Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Sally Rooney, Angie Kim, Jennifer Acker, Harold Bloom, and more—that are publishing this week.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Normal People: “Rooney (Conversations with Friends) stuns with her depiction of an on-again off-again relationship between two young adults navigating social pressures. Connell is a popular soccer player at his school in Carricklea, Ireland. He embarks on a secret, mostly sexual relationship with Marianne, the socially isolated and mistreated daughter of the wealthy family Connell’s mom cleans for. Connell’s paranoia about social standing spoils their relationship when he asks another classmate to a school dance. When they connect again as students at Trinity College in Dublin, Marianne has found a stronger voice and a large group of friends while Connell struggles to adapt to college life. A miscommunication scuttles their second attempt at a relationship, and Marianne soon gets involved with a boorish student with sadistic sexual desires. She confides in Connell about her ambivalence toward rough sex, but he fails to act on his strong desire to protect her. Personal crises and dissembling about feelings push the pair alternatively together and apart up to an open-ended but satisfying conclusion. Rooney crafts a devastating story from a series of everyday sorrows by delicately traversing female and male anxieties over sex, class, and popularity. This is a magnificent novel.”
Miracle Creek by Angie Kim
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Miracle Creek: “In Kim’s stand-out, twisty debut, Young and Pak Yoo live in Miracle Creek, a small town in Virginia, with their daughter, Mary. After immigrating to Virginia from Seoul, they start the business that operates in the barn behind their home: hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) sessions in a chamber designed like a submarine. But then the fatal explosion that kicks off this winning novel happens, leaving two people dead, Pak in a wheelchair, and Mary permanently scarred. One year later, the Yoos must testify in court against Elizabeth Ward, who’s been accused of orchestrating the incident to kill her son, Henry, a child who’d been undergoing HBOT to treat his autism, and who died in the explosion. As the trial progresses, each person who’d been present that night must reckon with what really happened. There’s a rich cast, among them Matt, a doctor who’d been using HBOT for his infertility and who’d had a not-completely innocent relationship with Mary, and Young, whose desperation to be a good wife and mother leaves her wanting as both. Kim, a former lawyer, clearly knows her stuff, and though the level of procedural detail is sometimes unwieldy, nonetheless what emerges is a masterfully plotted novel about the joys and pains of motherhood, the trick mirror nature of truth, and the unforgiving nature of justice.”
The Limits of the World by Jennifer Acker
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Limits of the World: “Acker unwinds a complex intergenerational story of immigration, culture, family, partnership, and ethics in her skillful debut. Sunil Chandaria is struggling. A PhD student of philosophy at Harvard, he is at an impasse writing his dissertation on ethical behavior and is in danger of losing his funding if he doesn’t finish. Meanwhile, his girlfriend, Amy, is disturbed by her parents’ increasing religiosity. Sunil has a difficult relationship with his own parents, an Indian couple who immigrated to America from an Indian enclave in Nairobi years earlier. His mother in particular is unhappy in Massachusetts, running a struggling shop that sells artisanal Kenyan crafts; her husband, a prominent doctor, has been keeping the store afloat financially. When Sunil learns of a shocking family secret about why his family left Kenya, he must return to track down the exact events leading to his family’s departure. Sunil’s travels through Kenya move effortlessly through dreamy sequences and feature plenty of difficult ethical questions and tense family drama. Fans of Jhumpa Lahiri or Yaa Gyasi will want to check out Acker’s elegant saga.”
Arid Dreams by Duanwad Pimwana
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Arid Dreams: “In her incisive English-language debut collection, Pimwana profiles ordinary Thais as they look to realize their hopes and longings while navigating webs of family and community. In the title story, an unnamed young man returns to the beachside town of his youth, now overrun by tourists, and falls for a mysterious masseuse. ‘Sandals’ follows two children, Tongjai and Kui, pulled from their lives in the city to help their parents in the sugar cane harvest. In ‘Wood Children,’ Prakorb, an older man, grows concerned when his younger wife, Mala, begins carving children out of wood after they fail to conceive. Pimwana’s characters, whether they are truck drivers or farmers, doctors or prisoners, are realized with depth, affection, and a good degree of humor. The petty concerns of their daily lives—frustrated careers, infidelity, reconnecting with distant family— are hypnotically rendered in Pimwana’s telling. This is an exciting debut.”
Possessed by Memory by Harold Bloom
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Possessed by Memory: “Admirers of prolific polymath Bloom (Macbeth: A Dagger in the Mind) will treasure this assemblage of 76 pieces, ranging in length from brief reflections to full-length essays, and in genre from memoir to literary analysis. Bloom’s central interest—the role of influence in literary history—is highlighted in selections that showcase his deep immersion in canonical greats (Shakespeare, Milton), Romantic-era poets (Byron, Keats, and Shelley), and the later Victorians (Browning and Tennyson), whom he sees as undervalued by recent criticism. Bloom also attends to American poets, including Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman, and longtime friend John Asberry, and religious writings, with character sketches of biblical figures such as Deborah, Moses, and Ruth and a meditation on the Kabbalah. Ample excerpts illustrate his assertions, such as that Edmund’s speech from King Lear on how ‘we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon and the stars’ illustrates why the villainous character is nonetheless ‘surprisingly attractive’ for his ‘candor and clarity.’ However, general readers may find Bloom’s personal remarks most affecting, such as on how, while ‘nearing 88, I have to consider how little I know of time to come.’ A rich lifetime of readership and scholarship can be found within the covers of this equally rich book.”
Revolutionaries by Joshua Furst
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Revolutionaries: “This roman à clef from Furst (The Sabotage Café) about America’s 1960s protest era and the speed with which its leaders and their causes slipped into obsolescence is a heartfelt meditation on how quickly history outruns political and social ideals. Its principal character is Lenny Snyder, a counterculture gadfly whose personality echoes Abbie Hoffman and whose outrageous activist antics, related in the whirlwind opening chapters, comprise a potted history of the era’s most famous social justice protests. The novel’s narrator is Lenny’s son, Freedom, aka Freddy, whom Lenny sometimes used as a ‘tyke revolutionary’ prop in his protests. Freddy is just seven when Lenny, facing a drug rap, disappears, and most of the story follows Freddy and his mother, Suzy, as they try to adjust to a world that has moved on without them and Lenny, often in the company of the poignantly depicted real-life folksinger Phil Ochs, whose decline and suicide in the 1970s make him one of the era’s most tragic casualties. Furst modulates movingly between Freddy’s childhood memories of the father whom he admired and his adult perspective on how cruel and selfishly opportunistic Lenny could be. Furst’s novel and its themes will resonate with readers regardless of whether they lived through its times.”
One of the pleasures of reading critic and fiction writer Yahya Haqqi’s essays in Arabic is that I am always astonished by the breadth of his knowledge, the depth of his experience, the nimbleness of his mind and his eloquence. In the collection Crying, Then Smiling, he has a number of eulogies, one of which is for his uncle, Mahmoud Taher Haqqi, who wrote the first Egyptian novel, The Maidens of Denshawi, about the tragedy of Denshawi in 1906 where British soldiers carelessly killed a villager while they were shooting pigeons—the incident ended tragically when villagers were rounded up and executed by the British. Haqqi points out that it was the first novel to focus on fellaheen, peasants, and their problems and opened the way for Mohamed Hussein Haykal’s novel, Zeyneb (1913). Haqqi wrote that his heart trembled when he read The Maidens of Denshawi—which is what good stories should bring about. Haqqi deserves a eulogy, much like the ones he so generously wrote for others, about his place in Egyptian literary heritage. This seems appropriate in light of the recent celebration of the classic black and white film Al-Bostagy, or The Postman, directed by Husayn Kamal (1968), featuring Shukry Sarhan, based on Haqqi’s novella. But one cannot write about this poignant film without mentioning Sabri Moussa, the talented novelist who translated the spirit of Yahya Haqqi’s novella into a suspenseful screenplay. (He also wrote the screenplay for Yahya Haqqi’s Om Hashem’s Lamp.) Sabri Moussa, who died recently, January 2018, deserves a eulogy as well for his film scripts, short fiction, and novels—the unusual sci-fi tale The Man Arrived from the Spinach Field, the mythic fable Seeds of Corruption, and Half-Meter Incident.
Interior monologues so crucial to building a psychological portrait of a character in fiction have to be handled differently in film, another genre. Much of Yahya Haqqi’s novella The Postman relies upon the interior monologues of the male hero, the postman, Abbas, and the thoughts of Gameela, the young girl who has fallen in love with a young man named Khaleel who promises to marry her. The isolation of the postman is shown through the scenes where he is sitting alone in the dusty, decrepit house he is renting—steaming open the letters while alone drinking cheap booze and reading about the romance of Gameela and Khaleel, or even riding his donkey to deliver the mail. An educated Cairene, he cannot relate to the people in the village and feels he has been banished to Mars. Moussa also added certain scenes to the screenplay that were not present in the novel to augment dramatic tension linked to sexuality in a village in upper Egypt in the ’40s. For instance, the servant girl who is raped by Gameela’s father is taken away by her relatives and will certainly be killed. Abbas invites a Romani woman to his house and she is almost murdered by a mob. Both of these scenes foreshadow the murder of the young girl Gameela when her father discovers she is pregnant. At the end of the novel, Abbas hears the church bell toll for someone who has died, but Haqqi, the author, does not state explicitly that it is Gameela who has died—that is left ambiguous. However, in the screenplay, Moussa added a scene of the father carrying his daughter’s corpse through the village after he has killed her. The addition of this extra scene is reminiscent of King Lear carrying his daughter Cordelia in his arms: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life and thou no breath at all?” However, this is the antithesis of the scene in King Lear since Gameela’s father intended to kill her to save the family’s honor—the price is still dear. The mother trails behind, wailing.
The Egyptian classic The Postman reminds me of the 1954 film thriller Rear Window, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and featuring Grace Kelly and James Stewart. James Stewart plays a photographer with a broken leg who cannot move—he sits at his apartment window in New York City, watching his neighbors. At first, it is entertainment. The game becomes dangerous when the killer realizes he is being watched—and stalks the photographer and his lovely girlfriend. The lonely postman who resides in a village town in upper Egypt alleviates his boredom by reading the letters of the villagers and then stumbles upon the letters of two young lovers and their secrets. The photographer also stumbles upon a deadly secret: His neighbor has killed his wife, cut up her body, and crammed it into a trunk. Abbas in The Postman realizes that Gameela, the unmarried young girl, has committed herself too wholeheartedly to a feckless, immature lover. Pregnant, she is in danger of being killed for dishonoring the family, yet Abbas is helpless to save her. Both men are isolated bachelors who entertain themselves by spying on their neighbors. Despite the fact that one story is set in America in the ’50s, the other in an Egyptian village in the ’40s, they both focus on the universal themes of solitude, voyeurism, and disorientation. We may think we know our neighbors, but often are surprised.
Unfortunately, the novels of many exceptional writers are not known to a wide audience unless their works are adapted to film. At the same time, the revival of The Postman on its Golden Jubilee recently in Cairo can inspire viewers to return to his written word.
In October 2015, Hogarth Press from Crown Publishing launched the Hogarth Shakespeare project, an anticipated eight-part series in which best-selling authors retell a Shakespearean classic as a contemporary novel. Jeanette Winterson’s cover of The Winter’s Tale—A Gap of Time—was published first, almost exactly 400 years after the Bard’s death. Five more installments have since been released, with the final one—Gillian Flynn’s cover of Hamlet—expected in 2021.
Contemporizing a Shakespearean play is a fairly common undertaking. As the Hogarth Shakespeare’s website notes, Shakespeare’s works have frequently “been reinterpreted for each new generation, whether as teen films, musicals, science-fiction flicks, Japanese warrior tales, or literary transformations.” Reimagining a Shakespearean story can often be a contentious effort as well. Many critics note the difficulty of believably translating a Shakespearean conflict—written centuries before the study of psychology—into a modern setting. Supporters, meanwhile, will often point to William Shakespeare himself and his own aptness to adapt and revise stories from various sources.
Regardless of one’s personal thoughts on Shakespearean adaptations, it is hard to overlook their significance to our cultural canon, from musicals like West Side Story and Kiss Me, Kate to films such as 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man. Even having the original texts set in modern circumstances can be incredibly influential and timely, with the Public Theatre’s recent production of Julius Caesar—in which Caesar was modeled after Donald Trump—being the most notorious recent example.
As a lover of both Shakespearean drama and contemporary literature, I am an ardent follower of the Hogarth Shakespeare project. However, my interest in the project stems not from a desire to see creatively adapted Shakespearean plots; but, rather, an interest in seeing Shakespearean stories used to examine contemporary political, social, and cultural issues.
Each book in the series thus far has had varying success with this. Jeanette Winterson uses her cover of The Winter’s Tale to examine the devastating effects of hyper-masculinity and violence against women, as well as the normalcy of homoeroticism. Shylock Is My Name—Howard Jacobson’s cover of The Merchant of Venice—uses both Shylock himself and his modernized counterpart, Simon Strulovitch, to examine the past and present expectations of Jewish identity. In Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, her cover of The Taming of the Shrew, the Petruchio character attempts to woo Kate into marriage so that he can avoid deportation. The most meta cover version—Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed—has the Prospero character produce The Tempest in a prison. This Tuesday marked the release of Edward St. Aubyn’s Dunbar—his cover of King Lear—which sees Lear reimagined as the head of an international media corporation.
Edward St Aubyn’s novel, however, was preceded by Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy, her cover of Othello and Hogarth’s first modernization of a Shakespearean tragedy. Chevalier’s retelling takes place over the course of a single day on a predominantly white elementary school playground, in which Ian, the playground bully, schemes to break up the budding relationship between Osei—a new student originally from Ghana—and Dee, a popular white student.
When it comes to contemporizing Shakespeare, Othello tends to be considered one of the most substantial texts to view through a modern lens, generally accompanied by The Merchant of Venice. Although Shylock is presented as the villain of Merchant, the anti-Semitism he experiences allows for a modern writer to examine Shylock’s personal tragedy as a victim of discrimination. Meanwhile, although race is not specifically mentioned as incentive for Iago’s escalating schemes against Othello, the implicit racial politics of both Othello’s interracial marriage to Desdemona and his military success as a man of color provide plenty of contemporary subjects for a modern author to examine. In his recent piece for The New York Times, “Shylock and Othello in the Time of Xenophobia,” Shaul Bassi writes, “If throughout the 20th century ‘Hamlet’ and ‘King Lear’ vied for the title of most topical political allegory, in the new millennium ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and ‘Othello’ are the plays that make Shakespeare our contemporary.”
The fatal misstep of New Boy, then, comes from the fact that Chevalier chose to set her retelling in 1974 Washington D.C., only 10 years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act and, from Bassi’s perspective, before Othello truly became the relevant allegory that it is today. There are only a few choice nods to early 1970s pop culture such as hippies, Oldsmobiles, and Roberta Flack, and only one fleeting reference is made to Watergate (despite impeachment proceedings presumably taking place minutes away from the playground). Instead, the main aspect of New Boy that gives it a sense of time is the overtness of the racism that it exhibits. Teachers are frequently overheard discussing Osei, expressing their relief that he isn’t in their classroom, sayings things like “This school isn’t ready for a black boy,” and commenting that Osei has given Dee “a taste for chocolate milk.” Osei and Dee’s teacher, a rumored Vietnam War veteran, functions primarily as a racist stock character, lashing out at Osei for minor infractions by calling him “boy” and telling him to watch himself. His arc appears in the final pages of the book, when he drops the novel’s one predictable and unnecessary n-word, as he yells to Osei to get off of the jungle gym.
Chevalier’s descriptions tend to hinder her storytelling as well. The most significant example of this is in her characterization of Osei’s sister, Sisi, who has begun to follow the Black Panther party back in New York. Her empowerment is described at one point as an “angry black girl performance,” and she is subsequently described as angry so often that her character appears flat and stereotyped. Chevalier’s writing can also begin to feel heavy-handed, with six instances in which characters start to call Osei black before stopping mid-word to correct themselves. Even with this occasional interruption, the word “black” is used so often that it begins to feel artificial and excessive. In Act IV, Chevalier writes:
[Osei] did not want to confront her, to have her get in his face, talking to him, telling more lies, treating him like her boyfriend, and then like the black boy on a white playground. The black sheep, with a black mark against his name. Blackballed. Blackmailed. Blacklisted. Blackhearted. It was a black day.
So how is it that Hogarth’s cover of The Merchant of Venice was so successful, while their Othello cover fell so flat? The answer appears to be because of writers that were assigned to them. Howard Jacobson is a Jewish novelist best known for writing about the struggles of Jewish characters. Jacobson reportedly asked to cover other plays before being assigned Merchant, indicating that Hogarth thoughtfully assigned the play knowing that he would modernize it in a provocative way. Meanwhile, Tracy Chevalier is a white woman best known for The Girl with the Pearl Earring, set in the Dutch Golden Age, which bares little resemblance to the conflicts of Othello. When asked in an promotional interview for Hogarth as to what attracted her to the text, Chevalier likened Othello’s otherness to that of hers living as an expat in Great Britain.
White writers opting to write about a time in the recent past when racism was more deliberate is not uncommon. Abandoning a nuanced discussion of micro-aggressions, structural and institutional racism, and white supremacy in favor of explicit and often dated racial language often simplifies the writing process, and keeps white audiences comfortable as they read. In a similar critique of Hollywood, Kara Brown noted in Jezebel last year, “Right now, Americans are only comfortable with a certain type of black person onscreen.” Although Chevalier occasionally hints at the possibility of a more complex discussion of micro-aggressions—the principal congratulates Osei on being “articulate” before telling the class to welcome him even though he is a “less fortunate” student, despite his father being a diplomat—she ultimately shies away from it.
Alternatively, in A Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson uses her own background to add to her source material and intensify the text’s conflict. In The Winter’s Tale, King Leontes rather unexplainably believes that his friend King Polixenes is having an affair with his wife, Hermione. In A Gap of Time, Winterson—known for her autobiographical writing on LGBT issues—creates a previous affair between her Leontes and Polixenes, which, as Dean Bakopoulos points out in his New York Times review of the novel, “makes Leo’s overblown rage and irrational envy at the outset even more credible than it is in the original.” Therefore, although The Winter’s Tale isn’t usually listed with The Merchant of Venice and Othello as one of Shakespeare’s most politically relevant plays, Winterson’s unique additions make it more successful adaptation than Chevalier’s take on Othello, which idly favors a more overt racism than what is featured in her source text.
The choices of writers in many cases have led to fascinating twists on Shakespeare’s works, namely Jacobson’s parallel Shylocks in Shylock is My Name and Jeanette Winterson’s gay undertones in A Gap of Time. However, in a 2015 New York Times article detailing the Hogarth Shakespeare project, Alexandra Alter wrote that Winterson’s cover was, “a promising start to an ambitious new series from Hogarth, which has assembled an all-star roster of stylistically diverse writers to translate Shakespeare’s timeless plays into prose.” As the series has gained more traction, it is hard not to notice the word “stylistically” here. Although the writings of the Hogarth team are stylistically varied, their biographies are less so. Three of the writers are American and three are British, leaving Margaret Atwood (who is Canadian) and Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø, whose cover of Macbeth is expected next year. All eight writers are white—five women and three men—with only one under the age of 50 (Flynn is 46), and three writers in their 70s. Although each author did achieve some success within their own adaptation, imagine how rewarding the series would have been had it featured writers whose backgrounds varied more drastically from Shakespeare himself. It is disappointing when a project aims to see “the Bard’s plays retold by acclaimed, bestselling novelists and brought to life for a contemporary readership,” yet the writers selected are not ultimately representative of all that contemporary society has to offer.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Early in her novel Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor describes protagonist Hazel Motes, leader of the Church without Christ, by the silhouette he casts on the sidewalk. “Haze’s shadow,” she writes, “was now behind him and now before him.” It’s a strange way to situate a character — skulking between his shadows — but it’s not unprecedented. In The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot’s narrator refers to “Your shadow at morning striding behind you/Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you.” Coincidence? Nobody can say for certain. But in the rare case of a critic linking O’Connor and Eliot, Sally Fitzgerald (O’Connor’s close friend) wrote that “it was Eliot and his Waste Land who provided for her the first impetus to write such a book as Wise Blood.”
Harold Bloom, the literary critic who thrives on making such connections, famously argued that great writers, burdened by what he called the “anxiety of influence,” subconsciously misread established literary giants to achieve originality. But in this case, O’Connor is not misreading Eliot. She’s answering him. The Waste Land delivers a darkly poetic proposition. Every line relentlessly reiterates the theme that, in the wake of World War One, hope had been leached from life. Existence, in the poem’s assessment, culminates in a word one rueful lover repeats in The Waste Land’s second section: “Nothing . . . Nothing. . . nothing . . .nothing . . .Nothing.”
O’Connor was a Catholic whose literary ambitions hewed to an active faith. For her, nothing could come from nothing. She embraced The Waste Land’s despair but refused to accept its emptiness. In her essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” she wrote, “I have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hindrance to the writer, but I myself have found nothing further from the truth. Actually, it frees the storyteller to observe.” This belief — informed by a desire to observe from a Christian angle — compelled her to both absorb the meaningless in Eliot’sThe Waste Land while, at the same time, offering a response. Of Hazel Motes, she once wrote, “His search for a physical home mirrors his search for a spiritual one, and although he finds neither, it is the latter search which saves him from becoming a member of the wasteland and makes him worth 75,000 words.”
In both Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, O’Connor — as Harold Bloom would expect one to — evokes Eliot’s wasteland by replicating its prominent themes. She transplants the desolate urban iconography of The Waste Land’s to the small rural enclaves of the American South. O’Connor’s southern landscape is the “upsidedown half of the world,” a sad and painful sprawl of land where “each weed that grew out of the gravel looked like a live green nerve.” At times her landscape seems on the verge of exploding into flames and, in least one instance, at the end of The Violent Bear it Away, does just that. But in the midst of this desolation and conflagration she confronts Eliot’s dried-up nothing with a flood of something. Decisively, if jarringly, she proposes a vision — albeit a strange vision (Eliot once said of O’Connor, “She has certainly an uncanny talent of high order but my nerves are just not strong enough to take much of a disturbance”) — of human redemption.
Eliot delivers the ruins. O’Connor preserves them, navigates them, and then, inspired by Catholicism, discovers in them an original form of grace.
Whatever anxiety O’Connor experienced over mimicking Eliot (probably not very much), she didn’t attempt to hide it. In O’Connor’s second (and final) novel, The Violent Bear It Away, the 14-year-old Francis Marion Tarwater receives from his aging uncle, with whom he lives in a countrified wasteland, careful instructions on how to bury his large dead body when he eventually keels over in their isolated abode. After digging what the uncle insisted had to be a proper hole (“I want it ten foot”), Tarwater was then, according to the uncle’s directions, instructed to “prop me with some bricks so I won’t roll into it and don’t let the dogs nudge me over the edge before it’s finished. You better pen up the dogs.” In The Waste Land’s single reference to burial, a soldier home from war in London sees a former comrade walking across London Bridge and asks, “That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/‘Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?” And then: “Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to man/Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again.”
In both instances, in both wastelands, dogs are banished from the graveside. They will not be set loose to complete Antony’s famous order, delivered in Act III, Scene I of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, at Caesar’s funeral, to “let slip the dogs of war.” That act would miss the point in these mirrored wastelands because, as both Eliot and O’Connor suggest, whatever justice is to be attained is, alas, pointless. The body is interred. The play is over. Death is death. Dust is dust. The dogs must be locked away.
Perhaps the only prospect worse than death is, for both authors, eternal earthly life. It’s a prospect that both Eliot and O’Connor symbolize in the form of a shriveled, miniaturized body. The Waste Land opens with an epigraph that declares (in part): “Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere.” Translation: “Now I myself with my own eyes saw the Sybil of Cumae hanging in a jar.” According to myth, the Sybil of Cumae asked Apollo for eternal life but, in so doing, forgot to ask for eternal youth. Wish granted, the Sybil ages forever, shrinking to the point that she fits in a glass jar. The image is reliably referenced later in the poem as a symbol of existential hopelessness (“You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.”)
What worked for Eliot worked for O’Connor. In Wise Blood, Enoch Emery, the trickster sidekick whose friendship Haze Motes rejects, steals a mummified dwarf (displayed in a glass case) from a local museum and delivers it to Sabbath Lily Hawks, the nymph lover of Motes, in a paper sac. Enoch wants Motes, despite his bad attitude, to have the desiccated and shrunken mummy as a “new jesus” symbol for his Church Without Christ. Earlier in the novel, when Enoch first sees the mummy, he approaches it cautiously, after reading a sign on the wall that tells him “he was once as tall as you or me.” As with Eliot’s Sybil, the mummy has diminished in size over time. The scene ends when a mother walks into the museum with two boys, both of who approach the glass and peer at the blackened figure.
O’Connor, again in Wise Blood, practically completes Eliot’s scene for him. In Eliot’s epigraph (which inexplicably switches to Greek), two boys approach the Sybil in the jar (some think this was the inspiration for Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar), just as the boys do in O’Connor’s museum. They ask her, “What do you want?” and the Sybil replies, in true Eliot fashion, “I want to die.” O’Connor grants the Sybil her wish when, after Sabbath showed Motes the mummified new Jesus, he “snatched the shriveled body and threw it against the wall.” Upon impact, “the head popped and the trash inside sprayed in a little cloud of dust.”
Few words are more evocative of The Waste Land than that carefully considered word: dust (a mote of dust). If there is a line that best captures the depth of the poem’s existential terror it comes when the narrator promises, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” — or, as O’Connor suggests, maybe in the shattered head of a purloined dwarf.
O’Connor’s novels also follow Eliot’s lead on the theme of blindness. The inability to see, partially or completely, pervades The Waste Land. The “hyacinth girl,” from section one, describes a moment of potential romantic happiness when the girl notes of her possible lover, “we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,/Your arms full and your hair wet.” It’s one of the poem’s only moments of hope. But it’s immediately dashed when the hyacinth girl recalls how, quite suddenly, “I could not speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither/Living nor dead, and I knew nothing.” Later in the same section, the prophetess “Madame Sosostris,” consults her “wicked pack of cards” — is there any hope in there? — and finds a Phoenician sailor with “pearls that were his eyes” as well as a “one-eyed merchant.” The merchant on the tarot card carries something possibly significant on his back, but it turns out to be something for which Madame Sosotris must confess, “I am forbidden to see.” Some prophetess — she’s without foresight.
Sight, or lack thereof, is even more central to inner mechanics of Wise Blood. Hazel Motes, who can see normally when we meet him, eventually blinds himself in an act of spiritual rage. Motes’s antagonist, the preacher Asa Hawks, also sees normally, but fakes blindness as a ruse to foster donations. When naming her characters, O’Connor must have had in mind “seeing like a hawk” and the biblical “why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” (And maybe even King Lear.) Either way, the theme of compromised sight is even in peripheral scenes. When Motes and Sabbath encounter a caged black bear at Tennessee gas station (don’t laugh, I once saw a caged ostrich an east-Texas gas station), we learn that “the bear had only one eye.” Enoch Emery’s landlady was “almost totally blind but moved about by an acute sense of smell.” Sabbath Lily says to her father about Haze, “I like his eyes. They don’t seem to see what he’s looking at, but they keep on looking.”
The similarities continue in other areas as well. They appear when Tarwater is raped in The Violent Bear it Away, and in Tarwater’s sadistic baptism (which results in drowning the feeble initiate). But, in the end, O’Connor isn’t content with simply mimicking Eliot’s hellscape of despair. Instead, she yanks us in the opposite direction — from a ghastly landscape to a strange paradise of redemption. And she does so in a way that, indeed, made her a true original — at once devout, humorous, and spiritual. It is in that last description of Motes’s eyes — “but they keep on looking” — that O’Connor’s faith intervenes, her Catholicism asks to be honored, and she lays an eccentric basis for hope.
Eliot ends his poem with a spiritual assessment of a wasted land that’s so devoid of life (specifically water) that it even dries out any prospect of Christ’s resurrection and, by extension, the rest of humanity. “After the agony in stony places/The shouting and the crying/Prison and palace and reverberation/Of thunder of spring over distant mountains/He who was living is now dead/We who are living are now dying.” To be sure, Motes doesn’t escape death. He dies in the back seat of a cop car. But before his death, after his blindness, as his spiritual vision intensifies towards something, he takes to staging his own crucifixion (wrapping himself in barbed wire and filling his shoes with rocks), and attempts his own conversion experience through a painful form of redemption.
The book ends with Motes’s corpse propped in a chair at the home of his landlady. Her name — evoking the water that never quenched The Waste Land — is Mrs. Flood, and her final observation — that she thinks (with her eyes shut) she sees “a pin point of light” in his dead eye sockets — is the twinkle of hope that you can search for throughout The Waste Land and never find. It is O’Connor’s way of answering, and escaping, The Waste Land. It is her way of resurrecting Motes, and ensuring that his quest for meaning never loses significance.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
I recently had the privilege of participating in a panel at the Center for Fiction. The topic was “Modern Family,” and the moderator posed the question: “What literature influenced you as a young person?” My fellow panelists—the amazing Alden Jones, Min Jin Lee, and Tanwi Nandini Islam—named beloved, important books and authors. My answer—which I think came as a surprise to most—was that I hardly read as a child and youth.
My parents are immigrants—English is not their first language—and neither are they readers or cultural mavens. We did not have many books in the house, and I was not read to as a child. I do recall a Disney picture book involving a scroogey Donald Duck character that I liked to read over and over—something about soup made from a button. Once I started school, there were of course books assigned, and I read them obediently if not enthusiastically. Mine was a somewhat typical suburban childhood: I watched a lot of TV and ate a lot of Doritos.
The first book I read out of inner compulsion, as opposed to externally-imposed obligation, was Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This was my junior year of college—relatively late for someone who now writes and reads “professionally.” Reading Dillard was (and continues to be, in fact) a truly ecstatic experience—I must have reread every single page as I went along, pausing to stare into space or jot things down in my journal or just shake my head in awe—and it took me quite a long time to finish even as I couldn’t put it down (by the end, incidentally, I had decided I had to be a writer; or die trying). Where had this kind of reading been all my life? I realized for the first time that there is reading, and there is reading. The kind of reading that counts, that really matters, is what I’d call whole-soul reading. In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James writes about “mystical susceptibility,” the experience of books and language as “irrational doorways… through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, [steals] into our hearts and [thrills] them.” I’m so grateful to have had that intense conversion moment—because I have brought that expectation and susceptibility with me to every book I’ve picked up since then.
It’s true that I have often felt at a disadvantage for embarking on my reading life so late. I wrote about this a few years ago—the project of frantically “catching up” with my peers once I set myself on the path of literary life. But mostly that underdog status has been a positive motivation. I am an omnivorous reader and have not lost that addiction to mystical thrill—in James’s words, “states of insight and depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect… illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain”—when reading.
In 2016, thanks to a semester sabbatical, I read more than usual. Canonical books I read for the first time—”catchup” reading I’ll call it still—captivated me utterly and reminded me that, truly, there is never a “too late” (in fact, there may be a “too early”) when it comes to the reading life.
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Raymond Chandler said it best: “Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley … He wrote for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there…He had style, but his audiences didn’t know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinement.” I was struck especially by the female characters Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Effie Perine: just when you thought you were going to have to excuse this old-fashioned author’s concessions to gender stereotypes, both the characters and the plot (by which I mean Hammett, of course) would subvert that concern. Incidentally, I also read The Big Sleep but didn’t take to it as much as Hammett. I’ve just started reading The Glass Key (on Chandler’s recommendation) and may be starting on a Hammett binge.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Of course this is a book I felt like I’d read because I know so much about it. At some point I may have half-watched on an airplane the film that stars Winona Ryder. I was sure I’d identify with Jo—if you’re reading the book at all, you’re Jo!— but was surprised (and not a little dismayed) to see a lot of myself in Amy. It was also interesting to recognize that the novel is as much about money as it is about being female—a reminder of the inextricability of economics and gender.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence. You know, it’s all relative I suppose, but given our enlightened times, wherein heterosexual relationships are more holistic and less physically driven, I found the sex here—four score and a decade later—still pretty racy. Perhaps our advantage as modern readers is that none of it is shocking, and so the novel’s themes—social class, integrity, the relationship between love and lust, human wholeness—have room to come forward.
King Lear, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare. I wasn’t actually sure if I’d read King Lear previously; again, I knew the story so well, in an ambient, abstract way. But once I started actually engaging the language, I knew that even if I’d “read” it, I definitely hadn’t read it. Here I offer another mode of reading, which is via audio: because Shakespeare is intended to be performed, an audio reading experience, sans visuals, is actually a spectacular way to immerse in Shakespeare’s dramatic and linguistic brilliance. Yes, I would sometimes need to rewind and relisten to confirm who was speaking, but all the better. I continued on with audio readings of Othello and The Winter’s Tale (irrational male jealousy is a theme I hadn’t ever before associated with Shakespeare, hmmm) and am ready, I think, for the historical-political plays—Henry IV is currently on deck.
Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. At a different time in my life, I might have read the former as a categorical rejection/denouncement of Christianity. But I was struck by Baldwin’s stunning feats of compassion—for Gabriel, the character based on his strictly religious, and hypocritical, father, especially: “Then, he began to cry, not making a sound, sitting at the table, and with his whole body shaking…finally he put his head on the table, overturning the coffee cup, and wept aloud. Then it seemed that there was weeping everywhere, waters of anguish riding the world—” (Also, we do well not to divorce Baldwin from religion, lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater with regard to our best spiritual writers.) Giovanni’s Room as a kind of personal and artistic experiment—Baldwin writing about love, sex, desire, identity, money, integrity, and family without writing explicitly about blackness—inspires me and, especially in this moment of controversy over cross-racial writing, stirs so many questions. I’m still asking them.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Another oldie that struck me as relevant and very now. Women still struggle to be “selfish,” which is to say centered around one’s creative and sensual imperatives. Chopin’s/Edna’s attraction to heterogeneous culture—cultures of color, of mixedness, of social fluidity and possibility—is arguably a little icky, yet not so removed from what we today call “gentrification”: affluent whites from homogeneous backgrounds wanting to increase their quality of life by stirring up their privilege with urban history, cultures that emerge from struggle, intersectional experience (I live in West Harlem, can you tell?). Chopin’s descriptions of Edna’s nascent self-centering resonated with me over and again: “There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested…Even as a child she had lived her own small life within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life – that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.”
Chopin provides a definition of mystical experience—those moments when the inward life questions—that James himself may have appreciated. The Awakening is an adult coming-of-age story in its pursuit of integration—collapsing the outward and inward existences. I love the notion of every book we read—whole-soul read—being a part of this process: a quiet, private evolution, toward a more complete self, and in a world we must all work to make more hospitable to such evolution than was Edna Pontellier’s.
Image credit: Alexandre Duret-Lutz.
“Justice? — You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.” I went around quoting the opening line of William Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own before I’d ever read all those that followed. As a homeless outreach worker in Manhattan, I’d have occasion to transport people to shelters and in a 10-minute car ride would often get an earful of their lives and their problems. One particularly gruff man raged about the legal system and all the mess it had made of his life. I didn’t know if he would whack me or the driver in his fulminations, so I threw out the line and that stopped him. He laughed and settled, saying, “Whoever wrote that knew what the fuck I’m talking about.”
Last summer, I suggested to my wife, a criminal defense attorney in the Bronx, that we read the book concurrently. We’d both represented and tried to help the most helpless in our society, but we saw the legal system in different ways, though we could both admit it was, of course, skewed toward the rich. She saw her job as maneuvering around district attorneys, judges, and laws that often support the system of mass incarceration in this country. The homeless essentially have no rights, so the legal system is often more of a hindrance for them. I brought more skepticism.
The novel is a satire of the legal system, full of frivolous lawsuits, including Szyrk v. Village of Tatamount et al. In the lawsuit, the artist of a huge outdoor public sculpture (Cyclone Seven) sues a small city after a seven-year-old’s dog, Spot, becomes entrapped, leading to rescue operations that damage the work. Then there are protagonist Oscar Crease’s two lawsuits: the smaller suit, ostensibly against himself, springs from trying to hotwire his Japanese car (a Sosumi made by Isuyu), and having it run him over. The main action is against the film company that produced a Civil War epic, The Blood in the Red, White, and Blue, because Oscar finds it resembles an unproduced and unpublished play, Once at Antietam, he wrote some 17 years before. Oscar had once submitted his manuscript to the film’s then Broadway-leaning producer, though he can’t locate the rejection slip.
Reading together, my wife and I found ourselves taking the book and its dips — from narrative, to legal decision, to further dramatic scenes, to a deposition, to play excerpts, to legal opinions, to implosions of hilarious dialogue — in a certain stride. In the news that summer was a despicable lawsuit taken as seriously as Oscar’s: Manhattanite Jennifer Connell sued her eight-year-old nephew for jumping into her arms because she broke her wrist in the subsequent fall — on his birthday. It went to a jury but was dismissed. The most recent iteration of this obtuse use of legalese was probably New England Patriots fans suing the NFL over the team losing draft picks in the Deflategate debacle. Thankfully, a judge dismissed that, too. “Why do you think people sue?” I asked my wife. “Because we have been told by society that this is how we solve problems, plus most everyone else wants money,” she answered, putting her in mind of the old commercial from Saturday Night Live where a person in the street asks a law firm advertising their cutthroat tactics, “I’d love to sue somebody, but don’t I need a reason?”
Yet in the April issue of Harper’s, Ralph Nader argues that lawsuits, certainly commonsense ones, are good for America. Deregulation reigns as more and more corporations and politicians have become bedfellows, repealing laws protecting “the rights of injured people to recover adequate compensation for harm inflicted.” Nader adds that “multi-million dollar advertising campaigns, heavily funded by the insurance industry, made wild accusations about outlandish jury awards assessed against innocent companies, even clergy and obstetricians, in order to raise the public temper.”
Gaddis’s book could be used as propaganda by this corporate/political side, but it would also indict them as having a pioneering spirit of greed, power, and profit. And though Oscar eventually wins, the money awarded is meager because, as Nader points out, multi-million dollar corporate law films are a beast that can rarely lose. When lawyers start suing other lawyers, loopholes are everywhere.
The 586-page book (the last published in Gaddis’s lifetime) is set in New York City and Long Island, though it takes place mainly in Oscar’s house in the Hamptons. Like all his novels excepting The Recognitions, Frolic is full a neurotic vernacular of Americana that purls and perfectly personifies the sue-happy, media-soaked years during which Gaddis constructed it, 1986 to 1993 — years of growing cable TV and its obsession with scandal, culminating in the Clintons and one of the first pitiful tabloid “stories” worthy of the national news: John Wayne and Lorena Bobbitt. In a scene from the middle of the book, there is a miniature of the type of satire Gaddis often engages in — that of the crashing together of people uncomfortable with other people. Christina’s (Oscar’s sister) rich friend Trisch comes to visit the Crease house with her dog, Pookie, to Oscar’s chagrin. When Pookie has an accident, Oscar characteristically finds a sinister motive: “Little! It was not an accident Christina, I saw him, he did it deliberately…”
Oscar’s high-pitched hysteria typifies how unserious and childish he is in many ways, complicating his “creative” character with his tendency to blame others for his mistakes (making a maid who can’t speak or read English look for the rejection slip; continuing to watch TV after his girlfriend asks him to examine a lump in her breast). There is a great laziness to this “artist,” now a history professor at a community college where the value of his “work” constantly gets called into question. The question we kept coming back to while reading was: Did Oscar seriously believe the studio plagiarized his play, or was he after a handout? His impetus is called into question when he staggeringly chides the producers for stealing certain parts, while being disappointed they did not use others. Perhaps our question is best answered when, after Oscar temporarily wins and is granted an injunction, the studio shows the film on television to make money and the main characters watch it together. At first Oscar complains about its crude opening, but the battle (the main thrust of the film) mesmerizes him, and he becomes as bloodthirsty as the producers who insist on gory battle scenes. He celebrates how they pictorially duplicated the century-old skirmish, “…unbelievable, it’s unbelievable look at that! Half the regiment wiped out at thirty feet…”
I had been turning into a Gaddis freak since interviewing William H. Gass, the author and friend of Gaddis’s, with whom he was often confused in literary circles. I read my wife snippets of The Recognitions and JR in order to bring her into the fold. A Frolic of His Own is a book that has become a lost classic. Usually an author becomes synonymous with one or two of her titles, while the titans are allowed three to five. It hasn’t taken people so long in years to come around to Gaddis. It started happening in his lifetime, but (despite winning the National Book Award) there has been no new edition of Frolic since the paperback in 1995, and Brooklyn’s main library at Grand Army Plaza doesn’t include it in the stacks.
There’s not a chapter or page break in the book, which also might go towards explaining its obscurity compared to the gobs of white space and other breaks de rigueur in many current novels. Gaddis, since 1975’s JR, is one long gush where everything happens on top of something else — where everything interrupts, including his favorite stage prop, the telephone. The play in Frolic was as much a part of Oscar’s past as Gaddis’s, since he wrote it in the late-’50s after The Recognitions came out, though it was soon abandoned. In his own brooding intensity, he found the right profile to insert himself and exorcise his ghost self — the failed artist who takes to a Faust-like selling of his soul to earn a living while shirking his morally responsible art, something Gaddis never succumbed to but observed all around him.
Gaddis took the book’s title from The Handbook of the Law of Torts, which he found during his voluminous research on the legal system, including obtaining the then-84 volumes of American Jurisprudence (the encyclopedia of U.S. law) while corresponding with lawyers and clerks about the validity of his fictionalized judicial opinions and one long deposition. During that 50-page exchange (in legal transcript form and font), the studio’s lawyer attacks Oscar’s, badgering them just because they made a Civil War movie that shares a few ideas with his play (another lawyer says, “You can’t copyright the Civil War”) and connecting William Shakespeare’s practice of taking his material from familiar sources to Oscar’s own ways of borrowing:
Q In other words…it was all just there for the taking, wasn’t it?…Whether you were Shakespeare or Joe Blow, you could turn any of it into a play if you wanted to, couldn’t you?
A Well not the, if Joe Blow could write a play?
Q Do you mean it would depend on the execution of the idea?
A Well, yes. Yes of course.
Q Not the idea, but the way it was expressed by the playwright? Isn’t that what makes Shakespeare’s King Lear tower above Joe Blow’s King Lear?
Gaddis’s propulsive style of writing blends the chilling admonitions of the great Russian novelists and T.S. Eliot with the evaporating social order seen in the late-20th-century America. He took the detritus of our age (TV and radio commercials, print ads, etc.), churned it about in his outraged mind, and delivered an art as timeless as the ancients, but obeying the oft-quoted dictum: Good artists copy, great artists steal. Yet Gaddis came to the point where he had to steal from himself, as the excerpts of Oscar Crease’s play, Once at Antietam, are verbatim bits of Gaddis’s unproduced play (same title), written around 1960. Perhaps if Oscar had stolen from Shakespeare, his play might have been produced all those years back.
After 40-some years in this world and being all too cognizant of the hype-driven galleons, it’s fully apparent to me that the novel comments on our culture’s incredible jealousy at other people getting what we think they don’t deserve, a truism since Alexis de Tocqueville. Whether it is entitlement in all forms, or simply the result of sticking our nose into other’s people’s business and taking offense where there is none, these very hypocritical acts are the basis for many laughable lawsuits, including Oscar’s pursuit of a handout. Is this how Americans think?
We don’t necessarily need a lawyer to intimidate someone. Lionel Trilling writes, in “The Meaning of the Literary Idea,” “We are…the people of ideology.” A furor and gusto similar to the Salem Witch Trials, but without the physicality, is put to use by viral Internet campaigns to bully and shame people — the hysteria of doctrinal vindictiveness all too easily a click away from actually ruining someone’s life. But this consequence gives few people pause before sallying a reactionary social media “fuck you.”
This free play of opposites is played up in Gaddis’s epigraph, care of Henry David Thoreau, the epitome of American individualism, who spoke to Ralph Waldo Emerson thus: “What you seek in vain for, half your life, one day you come full upon, all the family at dinner. You seek it like a dream, and as soon as you find it you become its prey.” Oscar seeks fame and fortune, but he gets a token payment, and all his other ridiculous lawsuits garner him nothing.
The book speaks to our moment, not only in terms of authorship, entitlement, and an oligarchy created by the corporate-political police state, but also because we are still the same people of ideology. However, now that we are armed with the technology to more easily harass and destroy each other, even Gaddis couldn’t anticipate how we easily we would cede our humanity for fame and fortune at other people’s expense.
I’ve been miserably, neurotically obsessed with becoming well-read for so long now that I sometimes hope I’ll get over my obsession simply out of boredom. Bookstores make me panic; they’re just collections of shiny reminders of everything I have not and will likely never read. Friends’ bookshelves, though they deviously keep secret which volumes have actually been finished, or for that matter opened, can ruin an otherwise fun party, leading me to wonder why I’m wasting my time engaged in the kind of idle chatter lamented by Heidegger, so I’ve heard, in the book I’m staring at, rather than spending that very hour pursuing the goal of finally reading enough so that I can stop flagellating myself and maybe go out and enjoy myself at parties. A conversation with a colleague about the virtues of a handful of lesser-known works by a semi-obscure author, whom my colleague happened to re-read recently can precipitate a despair that lasts for days, during which I will try again vainly to increase my page per hour count, a numerical value that I will abstain from revealing here, because it’s just too depressing. All of which is to say that Alan Jacobs’s book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction is designed for me, for people who are as interested in “having read” books as they are in reading books; it is designed in fact to cure my illness. Unfortunately, it does not seem to have succeeded.
Jacobs positions himself as the heir to cultural authorities like Mortimer Adler, Charles van Doren, and Harold Bloom, who have sought to teach regular Americans how to appreciate literature, but he believes that his predecessors present reading as too much of a duty. Reading literature, Jacobs argues, ought to be a profoundly pleasurable activity, one we engage in primarily for the sake of enjoyment, and not out of obligation. We’d be happier, better readers if we stopped obsessing about what we’ve read, how much we’ve read, and what we haven’t read. We should let whim, rather than guilt or shame, propel our reading choices. Though he is a literature professor at Wheaton College, Jacobs acknowledges that universities are largely to blame for encouraging individuals to treat reading as a chore, valuable only insofar as it serves a higher purpose. But, as Jacobs contends in one of the book’s most honest moments, reading is not a virtuous activity, and it does not strengthen or elevate our character. Only by freeing ourselves from this misconception can we rediscover the private, at times anti-social joys of reading.
There is of course another threat to the pleasures of reading, registered by the second half of the book’s title: the onslaught of distractions, the majority digital, that seem to consume more and more of our leisure hours. Jacobs is not categorically opposed to gadgets; he credits his Kindle with reviving his own passion for books. But he recognizes that they do pose a danger. The problem, in fact, with relinquishing the sense of obligation associated with reading literature is that we may simply end up spending our free time watching Youtube clips of celebrity outbursts or liking our friends’ bland witticisms and culinary experiences on Facebook. Thus Jacobs is forced to argue that reading literature is more satisfying than these other pursuits and habits. He even distinguishes between “whim,” the “thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both” and “Whim,” a kind of intuition based on “self-knowledge” that allows us to satisfy our most authentic cravings.
“Whim” with a capital “w” requires self-cultivation and introspection, and thus Jacobs manages to smuggle back into the reading experience almost all of the aspirations and neuroses that his book promises to banish. Ironically enough, The Pleasures of Reading tends to make one all the more anxious about one’s own reading habits. How else are people like me supposed to respond to a book that painstakingly considers the question of whether to read quickly or slowly (slowly, says Jacobs), confronts the temptations of making lists of important as yet unread texts (don’t give in, he warns), and compulsively alludes to various canonical and non-canonical works (including Gibbon’s intimidating three-volume tome The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). By his own admission, Jacobs is a recovering dutiful reader, one still slightly ashamed to have finished a disappointing second in a grade school speed reading competition, and who remembers the exact page he reached in William Gaddis’s The Recognitions before giving up. The latter moment of clarity was liberating, he claims, but even now he can’t help but dwell upon his former compulsions.
While it labors to disentangle pleasure reading from dutiful reading , Jacobs’s book actually serves as a reminder of the inseparability of the two. Part of the enjoyment of reading a serious book or going, say, for a vigorous run is the belief that what you’re doing is difficult but good for you—that it offers proof of your character, even while it helps to build that character. Your superego, after all, is really just your id redirected, as a certain prolific Viennese author of many important works that you ought to have read by now, insisted. Jacobs observes, “the American reading public, or a significant chunk of it anyway, can’t take its readerly pleasure straight but has to cut it with a sizable splash of duty”—and though pleasure is booze and duty water in this metaphor, anyone who has enjoyed a good mixed drink knows that the ingredients need in fact to mix, to become indistinguishably combined in one smooth solution to be truly satisfying.
Of course some people don’t need to mix their drinks; these people, whom Jacobs refers to as his “tribe,” can handle their pleasure straight, and they are clearly, in his view, the elect. Paradoxically, in reserving his praise for this category of readers, those who read merely for pleasure and not in order to prove anything about themselves, Jacobs is, like any highbrow arbiter of taste, appealing to people’s aspirations. The cultural elite, after all, has always consisted of those whose good taste appeared spontaneous, effortless, inborn. Wouldn’t many savvy but ambitious middlebrow readers like to say and like to believe that they read solely for pleasure, that they find Shakespeare enjoyable simply because they are sensitive and intuitive enough to appreciate his wordplay, and not because they know they are supposed to appreciate it? I’ve been struggling for years to become someone who reads solely for pleasure—at least since college when certain old-fashioned literature professors suggested that we ought to be experiencing the highest, most refined satisfactions in doing the assigned reading. This was a kind of instruction far more daunting than anything devised by the most merciless of high school taskmasters. These people were putting my very soul to the test. And what if I failed? What if I didn’t enjoy King Lear? What did that mean about me? Wouldn’t I have no choice but to find a way to make myself enjoy it?
Jacobs would suggest that he is not celebrating an approach to literature specific to the cultural elite. In fact, he praises the British working class for their reputed auto-didacticism. Moreover, he is not saying that you need to enjoy King Lear. He is simply advising people to read what they enjoy—and abundant references to fantasy and science fiction novels suggest that his tastes are fairly democratic. But The Pleasures of Reading also features numerous casual allusions to serious, difficult authors ranging from Virginia Woolf to Leo Tolstoy to David Foster Wallace, and thus demonstrates a kind of cultural mastery that allows Jacobs to get away with his somewhat less canonical attachments. Or to put it more strongly, his references to genre fiction actually serve as proof of his unimpeachable status as a cultural authority—one who is so well-read that he has the luxury to indulge his lowbrow desires, and so assured of his position that he is not afraid to publicize these desires. Whether intentionally or not, Jacobs presents himself as a kind of ideal reader, as a model that he believes others ought to strive to imitate.
As I was reading The Pleasures of Reading, I began to take pleasure in noticing the various rhetorical tricks Jacobs performs in order to avoid giving the impression that he is imposing duties onto his reader. “If you want to understand Tolkien better you might want to start by reading Beowulf, and some of the Eddas and sagas of medieval Iceland, and then perhaps Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; and it would even be worthwhile to get to know the nineteenth-century medievalism that Tolkien despised and against which he reacted, or thought he reacted. Listening to the music of Wagner would help also.” Quite an assignment! But Jacobs is of course hesitant to tell us what we ought to do: we “might want” to peruse the items on this list, and though of course he doesn’t intend to tax us unduly, “perhaps” we could read Sir Gawain (not presumably in the fairly unreadable middle English), and if we’re still enjoying ourselves, it would “even be worthwhile” to study a relatively obscure movement from the nineteenth century.
I’m suggesting here that Jacobs’s advice, like that of many aesthetes, turns the reader’s capacity for pleasure into just another test of his cultural status—and the effect of this kind of sly pressure is to make it more difficult to distinguish what we enjoy from what we think we ought to enjoy. It’s possible of course that all of this is simply my own neuroticism talking. Jacobs doesn’t seem to think that reading needs to be so fraught with complications. Though he addresses his former doubts and obsessions, his attitude now seems to be remarkably calm, relaxed, and confident—which he demonstrates most conspicuously by writing in a graceful, readable style free of excessive qualifications or convoluted syntax designed of course to make reading his own book a pleasurable experience.
In discussing a twelfth-century abbot’s advice on how to read, Jacobs remarks, “Let me risk one more Latin word here: for Hugh this meditation, especially on sacred texts, could best be achieved by ruminatio, a word which may call to mind something rather more highfalutin’ than Hugh intended. For us to ‘ruminate’ is to engage in a pretty dignified, or dignified-sounding, act, but Hugh was thinking of cows and goats and sheep, ruminant animals, those who chew the cud.” Yes, with this esoteric terminology, his text may suddenly sound just a bit mandarin, but he’s not terribly worried, and actually what he’s talking about is quite down-to-earth. And yet this casual, unflappable tone conceals hidden labor, hidden angst: Can I get away with a Latin term? Only if I self-consciously acknowledge the danger I am courting while also humbly requesting the reader’s indulgence: “let me risk” does the trick. But in case this is not enough, I’ll immediately adopt a populist vernacular, the kind of language ordinary people use when they talk about egg-headed intellectuals: thus “highfalutin.” Of course nobody by this point is going to think of me as common folk, and so am I going to end up sounding inauthentic? No: they’ll read this moment as tongue-and-cheek. But is it dangerous to use irony here? Won’t that just reinforce the image of me as an elitist, out-of-touch intellectual? Not at all: it just shows I can laugh at myself, and so that even as I make fun of my inability to sound folksy I’ll actually come across like more of a regular guy who isn’t really trying to place himself above his readers.
In imagining the process by which Jacobs has arrived at these sentences, I am not trying to be mean-spirited; I am simply trying to suggest that a fair amount of work and struggle underlies his seemingly easy-going enthusiasm for literature. Nor am I arguing that reading is not in fact pleasurable, or that pleasure is not one of the most compelling motives for turning to books. I am simply arguing that the very sense of duty that Jacobs claims he wants to exorcise is a key ingredient in that pleasure. And it is a key ingredient especially for the majority of American readers who are not as yet a part of Jacobs’s serenely hedonistic tribe, who are insecure about their cultural status and class position, and who are operating under the late-day shadow of the Protestant Ethic. That feeling of almost existential satisfaction that comes from finishing a long difficult book, the sense that one has thereby inched upward toward that unlikely pinnacle of moral virtue, aesthetic sensitivity, and social status, accompanied by the anxious itch to keep reading more, keep climbing—this whole masochistic, complexly satisfying struggle, however illusory its object, is something many of us simply wouldn’t do without. Reading features other pleasures of course, but a lot of people will continue to need a nudge, a dose of guilt, in order to experience them. Especially given the multitude of other diversions, the kind that we are able to enjoy far more effortlessly than books, but which tend to make us feel lethargic, irritable, and aimless, we need some stern professorial curmudgeons—including Jacobs—to tell us, as we lurch toward our laptops and or our iphones, snacking some more, though we’re already full: you know, you probably ought to be reading a book right now.
I’m guessing that most readers these days know A. C. Bradley secondhand, through the excerpts and quotes found in the study materials for the Arden series and the other popular editions of Shakespeare’s plays. This is a shame, because Bradley is a better critic in full than he is in bits and pieces, and Shakespearean Tragedy continues to be an exciting book for anyone interested in literature.
Bradley’s specialty is the passionate discussion of literary characters in vivid, consuming detail. He feels that exploring the mind and actions of Hamlet or Iago is worth every last bit of effort we can give it. He has a point—one that applies to the work of many modern writers as much as it does to Shakespeare. It would be fascinating, for instance, to see the Bradley touch brought to bear on books like Underworld or Infinite Jest.
In the history of literary criticism, Bradley is a worthy successor to Johnson and Coleridge, two of the earlier writers whose names and opinions spring up repeatedly in Shakespearean Tragedy. Like his predecessors, Bradley still instructs and amuses long after most of the general literary theories of his time have fallen away.
The first edition of Shakespearean Tragedy came out in 1904, and is based on work Bradley prepared for teaching at Oxford, Liverpool and Glasgow. The volume takes the form of a set of imaginary lectures, largely a series of detailed examinations of the most important characters from Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear.
Bradley’s learning is formidable. He has an easy acquaintance with the imposing German tradition of Shakespeare scholarship, along with an elegant, lightly-worn knowledge of the many influences Shakespeare drew upon for his writing.
At heart, though, Bradley’s method is personal. He says what he thinks of Shakespeare’s characters, and why he feels they matter to our understanding of life. Obviously, this approach exposes him to ridicule. His only real shield against failure is his own insight into people, based on his inevitably dated and incomplete notions of human nature. In the end, he can’t begin to tell us more about Hamlet or about the world than Shakespeare tells us himself. Bradley knows this, and his modesty is appealing. He assumes that good literature always has more to give us than even the best critics can express in topic sentences and abstractions. And it’s precisely Bradley’s humility—his willingness to embrace his ultimate defeat—that allows him to polish and display certain facets of Shakespeare we aren’t likely to have seen so sharply on our own.
The Hamlet lectures are the standouts here. Bradley highlights Hamlet’s disastrous failure, which leads not only to his death but to the deaths of many others, including his mother and the young woman he has loved—a domino fall of wasted lives that goes far beyond the intended murder of Claudius.
Mentally and emotionally, Hamlet is both overwhelming and exasperating. His mind whirls with all the clashing thoughts and passions that come out in the abrupt swerves of his thrilling verbal agility. Whatever the motives for his delays and decisions, we never doubt his intelligence or the complexity of his feelings. He has always been one of Shakespeare’s most popular characters, even though I suspect most of us would rather see him from the safety of the audience than change places with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for some of those abusive conversations at Elsinore.
Bradley confronts us with one of the play’s many mysteries: Why does Shakespeare show us this smart, resourceful, startlingly changeable young man destroying himself and everyone around him? Elizabethan tragedy is a long way from our modern appetite for uplifting stories about sympathetic people overcoming adversity. In Hamlet, nobody overcomes adversity—everyone is crushed by it. Yet Hamlet remains an exhilarating play, and Hamlet an exhilarating character. He isn’t likeable in any narrow sense, but his flaws are electric, a high-voltage display of humanity at its most disorienting.
For Bradley, Hamlet’s key mistake is his failure to kill Claudius while the king is praying. At this point, Hamlet has seen Claudius’s reaction to the play-within-the-play and has confirmed that Claudius is the murderer of Hamlet’s father. With loving attention to counterarguments and conflicting evidence, Bradley sets forth the different possible reasons for Hamlet’s hesitation, from his stated refusal to kill someone in the middle of a prayer to the less conscious repulsion that Hamlet now feels for all human action. “His whole mind is poisoned,” Bradley says. In Bradley’s view, Hamlet is serious about his stated reasons, yet he also follows emotional, philosophical and mystical impulses that he barely comprehends.
It’s characteristic of Bradley that he chooses less to limit the possible interpretations here than to open them up and allow a wide and sometimes contradictory range of options. Many modern critics are so polemical that they sound like lawyers defending a consortium of tobacco companies. Bradley, in contrast, takes an inclusive approach that seems nicely suited to fiction in general. Fiction writers have the advantage of not needing to settle on a single explicit thesis. Instead, they can grow as many vines and branches of motive and implication as a story allows. Few authors are better at this than Shakespeare: it seems to have been a natural part of the way he thought about life. This is one reason his poetry tends to be so suggestive, filled with images that unfold in many different directions at once.
At any rate, Hamlet’s refusal to kill the praying Claudius is, Bradley claims, the turning point of the play:
So far, Hamlet’s delay, though it is endangering his freedom and his life, has done no irreparable harm; but his failure here is the cause of all the disasters that follow. In sparing the King, he sacrifices Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Laertes, the Queen and himself.
Bradley feels that, from this scene on, Hamlet’s melancholy combines with the circumstances around him to bring about the story’s increasingly out-of-control destruction—starting, of course, with the reckless murder of Polonius. Have you ever wished that, just once, the gun-toting hero of an action movie would accidentally shoot the wrong person during a car chase and spend the rest of the film facing the consequences of his mistake? Well, that’s a bit what Shakespeare does with Hamlet’s killing of Polonius, which leads to Ophelia’s suicide, the executions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the quadruple slaughter of the swordfight scene.
Bradley believes that all this devastation throws into high relief the waste of Hamlet’s special alertness to the world and its mysteries. “Hamlet most brings home to us at once the sense of the soul’s infinity, and the sense of doom which not only circumscribes that infinity but appears to be its offspring,” Bradley writes. Hamlet is, in Jamesian terms, an unusually vital vessel of experience, and the waste of his life is a more catastrophic version of the waste of all our lives, all our potentials:
We seem to have before us a type of the mystery of the whole world, the tragic fact which extends far beyond the limits of tragedy. Everywhere…we see power, intelligence, life and glory, which astound us and seem to call for our worship. And everywhere we see them perishing, devouring one another and destroying themselves, often with dreadful pain, as though they came into being for no other end. Tragedy is the typical form of this mystery…and it makes us realize so vividly the worth of that which is wasted that we cannot possibly seek comfort in the reflection that all is vanity.
A passage like this is obviously overreaching, but it’s overreaching in a way that feels entirely appropriate to Hamlet. Bradley risks bombast in criticism of this sort, but so does Shakespeare in most of his best plays, and critics need to throw off their restraint sometimes and write as freely as Bradley has written here. We can quarrel with his language, we can disagree with some of his assumptions, but this passage has more than enough insight in it to excuse its flaws.
Bradley loves guiding us through the tragedies scene by scene, giving us his views on the characters’ words and acts. Every page hums with energy: Bradley has an expert sense of pace, and carries us along from one brisk comment to the next.
He has much to say on Othello, all of it interesting. Although most of the criticism is delightfully specific, Bradley also does what Shakespeare surely wanted us to do, and draws from our encounters with Iago a fuller attention to certain forms of cruelty:
To ‘plume up the will’, to heighten the sense of power or superiority—this seems to be the unconscious motive of many acts of cruelty which evidently do not spring chiefly from ill-will, and which therefore puzzle and sometimes horrify us most. It is often this that makes a man bully the wife or children of whom he is fond. The boy who torments another boy, as we say, ‘for no reason’, or who without any hatred for frogs tortures a frog, is pleased with his victim’s pain, not from any disinterested love of evil or pleasure in pain, but mainly because this pain is the unmistakable proof of his own power over his victim. So it is with Iago. His thwarted sense of superiority wants satisfaction.
Later, in his lectures on Macbeth, he teases out the title character’s thread of dark inner poetry:
Macbeth’s better nature—to put the matter for clearness’ sake too broadly—instead of speaking to him in the overt language of moral ideas, commands, and prohibitions, incorporates itself in images which alarm and horrify. His imagination is thus the best of him, something usually deeper and higher than his conscious thoughts; and if he had obeyed it he would have been safe.
In addition, Bradley is as good on the tragedies’ secondary characters as he is on Hamlet and Iago. He stands up for Ophelia against the old charge that her mental collapse is a result of her personal weakness:
…her critics hardly seem to realize the situation, hardly to put themselves in the place of a girl whose lover, estranged from her, goes mad and kills her father. They seem to forget also that Ophelia must have believed that these frightful calamities were not mere calamities, but followed from her action in repelling her lover.
Similarly, with Kent in King Lear, he clarifies that character’s particular mix of nobility and foolishness:
One has not the heart to wish him different, but he illustrates the truth that to run one’s head unselfishly against a wall is not the best way to help one’s friends.
In the years after his death in 1935, Bradley took some beatings for his belief that Shakespeare’s characters can be treated as people and not as fictional conceits. Looking back on these complaints now, they seem overstated. Any extended character study, with its presumption that a character has some independent life or personality outside the text, relies as much on imagination as on scholarship. Bradley isn’t merely critiquing Shakespeare—he’s writing a fiction of his own. Still, to critique one fiction with another fiction is both defensible and potentially exciting, and shouldn’t bother readers who enjoy Borges or Nabokov or Sebald. If we take Bradley as an artist—a role his modesty would probably deny—his fictional versions of Shakespeare’s creations are rich achievements. Besides, Bradley always sticks closely to the plays themselves, and grounds his speculations in his intimate study of the tragedies’ theatrical and poetic details.
I suspect that Bradley would want us to end by giving less credit to him and more to Shakespeare. Again and again, Bradley takes up these four tragedies and uses them to bring his personal observations about the world into focus. He approaches the plays as if they were a collection of powerful lenses, and puts them on when he wants to look at things that are too distant or too obscure for his unaided sight to make out as clearly as he would like. This is one of the ways that many of us use good writing, and Bradley’s method has a straightforward intelligence to it that still impresses, and always entertains.
Thou are the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. —King Lear
The dilemma of the likable character. It’s good to have a character who we root for, who has flaws but works to overcome them. We are taught as fledgling writers that our characters need to be complex but also sympathetic. Even as a teacher, I’ve noted on student papers that a particular character wasn’t interesting enough to carry the story. But have we as a reading public become too soft, too politically correct, insisting that the character be accessible, understandable — gasp, a nice guy? Do we make the same demands with the classics as we do contemporary works? Would we insist, in the romantic realist tradition that Robert Stone descends from, that Melville’s Captain Ahab be someone that we can relate to? Or that his obsession with the whale be something that can be fixed in a twelve-step program? I’ll admit one might not want to run into a Robert Stone character at a classical music concert, Shakespeare play, Hollywood movie premiere, or, more likely, a bar, but that’s not because he or she wouldn’t be charming, erudite, clever, but because after reading these stories one knows the darkness that lurks beneath the polished surface.
First, an anecdote. Many years ago I attended a weekend workshop taught by Robert Stone. This wasn’t some glossy MFA graduate program, most of us were pretty new at writing, and we were all in awe of Stone. Over half the class was male, and many of them had traveled the country with a heavy stack of his novels in order to have them signed. He did sign them, dog-eared piles of them, with kindness and delight. In class he was soft-spoken, intelligent, and thorough in his critiques. He treated us like the writers we hoped to someday be.
Then one morning, he came to the workshop wearing dark sunglasses. And he didn’t take them off. A thrill went through the class, as if at last we were seeing a real Stone character in action; we had achieved the dream of all fans, the conflation of the author with his creation, which we secretly believed to be the same thing all along. After all, here was one of the original Merry Pranksters, a man who hung out with the Beats, who was known to indulge in drugs, who went to dangerous places like Vietnam and the Middle East, looking for trouble. The man who famously said: “… you can’t experience too much — to the degree it doesn’t destroy you.”
Our minds were racing with the possibilities that made the glasses necessary. After the first story was critiqued, Stone reached up and realized his glasses were still on. He took them off and chuckled, apologizing. I think he said they were prescription, and he forgot to change them for his regular ones. Only then did we notice the room was bright, full of sunlit windows. A small sigh of collective disappointment went out of the class.
What we were in thrall to that day, and what fans of his work look forward to in book after book is the unique Stone character. As soon as I opened Fun With Problems to the title story, I knew I would not be disappointed. Peter Matthews is an aging attorney whose “ambitions had faded,” an alcoholic, a womanizer. “He was the man whose ex-wife had once said of him, ‘You don’t care whether you even get laid, as long as you can make some woman unhappy.’”
That is precisely what Stone is after in story after story, digging under the surface of appearances to the raw stuff of life. In an interview, Stone talks about the “unaccommodated man,” a term out of Lear, speaking of his fascination with characters in wartime, in emotional or physical ruin, in addiction. His method is to strip his characters of their veneer of civilization to see what remains. In the three-page story, “Honeymoon,” the aging main character ogles his young bride, amazed at his own carnal luck in a tropical paradise. We, as readers, start to moan inwardly that we are in middle-aged crisis territory, a story filled with tender little epiphanies spring-loaded along the way, but now Stone begins the excavation. As soon as the nubile bride goes for a swim, the man weeps and calls his ex-wife, begging to come home. Okay, we’re thinking, that’s different. But things in Stone’s world never go as planned, as the wife begins to speak:
“… And I said to myself, He’s gone, I’ll die, what will I live for?”
“I’ll come home.”
“What will I live for? He’s gone. Oh, poor little me. But now I think I’ll live, Tiger. Fucking right,” she said. “You wanted to be gone? Get gone. Have a great honeymoon.”
How refreshing indeed — no sex rehab, no counseling, no apologies. Sin and judgment, taken neat.
I love Stone’s novels for their breadth, the multiplicity of storylines, the exotic use of place that exerts pressure on the characters, but the short stories necessarily have to do away with much of this, although there are glimpses. In “Fun With Problems,” Matthews rents rooms from a Colombian couple: “Mr. and Mrs. Esquivel… fled Colombia in the grip of La Violencia and had little tolerance for conflict.” In “The Wine-Dark Sea,” the three main characters’ storylines converge as they wander a creepy, fog-shrouded island. But the main battleground is inside them. Stone eschews backstory, we are given the characters in their fallen condition, unexplained. In an interview, Stone said that “High Wire” was one of the only stories he’s written in first person, that he finds the distance of third-person more intuitively correct. This distance keeps the reader from falling into sentimentality, from explaining away the bad behavior of the characters.
In the story, “From the Lowlands,” Leroy, a smug, successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur seems to have it all — a trophy girlfriend, a trophy house. He is also thoroughly unlikable — he’s maneuvered his business partner out of the company, he cheats on his girlfriend, he gives an unpaid-for candy bar to a kid and watches him get in trouble for it. But Stone’s universe is a mechanistic one in which nothing in life comes free, in which everything must eventually be paid for. Things go wrong. A thunderstorm, his girlfriend dumps him, his larder is empty, and the eggs he cooks have blood specks in them that look like skulls: “They were elongated, cephalic, with inward curves that might mark cheekbones.” Suffice it to say, Leroy gets his due in the end. No fatuous insights, no forced happy endings, no comforting moral outcomes.
Because these are mature stories, the characters have a self-knowledge that allows the stories to avoid easy cynicism and retain heart, however black those hearts may be. In “High Wire,” Tom acknowledges he will not act on his love for a beautiful actress: “In the twisted light I saw her out there sauntering toward a brass horizon and I wanted to follow after. But I was not so foolish nor had I the generosity of spirit. I was running out of heart.”
Stone is like the friend who when you tell him you have a terminal disease doesn’t pretend he hasn’t heard it, doesn’t spout platitudes, or talk about miracle vitamins that cure everything. He is the kind of friend who orders a round of stiff drinks, holds your hand, and looks into the abyss with you. Sometimes you want that kind of friend. There are not many writers like Robert Stone, and none of them do it as well.
It’s a business-school truism that great leaders make for messy successions. Not only are their shoes hard to fill; no boss likes to contemplate his or her own obsolescence. (Think of Steve Jobs. Hell, think of King Lear.) And though its masthead is more likely to have graduated from Brown than from Wharton, the literary magazine is as subject as any other enterprise to the general principle. William Shawn’s 35-year streak as editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, for example, yielded to the comparatively brief reigns of Robert Gottlieb and Tina Brown. Roger D. Hodge’s tenure at Harper’s, following the second long Lewis H. Lapham regime, lasted all of two years.
Even amid such tough acts to follow, the case of George Plimpton stands out. As the longtime editor of The Paris Review, Plimpton did the traditional things imposingly well. He charted the magazine’s direction. He developed features. He cultivated and supported good writing. But he also, through his journalistic talents and his presence on the social scene, expanded our idea of what an editor could be: founder, ringmaster, patron, host, impresario, fundraiser, cheerleader, public face, presiding spirit, and living embodiment of the brand. Though slender of frame, he cast a big shadow.
Upon Plimpton’s death in 2003, Brigid Hughes, then the managing editor, was tapped to lead the magazine. She was soon shown the door (a circumstance which led to the founding of A Public Space, with the help of a cadre of writers and donors loyal to Hughes) and the journalist Philip Gourevitch slotted into the role, somewhat against type. Gourevitch’s Paris Review has been more consistently appealing than one might have expected it to be. (A great reporter does not always a great editor make.) But, given that Gourevitch has been more of a caretaker than a visionary, it was no great surprise to learn in November that he would be stepping down to focus on his own writing…leaving The Paris Review searching for its fourth editor-in-chief in seven years.
The good news is that the pool of available talent is probably larger now than it has been in years. I’d happily read a Paris Review run by former Spy editor Kurt Andersen, who writes well, is interested in everything, and seems to have a Rolodex the size of a card catalog. Likewise Dan Menaker. In the wake of Hodge’s departure from Harper’s last month, his name has been thrown around as well. If I was on the search committee, I’d certainly be looking at Keith Gessen, who, though young, is something of a scholar of the little magazine. Or The Paris Review could again try to hire in-house. (Having had a piece edited by Meghan O’Rourke, who pulls double duty with Slate, I’d hire her for just about anything.)
Finding the next Plimpton, however, is more than a matter of editorial acumen. The Plimptonian editor must be out in the world. She cuts a figure. She makes fireworks, and shoots them off, too. Tina Brown, now of The Daily Beast, and Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter have certainly learned a thing or two from Plimpton, but the only editor currently working in the world of little magazines who fulfills the polymathic model is Dave Eggers. And so, as absurd as it may sound prima facie, I’d like to propose that Eggers is the best candidate for editorship of The Paris Review. And, somewhat counterintuitively, that hiring him for the job might be as good for Eggers as for the magazine.
Eggers is an entrepreneur of distinction, a gifted fund-raiser, a networker, a talent scout, a celebrity, a philanthropist, and an accomplished graphic designer. Moreover, he has a particular editorial capacity that’s always in rare supply: the capacity for vision. At his first two magazines – Might and (especially) McSweeney’s – Eggers helped to distill into literary form the sensibility of those who came of age after The End of History…and before history unceremoniously resumed. Whimsical, highly aestheticized, conspicuously casual, reverent of childhood and its signifiers, bound by the dialectic of irony and sincerity, the style of McSweeney’s has become the style of post-post-Modernism. It is No One Belongs Here More Than You and Everything Here Is The Best Thing Ever, yes, but also American Apparel and Avenue Q, the films of Michel Gondry and the career of Michael Cera. It is vast swaths of Echo Park and the Bay Area and Brooklyn.
The first obvious objection, then, to the marriage of Eggers and The Paris Review comes from Eggers’ side of the aisle: he already has a magazine. But the truth is that McSweeney’s (reportedly intended to have a forty-eight issue run, followed by a long hiatus) has, in its middle age, begun to run up against its built-in limitations. One need not slight the magazine itself (the recent “Panorama” issue, a loving tribute to the print newspaper and a manifesto on its behalf, reportedly sold out), or rehearse the whiplash speed at which subculture becomes mainstream, to feel that McSweeney’s some time ago made the move from innovation to institution.
The Paris Review, too, is an institution, but one with a broader mission and a broader potential audience – a place where readers of McSweeney’s, readers of Newsweek, and readers of The New York Review of Books might meet and mingle en masse. And because its appeal is less bound up with youth, it might offer Eggers, now pushing 40, new and different challenges…even as McSweeney’s continued under the able hands that one sort of imagines mostly run it now anyway.
The second obstacle to the union is that Eggers, like Gourevitch, is a writer, and writing takes time away from editing. But here, too, Eggers, for all his successes, seems like a man in need of a jolt. His literary talent has always recalled for me David Foster Wallace’s description of the tennis player’s physique: hypertrophied in places and underdeveloped in others. This is true to some extent of all writers, but truer of Eggers than of, say his kind-of contemporary (and sometime collaborator) Zadie Smith. With impressive consistency, his books display visual acuity, inventive turns of phrase, and a fine ear for dialogue. Most importantly, they are full of compassion. But they also betray a countervailing tendency toward solipsism that the home crowd around McSweeney’s has been unable or unwilling to call Eggers on, and that has held him back from being the novelist he seems to aspire to be. Which may be a way of suggesting that Eggers is still in his literary adolescence.
This solipsism expresses itself as constraint. There is, on the surface, a kind of airless stylization of the prose, all those floating pronouns and studied flatnesses. More deeply, there is the constraint solipsism imposes on plot and drama – on the interaction of characters, and thus, on their development. Of Eggers’ longer narrative works, three are more or less nonfiction, one is a rewrite of a children’s book, and two (You Shall Know Our Velocity and Away We Go) are lashed to picaresque conceits that substitute vignette for scene and propulsion for plot.
Most recently, these two forms of constraint – micro and macro – converged in the disappointing novelization, The Wild Things. Max goes to the island. Max does some stuff. Max does some other stuff. Then Max comes home. At no point in the book does Max, or his writer, feel the sense of discovery and possibility we saw in Spike Jonze’s filmed sprint through the trees – or that marked the finest passages of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
The oddity of this is that Eggers is profoundly interested in other people. His best book overall, to my mind, has been What is the What, based on the story of Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng. (I have not read Zeitoun, which seems to follow a similar strategy in telling the story of a Hurricane Katrina survivor.) This reportorial interest in the wider world is one that The Paris Review could nourish, even as it exposed Eggers to an even wider audience – one that might be less satisfied with his tics, and more demanding of writing in proportion with his enormous gifts.
Whether or not Eggers seriously considers throwing his hat into the ring, The Paris Review could certainly benefit from having an editor of his stature. The task that awaits Gourevitch’s replacement may be more daunting than that which awaited him in 2005. In addition to hosting parties, raising funds, tending to the needs of writers, and serving as the public face of The Paris Review, the next editor will have to make the case to readers that, in this era of YouTube and the iPad, the bound literary quarterly is still worth their time and money. That’s a mission Dave Eggers has already proven himself to be committed to. And The Paris Review, for nearly 60 years, has proven its commitment to the kind of great American writing I’d like to see more of from Eggers. Odds are these two commitments will be pursued on parallel tracks. But wouldn’t it be great if they could meet?
In advance of Mother’s and and Father’s Day (May 10 and June 21 respectively) I am putting together a catalog of the best representations of Childhood, Motherhood, and Fatherhood in literature.There is a long list of great childhood memoirs, many of which pivot around either a mother or a father. So far I’ve got:An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us by James CarrollAngela’s Ashes by Frank McCourtAn American Childhood by Annie DillardThe Color of Water by James McBrideGrowing Up by Russell BakerI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya AngelouWhen it comes to fiction, many books involve mothers and fathers, but fewer are specifically focused on themes of what it is to be a mom or a dad. Some of the titles below are specifically about the parent-child relationship, while for others the connection is there, but it’s more of a stretch.About mothers, sons and daughters:A Mother and Two Daughters by Gail GodwinThe Joy Luck Club by Amy TanPortnoy’s Complaint by Philip RothThe Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel HawthorneAbout fathers, daughters and sons:A Death in the Family by James AgeeDombey and Son by Charles DickensFathers and Sons by Ivan TurgenevGilead by Marilynne RobinsonIndependence Day by Richard FordTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (perusing blogs and discussion groups, Atticus Finch might be the most beloved literary father of them all)King Lear by ShakespeareThe Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas HardyThe Risk Pool by Richard RussoWashington Square by Henry JamesI’ll send out the complete list once it’s compiled. Any suggestions welcome!