularity is, if not a masterpiece, then certainly a roaring success. To call it Crime & Punishment as reimagined by the Coen Brothers would be accurate, but reductive. Better just to call it the most imaginative and exciting and funky and galactically ambitious first novel to come down the pike in I don’t know how long. And if a book this good was consigned to XLibris, it meant one (or more) of three things. 1) Literary trade publishing was more gravely ill than I’d imagined; 2) My judgment was way off-base (always a possibility), or 3) There was some piece of this story I was still missing. The simplest way to find out was to go and talk to the author in person. I emailed Susanna, who presumably talked to Sergio — unless she was Sergio? — and by the end of January he and I had a date to meet at the most nouveau of nouveau Brooklyn’s coffeehouses.
This latter may have been a perversity on my part. On the jacket of the handsome new trade paperback of A Naked Singularity, the author bio reads, in its entirety, “Sergio De La Pava is a writer who does not live in Brooklyn.” In fact, as of January, most of the details of De La Pava’s personal life — age, occupation, place of residence, education — remained shrouded in near-Pynchonian occlusion. A Google Images search yielded exactly two results: one a blurry black-and-white mugshot from the comically low-fi website anakedsingularity.com, the other a sawed-in-half portrait posted alongside an interview in the fantastic Mexican literary journal Hermanocerdo. They might have been two different people; the only common features seemed to be curly hair and an intensity of gaze. As I rode to meet De La Pava, I wondered: what if the reason it had taken him so long to sell his book had to do with the author himself? What if De La Pava never wanted to be published commercially? Or what if he’d sold his book in 2007, but then refused to be edited? What if he’d emailed his manuscript in Zapf Dingbats font? Or forgotten to attach the attachment? Or what if — I speculated, as the man across from me on the subway struck up a conversation with voices only he could hear — De La Pava was certifiably crazy?
When I finally reached our rendezvous point, though, I found Sergio De La Pava as sane as any serious writer can be said to be: a small man in glasses and an off-the-rack suit, waiting patiently by the counter. About the only thing I recognized from his photographs were the corkscrew curls, now longer and slightly disarranged, as if he’d rushed over from somewhere important.
As it turned out, he had. He was coming, he told me, from his job as a public defender in Manhattan. His wife (Susanna!) also works a public defender. Later, they would both return home to New Jersey, where they lead an unexceptional suburban existence with their kids. As for the biographical cloak-and-dagger, the third-party emails, etc., De La Pava suggested several explanations. One was an old-fashioned sense that biography is irrelevant to the work of art — that the artist is, as a character in William Gaddis’ The Recognitions famously says, “just the human shambles that follows it around.” But a more practical consideration is that De La Pava’s dayjob brings him into regular contact with criminals. “My life is probably different than the lives a lot of readers of novels are familiar with,” he said. People in his line of work tend to be tight-lipped about their personal lives and daily routines, because otherwise “someone might put a bullet in someone’s head.”
This was, it turned out, a typically De La Pavan way of attacking a question. For someone so reticent with the public, he talks abundantly and well, his thoughts tending to organize themselves into fluid, almost lawyerly paragraphs of narrative and argument, with these little hard-boiled explosions at the climax. This is also, not incidentally, one way of describing the voice of Casi, the hypercaffeinated first-person protagonist of A Naked Singularity. As the interview went on, I came to see the riven idiom of both author and hero — on the one hand, leisurely abstraction; on the other, urgent volubility — as matters not just of style, but also of psyche.
Like Casi, De La Pava grew up in New Jersey, the child of Colombian immigrants. The basic happiness of his upbringing — home-cooked empanadas and “school clothes warmed on the radiator” — suffuses the scenes of immigrant life that recur throughout A Naked Singularity and help humanize our hero. But it also seems to have been, like most childhoods, one shaped by conflict. On the most obvious level, there was the jostle of languages — his parents’ native Spanish, the English of which De La Pava is something of a connoisseur. (At one point in our conversation, he would spend five minutes critiquing Gregory Rabassa’s translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude).
Then, too, there was the drama of the dreamy child in the striving household. From an early age, De La Pava was attracted to the logical harmonies of various intellectual systems — theology, physics, classical music, math. “My earliest memories are of philosophical problems,” he told me, utterly in earnest. Reading the great philosophers was like “being welcomed into a community of like-minded individuals.” Later, at Rutgers, he would pursue philosophy more seriously, specializing in modal realism — the study of the coexistence of multiple possible worlds. But as a teenager, De La Pava was also into heavy metal. And his was a boxing household, where watching the fights was a sacrosanct activity. “Boxing, that’s my fucking religion,” he says.
His adult life has in some sense been an effort to synthesize these hot and cool impulses — the adversarial and the communal, the sweetness and the science, Yngwie Malmsteen and Rene Descartes. One socially acceptable outlet for both aggression and ratiocination was a law career. And although one of the first things a reader notices in A Naked Singularity is its anger at the Kafkanly facacta state of the criminal justice system, De La Pava remains in love with his chosen profession. In the abstract, “the law is so strikingly beautiful and logical,” he says, as opposed to “the faulty process of human beings…I feel annoyed for some reason when the criminal justice system fucks up, because I feel a great attachment to it.”
Still, De La Pava always thought of himself first and foremost as a writer. “I find myself constantly making up little stories in my head,” he said at one point, nodding across the coffeehouse. “Like if this woman making the phone call fell down right now, what would happen?”
Until then, he had been addressing me heads-up, as if I were a jury he was attempting to sway. As our talk turned to writing and literature, though, he began to look down and inward, a boxer tucking into a crouch. “I’m not that well-read,” was the first thing he said on the subject of influence. When I suggested that his conspicuous engagement with two broad novelistic traditions — the philosophical novel and the novel of erudition — seemed to contradict him, he amended the claim: He’s not that well-read in contemporary fiction. “I have old-fashioned taste.”
Reviews of A Naked Singularity have tended to name-check the white male postmodernists who are its immediate forerunners – Gaddis, Pynchon, David Foster Wallace — but De La Pava’s reading in the po-mo canon has been unsystematic. The Gaddis book he knows best is A Frolic of His Own, a late work centered around the law. Despite an apparent nod in his novel, he has not read Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Of Wallace, he will cop only to having read “all the nonfiction.” Unusually, for a novelist of his generation, De La Pava came to these writers through their own forerunners: the great 19th-century Russians, especially Dostoevsky, and Moby-Dick. This perhaps accounts for the mile-wide streak of unironic moralism that holds together the book’s formally disparate pieces. He does say, however, that Gravity’s Rainbow “turned me on to the possibilities of fiction.”
In his teens and early 20s, he produced some fiction that was “pretty terrible” at the level of skill, but ambitious at the level of content. He was determined to avoid the school of autobiographical offspring-of-immigrants writing he calls “Bodega Heights,” and to pursue instead those “possibilities.” One way his decision to work as a public defender instead of a corporate lawyer paid off, then, is simply that the hours were shorter. “I used to have a lot of free time to write,” he told me. The other is that it gave him something most young writers hunger for: a subject larger than himself to write about. In this case, it was the system Michelle Alexander has memorably called The New Jim Crow — a self-perpetuating prison archipelago populated by low-level offenders, disproportionately poor, disproportionately of color. Justice, in all its manifold forms, had been one of Dostoevsky’s great themes, and now it would be De La Pava’s. And that center of gravity began to pull the variegated worlds De La Pava had spent his youth exploring — vibrantly Spanglished New Jersey suburbs, crappily furnished starter apartments in Brooklyn, airy philosophical castles — into something “nebulous and dreamlike”: a vision of a novel.
“When I write, I almost begin with the end product,” De La Pava explained to me, as we started in on our second coffee. Midway through the first cup, he had begun to tug on the ends of those corkscrews of hair, and now he was working them furiously. “It’s similar to the way you try a case: you think of the summation first.” And what was that summation, with A Naked Singularity? Quickly, almost unthinkingly, he flattened out the rolled New Yorker he’d been carrying and began to doodle something with pen in the margins. He was talking now about the structure of Beethoven’s Ninth, but I was distracted by the peculiarly entropic energy of what he was drawing. Or whatever is the opposite of entropic. It was a single line, like an EKG or a lie-detector test, swinging above and below the baseline with swoops that grew smaller and tighter as X approached infinity. Finally, the line ended at an emphatic black dot. A singularity. “I wanted to take all this stuff and put it in in a way that would at first feel chaotic. I was interested in the question: at what point does something become a novel?”
This effect of dissonance and resolution is, in fact, exactly what had thrown me about the first 40 pages of A Naked Singularity, without my having a sufficient sample of the book to see it whole. Which means, among other things, that A Naked Singularity managed to stay true to a formal vision that is the inverse of most first novels’ (start with something singular; degenerate into randomness as ideas run out). De La Pava’s indifference to the prevailing trends of the marketplace helps to account for the number of rejections he would receive from literary agents (88, according to The Chicago Tribune.) But it’s also what’s so alarming about his novel’s close brush with obscurity. It suggests that traditional publishing has become woefully backward-looking, trying to shape the novel of tomorrow based on what happened yesterday. Could A Naked Singularity have benefited from a good editor? Of course, but books like this — singular, urgent, commanding — are supposed to be what good editors live for.
As to the question of when the book’s various gambits cohere into a novel, there’s an ironic twist in all this. Right around page 150, De La Pava introduces into his bricolage of Gaddis-y dialogue and Malamudian bildungsroman and potheaded discursus that most commercial of plots, the quest to pull off the perfect caper. It’s this set of generic tropes, rendered with a perfection of their own, that starts to pull De La Pava’s other concern toward that convergence point he’d drawn for me. By the halfway mark, A Naked Singularity has become exactly what every publisher is looking for: a very difficult book to put down.
“I was 27 when I started, 34 or 35 when I was done,” De La Pava, now 41, told me; “I didn’t know anything.” Only that “This wasn’t The Old Man and the Sea.” A book he likes, he hastened to add. But with the help of his wife, a voracious reader who keeps abreast of new fiction, he realized that he needed representation. The first excerpt he sent out excited several literary agents enough that they asked to see more. Almost uniformly, though, the response to the sheer bulk of the complete manuscript was, “You’ve got to be kidding.” De La Pava, having poured seven years of his life into the book, wasn’t ready to see it chopped into something smaller and less risky. “My attitude was, I’ll take my ball and go home.” (Though one doubts he would have stopped writing; a second novel, Personae, less successful but still interesting, was published through XLibris in 2011).
Susanna, however, wasn’t ready to give up on A Naked Singularity, and began to lobby him to self-publish it. “I think it cost about $10,000” to print it through XLibris, he says. “We had a book party and everything,” after which they ended up with “all these copies.” Susanna then took on the role of publicist…and proved adept at it as her husband had at the role of novelist. Her strategy was to send out targeted emails to bloggers and critics who had written about Infinite Jest, offering to send them something they might like. Some of them, like me, failed to take her up on it, but after Donoghue’s review, and then Wilson’s, things began to snowball. Soon “we’re selling like 100 books a month. And then we hear from University of Chicago Press.” A publicity director there (who was also The Quarterly Conversation’s poetry editor) had become obsessed with the book. A self-published magnum opus was, to say the least, an unusual project for a prestigious academic press. It had to pass muster with the board of faculty members and administrators that signs off on each book published. But, thanks in large measure to statements of support from the novelist Brian Evenson and critics including Steven Moore, the press decided to acquire the rights to the book. From there, it was only a hop, skip, and a jump to the window of my local Barnes & Noble, where I passed it just this week.
This can’t have been exactly the path to prominence De La Pava dreamed of. For one thing, I thought I detected an element of rope-a-dope in his protestations of literary innocence. In the course of our two-hour conversation, he capably paraphrased John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, tossed off two allusions to “The Big Six” (a term I had to think about before I got it) and name-checked half a dozen titles from recent Knopf and FSG catalogues. There’s also the matter of that New Yorker, rumpled from use.
And then there’s the way A Naked Singularity returns again and again to the theme of ambition. It becomes almost a counterpoint to the theme of justice. At first, Casi’s desire to do great things pulls him toward justice; later, it’s a source of frustration that borders on madness. As with the scenes of family life, the writing here is too personal not to have come from firsthand experience. When Casi says, for example, of a brief he’s preparing to file, “I’m determined to create a document so achingly beautiful and effective and important that should I drop dead as the final draft is being printed it would matter not the least,” we can hear the novelist standing right behind him, speaking, as it were, over his shoulder.
“Achingly beautiful and effective and important:” I imagine that, as he neared completion on his huge manuscript, De La Pava must have had an inkling that he’d achieved at least two of the three. And I imagine he believed, like Casi, that he was still living in a world where that would be enough. The doors of the great publishing houses would fly open, and then the arts pages of the newspapers, and then the doors of homes across America. This is what most writers believe, deep down, as the private dreaminess of the early drafts begins to give way to the public competition for attention, and money, and fame.
Yet De La Pava’s more tortuous path has afforded him certain gifts that outrageous good fortune might not have. Chief among these is something both the MFA and the NYC trajectories Chad Harbach sketched in a recent N+1 essay tend subtly to conceal: the knowledge that one is free to write the kinds of books one wants, with the kinds of effects that engage one’s own imagination, however rich, complex, and challenging. “That kind of freedom is important to me,” De La Pava told me, as we sat in the heart of Mayor Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk New York, in a neighborhood I could no longer afford to live in, amid the artisinal cheese-plates and the coffee priced by the bean. “I’m very into freedom as a writer.” I asked him what his ambitions were for the next book. “I want to preserve this mode of doing things,” he said. “The rest I can’t control.” Then we paid up, and said our goodbyes, and he walked out the door, bound for the wilds of Jersey.
Bonus link: “Reasons Not to Self-Publish in 2011-2012: A List” by Edan Lepucki
Bonus link: De La Pava boxing piece at Triple Canopy: “A Day’s Sail”
Image Credit: Genevieve McCarthy
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.
Could geeking out over a mutually beloved novel surpass even alcohol as the ultimate social ice-breaker? In my three months of solo travel in India, shared literary interests have opened the doors to several new friendships. Quite like the bond formed between travelers on similar journeys, the bond formed around a favorite novel is one of shared immersive experience, usually open to impossibly wide interpretations. When we meet someone else who’s “been there,” there’s a biting urge to know exactly what the other person saw, what scenes remain strongest in her memory, what crucial knowledge or insight was retrieved, and what her experience reveals or changes about our own?
If we try to extend this “traveler’s comparison” to other narrative mediums — television programs, movies, plays — it can often lose some of its steam. Why is this? Relative limitlessness in physical and emotional sensory potential is the privilege and burden of the reader. The book, more so than any other form of narrative media, rings true, more synonymous, with the limitlessness and loneliness to be found while facing the open road or holding a one-way airline ticket to Azerbaijan. In my hypotheses, it is the loneliness quality in particular, physically and intellectually inherent to the act of reading, that lays the bedrock for the powerful social bonding achieved through literature. The limitlessness is critical too, as it promises a bounty of fertile avenues for conversation, but it’s the loneliness of the reader — or, as Rainer Maria Rilke might say, it’s how “two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other” — that assigns to a very special category those friendships formed over books.
Enjoying a good work of literature entails getting lost. Vast and foreign is the journey, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. If the book is good, then the intelligence that guides us through the story will appear many degrees superior to our own. Even in the case of a child narrator like Harper Lee’s Scout Finch, or an impaired one, like Christopher John Francis Boone — the autistic 15-year-old narrator of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of the Dog in the Night-Time — the narrative intelligences of our books should leave us feeling a bit pressed intellectually, a bit outmatched, amazed ultimately by the talent of the author who brought such an exquisite intelligence to life. It should be our expectation as readers to be transported into a compellingly drawn, but very foreign and unique reality. Our guide, the local aficionado, attempts to help us understand everything we’re taking in, though we’ll inevitably overlook and misunderstand things from time to time, sometimes big, important things. Reading Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, for me, was an experience similar to that of using one’s brain; I was able to intellectually command perhaps 10 percent of the content at hand. If this was part of Pynchon’s intent for his novel, I commend him for crafting an impressive and very odd reflection of the human condition. Yes, reading is both a richly gratifying and lonely act, at both intellectual and sensory levels, which is why meeting someone with whom we share a favorite book has a way of jump-starting our social batteries, even on our more quiet nights.
Maya Dorn, a 41-year-old copywriter, musician, and avid reader from San Francisco, uses shared literary interests as a litmus test for social compatibility. “Liking the same books is like having the same sense of humor — if you don’t have it in common, it’s going to be hard to bond with someone. You risk ending up with nothing to talk about.” Maya specifically cites Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, as popping up again and again on the fringes of her social circles. Funny she mentioned that title; though I’ve not read The Master and Margarita, it was recommended to me a month prior to meeting Maya, at a café in Goa, where a vacationing Russian day-spa owner — stoned to a point of spare, clear English and silky slow hand gestures — explained to me the premise of Bulgakov’s post-modern “Silver Age” classic. “It’s about different type of prison, a prison of the mind!” The Russian pointed meaningfully at his own head. Sharing such intensely themed, café-table book-talk with a strange Russian proved quite an adventure in itself, with our caffeine jitters occasionally morphing into anachronistic, Cold War-era paranoias of Pynchonesque mirth. He was the first Russian I’d met abroad.
Currently I’m 100 pages out from finishing Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, quite a relevant book for this topic, as so many of Eugenides’ principal characters’ social lives are influenced by literature. Clearly Eugenides sees the unique social potency of books as a given fact, something that can be leveraged as a plausible plot-building tool. College seniors, Madeleine Hanna and Leonard Bankhead, sow the early seeds of the novel’s epic romance while discussing various books in a Semiotics 211 seminar. The two of them quietly ally with one other, colluding intellectually against the opinions of the cerebral and pretentious Thurston Meems. Madeleine and Leonard criticize the gratuitous morbidity of Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, while Thurston extols the text for its originality. A bit later on in the story (spoiler alert) it is nothing other than a brief, semi-drunken bout of book chatter that opens the door for Madeleine’s unlikely one night stand with the villainous Thurston:
‘A Lover’s Discourse.’
Thurston squeezed his eyes shut, nodding with pleasure. ‘That’s a great book.’
‘You like it?’ Madeleine said.
‘The thing about that book,’ Thurston said. ‘Is that, ostensibly, it’s a deconstruction of love. It’s supposed to cast a cold eye on the whole romantic enterprise, right? But it reads like a diary.’
‘That’s what my paper’s on!’ Madeleine cried. ‘I deconstructed Barthes’ deconstruction of love.’
In the story-world of The Marriage Plot, literature maintains a power to broker alliances and define enemies. Books are also cited in the mediations of religious and political debate. Books influence career paths, and weigh in profoundly on other critical, life-defining decisions faced by Eugenides’ characters. At one point in the novel, Eugenides finds it perfectly reasonable that nothing other than a positive social experience — three young women bonding at a conference on Victorian literature — would be enough to inspire his protagonist, Madeleine, to pursue a career as a Victorian scholar.
The Marriage Plot isn’t really about books so to speak — I say this despite the title itself being an allusion to the standard plots that recurred throughout the great Victorian-era novels — nevertheless, Eugenides is most comfortable and successful in using the phenomenon of literary community to facilitate settings and move his plots. The success of The Marriage Plot may help illustrate and confirm that the social utility of literature may be by its own right capable of assuring literature’s imminent survival.
As Eugenides’ novel illustrates, the social reach of literature doesn’t end with discussions of stories and novels. Academic texts and non-fiction contribute peripheral influence to communities of all kinds, even those not squarely centered around literature. Avid reader and rock climber, Joe White, of Leeds, England cites Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void as indispensable to his adventurous social circle. “Though I can’t recall ever forming a particular personal bond over just one book,” Joe says, “being heavily involved in climbing and mountaineering fraternities has led me to form many friendships based around that specific activity, and the literature that surrounds the activity often provides talking points or focal points for the community. Pretty much everyone’s read Touching the Void, I mean, it’s not only relevant to climbing, but it’s an amazing story in its own right.”
I recently happened into a brief but enjoyable encounter with the esteemed Joyce Carol Oates. She was promoting her memoir, A Widow’s Story, and was fielding questions from her audience. Amid the 100-plus crowd, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to ask her one:
Ms. Oates, in a recent interview you spoke of the unique type of distress that comes from having one’s work rebuked in a public forum. You cited the experience of your contemporary, Norman Mailer, after having his second novel, Barbary Shore, denounced by the literary critics of the day, making, as Mailer put it, “an outlaw out of him.” But could you speak to the opposite side of this dichotomy — what might you share with us concerning that unique thrill and gratification that comes from producing a superior work of art, a work you know to be beloved by people all over the world. Do those who love your work weigh as heavy on the writer’s mind as those who detract from it?
Oates, took some time in silence to prepare her response.
“Art is a communal experience,” she replied.
As far as directly quoting the writing legend, the exact integrity of my recollections end with that phrase, but I can attest that she expounded for some time on the personal connections to be achieved through these special artifacts, books, these “communal experiences.” But does the act of reading, at a glance, feel in any way communal? Or does it feel, in fact, quite the opposite? Even members of the most ambitious and tightly-knit book clubs tend to do their actual reading in solitude. As such, when the noise of the world becomes occluded by the bestseller between your hands, it’s easy (and perhaps optimal?) to forget that so many others are journeying across this exact same text. You can’t see your companions now, your fellow patrons. They’re nowhere on your radar. You have no idea who they are or that they exist at all. Nevertheless, as you read, your fellow adventurers are out there waiting to meet you, biding their time behind a chance encounter, a well-fated introduction, a tweet, or a blog post, or an otherwise interesting article of prose. You didn’t realize it, but so much mystery, so much anticipation has amassed behind your new friendship, a cosmos-load of potential energy. You didn’t know it — you were too engaged with the mind behind the words — but through all the sentences, the pages, the lovely, lonely hours past, a part of you secretly longed for a flesh-and-blood friend with whom you could share your experience. When you meet your friend, you’ve met an instant confidant. You unburden yourselves on one another, reliving the adventures, revisiting those daunting and glorious experiences you dearly miss, refining and refreshing your perspective in the silver gazing pool of another soul, one that’s triumphed through similar loneliness. Book-bonding is soul-mating, pre-arranged through art, fun-filled and beautiful as a wedding.
Image Credit: Flickr/nSeika
In “Aren’t You Dead Yet?”, one of the stories in Elissa Schappell’s new collection, Blueprints for Building Better Girls, the narrator, an aspiring writer, receives a black, leather-bound journal as a gift from her best friend. Although she loves the look of the journal, she never writes in it. When her friend discovers this, he’s angry, and even accuses her of slacking off:
I tried to explain that I hadn’t written in it because I loved it so much and I didn’t want to ruin it. The pages were so nice, and sewn in, you couldn’t just rip them out. Whatever stupid thing I wrote down would be in there permanently.
This passage reminded me of the many beautiful blank journals I’ve received over the years, journals I’ve never used. Whenever I fill up one of my trusty spiral notebooks, I go through the stack and tell myself I’m finally going to start using them. But then I think of sullying those pristine, unlined pages with my half-formed thoughts, and I feel as guilty as the narrator in Schappell’s story.
Unfortunately, the same guilt intrudes on many of the other lovely writerly gifts I’ve received. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, I confess that I have a lot of nice pens I never use, because I’m afraid of chewing on them; a lot of classic novels I haven’t read because I feel guilty about not having read them; and a lot of inspirational writer’s guides I never read, because what if I’m not inspired?
None of these gifts are offensive, and no one will begrudge you for giving them. But they are boilerplate gifts. Writers get blank journals for the same reasons that teachers get mugs, assistants get flowers, and grandmothers get tea. If you want to give the writer in your life something he or she will truly adore, here are twelve ideas:
1. A Cheesy New Bestseller
One of the best presents I ever got was The Nanny Diaries. I really wanted it, but there were over 300 people on the library’s waiting list (I live in New York), and I wasn’t going to shell out $25 for something I was unlikely to read twice. The funny thing is, I never told my roommate that I wanted to read The Nanny Diaries. She just guessed that I had a secret craving for it. Of course, it can be as hard to gauge your friend’s taste in pop culture as it in high culture, but it’s better to guess wrong in the pop culture arena, because your friend is more likely to exchange it for something she likes better. Whereas, if you give her Gravity’s Rainbow, she’ll keep it for years out of obligation.
2. Good lipstick
Writers are often broke. If they have $30 to spare, they are going to spend it on dinner, booze, or new books. Not lipstick. But writers are pale from spending so much time inside and could use some color. Make-up can be a tricky gift because it suggests that you think your friend’s face could use improvement. That’s why it’s important to go to a department store make-up counter and buy something frivolous and indulgent, like a single tube of red lipstick or some face powder or blush in a nice-looking case.
3. Foreign language learning software
Most writers wish they knew more languages. It can also be relaxing to be rendered inarticulate in a new language, in that it offers a real break from personal expression, nuance, and irony. At the same time, learning a new language sharpens your native tongue, and expands your vocabulary. It’s sort of like cross training. Although language classes with live instructors are generally more effective than computer programs, I prefer software because it allows me to take the class on my own time and at my own pace.
4. A Bathrobe
John Cheever famously donned a suit every morning in order to write. But as Ann Beattie recently revealed, and as a generation of bloggers already knows, most writers wear awful clothing while they are working. Help your writer friend out by giving her a beautiful robe to cover up her bizarre ensembles. Even if she already has one, she probably hasn’t washed it in a long time, and could use another.
5. A Manicure
I bite my nails, especially when I’m writing. I’ve noticed that a lot of other writers have suspiciously short nails, too. Manicures help. Also, manicures get writers out of the house—and off the internet.
6. “Freedom”, the internet-blocking software
“Freedom” is a computer program that blocks the internet on your computer for up to eight hours. I don’t understand why it’s effective, since it’s relatively easy to circumvent, but as soon as I turn it on, I stay off the internet for hours at a time. (There is also a program called “Anti-social”, which only blocks the social parts of the internet, like Facebook and Twitter.)
7. Booze, coffee, and other stimulants
Find out what your friend likes to drink and buy a really nice version of that thing. Wine can be tricky, but we are living in an age of over-educated clerks, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. If your friend is a coffee or tea drinker, find out how he brews it and buy him really good beans or tealeaves. Even better, find out what cafe he frequents and see if they sell gift certificates.
8. Yoga Classes
Yoga does wonders for anxiety, depression, and aching backs, three common writerly afflictions. Most yoga classes also incorporate some kind of meditation practice, which is also very helpful.
9. A pet
In a recent Atlantic blog post containing advice from world’s most prolific writers, a character from one of Muriel Spark’s novels is quoted, describing why cats are good for writers: “If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat… The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.” Another prolific writer, Jennifer Weiner, recommends dogs on her website, where she’s posted a list of tips for aspiring writers. Dogs, she explains, foster discipline, because they must be walked several times a day. Furthermore, Weiner notes, walking is as beneficial for the writer as it is for the dog: “While you’re walking, you’re thinking about plot, or characters, or that tricky bit of dialogue that’s had you stumped for days.”
Obviously, a pet should not be given casually, or even as a surprise, but it’s worth considering, especially if you hear of an already-trained dog or cat that needs a new home.
10. Freezable homemade foods: casseroles, soups, breads, and baked goods.
This is a potentially Mom-ish gift, but if your friend is on deadline, a new parent, or just far from home during the holidays, a home-cooked meal could be a lovely gesture. I emphasize freezable because it should be something that you make at home and leave with your friend to eat later. If you can’t cook, buy a pie.
11. A hand-written letter
I know how corny this sounds, but many writers, especially fiction writers, still get a fair amount of rejection notes via the U.S. mail. You can easily make your friend’s day by sending an old-fashioned, chatty letter or even just a holiday card.
12. The Gift, by Lewis Hyde
The Gift examines the role of artists in market economies, taking the lives of two major American poets as case studies. It’s the perfect antidote to all the earnest, helpful guides that aim to teach writers how to be more publishable, saleable, and disciplined. Where most writing guides make writers feel they could succeed if only they were more productive and efficient, The Gift argues that productivity and efficiency are market-based terms that have little meaning in gift economies, which is where many creative writers exchange and share their work. Another way of putting it is to say that The Gift makes feel writers feel less crazy.
(Image: Project 365 #263: 200911 Kept Under Wraps… from comedynose’s photostream)
The class met on weekends – three hours on Saturday, three hours on Sunday – and was filled with working people: grocery store clerks, UPS delivery guys, off-duty cops, all trying to squeeze a few extra community college credits into their overstuffed lives. A giggle ran through the room when I showed the class Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the first book on our syllabus. At the time, fifteen years ago, Maus was still fairly new, and “graphic novel” wasn’t yet a term you saw on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. My students couldn’t believe they were actually going to read a comic book for an English class, much less one that told the story of the Holocaust as a kind of Tom & Jerry cartoon with the Nazis as cats and the Jews as mice.
The students were mostly Asian and Latino immigrants, and they came to the class knowing next to nothing about Nazi Germany. In some ways, that was the most startling part of the class for me. How do you explain the slaughter of six million Jews to a group of people who couldn’t find Germany on a map? It was like describing ice cream to room full of Martians. They just couldn’t get it. Why were the Germans so mad at the Jews? Why didn’t the Jews fight back? Why didn’t the Americans just bomb the bejesus out of the camps and set all the Jews free? Finally, on the last day, when we were deep into the Auschwitz section of the book, one of the younger students, a tall, skinny Vietnamese gangbanger kid named Loc raised his hand. “It just doesn’t make sense,” he said. “They’re all white people.”
Whatever lesson plan I’d written for the day sailed out the window and for the next hour we talked about how racism works. To one degree or another, nearly every student in the class had suffered discrimination at the hands of white people, but to them, wise to the ways of the American melting pot, racism was largely a matter of skin color. To be dark was bad; to be lighter, even the tiniest bit lighter, was a gift. But what if racism wasn’t based on skin color? What if it had no fixed basis whatever? What if two groups of equally white people could hate each other to the degree that one group would try to wipe the other off the face of the earth?
The stories began to pour out. Loc, my lanky young gangbanger, talked about how much he’d hated members of a rival Vietnamese gang, even though to most Americans the two groups looked identical. Other, older students talked of Mexican-on-Mexican violence in Chiapas, Catholic-against-Communist violence in Vietnam. What made the conversation so electric was that they had moved out of their comfort zone of talking about their victimhood. Now, in many of these stories, they were the aggressors. They were the cats and other people who looked just like them were the mice. When we returned to the book, and to the stories of the Nazis’ brutal treatment of Spiegelman’s parents, Anja and Vladek, in the camps, Auschwitz was real to them in a way that no documentary film or historical lecture could have ever hoped to achieve.
I was reminded of that electrifying class session recently when I read Spiegelman’s new book, MetaMaus. Timed for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Maus, the new book is built around a series of interviews University of Chicago professor Hillary Chute conducted with Spiegelman and his family. Sprinkled between the interviews are dozens of old family photos, early drafts of certain pages of Maus, reproductions of cartoons and other art work that influenced Spiegelman, and, just for a bit of mean-spirited fun, copies of the many rejection letters he received, with the names of the editors, whose cluelessness cost their companies untold millions after Maus became a hit, there for all to see. Appendices include a full transcript of Spiegelman’s taped interviews with his father and a DVD containing hours of original audio recordings, along with more family photos and early drafts of Maus.
The book is thus little more than an artfully curated culling of Art Spiegelman’s attic, and yet for those of us who have come to regard Maus as one of the half dozen or so truly indispensable works of post-World War II American literature, it is a treasure trove of background material and historical context. More than that, though, MetaMaus is a loose, rambling treatise on the alchemical process of transforming the raw material of one’s own experience into a work of art capable of reaching – and teaching – millions.
Some may chuckle at the notion of Maus as one of a handful of truly indispensable works of post-World War II American literature. American literature since 1945 encompasses Nobel laureates Saul Bellow and Toni Morrison, along with Philip Roth, who if anybody ever listened to me, would already have his Nobel by now. The period also includes the likes of John Updike, John Cheever, Joyce Carol Oates, and Thomas Pynchon, to say nothing of more recent authors such as Tim O’Brien, David Foster Wallace, and Louise Erdrich. Do I seriously mean to compare modern classics like Beloved or Gravity’s Rainbow to a comic book?
In fact I do, and to explain why I need to go back to that community college classroom fifteen years ago. The students in that class were by no means stupid. They weren’t in the least intellectually lazy, either. I find myself annoyed by teachers like the mysterious Professor X, author of In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, who depict their students as lazy, ill-mannered lunks who have no business being in college. This view has no relationship to the reality I encountered in my years teaching in community colleges. After all, those students were giving up their weekends to take an introductory English course. They weren’t saints – I busted a plagiarist in that class, as I recall – but they understood, probably better than the kids in my classes at Fordham University today, that the American dream is built upon education, and they struck me as hungry to get started.
Still, no one in that class was ready for Saul Bellow or, God forbid, Thomas Pynchon. One of the first lessons of teaching literature in the real world is that you have to meet your students where they are, not where you want them to be. In academic jargon, this is called finding your students’ “zone of proximal development,” the sweet spot between what they already know and what they couldn’t possibly comprehend even if you were there to help them. The wonder of Maus is that it fits into everyone’s zone of proximal development. I taught it to those working-class immigrants in California fifteen years ago; I taught it at a third-rate night school in Virginia; and just last month, I taught it in an advanced writing class at Fordham, a prestigious, four-year private university. Every time, in every context, students told me they’d stayed up half the night finishing the book, and then when we discussed it in class, it took the tops of their heads off all over again. Maus is that rare work of literature that speaks to everyone while pandering to no one.
MetaMaus is a record of how Spiegelman pulled off this magic trick. The first, and perhaps most important piece of the puzzle, has to do with the form itself, the fact that Spiegelman chose to tell one of the most horrific tales of the twentieth century in the form of a barnyard comic book. In Maus, not only are the Germans cats and the Jews mice, but the Poles are pigs, the Americans are dogs, the French are frogs, and for a few antic pages late in the book, the Swedes are reindeer. But at the same time, they aren’t. In Spiegelman’s comic book, the characters have animal heads, but the rest of their bodies are human, and so far as the story is concerned, they are human. Even more perversely, the animals can wear masks to pass themselves off as other kinds of animals. Thus, when Spiegelman’s father wishes to pass as a non-Jewish Pole, in the comic his mouse character wears a pig mask, tied with a string visibly knotted in the back.
It’s a simple conceit, stolen from a million superhero comics, but set here in the middle of a story of Nazified Europe, the image makes a startlingly modern argument. Or, rather, it offers a series of startling arguments that intertwine and contradict each other in ways that only literature can do. On the one hand, Spiegelman’s central visual metaphor answers the question, in a chillingly deterministic fashion, why the Germans killed the Jews. They did it for the same reason cats chase mice: because it’s in their nature. On the other hand, if a mouse can become a pig, or even a cat, merely by behaving like one, then racial categories aren’t fixed in biology and are instead artifacts of performance. And if race is rooted in behavior, not biology, then it is essentially meaningless, and Hitler’s racial ideology is a murderous sham.
This is just one example of how Maus takes on the knottiest of historical questions in the simplest of terms, without losing any of the underlying complexity. For the dedicated reader of Maus, what is fascinating about MetaMaus is how carefully Spiegelman thought through all this complexity. MetaMaus functions as a sort of public scrapbook of the twenty-year process from Spiegelman’s first fumbling attempts to draw his parents’ story in comic book form in the early 1970s to the finished book, the second volume of which was published in 1991. At the same time, the book works at the atomic level, walking the reader through Spiegelman’s agonizingly slow process of creating individual panels, layering in his taped interviews with his father and his historical research with his encyclopedic knowledge of the comic-book genre, and then using his skill as an artist to tie it all together into an arresting visual image. Panel by painstaking panel, Spiegelman’s images serve to answer a basic question that hangs mutely over the entire project: Did this terrible thing really happen?
The Holocaust, after all, didn’t just strike Spiegelman’s family. It is a vast and controversial war crime that has inspired an enormous range of responses from outright denial to what Spiegelman calls “Holokitsch,” his term for the numbing stream of books and movies that use the backdrop of the camps to lend weight to the unbearable slightness of their premises:
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Communists ceased to be attractive as villains. I guess interest in the Holocaust really metastasized at that point: “This is the perfect hero/villain paradigm for movies.” It’s replaced cowboys and Indians… The Holocaust has become a trope, sometimes used admirably, as in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, or sometimes meretriciously, like in Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful.
In MetaMaus, it becomes clear that Spiegelman spent almost two decades creating Maus because it took him that long to figure out how to force his readers to tune out the blaring cultural noise of Holokitsch and actually see what had happened to his parents.
To help American readers up to their eyeballs in Holokitsch see this oft-told tale anew, Spiegelman conceived of a great, overarching metaphor structure, and then, masterfully, set about getting the reader to ignore it. What we see when we open up Maus is a work of head-spinning surrealism – a bunch of people walking around with animal heads – but its power as literature lies in the fact that it presents itself as documentary realism. The very unreality of the imagery allows viewers who might never be able to sit through a realistic documentary about Auschwitz that showed dead bodies stacked like cordwood in the snow to follow Vladek and Anja Spiegelman through six long years of Nazi terror. At the same time, the humanity of their interactions, the way they talk and scheme and love one another, forces us to in effect draw faces on their mouse heads, to enter the story in our imagination. As Spiegelman puts it: “In other words, you’ve got to do the work the same way you do when you’re reading prose, and Maus retains that attribute of prose.”
It is this liminal state – part comic book, part family saga, part war documentary – that explains the book’s staying power as a teaching tool and as a work of literature a quarter century after the first volume appeared. Maus is, like the comic books that inspired it, a profoundly democratic text, accessible to anyone who has ever sat in front of a TV on a Saturday morning. Yet unlike its many imitators, it doesn’t stop there. The book demands that its readers “do the work,” look closely and follow its many telling details, and in doing so, readers melt into the story, becoming not just the mice, but also, terrifyingly, the cats and pigs that torment them.
Harold Bloom is getting old. The venerable and untiring critic has reached the age of 81, the age Dante thought would allow one to reach the perfection of mind and spirit. Bloom would be the first (and he repeats himself in this, as in all things) to admit that he falls pretty solidly short of this luminosity. The nickname he chose for himself is “Brontosaurus Bardolator Bloom” – an amiable enough monster, as he wryly remarks. He once rather charmingly referred to Leopold Bloom, the wonderfully curious and unpretentious leading man of Ulysses as his “namesake.” In this new volume of criticism, proclaimed to be his last, he rejects the idea of grandly associative names except, of course, for the fortunate few who’ve earned them: Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Whitman, Wordsworth, and Joyce among them, as well he might. He’s spent most of his life absorbed in their imaginations. The Anatomy of Influence: Literature As A Way Of Life is simultaneously a swan song, mash note, and fever dream.
It’s interesting to see how Bloom frets and struts his hour upon the page. To my mind, Harold Bloom is not so much the judicious patriarch or brazen egomaniac or even a vogon (as one detractor had it) as he is a grandmother – endlessly harried, fiercely loving, and relentlessly worried about the future of his brood. One could say that the bombastic Brontosaurus is really no more than the mother hen of his corner of literary history. He has been known to address his interviewers as “my child,” “my dearies,” and “my little bear.” Every photo of him I’ve ever seen displays the hollow-eyed gaze of a sort of maternal weariness, an insomnia of wondering if the lights are going out and if the house will still be standing when he finally shuffles off the mortal coil.
As for his method and his taste, it might be summed up in a bit of his critical mythology. For Bloom, especially when starting from his breakthrough 1973 essay “The Anxiety of Influence,” the issue at hand has always been the nature of literary influence. The idea is that a poet wants to begin to create though at first he feels threatened and anxious that a stronger, precursor poet has already said what he wanted to say before he had the chance to say it himself. The influence of the precursor is overwhelming in its inspiration and the poet begins to copy the voice or style or philosophy of the precursor poet, causing an anxiety over the poet’s struggle for identity, for individuality.
The agon, a word rooted in the competition between Greek tragedians, is when the poet is struggling to overthrow this contaminating power. The way this is accomplished is through a Lucretian clinamen, or unpredictable swerve from the precursors’ dominance. The result is sublimity; the rapture of a distinct, powerful, and utterly strange new voice which appears. The readers discover themselves, always themselves, as an inscrutable interiority always deepening and widening, as they read through the panoply of what Bloom unabashedly calls genius. He is fond of citing Emerson on this: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts, they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”
The contention would seem to be on what authority, of course, Bloom would be able to decide that one writer has sufficiently influenced or superseded another, and on what grounds. There does not seem to be an objective answer to this, given that interpreting interpretations is a tricky business at best. It doesn’t matter as much as it might, though – criticism can falter when it decides on its own that it contains the last word on any text. History is a long record on the folly of this. A plethora of meanings, an opening up of new avenues of discovery, a startling juxtaposition is plenty to grow on. Bloom, to his credit, is aware of this: “opponents accuse me of espousing an ‘aesthetic ideology,’ but I follow Kant in believing that the aesthetic demands deep subjectivity and is beyond the reach of ideology.” Subjectivity never ends.
Bloom’s position does not, and should not, mean you discriminate between superior and inferior cultural productions. History can’t – and shouldn’t – be avoided in criticism, and Bloom errs in his cantankerous avoidance of historicism, but if societies do in fact write books, the minds who craft them certainly do not come to us mass produced. In his Genius: A Mosaic of A Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds (sort of a choice anthology of favorite poets, novelists, and playwrights), he remarks that “there were many neurotic spinsters in 19th Century Amherst, but there was only one Emily Dickinson.” It may be best for politics and cultural production as such to be considered an ingredient of the soup and not the sum total of the soup itself.
What sets him off, as he rather irritatingly tends to repeat here and elsewhere, is what he calls “The School of Resentment” – the Marxist, Feminist, Post-Colonial, Deconstructionist methods of approaching a text. His use of a Nietzschean concept is telling, both for what he accuses and how he accuses it. For Bloom, this culture theory approach trivializes the power of imagination, absurdly reducing it to circumstances of gender or class stature or ethnicity. It’s interesting how this kind of gripe has been heard before, usually from some self-righteous idiot who bemoans the lowering of America’s mental and spiritual standards while preening on Fox News or scribbling another paranoid, myopic screed for some Moral Majority book club, the better to pay off his gambling debts and mistresses. Bloom’s not a conservative, at least as far as politics go, and the distinction is worth remembering. If the new frontier for political affiliation is cultural and taste-based vindictiveness (Starbucks vs. Wal-Mart, Fox vs. CNN, The Noble Canon vs. Gangsta Rap), and it is well-argued that it was the right wing who created the mess in the first place, then it pays to see a believer in the canon remind us that despite “the war for America’s soul,” good little boys and girls are not going to be saved by reading their Bible and their Emerson to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and merrily stride towards a Manifest Destiny:
It is scary to reread the final volume of Gibbon these days because the fate of the Roman Empire seems an outline…Dark influences from the American past congregate among us still. If we are a democracy, what are we to make of the palpable elements of plutocracy, oligarchy, and mounting theocracy that rule our state? How do we address the self-inflicted catastrophes that devastate our natural environment? So large is our malaise that no single writer can encompass it. We have no Emerson or Whitman among us…I did not consciously realize this then, but my meditation upon poetic influence now seems to me also an attempt to forge a weapon against the gathering storm of ideology that soon would sweep away many of my students.
It’s very penetratingly said that Bloom’s canon is sometimes low on non-Western voices. Bloom is pretty bombastic in what he loves and why he loves it, and he can’t go at least a page or two without pumping out another reference to Shakespeare and how the Bard’s omnivorous consciousness almost overshadows the book he’s analyzing. Bloom likes to mingle his views with those of the lords of language, and good for him. Proximity, however, is not approximation. I don’t think a writer can decide for themselves who their authentic precursor is; there’s way too much bubbling around in the stew of the creative mind to locate such an inspiration.
If an interested reader takes inventory of Bloom’s school for the ages, there are indeed plenty of Dead White Men (and Women) to be found, but there are also more than a few interestingly subversive texts to be found. I discovered Ishmael Reed’s searing Mumbo Jumbo on this recommendation and I doubt very much that it was chosen as an encroachment of European cultural hegemony. Same goes for Bloom’s “20th Century Sublime,” which includes The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, the concluding ten minutes of which is hard to see as anything but hilariously anarchic satire on whatever is patriotic and pious in western history. The same could be said of Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, for that matter. The list also includes Charlie Parker’s Parker’s Mood, Bud Powell’s Un Poco Loco, and the “Byron The Light Bulb” sequence from Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I mention these not to engage in academic tit-for-tat, but to emphasize the inherently idiosyncratic nature of all criticism. His indignation is incandescent. Bloom celebrates what he is moved by, what outrages and delights him, what “ravishes his heart away.”
Bardolatry, “the least religious of all religions,” is Bloom’s great love. The first half of the book is taken up with the idea of “Shakespeare the founder.” Shakespeare is the omnivorous, omniscient one: his creative capacity is boundless and subsumes everything which comes before or after it. In a previous work, Bloom even makes the provocative if dubious claim that he “invented the human.” He hasn’t changed his mind. Bloom sketches the various places where the Bard is to be found in all manner of literature, and in Bloom he is never out of sight. He often quotes Giambattista Vico’s saying that “we know only what we ourselves have made” but in the end, Shakespeare has made everything for us. Shakespeare the person is unable to be found within his created works, so thoroughly has he subsumed himself into his personalities: Iago, Lear, Othello, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Ariel, just to name a few.
Bloom is obsessed with one character above all: the Prince of Denmark. Hamlet is the wildest, “supremely outrageous,” most coruscating intelligence to be found anywhere in the work. His special book length study on the topic is entitled Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, and it’s not unlimited for nothing. Hamlet is a character who destroys everything in his path, composing cognitive splendors of almost nihilistic intensity, he is mad but “mad north-northwest.” Bloom can’t get enough of him – he links him with Paradise Lost’s Lucifer, for one, and wonders what it would be like if he had Edmund or Iago to contend with onstage. The Dane’s instantaneous cognition and meta-cognition is enough to send Bloom awhirl. The Lucifer comparison is apt in many ways, though one gets the feeling that his Oedipal theory of poetic influence is based on such prodigious and intimidating reading (he’s said to be able to read several hundred pages an hour) that it’s exhausting to keep up. He once mentioned that his only attempt at therapy resulted in his therapist explaining that he was being paid by the hour to listen to lectures on the proper way to read Freud. If that isn’t the mark of a true literary man, I don’t know what is.
The second half of the book deals with the pervading influence of Emerson as the mind of America, and Walt Whitman as its poet. Whitman’s influence is with us as deeply as Emerson’s was with him. Who hasn’t been touched by his rhetoric? It might be fair to say that for American poetry Whitman’s own debt to Emerson is appropriate: “I was simmering, simmering, simmering, Emerson brought me to boil.” Bloom tracks his vision through several of the most celebrated poets of the past 50 years, some struggling to throw off Whitman’s influence and coming into their own, some being transformed in digesting it – D.H. Lawrence, Wallace Stevens, Mark Strand, John Ashbery, A.R. Ammons, Charles Wright, and – especially – Hart Crane. Crane has been with Bloom since he encountered his work in the Bronx Public Library, at ten years old, and has stayed with him ever since. He claims to have memorized “nearly all” of Crane’s poetry and insists upon memorizing in general as much as one can so as to possess the poems yourself. When he writes about the words which have left him in awe for seventy years, the resonance is palpable – “Perhaps his truest vista is comprised by the final four stanzas of the ‘Proem’”:
O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry-
Again, the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path- condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.
Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year…
O sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.
Poor Harold has been fighting and fretting over the fate of the canon for nearly a century. I don’t think it’s quite so dire. I’ve yet to meet a passionate reader who doesn’t love any or all of his Western Canon: Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Blake, Dickens, Austen, Wilde, Whitman, Proust, Joyce, and Beckett – to name merely a few – are all doing pretty well, thank you. He needn’t despair. We are still eating and drinking well of what Bloom passionately recommends. A little political correctness doesn’t stop the fact that aesthetic splendor, cognitive power, and imaginative daring still matter. If anything, it might change the way that it matters in the larger social sphere. There is always a Whitman or an Emerson yet to emerge, even in what he grimly terms “our evening land.” Any fan of his can thank him for suggesting language and stories newer and fresher and duly more strange than a lifetime of reading could grasp. Bloom reads Wallace Stevens writing of Whitman “walking along a ruddy shore./ He is singing and chanting the things that are a part of him,/ the worlds that are and will be,/ death and day./ Nothing is final, he chants. No man shall see the end./ His beard is of fire and his staff is a leaping flame.” If that can be enough for him (and he seems to think it might be) then may he contentedly sink into our common plot for a long, well-deserved rest. There will always be plenty of anxiety to go around.
Is it my imagination, or do an inordinate number of writers die in motor vehicle accidents? Maybe I tend to notice these grisly deaths because I’m a writer, an avid reader of obituaries, and also a car lover with a deep fear of dying in a crash. But I’m convinced by years of accumulated empirical evidence that writers outnumber the percentage of, say, nurses or teachers or accountants who die in car and motorcycle accidents. (Similarly, an inordinate number of musicians seem to die in plane crashes, including the Big Bopper, John Denver, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Ritchie Valens and Ronnie Van Zant, to name a few.)
Why do so many writers die in motor vehicle mishaps? Are they reckless drivers? Prone to bad luck? Likely to indulge in risky behavior? I don’t pretend to know the answer(s), but I have noticed, sadly, that writers who die in crashes are frequently on the cusp of greatness or in the midst of some promising project; sometimes they’re at the peak of their careers. I offer this list in chronological order, aware it isn’t exhaustive. Feel free to add to it in the comments. Think of this as a living tribute to writers who left us too soon:
T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935) – Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean’s Oscar-winning 1962 movie, opens with the death of its subject. T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole), the archaeologist/warrior who helped unite rival Arab tribes and defeat the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, was whizzing along a road in rural Dorset, England, astride his Brough Superior SS100 motorcycle on the afternoon of May 13, 1935. A dip in the road obscured Lawrence’s view of two boys on bicycles, and when he swerved to avoid them he lost control and pitched over the handlebars. Six days later he died from his injuries. He was 46.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s account of his experiences during the Great War, made him an international celebrity, though he called the book “a narrative of daily life, mean happenings, little people.” An inveterate letter writer, Lawrence also published his correspondence with Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Noel Coward, E.M. Forster and many others. He dreamed that victory on the desert battlefield would result in an autonomous Arab state, but negotiators at the Paris peace conference had very different ideas, prompting Lawrence to write bitterly, “Youth could win but had not learned to keep: and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven on earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.”
Seven Pillars of Wisdom still speaks to us today, as the U.S. fights two wars in the region during this convulsive Arab Spring. Lawrence could have been writing about Americans in Iraq when he wrote these words about his fellow British soldiers: “And we were casting them by thousands into the fire to the worst of deaths, not to win the war but that the corn and rice and oil of Mesopotamia might be ours.”
Nathanael West (1903-1940) – Nathanael West, born Nathan Weinstein, wrote just four short novels in his short life, but two of them – Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust – are undisputed classics. After graduating from college he managed two New York hotels, where he allowed fellow aspiring writers to stay at reduced rates or free of charge, including Dashiell Hammett, Erskine Caldwell and James T. Farrell. When his first three novels – The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931), Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and A Cool Million (1934) – earned a total of $780, a demoralized West went to Hollywood to try his hand at screenwriting.
There he enjoyed his first success. He wrote scripts for westerns, B-movies and a few hits, then used his experiences in the trenches of the movie business to brilliant effect in his masterpiece, The Day of the Locust (1939), which satirizes the tissue of fakery wrapped around everything in Los Angeles, from its buildings to its people to the fantasies that pour out of its dream factories. The novel also paints a garish portrait of the alienated and violent dreamers who come to California for the sunshine and the citrus and the empty promise of a fresh start. West’s original title for the novel was, tellingly, The Cheated. It was eclipsed by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which was a published a few weeks before it and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, then was made into a hit movie. West wrote ruefully to his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Sales: practically none.”
In April of 1940 West married Eileen McKenney. Eight months later, on Dec. 22, a day after Fitzgerald had died of a heart attack, West and McKenney were returning to their home in Los Angeles from a bird-hunting expedition in Mexico. Outside the farming town of El Centro, West, a notoriously bad driver, gunned his sparkling new Ford station wagon through a stop sign at high speed, smashing into a Pontiac driven by a poor migrant worker. West and McKenney were flung from the car and died of “skull fracture,” according to the coroner’s report.
Marion Meade, author of Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney, closes her book with what I think is a fitting eulogy: “Dead before middle age, Nat left behind no children, no literary reputation of importance, no fine obituary in the New York Times ensuring immortality, no celebrity eulogies, just four short novels, two of them unforgettable. When a writer lives only 37 years and ends up with very little reward, it might seem a waste, until you look at what he did. For Nathanael West, what he did seems enough.”
Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) – Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell’s only novel, was published in the summer of 1936. By the end of the year it had sold a million copies and David O. Selznick had bought the movie rights for the unthinkable sum of $50,000. Mitchell spent the rest of her life feeding and watering her cash cow, work that was not always a source of pleasure. Her New York Times obituary said the novel “might almost be labeled a Frankenstein that overwhelmed her,” adding, “She said one day, in a fit of exasperation as she left for a mountain hideaway from the throngs which besieged her by telephone, telegraph and in person, that she had determined never to write another word as long as she lived.”
She gave up fiction but continued to write letters, and her correspondence is filled with accounts of illnesses and accidents, boils and broken bones, collisions with furniture and cars. In fact, she claimed she started writing her novel because “I couldn’t walk for a couple of years.”
On the evening of Aug. 11, 1949, Mitchell and her husband John Marsh were about to cross Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta on their way to see a movie. According to witnesses, Mitchell stepped into the street without looking – something she did frequently – and she was struck by a car driven by a drunk, off-duty taxi driver named Hugh Gravitt. Her skull and pelvis were fractured, and she died five days later without regaining consciousness.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, a writer whose familiarity with failure surely colored his opinion of Mitchell’s staggering success, said of Gone With the Wind, “I felt no contempt for it but only a certain pity for those who considered it the supreme achievement of the human mind.”
Albert Camus (1913-1960) – He had planned to take the train from Provence back to Paris. But at the last minute, the Nobel laureate Albert Camus accepted a ride from his publisher and friend, Michel Gallimard. On Jan. 4, 1960 near the town of Villeblevin, Gallimard lost control of his Facel Vega sports car on a wet stretch of road and slammed into a tree. Camus, 46, died instantly and Gallimard died a few days later. Gallimard’s wife and daughter were thrown clear of the mangled car. Both survived.
In the wreckage was a briefcase containing 144 handwritten pages – the first draft of early chapters of Camus’s most autobiographical novel, The First Man. It closely paralleled Camus’s youth in Algiers, where he grew up poor after his father was killed at the first battle of the Marne, when Albert was one year old. The novel was not published until 1994 because Camus’s daughter Catherine feared it would provide ammunition for the leftist French intellectuals who had turned against her father for daring to speak out against Soviet totalitarianism and for failing to support the Arab drive for independence in the country of his birth. Camus dedicated the unfinished novel to his illiterate mother – “To you who will never be able to read this book.” He once said that of all the many ways to die, dying in a car crash is the most absurd.
Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) – In his essay on Wallace Stevens, written when he was 37, the poet and critic Randall Jarrell wrote prophetically, “A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times… A man who is a good poet at forty may turn out to be a good poet at sixty; but he is more likely to have stopped writing poems.”
In the 1960s, as his 50th birthday approached, Jarrell’s poetic inspiration was in decline. While he didn’t stop writing poetry, he concentrated on criticism, translations and children’s books. He also sank into a depression that led him to slash his left wrist and arm in early 1965. The suicide attempt failed, and a month later his wife Mary committed him to a psychiatric hospital in Chapel Hill, N.C. He was there when his final book of poems, The Lost World, appeared to some savage reviews. In The Saturday Review, Paul Fussell wrote, “It is sad to report that Randall Jarrell’s new book… is disappointing. There is nothing to compare with the poems he was writing 20 years ago… (His style) has hardened into a monotonous mannerism, attended now too often with the mere chic of sentimental nostalgia and suburban pathos.”
Though stung, Jarrell returned to UNC-Greensboro in the fall, where he was a dedicated and revered teacher. In October he was back in Chapel Hill undergoing treatments for the wounds on his left arm. On the evening of Oct. 14, 1965, Jarrell was walking alongside the busy U.S. 15-501 bypass, toward oncoming traffic, about a mile and a half south of town. As a car approached, Jarrell stepped into its path. His head struck the windshield, punching a hole in the glass. He was knocked unconscious and died moments later from “cerebral concussion.” The driver, Graham Wallace Kimrey, told police at the scene, “As I approached he appeared to lunge out into the path of the car.” Kimrey was not charged.
Was it a suicide? A tragic accident? We’ll never know for sure. One thing we do know is that this brilliant critic, uneven poet and inspiring teacher died too young, at 51, the same age as his heroes Proust and Rilke.
Richard Farina (1937-1966) – There was a time when every young person with claims to being hip and literary absolutely had to possess a battered copy of Richard Farina’s only novel, that terrific blowtorch of a book called Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me. Like a handful of other novels – Tropic of Cancer, On the Road, The Catcher in the Rye, Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest come immediately to mind – Farina’s creation was as much a generational badge as it was a book. Farina’s novel, which recounts the picaresque wanderings of Gnossos Pappadopoulis, was published in 1966, after Farina and his wife Mimi, Joan Baez’s sister, had become a successful folk-singing act. The best man at their wedding was Thomas Pynchon, who’d met Richard while they were students at Cornell.
On April 30, 1966, two days after the novel was published, there was a party in Carmel Valley, California, to celebrate Mimi’s 21st birthday. Richard decided to go for a spin on the back of another guest’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The driver entered an S-curve at excessive speed, lost control and tore through a barbed-wire fence. Farina died instantly, at the age of 29. Pynchon, who later dedicated Gravity’s Rainbow to Farina, said his friend’s novel comes on “like the Hallelujah Chorus done by 200 kazoo players with perfect pitch.”
Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) – For a writer who lived such a long and fruitful life – he was a teacher, environmentalist, decorated novelist and author of short stories, histories and biographies – Wallace Stegner does not enjoy the readership he deserves. “Generally students don’t read him here,” said Tobias Wolff, who was teaching at Stanford in 2009, the centennial of Stegner’s birth. “I wish they would.”
It was at Stanford that Stegner started the creative writing program and nurtured a whole galaxy of supernova talents, including Edward Abbey, Ernest Gaines, George V. Higgins, Ken Kesey, Gordon Lish, Larry McMurtry and Robert Stone. He won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and a National Book Award but was ghettoized as “the dean of Western writers.” In a cruel irony, this writer who deplored “the stinks of human and automotive waste” was on his way to deliver a lecture in Santa Fe, N.M., on March 28, 1993, when he pulled his rental car into the path of a car bearing down on his left. The left side of Stegner’s car was crushed, and he suffered broken ribs and a broken collarbone. A heart attack and pneumonia followed, and he died in the hospital at the age of 84.
For all his love of the West, Stegner knew it was no Eden. He once told an interviewer: “The West is politically reactionary and exploitative: admit it. The West as a whole is guilty of inexplicable crimes against the land: admit that too. The West is rootless, culturally half-baked. So be it.”
Steve Allen (1921-2000) – Though best known as a television personality, musician, composer, actor and comedian, Steve Allen also wrote more than 50 books on a wide range of topics, including religion, media, the American educational system and showbiz personalities, plus poetry, plays and short stories. Lovers of Beat literature will always remember Allen for noodling on the piano while Jack Kerouac recited passages from On the Road on “The Steve Allen Show” in 1959.
On Oct. 30, 2000, Allen was driving to his son’s home in Encino, California, when his Lexus collided with an SUV that was being backed out of a driveway. Neither driver appeared to be injured in the fender bender, and they continued on their ways. After dinner at his son’s home, Allen said he was feeling tired and lay down for a nap. He never woke up. The original cause of death was believed to be a heart attack, but a coroner’s report revealed that Allen had suffered four broken ribs during the earlier collision, and a hole in the wall of his heart allowed blood to leak into the sac surrounding the heart, a condition known as hemopericardium.
On the day of his death Allen was working on his 54th book, Vulgarians at the Gate, which decried what he saw as an unacceptable rise of violence and vulgarity in the media.
W.G. Sebald (1944-2001) – It has been said that all of the German writer W.G. Sebald’s books had a posthumous quality to them. That’s certainly true of On the Natural History of Destruction, his magisterial little exploration of the suffering civilians endured during the Allied fire-bombing of German cities at the end of the Second World War. I should say his exploration of the unexplored suffering of German civilians, because the book is partly a rebuke, a challenge to his shamed countrymen’s willed forgetfulness of their own suffering.
I lived for a time in Cologne, target of some of the most merciless bombing. I’ve seen photographs of the city’s Gothic cathedral standing in a sea of smoking rubble. I’ve heard old-timers talk about the war – men grousing about the idiocy of their military officers, women boasting about how they cadged deals on the black market. But I never heard anyone say a word about the horror of watching the sky rain fire. Until Sebald dared to speak.
He produced a relatively short shelf of books – novels, poetry, non-fiction – but he was being mentioned as a Nobel Prize candidate until Dec. 14, 2001, when he was driving near his home in Norwich, England, with his daughter Anna. Sebald apparently suffered a heart attack, and his car veered into oncoming traffic and collided with a truck. Sebald died instantly, at the age of 57. His daughter survived the crash.
David Halberstam (1934-2007) – David Halberstam died working. On April 23, 2007 he was riding through Menlo Park, California, in the passenger seat of a Toyota Camry driven by a UC-Berkeley journalism student. They were on their way to meet Y.A. Tittle, the former New York Giants quarterback, who Halberstam was keen to interview for a book he was writing about the epic 1958 N.F.L. title game between the Giants and the Baltimore Colts. As the Camry came off the Bayfront Expressway, it ran a red light. An oncoming Infiniti slammed into the passenger’s side and sent the Camry skidding into a third vehicle. The Camry’s engine caught fire and Halberstam, 73, was pronounced dead at the scene from blunt force trauma. All three drivers survived with minor injuries.
Halberstam made his mark by winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his reporting in the New York Times that questioned the veracity of the men leading America’s war effort in Vietnam. Eight years later he published what is regarded as his masterpiece, The Best and the Brightest, about the brilliant but blind men who led us into the fiasco of that unwinnable war. He went on to write 20 non-fiction books on politics, sports, business and social history. I think The Fifties, his re-examination of the supposedly bland Eisenhower years, contains all the virtues and vices of his work: outsized ambition and pit-bull reporting shackled to prose that’s both sprawling and clunky. Like so many writers with big reputations and egos to match, Halberstam never got the tough editor he needed.
The book he was working on when he died, The Glory Game, was completed by Frank Gifford, who played for the Giants in that 1958 title game. It was published – “by Frank Gifford with Peter Richmond” – a year after Halberstam’s death.
Doug Marlette (1949-2007) – Doug Marlette, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and creator of the popular comic strip “Kudzu,” published his first novel in 2001. The Bridge spins around the violent textile mill strikes in North Carolina in the 1930s, in which Marlette’s grandmother was stabbed with a bayonet. The novel is set in the fictional town of Eno, loosely modeled on Hillsborough, N.C., the hot house full of writers where Marlette was living when he wrote the book. When Marlette’s neighbor, the writer Allan Gurganus, read the novel in galleys, he saw a little too much of himself in the composite character Ruffin Strudwick, a gay man who wears velvet waistcoats and sashays a lot. Gurganus called the publisher and demanded that his name be removed from the book’s acknowledgements. A bookstore cancelled a reading, charging Marlette with homophobia, and Hillsborough became the scene of a nasty literary cat fight between pro- and anti-Marlette camps. People who should have known better – a bunch of writers – had forgotten Joan Didion’s caveat: “Writers are always selling somebody out.”
Marlette produced a second novel, Magic Time, in 2006. After delivering the eulogy at his father’s funeral in Charlotte, N.C., Marlette flew to Mississippi on July 10, 2007 to help a group of Oxford High School students who were getting ready to stage a musical version of “Kudzu.” The school’s theater director met Marlette at the airport. On the way to Oxford, the director’s pickup truck hydroplaned in heavy rain and smashed into a tree. Marlette was killed at the age of 57. He was at work on his third novel when he died.
Jeanne Leiby (1964-2011) – In 2008 The Southern Review named a woman as editor for the first time since Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks founded the literary journal at Louisiana State University in 1935. The woman was Jeanne Leiby, a native of Detroit who had published a collection of short stories called Downriver, set in the corroded bowels of her post-industrial hometown. Her fiction had appeared in numerous literary journals, including The Greensboro Review, New Orleans Review and Indiana Review. Leiby had also worked as fiction editor at Black Warrior Review in Alabama and as editor of The Florida Review before taking the job at The Southern Review.
On April 19, 2011, Leiby was driving west on Interstate-10 near Baton Rouge in her 2007 Saturn convertible. The top was down and she was not wearing a seat belt. When she tried to change lanes she lost control of the car and it hit a concrete guard rail and began to spin clockwise. Leiby was thrown from the car and died later at Baton Rouge General Hospital. She was 46.
At the time of her death Leiby was, by all accounts, performing masterfully at a thankless job. Due to punishing state budget cuts, she had slimmed The Southern Review down, cancelled some readings and other events for the journal’s 75th anniversary in 2010, and ended the annual $1,500 prizes for poetry, non-fiction and fiction. She did all that without a falloff in quality. She was also working to merge The Southern Review with the LSU Press.
In a conversation with the writer Julianna Baggott, Leiby confided that during her job interviews at The Southern Review she’d offered her opinion that the journal had gotten stodgy and that it was too Old South and too male. One of the first things this woman from Detroit did after she got the job was to lower the portraits of her predecessors – all men – because she thought they were hung too high.
Don Piper (1948 – ) – Don Piper might be the most intriguing person on this list. He died in a car crash – then came back from the other side to write a best-seller about the experience.
On Jan. 18, 1989, Piper, a Baptist minister, was driving his Ford Escort home to Houston after attending a church conference. It was a cold, rainy day. As he drove across a narrow, two-lane bridge, an oncoming semi-truck driven by a trusty from a nearby prison crossed the center line and crushed Piper’s car. When paramedics arrived at the scene, Piper had no pulse and they covered his corpse with a tarp. Since I can’t possibly improve on Piper’s telling of what happened next, I’ll give it to you straight from his book, 90 Minutes in Heaven:
Immediately after I died, I went straight to heaven… Simultaneous with my last recollection of seeing the bridge and the rain, a light enveloped me, with a brilliance beyond earthly comprehension or description. Only that. In my next moment of awareness, I was standing in heaven. Joy pulsated through me as I looked around, and at that moment I became aware of a large crowd of people. They stood in front of a brilliant, ornate gate… As the crowd rushed toward me, I didn’t see Jesus, but did see people I had known… and every person was smiling, shouting, and praising God. Although no one said so, I intuitively knew that they were my celestial welcoming committee.
Piper recognized many people who had preceded him to the grave, including a grandfather, a great-grandfather, a childhood friend, a high school classmate, two teachers and many relatives. His story continues:
The best way to explain it is to say that I felt as if I were in another dimension… everything was brilliantly intense… (and) we began to move toward that light… Then I heard the music… The most amazing sound, however, was the angels’ wings… Hundreds of songs were being sung at the same time… my heart filled with the deepest joy I’ve ever experienced… I saw colors I would never have believed existed. I’ve never, ever felt more alive than I did then… and I felt perfect.
Alas, perfection was not destined to last. A fellow preacher had stopped at the scene of the accident to pray. Just as Piper was getting ready to walk through the “pearlescent” gates and meet God face-to-face, the other minister’s prayers were answered and Piper, miraculously, rejoined the living. This, surely, ranks as one of the greatest anti-climaxes in all of Western literature. Nonethless, 90 Minutes in Heaven, published in 2004, has sold more than 4 million copies and it has been on the New York Times paperback best-seller list for the past 196 weeks, and counting.
(Image: Orange Car Crash – 14 Times from eyeliam’s photostream)
I used to be the kind of reader who gives short shrift to long novels. I used to take a wan pleasure in telling friends who had returned from a tour of duty with War and Peace or The Man Without Qualities with that I’ve-seen-some-things look in their eyes—the thousand-page stare—that they had been wasting their time. In the months it had taken them to plough through one book by some logorrheic modernist or world-encircling Russian, I had read a good eight to ten volumes of svelter dimensions. While they were bench-pressing, say, Infinite Jest for four months solid, I had squared away most of the major Nouveau Romanciers, a fistful of Thomas Bernhards, every goddamned novel Albert Camus ever wrote, and still had time to read some stuff I actually enjoyed.
I was a big believer, in other words, in the Slim Prestige Volume. Nothing over 400 pages. Why commit yourself to one gigantic classic when you can read a whole lot of small classics in the same period of time, racking up at least as much intellectual cachet while you were at it? I took Hippocrates’ famous dictum about ars being longa and vita being brevis as a warning against starting a book in your twenties that might wind up lying still unfinished on the nightstand of your deathbed. Aside from the occasional long novel––one every twelve to eighteen months––I was a Slim Prestige Volume man, and that seemed to be that.
Even when I went back to college in my mid-twenties to do a PhD in English literature, I still relied on a kind of intellectual cost-benefit analysis that persuaded me that my time was better spent broadening than deepening—or, as it were, thickening—my reading. Had I read Dostoevsky? Sure I had: I’d spent a couple of rainy evenings with Notes From Underground, and found it highly agreeable. Much better than The Double, in fact, which I’d also read. So yeah, I knew my Dostoevsky. Next question, please. Ah yes, Tolstoy! Who could ever recover from reading The Death of Ivan Illych, that thrilling (and thrillingly brief) exploration of mortality and futility?
There’s a memorable moment in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 where Amalfitano, the unhinged Catalan professor of literature, encounters a pharmacist working the night shift at his local drug store whom he discovers is reading his way diligently through the minor works of the major novelists. The young pharmacist, we are told, “chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers.” This causes Amalfitano to reflect on the “sad paradox” that “now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”
Apart from being a powerful vindication of Bolaño’s own staggering ambition, and of his novel’s vast and unyielding darkness, I found that this passage reflected something of my own slightly faint-hearted reading practices (practices from which, by the time I had got around to reading the 900-page 2666, I had obviously started to deviate). A bit of a bookish pharmacist myself, I was content with netting minnows like Bartleby, while leaving the great Moby-Dick-sized leviathans largely unharpooned. I was fond of Borges’ famous remark about its being “a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books,” and tended to extrapolate from it a dismissal of reading them too—as though Borges, the great wanderer and mythologizer of labyrinths, would ever have approved of such readerly timidity.
And then, three or four years ago, something changed. For some reason I can’t recall (probably a longish lapse in productivity on my thesis) I set myself the task of reading a Great Big Important Novel. For another reason I can’t recall (probably the fact that it had been sitting on a shelf for years, its pages turning the sullen yellow of neglected great books), I settled on Gravity’s Rainbow. I can’t say that I enjoyed every minute of it, or even that I enjoyed all that much of it at all, but I can say that by the time I got to the end of it I was glad to have read it. Not just glad that I had finally finished it, but that I had started it and seen it through. I felt as though I had been through something major, as though I had not merely experienced something but done something, and that the doing and the experiencing were inseparable in the way that is peculiar to the act of reading. And I’ve had that same feeling, I realize, with almost every very long novel I’ve read before or since.
You finish the last page of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewilderment or frustration or irritation—you think to yourself, “that was monumental.” But it strikes me that this sense of monumentality, this gratified speechlessness that we tend to feel at such moments of closure and valediction, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achievement in having read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achievement in having written it. When you read the kind of novel that promises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow—a Ulysses or a Brothers Karamazov or a Gravity’s Rainbow—there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more problematically, is often difficult to separate from an awe at the fact of your own surmounting of it.
The upshot of this, I think, is that the greatness of a novel in the mind of its readers is often alloyed with those readers’ sense of their own greatness (as readers) for having conquered it. I don’t think William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, for instance, is nearly as fantastic a novel as people often claim it is. But it is one of the most memorable and monumental experiences of my reading life. And these are the reasons why: because the thing was just so long; because I had such a hard time with it; and because I eventually finished it. (I read it as part of an academic reading group devoted to long and difficult American novels, and I’m not sure I would have got to the end of it otherwise). Reading a novel of punishing difficulty and length is a version of climbing Everest for people who prefer not to leave the house. And people who climb Everest don’t howl with exhilaration at the summit because the mountain was a good or a well made or an interesting mountain per se, but because they’re overawed at themselves for having done such a fantastically difficult thing. (I’m willing to concede that they may not howl with exhilaration at all, what with the tiredness, the lack of oxygen and very possibly the frostbite. I’ll admit to being on shaky ground here, as I’ve never met anyone who’s climbed Everest, nor am I likely to if I continue not going out of the house.)
And there is, connected with this phenomenon, what I think of as Long Novel Stockholm syndrome. My own first experience of it—or at least my first conscious experience of it—was, again, with The Recognitions. With any novel of that difficulty and length (976 pages in my prestigiously scuffed and battered Penguin edition), the reader’s aggregate experience is bound to be composed of a mixture of frustrations and pleasures. But what I found with Gaddis’s gigantic exploration of fraudulence and creativity was that, though they were greatly outnumbered by the frustrations, the pleasures seemed to register much more firmly. If I were fully honest with myself, I would have had to admit that I was finding the novel gruelingly, unsparingly tedious. But I wasn’t prepared to be fully honest with myself. Because every couple of hundred pages or so, Gaddis would take pity on me and throw me a bone in the form of an engaging, genuinely compelling set piece. Like the wonderful episode in which one of the characters, under the impression that he is being given a gift of $5,000 by his long-lost father whom he has arranged to meet at a hotel, is in fact mistakenly being given a suitcase full of counterfeit cash by a failed confidence man. And then Gaddis would roll up his sleeves again and get back to the real business of boring me insensible with endless pages of direct-dialogue bluster about art, theology and the shallowness of post-war American culture.
I kept at it, doughtily ploughing my way through this seemingly inexhaustible stuff, holding out for another interlude of clemency from an author I knew was capable of entertaining and provoking me. At some point towards the end of the book it occurred to me that what I was experiencing could be looked at as a kind of literary variant of the Stockholm syndrome phenomenon, whereby hostages experience a perverse devotion to their captors, interpreting any abstention from violence and cruelty, however brief or arbitrary, as acts of kindness and even love. Psychologically, this is understood as a defense mechanism in which the victim fabricates a “good” side of the aggressor in order to avoid confronting the overwhelming terror of his or her situation. Perhaps I’m stretching the bonds of credulity by implicitly comparing William Gaddis to a FARC guerilla commander, but I’m convinced there’s something that happens when we get into a captive situation with a long and difficult book that is roughly analogous to the Stockholm syndrome scenario. For a start, the book’s very length lays out (for a certain kind of reader, at least) its own special form of imperative—part challenge, part command. The thousand-pager is something you measure yourself against, something you psyche yourself up for and tell yourself you’re going to endure and/or conquer. And this does, I think, amount to a kind of captivity: once you’ve got to Everest base camp, you really don’t want to pack up your stuff and turn back. I think it’s this principle that explains, for example, the fact that I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow but gave up halfway through The Crying of Lot 49, when the latter could be used as a handy little bookmark for the former. When you combine this (admittedly self-imposed) captivity with a novel’s formidable reputation for greatness, you’ve got a perfect set of conditions for the literary Stockholm syndrome to kick in.
In order for a very long novel to get away with long, cruel sessions of boredom-torture, it has to commit, every so often, an act of kindness such as the counterfeit cash set piece in The Recognitions. This is why Ulysses is so deeply loved by so many readers—as well it should be—while Finnegans Wake has been read almost exclusively by Joyce scholars (of whom I’m tempted to think as the Patty Hearsts of literature). After the grueling ordeal of the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode, in which Stephen stands around in the National Library for dozens of pages boring everyone to damn-near-literal tears with his theories about the provenance of Hamlet, we are given the unrestrained pleasure of the “Wandering Rocks” episode. Ulysses might treat us like crap for seemingly interminable stretches of time, but it extends just enough in the way of writerly benevolence to keep us onside. And this kindness is the key to Stockholm syndrome. You don’t know when it’s going to come, or what form it’s going to take, but you get enough of it to keep you from despising your captor, or mounting a brave escape attempt by flinging the wretched thing across the room. According to an article called “Understanding Stockholm Syndrome” published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bullettin:
Kindness serves as the cornerstone of Stockholm syndrome; the condition will not develop unless the captor exhibits it in some form toward the hostage. However, captives often mistake a lack of abuse as kindness and may develop feelings of appreciation for this perceived benevolence. If the captor is purely evil and abusive, the hostage will respond with hatred. But if perpetrators show some kindness, victims will submerge the anger they feel in response to the terror and concentrate on the captors “good side” to protect themselves.
If you’re the kind of reader who doesn’t intend to give up on a Great Big Important Novel no matter how inhumanely it treats you, then there’s a sense in which Joyce or Pynchon or Gaddis (or whoever your captor happens to be) owns you for the duration of that captivity. In order to maintain your sanity, you may end up being disproportionately grateful for the parts where they don’t threaten to bore you to death, where there seems to be some genuine empathic connection between reader and writer. Machiavelli understood this truth long before a Swedish bank robbery turned into a hostage crisis and gave the world the name for a psychological condition. “Men who receive good when they expect evil,” Machiavelli wrote, “commit themselves all the more to their benefactor.” When he wrote that line in the early sixteenth century, the novel, of course, did not yet exist as a genre. I’m inclined to imagine, though, that if he’d been born a century later, he might well have said the same thing about Don Quixote.
I read The French Lieutenant’s Woman on a bet from my mother when I was eleven years old. A voracious reader, my mother proclaimed the book to be among the dullest she had ever encountered. “You’ll never be able to get through it,” she said. “Fuck if I won’t,” I thought (or might have thought, had my penchant for expletives been the same then as it is now).
A year later, I read Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy for my sixth grade library project. I chose the novel for the sole reason that I had heard it was the longest book ever written. It took me a semester to read, and though my presentation (in verse, obviously) lasted only ten minutes, the social repercussions of being such an outrageous, unprecedented show-off lasted easily until I (inevitably) changed schools.
It seems far too grandiose to presume that we are what we read. But if our persona as a reader is shaped, perhaps not by the books we choose, but by why we choose them, then this was my ignoble beginning: as a stubborn, competitive show-off.
I wish I could say that I was drawn to those books because of a precocious curiosity in their subjects. I wish I had lingered over Fowles’ Darwinian pontification rather than viewing it as bland nutrition that made the (disappointingly few, considering the title) love scenes seem that much more flavorful. But apart from the reasons given above, my outside interest in reading those two books was, at the time, negligible.
It wasn’t that I didn’t care for reading. There were many other proper, compelling books that I had proper, compelling reasons for wanting to read. But I didn’t want to read the books I wanted to read. I wanted to read the books I didn’t want to read. Let me rephrase: There was a divide between the books that I wanted to read, and the books that I wanted to want to read. And the latter category won over the former time and time again.
No doubt the years have stitched up the gap between what I want to read and what I want to want to read, because only children have that much to prove – right? We’ll see. Several years later, in high school, my English teacher assigned Gravity’s Rainbow to our class. This may come as a shock to no one, but about 100 pages or so in, she gave it up as a bold experiment gone hideously awry. Still, she was an unconventional teacher (there was a sign on the classroom ceiling that said, “If you can’t eat it, smoke it!”), so she gave the few of us who wanted to keep reading the option to form a satellite class. In exchange for being able to skip school, set our own assignments and conduct this “class” at our leisure (responsibilities we handled with unwavering diligence, if I recall), we had to successfully convince her why we wanted to continue with this mad novel when (in what I assume to have been her subtext) we had already demonstrated ourselves to be Pynchon-unworthy morons.
Until recently, when I began writing about literature, I’d all but forgotten about that exercise in Pynchon, and what I wrote to my teacher at the time. But though I’m no longer particularly fixated on the psychology behind my persona as a reader, I now desperately want to define my persona as a writer.
I’ve heard it said that when you’ve found your style – whether in writing or any other form of creative expression – like a successful love affair, it just flows. For a long time, I fantasized about writing the sort of obsessively analytical criticism that involves impossibly vast theories and encompasses broad surveys of literary works. (Admittedly, this is a peculiar fantasy.) But now that writing is actually supposed to be, well, lucrative, doubts begin to arise. That genre of writing, for me, is far more about effort than flow. It doesn’t always come easily. It isn’t always so natural.
Oh, well. Perhaps not all of us, as writers, are cut with the analytic capabilities of Harold Bloom. Given years, of course, I might be able to achieve something passably close to maybe the worst thing he’s ever written. But it might be a waste of my potential as a writer (not to mention my finances) slaving to be a second-rate Bloom when I could be a first-rate someone else entirely.
The existential struggle of settling into the sort of writer I am is not so different from coming to terms with the sort of reader I am. Perhaps not all of us are meant to read Gaddis. That’s not such a curse, is it? We all can read Gaddis, we should certainly try, but to fruitlessly labor – at the expense of reading books with which we share a natural chemistry – might once again be a waste. Perhaps we should stick to what we’re good at reading, just as we should stick to what we’re good at writing.
But, my inner Vikram-Seth-reading obnoxious brat whines, I don’t want to just write what comes naturally. I want to write the harder stuff. If writing about literature, for lack of a less irritating word, is my “art,” then what do artists do if not struggle and suffer for their art? And implement unsound financial policies?
I want to read the harder stuff, too. I don’t exactly recall what I wrote to my teacher about Gravity’s Rainbow in school. I probably breezed over the fact that I didn’t understand it much, and that I was intimated both by its size and by the bizarre labels it seems to generate, like: “Requires Proficiency in Calculus for Even Elementary Understanding.” But I do remember writing to her that although I wasn’t quite sure what sort of reader I was yet, I wanted to read Gravity’s Rainbow because I knew that was the sort of reader I wanted to be.
Since then, as a reader at least, I’ve come to see the struggle in a very different light. A few years after Gravity’s Rainbow, I struggled through Of Human Bondage – which made the process of reading the novel actually resemble human bondage. Eliot Fremont-Smith, in his New York Times review of Pauline Réage’s The Story of O, described the use of the “deliberate stimulation of the reader as part of and means to a total, authentic literary experience.” Struggle is such a stimulation. I was as frustrated by my compulsion to finish the book as I was frustrated by the incredibly unsympathetic protagonist Peter Carey, and the inexplicably poor decisions he made again and again. Peter and I commiserated in our frustration. We united against the author, our common enemy. Finally, on the last page of the book, Maugham writes, “It may be that to surrender to happiness is to accept defeat, but it is a defeat better than many victories.” I knew exactly what Maugham meant right then. And just like that, all three of us were free.
Joshua Cohen’s mammoth (“Gog, Magog, Goliath”) Witz is the new 800+ page novel to vie for your entire summer reading schedule; to make half your book club drop out; to inspire annotations, wikis, lexicography cults. It will be the ire of the lazy reviewer. Dybbuks of lazy reviewers past (perhaps the ones responsible for the reception of The Recognitions) will ascend from Gehenna, boring into the bodies of our current critical ilk, to make right the horrible aesthetic sin of their mortal life. But will the spirits succeed? Or will our arbiters of questionable taste quote from the first hundred leaves and take a nap?
The ground is ripe for high praise. Cohen has proved adept at handling his image and early reception. He’s young (29, and he already has three novels and three story collections out, mostly through tiny presses that do well for his street cred), attractive, and knows how to draw attention. The barbs thrown at Chabon and Safran Foer in the New York Observer alone were enough to get the ball rolling. The buzz is the rare combination of both existing and deserved.
Witz (Don’t make a fool out of yourself: the “W” is a “V”. It’s Yiddish for joke.) is the tale of the extinction of all Jews save the newborn grown man (with beard and glasses) Benjamin Israelien (ben Israel Israelien). 18 million Jews die on Christmas Eve 1999. America reacts by rabidly embracing Benjamin’s religion (Its name unmentioned, the book conspicuously leaves the word “Jew” as a void, the same one where Witz’s God is hiding.) even as he continues in his apathy toward it, eventually fleeing from his handlers and crossing the country and back, finding his way into Polandland where lies Whateverwitz, Whywald, Nohausen, where the few remaining gentiles are sent for their refusal to convert. The plot is simple and linear, a steel skeleton supporting Cohen’s otherwise omnidecadent Babel tower.
Cohen recently remarked in The Daily Beast that he found his father’s friend’s assertion that Witz was the Jewish Ulysses to be an insult. “Problem is … Ulysses is already the Jewish Ulysses.” I predict (well, I’ve already seen) a lot of Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow referencing as well, and while they aren’t too Jewish, so there could be a Jewish them, Witz isn’t at all a Jewish them either. It’s not a Jewish anything other than a Jewish Itself. It’s big, it’s difficult, and it’s stylistically shooting off a salvo of fireworks the whole way through, but other than those similarities to our other favorite modernist or postmodern bricks, readers of Witz will find out right away that Cohen is doing his own thing.
Cohen’s sentences cascade on and on, with clause after clause snaking down the page. Then a lone period allows you a rest and the next sentence attacks, a sensory assault. If I had to compare Witz to anything it would be to the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. I’ll explain. A few sentences in each chapter move the plot forward. A change occurs in Cohen’s world (a few more Jews die, a few more “Goyim” convert, Ben is in favor, Ben is out) or Benjamin moves to a new location. Sometimes this change even occurs off the page. Then the rest of the chapter is dedicated to the landscape that these small advances in plot create. Roll in the canvasses. There are cityscapes (New York; Miami). There is reservation land and the Mormon stronghold of Utah (the Mormons are notoriously hard to convert). The bulk of the final sixth of the novel takes place in (and here the Bosch is obvious) the hellscape of the aforementioned Polandland: “…A ram ensnared in a thicket, look, and missing its horns; sheep sheared naked, then garbed in the Skin of the Unicorn, see; locusts, my God they’re Locusts, Samuel … storks on parade; geese born of barnacles, grown from a remained grove of trees, hemiformed, varibirthed, the progeny of Ziz or from zat; deer sniffling the most streaks of snails; gelatinous worms splitting earth; ostricheggs boiling on the back of the salamander, slithered from flame; an ass without rider talking its own tour to itself…” it goes on.
If you think you would enjoy pages of that, Witz is it. I’ll admit that there are not a few times where the reader may strain to comprehend what is happening. The last 30 pages in particular go from Jewish Ulysses to Jewish Finnegans Wake. Not that it’s just this mass of difficult-to- relate descriptions, but at times the amount of detail can be so overwhelming as to make the reader feel like she is wading in nothing but a swamp of combinationwords and faux Proper Nouns.
Here I also note that this novel is beyond bleak. Forget Pynchon’s ultimately optimistic humanism (yes, I would say it overwhelms even his paranoia), or David Foster Wallace’s you-could-call-it-religious outlook, or Alexander Theroux’s you-should-call-it-religious outlook. I could still enjoy the novel, but it was difficult for me to see through Cohen’s beautiful brown eyes at times. Cohen doesn’t imagine a way out of his nightmare world, only eternal return. Post-catastrophe most people remain born into “professions and marriages already vetted by their Parents, your Parents’ Friends, our Stockbrokers, and God, becoming Fathers and Mothers they’ll never kill because that would mean above all their own destruction.”
I’m talking a lot about style and saying little about content. I think it will be a while before we get some good analysis. Who will be the first to read this thing three, five, eleven times? Probably not this reader of modest pace. To the first person who reads Witz and even looks up every word they don’t know, let alone makes notes toward a Unified Theory, I wish you luck. Let us pray Witz secures Cohen his due in his own time.
Of the half-dozen or so fellow readers I know who have attempted to scale the 800-page Matterhorn that is Dhalgren, none have succeeded. Still, when I tackled it myself last month, I kept encountering people in parks and coffee shops and on the subway who would glance down at the jacket, blurt, “Great book,” and then vanish into the urban landscape. It is the kind of oddity to which Dhalgren attunes us: the protagonist whose name we may or may not learn; the abandoned city as densely populated as a Victorian novel; the story-within-the-story that is at the same time the story-outside-the-story.
Dislocations, discontinuties, and ontological entanglements are clearly central to Samuel R. Delany’s design. The novel’s setting (and, arguably, main character) is a bombed-out Midwestern metropolis called Bellona – a spatial, temporal, and psychosexual labyrinth in which our Theseus, an amnesiac poet-adventurer known as Kid, will or won’t find himself. And as it embodies the instabilities of institutions, identities, and power relations, Bellona may be the metaphor par excellence for the 1960s. Indeed, though the book sold a million copies as science-fiction, it seems at many points no more distant from our own reality than that other trippy whopper from the mid-’70s, Gravity’s Rainbow. For Bellona, read Detroit.
The comparison to Pynchon is not made lightly. On the surface, Kid’s wanderings in Bellona look as loosely strung together as that other Kid’s wanderings in Purple Rain. His poetics tend toward the Beatnik, his observations toward the dreamy and spontaneous: the flashbulb-red that keeps appearing in the eyes of certain characters; the holographic exoskeletons in which the book’s street gangs armor themselves… But in the monologues by various Bellonians that punctuate and comment on the action, we can feel Delany synthesizing history, mythology, aesthetics, epistemology, systems theory, and the philosophy of language into a singular vision of the human condition on the cusp of postmodernism. It should also be said that Delany’s sinuous prose, by turns fragmentary and efflorescent, is a major attraction.
Elements of his conception, however, will prove difficult for the casual reader. First, there is the purposeful, high-modernist obscurity of the stream-of-consciousness voice that periodically recurs. The book opens with a half-dozen pages written in the mind-voice of an amnesiac, possibly schizophrenic Kid; the thought of eight hundred more pages of this may lead some readers to jump ship. The novel quickly modulates, however, into the more straightforward third-person that is its main register.
A more persistent difficulty is the book’s pointed pointlessness. My favorite of Dhalgren’s seven sections, “House of the Ax,” has an actual plot, as does, broadly speaking, the first half of the novel. But in the back half, as the context Kid has constructed for himself begins to crumble, the narrative devolves into sketchy, repetitive vignettes of kinky sex and random violence. Delany may be posing important questions about mimesis and perception, but “Palimpsest” and “Creatures of Light and Darkness” tried my bourgeois patience.
Finally, after so much work, the novel doesn’t resolve, but folds back into itself. It is famously a circular text, in the manner of Finnegans Wake. And yet, unlike that book, Dhalgren generates a fair amount of suspense out of questions of “what really happened.” That answering those questions would compromise the book may not excuse the omission – at least, in the eyes of my friends who never finished. For those Dhalgrenites in the cafes and subways, however, the novel’s radical open-endedness seems to have been a virtue.
The best analogue I can offer for the singular experience of reading this novel is a video game where any teleology, any notion of progress or levels to be mastered, has been stripped away. Dhalgren is pure world, and as such, it represents an enormous disruption on the generally orderly map of postwar literature, as Bellona does to the orderly map of the 20th Century U.S. The scale of the disruption alone will not justify it to everyone. Then again, it’s not a novel that cares to justify itself. I can think of no better way to honor its ambitions than to invoke that koan-like and recursive New Yorkism, “It is what it is,” and to encourage you to give it a try.
Each time I talk about two of my favorite books this year, I find myself discussing what people wanted from them as much as the books themselves. I adored them both, but both seem to need positioning.
Take Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem. It’s a novel of not-quite-real New York, in which a former child actor becomes friends with an obsessive fanatic/critic, threaded through with surrealism, a second-life-type game, esoteric cultural discussions, a romance or two and questions of identity and self. It is everything a novel can be: funny, smart, puzzling, engrossing, layered. It is very Lethem-ian, in that it is Philip K. Dick-ish, but it is more controlled and mature – more ambitious, even – than Dick. It works on several levels; it’s the kind of book that’s fun to talk about. What it isn’t is a noir pastiche with a detective with Tourette’s – there’s no need for Lethem to write Motherless Brooklyn again, but some people are stuck on it. Re-read Motherless Brooklyn if that’s what you want from Lethem — but you’ll be missing out.
And then there’s Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. A vocal Pynchon contingent loves big, perplexing Gravity’s Rainbow – talk about layers! – and looks down on The Crying of Lot 49. The Pynchonmanes like the intellectual challenge of his massive books, and they tend to balk against the straightforward elements of Inherent Vice, which has a relatively clear plotline and a likeable, stoned main character. I would argue that comprehensibility is not a fault, that this book is as full of giddy joy with language and ephemeral ideas as his others. Those who don’t see that are looking too close, but perhaps that’s because they (we) are the target: when you step back, the book reads as an argument against the ambitious digging of his ardent fans. It’s a 400-page case for living with mystery. Long may Pynchon’s seclusion reign.
When publishing industry stool-pigeons started whispering last fall that Thomas Pynchon’s latest would be a detective novel, I couldn’t see what the fuss was about. By my count, he’d already written four. From Hubert Stencil and the Case of the Missing V. to Tryone Slothrop and the V-2 Syndrome, Pynchon has, like Dickens and Dostoevsky before him, often used the form of the mystery-story to structure his loose, baggy monsters. The difference – and it is pretty much the difference between modernity and postmodernity – is that where Bleak House and The Brothers Karamazov tend toward solutions, Pynchon’s mysteries only ramify into further mysteries.
What is actually novel, then, about Pynchon’s new novel? Well for one thing, Inherent Vice gives us a protagonist who is even more apt than its author to digress, to space out, to lose the thread: a pint-sized pothead and sometime gumshoe named Larry “Doc” Sportello. (Don’t ask.) Becalmed, circa 1970, in the surf community of Gordita Beach, Cal., Doc ekes out just enough money as the proprietor of LSD Investigations to keep himself stoned. (LSD, naturally, “standing for ‘Location, Surveillance, Detection.'”) When his ex-squeeze tips him off to a plot to kidnap her new old man, Doc finds himself drawn into an underworld where real-estate moguls, neo-Nazis, and dentists conspire to…uh…do something or other. Or is it when black nationalist Tariq Khalil shows up? Or when surf-rock saxophonist Coy Harlingen goes missing? Oh, who cares, man? Pass me an E-Z Wide and cue The Boards.
Inherent Vice is at its best when (like this trailer, narrated by Pynchon himself) it hews to the half-baked perspective of its hero – when it uses its Raymond Chandler-ish plot as a kind of excuse for its set pieces. Nor are these set pieces merely ornamental. My favorites – the lost empire of Lemuria (“The Atlantis of the Pacific”); visits to any number of greasy spoons; Doc’s acid trip – adumbrate the novel’s moral vision, to the extent that it has one. Here, as elsewhere, Pynchon is on the side of the Preterite. Witness, for example, Doc’s side-trip to Vegas:
According to Tito, the Kismet, built just after WWII, had represented something of a gamble that the city of North Las Vegas was about to be the wave of the future. Instead, everything moved southward, and Las Vegas Boulevard South entered legend as the strip, and places like the Kismet languished. Heading up North Las Vegas Boulevard, away from the unremitting storm of light, episodes of darkness began to occur at last, like night breezes off the desert. Parked trailers and little lumberyards and air-conditioning shops went drifting by.
Also new in Inherent Vice is the mellow bittersweetness that shades the last couple of sentences, the benign half-grin with which much of the book is put across. For great stretches, description retreats entirely, in favor of dialogue. Depending on the level of chemical enhancement, the results can be amusing, if inessential. “Why is there Chicken of the Sea,” one character muses, “but no Tuna of the Farm?” Pynchon has done hippies before, but rarely has his writing felt so loose.
Then again, this looseness, the book’s great innovation, is also the source of its most glaring weaknesses. Because Pynchon is pretty much making stuff up as he goes along, Inherent Vice falls apart whenever it attempts to actually generate suspense. (Presumably, there’s some play going on here with the byzantine conventions of film noir and the gaps in Doc’s memory, but outside of the work of David Foster Wallace, tedium is not a legitimate aesthetic effect.) To put it another way, the book is entertaining except when it isn’t.
Worse: with the exception of Doc and a couple of others, Pynchon half-asses his characters. Character has always been Pynchon’s weakness – too often people in his novels feel like mere linguistic events, conjunctions of syllables – but here the lack of any sense of life beyond the page makes it hard to keep track of who’s speaking, much less whodunit. In the time it takes to disentangle Riggs Warbling from Adrian Prussia, one forgets what the significance of either is supposed to be.
As in 2006’s Against the Day, there are moments here that feel like Pynchon doing Pynchon. The songs, in particular, amount to parodies of parodies. (If you’ve ever wondered whether any of Pynchon’s songs had any aesthetic value, compare Inherent Vice’s “Just the Lasagna” to anything in Gravity’s Rainbow.)
The novel’s ideas have a recycled quality, too. In this case, though, a quality of obsession redeems them. Pynchon’s great subject has turned out to be not paranoia but history: specifically, those moments in it when the world might change, but doesn’t. If Against the Day amounted to a sprawling catalogue of such moments, Inherent Vice profitably limits itself to a specific instance – one Pynchon lived through. As the novel shambles toward its conclusion, a pedal-note of genuine loss builds:
Tito snored away on the other bed. Out there, all around them to the last fringes of occupancy, were . . . the Starship Enterprise, Hawaiian crime fantasies, cute kids in make-believe living rooms with invisible audiences to laugh at everything they did, baseball highlights, Vietnam footage, helicopter gunships and firefights, and midnight jokes, and talking celebrities, and a slave girl in a bottle, and Arnold the pig, and there was Doc, on the natch, caught in a low-level bummer he couldn’t find a way out of, about how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness…
The effect here is not nostalgia, which packages the past for bite-sized consumption, and so palliates our hunger for utopia. Rather, Pynchon seems to be trying to awaken us to the idea that things might become other than they are, by reaching back for the last time when Americans actually seemed to believe it – before, as Hunter S. Thompson wrote, the “high and beautiful wave” of the middle Sixties “finally broke and rolled back.”
Ultimately – perhaps regrettably – Inherent Vice is a wash. Depending on your angle, it’s either a breezy Something that looks like an airy Nothing, or vice versa. Those looking for a brilliant cannabinoid caper should add The Big Lebowski, The Long Goodbye, or Pineapple Express to the Netflix queue post-haste. But those who believe (with the Buddhists and Yogi Berra) that if things were perfect, they wouldn’t be probably won’t regret a few hours spent in the company of…oh, crap, man. What’s the guy’s name again?
Readers of the Sunday funnies may have spotted an odd juxtaposition somewhere between “Garfield” and “Beetle Bailey” this morning. “Sally Forth” writer Ces Marciuliano has reimagined the opening lines of Pynchon’s postmodern classic Gravity’s Rainbow as a baseball-themed essay by grade-schooler Hilary. We will be running an essay here on literary mashups tomorrow, but this has to be one of the stranger intersections – the banality of the comics page, crossed with one of the more famously challenging novels in history. What a goofy, subversive thing to do.See Also: Pynchon fans, Inherent Vice drops in just a week.[Image and link via Ces Marciuliano]
You may have heard of Google Squared. It’s a new service in development from Google that, as Wikipedia puts it, “extracts structured data from across the web and presents its results in spreadsheet-like format.” Basically, it returns your results in a list-like format with some additional descriptive columns.Trying it out, we naturally entered some book-related queries. And, if you assume that Google has compiled a database of the world’s knowledge and uses that to generate its results, then these must be – definitively – the “best books” and “best novels” ever.Best Books:The Catcher in the RyeCatch-22Animal FarmThe Very Hungry CaterpillarGoodnight MoonCurious GeorgeGravity’s RainbowBest Novels:Gravity’s RainbowTo Kill a MockingbirdThe Sound and the FuryOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestThe Lord of the RingsTo The LighthouseA Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManNot bad for something computer-generated.(Google has been known to personalize and regularly adjust its results, so your lists may vary.)
After a weak year for movies, this Sunday’s Academy Awards promises more than the usual number of surprises. Will we watch The Curious Case of Benjamin Button rack up 13 Oscars, eclipsing Ben-Hur… or will we watch it edge out The Color Purple for a dubious record: most nominations without a single award? Will we thrill to the wit and wisdom of austerity-measures host Hugh Jackman… or will we find ourselves longing for the deft comedic timing of Charlton Heston? What we surely won’t see is a sweep for the film version of Revolutionary Road, which strikes me as more startling than any of the scenarios outlined above. To put it bluntly: Revolutionary Road is pure Oscar bait. It boasts a powerhouse production team (director Sam Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and co-producer Scott Rudin) and a terrific ensemble cast. It has the kind of marketing hook Oscar loves: it’s Kate and Leo’s first joint outing since The Highest Grossing Film of All Time.Most importantly (with apologies to The Reader and Ben Button) it has the most impeccable literary pedigree of any movie released this year. “Hollywood is a visual town that reveres what it reads,” as The New Yorker’s Tad Friend wrote a few years back. “A classy book connotes New York, taste, and depth.” And yet, when the nominations were announced last month, Revolutionary Road was up for a paltry three statuettes. What gives? The most plausible explanation is some sort of baroque intra-Academy intrigue of the sort that robbed Bruce Springsteen of a nomination for The Wrestler. But I’d like to suggest, for the sake of argument, that the problem lies in the source material – that Revolutionary Road, the novel by Richard Yates, may, for fairly interesting reasons, be unadaptable.Revolutionary Road now looks like some kind of high-water-mark of urbane fiction. Soon after its publication, loose, baggy monsters such as Giles Goat-Boy and Gravity’s Rainbow would seize the high ground of literary fiction, reflecting the entropic tendencies of the larger culture. But in 1961, the novel still seemed perfectible, and with this book Richard Yates came as close as anyone has to perfecting it. A synopsis sounds straightforward: Frank and April Wheeler settle in suburban Connecticut at the peak of the postwar boom, only to find themselves spiritually and aesthetically ill-at-ease with their surroundings. They dream of being something more than (respectively) a Man in a Gray Flannel Suit and a housewife. Yet their pursuit of the numinous will threaten to destroy them.This story is easily caricatured, by those who haven’t bothered to read the book, as a denunciation of suburban life – precisely the sort of novel Frank Wheeler might have written. Yates makes painfully clear, however, that the obstacles the Wheelers face are as much internal as external. An ironist of almost infinite subtlety, he spends much of the book revealing Frank and April’s grasping as no less “hopeless” and “empty” than the neat little subdivision streets that give the book its title. Whatever greatness they possess falls victim to their self-absorption.For all its bleakness, Revolutionary Road is often quite funny. The mediating principle between the comedy and the tragedy, the satire and the sympathy, is Yates’ pitch-perfect voice. His free indirect narration hews for the most part to Frank’s point-of-view, so that even as we see Frank’s posturing, we are drawn into sympathy with him. At times, the subjectivity of Yates’ descriptions borders on the visionary:How small and neat and comically serious the other men looked, with their gray-flecked crew cuts and their button-down collars and their brisk little hurrying feet! . . . . The waiting midtown office buildings would swallow them up and contain them, so that to stand in one tower looking out across the canyon to another would be to inspect a great silent insectarium displaying hundreds of tiny pink men in white shirts, forever shifting papers and frowning into telephones, acting out their passionate little dumb show under the supreme indifference of the rolling spring clouds.Even as Frank sees his town-and-country life as “comical,” his eye (for “canyons”, for manly “containment,” for those supreme clouds) betrays its attractions. Flattering himself as a man apart, he is acting out his own “passionate little dumb show.” This foible is, of course, not unique to Frank. And as with Jonathan Franzen’s Lamberts forty years later, we can’t sit securely in judgment; we don’t even quite know where to stand.All of which is to say that I was concerned when Sam Mendes – surely one of our most portentous filmmakers – was directing Revolutionary Road: The Movie. It seemed likely that Mendes might miss the irony and give us American Beauty meets American Graffiti: a jeremiad against the Cold War dorps of the Metro North. True to form, Mendes does go a bit crazy with the foliage toward the end of the movie; it’s as if he believes that beauty (and his films are beautiful, in a way that sometimes borders on kitsch) only serves as a mask for the general hideousness of human beings. For the most part, though, my fears were unfounded. Mendes is as finely attuned to the posturings of Frank and April as he is to the fatuousness of their real estate agent and the generic idyll of their neighborhood.Moreover, the acting in Revolutionary Road is excellent. Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon, and Zoe Kazan turn in fine supporting performances. DiCaprio takes a little getting used to – he still looks like a teenager to me – but as he grows into the lead role, he reveals the depths of Frank’s frustration. And the great Kate Winslett turns in a terrifically intense performance as April. Mendes, who is her husband, loves to fill the screen with her, and for good reason.The film earns its nomination for an Art Direction Oscar. It is lovingly upholstered, filled with the trappings of the Eisenhower era. (Rarely does a scene pass without its complement of martinis and coffees and cigarettes; no wonder these people are so moody.) Despite (or perhaps because of) its reverence for its source material, however, the movie misses the key ingredient: the voice. Subjectivity is easy for a novel to do; indeed, we might say that objectivity in fiction is merely an illusion. Film, however, is relentlessly literal, and Mendes never bothers to figure out a way to finesse this – to give us that “great silent insectarium,” for example.He does offer compelling interpretations of certain scenes, the way one might interpret Shakespeare or Chekhov. He is particularly interested in the constraints April suffers because of her gender. But Yates is not a playwright, he’s a novelist, and the magic of this particular novel is its ability to take us inside its characters. Only in the final seconds of the film does Mendes abandon his handsome neutrality and attempt to figure out how to make film do what literature does. It is too little, too late.And so one ends up wondering, what’s the point? Revolutionary Road, the movie, has resisted the temptation to condemn a particular set of social circumstances; instead it has gone to the other extreme, making Frank and April’s problems so particular that it seems to have little to say to anyone who isn’t them. The solution to their unhappiness? Suck less.Up against this year’s other Oscar bait, Revolutionary Road holds up fine. But it has to meet a higher hurdle: it’s up against a great book. For all its fine craftsmanship, its entertainment value, its essential dignity, it doesn’t add anything. Unlike Yates’ novel, it does not command our sympathy; it merely commands our gaze.Bonus link: Your printable Oscar ballot (pdf)
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?Edan: There are so many gaping holes in my reading! I haven’t read Proust (saving him for my white-haired years) and, beyond Chekhov, not many Russians (I’ll be reading Anna Karenina next month and I’m looking forward to it). I haven’t read Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, or Infinite Jest – I tend to avoid big books. I’m too embarrassed to name one very famous Shakespeare play I know next to nothing about. I never read mysteries or horror, mostly because I’m a scared wimp, but I’m thinking of reading a Patricia Highsmith novel this year. Recently, I’ve started to read more books in translation, and since graduating from college I’ve made a point of reading all the classics I missed, like To the Lighthouse and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both of which I loved. I’m also making myself read more nonfiction, since I never would otherwise. I haven’t even read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood! Writing this reminds me of all the writers I haven’t read: Homer, Norman Mailer, John Irving, Gertrude Stein, John McPhee, J.K. Rowling. That’s right, I haven’t read Harry Potter!Why am I wasting my time writing this? I must go read. Now.Andrew: As I do a quick mental survey of my life of reading, I notice a number of gaping holes. Some beckon; others continue to keep me at bay.Chronologically, then: The Classics. Aside from some excerpts of the ancient Greeks in high school English, I’ve never delved into classical literature. I have seen a number of theatrical adaptations of classical Greek plays, but that’s about it. Aside from excerpts, I’ve never even read Homer.I’ll jump ahead to the 1800s only because I’m not exactly sure what I’m missing from the intervening centuries. Lets assume EVERYTHING. (except Don Quixote – I’ve actually read that). So, on to the 1800s: I’ve never read Moby Dick or Middlemarch. I’ve done quite well re: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, and the Russians. I’ve also done quite well in early-mid 20th century fiction – that was always (and remains) my favorite literary era.More recently, I’ve done quite well with modern British fiction, and I’ve also been quite good at Latin American fiction from the past 50 years (Mutis, Marquez, Borges, Bolano). But still some gaps remain in 20th century fiction: Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood (I should be stripped of my Canadian citizenship for that).Before the Millions, contemporary American fiction had been a giant hole. But over the past 6 years I’ve delved deeply into Lethem, Chabon, Franzen, and once I can successfully wrap my puny brain around David Foster Wallace’s encyclopedic prose, I’ll actually finish Infinite Jest. It’s mesmerizing, but exhausting.Emily: When it comes to playing readerly “I Never,” there are rather a lot of burly man-authors, chiefly twentieth-century man-authors, whose work I’ve never read. Hemingway (other than the 4 page story “Hills Like White Elephants”), Kerouac (a bit of his poetry; enough of On the Road), Roth, Updike, Kesey, Heller, Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, Vonnegut, Pynchon, Moody, and Foster Wallace all fall into the category of authors I haven’t read. Many of them fall also into the category of authors I have no interest in reading. Perhaps it is that I intuit (or imagine – not having read them, it is hard to say) a masculinist, vaguely misogynist aura that has put me off; Or, as in the cases of Pynchon and Foster Wallace, a virtuousic formal complexity or grandiose heft, that I also associate with the masculine artistic mind. There is, I am aware, no way to justify my philistine (and perhaps sexist) distrust of these authors – my sense that I would find their depictions of violence and apocalypse, aimless wandering, women conquered, uninteresting; that I think I would find their self-conscious cleverness, their feats of stylistic and structural brilliance somewhat tedious; that in reading B.R. Meyer’s “A Reader’s Manifesto” at The Atlantic some years ago, I decided that Meyers’ extended pull quotes designed to illustrate McCarthy’s “muscular” style were as much (more) than I’d ever need of McCarthy’s much lauded prose:While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who’s will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)No thank you. Well-founded, my prejudices certainly are not, but I do not apologize for them or intend to renounce them. Cormac McCarthy may keep his pretty horses – give me clarity, proportion, precision; give me Austen and Burney, Defoe, Iris Murdoch, P.G. Woodhouse, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, Mary McCarthy, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis. If one must be a philistine, it is best to be an unrepentant one.Garth: What is the biggest hole in my lifetime of reading? The question should probably be phrased in the plural: holes. I’ve never read Kundera; never read Saramago; never read Robinson Crusoe, or Wuthering Heights, or Clarissa; William James, Slavoj Zizek, Henderson the Rain King… Then again, these are kind of scattershot: smallish holes, with some space in between them.Where I feel a huge constellation of holes, threatening to make one giant hole large enough to swallow me, is in Classics. Especially the Greeks. I would like to take a year and just read Plato and Aristotle and the Greek dramas. Or go back to school… So much is built on a basic corpus of Hellenistic knowledge that I somehow never acquired in school. We did The Iliad, The Odyssey, Oedipus… and that’s pretty much it.Kevin: The holes are too numerous to count and the biggest are likely ones I’m not even aware of. I have tried over the last couple years to close some of the most gaping omissions in my reading – secondary Shakespeare plays and the big books of Russian literature being two areas of particularly concerted effort. What remains? Well, a lot. Two that seem particularly important are the British romantic poets and the modernist. The former feels like washing the dishes, to be done of necessity but without any great joy. I think I’ll save Lord Byron and his court for later life, when the years will hopefully have afforded me the wisdom to enjoy their work more. I feel a greater urgency with the modernists, in part because I’ve had enough false starts that I worry I lack the concentration to extract the good stuff from their difficult prose. For about three years I’ve been thirty pages into Mrs. Dalloway and likewise with Ulysses. When it’s the time of day when I typically turn to fiction, I find I lack the appetite to pick them up to begin the fight anew. So, the hole remains, and seems even to grow deeper by the day.Max: This turns out to be a rather liberating exercise. The largest missing piece in my reading experience has been Faulkner, I think. I’ve never read any of his books, though I made a poor and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at The Sound and the Fury in college. I’ve long felt that I should have gotten started on the Russians sooner. So far, I’ve only got Crime and Punishment under my belt. I think I’d like to try Anna Karenina next. I’ve also never read Lolita. Updike’s passing this week reminded me that I’ve never read any of his books. The same is true of DeLillo’s books and Foster Wallace’s. By Philip Roth, I’ve read only Portnoy’s Complaint, which I know leaves out many, many good books. I really need to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Tree of Smoke and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. There are likely many more that I can’t even recall that I haven’t read, but I’ll leave it with Virginia Woolf, whose To the Lighthouse I started not long ago but ended up setting aside when it failed to grab me (or rather, I failed to be grabbed by it).So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?
Edward Champion’s work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Philly Inquirer, Newsday, as well as more disreputable publications. He blogs at Return of the Reluctant and podcasts at The Bat Segundo Show.I’m reserving my hosannas for this year’s lit for another place, another time, another Bizarro universe, another silly excuse to rip off my clothes, dive into the almighty ocean, and shout (“Holy shit, it’s freezing!”) the ten names of the ten greatest books to the heavens and presumably Xenu himself. There was one writer I rediscovered this year after a ten year absence, a guy who knocked my socks off, a man who I understand was passed up for a special National Book Award because he was considered too experimental, too out there, too not right for the vox populi. Never mind that his instinctive perversion of carnal and literary conventions is exactly the apposite kick in the ass the American public needs right now and exactly the kind of subversive thrust that can galvanize today’s young writers.That man is John Barth, who, at 77, is indeed still alive and still writing and may face a Gilbert Sorrentino-style shutout in his last years if we’re not careful. You’ll even find one of his tales, “Toga Party,” in this year’s Best American Short Stories. And this story of anxiety and distress and growing older demonstrates that the old guy still has it.But if you need convincing in novel form, start with his first three books, all of which I reread this year. The Floating Opera and The End of the Road were each written in three months, amazingly during the same year. Each volume is a glorious decimation of Puritanical values, whether they be sex, psychiatry, the legal system, or even the manner in which one obtains employment. But the piece de resistance is Barth’s third book, his masterpiece, The Sot-Weed Factor, a picaresque 17th century monster that befuddled and delighted even the great Darby M. Dixon III! Not only is this book an immensely entertaining satire of a real-life Maryland poet named Ebeneezer Cooke, but it features lengthy explanations on arcane historical topics, perfectly fabricated notebooks that rethink the John Smith-Pocahantas relationship, and a sustained examination on how absolutist ideologies are inextricable thorns in the grand American rose. This is a book that a capsule post cannot do justice to. That it is not uttered in the same breath as Gravity’s Rainbow or The Recognitions or Gormenghast is a sure sign that literary standards have fallen.More from A Year in Reading 2007
James Hynes is the author of three novels, The Wild Colonial Boy, The Lecturer’s Tale, and Kings of Infinite Space, and a book of novellas, Publish and Perish. He’s a Michigander, but he’s lived in Austin, Texas, since 1995. Hynes adds, “I have a new novel that is, if I’d only get my ass in gear, a month or two away from being finished.”James Hynes’ Top Three… No, Top Four Books of 2007Doubt: A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht. I’ve been an atheist since the age of 15, when I read Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian and Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth, but since then I’ve never really bothered to examine why I believe what I believe (or don’t believe, as the case may be). So, with atheism in the air recently, I read Ms. Hecht’s wonderful popular history of skepticism, from the Greeks to the present. It’s elegant, witty, and very light on its feet, with none of the arrogance, self-righteousness, or snarkiness of the New Atheists (Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.). I learned a lot, and now, thanks to Ms. Hecht, I have purchased a small library of classics of skepticism (by Epicurus, Cicero, Spinoza, Thomas Paine, and David Hume) that I’m working through, books I should have read as a philosophy major years ago, but didn’t.Rabbit at Rest by John Updike. When I was a young, stupid, unpublished writer, I used to diss Updike for being all style and no substance – sure the sentences were lovely, but his books weren’t about anything important, the way, say, Gravity’s Rainbow was. But since my father died a few years ago and I turned fifty, suddenly it turns out Updike’s novels, the Rabbit books in particular, are about everything. I started a couple of years ago by rereading Rabbit Run, and I finished the fourth and final book just a couple of weeks ago. Updike’s pointillist rendering of an ordinary and not even especially likable ordinary guy is both unsentimental and humane, and it manages, somehow, miraculously, to make everyday life into something epic.Dance Night by Dawn Powell. I decided to try Powell because my friend Kate Christensen (author of The Epicure’s Lament and The Great Man) has always spoken highly of her. I even had Katie’s permission not to like the book. But, as it turns out, I loved it. I gather that Powell’s best known books are about bohemian life in mid-century New York, but this one is a vivid and clear-eyed rendering of some intricately intertwined lives in a small, working-class town in Ohio in the early 20th century. Apart from a few touches, this book feels surprisingly contemporary. It’s expertly and surprisingly plotted, and, like the Updike book, it somehow manages to be mercilessly honest and tender all at once. It’s like a boiled-down Dreiser novel, only much, much better written than Dreiser.No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. After I finished the first hundred pages of this, I e-mailed my friend John Marks (author of The Wall and Fangland), who had raved to me about this, and asked him what all the fuss was. It’s just a Jim Thompson novel, I said, weary sheriff versus heartless psychopath out in arid West Texas, only with a higher literary gloss than Thompson’s work. John was gracious, as always – he’s a Texan himself – but I sensed that he thought I’d missed the point on this one. Which, it turns out, I had. I finished the book – just last night, as a matter of fact – and it turns out to have more in common with Dostoevsky than with Jim Thompson, if Dostoevsky wrote lightning-paced, violent thrillers that get adapted for the screen by the Coen brothers. As a thriller, it’s first rate, but what makes it a great novel are the first person sections by Sheriff Bell, whose faith in goodness is shaken to the core by the events of the novel and who speaks in pitch-perfect Texan. I’m still not sure it’s as good as Blood Meridian (my favorite McCarthy novel), but, as we say in Texas, it’ll do till the real thing gets here.More from A Year in Reading 2007
Let us for a moment, reader, move beyond the dreary cacophony of snap-judgments – the mindless hatchetwork of critics who abandoned the novel halfway through, the predictable enthusiasms of the Elect, the hedged bets of those who managed to finish just in time for deadline. Let us distance ourselves from the welter of conflicting reports, reviews, and rumors swirling in the cultural Aether. Let us imagine for ourselves a time-machine; let us step inside; let us hurtle 100 years into the future and look back on the unexplained event that was Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day. Let us, that is, undertake a project not unlike the project of the novel itself. Reader, let us try to make it mean something.1.The year is 2107. Thomas Pynchon is, not surprisingly, well-represented on bookshelves. Still in print, still read. Thanks in no small part to the late-period efflorescence of Mason & Dixon, (and of course the extraordinary seventh and eighth novels), the man is now recognized as one of the 20 or 30 Great American Voices: tough and tender, erudite and foolish, and oddly, it turns out, elegiac. Witness, for example, Against the Day’s aging matriarch Mayva Traverse, here in the employ of the Oust family:Too fast almost to register, the years had taken Mayva from a high-strung girl with foreign-looking eyes to this calm dumpling of a housekeeper in a prosperous home that might as well be halfway back east, set upwind from the sparks and soot of the trains, where she kept portraits and knickknacks dusted, knew how much everything cost, what time to the minute each of the Oust kids would wake (all but the one maybe, the one with the destiny), and where each of the family was likely to’ve gone when they weren’t in the house…her once spellbinding eyes brought back, as field-creatures are re-enfolded at the end of day, into orbits grown pillow-soft, on watch within, guarding a thousand secrets of these old Territories never set down, and of how inevitable, right from the minute the first easterners showed up, would be the betrayal of everyday life out here, so hard-won, into the suburban penance the newcomers had long acceded to. The children in her care never saw past the kind and forever bustling old gal, never imagined her back in Leadville raising all species of hell…Were B.R. Meyers still living, he would doubtless be able to pick this apart: there’s a mixed metaphor, the imprecision of “re-enfolded,” a dangling modifier or two… But what did B.R. Meyers make of Melville? Damn it, Pynchon’s is great American prose, its looseness and openness to error being what makes it American as well as great. And if Pynchon’s bardic breath remained as long as it was in Gravity’s Rainbow, his syntax, we now know, gradually grew clearer. Notice the ellipsis in the middle of that first sentence, giving the reader room to rest. Notice the way the eyes are then “brought back” syntactically as well as figuratively. Notice the range of the diction, from the sublime to the vernacular. Notice what Anthony Lane, way back in the year 1997, called “a resolute refusal to turn pretty.” In the late works, as in the early ones, Pynchon flirted with portentousness, but some inner gravity kept his language rooted.From 2107, it is likewise easy to see that Pynchon’s accomplishment did not end with his sentences and paragraphs and novels, but extended to the aesthetic, cultural, and political possibilities they disclosed for several generations of artists. Here, on our adamantium coffee table, lies a moldering copy of Bookforum’s 2006 festchrift for Gravity’s Rainbow… and a dusty Tin House Books edition of Zak Smith’s illustrations. And across the room, on a glow-in-the-dark desk, are stacks of novels by the writers Pynchon transformed. Without Gravity’s Rainbow, no Infinite Jest. No White Teeth. No Mao II. (Or fill the time capsule with your own favorite “hysterical realists” (to excavate an old James Wood formulation.)) Not since Yoknapatawpha paved the way for Macondo did an author, for better or worse, open up so much territory for his peers.In the context of these achievements, local and global – and in the context of Pynchon’s public invisibility (itself possibility-disclosing) – the appearance of each novel generated extraordinary expectations. Mason & Dixon, published exactly 110 years ago, raised the bar higher, proving that Pynchon was capable of equaling if not surpassing his own masterpiece, Gravity’s Rainbow. Then Against the Day arrived, a seeming aberration. No one could agree. It was either his best novel or his worst. It was neither. It was both, sometimes on the same page. In a career full of oddities, it was itself an oddity (which maybe made it, via the kind of Rube-Goldberg dialectic Pynchon always excelled in, his most representative novel.)2.The plot, such as it is, concerns three groups of characters entangled both by accidents of circumstance and by the common denominator of innocence lost. It is Hamlet by way of Jules Verne, B. Traven, and Graham Greene… a revenge delayed for no apparent reason, in this case for 900 pages.First, we have the Traverses, a rough-and-tumble family in the mining country of Colorado, circa 1890. The murder of the patriarch, terrorist-cum-freedom fighter Webb Traverse, presents his offspring – hedonistic Reef, dutiful Frank, brainy Kit, and rebellious daughter Lake – with the motive for revenge, if not the means. Later, in Europe, Kit becomes mixed-up with a set of Oxbridge youth playing spy-games for the Great Powers. Meanwhile, above or slightly to the side of it all hover the Chums of Chance, a semi-fictitious gang of boy aeronauts, and their pals from other dime-novel genres: the detective Lew Basnight, the mad scientist Merle Rideout, and assorted hangers-on.Having had 100 years to ruminate on it, this is about as concise as I can get. Like every Pynchon novel, this one is a chain of substitutions: a quest is undertaken, only to be abandoned when another, more interesting quest surfaces. (This series, receding toward a vanishing point, forms a V.). Their very insolubility is the great lesson enforced by these quests.What is new in Against the Day is the way the insolubility of the quests points to questions of character, rather than to the philosophical impossibility of pinning down answers at a time of increasing entropy. That is, the Traverses’ failure to avenge their father’s death is their own damn fault. They have plenty of chances to kill Webb’s killers (Lake ends up married to one, and Kit ends up the protege of another). But they are bruised, they are weak, they are stupid, they are easily tempted. They are, in a word, feckless, and much of the drift of the novel as a whole is their drift, across continents and years…The Chums of Chance, by contrast, are all duty. Bound by a naive but endearing code of honor, they zoom around in their airship seeking to set everything right. Somehow they, too, fail, but their failures seem more honorable than those of the earthbound characters they look down on. In the course of the book, both Chums and Traverses undergo an education that brings them closer to one another, philosophically.But maybe this is too concise to do the book justice. In the course of its generous length, Against the Day also encompasses a World’s Fair, a World War, mathematical conferences, time travel, trips to the mythical city of Shambala and the anti-Earth, proto-psychedelic trips, labor unrest, and a truly bizarre interlude at a Harmonica Marching Band Academy. The list could go on (and would, if I were Pynchon). And because this is Pynchon, there is both high-minded theorizing and low humor: slapstick, puns, talking dogs, and Pig Bodine.The jokes, in fact, are funnier than in Pynchon’s earlier novels… madcap Groucho-Marxist interludes often float gloriously free of their context:”How much do you know of La Mayonnaise?” she inquired.He shrugged. “Maybe up to the part that goes ‘Aux armes, citoyens…”And in dozens upon dozens of set-pieces totaling hundreds and hundreds of pages, the painful progress of the Traverse kids, the Chums, and even minor characters like Mayva (mentioned above) are rendered with bristling, autumnal clarity. Pynchon transports us to a time when the future seemed to promise dozens of possibilities for utopia – technological, political, mathematical – and then, just as we begin to forget that these promises are doomed, he makes us feel what it must have felt like when they failed, culminating in the killing fields of the First World War.The numb evasions of the Traverses, at their most compelling, are allegories for our own.3.Having gestured, then, toward some of the wonders that await between the covers of Against the Day, I’d like to address the question of why it ultimately falls short of Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon… why it still feels, 100 years later, more like an arithmetic extension of the Pynchon oeuvre (by a whopping 50%, in terms of page-count) than like a geometric enlargement of it.First, there are a couple of flaws in the writing. Pynchon does moments very well – his dialogue has never been better, his description rarely so. He likewise does the panoramic chronicle well, but for vast stretches of Against the Day, he seems to abandon everything in between. We get staccato bursts of scene with minimal set-up: two pages, page break, one page, page break, and then suddenly six months elapse in a single paragraph. What gets lost in the meantime? Well, character, for one thing. Though the Traverse kids and several of their lovers and friends gradually attain a fullness of personality, several key players, including a key dyad, never do. Both Webb Traverse and his plutocrat nemesis Scarsdale Vibe remain more abstractions than characters, and neither of their deaths affects the reader as it does the characters in the book. Thus the grief and helplessness of Webb’s children seem more artifacts of their status as Pynchon characters than outgrowths of the novel’s chain of events. We are never grounded in Webb, and we need to be. Or to put it another way, we find out too late that we should have been paying attention to him.The absence of a mid-range lens on the action also, in the long fourth movement of the book, makes the reader wonder if the author is as adrift as his characters… waiting for something interesting to turn up. Too often that something interesting is another character. People cross paths in this novel with astounding frequency, by authorial fiat, and though there is certainly a knowingness to the way these encounters are set up – e.g. “when who should turn out to be in Transylvania but Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin!” – the stylistic tic has diminishing returns. Because we can’t fit them into any pattern, the encounters cease to be meaningful, and thus believable.Finally, the thematic force of Against the Day is more dispersed than that of its predecessors. Though the title does in fact begin to resonate (at first I thought it sounded like a new James Bond movie), it never quite rises to the level of controlling metaphor. Instead, we are left to with a couple of large arcs that never quite intersect, and thus can’t bear the load of an entire novel.One of these arcs is really interesting, and involves the possibility of existing in more than one position in space and time. Characters in Against the Day are constantly troubled by the sense that they are living more than one life in alternate worlds, or in the future, or in the past. It turns out that in 1900 this seemed scientifically quite possible… it wasn’t space that seemed conquerable then, but time. Pynchon has terrific fun with the idea of “bilocation,” and stirs up a whole hornet’s nest of metaphysical questions in the process.Set against this is the idea that everything basically comes down to the same thing: the Manichean struggle of dark against light (against the day). Sometimes Pynchon codes darkness as a good thing (darkness as anarchy vs. light as order), and sometimes he codes it as bad (darkness as fear vs. light as love), but the dualism persists throughout the novel, and seems to undercut the rich sense of possibility “bilocation” introduces. Or maybe that’s the point. But it seems to me that Pynchon’s already said what there is to be said on the subject of good vs. evil, and that the creamy middles are what he does best these days.4.Ultimately, the inhabitants of the future will read Pynchon for the same reason people did back in 2007: because he does exactly what the hell it wants to. In this way, Against the Day is very much of a piece with his previous books. Though it may not be as structurally sound as Gravity’s Rainbow, it is certainly as imaginative. And if it lacks some of the depth of Mason & Dixon’s title characters, it builds on that book’s ethical maturity, laying out a vision of right and wrong for the post-utopian age it turns out we’re all living in. To tax Against the Day with plotlessness or bloat, as some reviewers apparently did once upon a time, is like berating an overstuffed couch for not being an Eames chair. To assess it as a failure is itself a failure. We may not reread Against the Day annually, or even read it twice, but no fan of Pynchon – and there are many of us, still – will regret a month spent in the company of this anarchic, capacious book.
In January I posted scans of a bunch of fantastic new editions of classic books from Penguin with covers designed by famous comic book artists. I’d heard that another batch was on the way, and I finally got my hands on the images so here they are. They come out this fall:Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Cover by Yoshihiro TatsumiWe Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Cover by Thomas Ott The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, Cover by JasonLady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, Cover by Chester Brown Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, Cover by Frank MillerPhilosophy in the Boudoir by Marquis de Sade, Cover by Tomer HanukaSee the full-size pictures hereSome other notes: I first saw some of these covers posted at the Fantagraphics blog. Tomer Hanuka has a really cool post about designing his cover at his blog Tropical Toxic.