How to Sell: A Novel

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At the London Review of Books: Clancy Martin on Alcoholism

In the LRB this month, professor and novelist Clancy Martin offers a brutally candid account of his own attempts to get sober. The piece is affecting, horrifying, and enlightening:As a child I visited my older sister in a psychiatric hospital, but I hadn’t been inside one for 30 years. Then, on 1 January this year, at about 11 o’clock in the evening, my wife found me, feet kicking, dangling from an improvised rope – a twisted yellow sheet – about a metre off the ground in our bedroom closet. Our two-year-old daughter was in the bed, sleeping, just a few feet away. Somehow the proximity of a child to the parent’s suicide, as with Sylvia Plath’s little children in that lonely London flat, increases the suicide’s shame. I was at the end of a binge. I was also at the end of three years of secret drinking, of hiding bottles and sneaking away to bars while my wife thought I was living as I had promised her, as a sober man.Martin’s narrative of his own battle also considers the dominant theories of alcoholism (the possession theory; the tragic theory) and treatments for it, including a new treatment – some hail it as a magic bullet – the drug baclofen. Martin’s description of his conflicted feelings about Alcoholics Anonymous are particularly interesting, but it is the unsparing account of his own drinking that haunts me.See also: Garth’s recent review of Martin’s novel, How To Sell.
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Full Disclosure

Well, folks, it’s happened. The mainstream media has finally discovered the Internet’s sordid underbelly. According to an article in last Monday’s New York Times, a growing number of online outlets have begun reviewing products for reasons other than the simple joy of content production. Advertisers in search of buzz are plying them with freebies, and sometimes even (gasp!) paying for advertising. Naturally, such cosy relationships raise eyebrows. Writes the Times:Some in the online world deride the actions as kickbacks. Others also question the legitimacy of bloggers’ opinions, even when the commercial relationships are clearly outlined to readers.Regular readers of this site are probably aware that a portion of our small operating budget comes from an association with Amazon.com. Click through The Millions and buy any product, regardless of whether or how we have covered it, and we get a small cut of the purchase price. You’re also no doubt aware that we run advertisements. Still, the Times has inspired me, as it so often does, to look inward. And so, in the interest of fuller disclosure, here is a comprehensive list of the other potential conflicts of interest we’ve encountered here at The Millions:John McPhee shares an opthalmologist with Millions founder C. Max Magee.Gerald Durrell once recorded an outgoing voicemail message for Lydia Kiesling, who writes our Modern Library Revue column.David Simon, creator of The Wire, smuggled our contributor Noah Deutsch into the exclusive 2007 HBO Christmas party in a scheme involving an oversized trenchcoat.The trenchcoat had arrived in a holiday “swag bag” from NYRB Classics, embossed with the likeness of Edwin Frank.FSG, not to be outdone, included a diamond-encrusted coke spoon in its press kit for Clancy Martin’s How to Sell.Our contributor Anne K. Yoder was married, briefly, to Philip Roth.Prior to our defense of the “Mom Book,” Olive Kitteridge author Elizabeth Strout personally courted Millions contributor Edan Lepucki with a relentless muffin-basket campaign. Guess we know how she got that Pulitzer.Nam Le, author of The Boat, won his “Year in Reading” spot in a poker game with Richard Ford.All posts attributed to Andrew Saikali are actually written by Ben Dooley.All posts attributed to Ben Dooley are actually written by Haruki Murakami.A complimentary Junot Díaz beer coosy is currently keeping my Brief, Wondrous Lager of Oscar Wao a smooth, drinkable 52 degrees.As you can see, the world of lit-blogging is a seductive and glamorous one; temptation lurks at every turn. Nonetheless, I am pleased to report that none of of these potential conflicts has affected our coverage. I am also pleased to report that Oscar Wao is the greatest novel of all time.[Image Credit: stopnlook]

Buyer, Beware: Clancy Martin’s How to Sell and the Great Financial Meltdown

It’s the opposition that defines our age: Wall Street vs. Main Street. In the first presidential debate of the 2008 election, Senators Obama and McCain invoked it five times in as many minutes. A few days earlier, another Senator had publicly suggested that Wall Street owed Main Street an apology. Soon, Governor Sarah Palin would get in on the action, declaring that it was “a toxic mess, really, on Main Street that [was] affecting Wall Street.” Though maybe it was vice versa? No matter: we knew whose side this self-identified “hockey mom” was on. Wall Street was the province of Gordon Gekko and Bernie Madoff, bad guys selling bad investments. Whereas Main Street was the home of the God-fearing consumer. In other words, of you and me.This Manichean view of American business – of predatory salesmen and guileless buyers – dates back at least as far as Dreiser. At times of widespread guilt, it assures us of our own innocence. But a story is itself a kind of transaction – if it seems too good to be true, it probably is – and our current tale of two Streets, parallel lines that never meet, obscures what actually happens in a marketplace, which is, by definition, the place where buyer and seller converge.Onto this shadowy realm, Clancy Martin’s debut novel, How to Sell, shines a clarifying light. The book, an unholy amalgam of Nietzsche and Horatio Alger, tells us what it was like to come of age as a luxury jeweler at the end of the 20th Century. The author, now a professor of philosophy and business ethics, knows whereof he speaks; he sold watches and diamonds during the Clinton-era boom. Nonetheless, his novel lets neither salesmen nor customers off the hook. Indeed, it mounts a sustained attack on the distinction between the two. In this way, it represents an important correction to our understanding of the bust.How to Sell opens with its narrator, 16-year-old Bobby Clark, preparing to move from Calgary to Dallas to join his big brother, Jim, in the jewelry business. (His father, a charismatic but pathologically unreliable raconteur, warns him against this move, but since when does a 16-year-old listen to his old man?) The lights are bright, and the city is big: minutes after stepping off the plane, Bobby is sampling cocaine in the back of a white Cadillac and lolling with his head on the lap of a beautiful woman. “She looked like a woman in a magazine,” he muses. “She didn’t look like an everyday normal woman who might be sitting in a car with you.” The book’s plot will turn on Bobby’s ingenuous attraction to this woman, and, more generally, to whatever attracts Jim. He seems willing to go to any length to emulate his brother.But Bobby’s first-person voice – naïve, colloquial, and appealingly impolitic – turns out to be a canny suspension. Behind the teenager’s wide-eyed sense of discovery hovers a retrospective reevaluation, as if an older Bobby is looking over his own shoulder. “Next time bring the customer a mirror,” he thinks, after selling his first Rolex. Then he starts to amend himselfEspecially a black customer, I knew. The more you serve them the better. Later I found out that this, too, was false. In fact just the opposite is the case. But it takes years to learn how to sell.It is the unstable interaction between the two Bobbys that propels the novel beyond easy satire. Bobby the narrator wants to stage the novel as a bildungsroman. Meanwhile, Bobby the character refuses to grow up. Instead, he descends deeper into the glossy moral morass into which Jim has enthusiastically plunged.The Clark brothers’ incorrigible nature turns out to be a boon to readers. Much of the pleasure of the novel’s first half derives from its anthropological immersion in the world behind the jewelry cases. We learn, for example, that a watch looks best with its hands at ten and two; that a repeat customer is called a “crow;” that the Gemological Institute of America’s ratings system for diamonds “would discombobulate the average Texan.” And gradually, we learn with Bobby that his employer’s empire is built on fraud. Items sold by phone are never delivered. Rolexes are appraised at three to four times their value, boosting insurance payouts. Jewels are pilfered, customers misled. The store’s own gem ratings are invented. Everybody, from customer to salesman, is swimming in money.The historical backdrop here is the fall of 1987, and though the stock market crash of that year gets nary a mention, it is difficult, circa 2009, not to see How to Sell as a commentary on American business in general. For watches, read mortgages. For Gemological Institute of America, read Moody’s. It took Alan Greenspan 60 years in finance to uncover a flaw in the model of the self-regulating free market, where price reflects value. It takes Bobby Clark a few weeks. “It’s the silliest damn thing,” his boss, Mr. Popper, tells him. “There ain’t no intrinsic value to a diamond except in a drill bit.” Nor does Bobby find himself improved by this knowledge. Instead, a decade after the collapse of Mr. Popper’s jewelry store, which concludes the novel’s first act, Bobby doubles down.The second half of How to Sell, tracing the quick but spectacular flame-out of the store the Clark brothers open together, is more depraved than the first half, and less fun. Glitter gives way to rot. Bobby’s brother and father appear in various states of psychological deterioration. In their ever-more-elaborate manipulations of each other and of Bobby, they start to resemble each other. Bobby himself seems disoriented and paranoid. (Serial adultery and chronic abuse of stimulants will do that to you.) In one of the novel’s most horripilating moments, he discovers a crab louse on the head of his infant daughter. But like the ace salesman he is, he’s always ready with a great line of patter. The morning after sleeping with a hooker, he tells us, “I didn’t have a hangover. My first appointment wasn’t until one. What a good day.” Indeed, Bobby seems to believe that he can not only convince a “crow” that black is white and bad is good, but that the terms are therefore meaningless. Thus Martin, the philosophy professor, makes Bobby a kind of test case for Mr. Popper’s theory of value, carried to its logical end.It bears saying that every novelist is himself a sort of salesman, and the goods Martin is offering in How to Sell are not without flaws – or, as gem dealers apparently call them, “inclusions.” The father’s mental decline, which should be the book’s emotional center of gravity, happens largely offstage. The tragic fate of the aforementioned Lisa, which triggers the book’s final reckoning, doesn’t hold up under inspection. Martin’s way of concealing his weaknesses with frequent page breaks and wry elisions is both technically deft and, circa 2009, somewhat mannered. But, with a jeweler’s eye, he polishes what remains to a high shine. And so we stick with Bobby as he learns his final lesson. Every salesman, it turns out, is also a customer, and every customer a salesman. That is: Bobby has been buying his own bullshit.What makes Bobby’s story such natural (and, in retrospect, inevitable) material for a first novel is the way eager sellers and bullish buyers and young men in novels resemble each other: they are innocents. In America, we tend to view “innocence” as a synonym for guiltlessness, but it also carries Old World connotations of gullibility, of stubborn resistance to facts. Our greatest literary salesmen, from Willy Loman to Jay Gatsby, have it in spades.In addition to its rather straightforward philosophy lesson, then (Values: can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em), How to Sell also offers us some novel perspective on our current economic and cultural situation. Perhaps the Wall Streeters who sold each other on subprime fool’s gold are “innocent” after all, though not quite in the sense their lawyers would want to maintain. And perhaps we innocents are a little guilty. Whether through floating interest rates or NINJA loans or the incredible expanding 401Ks that depended on them, we have allowed ourselves to be seduced, like Bobby Clark, by the old huckster’s promise of something for nothing.In March of this year, just after the AIG bonus scandal, outraged populists rode charter-buses to Greenwich, Connecticut, to ogle the mansions of the company’s executives (an act of protest befitting the zeitgeist). “It makes me absolutely sick,” the neighbor of one AIG worker told The New York Times. “It’s disgusting what these people have done.” The neighbor had lived down the street from “these people” for years – had presumably watched her fortune grow along with theirs – but it hadn’t stopped her from assimilating the most relentlessly marketed truth of our time: those rich, they’re not like you and me. How to Sell, which may just be the first great novel of the current economic crisis, suggests a harder truth: in buying into the promise of our own innocence, perhaps we on Main Street have been selling ourselves short.[Image credits: specialkrb, Aaron Jacobs, jurvetson]

Most Anticipated: 2009 May Be a Great Year for Books

The publishing industry (and every other industry) may be going down the tubes, but readers won’t be wanting for good new books this year, I suspect. Readers will get their hands on new Pynchon, Atwood, Lethem, and Zadie Smith – those names alone would make for a banner year, but there’s much more. Below you’ll find, in chronological order, the titles we’re most looking forward to this year. (Garth penned a few of these little previews, where noted. And special thanks to members of The Millions Facebook group who let us know what they are looking forward to. Not everyone’s suggestions made our list but we appreciated hearing about all of them.)In February, T.C. Boyle returns again to his unique brand of historical fiction with The Women. The four women in question all loved famous architect (and eccentric) Frank Lloyd Wright. Given the time period and subject matter, this one may resemble Boyle’s earlier novel The Road to Wellville. PW says “It’s a lush, dense and hyperliterate book – in words, vintage Boyle.”Yiyun Li wowed quite a few readers with a pair of standout stories in the New Yorker last year, and all her fans now have her debut novel The Vagrants to look forward to. PW gave this one a starred review and called it “magnificent and jaw-droppingly grim.” Quite a combo. All signs point to Li being a writer to watch in 2009 and beyond.Out of My Skin by John Haskell: I like John Haskell’s writing a lot, and I like books about L.A., and so I think I’ll like John Haskell writing a novel about L.A. (Garth)Home Schooling by Carol Windley: This book of short stories set in the Pacific Northwest is certain to garner comparisons to that other Canadian, Alice Munro. (Garth)March brings Jonathan Littell’s very long-awaited novel The Kindly Ones. American readers have waited for an English translation since 2006, when the book was originally published in French. The German reviews for this Prix Goncourt winner were decidedly mixed, but I’m still intrigued to read this novel about an S.S. Officer. Literature, pulp, or kitsch? We’ll know soon enough. (Garth)Walter Mosley, best known for his Easy Rawlins mysteries, offers up The Long Fall, the first in a new series, the Leonid McGill mysteries. The new book is notable in the change of venue from Los Angeles, Mosley’s heretofore preferred fictional setting, to New York City. PW says Mosley “stirs the pot and concocts a perfect milieu for an engaging new hero and an entertaining new series.”In Castle by J. Robert Lennon, “A man buys a large plot of wooded land in upstate New York, only to find that someone has built a castle in the middle of it–and the castle is inhabited.” Intriguing, no? (That description is from Lennon’s website.) In related news, Lennon’s collection of stories Pieces for the Left Hand will be published also in March. It’ll be the book’s first U.S. edition.Mary Gaitskill’s 2005 novel Veronica was a National Book Award finalist. Now she’s back with Don’t Cry. The title story in this collection appeared in the New Yorker last year.I’ve already devoured Wells Tower’s debut collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. Tower’s eclectic style is on full display here. Some of these stories are masterful iterations in the New Yorker style, while others experiment with voice and style. The collection closes with the title story, his most well known, an ingenious tale of vikings gone plundering. Normally a debut collection wouldn’t merit much buzz, but readers have had their eye on Tower for years because of his impressive long-form journalism in Harper’s and elsewhere. (Tower also appeared in our Year in Reading this year.)Zoe Heller had a huge hit with What Was She Thinking in 2003. Her follow-up effort, The Believers arrives in March. PW gives it a starred review and says it “puts to pointed use her acute observations of human nature in her third novel, a satire of 1960s idealism soured in the early 21st century.” The book came out in the UK last year, so you can learn plenty more about this one if you are so inclined. Here’s the Guardian’s review for starters.April brings Colson Whitehead’s novel Sag Harbor, which jumped a few notches on many readers’ wish lists following the publication of an excerpt (registration required) in the New Yorker’s Winter Fiction issue. Based on that excerpt (and the publisher’s catalog copy), we are in store for a coming of age story about Benji, a relatively well-off African-American kid growing up in New York (and summering on Long Island) in the 1980s.Colm Toibin has a new novel coming in May called Brooklyn. This one looks to be a novel of immigration. From the catalog copy: “In a small town in the south-east of Ireland in the 1950s, Eilis Lacey is one among many of her generation who cannot find work at home. So when a job is offered in America, it is clear that she must go.”I’ve been following Clancy Martin’s How to Sell as it’s appeared in excerpts in NOON and McSweeney’s. The writing is terrific, funny, and disturbing: ripe for a Coen Brothers adaptation. (Garth)Summer reading season gets going in June with Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, which his publisher is calling “his most ambitious work to date.” This one sounds like it will look in on the lives of several disparate characters in New York city in the mid-1970s. Audio of McCann reading from the book is available at CUNY Radio.Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie won tons of praise for Half of a Yellow Sun. Now she’s back with a collection of stories, The Thing Around Your Neck, likely including “The Headstrong Historian,” which appeared in the New Yorker last year.Monica Ali is back with her third novel, In the Kitchen. This one is based in London and apparently involves a murder at a hotel.July: William T. Vollmann is known for his superhuman writing output, but his forthcoming book Imperial is a monster, even for him. Weighing in at 1,296 pages and carrying a list price of $55, this work of non-fiction is “an epic study,” in the words of the publisher, of Imperial County, California. Ed offers quite a bit more discussion of the book. Don’t miss the comments, where it’s said that Vollmann has called the book “his Moby-Dick.”August: When the deliberate and reclusive Thomas Pynchon puts out a new book it’s a publishing event, and with Pynchon set to deliver a new book just three years after his last one, well, that’s like Christmas in July, er, August. This one is called Inherent Vice and its cover is already causing much speculation (and some consternation) among the Pynchon fans. Expect rumors about the book to be rife through the first part of the year. Pynchon’s publisher Penguin, meanwhile, has called it “part noir, part psychedelic romp, all Thomas Pynchon – private eye Doc Sportello comes, occasionally, out of a marijuana haze to watch the end of an era as free love slips away and paranoia creeps in with the L.A. fog.”The Amateur American by Joel Saunders Elmore: I have to mention this novel by my old friend Joel, sections of which I read in manuscript. Surreal yet propulsive, it has one of the sharpest opening lines I’ve ever read… assuming he kept the opening line. (Garth)September: Scarcely a year goes by without Philip Roth sending a new novel our way. Little is known about his forthcoming novel except the title The Humbling. Amazon UK’s listing for the book puts it at just 112 pages which seems like just an afternoon’s work for the prolific Roth. As Garth notes, his last two outings have been underwhelming but with Roth there’s always a chance of greatness.Kazuo Ishiguro’s collection of stories also comes out in the U.S. in September (though it will be out in much of the rest of the English-speaking world in May). The catalog copy calls Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall “a sublime story cycle” that “explores ideas of love, music and the passing of time.”Acclaimed novelist Margaret Atwood will have a new novel out in September called The Year of the Flood. There’s not much info on this except that it is being described as “a journey to the end of the world.”E.L. Doctorow has an as yet untitled novel on tap for September.As does Jonathan Lethem. According to Comic Book Resources, Lethem said his untitled novel is “set on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, it’s strongly influenced by Saul Bellow, Philip K. Dick, Charles Finney and Hitchcock’s Vertigo and it concerns a circle of friends including a faded child-star actor, a cultural critic, a hack ghost-writer of autobiographies, and a city official. And it’s long and strange.” I like the sound of that.A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore’s first new novel in over a decade will arrive in September. The Bookseller sums up some of the excitement.October: You probably already know that Dave Eggers is working with Spike Jonze on a film version of Where the Wild Things Are, but did you know that Eggers is doing a novelization of the childrens classic too? It’s apparently called The Wild Things and will show up in October.Arriving at some point in late 2009 is Zadie Smith’s Fail Better. With her critical writing in The New York Review, Zadie Smith has quietly been making a bid to become the 21st Century Virginia Woolf. When she writes from her own experience as a novelist, she’s sublime; when projecting her own anxieties onto others, she’s less so. It will be interesting to see which Zadie Smith appears in this book of essays on books and writing. (Garth)We encourage you to share your own most anticipated books in the comments or on your own blogs. Happy Reading in 2009!

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