Time flies. Six years ago Jonathan Lethem published The Ecstasy of Influence, a sprawling collection of essays, sketches, interviews, and fiction, knitted together with candid autobiographical notes. Since then, he’s brought out his ninth and 10th novels — Dissident Gardens and A Gambler’s Anatomy — as well as a story collection, Lucky Alan and Other Stories, and apen monograph on the album Fear of Music. A new year, another book. More Alive and Less Lonely collects literary essays, introductions and book reviews from the last 20-plus years. The book was edited — or curated, rather — for Melville House by Christopher Boucher, whose two novels (How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive; Golden Delicious), as I recently read them, significantly altered my perception of language in fiction, reminding me of when I first encountered Lionel Essrog, the compulsively lyrical narrator of Lethem’s now classic New York crime novel, Motherless Brooklyn.
In the spirit of generosity and of abundance, both author and editor agreed to participate in a roundtable conducted recently over several days of emails. Unlike in the humorous essay “The Counter-Roth” included in the new book, which details Lethem’s attempts to entertain Philip Roth at literary functions, I made it clear up front I had abandoned any hope of making either of these writers laugh.
The Millions: This collection caught me completely by surprise, even though I’m an avid reader of Jonathan’s work and previously hunted down several of these pieces online. The editor’s introduction states that a framework and coherence were evident early on among the 60 or so short essays in this book. Were there other breakthroughs later in the process?
Christopher Boucher: It’s fun to think back to the very beginnings of the process, when Jonathan started sending me contenders for the collection. I’d loved The Ecstasy of Influence, and so these uncollected essays seemed like a gift — my own “lonely book” (see “The Loneliest Book I’ve Read”), if you will.
As I remember it, we came to the idea of a “book on books” early on — during our first meeting at Melville House. I was thrilled with this direction, because that was the book I wanted to read. As a diehard fan of Jonathan’s fiction, I gravitated towards his essays on books and literature — I found them addictive, sneakily-instructive, and full of the same joyful inquiry and insight that’s so prevalent in Ecstasy. What’s more, these essays made me want to read — to drop everything and read for days. I liked the idea of trying to create the same experience for the reader — to curate a book that served as a readerly “wake-up call.”
That said, though, we left a lot of wonderful material out. Along the way, too, I found myself lobbying for a rather broad definition of “books and writers” so that we could include as many essays as possible. I remember really wanting to include Jonathan’s fictional exchange between his character Perkus Tooth and director Spike Jonze (“The Original Piece of Wood I Left in Your Head”), for example. While it’s unlike anything else in the book, it’s just so poignant and funny.
Jonathan Lethem: For me, the image of this book emerged in the negative space described by my two earlier essay collections — The Disappointment Artist, and The Ecstasy of Influence. The first one, Disappointment Artist, is really a memoir of my teenage life and self-invention as a writer, disguised as a cycle of cultural essays. It’s about losing my mother and understanding my relationship to my father and concealing my vulnerabilities behind movies and pop music and books. The form is exclusive and everything I wrote in that mode is included in that short book (arguably, the Cassavetes piece doesn’t really belong). Ecstasy of Influence is a baggy monster, full of writing in different modes, and on different occasions. There’s even fiction in there, and a poem. It’s a deliberate — and obnoxious, I’m sure — attempt to measure the space I’d blundered into as a “public intellectual,” which wasn’t a plan I’d had for myself. It’s modeled, for better and worse, on Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself.
What was excluded from those collections created the possibility that became More Alive and Less Lonely. I’d written more often on books and writers than on any other topic, in the form of reviews and introductions, largely. And “appreciations.” Writing about books was the first thing I did besides writing fiction, and the first thing I published in any venue (in the Philip K. Dick Society Newsletter, when I was 22). I reviewed a few books for Salon in the mid-’90s — one of those earliest examples is included here, on Jill Robinson’s Past Forgetting. And the first book I was ever asked to introduce was Walter Tevis’s Mockingbird. That’s here too. It’s really the heart of my activities, the center of my life, as a reader, bookseller, and “author.” It’s a book of devotions, basically.
TM: Were there specific collections (by other writers) that occurred to either of you during this process?
JL: By way of comparison, I thought mostly of books by British writers — things like Anthony Burgess’s Homage to Qwert Yuiop, or Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Afterlife — books that are full of things like introductions and “appreciations.” I think the ways my bookishness manifests itself are more like a U.K. writer than like an American one, honestly.
But I didn’t shove any of these comparisons at Chris. I preferred to let him find the form and the tone, and to do all the heavy lifting here. I really let him wade through the morass — and there was more ass than you’d think. He covered it, for the most part.
TM: I’m curious, how were the pieces received? How many at a time? Over what period of time? Were there any changes or cuts made to specific essays, or other issues or obstacles that came up in bringing this work into book form?
CB: Conversations about this project began in December of 2015, when a mutual friend put Jonathan and me in contact by email. Jonathan sent me 60 or so pieces to review, and we met to discuss the project in early 2016. It was during that meeting that we first talked about the idea of a “book on books.” With a preliminary theme in mind, I dug in and started looking for threads in the essays that could inform their sequencing and the book’s scope and shape. These pieces were published at different times and in a variety of venues, so our reader was going to have do some time travel. And I didn’t want them to feel “unstuck,” or mapless. So I searched for ways for the book to stake out its range and territory early on — that was certainly my goal in the first chapter, “Engulf and Devour,” which shifts from a “devotion” on a book from Jonathan’s childhood to pieces on Moby-Dick and Philip Roth.
Later in the book, the essays focus in on specific writers (Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip K. Dick), link thematically (as in the last chapter, “Fan Mail”), or connect via what I think of as “channels” — inquiries or enthusiasms that reappear in different garb. I love the various forms of nostalgia expressed in the chapter “It Can Still Take Me There,” for example — there’s a piece on the character of Batman, and further on, an essay about Jonathan’s encounter with the beat hero Herbert Huncke.
As the book took shape, Jonathan sent along other pieces that might fit. To my delight, he also wrote some new essays that helped round out the chapters and complete some of the narratives therein. One of my favorite pieces in the book, for example, is his “Footnote on Thomas Berger,” a new piece that follows two previously-published essays on Berger. I won’t spoil it, but it’s an astounding story.
Editorially, most of the heavy lifting took place last summer. Since most of these pieces were previously published, I saw my work as a sort of literary forensics: I read the manuscript version against the published version, and sent Jonathan edits that catalogued all editorial discrepancies and suggested a way forward. I sent these to Jonathan in batches of 10 or so and he returned finalized versions. Overall, my edits were modest — these essays were already in fighting shape. We settled on a preliminary structure and title by July, and the manuscript was submitted a few weeks later.
JL: I’m fighting the temptation to satirize Chris’s scrupulous account of all his due diligence with claims of my having handled the perimeter defense, or being the one in charge of bringing the ziplock bags of trail mix. “First I built a bonfire hot enough to melt down the horse’s hooves,” etc. But the truth is that I did nothing so comprehensive or thoughtful even as that. I really just dumped that initial catastrophe’s worth of pieces on Chris, by means of Dropbox. Then, to make matters worse, I sporadically discovered pieces I’d missed or forgotten about entirely that were hiding either in dingy corners of the Internet or of my own hard-drive, and sent those along as well.
As Chris began to settle on pieces — which didn’t happen all at once, but in sequences — I periodically flew into a panic of rewriting. I think I did a bit more “improving” — or at least triage — on these clumsy old sentences than Chris shows signs of being aware of. Mostly I tried to simplify tormented thoughts into merely agitated ones.
I really like hearing about Chris’s concerns about the risk of “maplessness” and the way he thought of his solution in terms of “channels.” I find the design and flow he arrived at consistently surprising and delightful, nothing I’d have managed myself. That feeling extends to the title of the various sections, and the title of the book itself, which are all Chris’s discoveries.
TM: Readers now can go over the trail themselves to find a discarded ziplock, map in hand. The Hawkman trail? To borrow language describing two kinds of Pynchon novels (in the essay “Pychonopolis”) this new collection teeters between Comparatively Stable and Utterly Centrifugal. Not because it is chaotic but because there is narrative drive and so many plot threads. The time-travel aspect, far from disorienting, is gratifying. What was lived, and sometimes suffered through, for decades, we see transpire in a few pages. I’m wondering if Jonathan’s attitude toward collaboration has changed at all since the famous Harper’s essay and his “Promiscuous” Internet project, where material he authored was made available for filmmakers and music bands?
JL: Well, I’m in no way repentant, if that’s what you mean. All of my impulses — my yearnings — are still in the direction of a gift economy. It seems even more urgent to me now, more bound up in our political lives, all this stuff: acknowledging intertextuality, breaking the spell of “property” over our expressive cultural lives, find ways to reclaim a commons or create a “temporary autonomous zone” wherever possible. Locating versions of mutual aid for artists and artworks. Distinguishing corporatist imperatives from life imperatives. Not that I have some coherent political plan on offer!
The Promiscuous Materials site is in disrepair — I need to rework it, and freshen it up, make it inviting again. I’m not web-savvy that way, and there are only so many hours in the day. Still, people still do find their way to those stories and texts and song lyrics and make their own things out of them from time to time. I’m glad about that. I should say that it wasn’t some major experiment, I don’t make any such claim for it. The project was more a gesture — a mild provocation, combined with a sort of playground. Like a community garden in a vacant lot.
My main job is writing novels, and as I get older I know I’ve got to exclude a lot of other involvements. Too often that means missing chances to collaborate, and locking myself in my room. But I’m still really dedicated to breaking down the dull imperial notion of the novelist-as-Prometheus. Finding ways to introduce apertures or slippages in the mask of authority — both inside the text, and around it.
CB: My response here skims the surface of your question, Chris, but for me this project has been wholly defined by Jonathan’s generosity. After the briefest of introductions in late 2015, Jonathan invited me to help steer this ship; I’ll always be grateful for, and amazed by, the trust he showed in me from the get-go. Received en masse as they were, too, these essays felt very much like “uncommodifiable surpluses of inspiration” — like gifts, in other words.
This seems like a good time, too, to note that Jonathan’s donating all of his earnings from the book, and that half the proceeds are going to the charity Doctors Without Borders. Jonathan included this proviso in the initial book proposal, and I think it set the tone for the entire project. While I know I’m speaking of a different currency now than the one that drives the gift-economy, the creation of this book was certainly driven by a “Give All” sensibility.
TM: That kind of generosity is inspiring. Now pet theories are kicking around in my mind. Did the choice of Doctors Without Borders have anything to do with the list of doctors acknowledged in last year’s A Gambler’s Anatomy and the convincing, or convincingly imagined, medical research involved in that book, or does the association go back further?
JL: I’m sure it would be easy to overthink it. The fact is that I’ve always just been astonishingly moved by what they do. Which is no knock on, say, The Southern Poverty Law Center, or The Center for Biological Diversity, or many other possible destinations. But you have to pick one. Doctors Without Borders might seem to me — I’ve never thought about this, exactly, before — like the ultimate opposite of the kind of indirect politics practiced even by the most righteous of us artists and writers (I don’t mean myself). That’s to say, where we’re by definition operating in the realm of the figurative and the intangible, in my case also the hesitant and ambiguous. While they are literally rushing bodily into zones of violence and crisis and putting bandages on other human bodies. So it was the least I could do. Let’s leave it at that.
Oh, but I should confess here that the doctors acknowledged in A Gambler’s Anatomy aren’t all doctors! By the time my list of acknowledgees had four or five doctors on it, it seemed fair — I mean, it seemed funny — to award the same title to Chris Offutt, and to my wife. Doctors of my spirit, and doctors to my book.
TM: The acknowledgments reminded me of the dedication, also funny, in Stanley Elkin’s The Dick Gibson Show. A list of radio hosts and their stations — Jean Shepherd; WOR…etc — ending with Joan Elkin; WIFE. I guess compared with the earlier discussion of a cultural commons, I was struck in this new collection by more traditional roles of authorship, for the reader respecting what great authors do on their terms. Which of course is a different matter, although I admit conflating them a little. One of my favorite pieces is the essay on Joseph McElroy. It does a great job anticipating a reader’s objections while full-throatedly supporting a big league writer’s craft. Are there some artists that, more than others, represent some kind of line or limit? With McElroy, “narrative ‘sense'” sums it up. Have you experienced any conversions during your reading lives? This essay does much toward recruiting me to the McElroy camp.
JL: Elkin’s WIFE, I’d forgotten that. Genius — I wouldn’t try to compete. But my own wife regards my honorary doctorates as embarrassing jokes, so I took my revenge by awarding her a bogus one too.
As for the opposition you suggest between “authors doing things on their terms” and the cultural commons, I’d say nah. My whole point, if I had one, was that to wade into the cultural commons was my description of what authors do when authors do what they do — on their terms. Anyway that’s how it feels to me. Whether conscious or semi-conscious or unconscious of the fact, we’re all intertextually polymorphous-perverse in the end. As Dr. George Harrison wrote, “text goes on within you and without you.”
I’m glad I rallied your curiosity about McElroy — he’ll gratify it (though, honestly, I probably wouldn’t pick up Ancient History as an entry point. Try Lookout Cartridge first.) But since I’ve gotten started picking apart premises lurking in your questions, let me do it again, and protest the terms “big-league,” “conversion” and “recruit.” Because I know McElroy is generally associated with “difficulty,” and so what I hear in those words of yours is a kind of reader’s hierarchy of striving, as if reading him or someone like him is a matter of stepping up to some higher realm or duty. I’m not into it. Too much Protestant work ethic in there, and status-seeking, and a hair shirt too. Read hedonistically instead. McElroy offers a delicious blast of oxygen — it’s fun to be in his brain, that’s the reason to go there. I mean, if it turns you on to think of your reading of great novels, whether canonical or modernist or postmodernist or translated or just loooong, as some kind of sacrificial devotional act or military campaign or mountain-climbing expedition, go ahead. But admit that that’s what turns you on! Life’s too short to be intimidated by the books that are waiting only to be picked up and encountered, and then devoured, if you like what’s on offer — it’s like being intimidated by food.
CB: I’ll resist the urge to go literal here and steer us towards the last piece in the book, “Books Are Sandwiches,” and say instead that I love this answer because it reminds me, as a reader, to eat what I like and all that I can — to follow my instincts without regard for anything that might obstruct my engagement with the page. Some of my favorite moments in the book, too, are those when Jonathan finds vitality in places I wouldn’t have known to look for it — when he hails Chester Brown as a “a citizen of the timeless nation of the dissident soul,” for example, or sees in the work of Gilbert Sorrentino “a mind whose only way of handling a first introduction is to blurt out ‘Don’t we know one another already?’”, or praises Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments as “an object in furious motion, humming with its own energy, and all you might wish to do is touch it, alter its trajectory barely, so as to nudge it into universal view.”
TM: One other term that probably does more to activate a reader’s resistance, if the book doesn’t conform to the reader’s preconceived notion of said term, is novel. It’s understood that this is the reader’s problem, the reader’s loss. Although, also it’s a cultural loss if the book or author goes out of print, which lends an urgency to what’s said about the lesser-read authors praised in this book and elsewhere. In The Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan calls the dip in John Barth “terrifying.” This collection nonetheless concerns novels, second only to the unmitigated joy of reading anything. It’s largely a novelist’s bag of novels and novelists. What draws you to writing novels?
CB: What I love about the novel, both as a writer and a reader, is that it lives with you for a while, imprints itself on you. The novels that first invited me to write one, though, were particularly strange machines: The Age of Wire and String, for example,and Trout Fishing in America. I remember well the experience of reading the latter for the first time, and how the world continued buzzing for me even when I wasn’t reading it; it felt like having a pair of anti-gravity boots stowed away in my backpack. No other object has informed my life quite like my favorite novels have.
From a craft perspective, the novel caters to the kinds of risks that I like to take in my writing. Because of my early influences, perhaps, I’m drawn to building my own strange machines. Also, I don’t think novelistically, as I know some writers do. I have to think small, write small, and I only find my novels once I’m inside them. I began my second book, for example, with one stand-alone piece about a piano that changes your point of view, and another about a character who has a sentence for a pet. It wasn’t until a year later, maybe, that I admitted to myself that these should be part of the same narrative. At the core of my process is a certain unease or anxiety about the form, and I’m glad for that — I think it’s a good place to write from.
Even so, I marvel at those writers who seem to have an easier relationship with the form. Jonathan’s one of my favorite living novelists, and for me his novels are built like tanks — each one different from the last, and yet always dizzyingly inventive, uniquely ambitious, and expertly constructed. Reading A Gambler’s Anatomy, for example, I was amazed by its grand design — the way that the narrative arc, pacing, and sentence-level music all work together. I’m curious to hear what he has to say about a form to which he clearly brings such mastery.
JL: “A novelist’s bag of novels and novelists” — you make it sound like a sack of cats! Yet one also being carried around by another, larger cat. Or a smaller one who is struggling with a very large sack.
Well, I doubt I could write a more impassioned love letter to the novel than Chris B. has done here, so instead I’ll play the feisty elder, and remind you young whippersnappers what Norman Mailer said when someone played devil’s advocate about the viability of his chosen form (some of which devil’s advocacy I think I hear in your question). I quote: “The novel will be at your funeral!”
Maybe me and Boucher have our heads too far up the wazoo of the novel to realize that the world has moved on to other, better things…the human attention span having suffered irreparable damage,,,I doubt it…but even if so, it has been a pretty good place to spend my life. What I really think is this: the novel is the least airless, the least restrictive, the least solipsistic of wazoos to have climbed up. It is a wazoo with a view.
Okay, to be a bit more serious, I really have come to understand that the humbling mystery of my chosen practice is how capacious the damn thing is. It holds together impossible things (like life itself). It even makes room for the anti-novel — for those always turn out to be novels, too. It models human consciousness in any number of ways — by its involvement simultaneously in narrative and language and also sensation, dreaming and projection and fear, and with our feeling of duration — time, that is. It concerns itself with concurrence of being-in-our-heads (that’s the siren call of solipsism) and being-in-the-herd (the basic fact that we’re social creatures, wandering among others every day of our lives). The two are simultaneous immersions, never resolving their permanent juxtaposition. The novel actually captures this! How incredible. And even the shortest and simplest novel is oceanic, confusing, too big to get your head around, or see all at once (again, like life).
Anyway, this here bag of cats — it’s got other things in it, I swear. There’s my mother-in-law, in the “Footnote to Berger.” She’s no novelist! There are cameos by any number of others — painters, poets, children, and teenaged pre-novelist me. It’s less lonely because it’s fungible to human beings. As are novels. Whereas bags of cats are just — well, cats, all the way down.
Last winter I visited family in the Texas Hill Country for the holiday. As always happens when my cousins and I find ourselves in our ancestral home for any extended time, full of ham and sick to death of Friends reruns, we eventually made our annual pilgrimage to the thrift store. A quick walk down the street from my grandparents’ house, the local D.A.V. is little more than a shack with a cracked concrete front porch and dumpsters full of castoff donations in the back. This isn’t one of those classed-up thrift stores one sometimes finds in cities, full of marked-down designer goods and “hidden gems.” The D.A.V. is a store with a wall of dusty coffee carafes, their matching coffee makers long lost, bins of fuzzy toys still full of fleas, and tables stacked with naked VHS tapes and elementary school dioramas. Everything feels like it came from the home of a retired rancher who also happened to be something of a fashion plate in the ’80s. To say we love it is an understatement.
In the back of the D.A.V. there’s a dark, water-damaged corner with a few bookcases, which someone half-heartedly started organizing five years ago and then abandoned. My cousins and I usually avoid this area — it’s a little creepy, even for our Southern Gothic tastes, and the books aren’t very appealing. Aside from the typical thrift store celebrity memoirs, Christian romances, and cookbooks, there isn’t much selection, and my attention is usually too absorbed in comparing polyester shirts and chipped coffee mugs to even browse. But on this particular trip, I spotted a bottle-green book marked Plot Outlines of 101 Best Novels on the first and only shelf I looked into, and promptly added it to my cache of broken and cast-off items. I bought the book for 80 cents, took it home, and immediately forgot all about it.
Three months later, I found it again while straightening up my apartment. Only last week did I actually check through which 101 novels are immortalized as “best.” Collected and printed by Barnes & Noble in 1962, 29 years before I was born, that 101 includes only 56 titles I recognize. I have read a mere 19. Among them are the usual classics — Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Odyssey, Little Women. But there’s also Ivanhoe, which I’ve read, and Ben-Hur, which I haven’t, despite my grandfather’s frequent prodding, and then there’s something called File No. 113, which I didn’t know was a book at all and which frankly sounds awful.
Of course the very idea of a book composed solely of the plots of other books is ridiculous, and I bought it mostly as a joke. Let’s read what they have to say about Moby-Dick, I thought. Try to sum that up in two pages! And what’s Les Mis like in 3,000 words or less?
But underneath that joke was a little sincere curiosity — what is File No. 113? – and more than a little self-recognition. If I was alive and reading in 1962, decades before Google and Wikipedia and Goodreads, I just might have purchased Plot Outlines of 101 Best Novels at the original price of $1.75 out of a very sincere and un-ironic impulse to know as much as possible about every book ever published without necessarily taking the time to read them all. I say this because I have that impulse now, in 2015, and because I had it in 1996, when I learned how to read, and if I am lucky enough to make it to 2062 I will probably have it then, too.
I was raised on book abridgments. I hoarded my allowance to buy Children’s Classics at the dollar store, titles like The Three Musketeers and Journey to the Center of the Earth condensed into little 100-page versions, illustrated with loose line drawings and bound in cardboard covers. These “classics” took me only about a day to consume, and as they stacked up on my childhood bookcase I began to feel quite well-read for a child 10 years old.
One of the best of these classics was 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, with its illustrations of the elegant submarine and the characters’ daring underwater explorations. I knew enough to understand I didn’t have the full story, and when I was 10 I begged my parents to buy me the original novel for Christmas, which they obligingly did. I was thrilled to unwrap the little blue book, with its sober cover and 600 pages, but when I started reading the type was too small and the sentences too long. After struggling mightily through about 50 pages, there was no sign of the Nautilus and I abandoned the new book in favor of my old cardboard version.
My favorite book during these years didn’t come from the dollar store, but it was an abridgment — a shortened version of Ivanhoe, also in a bottle green cover, this time illustrated with a knight on horseback, carrying a shield and a banner. It was longer and more coherent than the chopped-up dollar store books, and I loved the adventure of the story, the castles and tournaments and battles and ladies. So when I was 13, a few formative years after the Jules Verne failure, I set out to read the original version, lengthy exposition, dated language and all. This time I found I still loved the book, though in a different way. True, Ivanhoe no longer offered that sugary high of constant action and adventure, but there was a lingering pleasure that came from a slow immersion in Walter Scott’s long scenes. I spent hours unraveling the relationships that linked his massive cast of characters and reread the climactic battle scene (which was about as long in the original version as the whole novel was in abridgment) several times straight through. The full novel had a complexity that the shortened version clearly lacked, and though it required more work than I was used to, it was also a more rewarding reading experience. I liked reading difficult books, I realized. This was fun. This was better. And though my definition of “difficult” has changed again and again over the years, that enjoyment has stayed.
This is not to say that I’ve outgrown my craving for easily digestible narratives stripped of meaty content. I enjoy struggling with difficult books, sure, but I also Google movie plots constantly, often while watching the movie in question. I read recaps of new episodes of Game of Thrones, though I stopped watching the show several seasons ago, and I skipped the first however-many seasons of Breaking Bad, but made sure to catch the finale. Of course I should know better — what did I learn from rereading Ivanhoe 10 years ago if not to savor the actual work of reading (or, in these cases, watching), to reap the benefits of sustained attention and commitment?
But I have a small stockpile of excuses at the ready, which I deploy on my scornful friends and family every time they fuss at my Wikipedia addiction. These range from the petty (I hate suspense, and feeling left out of conversations, and just generally being ignorant) to the refined (I do away with all that petty plot business up front so that I can focus on the actual art, you know?)
Vladimir Nabokov claimed that there was no reading, only rereading. I’m tempted to agree, and my argument, though different from his, might go something like this: the first read of a given story is often so concerned with plot, with the simple mechanics of a story, the “this happened then this then this,” that it’s difficult to appreciate the story’s craft. It takes at least another reread, and probably more than that, to really appreciate a written work in its full complexity and significance. And here’s where my justification for summary addiction becomes grandiose beyond all bearing: what if I can skip that first plot-driven read by just checking a synopsis so that when I encounter a text for the first time I’m free to notice and appreciate all of it?
Turns out, it doesn’t really work like that, however much I wish it did. Knowing a major plot point beforehand spoils some of the effect. Of course it does. I’m reminded too of a time when I was little and found a book version of the first Indiana Jones film. I was so upset by reading about Indy and Marian escaping a chamber of vipers by smashing through a room filled with mummies and skeletal miscellany that when we watched the movie I cried real tears trying to convince my parents to fast-forward through the scene. They didn’t, much to their credit, and that particular cinematic moment turned out not to be nearly as terrifying or significant as I’d expected. The Raiders of the Lost Ark is still one of my favorite films, and I hate to think that I might have missed it due to summary-induced hysteria.
My plot habit has cost me in other ways, too. Having a decent sense of the overall plan of a book or movie has frequently disrupted the very sense of community I’m trying to create. I read Moby-Dick in one of those dollar store abridgments when I was about 10, and remember in vivid detail an illustration of Fedallah, the dark prophet Ahab sneaks on board the Pequod. Ten years later I read the full Moby-Dick over the course of a college semester and met weekly with a professor and three other students to compare our progress and discuss our thoughts. Part of the fun of this exercise was supposed to be the shared process of discovery — none of us students had ever read all of Moby-Dick before. But when we came to the particularly eerie chapter in which Ishmael sees five shadows dart on board the Pequod (the first foreshadowing of Fedallah’s eventual appearance), I couldn’t join in my classmate’s excitement and speculation. I knew exactly what the shadows were — some of the magic was lost for me. Somewhat similarly, a few of my friends dislike talking about Game of Thrones with me because they know full well I didn’t suffer through any of the show’s horrors, as they did, but simply read about it later on The Atlantic. I’m not a full member of the club, and I know it.
In fact, I’ve begun to worry that plot summaries (and my generally unthinking impulse to read them at the slightest provocation) actually run completely contrary to the purposes of books and film and television. I’m not helping my reading, I’m defeating it; I’m not becoming more well-versed in modern culture, I’m ensuring my separation from it. Yes, by Googling reviews of the latest Game of Thrones episode rather than watching it, I’m protecting myself from the adrenaline-fueled horror of seeing someone be hacked to bits or poisoned or set aflame. I’m encountering the story with a much clearer head than I would have if I were actually watching. But I’m also missing a vital piece of the show — it’s meant to be horrifying. And when I know that Fedallah just snuck onboard the Pequod, I’m missing something there, too: I don’t get the full sense of foreshadowing that Herman Melville intended, don’t feel the full weight of Ishmael’s quiet but growing dread. The moment becomes just another plot point to check off my mental list.
Perhaps this is all just a continuation of a much older and larger argument about why we read or watch movies or enjoy any kind of artistic entertainment. Is it a primarily emotional or mental exercise? Can it be both? By reading the plot summary of any given work, am I choosing the mental by default? By refusing to engage with a work on its own terms, am I negating the exact thing I mean to be enjoying and celebrating? Yes, I think. Maybe I am. Probably I shouldn’t. Perhaps it’s time to watch a movie and be sincerely surprised by everything that happens. Maybe it’s time to finally outgrow my love of dollar store abridgments.
But let us return, one last time, to Plot Outlines of 101 Best Novels. What does it have to tell us about Ivanhoe? Nothing at all. The “plot outline,” condensed by some Prof. Fenwick Harris, is nothing more than a page-long excerpt lifted from the novel’s climatic battle scene, paired with a short critical essay on the significance of the Jewish Lady Rebecca. Given this and nothing else, a reader couldn’t possibly understand Ivanhoe. I’m not sure they could tell you a single significant thing about it. Reading the novel for the first time they would encounter every plot point naturally, would feel every feeling, and I wouldn’t dare complain. Perhaps this is the plot summary in its most natural state, freed from all excuses and justifications: mostly useless, a little ridiculous, and ultimately beside the point.
Image Credit: Nicholas Eckhart.
First, a parable for manliness in the 21st century:
Throughout graduate school, I’ve made ends meet by clearing land on a ranch owned by an acquaintance. Not long ago, my daughter, who is four, came to work with me. My wife, who stayed home, sent her off in boots and a cowgirl hat over a pair of pigtail braids.
While I worked, my daughter followed behind me with a miniature set of clippers, chopping the ends off of cedar branches and throwing the pieces onto the brush piles I was building. Then she helped me find firewood, and then we roasted hot dogs and made s’mores and shared stories and jokes until bedtime.
The next morning in the ranch house, as I was helping get her dressed, I started to pull her hair into a ponytail. “No,” she said, “I want a braid.” I started to say Sweetie, mama does that, not daddy, because at home her mother does her hair. But I stopped myself. I can figure it out, I thought. Braiding hair can’t be that hard. And I did it. I braided her hair.
I was stupidly proud of that braid the rest of the day, proud like I had been the first time I started my own campfire. When I got home and told my wife about it, she was less awed: “Of course you can braid hair,” she said. “You’re a grown man.”
The point is that there are different ways of looking at manliness: in one view, manliness is what differentiates men from women; in another, it’s what separates a grownup (who identifies as a man) from a child. It’s adulthood, performed by a male-type person. In the first view, the manly thing to do if you find yourself in my position is not to braid your daughter’s hair, because that’s not what men do. In the second, the manly thing is to do it, because you’re a grownup responsible for a little girl, and this one little thing will make her day better. You can do it, so you should.
In case it’s not clear, I hold the second position. It seems to me a more valuable understanding of manhood, the one that makes manliness actually matter. More importantly, it doesn’t block manliness off from any part of goodness — like being nurturing or cooperative, which are characteristics useful in any grownup. Instead, it makes manliness synonymous with goodness, with doing the right thing.
Think of the ways we talk about manliness: as making necessary sacrifices for those who depend on us, doing what needs to be done, choosing the ugly truth over the pretty lie. Leaving behind the comfortable, taking risks when they’re needed. In all of those definitions, we’re still just talking about being good, brave, responsible. And if that’s what we mean by manliness, then we have to acknowledge the fact that women are now — and always have been — as good at it as men are. Which, in turn, means that men can, and ought to, learn manliness from women.
This idea, that men can learn how to be from women, hits right at a number of controversies related to religion and the contemporary world. You might remember, for example, Cardinal Raymond Burke and his comments on the “feminization” of the Catholic Church. Those comments only make sense if you hold the first view of manliness. Because if you hold the second, the “feminization” of the church doesn’t matter. After all, no one (not even Cardinal Burke) is saying that girl altar servers or women readers or any women helping at church are less devout, less disciplined, less faithful, less willing to sacrifice than men or boys (“The girls were also very good at altar service,” says Burke, as if that’s proof they need to be excluded). If those are the virtues the Church is supposed to be teaching, and if men are refusing to learn those virtues because they’re being taught by women or girls, then — as Michael Boyle points out — those men need to grow up. Or, to put it more plainly, they need to man up.
Speaking of learning from women, a few months ago, a “manliness” website called the Art of Manliness posted the commencement address Adm. William McRaven gave last May at my school, the University of Texas. It’s a great speech: in it, McRaven takes 10 things he learned at SEAL training and generalizes them into life lessons. Like: “don’t back down from the sharks,” and “measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers.” And the lesson that gives the speech its title: “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.” McRaven said:
If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another.
By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.
If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.
That’s absolutely right. But as much as I liked the speech — and I really, really liked it — these days I need something more. I mean, I know I should make my bed, and I do. But that doesn’t get me one page closer to finished with my dissertation. It doesn’t get me job interviews or help me speak with ease and confidence when I do get those interviews. In fact, making my bed (like doing the dishes and mowing the lawn) is one of my ways of procrastinating, of making myself feel productive without doing the stuff I need to. Making my bed has become, for me, a marked card.
“Marked card,” you may already know, is a reference to an essay that gives me something McRaven’s speech doesn’t. I keep a copy of this other essay printed out in my desk drawer, my go-to pep talk: it’s Joan Didion’s “On Self-Respect.” In that piece, Didion writes:
The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. One shuffles flashily but in vain through one’s marked cards — the kindness done for the wrong reason, the apparent triumph which involved no real effort, the seemingly heroic act into which one had been shamed.
Maybe pep talk is the wrong word. More of a stern talking-to.
A high point of the essay comes in this passage near the end:
In a diary kept during the winter of 1846, an emigrating twelve-year-old named Narcissa Cornwall noted coolly: ‘Father was busy reading and did not notice that the house was being filled with strange Indians until Mother spoke about it.’ Even lacking any clue as to what Mother said, one can scarcely fail to be impressed by the entire incident: the father reading, the Indians filing in, the mother choosing the words that would not alarm, the child duly recording the event and noting further that those particular Indians were not, ‘fortunately for us,’ hostile. Indians were simply part of the donnée.
From that, she distills the essence of what she calls self-respect:
In one guise or another, Indians always are. Again, it is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price. People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile, that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.
Like McRaven with his bed-making, Didion extols the virtue of the “small disciplines.” Only, she also writes that “the small disciplines are valuable only insofar as they represent larger ones.” Obviously McRaven gets this, but it’s Didion who really pushes the point. In short, McRaven makes a great cheerleader; more often these days, I need Didion the drill sergeant.
The joke, of course, is that Didion is supposed to be a girly writer, maybe the girliest. Caitlin Flanagan writes that “to really love Joan Didion — to have been blown over by things like the smell of jasmine and the packing list she kept by her suitcase — you have to be female.” And Katie Roiphe says that she has never “walked into the home of a female writer, aspiring, newspaper reporter, or women’s magazine editor and not found, somewhere on the shelves, a row of Joan Didion books.”
Flanagan’s essay actually introduced me to Didion, in particular to “On Keeping a Notebook,” which might still be my favorite piece of hers. When I read Flanagan’s article, I rolled my eyes, and went to the library right away to check out Slouching Towards Bethlehem, just to prove her wrong.
But Flanagan did have a point. She made fun of a male fan who forgot what Didion said she wore in The White Album:
I once watched a hysterically sycophantic male academic ask Didion about her description of what she wore in HaightAshbury so that she could pass with both the straights and the freaks. ‘I’m not good with clothes,’ he admitted, ‘so I don’t remember what it was.’
Not remembering what Joan wore in the Haight (a skirt with a leotard and stockings) is like not remembering what Ahab was trying to kill in Moby-Dick.
I think I got something from her packing list in that essay, but I’ll admit that I don’t get all of the resonances of all Didion’s outfits. It reminds me of the other night, when my wife and I were watching the end of the TV series The Fall. About Gillian Anderson, she said, “Her skin! It’s just so good.”
I don’t think I’ve ever commented on another person’s skin. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed another person’s skin, unless something horrible was going on with it. I realized, when my wife said that, that we were watching the show in entirely different ways. But is that it? Is that the big, essential difference between men and women? I have an endless memory for football games, and she notices other people’s skin and the hems of their skirts?
Of course it’s not — as even Flanagan would admit, there are men who notice skin and skirt hems and women who are oblivious to them. But even if so, what does it matter? What does it matter next to “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not?”
I found a counterpoint to Flanagan’s essay in a 2007 post from author “Jessica” at Jezebel. Jessica insists that men like me who love Didion do so because we can read her without (in her words) feeling like pussies. She picks up on what could easily be called a vein of masculinity that runs through all of Didion’s work.
Look again at “On Self-Respect.” The whole essay is an act of gender-bending. Didion rejects the role of Cathy from Wuthering Heights, and of Francesca da Rimini. Instead, she compares herself to Raskolnikov and says she wants to be more like Rhett Butler. She puts Jordan Baker’s manhood up against Julian English’s: Jordan wins. And then there are the references to the Wild West, to Waterloo and the playing fields of Eton, and to Chinese Gordon holding Khartoum against the Mahdi.
(By the way, I had to look up Chinese Gordon and the Mahdi. I think that should go on the record if we’re going to make something out of me not knowing about crepe-de-Chine wrappers.)
Besides Didion’s subject matter (wildfires, John Wayne), Jessica zooms in on what she calls Didion’s “glacial emotional distance.” Coolness, hardness, distance: these are characteristics that show up regularly in writing about Didion’s writing. Here’s Roiphe:
There is in her delicate, urban, neurotic sensibility something of the hardy pioneer ancestors she describes, jettisoning rosewood chests in the crossing, burying the dead on the wagon trail, never looking back. At one point she quotes another child of California, Patty Hearst, saying, ‘Never examine your feelings — they’re no help at all.’
“She is, in the end,” writes Roiphe, “a writer of enormous reserve.”
The point is, Didion herself is — or acts like — one of the gender outliers Flanagan glosses over in her profile. Even Flanagan gets around to this, near the end of her piece — except that rather than writing about the masculine (the cool, the hard, the distant) in Didion’s prose, Flanagan finds it in her parenting, which makes the passage pretty tough reading. Focusing on the early death of Didion’s daughter Quintana, Flanagan writes:
Both of Quintana’s parents worked constantly, left her alone with a variety of sitters — two teenage boys who happened to live next door, a woman who ‘saw death’ in Joan Didion’s aura, whatever hotel sitter was on duty — and they left her alone in Los Angeles many, many times when they were working. The Christmas Quintana was 3, Didion planned to make crèches and pomegranate jelly with her, but then got a picture in New York and decided she’d rather do that, leaving her child home. (She was there because the movie was ‘precisely what I want to be doing,’ Didion wrote defiantly, although she admitted that it was difficult for her to look into the windows of FAO Schwarz.) She balanced ill health and short deadlines by drinking gin and hot water to blunt the pain and taking Dexedrine to blunt the gin, which makes for some ravishing reading, but is hardly a prescription for attentive parenting. Where was Quintana when Didion was living at the Faculty Club, or finishing her novels at her parents’ house, or bunking down in the Haight? Not with her mother.
If you’ve read Flanagan before, you know that this is, for her, a gendered charge. In fairness, she also chides Quintana’s father, John Gregory Dunne, for his parenting. But that “Not with her mother” mirrors the close of Laurie Abraham’s 2006 profile of Flanagan. Abraham begins by saying that she confessed, on entering Flanagan’s home, that she was feeling a bit guilty about being there because, back home in New York, her children’s gerbil had died and she thought they might need consoling. Then, at the end of her piece, Abraham writes:
Midway through the interview in her home, I say that I noticed she removed the most searing line from her revised ‘Serfdom’ essay: ‘When a mother works, something is lost.’ So, I ask her, do you stand by that line? ‘Yeah,’ Flanagan says, her voice now soft, serious. ‘The gerbil’s dead, and you’re here.’
So Flanagan isn’t criticizing Didion as a person — she’s criticizing her as a woman. Distance, coolness, and hardness might be okay in a father (think of Cardinal Burke’s comments on fatherhood), but they’re unforgivable in a mother.
But while both Roiphe and Flanagan write of Didion’s hardness as a flaw (an artistic flaw for Roiphe, a moral flaw for Flanagan), I wonder how much of her popularity has to do with precisely that, and with all of the ways that she diverges from the stereotypical female script. In other words, I wonder if her popularity isn’t just about the clothes and the interior design, but also about the war references; not just about the flowers in her hair, but also about the Stingray. Didion’s popularity might just be a perfect illustration of British writer VJW Smith’s observation that “the experience that girls share is not so much that of being a girl but that of not being one.”
If you want to talk Didion and gender, you could turn to her profile of John Wayne, or to her send-up of early-1970s feminists in “The Women’s Movement.” But more interesting, I think, is her profile of Georgia O’Keeffe.
Like Didion, O’Keeffe is a sort of icon of smart femininity — the same girls who have Didion on their bookshelves may have had, at some point, O’Keeffe prints hanging on their walls. (Full disclosure: when I met my wife, in college, her room was decorated with small versions of O’Keeffe’s flowers, cut from a calendar that had been a high school graduation present.)
In Didion’s profile, O’Keeffe has self-respect, having been “equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it.” Didion describes her as hard, as astonishingly aggressive, a child of the prairie, a “straight shooter.” When she observes something, she does it “coolly;” when her paintings are exhibited in Chicago, she “was a hard woman who had imposed her 192 square feet of clouds on Chicago.”
Didion also calls her a guerilla in the war between the sexes. For some writers, “the war between the sexes” could mean a clash of masculine and feminine cosmovisions, the natural result of Mars meeting Venus. But that’s not how Didion uses the phrase. For Didion, O’Keeffe’s struggle comes from the fact that her femininity blinds the men around her to the ways that she’s like them. Or, more accurately, to the ways that she’s better than them. Because in Didion’s profile, O’Keeffe out-mans the men:
‘The men’ believed it impossible to paint New York, so Georgia O’Keeffe painted New York. ‘The men’ didn’t think much of her bright color, so she made it brighter. The men yearned toward Europe so she went to Texas, and then to New Mexico. The men talked about Cézanne, ‘long involved remarks about the “plastic quality” of his form and color,’ and took one another’s long involved remarks, in the view of this angelic rattlesnake in their midst, altogether too seriously.
My favorite passage, though, comes at the end of the piece:
In Texas she had her sister Claudia with her for a while, and in the late afternoons they would walk away from town and toward the horizon and watch the evening star come out. ‘That evening star fascinated me,’ she wrote. ‘It was in some way very exciting to me. My sister had a gun, and as we walked she would throw bottles into the air and shoot as many as she could before they hit the ground. I had nothing but to walk into nowhere and the wide sunset space with the star. Ten watercolors were made from that star.’ In a way one’s interest is compelled as much by the sister Claudia with the gun as by the painter Georgia with the star, but only the painter left us this shining record. Ten watercolors were made from that star.
I may not get everything about the leotard and the stockings. But going silent as the stars come out over the Texas prairie? That I get.
I want to make clear, though, that I’m not just saying that I’m drawn to some masculine energy I see in Didion’s writing. Even if I (still) disagree with Flanagan, I also think something’s missing from the Jezebel article, too. When I re-read “On Keeping a Notebook,” I remember that, despite all the talk of pioneers and shooting bottles out of the sky, my stake, like Flanagan’s, is with the girl in the plaid silk dress at the end of the bar. That’s either despite or (more likely) because of the fact that I can’t know exactly what it’s like to be her.
And I can’t know that for lots of reasons. But that doesn’t mean I can’t relate to her, and if I can relate to her, I can learn from her. Didion starts Slouching Towards Bethlehem with a quote from Peggy Lee: “I learned courage from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, Einstein, and Cary Grant.” Whatever her personal failings — and we all have them — that’s what so much of Didion’s writing is about: courage. And whatever our differences, that’s why we listen to, study, and read each other. To learn. And, to steal a phrase from her piece on John Wayne, Didion makes great reading if you want to learn about doing what a man’s gotta do.
I recently attended a talk in Boston given by Adm. James Stavridis, the dean of the Fletcher School — Tufts University’s graduate school of Law and Diplomacy — his alma mater (and mine). The subject was global security, and during the course of his very sobering talk, he gave a fascinating sidebar on the importance of reading novels — of stories. Among the books he mentioned were The Orphan Master’s Son, The Circle, Matterhorn, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and Station Eleven.
Stavridis has had an illustrious, globe-spanning career in the U.S. Military including three years leading U.S. Southern Command and four years (2009-2013) as the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. When we met before dinner, we quickly launched into a rapid-fire chat about books we had recently read. It seemed to me, he had read everything. Through military ventures in Haiti, Bosnia, the Persian Gulf, and Libya (among other operations Stavridis commanded was the 2011 NATO intervention that led to the downfall of the Muammar Gaddafi regime) on aircraft carriers and battleships, while serving at the Pentagon and on Navy destroyers, one thing has been consistent: his love of reading, and his need for books to help make sense of this increasingly complicated world. His exuberance for the written word inspired me to return to Boston and finish our conversation.
Marcia DeSanctis: When I met you last month, you told me you had just put down My Life in France and it had you in tears. That surprised me.
James Stavridis: Why?
MD: I suppose because you’re a four-star admiral.
JS: Well, even four-star admirals read quirky books and this is an incredibly quirky, wonderful book about discovering yourself and discovering your life. Julia Child comes to France, kind of searched around for what to do with her life, essentially. Newly married and falls in love not only with her husband but with France and with its cuisine and with its culture. The voice in the book is so authentic and so beautiful, so wonderfully rendered. And the part that really had me in tears — because everything I said to you is actually quite joyous and upbeat — is the end of the book where she recognizes that, as she hits her 80s, she cannot continue to go independently to the small home in the south of France where she had centered so much of her life. And you can feel her untethering from something that has meant everything to her.
MD: You also mentioned you like books about chefs.
JS: Oh, I love books about chefs. Who doesn’t? I love, particularly, chef memoirs. Anthony Bourdain is just fantastic, Kitchen Confidential. Or The Devil in the Kitchen (Marco Pierre White) is just fabulous.
MD: So the reason I asked to interview you was because I recently attended a lecture you gave in Boston, which was a frank assessment of the crises that are facing our planet now and the people on it. You covered it all — climate change, ISIS, epidemics, poverty, inequality, cyber risks. And then you posted a slide about novels. Can you tell me why you inserted a slide about novels and why you chose the ones that you did?
JS: Well, first of all, because reading is integral to my life. And I think, in the end, we solve global problems not by launching missiles, it’s by launching ideas. So as a tool for understanding the world and for understanding how you can change the world, I find fiction incredibly important. One that I put up pretty frequently is The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, which is a superb book about North Korea. And North Korea’s an almost impenetrable country. But through a decade of meticulous research and endless interviews and then, an understanding of the human sensibility in an extraordinarily dystopian world, Adam Johnson gives us a portrait of life in North Korea. It’s not a burlesque, it’s not satire. It is, in every sense, life in a world where everything is a half a beat off the music. It’s a gorgeous novel.
I think a second book I had there was The Circle by David Eggers, which is a world in which all of the social networks kind of merge into one. So picture Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, everything merged in one huge social network where the motto is “Privacy is Theft.” And the idea is that by complete transparency, we can transform the world. Overlaid on it is a coming of age story of a young woman who has her first job at the Circle. In the largest sense, by one of our most creative contemporary writers, David Eggers, it is a story about what we hold to ourselves, what is privacy, and what transparency can provide but take away from each of us. I think that is an enormous debate that spans the distance from Edward Snowden to Julian Assange to Chelsea Manning. It’s a profoundly important novel that helps us deal with this collision between privacy and transparency.
MD: And you think a novel has the power to help deal with it?
JS: I do, I do absolutely. In the most prosaic way, novels are stories. So recognizing there are differences in how people learn and what people want to read, for me — and I think for the vast majority of people — stories are the best way to learn.
MD: You also discussed Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
JS: Dystopian literature is very interesting. Most of it is unspeakably bleak. But some dystopian literature really is about how you come back; it’s about resilience, so I love that novel.
Station Eleven is about the world after a brutal pandemic that kills 99.9 percent of the population. And it’s a novel about choices that people make in crisis. And so the protagonist chooses — and I love this part — to become part of a wandering troupe of Shakespearean actors with a kind of ragtag orchestra attached to it, that wanders around this devastated countryside putting on plays and concerts. And think about that for a minute and what that implies about the resilience of the human spirit, about the importance of art, the importance of music, the importance of drama — all those things are powerful in this. It’s such a wonderful construct. And, at the end of the novel, they got to an airport where another band of outcasts have managed to find a way. And in the distance, they see a light on a hilltop — not a bonfire but an electric light. It’s a symbol that we can recover, we can come back. It’s a very hopeful novel.
I was just testifying with Bill Gates on the Hill yesterday, not to namedrop, but we were talking about global health and pandemics and the importance of speed and alacrity in response. Part of what can help us prepare for a pandemic is imagining how horrible the outcome would be. Thus, a book like Station Eleven helps us do that.
MD: Interesting. So in your talk, you confirmed what most of us know, that in a world gone mad or potentially gone mad, novels are these kinds of islands of sanity and escape, even ones that are difficult to read like A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.
JS: Yeah, oh, that’s an absolutely wonderful book.
MD: I agree. So explain to me, why reading matters and the importance of books, particularly fiction, in your life.
JS: Well, first of all, I developed a reading habit very early. My parents moved to Greece when I was eight years old. In those days, in the 1960s, Greece effectively didn’t have television. Certainly no English language television. So my mom would take me down to the embassy library on the weekends and I’d pick out books. And then, it became a lifelong habit and I’ve always had a book in my hand. I read constantly. I read probably 80 percent fiction, 20 percent nonfiction. And I have found through reading fiction, I understand the human condition better.
You said a moment ago that a novel is a sanctuary in the middle of this violent world. Let’s remember that occasionally, novels are also moments of violence in an otherwise very peaceful life. It can be the opposite. And so if you can think of a novel as a kind of simulator where you imagine what you would do in a stressful, dangerous situation, it becomes, I think, a very helpful learning tool about ourselves.
And, helpful to understand other places and cultures. I’ve recommended on occasion a novel about Afghanistan called The Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield, which is not about the current NATO campaign, it’s not about the Russian campaign, it’s not about the British campaign. It’s about the first campaign, which is that of Alexander the Great and the Greeks’ attempt to conquer Afghanistan, which turned out roughly the same as all the other ones. And the reason is because you can drop a line — a plumb line — from 2,500 years ago to the present day in terms of the toughness of Pashtuns and their culture. And so to read a novel like that, even set in an ancient time, could help you understand Afghanistan and its place in history.
Lastly, I think novels are a way that we can explore the unimaginable. So here, I’m thinking of science fiction and fantasy even, which I think are not only entertaining but powerful in terms of how they open our minds. I’ll give you an example. Ender’s Game, which is a classic science fiction novel about a cyber force defending its world. It makes me think, “Should we have a cyber force today?” Today we have an Army, a Navy, an Air Force, and a Marine Corps. We don’t have a cyber force. But when I read a science fiction novel about the future, I think, “Boy, we’re going to need one pretty quick.” I have a lot of pragmatic, real world reasons for that, as well. But fiction can reinforce that and open up what’s often unimaginable to us.
MD: Do you believe that there is a single most important novel about conflict — or let’s say two, an old one and a new one, a classic and a contemporary — that really encapsulates the bad and the ugly about war?
JS: Yeah, I’ll give you a modern one, Matterhorn, which is by Karl Marlantes. It’s about Vietnam and combat at the micro level. It’s about a young Princeton graduate who becomes a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps and his first 60 days in combat. It won the National Book Award. It’s magnificent.
I’ll give you one from the middle period. Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, about the psychology of war, is quite terrific. All Quiet on the Western Front, a World War I novel by Erich Maria Remarque, is incredible.
For contemporary historical fiction written about a battle 2,500 years ago, I’d recommend Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, which is about the Battle of Thermopylae. And there’s a powerful line in that book, which I think is very true, which is that the opposite of fear is not courage. The opposite of fear on a battlefield is love. Because warriors in combat fight for the love of those with whom they are in combat. That’s a powerful idea. Actually, I have to give you one other.
JS: Because I’m an Admiral, I get to give you a nautical book.
MD: That was one of my questions, actually.
JS: So the best seagoing books about combat, in my opinion, are by a writer called Patrick O’Brian. He wrote a series of believe it or not, 20 novels and they’re all set from about 1800 through 1815. They follow the life and times of a British sea captain, Jack Aubrey. They are terrific. Picture Jane Austen going to sea and writing about maritime combat. They are that good. I think they may be the best writing of the late-20th century. The reason they’re not more widely celebrated is because they’re perceived as maritime warfare genre. But these are big, chewy, fascinating books about life, relationships. About a third of them are set ashore in early 1800s Great Britain, two-thirds set at sea. The combat scenes are incredibly realistic.
MD: Do you have a favorite book about the sea?
JS: I think it’s hard to argue with Moby-Dick. It’s the greatest sea novel of all.
JS: I like Don DeLillo, I liked Falling Man. I don’t lean to 9/11 books as a general proposition. I had a near death experience at 9/11. I was in the Pentagon and my office was right on the side of the building that was hit by the airplane.
MD: You spent your career up until now with the military. Do you read books that are critical of U.S. policy and the wars themselves?
JS: Of course.
MD: There are many.
JS: Oh, sure.
MD: Shattering depictions of the war, soldiers’ reality, and the aftermath.
JS: Oh, gosh, yes. Both fiction and nonfiction. I’ll give you a couple that I loved. I like Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman, just came out. I like Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. I like Yellow Birds (Kevin Powers), I like The Book of Jonas (Stephen Dau).
In terms of nonfiction, critical, I think is Fiasco by Tom Ricks — it’s harsh, but, in many ways, accurate. It’s about Iraq. Most of the really harsh books are more about Iraq, less about Afghanistan, I think because Afghanistan’s probably going to come out okay.
MD: Yes. What about Dexter Filkins?
JS: I love Dexter Filkins. The Forever War I think is a masterpiece. And you know, I signed 2,700 letters of condolence to young men and women who died under my command. And when I’m in Washington, I often go to Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery and visit with them and that will be with me forever. So I read those books partly to honor them, partly because it’s a big part of my life, partly because I feel it’s my responsibility.
MD: How do you have time to do all this reading?
JS: I stay up late at night, do it on airplanes, use technology to make it easy.
MD: I was going to ask — Kindle or hard copy?
MD: Books on tape? Do you do Audible?
JS: No, I don’t. What I do now, as opposed to going out and buying a stack of books, is I’ll read on the Kindle and then say okay, that’s a terrific book, and buy it. Like I just read Into the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides, which is a book about a polar expedition and it’s fantastic. It’s nonfiction but it reads like a novel. It’s kind of in Eric Larson style if you know his work.
MD: I do.
JS: I’m reading currently his new book, Dead Wake, about the sinking of the Lusitania. It’s just fantastic. Oh, gosh. Fabulous, fabulous writer. So if I think a book will stand up to it, I’ll own a copy of it. I own about 5,000 books and I’m trying to not own 10,000 books.
JS: Yeah, it’s a beautiful novel.
MD: I wrote my senior thesis on him, by the way.
JS: Stop it.
MD: Yes, about Aksyonov.
JS: Is he still alive, by the way?
MD: No, he died a few years ago. He’s not one of the better known Soviet-era writers. Why do you think this is an important book?
JS: Because it raises issues of ethics in command. It’s also, I think, a portrait of a really interesting period in Russian society that transitioned from the World War II generation and how they were effectively betrayed. And I think it’s also a novel about civilian control of the military. I just think it’s a very clever, haunting novel and the characters are beautifully developed.
Is it as good as [Fyodor] Dostoevsky or [Leo] Tolstoy or [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn, [Nikolai] Gogol? No. But…
MD: You have a lot of Russians on that list.
JS: Oh, yeah. I love Russian literature.
MD: If you met Vladimir Putin, what would you suggest he read?
JS: I’d start — and I’m sure he’s read a lot of the — well, actually, no, he was a KGB Colonel, so maybe not. He’s certainly not from the intelligentsia, he’s from the thugocracy.
JS: Thugocracy, absolutely. I think I’d start him on Dead Souls by Gogol because it’s such an absurdist novel and it’s about trying to grasp power and watching it slip through your fingers. I’d probably force him to read The Brothers Karamazov and focus on the Grand Inquisitor scene. But you know what he’d say back to me? He’d say, “Okay, I’ll read those, but, Stavridis, if you want to understand how tough Russians are and why your sanctions aren’t going to work, read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn. And so I think we could have a lively conversation about the motifs of Russian literature.
MD: Fair enough. You also included one of my favorites, The Good Soldier Svejk. What does that book teach you about command? Not much, right?
JS: No, not much at all. Another terrific novel — I forget if it was on my list, I think it was, is called One Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko. You should stop everything you’re doing and read this book.
MD: Really? Why?
JS: If you like Russia and you’re interested in this topic, it’s about a Russian conscript fighting in Chechnya in the 1980s. It’s an inside look at the Russian military and its extraordinary dysfunctionality and the cruelty of its counter-insurgency technique, which led, obviously, to the complete disasters there. I mean, it makes the U.S. performance in Vietnam look like an Olympic gold medal by comparison. It’s a powerful, powerful book.
MD: I noticed you had Anne Applebaum’s book on the list, which I thought was really a masterpiece. I mean…
MD: Gulag: A History, yes.
JS: Yeah, it’s a brilliant book.
MD: Of all the global concerns now — and there are many — what do you think is the most fertile ground for future literature?
JS: Of what’s happening now, I think it’s the Arab Spring, which the term itself has become this sort of grand irony. But I think what’s happening in the Arab world today is a lot like the Reformation, which ripped apart the Christian faith, created the wars between Protestants and Catholics, destroyed a third of the population of Europe. It led to, among other things, William Shakespeare’s plays, Martin Luther’s writing. So I think the big muscle movement is in the Arab world and I think those novels are being written. They’ll have to be translated. They’ll start to come out, though. But the searing quality of what’s happening in that part of the world, I think, will unfortunately lend itself to a dark vein of fiction going forward. I think another place is India, and I love contemporary Indian fiction.
MD: Name a few that you love.
JS: The Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga, and even better is White Tiger. I like Salman Rushdie. He’s a little dense and somewhat impenetrable. I like — I forget his name. Sea of Poppies is his best book. It’s fantastic. It’s historical fiction set, oh, probably 200 years ago. Hang on, let’s see. [Looks it up on iPad] Yeah, Amitav Ghosh. Sea of Poppies. So there’s a few. But I think Indian literature will lend itself to big, big novels coming out.
The United States will continue to produce, I think, terrific novels from young novelists and from old novelists. Can there be a better writer alive today than Cormac McCarthy, who’s 80-plus years old and keeps writing these masterpieces one after the other? It’s unbelievable.
MD: It is.
JS: And we have brilliant, brilliant young writers, certainly in the English speaking world — this novel, The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton) She’s a New Zealander, youngest person to ever win the Man-Booker Prize. And the book is just — oh, my God, it’s magnificent. It’s just unstoppable.
MD: Tell me what you like about it.
JS: I love it because it’s so complicated and the fit and finish of it are just extraordinary as a technical accomplishment. Secondly, it is about a fascinating period in the Gold Rush in New Zealand in the 1850s. And thirdly, the characters in it are so both crisply drawn but feel like they’re just from contemporary life. They feel like they have walked in from people you know. It’s really good. I’ll tell you, it’s like Cold Mountain, which I know you’ve read, by Charles Frazier. It’s that good.
MD: That’s a good war book.
JS: It is a good war book a book that shows both sides of it, with the coming home piece, too.
MD: I wanted to get some final thoughts about some of the books you highlighted in your talk in Boston (Matterhorn, The Orphan Master’s Son, Station Eleven, The Circle). Is this the literature of hope or is it the literature of despair about the world we live in now?
JS: What we hope from our writers is that they give us both. Despair’s part of the human condition as is joy and hope and love. And there are wonderful novels on both sides. And as I look back at literature over the ages, I think that’s largely been the case. I think you go back to Voltaire writing in the midst of the French Revolution, the world’s collapsing. I mean, the world is on fire. It’s really falling apart. We like to act like the world’s falling apart. It’s actually not. It’s actually going to hold together and it’s getting better. And that’s hard to see in the thicket of the day-to-day anguish over — justifiably — over Syria and the Ukraine and people flying airplanes into the side of mountains. But if you really rise your head above it and you look at violence in the world, levels of war, we’re better than we’ve ever been. Fewer people are killed in war, fewer people die of pestilence. We’re getting better by really any conceivable metric.
So back to Voltaire. He’s writing in a world that really is on fire. What’s the novel he writes? Candide. You know? “I must tend my garden.” It’s pretty terrific. And that’s a book I read once every year or two. And you know, there are those who say, “Oh, it was all a big satire and you know, he’s actually debunking the theory of optimism.” I don’t think so. I think Candide is a book of optimism and a book of hope from a guy who was very cynical. But I think in his heart, he felt like the outcome of this revolution and everything that was falling apart would eventually be a better world, and I think we’re getting there.
MD: Anything you’re looking forward to?
JS: Well, I wake up every morning hoping that this will be the day that Hilary Mantel’s third volume comes out after Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. I love Hilary Mantel because she’s a brilliant writer. But what I love about the trilogy is the reversal of character in which Thomas Cromwell, always portrayed as the villain, is suddenly the hero. And Sir Thomas More, the saintly Thomas More, is the insufferable prig. And I find it a to be a powerful piece of fiction because it reimagines the world. Because no one knows. No one knows. I mean, that was 400 years ago and no one knows.
MD: Last question. Do you have a favorite movie about the Navy?
JS: The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial by a country mile.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Not only has VIDA released its 2014 numbers, including its first count of women writers of color, but the organization has also published a handout: “Things You Can Do Right Now To Advance Women’s Writing.” The value of the VIDA count (which this year showed more improvement but also persistently low representation of women writers at some publications) has been questioned since it was first produced in 2009. All along the VIDA organizers have insisted that the numbers are intended to spark a wider discussion about why women’s perspectives are undervalued and how change can be effected. Their new list of recommendations is a tangible effort to encourage that change.
The list comprises many sensible actions, encouraging women writers to submit their work “everywhere” and readers to “buy more books by women.” At least one of the recommendations has been challenged by Phoebe Maltz Bovey at The New Republic, specifically the call to writers to “have your female characters say and do important things.” Echoing Katie Roiphe, Bovey argues that telling women they should write about “important” subjects perpetuates the problem that “the small-stakes narratives coming from female authors aren’t treated as serious literature.” Meanwhile white men are given the latitude to write about anything and are treated more seriously, whatever they write about.
Bovey is right, although I doubt the VIDA people were trying to be prescriptive about what writers write. However, her argument raises larger issues about what kind of literature we value and touches on one of the other recommendations in the handout, specifically that teachers “teach books written by diverse authors and featuring diverse characters.” As a professor of American literature who has contributed to the recovery of women writers and argued for their inclusion in the canon, I could not agree more. But it’s not that simple, for the message sent to women that what they are writing isn’t important or serious enough is not a new one. It is as old as literature itself. And its persistence has everything to do with how women’s literature is treated in college and university classrooms and, in turn, how it is treated in the literary world.
According to the VIDA website, the organization began with an email from Cate Marvin that asked, in part, “Has anyone else noticed all these incredibly accomplished women writers whose work seems to go consistently unnoticed and unrewarded by the American literary establishment?” The roots of the problem are deep, as many have indicated. Some have pointed to the largely male cadre of editors running the major magazines and thus assigning book reviews. Others to the classification of women’s literature as “chick lit,” or to its relegation to what Meg Wolitzer called, almost exactly three years ago, “The Second Shelf.”
The real issue, of course, is not the numbers, although they are important. The underlying issue is how we decide what writing has value. For so long as the lives and experiences of women and people of color are undervalued, so will their writing be.
One respondent to Wolitzer’s article called for the end to the gendering of children’s literature, for not only do boys stay away from girl’s stories, but so do “girls come to accept that boys are uninterested in stories by or about women.” The issue is complicated, of course, by many women’s desire to promote stories about girls, the “strong heroine” complex that Bovey decries. But surprisingly little discussion has taken place about how the intense gendering of children’s literature embeds gendered literary preferences in our psyches.
Another respondent to Wolitzer’s article, the literary scholar Marjorie Pryse, pointed to the persistence of all-male or nearly all-male reading lists in colleges and universities. She seems to admit that her efforts (and others’) to revise the canon to include more women and people of color have not yielded substantial results. I would agree. I hear regularly from my students that the vast majority of their literature courses include almost no women’s writing, let alone that of writers of color. One told me just last week that her Victorian literature class had only one woman on the reading list, out of 15 weeks’ worth of reading.
I suspect that my students’ experiences are not unique. Lilit Marcus wrote in a piece for Flavorwire, “[a]s an undergraduate English Lit major, I had several classes where every single author we read was male.” There is no VIDA count for academia, but D.G. Myers, a former English professor at Texas A&M and Ohio State, counted the top 25 writers most frequently cited over the past 25 years in the MLA Bibliography, the primary database of literary scholarship. There were only 5 women on the list, a fair approximation of the percentage of women writers being published and reviewed in some of the most retrograde literary magazines. What is taught and researched by academics impacts what the publishing world values as well. As one indication, Modern Library publishing company’s list of the top 100 novels of the 20th century included only nine books by women.
The understandable result of all of this, in Marcus’s words, is that “there are still many readers in the U.S. who, consciously or subconsciously, believe that men have contributed most of what we know to be literature.” And until that changes, until we collectively (and not just inside of academia) believe that women writers have produced important literature in the past, then the devaluation of women’s writing in the present will persist.
I don’t mean we should simply acknowledge that a few women have produced so-called “great” literature. We are already doing that. What I mean is discovering value in the many, many texts women writers have written since the first novel, The Tale of Genji, was written (by a woman) in the 11th century. Now I hear you saying, well sure, there may have been a lot of writing by women in the past, but it isn’t worth reading now. It was magazine filler or sentimental schlock. There was certainly plenty of that, produced by men and women. But there were hundreds of women writers producing important, significant, even great literature. Ask the dozens of scholars recovering these works and I’m sure each of them could recommend a list of women writers who deserve to be read today and valued.
My own list of largely unknown women writers whom I think deserve wider recognition includes:
Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840-1894), whose stories and novels, many of them published in Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly, show why she was often compared to George Eliot and Henry James. Her story “Miss Grief,” about a woman writer’s frustrated attempts to gain entrance to the male-dominated literary world, should be required reading for every person interested in the VIDA count and the status of women writers today.
Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910), whose story “Life in the Iron Mills” is as powerful as anything Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote and is widely considered the first important Realist text in American literature.
Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897), whose slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is as significant as Frederick Douglass’s more well-known narrative.
Elizabeth Stoddard (1823-1902), who has been called “next to Melville and Hawthorne, the most strikingly original voice in the mid-nineteenth-century American novel,” particularly for her complex and challenging novel The Morgesons.
Sui Sin Far (1865-1914), whose stories of Chinese immigrants, such as “Spring Fragrance,” are delightful as well as provocative.
The Sioux writer Zitkala-Ša (1876-1938), whose fascinating stories and essays, including the autobiographical “Impressions of an Indian Childhood,” show how the late-19th-century literary world provided opportunities for a diverse range of voices, not only on the margins but also in the well-respected Atlantic Monthly.
Mary Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930), whose stories, such as “The Revolt of Mother,” are finely wrought tales of thwarted lives asserting their own kind of freedom.
When my students encounter these works in my classes, they don’t question why we are reading them. Instead, they wonder why they have never heard of them before. They also learn to read differently and with different expectations.
As many have noted before me, if we look for the woman writer who wrote the equivalent of Moby Dick, we will be disappointed. We can’t expect women to have written about whaling adventures, or assume that because they didn’t, they haven’t contributed anything important to literature. To raise the value of women’s contributions doesn’t necessarily mean devaluing male canonical texts. It means simply appreciating the perspective of the other half of the population and not hiding behind the idea that only the “great” works of literature deserve to be taught, or that editors only seek to publish the “best” writing (as many of the publications exposed by the VIDA count have insisted they do).
There is much, much more to be said about how the low estimation of women’s writing of the past contributes to the devaluing of women’s writing today. But I think it’s time to begin to recognize that what happens in college classrooms today has an impact on the students, male and female, who will help to create the literary world of the future. Academia tends to assume that it has little influence on the outside world (particularly in the humanities), but there is nothing unimportant about the portrait of the literary past it presents in its classrooms.
Image Credit: Flickr/James Jordan.
How did Herman Melville’s friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne affect the writing of Moby-Dick? It’s a hard question to answer with any certainty, but Patrick James Dunagan gives it a shot, drawing evidence from Erik Hage’s book on the authors’ relationship. You could also read Hester Blum’s argument that Moby-Dick is the greatest American novel.
“Art isn’t a footrace. No one comes in first place. Greatness is not a universally agreed-upon value. … America isn’t one story. It’s a layered and diverse array of identities, individual and collective, forged on contradictory realities that are imbued with and denied privilege and power. Our obsession with the Great American Novel is perhaps evidence of the even greater truth that it’s impossible for one to exist. As Americans, we keep looking anyway.” Cheryl Strayed and Adam Kirsch discuss the Great American Novel in this week’s New York Times Bookends. For a slightly different take, consider the 9 novels our experts chose as the Greatest American novels, from Moby-Dick to The Godfather.
Readers and writers and professors tend to read and talk about the same books over and over again. Moby-Dick? Check. Anna Karenina? Of course. But what about the books that deserve the same attention and love but don’t seem to get it? There are too many to name, of course, but The American Scholar has put together a list of 10 such “neglected classics.”
For the past three years, The Millions has offered a holiday gift list for writers. This year we’d like to give readers their due, with a list of bookish treats. Because where would writers be without readers? Also, let’s face it: discriminating and avid readers can be as difficult to shop for as cranky writers. It’s hard to pinpoint the tastes of a truly omnivorous reader and you always run the risk of buying something they’ve already read. So, for this year’s list, we’ve tried to go beyond book recommendations (although a few snuck in) with a list of items and services that’s a mix of the cozy, the classic, and the curated.
1. An Excellent Reading Chair.
Some swear by an Adirondack chair on the front porch, while others prefer the classic wing chair. For me, the quintessential reading chair is a folding butterfly chair, which you lug out to the backyard with a glass of iced tea and park beneath the shade of a large locust tree. (But since I live on the second floor of a building without a backyard, I’ll have to settle for an apartment-friendly version.) If you live with a reader, maybe this is the year to finally buy them that big, cozy lounger they’ve always wanted, the one that doesn’t have anything to do with your minimalist decorating scheme but which will provide hours of reading pleasure.
2. A Cozy Blanket or Throw.
You’ll need the right blanket to go with that chair. My own personal favorite is a Woolrich blanket, a preference that, like the butterfly wing chair, goes back to childhood. Others might prefer a lightweight throw or wrap. There are thousands of options available this time of year, for a range of budgets. You can spend upwards of $200 on the perfect cashmere blanket, or you can spend $3.99 on a fleece throw from IKEA. Only someone who exclusively reads in the bath would not have a use for this gift.
When you’re settling in for a marathon reading session, you need the right snack to keep you going. The subject of snack food always spurs passionate debate, so I decided to contact an expert, Dan Pashman, host of the WNYC podcast The Sporkful and the Cooking Channel web series You’re Eating It Wrong, and the author of the new book Eat More Better: How To Make Every Bite More Delicious for his advice: “There are several considerations when snacking while reading. First and foremost, you don’t want to have to take your eyes off the book. So you need a snack you can eat blind. Second, you may not want to get food all over your hands, because that food will end up all over your book. Therefore I recommend a drinkable snack that you can enjoy through a straw. For some people that might be a smoothie — for others it’s a milkshake. Either way, this option is clean, tidy, and delicious without being distracting.” Of course, it’s hard to give someone a smoothie, especially if you’re mailing it from afar, but you could certainly send a blender, or perhaps an immersion blender, which are handy for making single-servings of milkshakes and smoothies. Reading is, after all, a solitary activity.
For those who to take a more traditional approach to snacks, there’s always tea, cookies, and bon-bons. Opinions vary on whether or not it is wise to enjoy alcoholic beverages while reading, but if you want to match your tipple with your title, you can’t go wrong with this list of book and booze pairings over at Abe Books.
4. Curated Book Subscription.
I grew up with The Library of America, my parents amassing a collection of classic books that I rarely read because the editions were so austerely bound and boxed. But there is a new breed of book subscription out there, services that aren’t in the canon-making business and instead aim to connect readers to writers they might not otherwise discover. Emily Books offers its subscribers one carefully selected e-book per month, for an annual price of $159.99 (or a monthly price of $13.99). It’s an excellent list that leans feminist, autobiographical, and gutsy. At Quarterly Co., Book Riot will send you a surprise package “books and bookish stuff” every three months. Packages are $50 a piece and you can sign up for a year’s worth or just one delivery. Powell’s Books hosts a similar subscription service, Indispensable, which, for $39.95 per mailing, sends readers a special edition of a new book every six weeks. Just the Right Book sends “hand-picked books chosen by a literary expert based on your personal reading tastes and individual preferences.” Subscribers fill out a questionnaire to assess their tastes and choose a subscription plan to meet their price point, which ranges from $90 to $395 per year. Finally, Stack, a U.K.-based company, sends subscribers a different independent magazine every month. These are the beautifully-printed, idiosyncratic magazines you see in bookstores and secretly want to take home, but would never buy for yourself. An annual subscription is £72, about $112.
5. Small Press Book Subscription.
Many small presses also offer book subscriptions, and this is another great way to find titles for adventurous readers who are willing to take a chance on less well-known writers as well as foreign and translated works. If there’s a small press you already know and love, check to see if they offer a subscription package. Otherwise, here are a few recommendations: Coffee House Press and Archipelago Press offer annual subscriptions to their consistently excellent catalogs, at considerable savings. (Coffee House press’s current season is $100, while Archipelago’s 2015 subscription, which includes 10 hardcover books, is $150.) New Vessel Press, which publishes new English translations of foreign literature, offers a subscription to their current season for $75. For $12.99/month (or $6.99 for a digital subscription), Melville House will send you two books from their award-winning “The Art of the Novella” series. Wave Books, an independent poetry publisher based in Seattle, offers signed hardcover and paperback subscriptions to their 2015 season, at $375 and $100, respectively. For a truly extravagant gift, you can make your friend a subscribing partner of Copper Canyon Press. They’ll receive signed copies of all Copper Canyon’s new titles and the knowledge that they are supporting poets around the world.
6. Books About Reading.
For those who really love to read, there are books about reading. I recently enjoyed Rebecca Mead’s My Life In Middlemarch, about reading and rereading George Eliot’s masterpiece. Other titles to consider are 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, by Jane Smiley; Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose; How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster, and Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography, which received a rave review here on The Millions a couple months ago.
7. A Wearable Book.
It’s easy to find tote bags and tee shirts emblazoned with quotations from great books, but how many tee shirts contain the entire text of the book on one tee shirt? Litographs offers strangely mesmerizing posters, tote bags, and tee shirts, that from a distance look like simple graphic designs, but up close contain the entire texts of classic novels and poems. You have to see them to believe them and you have to squint to read them, but you really can carry around Moby-Dick or Hamlet or Walden in tote bag form. That way, even if you finish the books you’re carrying around, you’ll still have something to read.
8. Special Editions of Treasured Books.
At a recent Millions meet-up, there was a debate about special editions of books. Some staffers love a fancy version of a classic novel, while other prefer a grubby paperback they can underline to their heart’s content. I tend toward grubby, but I do treasure a hardcover edition of The World According To Garp that I received as a gift many years ago. It’s not a pristine or valuable copy but I liked seeing the original cover art as well as the slightly idiosyncratic type-setting. You don’t have to spend a lot to find a special version of a favorite book; Etsy and Ebay are fun to browse for collectibles and just plain bizarre titles. For more serious buyers, Abe Books and The Strand have online rare book shops. If you’re looking for pure beauty, check out Folio Books, which reprints classic books in lavishly bound and illustrated editions.
9. Gift Certificate to a Local Independent Bookstore.
Sure, you could email your book-loving friend a gift card to an online bookseller and they probably wouldn’t complain. But why not send them a gift certificate to their local independent bookstore, a place they’d probably love to have an excuse to visit? If your friend lives in a different area, you can use this handy store finder to figure out what bookstore is closest to them.
10. Time to Read.
How do you give someone time to read? It might be as simple as giving permission. A lot of people have trouble putting aside a Saturday afternoon of errand-running/housework/babysitting/gym-going/family-visiting/etc., in order to finish The Goldfinch. So, if there is such a person in your life, take the kid/dog/visiting family out of the house and tell them you’ll be back in a few hours — with dinner.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
November is the anti-April: gray and dreary, the beginning of the end of things rather than their rebirth. It’s the month you hunker down — if you don’t give up entirely. When Ishmael leaves Manhattan for New Bedford and the sea in Moby-Dick, it may be December on the calendar, but he’s driven to flee to the openness of oceans by “a damp, drizzly November in my soul.” And where else could Dickens’s Bleak House begin but, bleakly, in “implacable November,” with dogs and horses mired in mud, pedestrians “jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper” (not unlike Ishmael “deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off”), and of course, the Dickens fog:
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats.
Shall I go on? Jane Eyre begins on a “drear November day,” with a “pale blank of mist and cloud” and “ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast.” And it’s on a “dreary night in November,” as “rain pattered dismally against the panes,” that Victor Frankenstein, blindly engrossed in his profane labors as the seasons have passed by outside, first sees the spark of life in the watery eyes of his creation. Is it any wonder that Meg in Little Women thinks that “November is the most disagreeable month in the whole year”?
Not everyone agrees that it’s disagreeable. In his Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold, who finds value in each of the seasons, calls November “the month for the axe” because, in Wisconsin at least, it’s “warm enough to grind an axe without freezing, but cold enough to fell a tree in comfort.” With the hardwoods having lost their leaves, he can see the year’s growth for the first time: “Without this clear view of treetops, one cannot be sure which tree, if any, needs felling for the good of the land.” The season’s first starkness, in other words, brings clarity to the work of the conservationist, whose labors in managing his forest are done with axe not pen, “humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land.”
But really, why go out in the fog and drear at all? Stay inside and read.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
What is romance without obstacles, which are planted in Elizabeth Bennet’s path most enjoyably at November’s Netherfield ball, including an unwanted proposal from Mr. Collins and a further contempt for the perfidious Mr. Darcy.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
The horrified, fascinated romance between creator and created begins with an electric spark in the gloom of November and ends on the September ice of the Arctic, with the monster, having outlived the man who called him into being, heading out to perish in the darkness.
Woman in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller (1845)
In November 1839, 25 women assembled in a Boston apartment for the first “Conversation,” a salon hosted by Margaret Fuller, a formidable intellect still in her 20s. She’d later be accused, after her early death, of having been a talker rather than a doer, but her friend Thoreau praised this major work for that very quality: it reads as if she were “talking with pen in hand.”
Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1853)
Not quite as muddy and befogged as the November afternoon on which it begins — nor as interminable as the legal case, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, in which its story is enmeshed — Bleak House is actually one of Dickens’s sharpest and best-constructed tales.
The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy (1878)
The restless desire of Hardy’s doomed characters, especially the bewitching “Queen of the Night,” Eustacia Vye, is fanned, at the novel’s beginning and its tragic end, by the pagan flames of November 5th’s Bonfire Night.
Quicksand by Nella Larsen (1928)
It’s on a rainy November day in New York that Helga Crane, after a life on the move from the South to Chicago to Harlem to Denmark and back to Harlem again, steps into a storefront church and — either lost or saved, she doesn’t know — makes a choice that mires her into a life from which there’s no escape.
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (1945)
Fed up with November? Why not celebrate it the way, according to Pippi, they do in Argentina, where Christmas vacation begins on November 11, ten days after the end of summer vacation?
Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1947)
The descent toward death of the alcoholic consul, Geoffrey Firmin, takes place entirely on the Day of the Dead in 1938, the same day Lowry later liked to say he had his first taste of mescal.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
“Mr. Ewell,” asks the prosecutor, “would you tell us in your own words what happened on the evening of November twenty-first, please?” Those disputed events are what the jury — “twelve reasonable men in everyday life” — is presumed by law to be able to determine, with the guidance of the prosecutor and the defense attorney, Atticus Finch.
“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese (1966)
A few fall months spent in the orbit of Mr. Sinatra, but none in conversation with the man himself, were enough for Talese to put together this revolutionary, and still fresh, celebrity profile — and profile of celebrity — for Esquire.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins (1970)
Eddie Coyle was caught driving a truck through New Hampshire with about 200 cases of Canadian Club that didn’t belong to him, and now he has a court date set for January. So he spends the fall trying to make a deal — trying to make a number of deals, in fact — in Higgins’s debut, which Elmore Leonard has, correctly, called “the best crime novel ever written.”
The Death of Jim Loney by James Welch (1979)
The fall is indeed bleak in the Montana of Welch’s second novel, in which Loney, a young man with a white father and an Indian mother — both lost to him — stumbles toward his fate like Ivan Ilych, unsure of what it means to live.
The Ice Storm by Rick Moody (1994)
Thanksgiving and family dysfunction go together like turkey and gravy, but Moody deftly sidesteps the usual holiday plot in his Watergate-era tale of suburbanites unmoored by affluence and moral rot by setting his domestic implosion on the day and night after Thanksgiving, as an early-winter storm seals Connecticut in ice.
Libra by Don DeLillo (1988) and American Tabloid by James Ellroy (1995)
The Dallas motorcade was a magnet for plotters in 1963, and it has been ever since, especially in these two modern masterpieces in which too many people want the president dead for it not to happen.
A Century of November by W.D. Wetherell (2004)
November 1918 may have meant the end of the Great War, but for Charles Marden, who lost his wife to the flu and his son to the trenches, it means a pilgrimage, driven by unspoken despair, from his orchard on Vancouver Island to the muddy field in Belgium where his son died, an expanse still blanketed with barbed wire and mustard-gas mist that seem to carry another hundred years’ worth of war in them.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The world isn’t exactly wanting for character studies of Captain Ahab, but Chris Power manages to come up with a novel analysis of the character in this essay about the Moby-Dick antagonist. In Power’s telling, Ahab was valuable in part for what he told us about the 20th century — namely, he foreshadowed the dictators and despots to come. You could also read Hester Blum’s contribution to this essay about the best American novels.
This year’s “Genius grant” winners have been announced. The MacArthur grant awards $625,000 “no strings attached” to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Alongside scientists, artists and scholars are some newly minted geniuses with a literary focus. This year’s literary geniuses are:
Alison Bechdel may now be as well known for her “Bechdel Test“, a checklist for evaluating gender bias in movies, as she is for her genre-making graphic memoirs Fun Home and Are You My Mother? Bechdel first came to prominence via her long-running comic Dykes to Watch Out For, collected a few years back in The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. MacArthur calls her “a cartoonist and graphic memoirist exploring the complexities of familial relationships in multilayered works that use the interplay of word and image to weave sophisticated narratives.”
MacArthur did not honor any writers of fiction this year but several others in literary fields made the cut, including poet Terrence Hayes, whose Lighthead won the 2010 National Book Award; Samuel D. Hunter, a playwright best known for The Whale, a riff on Moby-Dick; and Khaled Mattawa, translator and poet, known for his work on Dinarzad’s Children: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Fiction, as well as his own collections of poetry.
“If we had the same dream every night,” Nietzsche wrote in 1873, “we would be as preoccupied with it as by the things we see every day.” The premise is simple: reality, at least what we perceive it to be, is a matter of continuity. But say you devote yourself to a single work of fiction, a single imagining, day after day for the majority of your life. What becomes of the real? When are you inside, and when are you out?
Earlier this summer, Richard Linklater’s nostalgia project Boyhood premiered after 12 years in production. For a few days every year since 2002, Linklater assembled the same cast, centered on a young boy Mason Junior, and shot what Linklater has called a “document of time.” The marvel of Boyhood is that the plain spectacle of the aging cast allows Linklater to subvert the dramatic impulses of traditional cinema. The film repeatedly upsets the conventional setup-payoff paradigm of narrative filmmaking to achieve a nuanced, meandering, and quiet chronicle of the boy’s coming-of-age. Boyhood challenges viewers’ recourse to narrative by honing in on the unsorted miscellanea of growing up: doing the dishes, finding a dead animal in the yard, Mom and Dad arguing mutedly on the other side of a windowpane, irritant siblings redeeming themselves in small ways when it counts. As Linklater explains, “You see how life just accumulates.”
Linklater’s 12-year shoot was motivated by an aesthetic persuasion about what time could afford. The magic of film editing or makeup or 12 lookalike Mason Juniors would have been inadequate to the purposes of Linklater’s sprawling yet understated film epic. Part of the production’s interest was accommodating and incorporating the real-life maturation of its cast: how adolescent postures endure into adulthood, how intonations and vocabularies evolve, how a body transforms slowly, and then all at once. All these personal transformations were then framed within the cultural narrative of the early 2000’s. Consider the film’s soundtrack: a year-by-year survey of American pop culture since 2002, beginning with Britney Spears. A document of time, then, is always also a curation of culture. What Boyhood proves is that sometimes “putting off” work is really a conviction about the opportunities and insights that come with taking one’s time. Call it an investment.
Now, an artist’s apologia can get very slippery, very quickly. Artists are savvy at masking their excuses. Plenty are just plain lazy or too indecisive or too timid to dig in and confront the Beast. So what is the difference, or what is the threshold, between an artist who procrastinates for years and a prudent auteur, such as Linklater, who has a plan? These ambitious, bloated, and sometimes staggering ventures raise important questions about how a work’s scope determines its mode of production. How much time should be spent on a single work of art? Or inversely, how will the amount of time spent on a work ultimately shape what that work will become and what it will mean to the creator? What it will mean to us? I see Ahab on the quarterdeck lamenting to Starbuck: “For forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful lands, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep…what a forty years’ fool — fool — old fool, has old Ahab been!” Maybe the more urgent question is at what point has a work grown too much for its own good, taken on too much meaning? Why do our creative ambitions swell up and run out on us? Why, as Ahab poses, “Why this strife of the chase?”
In 1956, shortly after publishing The Recognitions, William Gaddis sent a registered letter to himself outlining the premise of his second novel: “a young boy, ten or eleven or so years of age, ‘goes into business’ and makes a business fortune.” The purpose of Gaddis’s letter was to safeguard his idea from copyright infringement, a fitting launch for a book “projected as essentially a satire on business and money matters as they occur and are handled here in American today.” One provisional title was JR.
JR consumed Gaddis for the next two decades until its publication in 1975, devouring almost everybody close to him: two marriages, two children, and a swarm of agents and publishers in between. In a 1974 letter to American novelist and film producer Warren Kiefer, Gaddis described day-to-day work on the novel “like living with an invalid,” a sentiment articulated in the text of JR itself when writer and physics teacher Jack Gibbs laments his own project of 16 years, a novel that shares its title with Gaddis’s last published work, Agapē Agape: “Sixteen years like living with a God damned invalid sixteen years every time you come in sitting there waiting just like you left him…God damned friends asking how he’s coming along all expect him out any day don’t want bad news no news rather hear lies, big smile out any day now.”
Gibbs’s authorial melancholy and much of Gaddis’s own strife in completing JR were first figured in a character named Stanley from The Recognitions. Stanley, the novel’s holy fool, is an organ composer struggling to finish a requiem dedicated to his mother. At one point, he explains his dilemma: “It’s as though this one thing must contain it all, all in one piece of work, because, well it’s as though finishing it strikes it dead, do you understand?” Stanley’s qualm is a reiteration of Wyatt Gwyon’s insight earlier in The Recognitions: “There’s something about a…an unfinished piece of work, a…thing like this where…do you see? Where perfection is still possible?”
Literary critic Morris Dickstein has identified this totalizing, perfecting ambition of American authors as the Moby-Dick or One Big Book syndrome. The syndrome stems from an effort to culminate and consolidate “the whole meaning of the national experience” — hence the systems or encyclopedic novel. But a designation more appropriate to Gaddis’s JR and to a distinct set of experimental postwar American texts would be the mega-novel, a form elaborated by critic Frederick Karl in his essay “American Fictions: The Mega-Novel” as robust, multifarious fiction that strives to expropriate and counteract the cultural value attached to “mega.” Think MegaBucks or Mega Rich. The mega-novel subverts the dominative logic of late capitalism by turning capitalism’s multiplicities, apparatuses, and vocabularies back on themselves. Thus, in Gaddis’s words, “by developing and following through the basically very simple procedures needed to assemble extensive financial interests,” 11-year-old JR Vansant ruptures those very procedures of the financial infrastructure. Recognizing this inside-out ploy of the mega-novel, what is really a type of deconstruction, is critical to understanding the scope of JR and other oceanic postwar efforts.
Unlike The Recognitions, JR has no chapter breaks, no epigraphs. It is composed almost entirely of unmarked dialogue. The text reels — a continuous discord of voices and noise: money rustling, traffic, people up and down the street, in and out of office buildings, radio broadcasts, telephone calls, trash disposal, septic cacophony, “somewhere a urinal flushed,” the incessant moan and drone and oversaturation of metropolis. The novel documents the runaway qualities of cybernetic capitalism — a barrage of unfiltered data and meaning, a cultural logic bent on the endless reproduction and circulation of signs — and a child’s ability to exploit and undermine that system.
Franzen famously denounced the novel as a haywire, nonsensical literature of emergency. And then a cast of forefront experimental authors denounced Franzen as a populist pundit. That is not the concern here. The question here is why JR took so long to write.
In the 20-year span that Gaddis was working on JR, the U.S. experienced radical economic, technological, and cultural shifts. The maturation of war bonds and the confluence of corporate power brought about a postwar prosperity and consolidation of capital that completely altered the country’s economic landscape, not to mention hugely symbolic fiscal gestures under the Nixon administration such as the suspension of the gold standard in 1971. Telecommunication, information, and banking technologies boomed: the first operating system, videotapes, integrated circuits, magnetic stripe cards, satellites, cordless phones, personal computers, email, electronic payment networks, the first ATMs. Academia was recruited and incorporated by an immense military-industrial complex that was infiltrating universities in Cambridge and northern California. A war waged halfway around the world in Indochina. Color televisions flooded the market. Family sitcoms were replaced by soap operas, newscasts, variety shows, and daytime game shows. Capital was no longer anchored to anything real and culture was reproducing itself at a mile a minute, all while radars painted the coasts, sweeping for backscatter off something huge and unknowable. People were left to carve lives out of the maelstrom of signs: swipe, go, click, take, look, laugh, lock, switch, cut, ring, watch, wait, are you ready —
And then all of it came crashing down in 1973.
Gaddis, meanwhile, was “being dragged by the heels into the 20th century:” fighting against the nerve-wracking hum of electric typewriters; failing to revert the copyright for The Recognitions, which was being printed unedited in paperback editions without his knowledge; freelancing for media companies; teaching; vying for reviews; calls to Western Union ringing on the phone in the next room — “it’s almost always for Western Union whose number is 1 digit off ours;” and constantly strapped for cash — “Will this tight rope walking ever end?”
Was Gaddis continuously working on his novel day and night for 20 years? No. He was sidetracked by freelance writing projects and teaching positions to make ends meet, gigs that seemed to support his writing in paradoxical ways: “My work on [JR] this spring will be sporadically interrupted by a part-time teaching invitation which I had accepted in order to continue work on the book.” And even when he was able to work on the novel fulltime, Gaddis’s daily reports capture the writer’s infinite means of procrastination:
2:11 got notes for present sequence in book beside typewriter
2:13 suddenly realized I had better get cat food before stores closed
Gaddis recorded about 12 hours of these minute-by-minute escapes. He too was suffering from the onslaught of postwar noise, a ceaseless stream of information designed, it seemed, to prevent anyone from working on a long novel that could expose such a system.
The problem, ultimately, was distraction — distraction from the Task — a danger later elucidated by William Kohler, the narrator and monomaniacal digger of the ne plus ultra of long haul mega-novels, The Tunnel, William Gass’s 1995 doorstop that was 30 years in the making. “The secret of life is paying absolute attention to what is going on,” Kohler asserts. “The enemy of life is distraction.” If Gaddis’s novel was conditioned by the blur of postwar meanings, then The Tunnel’s resolve was a revamped Protestant work ethic: persistent and monastic focus meant to mitigate the barrage of cultural noise and offer some sort of coherence in the “day-to-day wake-to-work regimen.”
William Kohler appears diametrically opposite from Gaddis’s romping 11-year-old JR. Kohler is a ruminative midwestern history professor (with Nietzschean indigestion no less) struggling to write the introduction to his academic magnum opus, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. Holed up in his basement, his wife upstairs, Kohler begins tunneling out behind the furnace and interposes into his masterpiece his staggered attempts at the introduction: “I slide these sheets between the sheets of G&I and wonder when I’ll run out of history to hide in.” Gass, notorious for overwhelming publishers with ideals about formal experimentation, initially wanted The Tunnel to be published unbound. “I knew I would never get my way,” he ultimately admitted. What becomes clear though is that The Tunnel, in its very conception, was a failed loose-leaf attempt, the detritus of a supposedly greater, more focused work.
The conviction of Gass’s tome, however, is that the detritus of life is what ends up becoming central to our understanding and recollection of it. Shards of thought, flashes of memory, fragments of creation — these are the leftovers and miscellanea that amount to a life, just as in Boyhood, except in The Tunnel, these things for William Kohler do not culminate in the Right Life, not the one he imagined for himself.
Whereas Gaddis’s concerns in JR were the technologies of capital and information, Gass’s interest in The Tunnel was historical process, specifically, the inside of history. In an interview with Michael Silverblatt, Gass elaborated the dark interior of objective histories: “The things that get left out of history are the very things that tend to undermine it, among other things, the first thing, is the historian himself, his nature.” Just as JR folded the procedures of capital markets back on themselves, The Tunnel breaks down the crystalline structure of historical process and deconstructs the inside-outside binaries we often use to describe historical formations. Thus Kohler anguishes, “Why must one bring the world into the tunnel, when the tunnel is supposed to be the way out?”
Kohler finds himself depositing the dug-up dirt in empty desk drawers. He becomes surrounded by debris, digging his way out and his way in all at once, collapsing the distinction between escape and extraction. As Gass has explained, “Tunnels are not always escape tunnels or hiding tunnels…you dig for ore, you dig for gold.” Gass’s clarification offers a profound analogue for the author’s process. The work always takes you closer and further away at the same time, in the same stroke. Every sentence, every shovel-full becomes as self-dissociating as it is self-constituting, and by the same turns. Rather than digging out or digging in, you may just be digging for the sake of digging itself. Ahab coined an expression for this: madness maddened. The metaphor of the tunnel seems perfectly prefigured by Kafka’s unfinished short story, “The Burrow,” in which a nameless narrator manically digs a complex network of tunnels and eventually realizes, “[He] and the burrow belong so indissolubly together.” The stakes are clear: the work consumes you.
Recognizing this wager, the sheer exhaustiveness of the Task, Gass once explained that, for him, The Tunnel “functioned as an avoidance book. Its unpleasant presence made [him] write other books in order to avoid writing it.” The scope of large works becomes overwhelming, unmanageable. Subject matter is demanding, then intimidating, and finally unapproachable. But these tomes are also slowed by more mundane matters of process. The ambitious scales are often counterpointed by the almost logistic labor of line-by-line editing, which, of course, is what any author bargains for. “One thing that takes so much time with JR,” Gaddis once explained, “seems to be that since it’s almost all in dialogue I’m constantly listening, write a line and then have to stop and listen.” In the same vein, Gass’s prose in The Tunnel was haunted by an absolute drive toward meter, rhythm, and precision. He admitted, somewhat resigned, “Who has time to wait between two syllables for just a little literary revelation?” But Gass was nostalgic for a prose style written for the ear, and in a 1976 interview with The Paris Review, in the midst of working on The Tunnel, he waxed, “One used to read Henry James aloud. It’s the only way to read him.”
Are these works, then, merely the outsized products of minute compulsions?
One can’t really talk about obsession, the long haul, and moving dirt without mentioning Michael Heizer, a renegade artist who turned his back on the New York City art scene in the 1960’s for the American desert. In 1972, Heizer began his magnum opus of earthworks, “City,” an immense, stadium sized, minimalist land art installation in the middle of Nevada that is still under construction. Heizer pursues the same type of cultural investigation as Gaddis and Gass. “Part of my art,” Heizer explained in an interview with The New York Times Magazine, “is based on an awareness that we live in a nuclear era.” And in the same way that JR charted the rise of American corporate capitalism and The Tunnel observed the entire narrative of the Cold War, the development of Heizer’s bunker-like environment has not only been contemporaneous with, but geographically adjacent to the postwar saga of the National Academy of Science’s struggle to dispose of nuclear waste underneath Yucca Mountain.
As the U.S. Department of Energy attempts to project the radioactive decay of depleted plutonium and uranium in the waste repository, Michael Heizer and his construction crews sculpt, grain by grain, a massive installation intended to last hundreds, if not thousands of years. Heizer challenges the techniques of military and industrial technology by way of a postmodern acropolis designed to endure alongside and even outlast U.S. materiel waste and the facilities it’s housed in. Better yet, Heizer is monitoring the government’s encroachment on “City,” ready, if the Department of Energy proceeds with a nuclear waste rail line within view of his sculpture, to blow his work sky high. In a state that is 83 percent owned by the federal government, a man and his city resist.
“City,” when it is eventually open to the public, will be monumental. Rather than an installation within an environment, “City” will be an environment unto itself, one that raises questions about bleak military structures and vast urban developments in the middle of nowhere.
Heizer’s project carries the same meticulousness of a compulsive prose stylist. “Mike wanted everything within a sixteenth of an inch,” one construction worker commented, “even on a concrete slab that was 78 feet by 240 feet.” The worker couldn’t quite articulate the concept behind “City,” but he was able to appreciate its scope, which might very well be its meaning: “At the beginning I was lost…was this a stadium?…But gradually I got the idea. I can’t say exactly what it means now, but I know it has to do with history and with making something that will last.”
It has to do with history. A sprawling work inevitably encapsulates its own history, the process of its own creation and the cultural narratives that run alongside it. This was Linklater’s prudence with Boyhood, and this is what happened with Gaddis’s JR. The novel contains and performs its own making, just as The Tunnel embodies the arc of its own development and “City” simulates the gradual rise of a desert metropolis. In composing The Tunnel, Gass recognized that, more than anything else, his primary working material was time: “The narrator moves steadily into the past as the novel proceeds, and there is an increasing sensitivity to what he remembers.” Time folds back on itself: “The past becomes more complete, is more real than the present.” What was true for Kohler was true for Gass:
My mother was an alcoholic and my father was crippled by arthritis and his own character. I just fled. It was a cowardly thing to do, but I simply would not have survived…What is perhaps psychologically hopeful is that in The Tunnel I am turning back to inspect directly that situation, and that means I haven’t entirely rejected it.
The long haul offers a regimen that skirts more stagnate, immediate vocabularies, those kneejerk interpretations that would reject or reduce the past. A novel, while remaining an ongoing task, repeatedly returns writers to the material of the past — old pages, old iterations, the rituals of memory — and the text becomes an experiment in deconstructing the linearity of time, in resisting the organizing powers of historical process. Writing sidesteps the obliterating force of the present, the barrage of the Now. The 30-year creation of The Tunnel took to heart a maxim articulated by Kohler near the end of the novel: “Writing is hiding from history.”
This November will mark the 13th annual National Novel Writing Month, an internet movement launched to discipline writers and spur them into production. NaNoWriMo will bring to mind the many great works that were completed in a sprint, such as On the Road, which Kerouac penned in only three weeks, or Fahrenheit 451, which Ray Bradbury drafted in a basement library typing room in just nine days. It could be argued that rather than evading history, these feverish texts confronted it. Bradbury’s blaze may have been prompted by a fear of the midcentury book burnings in Nazi Germany. Or take Faulkner, who, the day after the stock market panic in 1929, pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket and scrawled a title in the right-hand corner — As I Lay Dying. He would complete the manuscript in a mere six weeks during his graveyard shifts at a power plant: “I had invented a table out of a wheelbarrow in the coal bunker, just beyond a wall from where the dynamo ran.”
But Kerouac was accumulating writing on the road for years before stitching together his final manuscript. And Fahrenheit 451 was the culmination of five short stories that Bradbury had been working on for three years. Faulkner’s chronicle of Addie Bundren and her coffin was an extension of Yoknapatawpha County, an apocryphal world Faulkner had shaped previously in Sartoris and The Sound and the Fury. As I Lay Dying was not only a title that Faulkner had tried twice before for earlier works, but the story itself was arguably an outgrowth of an unfinished manuscript, Father Abraham, that Faulkner abandoned in 1927. Fast-forward to 1996, and you’ll see that in his introduction to Infinite Jest, Dave Eggers asserted that Wallace wrote his masterpiece in only three years. Wallace did have an inspired spurt in Boston in the early ’90s, but the truth about Infinite Jest was that DFW had been reworking fragments from way back in 1986.
You see what I’m getting at.
It’s difficult to say where a work of art comes from, to mark precisely when a novel is conceived or to chart the time during which it is made. But juxtaposing works that were supposedly produced in a panic with some of the long haul endeavors exposes the complex circumstances that surround all artistic creations and the ways that process, be it short or long, can be romanticized and mythologized. Artists procrastinate. They also persist. What is certain is that we carry ideas around for longer than we know, and part of the artistic venture is unearthing the source. “It’s almost hard to remember the impulses at the beginning,” DFW admitted. “It’s something you live with for years and years rather than something you just have an idea or a feeling and you just do.” Or as Gass explained of The Tunnel, “To the degree that this is an escape tunnel, you have to hide the entrance. And so the entrance to this book is hidden.” The problem, always, is finding one’s way back out again.
During the difficult stretches, Gaddis may have considered his manuscript the invalid in the next room. But in his correspondence, it is evident that when Gaddis was able to fully engage his writing, he experienced complete affinity with the novel. As the book was finally verging on publication, Gaddis consoled his son Matthew: “I guess the house will gradually drain of strange (I mean unfamiliar not fully looking) faces,” speaking of young JR Vansant and the novel’s cast. After finishing the novel, Gaddis mused, “Maybe I can learn to talk like an intelligent adult again.” Gaddis had not spent the prior 20 years with an old man, nor had he turned into one. He had spent them with an 11-year-old boy, which is precisely why his novel was able to challenge the stultified adult vocabularies about money markets, educational bureaucracies, and publishing monopolies. It is a sentiment captured perfectly in an interview some years later when Gaddis explained that of all his work thus far, he cared most for his novel JR, because he was “awfully fond of the boy himself.”
Does the long haul pay off? Maybe. Probably not. Part of the pursuit is learning to reexamine and shrug off these vocabularies — ideas about investing, spending, and wasting one’s time, figuring out if it’s worth it, measuring output and productivity, taking stock of oneself, reevaluating oneself, earning respect — vocabularies deployed to commodify and valuate our efforts, all in the interest of reducing us to that most basic currency: human capital. Maybe there is no real redemption, but redemption is an old gospel that has been repurposed by slot machines and a culturally constructed nostalgia telling you to Redeem your cash-voucher…Redeem your past. It has to be about something else now.
The operative claim in The Tunnel, which appears early on in the novel, is that, “It is the dream of all men to re-create Time.” That dream, Gass proved, is fulfilled in the exhaustive process of creating a work of art that reformulates and overcomes the technologies of time in modern culture, technologies that would rather have us distracted, defeated, and subject to the slot machine “sleep-to-dream routine” of an over-simulated, over-stimulating network world. It takes figuring out what Time can mean in the first place, before it is dispensed to us, defined for us.
When I write fiction, where am I? More importantly, when am I?
Joshua Cohen, who completed his own mega-novel Witz a few years ago, once explained to me that, “The page has access to all of time.” Gass, it seems, and his ilk — Linklater, Gaddis, Heizer, all of them — discovered for themselves an interstice where every next day they could venture deeper into their own pasts, the underworlds of their own histories. They found that place where time does not flow in one direction, where memories and imaginings fold on to one another, where past, present, and future all become equally accessible.
Illustration: Austen Claire Clements
Moby-Dick is a quintessential Great American Novel, perhaps even the greatest, but it might not be pure fiction. That’s what George Dobbs argues in a piece on “The Real Life Inspirations Behind Moby-Dick” for The Airship. Invention or not, at least we can be thankful no cannibalism sneaked its way onto the Pequod…
Leave it to the astrologers to forecast unusual cosmological events for the coming months. What’s certain is that under the sign of Libra, the reading public will be gifted that rarest literary treasure, a book of such dazzling breadth and scope that it defies any label short of masterpiece.
Eleanor Catton’s skill was evident in her deft debut, The Rehearsal. The Rehearsal opened a disturbing window onto manipulative adults and adolescents snaking around each other in a music school. In addition to an uncomfortable set of relationships, the disturbance was fueled by lack of names, major characters, and place.
Now comes Catton’s The Luminaries, firmly rooted in both the history of Catton’s native New Zealand and in the literature of the Victorian era. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Catton lives in Auckland. If The Rehearsal was an edgy and inventive debut, The Luminaries is a virtuoso performance. Published at the tender age of twenty-eight, Catton’s second novel tips its hat to Moby Dick’s singular language and Leviathan obsession; Charles Dickens’s sprawling, baggy investigations of ordinary, flawed humanity; George Eliott’s timeless moral inquiries; and the twentieth century romances of A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. The Luminaries is resplendent: a twenty first century Victorian novel that couldn’t be more original.
The novel drops us into the Otago region of New Zealand’s South Island, where a nineteenth century gold rush succeeded California’s by about twenty years. In 1866, twelve men congregate in the smoking room of Hokitika’s Crown Hotel, giving “the impression of a party accidentally met.” The party includes a collection of Chinese, Maori, Jewish, French, and local characters, from a banker to a chaplain to an opium dealer to a whoremonger. “Everyone’s from somewhere else,” the shipping agent comments. It transpires that they all share a common interest in Anna Wetherell, “the whore,” and in recapturing a fortune in gold discovered and then lost in the cabin of a recently deceased (murdered?) man.
Enter the thirteenth man, Walter Moody, just off the boat from England. In a literary sleight of hand, Moody plays audience for the story’s setup (more on that to come) and subsequently participates in the unfolding plot.
The organizing principle for The Luminaries is the Zodiac. “Luminaries” is astrology speak for the brightest and most important objects in the sky: the sun and the moon. Put simplistically, the greater and lesser light of the sun and moon represent the twin poles of man and woman and their array of accompanying characteristics. Each of the many characters is assigned an astrological identity that cycles through the novel. The major sections of the book begin with an illustrated chart of the Zodiac, including symbols and positioning. In an interpretive hint in the prologue, we are told that the novel takes place during a time of precession, when “the motion of the vernal equinox has come to shift.” The author dares us to conjecture that time in this novel is “Piscean in its quality…an age of mirrors, tenacity, instinct, twinship, and hidden things.” It would be reasonable to focus a review of The Luminaries exclusively on these five Piscean themes; they would surely provide enough material for a Ph.D. dissertation.
In common with any respectable Victorian, Catton doesn’t hesitate to interrupt herself with explication and expansive moral judgments. Of Walter Moody she writes, “like most excessively beautiful persons, he had studied his own reflection minutely and, in a way, knew himself from the outside best.” Or, the banker, who “spoke with the controlled alarm of a bureaucrat who is requested to explain some mundane feature of the bureaucracy of which he is a functioning part: controlled, because an official is always comforted by proof of his own expertise, and alarmed, because the necessity for explanation seemed, in some obscure way, to undermine the system which had afforded him that expertise in the first place.”
Catton waxes lyrical in her physical descriptions. Here’s Anna Wetherell, the whore: “Her complexion was translucent, even blue, and tended to a deep purple beneath her eyes — as if she had been painted in watercolor, on a paper that was not stiff enough to hold the moisture, so the colors ran…Her nose was narrow, even geometric: a sculptor might render it in four strokes, with one slice on either side, one down the bridge, and one tuck beneath.”
But the genius of The Luminaries resides in its structure. The novel generates an unusual and unique rhythm. The setup occurs over a sprawling three-hundred-sixty pages. Technically it’s closer to three-hundred-forty; the remaining twenty consolidate and summarize the previous book-length introduction. By this point, the reader is luxuriating in a state of agreeable confusion, curious and eager to read on. The twenty pages of summary are useful, but they could never substitute for such a grand exposition.
Chapter titles reference the Zodiac and are followed by short, italicized summations. For example, “In which the chemist goes in search of opium; we meet Anna Wetherell at last; Pritchard becomes inpatient; and two shots are fired.” Homage, perhaps, to Oliver Twist and its ilk. As secrets are revealed and contradictions unmasked, the book picks up speed with shorter chapters, more truncated sections, and longer and longer “in which” introductions that finally substitute for text and plot. Part One may be the length of most novels, but Part Twelve takes a mere two pages. No doubt astrological numerology would offer further insight into how those twelve parts relate to the twelve characters seated in the Crown Hotel’s smoking room at the outset, who in turn reflect the twelve signs of the Zodiac.
The novel’s pace accelerates with snowballing revelations of hypocrisy, exploitation, mendacity, revenge, and cruelty; all sprinkled with a healthy dose of coincidence. Even the cleverest literary sleuth may fail to solve the whole puzzle until the end. This is the stuff of life in all its unpredictability: mistaken assumptions; arrogant presumption; substance over surface; truth and consequences; and, ultimately, good versus evil.
Steeped in history, The Luminaries feels completely fresh. Contemporary American writers increasingly decline the sweeping range and flow of the past tense. The resulting language compacts into ever-shrinking pages, serving up clipped sentences written in present tense. By contrast, The Luminaries takes its leisurely time roaming the past tense, developing an intricate and complex plot.
Catton’s nineteenth century style feels brand new.
From whence has Catton sprung? Unfortunately, precious few New Zealand writers reach American shores. Perhaps Katherine Mansfield is best known to U.S. readers, along with Janet Frame, whose eerie, haunting novels unfurl a psychologically troubled personal history. Catton’s contemporary, Fiona Farrell, recently set a novel in Victorian times: Mr. Allbones’ Ferrets: An Historical Pastoral Satirical Scientifical Romance, with Mustelids. In Mr. Allbones, Farrell explores the burgeoning scientific understanding of evolution in the time of Charles Darwin, while Kiwi writer Emily Perkins uses nature differently in The Forrests — to examine a contemporary family in dissolution.
But Catton’s talent is too capacious to be confined to place. Deeply entrenched in New Zealand’s South Island, The Luminaries makes clear that this author commands the world at her fingertips. Her literary ancestry derives less from her homeland and more from the British and American giants of the nineteenth century. Catton deserves their company. Nodding to Melville, she’s nailed the tormented sea captain and the revenge obsessed “Chinaman.” With so many characters taking on false identities and trying to out-cheat each other in New Zealand’s gold rush, Catton, too, has mined the seamy underside of greed and poverty so beloved by Dickens. Like George Eliot, Catton looks behind the stereotype of the whore and the opium dealer and forces us to question where the real morality lies. By the novel’s end, every character’s initial presentation has been destabilized. Reader, Catton instructs, don’t judge a book by its cover.
Catton deploys daunting technique, yes. She’s spun a solar system into orbit — the planets, the stars, and the sun and the moon. But more importantly, she’s persuaded readers to invest emotionally in each foibled, flawed, lying character right through to page eight-hundred-thirty. The love story is simply an added pleasure.
All that, and Eleanor Catton is still on the nearside of thirty. Small wonder that The Luminaries has been nominated for the Booker Prize. No matter the outcome, the literary firmament has birthed a new star.
The Great American Novel is the great superlative of American life. We’ve had our poets, composers, philosophers, and painters, too, but no medium matches the spirit of our country like the novel does. The novel is grand, ambitious, limitless in its imagined possibility. It strains towards the idea that all of life may be captured in a story, just as we strain through history to make self-evident truths real on earth.
So, when you set out to debate “the great American novel,” the stakes are high.
We asked nine English scholars to choose one novel as the greatest our country has ever produced. Of course, we explained, the real goal is to get a good conversation going and we don’t really expect to elevate one novel above all the rest. But they took their assignments seriously anyway. You’ll see some familiar names below. Ishmael, Huck, Lily Bart, and Humbert Humbert are all there. But so is Don Corleone, and Lambert Strether, and a gifted blues singer named Ursa.
We hope you enjoy the conversation, and if you disagree with our scholars’ choices — which we assume you will — please offer your own nominations in the comments section.
Margaret E. Wright-Cleveland, Florida State University
How could anyone argue that Huck Finn is the Great American Novel? That racist propaganda? Repeatedly banned ever since it was written for all manner of “inappropriate” actions, attitudes, and name-calling? Yet it is precisely the novel’s tale of racism and its history of censorship that make it a Great American Novel contender. A land defined and challenged by racism, America struggles with how to understand and move beyond its history. Censor it? Deny it? Rewrite it? Ignore it? Twain confronts American history head-on and tells us this: White people are the problem.
Hemingway was right when he said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Hemingway was wrong when he continued, “If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.” For if we stop where Hemingway instructs, we may read the actual wish of many whites – that someone else would take their “black problem” or their “Indian problem” or their “immigrant problem” away – but we miss Twain’s most important critique: White men like Tom Sawyer will forever manipulate the Huck Finns of the world.
Huck and Jim (never named “Nigger Jim” in the book, by the way) make good progress at working their way out of the hierarchy into which they were born until Tom shows up. Then Huck does unbelievably ridiculous things in the section Hemingway calls “cheating.” Why? Huck does so to keep himself out of jail and to save Jim, sure. But he also does so because Tom tells him he must. In spite of all he has learned about Jim; in spite of his own moral code; in spite of his own logic, Huck follows Tom’s orders. This is Twain’s knock-out punch. Tom leads because he wants an adventure; Huck follows because he wants to “do right.” In a democracy, shouldn’t we better choose our leaders?
If the Great American Novel both perceptively reflects its time and challenges Americans to do better, Huck Finn deserves the title. Rendering trenchant critiques on every manifestation of whiteness, Twain reminds us that solving racism requires whites to change.
Stuart Burrows, Brown University, and author of A Familiar Strangeness: American Fiction and the Language of Photography
The Ambassadors is famously difficult, so much so that the critic Ian Watt once wrote an entire essay about its opening paragraph. James’s mannered, labyrinthine sentences are as far from the engaging, colloquial style associated with the American novel as it’s possible to imagine; his hero, Lambert Strether, wouldn’t dream of saying “call me Lambert.” The great American subject, race, is completely absent. And although Strether, like Huck and Holden and countless other American heroes, is an innocent abroad, he is middle-aged — closer in years to Herzog and Rabbit than Nick or Janie. Strether’s wife and, most cruelly, his young son, are long dead, which makes his innocence a rather odd thing. But then there really is no-one like Strether. For Strether has imagination, perhaps more imagination than any American protagonist before or since.
“Nothing for you will ever come to the same thing as anything else,” a friend tells him at the start of his adventures. It’s a tribute to Strether’s extraordinary ability to open himself to every experience on its own terms. Strether is “one of those on whom nothing is lost” — James’s definition of what the writer should ideally be. The price to be paid for this openness is naivety: Strether — sent on a trip to Paris by his fiancée, the formidable Mrs. Newsome, to bring her son home to Massachusetts — is first deceived, then admonished, and finally betrayed.
But none of this robs him of his golden summer, his “second wind.” James dryly notes that Strether comes “to recognise the truth that wherever one paused in Paris the imagination reacted before one could stop it.”
Here is what his imagination does to the Luxembourg Gardens: “[a] vast bright Babylon, like some huge iridescent object, a jewel brilliant and hard, in which parts were not to be discriminated nor differences comfortably marked. It twinkled and trembled and melted together, and what seemed all surface one moment seemed all depth the next.”
At the height of his adventures Strether finds himself at a bohemian garden party, which prompts him to exclaim to a group of young Americans: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had?” Strether insists that this is precisely what he has failed to have — he has no career, no money, and by this point in the novel, no fiancée. Yet the only way it makes sense to say that Strether has not had his life is if we think of him as having given his life to us — his perceptions, his humor, his sense of possibility. What other life could one want?
Zita C. Nunes, University of Maryland, and author of Cannibal Democracy: Race and Representation in the Literature of the Americas
John William DeForest is credited with the first use of the term, “The Great American Novel,” in an 1868 article in The Nation. Having taken a survey of American novels and judged them either too grand, “belonging to the wide realm of art rather than to our nationality,” or too small and of mere regional interest, DeForest finally settles on Uncle Tom’s Cabin as nearest to deserving the label.
He describes it as a portrait of American life from a time when it was easy to have American novels. It would seem that this time was characterized by the experience of slavery, which remains to this day as a legacy, leading me to think that our time is no harder. Given this context for the emergence of the idea of The Great American Novel, I nominate Corregidora, a novel by Gayl Jones, as a wonderful candidate for this distinction.
A difficult work, it has been well received by critics since its initial publication in 1975, who praised the innovative use of the novel form, which engaged a broad sweep of literary and popular language and genres. But what makes this novel stand out in terms of DeForest’s criteria is how all of this is put in the service of exploring what it is to be American in the wake of slavery. The novel traces the story of enslavement, first in Africa, then Brazil, and, finally, to a kind of freedom in the United States, passed down through four generations of mothers and daughters. As an allegory for the United States as part of America, this novel explores the secrets that help explain our mysterious ties to one another. Until Ursa finds the courage to ask “how much was hate and how much was love for [the slavemaster] Corregidora,” she is unable to make sense of all of the ambivalent stories of love and hate, race and sex, past and present, that interweave to make us what she calls “the consequences” of the historic and intimate choices that have been made.
DeForest tellingly is unable to name a single Great American Novel in his essay. Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes closest, he claims, since the material of the work was in many respects “admirable,” although “the comeliness of form was lacking.” I sympathize with DeForest’s reluctance to actually name The Great American Novel, but if I have to name one that is comely in form and admirable in material, it would be Corregidora.
Tom Ferraro, Duke University, and author of Feeling Italian: the Art of Ethnicity in America
Ahab rages at nature, resisting resource capital, and is destroyed; Gatsby accrues gangster wealth, in a delusion of class-transcending love, and is destroyed. Neither produces children. Of America’s mad masters, only Vito Corleone triumphs, in money and blood.
The Godfather is the most read adult novel in history and the most influential single act of American creativity of the second half of the American century: nothing else comes close. It provided the blueprint for the movies, which resurrected Hollywood. It tutored The Sopranos, which transformed television. And we all know who “The Godfather” is, even if we’ve never read a word of the book. How did Puzo do it?
Puzo’s Southern Italian imagination turned a visionary ethnic family man into a paradigm of capitalism wrapped in the sacred rhetoric of paternal beneficence. This interplay of family and business creates a double crisis of succession: first, Don Vito’s failure to recognize the emergent drug market, which precipitates the assassination attempt (a “hostile take over bid,” Mafia-style); and second, of the Americanization of his gifted son Michael (who studies math at Dartmouth, enlists in the Marines, and takes a WASP fiancée), which puts the sacred Sicilian family structure at risk. Both tensions are resolved in a single stroke: the Return of the Prodigal Son, who is re-educated in the old ways of love and death, and ascends to his father’s capitalist-patriarchal throne.
The Godfather was written in 1969 and can be read as a dramatic response to a pivotal moment in American history. Puzo substituted the Corleones’ tactical genius for our stumbling intervention in Vietnam; he traded the family’s homosocial discipline and female complicity for women’s liberation; and he offered the dream of successful immigrant solidarity in place of the misconstrued threat of civil rights and black power.
Yet like any profound myth narrative, The Godfather reads as well now as then. Its fantasy of perfect succession, the son accomplishing on behalf of the father what the father could not bear to do, is timeless. And Puzo’s ability to express love and irony simultaneously is masterful: the mafia is our greatest romance and our greatest fear, for it suspends our ethical judgments and binds us to its lust for power and vengeance. Of course, our immigrant entrepreneurs, violent of family if not of purpose, keep coming. Even Puzo’s out-sized vulgarities illuminate, if you can hear their sardonic wit.
After Puzo, none of America’s epic stories, Ahab’s or Gatsby’s, Hester Prynne’s or Invisible Man’s, reads exactly the same. And that is exactly the criterion of T.S. Eliot’s admission to the “great tradition.” The Godfather teaches us to experience doubly. To enjoy the specter of Sicilian otherness (an old-world counterculture, warm and sexy even in its violence) while suspecting the opposite, that the Corleones are the hidden first family of American capitalism. In Puzo’s omerta, the ferocious greed of the mafia is all our own.
Joseph Fruscione, George Washington University, and author of Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry
It is Invisible Man. No, it was not written by a Nobel Laureate or Pulitzer Prize winner, nor has it been around for centuries. It is a novel of substance, of layers and riffs. It might even be said to be the greatest American novel.
The greatness of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) comes from being many things to many readers. A racial epic. A bildungsroman in the form of a dramatic monologue. A rich psychological portrait of racial identity, racism, history, politics, manhood, and conflicted personal growth. An elusive story of and by an elusive, nameless narrator. A jazz-like play on literature, music, society, memory, and the self. A product of a voracious reader and writer. Somehow, it is all of these, perhaps one of the reasons it netted the National Book Award over The Old Man and the Sea and East of Eden.
“But what did I do to be so blue?,” Invisible asks at the end of its famous prologue. “Bear with me.”
And bear with him we do, for 25 chapters and nearly 600 pages. At moments, Invisible shows the kind of reach and attention to detail that Ellison did as a craftsman in writing — revising, rewriting, and saving draft after draft of his works. Invisible’s Harlem “hole” isn’t just brightly lit; it has exactly 1,369 lights, with more to come. He obsessively details his encounters with his grandfather (“It was he who caused the trouble”), the racist audience of a battle royal, his college administrators, members of the party, and the many people he meets in the South, New York, and elsewhere.
Another element of the novel’s greatness could be its metaphorical sequel — that is, Ellison’s attempt at recapturing its scope, ambitiousness, and importance in the second novel he composed over the last 30–40 years of his life but never finished. Invisible Man is Ellison’s lone completed novel, yet 61 years after it was written, it shows no signs of being outdated. Along with a series of short stories and many rich, intelligent essays, Invisible Man helps Ellison raise key debates and questions about literature, American society, race relations, and the writer’s social responsibility to look into such deep issues.
Which is what Ellison, who chose to end his greatest American novel with this line, might have wanted: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, it will continue to speak for us?
Kirk Curnutt, Troy University
On the surface, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905) indulges that great American pastime, hating the rich. The merciless way it exposes backstabbers, adulterers, conniving social climbers, and entitled sexual harassers as gauche frauds was certainly one reason the novel sold a blockbusting 140,000 copies in its first year alone. Yet Mirth is so much more than a fin-de-siècle Dallas or Dynasty. It’s our most economically minded Great American Novel, refusing to flim-flam us with dreams of lighting out for unregulated territories by insisting there’s no escaping the marketplace. Saturated with metaphors of finance, it depicts love and matrimony as transactions and beauty as currency. But if that sounds deterministic, Mirth is also beguilingly ambiguous, never shortchanging the complexity of human desire and motive.
Lily Bart, the twenty-nine year-old virgin whose value as marriage material plummets amid gossip, is an unusual representative American: the hero as objet d’art. Because she’s an individual and a romantic, it’s easy to cheer her refusals to sell out/cash-in by welshing on debts or blackmailing her way to financial security. Yet Lily is also ornamental — sometimes unconsciously, sometimes contentedly so — and that makes interpreting her impossible without implicating ourselves in the same idle speculation the book critiques, which is the point: Mirth challenges the valuation of women. To prevent her heroine from getting price-fixed in appraisal, Wharton shrouds Lily in a surplus of conflicting explanations, right up to her final glug of chloral hydrate, which readers still can’t agree is intentional or accidental.
The surplus is why whenever I read The House of Mirth I feel like I’m dealing with my own house — only I’m throwing words instead of money at the problem.
My only compensation?
I buy into books that leave me thinking I’d have an easier time mastering the stock market
Albert Mobilio, The New School, and co-editor of Book Forum
Of course the great American novel would be written by an immigrant who didn’t arrive in this country until he was middle-aged and for whom English was merely one of his several languages. Of course he would be a European aristocrat who harbored more than a dash of cultural disdain for his adopted country where he only chose to reside for two decades (1940-1960) before repairing to the Continent.
But Nabokov was an American patriot, a sentiment he expressed when he recounted the “suffusion of warm, lighthearted pride” he felt showing his U.S. passport. So this hybrid figure, born in Russia, a resident of Prague, Berlin, and Montreux, took advantage of his relatively brief sojourn in America to write Lolita, a novel that not only speaks more intimately than any book by Fitzgerald, Faulkner, or Hemingway about our conflicted nature, but also enacts, via its high stylization, the great American seduction.
In Surprised by Sin, an analysis of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Stanley Fish offered an explanation for why the speeches of Christ — as both poetry and rhetoric — paled when compared to those of Satan and his minions: Milton sought to ensnare his readers with Beelzebub’s wry wit, revealing them as devotees of showy display over the plain-speech of salvation.
Nabokov takes similar aim in Lolita: was there ever a more enchanting narrator than Humbert Humbert? From his opening, near sing-able lines (“light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul”) we are treated to intricately built description, deft rationalization, and elegant self-analysis all delivered in prose reflecting an intelligence and aesthetic sensibility of the highest, most rarefied order. But he is also, in short, the devil. And Nabokov makes you love him. And we flatter ourselves for catching the clever allusions of, well, a rapist.
Humbert’s seduction of 12-year-old Dolores Haze (the European roué fouling the American (almost) virgin) certainly replays not only the grand theme of this nation’s discovery and founding, but welds that epic wrong to one far more familiar and, in terms of the felt experience of individuals, more emotionally serrated — the sexual abuse of a child by an adult. Nabokov depicts great sin as piecework, one-to-one destruction wrought by irresistibly attractive folks rather than something accomplished by armies or madmen. This sin, he goes on to suggest, is most effectively done with a shoeshine and a smile.
Nabokov didn’t need to live in the U.S. long to get our number. In fact, he started Lolita after just ten years in America. But this newcomer saw through to our core dilemma: from Barnum to Fox News, Americans love a good show. Beneath the gloss, though, lies a corruption, a despoiling impulse, that connects back to our original sin. Nabokov, an immigrant and ultimately a fellow despoiler, wrote a novel that re-enacts our fall and (here’s his most insidious trick) gets us to pride ourselves for being as smart as the devil himself.
Priscilla Wald, Duke University
When the novelist John William DeForest coined “the Great American Novel,” in a literary review in the January 1868 issue of The Nation, he intended to distinguish it from “the Great American Poem.” America was not ready for that higher art form. But “the Great American Novel” depicting “the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence”? That was within the grasp of his contemporaries.
Time has worn away the distinction, and novels nominated for the title typically describe the grand odysseys of larger than life characters. But I want to take DeForest’s criteria seriously and nominate a novel that takes the ordinariness of America and Americans as its subject: Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans.
Stein’s novel chronicles the history and development of two Jewish immigrant families, but the plot is not its point. The Making of Americans is about the inner thoughts of its unexceptional characters; it is about the beautiful crassness of American materialism, and about the author’s love affair with language. In nearly 1000 pages of the prose that made Stein famous, she dramatizes her “interest in ordinary middle class existence, in simple firm ordinary middle class traditions, in sordid material unaspiring visions, in a repeating, common, decent enough kind of living, with no fine kind of fancy ways inside us, no excitements to surprise us, no new ways of being bad or good to win us.” The pleasure of this novel is in the play of its language. Readers must abandon themselves to the incantatory rhythms of Stein’s repetitions: “I will go on being one every day telling about being being in men and in women. Certainly I will go on being one telling about being in men and women. I am going on being such a one.”
The dashed hopes and dreams of Stein’s characters lack the magnitude of Ahab’s or Jay Gatsby’s falls; their unremarkable acceptance of diminished dreams lacks even the lyrical wistfulness of Ishmael or Nick Carraway. Instead, Stein’s characters come to life in her cadences, repetitions, and digressions: the poetry of the quotidian. That is what makes Americans and what makes The Making of Americans, and what makes The Making of Americans the great American novel.
Hester Blum, Penn State University
Moby-Dick is about the work we do to make meaning of things, to comprehend the world. We do this both as individuals and collectives. Here, Melville says through his narrator, Ishmael, I will cast about you fragments of knowledge drawn from books, travels, rumors, ages, lies, fancies, labors, myths. Select some, let others lie, craft composites. In Melville’s terms knowledge is a process of accretion, a taxonomic drive. What is American about this? The product of an amalgamated nation, Moby-Dick enacts the processes by which we are shaped — and, crucially, shapers — of parts that jostle together, join and repel.
There are things we know in Moby-Dick: We know, for one, that Captain Ahab lost his leg to the white whale, that he is maddened by being “dismasted.” We know Ahab is driven to pursue to the death what his first mate Starbuck believes is simply a “dumb brute,” rather than a reasoning, destructive force. Yet how we come to know things in and about Moby-Dick is not always evident, if ever. Here, for example, is how Melville describes the sound of grief made by Ahab when speaking of his missing limb and his need for revenge: “he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose.” There are flashier and more memorable lines than this one in the longer, pivotal chapter (“The Quarter Deck”). But we might linger on this unaccountable moose (as we could on many such arresting images in the novel): How do we come to know what a “heart-stricken moose” would sound like? Moby-Dick does not allow us to reject the outsized weirdness of this image, or to dispute how that poor, sad moose might have had its heart broken.
What makes Moby-Dick the Greatest American Novel, in other words, is that Melville can invoke the preposterous image of a sobbing, heart-stricken moose and we think, yes, I have come to know exactly what that sounds like, and I know what world of meaning is contained within that terrific sound. Moby-Dick asks us to take far-flung, incommensurate elements — a moose having a cardiac event, not to speak of a white whale bearing “inscrutable malice,” or the minutia of cetology — and bring them near to our understanding. What better hope for America than to bring outlandish curiosity — to try come to know — the multitudinous, oceanic scale of our world?
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Four years ago, in an attempt to help readers navigate the flood tide of Roberto Bolaño books appearing posthumously in English, we at The Millions put together a little syllabus. Little did we know how rash our promise to update “as further translations become available” would soon seem. Within two years, the release of six additional titles had rendered the first version nugatory. And since then, six more have become available.
Indeed, it’s hard to think of another figure in the history of weltliteratur whose catalogue has made it so quickly to these shores, or whose literary executors have been speedier – not to say more punctilious – in publishing his archive. Though Bolaño’s imagination seems inexhaustible, it’s hard not to greet the news of yet another “lost work” or “early work” or “lost early work” with fatigue. (Or even, given the overlap between certain editions, suspicion.) Yet the most recent publication, the poetry omnibus The Unknown University, is a major work, and should be the exclamation point at the end of the Bolaño boom. (Though there was that new story in The New Yorker a few weeks ago, so maybe Andrew Wylie knows something we don’t… And there’s always Advice from a Morrison Disciple to a Joyce Fanatic, co-written with A.G. Porta in 1984.)
At any rate, this seems an opportune time to revisit, once and for all, our Bolaño syllabus, which has more than doubled in size since 2009. Where originally we arranged the list as a kind of guided tour, it seems most worthwhile at this point to divide the available work into tiers: what you need to read, what you might want to, and what you can pass over without losing sleep.
1. The Savage Detectives
2666 may be more admirable, but The Savage Detectives is more loveable (think Moby-Dick vs. Huckleberry Finn). As such, it’s the Bolaño book I tend to urge on people first. Read The Savage Detectives all the way to the end, and you’ll understand why one might want to try to read this writer’s entire corpus. (See our review).
There is no other novel of the last decade that I think about more often, years after having read it. My enthusiastic take here now seems to me embarrassingly inadequate. A bona fide masterpiece.
3. Last Evenings on Earth
The best, by a whisker, of the five collections of short fiction available in English – largely because New Directions can’t have foreseen how big Bolaño was going to be, and so raided his Anagrama editions for the best stories. Highlights include “Dance Card,” “Sensini,” “The Grub,” “Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva,” and “Gomez Palacio.”
4. The Return
Another strikingly good collection, overlooked perhaps because of its appearance in 2010, when the Bolaño marketplace was already flooded. Between it and Last Evenings on Earth, you end up with the whole (I think) of the two collections published in Spanish during Bolaño’s lifetime. I especially love the title story. And for those inclined to read the Bolaño oeuvre as a roman-fleuve, you get here the porny “Prefigurations of Lalo Cura.”
5. Nazi Literature in the Americas
This early “novel,” a biographical encyclopedia of invented writers, offers our first glimpse of the ambition that would effloresce in the two big books. Not incidentally, it’s an excellent introduction to Bolaño’s peculiar sense of humor, which enjambs the absurd and the deadpan until it’s hard to tell which is which. Come to think of it, it’s probably his funniest book. (See our review).
6. Distant Star
This is my favorite of Bolaño’s short novels, and the other book I tend to recommend to neophytes. An expansion of a chapter in Nazi Literature, it yokes together two signature preoccupations: poetry and detectives.
7. The Unknown University
This beautiful dual-language edition purports to include “all of the poems of the great Roberto Bolaño.” Perhaps that should be “all of the great poems of Roberto Bolaño”; a quick comparison reveals some titles in The Romantic Dogs that I can’t find here. But you get most of that collection, plus Tres, plus the novel in prose-poems Antwerp, as well as a couple hundred other poems. As with The Secret of Evil and Woes of the True Policemen, the “history of the book” Bolaño’s executors provide here is weirdly hard to parse, but concerns fall away in the reading. At every turn there’s a sense that this manuscript was indeed the life’s work in poetry of a writer who valued poetry above all other genres. Verse narratives like “The Neochileans” have the impact of Bolaño’s best short novels. The lyric poems lose more in Laura Healy’s translation, especially as Bolaño likes to deal in fragments. As Jeff Peer noted here, the shorter pieces veer, albeit with a charming kind of indifference, between notebook and dream journal, genius and juvenilia. And because there are so many of these short poems, displayed one to a page, the book looks more tomelike than it is. Still, it is very much greater than the sum of its parts, and some of those parts are already very great indeed. The addictive element in Bolaño, more than anything else, is his sui generis sensibility, and this book is that sensibility distilled.
8. Between Parentheses
For those of you keeping score at home, that’s four genres Bolaño excelled in: the meganovel, the novella, the poem, and the short story. What are the odds that his collected nonfiction could be indispensable? Especially when most of it consists of occasional speeches and short newspaper work? Well, odds be damned. This book is great, in a way that reminds me of Jonathan Lethem’s recent and similarly loose-limbed The Ecstasy of Influence. There’s something fascinating about listening in as a writer talks shop, more or less off the cuff. Parts two through five do double-duty as an encyclopedia of Latin American fiction. And “Beach,” actually a short story, is one of Bolaño’s best.
9. By Night in Chile
Bolaño’s most formally perfect short novel, it is also the most self-contained. It offers a torrential dramatic monologue by a Catholic priest implicated in torture during Chile’s U.S.-backed Pinochet era. Some readers I respect think this is his best book. Though it plays its source material straighter than is typical in Bolaño, it might be another good one for norteamericanos to start with.
The Merely Excellent
1. The Third Reich
This was another book that I thought got a bit lost in the shuffle of 2009-2011, when an astonishing 1,800 pages of Bolaño’s prose made their way into English. Otherwise, it might have been recognized as one of the best novels published in English in the latter year. Certainly, it’s the strongest of Bolaño’s apprentice books. Here, the master seems to be David Lynch; all is atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere, as the failure of a plot to precipitate becomes itself a source of terrible foreboding. I’m also a sucker for the “visceral realism” of Natasha Wimmer’s translations, though I can’t speak to their accuracy.
Amulet on its own is a wonderful reworking of the Auxilio Lacouture monologue from The Savage Detectives, and a chance to get to spend more time with that book’s presiding spirits, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. It also contains some of Bolaño’s most bewitching sentences, including the one that seems to give 2666 its title: “Guerrero, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.”
3. The Insufferable Gaucho
Here you get the sublime Kafka takeoff “Police Rat” and a sort of cover version of Borges’s “The South,” each approaching novella length. However, the decision to pair the five stories (a version of one of which also appears in Between Parentheses) with two (excellent) essays gives this collection as a whole a distinctly “odds and sods” feel.
4. The Secret of Evil
Another posthumous gallimaufry, but one I found totally delightful. Notwithstanding the magician’s indirection with which the “Preliminary Note” attempts to justify the book’s publication, it’s pretty clear that much of what’s here is in rough form. But as with Between Parentheses, it’s thrilling to see Bolaño at work, and to see where he might have gone next. And it’s always nice to see a little more of Ulises and Arturo.
One of Bolaño’s earliest pieces of fiction, Antwerp’s not much like the others, save for a hunchback who will also pop up in The Skating Rink. But it’s one of the greatest avant-garde “novel in fragments” out there (see our review). In fact, as the inclusion in The Unknown University of a slightly different version (titled “People Walking Away”) suggests, the prose here is close to poetry. So why “merely excellent” instead of “essential”? Well, if you already have a copy there, why buy the stand-alone version?
6. The Last Interview
Like many non-Anglophone writers, Bolaño treated the interview less as a promotional opportunity than as a form of performance art. That makes this entry in Melville House’s “Last Interview” series less illuminating, but also more fun, than it could have been. And of course the posthumous cash-in angle is right there in the title. In addition to Marcela Valdes’s long and brilliant introduction – one of the best pieces of critical writing on Bolaño available in English – you get four interviews. Though caveat emptor: the actual last interview also shows up at the end of Between Parentheses, so again you may be paying for what was already yours to begin with.
Necessary For Completists Only
1. Woes of the True Policeman
There was a concerted effort to market this first as a “missing piece” of 2666, and then as a novel proper, but it’s pretty clear that what Woes of the True Policeman truly is is an early stab at the big novel. The Amalfitano who appears here is a different character, but an equally deep one, and that and the rhetorical pyrotechics are the real selling points. (Am I the only person who finds the opening here really funny?) Still, aside from specialists and scholars, there’s something a little unsettling about pretending that what the writer didn’t think deserved our attention deserves our attention. Our review is here.
2. Monsieur Pain
When the jacket copy for Keith Ridgway’s forthcoming Hawthorn & Child calls it “the trippiest novel New Directions has published in years,” it must mean three years – since this one came out. And damned if I can make heads or tails of old Mr. Bread. It concerns an ailing César Vallejo and some mysterious policemen…or something. Bolaño wrote this in the early ’80s, and may have been surprised to be able to sell it to Anagrama in his breakthrough year, 1999. The most notable feature, for me, is formal: the “Epilogue for Voices” seems to anticipate the structural innovations of The Savage Detectives.
3. The Skating Rink
More straightforward than Monsieur Pain, this early novel seems like another pass at the material in Antwerp/”People Walking Away.” It’s a quick, entertaining read, but for me the strange characterological magic that makes the voices in the later novels come alive never quite happens in this one.
4. The Romantic Dogs
On its own, The Romantic Dogs is a fine collection. The same poem-to-poem unevenness that mars The Unknown University is present here, but because the selection tends toward the longer, more narrative poems, more of Bolaño makes it through the translation. Still, if much of what’s here is included there, this edition would seem to have been superseded for all but the most ardent Bolañophiles. See also: Tres.
See The Romantic Dogs.
Having recently regained dry land after four weeks adrift in the first thousand pages of Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s pelagic six-volume My Struggle (only to find myself confronted with a note-strewn desk and two large books bristling with the polychromic sticky tabs it now occurs to me I might have wanted to devise a reasonably consistent system for deploying), I’m troubled by the sense that if there’s ever been a literary project best left to speak for itself, My Struggle might be it. It’s also likely that the many liberties its author takes — with conventional narrative structure, with any readily discernible logic dictating some passages’ tortuous paths of thought, with grammatical norms, and even with the ordinarily sacrosanct writer’s mandate to eschew cliché — have overwhelmed the sector of my brain that transacts in sentences, paragraphs, rhetorical touch, and so forth, to the extent that I’m in for my own considerable struggle here as I try to transform the notes I scribbled down with seeming indiscrimination in several different notebooks, Book 2’s margins, on Post-its and the back of a gas bill that it looks like still needs to be paid into an orderly account of what it’s like to read Knausgaard. Nevertheless, some thoughts:
The first thing I should emphasize is that I found myself consumed by My Struggle, swallowed whole in a way that recalled for me the experience of reading similarly mammoth works like Moby-Dick, JR, Crime and Punishment, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, 2666 — Big Books that temporarily assume an autocrat’s control over their readers’ inner lives. And then since my ostensible focus here is Book Two: A Man in Love, I should also single out for praise this second volume while conceding that it’s in many ways merely an amplification of the first, and that this is both a merit and demerit. Which is to say that if you found yourself unable to put Book One down even during some of its most water-treadingly indulgent-seeming passages of plotless drift precisely because you were compelled by the minutiae of Knausgaard’s “struggle,” then you will find a lot to keep you reading through A Man In Love’s near-600 pages. If, on the other hand, you found the former book frequently irritating, disagreed with its author’s aggressive indifference to poetic niceties; if you considered it an unconscionably navel-gazing sprawl, the dull and the mundane speciously elevated to metaphysical heights the actual text rarely managed to reach…you may not make it through Book Two.
I’m in the former camp: read both books hungrily and find myself already missing Knausgaard just a few days after turning A Man in Love’s last page, searching the Web for inexpensive crash courses in Norwegian, mostly just wishing Volume Three were available in English now. (At roughly five hundred pages per installment, the last four are presumably intruding nightly on heroic translator Don Bartlett’s sleep). Some readers will be put off by the prospect of a prose work of Proustian length written in sentences that lack Proust’s style, elegance, and grace; I, too, had a hard time with some of the silly all-caps interjections (“FUCK, SHIT, FUCK!”) along with the frequent, blithe lapses into rank cliché — “The time was ripe,” “It was now or never,” “She was clearly cut from the same cloth as me,” and so on. The writing is purportedly ungainly in its original Norwegian, too. And yet the coarse phrasing serves Knausgaard’s overarching purpose oddly well. While there’s very little polish at phrase-level, sentences are syntactically complex — circuitous, recursive, serpentine in the way bar-stool disquisitions on points of intense personal interest can be — and if consistently guilty of the serial-comma-splice, then also a reflection of the almost desperate speed with which Knausgaard seems determined to track every insight, notion, thought-line, argument, reflection through the labyrinthine warrens of whatever burrowing creature’s hole it’s drawn him down.
Here he is, for instance, having just returned with his nursery-school-age daughter from a classmate’s birthday party:
I returned the glass to the table and stubbed out my cigarette. There was nothing left of my feelings for those I had just spent several hours with. The whole crowd of them could have burned in hell for all I cared. This was a role in my life. When I was with other people I was bound to them, the nearness I felt was immense, the empathy great. Indeed, so great that their well-being was always more important than my own. I subordinated myself, almost to the verge of self-effacement; some uncontrollable internal mechanism caused me to put their thoughts and opinions before mine. But the moment I was alone others meant nothing to me. It wasn’t that I disliked them, or nurtured feelings of loathing for them, on the contrary, I liked most of them, and the ones I didn’t actually like I could always see some worth in, some attribute I could identify with, or at least find interesting, something that could occupy my mind for the moment. But liking them was not the same as caring about them. It was the social situation that bound me, the people within it did not. Between these two perspectives there was no halfway point. There was just the small, self-effacing one and the large, distance-creating one. And in between them was where my daily life lay. Perhaps that was why I had such a hard time living it. Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or that made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts.
What was the problem?
On the other hand, it would be unfair if the ratio of thought to action here left readers with the false impression that this is a 573-page book in which nothing happens. In passages that volley back and forth through time we see young Karl Ove decamp for Stockholm; sever ties with almost all of his old life in Norway, (which program includes leaving his first wife); fall in love again; remarry; fight to sustain (and then, once it’s begun to slip away, recover) the elation of those first few months of courtship as the new couple settles into everyday routine; witness his second wife Linda’s pregnancy and the subsequent birth of their first daughter; give listless interviews and lectures on his books and ambivalence towards literary fame; discourse with friends and enemies on being, art, morality — but the sections I liked best, the ones that make the books worth reading, retreat from these episodes and trek into the underground of consciousness, where Knausgaard’s unchecked and frequently volatile reflections are no longer bound by the normative limits of decent speech and behavior in respectable company.
Some of these sentences and paragraphs are long, but they operate in a way very much unlike those of some other writers one tends to class as either maximalist or longwinded, depending on one’s feelings about length in prose: Thomas Bernhard, David Foster Wallace, or László Krasznahorkai. Bernhard’s read almost like parodies of manic, rabid, raving thought — they are very much internal monologues. And while they are unhinged at times, what seems like madness is really an insane deference to logic: a logic that will pursue the necessary consequences of first premises far beyond the boundaries of bourgeois comfort, into the truth that lies beneath and must be left to lie there unlooked-at if life will be lived, if family, colleagues, social circles are to be engaged — basically, if anything is to be done.
Bernhard, like Beckett, is in this way very funny. His narrators’ better tirades follow their merciless logic to conclusions that are shocking or at least discomfiting not only because we can’t believe somebody’s saying this, but because of the disquieting sense that they might actually be true. Here is a representative passage from Concrete, in the midst of a mostly book-spanning “digression” from the narrator’s stated purpose, which is to write a definitive study of composer Mendelssohn Bartholdy:
My preparations have now been going on for years, for more than a decade, as I have said. Perhaps, it occurs to me, I ought not to have interrupted them by doing other things, perhaps I shouldn’t have begun anything on Schonberg or Reger, or even contemplated the Nietzsche sketch: all these diversions, instead of preparing me for Mendelssohn, simply took me further and further from him. […] All these attempts […] had basically been merely distractions from my main subject; moreover, they had all been failures, a fact which could only weaken my morale. It’s a good thing I destroyed them all […] But I’ve always had a sound instinct about what should be published and what should not, having always believed that publishing is senseless, if not an intellectual crime, or rather a capital offence against the intellect. […] Had I published my essay on Schonberg I shouldn’t dare to be seen in the street any longer; the same would be true if I’d published my work on Nietzsche, although that was not a complete failure. To publish anything is folly and evidence of a certain defect of character. […] And what about my work on Mendelssohn Bartholdy? […] Naturally I intend to publish it, whatever the consequences. For I actually believe that this work will be my most successful, or rather my least unsuccessful. I certainly am thinking of publishing it! But before I can publish it I have to write it, I thought, and at this thought I burst into a fit of laughter, of what I call self-laughter, to which I have become prone over the years through being constantly alone.
The reason Concrete’s narrator can’t begin the monumental work to which he has devoted this phase of his life is that he foresees, correctly, that no matter how far he manages to go it won’t be far enough. Anything he writes will fall short of his vision, and while this insight is common enough to be a cliché, it’s a cliché that the artist who aspires to make art has to disregard if he’s ever to make anything. In other words, the productive artist necessarily suppresses his integrity, proceeds as if it weren’t true that anything he ultimately brings into the world will be, beside its incorporeal Platonic vision, a disappointment. What’s simultaneously terrifying and hilarious in Bernhard is his narrators’ integrity, their refusal to compromise, to deceive themselves or allow themselves to be deceived into acceptance of the subtle deviations from the truth that are what enable us to go about our lives.
Meanwhile, Krasznahorkai’s long sentences read to me much more like speech transcribed: musings, sermons, lectures, disquisitions, diatribes, and, above all, stories. They’re less internal than Bernhard’s; even when tracing a character’s unspoken thoughts they’re more like a figure talking to himself than a lunatic frantically looping along Bernhardian nightmare theme park rides, hurtling towards madness and death. Here, the former composer who has not only retired from creative life but sealed himself off from the depressed Hungarian small town in which The Melancholy of Resistance takes place has had (while hammering nails) a Saul-of-Tarsus-style revelation:
It was indeed a sudden awakening, but, like all such awakenings, not wholly unheralded, for before he set out on his tour he had been aware only of the plainly laughable nature of his efforts, the chief of which was to prevent his left hand being battered to pieces, a piffling task to which he applied the whole might of his considerable intellect [that] […]laughable as it was, […] [intimated that] there was a deeper, more complex issue at stake, the nature of which was to allow him to master the art of banging in nails. He recalled various stages in his frantic efforts and the fact that even then […] he had suspected that any eventual resolution would not be due entirely to taking rational thought in the matter, a suspicion that had in the meantime become a certainty, for […]this apparently insignificant task had been resolved by a […] flexible attitude to permutations, the passage from ‘missing the point’ to ‘hitting the nail on the head’ so to speak, owing nothing, absolutely nothing, to concentrated logic and everything to improvisation […]
He had arrived at the decisive moment of resignation, the happy little glimmer on the head of the nail conjured nothing more or less than a mysterious, unforgettable sensation that had surprised him on his way home, that despite the apparently insufferable condition of the town, he was glad simply to be alive […]
Knausgaard, in contrast with Krasznahorkai and Bernhard, neither transposes creative-impotence-induced nerve-trauma nor conjures weirdly dialectic soliloquies. Instead, the image his prose—and even his subject—frequently calls to this reader’s mind is an author bent over his keypad, typing at very high-gear velocity:
I began to work, sat in my new office on Dalagatan writing every day while Linda was at home with Vanja and came to see me for lunch, often worried about something but also happy, she was closer to the child and what was happening than me, for I was writing what had started out as a long essay [but] slowly but surely was growing into a novel, it soon reached a point where it was everything and writing was all I did, I moved into the office, wrote day and night, sleeping an hour here and there. I was filled with an absolutely fantastic feeling, a kind of light burnt within me, not hot and consuming but cold and clear and shining. At night I took a cup of coffee with me and sat down on the bench outside the hospital to smoke, the streets around me were quiet, and I could hardly sit still, so great was my happiness. Everything was possible. Everything made sense.
Knausgaard’s purpose in My Struggle, explicit in its title, is to simultaneously depict, scrutinize and enact the process of writing the very work that narrates the story of its author writing himself through and ultimately out of his consuming need to write. It’s an impressive trick. If Bernhard’s books are often long uninhibited screeds “about” inhibited artists and writers, then Knausgaard’s first two volumes are “about” a man’s struggle to surmount the mundane impediments to his being present at his desk, feverishly cataloguing and endlessly carping about these same impediments to his being there. The most substantial narrative arc in these two volumes traces the composition of the memoir as it’s being composed — which means, since by default nearly every non-writing activity, obligation, interaction, and relationship constitutes a kind of roadblock in this composition’s path, antagonists abound:
A few weeks after the novel was finished life began as a house husband, and the plan was it would last until next spring while Linda did the last year of her training at the Dramatiska Institutet. The novel writing had taken its toll on our relationship, I slept in the office for six weeks, barely seeing Linda and our five-month-old daughter, and when at last it was over she was relieved and happy, and I owed it to her to be there, not just in the same room, physically, but also with all my attention and participation. I couldn’t do it. For several months I felt a sorrow at not being where I had been, in the cold, clear environment, and my yearning to return was stronger than my pleasure at the life we lived. The fact that the novel was doing well didn’t matter. After every good review I put a cross in the book and waited for the next, after every conversation with the agent at the publisher’s when a foreign company had shown some interest or made an offer, I put a cross in the book and waited for the next, and I wasn’t very interested when it was eventually nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize, for if there was one thing I had learned over the last six months it was that what all writing was about was writing.
It’s true that if this were all Knausgaard had to offer his readers, few would be inclined to indulge him for 3,000 pages (and furthermore provokes contemplation of how, for instance, a 3,000-page counter-memoir composed by Linda about her struggle to put up with her husband’s duty-shirking on the home front during their matrimony’s embryonic phase might read); but intricately textured, almost Altman-like social episodes compel a mesmeric attention that’s at times tough to account for rationally. At birthday parties, literary conferences, a christening, a funeral, in bookstores, flats, supermarkets, bars, a restless Knausgaard interacts with the whole rolling cast of people intimately or peripherally involved in his professional and private life. Much of the readerly fun to be found in these transcriptions of the interpersonal mundane inheres in the persistent dissonance between Knausgaard’s mild outward manner and the frank, often punishing perlustrations to which he subsequently subjects both his interlocutors and himself. An interview that on the surface seems to come off fairly well gets angrily dismissed as ersatz-High Culture fluff — vapid onanism Knausgaard validates by placidly agreeing to take part:
The problem is what surrounds all these authorships, the flattery that mediocre writers thrive on and, as a consequence of their false self-image, everything they are emboldened to say to the press and TV.
I know what I’m talking about. I’m one of them myself.
Oh, I could cut off my head with the bitterness and shame that I have allowed myself to be lured, not just once but time after time. If I have learned one thing over these years, which seems to me immensely important, particularly in an era such as ours, overflowing with such mediocrity, it is the following:
Don’t believe you are anybody.
Do not fucking believe you are somebody.
Because you are not. You’re just a smug, mediocre little shit.
Do not believe that you’re anything special. Do not believe that you’re worth anything, because you aren’t. You’re just a little shit.
So keep your head down and work, you little shit. Then at least, you’ll get something out of it. Shut your mouth, keep your head down, work and know that you’re not worth a shit.
I also found it difficult to part ways with many characters. Knausgaard’s daughters, in particular, benefit from the filterless, unembellished presentation, probably because small children tend to do amusing, irritating, infuriating, and endearing things. Meanwhile, his friend and confidante, Geir, an academic equipped with copious wit and opinion, gets many of the book’s most entertaining lines, but also often makes both Knausgaard and the reader pause to think. Here he is with Karl Ove, Geir first:
“I think it’s Sigurd Slembe. The time to act. To act or not to act. It’s classic Hamlet. To be an actor in your own life or a spectator.”
“And you are?”
A silence arose. Then he said:
“I’m probably a spectator, with elements of choreographed action. But I don’t really know. I think there’s a lot inside me that I can’t see. And so it doesn’t exist. And you?”
“But you’re here. And yesterday you were in Bergen.”
“Yes. But this is not the result of any decision. It was forced.”
“That’s perhaps another way of making a decision, hm? Letting whatever happens do it for you?”
“That’s strange,” he said. “The more unreflective you are, the more active you are. You know, the boxers I wrote about had an incredible presence. But that meant they weren’t spectators of themselves, so they didn’t remember anything. Not a thing! Share the moment with me here and now. That was their offer. And of course that works for them, they always have to enter the ring again, and if you’ve been given a pounding in the previous fight it’s best if you don’t remember it too well, otherwise you’ve had it. But their presence was absolutely amazing. It filled everything. Vita contemplativa or vita activa, I supposed they’re the two forms, aren’t they? It’s an old problem, of course. Besets all spectators. But not actors. It’s a typical spectator problem . . .”
Behind us, Christina stuck her head through the door.
“Would you two like some coffee?”
“Please,” I said.
Book One’s critical event — the death of Knausgaard’s father — serves as a backdrop for the real story: Knausgaard’s breakthrough decision to build the first volume of his memoir around it; similarly, the less harrowing but no less felt drama of his grudging entrée into love and domestic life anchors A Man in Love’s story of a man fighting to reconcile that love with his almost inhuman artistic designs.
No surprise that not all of the individuals who came across versions of themselves in these pages were pleased with their portrayals. (The threat of legal action on the part of certain relatives resulted in Knausgaard and his Norwegian publisher agreeing to change a few names.) But in light of Knausgaard’s overall intent, they’re probably depicted accurately — not as a Dickensian cast of characters acting out one grandly shared humanist drama but rather as figures who on occasion drop by to complicate Knausgaard’s ongoing struggle to write something great. These aren’t quite people in the ordinary sense but a near-endless series of person-shaped impressions — shadows flitting across the beam of the author’s incandescently projected vision. If anyone is conscious of just how cold this frequently can make him seem, it’s certainly Knausgaard himself, who throughout both volumes lapses into long handwringing fits of self-loathing and -condemnation, agonized by his sense that he’s letting down everyone he ought to love.
I call this sometimes-sociopathic-seeming tendency to reduce in their representation real people to sources of personal annoyance “accurate” because, with astounding single-mindedness (or monomania, if you prefer), Knausgaard conceives of and then executes the writing project that both consumes him and sequesters him from life. He’s Ahab, only with the final volume’s publication — which reportedly concludes with whatever the Norwegian is for “I am no longer an author” — he’s gone and caught the whale.
One interpretation of a literary quest to kill its own author might be that it’s perverse: in seeking to extinguish the artistic impulse, the author aims to annihilate not only the ambition that has driven him throughout his adult life, but an identity built up and burnished over decades. If Knausgaard is no longer an author, what is he? What will he be?
And then, from a career-lensed perspective, killing the whale is suicide. I’ve often wondered whether Wallace unintentionally terminated the novelist in himself with Infinite Jest; certainly the title of his final short-fiction collection, as well as that volume’s persistently bleak takes on the value of an individual’s drive to achieve anything, suggests a despair of ever returning from the wasteland that a book of near precedent-less critical approbation can exile its author to: after you’ve done it, what are you supposed to do? Just as Joyce could not in the ‘30s send Bloom off on another Dublin tour, so Wallace’s next novel couldn’t be I.J. Redux.
On the other hand, few, if any, authors aspiring to compose literary art that I know of start out with the intent to make anything less than what they privately conceive of as an as-yet-unshaped, but inchoate and most importantly possible Perfect Book. This is the reason they decide to write. Reality — in the form of family life, financial circumstance, the tundra of the market, self-assurance eroded by critique or, probably worse, indifference, failure, doubt, exhaustion, time — eventually intervenes. Very few people, whether they would admit as much or not, particularly in the first inferno of ambitious burn, are willing to go down with the whale. Poverty, obscurity, irrelevance, low social standing, and so forth all seem more romantic, less intolerable, more like the plot of some young person’s adventure tale, less like the despondence-inducing signatures of failure and a wasted life at eighteen than they do when you find yourself approaching middle age.
In William Gaddis’s JR, another massive meditation on ambition, art, and time, an aging, alcoholic, seemingly doomed writer is perpetually haunted by visions of windows closing, chances slipping away or already long lost to time. Since finishing my own first book, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to chart a course forward, or at least get started on some sort of new project, but have been mostly stymied by a sense that I’m just not sure what I really want to do next. I’m so much more alert to the discouraging reality that no matter what I wind up doing, committing to that work will entail an implicit decision not to try my hand at any number of other things. Granting that this might not strike your average global citizen as an existential concern on the order of the triumph of Capital, rising sea, and inequality levels, to say nothing of the looming rise of the machines, it matters to me — because I only get the handful of decades I’ve already blown through a few of, and the passage of time doesn’t seem to be bringing with it a corresponding surge in my vitality, so that the issue isn’t only that I can’t decide what kind of book I’d like to write, don’t even know how I’d like to write, I’m sick of my own sentences these days, and then I don’t know whether I should focus mainly on telling a story of sorts, and if so do I have any stories worth telling, and in this era of scattered insular intellectual and aesthetic camps, what kind of reader do I want to engage, and most of all what kind of work can I see myself committing to for the however many years it will take to complete — I can’t imagine even starting something new unless the need to carry it home takes hold of me with such force that I can’t not be working on it….
And the maybe-obvious Knausgaard link here is with the man’s sheer desperation — a desperation to emerge from all of this: the torpor, muddled thinking, indecision, and self-loathing; terror of more windows closing, fear of failure, envy, ambition so smothering it chokes off all but the most frantic exertions of will to open up the word-processing program and for Christ’s sakes just begin, the solipsism I recognized too well and have only really ever slipped free from, somewhat paradoxically, when hard at work, when the gaze is abruptly turned outward, and I’m able to see people again, see with them — perceive, if only fleetingly, that each has her own struggle, just as I do mine…in other words break out of the self’s airless solitary confinement: creative immersion as a kind of efflorescent opening out to the world at large.
My Struggle provides the reader with a portrait of an artist whose sometimes-quixotic-seeming-endeavor to narrate his struggles with life and art in their entirety consumes, possesses, captivates him, in that last verb’s literal sense, and thereby sets him free. When Knausgaard tells his wife he must leave her at home to care for their recently born daughter, must write; when he won’t compromise even after she threatens to leave him, take the kid with her, then does; and when he furthermore dispenses with every last aesthetic consideration aside from this scribomaniacal need to write, he is both chronicling and dramatizing his own refusal to abandon the pursuit…and it’s this monstrously intact integrity with which he undertakes and then completes his masterwork that answers any question about the madness of a project that, like a rocket fired straight up into the sky, takes aim at its creator and terminates in the obliteration of his authorship, his hunger to create. It’s Knausgaard’s consummation, a triumph that emancipates the husband, father, son, and friend: the author is dead, leaving what’s left of the man free to walk away from his leviathan — preserved forever now in art’s time-cheating formaldehyde — freed from the echo chamber of thwarted intent, in order to emerge, maybe for the first time, into life.
“‘Moby Dick is one of my favorite books, but let’s face it — it’s a hot mess,’ says Evison. ‘If I had software that said, ‘Look, maybe this four-page essay on scrimshaw isn’t gonna fly with your 28 to 40 male [demographic],’ what would we have lost with that? Sometimes, you know, it’s just got to be a little bit of a dictatorship.'” When e-readers and marketing tactics collide.
I can no longer remember the precise distinction between the uncertainty principle and the observer principle, but one way or another, I’ve started to detect a feedback loop involving the Year in Reading series and the reading life it purports to document. When I dashed off my first entry, in 2005 (can that be right?), it was purely in the spirit of a report. But by 2012, even in January, February, and March, I found myself picking up a given book and asking: Is this a contender for the series? Is there any chance this is going to be the best thing I read this year? And if not, back onto the shelves it went.
As a consequence, of the 50-odd books I finished this year, at least half ended up being terrific. And the arbitrary cap I set for myself annually (Okay, I’m going to stick to writing about eight books. Fine, a dozen. Fifteen.) has proven harder than ever to enforce. I haven’t bothered to count the number of titles below, because, frankly, I just don’t want to know how far over my own limit I am. Let me just say, by way of apology, that this was a really, really good year in reading.
Probably my favorite thing I read was part one of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle — which bodes well, because five more volumes are on their way into English. Knausgaard’s been described as a Nordic Proust, and that more or less captures the book’s scope and its candid thefts from the author’s own life. It’s not a perfect comparison, of course; the suburban Norway where Knausgaard came of age in the ’80s can’t touch the Faubourg St.-Germain for social complexity, nor is Knausgaard’s prose — even in Don Bartlett’s lucid translation — as refined as Proust’s. But both authors, in vivisecting their own consciousness, alter the reader’s. A key word in My Struggle is “presence,” and after reading a few pages of Knausgaard’s descriptions of snow and soap, corpses and copses, you look up and find your own world pressing its presence urgently upon you, a messenger with an envelope you’ll never quite manage to unseal.
But then, it’s hard to give the laurels to Knausgaard, because this was also the year I read László Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance and Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart. I’d started the former several times over the years, only to put it down again. (I blame the absence of paragraph breaks.) But I finished it this summer over four long nights, preparing to interview the author, and found it to be one of the great novels of the last quarter-century — like a MittelEuropean Moby-Dick. Near to the Wild Heart, meanwhile, is a Portuguese Mrs. Dalloway, as written by Peter Handke. I’m still not exactly sure what all happens to Lispector’s semi-feral heroine, but the writing is just exquisite. It kills me that Lispector was in her early 20s when she wrote this…and that it took me so long to discover her. She’s one of those writers who changes dramatically from book to book, but I look forward to reading everything of hers I can get my hands on. If you want to give her a try, start with this Modernist masterpiece.
Speaking of Modernist masterpieces…the Microscripts of Robert Walser are now out in paperback. I’m crazy about Walser’s early novel Jakob von Gunten, but have struggled with his short stories (many of which would today be called “short shorts”). All those quicksilver shifts of tone and intellect, compressed into the small space of a paragraph or two; all those discrete paragraphs, jam-packed together in a 4 x 8 inch book like roommates in a railroad apartment. The gorgeous new edition of the Microscripts, by contrast, surrounds each text with white space, and pairs it with a facsimile of its original, which somehow gives Walser’s sentences room to breathe…and to beguile. I was similarly entranced by Andrey Bely’s 1916 opus Petersburg back in the winter. I always read something Russian when it’s snowing, and I picked this up thinking to polish it off in a couple of weeks. Instead, it took me a couple of months. Bely’s symbolist prose, in many respects, is probably untranslatable, and his atmospherics are so relentless that the plot keeps disappearing behind them. But somehow, that comes to seem like the book’s whole point: to distill and bottle the phantasmagoric atmosphere of its titular city.
Another classic I loved this year was William Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Critics tend to treat this one as a disreputable entry in the Yoknapatawpha oeuvre…a liquored-up uncle trying to crash a party already full of liquored-up uncles. But one of the book’s supreme pleasures is seeing Faulkner turn his mature method (and he never wrote better than he did in 1929, ’30, ’31) to the kind of luridly pulpy material that would later surround him in Hollywood. Temple Drake, the kidnapped and forcibly debauched coed at the heart of the novel, is no one’s idea of a feminist icon. But she’s a flesh-and-blood character, and when she quakes in terror, we do, too.
…And is it too early to start filing Roberto Bolaño under “classics?” The well of posthumous Bolaño fiction has finally, I gather, run dry, and I expected to resent late trickles like The Secret of Evil. Instead, I found myself totally delighted, as ever, by this writer’s sui generis sensibility. A 15-page synopsis of a zombie movie, or of a dream about a zombie movie? Yes, please — provided Bolaño’s doing the dreaming.
This was a good year for new fiction, too. I was really taken with Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk, not least because it’s about damn time somebody wrote a novel about the Iraq War. Kevin Powers and David Abrams would soon join Fountain on the G.W.O.T. bookshelf. Unlike them, though, Fountain has never served in the armed forces and so it’s an act of ethical daring for him to imagine himself into the head of Specialist Billy Lynn, the book’s hero. Equally ballsy, I think, is the book’s formal dare: with one exception, it’s written in a relentlessly forward-moving present tense. I usually find this sort of thing to be a cop-out, as if the writer couldn’t be bothered to find a form other than Transcribed Screenplay, but Fountain treats realtime as a challenge, rather than an excuse. And he pulls it off. In short, he’s one of our best and bravest writers.
So is Zadie Smith. Critics seemed to chafe at the avant-garde ambitions of her new novel, NW. But I’m not sure those ambitions would have registered as such, had her essay, “Two Paths for the Novel,” much ballyhooed in 2008, not seemed to presage an avant-garde turn. It’s equally easy to make the case for NW as a novel of psychological realism. Its formal experimentation is light, easy to follow, and really pretty old-school (see: Mallarmé, Joyce). More unsettling, and more sneakily experimental, is the book’s approach to character. Smith’s protagonists, Leah, Natalie, and Felix, are incomplete, metamorphic, works in progress (as is their author). And it freaks them out. The book’s temperament, then, is anxious, pained, repressed – an obverse to the ebullience of White Teeth. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a step forward.
I also got around to some older contemporary lit this year. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead had been on my list since our Best of the Millennium project, and I now understand why so many people voted for it. The explicitly religious subject matter — the novel comprises the letters of an elderly priest — may put some readers off, but Robinson’s eloquent embrace of faith doesn’t banish doubt and mystery; it foregrounds them. Or as her narrator puts it:
I have wandered to the limits of my understanding any number of times, out into that desolation, that Horeb, that Kansas, and I’ve scared myself, too, a good many times, leaving all landmarks behind me, or so it seemed. And it has been among the true pleasures of my life.
Salvation is nowhere to be found in Slow Fade, Rudolph Wurlitzer’s early-80s novel of the movie business. Neither, come to think of it, is pleasure…unless it’s the pleasure of Wurlitzer’s bone-clean prose. But Slow Fade struck me nonetheless as a great introduction to this neglected writer. And speaking of neglected: what ever happened to Mark Costello? Okay, fine, there are at least two Mark Costellos; I mean the one who was David Foster Wallace’s college roommate. His secret service sendup, Big If, was nominated for a National Book Award in 2002, and though it isn’t exactly a complete novel — it’s missing an ending, and rarely even descends into scene– Costello’s one of the funniest and brightest turners of phrase this side of…well, this side of Wallace. His long riff on the novel’s eponymous video game is like an existentialist parable rewritten by George Saunders, and is on its own worth the price of admission. I want a new Costello novel, and I want it now.
But real art takes as long as it takes, and half the time we’re not ready to recognize it when it comes. That’s one of the lessons of the best work of nonfiction I read this year, Lawrence Weschler’s Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a biography of the artist Robert Irwin. I’ve read a lot of Weschler, but this book, his first, may be his best. And whether your particular field of endeavor is painting or writing or delivering the mail, Irwin’s story will teach you to see it in a new way. On the journalism side, I was also vastly impressed by Dave Cullen’s Columbine, notwithstanding his misinformed blurb for the Anthony Shadid book (“If Marquez [sic] had explored nonfiction…” Um…). Here, the attraction’s not so much the writing but the reporting, the way Cullen extends journalistic objectivity to both victims and killers. The back half of the book feels like a long, vivid nightmare, but one returns to sanity with the same feeling Weschler and Irwin keep urging on us: the wonder that there is anything at all.
I’d also recommend Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel, about Henry James. Like Janet Malcolm’s little books on Chekhov and Gertrude Stein, it’s an approachable blend of biography, criticism, and travelogue. Its charms will be less considerable, and its insights less penetrating, to anyone who hasn’t read Portrait of a Lady, to which Gorra’s book is keyed. But for readers looking to spend more time with the Master, or just to see what the fuss is about, Gorra’s book is the equivalent of a good undergraduate seminar. And you know who else is a good critic? Jonathan Lethem. While his novels get much of the attention, Lethem’s been steadily carving out a niche for himself as a polymorphous culture freak. His 2011 collection The Ecstasy of Influence doesn’t spare us his squibs and blog posts (and commentary on those squibs and blog posts), and for that reason I was prepared to hate it. Weirdly, though, it works, adding up to a warts-and-all portrait of the artist. And if you like your essays more polished, check out the long James Brown profile two-thirds of the way through.
Finally, a confession: I did something crazy this year. I blew half of a freelancing check on the complete, seven-volume edition of William T. Vollmann’s 3,000 page essay on violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. (What can I say? It was either that or diapers for my children.) I remain deeply conflicted about my fascination with Vollmann. I know there’s an obvious case to be made that he’s not a good writer. I also think he might be a great one. To my surprise, given its length, RURD is one of his more carefully crafted books. In its learned monomania, it reminds me of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. To a contemporary audience, its style of argumentation may feel bizarre; I keep thinking of an archaeologist sitting at a table, sweeping a pile of sand from one hand to the other, waiting for artifacts to emerge in the middle. But when Vollmann arrives, after many divagations, at a point, you don’t feel like you understand; you feel like you’ve lived it. (For this reason, I cannot imagine the 700-page abridged version making any sense at all.) And if Violence seems like too broad a subject, consider this: it’s a head-fake. The essay’s really about Everything.
Or so it seems to me at present; I’m only two volumes in. RURD is destined, probably, to join The Book of Disquiet and The Arcades Project and The Making of Americans as one of those books I read and read and never finish. But I’m grateful to the weird pressure of A Year in Reading for giving me the impetus to start.
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So far this year, I’ve read 56 books, an unpublished manuscript, and 100 pages of Moby-Dick. I loved many of them, although not Moby-Dick (Sorry Herman Melville/Amanda Bullock.). But the reading experience I feel most evangelical about was one of those brief passionate affairs, red hot and over too soon.
I bought Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close from the front table at Word Brooklyn on the Sunday night of Memorial Day weekend and read it the next day, in one sitting, on a flowered blanket in Madison Square Park. It’s honest, sharp, enjoyable and unnerving. It’s witty but it isn’t cute. It creeps into your stomach and makes you dizzy — at least it does if you’re a 32-year-old woman trying to figure out life and relationships and where the last 10 years went and where the next 50 are going.
While this book certainly covers floral bridesmaid dresses and date dissection over cocktails, it has a darker and more resonant undercurrent. It gives voice to my quiet suspicions that the decade following college graduation is one of loss after loss; a time of people you once loved immensely peeling away into parenthood or panic attacks or bad marriages or sudden religiosity or the suburbs. It captures those strange mixed feelings of trying to be happy for friends when they choose things you think you know will never make them happy; the helpless panic as the strongest and most ambitious feminists give up and give in or maybe just grow up and learn to compromise and who are you to judge anyway? It displays real wisdom about the ways that, over time, paths dead end and options disappear and life can feel like a narrowing of possibilities when you always thought it would be an ever-broadening horizon. Also, it’s funny.
When I finished, I did two things.
1) I wrote a blog post calling it “a perfect book” and recommending it thusly: “If you have ever been in your 20s or 30s, ever lived in New York or Chicago or D.C., ever been in a relationship that was good or bad or probably both, ever been politically engaged or diamond-ring engaged or had a baby or not wanted a baby or been an assistant or found out your ex married someone you both went to college with, oh my God you guys.”
In general, my favorite literary genre this year was what I like to call “women-processing-their-shit books,” in which I also recommend Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell, The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld, The Fallback Plan by Leigh Stein, Boys and Girls Like You and Me by Aryn Kyle, and anything by Nora Ephron or Cheryl Strayed.
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John Steinbeck’s son criticizes the state of Texas for invoking Of Mice and Men‘s Lennie Small, in ruling that certain mentally retarded individuals can be sentenced to the death penalty. The great-great-great granddaughter of Herman Melville wonders where her great-great-great-grandfather’s editor was when he wrote Moby Dick.
From October of 2008 to May of this year, America’s Greatest Self-Published Novelist was a guy from New Jersey named Sergio De La Pava. Clearly, this was a title that begged certain questions — sort of like being America’s Best Left-Handed Barber, or America’s Funniest Nun. Nor was De La Pava’s claim to it undisputed; in terms of sales velocity, Amanda Hocking and E.L. James would have blown him out of the ring, and C.D. Payne (Youth in Revolt) and Hilary Thayer Hamann (Anthropology of an American Girl) had racked up strong reviews well before Hollywood and Random House (respectively) came calling. But what Hocking and James were selling was fantasy of one kind or another, and even Payne and Hamman kept one foot in the junior division. The main event — at least as De La Pava saw it — was several weight classes up, where Dostoevsky and Melville and Woolf had battled penury and anonymity and madness to make literature that might endure. And with the great Helen DeWitt in transit from Talk Miramax to New Directions and Evan Dara’s Aurora Publishers falling into a gray area, De La Pava’s first novel, A Naked Singularity, was left more or less in a category by itself: a 690-page XLibris paperback that could withstand comparison with the classics.
I first heard about the book in the summer of 2009, in an email from one Susanna De La Pava, of Amante Press. She’d read something I’d written about Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men; if I liked “both underdogs and meganovels,” she suggested, I might want to check out A Naked Singularity: “a debut work of literary fiction that combines fascinating and complex themes of morality, crime and theoretical physics.” The pitch was unusually thoughtful, but its failure to mention the book’s author seemed odd, and Amante Press wasn’t ringing any bells. When a web search for “naked singularity amante” turned up a coincidence between the author’s last name and my correspondent’s, I thought, A-ha! A vanity project! Did I want to “add it to [my] reading pile?” No offense, but Jesus, no!
If this sounds discriminatory, the fact of the matter is that every reader is. Our reading lives, like our lives more generally, are short. With any luck, I’ve got enough time left between now and whenever I die to read or reread a couple thousand books, and only rough indicators to help me sort through the millions of contenders. I may be breaking a critical taboo here, but the colophon on the spine is one of those indicators. The involvement of a commercial publisher in no way guarantees that a given book isn’t atrocious; I’d be safer just sticking with…well, with Melville and Dostoevsky and Woolf. Over time, though, a given imprint amasses a kind of batting average based on its degree of overlap with one’s tastes. (My Benito Cereno and Mrs. Dalloway might be your The Hunger Games and A Game of Thrones, but that’s an exercise of taste, too — one the folks at Scholastic and Bantam are happy to facilitate.) More importantly, the layers of editorial oversight at these imprints help to filter out hundreds of thousands of manuscripts that aren’t likely to overlap with much of anyone’s taste. To open my reading queue to pay-to-publish outfits like iUniverse or Trafford Publishing — to be forced to consider (and here I’m just plucking titles at random from a recent iUniverse/Trafford Publishing ad in The New York Review of Books) Cheryl’s Kidnapping and Her Odyssey, or Breath of Life: The Life of a Volunteer Firefighter, or Letters to the Editor That Were Never Published (And Some Other Stuff) — that way lies madness.
Then again, to cling to a prejudice against mounting evidence is its own kind of madness. Some time after Susanna De La Pava’s email had disappeared into the bottom of my inbox, I came across a review of A Naked Singularity by Scott Bryan Wilson at The Quarterly Conversation. “It’s very good — one of the best and most original novels of the decade,” was the leading claim. This in turn sent me back to a piece by Steve Donoghue at Open Letters Monthly, which I vaguely remembered Ms. (Mrs.?) De La Pava linking to in her email. “A masterpiece,” Donoghue declared.
These raves got my attention, because The Quarterly Conversation and Open Letters Monthly are venues I’ve written for, and that cover the kind of books I tend to like. It’s worth noting that both (like The Millions), started out themselves as, essentially, self-publishing projects; maybe this is what freed them to devote resources of time and attention to A Naked Singularity back when when Publishers Weekly and Slate wouldn’t. Over the years, by exercising a consistent degree of quality control, each had amassed credibility with its audience, and this is exactly what the business models of Xlibris and iUniverse prevents them from doing; neither has an incentive to say “No” to bad writing. To, in other words, discriminate.
So anyway, I exhumed Ms. De La Pava’s email and asked her, with apologies, to please send over a copy of A Naked Singularity. It was time to apply the first-paragraph test. Here’s what I found:
Hmm. Maybe it was time to apply the second paragraph test.
My getting out or what?!
Okay. Paragraph three. Here goes:
Eleven hours and Thirty-Three minutes since meridian said the clock perched high atop a ledge on the wall and positioned to look down on us all meaning we were well into hour seven of this particular battle between Good and Evil, and oh yeah, that was Good taking a terrific beating with the poultry-shaped ref looking intently at its eyes and asking if it wanted to continue. We were what passed for Good there: the three of us an anyone we stood beside when we rose to speak for the mute in that decaying room (100 Centre Street’s AR-3); and in that place, at that moment, Evil had us surrounded.
There were things here that excited me, from that plucked chicken of a referee to the Sunday-matinee rhythms of the closing lines. I also thought I detected, however, a dose of self-indulgence. (Why not just, “It was 11:33?”). I read on, through a digression on the Miranda Rights, and then 40 pages of dialogue between night-court defendants and their lawyers. Both were good, as these things went — edifying, amusing, and reasonably taut — but I still couldn’t figure it out: aside from demonstrating how smart the author was, where was this going? And here’s the second place where the imprimatur of a commercial press, and all that goes with it, might have made a difference. Had there been some larger cultural pressure assuring me my patience would be rewarded, I would have kept going. As it was, I abandoned the book on my nightstand.
It would likely still be lying there, had I not gotten wind last fall that A Naked Singularity was about to be reissued by the University of Chicago Press. At this point, the story around this novel seemed too interesting for me not to give the story inside it another try. Or, to put it another way, the constellation of extraliterary signals was shining brightly enough to propel me past those first 40 pages, and then another increasingly engaging 100. I devoured what remained in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, 2011.
And it’s a funny thing about those extraliterary signals — superficial, prejudicial, suspect, but also a natural part of the reading experience. Up to a certain point, they’re unavoidable, but beyond that, the accumulated effect of sentences and paragraphs starts to outweigh them. In this case, I won’t say that certain caprices of De La Pava’s prose (not to mention all those missing commas), faded into invisibility. On the whole, though, a good big novel lives or dies at a level far removed from considerations of teachable “craft” — the level Henry James and Michel Houellebecq gesture toward when they speak, in different contexts, of “intensity.” (i.e., as James’ preface to The Ambassadors puts it, “The grace to which the enlightened story-teller will at any time, for his interest, sacrifice if need be all other graces.”) And at that level, A Naked Singularity is, if not a masterpiece, then certainly a roaring success. To call it Crime & Punishment as reimagined by the Coen Brothers would be accurate, but reductive. Better just to call it the most imaginative and exciting and funky and galactically ambitious first novel to come down the pike in I don’t know how long. And if a book this good was consigned to XLibris, it meant one (or more) of three things. 1) Literary trade publishing was more gravely ill than I’d imagined; 2) My judgment was way off-base (always a possibility), or 3) There was some piece of this story I was still missing. The simplest way to find out was to go and talk to the author in person. I emailed Susanna, who presumably talked to Sergio — unless she was Sergio? — and by the end of January he and I had a date to meet at the most nouveau of nouveau Brooklyn’s coffeehouses.
This latter may have been a perversity on my part. On the jacket of the handsome new trade paperback of A Naked Singularity, the author bio reads, in its entirety, “Sergio De La Pava is a writer who does not live in Brooklyn.” In fact, as of January, most of the details of De La Pava’s personal life — age, occupation, place of residence, education — remained shrouded in near-Pynchonian occlusion. A Google Images search yielded exactly two results: one a blurry black-and-white mugshot from the comically low-fi website anakedsingularity.com, the other a sawed-in-half portrait posted alongside an interview in the fantastic Mexican literary journal Hermanocerdo. They might have been two different people; the only common features seemed to be curly hair and an intensity of gaze. As I rode to meet De La Pava, I wondered: what if the reason it had taken him so long to sell his book had to do with the author himself? What if De La Pava never wanted to be published commercially? Or what if he’d sold his book in 2007, but then refused to be edited? What if he’d emailed his manuscript in Zapf Dingbats font? Or forgotten to attach the attachment? Or what if — I speculated, as the man across from me on the subway struck up a conversation with voices only he could hear — De La Pava was certifiably crazy?
When I finally reached our rendezvous point, though, I found Sergio De La Pava as sane as any serious writer can be said to be: a small man in glasses and an off-the-rack suit, waiting patiently by the counter. About the only thing I recognized from his photographs were the corkscrew curls, now longer and slightly disarranged, as if he’d rushed over from somewhere important.
As it turned out, he had. He was coming, he told me, from his job as a public defender in Manhattan. His wife (Susanna!) also works a public defender. Later, they would both return home to New Jersey, where they lead an unexceptional suburban existence with their kids. As for the biographical cloak-and-dagger, the third-party emails, etc., De La Pava suggested several explanations. One was an old-fashioned sense that biography is irrelevant to the work of art — that the artist is, as a character in William Gaddis’ The Recognitions famously says, “just the human shambles that follows it around.” But a more practical consideration is that De La Pava’s dayjob brings him into regular contact with criminals. “My life is probably different than the lives a lot of readers of novels are familiar with,” he said. People in his line of work tend to be tight-lipped about their personal lives and daily routines, because otherwise “someone might put a bullet in someone’s head.”
This was, it turned out, a typically De La Pavan way of attacking a question. For someone so reticent with the public, he talks abundantly and well, his thoughts tending to organize themselves into fluid, almost lawyerly paragraphs of narrative and argument, with these little hard-boiled explosions at the climax. This is also, not incidentally, one way of describing the voice of Casi, the hypercaffeinated first-person protagonist of A Naked Singularity. As the interview went on, I came to see the riven idiom of both author and hero — on the one hand, leisurely abstraction; on the other, urgent volubility — as matters not just of style, but also of psyche.
Like Casi, De La Pava grew up in New Jersey, the child of Colombian immigrants. The basic happiness of his upbringing — home-cooked empanadas and “school clothes warmed on the radiator” — suffuses the scenes of immigrant life that recur throughout A Naked Singularity and help humanize our hero. But it also seems to have been, like most childhoods, one shaped by conflict. On the most obvious level, there was the jostle of languages — his parents’ native Spanish, the English of which De La Pava is something of a connoisseur. (At one point in our conversation, he would spend five minutes critiquing Gregory Rabassa’s translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude).
Then, too, there was the drama of the dreamy child in the striving household. From an early age, De La Pava was attracted to the logical harmonies of various intellectual systems — theology, physics, classical music, math. “My earliest memories are of philosophical problems,” he told me, utterly in earnest. Reading the great philosophers was like “being welcomed into a community of like-minded individuals.” Later, at Rutgers, he would pursue philosophy more seriously, specializing in modal realism — the study of the coexistence of multiple possible worlds. But as a teenager, De La Pava was also into heavy metal. And his was a boxing household, where watching the fights was a sacrosanct activity. “Boxing, that’s my fucking religion,” he says.
His adult life has in some sense been an effort to synthesize these hot and cool impulses — the adversarial and the communal, the sweetness and the science, Yngwie Malmsteen and Rene Descartes. One socially acceptable outlet for both aggression and ratiocination was a law career. And although one of the first things a reader notices in A Naked Singularity is its anger at the Kafkanly facacta state of the criminal justice system, De La Pava remains in love with his chosen profession. In the abstract, “the law is so strikingly beautiful and logical,” he says, as opposed to “the faulty process of human beings…I feel annoyed for some reason when the criminal justice system fucks up, because I feel a great attachment to it.”
Still, De La Pava always thought of himself first and foremost as a writer. “I find myself constantly making up little stories in my head,” he said at one point, nodding across the coffeehouse. “Like if this woman making the phone call fell down right now, what would happen?”
Until then, he had been addressing me heads-up, as if I were a jury he was attempting to sway. As our talk turned to writing and literature, though, he began to look down and inward, a boxer tucking into a crouch. “I’m not that well-read,” was the first thing he said on the subject of influence. When I suggested that his conspicuous engagement with two broad novelistic traditions — the philosophical novel and the novel of erudition — seemed to contradict him, he amended the claim: He’s not that well-read in contemporary fiction. “I have old-fashioned taste.”
Reviews of A Naked Singularity have tended to name-check the white male postmodernists who are its immediate forerunners – Gaddis, Pynchon, David Foster Wallace — but De La Pava’s reading in the po-mo canon has been unsystematic. The Gaddis book he knows best is A Frolic of His Own, a late work centered around the law. Despite an apparent nod in his novel, he has not read Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Of Wallace, he will cop only to having read “all the nonfiction.” Unusually, for a novelist of his generation, De La Pava came to these writers through their own forerunners: the great 19th-century Russians, especially Dostoevsky, and Moby-Dick. This perhaps accounts for the mile-wide streak of unironic moralism that holds together the book’s formally disparate pieces. He does say, however, that Gravity’s Rainbow “turned me on to the possibilities of fiction.”
In his teens and early 20s, he produced some fiction that was “pretty terrible” at the level of skill, but ambitious at the level of content. He was determined to avoid the school of autobiographical offspring-of-immigrants writing he calls “Bodega Heights,” and to pursue instead those “possibilities.” One way his decision to work as a public defender instead of a corporate lawyer paid off, then, is simply that the hours were shorter. “I used to have a lot of free time to write,” he told me. The other is that it gave him something most young writers hunger for: a subject larger than himself to write about. In this case, it was the system Michelle Alexander has memorably called The New Jim Crow — a self-perpetuating prison archipelago populated by low-level offenders, disproportionately poor, disproportionately of color. Justice, in all its manifold forms, had been one of Dostoevsky’s great themes, and now it would be De La Pava’s. And that center of gravity began to pull the variegated worlds De La Pava had spent his youth exploring — vibrantly Spanglished New Jersey suburbs, crappily furnished starter apartments in Brooklyn, airy philosophical castles — into something “nebulous and dreamlike”: a vision of a novel.
“When I write, I almost begin with the end product,” De La Pava explained to me, as we started in on our second coffee. Midway through the first cup, he had begun to tug on the ends of those corkscrews of hair, and now he was working them furiously. “It’s similar to the way you try a case: you think of the summation first.” And what was that summation, with A Naked Singularity? Quickly, almost unthinkingly, he flattened out the rolled New Yorker he’d been carrying and began to doodle something with pen in the margins. He was talking now about the structure of Beethoven’s Ninth, but I was distracted by the peculiarly entropic energy of what he was drawing. Or whatever is the opposite of entropic. It was a single line, like an EKG or a lie-detector test, swinging above and below the baseline with swoops that grew smaller and tighter as X approached infinity. Finally, the line ended at an emphatic black dot. A singularity. “I wanted to take all this stuff and put it in in a way that would at first feel chaotic. I was interested in the question: at what point does something become a novel?”
This effect of dissonance and resolution is, in fact, exactly what had thrown me about the first 40 pages of A Naked Singularity, without my having a sufficient sample of the book to see it whole. Which means, among other things, that A Naked Singularity managed to stay true to a formal vision that is the inverse of most first novels’ (start with something singular; degenerate into randomness as ideas run out). De La Pava’s indifference to the prevailing trends of the marketplace helps to account for the number of rejections he would receive from literary agents (88, according to The Chicago Tribune.) But it’s also what’s so alarming about his novel’s close brush with obscurity. It suggests that traditional publishing has become woefully backward-looking, trying to shape the novel of tomorrow based on what happened yesterday. Could A Naked Singularity have benefited from a good editor? Of course, but books like this — singular, urgent, commanding — are supposed to be what good editors live for.
As to the question of when the book’s various gambits cohere into a novel, there’s an ironic twist in all this. Right around page 150, De La Pava introduces into his bricolage of Gaddis-y dialogue and Malamudian bildungsroman and potheaded discursus that most commercial of plots, the quest to pull off the perfect caper. It’s this set of generic tropes, rendered with a perfection of their own, that starts to pull De La Pava’s other concern toward that convergence point he’d drawn for me. By the halfway mark, A Naked Singularity has become exactly what every publisher is looking for: a very difficult book to put down.
“I was 27 when I started, 34 or 35 when I was done,” De La Pava, now 41, told me; “I didn’t know anything.” Only that “This wasn’t The Old Man and the Sea.” A book he likes, he hastened to add. But with the help of his wife, a voracious reader who keeps abreast of new fiction, he realized that he needed representation. The first excerpt he sent out excited several literary agents enough that they asked to see more. Almost uniformly, though, the response to the sheer bulk of the complete manuscript was, “You’ve got to be kidding.” De La Pava, having poured seven years of his life into the book, wasn’t ready to see it chopped into something smaller and less risky. “My attitude was, I’ll take my ball and go home.” (Though one doubts he would have stopped writing; a second novel, Personae, less successful but still interesting, was published through XLibris in 2011).
Susanna, however, wasn’t ready to give up on A Naked Singularity, and began to lobby him to self-publish it. “I think it cost about $10,000” to print it through XLibris, he says. “We had a book party and everything,” after which they ended up with “all these copies.” Susanna then took on the role of publicist…and proved adept at it as her husband had at the role of novelist. Her strategy was to send out targeted emails to bloggers and critics who had written about Infinite Jest, offering to send them something they might like. Some of them, like me, failed to take her up on it, but after Donoghue’s review, and then Wilson’s, things began to snowball. Soon “we’re selling like 100 books a month. And then we hear from University of Chicago Press.” A publicity director there (who was also The Quarterly Conversation’s poetry editor) had become obsessed with the book. A self-published magnum opus was, to say the least, an unusual project for a prestigious academic press. It had to pass muster with the board of faculty members and administrators that signs off on each book published. But, thanks in large measure to statements of support from the novelist Brian Evenson and critics including Steven Moore, the press decided to acquire the rights to the book. From there, it was only a hop, skip, and a jump to the window of my local Barnes & Noble, where I passed it just this week.
This can’t have been exactly the path to prominence De La Pava dreamed of. For one thing, I thought I detected an element of rope-a-dope in his protestations of literary innocence. In the course of our two-hour conversation, he capably paraphrased John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, tossed off two allusions to “The Big Six” (a term I had to think about before I got it) and name-checked half a dozen titles from recent Knopf and FSG catalogues. There’s also the matter of that New Yorker, rumpled from use.
And then there’s the way A Naked Singularity returns again and again to the theme of ambition. It becomes almost a counterpoint to the theme of justice. At first, Casi’s desire to do great things pulls him toward justice; later, it’s a source of frustration that borders on madness. As with the scenes of family life, the writing here is too personal not to have come from firsthand experience. When Casi says, for example, of a brief he’s preparing to file, “I’m determined to create a document so achingly beautiful and effective and important that should I drop dead as the final draft is being printed it would matter not the least,” we can hear the novelist standing right behind him, speaking, as it were, over his shoulder.
“Achingly beautiful and effective and important:” I imagine that, as he neared completion on his huge manuscript, De La Pava must have had an inkling that he’d achieved at least two of the three. And I imagine he believed, like Casi, that he was still living in a world where that would be enough. The doors of the great publishing houses would fly open, and then the arts pages of the newspapers, and then the doors of homes across America. This is what most writers believe, deep down, as the private dreaminess of the early drafts begins to give way to the public competition for attention, and money, and fame.
Yet De La Pava’s more tortuous path has afforded him certain gifts that outrageous good fortune might not have. Chief among these is something both the MFA and the NYC trajectories Chad Harbach sketched in a recent N+1 essay tend subtly to conceal: the knowledge that one is free to write the kinds of books one wants, with the kinds of effects that engage one’s own imagination, however rich, complex, and challenging. “That kind of freedom is important to me,” De La Pava told me, as we sat in the heart of Mayor Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk New York, in a neighborhood I could no longer afford to live in, amid the artisinal cheese-plates and the coffee priced by the bean. “I’m very into freedom as a writer.” I asked him what his ambitions were for the next book. “I want to preserve this mode of doing things,” he said. “The rest I can’t control.” Then we paid up, and said our goodbyes, and he walked out the door, bound for the wilds of Jersey.
Bonus link: “Reasons Not to Self-Publish in 2011-2012: A List” by Edan Lepucki
Bonus link: De La Pava boxing piece at Triple Canopy: “A Day’s Sail”
Image Credit: Genevieve McCarthy
Leave it to a molecular biologist to so lyrically detail the scent of hyper-condensed sperm whale poop. Christopher Kemp, in his first nonfiction book, Floating Gold: A Natural (& Unnatural) History of Ambergris, writes
It has taken decades to become the substance I am holding in my hand. In its complex odor is reflected every squall and every cold gray wave. I am smelling months of tidal movement and equatorial heat—the unseen molecular degradation of folded compounds slowly evolving and changing shape beneath its resinous surface. A year of rain. A decade spent swirling around a distant and sinuous gyre. A dozen Antarctic circuits.
People have used ambergris (‘gray amber,’ French) for a long time — Moctezuma added it to his tobacco, Casanova to his chocolate mousse, England’s King Charles II to his eggs; 17th-century French physicians used it to cure rabies, Florida’s American Indians as an antidote for fish poison, and today, companies like Chanel and Guerlain as fixative in their most expensive perfumes.
But exactly what it is or how it’s produced has a long history of misunderstandings. Before Nantucket whalemen hacked it out of sperm whales’ intestines in the early 18th century, Europeans were mystified by the fragrant nubbins randomly washing ashore. To name a few mistaken sources, among a long list compiled by Kemp, it was at one time or another thought to be the fruit of underwater trees, extra-terrestrial rocks, or fossilized tree sap; the Chinese called it “dragon’s spittle.”
Still, we can’t seem to get it exactly right. Just last month Canadian researchers found that a compound from balsam fir trees can effectively replace ambergris in perfumes. Following the discovery were a number misinformed headlines: “Breakthroughs in Science: ‘Whale Barf’ Is No Longer Needed to Make High-End Perfume” (The Atlantic, 6 April 2012); “Your Perfume may soon be free of Whale Vomit” (New York Daily News, 9 April 2012).
But as the Tasmanian fisherman Louis Smith could have told you — who, Kemp uncovered, in 1891 wormed his way down the bowels of a beached sperm whale to find a 162-pound hunk of ambergris — it definitely is not vomit; it definitely comes out the other end.
Kemp, an American working at New Zealand’s Otago University, became interested in ambergris when a small boulder of tallow washed ashore and, mistaken for ambergris, was sliced up into assumingly small fortunes by the local Kiwis. At $20 per gram, that meant the authentic 32-pounder Lorelee Wright found on an Australian beach in 2006 was worth about $300,000.
After finding disparagingly little literature on ambergris — aside from a handful of passages in old books — Kemp set out to write something like the first Concise History of Ambergris, chapter-to-chapter playing cetologist, maritime historian, and, after he sets out to find his own piece, lottery junkie.
In his treasure hunt, we follow him from distant, windswept coastlines (my favorite, the “biscuit-colored apron of sand” notched in the little wet Stewart Island off the southern coast of South Island, New Zealand) to dusty storage rooms in the bowels of museums.
Along the way Kemp parses centuries of one of the more fanciful natural histories, illuminating a not-so-distant past of scientists flailing around to understand the natural world. Right around the time the first American paper on ambergris was published (1720s, by Zabdiel Boylston, Cotton Mather’s physician), appeared papers on “The Height of a Human Body, between Morning and Night,” and “Some Observations Made in an Ostrich, Dissected by Order of Sir Hans Sloane, Bart.”
It’s hard not to fall in love with ambergris, or the concept of ambergris as the unknowable embodiment of the sea, along with Kemp. Here is a solid lump of whale feces, weathered down—oxidized by salt water, degraded by sunlight, and eroded by waves — from the tarry mass to something that smells, depending on the piece and whom you’re talking to, like musk, violets, fresh-hewn wood, tobacco, dirt, Brazil nut, fern-copse, damp woods, new-mown hay, seaweed in the sun, the wood of old churches, or pretty much any other sweet-but-earthy scent. Borne in whale guts to be crushed and dabbed on the wrists and necks of the elite.
In following Kemp to where spume and salt and storms dash the seaboard — and all the Moby Dick references—I can’t help but think of Ishmael, ruminations on sea and land blowing through the pages. Kemp’s treks along the fringes of distant islands, his ponderous observations of thunderheads — “enormous black columns that tower thousands of feet into the sky” — washing over remote beaches, strike the same chords as Melville’s Ishmael in the crow’s nest, lulled by “the blending cadence of waves with thought, that at last [a young sailor] loses his identity”.
There’s that same ebbing away of self as Kemp tries to find a nubbin that looks and smells both singular and like everything, clear up a history that gets increasingly obscure, pry answers from an almost-legal network of tight-lipped ambergris hunters roaming the beaches with their ambergris-sniffing dogs, and pin down scent-descriptions from lyrical French perfumers until he finally loses track of what he was looking for in the first place, only to find something else.
At some point, he begins to trust ambergris’s mystery. No matter how many pieces he smells and touches, it is as unknowable and varying as the sea. It is, as he noted in his description of its smell, a history of sea itself.
In just a dozen or so paragraphs, Tim Parks’s short piece in praise of ebooks — titled “E-Books Can’t Burn” — on the NYRB blog is one of the more eloquent defenses I’ve read of digital reading from the side of literature, rather than, say, convenience or democracy. Some of his more offhand remarks don’t hold up to much scrutiny (ebooks are indestructible? Their version of permanence is different than that of printed books, but no less vulnerable.), but the idea at the core of his piece is a fascinating one, and relatively underplayed in the ongoing conversation about our new ways of reading: that the ebook, by clearing away the physical and even fetishistic trappings of the printed book, strips reading down to its essence, “the words themselves and the order they appear in:”
The e-book, by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has yet to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience. Certainly it offers a more austere, direct engagement with the words appearing before us and disappearing behind us than the traditional paper book offers, giving no fetishistic gratification as we cover our walls with famous names. It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting surrounding the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves. In this sense the passage from paper to e-book is not unlike the moment when we passed from illustrated children’s books to the adult version of the page that is only text. This is a medium for grown-ups.
Now, I don’t find that idea fascinating only because it was my own first reaction to the Kindle when I got to test drive one a few days before it debuted back in 2007 (second reaction, actually; my first was, “Gee, a book in 20 seconds!”). There is also a great deal of truth in it, and I still think the ebook is an ideal medium for evaluating literature: a neutral playing field like the orchestra auditions that now take place behind a curtain. Ideally, prize juries should read blind (both of authors’ names as well as the works’ physical attributes).
But we don’t only read to evaluate. We read to experience, to know, and to remember, and printed books are an aid, not a hindrance, toward those ends. One commenter on Parks’s piece, before he goes off the deep end and ropes digital reading in with the soulless sexual promiscuity that’s destroying our civilization, likens a relationship with a book to love:
If this ‘logic’ is indeed true, then by extension, why commit to any woman or man? After all, strip away the aesthetic, the ‘fetishistic’, and leave us ‘to more austere, direct engagement’ with, well, any and every being.
I’m not sure this “extension” entirely works (I’m certainly not a monogamist when it comes to reading.) but the comparison to an object of love is useful. However we might try to purify our love for someone down to its abstract essentials, that love is irretrievably (and wonderfully) contaminated by more quotidian, physical associations: a timbre of voice, a smell, an ear or a toe, a piece of clothing. Even a book your beloved once read. Those details might be said to merely evoke the love, but they also come to embody it, flesh it out. Your love has a body.
Parks argues that it’s a “core characteristic” of literature as an art form that it can exist as “pure mental material, as close as one can get to thought itself. Memorized, a poem is as surely a piece of literature in our minds as it is on the page.” But if a memorized poem is the purest manifestation of literature, memory itself has a rather impure relationship to the wantonly associative materials that decorate our lives and thoughts. How do we best remember poems (and why are poems easier to memorize than prose, and song lyrics easier to remember than either)? Through details like rhythm and rhyme that bear only an apparently tangential relationship to the “pure mental material” that the words express. These sorts of secondary features of language, like alliteration and puns, sometimes feel like vestigial embarrassments to the austere quest for meaning, but they are the warp and woof of language, reminders that meaning is never separate from physical embodiment.
And memory doesn’t restrict its associative hunger to language. Memories survive longer, and are easier to access, when they are connected to other senses, to images, sounds, smells, tastes, and especially, as memory artists — Joshua Foer and Tony Judt most recently among them— have known for centuries, to spaces, to “memory palaces” that can house and organize them. Memory, in other words, thrives on fetishes, on objects that carry meaning less by essence than association. It covers the walls of its palaces with them.
And so does reading. We make sensory associations — arbitrary but meaningful — to our reading that house the mental images it creates. This would hardly be a respectable literary essay if I didn’t declare here that literature without its fetishes is like Proust without his memory-triggering madeleine — a passage, by the way, that I first read in the 1989 Vintage International edition of Swann’s Way, a book, by the way, that I associate with the warm springtime of my senior year in college, with standing in my kitchen, a place I’m sure I didn’t actually read the book, but rather held on to it as an inward symbol of my control over my reading now that my last finals were done, and as an outward badge of what I thought of as the casual sophistication of my post-college self-education (yes, it’s true that readers’ “fetishistic gratifications” are often as shamefully self-serving and impure as Parks says — that’s part of what makes them so memorable).
A physical book makes a house for its content, with pages like rooms we can pass through — and return to — in sequence, or jump among, taking shortcuts we can easily retrace because we hold the whole structure in our hands. It’s true that a vivid piece of writing, read physically or digitally, creates its own mental spaces — I have, for instance, a pretty extensive and durable image in my mind of Copper Canyon, the mine town ripe for the picking in Richard Stark’s The Score, which I read last year on my phone — but, perhaps because of its very tendency toward abstraction and austerity, reading thrives in the paper houses we build for it.
These houses don’t have to be lovely, by the way, although it helps. This isn’t really an argument about beauty, about “quality paper” or “handsome masterpieces,” in Parks’s words. A beautiful, well-designed book is a good thing, and I am sure the pleasure of holding my smooth and nearly weightless little Avon paperback edition of The Moviegoer enhanced my headlong love affair with that novel when I read it a couple of decades ago, just as it still enhances my memory of it (at this point, I remember the cover better than the book; or, rather, my pleasure in the cover, easily recalled, has now become the repository for all the pleasure I took in the book, the specifics of which await a more thorough rereading). But I first read and loved Moby-Dick in an ugly Norton Critical Edition, and The Confidence-Man in an even uglier Meridian paperback, each of which has nevertheless proved an equally sturdy physical structure for my memories of reading.
That’s not to say that the works don’t survive and transcend their material substrate. I could have read Melville anywhere — even a Kindle — and it would still have been Melville, though I’m not sure with quite as full a character in my mind as it has now. I’ve owned one of my favorite books, Housekeeping, in at least three editions (as well as on audio), and read it closely in all of them — and it was, more or less, the same book each time, but the various editions gave it, and still give it, a place in my mind. When I recall Sylvie and Ruth burning their house — and how breathtaking it was to read the first time — I have an image in my mind of their wet, cluttered yard and the flaming curtains, but alongside I have an image of a page, and of an elongated, almost sprightly font that carried the good humor of the book even through its darker scenes.
Can you get that from an ebook? I think in some ways you can, though not in the austere, neutral form that Parks celebrates. I don’t mean to make a fetish out of printed books, and I’m not asking to burn (or delete) ebooks, or their devices. Maybe all I ask is that digital books be designed in ways that give them character, that help them live and survive individually in your mind, rather than being translated into a common, anonymous display that passes through your memory as quickly as you scroll. Or maybe I suggest that you read your digital books in a way that embeds them in your life and in your sensory memory: on a newly mown lawn, or in the stale surroundings of a passenger train, or with a cup of tea and a small cake for dipping, or while sitting with someone you love. Any way, really, that keeps your books from being entirely pure, gets them a little dirty and adulterated.
And as for physical books: I’d just like them to survive, or at least be remembered, and not just as the playthings of a child.
Image Credit: Flickr/Kodomut
“There are so many books. Always so many. They collide in my mind.”
– Colum McCann
Another Year in Reading is behind us, and I speak for all of us at The Millions when I sincerely thank everyone who wrote, shared, and read our articles. It’s a bit daunting to let strangers into our private reading worlds, but it’s also quite rewarding.
There is always the temptation to dive into a new book just after finishing another. There are, as Colum McCann says above, just “so many books” we’ve yet to read. However it’s also true that reflection can deepen appreciation: your reading timeline becomes contextualized, and its connections develop like a filmstrip in your mind. Our series, in the end, is all about such reflection.
We also recognize that it’s becoming easier than ever to rely on algorithms and lists for one’s book recommendations – and while there are some treasures to be found through such means, there is nothing quite like the warmth of an actual human being’s testimony to vouchsafe your next reading choice. We hope that these articles have turned you on to new writers – authors of books selected by others, or authors of the articles themselves.
With 72 participants naming 214 books, it’s safe to say this has been our biggest and most high profile Year in Reading yet. Our participants included the current Poet Laureate, a longtime candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, the reigning winners of the IMPAC and Pulitzer Prizes, two authors of books named The New York Times’ 10 Best of 2011, a recent inductee to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and more Pushcart winners than I care to count.
A number of authors wrote their own Year in Reading articles as well as books chosen later on in the series. This honor roll consists of McCann, Jennifer Egan, Daniel Orozco, David Vann, Siddhartha Deb, and Geoff Dyer.
Yet in spite of these credentials – impressive as they are – I thought it would be fun to note some statistics, and to award some further superlatives based upon the articles written for this series. (Note that all research is highly unscientific.)
By the numbers: of the 214 books named, 139 were fiction, 68 were nonfiction, 5 were poetry, and 2 were graphic novels. The average length of the books chosen was 338 pages, and the average publication year was 1994. The oldest book selected was Moby-Dick, the longest was Bleak House, and the shortest was Buckdancer’s Choice. If you’re a fan of our Post-40 Bloomers series, you’ll appreciate the fact that the average age of each book’s author, at the time their book was originally published, was 47.53 years old. Most of the books were from the United States and the UK, but many were from Ireland, Canada, France, the Russian Federation, Hungary, and Germany. Six of the seven continents were represented, and these books were published by presses ranging from the New York Review of Books to New Directions to Fantagraphics to Random House. (I won’t release the name of which house published the highest number of selections because I don’t want war to break out in New York City.)
Some favorites from the series, based on feedback from readers and links, comments, and other stats, included McCann on The Book of Disquiet, Jonathan Safran Foer on The Shallows, Ben Marcus on Nothing, Michael Schaub on The Great Frustration, and Egan on Butterfly’s Child.
Three books tied for the most popular selection this year: Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams (selected by Dan Kois, David Bezmozgis, and Adam Ross), Edouard Levé’s Suicide (selected by Scott Esposito, Mark O’Connell, and Dennis Cooper), and Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (selected by Charles Baxter, Kevin Hartnett, and Garth Risk Hallberg). Seven more books tied for second-most popular: Phillip Connors’ Fire Season (selected by Chad Harbach and yours truly), Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (selected by Harbach and Emily Keeler), Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (selected by Brooke Hauser and A.N. Devers), Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (selected by Hauser and Rosecrans Baldwin), Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test (selected by Schaub and Chris Baio), Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal (selected by Hauser and Rachel Syme) and Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods (selected by Scott and Garth).
Still I am compelled to award a couple of half-serious superlatives to close this thing out:
The “Gashlycrumb Tinies” Award for Saddest Selection of Books goes to Emma Straub for her tear-soaked article. “Mr. Consistent” is an Award I’d like to bestow upon Brad Listi, who exhausted the Sarah Palin canon only to then go on to exhaust the David Markson one. “Most Indecisive” belongs to Brooke Hauser and her 15 selections, while “Most Topical” goes to Michael Schaub because 90% of his list published in 2011. The Award for Coolest Byline undoubtedly goes to Duff McKagan, but the Award for Coolest Backstory (as well as my unending jealousy) goes to Benjamin Hale. Finally, the Award for Most Valuable Participant goes to you, dear reader, for allowing us to continue our series and for helping it grow with each passing January.
Until next year, happy reading.
The Millions staff
P.S. If you’re curious as to how we put the series together, please do check out Electric Literature’s interview with our founder, C. Max Magee. The series, the articles, and the site itself would not be possible without him.
I kept a reading journal for the first time this year and I highly recommend it. It’s humbling for one (that’s all I read?), inspiring (read more!), and clarifying (choose well). That said, it was a pretty great year reading-wise. I read David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green twice, re-read Turgenev’s First Love, William Gass’ On Being Blue, and Don DeLillo’s End Zone, and I highly recommend them all. With everything going on with the Penn State scandal, Margaux Fragoso’s harrowing memoir of sexual abuse, Tiger, Tiger is both timely and even more devastating. I finally read Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides and thought it was terrific. I took Ann Patchett’s advice at the opening of Parnassus, her independent bookstore in Nashville, and bought Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, devouring it in a single sitting. I had so much fun reading The Stories of John Cheever in conjunction with The Journals of John Cheever that I read Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March in tandem with his Letters, which includes a wonderful introduction by its editor, Benjamin Taylor. J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace — my first experience with his work — was riveting, appalling, and beautiful. Jim Shepard’s story collection Like You’d Understand, Anyway was so wide-reaching, variegated, and emotionally precise I felt like I’d read a collection of micro-novels.
Still, of all the books I read, only Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian took over my world, and by that I mean I had that rare experience, while immersed in it, of seeing reality through its lens whenever I put it down and in the days after I finished it. Ostensibly it’s about a band of Indian hunters run amok along the Texas-Mexico border in the mid-nineteenth century but really it’s about how man’s natural state is warfare. You can buy that bill of goods or not but like McCarthy’s greatest works (Suttree, The Crossing) it’s written in his inimitable style, that fusion of The Book of Isaiah, Herman Melville, and Faulkner (though he’s more precise than the latter, more desolate and corporeal than Moby Dick’s author; whether his prophetic powers are on par with his artistry remains to be seen), a voice which is all his own, of course, and has an amplitude I’ve encountered only in, what, DeLillo at his most ecstatic? Murakami at his most unreal? Bellow in Augie March or Herzog? Alice Munro in The Progress of Love? John Hawkes in The Lime Twig? Read it if you read anything this coming year and note: a bonus to the experience is that you’ll add at least two hundred words to your lexicon.
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In his often anthologized essay “On Reading Old Books,” William Hazlitt wrote, “I hate to read new books. There are twenty or thirty volumes that I have read over and over again, and these are the only ones that I have any desire to ever read at all.” This is a rather extreme position on rereading, but he is not alone. Larry McMurtry made a similar point: “If I once read for adventure, I now read for security. How nice to be able to return to what won’t change. When I sit down at dinner with a given book, I want to know what I’m going to find.” In her recent study On Rereading Patricia Meyers Spacks uses McMurtry as an example of someone who rereads to stubbornly avoid novelty, and unapologetically so. His refusal, like Hazlitt’s, to read anything new makes rereading a conservative if comfortable experience, vehemently opposed to the possible shock of the new.
Spacks herself feels slightly differently. She writes, “No reader can fail to agree that the number of books she needs to read far exceeds her capacities, but when the passion for rereading kicks in, the faint guilt that therefore attends the indulgence only serves to intensify its sweetness.” In Spacks’s scenario rereading is a forbidden pleasure, tantalizing and, contra Hazlitt and McMurtry, with an element of time wasted — an extravagance. The choice Hazlitt and McMurtry easily make weighs more heavily on Spacks, who knows she forgoes a new book every time she picks up an old one.
Yet there are far more positive spins put on rereading in Spacks’s book and elsewhere. Pleasure, after all, needn’t be a negative. Elsewhere in his essay, Hazlitt brings up a point which is raised often by rereaders: “In reading a book which is an old favorite with me (say the first novel I ever read) I not only have the pleasure of imagination and of a critical relish of the work, but the pleasures of memory added to it. It recalls the same feelings and associations which I had in first reading it, and which I can never have again in any other way. Standard productions of this kind are links on the chains of personal identity. They are landmarks and guides in our journey through life.” This double perspective is often mentioned as one of the pleasures of rereading, especially of reading books from childhood. Hazlitt writes rhapsodically of opening Tom Jones and feeling like a child again, and Spacks, too, makes a tour of her childhood reading to see what holds up to adult scrutiny. She finds Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland still enchants, but the Narnia series feels flat and lifeless. Ferdinand the Bull delights, as does The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the adventure of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped enthralls her. Thus rereading is a way back into the past, to a time when one was more innocent or more susceptible to the powers of imagination or just younger, and different. It inspires introspection and self-reflection through the workings of memory: How am I the same person as the last time I read this book? How am I different?
Rereading is also a form of pedagogy. To know a book you have to reread it, as Harold Bloom writes in his How to Read and Why (though he is apt to plea, as he does here, for careful reading rather than repetition; it is taken for granted that only through multiple readings will knowledge will seep in). “We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading is the search for a difficult pleasure.” Though rereading we get to know a book beyond its surface elements, we read more deeply and are rewarded not with an easy experience but with a richer one. We learn to take a book apart, pick out crucial scenes, ponder characters’ motives, see its flaws, tease out its themes. In part, through rereading we become skilled critics. Spacks too explores the professional aspect of her rereading: as a teacher and literary critic, she has read certain books over and over as part of her job and been surprised when they surprise her, or when students find aspects of a book she has passed over in her multiple readings. Even the pros sometimes miss a detail in Moby-Dick, or the book Bloom confesses to reading twice a year, Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers.
To really love a book we must spend time with it, and that means rereading — for love, too, falls under the heading of Bloom’s “difficult pleasure.” Anne Fadiman’s collection of essays culled from the “Rereadings” column she edited in The American Scholar explores the strong feelings that arise between rereader and book. In her introduction to the collection, Fadiman claims that “each [column] was a miniature memoir at whose heart lay that most galvanic of topics, the evolving nature of love.” Some of the most memorable essays in Rereadings involve letting go of love, or becoming disillusioned by rereading. For example, Luc Sante’s essay on Enid Starkie’s biography of Arthur Rimbaud describes a vehement case of hero-worship in which the idolatrous fever eventually breaks. You see, Sante confides, “At some point before adolescence, I had decided to be a child prodigy,” and he chose writing as his field. At 13 he encountered Rimbaud in a poetry anthology, and soon after he found the aforementioned biography “with a picture of a big-haired, pensive, beautiful adolescent” on the cover. He read it everywhere he went, and realized he had chosen a remarkable idol: “He was hipper than anyone alive.” Sante was smitten.
Yet there were attendant issues with such a role model: “He wasn’t even divisible into parts, you couldn’t be half a Rimbaud. The alternative to being Rimbaud was to be nothing.” Inevitably, Sante grew out of his passion. “I can reread the Starkie biography today…and no longer feel as though I will have to set the book down at some point and go put on music or think about something else, because the race is over now.” Rimbaud has won; he won by never having a Rimbaud to worship. But then, he also never had the adulthood Sante has, or the knowledge that has come with it. Rimbaud lost too by never growing up, by his truncated biography, by always coming to a tragic early end.
Vivian Gornick’s essay in Fadiman’s collection also deals with lost love. “When I was in my twenties, my friends and I read Colette as others read the Bible.” Colette is the only writer who can describe their condition, the way they had to live. “The condition, of course, was that we were women, and that Love (as we had long known) was the territory upon which our battle with Life was to be pitched.” Like Sante worshipping Rimbaud, Gornick and her friends’ fixation on Colette had its problems. They were intellectual girls (young women, really), readers, of course, who lived out their fantasies in books. Gornick writes of their identification with the great literary heroines, Henry James’s Isabel Archer and George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, “passionate young women destined for tragedy at the hands of famously unworthy men.” Yet they were also new women, championing Mary McCarthy and relishing their sexual independence. Colette combined these two forces, or so it seemed. “She seemed to know everything that actually went on inside a woman ‘in the grip.’ Her wisdom riveted your eyes to the page, gathered up your scattered, racing inattention. It made A Woman in Love as serious a concern for the novelist as God or War.” Gornick’s descriptions of communing with Colette’s books, particularly The Vagabond and The Shackle, are hungry and spiritual. How would they stand up to rereading?
Not well, is the short answer. After 30 years they seem melodramatic, contrived, alienating. Though she says Colette’s “writing is incomparable,” Gornick exclaims of the lovers, “But what appalling strangers these people are to one another! Not a speck of reality between them. How preoccupied [Colette] is with aging. Why hadn’t I noticed that before? And the aimlessness of them all, women and men alike — especially in The Shackle. No one has anything to do but lie around brooding about love.” Note that love has lost its capital letter for Gornick. These novels about passion felt dispassionate. Where in her 20s Gornick had believed love was the territory she would stake her claim on, life has intervened and shown her their lives are much larger. Gornick is struck by how much smaller Colette’s world seems, and though the comparison is with her first reading, it is also with her own world. Gornick’s final thought is a melancholy one: “I want the reading of Colette to be the same as it once was, but it is not. Yet I am wrenched by the beauty of that which no longer feels large, and can never feel large again.” Rereading has taken something away from Gornick that she valued, an illusion about love, and life, that cannot be retrieved.
Rereading does not have to lead to loss, however. Plenty of people reread because they find it soothing, fortifying even. And a disproportionate number of those rereaders seem to pick up a novel by Jane Austen. When Patricia Spacks started researching rereading as a topic, it was Jane Austen who was most often the answer to the question of who people reread (especially women, it seems, men, according to nothing more than anecdotal evidence, keep a volume of Tolkien nearby). She asked a young woman in China why Austen was her favorite author, and then a group of Holocaust survivors who met to read Austen aloud to one another. From their answers, Spacks concluded that Austen meant civilization. “We may plausibly surmise that a considerable proportion of Austen’s many rereaders, from adoring members of the Jane Austen Society to casual pleasure-seekers, find comfort in civilized discourse: carefully formed plots that end predictably in satisfactory marriages, style that reflects the author’s dominion over her material, characters rewarded and punished according to their deserts.” The fact that her world is one that values words — think of the verbal sparring between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice — also gives the rereader an extra jolt. Spacks writes, “It’s not just that Austen teaches us about life — life teaches us about Austen.”
Allegra Goodman’s essay in Anne Fadiman’s collection, “Pemberly Previsited,” traces the motions of one Austen rereader, from a girl too young to understand much of Austen’s subtlety to a young mother whose own mother has just died and is looking for solace in Austen’s world. It is her third reading of Pride and Prejudice, a tribute to her mother who loved Austen, that really makes the novel click into place for her. “What I found irresistible this time was the way Austen combines astute social satire with fairy tale. The combination didn’t seem awkward to me, but inspired. The satire is exquisite, while the fairy tale is viscerally satisfying.” While after her second reading Goodman had found the book lacking compared with more complex or darker classic novels, this time it seems just right. As Goodman wryly notes, “A dark imagination is, perhaps, more appealing before you know anything about darkness.” In a time of darkness, Austen has provided a fairy tale, but one with enough grounding in reality to viscerally satisfy her. It is hard to ask more of a book.
Goodman keeps rereading Pride, finding more and more to admire in it, and coming to this conclusion about the process: “I think unfolding is what rereading is about. Like pleated fabric, the text reveals different parts of its pattern at different times. And yet every time the text unfolds, in the library, or in bed, or upon the grass, the reader adds new wrinkles. Memory and experience press themselves into each reading so that each encounter informs the next.” This image echoes one Spacks uses, that of the palimpsest (an ancient scroll where a text is scraped off and another written over it), where each reading is layered upon the last. “Although one never altogether recovers previous layers,” Spacks writes, “they add texture and meaning to the ultimate version.”
As long as we keep rereading, however, we never have the ultimate version of a book. Whether we go back again and again to a classic (and the ability to hold up to rereading is how a book becomes a classic) or pick up an old favorite to see how it has fared or dig deep into the treasures of our youth, rereading is an experiment that is bound to change us, and to change our impressions of the books we read. Rereading can certainly surprise, it can instruct, and it can make us feel safe. Maybe it is not indulgent to reread a book, but a way to learn; and what is any sort of reading but a way to learn, whether it is something new about the world or just something new about ourselves?
After a couple days of hemming and hawing, I decided to join the protesters of Occupy Wall Street. I was hesitant to go because until very recently, I worked as an administrative assistant at a prominent Wall Street law firm. I didn’t know how, in good conscience, I could rail against The Man when my primary responsibility had once been to keep track of incoming phone calls from Goldman Sachs. But then I heard one of the protest’s organizers on the radio saying that the Occupy movement wasn’t against capitalism, corporations, or even big banking. He was for income equality. And democracy. The reporter pressed him to be more specific, but he refused.
“Why do they have to be more specific?” I yelled at the radio. “Isn’t it obvious why they’re upset?”
I was getting annoyed at the way Occupy Wall Street was being covered — as if it was insane to gather in a public space and protest. As if it had never happened in America before. Wasn’t the whole point of passive resistance to just be there? To not make any demands? As I tried to come up with a good parallel, I found myself thinking of Bartleby, the Scrivener, Herman Melville’s short story about an office worker, Bartleby, who decides out of nowhere that he doesn’t feel like working anymore, but continues to show up at the office every day. Bartleby’s idleness baffles and then infuriates his boss, who begs Bartleby to give some reason for his behavior. But Bartleby refuses to disclose his interests, and over the course of the story, his needs become so few that he dies of starvation. It’s a bleak, mysterious story, and as I returned to my copy to reread it, I was stilled to rediscover its subtitle: “A Story of Wall Street.”
I first read Bartleby the Scrivener last summer, when I was completely burned out on office life. I actually read it at work, during a slow afternoon — “down time”, in office parlance — and was surprised by how funny and contemporary it seemed. The story is narrated by an unnamed, well-to-do-lawyer, who describes himself as “one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause but in the cool tranquility of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title deeds.” In the narrator’s employ are two scriveners and one office boy — or, in modern terms, two administrative assistants and one intern. One scrivener is old, and something of a drunk; the other scrivener is young, and from the narrator’s description, something of a hipster: “Nippers, the second on my list, was a whiskered, sallow, and, upon the whole, rather piratical-looking young man of about five and twenty. I always deemed him the victim of two evil powers — ambition and indigestion.”
One day, the narrator decides that he needs to hire a third scrivener. He interviews Bartleby, a “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn” man. Bartleby is of “so singularly sedate an aspect” that the narrator can’t help thinking he will be an exceptionally cooperative employee. And so he hires Bartleby, installing him at a desk in front of a window with an airshaft view and behind “a high green folding screen which, might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice.” In other words, he sticks Bartleby in a cubicle.
Bartleby’s job is to copy legal documents by hand, like a human Xerox machine. During his first couple days at the office, Bartleby works at a ferocious pace, and is always the first to arrive and the last to leave. But on the third day, when the narrator asks Bartleby to assist with some proofreading, Bartleby utters what will become his trademark phrase: “I would prefer not to.” The reply surprises the narrator, but he doesn’t become annoyed until later in the week, when Bartleby refuses a second time, with the same vague reply: “I would prefer not to.” Upon questioning Bartleby, the narrator learns that Bartleby would prefer not to do many things, including running errands, mailing letters, and talking to his co-workers. All Bartleby wants to do is copy legal documents. The narrator decides he can live with this, and assigns all proofreading to the other scriveners. This arrangement works well, until one Sunday when the narrator happens to stop by his Wall Street office on the way to Trinity Church. He is startled to discover Bartleby there, and even more startled when Bartleby asks him to circle the block a few times, so that he might conclude his affairs. When the narrator returns to his office, Bartleby is gone, but the narrator finds evidence that Bartleby has been living there, all along.
At this point, the plot of Bartleby escalates rapidly and absurdly, like a comedy sketch. Bartleby announces that he has “given up copying” and stops working entirely. The narrator cajoles Bartleby to “be a little reasonable.” Bartleby’s reply: “At present, I would prefer not to be a little reasonable.” The narrator then dismisses Bartleby, giving him his paycheck, plus twenty dollars — a kind of severance package. But Bartleby refuses to be dismissed. The narrator demands: “Will you, or will you not quit me?” Bartleby’s reply: “I would prefer not to quit you.” Eventually, the narrator decides to ignore Bartleby until he leaves of his own accord. But Bartleby never leaves. He stays at his desk, staring out the window, day in and day out. The narrator becomes accustomed to his unmoving presence, but when other lawyers visit, they are suspicious of Bartleby, and in turn, suspicious of the narrator, a man apparently unable to fire his employees. Gossip begins to circulate. And so the narrator decides he must leave Bartleby, if Bartleby is not going to leave him. He finds a new office to rent.
This tactic works; Bartleby does not follow the narrator to his new offices. Instead, Bartleby continues to lurk around the old office, even after new tenants move in. At night, he sleeps in the building’s entryway. Eventually, the building’s new tenants visit the narrator, to complain about Bartleby. “You are responsible for the man you left there. He refuses to do any copying; he refuses to do anything; he says he prefers not to and he refuses to quit the premises.” The narrator, who is not without pity for Bartleby, goes to visit him.
“Bartleby,” said I, “are you aware that you are the cause of great tribulation to me, by persisting in occupying the entry after being dismissed from the office?”
“Now, one of two things must take place. Either you must do something, or something must be done to you. Now what sort of business would you like to engage in? Would you like to re-engage in copying for someone?”
“No; I would prefer not to make any change.”
The passage goes on, at length, with the narrator suggesting all sorts of work that Bartleby might do, and with Bartleby dismissing each suggestion. The exchange ends when Bartleby repeats: “No: at present I would prefer not to make any change at all.”
When I first began working at the law firm, I was a temporary employee, but after a few months, I became permanent. Around that time, I had a dream that I got a tattoo of the word CHANGE on my right arm. The meaning was obvious: I was uncertain of my decision to settle down at the firm, and struggling with the feeling that what I was telling myself was a day job was actually one I would be stuck with for a long time. For a while, I considered actually getting a tattoo of the word CHANGE, to remind me of the dream, and of my fears, but then the Obama campaign happened, and the word change began to lose its meaning for me. I’m not saying I was never taken in by Obama’s promises — I was — but just seeing the word, everywhere, on buttons, on billboards, on T-shirts, on TV, turned the idea of change into a kind of golden fantasy, whereas before, I had thought of it as something I could do.
Bartleby is very sad in its final pages. After the narrator leaves him, he is arrested as a vagrant and taken to the Tombs, a prison downtown. The narrator goes to visit him there, but Bartleby refuses to speak to him. Feeling guilty, the narrator arranges for special meals to be brought to Bartleby, but Bartleby refuses to eat them. A few days later, the narrator returns to the Tombs again, to check on Bartleby, but he can’t find him. Another prisoner directs the narrator to the prison yard, where Bartleby was seen lying down to take a nap. The narrator finds him. Bartleby is not asleep; he is dead.
I went to Occupy Wall Street with my friend Maura, who at 57 has already survived one protest era. “People are complaining that it’s just a bunch of spoiled college kids, but that’s what it was like in the 1960s,” she told me. Having lived through the 1970s, when much of Manhattan was dirty and dangerous, Maura doesn’t spend much time wringing her hands over the hipster gentrification of Brooklyn and Queens. To her, the bigger story is the way the middle and working-class families that have traditionally lived in outer-borough New York are slowly leaving the city. She doesn’t think hipster kids are responsible for that particular migration; instead, it’s related to the corporate mentality that is taking over all of New York City.
“Everyone, even people in regular jobs, suddenly feels like they need to make a lot of money to be successful,” she says. “It wasn’t always like that. My father was happy just to own his house and support his family. He thought it was an honor to be able to pay his taxes, because he knew other people were worse off. I’m not saying you have to be a saint, but you should be able to be a normal person and live here.”
As we’re talking, a union organizer with a white beard hands us a flier and invites us to march with him the next day. After he leaves, I tell Maura that I would go, but I have dinner plans at seven, and I would feel bad cancelling. She laughs and says she would go too, but she’s too old to be arrested. “We’re not very radical are we?”
On our way out, we see a twenty-something guy in a suit holding a brown cardboard sign: I’M FOR REGULATING THE BANKS. APPARENTLY THAT MAKES ME A RADICAL.
Melville published Bartleby in 1853, at what was likely a personal low point. Not only had his masterpiece, Moby Dick, received mixed reviews, but his follow-up book, Pierre, was so universally disliked that one paper ran a review titled: HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY. His career as a writer was beginning a steep decline, and he must have known it. It’s easy to see Bartleby as Melville’s alter ego, the depressed writer who sees no point in going on. Bartleby even says that he has “decided upon doing no more writing.” But the interesting thing about Bartleby the Scrivener is that it isn’t told from Bartleby’s point of view, and so even if Melville intended the story to be an illustration of his own neglected genius, he also ended up telling the story of a Wall Street lawyer’s brief brush with despair.
The most moving passages of Bartleby occur around the story’s midpoint, after the narrator discovers that Bartleby is homeless, and has been living in his office. The narrator is struck, not only by Bartleby’s poverty, but also by his loneliness, which he imagines must be greater on Wall Street than in any other Manhattan neighborhood:
Of a Sunday, Wall Street is deserted as Petra; and every night of every day it is an emptiness. This building too, which of weekdays hums with industry and life, at nightfall echoes with sheer vacancy, and all through Sunday is forlorn. And here Bartleby makes his home; sole spectator of a solitude which he has seen all populous… I remembered the bright silks and sparkling faces I had seen that day, in gala trim, swan-like sailing down the Mississippi of Broadway; and I contrasted them with the pallid copyist, and thought to myself: Ah, happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay; but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none.
The parallels between Bartleby’s peculiar form of rebellion and the protestors of Occupy Wall Street should be obvious. The point of Occupy Wall Street — and the Occupy movements around the country — is to put a face to America’s dwindling middle class. There is no need to be any more specific than that. In fact, it seems that the less specific, less reasonable, and less demanding the protesters are, the more likely they are to unnerve those who actually have the power to make a change. Bartleby is disturbing not because of what he says or doesn’t say, but because he seems to have lost some aspect of his humanity:
Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises.
Here’s the narrator again, when he is trying to convince Bartleby to help with the proofreading:
But there was something about Bartleby that not only strangely disarmed me, but in a wonderful manner touched and disconcerted me.
A few pages later:
Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.
And finally, the story’s famous last line:
Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!
If Occupy Wall Street has any goal, it should be to have the same effect that great literature has — to unsettle. Let the pundits complain about vagueness, and let the reporters ask their condescending questions. (As an example, here’s one I heard put to a young man standing near me: “Is it true that you want to put all the bankers in jail?”) Let them tease, let them pacify, let them cajole, let them argue. But don’t move, Occupy Wall Street.
I used to be the kind of reader who gives short shrift to long novels. I used to take a wan pleasure in telling friends who had returned from a tour of duty with War and Peace or The Man Without Qualities with that I’ve-seen-some-things look in their eyes—the thousand-page stare—that they had been wasting their time. In the months it had taken them to plough through one book by some logorrheic modernist or world-encircling Russian, I had read a good eight to ten volumes of svelter dimensions. While they were bench-pressing, say, Infinite Jest for four months solid, I had squared away most of the major Nouveau Romanciers, a fistful of Thomas Bernhards, every goddamned novel Albert Camus ever wrote, and still had time to read some stuff I actually enjoyed.
I was a big believer, in other words, in the Slim Prestige Volume. Nothing over 400 pages. Why commit yourself to one gigantic classic when you can read a whole lot of small classics in the same period of time, racking up at least as much intellectual cachet while you were at it? I took Hippocrates’ famous dictum about ars being longa and vita being brevis as a warning against starting a book in your twenties that might wind up lying still unfinished on the nightstand of your deathbed. Aside from the occasional long novel––one every twelve to eighteen months––I was a Slim Prestige Volume man, and that seemed to be that.
Even when I went back to college in my mid-twenties to do a PhD in English literature, I still relied on a kind of intellectual cost-benefit analysis that persuaded me that my time was better spent broadening than deepening—or, as it were, thickening—my reading. Had I read Dostoevsky? Sure I had: I’d spent a couple of rainy evenings with Notes From Underground, and found it highly agreeable. Much better than The Double, in fact, which I’d also read. So yeah, I knew my Dostoevsky. Next question, please. Ah yes, Tolstoy! Who could ever recover from reading The Death of Ivan Illych, that thrilling (and thrillingly brief) exploration of mortality and futility?
There’s a memorable moment in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 where Amalfitano, the unhinged Catalan professor of literature, encounters a pharmacist working the night shift at his local drug store whom he discovers is reading his way diligently through the minor works of the major novelists. The young pharmacist, we are told, “chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers.” This causes Amalfitano to reflect on the “sad paradox” that “now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”
Apart from being a powerful vindication of Bolaño’s own staggering ambition, and of his novel’s vast and unyielding darkness, I found that this passage reflected something of my own slightly faint-hearted reading practices (practices from which, by the time I had got around to reading the 900-page 2666, I had obviously started to deviate). A bit of a bookish pharmacist myself, I was content with netting minnows like Bartleby, while leaving the great Moby-Dick-sized leviathans largely unharpooned. I was fond of Borges’ famous remark about its being “a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books,” and tended to extrapolate from it a dismissal of reading them too—as though Borges, the great wanderer and mythologizer of labyrinths, would ever have approved of such readerly timidity.
And then, three or four years ago, something changed. For some reason I can’t recall (probably a longish lapse in productivity on my thesis) I set myself the task of reading a Great Big Important Novel. For another reason I can’t recall (probably the fact that it had been sitting on a shelf for years, its pages turning the sullen yellow of neglected great books), I settled on Gravity’s Rainbow. I can’t say that I enjoyed every minute of it, or even that I enjoyed all that much of it at all, but I can say that by the time I got to the end of it I was glad to have read it. Not just glad that I had finally finished it, but that I had started it and seen it through. I felt as though I had been through something major, as though I had not merely experienced something but done something, and that the doing and the experiencing were inseparable in the way that is peculiar to the act of reading. And I’ve had that same feeling, I realize, with almost every very long novel I’ve read before or since.
You finish the last page of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewilderment or frustration or irritation—you think to yourself, “that was monumental.” But it strikes me that this sense of monumentality, this gratified speechlessness that we tend to feel at such moments of closure and valediction, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achievement in having read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achievement in having written it. When you read the kind of novel that promises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow—a Ulysses or a Brothers Karamazov or a Gravity’s Rainbow—there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more problematically, is often difficult to separate from an awe at the fact of your own surmounting of it.
The upshot of this, I think, is that the greatness of a novel in the mind of its readers is often alloyed with those readers’ sense of their own greatness (as readers) for having conquered it. I don’t think William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, for instance, is nearly as fantastic a novel as people often claim it is. But it is one of the most memorable and monumental experiences of my reading life. And these are the reasons why: because the thing was just so long; because I had such a hard time with it; and because I eventually finished it. (I read it as part of an academic reading group devoted to long and difficult American novels, and I’m not sure I would have got to the end of it otherwise). Reading a novel of punishing difficulty and length is a version of climbing Everest for people who prefer not to leave the house. And people who climb Everest don’t howl with exhilaration at the summit because the mountain was a good or a well made or an interesting mountain per se, but because they’re overawed at themselves for having done such a fantastically difficult thing. (I’m willing to concede that they may not howl with exhilaration at all, what with the tiredness, the lack of oxygen and very possibly the frostbite. I’ll admit to being on shaky ground here, as I’ve never met anyone who’s climbed Everest, nor am I likely to if I continue not going out of the house.)
And there is, connected with this phenomenon, what I think of as Long Novel Stockholm syndrome. My own first experience of it—or at least my first conscious experience of it—was, again, with The Recognitions. With any novel of that difficulty and length (976 pages in my prestigiously scuffed and battered Penguin edition), the reader’s aggregate experience is bound to be composed of a mixture of frustrations and pleasures. But what I found with Gaddis’s gigantic exploration of fraudulence and creativity was that, though they were greatly outnumbered by the frustrations, the pleasures seemed to register much more firmly. If I were fully honest with myself, I would have had to admit that I was finding the novel gruelingly, unsparingly tedious. But I wasn’t prepared to be fully honest with myself. Because every couple of hundred pages or so, Gaddis would take pity on me and throw me a bone in the form of an engaging, genuinely compelling set piece. Like the wonderful episode in which one of the characters, under the impression that he is being given a gift of $5,000 by his long-lost father whom he has arranged to meet at a hotel, is in fact mistakenly being given a suitcase full of counterfeit cash by a failed confidence man. And then Gaddis would roll up his sleeves again and get back to the real business of boring me insensible with endless pages of direct-dialogue bluster about art, theology and the shallowness of post-war American culture.
I kept at it, doughtily ploughing my way through this seemingly inexhaustible stuff, holding out for another interlude of clemency from an author I knew was capable of entertaining and provoking me. At some point towards the end of the book it occurred to me that what I was experiencing could be looked at as a kind of literary variant of the Stockholm syndrome phenomenon, whereby hostages experience a perverse devotion to their captors, interpreting any abstention from violence and cruelty, however brief or arbitrary, as acts of kindness and even love. Psychologically, this is understood as a defense mechanism in which the victim fabricates a “good” side of the aggressor in order to avoid confronting the overwhelming terror of his or her situation. Perhaps I’m stretching the bonds of credulity by implicitly comparing William Gaddis to a FARC guerilla commander, but I’m convinced there’s something that happens when we get into a captive situation with a long and difficult book that is roughly analogous to the Stockholm syndrome scenario. For a start, the book’s very length lays out (for a certain kind of reader, at least) its own special form of imperative—part challenge, part command. The thousand-pager is something you measure yourself against, something you psyche yourself up for and tell yourself you’re going to endure and/or conquer. And this does, I think, amount to a kind of captivity: once you’ve got to Everest base camp, you really don’t want to pack up your stuff and turn back. I think it’s this principle that explains, for example, the fact that I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow but gave up halfway through The Crying of Lot 49, when the latter could be used as a handy little bookmark for the former. When you combine this (admittedly self-imposed) captivity with a novel’s formidable reputation for greatness, you’ve got a perfect set of conditions for the literary Stockholm syndrome to kick in.
In order for a very long novel to get away with long, cruel sessions of boredom-torture, it has to commit, every so often, an act of kindness such as the counterfeit cash set piece in The Recognitions. This is why Ulysses is so deeply loved by so many readers—as well it should be—while Finnegans Wake has been read almost exclusively by Joyce scholars (of whom I’m tempted to think as the Patty Hearsts of literature). After the grueling ordeal of the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode, in which Stephen stands around in the National Library for dozens of pages boring everyone to damn-near-literal tears with his theories about the provenance of Hamlet, we are given the unrestrained pleasure of the “Wandering Rocks” episode. Ulysses might treat us like crap for seemingly interminable stretches of time, but it extends just enough in the way of writerly benevolence to keep us onside. And this kindness is the key to Stockholm syndrome. You don’t know when it’s going to come, or what form it’s going to take, but you get enough of it to keep you from despising your captor, or mounting a brave escape attempt by flinging the wretched thing across the room. According to an article called “Understanding Stockholm Syndrome” published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bullettin:
Kindness serves as the cornerstone of Stockholm syndrome; the condition will not develop unless the captor exhibits it in some form toward the hostage. However, captives often mistake a lack of abuse as kindness and may develop feelings of appreciation for this perceived benevolence. If the captor is purely evil and abusive, the hostage will respond with hatred. But if perpetrators show some kindness, victims will submerge the anger they feel in response to the terror and concentrate on the captors “good side” to protect themselves.
If you’re the kind of reader who doesn’t intend to give up on a Great Big Important Novel no matter how inhumanely it treats you, then there’s a sense in which Joyce or Pynchon or Gaddis (or whoever your captor happens to be) owns you for the duration of that captivity. In order to maintain your sanity, you may end up being disproportionately grateful for the parts where they don’t threaten to bore you to death, where there seems to be some genuine empathic connection between reader and writer. Machiavelli understood this truth long before a Swedish bank robbery turned into a hostage crisis and gave the world the name for a psychological condition. “Men who receive good when they expect evil,” Machiavelli wrote, “commit themselves all the more to their benefactor.” When he wrote that line in the early sixteenth century, the novel, of course, did not yet exist as a genre. I’m inclined to imagine, though, that if he’d been born a century later, he might well have said the same thing about Don Quixote.
The Drawing Center in New York recently mounted a show called “Day Job” that neatly upended the timeless lament of every struggling writer, artist and musician – My day job is robbing me of the time to do my REAL work! In a clever, counter-intuitive twist, the curator of the show asked a dozen artists to produce a work that illustrated how their day jobs enrich their art. There were intriguing contributions from artists who pay the rent by working as a landscape architect, a medical illustrator, a set designer, an art installer, a museum guard. One work in particular jumped out at me. It was a collage called “Substantially Similar? (after Koons 2010),” [above] composed of 36 rectangular panels, each contributed by a different artist and then assembled by the artist who conceived the piece, Alfred Steiner. The result was an instantly recognizable riff on Jeff Koons’s “Popeye” series – an appropriation from an appropriator who has made headlines in several highly publicized copyright cases. A note beside “Substantially Similar?” left no doubt about its creator’s stance on the passionate arguments for and against copyright laws: “By engaging these issues, the project may also suggest how copyright antagonizes artistic freedom while providing artists no discernible benefit.”
Alfred Steiner is a 37-year-old Ohio native who grew up believing he was going to be an artist, then wound up attending Harvard Law School. Today he paints, draws and produces conceptual pieces – when he isn’t practicing copyright law for a large Manhattan law firm. We sat down together at a cafe near his home recently and talked about how copyright law – for better and for worse – affects the books, art, music and journalism of Jonathan Lethem, Jeff Koons, Jay-Z, the New York Times and the Pittsburgh mash-up D.J. Gregg Gillis, better known as Girl Talk.
The Millions: I was wondering how to describe you to our readers. Is this guy a copyright lawyer who happens to be an artist, or is he an artist who happens to be a copyright lawyer? Or both? Or neither?
Alfred Steiner: I spend the majority of my time on the art part. But the law is an important part of my life, and it’s certainly how I make a living. But I view the art as what I’m most interested in doing.
TM: So you’re an artist who happens to be a copyright lawyer.
AS: Yeah, if I had to choose.
TM: Let’s start with your piece at the Drawing Center. Where did the idea come from?
AS: Well, there was a call from the Drawing Center for proposals about how your day job related to your work. It could be antagonistic, it could be complimentary. So I was thinking about how my artwork relates to my day job, and how I might raise certain issues related to intellectual-property law and copyright law.
TM: So you commissioned other artists to do pieces of the work? Tell me about that.
AS: Essentially, I wanted to select a work that fulfilled a number of criteria. One of which was, when it was broken into many pieces, few if any of the pieces would be recognizable. And I wanted to pick a work by somebody that would have some significance in terms of contemporary art and copyright, which is why I selected Jeff Koons. He’s used all sorts of things – Odie from “Garfield,” the Pink Panther – and in this case he was using Popeye. While I was working on this, I learned that Popeye is no longer under copyright in Europe, but he is the United States for a few more years. Which is another interesting twist that was serendipitous.
TM: So you got different artists to contribute patches, which you patched together?
AS: Right. I took an electronic version of the Koons original and divided it up into 36 pieces and sent each artist just one little piece, via e-mail, so they wouldn’t recognize the whole thing. I gave them instructions on how to create an image based on the image that I’d e-mailed them. The only other instructions were a very close paraphrase of the 2nd Circuit’s test for copyright infringement – which is, “would a reasonable person regard the two works’ esthetic impact as the same?”
TM: In other words, would a layman recognize these two works as being the same thing?
TM: So the contributors didn’t know what they were reproducing?
TM: And the result was a piece that looked vaguely like Koons, but was different.
AS: It had the essence of the original but was clearly a new work.
TM: In your note at the show you mentioned that copyright antagonizes artistic freedom while providing artists no discernible benefit. Tell me what you mean by that.
AS: Well, the point is that as an artist your livelihood, in general, depends on your sale of unique objects, or small editions of objects. So copyright is not as important to you as it is to a musical artist…
TM: Or a writer.
AS: Exactly. Because contemporary artists don’t sell millions of copies. The fact is in the art world when one artist copies another artist, it only helps the artist being copied because the more people who imitate you or are influenced by you – the more that happens, the more it shows you’re part of the ongoing story.
TM: Let’s talk about writers. In his essay in Harper’s, “The Ecstasy of Influence,” Jonathan Lethem wrote that copyright isn’t a right but a “government-granted monopoly on the use of creative results.” Would you agree with that?
AS: Yes, I would agree with that. The Constitution allows Congress to protect the works of authors for limited periods of time in order to promote creative work.
TM: But Lethem’s point is that the Founders thought works should be protected a short amount of time, maybe 14 years or so. Now it’s the lifetime of the author, plus 70 years. He thinks that’s a terrible idea for writers, and for writing, and for books. Do you agree?
AS: My sense is that life plus 70 years is too long. It doesn’t need to be that long to fulfill the purpose. You could argue that one interesting analog is fashion. There’s no intellectual-property protection for fashion, but I don’t think anyone would argue that fashion lacks for innovation. So, do we really need to protect the author for his entire lifetime plus 70 years to encourage innovation? I don’t think so.
TM: You know, William Gibson has this famous quote – “All information wants to be free.” It’s a good sound bite, but is it true?
AS: Well, for me there are two strains to that. One is that information is inherently hard to contain, but people are curious, they want information, they historically have wanted to know the truth, not necessarily with a capital T. So when you try to control information, you’re running an uphill battle.
TM: Now we’re talking about WikiLeaks. But getting back to books – information might want to be free, but if you flip that over, don’t people who write books and create works of art have a certain right to be remunerated for their creative effort?
AS: I think there’s a scale. Let’s say all 50 states had different copyright laws. You could imagine a state where it was extremely restrictive and you couldn’t copy anything. What would the products of that state look like compared to a state that was laissez faire and you could do whatever you want? To me that’s an interesting question: where should the bar be set? I think you’d have enforcement problems in the very strict state. And if you had very powerful media players who controlled everything, you wouldn’t have YouTube with the millions of things that are on there, many or most of which are probably infringing someone’s copyright. You would have fewer viewpoints expressed, and I think that’s detrimental. The more things that get created, the more viewpoints and opinions will be expressed, and that’s better for a democracy.
TM: You’re talking not just about graphic art, but about writing, music.
AS: I’m talking about all creative endeavors but I was thinking primarily about writing.
TM: Where do you think copyright is going in America right now? Is it becoming more porous, more loose, more free? Or is it going in the opposite direction? I’m thinking about the $125 million Google settlement, paying authors for the right to digitize their books.
AS: The Google settlement is an interesting case because they think if a project is interesting, they’ll go ahead and do it even if there are intellectual-property problems – then deal with those later. But I think information is becoming much easier to distribute and, as a result of that, copyright laws are tightening in a sense, to try to deal with that ease of distribution and allow creators to recoup the investment they make in producing this stuff. This becomes even more important when you’re creating, say, an encyclopedia, something that requires the collective effort of lots of people, and a lot of coordination, and a big budget to produce. Those things will never be produced if somebody can immediately make a million copies and not have to pay whoever produced it. That applies even more so in the context of film, where you have budgets routinely north of a hundred million dollars. Who’s going to invest in that if everybody can download a copy with no fear of prosecution?
AS: Yeah, “Jay-Z is not a Proudhon of Hip-Hop.” (laughs)
TM: In that essay, I mentioned the young German writer Helene Hegemann, who copied passages of her novel, Axolotl Roadkill, from other sources – websites, other novels – and a lot of people in Germany said, “That’s okay. It’s a novel about Berlin club kids, that’s the culture it’s about, and it’s an expression of that culture.” She was up for a big literary prize and they let her continue to compete for the prize even after the plagiarism became known. I thought that was a little bit shocking – for people to say that since it’s a novel about people sampling in clubs in Berlin, then the writer has the right to sample from other writers and that’s a legitimate form of artistic expression. I think that’s stretching it.
AS: I tend to agree with you. Just because you’re writing about how people are sampling, or taking from other sources, that doesn’t allow you to plagiarize or copy without providing either attribution or some sort of remuneration. It depends. If she’s taking a sentence here or there from hundreds of different places, that’s one thing. The other thing I would say – and this is the tougher question – if she’s copying a couple of pages here or there, in the context of a 400-page novel, that’s not that much. And if what she has created with this novel is startlingly new or interesting, I think it would be sad to say she can’t distribute this thing that is great and that everybody would benefit from. One other thing I would mention in that context – have you ever heard of Girl Talk?
TM: Sure, the D.J. from Pittsburgh.
AS: He’ll make songs that are totally based on samples. One song may have 200 samples, so many that there’s no way you could pay each artist. He’s very well received critically. The question is, should it be possible to make that kind of work or not? I kind of think, yes, it should be possible.
TM: What Girl Talk is doing is very similar, to me, to what William S. Burroughs did – and that’s very different from what Helene Hegemann did. Burroughs said, “I’m going to take a pair of scissors and cut up hundreds of books and newspapers and magazines, then scramble it around and put it back together to recreate a certain state of mind.” That was his “cut-up” technique – and that’s very much what Girl Talk is doing. They both say, “This is our intent and this is our method.” And it’s transparent. When someone takes a huge passage from someone else’s book and then says, “That’s what I was trying to do,” I say that’s bullshit.
AS: I tend to agree with you. If you go to my website and look at my works, when I borrow something it’s obvious, it’s transparent. I have these drawings that are based on characters from The Simpsons. They’re not merely copies, but anybody who’s familiar with American pop culture will recognize where they’re from. I’m not trying to hide it. Or if I’m basing something on a work by another artist, I’ll say “after Koons.” Going back to that novelist in Germany, if she’s got footnotes and everything’s attributed to whomever it came from, then I think it’s a lot harder to criticize her for it.
TM: I would go with that, but there were no footnotes. I’m not against people using other people’s things; I’m against them not admitting that they’re using them and then saying, as Hegemann said, that “there’s no such thing as originality, there’s only authenticity.”
AS: I agree. I think you and I are on the same page on this. If you challenge most people about their beliefs on this, I think you’ll get them to agree that there needs to be some way for people to get paid and to have confidence that other people are not going to be out there using their work in a way that harms their financial interest.
TM: To sum up, do you think that protection is going to be around forever? Let’s face it, the way things are changing right now with the digitization of so much information – entire libraries – it’s an unknown where we’re going. Where do you think it’s heading?
AS: There’s actually a book by a colleague of mine named Paul Goldstein, and its task is to make that prediction. I think copyright protection is likely to continue indefinitely, and I think it will become even more important in a world that becomes increasingly intangible, where people’s lives are less about walking down the street getting hit by a rock and more about watching a screen or looking at their Twitter feed. That stuff is going to become more and more valuable and there’s going to be more and more spent to protect it. And technology is going to be very important here. Most consumers are going to be at a point where it’s cheap enough and it just makes life easier to pay the toll that media people put there.
TM: Speaking of tolls, the New York Times just announced that it’s going to start charging for its web content, but it’ll be free for print subscribers. Do you think people will pay the toll?
AS: In that case, maybe no. With news, people just want news, and the source doesn’t tend to matter. People may just go to Google News and get it for free. With music and literature, the source is much more important. If you want to read a James Patterson novel, you’re not going to download Moby-Dick just because it’s free. And there are always going to be people who steal, who don’t mind the possibility that they’re going to get a virus from downloading some file. I think it’s going to be a race between these pirates and the people trying to control it.
I have a feeling I owe the US contract for my third novel to Herman Melville.
Call me a lucky bastard.
Galore opens in the mists of early European settlement in Newfoundland when a group of starving fishermen butcher a beached whale and discover a man in the creature’s belly. The man is alive—pale, mute and stinking to high heaven—but alive. And the book gets a little nuttier from there.
Even those publishers who liked the novel saw little upside in terms of marketing and sales, and it was hard to argue with their reservations when they passed. I had almost given up on publishing in the States when Galore found its way to a young editor at Other Press who forced everyone in-house to read and, at the very least pretend, to love it. She’s been out there ever since, like some Ancient Mariner, haranguing strangers with the bizarre story, God bless her.
Her admiration for the book made me actively wish to never disappoint her. But in a discussion with my publicist about feuds in literature (there’s plenty of that in Galore as well), I innocently admitted I had never cracked the cover of Moby-Dick. News travelled. My editor wrote to let me know she is a Melville devotee. A hardcore devotee.
Apparently being from New Hampshire goes some way to explaining this. Regardless, I had clearly dropped a notch or two in her estimation.
“I’ve read ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’,” I wrote back. “Isn’t that enough Melville?”
If it’s possible to give an “are-you-fucking-kidding-me?” look over email, she gave me that look. And I was forced to stand behind the shabby little bulwark erected to protect myself from the raging sea of classics I’ve ignored over the years. “I don’t read anything longer than five hundred pages,” I said. “Life’s too short.”
Just before Christmas a package arrived containing what I imagine is the only extant edition of Melville’s leviathan that—excluding preface, reviews, letters, commentaries, and scholarly articles—comes in shy of five hundred pages. The tiny print like lines of black pepper ground over a white sauce. It made my eyes water just to look at it. But I felt I owed her a literary debt, and I waded in.
Unlike Melville’s cetaceans, the whale in Galore doesn’t occupy much fictional real estate. It gets barely a mention through the generations that follow that opening scene, before reappearing on the last page where it acts as a kind of folkloric talisman to bring the book full circle. There’s nothing like a whale—that “portentous and mysterious monster,” as Ishmael calls it—to bring something full circle.
From June to mid-August, the ocean off Newfoundland’s east coast is teeming with whales on the northern end of their annual migration between Labrador and the Caribbean. Humpbacks are the most common, arriving in the hundreds to feed on schools of herring and capelin and making a spectacle of themselves in the process. Whale-watching excursions on the Avalon Peninsula’s southern shore are packed with tourists willing to pay to take it in—the whales steaming in pairs, or in pods of half a dozen and more, raising their massive flukes lazily as they sound into deeper dives, lolling within arms’ length of the boats, the white undersides of their flippers showing pale-green through the water. People watching with a giddy, almost religious wonder, as if they’d been granted a vision of the Virgin Mary or an audience with the Dalai Lama.
By virtue of their size and antediluvian appearance, their murky origins and occult habits (90% of their lives is spent underwater), whales have been freighted with more than their share of creaturely hagiography. The whale has always borne some imaginative connection to the “unspeakable foundations, ribs, and very pelvis of the world,” from the Biblical Jonah to indigenous creation stories, from East African myth to deification among peoples in southeast Asia. Their hold on us seems as strong today as it was on Ishmael himself, in that urge to “grope down into the bottom of the sea after them.”
My father and I took some friends on one of those excursions twenty years ago, sailing out of Bay Bulls just south of St. John’s. It was late afternoon and the whales were at their most active, chasing the boat, rolling to slap their flippers on the surface, breaching their full sixty foot length into the air before falling back in a spray of foam. Their size made everything they did appear to unfold in slow-motion, as if the physical laws of the universe were altered slightly by their sheer bulk. They arched under the keel of the boat, passing beneath our feet with an unhurried, implausible grace. Dad grew up on the ocean and whales were no novelty to him, but even he was visibly moved to be so intimately in their company.
Ostensibly Moby-Dick is a defence of the ancient and “heroic” whaling industry. But the strongest sense it left with me is one I recognize from my own limited experience with whales: how a visit to that other “and still stranger world” of these unlikely creatures makes your own existence seem a more singular and fragile and magical thing. Ishmael’s meditations on the transcendent wonders of the whale read like a nascent call to arms for the modern environmental movement. And they seem completely antithetical to his equally deft descriptions of the slaughter and butchering at the heart of the Pequod’s voyage. But in Melville, reverence and barbarism sail hand in hand.
The 20th century came late to Newfoundland. The communities my parents knew during the 1930s and 40s would not have been out of place in mid-19th century New England. Until a single generation ago, outport Newfoundland was an Old Testament landscape in the same way that Moby-Dick is an Old Testament novel: full of the “heartless voids and immensities of the universe” which underline the Biblical assertion that “As for man, his days are as grass.”
As a youngster, my father visited a whaling station on his way to the Labrador cod fishery, and he sometimes spoke of the enormous warehouse where the whales were rendered, the insufferable stink of the place. The way sheets of blubber were ripped off the carcass with a block and tackle, as if they were pulling up sections of old carpet from a floor. My mother remembers a time when schools of pothead whales were herded out of the open sea by men in dories, banging pots and pans over the surface to drive the whales into a cove’s shallow water where they were slaughtered en masse. My parents grew up without the luxury of sentimentality and they never expressed shame in talking about these things. At most I sensed a shy self-consciousness in them, to admit they were born in a time when decent people embraced barbaric practices. Willingly and enthusiastically.
The same paradox see-saws through the length and breadth of Melville’s novel—a sense of the mystery and sanctity of life hard alongside a zealous destruction of the most mysterious, most wondrous of creation’s mortal creatures.
The starving settlers in Galore have no idea how to go about killing the beached whale they find in the opening pages. They drive a stake that sets it bleeding steadily and they decide to wait then while it expires, before rendering the animal for food and oil. Collectively, they have a sense that to do otherwise would be a desecration of what they see as an unexpected and Providential gift. That savage contradiction lay at the heart of life in Newfoundland for three hundred years or more.
I was innocent of this connection while I was writing, of course. But in hindsight it makes sense that a Melville aficionado might take note of Moby-Dick’s internal schizophrenia in parts of Galore and consequently see some value in the novel beyond questions of marketing upsides and potential sales.
I was just lucky enough to find one.
(Image: Humpback Whale, Megaptera novaeangliae 29 July 2010 from mikebaird’s photostream)
Both are comic-realist novels about recent history, family stories and love stories with subplots about technology and the environment. Both are ambitious books that attempt to examine the struggles of contemporary America, and both writers model their novels on great 19th Century realist fiction. While Franzen invokes Tolstoy, Goodman (without ever announcing it) structures her book loosely around Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.
Both books are concerned with authenticity, and both books’ protagonists are obsessed with environmental preservation. In Freedom, Walter Berglund wants to protect songbirds. In The Cookbook Collector, Jessamine Bach wants to save redwood trees. In both, the main character’s environmentalism is posed against a second major character’s struggle with aesthetics and materialism. Both Freedom’s Richard Katz (a musician) and The Cookbook Collector’s George Friedman (an antiquarian) make long speeches about the commodification of beauty. And in both books, there’s a subplot concerning a dickish and acquisitive young man, aggressive and faux-heroic, who gets into some morally disreputable W. Bush-related business by going after money: in Freedom it’s war profiteering and contracting, in The Cookbook Collector it’s Internet invasion of privacy and eventually government surveillance. As Freedom gets much of its ripped-from-the-headlines feel from subplots about the Iraq war, so The Cookbook Collector with the boom and bust of the Internet era.
Both are loose, baggy novels that move from character to character and year to year, with great big imaginative sweeps. Both books center around a family (the Berglunds, the Bachs), both books climax with a love triangle and a trip to a place of environmental crisis, and conclude with a violent death and the consolation of marriage. Both novels have big canvases that the writers attack with comic gusto. (The Cookbook Collector moves from boardrooms in Boston to communal houses in Berkeley; it makes you cry about 9/11 and makes you think about David Hume and culinary history.) Both novels are really books about value, both material and moral. These are serious books that question value in American life in light of the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the Iraq war.
Both are addictive reading. I couldn’t put either one down. And both books were well received. Reviewers really liked The Cookbook Collector. They marveled at its intelligence and grace. It was called “a feast of love;” critics said that Goodman “makes us care,” and that her books was “enchanting and sensuous,” and “flush with warmth and color.” Critics were somewhat more divided over Freedom, but those who liked it liked it a lot: “A masterpiece of American fiction,” said Sam Tanenhaus in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, “an indelible portrait of our times,” said Michiko Kakutani in the daily. And this difference in response mimicked the gap between the two books’ pre-publication hype. Franzen’s was sold as “The Great American Novel” (that’s what Esquire called it), while The Cookbook Collector was (I guess) just another good book by Allegra Goodman.
Why such a big gap?
I’m sure that a lot of the hype probably has to do with vagaries of the publishing marketplace, mysterious stuff that I can’t speak to. (Like, how’d they get Obama to buy it?) A lot of the gap in expectations also has to do with the relative success of the authors’ previous books—on the one hand, there was that long wait after Franzen’s mega big hit The Corrections, on the other, a shorter wait after Goodman’s well-regarded Intuition. (I, for one, sort of expect that every few years Allegra Goodman will give me another terrific novel to read.) I’m sure part of the wide gap in response has to do with the genders of the authors. It’s as impossible to imagine Goodman on the cover of Time magazine as it is impossible to imagine Jonathan Franzen getting called “warm and sensuous.” (There’s a subtext to the praise of The Cookbook Collector that I quoted above, and it’s: Allegra writes like a girl.) But the difference also is in the books themselves, in the way they approach their readers and their subjects. As a hundred critics before me have argued, Franzen’s book swaggered out and demanded the response it achieved. Its title, its 561 pages, and its sweep boldly proclaimed it a Major Novel and critics had to deal with this claim to Majorness. If you didn’t compare it to The Great Gatsby or Moby-Dick, that was almost a diss.
Freedom got more negative press than did The Cookbook Collector, but that hardly means it’s a weaker book: it just got more press period, and probably much of the nastier criticism was just counterreaction to all the noise around the novel’s release. But the book was part of that noise. Freedom is a terrific performance, but it also sometimes feels like a guy at a dinner party who’s talking very, very loudly. It mentions War and Peace so many times you’d have to be a dolt not to get the Tolstoyan ambitions. And some of the book’s weaknesses are part of its terrible roar. As Charles Baxter wrote in The New York Review of Books, “Freedom’s ambition is to be the sort of novel that sums up an age and that gets everything into it, a heroic and desperate project. The author all but comes out and says so.” And Franzen’s characters’ actions are sometimes presented with such broad irony that they better serve his point than his plot. As a result the characters can seem dimwitted; as Baxter put it, “almost every reader of Freedom will be more worldly than its protagonist and will have anticipated several of its key moments many pages before they arrive.”
Meanwhile, for all its sweep and ambition, The Cookbook Collector comes on quite modestly. As Ron Charles said in The Washington Post: “Goodman is a fantastically fluid writer, and yet for all her skill, she’s a humble, transparent one who stays out of the way, never drawing attention to her style or cleverness.” Goodman’s gaze is always on her subjects, and she handles her big themes lightly, submerging them in the lives of the books’ characters. The Cookbook Collector’s literary elegance is part of what made the book invisible to a broad public, while Franzen’s roaring crassness is part of what made his book such a smash. He’s just a lot louder than she is.
Which is not to say there aren’t lots of ways in which I prefer Franzen to Goodman. He’s much more interested in the dark side of life than she is. He writes with sympathy and intelligence about addictions and failed marriages, career failures, and failures in raising children—almost everyone in Freedom is some kind of anxious wreck. Meanwhile The Cookbook Collector has a pretty uniformly well-adjusted, privileged cast (that’s what you get for following Jane Austen, the lives of the smartest rich girls in the county), most of whom are either making a mint in computers or are enjoying tenure at MIT. The exception is Goodman’s heroine, Jessamine, the family flake, a confused grad student at Berkeley (egads!), but by the time the novel is done she’s found love, money, and has embarked on a promising academic career.
When people have sex in Freedom, heads bang on walls. In The Cookbook Collector it’s a finger on the chest and then fade out. (Goodman does write a very sexy scene of a girl eating a peach.) There are gorgeous flights of imagination in The Cookbook Collector—like the scene where George stumbles upon the collection of its title, 17th Century manuscripts stored in the cabinets and ovens of a musty Bay Area kitchen:
For a moment, he thought she was searching for the iodine, and then he saw them. Leather-bound, cloth-bound, quartos and folios, books of every size. The cabinets were stocked with books. Not a dish or cup in sight. Only books. Sandra bent and opened the lower cabinets. Not a single pot or pan. Just books. She stood on a chair to reach the cabinet above the refrigerator. Books there as well.
George stepped away from the sink without noticing that he had left the water running. Injury forgotten, he gazed in awe. He leaned against the counter and stared at bindings of hooped leather, red morocco, black and gold. Sandra opened a drawer and there lay Le Livre de Cuisine. She opened the drawer below and took out The Accomplisht Cook: or, The Art and Mystery of Cookery. He opened the book at random: Section XIII: The First Section for dressing of fish, Shewing divers ways, and the most excellent, for dressing Carps, either Boiled, Stewed, Broiled, Roasted, or Baked, &c. He had never tried to roast a carp.
But there’s nothing in The Cookbook Collector like the scene in Freedom where a young adulterous husband digs through his own shit for the wedding ring he has swallowed:
He knelt on the cool floor and peered into the bowl at the four large turds afloat in it, hoping to see the glint of gold immediately. The oldest turd was dark and firm and noduled, the ones from deeper inside him were paler and already dissolving a little. Although he, like all people, secretly enjoyed the smell of his own farts, the smell of his shit was something else. It was so bad as to seem evil in a moral way. He poked one of the softer turds with a fork, trying to rotate it and examine its underside, but it bent and began to crumble, clouding the water brown, and he saw that this business of the fork had been a wishful fantasy. The water would soon be too turbid to see a ring through, and if the ring broke free of its enveloping matter it would sink to the bottom and possibly go down the drain. He had no choice but to lift out each turd and run it through fingers, and he had to do this quickly, before things got too waterlogged. Holding his breath, his eyes watering furiously, he grasped the most promising turd and let go of his most recent fantasy, which was that one hand would suffice. He had to use both hands, one to hold the shit, and the other to pick through it. He retched once, drily, and got to work, pushing his fingers into the soft and body-warm and surprisingly lightweight log of excrement.
Goodman glides through her fiction, while with Franzen, it’s always a triple lutz with a camel. When Jessamine Bach joins an environmental group it’s the prosaically named Save the Trees, and like a real environmentalist, she sits in a treetop canopy to preserve the redwood from loggers. (That scene in the redwood is beautifully turned.) When Walter Berglund starts an environmental group, it’s called the Cerulean Warbler Mountain Trust, and Walter’s got a scheme wherein he’ll give over some pristine wilderness to a coal company and then after they’ve removed the mountaintops and fouled the groundwater, he’ll replant the place as a songbird preserve.
Franzen has written a lot about his break from difficult, satiric post-modernism. In his essay “Mr. Difficult,” he pronounced his split from his one-time hero William Gaddis. He doesn’t want to write really, really hard intellectual books anymore. Thing is, Franzen’s over-the-top satire and his pressing of his characters’ faces into humiliation and into the meaningless void—these things really do derive in Franzen from Gaddis, from a dire, post-Beckett aesthetic. Part of what makes Franzen so exciting to his admirers and so frustrating to his critics is his attempt to wed whacked-out and dark postmodern irony to sympathetic humanist realism. And in this unlikely marriage problems do arise. In a crazy-ass postmodern spoof, you can have a character dig through his shit or have an environmentalist join up with a coal company, and this can be part of the cold icy whacky comic mayhem (like in Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own, a novel about a set of interrelated lawsuits, where the cars are called Isuyu and Sosume). But in a realist novel, this kind of irony can shade into something ugly, can make characters seem plastic and thin and (as Charles Baxter argued) a little stupid. Franzen’s willingness to abase his characters often reads as if he holds them in contempt.
Part of the difference in reception of the novels might actually have something to do with the two books’ Jewishness—and here we come to another one of the weird parallels between the books. Both of these are very Jewish novels, and their subplots about Jewishness mirror each other. In both books, mothers hide their Jewishness from their children, children discover their secret family histories, and these discoveries of secret histories coincide with violent global convulsions.
In Freedom, Patty Berglund, Walter’s wife, keeps her Jewish identity a secret from her kids, and her son Joey (the one who digs through his own shit, the one who gets mixed up in phony arms deals in the Iraq war) discovers his Jewishness late in the novel. After he makes this discovery of his identity, Joey gets involved with in a scary Jewish family—one that might be modeled on the Kristols or the Wolfowitzes, rich Jews whose interest in Joey’s Jewishness is almost as creepy as their interest in right wing politics, Jews who distribute false information that leads to war.
In The Cookbook Collector, Jessamine and Emily Bach’s mother is dead, but her Jewishness is similarly locked away from them, kept hidden from the girls by their father. They both learn about their Jewishness at a post-9/11 memorial service—the Bach sisters are related not to assimilated or political Jews, but to Hassidic Jews, in fact to the Bialostoker Rebbe himself. Goodman’s treatment of Jewishness has a completely different purpose than does Franzen’s. For Franzen, Jewishness marks another opportunity to explore self-loathing and to memorialize the times—here, to skewer neo-conservatives. In The Cookbook Collector, the presence of Jews—of rabbis—allows the novel to contemplate value in a whole new light. Religious value is a central value for Goodman, and one that underpins the whole of her work. In this book, it is contemplated alongside other human values—material, aesthetic, filial, and romantic. And all of these things, in Goodman’s eyes, have worth.
Twenty years ago, David Foster Wallace wrote an essay called “E Unibus Plurum: Television and U.S. Fiction,” in which he worried that the irony of his favorite post-moderns (Pynchon, Delillo, Gaddis, Barth) had been co-opted in his generation of post-modernists’ lives by television, in particular leering, cynical “I know this is just an ad” kind of TV ads. Wallace worried that his generation of post-modernists had fallen into a trap, a reflexive, cold irony he called “televisual,” and he described this irony’s gaze as “the girl who’s dancing with you but who would rather be dancing with someone else.” Allegra Goodman, of course, is in no danger of falling into this trap. At the end of The Cookbook Collector, Jessamine Bach’s newly discovered uncle, Rabbi Helfgott, presides over her and George Friedman’s marriage, and it’s clear that the book believes in God and in love, and that Goodman’s fiction exists in a stable, meaningful, social world. Her subtle literary ironies are of a piece with this large-hearted view.
Meanwhile Franzen’s novel—his whole career, really—is a struggle with this postmodern ironical trap, a struggle to inhabit it and get out of it, to be humane and to be ironic. At the end of Freedom, when the Berglunds, Walter and Patty, huddle together after 500-plus pages of humiliations, affairs, failures, and addictions, and in the ruins of their marriage find some comfort from the horrid world all around—well, it’s proof (if proof was ever needed) of Franzen’s extraordinary gifts. This final section succeeds movingly.
But he never can quite turn it off, and you feel it, the televisual irony, all throughout the course of Freedom. Franzen is dancing with you, sure, and with Walter and Patty as well, and his moves are wild and Tony Manero dazzling—but he’s not wholeheartedly on the floor with his partners. Allegra Goodman loves her characters—they absorb her attention as if she could wish for nothing more, and she offers them intimately to her readers, so much so that the author herself all but vanishes. Franzen’s characters meanwhile exist somewhere beneath the glory of his prose. His book is not so much addressed to the intimate reader, it’s addressed to the judges and the crowds. His characters are anxious, but he is supremely confident. He has managed to shuck the difficulties of postmodern fiction while retaining much of its cool and distant pose.
David Foster Wallace had lots of moral and aesthetic problems with televisual irony—he ends that essay about it with an interesting call for earnestness—but he also noted how well it sells. Half a year after its release, The Cookbook Collector, full of earnestness and love, is between hardcover and paperback editions, and it’s hard to find at your local bookstore. Meanwhile, cool and calculating Freedom sits high on the bestseller list, alone among its literary contemporaries. That’s some kind of triumph.
The greatest reading pleasure I’ve had this past year has been discovering the novels of Theodore Fontane (1819-1899), which are so sparkling, polished, tender, sympathetic, delicately ironic and psychologically astute that it is a wonder they are not better known by American readers. Considered the most important German novelist between Goethe and Mann, Fontane was also the first European German novelist: he turned German fiction away from its folkloric, mythological and toward the novel of society, rooted in a particular historic period and alert to its manners and hierarchical/class tensions. What makes these books delightful, for me, is their worldly, tolerant understanding of human frailty: the author’s refusal to condemn, preach morality or be shocked by his characters’ infidelities and errors, side by side with his rigorous honesty about their self-deceptions. He was able to see both sides of every question, and to keep his sense of humor while doing so. His most famous novel is Effi Briest, a gem, but I also love Irretrievable (also called Beyond Recall), which NYRB Classics is reprinting, and some of his others are excellent as well: The Woman Taken in Adultery, The Poggenpuhl Family, Delusions, Confusions, and his two longer novels, Before the Storm and The Stechlin.
I also had a great time reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Selected Journals, 1,800 pages divided into two volumes, and published by the Library of America. This fabulous opus, the Moby Dick of nineteenth century U.S. nonfiction, heretofore known mainly to scholars, brings us deeper into the mind of a great American writer than any other work I know. You get to see Emerson’s hesitations, conflicts, formation of ideas, responses to the daily pressures of family life and nutty friends, and he comes off very humanly, warmly–in any case, much more accessibly than in his compact, daunting Essays.
Finally, on an entirely different note, I want to recommend Jonathan Soffer’s Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City. This fascinating, entertainingly written and illuminating book, the best piece of contemporary urban history I’ve read in a long time, is a marvel of even-handedness and balance. It has forced me to rethink Koch and what it means to be progressive and pro-urban in a neo-liberal era.
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Toward the end of his life, John Updike was fond of musing about how little the world would note his passing. He suspected that “a shrug and tearless eyes / will greet my overdue demise; / The wide response will be, I know, / ‘I thought he died a while ago.’”
The John Updike Society, which held its first conference last month, is dedicated to proving the author wrong. The event, held near Updike’s hometown of Shillington, Pennsylvania, started the society’s work of sustaining and growing a literary reputation. The weekend included academic readings, panels of friends and family, and tours of the author’s two boyhood homes and the environs of Shillington and Reading where much of his fiction was set. The mission of the Society — along with creating opportunities to enjoy the fellowship of Updike devotees – is “awakening and sustaining reader interest in the literature and life of John Updike.”
No detail was too small for discussion. Attendees wanted to know if Updike did the dishes at home, whether he liked Sinatra, if he was handy around the house. On bus tours, attendees pondered the department store where his mother worked, the restaurant where he’d lunched as teenager, the old movie theater featured in his non-fiction.
Much of the attendees’ interest, understandably, focused on discovering if their idol was indeed the man they knew.
During the testimony of family and friends, Updike held up pretty well. He was described by classmates as bookish, popular and enduringly responsive; by his children as a present if occasionally distracted father; and by his first wife Mary Weatherall as an author who valued his spouse’s opinion. There were a couple of surprises – he might not have written as many words each day as he claimed and according to his children, he inexplicably struggled to connect with his father, Wesley, a man Updike’s children seemed to adore.
Then of course there were the conference papers, all intended to continue the critical discussion that will be so important to sustaining the Updike reputation long-term.
“Can an author survive without authorial champions?” Society President James Plath asked when I interviewed him after the conference. “I don’t think so.”
The evidence supports his claim. In one of his last interviews, in October 2008, Updike cited the curious case of Emily Dickinson, who was not well known upon her death and who required the help of critics decades down the road to lift her to her current place in the canon. “There is a whole raft of poets contemporary with Emily Dickinson,” Updike said. “None of them would have imagined that she would have become one of the defining names of American letters.”
The most famous of the exhumed luminaries — the example often cited to convey the cruelties of literary reputation — is Herman Melville, who died at age 72 in relative anonymity after several literary disappointments and 19 years working in a customs house. His obituary in 1891 in the New York Times looked, in its entirety, like this:
Herman Melville died yesterday at his residence, 104 East 26th Street, this city, or heart disease, aged seventy-two. He was the writer of Typee, Omoo, Mobie Dick, and other sea-faring tales, written in earlier years. He leaves a wife and two daughters, Mrs. M. B. Thomas and Miss Melville.
Bummer. Melville apparently was the deceased writer Updike worried he would become — dead before he‘d died.
It took 30 years for what is now called the Melville Revival to commence and for Melville to ascend to his rightful place in the American canon. This was accomplished by the only people capable of doing it — scholars, historians, writers, publishers. In Melville’s case, it was biographers Raymond Weaver and Carl Van Doren and author and critic D.H. Lawrence. Without them, Melville’s historical significance might have diminished beyond even the four lines devoted to him in the Times obituary.
Updike seemed to understand as much. In that late 2008 interview, he said literary reputations are “strange things,” left often to the whims and tastes of future generations. He noted that 19th century readers were often concerned with order, meter, and plots in which good triumphs over evil – qualities less important to today’s modern and postmodern readers. He lauded Norman Mailer for not pushing too hard in his lifetime on behalf of his literary reputation, since it was an issue largely beyond his control.
Society President Plath, of course, likes Updike’s odds. He suspects future scholars will be wondrous of Updike’s capacity with metaphor, happy to find his descriptions of sex, thrilled at the number of other texts that Updike works off of in his oeuvre — including three novels written in homage to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. “I think he’s in pretty good shape,” Plath says.
Updike’s sometimes editor at the New Yorker, Charles McGrath, also liked Updike’s odds of enduring. During that late interview with Updike, he said, “If those of us in this room had to bet who would last, you’d put your money on Bellow, Updike, and Roth.”
And yet Updike knew even he could be forgotten. There was the fear, very real, Updike thought, that reading of any kind might wither away, as well as the possibility that future generations will not be concerned with the perspective of a white, middle-class male from the Mid-Atlantic region who wrote primarily in a realistic mode. He said:
These piles of books that all of us writer are piling up [could] become just as burdensome as Latin writing in the Renaissance. There was a lot of that, and who reads it now except a few scholars? So, yes, it’s not something you should stay awake at night about, you should, my theory is, do your best, try to be honest, in your work, and amusing…. Beyond that it is out of your control
And, on a weekend devoted to John Updike, there were signs of the struggle to endure any author faces. His children, though admiring and laudatory of their father’s work, admitted to not always getting through it – daughter Miranda has tried to read Couples a few times. Daughter Elizabeth Cobblah said her father had decades ago suggested she read his African novel, The Coup, in anticipation of her marrying a man from Ghana. She hasn’t yet gotten around to it, but she plans to.
Trouble also lurked in the center of the Updike universe, the Shillington house where he grew up, and which he lovingly described in short stories, novels, and his memoirs, Self-Consciousness. The house is now occupied by the advertising agency Niemczyk/Hoffman, whose employees graciously allowed the Society members to tour their offices. In one room, formerly the guest bedroom where Updike watched his mother write fiction, the agency’s principal, Tracy Hoffman, was asked by a Society member if he read Updike.
“I’ve tried, but the descriptions …” Hoffman said, his voice trailing off, suggesting the descriptions were … um … too much.
“Have you tried Pigeon Feathers?” the Society member asked.
“I did,” Hoffman said, wincing.
In his memoirs, Updike said, that one of his great lifetime joys was watching the world going on without him, “ the awareness of things going by, impinging on my consciousness, and then, all beyond my control, sliding away toward their own destination and destiny.”
In that respect, too, Updike might have been gratified by this first weekend held in his honor – the world, as he suspected, will continue to roll on happily both with and without him.
My appetite for fiction comes and goes and recently it’s been hard to find. It’s no coincidence that during this period in which my bookmark has not moved from page 87 of Emma I’ve been feeling a little like Ishmael at the beginning of Moby-Dick, possessed of the urge to step into the street and begin knocking people’s top hats off. I have a hard time enjoying fictional characters when I’m feeling dreary towards the people who inhabit my real life. When I think about these recent months, and other times in my life when fiction has held less appeal, it occurs to me that a yen for fiction is something like my canary in the coal mine, an early indication, when it’s ebbs, that something else is wrong.
Over dinner the other night I asked my wife Caroline to describe what moods, for her, correlate with a desire to read fiction. After a moment she said, “When I’m feeling stimulated, I like to read fiction, and when my life feels sterile, I don’t.” This rang true to me and I think it captures one of the essential paradoxes of fiction and art more generally: that to engage it requires a withdrawal from life, but to appreciate it requires a deep immersion in that very same thing.
I was feeling sterile last week on a night when I spent hours working at the very tedious task of formatting a long outline on the computer. It was the type of mind-numbing process we’re all familiar with, and by the end of it I felt like a very thin man with a very narrow outlook on the world. As I tried to fall asleep that night, I found that my whole life felt like one large unimaginative outline: Bullet points for the errands I needed to do the next day, bold 14-point headings for the things I hoped to accomplish over the next five years. In this limited state of mind, the idea of reading fiction was not just unappealing—it was completely incomprehensible—in the same way that aspiration must make very little sense to a cat.
All forms of desire have their natural enemies and I find that nothing saps my desire to read fiction like the Internet does. This is partly physiological—too much time at the computer withers my brain—but it’s partly dispositional, too. After the last round of primaries a couple Tuesdays ago, I spent an hour reading articles about the Tea Party. When I came up for air I was in an explicitly present-tense state of mind where anything written more than an hour ago seemed to be based on a world that had already been subsumed. Novels, which require a willingness to attend to more enduring themes, don’t hold up very well by this perspective.
Politics as a whole has a fairly degrading effect on my fiction drive. It’s not just that it’s depressing to watch the way Congress operates—it’s that it’s depressing in such an unredeemable way. Fiction can be depressing too, of course, but there’s something intrinsically optimistic about the process by which tragedy and frailty are turned into art.
There’s no similar silver lining when reform legislation gets gutted by special interests, (even writing the term “special interests” I can feel a requisite vigor drain from my body), or the country slides deeper into another foreign quagmire. One friend I talked to about this said that he had the opposite impulse, that he inclines towards fiction when he can’t bear to look at the world anymore. I get this, but I also think that the impulse to create fiction, and to read it, derives from a fundamentally hopeful place—in which life is interesting enough to write about and meaningful encounters remain possible. If it is ever known that the world is sliding irretrievably into ruin, I don’t think I’ll be reading a novel on the way down.
The more I’m engaged with life—and particularly with other people—the more I want to read fiction. At the peak of a wedding reception or in the throes of a night out when the crowd has given itself over to celebration, I often want to sneak off and read a novel. It’s a contradictory impulse, to want to retreat into a book at the precise moment I am most enthralled with life, but such are the circumstances we live by. What I’m after, I think, is a kind of synergy that can only happen when I approach a novel while my body is still charged with the feeling of being present and alive.
At the same time, several of my most memorable encounters with fiction have taken place when I’ve been my most alone. In January 2008 I spent a month in Florence, South Carolina volunteering on a presidential campaign. The days were long and tiring, but it was exhilarating to feel like I was midstream in history. Late at night I’d return to the attic bedroom where I was staying in the home of a local resident and I’d read Anna Karenina until I couldn’t stay awake any longer. I’ve rarely had so clear a view of the outline of my own skin as I did then, reading about Anna’s fall and Lenin’s angst in a house where everyone else was asleep, in a town where I didn’t know anyone’s last name.
If you have not been paying attention to trends in grade school pedagogy over the last couple decades, the first thing you should know is this: The way public school students—and particularly those in low-performing, low-income districts—are taught to understand books looks little like the way most readers of this site, myself included, probably learned themselves.
The changes have occurred in two somewhat contradictory directions. Instruction today is both more progressive and child-centered—where literacy instructors are discouraged from assigning one-size-fits-all whole class novels and students are expected to be given maximum freedom to choose books that they’re interested in—and more rote—where students are drilled in the practice of a dozen or so “reading skills” that attempt to teach comprehension as a stepwise process similar to multiplying fractions or performing long division. My own view of this approach—which goes by the term “balanced literacy”—was conceived during two years teaching sixth grade literacy in the Bronx, NY, and it evolved from a dim initial reading to the more favorable opinion I hold today.
The skills taught in balanced literacy are by themselves entirely uncontroversial. Students are expected to be able to read a text and perform these mental operations: summarizing, generalizing, drawing conclusions, making inferences, identifying main ideas and supporting details, making connections between the text and their own lives, identifying the author’s purpose, analyzing poetic devices like simile and personification, and recognizing point of view. These are the modes of thinking that all literate adults apply when they read (and when they think about complex information in any setting) and the question is not whether students should be able to make generalizations, but rather whether explicitly teaching students what generalizations are and how to perform them is the best way to inculcate a skill that is as much an art as a science, and which many readers of this site probably learned osmotically, in the same way that they learned language.
A main indictment of skill-based instruction is that it takes something like reading which should be wide-open, joyful and curious and turns it into a drab mechanistic procedure. This is the view that the educational historian Diane Ravitch has come to. In her latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, she cites the work of two researchers who have questioned the wisdom of attempting to bring lagging students up to grade level through explicit instruction in how to think:
“We have to consider the possibility that all the attention we are asking students to pay to their use of skills and strategies and to their monitoring of these strategies may turn relatively simple and intuitive tasks into introspective nightmares.” They suggested that “what really determines the ability to comprehend anything is how much one already knows about the topic under discussion in a text.”
From the time I began teaching in 2003 until quite recently this about summed up my view of skill-based instruction. My critique was buttressed with arguments similar to the ones above, but really it was rooted in my own education as a reader: I had never been taught how to generalize or to draw conclusions; those skills had come as a matter of course through repeated encounters reading, talking, writing and thinking about books.
Recently, though, I had the opportunity to write a reading curriculum for a well-regarded urban charter school and my thinking about skill-based instruction began to change. The curriculum typified the pedagogical approach critiqued by Ravitch: It was skills-based, attuned to the dictates of standardized tests, and it de-prioritized any specific content choices in favor of what could be termed “ways of thinking” about books. The more I delved into breaking down and sequencing the skills, however, the less I came to view them as “relatively simple” operations that amounted to droll fodder for standardized tests, and the more I thought of them as a high-stakes crash course in how to think that, when looked at in the right light, was more thrilling than just about anything I ever learned in middle school.
Take summarizing, for example, which would seem to be as vanilla a skill as there is. To disprove the contention that knowing how to summarize comes naturally, all you need to do is ask a typical ten-year-old to distill the movie he saw over the weekend. What you’ll get is a blow-by-blow of the plot that’s longer than the movie itself. This is where the work of teaching a child how to think comes in: How do you weigh information as more or less important? What aspects of the characters, the setting, and the overall theme should be woven in among the plot, and at what point in the sequence of the summary should they be included? These are plain questions, maybe, but they also cut to the heart of the challenge of making sense of information in any situation—and even as an adult I find that I could be better at it when narrating my weekend to my brother or telling a friend about a book I just finished.
Or take the skill of generalizing. Even if asked to make generalizations about a topic I know as well as any in the world—the members of my own family—it would still take me some time to get my bearings. I’d start with a surface generalization like “we all live in the northeast” and try to make my way to more substantive insights. I’d say “we all like adventures”—except that then I’d think that maybe my sister doesn’t—and then I’d think she’d object to being labeled that way, so maybe either my definition of adventuresome or my assessment of her is off. There’s no end to the way you can slice a topic, define essential qualities or sift for similarities, and there are no hard and fast rules for when degrees of difference turn a generalization into an overgeneralization. We all know how to generalize in the same way that we all know how to run—but can we leap hurdles, run a marathon, and launch our minds twenty feet through the air? It’s not unreasonable to expect that students will need some help figuring out how to do these things on their own.
Ravitch’s argument says that the ability to apply comprehension skills depends largely on familiarity with the underlying topic—if I knew my family members better, the connections among them would be self-evident. This is true to a point. You obviously can’t generalize about 19th-century American literature unless you’ve read a lot of it, but familiarity alone is not going to teach a student how to look for the less-obvious threads that tie Moby-Dick, Leaves of Grass, and Huck Finn together.
Like most dichotomies that crop up around a topic as complex and difficult as teaching kids how to read, the “skills vs. content” divide is a false one. Students who have fallen off of grade level pace usually want for both, and it doesn’t make sense to try and teach one without the other. But neither does it make sense to take comprehension skills—which is really just a euphemism for sophisticated thinking—for granted.
1. Full disclosure
Defending his prose, Alexander Theroux once likened it to “a Victorian attic.” In an interview with the Review of Contemporary Fiction, he admitted a complete lack of interest in plot, saying, “character is plot, anyway.” He once called revenge “the single most informing element of world literature.” He’s said, several times and in several ways, that “good writing is above all an assault on cliché.” These four statements give you the keys neither to the man nor his work, but they’re about as advantaged a start as you’re going to get. At the very least, they arm you with a notion of what to expect: more inner life than outer, more desire for vengeance than for anything else, and more sheer stuff per page — stuff you don’t expect — than in any other novels.
Yet Theroux isn’t just a novelist. Two interpretations of that sentence, both true: (a) he writes in other, non-novel forms as well and (b) the novels he does write are more than just novels. (Also consider the entirely possible (c), that his novels themselves contain all the other forms.) Given his longtime standing as a producer of poetry, essays, fables, critical studies and much bill-paying journalism, you’d might rightly wonder why you don’t hear more about him. Of his four novels within the purview of this piece — by themselves a barely chewable bite, I assure you — only the latest remains in print.
I myself was only prompted to explore Theroux’s body of work by way of that latest title, 2007’s Laura Warholic: Or, The Sexual Intellectual. Scanning the publishing landscape, as usual, for interesting books to feature on The Marketplace of Ideas, the public radio program I host and produce, I came upon a review of the book from Rain Taxi:
Alexander Theroux’s new novel, released twenty years after his previous one, is a massive, 878-page compendium of vituperation against contemporary society, jabs at pop culture, exposés of office politics, and exploration of life and love in modern times. It’s what you’d expect from an encyclopedic novel: wandering, erudite, funny, opinionated, didactic, repetitive. But unlike other mega-novels of the past few decades, Laura Warholic presents a fairly straightforward tale: Eugene Eyestones, a near-blind, Bible-quoting, record-collecting Vietnam vet turned journalist, writes a sex column for a magazine called Quink, where he works in the employ of the enormous, revolting, bullying Warholic (who throughout the book is only referred to by his surname). Enter Warholic’s ex-wife, Laura Warholic née Shqumb, a woman who “was never rational, brave, fastidious, exact, friendly, meticulous, cheerful, clean, precise, orderly, accurate, loyal, constant, disciplined, scrupulous, particular, kind, or faithful.”
Intrigued, I checked out the tome and found that not only was there even more to the text than that — so, so much more — there were three previous novels where that came from. The disclosure to be made here is thus that I have interviewed Theroux on the radio (a transcript is here) and, both in preparation and as a result, have been willingly, inexorably drawn into his sui generis literary world.
2. Three Wogs
Theroux’s 1972 debut isn’t exactly a novel, but we can’t ignore it. Is this a collection of short stories? Not exactly, since its 216 pages are divided into only three substantial sections, each of which feels as if it outweighs that label. Is it a set of novellas? Perhaps, though they’re linked geographically, temporally and thematically with such closeness that they couldn’t quite be such separate entities. Let’s just call it a triptych.
Theroux lived in London for a stretch or two of his late youth, and there seems to have tuned in to an ugly psychological frequency. Whatever its official literary form, Three Wogs is a study of the particularly foul flavor of English racism prevalent in the 1960s and 70s. The island’s sudden, colorful postwar foreigner influx hits each segment’s snow-white subject hard: in “Mrs. Proby Gets Hers”, a blowzy widow sees in her Chinese grocer neighbor the germ of a disease destined to hollow out her fetishized repository of pride, tradition and afternoon teacakes; in “Childe Roland”, complete with echoes of Browning’s poem, a doltish laborer, insane with imagined challenges to his sexuality, grows more and more hostile toward the Indian engineering student with whom fate traps him in a train station; in “The Wife of God”, a meek reverend finds himself thwarted but still cannot beat back his throbbing attraction to an African choirmaster.
Because these hapless Englishmen and -women are steeped in a deep, pervasive fear of ethnic pollution, those on the irony hunt need look no further than Theroux’s merciless elaborations of their personal qualities. To carve out a small but representative excerpt:
A blocky, cuboidal head, faced in pinks and whites and ruled in a fretwork of longitudes and latitudes which showed a few orthographic traces of worry, surmounted a body that made Mrs. Proby look like a huge jar or, when shambling along as she often did, something like a prehistoric Nodosaurus. [ … ] She was paradigmatic of those fat, gigantic women in London, all bum and elbow, who wear itchy tentlike coats, carry absurd bags of oranges, and usually wheeze down beside you on the bus, smelling of shilling perfume and cold air. She wore “sensible” shoes, had one bad foot, smoked too much, and cultivated a look as if she were always about to say no.”
Roland and the Reverend come out little better. The former bears “a sharp young English face: peaky, unamiable, suspicious,” “spotted by a rash of comedones near the mouth which was hardly improved by a rather savage case of asymmetrical dentition.” His body resembles “one continuous bone” with “a painful year-round dose of scrotitis,” appearing in sum total to be “a cruel broom.” The Anglican, less of a villain than his counterparts — it’s his mother who comes in for the real bashing — looks “as spruce as an onion, wearing an off-white shirt of satinet with Wildean flounce at the sleeves,” has a “volleyballshaped head that looked like the full, round topside of an Harrovian boater.” His is “the soul of an interior decorator.” These are the products of the treasured English gene pool so desperately, futilely guarded.
As you’d expect from a book whose title is half ethnic slur, the “wogs” who stoke such pronounced reaction in the natives are drawn a little broadly. Though noble, in their way, they act dopey, come from comically deprived and punitive backstories and bounce from solecism to solecism in precisely the manner of a caricature assembled in Roland or Mrs. Proby’s barren imaginations. But the immigrants are as classical heroes compared to the Britons, who crumple under voluminous salvos of precision-targeted satirical savagery. By the end of each tale, nothing remains. Already, Theroux’s hunting eye for hundreds of minor details — cultural, social, personal and otherwise — and his linguistic ability to make them major combine to form his most powerful weapon. And in retrospect, it’s no surprise that the action on which these bravura dissections and destructions of character hang is driven by spite, resentment, and revenge.
3. Darconville’s Cat
And yet, what in Three Wogs could have prepared readers for the book now most widely regarded by Theroux’s fans as his masterpiece? To be sure, his debut showcased a drive to reclaim the English language’s least-trod territories. Picric, the very first word of its main text, doubtless sent almost every reader to the dictionary, and, like many others scattered throughout the text, likely raised resentment at his “showing off.” But the word, an adjective normally used to describe “a poisonous, explosive, yellow, crystalline acid” but pressed into Theroux’s service to evoke the celluloid face of Fu Manchu, admits no substitutes.
But every single chapter of Darconville’s Cat brims with vocabulary so exotic, so idiosyncratic, so perfectly descriptive that nobody, no matter how literate, could ever grasp it all in the first pass. They’ll often need to consult their reference shelf, physical or virtual, only to find that half the words in question haven’t been regularly used in 400 years, and many of the rest Theroux seems to have simply made up. Picric, hell; trapfall, gibbet-high, imperscrutable, gulsar, mixt, lugubrious, obligate (as an adjective), archistrateges, unction, obol, insurrect, grimoire, sacristan, demulcents and rubefacients pop off the first five pages alone. 699 more follow, wherein Theroux crafts these words into prose, verse, list, litany, essay, dialogue and heroic couplet alike.
You might fear that such diversity of interior form and not-immediately-relatable vocabulary must convey an equally inscrutable story. But the tale of Alaric Darconville, a 29-year-old English lecturer voluntarily embedded in a women’s college in darkest Virginia, isn’t so far out of the realm of plausible human experience. Not the first half of the narrative, anyway, whose details bear an uncanny similarity to those of Theroux’s own. Both are of French and Italian extraction. Both are novelists. Both spent years under a vow of silence in a Trappist monastery. Darconville teaches at “Quinsy College” in “Quinsyburg”; Theroux taught at the identically laid-out Longwood University in Farmville. Photos from the early 1970s reveal a Theroux who, at first glance, appears to be cosplaying as Darconville at his own fan convention, long hair, full-black wardrobe, vintage Bentley and all.
So, too, do both Darconville and Theroux seem to have been jilted by one of their own students, intellectual bantamweights but brimming with the loveliness of imperfection. Isabel Rawsthorne, the 18-year-old making and undoing of Alaric Darconville, comes from shoddy stock and nurtures the slightest of artistic and educational hopes. She balances her preposterously high self-regard with a preposterously low self-regard that sends her skittering back to a gawky local farm boy as soon as her wedding to the worldly professor looms too close. A 1978 profile in the New York Times Magazine hints that Theroux didn’t even bother to give the fictionalized target of his desire a different name, though elsewhere in the article his lawyer brother suggests that, whatever her name, she was no more prepared for marriage to Theroux than to any given stranger. Yet as the girl’s lack of seriousness doesn’t stop Darconville from contemplating revenge, it didn’t stop Theroux from, by literary means, taking it.
The book’s first half is very much a love story, drawn intimately and without apparent cynicism. But cracks begin to crawl gradually across in Darconville’s mental façade of Isabel as an ideally golden, innocent object of love. After relocating from stultifying Quinsyburg to no less august an educational institution than Harvard University, Darconville is forced under the wing of Dr. Abel Crucifer, a reclusive professor emeritus who also happens to be a morbidly obese, woman-hating eunuch. His bizarre lifestyle and the ideas that undergird it allow Theroux to bust out the formal big guns. Crucifer speaks against the female in general and the two-timing Isabel in particular with towering walls of allusion-thick text. Listing the titles in his library of misogyny requires nine straight pages. His suggestions as to the means of Isabel’s murder — “Pound hand-fids into her nociceptors! Tattoo her down the spine with Symmes’ Abscess Knife! Rasp her around the neck with a xyster!” — demand another chapter of their own.
In Isabel, we have the introduction of a type of huge importance to Theroux’s three novels qua novels: the twitchy, flighty female whose half-baked aspirations, buoyed by an inflated self-image, generate just enough momentum for survival but are perpetually beaten down from higher things by a mixture of confusion, hopelessness and sheer ignorance. Theroux cannot seem to keep his sophisticatedly brutal observational powers turned away from these sorry types for long, and we readers are all the better off for it. Whether in the textual body of Isabel Rawsthorne, An Adultery‘s Farol Colorado or Laura Warholic’s title slattern, no novelist has ever watched or created an archetype like this one with such accuracy, such sorrow, such — it must be said — sudden-public-burst-of-laughter humor.
4. An Adultery
Some call language like Darconville’s Cat’s — or even Three Wogs’ — an authorial thumb in the reader’s eye, a self-indulgent unwillingness to sacrifice precision for accessibility that dares you to attempt comprehension. Whether or not those accusations hold any merit, they’d seem to be addressed by An Adultery, an insistently realistic, concretely contemporary novel whose words rarely, if ever, raise the speed-bumping supracranial question mark.
In any other novelist’s bibliography, An Adultery would be the weird outlier. It’s the weird outlier in Theroux’s, too, but it’s weird by virtue of seeming “normal.” This is why it’s often the one I recommend when asked for the best gateway into Theroux’s work. Yes, its voice is still pitched at quite a high level, and yes, the text contains countless digressions heavy with logic, psychology, intricate verbal reasoning and even essays on visual artistic technique and the history of adultery itself. But it speaks, very broadly, in the manner of the other, infinitely more prosaic novels about the sexual intrigue of thirtysomething-to-middle-aged northeastern Americans.
Much of the difference has to do with the first-person narration. The novel eschews the godlike, all-knowing, all-seeing, English-language-defeating third-person voice that narrates Theroux’s other three, opting instead for words straight from protagonist Christian “Kit” Ford. A painter who chose the part of art after being orphaned in childhood, Ford finds himself in adulthood precariously suspended between two ladyfriends. The young, almost imaginarily sweet Marina, still kept within the confines of her parents’ home, really is everything Darconville delusionally assumed Isabel to be. Farol, a married, wheel-spinning frame shop lackey in her early thirties, is the continuation and then some of Isabel’s other side, the one destructive at once to herself and, more so, to others.
Ford is a more believable human being than Darconville. Given the latter’s rootedness in Theroux’s own character, that might sound illogical, but there it is. The author’s own personality has been called everything from eccentric to a work of art in itself, so it would be hard for Ford not to seem mundane, if engagingly so, by comparison. But it’s his overwhelming attraction to Farol, clearly unreasonable yet somehow not implausible, at the center of the book. Nearly every one of its 396 pages piles on to an extended indictment of Farol’s manner, her character, her actions, her reactions and the hollow, posturing subculture that surrounds her. It’s also our hero’s indictment of himself for a fixation on her that metastasizes steadily, rapidly and seemingly against his will.
This is the purest exercise of Theroux’s “character is plot” mindset. It isn’t much of an exaggeration to call it one long description of Farol Colorado. If that sounds unappealing, bear in mind that she’s of a very particular breed — a very particularly dysfunctional breed, if you will — that’s both immediately, deeply recognizable and, for whatever reason, one other writers never touch, let alone with unsurpassed incisiveness, for 70 chapters. Farol is the ultimate study of the blandly beautiful woman who, desperately afraid of her poverty of anything else to offer the world, builds around her a crystalline superstructure of self-mythology, cobbled together out of rootless thirdhand knowledge and unbridled fancy, riven with every imaginable variety of ineptitude. Here is Theroux, as Ford, recalling their “conversation” on long drives:
She talked by way of remarks and in isolated phrases. I was amazed that her speech effectively allowed her to appear seemingly present while in fact she was totally absent. Since she depended on others for a voice, I thought her inability to do more than this was an indirect confession of her own failure. It was as if her mind had narrowed, congealed, to a hard ten or fifteen or so facts she lived by to get what she could. She was not often lighthearted, but that didn’t stop her from telling jokes. Not jokes. Her way of trying to be funny — it is often the humor of the non-reader — was becoming fixated with and constantly repeating certain words and phrases she found odd. Mung beans. Aqua wawa. Maple surple. Yummo.
This is the sort of woman Theroux has made his literary bread and butter, yes, but the words also resonate as a spot-on targeting of a certain sort of modern monster. An Adultery is a book of its time, to be sure; there’s a timelessness to Theroux’s writing, only less so when he’s evoking this primary color-clad, white wine-sipping mid-1980s milieu. But there’s got to be a certain universality in a book that contains perhaps the saddest, sharpest observations on this strain of humanity that I’ve ever heard: “Every time we passed a certain kind of house she would always nod and say, ‘Greek Revival.’ I soon realized it was the only type of architecture she knew.”
As with Darconville and Isabel, Kit Ford is grandly worked over by his inferior, and if the slow, inexorable shift in his monologue is anything to go by, it pushes him right up to the brink of sanity — and possibly over it. This is where Theroux’s beloved revenge most visibly appears in the narrative, though humanity’s eternal score-settling compulsion runs as a tense undercurrent throughout the whole. Unlike poor Darconville, he doesn’t end up coughing his guts out in Venice while his beloved ties the knot with a sailor, but Ford still ultimately loses, and loses big, despite — or because of — his superior clarity of thought to the world around him, his greater precision of language.
5. Laura Warholic: Or, The Sexual Intellectual
Theroux has called An Adultery a novel about “the corruption of language.” I would argue that all his novels are, in their own way, about that. Look how Three Wogs’ blinkered nationalists have obviously long since stopped caring about the relationship of their brash, sweaty declarations to the situation’s underlying reality, how they incompetently marshal so much mangled verbiage in defense of the unblemished Britain that never existed. The doomed heroes of the novels that follow are both wordsmiths: Darconville by trade, Ford by his means of grappling with adultery’s inherent paradoxes. But they’re surrounded by those who unthinkingly debase the language: maleducated barflies, hard-haranguing Baptist ministers, disaffected New England blowhards, arty-crafty parochial poseurs. What’s worse, their women, scratching impotently against their roiling insecurities and utter voids of identity, dismantle language actively.
This brings us to Eugene Eyestones and Laura Warholic, the central pair in Laura Warholic: Or, The Sexual Intellectual’s cast of what must be hundreds — or a hundred, anyway. The Rain Taxi review excerpted above actually provides a worthy synopsis, so far as it goes, and so far as it makes sense — which isn’t far at all — to synopsize a book like this. Having renounced most social intercourse, the near-ascetic Eyestones spends his life contemplating humanity through the lens of sexual intercourse. His tool of understanding is — what else? — the printed word. The spent, chaotic, borderline-illiterate Laura Warholic catches his attention as both a singularly fascinating case study in raw, unsublimated Dionysian and self-preservation impulses and as a potentially salvageable symbol of the intersection of decadence and ignorance where, as Eyestones and possibly Theroux see it, civilization has landed.
Here, Theroux’s assault on cliché hits its apex. You might consider the release of Laura Warholic the anti-cliché nuclear option. Despite its considerable linearity, if only in the context of today’s literary-fiction zeitgeist, the novel is still flamboyantly unconventional, loaded so densely with theories, observations, arguments, counterarguments, counter-counterarguments, calumny and ridicule that its 878 pages almost feel insufficient. Indeed, the book’s cinder-blockish heft remains, alas, its most remarked-upon quality. Too many reviewers seem to have placed the book on a scale, glanced over the outrageous dialogue spouted incessantly by its teeming rogues’ gallery of the misanthropic and/or — usually “and” — the misshapen, and written it off as a nothing but a madman’s ream of racial, sexual and religious slurs.
Where Darconville’s Cat’s language was its perceived thumb in the readerly eye, this book’s sheer length and its alleged excess of extreme opinion and paucity of plot have been similarly called out. It’s true that, aside from a remembered cross-country van trip with Eyestones at the wheel and his repulsive alinguistic muse in the passenger’s seat and a classically tragic build to the bitter end, there aren’t many events. And Theroux does indeed plop many a disquisition on Eyestones’ fascinations social, sexual and cinematic right into the middles of these seas of characters’ reflection and interaction. One chapter, a Darconville’s Cat-reminiscent list of oddities from the history of love and sex, captivates even those disposed to hate Theroux and his work.
6. The question of misanthropy
And thus the book has been called “the Moby-Dick of misanthropy” due to more than its size. Melville’s tome is inseparable from whaling, especially when it’s serving up technical essays on the subject; Theroux’s is inseparable from man’s loathing of man, examinable through sex or anything else. In my interview with him, his disappointment at Laura Warholic’s apparent failure to meet his expectations for it became something of a leitmotif:
My book hasn’t been well-received; it’s been basically ignored. I think it’s a very important novel, but it’s been ignored by people. I even had a hard time getting editors’ attention: it’s too long, it’s too pyrotechnic, it’s too multisyllabic, it’s too opinionated, it’s endless, there are longueurs, there are digressions. But one of the criticisms is that it’s pitiless, even cruel and unsparing. That’s what people are not used to. They’re used to Tom Wolfe’s jokey and affectionate lashings-out, kind of cartoon explosions. You have to look at Hunter Thompson’s attacks to see real cruelty.
I don’t know anybody that’s doing the kind of — this book is not being written by anybody, this kind of prose, this kind of writing, because it’s too savage, too unflinching. People just don’t want this. “Why do you have such attitudes?” people tell me. “You’re so extreme! You’re so opinionated! This is so savage!” But satire, my point is, is savage. I’m thinking of a remark that Nathanael West made in The Day of the Locust, when he said, “Nothing is sadder than the truly monstrous.”
I find that the interviews Theroux gives and the factual pieces he writes show him clearly to be a non-monster. But when the overwhelming tendency to conflate author and character meets an author who doles out easily identifiable biographical facts of his own to his characters and doesn’t hesitate to push those characters well beyond monstrous under the banner of his ever-harsher, ever-bloodthirstier satire, predictable consequences ensue. But I don’t think he pounds at the boundaries of satire out of his own hatred for humanity; I suspect he does it out of something more like disappointment, which requires a funny sort of optimism about our capacity for goodness.
7. Fuller disclosure
Despite his evident niceness, I still can’t shake the image from my mind of Alexander Theroux as a guy whose bad side you really, really don’t want to get on. Maybe it’s just the prospect of winding up like the real-life Isabel Rawsthorne, the real-life Farol Colorado or — the mind reels — the real-life Laura Warholic. This seems like such a danger because the man’s books are so unrelentingly hilarious. I haven’t emphasized this enough, and it’s a quality no critic ever fully gets across, but not a day goes by when I don’t think of an observation, a crack or a turn of phrase from these novels. Be it one conveyed through the erudite romanticism of Alaric Darconville, the icy cruelty of Christian Ford, the curious equanimity of Eugene Eyestones or simply the untranslatably language-crazed magpie mind of Alexander Theroux, I laugh, often hard.
Theroux is the perfect example of the sort of author I’d want to befriend, yet as I feel somewhat unworthy of the art — for every allusion that delights me, I feel ten whoosh overheard — I feel somewhat unworthy of the artist. The volumes lining the interior of his head are undoubtedly more interesting than anything I could offer. You can see this in the way that, despondency over Laura Warholic’s halting progress aside, he doesn’t seem to care about his novels’ unavailability.
Literary broadcaster Michael Silverblatt once questioned Theroux’s “perverse appreciation” at how inaccessible his books are thought to be. Perhaps he sees his finely-wrought works of language and their lack of purchase on the culture as an apocalyptic indictment of that culture, of the intellectually (and especially verbally) careless society that could corrupt them. Were I him, I feel as if I’d want revenge: against lazy readers, against unengaged critics, against risk-averse publishers. But maybe, given what they’re all missing out on, he’s already taking it.
There is nothing positive about the dictionary definition of “obsession” – it haunts, is abnormal and persistent, like a bad rash. Tossing the word into a conversation typically indicates some form of criticism about a person and that person’s particular pursuit. Obsessions can lead to stalkers, delusion and great creations (the last two are not mutually exclusive); they can limit and restrict you to minutia or endow a unique vision that changes how you and others view the world at large. People indulge obsession in different ways – live it like a lifestyle or stir it into a creation like a minor but crucial recipe ingredient where it doesn’t overpower anything and complements everything.
Ideas of obsession had been needling me after reading James Hamilton-Paterson’s Seven Tenths and Peter Handke’s Slow Homecoming. Both books obsess over their loosely shared theme – the natural world’s mystifying grandeur – and after reading them back-to-back it was impossible not to link them. While thinking about these two titles I was lucky enough to attend a screening of Exit Through the Gift Shop, a feature-length film directed by stencil-art maverick Banksy. The film’s real lynchpin is Thierry Guetta a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash, the ultimate knock-off artist. But before he became an overnight art world sensation his obsession was filming everything he did. The cousin of French street artist Space Invader, during a vacation to France Guetta got his first exhilarating taste for joining, and filming, street artists on their illicit missions. Over time, Guetta infiltrated the graffiti and street art scene in Los Angeles, befriending Shepard Fairey and other prominent figures. He and his camera became fixtures and his desire to document the scene, in his own words, became more of an obsession than just filming the boring details of everyday life. He met everyone and went everywhere, but like Captain Ahab chasing his White Whale, Guetta would not be satisfied until he achieved his ultimate goal: filming the notoriously anonymous Banksy.
Of course, no greater tale of obsession exists in American letters than Captain Ahab’s in Moby-Dick. Ahab’s epic ego-driven quest to recover the impossible has inspired and influenced countless artists who tap into as many ideas as the ones explored in the novel: myth, America, commerce, astronomy, conquest, sexuality. As part of a series of multimedia responses to American novels, the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco assembled “Moby-Dick,” a show and accompanying catalogue. Designed as homage to the vaunted 1930 Rockwell Kent illustrated Lakeside Press three-volume deluxe edition (later released as a Modern Library edition), this lovely book glosses Melville’s novel and features the thirty-two artists whose works was on view from September 22, 2009, until last December.
Interestingly, it was Kent’s black ink illustrations, reproduced here in a dark, brooding sea-blue, that helped resurrect the novel from obscurity (the edition did not even include Melville’s name on the cover). In this catalogue, pieces like Richard Serra’s lithograph study for his sculpture “Call Me Ishmael” or Brian Jungen’s iPod scrimshaw, connect directly to the narrative; the inclusion of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s large-scale ocean view photographic prints, which a book of this size cannot do justice, is fitting since they express boundless uncertainty. But many of the pieces strike more abstract poses, like Angela Bulloch’s algorithm-simulated celestial views that use “technology to expand our perception of space and the possibilities of perception.”
At first blush, connecting contemporary art to the heyday of seafaring might seem incongruous, but sailors were the eyes of the world for landlubbers, returning home with tales of what mystical, depraved and wondrous sites and cultures existed just beyond the horizon. Of course, for all of the spoils these men brought back with them, their stories were filled by imagination and hearsay, changing like the seas. “Melville’s book,” writes the catalogue’s editor Jens Hoffman, “is like the living ocean: vast, potent, and hugely indifferent to human troubles and ambitions.”
James Hamilton-Paterson has a very similar view about the ocean, and with good reason. He has lived on desolate islands in the Philippines; accompanied deep-sea salvage missions, scientific expeditions, commercial fishers and sea scavenging locals; encountered murderous pirates; gone for many a solitary midnight swims; and read countless historic oceanic travelogues and scientific treatises. When it comes down to channeling philosophy, economics, politics, history, ecology and art through salt water, Hamilton-Paterson gives Melville a run for his money.
The updated Europa Editions release of Seven Tenths, a collection of Hamilton-Paterson’s writings about the sea, is the passionate result of a poet’s eye making sense of rigorous research and humanity’s impossibility. Running through the essays divided into thematic chapters is the tale of a free diver who has lost his boat, the cord he had tied around his ankle loosed from the tiny vessel’s prow. Resurfacing, the boat is nowhere to be found, and the swimmer considers being stranded in a “conspiracy of waves.” The umbilical connection between salt water and our lives is literal and figurative. But when the ocean claims a ship or a person or even disproves earlier scientific findings it does so by shutting off that object from what Paterson-Hamilton calls the “continuity of vision.” For him this is a sublime quality.
The author’s obsessing over oceans and seas is fueled by the fact that we know so little about them, especially beneath the surface. Of course, throughout time the curious have ventured. Alexander the Great had a special glass cage made so he could be lowered into the Mediterranean; salvage missions attempted to resurrect sunken valuables; and Scandinavians tried to correlate fish supplies with tidal currents. But, according to Hamilton-Paterson, “until the late eighteenth century the average European’s mental image of the sea was literally superficial, of a navigable surface above an abyss.”
Today we have a sense of the depth but very little experience of it. Seven Tenths is not so concerned with reasons and answers, but a greater more profound unity that resides in the unknown depths, and not even sonar, electrically belching through cold, lightless water, can give us a real sense of what is down there, and this has been realized for time immemorial: “The Greeks’ idealisation of a static universe full of fixed entities, faithfully reflected in their mathematics, underpinned all that could be thought. The sea was a positive insult to this metaphysics, a naked opposition to it… How did one represent an absence of topography?”
One solution was to name these places with colonial and imperial pageantry, and familiar names like Mount Mozart and Beethoven Ridge in the Musicians Seamounts north of Hawaii. They exist on a map, and in theories of science, surveyed down to the centimeter. What we know is something we have hardly explored, hardly experienced. This wanting for the impossible is why it compels obsession, at least as Hamilton-Paterson sees it: “[B]ut the seething waters of the middle distance have something wordless and unpitying to say to the dullest minds. It is as if the ocean, in certain lights and weathers, were the lair not of monsters or malevolent downward-dragging spirits, but of the fat blank which squats beneath all happiness, flicking out its tongue.”
Nature’s taunting evasiveness is the conundrum at the heart of Peter Handke’s Slow Homecoming. The novel consists of three parts, a middle section in which Handke interjects a first-person rhapsody about his process bookended by third-person narratives of wandering and wondering. All three parts obsess over what I think of as the intimate pattern, the visual echoes that reverberate and ping between our whorling fingerprints, the way light playfully daubs a riparian setting and the brittle and broken elements of decay.
Here again, the natural world prompts all of the questions and holds all of the answers but reveals nothing, which propels the obsession. Hamilton-Paterson offers a primer for how to look at the ocean, how to appreciate and cherish it for how it resolutely resists humanity. But Handke’s characters are like a collective Captain Ahab afloat in the world, searching. Their focus is singular, all others – wives, lovers, children – seem to exist only by virtue of these men determining how these others exist in proximity to them.
Benjamin Kunkel, in his introduction to Slow Homecoming, informs us that in German the surname of the first part’s subject, Sorger, means “one who takes care or has cares.” In an Alaskan-like wilderness, Sorger, a foreigner and outsider, studies the landscape and its inhabitants at such detail that everything becomes a likeness of his creation. There is not much naming, but that’s because Sorger’s dedication, certainly the book’s dedication, is to the propensity for naming because all such names are a function of these intimate patterns: “They were unmistakable signs implicit in nature itself . . . and had the power, regardless of who the observer might be, to convert themselves into great and diversified happenings in space – delusions only at first glance, then welcome as metamorphoses in the deeper area of vision.”
The novel’s final section reunites an unnamed father with his young daughter, raising her for periods of time in different countries, separated from her at times when the daughter stays with her mother. He sees her as a component, a piece of the puzzle that when completed will symbolize truth, something he chases: “Still the wayfarer makes his way across the high plateau toward the blue-veiled mountain chain, still busy with the thought that can never be carried to a conclusion: I am working on the secret of the world.”
All of these obsession-driven projects blur fiction and nonfiction. Melville’s pedantic descriptions of whaling can remove readers from the plot, making the novel feel like a manual. Hamilton-Paterson concedes that certain of his details might only be true to him and Handke’s narrative conceit intentionally calls into question where to draw the line between fiction and nonfiction. In a statement, Banksy declared that everything in Exit Through the Gift Shop is true, except that parts that aren’t.
Like Ahab, Thierry Guetta indeed found his White Whale, and while not fatal it was significant. Guetta and Banksy became friends. But the obsessive filming, it turns out, was not part of any great vision. Banksy ends up making the movie everyone had assumed Guetta was working on; Guetta begins to focus on art, churning out painfully derivative work, its boring qualities enhanced by his delusional ego and the fact that he sold a million dollars worth in a few days. In this transition, Guetta’s obsession comes into question – he simply does what people expect him to do, as if by rote. The actual extent of his obsessions is what makes for a biting portrait of the consumer environment that turns Guetta into a hot-shot artist, as opposed to a documentary about street artists and their critical and commercial success. It’s this sly self-awareness – Banksy, Shepard Fairey, et al are in on the joke – that makes Exit Through the Gift Shop brilliant, calling into question what validates certain obsessions. Whether a forever linking double helix of associations and patterns, a tidal ebb and flow or the marketplace, obsessive activities strive to unlock an answer or bring closure to the issue that has caused the obsession, or in the case of Guetta provide an illusion that the activity serves a purpose. This might be the greatest message of them all: obsessions are illusions.
Hamilton-Paterson appreciates the ocean’s indifference as its greatest virtue, the reality check that human ego needs and should pay heed. Handke’s characters want to find a place within the indifference, but only because they think it their duty to do so. The daughter in Slow Homecoming, simply by being in the right place at the right time, at last drives home to her father that the ultimate secret is perhaps one kept forever, that these obsessions make us human and we should be happy to leave it at that. Or as Ishmael says: “It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”
PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.
(The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain)
The best prologue I ever read was an epigraph. The book in question was from my early reading days, before I had come to understand that epigraphs were a common thing. The quote was a prelude to a ripping fantasy yarn by Raymond Feist and was from the pen of Shakespeare:
We were, fair queen,
Two lads that thought there was no more behind
But such a day to-morrow as to-day,
And to be boy eternal.
The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare
I would never hold that book up to any critical scrutiny today, but Feist’s talent for setting off an epic coming-of-age story with quotes about how great it was to be young—and to imagine anything was possible—had a kind of perfect intonation.
Having taken up the mantle “writer,” epigraphs have taken on a significance of another sort. Just what purpose epigraphs serve, where they come from, and how the source from which they were drawn affects the story in which they are embedded have all bubbled to the surface. Among the most pressing questions for me: should epigraphs be thought of as part of the text, a sort of pre-modern, post-modern device, like tossing a newspaper clipping into the body narrative? Or are they actually a direct invitation by the author, perhaps saying, “Look here, for from this inspiration came this tale?”
Put another way, are they part of the book or part of the author, or both, or neither?
People love to call epigraphs a bundle of things, an “apposite quote that sets the mood for a story and to give an idea of what’s coming” or “a quote to set the tone like a prelude in music” or as a “foreshadowing mechanism” or “like little appetizers of the great entrée of a story” meant to illuminate “important aspects of the story [and] get us headed in the right direction.”
Humbug, say I. Humbug.
Epigraphs have a long history. As early as 1726, one can find in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels the cousin of the epigraph, a fictitious “note from the publisher” explaining that Gulliver is in fact a real person and these his true papers. Yes, Lolita got that from somewhere. But even Gulliver’s fictionalized note, that cousin to the epigraph, can be traced to Cervantes and Don Quixote (published in 1605) wherein the author assures us that:
My wish would be simply to present it to thee plain and unadorned, without any embellishment of preface or uncountable muster of customary sonnets, epigrams, and eulogies, such as are commonly put at the beginning of books.
Author’s Preface to Don Quixote (following, one should note, several sonnets, epigrams, and eulogies)
And so it is certain that even in the time predating the texts which we now call the canon, and some would assert Don Quixote the first “novel,” the epigraph and its ilk were widely entrenched into the formula for literature.
The point is, of course, that epigraphs have been around for a long time.
So to the question of how we are to read epigraphs, one must first decide whether there are ‘bad’ epigraphs and ‘good’ epigraphs, and if so, how these categories might arise.
I have already described something which many would characterize as an example of a good kind of epigraph, that quote which seems to connect in a fundamental way with the text. Like, perhaps, “Vengeance is mine, I shall repay.” Yet, of course, epigraphs cannot be too explicit, too clear or too thematic or it ruins the whole endeavor. If the author gets up on a soapbox and declares “this is an important novel” well then the ship’s sailed. That’s why William Styron starts Sophie’s Choice with this quote from André Malraux: “…I seek that essential region of the soul where absolute evil confronts brotherhood.”
Clearly these are not the only types of epigraphs that succeed. Nabokov hit a home run with his epigraph for The Gift with this quote from a Russian school-book: “An oak is a tree. A rose is a flower. A deer is an animal. A sparrow is a bird. Russia is our fatherland. Death is inevitable.” Which reveals that sometimes it is enough to be clever. Ander Monson’s Neck Deep and other Predicaments has an epigraph from the Chicago Manual of Style: “A dedication intended to be humorous will very likely lose its humor with time and so is inappropriate for a serious book destined to take a permanent place in the literature.” Again, very clever. So clever epigraphs work.
However, two kinds of epigraphs do not work. The first is any serious literary epigraph to a Harry Potter book, like for instance, this one from The Deathly Hallows
Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure. This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.
William Penn, More Fruits of Solitude
Perhaps one will call me hypocritical for allowing a quote from Shakespeare to grace a munchy fantasy novel and then to turn around and say that the epigraph to a Harry Potter book falls flat. I would simply note that the fantasy novel in question actually took itself seriously whereas Harry Potter tried to have it both ways—and the William Penn quote is about life and death, which would have been inappropriate to any book that wasn’t. Rowling should have selected something on the theme of love and friendship to be true to the work she published.
Another sort of epigraphical failure is in Blood Meridian. McCarthy uses one of those triple-epigraphs which I’ll address in a moment, and the third epigraph, after two highfalutin contemplations on darkness and death he adds this:
Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.
THE YUMA DAILY SUN
McCarthy has an important point here, which is that people have been scalping each other since forever. Unfortunately, it would have come out more candidly through the mouth of one of his characters. The big problem is that in a semi-biblical masterwork, the only part of the entire overarching text that ever makes any reference to normal-sounding speech is this tiny bit of a 3-part epigraph.
So this sets out an objective standard. Epigraphs must count as part of the text because they affect the way the text is read, and therefore are tied more to the text than to the author. They belong to the text, regardless of the way the author feels. Also, as these epigraphs make clear, they are clearly not sources of inspiration for the story. Quite often they are tacked on.
So epigraphs abide by certain principles, and they do not always work. Quite often they come across like throat clearing, sort of a “here it goes” before the author gets into the work. Especially when an author has more than one epigraph, which seems to have become only more common. So when searching for an epigraph, the most important part of the endeavor should be how the quote integrates with the novel as a whole. Does it fit the tone, and does it take on a deeper meaning, or lend a deeper meaning, because it’s there?
(As a quick aside, I would like to say that overt references to Dover Beach should be restricted to epigraphs. In a striking number of novels, the poem is actually a plot point giving rise to a significant epiphany. I’m looking at you Fahrenheit 451 and most especially Saturday.)
But the question remains: How does one determine precisely the tone an epigraph should take? Herman Melville in Moby-Dick has probably one of the longest and most interesting (and most tonally consistent) epigraphs ever. He spends several pages just talking about Whales. But again, isn’t it just—too much? Would it not have been a better epigraph if he had simply included only this one from among all his myriad quotations:
October 13. “There she blows,” was sung out from the mast-head.
“Where away?” demanded the captain.
“Three points off the lee bow, sir.”
“Raise up your wheel. Steady!” “Steady, sir.”
“Mast-head ahoy! Do you see that whale now?”
“Ay ay, sir! A shoal of Sperm Whales! There she blows! There she breaches!”
“Sing out! sing out every time!”
“Ay Ay, sir! There she blows! there–there–THAR she blows–bowes–bo-o-os!”
“How far off?”
“Two miles and a half.”
“Thunder and lightning! so near! Call all hands.”
–J. ROSS BROWNE’S ETCHINGS OF A WHALING CRUIZE. 1846.
A similar question of “too much” arises in Sophie’s Choice and other texts in which the author seeks to use an epigraph in another language. Given the fact that most readers will not be speakers and therefore cannot see the intricacies in tone and the shades of meaning in that other language’s words, one wonders whether the author is writing the epigraph to himself or to the reader. If we are to think of epigraphs as part of the main text, then this foreign-language snippet needs to stand on its own, it can’t just be authorial vanity, right? Although, since his editor let him plant it there in the original German or French, one wonders if this means that epigraphs are thought to be more like dedications in the publishing world than the main text.
Finally, one wonders why epigraphs are always at the beginning of the book. Some stories end and make you want to hold the book to your chest and absorb it directly into your very soul. How moving it would be to me to finish a book and turn the page, sad that it’s all over and read an epigraph that reflects on all that’s come before.
Lawrence Weschler has observed, astutely, that writers tend to move from Romanesque to Gothic. The early work will be thick, solid, even heavy; only with decades of experience does the writer learn to chisel away excess, as the builders of Notre Dame did: to let in the light. In the case of Vladimir Nabokov, however, the converse seems to obtain. Of the major edifices he erected in English, his last, Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969), is his most excessive, both in its difficulty and in the pleasures it affords the (re)reader.
That excess begins with sheer length. At 589 pages (plus endnotes!), Ada is twice the size of your average Nabokov paperback. Nor would it be fair to call Ada a page-turner; even as it hews to the plot of the “family chronicle,” it elaborates on the textual gamesmanship of its immediate predecessor, Pale Fire (1962). Riddles, anagrams, and puns abound. This is not to mention the density of intertextual allusion, which makes Humbert Humbert look like Duran Duran.
What I’ve come to think of (somewhat unfairly) as the grad-school response to such allusiveness – treating each sentence like a puzzle to be solved – isn’t always the best way to approach to a tough text. With Finnegans Wake, for example, a willingness to let things wash over you can be the difference between sublimity and seasickness. With Ada, however, if you aren’t playing along at home with your Nabokov decoder ring, you’re probably missing something. And the anagrammatic annotator “Vivian Darkbloom” has left us a set of valuable hints in the end matter. (A brilliant, if half-complete, online annotation offers further assistance. Would that one of these sites existed for each of our Difficult Books!)
Ada’s greatest puzzle, in all senses, is its setting. The opening line – a misquotation from “Anna Arkadievitch Karenina” – signals that the world of this novel will be a somewhat garbled translation of our own: an “anti-Terra.” In place of Borges, Anti-Terra has Osberg. In place of French Canadians, it has Russian Estotians. It is sometimes called Demonia. “Our demons,” we are told, “are noble iridescent creatures with translucent talons and mightily beating wings; but in the eighteen-sixties the New Believers urged one to imagine a sphere where our splendid friends had been utterly degraded, had become nothing but vicious monsters, disgusting devils.” In short, Nabokov has thrown us into the deep end, and expects us to stitch our own life preservers.
Doing so means reconstructing the history and geography not only of anti-Terra, but also of “Terra” – the mythical “sphere” alluded to above. This mirror-world turns out to be, from our standpoint, nearer to reality, but from the perspective of of anti-Terra, as far-out as Zembla. Who but those wacky New Believers could possibly credit the existence of Athaulf the Future, “a fair-haired giant in a natty uniform…in the act of transforming a gingerbread Germany into a great country?”
The novel’s other key dyad is Van and Ada Veen – the first cousins-cum-siblings (long story) whose love lies at the heart of the book. The incestuous nature of their affair would seem to present readers with yet another difficulty. But Ada is “about” incest only in the way that Lolita is “about” pedophilia, or Moby-Dick is “about” fishing. Which is to say, it isn’t. In his wonderful book The Magician’s Doubts (which prodded me to pick up Ada in the first place), the critic Michael Wood proposes that the novel’s subject is in fact “happiness” – generally felt to be the hardest thing to write about. And in the face of Nabokov’s superheated imagination, even Wood’s generous reading feels a little reductive. Ada is also about freedom, writing, desire, passion, and what time and distance do to all of the above.
Ultimately, Nabokov manages a kind of Proustian magic trick: he recovers, through evocation, the very things whose losses he depicts. His exquisite, synesthetic sentences render the past present, the time-bound timeless. And they bring this author, not noted for his sympathetic disposition, so close to his hero that the difference disappears. Van Veen’s peculiar ardor becomes universal; to read the description is to share in the experience:The males of the firefly, a small luminous beetle, more like a wandering star than a winged insect, appeared on the first warm black nights of Ardis, one by one, here and there, then in a ghostly multitude, dwindling again to a few individuals as their quest came to its natural end.And:After the first contact, so light, so mute, between his soft lips and her softer skin had been established – high up in that dappled tree, with only that stray ardilla daintily leavesdropping – nothing seemed changed in one sense, all was lost in another. Such contacts evolve their own texture; a tactile sensation is a blind spot; we touch in silhouette.Aesthetically, intellectually, and even morally, this is a Difficult Book par excellence. It demands a lover’s patience. But sentences like these are our steadfast consolation for submitting to the wiles of Ada.
It’s always hard for me to choose the best book I’ve read in any given year, since I read constantly, if slowly, like a tortoise. This past year I’ve read mostly novels, although I often read history, biography, lay science, memoir, and poetry, as well. As the season wanes, I like to look back over my list, however paltry it may be (the tortoise effect). This year’s included Matthew Kneale’s wonderful historical novel English Passengers; Kazuo Ishiguro’s quite perfect The Remains of the Day; Lampedusa’s masterful tale of fading aristocracy, The Leopard; Giles Waterfield’s eerie story of war in Europe, The Long Afternoon; a fabulous work of history, The Discovery of France, by Graham Robb; and Jane Austen’s Emma (how did I miss this one during my previous forty-three years?).
But the book that really marks 2009 for me is one I probably should have read long before and will probably read at least once again, life permitting: A Tale of Two Cities by, of course, Charles Dickens.
A Tale of Two Cities is one of those books so famous that it has come to seem more title than actual book, like Frankenstein, Dracula, Moby Dick, War and Peace. Wikipedia tells us that it is the “most printed original English book.” It contains one of the three or four most famous first lines in the English language: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” I remember that when I was about thirteen, my father was talking about first lines and he said, “What if you reversed that? ‘It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.’ Doesn’t work at all, does it?” And my uncle, also literary, liked to quote the last line of the book, in a mock-epic voice: “It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done…” Clearly, it was high time for me to find out what lay between those two galloping old warhorses.
A Tale of Two Cities contains all the hallmarks of the Victorian tearjerker: it is sentimental, cloyingly pious, full of terribly convenient and eventually predictable coincidences, laden with long sentences, self-sacrificing Angel-in-the-House female leads, political caricatures, and grotesque minor characters. I was riveted from the first–or, perhaps, the second–sentence–and I wept over the last.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much about the story, in case you’ve waited as long as I to read it, because the plot is so intricately suspenseful that almost anything I describe about it will give too much away.
Suffice it to say that it is not only an extraordinary piece of storytelling but also a remarkable piece of historical fiction–eighty years after the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, Dickens imagined not simply the large machineries of social injustice and mob fury but also the very essence of everyday life under duress, the things that make history real to a reader–the rough wool fabric of a red cap, the color of the mud on a man’s shoes, the staring eyes of a stone figure on a chateau wall, the murdering women with blood on their skirt hems going home to their Paris quarter to feed the children, the tree from which a guillotine was made. Please do not wait as long as I did.
For the ultimate experience, hear it as I did, too: as a Recorded Books AudioBook (available at your public library), read by the incomparable Frank Muller (originally a Shakespearian stage actor).
Dickens was made to be read aloud, by fireplace and coal stove, lantern and gaslight, and A Tale of Two Cities is even better in this form than on the printed page.
Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, Or the History of a Young Lady (1747-8): The difficulty of Richardson’s masterpiece lies almost exclusively in its length: the outsized Penguin Classics edition (9×5.5×3) is 1,500 pages and weights nearly three pounds. I’m not sure it’s the longest novel in English; Richardson’s own Sir Charles Grandison might be longer, and surely the likes of Pynchon, Wallace, and Bolaño have overtaken Clarissa by now—but she is certainly among the longest. Other possible sources of difficulty: the eighteenth-century diction and syntax of Richardson’s masterpiece may seem a little strange or prim at first, as may the social mores of eighteenth-century England, and some readers find the plot insufficient to the length of the book (“if you were to read Richardson for the story,” Samuel Johnson noted, “your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself.”) Many readers, however, are ultimately drawn in by Richardson’s hero and heroine and the incredible psychological depth with which he draws them (Johnson again: “the first book in the world for the knowledge it displays of the human heart”). The nature of the relationship between the beautiful, virtuous, otherworldly Clarissa Harlowe and her lover/tormenter, the aristocratic libertine Robert Lovelace is entrancing. For emotional and psychological complexity, you will not find a more impressive novel in English.
Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767): In the words of Steve Coogan (playing himself playing Tristram Shandy in Michael Winterbottom’s film version of Sterne’s seemingly unfilmable novel), Tristram Shandy is “a post-modern classic before there was any modernism to be post- about.” Sterne’s 1759 masterpiece is an anachronism—a case of modern, even post-modern, literary sensibility springing up almost two hundred years before either aesthetic became widespread. The difficulty of the book is primarily structural: the novel’s jumbled, non-linear chronology is frequently interrupted by hero/narrator Tristram’s taste for digressions, pre-history, and recounting the doings of minor characters instead of his own life story (he does not get around to narrating his own birth until the third volume of the novel). Tristram patches into his text seemingly unrelated tales, letters, and images as he pleases, and (maddeningly) begins recounting events only to stop short of their denouement (a sort of writerly/readerly coitus interruptus). Some readers just don’t enjoy the novel’s intense consciousness of the chaos of real “life and opinions” and the near-impossibility of representing them accurately in literary form (Samuel Johnson, for one: “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.”). Sterne’s artful literary approximation of the associative, digressive messiness that is the real mode of human thinking and life plots, his attention to the difference between real time and narrative time, and his constant attention to the author’s determinative and problematic role in the story he tells, are not for everyone. But for those willing to mount their hobbyhorses and give TS a go, I recommend watching Winterbottom’s film (a movie about making a movie about a book about writing a book) as a warm-up. Also, as one of our readers testified in the introductory post for this series, “Tristram Shandy is laugh aloud funny. I picked it up a few years ago with no prior knowledge–just wanted a novel from the eighteenth century. It’s a real treat. At one point, Sterne gets 8 pp. out of a piping hot chestnut falling into a guy’s breeches. This is lofty stuff.”
Herman Melville, Moby Dick; Or, The Whale (1851): This is one of my favorite books and my choice for the great American novel, but I know others to have found it tough sledding (which, in a Shandian vein, reminds me of Moby Dick’s Nantucket sleigh rides…). The trouble with Moby Dick, as I’ve gathered, is twofold: First, it’s structurally odd, an anatomy more than a novel: a mix of novelistic narration and plot, reverie and essay, a quasi-scientific treatise on whether the whale is a fish (the dreaded ceatology chapter—which I recommend skipping altogether the first time through), dramatic monologues and dialogues, technical descriptions of the craft of whaling, a miscellany of quotations. Second, I have a feeling with Melville (as with his sometime friend and contemporary Nathanial Hawthorne) that the allegory at work in the novel is a little out of my league as a contemporary person (the allegorical habit of mind is rarely evident in contemporary culture—perhaps in Lars von Trier’s Dogville), that I might not have the wherewithal to construe properly: What does the counterpane represent? The whiteness of the whale? The doubloon? Unlike, say, Pilgrim’s Progress whose allegory is totally transparent (Obsinate, Pliable, Worldly Wiseman…), Melville’s symbols have an indissoluble ambiguity, a lingering feeling of disparate possible meanings. But this is how it’s supposed to be, I think, and speaks more to Melville’s genius and his slightly mystical taste for signifiers with multiple signifieds. As with Milton, I recommend hearing this book. Moby Dick is really funny—occasionally verging into slapstick (Ah, the meeting between Queequeq and Ishmael! Oh, the shark sermon!)—and its prose is magnificent from start to finish (though heavy on dialect speech, which can be hard to read). With a recording, someone else (I recommend Frank Muller at Recorded Books) has the trouble of doing the dialect and you just have the pleasure and the beauty. For those averse to audiobooks, I am particularly fond of the Norton edition with illustrations by Warren Chappell and notes and commentary by Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker.
More Difficult Books
I have a soft spot for literary adventure tales. It’s why, for example, I’m a big fan of certain of T.C. Boyle’s novels and also why Alvaro Mutis’ The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll is on my personal best novel shortlist. So it was with great pleasure this summer that I finally read Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers, a book I suspected I might enjoy when I first heard about it several years ago.
Kneale pairs two plots that by the book’s final quarter have converged. One plot centers on the swift and brutal demise of Tasmania’s indigenous people upon contact with English colonists in the early 1800s. The other follows an expedition, around the same time, led by pastor and geology enthusiast Reverend Geoffrey Wilson whose research has led him to believe that the Garden of Eden lies in Tasmania. It’s a volatile mix, involving Manx smugglers; eugenicists; prison colonies; long ocean voyages; short chapters in the maritime literary tradition of Moby Dick; clever narrative devices like diary entries, scientific notes, and inventive use of dialect; and ample humor. It’s the sort of book that has you running for atlases and encyclopedias to try to learn by what alchemy the author has turned history into such invigorating fiction.
“You couldn’t tell that story in the same words that Americans used to order pizzas, let alone in little pictures.” – Jay Cantor, Great NeckI.Last fall, a preview for a movie called The Boy in The Striped Pajamas began running in American theaters. The film’s marketing team had no doubt noticed that October offered their picture a bit of an open market: the summer blockbusters had just blasted 2008 Oscar-winner The Counterfeiters from collective memory, and 2009 contenders The Reader and Defiance (and Good and Valkyrie and Adam Resurrected) had yet to be released. What bound The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to these competitors was its historical backdrop: the near-extinction of the European Jews. Harder to assess, from the preview, was the use to which that backdrop was being put.Exterior: CONCENTRATION CAMP. A YOUNG GERMAN stumbles upon a JEWISH BOY, who sits behind a barbed-wire fence. JEWISH BOY is gaunt, shaven-headed.JEWISH BOY: “The soldiers…they took all our clothes away.”GERMAN BOY: “My dad’s a soldier, but not the sort that takes peoples’ clothes away.”Cut to: David Thewlis, looking every inch the Nazi officer.Cut to: Montage of the two boys, the child of Nazis and the child of Jews, chatting and playing chess, forging a FORBIDDEN FRIENDSHIP from opposite sides of barbed wire.The solemn dialogue and sumptuous cinematography suggested noble cinematic aspirations. And yet it was hard not to see The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, compressed to two minutes and sandwiched almost parenthetically between teasers for the latest James Bond and the latest Judd Apatow, as merely a variation on an equally generic Hollywood product: the redemption flick. By the time it appeared on the marquee of my local theater, the movie’s title had been shortened to BOY IN PJs (to fit between Saw 5 and The Secret Life of Bees), and every time I walked past the marquee, it nagged at me, as the preview did. People died, I thought – real people – and this is the best you could do?I can see now that I was overreacting; film is itself, of necessity, a form of abbreviation. Even Claude Lanzmann’s 9-hour documentary, Shoah, left things out. BOY IN PJs was merely the next logical step in the journey that begins whenever we put history onto the screen or onto the page: a metonymic drift in which pajamas stand for prisoner’s garb, which stands for the loss of freedom, which stands for the loss of life.Then again, the theater was less than a block from the synagogue. And so, though it seemed a little late in the day to protest the muffling of history under the dead hand of costume drama, I waited in vain for someone at least to ask the theater owners to restore the missing letters to the movie’s title. Didn’t anyone care about this stuff anymore?II.After the Holocaust, the philosopher Theodor Adorno declared in 1949, writing poetry became “barbaric.” Like many of Adorno’s pronouncements, this one was best understood as a provocation to think, rather than as a doctrine demanding fealty. A generation of writers including Primo Levi and Paul Celan found ways to violate the letter of Adorno’s law, and seemed more like heroes than barbarians as they did so. Still, in the second half of the Twentieth Century, those who would represent the Holocaust – and those who would consume those representations – at least had to contend with Adorno’s spirit. For fifty years, almost instinctively, we extended to the 6 million dead a reverence that was disappearing from the rest of the culture.Among the constituent gestures of this reverence – among its rituals – was an effort to hold the Holocaust separate – separate from language, separate from cliché, separate from the always already compromised field of aesthetics, separate from other mass murders. Or to connect it only to very specific historical narratives: about the sufferings of the Chosen People, about the evils of appeasement. Those who failed in their observances were widely condemned. In 1963, for example, when Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem portrayed its subject not as a transhistorical and theological monster, but as a morally deficient human being, the Anti-Defamation League asked American rabbis to decry the book before their congregations. A group of touring intellectuals-for-hire dubbed Arendt “The Rosa Luxembourg of Nothingness.” Three decades later, when Roberto Begnini’s Life is Beautiful inaugurated the genre of Holocaust kitsch, the Cahiers du Cinema refused to review it.For committed free-thinkers, the limitations of reverence as a philosophical position appeared obvious. (“Piety,” once a virtue, tends to carry exclusively negative connotations among those who don’t like to be told what to do.) But, on balance, it created a productive anxiety for the arts. The supreme difficulty of doing justice to so much suffering and so much death before such a tough audience inspired more than one writer’s finest work; anxiety is what gave productions as reticent as W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and as scabrous as Mel Brooks’ The Producers their ethical charge. (Not, anxiety compels me to add, that it was any consolation.)That anxiety endures to this day… at least in the pages of our leading periodicals. In The New York Times and The New Republic and The New York Review of Books and Slate, bright and engaged critics such as Jacob Heilbrunn, Ruth Franklin, Daniel Mendelsohn, and Ron Rosenbaum regularly consider whether new novels and memoirs and movies about the Holocaust are worthy of their grave subject. But the current superabundance of aestheticized Holocausts beggars our capacity for judgment, to say nothing of our capacity for outrage. The controversy over Angel At The Fence – a concentration-camp memoir revealed last December to be fraudulent – burned itself out in a week.In fact, in 2009, reality has again outrun the intellectuals, as it tends periodically to do. As the youngest survivors of the Nazi era enter their eighth decade, the apposite question is no longer the ethical one – how should we represent the Holocaust – but the anthropological one – how do we. And it appears that, for better or worse, we have begun to represent the Holocaust the way we do everything else.Jonathan Littell’s mammoth new novel The Kindly Ones, is not only a case in point; it is an apotheosis. In a single coup, the book erases the lines that held the Holocaust apart from other literary subjects and bound it to its own standards of representation. And so, more than any other recent cultural event – more than The Reader, more than BOY IN PJs – it affords us a measure of what we gain, and what we lose, when we drag the supreme example of human suffering into contact with the great muddy stream of mass culture.It may seem unfair to front-load a reading of a single novel with so much historical baggage. Upon the book’s publication in French, Littell himself reminded Pierre Nora in Le Débat that his main concern was that the book “work… as a literary vehicle.” But it is Littell who, by writing a 975-page novel from the point-of-view of a sexually damaged S.S. officer, has invited the burdens he must now carry. His work can achieve its totalizing ambitions only to the extent that it exhausts every facet of its monstrous subject. That Littell manages to embody so completely the difficulties of finding a new literary approach to his subject thus testifies, perversely, to some degree of success. For The Kindly Ones, which seeks to drag readers through the heart of historical darkness, does us at least this kindness: it brings us valuable news about the way we live now.III.Some of the The Kindly Ones’ success in France can be attributed to the sheer improbability of its existence. Written from the point-of-view of an S.S. officer, in French, by the retiring, American-born son of the spy novelist Robert Littell – a descendent of European Jews – the book offered the press a multiplicity of hooks and angles. And there was the matter of its sheer size. If Moby-Dick represents the exhaustive aspirations of a certain strain of American fiction, contemporary French writers have tended to labor in the more streamlined shadows of Duras and Camus. French readers received Littell’s 2.5-pound book with the ecstasy of liberated prisoners, snapping up something like 750,000 copies and awarding him the 2006 Prix Goncourt.For all of its idiosyncrasies, however, The Kindly Ones is, in its narrative arc, an almost archetypal first novel. It traces four years in the life of a young man named Dr. Maximilian Aue, who in that time journeys from innocence (of a sort) to experience. While still in law school, Aue is pressured to join the S.S. As an officer, he becomes a kind of Zelig figure, managing to get himself entangled in many of the war’s most significant events. Flashbacks recording Aue’s growing up, and his early ambivalence about his military career, are at first apportioned sparingly. In the main, narrative time marches arm-in-arm with history. Aue is attached to the einsatzkommandos that conduct mass shootings at Babi Yar and elsewhere; gets transferred to the Caucasus at the apex of Hitler’s Russian campaign; is injured in the Battle of Stalingrad; travels on leave to Vichy Paris; inspects Auschwitz; dines with Eichmann; takes orders from Himmler; and ultimately fulfills his destiny in a bunker as the Allies take Berlin.Compacted into a single paragraph, this synopsis tests the bounds of credulity. Yet one of the book’s remarkable achievements – likely its finest – is the way it re-connects the most thoroughly documented pieces of the Holocaust to an almost incomprehensibly vast historical whole. Over the hundreds of pages covering the Eastern Front, Littell allows the signal events of Aue’s biography to mingle with the quotidian: meals, illnesses, boredom, trauma, politics. At this human scale, the horrors Aue participates in loom even larger than they do from the bird’s eye of history. Death registers in a way that transcends statistics – not only as the end product of the Final Solution but as a condition of existence. It haunts the footsoldiers on both sides of the Eastern Front, and the officers, and the partisans, and the Jews. Exposed to forced marches and disease and rape and murder in something approaching real-time, we come to feel – as opposed to intellectually acknowledging – the pervasive grimness of total war.Presenting the Holocaust in this context also affords readers a deeper understanding of the ideological mechanisms of genocide. We are allowed to see how appeals to military necessity lay the groundwork, in the minds of the S.S. men and in the language that they speak, for the Final Solution. Littell exposes us to a dizzying range of anti-Semitisms, from the apoplectic to the anti-Communist to the somewhat resigned.The Jews themselves, alas, seem mostly like an unindividuated mass, but perhaps this is how they seem to our narrator. Littell allows room for this interpretation early on by giving us several moments that run counter to it, as when Aue personally supervises the execution of an elderly Jew, a theologian, who has turned himself in in the Caucasus:The old man fell like a marionette whose string has been cut all at once. I went up to the grave and leaned over: he was lying at the bottom like a sack, his head turned aside, still smiling a little. . . I was trembling. “Close that up,” I curtly ordered Hanning.After several pages of conversation with his victim, Aue has come to see him as a person, rather than as a part of a mass, and has hesitated. And why only hesitated? The gap between “trembling” and “curtly” contains the mystery that the book should be seeking to unravel.IV.What we don’t get, in the half of the novel devoted to the Eastern Front, is enough attention to that mystery. Or at least, not as much as we’ve been led to expect by the book’s prologue. There Aue, elderly and living under an assumed identity in postwar France, addressed us directly, defiantly… intimately. Now, on the Front, he has acquired the flat address of the camera.This movement away from interiority complicates Littell’s attempt to do for morality what he has managed to do for history: that is, to bring the Holocaust into view not as a singularity, but as part of a larger whole. And this is arguably the more crucial of Littell’s projects, as it is the only one for which the novelist’s tools surpass the historian’s. The essential unanswered question about the Holocaust – presumably one of the reasons for this novel’s being – is not how, but why.Littell knows that cordoning evil off from history lets us off the hook. (I am not like you, Stalin thinks, looking at newsreels of Hitler. I have reasons.) And so The Kindly Ones seeks to suggest the incredible complexity and variety of forces that add up to genocide, and how they embed themselves in the daily life of human beings. “I am just like you!” Aue insists at the end of the prologue.Yet, at the moments when this identification matters most, our narrator becomes inaccessible. The first time we see Aue kill with his own hand, he speaks of “an immense, boundless rage, I kept shooting at her and her head exploded like a fruit, then my arm detached itself from me and went off all by itself down the ravine, shooting left and right.” And then we get this:A sentence of Chesterton’s ran through my head: I never said it was always wrong to enter fairyland. I only said it was always dangerous. Is that what war was, then, a perverted fairyland, the playground of a demented child who breaks his toys and shouts with laughter, gleefully tossing the dishes out the window?How are we to interpret these trite metaphors? As a form of intellectual dissociation? As the falsification of memory by the latter-day narrator, looking back with the benefit of hindsight? Certainly not as a credible psychological account of a man “just like us” who has just killed for the first time. And what of the lurid cinema of that “exploded fruit?” Is Aue actually a sadist? A schizophrenic? An aesthete? A fraud? These are not mysteries, they are problems. Generally, we would look to style resolve them, but in the passage above, this is hardly possible.Indeed, style itself is a problem – one that grows as The Kindly Ones rumbles on. Acronymic Befehlsprache bleeds from dialogue into narrative. Descriptions of nature and weather, presumably meant to startle us by their incongruity, never rise above the anodyne: cows low, bees buzz, snow blankets the countryside. And the gray laziness of Littell’s descriptive mode ripens to a Koontzian purple in the presence of death. “The skull was resting against a stone,” Aue tells us at one point,quite clean, its empty sockets swarming with beetles, its gnawed lips baring yellow teeth, washed by the rain: and the skull had opened, revealing the intact flesh of the mouth, a thick, almost wriggling tongue, pink, obscene.Those last two hectoring adjectives turn whatever effect the sentence was to have had into parody. Littell seems eager enough to tell us what Aue feels – “boundless rage,” “vague anguish,” – or, in the venerable tradition of undergraduate fiction, to register those feelings in the form of intestinal discomfort or loss of consciousness, but he never develops a vocabulary for showing us, in modulations of the point-of-view, how Aue is changing or being changed by his work.The conspicuous opacity of the narrative voice Littell has settled into by the novel’s midpoint makes it impossible to understand the frequent lapses into hamhandedness as conscious effects. Perhaps something has been lost in Charlotte Mandell’s translation – or perhaps the lapses betoken a commitment to the poetics of Maurice Blanchot – but one comes to wonder whether they are simply bad writing, of a sort we’re unaccustomed to seeing in connection with the Holocaust. We might even be willing to overlook it, were we operating in the genre of historical novel. But Littell is after bigger game. (I’m just like you!) And because literature cannot avoid having an aesthetic dimension, Littell’s weaknesses of style will have grave consequences for the second half of The Kindly Ones, where he concentrates the book’s most obviously aesthetic elements: its plot, its exploration of character, and its self-negating elaboration of its themes.V.The entire novel – thus far powerful in its scale, but uneven in its portraiture – is supposed to turn, I think, on the scene, 400-odd pages in where Aue gets shot in the head in Stalingrad. The careful reader will notice that this is the precise point at which Aue’s copious, and copiously chronicled, bowel problems – his chronic diarrhea and literal nausea – begin to abate. It also marks an inflection point in his career prospects. Aue’s sensibility changes, too. Whatever has attenuated his appetite for violence – and for self-disclosure – has apparently been amputated. And so, after a long fever-dream fantasia on his incestuous love for his twin sister, he goes home to see his hated mother and stepfather. At the end of his visit, they’ve been hacked to death. With an axe.The title The Kindly Ones is an allusion to Aeschylus’ Oresteia, and with this murder, the previously subtle parallels come jostling to the foreground. In the last 450 pages of the novel, set largely in Germany and Poland, Max’s flight from his own “Kindly Ones” – a.k.a. his pursuing Furies – will take center-stage. Daniel Mendelsohn, who knows from Aeschylus, has mounted a credible argument that the novel constitutes is a meditation on two very different conceptions of justice: the Hellenistic and the Judeo-Christian. Yet Littell’s approach to evil in this second half of the book – one part phrenology, one part fatalism, one part Freud – explains away the very mystery that drew us into Aue’s exploits on the Eastern Front: the mystery of why. Also overlooked by Mendelsohn is the slackness that now pervades every paragraph. Even if the Oresteian parallel were to justify the inclusion of Aue’s masochistic homosexual encounters and his sadistic incest fantasies, would it necessitate treating them in such tedious detail? An onanistic orgy at a deserted country house goes on for 40 pages:The mattress was as clean as the sheets. So I set about soiling it myself, squatting with my legs wide apart, the ghostly body of my sister open beneath me, her head turned slightly aside and her hair pulled back to reveal her small, delicate, round ear that I loved so, then I collapsed in slime and abruptly fell asleep, my belly still sticky. I wanted to possess this bed, but it was the bed that possessed me.This isn’t transgression; this is an embarrassment.The embarrassment need not extend from author to narrator. After Stalingrad, we are meant, I think, to see Aue’s poisoned conscience leaking out and poisoning his world, and some of what Aue presents as fact is surely fantasy. Perhaps, like us, Aue is not capable of living with his crimes short of a complete mental breakdown. But the plot depends upon other, equally clumsily rendered elements (again, elements from The Oresteia). To dismiss the cartoonishness of the prose as simply an index of Aue’s grip on reality is to introduce an Escherian instability into the text.Rather, what I think we discover, in the second half of The Kindly Ones, is the inevitable dark side of our new era of Holocaust discourse. Artists young enough to ask interesting questions about, say, the eating habits and family lives of the Nazis, are artists whose aesthetic standards have been formed, not in the charnel-house of history, but in our fluid, polymorphously perverse popular culture. Littell may see himself as a student of Parisian deep-thinkers, but he’s learned at least as much from Hollywood. For where else but in the town that originated the terms “shock value” and “money shot” does the gross-out gag register as an end-in-itself? And where but in the movies would Littell’s commercial autoeroticism – insert sausage into rectum, insert penis into pie – register as shocking?VI.It seems we cannot erase the line of reverence that held the Holocaust apart from the rest of history without also eroding the line that kept it unpolluted by the rest of our culture, with its increasing shamelessness and ephemerality. Indeed, they were the same line. In 1995, William H. Gass’ monumental The Tunnel committed far less outré, and far more disturbing, discursive violations; ultimately, though, the book was still tethered to Adorno-esque notions of “the fascism of the heart,” and so it added to the common store of literature, even as its claims to departure from that literature collapsed. Fifteen years later, The Kindly Ones, authentically escaping from literary precedent, loses its bearings in the stylistic fog of horror movies, pornography, and advertisements. By the laughable last pages, Littell’s scatology registers mostly as shtick. Which is, you’ll notice, an anagram of kitsch.Notice also that we are miles away from talking about the concentration camps – Aue’s professional concern in the second half of The Kindly Ones. Under the old dispensation, writing about the Holocaust was seen as brave precisely because one owed it to one’s subject to also be good. Under the new one, you can dedicate your novel to “the dead” and still have your readers walk away remembering mostly the masturbation fantasies. If no one will honor your bravery, it’s only because you’ve managed to annihilate the source of any risk you might have run.Such is our current situation. We’ve moved from the Eichmann in Jerusalem controversy to the Angel at the Fence kerfuffle, from The Drowned and the Saved to BOY IN PJS. We’ve crossed the great divide between reverence and “meh.” This movement is called postmodernism, and in abler hands than Littell’s, it may yet prove itself capable of finding new ways to speak about the unspeakable. And yet it’s worth remembering that its direct forerunner, Friedrich Nietzsche, called not for the abandonment of all values, but their revaluation. The example of The Kindly Ones suggests that that revaluation becomes more difficult, not less, in the absence of something to rebel against. When nothing is sacred, there can be no sacrilege.We might say, of Littell, après lui, le deluge, but of course the deluge has already begun. Ethically, The Kindly Ones’ mash-up of Life and Fate and American Psycho represents no worse an offense than this season’s crop of Oscar movies, which give us the Holocaust as The Magnificent Seven, as The Green Mile; as “Hot for Teacher.” Harper Collins paid around a million dollars for the translation rights to The Kindly Ones, no doubt anticipating a wave of profitable outrage from prudish American reviewers. Indeed, the novel’s jacket copy promises “provocation and controversy.” In the end, though, the only meaningful provocation is how little controversy this intermittently powerful, sloppily written, and morally incoherent book is likely to cause: how commonplace it now seems.Is it too late to ask for our anxiety back?
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?Edan: There are so many gaping holes in my reading! I haven’t read Proust (saving him for my white-haired years) and, beyond Chekhov, not many Russians (I’ll be reading Anna Karenina next month and I’m looking forward to it). I haven’t read Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, or Infinite Jest – I tend to avoid big books. I’m too embarrassed to name one very famous Shakespeare play I know next to nothing about. I never read mysteries or horror, mostly because I’m a scared wimp, but I’m thinking of reading a Patricia Highsmith novel this year. Recently, I’ve started to read more books in translation, and since graduating from college I’ve made a point of reading all the classics I missed, like To the Lighthouse and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both of which I loved. I’m also making myself read more nonfiction, since I never would otherwise. I haven’t even read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood! Writing this reminds me of all the writers I haven’t read: Homer, Norman Mailer, John Irving, Gertrude Stein, John McPhee, J.K. Rowling. That’s right, I haven’t read Harry Potter!Why am I wasting my time writing this? I must go read. Now.Andrew: As I do a quick mental survey of my life of reading, I notice a number of gaping holes. Some beckon; others continue to keep me at bay.Chronologically, then: The Classics. Aside from some excerpts of the ancient Greeks in high school English, I’ve never delved into classical literature. I have seen a number of theatrical adaptations of classical Greek plays, but that’s about it. Aside from excerpts, I’ve never even read Homer.I’ll jump ahead to the 1800s only because I’m not exactly sure what I’m missing from the intervening centuries. Lets assume EVERYTHING. (except Don Quixote – I’ve actually read that). So, on to the 1800s: I’ve never read Moby Dick or Middlemarch. I’ve done quite well re: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, and the Russians. I’ve also done quite well in early-mid 20th century fiction – that was always (and remains) my favorite literary era.More recently, I’ve done quite well with modern British fiction, and I’ve also been quite good at Latin American fiction from the past 50 years (Mutis, Marquez, Borges, Bolano). But still some gaps remain in 20th century fiction: Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood (I should be stripped of my Canadian citizenship for that).Before the Millions, contemporary American fiction had been a giant hole. But over the past 6 years I’ve delved deeply into Lethem, Chabon, Franzen, and once I can successfully wrap my puny brain around David Foster Wallace’s encyclopedic prose, I’ll actually finish Infinite Jest. It’s mesmerizing, but exhausting.Emily: When it comes to playing readerly “I Never,” there are rather a lot of burly man-authors, chiefly twentieth-century man-authors, whose work I’ve never read. Hemingway (other than the 4 page story “Hills Like White Elephants”), Kerouac (a bit of his poetry; enough of On the Road), Roth, Updike, Kesey, Heller, Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, Vonnegut, Pynchon, Moody, and Foster Wallace all fall into the category of authors I haven’t read. Many of them fall also into the category of authors I have no interest in reading. Perhaps it is that I intuit (or imagine – not having read them, it is hard to say) a masculinist, vaguely misogynist aura that has put me off; Or, as in the cases of Pynchon and Foster Wallace, a virtuousic formal complexity or grandiose heft, that I also associate with the masculine artistic mind. There is, I am aware, no way to justify my philistine (and perhaps sexist) distrust of these authors – my sense that I would find their depictions of violence and apocalypse, aimless wandering, women conquered, uninteresting; that I think I would find their self-conscious cleverness, their feats of stylistic and structural brilliance somewhat tedious; that in reading B.R. Meyer’s “A Reader’s Manifesto” at The Atlantic some years ago, I decided that Meyers’ extended pull quotes designed to illustrate McCarthy’s “muscular” style were as much (more) than I’d ever need of McCarthy’s much lauded prose:While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who’s will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)No thank you. Well-founded, my prejudices certainly are not, but I do not apologize for them or intend to renounce them. Cormac McCarthy may keep his pretty horses – give me clarity, proportion, precision; give me Austen and Burney, Defoe, Iris Murdoch, P.G. Woodhouse, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, Mary McCarthy, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis. If one must be a philistine, it is best to be an unrepentant one.Garth: What is the biggest hole in my lifetime of reading? The question should probably be phrased in the plural: holes. I’ve never read Kundera; never read Saramago; never read Robinson Crusoe, or Wuthering Heights, or Clarissa; William James, Slavoj Zizek, Henderson the Rain King… Then again, these are kind of scattershot: smallish holes, with some space in between them.Where I feel a huge constellation of holes, threatening to make one giant hole large enough to swallow me, is in Classics. Especially the Greeks. I would like to take a year and just read Plato and Aristotle and the Greek dramas. Or go back to school… So much is built on a basic corpus of Hellenistic knowledge that I somehow never acquired in school. We did The Iliad, The Odyssey, Oedipus… and that’s pretty much it.Kevin: The holes are too numerous to count and the biggest are likely ones I’m not even aware of. I have tried over the last couple years to close some of the most gaping omissions in my reading – secondary Shakespeare plays and the big books of Russian literature being two areas of particularly concerted effort. What remains? Well, a lot. Two that seem particularly important are the British romantic poets and the modernist. The former feels like washing the dishes, to be done of necessity but without any great joy. I think I’ll save Lord Byron and his court for later life, when the years will hopefully have afforded me the wisdom to enjoy their work more. I feel a greater urgency with the modernists, in part because I’ve had enough false starts that I worry I lack the concentration to extract the good stuff from their difficult prose. For about three years I’ve been thirty pages into Mrs. Dalloway and likewise with Ulysses. When it’s the time of day when I typically turn to fiction, I find I lack the appetite to pick them up to begin the fight anew. So, the hole remains, and seems even to grow deeper by the day.Max: This turns out to be a rather liberating exercise. The largest missing piece in my reading experience has been Faulkner, I think. I’ve never read any of his books, though I made a poor and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at The Sound and the Fury in college. I’ve long felt that I should have gotten started on the Russians sooner. So far, I’ve only got Crime and Punishment under my belt. I think I’d like to try Anna Karenina next. I’ve also never read Lolita. Updike’s passing this week reminded me that I’ve never read any of his books. The same is true of DeLillo’s books and Foster Wallace’s. By Philip Roth, I’ve read only Portnoy’s Complaint, which I know leaves out many, many good books. I really need to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Tree of Smoke and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. There are likely many more that I can’t even recall that I haven’t read, but I’ll leave it with Virginia Woolf, whose To the Lighthouse I started not long ago but ended up setting aside when it failed to grab me (or rather, I failed to be grabbed by it).So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?
Wells Tower’s short stories and journalism have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, The Washington Post Magazine, and elsewhere. He received two Pushcart Prizes and the Plimpton Prize from The Paris Review. He divides his time between Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Brooklyn, New York. His first collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, will be published in March.Last spring, it started seeming insane that I’d never read Moby Dick, which, naturally, knocked me over. I’d been warned about the unending contemplations of harpoon hawsers, the glutinous curds in the sperm whale’s skull-milk, etc., etc., but I hadn’t braced adequately for the rabid exuberance of Melville’s language. Every sentence is like a maxed-out steam calliope. Melville could herniate himself describing a pencil. Also, he’s hilarious, e.g., that scene where the Pequod’s bearing down on the crippled whale whose maimed rear fin causes the water to bubble, simulating flatus, and Stubb cries, “Adverse winds are holding mad Christmas in him, boys.”Other books that astounded me included Allan Gurganus’s short story collection White People (which deserves a place alongside the stories of Yates and Cheever for its gorgeously tooled sentences and huge, hurting heart), Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, The Known World by Edward P. Jones, Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Dusk by James Salter, Charles Portis’s The Dog of the South, Nabokov’s King, Queen, Knave, and The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts, which reveals E. Pound’s inspired vandalisms against the early versions.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Friend of The Millions, proprietor of Pinky’s Paperhaus, and all around great gal Carolyn Kellogg has landed at the LA Times book blog Jacket Copy. We have little doubt that she’ll do great things there.Following Heath Ledger’s untimely death, BBC looks at the myriad ways in which Hollywood has dealt with losing an actor mid-production, dating back to 1937 “when Jean Harlow died, aged 26, during the making of Saratoga. With filming 90% complete, a lookalike and two Harlow sound-a-likes (voice doubles) took up where the star left off.”Bookride is back with an intriguing look at the collectors’ market for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude. Don’t miss this tidbit: “By the way sending books to authors for signing is something of a gamble – Thomas Hardy used to keep all the books sent to him neatly shelved in a spare room.”Speaking of Garcia Marquez, Edith Grossman, the translator who has shaped the Latin American canon for English speakers over the last few decades, is profiled in bookforum.The New Republic offers the story behind the controversial New York Times John McCain/lobbyist story.The Morning News returns with its third annual Tournament of Books. Sadly, there will be no Bloggers’ Pool this year (despite our being eager to participate again), but Coudal Partners is sponsoring a betting pool for charity this year. As of this writing, On Chesil Beach and Run have had the most money thrown their way.A cartoon drawn on the pages of Moby DickAnd finally, McSweeney’s offers up some sweet Ashton Kutcher fan fiction.
I.Every so often, one feels the great gears of canonization creaking into motion. A long critical essay in The New Republic or the New York Review will direct our attention to an overlooked contemporary poet, or beg our reconsideration of a novelist too long out-of-print. A month later, another such essay will appear in another venue, along with a note announcing the imminent appearance of so-and-so’s collected verse, or the retranslation of the magnum opus of such-and-such. An excerpt follows in The New Yorker. The blogs are abuzz. And then, on the front page of the Sunday Book Review, the Times finally catches on.Okay, this feels a little unfair, a little dyspeptic…and a little too specific to the media centers of the East and West Coasts. Since my college years in the Midwest, I’ve admired the efforts undertaken by presses like Dalkey, New Directions, New York Review Books, and Archipelago on behalf of world literature. And without the coordinated advocacy of critics (Susan Sontag was a marvel in this respect, as in so many others) I might not have copped to Leonid Tspykin, Witold Gombrowicz, Leonard Michaels… The list goes on and on.But at a certain point, the law of diminishing returns sets in. If I made time for every overlooked author recommended in the back pages of Harper’s – lately a veritable house organ for the redoubtable FSG – I’d read little else. Among other things, literary greatness requires, as William H. Gass has argued, passing tests of time. I may have to wait a few more decades to see if posterity accords Orhan Pamuk’s work, for example, the high regard in which present critics hold it. Of if my misgivings about Snow hold water.All of which is to say that when I finished Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives this summer and walked out of my apartment onto the blazing street, humming as though zapped by business end of a live-wire, wanting to climb to the top of the nearest bridge and shout to passersby that they must stop everything and read this book, I felt, despite the relative frequency with which we (myself included) throw around terms like “genius” and “masterpiece,” that I had just been in the presence of the real thing. And that that was a rare and precious gift.II.In Bolaño’s work, emotions tango – terror and fascination go cheek by jowl, laughter rubs elbows with pathos – but an undercurrent of exuberance remains constant, a stylistic signature. Which is remarkable, given the sinister plots that entangle his characters. The Savage Detectives begins (and ends) as the diary of one Juan Garcia Madero, a seventeen-year-old aspiring poet living in Mexico City. Two slightly older poets maudits, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano adopt him as a kind of mascot for their literary circle, the “visceral realists.” Madero’s first diary entry reads, in its entirety: “I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted, of course. There was no initiation ceremony. It was better that way.”No initiation ceremony? Two months and 150 pages later, Madero will find himself in the backseat of a Chevy Impala with a prostitute named Lupe, fleeing a murderous pimp. Up front, Ulises and Arturo set a course for the Sonora desert, where they seek a vanished poet of the 1930s, one Cesarea Tinajero. This is madness! Yet we feel, in the surging rhythms of the prose (translated by Natasha Wimmer), young Madero’s eager acceptance of his fate.”I saw that Lupe was looking at me from inside the car and that she was opening the door. I realized that I’d always wanted to leave. I got in and before I could close the door Ulises stepped on the gas. I heard a shot or something that sounded like a shot. They’re shooting at us, the bastards, said Lupe. I turned around and through the back window I saw a shadow in the middle of the street. All the sadness of the world was concentrated in that shadow, framed by the strict rectangle of the Impala’s window. It’s firecrackers, I heard Belano say as our car leaped forward and left behind the Fonts’ house, the thugs’ Camaro, Calle Colima, and in less than two seconds we were on Avenida Oaxaca, heading north out of the city.”In the space of a few sentences, Juan Garcia Madero has earned his wings. He has learned to see the sadness of the whoremonger, to find the gunfire in the fireworks and vice versa. He has become, in the fullest sense of the word, a poet.Bolaño’s preoccupation with poetry may strike the Norteamericano reader, circa 2007, as odd. Who even reads that stuff anymore? We are far more accustomed to authors who hang their narratives on nuclear war, crime syndicates, cattle drives… But the long middle section of The Savage Detectives, wherein 52 narrators track Arturo and Ulises through the 20 years that follow their fateful journey north, exposes academic definitions of poetry as far too narrow. For Bolaño, as for the Beats, the poem is a way of finding beauty even (or especially) in insalubrious circumstances. Poetry is a synonym for youth, for vitality, for faith in one’s own ability to change the world. Poetry is innocence hungering for experience, and vice versa. It is a way of being in the world.That is to say, poetry signifies as much to Bolaño as the whiteness of the whale did to Melville. It functions in The Savage Detectives as Moby-Dick did in the book that bore his name. In his aesthetic innovations – narrative fragmentation, riffs on real historical figures, enjambment of high and low culture – Bolaño resembles a number of other forward-looking novelists. But I can think of no other contemporary writer for whom symbolic preoccupations burn so brightly. Scenes, objects, and characters scintillate with political, ethical, and aesthetic significance. Poetic significance. It is the lunatic density of Bolaño’s symbolism that marks him as truly avant-garde… and also as a vital addition to the mainstream.For some time now, I’ve pictured the American avant-garde as a painter stuck in a corner, surrounded by its own slow-drying handiwork. When an artist strikes out in search of the new, she dreams of the rioting audience of Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring, of customs agents confiscating pallets of books deemed obscene. And yet, in a culture where dissonance and obscenity are the norm, how is the artist to provoke any reaction at all?The situation is seen most clearly in the world of visual art, where, with the regularity of changing hemlines, proclamations of the Rebirth of Painting alternate with controversies about religious icons rendered in various forms of bodily excretion. One can, Alex P. Keaton-like, react against the excesses of the father by turning toward the conservative. Or one can push farther, ever farther, celebrating the celebrity, marketing the market, outgrossing the gross-out. The most important work being done, at least theoretically, involves a compromise: some genetic splicing of Old Mastery with the shallow holography of mass culture. Think Jeff Wall. Think John Currin and Cindy Sherman.At least these folks are still considered leaders in their field. In American literature, experimentalism is kept like a domesticated animal. For twenty-two hours a day, it sleeps under the kitchen table. Occasionally, when we get bored, we trot it out and put it through its tricks to remind ourselves that, hey, we’re as hip as the next guy. But an avant-garde novel is never going to change the way we see the world.Well, The Savage Detectives blew my pessimism all to hell. Aiming to usurp the throne of literature from Octavio Paz (and, later, Gabriel Garcia Marquez), Roberto Bolaño produced something unselfconsciously yet distinctly his own.Nothing more or less than the sum of the stories told about them, Bolaño’s visceral realists come alive in a new way. Not only do we see Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano from every possible angle; we see them from impossible angles as well. Among the novel’s 52 + 1 voices, conflicting accounts proliferate: The visceral realists are geniuses. They are hacks. They are liars. They are saints. The author refuses to render a verdict. And yet his narrators aren’t wholly unreliable: in each version of Ulises and Arturo, we recognize something ineffable and unchanging. However plastic or fantastic, they are always somehow themselves. As we are always somehow ourselves. Among other things, then, The Savage Detectives is a treatise on human nature.III.To borrow from Sir Mix-A-Lot: I like big books, and I cannot lie. Bolaño’s shorter novel, Amulet revisits one of The Savage Detectives’ narrators, a poor Uruguayan named Auxilio Lacoutre. When, in the riotous year of 1968, the Mexican army invades the sovereign campus of the national university, Auxilio refuses to be evacuated. For twelve days, she hides in a women’s bathroom, subsisting on tapwater and scribbling poems on sheets of toilet-paper. In her disorientation, she drifts into the past… And, bizarrely, into the future, where her resistance – like Ulises and Arturo’s exploits – will become the stuff of legend. As a character sketch, Amulet is vivid and hallucinatory, but I found the proliferation of subplots and hazy chronology hard to track. I much preferred the version of Auxilio’s rebellion that appears in The Savage Detectives. Like the tales told by that novel’s other 52 voices, Auxilio’s gains meaning and urgency through its connection to a larger narrative arc.Of course, much of Bolaño’s fiction is part of a single galaxy, like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. Several short stories, for example, are narrated by a figure who shares biographical circumstances with Arturo Belano (which is to say, with Bolano himself). And Caesarea Tinajero, at the end The Savage Detectives, hints darkly at events that will unfold in 2666.Still, for the novitiate looking for a quick introduction to Bolano’s world, the best place to start may be Last Evenings on Earth, a collection of stories rendered into English, like Amulet, by Chris Andrews. It’s all here in miniature: the romantic fatalism, the rich irony, the soupcon of the supernatural, the political depredations, the enigmatic yet incredibly real characters. A story like “Gomez Palacio,” in which, simultaneously, nothing much happens and everything does, presents a vision as idiosyncratic, and as existentially important, as Kafka’s. Each writer seems to have sprung fully formed from the void.Which makes Bolaño’s own story seem all the more implausible. Broke, addicted, and unknown as of the late ’80s, the former poet kicked heroin and took up fiction writing to support his growing family – a quixotic pursuit if ever there was one. Bolaño would enter his short stories in Spain’s many regional writing contests, often winning multiple prizes with the same piece (camouflaged under a variety of titles). By 1999, the massive Savage Detectives had won the Romulo Gallegos prize – Spanish-language literature’s most prestigious award. Upon learning that his liver was failing, Bolaño raced to finish the even-more-massive manuscript for 2666, his literary legacy to the world, and his financial legacy to his wife and children. Whether 2666 can equal or surpass The Savage Detectives remains to be seen (among English-speaking audiences, at least; Wimmer’s translation will be released next year). It seems certain, however, that Bolaño’s place among the dozen or so great novelists of the last quarter-century is secure… Or anyway, that’s how it looks to this correspondent.
How to describe Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave: It is one of those books – like The Anatomy of Melancholy, The Compleat Angler, Minima Moralia, A Tale of a Tub, Urne Buriall – that defies all conventions of genre and, thereby, easy description. Though I have concerned myself much with the academic question of what it means to defy genre classification, I have no easy or convincing answer. By my reckoning, genreless literary works take into themselves aspects of various different disciplines (aesthetic criticism, philosophy, memoir and recollection, in the case of The Unquiet Grave) or genres (Moby-Dick is part “straight” narrative, part allegory, part encyclopedia (the Cetology chapter), part common-place book (the extended collection of quotations concerning whales at the beginning), part drama (the chapters that are laid out like acts in a play, complete with stage directions), part impressionistic quasi-philosophic meditation (“The Masthead” and “The Whiteness of the Whale” chapters)).The difference between a book like Moby-Dick and a book like The Unquiet Grave, is that Melville’s book has a master genre (it is still, at the end of the day, in spite of all of its formal experimentation, unquestionably a novel), whereas Connolly’s book, along the lines of Burton’s Anatomy, Adorno’s Minima Moralia, Wittgenstein’s Culture and Value, Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne Buriall – is, as a reading experience, something more akin to being submerged in the psyche and/or intellect of its author. These books are odd mixes of opinion, quotation, recollection, personal philosophy, and meditation, and all have – some more than others – a fragmentary or aphoristic style of composition that can at times verge on the hallucinatory. And perhaps ‘hallucinatory’ is the wrong word – the sensation that the reading of Connolly’s book induces is (and here I speculate) something more like being possessed for a while by the thoughts, the thought-patterns, rhythms, and favorite authors of someone else. The closest approximation of this sensation that I have found elsewhere is in the reading of private notebooks and unbound papers: Here, a fragmentary transcription of a conversation at a party; there, a formal letter to a parent; there, again, a diaristic meditation on the fear of marriage. All is produced of the same brain, in the same hand, and this common origin is the sole tie that binds the disparate sheaf.And yet, however similar the sensation of rifling through an author’s private papers may at times be to the reading of a book like The Unquiet Grave, a crucial difference remains: A book like Connolly’s performs what manuscript papers actually do. Connolly and his ilk turn the casual essay-istic style of the notebook into art. They refine, polish, and uplift the fragmentary, meandering private style: They make it palatable, even beautiful. Private writing, when it is really and truly private, is not necessarily charmingly haphazard: Almost inevitably, it slips into the unendurably dull, the defeatingly self-obsessed, the clumsy, sloppy, and rough. It is hard going. There are occasional pleasures to be had, gems of wit and observation here and there, to be sure, but these are the exception and not the rule.The beauty, the strange beauty, of The Unquiet Grave and its cousins lies in its elevation of notebook style – that quirky yet potentially enchanting melange of squib, meditation, quotation, anecdote, and philosophical monologue – to high art. The casual, associative meandering that stands in place of traditional chronology- and logic-driven narrative techniques creates the illusion that what we read was actually just dashed off casually in snatches of free time, while the quality of the thought, and the quality of the prose belies this informal, nonchalance of organization.Below are a few choice excerpts from The Unquiet Grave, by Palinurus (Connolly’s authorial pseudonym for this “experiment in self-dismantling”; the pilot of Aeneas’ boat who fell asleep at the rudder, fell into the sea, and was drowned; Palinurus was a sacrifice taken by Neptune; he died – though he didn’t know it – so the rest could arrive safely at Avernus).In their variety and strangeness, these passages (I hope) will give something of an introduction to the book:”Cowardice in living: without health and courage we cannot face the present or the germ of the future in the present, and we take refuge in evasion. Evasion through comfort, through society, through acquisitiveness, through the book-bed-bath defense system, above all through the past, the flight to the romantic womb of history, into primitive myth-making. The refusal to include the great mass-movements of the twentieth century in our art or our myth will drive us to take refuge in the past; in surrealism, magic, primitive religions, or eighteenth-century wonderlands. We fly to Mediterranean womb-pockets and dream-islands, into dead controversies and ancient hermetic bric-a-brac, like a child who sits hugging his toys and who screams with rage when told to put on his boots.””The Vegetable Conspiracy: Man is now on his guard against insect parasites; against liver-flukes, termites, Colorado beetles, but has he given thought to the possibility that he has been selected as the target of vegetable attack, marked down by the vine, hop, juniper, and tobacco plant, tea-leaf and coffee-berry for destruction? What converts these Jesuits of the gastric juices make, – and how cleverly they retain them. Which smoker considers the menace of the weed spreading in his garden, which drunkard reads the warning of the ivy round the oak?”From a brief set of descriptions of pets entitled “Graves of the Lemurs”:”Polyp. Most gifted of lemurs, who hated aeroplanes in the sky, on the screen, and even on the wireless. How he would have hated this war! He could play in the snow or swim in a river or conduct himself in a night-club; he judged human beings by their voices; biting some, purring over others, while for one or two well-seasoned old ladies he would brandish a black prickle-studded penis, shaped like a eucalyptus seed. Using his tail as an aerial, he would lollop through long grass to welcome his owners, embracing them with little cries and offering them a lustration from his purple tongue and currycomb teeth. His manners were of some spoiled young Maharajah, his intelligence not inferior, his heart all delicacy, – women, gin and muscats were his only weaknesses. Alas, he died of pneumonia while we scolded him for coughing, and with him vanished the sea-purple cicada kingdom of calanque and stone-pine and the concept of life as an arrogant private dream shared by two.””When once we have discovered how pain and suffering diminish the personality, and how joy alone increases it, then the morbid attraction which is felt for evil, pain, and abnormality will have lost its power. Why do we reward our men of genius, our suicides, our madmen, and the generally maladjusted with the melancholy honours of a posthumous curiosity? Because we know that it is our society which has condemned these men to death, and which is guilty because out of its own ignorance and malformation it has persecuted those who were potential saviours; smiters of the rock who might have touched the spring of healing and brought us back into harmony with ourselves.Somehow, then, and without going mad, we must learn from these madmen to reconcile fanaticism with serenity. Each one, taken alone, is disastrous, yet except through the integration of these two opposites there is no great art and no profound happiness – and what else is worth having? For nothing can be accomplished without fanaticism, and without serenity nothing can be enjoyed. Perfection of form or increase of knowledge, pursuit of fame or service to the community, love of God or god of Love, – we must select the Illusion which appeals to our temperament, and embrace it with passion, if we want to be happy. This is the farewell autumn precept with which Palinurus takes leave of his fast-fading nightmare.”
The reviewer would like to confront, at the start of her first review, the occasionally embarrassing fact that at some point in the recent past she was considering – never mind with what degree of seriousness – a dissertation on eighteenth-century cats and their literary and cultural significance. Having been told by the advisor seemingly most inclined to support such a project (this advisor being an animal fancier herself: her dog, on occasion, had been permitted to attend office hours and sometimes lectures), that “That way madness lies,” this reviewer abandoned her cat dissertation. The advisor’s statement may have been a jest – serious and interesting scholarly work, as the advisor knew, had been done on animals in literature and culture. The suspicion, however, arose in the reviewer’s mind (perhaps accompanied by a phantom waft of cat-box and spinsterhood) that whether you collect literal or literary felines, you are in some sense embarking down the path to the marginal and strange land of cat-lady-hood, and so she retreated by laying the project aside. And yet literary cats – in footnotes, illustrations, casual mentions in books long forgotten – continue to entrance her. They are, as Tristram Shandy would have said, her hobby-horse (or cat).This is not to say that I (formerly known as “the reviewer”) renounce the legitimacy of the eighteenth-century cats dissertation: By no means. Late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England was the birthplace of the fashionable lap-dog and the sentimentalization of animals generally. Who could forget the perpetual throng of spaniels at the feet of Charles II? Pepys complains in his diary of his wife’s dog pissing on the floor and recounts with horrified amazement his first encounter with cock-fighting; Hogarth’s best-known self-portrait includes his dog Trump, and his “First Stage of Cruelty” depicts boys and men doing hideous things to dogs and cats. The “Second Stage of Cruelty” depicts work-animals driven to death and a warning verse beneath:The tender Lamb o’re drove and faint,Amidst expiring Throws;Bleats forth it’s innocent complaintAnd dies beneath the Blows.The final stanza pronounces the perpetrators of these cruelties “inhuman” and so suggests – long before there was anything like an animal rights movement – that there is a moral aspect to our relations with animals, integral to our humanity. Robinson Crusoe, once settled in isolation on his island refers to his dog, cat, goat and parrot as his “family.” A recent show at the Huntington Library, entitled “Sensation and Sensibility,” displayed several rustic scenes of cottage life by eighteenth-century artists, chiefly Gainsborough, in which animals seemed to be family members. One particularly sentimental inclusion depicted the sale of a poor cottage family’s lamb: the buyer leads the lamb away as the family’s many children cry or press their faces into their mother’s skirts. Francis Coventry’s 1751 book entitled, The History of Pompey the Little: Or, The Life and Adventures of a Lap-Dog, gave voice to a living fashion accessory that is still with us. Eighteenth-century animals were memorialized in images, allowed to speak in memoirs, integral members of families, and extensions of human identity that still function today (as testified by the tiny dogs of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, as well as Queen Elizabeth II’s troop of corgis).And this is just the beginning: The prominent historian Robert Darnton’s book The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History describes a massacre of cats in Paris in the late 1730s by several disgruntled apprentices as a symbolic revenge on their bourgeois master and mistress, who coddled and pampered their feline pets while treating their human apprentices “like animals.” So cats become a means of expressing class tensions as well. And Darnton’s essay goes on to offer a survey of the symbolic and ritual values assigned to cats in pre-modern and quasi-modern Europe, particularly France. Cats were associated (as they still are – if only in the linguistic sediment of the slang word ‘pussy’) with female sexuality, for example. From the 15th century the stroking of cats was supposed to increase a man’s success with women, as manifested in such proverbs as “He who takes good care of cats will have a pretty wife.” Darnton also details associations between cats and the occult: Caterwauling was considered an indicator of the casting of spells, or, if under a specific man’s window, a sign of his wife’s infidelity, his own cuckolding; and a cat on the bed of a dying person might be Satan waiting to carry his soul to hell. Stranger still are the magical folk-remedies and beliefs Darton inventories: a cat buried alive in field could clear it of weeds; blood from a cat’s ear mixed with red wine could cure pneumonia; the brain of a freshly killed cat, if still hot, could make one invisible.My favorite eighteenth-century cat (the cat who started it all), however, is not of the Satanic variety. Christopher Smart’s Jeoffry, whom Smart immortalized in his strange and difficult poem (written sometime in the late 1750s or early 1760’s) “Jubilate Agno” or “Rejoice The Lamb,” was a divine cat. “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry,” Smart begins, “For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.” Smart’s description of Jeoffry’s particular habits has a striking intimacy of detail, and these mundane details of feline existence become emanations of divine order and a recognition of Jeoffry as an instrument of divinity:For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbor.For If he meets another cat her will kiss her in kindness.For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallyingFor he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he’s a good Cat.For he is an instrument for the children to learn gentleness upon.The profound strangeness of this poem in the context of the rigorously metered rhyming couplets that form the bulk of eighteenth-century poetry is, I hope, hardly less than its trans-historical strangeness. Even now, in the days of feline and canine clothes, braces, birthday parties, and marriages, Smart’s contemplation of the mundanely named Jeoffry as a being embodying, manifesting, and teaching the ways of God to men is still, I think, equally strange, arresting, and moving.Much of the rest of “Jubilate Agno” is an odd mystical taxonomy that pairs people, (both biblical and historical persons as well as Smart’s contemporaries) with specific animals and plants: “Let Mephibosheth with the Cricket praise the God of chearfulness, hospitality, and gratitude…Let Micah rejoice with the spotted Spider, who counterfeits death to effect his purposes…Let Anna rejoice with the Porpus, who is a joyus fish and of good omen…Let Ross, house of Ross rejoice with the Great Flabber Dabber Flat Clapping Fish with hands…Let Balsam, house of Balsam rejoice with Chenomycon an herb the sight of which terrifies a goose.” The explanations for these pairings are cryptic, brief, and/or nonexistent (you can understand why the poem was initially thought to be the product of a stint in Bedlam), but the purpose seems to be to assign to specific people a beast or a mineral or botanical variety expressive of some essential quality of their beings – that one man’s soul is expressive of blue daisie, juniper, jasper or onyx, while another’s is of the hawk, Pegasus, porcupine, or crocodile.Of course Smart was not the first or the last to imagine a correspondence between the variety of human natures and the rest of the natural world. The ancient Roman Aelian’s (AD 170-230) multivolume On The Characteristics of Animals is not so explicit as Smart’s poem in drawing correspondences between the souls of humans and the natures of animals, but the language of Aelian’s descriptions blurs the distinction between human and animal, making his animal subjects seem human in their motivations and behaviors:The Owl is a wily creature and resembles a witch. And when captured, it begins by capturing its hunters. And so they carry it about like a pet or (I declare) like a charm on their shoulders. By night it keeps watch for them and with its call that sounds like some incantation it diffuses a subtle, soothing enchantment, thereby attracting birds to settle near it. And even in the daytime it dangles before the birds another kind of lure to make fools of them, putting on a different expression at different times; and all the birds are spell-bound and remain stupefied and seized with terror, and a mighty terror too, at these transformations. (47)A more literal fictional imagining of this notion is found in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass), which presents human souls externalized and personified as animal “daemons.” These creature-spirits can speak, and in their species are expressive of the particular nature of the human to whom they are attached. There are other examples of this species fusion and confusion – the Chinese animal calendar, Native American religions, the metamorphoses of Greek and Roman mythology, the animaguses of Harry Potter, for starters: But what does it all mean – if anything – and how does it relate to cat dissertations?A facile assessment of the desire to find correspondences between human souls and animal species might end in something similar to an exclamation I heard in a lecture on “The Grand Armada” chapter of Moby-Dick. This chapter describes the birthing and nursing of baby sperm whales in a calm, sheltered underwater room created by the rest of the pod with their bodies. Ishmael tenderly compares the expressions and motions of the whale calves to newborn human babies and such descriptions inspired a professor I once knew to exclaim excitedly, “Whales are people too!” Everyone laughed. But he did mean it, in a way. Suddenly, there is a break from the contemplation of whale as prey, enemy, alien “other,” and instead, a contemplation of these creatures in acts and attitudes of such mutual care and tenderness that the only way they can be described, even by their hunter, is “as human infants.” The willingness to confuse human and animal categories might imply a willingness to take a more expansive view of “humanity” or “personhood” that might include non-humans. This view would contend that animals are capable of seemingly human responses (tenderness, affection, care, curiosity, urgency, terror, etc.) that force us, as they forced Ishmael, to see ourselves in them and so – to some extend and however briefly – to respond to them and their behaviors as human – to treat them or imagine them as one of our own.But if animals, to whatever degree, gain humanity, humans gain something of the creaturely as well. The notion of particular animal species as expressive of human souls suggests that we are not all the same kind of human, and that no single theory of human nature quite gets the whole story: Fox-souled people are like this, cat-souled people, like that, giraffe- and marmot-souled people, other things entirely. Smart, Pullman, and Aelian recognize the totemic power of animals in slightly different ways, but all see in them sacred and mystical types that can help to illuminate aspects of the human – our varieties, vagaries, and eccentricities. In the case of Jeoffry, animals also offer models of holiness: Jeoffry’s sacred “compleat”-ness as Smart describes it – his exuberant, joyful catness – seems a portrait of being-wholeness one could never attempt with a human as the object of contemplation. Jeoffry is a cat in a way that I, or you, or anyone else will never be human – and perhaps this is because we are capable of such variety that we need the whole rest of the animal, vegetable, and mineral world to help us signify the essences of our beings. And we are also too self-conscious, self-fashioning, proud and fond of progress to simply to be human and do human-ish things they way Jeoffry does cat-ish things (bathing himself, hunting mice, stretching, napping in the sun) – What would those things be, anyway – what activities are particularly expressive of the human (Playing video games? Farming? Starting wars? Knitting? Writing blog articles? Bobsledding? Vacuuming?)?In the end, perhaps I should have stayed among the cats (and the canines, and the monkeys, and the pigs… there are so many more! Gulliver’s Houhynyms, E.T.A Hoffmann’s The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr, Pierre-Jules Hetzel’s Scenes from the Public and Private Life of Animals…). Perhaps it is a better place – or perhaps, more simply, I am philosophically a misanthrope, of the school of John Wilmot, Lord Rochester (1647-1680). The best-known portrait of Rochester (Johnny Depp’s The Libertine excepted) depicts him standing beside a monkey perched on a marble pedestal; the monkey is tearing pages from a book while Rochester crown him with a laurel wreath. I leave you in the earl’s dangerously capable hands, with the first stanza of his “Satire Against Reason and Mankind”:Were I – who to my cost already amOne of those strange, prodigious creatures, man – A spirit free to choose for my own shareWhat sort of flesh and blood I pleased to wear,I’d be a dog, a monkey, or a bear,Or anything but that vain animal,Who is so proud of being rational.
In Elmira, NY, six high school students banded together to break the Guinness Book of Records marathon reading record. Says the AP:They whizzed through more than 20 beloved children’s books, including the six-volume Harry Potter series, seven Goosebumps thrillers and Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. They wrapped up their epic, 128-hour performance on the school auditorium stage with Oh, the Places You’ll Go, a Dr. Seuss classic.Meanwhile, in Albany, other long-distance readers, among them William Kennedy and Andy Rooney, joined forces for a 24-hour reading of Moby Dick, as part of “Why Melville Matters Now” weekend at the Albany Academies school.