This year, for the first time since I was 18, I suffered a bout of what you might call Reader's Block. It hit me in the spring and lasted about six weeks. The proximate cause was an excess of work, hunched hours in front of a computer that left me feeling like a jeweler's loupe was lodged in each eye. I'd turn to the door of my study -- Oh, God! An axe-wielding giant! No, wait: that's just my two year old, offering a mauled bagel. And because the only prose that doesn't look comparably distorted at that level of magnification belongs to E.B. White, Gertrude Stein, and whoever wrote the King James Bible, I mostly confined myself to the newspaper, when I read anything at all. This hiatus from literature gave me a new compassion for people who glance up from smartphones to tell me they're too busy to read, and for those writers (students, mostly) who claim to avoid other people's work when they're working. Yet I found that for me, at least, the old programmer's maxim applies: Garbage In, Garbage Out. I mean this not just as someone with aesthetic aspirations, or pretensions, or whatever, but also as a human being. The deeper cause of my reader's block, I can admit now, was my father's death at the end of May, after several years of illness. He was a writer, too; he'd published a novel when he was about the age I am now, and subsequently a travelogue. And maybe I had absorbed, over the years, some of his misapprehensions about what good writing might accomplish, vis-a-vis mortality; maybe I was now rebelling against the futility of the whole enterprise. I don't know. I do know that in the last weeks before he died, those weeks of no reading, I felt anxious, adrift, locked inside my grief. Then in June, on some instinct to steer into the skid, I reached for Henderson the Rain King. It was the last of the major Bellows I hadn't read. I'd shied away partly for fear of its African setting, but mostly because it was the Saul Bellow book my father would always recommend. I'd say I was reading Humboldt's Gift, and he'd say, "But have you read Henderson the Rain King?" Or I'd say I was reading Middlemarch, and he'd say "Sure, but have you read Henderson the Rain King?" I'd say I was heavily into early Sonic Youth. "Okay, but there's this wonderful book..." There were times when I wondered if he'd actually read Henderson the Rain King, or if, having established that I hadn't read it, he saw it as a safe way to short-circuit any invitation into my inner life. And I suppose I was afraid that if I finally read Henderson and was unmoved, or worse, it would either confirm the hypothesis or demolish for all time my sense of my dad as a person of taste. But of course the novel's mise-en-scène is a ruse (as Bellow well knew, never having been to Africa). Or if that still sounds imperialist, a dreamscape. Really, the whole thing is set at the center of a battered, lonely, yearning, and comical human heart. A heart that says, "I want, I want, I want." A heart that could have been my father's. Or my own. And though that heart doesn't get what it wants -- that's not its nature -- it gets something perhaps more durable. Midway through the novel, King Dahfu of the Wariri tries to talk a woebegone Henderson into hanging out with a lion: "What can she do for you? Many things. First she is unavoidable. Test it, and you will find she is unavoidable. And this is what you need, as you are an avoider. Oh, you have accomplished momentous avoidances. But she will change that. She will make consciousness to shine. She will burnish you. She will force the present moment upon you. Second, lions are experiences. But not in haste. They experience with deliberate luxury...Then there are more subtle things, as how she leaves hints, or elicits caresses. But I cannot expect you to see this at first. She has much to teach you." To which Henderson replies: "‘Teach? You really mean that she might change me.’" "‘Excellent,'" the king says: "Precisely. Change. You fled what you were. You did not believe you had to perish. Once more, and a last time, you tried the world. With a hope of alteration. Oh, do not be surprised by such a recognition." The lion stuff in Henderson, like the tennis stuff in Infinite Jest, inclines pretty nakedly toward ars poetica. Deliberate luxury, burnished consciousness, a sense of inevitability -- aren't these a reader's hopes, too? And then: the deep recognition, the resulting change. Henderson the Rain King gave me all that, at the time when I needed it most. Then again, such a recognition is always surprising, because it's damn hard to come by. And so, though I'm already at 800 words here, I'd like to list some of my other best reading experiences of 2014 (the back half of which amounted to a long, post-Henderson binge). Maybe one of them will do for you what that lion did for me. Light Years, by James Salter Despite the eloquent advocacy of my Millions colleague Sonya Chung, I'd always had this idea of James Salter as some kind of Mandarin, a writer for other writers. But I read Light Years over two days in August, and found it a masterpiece. The beauty of Salter's prose -- and it is beautiful -- isn't the kind that comes from fussing endlessly over clauses, but the kind that comes from looking up from the page, listening hard to whatever's beyond. And what Light Years hears, as the title suggests, is time passing, the arrival and inevitable departure of everything dear to us. It is music like ice cracking, a river in the spring. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark I've long known I should read Muriel Spark, but it took the republication of some of her backlist (by New Directions) to get me off the fence. Spark shares with Salter a sublime detachment, an almost Olympian view of the passage of time. This latter seems to be her real subject in Miss Jean Brodie, inscribed even in the dazzling structure of the novel. But unlike Salter, Spark is funny. Really funny. Her reputation for mercilessness is not unearned, but the comedy here is deeper, I think. As in Jonathan Franzen's novels, it issues less from the exposure of flawed and unlikeable characters than from the author's warring impulses: to see them clearly, vs. to love them. Ultimately, in most good fiction, these amount to the same thing. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera This was a popular novel among grown-ups when I was a kid, and so I was pleasantly surprised to discover how stubborn and weird a work it is. And lovable for all that. Kundera keeps us at a peculiar distance from his protagonists, almost as if telling a fairy tale. Description is sparing. Plot is mostly sex. Also travel. At times, I had to remind myself which character was which. In a short story, this might be a liability. Yet somehow, over the length of the novel, through nuances of juxtaposition and patterning, Kundera manages to evoke states of feeling I've never seen on the page before. Political sadness. Emotional philosophy. The unbearable lightness of the title. All of this would seem to be as relevant in the U.S. in 2015 as in 1970s Prague. The Infatuations, by Javier Marías Hari Kunzru has captured, in a previous Year in Reading entry, how forbidding Javier Marías's novels can seem from a distance. (Though maybe this is true of all great stylists. Lolita, anyone?) Marías is a formidably cerebral writer, whose long sentences are like fugues: a theme is introduced, toyed with, pursued to another theme, put down, taken up again. None of this screams pleasure. But neither would a purely formal description of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The tremendous pleasure of The Infatuations, Marías's most recent novel to appear in English, arrives from those most uncerebral places: plot, suspense, character. It's like a literary version of Strangers on a Train, cool formal mastery put to exquisitely visceral effect. "Don't open that door, Maria!" The Infatuations is the best new novel I read all year; I knew within the first few pages that I would be reading every book Mariás has written. All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld This haunting, poetic novel manages to convey in a short space a great deal about compulsion and memory and the human capacity for good and evil. Wyld's narrator, Jake, is one of the most distinctive and sympathetic heroines in recent literature, a kind of Down Under Huck Finn. Her descriptions of the Australian outback are indelible. And the novel's backward-and-forward form manages a beautiful trick: it simultaneously dramatizes the effects of trauma and attends to our more literary hungers: for form, for style. It reminded me forcefully of another fine book that came out of the U.K. this year, Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel I'd be embarrassed at my lateness to the Thomas Cromwell saga, were I not so glad to have finally made it. Mantel's a serious enough historical novelist not to shy away from those conventions of the genre that usually turn me off; the deliberate pacing of her trilogy-in-progress requires some getting used to. But more than a chronicler, Mantel is a novelist, full-stop. She excels at pretty much everything, and plays the long game brilliantly. By the time you get into the intrigues of Bring Up the Bodies, you're flying so fast you hardly notice the beautiful calibration of the prose, or the steady deepening of the psychology, or the big thoughts the novel is thinking about pragmatism and Englishness and gender and the mystery of personality. Dispatches, by Michael Herr If you took the horrific public-burning scene from Wolf Hall, multiplied that by 100, put those pages in a hot-boxed Tomahawk piloted by Dr. Strangelove, and attempted to read them over the blare of the Jefferson Airplane, you'd end up with something like Dispatches. It is simultaneously one of the greatest pieces of New Journalism I've ever read and one of the greatest pieces of war writing. Indeed, each achievement enables the other. The putatively embedded journalism of our own wars already looks dated by comparison. Since the publication of Dispatches in 1977, Herr's output has been slender, but I'd gladly read anything he wrote. White Girls, by Hilton Als This nonfiction collection casts its gaze all over the cultural map, from Flannery O'Connor to Michael Jackson, yet even more than most criticism, it adds up to a kind of diffracted autobiography. The longest piece in the book is devastating, the second-longest tough to penetrate, but this unevenness speaks to Als's virtues as an essayist. His sentences have a quality most magazine writing suffocates beneath a veneer of glibness: the quality of thinking. That is, he seems at once to have a definite point-of-view, passionately held, and to be very much a work in progress. It's hard to think of higher praise for a critic. Utopia or Bust, by Benjamin Kunkel This collection of sterling essays (many of them from the London Review of Books) covers work by David Graeber, Robert Brenner, Slavoj Zizek, and others, offering a state-of-the-union look at what used to be called political economy -- a nice complement to the research findings of Thomas Piketty. Kunkel is admirably unembarrassed by politics as such, and is equally admirable as an autodidact in the field of macroeconomics. He synthesizes from his subjects one of the more persuasive accounts you'll read about how we got into the mess we're in. And his writing has lucidity and wit. Of Fredric Jameson, for example, he remarks: "Not often in American writing since Henry James can there have been a mind displaying at once such tentativeness and force." The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover The publication this spring of a gargantuan sequel, The Brunist Day of Wrath, gave me an excuse to go back and read Coover's first novel, from 48 years ago. As a fan of his midcareer highlights, The Public Burning and Pricksongs and Descants, I was expecting postmodern glitter. Instead I got something closer to William Faulkner: tradition and modernity collide in a mining town beset by religious fanaticism. Yet with the attenuation of formal daring comes an increased access to Coover's capacity for beauty, in which he excels many of his well-known peers. Despite its (inspired) misanthropy, this is a terrific novel. I couldn't help wishing, as I did with much of what I read this year, that my old man was still around, that I might recommend it to him, and so repay the debt. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Looking back at my reading list for 2013, two books stood above all the other new books I've had the chance to read: The first is Susan Steinberg's extraordinary third collection, Spectacle, which I've been obsessed with since it came out in January -- and really, since ever before. One of the book's stories appeared in American Short Fiction several years ago and that introduction to Steinberg set up some high expectations that were met then exceeded by the collection. In a year of great story collections, this is the one that stands apart for me. Smart and funny and brutally moving, it's the most aggressive short story collection I've read in a long time, one that forces emotional participation and moral complicity on its readers. The second book is Rachel Kushner's second novel, The Flamethrowers, which absolutely thrilled me as both a reader and a writer. Extraordinarily ambitious and well-shaped, I found it one of the biggest reading experiences I'd had all year, the kind of enlarged experience that seems rarer and rarer in contemporary novels. My admiration for The Flamethrowers also sent me back to Kushner's Telex from Cuba, which I hadn't read before but which now seems like a formal and stylistic prototype for The Flamethrowers, in addition to being an excellent novel on its own. I hope Kushner keeps pushing her form and her style forward so powerfully between books -- I can't wait to read her next novel to see where she takes us next. Some other great books from 2013: Tampa by Alissa Nutting. Red Doc> by Anne Carson. A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam. Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge by Renee Gladman. Some books published in years past that were an important part of my 2013: Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta. Kind One by Laird Hunt. Speedboat by Renata Adler. The Complete Tales trilogy by Kate Bernheimer. Light Years by James Salter. Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck. Some books I loved in 2013 but that won't be released until 2014: The Last Days of California by Mary Miller. Preparing the Ghost by Matthew Gavin Frank. Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
As NASA readies its next Mars launch for today, we’re getting used to the idea of entertainment in space. Recently, Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut, shot a music video of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” onboard the International Space Station and it quickly went viral. It’s had about 19 million views on YouTube — about half the population of Canada. And then Lady Gaga announced that she’ll be shuttling into space to perform a single track in 2015 as part of Zero G Colony music festival. But where’s all the literature in space? Actually, it turns out poetry is fairly well represented and there’s more on the way come Monday. But it’s pretty much a fiction desert up there. There are two poetry recordings making their way through interstellar space. In 1977, NASA launched Voyager I and II, and the former has officially left the embrace of the solar system. It’s traveled roughly 12 billion miles since it was launched, becoming the first man-made object to reach the cusp of interstellar space known as the heliopause. For 36 years the probe has been carrying the Golden Record, Earth’s mix tape for future humanity or curious aliens who know how to spin vinyl, whoever finds it first. Etched into the grooves of the Golden Record (it’s actually gold-plated copper) are 116 photographs of earthly life, 90 minutes of music — from Bach to Blind Willie Johnson to a Navajo night chant — greetings in 54 languages, and a sonic essay that features wind, rain, birdsong, and the yowl of a wild dog. Because there is also a written Presidential address from Jimmy Carter, NASA felt that it should acknowledge the role of Congress by including a list of its members, many of whom advocated for the space agency in Washington during the 1970s. There are also two recorded poetry excerpts. The French delegate to the UN, Benadette Lefort, quotes the first two stanzas from Baudelaire’s poem “Elevation” in Fleurs de Mals: Above the lakes, above the vales, The mountains and the woods, the clouds, the seas, Beyond the sun, beyond the ether, Beyond the confines of the starry spheres, My soul, you move with ease, And like a strong swimmer in rapture in the wave You wing your way blithely through boundless space With virile joy unspeakable Anders Thunboig, Sweden’s UN delegate, follows suit by reading from Harry Martinson’s poem “Visit to the Observatory.” Compared to the Austrian delegate’s utterance — “As the chairman of the Outer Space Committee of the UN and the representative of Austria, I am pleased to extend you our greetings in this way” — the Swedish and French sentiments feel like outpourings of pure, terrestrial emotion. So there’s a smattering of poetry wending its way through space and apparently there’s more on the way. Over the summer, NASA announced that it would be hauling more than 1,000 haiku on this month’s launch of its Mars-bound spacecraft, Maven, courtesy of a University of Colorado Going To Mars competition (the winning entry: It’s funny, they named/ Mars after the God of War/ Have a look at Earth). But where’s the fiction drifting through the dark sea of ionized gas? Outside of whatever the crew of the International Space Station happens to have on their Kindles and iPads, it’s a fictional wasteland up there. If we could make the Golden Record all over again, wouldn’t we send at least one Chekhov story? And I’m pretty sure aliens or our distant future cousins would gladly swap out the list of congressional members for passages from Lolita or Madame Bovary. What follows is a completely biased, unrepresentative sample of what I consider to be fictional cornerstones worthy of sending into the galactic void. In the spirit of compression — there’s only so much a copper-plated LP can hold — I limited myself to scenes or moments from fiction of the 20th century. My apologies to the three preceding literary centuries. And the current one. The prologue from DeLillo’s Underworld The road trip from Nabokov’s Lolita The first encounter with Septimus Warren Smith in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway The scene in which Viri gets measured for custom shirts in James Salter’s Light Years The first fevered dream in Katherine Ann Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider The harrowing moment when the Professor realizes his fate in Paul Bowles’s “A Distant Episode” The scene on the beach between Seymour and Sybil in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” The final dialogue between The Misfit and the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” The scene where Otto and Sophie seek respite at their country house in Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters. The opening pages of Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, leading up to the line “This is the great invention of our time.” Like all lists and mix tapes, this is a wildly imperfect one. It fails to take account of world literature and it’s probably got a heavy male bias. Asking for a top ten from any writer forces them to dispense with things they should include to things they must include. It’s reasonable to ask: what would anyone make of these fictional slivers without the full context of the story or novel in question? On the other hand, they’d probably glean more about our planet from these vivid and fraught moments, from the crafting of human language, than they would from the Voyager photos of a supermarket and the Sydney Opera House. As it turns out, these selections have something in common with the Golden Record’s most intimate recording—the sound of a woman’s body as she experiences the first throes of romantic love. As Ann Druyan has described elsewhere, when she was first falling in love with Carl Sagan — to whom she was married until his death in 1996 — she went to Bellevue Hospital so they could record the sounds of her body. If the aliens can follow the scientific notation we’ve posted for them and fathom how to place the stylus into the gold-plated grooves, they’ll hear Ann’s smitten metabolism and the thrumming of her love-addled heartbeat. In other words, they’ll have direct access to human interiority. If we’d sent along some of our best and most haunting fiction, the effect might have been the same. "Eye of Mars" image via NASA/Wikimedia Commons
1. At the book party for All That Is, the new novel by James Salter, Paris Review editor Lorin Stein held forth on Salter as a “colossus” for many young writers and declared the book his favorite of Salter’s work. It was significant that Stein, who is barely 40, introduced Salter: the party was populated by equal parts Silent Generation and Baby Boomers, and Stein -- along with a few journalists and a smattering of publicity and editorial assistants -- was among the youngest in attendance. Whether Jim Salter himself requested the introduction I don’t know; but at 87, a friend of his told me, he is finally embracing the possibility that his work will influence generations to come, whereas a few years ago he was pessimistic. Stein also told a story about Salter running late to the party at which he would be honored with the TPR's Hadada Award, because of a flat tire: while Stein wrung his hands, anticipating a ruined evening, a colleague reminded him, “It’s Jim Salter; I think he knows how to change a tire.” (And of course, he did.) Hearty laughter followed Stein’s punchline, as the room was filled with friends and admirers who know Salter as exemplar of a dying breed, the model of a certain kind of manhood -- air force pilot, rock climber, linen-suited world traveler, reticent charmer, master of the martini. I am one young writer who has been influenced by Salter’s work, but I do find that there is a cultishness to Salter fandom: either your eyes go wide and your heart goes pitter-patter, or you don’t really get the hype. A Sport and a Pastime is the book that the uninitiated are encouraged to read in order to encounter the full potency of Salterism, and it’s not a book about which one can feel lukewarm. The provocative sex scenes between Phillip Dean and Anne-Marie are too straightforward and anatomical to be read as arty erotica, too emotionally serious and lyrical to be dismissed (or enjoyed) as cheap pornography. That the nameless narrator claims repeatedly throughout the novel, “I am not telling the truth about Dean, I am inventing him out of my own inadequacies” has the effect of making Dean and Anne-Marie’s every word and act feel even more sensually alive, enlarged, insistent: In solitude one must penetrate, one must endure. The icy beginning is where it is the worst. One must pass all that. One must go forward all the way, through bitterness, through righteous feelings, advancing upon it like a holy city, sensing the true joy. When reading a Salter story or novel, you’re either all in, or else a battle will ensue in which you resist the text’s inherent demand for surrender -- of your analytical cleverness and ironic distance, your progressive social politics, your graduate-school-honed fidelity to the underwhelming epiphany. A feast of love is beginning...They have founded their domain. A satanic happiness follows. This is not George Saunders or Lorrie Moore making fun of the ineffectualness of romantic impulses; this is for real. Feasts, domains, and a happiness so-good-that-it’s-bad are the stuff of greatness, of heroes. In his recent profile for The New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten wrote that Salter’s having “fixated on heroism” has contributed to “grounds for a slender reputation.” This supposed “fixation,” which I would characterize in more positive terms -- an interest, a belief, a vision -- is at the heart of what draws me to Salter’s work, and perhaps, yes, herein is where the road divides: if fumbling, self-undermining antiheroes are your thing, Salter may not be. “I believe there’s a right way to live and to die. The people who can do that are interesting to me,” he said in a 1993 interview. The nameless narrator of Sport, Vernon Rand of Solo Faces, Viri Berland of Light Years, and the many solitary, teeming souls of his short stories may not be heroes or heroines per se, but they are deeply in pursuit of a “right way” -- which is a life of greatness and goodness, feeling and fortitude, lust and love. In Salter’s universe, pleasure-seeking is a kind of courage; sexual ecstasy aligned with holiness. A man’s search for pride, honor, triumph, are not separate from, nor opposed to, the sensual, the bodily; rather, these are -- must be -- of a piece, in a life fully lived. From Solo Faces: [Rand’s] image cleansed the air like rain. He was the envoy of a breed one had forgotten, generous, unafraid, with a saintly smile and the vascular system of a marathon runner. And later, we get this narrative declaration, typical of Salter’s omniscient authorial voice: “The act of love...is still the most serious act of all.” 2. Age comes up frequently in reference to All That Is. Presumably it is Salter’s final major work, which is both a delicate and unavoidable subtext to any consideration of it. The novel’s epigraph -- “There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real” -- is a quote by... James Salter. To my mind, it announces to the reader that the author has reached that stage of life that warrants staking out his own ideas and insights, deference and deflection be damned. When you’ve lived as long and fully as Jim Salter has, it is perhaps as good a time as any to be forthrightly self-referential. Of course the quotation is printed without attribution -- four lines in a sea of white space. So too, the protagonist Phillip Bowman is an unexplicit incarnation of Salter -- a young man returning from war and going on to find his way in life, letters, and love. The “factual” alignments are both skeletal and notable: both men born in 1925, in Manhattan, raised as the only child of a doting mother in New Jersey; both serving in the military and recognizing the experience as the most important of their lives, “the pride he would never lose.” Bowman’s early marriage is to a girl named Vivian Amussen from a Virginia horse-country family, like Salter’s first wife Ann; the fictional marriage ends as the real-life one did, in divorce. Vivian thinks of herself as daring, “taking the train up to see a man she had met in a bar, whose background she did not know but who seemed to have depth and originality.” It does not feel like an effort to hear a youthful Salter thinking of himself in this way, through Vivian’s, or Ann’s, eyes. Of course there are divergences: Bowman is an editor, not a writer. He fought in Okinawa in the Navy, Salter in Korea as an Air Force pilot. Bowman goes to Harvard, Salter graduated West Point. Bowman and Vivian divorce before there are any children, Jim and Ann Salter had four children, one of whom died tragically as a young adult. Still, “facts” aside, All That Is strikes me as the most autobiographical of Salter’s work to date, which is to say the author is more present in these pages than he’s ever been. His final novel reads like his own particular bird’s-eye of the reality he believes in, cherishes, proffers to readers as worthy of transcription from “dream” to immortality -- the criteria for which may be rather straightforward: “All you have in life is what you remember,” he said once, his paraphrase of the Renoir quote he used as the epigraph for Light Years. I read All That Is as a kind of impressionistic record of Salter’s memory -- the people, places, emotions, perceptions, and anecdotes that have stuck, and have thus mattered. Bowman’s story, for example, begins at age 20, returns in flashback to memories of childhood (his mother primarily), and ends as he approaches 60; these, presumably, are the years in a man’s life that most matter. “What has your life been like?” asks “an older woman with a marvelous face like a prune” whom Bowman meets at a dinner in England. “What are the things that have mattered?” He is 45 years old and goes on to say something about the war, but He was not sure he had told the truth. His mind had just drifted back to it [the war] involuntarily. And among his dreams it had been the one that most consistently recurred. The author, the narrator, and the character are all present in this scene: Bowman thinks maybe being a naval officer has so far mattered most; the narrator reveals to us that this is a provisional notion; and the author, it seems to me, suggests that the woman’s “marvelous face,” along with her line and manner of questioning, contend for the truly immortal element. At 45, there were dreams, and uncertainty; but at 87, dear reader, here is reality, and a record of what has mattered. Fiction (character) and memory (author) dance together elegantly here, with a signature strangeness. The minor character feels as important, surely as memorable, as the major one. 3. All That Is is filled with moments and episodes like these, where a minor player’s story comes forth in full color, detail, and mystery, only to never reappear again. [One] of his writers had been to school only through the seventh grade though he didn’t explain why. His mother had given him a library card and told him, go and read the books. “The books. That’s what she said. She’d wanted to be a teacher but she had these children. She was a disappointed woman. She said, you come from decent, hardworking people. Serious people.” Serious was the word that had haunted his life... His name was Keith Crowley. He was a slight man who looked to the side when he talked. Bowman liked him and liked his writing, but his novel didn’t sell, two or three thousand copies was all. He wrote two more, one of which Bowman published, and then dropped from sight. There are other writers that Salter wants us to remember -- individuals and types at once, like the aging William Swangren, who told stories about Greta Garbo, Somerset Maugham, Thornton Wilder, and “talked about...homosexuality in the ancient world, the intercrural pleasures of the Greeks and his own experiences with gonorrhea. It took eighteenth months to cure with a French doctor putting a tube up him every day and painting the lesions with Argyrol.” Bowman was supposed to reject Swangren’s book, but he “liked him so much that he changed his mind about [it]. They took it. Unfortunately, it sold few copies.” There are also publisher types, like Berggren the Swede, who “had been made for women,” married three times, and who sweeps on and off stage in two pages: With Karen, Berggren did not feel young again but something better. Sex was more than a pleasure, at this age he felt joined to the myths. He had accidentally seen, a few years earlier, a wonderful thing, his mother dressing -- his back was to him, she was seventy-two at the time, her buttocks were smooth and perfect, her waist firm. It was in his genes, then, he could perhaps go on and on, but one day he saw something else, perfectly innocent, Karen and a girlfriend she had known since school lying on the grass in their skimpy bathing suits tanning themselves, face down, side by side, talking to one another and occasionally the leg of one of them kicked idly up into the sun that was soothing their bare backs....He did not try to imagine what they were talking about, it was only their idle happiness in doing it while his own habits were less joyful and animated...On that day and other days he accepted the reality of what happened with women he loved, wives, principally, which was one of the things that led, despite his position and intelligence and the high regard in which he was held, to his suicide at the age of fifty-three, in the year that he and Karen parted. And so in All That Is, there is a compelling and beautiful dance between the foregrounding and backgrounding of characters, lives, narratives. Whereas in the conventional novel, one would neaten up the relative positionings, guide the reader toward narrative priorities, in All That Is Salter reminds us that the “things” of his epigraph are deliberately unspecified; which is notable for a writer known for precision. What happens and what is remembered are distinct narrative lines; the overlap is frequent, yes, but unpredictable; where, how, and why they diverge is deeply interesting. Bowman’s story is told chronologically, and yet each chapter reads like a Rorschach that won’t hold still: here is what happened, here is what is -- what will be -- remembered. Which of it matters? Yes. Exactly. 4. But there is a clear throughline for Bowman’s journey, which is a journey from female to female, in search of the ideal in both sex and love. Bowman is a late-bloomer in both these areas, and he comes to them naïve, hopeful: he wants to believe in their purity, their absolute meaning, and is incredulous when he discovers otherwise: “It was not possible that she did not feel as he did,” he thinks, after the first time Vivian expresses disinterest in sex. And yet his faith revives, time and again -- he aspires to the pure and the virginal with each encounter -- even as it evolves out of innocence into something darker. With Enid, a married Englishwoman, “He felt like a god; they were only beginning,” and He saw himself now to be another kind of man, the kind he had hoped, fully a man, used to the wonder. Enid smoked cigarettes, she did it only now and again, and breathed out the rich fragrance slowly. The light in the Ritz made her beautiful. The sounds of her high heels. There is no other, there will never be another. Similarly, his affair with Christine -- who later betrays him brutally -- is a brilliant dream...With Christine it would be unimaginably rich, living in the sunlight, on the water, on terraces hidden by vines, in the bare rooms of hotels...He wanted the Greek words for morning, night, thank you, love. He wanted some dirty Greek words so he could whisper them. In a recent review of All That Is, John Freeman wrote that the book is “riddled with the sentiments about women of a past time,” and that “In bed, Bowman is always in charge.” I find this sort of reaction to Salter -- indictments of his supposed social regressiveness -- endlessly interesting, because it causes me to interrogate my alternate reaction. Freeman’s observations, strictly speaking, are not inaccurate: but there is the shadow of mistrust in his reading -- of Salter the author, for failing to shake an antiquated worldview, which is something I too have certainly felt reading other white male authors. But with All That Is, I found that my own implicit trust in Salter’s vision of both eroticism and romanticism -- which has been there since I first read Sport several years ago -- began to make sense. Bowman, an only child raised by his mother, comes to both sex and romance relatively late, and with a singular, strong influence on his budding manhood, which is the war and the qualities of courage and honor he internalized. Like all of Salter’s protagonists, Bowman is both flawed and fundamentally honorable -- solitary, resistant to corruption, quietly ambitious, and deeply convinced that the erotic and the Platonic are one in the same; that The act of love is the most serious act of all. There is something distinct about a man discovering his dignity, his pride and valor, prior to his first sexual experience. Freeman compares Bowman to Don Draper, and I too have made similar comparisons between Salter’s world and Matthew Weiner's. But Don’s psychology as a womanizer is portrayed (in the current season, in fact) as a prurient neurosis, traced back to his having been raised in a brothel by a stepmother who despised him. I once asked Salter about Mad Men, and he hadn't at the time ever seen the show. And in a previous email, he'd written, “I admire the cardinal virtues, prudence, fortitude, justice, and mercy,” in relation to a question I asked about the relationship between an artist and his work. Admiring and enacting are different things, of course; both Salter and Bowman I believe recognize this. (As for Don Draper, I'm not so sure.) What goes wrong for Bowman is that he loses the tether to his original influences: the war is long over, his mother has passed, and his friend Eddins, whose interspersed chapters portray the ideal (loving, passionate) mateship that Bowman seeks, has lost that ideal to a tragic accident. Bowman then begins to confound sexual prowess with actual prowess. If All That Is is Bowman’s late-blooming coming-of-age story, then this phase, his late 40s, is his adolescent stage, unseemly and shameless. He commits an ugly act of vengeance, sexual in nature, following Christine’s betrayal, and while the novel does not exactly “punish” him for it, he goes forth into later manhood shaken, self-conscious, and, in the last pages, humbled with gratitude: He wanted nothing more. Her presence was miraculous...He was unsure of himself and of her. He was too old to marry. He didn’t want some late, sentimental compromise. He had known too much for that. He’d been married once, wholeheartedly, and been mistaken... By novel’s end, he -- Salter, Bowman -- has not lost his faith in the seriousness of love, nor the glory of the erotic; but he no longer approaches them with such notions as “attainment,” “possession,” or “supremacy.” 5. While much has been said about Salter’s sentences -- their elegant concision, “expensive” diction, the deftness of surprising pivots, syntax that is both fragmented and polished -- Salter himself reportedly wrote to a friend that, with All That Is, he wanted to “get past the great writer-of-sentences thing,” and presumably the “writers’ writer” thing. Has he done it? The book party was held at the home of Salter’s friends Yves-André Istel and Kathleen Begala, at a tony address on Central Park West, notably similar to the location of Phillip Bowman’s first encounter with the narrow gates of social-class access (which are slammed in his face in that scene). A venerable authoress in attendance swooned -- over both the novel and the man -- when I asked what she thought. When Salter followed Stein’s remarks with a few of his own, he spoke of all the attention the book has been getting and said that it felt like, for once in his literary life, he’d been ushered to the “front of the line.” Later, when I asked him how everything is going, he said, “It’s been big. A lot of stuff. Interviews and coverage. It’s enough to make you envious and me tired.” At 87, Jim Salter did not look tired, but rather energized and elegant, ready as ever to change a tire, then maybe enjoy an excellent martini. “I’ve read the book and will be writing about it,” I said, at that moment not quite sure what I would be writing. He looked up from signing a book none too concerned, an eager fan at his other side. “That would be wonderful,” he replied.
I. Thirty-six. This is the number of books I will have read, or re-read, in 2010, by the end of October. I keep a “Reading List” page on my website, and the other day, I found myself counting up my 2010 reading. I also found myself dividing 36 by 43, which is the number of weeks between January 1 and Oct 31. It comes out to .84. This is my rate of reading. In 2010, I have read .84 books per week. Once upon a time I was good at math. If memory serves me right, I think I may have even gotten the highest score possible on a Calculus Advanced Placement exam. I wonder how different my life would be if I had become, say, an engineer; or an economist; or a CFO. II. But I am none of those things. I am a writer. I also teach fiction writing. A few weeks ago, partially in response to Elif Batuman’s essay in the London Review of Books, “Get A Real Degree,” Bill Morris wrote a piece here called, “Does School Kill Writing?” Morris wrote: “School wasn't my death as a writer, it was my birth… I’m dubious when people fret that school is killing writing – that college boys ruined newspapers and the growing horde of creative writing MFAs is ruining American fiction today.” One of the comments on Morris’s post came from Millions staff writer Emily St. John Mandel: I would be curious to read a piece on this subject someday from the POV of someone who actually teaches in one of these programs, someone who can talk about whether these programs are capable of transformation, or merely refinement […] whether they’re taking already-accomplished writers and just polishing them a little, or whether these programs can take merely capable writers and make them great. I think it would be an interesting perspective. III. “I think the single most defining characteristic of a writer,” I found myself saying to a friend the other day, when she asked my thoughts on the teaching of writing, “I mean the difference between a writer and someone who ‘wants to be a writer,’ is a high tolerance for uncertainty.” IV. Last week, I attended a “lecture on craft” given by Jennifer Egan for Columbia MFA students. After her talk, in which she mentioned that she is an “unconscious writer”—meaning that her first drafts, written by hand on legal pads in nearly-illegible handwriting, are wholly unthinking in regards to craft (it’s in revision that she shapes and carves away and applies conscious craft-thinking)—a student raised her hand and asked what sorts of goals she sets, given said unconsciousness. “Five pages,” she said. “Every day I aim for five pages. It doesn’t matter how much time I spend. I’m after the pages.” I saw a number of students scribbling in their notebooks. I thought I heard a collective exhale of relief. Five pages. Something concrete, something quantifiable. Especially after Egan had also mentioned that she never thinks about point-of-view (the voice of a character or narrator always “just comes to me, fully formed”) and that she has no idea where her prescience re: technological anthropology (evident in both A Visit From the Good Squad and Look at Me) came from, since she herself is “lame” and “behind the curve” as a technology user. V. When you teach writing, you have to have a sort of world-view about it, or else you’ll go a little nutty. Here’s mine: at a certain level, there is pretty-good writing (“capable,” in Emily’s words), there is really-good writing, and there is great writing. Most of us will move among these categories throughout our lives; we'll aim for greatness and more often than not land somewhere along the way. If you are earnest in this endeavor, if you understand that your pretty-good writing can and must always be getting better, then I can’t see why I, as a teacher, shouldn’t encourage and help you along as best I can. The truth is that your pretty-good writing may very well get published and make you famous; it’s happened before. Your great writing may never see the light of day. Your really-good writing may get published and be read by very few. You may write something great this time around and something pretty-good next time around and something not-very-good-at-all a few years down the road and never get published at all. It’s happened before. (Read this, and this, if you don’t believe me.) I don’t decide these things. I’m only here to help you write better, because I think it’s important and worthwhile. As readers, each of us will necessarily put different books into each of these categories, and we may even change our minds about certain books over time. So I never give my students the once-over and think that only those who comprise the top two categories can or should be encouraged. There are many paths to a writing life; those paths twist and turn and are haunted by the cruelties of subjectivity, along with the inevitably erratic application of our gifts. I can forgive anyone’s so-called mediocrity, mine included, as long as the writer herself is not satisfied with it. VI. A writer friend of mine used to always report to me his short story in-progress word counts. I found this funny and endearing. When I was about halfway through a novel draft, I started tracking my word counts and reporting them on my blog. It wasn’t funny to me, though, and probably not endearing to anyone else; I needed markers, a sense of how far I’d come and how far I thought I had to go. I was in the wilderness on this draft. Around the same time, another novelist friend started reporting his word counts on Facebook. I commented on one of his word-count posts: “Let’s make it en vogue to track and report word counts!” He replied, “Yes!” VII. Some anecdotes from the lives/careers of some authors I’ve read just this past month, which remind me of the uncertainty of the writing life: From the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Tolstoy’s stories: “Of the eleven stories in this collection, only four were published in Tolstoy’s lifetime.” Hadji Murad, Father Sergius, The Devil, and Alyosha the Pot are among the stories published only posthumously. (Hadji Murad!) Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was published to wide acclaim when she was 23. She received two Guggenheim awards. Throughout her 20’s she suffered many illnesses and was paralyzed on her entire left side at the age of 31, shortly before she attempted suicide. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe was adapted into a play by Edward Albee (while she was alive), and later into a Merchant Ivory film (long after her death). While writing his luminous novel Light Years, James Salter wrote to Robert Phelps: I love this book. I'm writing it for myself and an audience composed of me's [...] It's going to have many beautiful jumps, sauts, perhaps it will be a ballet [...] Some things I love in it I love as one loves a woman. The book received mixed reviews - two bad ones in the NY Times - and sold modestly. Junot Diaz wrote, regarding the process of writing his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Life of Oscar Wao, five years into it: I started becoming convinced that I had written all I had to write [...] that maybe it was time, for the sake of my mental health, for me to move on to another profession, and if the inspiration struck again some time in the future... well, great. But I knew I couldn't go on much more the way I was going. I just couldn't [...] My fiancée was so desperate to see me happy (and perhaps more than a little convinced by my fear that maybe the thread had run out on my talent) that she told me to make a list of what else I could do besides writing [...] It took a month to pencil down three things. (I really don't have many other skills.) I stared at that list for about another month. Waiting, hoping, praying for the book, for my writing, for my talent to catch fire. A last-second reprieve. But nada. So I put the manuscript away. All the hundreds of failed pages, boxed and hidden in a closet. I think I cried as I did it. VIII. The thing I feel that I cannot exactly teach, but can only hope to model and emphasize to student writers, is this tolerance for uncertainty; for a life that is indeed characterized by uncertainty. As when you learn to drive a stick shift, there is a kind of “friction zone,” where your inner imperative to write and your tolerance for uncertainty cross each other, and the energy balance of that intersection either sets you off into motion, or you stall. I have seen many talented would-be writers stall (especially on steep inclines). Some find their way to restarting (as, of course, Diaz did); others give up for good, they trade in for an automatic. As a teacher, I try to exemplify and nurture a deep love of reading and of sentence-and-story-making—one’s only stay against doubt and the feeling of non-existence that will inevitably creep in. I try to give student writers enough “gas” to help them manage and master the friction zone, so that they come to know that feeling of ignition, of takeoff, both bumpy and smooth, and develop a liking for it, an abiding passion, even an addiction. When I sit down with a student and suggest that reading this book or that author may help him understand how to better execute a half-baked story idea, and that student eagerly seeks out those works, and keeps asking for more, I feel hopeful about that student’s future as a writer. On the other hand, when a student looks at me blankly and doesn’t even write down the suggestions—doesn’t seem to want to be nourished by literature and get better, but rather simply wants me to praise her originality as is—then I feel I can see the writing (trailing off) on the wall. IX. It’s hard to write well. But it may be even harder to simply keep writing; which, by the way, is the only way to write better. In the meantime, aim for five pages. Report your word counts. Track your rate of reading. Teach math on the side if you have to. Whatever you need to do. Hang in there. Image: Riforma della scuola via Funky64's photostream