When I found Jim Thompson’s The Transgressors at a recent used book sale, I became cartoonishly excited. Thompson is one of my favorite pulp novelists, and there was nothing to dislike about my find: its cover depicted an old coupe stuck in rutted mud, with someone rushing, I guessed, to check a captive in its trunk. The back-cover copy described a reliably sadistic tale; an old New Republic blurb promised “a tour of hell.” It was called The Transgressors, for Christ’s sake. I couldn’t have asked for more.
My excitement stemmed from The Nothing Man, a 1954 Thompson novel that I discovered a decade ago, having never before heard of the book or the author. It told the story of a sexually disfigured veteran who goes on a killing spree to cover up his secret — as if being a serial killer was the lesser shame. It was a bizarre, unsettling book, angry with energy, that seemed to have been written yesterday, not during the Dwight D. Eisenhower years.
Unfortunately, it’s been downhill from there. In the years since, I’ve returned to Thompson again and again, and I’ve never recaptured the feeling that jumped from The Nothing Man. The Getaway — made famous by Steve McQueen, and later, Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger — came close, but was derailed by an outré epilogue that seemed imported from a different book. The Killer Inside Me, The Golden Gizmo, Pop. 1280 — all were fine, but none supplied the blast of that first discovery. The Transgressors turned out to be readable, but was the worst Thompson I’ve read — and it led me to ask myself a question common to fading relationships: Is it him or is it me?
I’ve experienced this pattern — manic love, followed by a futile attempt to regain said manic love — with others: I fell for T.C. Boyle after my brother slipped me The Tortilla Curtain, and despite Drop City, When the Killing’s Done, The Harder they Come, and others, it remains my favorite Boyle. Portnoy’s Complaint, The Sun Also Rises, and Billy Bathgate are my favorite Philip Roth, Ernest Hemingway, and E.L. Doctorow novels — and were the first of each I read. These are legendary figures, responsible for a raft of classics. Is it possible that out of all of their works, those three are the best? Did I just happen to choose each one’s greatest effort right out of the gate?
I would say that I didn’t. My experience with Thompson, and to a lesser degree with Boyle, has led me to believe that the discovery of a new style — Thompson’s turbo-charged dissolution; Boyle’s burbling streams of words — eclipses the storytelling that the style supports. Reading the stylistically unfamiliar — be it Evie Wyld or Lauren Groff or Patrick deWitt — can be so pleasingly disorienting that it leaves the reader giddy: This is incredible, we think as we flip on through. This is a totally new experience. As a reader, it’s the moment you seek — but that euphoria can also distort your inner Michiko Kakutani and set future expectations impossibly high.
Breakfast of Champions might not have been Kurt Vonnegut’s hands-down masterpiece, but I read it before any of his others — and for that, it’s elevated in my mind. With its drawings of sphincters and cows and general jokiness, it’s no Cat’s Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five — but it doesn’t need to be, because the Vonnegut basics were there. And most importantly, for me, it came first. When you see a beautiful stranger across a crowded room, it doesn’t matter that he or she might not be having the most attractive day of his or her life. The spark fires either way, and you won’t forget the moment.
This isn’t to say that quality doesn’t matter. The first Danielle Steel novel you read will be as crummy as your last, and no matter when you read Tough Guys Don’t Dance, it won’t top The Naked and the Dead. But when a work is discovered can, at the very least, insert a welcome uncertainty to an overbearing consensus. In everything I’ve read about Jim Thompson, I haven’t seen much mention of The Nothing Man. This isn’t all that surprising, since he wrote more than 30 books. But critics consistently cite The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 as two of his best. Maybe they are. But maybe those critics would think differently if they’d read The Nothing Man first. As for me, I’ll keep trying: there are still a few unread Thompson novels sitting on my shelf.
Image Credit: Flickr/Steven Guzzardi
“I’ve whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world,” declares the protagonist of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. And yet this is more a confession by Beatty himself, a warning shot by an expert marksman of diction. When his 1996 novel The White Boy Shuffle arrived, it was enough to satisfy fans of his nights onstage at the Nuyorican Poets Café on East 3rd. But it wasn’t until the release of The Sellout that Beatty stepped forward to share his audacious prose and penchant for outlandish diatribes with the uninitiated. The Sellout arrived as an examination of our present social dysfunctions, and succeeds in granting a marginalized group the chance to laugh, curse, scream, and celebrate.
In The Sellout, Paul Beatty introduces readers to a nameless narrator of African-American descent who lobbies for the reinstatement of segregation in his hometown of Dickens, Los Angeles. This is oversimplifying what Beatty pulls off on the page, which is a rich and calculated unearthing of social stigma and ignorance, on every side of the line — black/white, poor/rich, political/radical. With Beatty in the pilot’s seat, no one is safe. Page after page, he slings wickedly sharp satire that in lesser hands would hijack the entire narrative. Instead, Beatty’s page-long riffs land safely right back on the page, leaving the reader with just enough energy to shake her head and turn it over. “How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids?” the narrator asks us. “Why aren’t there any yogurt-colored, eggshell-toned, string-cheese-skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-act-having books?”
In a 2000 interview with Rone Shavers for BOMB, Beatty was asked about the figures who inspire him to write with such unfiltered focus, naming Richard Pryor and Kurt Vonnegut: “By trying to be vulnerable and not (being) afraid to parody things that are important to you and to others. Those are two guys that I feel aren’t afraid to show the cursed antihero.” Beatty studied Vonnegut during the author’s boom in popularity, although he was never able to meet him. Beatty creates a lead character who –like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim of Slaughterhouse-Five — is displaced in his own life following a violent event. In his period in time, Vonnegut connected displacement to the horrors of war by crafting a character who was “unstuck” in time. For Beatty, the institutional racism forged a character raging against the displacement of erasure. Both characters attempt to live out rational lives, but must do so using irrational means. But Beatty and Vonnegut’s scars are immensely different.
When the father of Beatty’s protagonist is gunned down by police, he attempts to resolve his anger only to find that his hometown of Dickens has literally been erased from the map. In order to be recognized by the rest of the world, he hires a slave to serve as his footstool (among other things) and then lobbies in America’s highest court for the reinstatement of segregation, as Beatty cartoonishly straps TNT to current realities. The character decides to face one injustice by burying it beneath another, setting off a series of beautifully awkward but truth-dispensing absurdities.
In every chapter, Beatty evokes, not only the pain of the African-American community, but also that of the various other cultures which society has enmeshed in the institution of racism. In one section, a character named Charisma Molina says the phrase “Too many Mexicans,” prompting a perfect example of a Beatty’s explosion of phrasing and social commentary.
The Indians, who were looking for peace and quiet, ended up finding Jesus, forced labor, the whip, and the rhythm method…White people, the type who never used to have anything to say to black people except “We have no vacancies,” “You missed a spot,” and “Rebound the basketball,” finally have something to say to us…Mexicans are to blame for everything. Someone in California sneezes, you don’t say “Gesundheit” but “Too Many Mexicans.”
Beatty wrestles this complicated issue to the ground by explaining that white supremacy is in constant need of placing the subjugated into a hierarchy: whites try to relate to black people by calling into question the character of other groups, dragging people of color into racial stereotyping.
Amazingly, Beatty did not write this book as a reaction to the current wave of police brutality and social injustice. According to Evelyn McDonnell, who has been following his career for over a decade, The Sellout was written and finished well before the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. But the message hidden within its pages harkens to our past and our future. Even the setting of The Sellout is itself a collision of the African-American past and present; the town of Dickens contains ghettos and farmland, a tapestry of the African-American struggle:
You know when you’ve entered the Farms, because the city sidewalks, along with your rims, car stereo, nerve, and progressive voting record, will have vanished into air thick with the smell of cow manure and, if the wind is blowing the right direction — good weed.
Beatty crafts Dickens to be possibly his most tragic character — that which comes to represent the beaten black body. Both are a commodity reaped after colonization. Both are treated as entities whose existence and nonexistence is decided by an elite few. The neighboring towns who voted to erase Dickens from the map did so stating that it was done “to keep their property values up and their blood pressures down,” a quote that could be plucked in this day and age from the mouths of city planners, neighborhood watches, and business owners who have never heard of Paul Beatty.
With this world as his stage, Beatty seems to relish having such a flawed mouthpiece — his very own “cursed antihero” — to guide us through the events of the book. Here is a man who, like Billy Pilgrim, is being forced to exist outside of society. But unlike Vonnegut’s protagonist, Beatty’s narrator comes to understand that his lot in life has also contributed to, and yes even benefited from, racism (he is a farmer of watermelon and weed), making him both an active practitioner and victim of the societal construct. In short, the narrator in The Sellout is able to carry the story, and do so with unapologetic zeal, because he believes that in his world, two wrongs do make a right.
Dickens is home to some farcical characters. The narrator is raised by his father, a brilliant social scientist named (of all things) Carl Jung who seems more interested in experimenting on his son than actually raising him. At another point in the book, the narrator goes on to describe someone as:
“(a) Living National Embarrassment. A mark of shame on the African American Legacy, something to be eradicated, stricken from the racial record, like the hambone, Amos ’n’ Andy, Dave Chappelle’s meltdown…”
Much like Richard Pryor, Beatty’s other lodestar, Dave Chappelle had made a name for himself on the stand-up circuit when, in 2003, Comedy Central gave him a 12-episode show. At the time, there was nothing like it. Saturday Night Live and the now cancelled Fox’a Mad TV were the only popular sketch comedy shows with a strong viewership. But the moment Chappelle’s Show launched, people of color were instantly drawn to it. This was long before the power and reach of social media, decades before “Black Twitter” became a sounding board for people of color. And yet, by episode three, on the strength of word of mouth alone, there wasn’t a black or Latino teenager I knew who was missing a new Chappelle’s Show every Tuesday night. We would cancel hanging out with friends, basketball games. I went as far as rescheduling a date so that I wasn’t behind on the references my friends were bound to make the following day.
Season one broke records in DVD sales for Comedy Central and in 2003, Chappelle signed a $50 million deal to produce more episodes, but in 2004, he ended up walking away from the show and going into hiding. The press speculated mental stress, fatigue, and even drug problems as possible reasons for the comedian’s sudden departure. Later, he would go on to dispel the rumors by explaining, “I’m not going to lie to you, I got scared,” he said. “The higher up I went, the less happy I was. Once you get famous, you can’t get unfamous. You can get infamous, but you can’t get unfamous.”
Ironically, what had made the Chappelle’s Show valuable to African Americans, and what had likewise boosted Chappelle himself to superstar status, also shortened its lifespan. At its peak, standout sketches such as “Black Bush,” a sketch many years before Barack Obama was a household name, and the “Racial Draft,” a wild segment in which different nationalities participate in an NBA-style event to settle celebrity identities once and for all, became embedded in the cultural lexicon. The show’s clever routing of cultural tropes coupled with its exposure, was a testament to the craft Chappelle and co-creator Neal Brennan infused in the show’s weekly sketches and musical performances. Their subject matter was always raw, completely devoid of the political correctness of current television. And yet it was also oddly silly in a way, a perfect concoction of bite and R&B. The short sketches could be enjoyed simply for their ridiculous shock value alone. But many also dissected these pieces for their reflections on societal norms and saw the entire show as an expansion of the strides black comedians like Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor made before Chappelle’s time.
In many ways, the comedian could very easily stand in place of the narrator in The Sellout: both being intelligent and hilarious with their keen and unfiltered views of our society, and both having to come to grips with the responsibility — and the cost — of being empowered to act on that vision. All of the characters, regardless of how completely absurd they seem, are reacting to living in a time in which Beatty also resides; one in which he is daring to call something “‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.” These are people in pain, lost, forgotten. They are the “unstuck,” the “disappeared.” The denizens of Beatty’s America have to own their dysfunctions in order to be recognized. In the end of the story, a character that has been speaking down to and infantilizing his black community (a possible allusion to Beatty’s own thoughts on icons such as Toni Morrison), has been harboring a secret that derails his self-righteous standing. In short, Beatty is posing that these people need to play characters in order to protect their true selves from being swallowed by society.
So what does this mean for Paul Beatty the poet, the writer, the black satirist? “Once you get famous, you can’t get unfamous.” How does he avoid the pitfalls of becoming as absurd as his narrator, or the symbol trying to carry his entire community on his back? As his narrator puts it at the end of the book, “I’m afraid. Afraid of what I might say. What promises and threats I might make and have to keep.”
Alright, look: Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography is big. Like, really big. In every sense of the word. At just under 1,200 pages, the book tackles the subject of the novel in English, a 700-year history. Its pages are densely researched and necessarily erudite. The print is small, and the thing weighs over six pounds. It took me over two months to read it in its entirety. Like I said, it’s big.
But I am going to try to convince you that The Novel is one of the most important works of both literary history and criticism to be published in the last decade, surpassing even such monumental works as Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors’s A New Literary History of America and John Sutherland’s The Lives of the Novelists. The reason Schmidt’s book is so effective and important has to do with its approach, its scope, and its artistry, which all come together to produce a book of such varied usefulness, such compact wisdom, that it’ll take a lot more than a few reviews to fully understand its brilliant contribution to literary study.
Do I sound hyperbolic? Well, hear me out. First, let’s begin with Schmidt’s approach and its relation to his project’s inevitable place in the canon. Schmidt states, in his introduction, his intention to allow the story of the novel to be “mainly told by novelists and through novels.” Thus he completely eradicates the presence of critics. Rather than a snide excision, this technique enormously improves his enterprise, for what is the most basic element of the novel’s narrative than influence from one practitioner to another? Here we are given Edith Wharton’s preference of calling the Gothic “the eerie,” and Virginia Woolf referring to same as “a parasite, an artificial commodity, produced half in joke in reaction against the current style, or in relief from it.” Here we learn of Jane Austen’s commendation of Maria Edgeworth and how Charles Dickens’s viewed the estate of Sir Walter Scott as “a warning to himself”:
I saw in the vile glass case the last clothes Scott wore. Among them an old white hat, which seemed to be tumbled and bent and broken by the uneasy, purposeless wandering, hither and thither, of his heavy head. It so embodied Lockhart’s pathetic description of him when he tried to write, and laid down his pen and cried, that it associated itself in my mind with broken powers and mental weakness from that hour.
We learn which of H.G. Wells’s novels Henry James viewed as expressing Wells’s “true voice.” We learn that Jonathan Franzen puts Elmore Leonard in the same “entertainer” category as P.G. Wodehouse. We read Michael Crichton’s review of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: “The ultimate difficulty with Vonnegut is precisely this: that he refuses to say who is wrong…He ascribes no blame, sets no penalties.” (Schmidt refers to Crichton’s career as “almost cynically contrived, fiction as speculation.”) I could go on and on with examples, but the point is that, here, collected in one place, we have the largest repository of the greatest novelists’ opinions and views on other novelists. It would take the rest of us going through countless letters and essays and interviews with all these writers to achieve such a feat. Schmidt has done us all a great, great favor.
The approach coupled with the scope (covering, as it does, a huge swath of time) results in maybe the most complete history of the novel in English ever produced. As Schmidt writes early on, he “set out to write this book without an overarching theory of the novel,” which basically means he precludes strict emphasis on historicity, movements, and linear evolution. Instead, he focuses on influence––that beautifully organic (yet inexact) process of thoughts begetting thoughts, ideas begetting ideas and styles begetting styles––which, Schmidt’s book implicitly argues, matters much more than the cultural context of any of the works.
Take, for example, Thomas Love Peacock, a marginal figure now but an important one in his time and, in many ways, the history of literature. The way in which Peacock is presented in The Novel typifies Schmidt’s multitudinous achievement. First of all, Schmidt gives Peacock (like he does for every writer discussed at any length) a short biography, replete with insights into how his circumstances relate to his work: after a lengthy hiatus, it was only after Peacock’s wife died that he “began again, more fluently” to write. Secondly, Schmidt, an uncannily astute critic, punctuates this section (like all sections) with critiques of the authors’ work: Peacock’s “masterpiece,” Crochet Castle (1831) is “marred by a strain of anti-Semitism” and “complemented by a vexing hostility to the Scots and their Caledonian hubris.” Moreover, Peacock himself…
…is memorable for the brightness of the entertainment, the leavening and sweetening of the verses breaking the dialogue, changing the key of a description. How various are Peacock’s poetic registers: he can do the voices of the Romantics (Byron in particular), and he can do his own voice.
But what makes Peacock as rendered by Schmidt so fascinating (and Schmidt makes countless writers function this same way) is way he’s contextualized within the framework of other writers. John Fowles, Schmidt tells us, referred to him as “Austen-drowned Peacock,” as Peacock “came in the wake of another writer whose success eclipses his as surely as Shakespeare’s eclipses Ben Jonson’s.” Austen has, in the centuries since, become the esteemed figure; Peacock may have had a better position in the canon if it weren’t for such basically arbitrary timing. Moreover, Peacock was the man who inspired Percy Shelley’s A Defense of Poetry, a vital work of criticism, “though all references to Peacock have been edited out of modern editions.” Further, Peacock relationship to Shelly and his wife Mary, leads to many odd synchronicities. Peacock’s book Nightmare Alley (which itself has much in common with Austen’s Northanger Abbey) was published the same year as Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818. Shelley’s novel nearly succumbed to the same legacy of Peacock, namely that it almost didn’t have one. “Half a century ago,” Schmidt writes, “in The English Novel, Walter Allen did not mention Mary Shelley,” for her book “remained a feature of children’s horror literature” and “was not taken seriously.” But Shelley, who resented her husband’s patronage of Peacock (who became her husband’s executor), has since been critically reconsidered, while Peacock remains in the formidable shadows of extraordinary contemporaneous women.
I’ve barely even scratched at the first third of Schmidt’s book here, but I have to accept certain limitations reviewing Schmidt’s masterpiece. There is simply too much to represent to you. Later, as the story moves closer to the present and the structure of his book takes considerably more radical forms (such as the virtuoso chapter “Truths in Fictions, the Metamorphosis of Journalism”), Schmidt furthers his technique and, more importantly, his almost/kind of/sort of thesis, which is that the novel’s refusal to be accurately categorized, or concretely defined by such-and-such characteristics, is its principal quality. It has an almost osmotic ability to absorb features from various other sources, to combine elements from art and reality to depict something closer to actual lived experience, yet still remain stubbornly artificial, autonomous, so that the distinctions between art and life are starkly clear. Consequently, the novel form’s multiplicity allows, like novels themselves, for dimensions of inexpressible depth. Despite all of Schmidt’s hundreds of thousands of words on the subject, in the end the only term he has for this quality is a “something.”
Which brings me to Schmidt’s astounding artistry. None of what I’ve described above would have mattered in the least had Schmidt’s prose been a snoozer to read. But in every way possible––from entertaining style to convincing authority to elements of undeniable personality––Schmidt’s writing is a triumph of critical acumen and aesthetic elegance. Unafraid to insert his opinions, Schmidt declares, for example, that David Foster Wallace’s “importance as writer…is in the essays he wrote and the original ways in which he wrote them,” not his novels. About Samuel Richardson, Schmidt proclaims in exasperation: “Yet how tedious Samuel Richardson can be!” He defends Stephen King, saying that although his “bibliography is vast…the novels are generally substantial and serious in intent.” Again, I could go on and on. Similarly, Schmidt is willing to invoke personal memories while discussing a text. On James Fenimore Cooper, he notes that his father read The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 (1826) to him and his brother because Cooper’s novels were “assumed to be good books for reading aloud,” and that he, Schmidt, was “haunted” by “scenes of brutality.”
Schmidt occasionally surprises with the beauty of his prose––as when he writes of William Beckford that in Vathek: an Arabian Tale (1786), “The reality of the novel merges with the stage paste of romantic masque”––as well as his humor. He notes that Mary Shelley was “linked to that of the American writer Washington Irving,” but that a romance was unlikely, “Irving being a confirmed bachelor or, modern biographers suggest, ‘a confirmed bachelor.'” Or when he finally arrives at a full-on chapter about Modernism, he opens it with this cheeky introduction: “It is not possible to postpone the high tides of modernism any longer,” as if, like history itself, he tried valiantly to resist it.
But it is the narrative, as told by Schmidt, that wows. He is able make a story with no “characters,” a novel with no “plot,” feel as dramatic and absorbingly propulsive as the best kinds of fiction. Part of this has to do with Schmidt’s apparent passion, which appears on every single page, but most of the tome’s energy comes straight from Schmidt’s preclusion of a strict critical approach. He wants to tell a story, not espouse indirectly the import of a given critical approach. Thus, he combines biography, analysis, memoir, and history into a hybrid monster, a modern Prometheus revitalized by Schmidt’s ambition and skill. He’s just so damned sensible, it’s hard to not follow his voice wherever it goes.
That Schmidt refuses, in such a lengthy work, to provide an overall assessment of the novel itself (save for his “something”) remains the book’s greatest strength. As Susan Sontag points out in her seminal essays “Against Interpretation” and “On Style,” the tendency to reduce a given work down to what it’s really saying is gravely erroneous. The illusory distinction between “form” and “content” is needless and harmfully furthers the notion that a “curtain could be parted and the matter revealed.” Style is not, in other words, the mere packaging of content, to be ripped open for the present inside. For anyone to try to objectively name the true “meaning” of an individual novel––i.e. to state the work’s content––would be, ultimately, doing a disservice to the art. Schmidt, too, understands this, that novels––as well as the story of the novel––are not to be reduced to an ingestible and comfortable conclusion. Rather, the story itself is all the meaning we need.
To reiterate: Schmidt has done me, you, all of us, a heroic favor in telling this story. In one single volume, he has synthesized myriad biographies of vastly contrasting artists, the nonlinear trajectory of their influence (good and bad) on each other, the various forms the novel has taken over its celebrated history, and a singular voice that pushes this complex tale along. The Novel: A Biography is a big book, yes, but it is also a big book, a piece of academic, intellectual work that doesn’t succumb to the insular (and boring) habits of much academic, intellectual work. It is a monumental achievement, in its historical importance and its stylistic beauty. The Novel, I believe, is a novel, the protagonist a murky, somewhat indescribable figure––the ultimate unreliable narrator––that Schmidt renders as real and human and flawed as anyone else before him. It is, itself, a work of art, just as vital and remarkable as the many works it chronicles.
I don’t remember everything about Slaughterhouse-Five, but I remember that vitamin tonic. Though I read the book maybe 10 years ago, I can still see a dirty, malnourished prisoner of war working in a barely functioning Dresden factory that makes some kind of vitamin tonic for pregnant German women. And one day, starving, that man decides to open a bottle, and puts it to his lips, and tips it back. And what I really remember is how Kurt Vonnegut describes what happens next, how that man, whose name I cannot remember, is transformed, how that elixir hits his belly and then his blood, turning him from mostly dead to something suddenly rather alive, his bones alive, his hair alive, and that’s what I remember, that feeling that you can get from a book, a feeling that sticks with you, when somebody gets what he desperately wants, what he desperately needs.
When I think about my favorite books, I remember how they made me feel, and I remember the food, and sometimes those two feelings get all mixed up. I remember when a girl is hungry and when she eats something. Especially when the girl is hungry and when she eats something.
If you’re at all like me, you have your own, but here are mine.
Hemingway. I’ll start out slow here. Of course there’s the heroic drinking (so many aperitifs and digestifs) but for some reason the drinking does not stay with me. The raw-onion sandwiches in For Whom the Bell Tolls, however, I remember those. I can see the American bridge-destroyer crunching away on his raw-onion sandwich, the Spanish partisans drop-jawed and incredulous. Not that I have any particular love for a hunk of onion between bread, but I’ve got this in my head now: the snap, the pungent kick in the tongue, the sinuses suddenly supercharged.
And there’s that staple of 12th-grade English, The Old Man and the Sea. While Santiago is nearly killing himself by fighting the big fish, he—effortlessly, in my head—catches a second fish, a little one, dismantles it, and eats the flesh in ragged, torn hunks. I remember Santiago wishing he had some salt. When I read that book, I had not yet eaten sushi but I’ve eaten it since, and so I can verify that salt, with that raw fish, would have been good.
The Grapes of Wrath. Everybody’s hungry in this one. When the Joad family is traveling west, at some point they find themselves in a peach orchard. Everyone helps picking the peaches, and the kids pick some and devour some, and there are stomachaches, and finally an adult says, hey, you can’t make it on peaches alone. Earlier in the book, someone slaughters a hog and, rather than share, tries to eat the whole thing by himself, which is a mean thing to do. And of course I remember, as you do, that the old man, at the end, drinks human breast milk because that’s all there is and that it keeps him alive, and that’s not mean or not-mean but instead a whole other kind of thing that Steinbeck is doing there.
Atonement. I loved this book and I loved it when our man, the lower-class suitor of the upper-class girl, is stuck, with the retreating British army, in Dunkirk, the Nazis on their heels. He’s wounded, or is sick, or both, and he’s sitting with his back against a cold wall, and someone hands him or he produces from his dirty rags the following: a dried French sausage. It’s in McEwan’s novel that I first saw the word for this particular kind of sausage. Say it with me. Saucillon. The sick soldier dies later, and it’s awful, but that sausage he eats, the description of it, that does it for me. His mouth is filled with fat and salt and the taste of something hopeful and he, briefly, lives again. Do you have a saucillon, by chance? I’d like a bite. Full disclosure: I don’t know how to pronounce saucillon.
Stop-Time. It doesn’t matter what food. It could be the case that the simpler, the better. It’s almost certainly true that the more specific, the better. In my favorite memoir, Stop-Time, Frank Conroy describes his teenage self, in 1950s New York, and how he desires, with all of the cells in his body, a lunch so simple and yet so specific that I never could have dreamed it up on my own: an orange soda and a sandwich consisting of a deviled egg between two slices of white bread. That’s it. I’d recommend the book, and the deviled-egg-sandwich scene, to anyone. Do you like it when people in books go from something less than happy to something beyond it, all because they got, finally, what they wanted?
Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. And also the bad-sounding food stays with me. What’s the deal with English food? I do not know. One of the older guys in that book, when he goes out, he goes to the same pub and orders the same thing, every time. It’s one of those incredibly English dishes made up of about 17 fried things, eight of them sausages, three of them beans, and the rest mushrooms or else tomatoes so ravaged by heat that they are no longer tomatoes at all but rather only wet sources of fiber. Actually, that doesn’t sound all that bad. I’d eat that plate of food. But I can see the glistening sheen of grease on everything and I can smell the warm, stale beer, and I wish the English didn’t feel the need to fry or else boil all of their vegetables. But, of course, they do. Also, it’s acceptable to make fun of the English, I realize, and it’s especially acceptable to make fun of their food.
Philip Roth. The best description of fruit-eating you’ll see is in Goodbye, Columbus. Fruit, man. Fruit for days. Flesh and stems and peels and juice and skins. Bananas and oranges and apples and pears and, of course, cherries. Also, this book is about sex, or about what you do when you want to have sex but can’t, and I’m reasonably sure the fruit has something to do with that.
Tony Earley’s Jim the Boy. Read that first chapter. Tell me reading about those farmers, very early in the morning, devouring those biscuits, those eggs, that ham, that coffee, doesn’t do something for you, doesn’t make you feel as if you could hoe a field, could do damage to some corn (if indeed it was damage that needed to be done), doesn’t make you want to go out and get that shit fucking done, man. And then read the rest of the book because it’s the kind of novel you want to tell your friends to read, unless they don’t like great books that are easy to read but which stay with you for years and years because they’re beautiful and the best kind of complicated and true.
Angela’s Ashes. Ireland in the 1930s: Not great. Everybody’s so hungry and there’s so little actual food in this story that what little food does show up, you remember it. Our man Frank McCourt goes to an aunt or a cousin or some sort of older lady, who feeds him something small and feeble, maybe a piece of bread. And when he asks for another little bit to eat, she scoffs, is incredulous, says, next you’ll be wanting an egg. And how precious those odd chunks of toffee are, and how you cheer for the little guy as he pops them into his mouth. And how, finally, after pages and pages, he somehow gets his hands on an actual order of fish and chips and he eats and eats and of course he wants more. And, oh, the alcoholic father, after yet another of Frank’s brothers or sisters dies, takes the little casket into the pub for a pint, and it breaks your heart. And how he rests that pint, between drinks, on the casket, and that really breaks your heart. It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever read. I can see the wet ring from that pint of Guinness on the top of that cheap, tiny casket.
Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That.” Though I can’t recall exactly what Didion eats in her great essay about spending one’s 20s, vividly but depressed, in New York, I remember that she is so poor that she uses her father’s credit card for odd little meals at a fancy department store’s fancy lunch counter. Also, gazpacho. Even in the 1960s, New York was the kind of place where you could find gazpacho. And even though cold tomato soup does little to cheer up one of my favorite nonfiction writers, I’m certainly glad she ate it, sad spoonful by sad spoonful. Didion makes gazpacho exotic and sad and weird and I’d like some.
There are many more. But these are the ones I come back to. They pop up, unbidden, while walking, while driving, while eating. Each time, I think: I hope he gets that sandwich. And he does. In my head, he gets that sandwich, every time.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
From the crucial moment in second grade when I discovered Beverly Cleary’s Henry Huggins, I became hooked on the intimate practice of grasping the world through words. Eventually moving on to the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift series, I would carry around a book the way younger children would hold onto a beloved blanket. I read so much, and so often, that my parents considered taking me to a child psychologist, to find out why in the world I resisted getting a little fresh air every once in a while, for Pete’s sake!
My second crucial discovery came in seventh grade, when a lucky encounter with an abridged edition of War and Peace helped me take a giant step into the pleasures of reading adult literature. From then on, journeys into the internal worlds of characters rather than the quick thrill of external adventure fueled my reading habit.
As a life-long reader, I reveled in the pleasure of introducing books to my son Nathaniel from his earliest days: Pat the Bunny, Goodnight Moon, the Spot books, the Berenstain Bears, the Little Miss and Mister Men series. Every night, first my wife, Alma, and then I would read to him, giving Nathaniel a combined bedtime reading of a good hour or more. Even after he learned how to read, he insisted on continuing our evening ritual, and so we marched through the Encyclopedia Brown detective series, the early Narnia books, even some of those old Hardy Boys mysteries.
When our daughter Hannah was born, Alma and I expanded our evening regimen to both our children. We created a kind of tag-team structure, reading to Hannah in her room, and to Nathaniel, then eight years old, in his. Inevitably, after a couple of years, our son grew less interested in what he had come to consider a babyish ritual, and he read on his own, mostly sci-fi adventures. By the time he reached 12, I worried that my son might be stuck in a literary rut, as I had once been — old enough to enjoy more challenging work but unaware of where to begin.
Maybe those days of curling up in bed with a story were long gone, but what if we read the same book together silently, side by side, in the living room? If I bought two copies of a novel, we could take on chapter-length chunks each evening and then discuss what we’d just read. Perhaps in this way I could gently lead my son to an appreciation of the deeper internal landscapes that literature offers.
Where to begin? I remembered a book I had loved in my teens, an obscure Jack London novel, Before Adam, about a modern man haunted by intense dreams of an earlier, ancestral existence as a proto-human named Big-Tooth. The book combined rollicking pre-historic escapades with serious issues of developing consciousness and what it means to be human. Though a bit skeptical at first, Nathaniel agreed to my proposal. And so one evening, as he sat on a chair by the fireplace and I settled on the couch across the room, my son and I read of Big-Tooth and his friend Lop-Ear, the implacable Red-Eye, the desirable Swift One, saber-toothed tigers, wild boars, packs of wolves and, lurking in the background, the dangerously advanced Men of Fire.
The pace of the plot kept us constantly engaged. Sometimes Nathaniel would draw in his breath, and I knew some surprise awaited me, or I’d pull ahead in the reading and laugh, and he’d ask, What?”
“Just wait, you’ll see,” I’d reply.
The novel also grew contemplative in unexpected ways. At one point in the story, as Big-Tooth and Lop-Ear played along the banks of a river, a log that Lop-Ear rested on drifted into deeper water, a danger the two friends realized too late: “Swimming was something of which we knew nothing. We were already too far removed from the lower life-forms to have the instinct for swimming, and we had not yet become sufficiently man-like to undertake it as the working out of a problem.”
I remember Nathaniel and I both paused in our reading at the idea that a character’s limited understanding might lead to disaster. But Lop-Ear was still stuck on that drifting log, so we returned to the story:
“And then, somehow, I know not how, Lop-Ear made the great discovery. He began paddling with his hands. At first his progress was slow and erratic. Then he straightened out and began laboriously to paddle nearer and nearer. I could not understand. I sat down and watched and waited until he gained the shore.”
Soon, Lop-Ear and Big-Tooth learned how to manipulate the logs in the water, even combining two together for better balance, but only up to a point: “And there our discoveries ended. We had invented the most primitive catamaran, and we did not have enough sense to know it. It never entered our heads to lash the logs together with tough vines or stringy roots. We were content to hold the logs together with our hands and feet.”
This passage occupied us for some time. Would the characters we’d come to care about be able to expand their minds enough to help them out of any future dilemmas? And what of our own limitations — what insights, what solutions to seemingly intractable problems were just beyond our understanding in our own lives?
The novel’s 18 chapters held us for nearly three weeks, and our discussions were so rewarding that I thought something quieter might not be too much of a reach: Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams. The novel recounts Einstein’s dreams during the spring and summer of 1905, when he was living in Berne, Switzerland, and developing his theory of relativity. Each short dream chapter is ruled by a different law of time: in one version of Berne, time is discontinuous, creating minute, barely observable changes; in another, time has three dimensions, like space; and, in another Berne, time is visible. Nathaniel and I often spent many more minutes talking about how Lightman turned time into a kaleidoscope of possibilities than we had spent reading an individual chapter.
As with Jack London’s novel, we kept to the rule of only one chapter a day.
Normally, as a reader I plunge in, reading page after page after page, burrowing into a fictional world (my secret rule is that if I make it to page 30, I’m committed for the rest of the book). I can read a novel in a single day if the book’s imperative and my schedule permits. But pausing for a day after a single chapter? I’d never done this before, but both Nathaniel and I grew to enjoy the stately pace of our reading. We had 24 hours to reconsider or linger over particularly exciting or intriguing moments, and anticipate what would come next. A few years after our reading experiment, I came upon the poet James Richardson’s Vectors — a marvelous collection of “aphorisms and ten-second essays” — and found a gem that underlined the discovery Nathaniel and I had made: “Why shouldn’t you read this the way I wrote it, with days between the lines?”
With our reading ritual well established, while we were in the middle of one book I’d already be considering what we might try next. When I read the Lightman chapter on how a lack of memory alters time — “Without memory, each night is the first night, each morning is the first morning, each kiss and touch are the first. A world without memory is a world of the present” — I thought we’d next try Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, an elegiac novel on the stresses that come to undermine a traditional African culture. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? When Nathaniel was six, he’d lived in a West African village one summer with his anthropologist mother and me, among the Beng people of Ivory Coast, and the daily rhythms of rural African life was a world he knew. It was while we lived in the village of Asagbé that Nathaniel had taught himself how to read, following my finger pointing out the word bubbles of the Tintin books I read to him. But his African experience couldn’t easily be expressed or shared with any of his friends in America. Now, I thought, Achebe’s novel might help Nathaniel set his memories and give him a space to remember and reflect.
Nathaniel settled in easily to the depictions of village life with a nostalgia that was touching to see in a 12-year-old. But soon the more uncomfortable aspects of the novel took over, particularly the rift that grew between the main character, Okonkwo, and his son, Nwoye. With my son on the outskirts of adolescence, this aspect of Achebe’s novel disturbed me in ways it hadn’t when I’d first read it many years before. Now I worried that it presaged the inevitable distancing that all fathers and sons must one day face. But this wasn’t a subject I was ready to confront, and so I didn’t bring it up openly in any of our discussions.
By now I thought Nathaniel might be ready for Kurt Vonnegut and his signature blend of humor, empathy, and excoriating truthfulness. And thus arrived the beginning of the end of our reading ritual. Starting with Slaughterhouse-Five, Nathaniel refused to stop after a single chapter, and so we’d read two, three, more at a sitting. When we moved on to Cat’s Cradle, he began reading on his own during the day, arriving at our nightly book sessions scores of pages ahead of me. I couldn’t keep up with him, and so eventually, and reluctantly, I left him on his own.
Now in his mid-20s and a father himself, Nathaniel is still a voracious reader — not of novels, but mostly books (and blogs) on politics, economics, and alternative architecture. At times I wish fiction had taken a greater hold of him, but mainly I’m proud that he navigates his own reading catamaran. Back when he was 12, my son did Big-Tooth one better: he’d strapped together two logs with his own imaginative cord and then paddled on his way, my reading companionship no longer needed, into the waterways that matter to him most. And now, Nathaniel reads to his 15-month-old son Dean some of the same children’s books my wife and I once read to him. Who knows where the comfort of a lap, a steady voice, and Five Little Monkeys will eventually lead his child?
Guillermo del Toro’s next film will bring us to Tralfamadore. He is adapting Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five with Charlie Kaufman writing the script. “I love the idea of the Tralfamadorians to be ‘unstuck in time,’ where everything is happening at the same time. And that’s what I want to do,” del Toro told The Daily Telegraph.
In his introduction to Letters, the collected letters of Kurt Vonnegut, the novelist Dan Wakefield writes of his friend, “Nothing came easy for him. Nothing deterred him…” He goes on to list the things that did not deter Vonnegut, among them: “the many editors and publishers who rejected his books and stories…the Guggenheim Foundation, which rejected his first application for a fellowship…his Cape Cod neighbors who didn’t read his books and expressed no interest in what he did for a living.” Rounding out the list of doubters and haters with the right-wing Christians, Wakefield concludes, “Anyone who imagines a writer’s life has ever been easy — even one who eventually achieves fame and fortune — will be disabused of that fantasy after reading these letters. And they will be inspired.”
Vonnegut had such a fine grump-humanist sensibility, and such a surprising turn of phrase — now-goofy, now-eviscerating — that his collected letters were destined to bring forth bounty. (Here is the man who writes to the Junior League of Indianapolis to chastise them for renaming their headquarters, signing off: “Perhaps Indianapolis deserves its inferiority complex after all, since it is rapidly becoming nothing but a real estate development and a so-so football team stolen from Baltimore.”)
So yes, in my own sour little way, I was inspired by these letters, because I am inspired by a friendly humanist with a great work ethic and a dark sense of humor. But I also found them pretty sad. While it’s true that the life of Vonnegut did not appear to be easy, reading these letters, it wasn’t indifferent awards committees or prudish readers or the Chicago anthropologists who jumped out as the major roadblocks in the man’s life. Reading these letters, it seemed like Kurt Vonnegut’s biggest obstacle to happiness was Kurt Vonnegut.
The danger of publishing someone’s letters is that people will use them to form opinions that might horrify anyone who actually knew the subject. That said, please bear with me as I tell you about a kind of stuffed meatball you can get in Turkey. In Turkish, the meatball is described as “with insides,” which is also how you say “sensitive.” Thus it happens that in Turkey you routinely see English menus touting “sensitive meatballs,” which is just about the most poignant anthropomorphism in history.
Reading the letters of Kurt Vonnegut evoked this meatball: emotional, touchy, absurd. It shouldn’t surprise me, because I am pretty sure it’s some kind of trope, but I am nonetheless surprised that a successful, vital, and by most accounts delightful man, who was always coming out with important books and fine statements, should have so often felt the need to convince other people of his worth — and particularly, that he would engage people from the three demographics least likely to budge from a position about one’s merits or lack thereof: critics, philistines, and one’s own children.
I thank you for your comments on how slowly my literary reputation is dying. Part of the problem, surely, is that all my books remain in print, and people continue to give me credit for having written them. There is also the confusion caused by Jailbird, which was much too good to have been written by someone at my stage of decay…
Next, a word to the book-burners of Drake, North Dakota:
I gather from what I read in the papers…that you imagine me, and some other writers, too, as being sort of rat-like people who enjoy making money from poisoning the minds of young people. I am in fact a large, strong person, fifty-one years old, who did a lot of farm work as a boy, who is good with tools. I have raised six children, three my own and three adopted. They have all turned out well. Two of them are farmers. I am a combat infantry veteran from World War Two, and hold a Purple Heart. I have earned whatever I own by hard work…
And finally, he writes to his children. I’m a sensitive meatball myself, so it was almost too much to read these letters during the long, November slide to the holidays, when family things, anyone’s family things, seem more raw and proximal than they usually do. I squirmed at Vonnegut’s many letters to his daughter Nanette, in which he tries to set her straight about his divorce and his new companion, Jill Krementz. When she, teenager-like, flakes on an appointment, he writes:
I don’t like the way you treat me at all. You have totally wrecked me with your absent-minded, dumb Dora promises to come see me, and with your equally fog-bound, last minute announcements that your life has become so complicated, hi ho, that you cannot come. I would find such indifference to my feelings painful, even if it came from a little kid. You are chronologically a grown-up now. But you are clearly unable to imagine me as a living, interesting, sensitive, vulnerable human being. God only knows that you think I am.
Around the same time, Vonnegut writes to thank the scholar Peter Reed for his favorable criticism and tells him, “I have sent your book to my eighteen-year-old daughter, so she can be absolutely certain that she has a keen old man.”
(Nanette is now a grown-up and a writer and, lately, the subject of a nice interview at The Rumpus. It’s on the record that she’s absolutely certain she had a “keen old man.” So that worked out. But it’s still sad to read those letters, and it’s sad that he tells Nanny about how nourishing and egalitarian this new relationship is, and then we read how she’s cheating, and then, when he is quite an old man, Vonnegut writes that he is “living one day at a time, and have to, Jill is so volatile.”)
John Irving was a student of Vonnegut’s at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Maybe it is something in the water there; Vonnegut’s communique to the book burners reminded me of the letter Irving’s character T.S. Garp, himself a novelist, writes to an incensed reader in The World According to Garp. In response to Garp’s lengthy explanation of the ways that she has misapprehended his work, the reader writes, “I can see by your letter that you believe in yourself and I guess that’s good. But the things you say are mostly garbage and nonsense to me, and I don’t want you to try to explain anything to me again, because it is boring and an insult to my intelligence.”
Perhaps Vonnegut’s letter really did make the censorious Mr. McCarthy (his actual name) of Drake, N.D., see the light about Slaughterhouse-Five, but I have my doubts. I think it takes more than a letter, even a letter from a letter-writer like Kurt Vonnegut, to change the mind of a person who would burn a book. And it surprises me that someone with Vonnegut’s sense of irony, Mr. So-it-Goes, would deem it worth trying.
Vonnegut was highly attuned the value of time and effort, as in the dollar value, something that creative types with no money generally have to spend a lot of time thinking about (and have to try not to spend a corresponding amount of time talking about). One of the most interesting (and also disheartening) things about Vonnegut’s letters is his exegesis of the financials of being an artist; necessity made Vonnegut a horse trader and kind of a hardass. I laughed at his advice to his son Mark, an aspiring artist:
You might give the next guy who wants to buy a painting from you a lesson in art appreciation that goes like this: A small tube of paint costs a dollar, a canvas costs two dollars, and the minimum legal wage in this country is now a dollar and a quarter an hour. Percy Leen did me the big favor of admiring my paintings and actually hanging them on her walls. I figure this honor cost me about forty bucks or more every time she awarded it to me.
And when an Indiana librarian asks him for a $7.50-copy of his latest novel, he asks whether the asphalt makers will likewise be asked to furnish their wares free of charge to the state.
I can’t imagine that a person who thought of time and work in those terms would write a sassy letter to Anatole Broyard on a lark, to be cute, to waste the day. I read touchiness and need in his letters — to set the record straight about himself, about the way things are. When the sensitive meatball’s need to persuade confronts the unwillingness of people and life to be persuaded, it makes for great reading. But it must have been exhausting to live.
Of all the things in this hectic world to keep kids away from, why books? Leslie Pinney, a school board member from District 214 (located in suburban Chicago), wanted to have the following books removed from the high school reading list because of their “inappropriate themes”:The Awakening by Kate ChopinThe Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen ChboskySlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (It should be illegal for kids not to read this book.)Beloved by Toni Morrison (Take that New York Times best book of the last 25 years.)Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (More on this later)How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia AlvarezFallen Angels by Walter Dean MyersThe Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollen (What are we worried about here? Plant sex?)The Things They Carried by Tim O’BrienTo see just how twisted and depraved these people here, check out this entry at a Townhall site in support of Pinney, where someone has lifted the prurient parts from some of these books to prove that kids shouldn’t be reading them – labeling the books – in a blaring font – “pornographic.” What if the children find that site, though? Then they won’t even have to read the books to get to the juiciest parts! At any rate, I find it comical and depressing that people think we should keep books with foul language or “adult” themes out of the hands of high schoolers. Isn’t the classroom a better place for kids to learn the appropriate context for such things than other outlets?Thankfully this “controversy” turned out to be little more than a tempest in a teakettle as the six other board members voted against Pinney. In fact it was heartening to hear how many people were moved to discuss the banning of the books. From the Tribune: “Board President Bill Dussling said the meeting’s turnout was the largest the district had seen in 25 years but evidently the issue struck chord within the community.” A number of students rallied against the proposed ban as well.Meanwhile, at the Freakonomics blog, authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, followed the situation. Their book had made Pinney’s list because it proposes the theory that legalized abortion has reduced the nation’s crime rate. To mark the occasion, the Freakonomics guys are doing something pretty cool. They’re giving out 50 free copies of the book to the first 50 students from the district who respond to their offer, and in the end, it seems likely that more kids will read Freakonomics and the other books than if this closed-minded woman hadn’t proposed the ban.On a semi-related note, I talked to some people at BEA about what helps books and authors get mentioned by the blogosphere. One big thing is for the author or book to have a compelling Web presence, and the Freakonomics blog is a great example. It has kept readers interested in the book, while also letting readers interact with the authors and giving bloggers something to link to.Update: The fallout from the District 214 attempted book banning continues, as described in this morning’s Tribune. The pro-banning forces are vowing to press on with their efforts to get books removed from schools. Peter LaBarbera of the conservative Illinois Family Institute calls the 6-1 vote against the book banning “a Pyrrhic victory” (and presumably LaBarbera was able to learn about Pyrrhic victories because Plutarch’s Lives was not banned in his high school.) LaBarbera’s contention is that “thousands of parents, not just in Arlington Heights but statewide, have been alerted that there are some pretty racy books out there that are required reading,” and so now we can expect many more book-banning battles to arise. Luckily, though, this article also contains more accounts of students fighting for the right to have these books taught: “Some said it was unfair to judge a book on isolated passages. ‘You cannot ban an entire book if you take things out of context, if you’re not looking at a literary whole,’ said Christine Fish, a member of the Hersey High School debate team. The group passed out fliers reading ‘Fahrenheit 214,’ a play on the title of the Ray Bradbury novel about book burning.”The kids, as they say, are alright.
When I picked up my first Kurt Vonnegut book, Slaughterhouse-Five, I noticed the greatest literary feat I missed out on by growing up in Turkey. My friend Annastacia left a copy at our house and her boyfriend/my roommate Uzay read the book in a day, his first Vonnegut as well. Uzay was so startled that he urged me to pick it up immediately. I did as suggested and was much surprised and pleased. I have yet to read more of Vonnegut’s works but his stream of conscious style in Slaughterhouse-Five, the disjointed stories that flow together more like an epic poem, the simplistic wording that carries heavy thoughts and emotions, and the personal reflections mixed with fiction were most startling. It took me only a day to read Slaughterhouse-Five (I am usually a slow reader) and I felt that I should go back and reread it immediately to better grasp the stories contained therein. The combination of World War II stories that culminate in the bombing of Dresden, the life of a stereotypical suburban businessman in post-war America and his interactions with Tralfamodarian aliens are at times difficult to piece together. They do, nevertheless, connect on a certain, higher level, which I hope to better understand by reading more of Vonnegut’s works, following the characters that reappear in his novels and get a better sense of his outlook on matters of life and death. And so it goes.Around the same time that my friend John gave me Crash, he also gave me Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude. It took me a long time to get into The Fortress of Solitude. I picked it up in mid-summer and read about fifty pages and stopped. Then I saw The Squid and The Whale, which I liked very much, and the Brooklyn feel of it made me return to Lethem’s novel. I read another forty pages and stopped again. In the meanwhile, I was reading other books for fun or out of interest. Around Thanksgiving I picked up the novel again. I was preparing for my 2nd annual Chicago trip to visit Mr. and Mrs. Millions, brother Jozef and aunt Murvet, and I thought that a journey would be the best opportunity to turn to The Fortress of Solitude one last time. I am very glad I did, because now that I fully read Dylan Ebdus’s story I am mesmerized by Lethem’s style and the strong storyline that picks up after, for me at least, page 120 and accelerates until the reader hits the end. Dylan Ebdus is the sole white kid in a mostly black and Puerto Rican neighborhood in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Dylan, the only child of a not so successful painter and an eccentric hippie mother, is a total stranger to the culture of the block and is constantly “yoked,” i.e. bullied, humiliated and robbed, by his peers. One day Mingus Rude moves to the block with his once famous, now low profile, soul singer father Barrett Rude Jr. Mingus and Dylan become steady friends and slowly, sometimes painfully, Dylan embarks on a new path. While the first third of the novel is slow and establishes a strong setting, the second third flies by as the reader flips through the adventures of Mingus and Dylan in the ’70s, sees them drop out of high school/go to college, smoke a lot of dope, become crack/coke heads, discover and dive into music, and form their own tag team. The language is rich with graffiti, music and popular culture in the ’70s. At the third and final section of the novel the reader finds Dylan in Berkeley during the ’90s. A lot has changed except for his fascination with music and adaptation of a white-boy immersed in African-American culture life style. It is easy to empathize with Dylan as he tells his story through music ranging from Brian Eno to Talking Heads, Devo, the Temptations, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, James Brown and Curtis Mayfield. Dylan’s struggles with his insecurities and search for identity are amazing portrayals with very strong supporting characters. There also is the parallel story of Aeroman and the ring, which I am still trying to decipher and digest. I am very glad to have read The Fortress of Solitude, it is, along with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, one of my favorite reads in 2005 and I definitely intend to read more of Lethem’s writings in 2006.Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
I’m going to Buffalo for a wedding this weekend, so you may not hear from me for a couple of days. But if you are in dire need of something to read in the intervening time, allow me to make a suggestion, or two. Most people have read one or two books by Kurt Vonnegut, and most people enjoy them. Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, and Cat’s Cradle are probably the most widely read Vonnegut books. Most folks enjoy those books, and then never read any Vonnegut again. This is a big mistake! There are number of other amazing Vonnegut books, so allow me to present to you the best of the rest (along with brief descriptions): The Sirens of Titan (“The richest and most depraved man on Earth takes a wild space journey to distant worlds, learning about the purpose of human life along the way.”); Galapagos (“A small group of apocalypse survivors stranded on the Galapagos Islands are about to become the progenitors of a brave new human race.”); Hocus Pocus (“A small, exclusive college in upstate New York is nestled along the frozen shores of Lake Mohiga… and directly across from a maximum-security prison. The two institutions manage to coexist peacefully, until 10,000 prisoners break out and head directly for the college.”); Welcome to the Monkey House (“This collection of Vonnegut’s short masterpieces share his audacious sense of humor and extraordinary creative vision.”); and finally God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (“Eliot Rosewater, drunk, volunteer fireman, and president of the fabulously rich Rosewater foundation, is about to attempt a noble experiment with human nature… with a little help from writer Kilgore Trout.”)
Cem’s travels have continued. As one of the few Westerners to visit Burma (recently, anyway), he has decided to take advantage of the opportunity by bringing along some literature that might be of use to the Burmese. Good luck and be careful Cem!I am heading into Mandalay via Air Mandalay the day after tomorrow. Mandalay is the second most significant city in Burma, a country which has been under the boot, physically and psychologically, of one of the most oppressive governments in the world for some 30 years. save N.Korea and maybe now Tajikistan, there are few places more old-school totalitarian – even Syria is more free than this place.Books, fiction and nonfiction, have always played an important role in denting the armor (and often more) of authoritarian rulers, just ask Vaclav Havel and George Soros. So – I would like to do my part in bringing in some interesting material, in denting the armor, even if the tiniest chink. I don’t intend on smuggling in tomes of guerilla tactics, or explicitly subversive rants published by expatriot opposition groups – I just want to bring in some books to give to these information starved people (well, the English speaking upper-mid class, probably students and hopefully not ‘guest’ intelligence, that read English), something that will either give them some inspiration, distract them, help them deal with/understand the living in an authoritarian/totalitarian society in an explicit way.Now, 1984 is an obvious choice, and I already have 3 used copies in my bag. Anyone could have come up with that. I need some titles that will impress the fleshy white activist chick crowd in Chiang Mai! Anyone else have any ideas? Even if I am unable to get them in time -which is almost certain – I’d love to hear what people have to say.I agree that 1984 is the perfect book for this situation. With simple, yet riveting prose, Orwell creates a generic totalitarian society, which, stripped of its ceremonial trappings becomes instantly recognizable as a society of horrors. One can imagine a Soviet dissident reading his samizdat copy by candlelight in an attic or basement and being struck by wave after wave of sickening, empowering recognition. It is no question that Orwell is most needed in places where books are banned and burned, so it seems fitting to bring along a book that addresses that very topic, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Other suggestions that come to mind are One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. And finally there is The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the towering giant of dissident literature. These books, once cutting edge, but now required reading in our schools, will surely fail to impress the “fleshy white activist chick crowd.” Anyone have anything sufficiently subversive to recommend? Send me an email or press the comments link below.Mystery and the Buddha I finished reading Bangkok 8 by John Burdett yesterday. The mystery genre is highly underrepresented on the list of books I’ve read. I’m not sure if this is from lack of interest or lack of time (all these guys wrote so many books, and I’m worried that once I started I wouldn’t be able to stop.) Anyone who has read this blog consistently knows that I’m a sucker for books set in exotic locales, and the fact that this book is set in Thailand and was well reviewed, led me to pick it up. First the bad: I found the book to be less than gracefully written. At times the language is painfully stilted. I know that I am not used to the “hard-boiled” style that many detective stories employ, but too often the prose caused me to lurch to a standstill while my brain rotated the offensive sentence around in my head, unwilling to go on. On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by how well Burdett used Thai Buddhism to add fascinating depth and nuance to the story. I have often been wary of Buddhism in general, mostly because my only experience with it is as a trendy religion, the accessory of Beastie Boys fans and cause-hungry hippies for whom the Free Tibet bumper sticker perfectly conceals the country club parking permit on the bumper of the Volvo (cf: “fleshy white activist chick crowd” in previous paragraph). Burdett’s Thai Buddhism, however, is both unassuming and universal. He presents it as inseparable from Thai culture, and naturally the Buddhist way of thinking, so different from our cold Western logic, becomes integral to solving the mystery (we are investigating the gruesome death by multiple snakes of an American marine, by the way.) It’s not so tidy as most detective stories, but then that too, follows the Buddhist way of thinking and is the strongpoint of the book.Two More Books That Bear Mentioning and an Important Programming NoteI’m starting to hear good things about the new Garrison Keillor novel Love Me. Brian pointed out the laudatory review in the Washington Post. Also, how could I have not mentioned this yet. Though I have never cracked the spine of a Chuck Palahniuk novel, I should mention that fans of his will be pleased to hear that he has a new book coming out very soon: Diary: A Novel. I haven’t seen any reviews yet, but I have heard that this one might be his most twisted yet.Tomorrow I’m getting on a plane and flying to the East Coast for 10 days. I have a lot planned and so I will probably not be able to post extensively. However, if any of you feel like picking up the slack and have some book-related news that just can’t wait email me or use the form at the right, and I will post it up. Thanks!