The Catcher in the Rye

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A Year in Reading: Jianan Qian

During our school years in Shanghai, we were always reading two books at the same time. One was our textbook, which sat open on the desk, protected by extra covers, lines highlighted and margins filled with tidy handwriting, reflecting our diligence; the other was the book we were actually reading, hidden inside our desks, probably dog-eared and without notes. As our teacher droned on and on, our souls slipped into the worlds of those books: some of us fought to be Kung Fu masters, others fell in love with someone magnificent.

Now, years later, I often hear people say that the books we loved in youth are not good, and that we liked them only because we desperately wanted to escape from the chore of schoolwork. This year, I spent a lot of time rereading the same books I used to sneak into my desk back in old days. And I mean to say this: We don’t need to feel apologetic about loving these books. Most of them still speak to us.

1. Walden, “Civil Disobedience,” and Other Writings by Henry David Thoreau

For most of this year, I was translating English Professor Laura Dassow Walls’s most recent biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life, into Chinese. I took the opportunity to reread Thoreau’s major works. Now, it’s safe for me to say that I still admire Thoreau. Not because I, as a city person, fancy the romantic idea of living in the woods, but because I appreciate his moral struggle and his life-long journey to elevate himself.

There have always
been two Thoreaus: one was the hermit by the
lakeside, a moralist who maintained his self-purity by disengaging with the
infected human society; the other was a politically responsible citizen who
would rather go to jail than support the unjust American government by paying
poll-tax and who tirelessly called on his people to do the same, to commit
civil disobedience.

Walls’s biography inspires me to see the two contradicting images as one. Thoreau saw the interconnectedness of all reality—“A man is a bundle of relations” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)—firstly in nature, where the newly-built hydraulic machinery threatened the lives of innocent fish. He defended the fish in his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Later, he extended his defense to include all oppressed forms of life: slaves controlled by their owners, Native Americans expelled by Anglo Immigrants, Mexicans threatened by the war of conquest…He was not merely interested in self-cleansing, either; he aimed to be the “chanticleer” (Walden) who would wake his neighbors with the dawn and remind them to live up to Higher Laws.

a time when we are so easily lost in the trappings of material success, perhaps
we can always turn to Thoreau for insight and courage. As Walls beautifully puts

When [Thoreau] wrote that “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone,” he meant not an ascetic’s renunciation, but a redefinition of true wealth as inner rather than outer, aspiring to turn life itself, even the simplest acts of life, into a form of art. “There is Thoreau,” said one of his closest friends. “Give him sunshine, and a handful of nuts, and he has enough.” (Henry David Thoreau: A Life)

2. After the Quake by Haruki Murakami

One often has to defend their love for Haruki Murakami in the same way one must defend their love for J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. It is true that there are certain books that you will never truly understand—and, even if you do understand, you will never experience that same electrifying feeling—unless you have read them at a certain age. This speaks to my experience with Norwegian Wood, which we carefully kept away from parents and teachers during adolescence and which offered us an exciting glimpse into what then seemed to us the mysteries of adulthood.

Earlier this year, I reread After the Quake, a collection of stories Murakami wrote after Japan’s 1995 Kobe earthquake. This time, I must confess that I enjoyed the book even more. I remember I used to adore “Thailand” and “All God’s Children Can Dance,” but now my favorite piece is “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo.” In this story, an average Japanese salaryman is chosen by Super-Frog to save the metropolis. When this ordinary man doubts himself for lacking any traditional heroic qualities, Super-Frog convinces him otherwise: “Tokyo can only be saved by a person like you. And it’s for people like you that I am trying to save Tokyo.” Amanda Lewis, in her essay about Murakami and his un-Japanese style, suggests that Murakami’s exploration of “the needs of the individual” is his refusal of “the essence of the Japanese mind,” which often contains an undertone of “a disregard for the sacredness of human life.” (Amanda Lewis, “The Essence of the Japanese Mind: Haruki Murakami and the Nobel Prize.”)

I am not saying I like all of Murakami’s works—some of them are disappointing—but the books that enthralled me when I was young—Norwegian Woods, After the Quake, South of the Border, West of the Sun—have quite a lasting charm.

3. The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner

My American friends often find it unbelievable that I read Sound and Fury when I was a teenager. Back then, I read its Chinese translation; Li Wenjun, the translator, carefully inserted footnotes to offer the much-needed context when time-shifting occurs. So I didn’t find it too difficult. This year, to write a script for a Chinese radio show, I reread the book in English. Because I already had the plot in my mind, I was able to appreciate the beauty of Faulkner’s writing.

section stunned me, as it had years ago. What seems like nonsense—long, chaotic
sentences without quotation marks is also pure poetry. Of course, the young
Faulkner—he was only 31 when he wrote this masterpiece—was probably also
showing off his mastery of different prose styles. His genius may overawe all
the aspiring young writers of today. But it is fine to feel intimidated; that
is how we push ourselves to write better.

P.S.: As a woman of color myself, I am aware of the race and gender issues in “the Western canon.” So, I would also like to recommend the best history book I have read this year: A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights Movement by Jeanne Theoharis. Theoharis argues that politicians have twisted the narrative of the civil rights movement. Now, we feel as if American democracy is a self-correcting and self-renewing system. However, the struggle of African Americans is proof of the system’s problems, not of its perfection. By glossing over the complexity of history, the current narrative turns us away from the still-dire racial present. The most deep-rooted racism, Theoharis suggests, doesn’t take the form of violence; it lies in the way parents assert their rights as taxpayers to maintain a dominantly white “neighborhood school.” Racism happens not only in the Deep South but also in New York City, in Los Angeles, in all those big cities which purport to embrace diversity.

Besides, while we appreciate the problems and values of the literature of the past, we can also keep an eye out for the potential classics of the future. I enjoyed reading The Study of Animal Language by Lindsay Stern and 99 Nights in Logar by Jamil Jan Kochai. And I am also looking forward to reading the following books, all of which boast excellent reviews: In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow, The Travelers by Regina Porter, and The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo. Yes, these authors are all my workshop buddies at Iowa, but I will feel honored to have been one of their first readers.

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Salinger Snaffu

If J.D. Salinger had it his way, we would all probably be dead by the time we got to read his unpublished works. However, someone leaked scans of a paperback entitled Three Stories, including the Catcher in the Rye precursor, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” on eBay on Wednesday. You can view the PDF here.

The Land of Metaphor: John Gall on Designing the Cover of Lolita

I interviewed graphic designer/creative director John Gall for the upcoming book that I co-edited with Yuri Leving entitled Lolita – The Story of a Cover Girl: Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel in Art and Design being published this month by Print Books. In it, eighty graphic designers provided their own cover designs for Nabokov’s famous novel; and design luminaries, scholars, and the Nabokov-obsessed contributed essays discussing the difficulties inherent in representing visually the themes of this great and controversial novel. To top it off, Mary Gaitskill has written a very wonderful preface.

John Gall is the creative director for Abrams Books and previously spent fifteen years as art director for Vintage and Anchor books, where he was responsible for at least two Lolita covers, not to mention the redesign of the entire Nabokov catalog (minus Lolita).


John Bertram: Nabokov wrote: “I want pure colors, melting clouds, accurately drawn details, a sunburst above a receding road with the light reflected in furrows and ruts, after rain. And no girls.” And: “Who would be capable of creating a romantic, delicately drawn, non-Freudian and non-juvenile, picture for LOLITA (a dissolving remoteness, a soft American landscape, a nostalgic highway—that sort of thing)? There is one subject which I am emphatically opposed to: any kind of representation of a little girl.” What weight do you give this and his other well-known opinions about what should or should not appear on the cover of Lolita?

John Gall: I completely agree with Nabokov on what I think is his main point: No little girls. On the other hand, his description of what he would like reads beautifully but would be a complete yawner as a cover. It is so non-specific that it could be the cover of almost any novel ever written. A question I like to ask myself when designing a cover is: “Can this be the cover for any other book?” The closer you get to a “yes,” the worse off you are.

There are two directions for this cover: either you take the title head on and go with some representation of Lolita, or you don’t. But be careful; the land of metaphor is filled with furrows and ruts and roads going off into the distance.

All that being said, I love the concept of “pure colors” as an approach. “Melting clouds” . . . ?

JB: Dieter Zimmer concludes “Dolly as Cover Girl” with: “Which cover do you consider the best? . . . It is exactly this loaded question that each publisher must ask him- or herself when attempting to decide which of the artist’s sketches will appear on the front of a book. For such decisions there exists no theoretical apparatus, only the intuition of the individual responsible for making the final decision.” What, no theoretical apparatus?

JG: No marketing research either! Ah, the intuitive decision. This is what makes designing covers both wonderfully rewarding and incredibly exasperating. The research and theory and conceptual rigor are the responsibility of the designer. They need to bring that to the table. No one else will. No one is going to ask for more intellect on a cover, especially in the commercial book-publishing world.

When designing, I employ both the conceptual and the intuitive. Cover art is for the brain and the eyes. I’ve seen too many visually stilted covers that apply their concept too strenuously, leaving us with a flat, boring design.

JB: Peter Mendelsund eloquently writes in “Fictions”: “in attempting to sell a book, designers must, not always, but sometimes, pander to…a public which can on occasion lack the interpretive subtlety to parse literary subtext — i.e., if the general reading public expects a schoolgirl or schoolgirl uniform on a Lolita jacket, then book buyers and booksellers will also be expecting a schoolgirl or schoolgirl uniform on a Lolita jacket; and one can then reasonably assume that marketing departments in publishing houses will want them as well. In the end, going backward, upriver towards its source, even editors begin to take their cues from misinformed readers at large.” That certainly covers a multitude of sins. What do you think?

JG: Peter is spot on about this, though it is a fine line between pandering and communicating. I am trying to connect to as many people as possible with a cover. How do you do that without dumbing things down? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had covers shot down because they are too “smart” or too clever, or worse “I don’t get it.” It can be seen as a liability. You won’t reach the people who don’t want to think for more than a second about what they are looking at.

I think a more interesting question might be: Why do people expect a schoolgirl or schoolgirl uniform or a girl in sunglasses with a lollipop? Is it all Kubrick’s fault? It wasn’t always marketing departments and editors forcing this issue. This stuff originated at the source.

Lolita is not only a book but also a cultural touchstone, and it carries a lot of baggage. There is so much visual reference associated with this book. There have been hundreds of covers. These schoolgirl uniforms and lollipops are all part of the visual language attached to the book. This has to be dealt with in some way. The visuals associated with the book are probably better known than the book itself.

For my very first attempt at designing the cover for Lolita, I attempted a typographic solution. After this was shot down, I made the decision to see if there was a way to reinterpret the iconography.

JB: Duncan White notes that “Lolita has been repeatedly ‘misread’ on the cover of Lolita and frequently in a way to make her seem a more palatable subject of sexual desire.” I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the cover you designed within this context and the more time I spend with this partial topography of a young girl’s face the more it becomes enigmatic, dissolving into a tabula rasa. Is it a stretch to suggest that your intention was provide an image upon which the viewer projects his or her own ideas about Lolita?

JG: This cover came about after a previous, more pointed design was rejected. I decided to see if I could put a twist on a classic image associated with Lolita: the lips. The lips we see on the final printed cover were originally positioned on the page vertically, giving the image a dual meaning — mouth or genitalia? It was cover as Rorschach, though a heavily weighted Rorschach. The responses to the cover ranged from revulsion to the publisher asking to have a printout framed for his wall.

Lolita will sell 50,000 books per year regardless of what is on the cover. Is it worth it to a publisher to put something on a cover that will turn off a segment of the readership? I don’t think so. Is it worth it to do something controversial with the cover of a controversial book? It doesn’t need it.

The sphinxlike representation of Lolita on the final cover is intentional. I wanted her barely there, elusive. I also read it as if we are Humbert, fixated on a particular detail of Lolita’s anatomy. I don’t like the idea of designing something that is wide open to interpretation. I think it’s a bit of a cop-out. But for classic books like this, a book that can be interpreted in a number of different ways, I think it is OK to get out of the way with the design.

By the way, when the anniversary edition came out there was a mention of the cover on Page 6 of the New York Post saying this was, to paraphrase, “the steamiest cover yet for Lolita”. If they had only seen the previous version.

JB: Ellen Pifer bluntly calls the novel “a threnody for the destruction of a child’s life” an assertion I find it difficult to dispute. How does this shape your responsibility to Lolita

JG: I don’t think it is ever a good idea to represent the most horrifying aspects of a book on its cover.

JB: Why was Lolita not included in the most recent shadow-box redesign?

JG: We had recently repackaged the book for its 50th anniversary and didn’t feel the need to rejacket the book so soon thereafter. I have a plan in place for putting Lolita in the box format when the time is right, which will hopefully be soon.

JB: You mentioned that you would not “give this as an assignment in a million years” to your cover-design class. Why not?

JG: I think it is a project that is too easy to get wrong, too hard to get right, and with not enough room to experiment in between. It is not just this title. There are a number of books that I have found to be not only difficult for students but for professionals as well. The Great Gatsby, On the Road, Catcher in the Rye — have you ever seen a really great cover for any of these books? Certainly, there are iconic covers — Catcher in the Rye’s yellow-type-on-red-background Bantam paperback—but is the actual design that amazing? Not especially, but as an artifact it transcends mere design discussion.

When coming up with projects, I look for titles that can be interpreted a number of different ways (OK, Lolita does fall into this category). Judging by the responses I’ve seen to your project, I may have to rethink this. I also don’t like to give out assignments for projects I am presently or have recently worked on.

JB: What will your next Lolita cover look like?

JG: I really cannot imagine a scenario where I will be designing this cover again.

A Year In Reading: Kevin Smokler (Weegee)

I’ve spent the past year rereading books I was assigned in high school English, a project that had two consequences. 1) Every great book I heard about this year that I did not read in high school went into a future-read pile that now resembles a sleeping baby rhino in the corner of my bedroom and 2) this year’s reading felt like being ages 16 and 39 at the same time. Which meant I remembered not liking a lot of novels because I had to read/quote from/essay upon them but saw them in the entirely new light of 20 of almost-middle-age adulthood.

My favorite example: The Catcher in the Rye.

Let us ignore that I was that idiot in 10th grade who wore a red earflap hat and trenchcoat for a few weeks because Holden Caufield “understood me” and move to this: How many siblings does Mr. Caufield have? We all remember younger sister Phoebe and probably older brother DB, the one working as a screenwriter out west. But do you remember Holden’s younger brother Allie, who has died recently when the novel opens? In a pivotal scene — the one right before he meets Phoebe at the Natural History Museum — he is wandering Park Avenue, lonesome and heartbroken, and each block reciting “Please Allie, don’t let me die.”

I missed Allie the first 10 times I read Catcher and focused on what everyone else did: That Holden Caufield is a brat, perhaps the ur-pain-in-the-ass-surly teenager to bond with or recoil from. But that stereotype didn’t really exist in the mid 1940s when Salinger conceived of him while enlisted as a soldier, a young man just a bit older than Holden when we witnessed handfuls of his friends die in battle. Holden helped birth the surly-teen generation (he arrived a good few years before rock n’ roll, the panic over juvenile delinquency and Rebel Without a Cause) but came from the one before, who knew the refrain of “please don’t let me die” from Normandy and Dunkirk.

Holden Caulfield may “understand us” when we are lonely, heartbroken teenagers too. He may also seem too embarrassing or stuck in time to revisit as adults. But I was a bit older this round, had some context and the ghost of a dead brother whispering through the pages like a sigh heard in the dark. I may now just think Holden is a kid who is lost in grief. And chances are as we all are a little bit older, we’ve been there too and understand.

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D.M.V.: An Incomplete List of Writers Who Met Death by Motor Vehicle

Is it my imagination, or do an inordinate number of writers die in motor vehicle accidents?  Maybe I tend to notice these grisly deaths because I’m a writer, an avid reader of obituaries, and also a car lover with a deep fear of dying in a crash.  But I’m convinced by years of accumulated empirical evidence that writers outnumber the percentage of, say, nurses or teachers or accountants who die in car and motorcycle accidents.  (Similarly, an inordinate number of musicians seem to die in plane crashes, including the Big Bopper, John Denver, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Ritchie Valens and Ronnie Van Zant, to name a few.)

Why do so many writers die in motor vehicle mishaps?  Are they reckless drivers?  Prone to bad luck?  Likely to indulge in risky behavior?  I don’t pretend to know the answer(s), but I have noticed, sadly, that writers who die in crashes are frequently on the cusp of greatness or in the midst of some promising project; sometimes they’re at the peak of their careers.  I offer this list in chronological order, aware it isn’t exhaustive.  Feel free to add to it in the comments.  Think of this as a living tribute to writers who left us too soon:

T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935) – Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean’s Oscar-winning 1962 movie, opens with the death of its subject.  T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole), the archaeologist/warrior who helped unite rival Arab tribes and defeat the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, was whizzing along a road in rural Dorset, England, astride his Brough Superior SS100 motorcycle on the afternoon of May 13, 1935.  A dip in the road obscured Lawrence’s view of two boys on bicycles, and when he swerved to avoid them he lost control and pitched over the handlebars.  Six days later he died from his injuries.  He was 46.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s account of his experiences during the Great War, made him an international celebrity, though he called the book “a narrative of daily life, mean happenings, little people.”  An inveterate letter writer, Lawrence also published his correspondence with Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Noel Coward, E.M. Forster and many others.  He dreamed that victory on the desert battlefield would result in an autonomous Arab state, but negotiators at the Paris peace conference had very different ideas, prompting Lawrence to write bitterly, “Youth could win but had not learned to keep: and was pitiably weak against age.  We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven on earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.”

Seven Pillars of Wisdom still speaks to us today, as the U.S. fights two wars in the region during this convulsive Arab Spring.  Lawrence could have been writing about Americans in Iraq when he wrote these words about his fellow British soldiers: “And we were casting them by thousands into the fire to the worst of deaths, not to win the war but that the corn and rice and oil of Mesopotamia might be ours.”

Nathanael West (1903-1940) – Nathanael West, born Nathan Weinstein, wrote just four short novels in his short life, but two of them – Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust – are undisputed classics.  After graduating from college he managed two New York hotels, where he allowed fellow aspiring writers to stay at reduced rates or free of charge, including Dashiell Hammett, Erskine Caldwell and James T. Farrell.  When his first three novels – The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931), Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and A Cool Million (1934) – earned a total of $780, a demoralized West went to Hollywood to try his hand at screenwriting.

There he enjoyed his first success.  He wrote scripts for westerns, B-movies and a few hits, then used his experiences in the trenches of the movie business to brilliant effect in his masterpiece, The Day of the Locust (1939), which satirizes the tissue of fakery wrapped around everything in Los Angeles, from its buildings to its people to the fantasies that pour out of its dream factories.  The novel also paints a garish portrait of the alienated and violent dreamers who come to California for the sunshine and the citrus and the empty promise of a fresh start.  West’s original title for the novel was, tellingly, The Cheated.  It was eclipsed by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which was a published a few weeks before it and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, then was made into a hit movie.  West wrote ruefully to his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Sales: practically none.”

In April of 1940 West married Eileen McKenney.  Eight months later, on Dec. 22, a day after Fitzgerald had died of a heart attack, West and McKenney were returning to their home in Los Angeles from a bird-hunting expedition in Mexico.  Outside the farming town of El Centro, West, a notoriously bad driver, gunned his sparkling new Ford station wagon through a stop sign at high speed, smashing into a Pontiac driven by a poor migrant worker.  West and McKenney were flung from the car and died of “skull fracture,” according to the coroner’s report.

Marion Meade, author of Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney, closes her book with what I think is a fitting eulogy: “Dead before middle age, Nat left behind no children, no literary reputation of importance, no fine obituary in the New York Times ensuring immortality, no celebrity eulogies, just four short novels, two of them unforgettable.  When a writer lives only 37 years and ends up with very little reward, it might seem a waste, until you look at what he did.  For Nathanael West, what he did seems enough.”

Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) – Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell’s only novel, was published in the summer of 1936.  By the end of the year it had sold a million copies and David O. Selznick had bought the movie rights for the unthinkable sum of $50,000.  Mitchell spent the rest of her life feeding and watering her cash cow, work that was not always a source of pleasure.  Her New York Times obituary said the novel “might almost be labeled a Frankenstein that overwhelmed her,” adding, “She said one day, in a fit of exasperation as she left for a mountain hideaway from the throngs which besieged her by telephone, telegraph and in person, that she had determined never to write another word as long as she lived.”

She gave up fiction but continued to write letters, and her correspondence is filled with accounts of illnesses and accidents, boils and broken bones, collisions with furniture and cars.  In fact, she claimed she started writing her novel because “I couldn’t walk for a couple of years.”

On the evening of Aug. 11, 1949, Mitchell and her husband John Marsh were about to cross Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta on their way to see a movie.  According to witnesses, Mitchell stepped into the street without looking – something she did frequently – and she was struck by a car driven by a drunk, off-duty taxi driver named Hugh Gravitt.  Her skull and pelvis were fractured, and she died five days later without regaining consciousness.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, a writer whose familiarity with failure surely colored his opinion of Mitchell’s staggering success, said of Gone With the Wind, “I felt no contempt for it but only a certain pity for those who considered it the supreme achievement of the human mind.”

Albert Camus (1913-1960) – He had planned to take the train from Provence back to Paris.  But at the last minute, the Nobel laureate Albert Camus accepted a ride from his publisher and friend, Michel Gallimard.  On Jan. 4, 1960 near the town of Villeblevin, Gallimard lost control of his Facel Vega sports car on a wet stretch of road and slammed into a tree.  Camus, 46, died instantly and Gallimard died a few days later.  Gallimard’s wife and daughter were thrown clear of the mangled car.  Both survived.

In the wreckage was a briefcase containing 144 handwritten pages – the first draft of early chapters of Camus’s most autobiographical novel, The First Man. It closely paralleled Camus’s youth in Algiers, where he grew up poor after his father was killed at the first battle of the Marne, when Albert was one year old.  The novel was not published until 1994 because Camus’s daughter Catherine feared it would provide ammunition for the leftist French intellectuals who had turned against her father for daring to speak out against Soviet totalitarianism and for failing to support the Arab drive for independence in the country of his birth.  Camus dedicated the unfinished novel to his illiterate mother – “To you who will never be able to read this book.”  He once said that of all the many ways to die, dying in a car crash is the most absurd.

Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) – In his essay on Wallace Stevens, written when he was 37, the poet and critic Randall Jarrell wrote prophetically, “A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times…  A man who is a good poet at forty may turn out to be a good poet at sixty; but he is more likely to have stopped writing poems.”

In the 1960s, as his 50th birthday approached, Jarrell’s poetic inspiration was in decline.  While he didn’t stop writing poetry, he concentrated on criticism, translations and children’s books.  He also sank into a depression that led him to slash his left wrist and arm in early 1965.  The suicide attempt failed, and a month later his wife Mary committed him to a psychiatric hospital in Chapel Hill, N.C.  He was there when his final book of poems, The Lost World, appeared to some savage reviews.  In The Saturday Review, Paul Fussell wrote, “It is sad to report that Randall Jarrell’s new book… is disappointing.  There is nothing to compare with the poems he was writing 20 years ago…  (His style) has hardened into a monotonous mannerism, attended now too often with the mere chic of sentimental nostalgia and suburban pathos.”

Though stung, Jarrell returned to UNC-Greensboro in the fall, where he was a dedicated and revered teacher.  In October he was back in Chapel Hill undergoing treatments for the wounds on his left arm.  On the evening of Oct. 14, 1965, Jarrell was walking alongside the busy U.S. 15-501 bypass, toward oncoming traffic, about a mile and a half south of town.  As a car approached, Jarrell stepped into its path.  His head struck the windshield, punching a hole in the glass.  He was knocked unconscious and died moments later from “cerebral concussion.”  The driver, Graham Wallace Kimrey, told police at the scene, “As I approached he appeared to lunge out into the path of the car.”  Kimrey was not charged.

Was it a suicide?  A tragic accident?  We’ll never know for sure.  One thing we do know is that this brilliant critic, uneven poet and inspiring teacher died too young, at 51, the same age as his heroes Proust and Rilke.

Richard Farina (1937-1966) – There was a time when every young person with claims to being hip and literary absolutely had to possess a battered copy of Richard Farina’s only novel, that terrific blowtorch of a book called Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me. Like a handful of other novels – Tropic of Cancer, On the Road, The Catcher in the Rye, Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest come immediately to mind – Farina’s creation was as much a generational badge as it was a book.  Farina’s novel, which recounts the picaresque wanderings of Gnossos Pappadopoulis, was published in 1966, after Farina and his wife Mimi, Joan Baez’s sister, had become a successful folk-singing act.  The best man at their wedding was Thomas Pynchon, who’d met Richard while they were students at Cornell.

On April 30, 1966, two days after the novel was published, there was a party in Carmel Valley, California, to celebrate Mimi’s 21st birthday.  Richard decided to go for a spin on the back of another guest’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle.  The driver entered an S-curve at excessive speed, lost control and tore through a barbed-wire fence.  Farina died instantly, at the age of 29.  Pynchon, who later dedicated Gravity’s Rainbow to Farina, said his friend’s novel comes on “like the Hallelujah Chorus done by 200 kazoo players with perfect pitch.”

Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) – For a writer who lived such a long and fruitful life – he was a teacher, environmentalist, decorated novelist and author of short stories, histories and biographies – Wallace Stegner does not enjoy the readership he deserves.  “Generally students don’t read him here,” said Tobias Wolff, who was teaching at Stanford in 2009, the centennial of Stegner’s birth.  “I wish they would.”

It was at Stanford that Stegner started the creative writing program and nurtured a whole galaxy of supernova talents, including Edward Abbey, Ernest Gaines, George V. Higgins, Ken Kesey, Gordon Lish, Larry McMurtry and Robert Stone.  He won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and a National Book Award but was ghettoized as “the dean of Western writers.”  In a cruel irony, this writer who deplored “the stinks of human and automotive waste” was on his way to deliver a lecture in Santa Fe, N.M., on March 28, 1993, when he pulled his rental car into the path of a car bearing down on his left.  The left side of Stegner’s car was crushed, and he suffered broken ribs and a broken collarbone.  A heart attack and pneumonia followed, and he died in the hospital at the age of 84.

For all his love of the West, Stegner knew it was no Eden.  He once told an interviewer: “The West is politically reactionary and exploitative: admit it.  The West as a whole is guilty of inexplicable crimes against the land: admit that too.  The West is rootless, culturally half-baked.  So be it.”

Steve Allen (1921-2000) – Though best known as a television personality, musician, composer, actor and comedian, Steve Allen also wrote more than 50 books on a wide range of topics, including religion, media, the American educational system and showbiz personalities, plus poetry, plays and short stories.  Lovers of Beat literature will always remember Allen for noodling on the piano while Jack Kerouac recited passages from On the Road on “The Steve Allen Show” in 1959.

On Oct. 30, 2000, Allen was driving to his son’s home in Encino, California, when his Lexus collided with an SUV that was being backed out of a driveway.  Neither driver appeared to be injured in the fender bender, and they continued on their ways.  After dinner at his son’s home, Allen said he was feeling tired and lay down for a nap.  He never woke up.  The original cause of death was believed to be a heart attack, but a coroner’s report revealed that Allen had suffered four broken ribs during the earlier collision, and a hole in the wall of his heart allowed blood to leak into the sac surrounding the heart, a condition known as hemopericardium.

On the day of his death Allen was working on his 54th book, Vulgarians at the Gate, which decried what he saw as an unacceptable rise of violence and vulgarity in the media.

W.G. Sebald (1944-2001) – It has been said that all of the German writer W.G. Sebald’s books had a posthumous quality to them.  That’s certainly true of On the Natural History of Destruction, his magisterial little exploration of the suffering civilians endured during the Allied fire-bombing of German cities at the end of the Second World War.  I should say his exploration of the unexplored suffering of German civilians, because the book is partly a rebuke, a challenge to his shamed countrymen’s willed forgetfulness of their own suffering.

I lived for a time in Cologne, target of some of the most merciless bombing.  I’ve seen photographs of the city’s Gothic cathedral standing in a sea of smoking rubble.  I’ve heard old-timers talk about the war – men grousing about the idiocy of their military officers, women boasting about how they cadged deals on the black market.  But I never heard anyone say a word about the horror of watching the sky rain fire.  Until Sebald dared to speak.

He produced a relatively short shelf of books – novels, poetry, non-fiction – but he was being mentioned as a Nobel Prize candidate until Dec. 14, 2001, when he was driving near his home in Norwich, England, with his daughter Anna.  Sebald apparently suffered a heart attack, and his car veered into oncoming traffic and collided with a truck.  Sebald died instantly, at the age of 57.  His daughter survived the crash.

David Halberstam (1934-2007) –  David Halberstam died working.  On April 23, 2007 he was riding through Menlo Park, California, in the passenger seat of a Toyota Camry driven by a UC-Berkeley journalism student.  They were on their way to meet Y.A. Tittle, the former New York Giants quarterback, who Halberstam was keen to interview for a book he was writing about the epic 1958 N.F.L. title game between the Giants and the Baltimore Colts.  As the Camry came off the Bayfront Expressway, it ran a red light.  An oncoming Infiniti slammed into the passenger’s side and sent the Camry skidding into a third vehicle.  The Camry’s engine caught fire and Halberstam, 73, was pronounced dead at the scene from blunt force trauma.  All three drivers survived with minor injuries.

Halberstam made his mark by winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his reporting in the New York Times that questioned the veracity of the men leading America’s war effort in Vietnam.  Eight years later he published what is regarded as his masterpiece, The Best and the Brightest, about the brilliant but blind men who led us into the fiasco of that unwinnable war.  He went on to write 20 non-fiction books on politics, sports, business and social history.  I think The Fifties, his re-examination of the supposedly bland Eisenhower years, contains all the virtues and vices of his work: outsized ambition and pit-bull reporting shackled to prose that’s both sprawling and clunky.  Like so many writers with big reputations and egos to match, Halberstam never got the tough editor he needed.

The book he was working on when he died, The Glory Game, was completed by Frank Gifford, who played for the Giants in that 1958 title game.  It was published – “by Frank Gifford with Peter Richmond” – a year after Halberstam’s death.

Doug Marlette (1949-2007) – Doug Marlette, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and creator of the popular comic strip “Kudzu,” published his first novel in 2001.  The Bridge spins around the violent textile mill strikes in North Carolina in the 1930s, in which Marlette’s grandmother was stabbed with a bayonet.  The novel is set in the fictional town of Eno, loosely modeled on Hillsborough, N.C., the hot house full of writers where Marlette was living when he wrote the book.  When Marlette’s neighbor, the writer Allan Gurganus, read the novel in galleys, he saw a little too much of himself in the composite character Ruffin Strudwick, a gay man who wears velvet waistcoats and sashays a lot.  Gurganus called the publisher and demanded that his name be removed from the book’s acknowledgements.  A bookstore cancelled a reading, charging Marlette with homophobia, and Hillsborough became the scene of a nasty literary cat fight between pro- and anti-Marlette camps.  People who should have known better – a bunch of writers – had forgotten Joan Didion’s caveat: “Writers are always selling somebody out.”

Marlette produced a second novel, Magic Time, in 2006.  After delivering the eulogy at his father’s funeral in Charlotte, N.C., Marlette flew to Mississippi on July 10, 2007 to help a group of Oxford High School students who were getting ready to stage a musical version of “Kudzu.”  The school’s theater director met Marlette at the airport.  On the way to Oxford, the director’s pickup truck hydroplaned in heavy rain and smashed into a tree.  Marlette was killed at the age of 57.  He was at work on his third novel when he died.

Jeanne Leiby (1964-2011) – In 2008 The Southern Review named a woman as editor for the first time since Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks founded the literary journal at Louisiana State University in 1935.  The woman was Jeanne Leiby, a native of Detroit who had published a collection of short stories called Downriver, set in the corroded bowels of her post-industrial hometown.  Her fiction had appeared in numerous literary journals, including The Greensboro Review, New Orleans Review and Indiana Review.   Leiby had also worked as fiction editor at Black Warrior Review in Alabama and as editor of The Florida Review before taking the job at The Southern Review.

On April 19, 2011, Leiby was driving west on Interstate-10 near Baton Rouge in her 2007 Saturn convertible.  The top was down and she was not wearing a seat belt.  When she tried to change lanes she lost control of the car and it hit a concrete guard rail and began to spin clockwise.  Leiby was thrown from the car and died later at Baton Rouge General Hospital.  She was 46.

At the time of her death Leiby was, by all accounts, performing masterfully at a thankless job.  Due to punishing state budget cuts, she had slimmed The Southern Review down, cancelled some readings and other events for the journal’s 75th anniversary in 2010, and ended the annual $1,500 prizes for poetry, non-fiction and fiction.  She did all that without a falloff in quality.  She was also working to merge The Southern Review with the LSU Press.

In a conversation with the writer Julianna Baggott, Leiby confided that during her job interviews at The Southern Review she’d offered her opinion that the journal had gotten stodgy and that it was too Old South and too male.  One of the first things this woman from Detroit did after she got the job was to lower the portraits of her predecessors – all men – because she thought they were hung too high.

Don Piper (1948 –     ) – Don Piper might be the most intriguing person on this list.  He died in a car crash – then came back from the other side to write a best-seller about the experience.

On Jan. 18, 1989, Piper, a Baptist minister, was driving his Ford Escort home to Houston after attending a church conference.  It was a cold, rainy day.  As he drove across a narrow, two-lane bridge, an oncoming semi-truck driven by a trusty from a nearby prison crossed the center line and crushed Piper’s car.  When paramedics arrived at the scene, Piper had no pulse and they covered his corpse with a tarp.  Since I can’t possibly improve on Piper’s telling of what happened next, I’ll give it to you straight from his book, 90 Minutes in Heaven:

Immediately after I died, I went straight to heaven… Simultaneous with my last recollection of seeing the bridge and the rain, a light enveloped me, with a brilliance beyond earthly comprehension or description.  Only that. In my next moment of awareness, I was standing in heaven. Joy pulsated through me as I looked around, and at that moment I became aware of a large crowd of people.  They stood in front of a brilliant, ornate gate…  As the crowd rushed toward me, I didn’t see Jesus, but did see people I had known… and every person was smiling, shouting, and praising God.  Although no one said so, I intuitively knew that they were my celestial welcoming committee.

Piper recognized many people who had preceded him to the grave, including a grandfather, a great-grandfather, a childhood friend, a high school classmate, two teachers and many relatives.  His story continues:

The best way to explain it is to say that I felt as if I were in another dimension… everything was brilliantly intense… (and) we began to move toward that light…  Then I heard the music… The most amazing sound, however, was the angels’ wings… Hundreds of songs were being sung at the same time… my heart filled with the deepest joy I’ve ever experienced… I saw colors I would never have believed existed.  I’ve never, ever felt more alive than I did then… and I felt perfect.

Alas, perfection was not destined to last. A fellow preacher had stopped at the scene of the accident to pray. Just as Piper was getting ready to walk through the “pearlescent” gates and meet God face-to-face, the other minister’s prayers were answered and Piper, miraculously, rejoined the living. This, surely, ranks as one of the greatest anti-climaxes in all of Western literature. Nonethless, 90 Minutes in Heaven, published in 2004, has sold more than 4 million copies and it has been on the New York Times paperback best-seller list for the past 196 weeks, and counting.

(Image: Orange Car Crash – 14 Times from eyeliam’s photostream)

The Millions Interview: Rebecca Makkai

Though I could easily rattle off the titles of two dozen novels I love, cherish, and reread, I would struggle to name half a dozen short stories that affected me similarly. I simply don’t love the short form. That was until I read my first Rebecca Makkai short story “The Briefcase”.  I fell in love with the form that day— at least Makkai’s version of it— and I wasn’t surprised when Alice Sebold chose it for the 2009 The Best American Short Stories anthology.

Others are smitten with Makkai’s work, too. Salman Rushdie, Richard Russo, Geraldine Brooks, and Dave Eggers have all chosen Rebecca’s short stories for anthologies. This, again, is no surprise. Her first sentences and paragraphs coax readers into the narrative and before they realize, Makkai is ferrying them on an adventure that enthralls, resonates and, often times, disconcerts.

She has done it again with her debut novel, The Borrower. The first pages drew me into the story as 10-year-old Ian Drake lures children’s librarian Lucy Hull into his life. Before Lucy fully understands the situation and its implications of her involvement with young Ian, she is off on a surreptitious, cross-country escapade with her most enthusiastic patron.

I conducted this interview by email as the last time Rebecca and I met, we lost track of time and I missed two trains and had to literally run to catch a third.

The Millions: Like your main character, your occupation brings children to great books. How did your experience as an elementary school teacher influence your characterization of the librarian Lucy Hull?

Rebecca Makkai: I’ve read out loud to children for half an hour every school day for the past eleven years, and that daily engagement with children’s books has kept them very much a part of my literary landscape. And part of my job is to be a book-pusher. At times I feel a bit like some skeezy drug dealer, hanging out at the edge of the playground, going, “If I can get them to try it just this once, I’ll have them hooked!”

Although I’m a very different person than Lucy, and her world is pure fiction, I did use that one element of my own life – the sublime satisfaction of connecting children with the books that will become their favorites. What makes that same feeling urgent and even desperate in Lucy’s case is the fact that this is one of the only ways she can help her patron Ian, who is being fed a whole different set of fictions – very damaging ones – by his parents and church.

TM: Though Lucy is first reluctant to acknowledge the sexuality of 10-year-old Ian, she acts when Ian’s religious parents take him to a church that specializes in gay reprogramming. Was this church – Glad Heart Ministries – based on a real group?

RM: Disturbingly, it was inspired by many, many different groups, though none directly. One of the largest and most egregious programs is Exodus International, which has hundreds of chapters, a youth ministry, and even (no kidding) an iPhone app – although, to be fair, they’re actually not the most hateful group out there, by a long shot. We never meet “Pastor Bob” in the book, but the few things we do learn about him are remarkably predictable of the leaders of these groups – including his being caught in a gay bar and trying to play it off.

TM: Ultimately, it is Lucy’s belief in the power and complexity of fiction that allows her to let go of Ian. Is her faith in the fictional narrative similar to your own?

RM: If you consider not just books but also movies, TV shows, fairytales, urban legends, the narratives of song lyrics and video games, etc., it’s clear that despite doomsday laments about the demise of literature, we are still a species that lives in fictional worlds almost as much as in the real one.  We need stories on some fundamental level that go far beyond any one medium or industry, and I think we need them for the same reasons we need to dream. You know how if you keep someone from dreaming in a sleep lab, they go crazy? I imagine the same might be true for absorbing fictions. And just as dreams allow us to work things out that we never could have understood consciously, I think narratives keep us sane by letting us process the world without the filter of our own lived experience. Lucy recognizes that for Ian, a story would be far more effective than a nonfiction book about growing up gay, which would just embarrass and distance him. What she doesn’t realize until later is how much her own senses of self and family have been predicated on some necessary and merciful fictions.

TM: What books directly influenced or inspired this novel?

RM: I kept both Lolita and Huckleberry Finn close on hand as I wrote, and these are books that Lucy uses as touchstones throughout. There are many riffs on classic children’s books (or certain types of book) scattered through the text, but in structure I tried to parallel those two and also The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as much as I could. And there’s some Catcher in the Rye thrown in for good measure… All the iconic runaway books are part of Lucy’s frame of reference, and the fact that (not coincidentally) they all share some similarities of structure made it easier to follow all of them simultaneously.

TM: As a narrator, Lucy is slippery and unreliable. She claims to work at the public library in Hannibal, Missouri, but we later learn she has only adopted this town’s name for the sake of her story. Why did Lucy choose Hannibal to set off her road trip tale?

RM: Because it’s the starting point of Huckleberry Finn. In my mind (and, as implied in the story, in Lucy’s), Twain enshrined it as the ultimate launching pad for the American road story. It’s the middle of the country, the middle of nowhere, and yet it’s on the banks of this enormous river that can sweep you right out of town. An interested reader could find a lot of parallels there: a child and adult running away together, with a lot of bungling and a lot of confusion as to who’s rescuing whom. There’s also a passage when they cross the bridge to Cairo, Illinois that’s a very direct reference to Huck and Jim’s point of no return.

But yes, she is pretty slippery, isn’t she? I have a weakness for unreliable narrators. Because who’s ever met a reliable one in real life?

TM: While Ian is literally running away, Lucy is doing so metaphorically. Both are fighting against others’ perceptions of them. Lucy doesn’t accept the stereotype of the quiet, wallflower librarian, but she also doesn’t fully embrace her family’s rebellious nature. In this respect, you and Lucy are similar. Writers, like librarians, are perceived as being poorly dressed introverts and your earlier work was heavily influenced by your father’s experience in the failed 1956 Hungarian revolution. Is this novel as much about Lucy’s self-actualization as your own?

RM: Well, I am pretty poorly dressed right now, but that’s probably not what you’re really asking. Probably the only other element of the story that’s autobiographical, aside from the aforementioned book-pushing habit, is my experience as a first-generation American. My family isn’t Russian, and my father is a retired linguistics professor who (unlike Jurek Hulkinov) has no Mafia ties that I’m aware of, but the worldview that I grew up with, of seeing America as a miraculous but flawed refuge from quite recent danger, is one that infuses a lot of my fiction. And like Lucy’s family, the Hungarian side of my family has a fairly disturbing history – more disturbing than Lucy’s, actually, by quite a bit, although it’s not something I’m ready to write about yet.

The night before my wedding, my father asked me (for reasons that are still unclear) whether I considered myself an American. In some ways, I think this book is my answer.

TM: Both this novel and most of your short stories are political. What are the difficulties in writing politically charged fiction?

RM: I don’t find it difficult so much as unavoidable. It’s funny, even when I think I’m writing a very apolitical piece (because it’s not directly about politics or revolution), it will end up being about race or class. You’d think I’d be a loudly political person in real life, but really I limit myself to voting and occasionally talking back to NPR when I’m alone in the car. And maybe that’s just what my stories will always be about, whether I want it or not – in the way that a Roth story is always about sex and a John Irving story is always about dismemberment and bears.

I think that whether I’m writing about a revolution or a bomb shelter or a public library, what I’m drawn to is the power structure – who’s in charge, who’s being oppressed, who’s working their way up that ladder. There’s a lot of drama inherent in that, and it’s not so much that I have a political ax to grind as that this is where I tend to find the story.

I do think that if someone sets out to write fiction just to prove a certain political point, though, it becomes unbearable. It’s why I can’t stand Tolstoy. I think politics can be the subject, but not the point.

TM: You and your short works have appeared in The Best American Short Stories four times in a row. Did your writing process change significantly in order to write a novel?

RM: The Borrower actually had a very long gestation: I started it in 2000, long before I’d published any short fiction. It was several years before I began working on it seriously, and I abandoned it and came back to it many times in the nine years till its completion, but it was always there, lurking in the background.

I do have to switch gears, though, between short and long stories. The pacing is obviously very different: a short story will either compress a very long time into a few pages, or (more commonly) take a small moment and delve into every detail. As a novelist, unless you’re Virginia Woolf, you have to find the midpoint between those two extremes if you’re going to maintain the reader’s interest over the long haul. In The Borrower, I have three different (unmarked) sections with different paces: In the first part of the book, Lucy needs to see Ian’s deterioration over several months. When they leave town together, she becomes very aware of time, since every minute they’re gone makes her more culpable. Time is marked out very carefully in terms of hours, meals, days, nights. And then the last section backs off and gives a more telescopic view of the months and even years after the main incident. It’s not an uncommon structure in novels, of course – broad view, narrow focus, broad view – but I don’t think I ever was so consciously aware of it as a reader until I wrote this book.

The other adjustment I need to make between my shorter and longer work is in the depth and pace of characterization. Since you have fewer words in which to establish a character in a short story, you need (and can get away with) some broader strokes. In a novel, those broader strokes, piled over many pages, can come off as caricature. That said, most of the peripheral characters in The Borrower are intentionally larger-than-life, and I made the decision, for better or worse, to paint some of them with a very large brush – partly for comic effect, and partly because the world of this novel is a somewhat surreal one. In my novel in progress, that isn’t the case at all. I have to remind myself to slow down, and that we don’t need to know everything about a character the moment he opens his mouth.

TM: As a mother to a small child and infant and as a teacher who works full-time outside the home, how do you find time to balance your responsibilities and creative self? What advice would you give to writers who are struggling with this balance?

RM: Before you make me sound like a superhero, I should point out that there’s still some laundry on my closet floor from spring break. Which was almost three months ago. So I suppose the answer is that I let a lot of little things slide, in favor of the bigger things.

I also find that I do a lot of my writing when I’m not actually writing. In a very busy week, I might not get any real uninterrupted time at my computer (or that time might come when I’m too exhausted to use the English language responsibly), but then on Saturday I’ll hit the ground running with everything I’ve thought of all week long, in the shower, in the car, at the grocery store. I suppose it’s a slightly depressing modern take on Wordsworth’s going off on those long walks in the lake country and coming home with odes fully composed. My version involves composing in the pediatrician’s waiting room, then hurrying off to Starbucks to type like a maniac.

The key for me is to find the middle ground between feeling sorry for myself and expecting too much of myself. Come to think of it, maybe that’s the key to everything.

TM: What other things are you working on?

RM: I’m trying to get my stories to gel into some sort of collection, but I feel like a camp counselor with a cabin full of unruly girls refusing to coexist. And I’m working on my second novel, which is tentatively called The Happensack. It’s the story of a haunted house and a haunted family, told in reverse. I’m rather smitten with it right now, which is probably why I’m neglecting the laundry.

The Great Read Shark: Fear and Loathing at 40

Forty years ago today, on March 21, 1971, Hunter S. Thompson and a Chicano activist attorney named Oscar Zeta Acosta drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to talk over an article Thompson was writing about the barrios of East L.A. When the account of their journey appeared in Rolling Stone in November of that year, Thompson and Acosta had morphed into Raoul Duke and his 300-pound Samoan attorney and the trunk of their car, the Great Red Shark, had become a rolling drug dispensary:

We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers…and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.

I can still remember sitting in the basement of my parents’ house in Northern California, practically whizzing myself with delight at that dizzying list of pharmaceuticals. I was fourteen and I’d read Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace and all the other books about and for nice, well-heeled boys whose lives have gone a little off the rails, but Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was different. It wasn’t just the mind-blowing drug use or the lusty middle finger Thompson seemed to be giving straight America; no, what was so startling, so riveting to my fourteen-year-old’s mind was how sincere the whole thing seemed. Raoul Duke is a foul-mouthed, gun-toting drug addict with a mean streak, and yet, as he explains to a terrified hitchhiker in the opening scene, he and his 300-pound Samoan attorney are driving to Las Vegas in search of the American Dream. “This is important, goddamnit!” Duke snarls at the poor hitchhiker. “This is a true story!” And sitting all alone in my parents’ basement, still high from the bong hits I’d blown out the window, I believed him.

That was then. In the forty years since Thompson took that fateful trip into gonzo history, he has gone from arguably the most dangerous man in American journalism, to a cartoon character in Doonesbury, to a drug-fuddled has-been, to a suicide, and yet the work remains. Four decades on, does the Fear and Loathing still hold up?

Hunter Stockton Thompson, future Doctor of Gonzo Journalism, was born in 1937 in Louisville, Kentucky, the first son of an insurance salesman and homemaker. Young Hunter was a handful pretty much from birth, according to William McKeen’s excellent, though slightly fawning, 2008 biography, Outlaw Journalist. After his father died, Thompson graduated from pranks to petty crime and was locked up for two months for threatening to rape a girl during a small-time robbery. Choosing the Air Force over a life of crime, he started writing sports stories for a base newspaper and fell in love with journalism. For a decade, he knocked around the lower rungs of the news trade, filing increasingly wild and unverifiable feature pieces from Puerto Rico and South America until the mid-1960s, when he stumbled onto his first great subject, the Hells Angels.

Flush with the success of Hells Angels, his book about the year he spent hanging out with – and, famously, getting stomped by – the outlaw biker gang, Thompson signed a contract to write a book on the ponderous subject of The Death of the American Dream. It was a dumb idea for a book and he never wrote it, but the theme festered in the back of his mind for years while he was getting beaten up by Mayor Daley’s cops in Chicago in 1968 and watching one after another of his liberal political heroes get gunned down, until that March day in 1971 when he set out across the Mojave Desert with Acosta.

Fear and Loathing compresses two separate trips Thompson took to Las Vegas that spring – the first to cover a motorcycle race called the Mint 400, the second to cover the National District Attorneys’ Conference on Drug Abuse – into a single hellish week of drug consumption and debauchery. To these real-life assignments Thompson adds a third, deeper quest: his much-delayed search for the American Dream. Whether Fear and Loathing is a work of journalism or fiction is a topic of fierce contention among die-hard HST heads, but in truth the book is neither. It is myth. Two seekers, a great white Hunter and his brown guide, cross the desert into the American heart of darkness in search of what killed the spirit of hope and innocence that animated the decade just ended.

The first thing that strikes you when you read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 2011, beyond the rotary phones and the 29-cent burgers, is what a sad story it is. Don’t get me wrong; parts of it are still very funny. It is a tribute to Thompson’s comic genius that all these years later Raoul Duke’s acid-fueled description of entering a Vegas hotel bar can make a grown man like me, whose druggie years are decades in the past, laugh so hard he snorts ginger ale out of his nose:

Terrible things were happening all around us. Right next to me a huge reptile was gnawing on a woman’s neck, the carpet was a blood-soaked sponge – impossible to walk on it, no footing at all. “Order some golf shoes,” I whispered. “Otherwise, we’ll never get out of this place alive. You notice these reptiles don’t have any trouble moving around in this muck – that’s because they have claws on their feet.

But for long stretches the book reads like an all-too-accurate description of a weeklong binge, with all the shapelessness and pointlessness that implies. Minor characters appear and disappear with barely a ripple, plans are meticulously devised and abandoned, weapons are drawn in murderous rage and then moments later forgotten, and when all is said and done it adds up to not very much. Duke doesn’t get either of the stories he is sent to Las Vegas to get, he never finds the American Dream, and by the end, when his plane out of Vegas lands in Colorado, he is so addled he literally doesn’t know where he is.

The sadness is never more clear than in the well-known “wave passage” that appears midway through the book. Thompson is said to have considered this aria to the death of innocence to be one of the finest things he ever wrote, and it is indeed a lovely piece of writing. In it, he describes a series of late-night motorcycle rides around San Francisco, in an effort to convey what it was like to be alive in that city in the mid-1960s “when the energy of a whole generation” struck “in a long fine flash”:

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning….Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

It goes by so fast that if you’re not paying attention you could miss it: “Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting.” What drugs were these people on? They wanted to change the world, turn back the largest military machine in the history of the world, and they saw no point in fighting?

Of course, many in the anti-war movement did fight. Some were beaten up by police, others went to jail or left the country, and a few even died. Unlike the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, however, who were under no illusion about what they were up against, the leaders of the Peace Generation were by and large children of privilege who believed that if they spoke truth to those in power – who were, after all, their parents – they would be heard. But once the Flower Children had finished sitting in and singing mean songs about the president, when their parents, Nixon’s Silent Majority, went ahead and fought the war anyway, most cut their hair and found jobs.

But not Raoul Duke, our latter-day Don Quixote who drives into Vegas with his 300-pound Sancho Panza and a head full of acid to figure out what went wrong. Duke is a horror show – violent, misogynistic, full of a manic male rage that is fueling his appetite for drugs – but in a world of hustlers, pimps and bullshit artists, he is an honest man. He lies constantly, but never to himself, or to his readers. He understands how destructive he is, and he describes, with almost compulsive honesty, what it must feel like to totally lose faith in one’s self and one’s country. In the end, he is demoralized, smashed against the rocks of history, and though he never comes out and says so, one suspects that one of the reasons he’s so heartbroken is that he knows he has no one to blame but himself.

This may explain why Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas made such a stir when it first came out: it not only sounded the death knell of the 1960s, but also helped make sense of its ignominious end. Raoul Duke is no Flower Child, but he is the freakiest of the Freaks and he believes, with his own freakish fervency, in the nobility of what his generation was trying to achieve. What he sees from that hilltop in Vegas, despite the fistfuls of drugs he takes to obscure his vision, is that his side has lost, not because the cause wasn’t just or because the enemy wasn’t evil, but because he and his compatriots were too self-involved, too drunk on their rightness, to fully appreciate the power of their opponent.

Like his alter ego, Hunter S. Thompson was nearing the end of his tether by the time Fear and Loathing appeared in 1971. He published another couple decent books and one perfectly awful one, The Curse of Lono, about Hawaii, and then he more or less gave up. For the last 20 years of his life until his 2005 suicide, except for some rather disjointed newspaper columns, he wrote little new material and instead filled book after book with pages from his vast archives of old letters, articles, unpublished novels, and screeds.

I got to know Thompson a little midway into this long, sad decline when I worked as a reporter in Aspen, Colorado, in the early 1990s. Whatever else you could say about the man, he was a terrific interview. He mumbled so badly that you missed three-quarters of what he said, but what slipped through the rocks in his mouth cohered into hilarious little sonnets of invective directed at the greedheads and pigfuckers and scurvy rats gnawing at your bones. But my principal memory of him is a silent one. At some point along the line, he had been given a replica of the Great Red Shark, and many nights walking home after deadline, I saw him driving it aimlessly down the back alleys of downtown Aspen. One night – it must have been summer because he had the top down – he passed by me very slowly, and for three or four long seconds, our eyes met. He was middle-aged by then, his face wrinkled and doughy, the bags under his eyes dark as oil slicks, but he stared at me in that intense Hunter way of his, and I remember thinking: That is the saddest, loneliest-looking man I have ever seen.

And then he drove on, my childhood outlaw hero, all alone in a fire-red Chevy convertible, cruising the back alleys of Aspen, heading nowhere in particular.

The Chameleon Machine

The following is excerpted from the collection of essays The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, co-edited by Jeff Martin and Millions founder C. Max Magee. The book includes inventive, thoughtful, and funny pieces in which Jonathan Lethem, Rivka Galchen, Benjamin Kunkel. Joe Meno, Deb Olin Unferth, and many others consider the landscape as the literary world faces a revolution, a sudden change in the way we buy, produce, and read books. The book is available now on Amazon and in all good bookstores.

There are certain divisions in the world that seem unnecessary to me. Consider, for a moment, the ebook/paperbook divide. On the one side, the traditionalists, with their—okay, our—love of the objects that we call books. The texture of the paper, the beautiful dust jackets. Being able to see how much of a book remains to be read, as pages stack up on the left and diminish on the right. The ability to see two pages at once and have a sense of what’s coming. Writing in the margins.

On the other side stand the gadgeteers with their cold slim readers, packing entire libraries into a volume the size of a novella, flipping pages on a touchscreen. I don’t own a digital reader, but I understand why other people do. Aside from the natural joy of owning a shiny new gadget, there’s an undeniable appeal from a purely minimalist standpoint—why agonize over which two books to cram into your suitcase, when you can bring your entire library with you?—and I have to imagine that ebook aficionados have a much easier time of moving than I do. When I move to a new apartment, it’s a Herculean task involving towering mountains of impossibly heavy small boxes with labels like Fiction: Ames – Bellow and Theatre Books: Box 1 of 10. It isn’t pretty.

Digital readers and paper books have little in common. But both objects have considerable merit, and this is why I think we should combine the two.

The future of the book that I imagine involves an object that looks, in every detail, like a high-quality hardcover. The difference is that there’s no title visible on either the cover or the spine. When you first open the book, all the pages are blank. Hundreds of pages of high-quality paper—a slight sheen might hint at the underlying circuitry—with nothing on them. The cover is blank too.

You might mistake the object for a blank notebook, except for the discreet touchscreen on the inside of the front cover. Here you scroll through your library, and select the book you want to read. For old time’s sake, let’s say The Catcher in the Rye. Once you’ve made your selection the pages remain blank for just a heartbeat—the process taking place in the heart of the book’s machinery is, after all, quite complex—but then the famous orange carousel horse of the first edition dust jacket rises slowly out of the blankness of the front cover, like an image rising out of Polaroid film. JD Salinger’s name appears on the spine above the publisher’s logo, and then all at once the pages begin to fill. The book is typesetting itself.

The first page is no longer blank. Beneath the Chapter One heading, the famous and incorrigible opener has appeared: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born…”

The object in your hands looks and feels like a book. The pages feel like paper. You flip through them, and all the words are there waiting for you; there’s no waiting for a screen to refresh. The object might even be made, with a judicious dash of library-scented accord from my favorite perfume shop, to smell like the books you grew up with. You can make notes on the pages if you wish, provided you use the special digital pen attached by means of a thin ribbon to the spine.

But suppose you get tired of reading Salinger after awhile, or you finish the book. You go back to your touchscreen just inside the front cover, and flip through your library until you find something that appeals to you. Select the new volume, and the process begins again. Just a moment of blankness, while Salinger’s carousel horse fades out. The notes you took in the margins have vanished, but they’ll be there again the next time you want to read The Catcher in the Rye.

And then, Leo Tolstoy’s name on the spine. Turn the first page and the text of Salinger’s book has dissolved. The first line of the novel now reads as follows: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The book in your hands is now Anna Karenina.

It only sounds like magic. Electronic paper—flexible sheets of paper-like material, comprised in various versions of polymer, microcapsules of oil, arrays of electrodes—has been around since the ‘70s, when Nick Shelton at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center created the first sheet of the stuff. Research continued in the decades that followed, and in early 2010 LG debuted a new prototype: a sheet of electronic paper with the dimensions of a newspaper page, weighing only 130 grams.

In the photographs that accompanied the press release, the material holds a glassy patina; a man and a woman hold sheets of LG’s new paper in what looks like the Tokyo subway system, and the sheets hold the front page of a daily newspaper. It doesn’t quite look like paper, but it’s close. It’s so close.

Is there any reason why, a few years from now, when the technology’s become lighter and better and less expensive, we couldn’t make entire books out of this stuff? There are of course logistical problems to consider—how to manage the display of a 600-page novel on a device that only has 350 pages, for instance—but this sort of thing doesn’t strike me as being particularly insurmountable.

It seems to me that the failing of our digital readers to date is that the focus has been almost entirely on the content. Our earliest books were sublimely executed works of art, years and decades and entire lifetimes poured into the lettering and ornamentation of medieval manuscripts. The printing press changed all of this, of course, but the ghost of that early obsession with beauty has lingered. Beautiful books have remained with us, in ever-changing form, through all the seasons of publishing: gorgeous book jackets, impeccably designed interiors, gilt lettering on cloth. But digital readers have been focused solely on finding the best possible means of presenting the book’s words, of inventing the ideal flatscreen to display them on. I fear we’re nearing a point of forgetting the idea of books as objects, as works of art whose form, not just whose content, we might consider preserving.

The book in your hands has transformed itself into Anna Karenina, but why stop there? One of the major problems of reading is the difficulty of ignoring the chaotic world around you. We’ve all been stuck in airplanes with screaming small children. Because blocking out this sort of thing by sheer willpower alone can be impossible, I wonder if perhaps our books might be enlisted to help us out.

I read a fascinating article a few years back about directed-sound technology, and its potential for in use in museums. One of the aural problems of museums is that some patrons want to hear information about what they’re standing on front of, whereas others would vastly prefer to contemplate in silence. The idea with the directed-sound technology is that if you’d like to learn more about a particular display, you step into a specific location in the room—perhaps indicated by a circle of light projected onto the floor—and there, only there, at that particular point, in a projected column of ultrasonic sound, you hear a recorded voice explaining the nuances of 16th-century Chinese calligraphy or the finer details of the Battle of Brooklyn.

Directed-sound technology has advanced to the point where beams of sound can be directed at an individual in such a way that the people sitting on either side of them will hear nothing. All of this makes me think that the book, once the technology advances a little further and can be easily embedded without adding too much weight, should have a noise-canceling button. Click it and step into the circle of light; you’d be cast, all at once, into your own private aural landscape. Perhaps it might enable silence, or some sort of soothing ambient noise. Care would have to be taken not to zone out completely at, say, airport departure gates, but I think the concept has promise.

I was thinking the other day of sound-enabled picture books. It would be a strange and dazzling new form. Page upon page of gorgeous illustrations, with music, with text and spoken word that no one but the reader could hear. An interactive art project. Or imagine the more practical applications for travel books: on the page listing useful phrases for the country you’re traveling in, you could hear the pronunciation before you spoke, so as to avoid making a fool of yourself when you’re trying to order coffee in Slovakia.

For all my love of the electronic innovations of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, there are certain tactile experiences that I’m not willing to surrender. The experience of turning pages is one of them.

I love machines, but I want the book I hold in my hands fifty years from now to look like the books I remember from childhood. I want to be able to see two pages at a time, I want to take notes in the margins, I want to flip backward to see what I missed. Most importantly, I want the bookstores I love to still exist in the future.

The conveniences of the digital age are inarguable. I’ve never really liked grocery shopping; it’s nice that now I can do it online at midnight. I feel the same way about buying shoes. But books? That’s something else entirely.

I imagine the bookstores of the future. They’d look very much like the bookstores of now, except it’s possible that they might be a little smaller; if most people are downloading books to machines, they’d need much less stock. A few people might still want to buy the old kind of book, the kind made out of paper, especially at author events. Those of us with the new books, the ones made out of electronic paper that can transform into other books in our hands, will browse for a while and then perhaps, if we happen to be carrying our new books with us, pay for and download the volumes we want to buy. Or perhaps we’ll buy books on a volume the size of a flash drive, to be downloaded to our new books when we get home later.

And then we’ll sit in parks and subways and on sofas, the same as we have since the invention of the printing press, and we’ll flip through the pages of our beautiful machines.

For Sonny – With Love and Sympathy: Kenneth Slawenski’s J.D. Salinger: A Life

Before I say anything about Kenneth Slawenski’s compelling but adoring biography of J.D. Salinger, I have a question: does anyone really, really understand just why Seymour Glass blows his brains out at the end of  “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”? The editors of The New Yorker didn’t, although they eventually published it. John Updike didn’t, but that didn’t keep him from calling the story a classic. Vladimir Nabokov thought it was an “A-plus story” but never said why. The story was published in 1948, three years before The Catcher in the Rye, and it’s been confounding readers ever since.

You remember what happens. A married couple, Seymour and Muriel, are vacationing in Miami. Muriel, pretty but vapid, sits alone in a hotel room, drying her nails and talking on the phone to her mom, who wants her to come home. The mom thinks Seymour is crazy. She cites instances, says something about the army releasing Seymour from the hospital too soon. Muriel shrugs it off and talks about fashion. Meanwhile, Seymour is on the beach talking to Sybil, a little girl he has come to know. They talk about Muriel, whom Seymour doesn’t seem like. Apropos of nothing, Seymour quotes T.S. Eliot. Seymour and Sybil take a raft and hit the waves. He tells her about bananafish, which crawl into underwater caves, eat so many bananas they can’t get out, and die. Sybil claims to see such a fish and Seymour suddenly decides to go back to shore. He heads for his hotel room. On the elevator up, he accuses another guest of staring at his feet and being a God damned sneak about it. He goes to his room, sees Muriel asleep on the bed, puts a gun to his head and fires. End of story.

WTF? Critical analysis seems to turn on the little girl’s name: Sybil, therefore Sibyl, the mythological seer. Slawenski, a good if somewhat stiff reader of Salinger, offers an even more complicated theory that suggests Seymour spent too much time reading Eliot and Blake. Both ideas may be perfectly correct, but they ignore the fact that Seymour packed the gun to begin with, beside which Eliot and mythology just seem like so much literary filigree. Presumably, Seymour feels trapped, like the bananafish, but the events of this day offer less than perfect motivation. It’s not clear even Salinger knows why Seymour killed himself, because he keeps coming back to it in subsequent stories, as if there’s something he forgot to say, some detail he meant to add.

The story is the kickoff to Nine Stories, a classic collection distinguished by ambiguity and ellipsis. It was also the beginning of a long journey. In the 25 years of Salinger’s publishing life, Seymour was his constant companion, evolving in seemingly autobiographical ways as the author became more immersed in Eastern philosophy. He’s the brilliant spiritual loner, too preoccupied with the next world to connect with this one, and in death he becomes a ghost his family cannot exorcise. In Franny and Zooey, Seymour’s little sister has a nervous breakdown on the road to spiritual perfection. In Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters, a hilarious social comedy, brother Buddy recalls the disastrous events of Seymour’s wedding day. In Seymour: An Introduction, Buddy circles around his memories of Seymour, trying to make some sense of him. It’s Salinger’s most direct effort to say who, what or why Seymour is, and it’s a numbing experience; little more than an endless ramble, and quite the longest novella ever written. Buddy mentions a short story he wrote in the late forties, where Seymour “not only appeared in the flesh but walked, talked, went for a dip in the ocean, and fired a bullet through his brain in the last paragraph.” But the Seymour of the story, he says, was actually more a reflection of Buddy himself, written not long after Seymour’s death, after the both of them had “returned from the European Theater of Operations.” The story, he says, was written using a German typewriter.

In other words, Seymour (or Buddy, who seems to be channeling him, even though he gets little more than static) was tormented by what he saw in the war, as Muriel’s mother suggested, specifically in Germany. That seems like it should be the last word, except that it’s not. We still have Salinger’s bizarre final testament to Seymour: “Hapworth 16, 1924“, which landed with a thud when it appeared in The New Yorker in 1965, taking up a whole issue and marking Salinger’s final publication.

It’s composed of seven-year-old Seymour’s impossibly brilliant 65-page letter home from summer camp, in which we learn that he has already died and been reincarnated several times. It was a strange, unbelievable prequel: the young man who killed himself in a Miami hotel room was actually a homegrown Dalai Lama! As character development goes, it feels desperate. It was also a retread, as the young Seymour isn’t all that different from the title character of Salinger’s story “Teddy,” another child genius touched by some kind of Zen-like divinity.

After that, the clock stopped. Salinger was dead as a writer but, in his Seymour-like way, lives on. His books have never gone out of print, and his earliest and best work remains distinct, irreplaceable, and influential. By the time he got to Hapworth, alas, he had eaten his last banana. He was 46, holed up in a remote house in tiny Cornish, N.H., living off royalties that by the mid-1980s were bringing him about $100,000 a year. He devoted what turned out to be the next half of his life to saying nothing and saying it loud enough for all the world to hear. Rumor had it he still wrote and even completed a few novels, but that remains to be seen, or not seen.

Reading Salinger’s biography is a little like reading the fiction: the more time you spend in his company, the more anxious you are to leave. As far as telling the story, this book has a lot of merit. Slawenski collates all the known facts, tracks his movements over the years, and shows how his art was shaped by both World War II and religion. He does an especially good job of putting Salinger’s experiences in context, particularly where his military years are concerned.

On the other hand, he lacks detachment. He doesn’t hide the warts, but he doesn’t always notice them. To paraphrase Updike paraphrasing Salinger, he loves the author more than God does. He does a very thorough job, however, and it’s not his fault that his subject turns into such a fusty, frosty, petulant bore.

The book starts off quite interestingly, as Slawenski presents a young man who was a little like Holden Caulfield, the narrator of Salinger’s most famous novel: born to an affluent Manhattan family, he attended prep school, and was a bit of an outsider. Far from being a self-loathing manic-depressive, he was arrogant and cocky. The family called him Sonny. He was tall, lanky, affable enough to serve on the entertainment staff of a cruise ship, and he got dates. Among his early conquests was Oona O’Neill, daughter of the playwright, whom he found attractive and classy but also vain and dull. When she dumped him for Charlie Chaplin, he turned her into Muriel Glass.

Readers know Salinger on the basis of the four slim books he allowed into print, which together give the impression he’s never been anything but mature and polished. The 22 stories that make up Salinger’s apprentice work apparently tell a different story; as described here – and Slawenski makes one wish they don’t stay uncollected forever – they were largely commercial fiction that showed promise and occasionally impressed the right people.

When the story “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” was accepted by The New Yorker in 1941, Salinger was poised to enter the big leagues. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the magazine postponed publication for five years; the story of a rich kid on a date in Manhattan, where he does a lot of drinking, talking and crying, suddenly seemed irrelevant. While the delay was a crushing blow, it probably helped Salinger in the end. He joined the Army and took his character Holden with him. He would see extensive action in the war and participate in key events: he was in Normandy on D-Day, when a full two-thirds of his division was wiped out, spent a bleak winter fighting off Nazi forces in the Hürtgen Forest and, thanks to his command of the language, even worked in counterintelligence as his regiment moved into Germany.

“The notion of J.D. Salinger rushing from house to house, seizing villains, and grilling them under naked lightbulbs might appear absurd to us today but that is exactly what happened,” Slawenski writes.

After thinking he had seen the absolute worst the war had to offer, he helped liberate Dachau. “You could live a lifetime,” he later said, “and never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose.” In the end, he would receive five battle stars and the Presidential Unit Citation for valor.

Through it all, writing in barracks and foxholes, he was finding Holden’s voice. What began as a series of stories would eventually be shaped into one long picaresque tale about a troubled kid with a messianic complex, wandering through Manhattan, pondering society at its most phony and the city at its most vomity.

“I know this boy I’m writing about so well,” he told an early editor. “He deserves to be a novel.“ The story took on a tragic dimension; the specter of dying young – like Holden’s brother 10-year-old brother Allie, who remains forever innocent — hangs over the novel. The novel’s famous final lines were Salinger’s own answer to why he would later find the war so hard to talk about: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”

The novel that resulted, The Catcher in the Rye, is a masterpiece of narrative first person voice: self-observant but not always self-aware. Holden reveals himself in ways he fully intends – cynical, smart-alecky, funny, romantic – and ways he doesn’t, exactly; he’s immature, annoying, and at times a bit of a phony himself. He speaks in a jazzy, rhythmic argot of goddam, moron, “like a bastard,” “kills me,” “depressed the hell out of me,” and ”sexy,” which can mean either attractive or horny. It’s a voice as genuine as Ishmael, Huck Finn, Humbert Humbert, or anyone else you care to name.

The war affected other Salinger stories as well. Like Sergeant X in “For Esme, With Love and Squalor,” Salinger suffered from what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder. Also, in a strange life- imitates-art-imitates-life twist, he supposedly fell in love with his first wife, Claire, because she embodied his imaginary war orphan, Esme, and would serve as the inspiration for Franny Glass.

During this time, Salinger, who was raised in a joint Catholic-Jewish household and had embraced Zen Buddhism, studied the 1,000-plus pages of The Gospels of Sri Ramakrishna, which completely changed his game. It was the book that proclaimed the gospel of Vedanta, a monotheistic religion that absorbs a lot of religious traditions, “accepting all faiths as being valid as long as they lead to the recognition of God.” As Slawenski explains: “The aim of Vedanta is to see God, to become one with God, by looking beyond the shell and perceiving the holiness within” – all of which he started working into his fiction from that point, most successfully in Franny and Zooey.

The two long stories that make up this novel have a fascinating publishing history, as both were published separately in The New Yorker and one almost didn’t make it. Fiction editors William Maxwell and Katherine White couldn’t stand “Zooey” and rejected it. Editor William Shawn not only overruled them, but also worked on the story with Salinger for months. Both stories were a huge success with readers; much less so with critics, who found both characters a couple of preening, self-absorbed, condescending ninnies – views which Norman Mailer suggested “may come from nothing more graceful than envy.”

I think the novel is the best exposition of Salinger’s own religious quest, and in a curious, roundabout way reminds me of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead; it erases the line between “religious novel” and “novel about religion.” It’s also very energetic. Slawenski ably digs away at the novels Vedantic ideas, but he misses the fact that it’s so dramatically, irrepressibly alive. He misses Franny, the greatest college girl in American Literature, with her spiritedness, her “irreproachably Americanese” figure, and her thoughts running a mile a minute as she burns through one cigarette after the next.

Speaking of which, it’s one of the greatest cigarette-smoking novels ever written. Everyone smokes like a freight train; every cigarette has character, every puff has an idea. Smoking is what releases the torrent of thoughts between the two characters as they thrash out the possibilities of praying without ceasing. Zooey drags on his stogie “as if it were a kind of respirator in an otherwise oxygenless world.” It may also be the first novel where there really is such a thing as chicken soup for the soul.

If Slawenski doesn’t always feel the verve of Salinger’s fiction, he does feel his pain, which is considerable. The man was besieged by enemies from every corner. Over and over in this book, I found myself wondering: how it is that a brave, dedicated Nazi-hunter, a genuine inglorious basterd, could get so completely sidetracked by editors who make suggestions to his precious copy or reject it, or publishers who want to pimp out his books with crass covers, or a crummy Hollywood adaptation of a story, or media invaders or readers showing up on his lawn. For a veteran of Hürtgen and Dachau, it seems like small potatoes, and nothing unusual for anyone bent on being a successful writer. But J.D. was simply not the kind of guy to weather the frustrations and get back to his typewriter. He lived in a small world that demanded unswerving loyalty. If you’re an agent like Dorothy Olding, who protects his privacy with your life, or an editor like William Shawn, you’re on the side of the angels. If you’re Story magazine editor Whit Burnett, who bungled an anthology that Salinger was banking on, or his English publisher Jamie Hamilton, who made the mistake of letting a bad paperback cover slip his notice, you’re alienated forever. Slawenski is so quick to take Salinger’s side in all this that at times he sounds like a posthumous enabler.

As far as the facts go, I found little to question outside of one: the news that “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” published in 1948, inspired Lolita would likely come as a surprise to Nabokov, who was writing his masterpiece at least as early as 1947 (longer than that if you include the early draft from 1939).

Anyone looking for clues to Salinger’s lost years is going to be disappointed: 40 pages covering 45 bland years of marital battles and legal troubles. Perhaps that’s all there is. Maybe, as Buddy Glass once said, “where there’s smoke there’s strawberry Jello, seldom fire.”

In the Company of Amy Clampitt

Two years ago I spent some time in Lenox, Massachusetts, at a house once owned by the poet Amy Clampitt. I slept in her bed, rifled through her books, gazed out the kitchen window at the tree by which her ashes are buried. Since 2001, the house has served as a residency for poets; as the ninth Amy Clampitt Resident Fellow, my boyfriend was awarded a six-month stay. On a January weekend I helped him move into the grey clapboard house with blue-green shutters. Just down the road, The Mount, the mansion built by Edith Wharton, stood in baronial splendor. Everything about the more intimate Clampitt house struck me as perfect: the cozy living room with its comfy upholstered chairs; the loft bedroom and writing nook overlooking the snowy street; the spare bedroom crammed with boxes of Clampitt’s manuscripts, correspondence, and photographs. We found a bin stacked with copies of Clampitt’s own books of poetry, and my boyfriend noted how cool it would be to read Amy Clampitt’s Amy Clampitt’s The Kingfisher.

I reluctantly caught the bus back to New York, where I had an M.F.A. thesis to write. This meant churning out and polishing short stories, and also producing a critical essay. I decided to write about Clampitt. Now I had an excuse for riding the Greyhound to Lenox as often as possible: I had research to do. But I immediately ran into trouble. I wanted to write about both Clampitt’s poetry and her house, but what was the connection between the two? Clampitt, who grew up in Iowa and spent most of her adult life in New York City, bought the house in Lenox when she was seventy-two, after winning a MacArthur grant. The places that loom large in her poems are primarily the rural landscapes of her childhood, the Manhattan streets of her adulthood, the Maine beaches where she vacationed in the summer, and the Europe of her travels—not the Berkshire towns along the Housatonic River. Six months after Clampitt moved to Lenox, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died a year and a half later. On one of her bookshelves, between Dickens and Howard Moss, I found a spiral-bound workbook called Chemotherapy and You. Some of the pages were paper-clipped, marked for use.

In a piece here at The Millions, Luke Epplin discusses his visit to Pablo Neruda’s house in Isla Negra. This house “is exceptional among existing writers’ houses,” Epplin observes, in that Neruda “managed to shape it into a manifestation of what a life dedicated to poetry might look like.” The design of the house, the attention to detail, the arrangement of treasured possessions—all seem to capture the spirit of the writer of Odes to Common Things. But even as he enjoys seeing the house as an extension of Neruda’s poetic sensibility, Epplin is suspicious of the way that such museums tend to present a limited portrait of the writers who once lived there. In his critique of the literary tourism industry, he calls on Anne Trubek’s recently published A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses, a book I find charming, if a bit oddly conceived. Trubek spends a lot of time describing places that irritate her. She finds writers’ houses that have been turned into museums dispiriting and even dumb. “[T]hey aim to do the impossible: to make physical—to make real—acts of literary imagination. Going to a writer’s house is a fool’s errand. We will never find our favorite characters or admired techniques within these houses; we can’t join Huck on the raft or experience Faulkner’s stream of consciousness. We can only walk through empty rooms full of pitchers and paintings and stoves.”

But she keeps going, reporting on her half-hearted treks around the country with a curmudgeon’s pleasure in disparaging what she sees. The first writer’s house she visits is the Walt Whitman House in Camden, New Jersey, where Whitman published three editions of Leaves of Grass and an autobiography, Specimen Days. Whitman died in this house, but, Trubek notes, “The house is set up, as are most house museums, to fool us into thinking that Whitman was still living there.” His things, or replicas of his things, are staged in a way that Trubek finds false. Though writers’ houses are meant to make their former inhabitants come alive, Trubek observes, “They remind me of death.”

In Lenox I became friendly with the poet Karen Chase, a great friend of Clampitt’s in the last few years of her life, and one of her literary executors. Karen was at Clampitt’s bedside when she died. We talked about this one morning in the kitchen of the house that Karen helped to furnish, taking her friend on “junking” trips to local antique stores. Karen told me that after the funeral the cleaning lady set up a little memorial to Clampitt: a table with a doily and an arrangement of Clampitt’s books, along with books by Edith Wharton. “I sort of messed it up,” Karen said with a touch of pride. “It was museum-like. It would have gone against her grain in the deepest way.” Trying to learn who Clampitt was (or Amy, as I really thought of her, longing for intimacy), I stared at the framed photograph of a woman both lanky and pixie-like, prim and hippieish, standing in a whirl of autumn leaves. I read her letters, filled with descriptions of European trips and anti-war rallies, the books on her nightstand and the flowers in her window box. And of course I read the four books that make up her Collected Poems, mostly on bus trips between Manhattan and Lenox. I was pleased to think of Clampitt herself, suddenly a poet in demand in her sixties, riding Greyhound to give readings and lectures.

The poems that struck me the most, the poems I decided to focus on in my M.F.A. thesis essay, were her portraits of the dead, at once somber and lovely. “A Winter Burial” describes a woman’s death, which seems as lonely as her time in a nursing home:

. . . one nightfall when the last
weak string gave way that had held whatever

she was, that mystery, together, the bier
that waited—there were no planes coming in,
not many made it to the funeral, the blizzard

had been so bad, the graveyard drifted
so deep, so many severed limbs of trees
thrown down, they couldn’t get in to plow

an opening for the hearse, or shovel
the cold white counterpane from that cell
in the hibernal cupboard, till the day after.

This is bleak, indeed: an old forgotten woman literally buried even deeper by a snowstorm. Still, the music of the poem—those lovely incantatory final lines—dignifies the death in a way, placing it not in a sterile box, but in a space of privacy that the snow-covered earth allows. Clampitt’s poems memorialize the dead not by portraying the person who once lived, but by paying acute attention to place, sometimes places where the subject died or is buried, sometimes places that invoke the relentless flow of time and history. One of her most famous poems, “A Procession at Candlemas,” observes, “Sooner or later / every trek becomes a funeral procession.”

She’s also wise to the way that paying tribute to a place can profane it, the kind of thing that troubles Trubek. “Amherst” refers to the worshippers who flock to Emily Dickinson’s house on the anniversary of her death: “the wistful, / the merely curious, in her hanging dress discern / an ikon; her ambiguities are made a shrine, / then violated.” Clampitt includes herself in this group: “we’ve drunk champagne above her grave, declaimed / the lines of one who dared not live aloud.” She wants to address her—“(Dear Emily, though, / seems too intrusive, Dear Miss Dickinson too prim)”—even as she knows this makes her part of the adoring crowd that reduces the woman to literary icon.

As an alternative to preserving a writer’s house, Trubek suggests greater attention to his or her work. Reflecting on the plans to restore Langston Hughes’ former house in Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood, she asks, “Why not redirect our energy to reading Hughes rather than restoring his house . . . ? His books are plentiful and inexpensive. It would not be cost prohibitive to give every resident of Fairfax a book, or every teacher a classroom set of, say, Poetry for Young People.” After visiting Louisa May Alcott’s house, one of an exhausting number of literary sites in Concord, Massachusetts, Trubek reflects, “Here’s what I wish for Alcott, today: Her books assigned in schools as often as are Huck Finn or Catcher in the Rye; her reputation remade into that of the tortured romantic genius; it would also be nice to have a foundation in her honor dedicated to offering women writers grants or scholarships for female writers.” To promote the work, to elevate the status of a woman writer, to support other writers: these are worthy goals, and the Clampitt House, in its quiet way, fosters them. While the lavish Mount down the road lets tourists see where Wharton wrote The House of Mirth and other novels, perhaps increasing the readership of these books, it could be argued that the Clampitt House is better for writers (if only, so far, eleven of them) by providing a place to stay rent-free for an extended period of time and get work done. I imagine Trubek would approve of the Clampitt House: not a memorial, but a practical living space.

I don’t think Clampitt envisioned that her house would one day serve, in her name, as a temporary home for other poets. Her husband, who lived for seven years after her death, came up with the idea for the residency program. I do know that she had some romantic ideas about the former dwelling places of writers she admired. In her essay “A Poet’s Henry James,” she writes, “When I made a pilgrimage to Rye a couple of summers ago, it was with the objective of standing on the spot where Henry James dictated The Ambassadors.”

In the essay I completed as part of my M.F.A. thesis, I wrote about the experience of staying in the house of a writer who had died there, and I wrote about Clampitt’s poems that deal with death. I don’t think I quite found a successful way to link them. But though it puts me in danger of romanticizing Clampitt and the place she once lived, I can’t help but feel that her expansive poems about loss are connected to the cozy grey clapboard house in Lenox. According to Trubek, “writers’ houses are by definition melancholy.” There is something melancholy about the Clampitt House. As Clampitt observes about Dickinson’s house, the poet’s “ambiguities” are inevitably given over to strangers’ imaginings of what she must have been like.

It’s a good kind of melancholy, though, the kind that allows us to miss people we’ve never met. During a talk she gave at Grinnell forty-five years after she had graduated from the small Iowa college, Clampitt addressed the question of what a writer needs to know. “In one word, I’d say, predecessors. I don’t know why it is that things become more precious with the awareness that someone else has looked at them, thought about them, written about them. But so I find it to be . . . .Writers need company. We all need it.”

Image: Clampitt House, courtesy the author

Saving Salinger

Recently, I took a train to Princeton University in search of two lost J.D. Salinger stories about Holden Caulfield’s family.  “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans” and “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” have never been published in the nearly sixty years since Salinger wrote them.  Princeton’s Firestone Library now protects the only known copies.

The librarian at the front desk had me pegged as a Salinger fan before I even opened my mouth.  I suspect it is a meek and eternal frustration in my eyes, one otherwise known only by members of the Green Party and Mets fans.  My colleagues have been known to laugh out loud when I say that Salinger is my favorite author.  The literary criticisms I’ve brought into my classroom are almost universally negative and thirty years out-of-date.

Only my students ever seem to love Nine Stories and The Catcher in the Rye half as much as I do.  Yes, they see Holden as superior, obnoxious, and immature – but they respect that he holds nothing back.  He does not simply wear his heart on his sleeve, Holden’s heart is his sleeve.  His whole self is enveloped in this bloody but still beating muscle.

But, perhaps like Holden, I fear they will soon grow out of it.  They will soon hear the same dismissive slights as I have – that Salinger is overly precious, terribly smug, and above all, not serious.  Just a minor, young adult writer.

For fifteen years, I dreamed of the discovery of a massive treasure trove of brilliant novels upon Salinger’s death.  But months after his obituary had been printed, I’d gotten tired of waiting for something to appear.  I’d come to Princeton to find proof of Salinger’s early genius and write some essays that would settle the matter for good.

The Princeton librarian had my photograph taken for an ID badge and I signed a form promising not to damage the rarities.  I was instructed to lock up my bag and wash my hands.  Off-handedly, the librarian added, “You can bring your laptop in if you want.”  I could hardly believe my ears but I did not stop to ask questions.

Inside, I was given a sharpened pencil and three sheets of bright orange paper.  Another librarian pulled Box 14 out of a cabinet.  Inside was Folder 26.  All that distinguished Salinger’s folder from the others was a red label along the edge, reading: NO PHOTOCOPYING.

Anxiously I flipped through dozens of old issues of Story and Collier’s.  These were hard to find online but most I had read before.  Then, at last, I found what I’d come for: two typewritten manuscripts, complete with typos and smudges.

“The Last and Best of the Peter Pans”, the earliest known Caulfield story, features Vincent (Holden’s brother “DB” in Catcher) and his mother arguing after he discovers she has childishly hidden his Army draft survey in a silverware drawer.  At one point, Vincent yells that it is as if she is trying to stop a child from falling off a cliff by asking a man without legs to catch him, a line which, for any Catcher fan, is a delight.  Vincent soon realizes that his mother can’t help the way that she is – like Peter Pan, she cannot grow up, and so he finally forgives her.

The title of the second story, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” refers to a short story written by Vincent and read aloud to his brother Kenneth (Allie), who dislikes the unnecessary meanness of his ending: a bowling ball is thrown through a window by an angry, cuckolded wife.  Kenneth reminds Vincent that he can write stories where good things happen, so why not?  Vincent rips up the story and takes Kenneth out for steamers.  The little brother goes swimming in the ocean, but the waves batter the boy like so many bowling balls.  The next part is beautiful but I can’t do it justice in paraphrase.  I will confess that I found myself tearing up, hoping the other researchers wouldn’t notice.

Inspired, I cracked my laptop open, intending to begin writing a brilliant defense of my favorite writer.  It took a moment before I realized that no alarm bells had sounded.  What if I began to retype just a few scattered lines from “Peter Pans”?  If anyone came to yell at me, couldn’t I easily claim to just be taking down a few quotes?

Could I copy whole paragraphs, then pages?  If I swallowed my thumb drive, would the files survive a little internal digestion?  I envisioned angry librarians smashing my laptop to pieces.  I’d have to hit “save” every ten seconds.

Some time passed before a new librarian arrived and made a beeline for me. “You’re not allowed to use your laptop with the Salinger,” she informed me.  Heart pounding, I closed it up.  How much, I wondered, could I manage by hand?  By the time I lost my nerve and fled, I was checking over my shoulder all the way to the train for trailing Princeton Security.  On the way home I stared unhappily at the gaping holes in my notes.

I called Salinger’s literary agents and asked them what sort of permissions I would need to write some essays about the unpublished stories.  “I have to say no,” said the man on the other end of the phone, “to anything involving the Salinger estate.”  No matter what I asked, this was all he would say.  Then, just to be sure I’d gotten the point, the man apparently called Princeton, got my contact information from the forms I’d signed, and e-mailed me again, just to be sure I knew that he had to say no to anything involving J.D. Salinger.

That night, my wife asked me what old J.D. would think about my adventures.  How would he feel about a fan travelling across state lines to get ahold of his work?  He’d be on my side, I insisted.  I have been a lifelong defender of his name and a studier of his craft.  I’ve read and reread, notated and underlined, interpreted and reinterpreted.  But I was not some joyless, phony, unpleasable critic!  I’d always stuck up for Salinger – a man who had hardly ever stuck up for himself.

She didn’t buy it and, really, neither did I.  Salinger wouldn’t have given me a pass just because I knew the name of the short story collection that Vincent/DB wrote (The Secret Goldfish), or what Ginnie Maddox kept in her pocket for three days (a dead Easter chick), or what Esmé sent Sergeant X in the mail (a broken wristwatch).  Salinger never wanted or needed me to stick up for him.

Still I wished I could show my colleagues what I’d seen.  If they could just read those stories, I thought, they would understand why Salinger will always be a major writer to me.

In the Princeton folder I’d also found a letter from Salinger to an editor, explaining that he was tired of writing stories where his characters lay broken apart at the end.  He wished he could write stories that put their pieces back together again.  It is the same urging that Kenneth delivered to Vincent in the story.  It is one I would make to my fellow writers.  We can write anything, so why write that which delights only in misery?

Yes, maybe pretending that this world is anything other than miserable is futile, but like hiding your son’s draft card in a silverware drawer, this pretending is an act of love.  It is impossible to save children from falling out of the rye, but that doesn’t keep Holden from wishing that he could.  You have to dive into the ocean, Salinger tells us, precisely because it is full of bowling balls.  It is having hope which requires real guts.  So wear your heart on your sleeve and if it bleeds, let it, so long as it still beats.

A week later I was back on a Princeton-bound train.  Again, the librarian needed no indication of what I’d come for.

My compromise with old J.D. has been this: as much as I’d love to prove his genius, I haven’t written any of the essays about the stories that I’d hoped to.  Only this, which contains no information which is not already available in Salinger’s few biographies.  The stories are there for whoever wants to go and read them.  Whatever I did or did not save on my laptop, I’ve shown to no one.  Not my colleagues or my students.  Those stories are my Secret Goldfish, my dead Easter Chick, my busted wristwatch… and they are safe with me.

Bonus Links: J.D. Salinger, 1919-2010, Salinger in Vienna

(Image: D.B. was here from sevenhungrybadgers’s photostream)

Salinger in Vienna

Back when I was an undergraduate English major with plenty of time on my hands, one of my favorite activities was to wander through the deserted stacks on the fourth floor of my university library (where all the fiction lived) and pluck from the shelf any book that caught my eye.

One spring day in my sophomore year I felt drawn, for whatever reason, to a copy of The Best American Short Stories: 1949.

As I scanned the index I noticed with great surprise and excitement that the book contained a story by J.D. Salinger that I hadn’t read before. It was called “A Girl I Knew.” Greedily, I slid to the floor, crossed my legs, and flipped to page 248, ready to start right in. The only problem was that there was no page 248. In fact, in between John Rogers’ “Episode of a House Remembered” and Alfred Segre’s “Justice Has No Number,” there was nothing. Some sneak had gone and ever-so-carefully removed the Salinger story with a razor.

Worse things had been done in the name of Salinger, I knew, but still I was vexed. The story’s simple and wistful title had me curious, and my discovery seemed somehow predestined.

That semester I was taking a class called “Later Twentieth Century American Literature.” The professor was a short, nervous, extraordinarily kind Fitzgerald scholar from Darlington, South Carolina who, unlike most members of the faculty, wore a jacket and tie everyday. His passion for literature was so great that he would usually remove the jacket within the first three minutes of class, revealing a curious but endearing pattern of sweat stains. Though Dr. Mangum had been teaching many of the same books for upwards of thirty years, he could not have lost a drop of his enthusiasm; nor was he the dreary sort to insist upon purely textual readings of the classics.

And so, when we read J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, Dr. Mangum told us in his charming, slightly stuttering drawl all about Salinger’s life and known eccentricities: his predilection for much younger women. His mixed feelings about his half-Jewish heritage. His hermetic existence in Cornish, New Hampshire. The pack of cutthroat New York attorneys he’d hired to track down and sue anybody who attempted to circulate, either in print or on the internet, bootleg copies of his uncollected magazine stories. The theory that the post-traumatic stress disorder he acquired from his particularly horrific experiences in WWII is what led to his eventual seclusion.

Starting in 1940 when he was only 23 years old, and not yet the cult figure who’d penned The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger began publishing short stories in a variety of commercial and literary magazines including The New Yorker, Story, and Good Housekeeping. Salinger remained vehement through most of his life that, with the exception of those collected in Nine Stories, none of his other short magazine fiction – a total of twenty-two pieces – would ever be put into book form.

Evidence suggests that Salinger chose to safeguard these stories not because he doubted their quality, but out of spite towards both the world of publishing and the world at large. Several of these “Uncollected Stories” (as they are officially known by Salinger-philes to distinguish them from the “Unpublished Stories,” the dozens, hundreds, or thousands of stories that Salinger may or may not have written in the final five-plus decades of his life) deal directly with the war, and a few, like “A Girl I Knew” are thought to be autobiographical.

Though I didn’t feel like breaking the law in pursuit of some ramshackle, Xeroxed copy of the “Uncollected Stories,” I saw no moral dilemma in tracking down an un-butchered copy of The Best American Short Stories: 1949 where I could find “A Girl I Knew.”

I made a trip to the Richmond, Virginia public library, which at first revealed another TBASS: 1949 in which “A Girl I Knew” had been ever-so-carefully razored out. But after sending a recalcitrant librarian to the basement to retrieve yet another copy of the anthology – which had been apparently been gathering dust since about 1950 – I was able to read the story. I wasn’t sorry that I’d gone to the trouble.

While a few of the selections in Nine Stories had seemed a bit flat to me (“Teddy” and “Just Before the War with the Eskimos” come to mind) I found “A Girl I Knew” to be positively brimming with humor, pathos, and romance. It managed, in a mere 12 pages, to make me both laugh out loud and to cry.

The story itself is simple. It could be classified as a love story, though a strange one, in which the word love is never mentioned, the lovers never so much as hold hands, and the only verbal exchanges between them are formal, awkward, and embarrassing.

It is an almost painfully realistic rendering of the sort of crush one has while young, the harmless sort one can reflect on later in life and think, without bitterness: “I wonder what So-and-So is up to?”

The twist that makes this story a tragedy is that our young heroine is a Viennese-Jewish girl, born in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the real genius of this story, to me, the real kicker, is that even if there had been no Hitler, no war, the protagonist and the girl would not have ended up together. They lived on different continents; when they met the narrator was too young and self-involved to really desire commitment; the heroine, long before Nazi troops invaded Vienna, had married another man.

Part of the sadness here comes, of course, from a young woman being robbed, senselessly and viciously, of her life. But it is sad, too, in the way it deprived a young man, a man who hadn’t even known her that well, the luxury of remembering her without bitterness, of being able to ask lightheartedly: “I wonder what So-and-So is up to?”

The story is told as reminiscence, and the tone, to start, is light. It begins:
At the end of my freshman year of college, back in 1936 I flunked five out of five subjects. Flunking three out of five would have made me eligible to report to the Dean’s office for an invitation to attend some other college in the fall. But men in this three-out-of-five category sometimes had to wait outside the Dean’s office as long as two hours. Men in my group – some of whom had big dates in New York that same night – weren’t kept waiting a minute. It went one, two, three, the way most men in my group liked things to go.
Our precocious, underachieving narrator is a young man called John; his name reveals that he is neither a Caulfield nor a Glass, though he could easily belong to either family. “At eighteen,” he recalls, “I was six feet two, weighed one hundred and nineteen pounds with my clothes on, and was a chain-smoker.” When he returns to his family’s New York home, the news of his expulsion preceding him, he is greeted by the butler, who looks “tipped off and hostile.” His mother lectures him about applying himself. His father, a stern, no-nonsense type, wants to put him straight into the family business.

However, lucky for our young narrator, going directly into the family business means sailing for Europe to learn “a couple of languages the firm could use.” After our gaunt, slightly disaffected protagonist arrives in Vienna (and gets over his disappointment that the city does not, in fact, have gondolas) he proceeds to have a grand time: skiing, ice skating, hanging out in the lounges of posh hotels, writing insincere love letters to girls back home.

But then, intruding upon his blissfully non-committal existence, comes Leah, a sixteen year-old girl who lives with her family in the apartment below his. He is taken with her immediately. One afternoon he investigates some mysterious singing he hears coming from outside his window. The source, he discovers, is a young, beautiful girl, standing on the downstairs balcony “almost completely submerged in a pool of autumn twilight.”
She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see, except standing there leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together.
In the four or five months our narrator spends in Vienna, he and Leah meet a few times a week. Every meeting takes place in his sitting room where they drink coffee and have long painful conversations in which he speaks awkward, halting German and she in rudimentary, heavily-accented English.
“Uh. Ist die Fenster – uh – Sind Sie sehr kalt dort?” I would ask solicitously. (Is the window – Uh – Are you very cold there?)

“No! I feel very warmly, sank you.”
Only once do they meet outside their apartment building, and this happens accidentally, when John bumps into her at the cinema one evening with a young man, who, he learns during their next meeting, is her fiancé.

We begin to feel a bit sorry for Leah when we learn that her father has arranged a (presumably unwanted) marriage for her. (“‘My fahzzer is wedding us when I have seventeen years,’ Leah said, looking at a doorknob.”) At 16, she works five days a week in her father’s cosmetics plant, work she doesn’t enjoy. Of course, this is merely grim foreshadowing of what her life will become.

When John leaves Vienna for Paris, “to master a second European language,” he doesn’t tell Leah goodbye face-to-face, but in a note. He promises to write to her and to send to her a copy of Gone With the Wind; he never does either of these things. “I was very busy in those days,” he recalls.

He returns to America and re-enrolls in college. “About the same hour Hitler’s troops were marching into Vienna, I was on reconnaissance for Geology 1-b, searching perfunctorily, in New Jersey, for a limestone deposit.”

For years he tries in vain to learn whether Leah has escaped Vienna. In 1940, at a party in New York, he meets a young woman who had gone to school with Leah, though she isn’t sure whether or not Leah has gotten out of Vienna. She only wants to talk about “a man in Philadelphia, who looked exactly like Gary Cooper.”  This attitude of cold indifference is one he runs up against continually.

Eventually our narrator joins the Army and ends up back in Europe. After the war has ended, he is finally able to go to Vienna and he learns for certain that Leah has been killed.

Biographical records show that Salinger spent several months in Vienna before the war, working for his father’s meat importing business. While there he boarded with a Jewish family, who later all perished in camps. Little is known about them.

At the end of “A Girl I Knew,” John visits his old apartment house in Vienna, which has been converted into American officers’ quarters. He begs permission from a staff sergeant to go up to his old room, just for a moment, so he can look down onto the balcony and see the spot where Leah once stood.

Warning! Teenagers Inside: The Appeal of the Young Protagonist

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine posted a goodreads review of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. In it, he wrote that he wished books with more than 10% of “teenage girl content” came with an advisory warning. This way, he could avoid them. This was puzzling to me. If a book had a label that said, “Warning!  Teenagers Inside!” I would be more likely to pick it up. Doesn’t every reader, male or female, young or old, find that phase of life to be particularly dramatic, moving, screwed up, and beautiful? I loved the teenagers that populated Egan’s latest novel, especially Rhea, who narrates the chapter/story “Ask Me if I Care,” and not only because she’s a freckle-face like I was (am). She’s vulnerable and wise, and also incredibly naive, too. Her desires are painfully strong, and yet she cannot totally understand them.

Teenagers have a real drive to be independent, to discover and define (or defy) their identities. And yet, they’re also powerless. They have their parents’ will to contend with, and their friends’ complicated codes of behavior. They have the secret shames of the body. They long for the purity and ease of childhood even as they fling themselves into the dangers of adulthood. In short, they make for compelling characters.

Books about teenage boys, it seems to me, are often about a rage that is hard to control and understand. Jim Shepard’s Project X is a fine example of the genre. About a Columbine-style act of school violence, and the two eighth grade boys who perpetrate it, the novel is engrossing, compassionate, and oddly mundane in its faithful depiction of  contemporary American adolescence. Whenever I think of Go-gurts, I think of this book.

I haven’t yet read Patterns of Paper Monsters by Emma Rathbone, but I want to. Narrated by seventeen year-old Jacob Higgins, who is sent to a juvenile correctional facility for committing a violent crime, the book has been described as sad and funny, and The Daily Beast promises “there’s no sappy uplift here.” At The New Yorker Book Bench blog, Eileen Reynolds writes that Jacob, “may be cut from the same cloth as Holden Caulfield, but he’s a good bit funnier and a lot less mopey than the angsty adolescent male narrators from many coming-of-age books that have followed Catcher in the Rye.” He sounds like a narrator I could fall in love with.

Though I like books about teenage boys, I prefer to read about teenage girls, most likely because I used to be one myself. Man, if I had been the narrator of a novel! What a weird and exhilarating book that would be! (See also: mortifying). I recently finished a novel manuscript about an adult woman looking back on her 16 year-old self. I (mostly) avoided reading books about similar milieus while I was writing it (for fear of undue influence), but I did, from time to time, consider some of my favorite teenage heroines. Here are just a few:

Jane Eyre. According to a footnote in my edition, Charlotte Bronte’s novel about the poor, unloved orphan who falls for that creep Mr. Rochester is probably the first occurrence of a first-person narration by a child in British literature. Perhaps that’s what renders this book so intimate and authentic. Jane is a complex, independent woman, and her storytelling is modern and hyper-conscious. I’ve always loved Jane’s bookishness, her honesty, and her plain looks. It’s her evolution from child to woman that provides us with a panoramic understanding of her character.

Mick Kelly. It’s been a long time since I’ve read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. I have a terrible memory, but this novel’s teenage protagonist is never really far from my mind. Mick dresses like a boy. She feels trapped in her small Southern town. She is composing a symphony in her head called “This Thing I Want, I Know Not What.” That phrase…God, it’s haunted me for years.

Thisbe Casper. Thisbe is the younger of the two teenage daughters in Joe Meno’s most recent novel, The Great Perhaps. She’s a fervent believer in God among a family of nonbelievers, and she also has a crush on her friend Roxie, which fills her with fear and shame. She’s aglow with all kinds of feelings, and I adore her. It’s no surprise that Thisbe was Meno’s favorite character in the book.

Chloe from Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love. The Feast of Love was on my list of favorite books of the decade, partially because of Chloe’s sections, which are narrated with a raw, kinetic energy. Chloe’s boyfriend is pierced-up Oscar with “the blond hair, the snaggle-toothed smile, the bomb-shelter eyes.” I’m not sure how old Chloe is (if it said in the book, I don’t remember), but she seems about nineteen to me — she’s got that reckless hopefulness in her. At the beginning of her first section, she says of her and Oscar, “We were swoon machines,” and I, the reader, swoon myself. I love that Baxter marries colloquialisms and cliche with striking, unique turns of phrase to get at a teenager’s way of moving through the world.

I’ve recently started Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans, a debut collection of stories about young African-American women (some of them teenagers) living on the east coast. In her laudatory review in the New York Times, Lydia Peelle writes, “Rather than limiting the collection’s gaze, this perspective amplifies the universal pitfalls of coming of age in 21st-century America.” I’ve only read the first story, “Pilgrims,” but the conflicts therein already support Peelle’s thesis. In a scene between the high school-aged narrator, her friend Jasmine, and some older guys they’ve met a club, there’s one finely-wrought moment. The girls have, of course, lied about their age:
“Man, look who we got here,” said the one in the passenger seat, turning around. “College girl with a attitude problem. How’d we end up with these girls again? Y’all are probably virgins, aren’t you?”
“No,” Jasmine said. “Like hell we are. We look like virgins to you?”
“Nah,” he said, and I didn’t know whether to feel pissed off or pretty.
This exchange captures so well what it feels like to be that age: wanting approval, and respect, and also wanting to be desired, even if you don’t feel that desire back. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Evans’s stories, to see how she deepens her exploration of this puzzling and complex demographic. Something tells me she will.

Writing this almost makes me want to write another book about a teenager. Almost — it’s not easy, throwing yourself into that world again. But I could read dozens of books about teenagers. Dozens! And those warning stickers? They’d help.

James Ross and The Agony of the One-Hit Wonder

James Ross published just one novel in his lifetime.  This is a rare thing because of a paradox that lies at the heart of novel writing: it demands such sustained focus, such persistence, so much raw pig-headed stubbornness that anyone who does it once almost invariably does it again, and again, and again.  Once is almost never enough.  The agony is just too delicious.  Yet after his debut novel, They Don’t Dance Much, appeared in 1940, James Ross published a dozen short stories but no more novels.  When he died in 1990 at the age of 79, he could have been a poster boy for that rarest and most tortured breed of novelist: the one-hit wonder.

Truth to tell, They Don’t Dance Much was not a very big hit.  When Ross met Flannery O’Connor at the Yaddo artists’ retreat in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in the late 1940s, O’Connor wrote to her agent: “James Ross, a writer who is here, is looking for an agent.  He wrote a very fine book called They Don’t Dance Much.  It didn’t sell much.”

Yet Ross has always had a fiercely devoted, if small, band of acolytes.  I count myself among them.  So did Raymond Chandler, who called Ross’s novel “a sleazy, corrupt but completely believable story.”  Another fan is Newsweek critic Malcolm Jones, who last year picked They Don’t Dance Much as one of his 10 favorite crime novels.  In his New York Times review of a 1994 novel called Mucho Mojo by Joe R. Lansdale, the gifted novelist Daniel Woodrell listed some of Lansdale’s “country-noir” predecessors, including James M. Cain, Erskine Caldwell and Jim Thompson.  “James Ross is scarcely ever mentioned,” Woodrell wrote, “though his one novel, They Don’t Dance Much (1940), might be the finest of the lot.  He is the forebear Mr. Lansdale most strongly brings to mind.  They share a total trust in the straightforward power of a man’s voice speaking when he has a witch’s brew of a tale to tell.  No tricks, no stylish ennui, no somnambulant remoteness or pointless savagery are required…”

True on every count.  There is abundant savagery in Ross’s novel, including a graphic description of a man getting tortured, beaten to death, dumped into a vat off bootleg beer, then burned.  But the savagery has a point – it is almost always a by-product of greed – which is a very different thing from saying it points toward some sort of moral, or even some species of authorial judgment.  Ross was too cold-eyed, too much of a realist to care about such niceties.  As he put it himself: “Some reviewer said the novel was ‘Southern Gothic,’ suggesting a piece of fiction dealing in fantastic occurrences in an overdrawn setting.  My…aim was merely to show it the way it was and leave it to the reader to reach his own conclusions as to the point of it, if there was any, or draw his own moral if he needed one.”

The “straightforward power of a man’s voice” in this case belongs to the novel’s narrator, Jack McDonald, a down-on-his-luck North Carolina farmer who is about to lose his exhausted 45 acres for non-payment of back taxes.  Jack jumps at the chance to go to work as cashier for a roughneck named Smut Milligan, who’s about to expand his filling station into the biggest, noisiest, nastiest roadhouse for miles around, a bona fide knife-and-gun club that attracts a barely literate, frequently drunk, occasionally violent and largely worthless clientele.  With this crew – and a ringleader like Smut Milligan – it’s inevitable that there will be blood.

The straightforward power of Jack’s voice is established in the book’s opening sentences: “I remember the evening I was sitting in front of Rich Anderson’s filling station and Charles Fisher drove up and stopped at the high-test tank.  The new Cadillac he was driving was so smooth I hadn’t heard him coming.  He sat there a minute, but he didn’t blow the horn.”

Ross needs fewer than 50 words to tell us many valuable things: that his narrator is the shiftless type who hangs around filling stations; that Charles Fisher is so rich he can afford the very best, including a purring new Cadillac that drinks high-test gas; and that Fisher isn’t the sort of rich man who lords it over the hired help.

Ross continues: “Fisher’s wife was with him.  She had looked at me when they first drove up, but when she saw who it was she turned her head and looked off toward the Methodist Church steeple.  She sat there looking toward the steeple and her face cut off my view of her husband.  But that was all right with me; I had seen him before.  I had seen Lola too, but I looked at her anyway.”

In addition to being straightforward, this writing has the great virtue of compression, which means its seeming simplicity is both a mask for and the source of its deep complexity.  Writing this way might look easy, but it’s not.  Writers as diverse as Hemingway, Joan Didion and Elmore Leonard are proof, as are their legions of tin-eared imitators.

Another of the novel’s many pleasures is the way Ross uses money to do something all successful novelists must do – bring his story to life in a particular place at a particular time.  In this he’s reminiscent of Balzac, who managed to mention money at least once on every page he ever wrote.  To cite just a few examples from Cousin Bette: “It cost me two thousand francs a year, simply to cultivate her talents as a singer” … “At the age of fifty-two years, love costs at least thirty thousand francs a year” … “Tell me, are you worth the six hundred thousand francs that this hotel and its furnishing cost?”

Money is every bit as important, though not nearly as plentiful, in Ross’s fictional North Carolina mill town called Corinth, a stand-in for the hamlet of Norwood where he grew up.  The time is the late 1930s, when the Depression is ending and the Second World War is beginning.  In that place at that time, Ross tells us, a bottle of beer cost 10 cents, a steak sandwich cost 40 cents and a pint of “Breath of Spring” corn liquor cost a dollar.  A cotton mill worker earned $40 a month while the more skilled hosiery mill worker earned that much in a week, though the work frequently drove him blind by the age of 30.  All this is a shorthand way of establishing the thing that is not supposed to exist in America but always has and always will: a class system.  Another tool Ross uses to expose it is his characters’ speech.

Here’s a bit of social analysis from one of the roadhouse regulars: “Oh, Yankees is got the money…  They’s a few folks in Corinth got money too.  Henry Fisher is got plenty of money.  But folks like that go to the beach and to Californy, and to Charlotte, and up Nawth to spend it.  They ain’t comin out here for no amusement.”  And here’s Charles Fisher pontificating to a visitor from the North about the South’s troublesome white trash: “The main problem down here is the improvidence of the native stocks, coupled with an ingrained superstition and a fear of progress.  They are, in the main, fearful of new things…  I think they merely dislike the pain that is attendant to all learning.”

Jack, who lost his farm and can’t afford to pay for his mother’s burial, has a low opinion of the higher-ups: “They were the people that are supposed to be nice folks, but like a dram now and then.  And when nobody is looking like to kiss somebody else’s wife and pinch her on the behind and let their hands drop on her thigh, always accidentally, of course.”  That accidentally, of course establishes Ross’s kinship with all true storytellers since Homer, his understanding that all classes – that is, the whole human race – is essentially unimprovable, an eternal mix of meanness and nobility, violence and compassion, horror and humor.

Which brings us to Ross’s greatest gift of all, his sly wit.  Here’s Jack describing the woods around the roadhouse: “It was still down there toward the river.  You could hear the mosquitoes singing, ‘Cousin, Cousin,’ just before they bit you.  When they got their beaks full of blood they’d fly off singing, ‘No kin, No kin,’ just like humans.”

And here’s Jack asking Smut about a gift he gave the sheriff:

“What was that you gave him in the paper sack?” I asked.

“A quart of my own private Scotch.  Confound his time, he ought to appreciate that.  I paid four bucks a quart for that stuff.”

“I didn’t know the sheriff drank,” I said.

“He don’t drink much.  Just takes a little for medicine when he has a cold.”

“You think he’s got a cold now?” I asked.

“I understand he keeps a little cold all the time,” Smut said.

Even such wonderfully wry writing couldn’t keep the book from slipping into obscurity.  Then in 1975, 35 years after its original publication, the novel was re-issued in hard-cover by Southern Illinois University Press as part of the Lost American Fiction series edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli.  Ross was about to retire after 20 years as a political reporter and editorial writer at the Greensboro Daily News, which followed stints as a semi-pro baseball player, farmer and IRS clerk.  A few years after his retirement, I took a newspaper job in Greensboro and happened to rent an apartment a few blocks from where Jim and his wife, Marnie Polk Ross, lived.  I was still in my twenties, still more than a dozen years from publishing my own first novel, and so naturally I was in awe of a writer who’d hob-nobbed with Flannery O’Connor and written a novel that had just been anointed a classic.  Beyond that, Jim Ross became a friend to me and many other young writers in town because he never offered false praise and yet he had a way of making us believe in ourselves.  He showed us that a writer can come out of the red-clay gulches of rural North Carolina during the Depression – that is, a writer can come out of absolutely anywhere at any time – and make high art without resorting to tricks, stylish ennui or pointless savagery.  It was the sort of encouragement and inspiration only the luckiest aspiring writers get.  Coming from Jim Ross, it meant the world.

While visiting Greensboro recently, I pulled up to the house where Jim spent his last years.  To my surprise, Marnie was out in the front yard in lemony sunshine, raking leaves.  Though I was uninvited and unannounced and hadn’t seen her since Jim’s funeral 20 years ago, she invited me in, gave me a glass of ice water, and started telling me stories, which is something Southerners of a certain age still tend to do.

Right off, she stunned me.  She told me a college professor named Anthony Hatcher had visited her a while back, expressing an interest in writing some sort of scholarly article about Jim.  She’d given Hatcher all of Jim’s papers, including the 318-page manuscript of a novel called In the Red.  I remembered Jim mentioning something about a second novel when I first met him, back in the 1970s.  When I’d asked him if he planned to try to publish it, he’d said, “It’s no damn good.”  Then his voice had trailed off.  I assumed it was unfinished, or unpolished, and that he had never showed the novel to anyone.  Marnie set me straight.

“Jim tried very hard to get it published,” she said.  “He sent it to (the agent) Knox Burger, but nobody wanted to publish it.  I think that rejection had a lot to do with Jim’s declining health.  I think Jim was kind of a pessimist and he didn’t really expect it to sell.  He hoped it would sell – writers are always hoping their work will sell.  They want it more than anything, but it doesn’t always happen.”

Knox Burger, I learned later, was the fiction editor at Collier’s when the magazine published two of Jim’s short stories in 1949, “Zone of the Interior” and “How To Swap Horses.”  (Jim also published short stories in the Partisan Review, Cosmopolitan, the Sewanee Review and Argosy.)  Burger went on to become a book editor and then, beginning in 1970, a celebrated literary agent.  If he couldn’t sell your novel, your novel was in serious trouble.

So Jim Ross, it turns out, was something even more tortured than a conventional one-hit wonder.  He was an unwilling one-hit wonder, a writer who went back to the well and wrote a second novel and then gave up because nobody bought it and he convinced himself it was no damn good.  There can’t possibly be anything delicious about that kind of agony.

Rosemary Yardley, a former newspaper colleague of mine and a good friend of the Ross’s, remembers visiting Jim in Health Haven Nursing Home, where he was frequently admitted in his later years due to debilitating osteoarthritis.  Jim called the place “Hell’s Haven.”

“I asked him about that novel,” Rosemary told me, “and he said, ‘I tried to sell it but they don’t like the way I write anymore.  I don’t write what they look for today.’  He was probably right.  He wrote old-fashioned stories in the sense that they always had a good plot.”

Finally I reached Anthony Hatcher, who lives in Durham, N.C., and teaches journalism and media history at nearby Elon University, which Jim Ross attended for one year.  “I re-read They Don’t Dance Much last year,” Hatcher said, “and when I learned that he left the college under mysterious circumstances, I became extremely interested.  I decided I would dive into the life of Jim Ross.  I tracked down Marnie, some of Jim’s former newspaper colleagues, his sister Jean Ross Justice (a short story writer and widow of the poet Donald Justice) and his sister Eleanor Ross Taylor (a poet and widow of the fiction writer Peter Taylor).  I’m still collecting archival material.  In addition to the In the Red manuscript, which is based on political figures in Raleigh, there’s a 113-page fragment of a novel called Sunshine In the Soul.  My initial thinking is that I would write about Jim Ross the fiction writer – his published novel and short stories – and then tackle the unpublished work.  I would love to do an in-depth treatment of Jim Ross and his place in the Greensboro literary scene, going back to the days of John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate in the 1930s.”  Hatcher plans to take an eight-month sabbatical next year to work on the book.

So Jim Ross was an unwilling one-hit wonder who might yet have another day in the sunshine.  This unlikely twist of fate got me thinking about other writers who stopped publishing after they sold their first novels, for reasons that range from rejection to writer’s block to drink, drugs, depression, shyness, madness, a loss of interest or a loss of nerve, or the simple realization that they said all they had to say in their one and only book.  The most famous are Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), Margaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind) and Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man).  Less well known was Anna Sewell, who was not a professional writer but scored a major hit with Black Beauty in 1877.  A few months after the book was published she died of hepatitis.  That is just plain wrong.  (Ellison and Henry Roth, who published his second novel 60 years after his debut, Call It Sleep, have recently joined Vladimir Nabokov and Roberto Bolaño in publishing novels after they died, which can’t be an easy thing to do.)

And then there is the group I think of as Mislabeled One-Hit Wonders – writers who actually published more than one novel but will forever be identified with the one that made their names.  J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye), Malcolm Lowry (Under the Volcano), Frederick Exley (A Fan’s Notes), Joseph Heller (Catch-22), Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road) and Jack Kerouac (On the Road) come immediately to mind.  Those books dwarfed everything else their creators wrote, which is a both a tribute to those books and an unfair slap at their sometimes very fine but terminally overshadowed brethren.

And finally there’s the curious case of Dow Mossman, who published a novel called The Stones of Summer in 1972, then evaporated.  Thirty years later, a fan named Mark Moskowitz made a documentary film called Stone Reader, about his love for the novel and his quest to find its mysterious author, who, it turned out, was hiding in plain sight in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the house he grew up in.  Barnes & Noble CEO Stephen Riggio was so taken by the movie that he invested $200,000 in its distribution and paid Mossman $100,000 for the right to re-issue the novel in hard-cover.  The reclusive Mossman suddenly found himself on one of the most improbable book tours in the history of American publishing.

Moskowitz’s motivation for making the documentary was simple: “I can’t believe a guy could write a book this good and just disappear and never do anything again.”

Well, believe it.  It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.  It sort of happened to Jim Ross and Ralph Ellison.  Many people wrongly think it happened to J.D. Salinger.  It definitely happened to Harper Lee.  And it almost never ends as it ended for Dow Mossman, whose book tour took him to Boston, where one day in the fall of 2003 he found himself puffing a cigar while gazing out at the Charles River and talking to a newspaper reporter.  “I don’t think I’ve caught up with the reality of it yet,” Mossman said.  “It’s pretty unreal.”

What happened to Mossman is way beyond unreal.  It’s just about impossible.

Modern Library Revue: #58 The Age of Innocence

Some books are so a part of one it seems a folly to write even a paltry 700 words on their virtues. The Age of Innocence, which in my personal pantheon outshines Catcher in the Rye as the consoling novel for angsty and literate youth, confirmed my adolescent suspicion that people spoke and lived in codes.  Immured in boarding school, that life was dictated by iron and mostly disagreeable statutes was patently obvious to teenaged me.  But The Age of Innocence went beyond these; it spoke to the rules within rules–the ways that people prevent one another (especially girls, it seemed) from doing what they like, and the cowardice that stops people from going against the grain.  

I don’t know if Edith Wharton intended this book to be read at as an epoch-spanning indictment of society’s bloodless crimes, or if she really thought that the immutable canon of the 1870s was finished and gone.  One introduction I have seen instructs us to read The Age of Innocence less as a protest novel and more as a biting satire and a send-up of the gilded age.  To be sure, it is a deeply sardonic novel; but if Wharton intended only to be a period satirist, she’s made a fool out of me.  

Wharton’s novel and its more dramatic precursor, The House of Mirth, knew with what my jangled adolescent nerves suspected; Wharton wrote the things that people know but won’t say.  Affirmed by these novels and fancying myself an Ellen (or even, horribly, a Lily Bart), I went about doing as I thought I pleased, garnering disapprobation.  My messy room and demerits and cigarette smoking obscured (from myself, at least) my inner Newland, the realities my own coded speech and behavior and dress, the cruelties I served up to others.  In the grand scheme of things, mine was rather a charmed adolescence.  Perhaps I rankled against against society, against school’s constraints.  But like Newland, I hardly wanted to leave.   

When it was written, The Age of Innocence was about the olden days, the creaking conventions of which had long since been left by the wayside.  The specifics would have been easily recognized by 1920s readers; some of them escape me today.  Of Ellen Olenska’s estranged husband, it is said:

A half-paralysed white sneering fellow–rather handsome head, but eyes with a lot of lashes.  Well, I’ll tell you the sort: when he wasn’t with women he was collecting china.  Paying any price for both, I understand.

Oh, snap?  But while the novel serves as an exquisite period piece filled with details of costume and decor (not for nothing is Wharton’s book with Ogden Codman Jr. The Decoration of Houses still in print today), it is timeless in its representation of the difference between inside and outside.  Social conventions are discarded or exchanged; what remains is the chill a person feels when he or she understands that she has committed some transgression against the herd.  The currents of social disapproval run deep, swift, and cold. 

This is not a state of affairs peculiar to the upper crust; every crust has rules, a code.  Sex is a particularly sticky wicket, even in our current, infinitely enlightened times.  Were Ellen Olenska on Jersey Shore, she would be the pasty, sober blonde in a ruffled one-piece.  In high school, she’s the one whose hand the boys won’t hold.  Maybe she said some things on MySpace that rubbed everyone the wrong way.  First this awesome guy Newland defended her when everyone was being whack, but in the end he couldn’t handle the drama (and he just wanted to do it with her anyway).  

It’s all the same!  The only difference is that in some crusts epithets like “slut” are freely employed and punches thrown, rather than everyone quietly declining a dinner party invitation.

Fortunately, getting older significantly reduces (one hopes) the paranoia that accompanies everyone’s adolescence.  I no longer kick ineffectually at society’s traces while living in terror of a social misstep.  Perhaps I’ve become a complicit member of the herd, but my nerves no longer jangle.  Still, though, I read this novel (and The House of Mirth) as the work of someone who was deeply sensitive to the effects of collective mores on individual happiness, and to society’s censure of otherness.  And this expressed with razor insight, with wry humor, with delicious irony, in elegant prose.  What a book this is.

Orwell and the Tea Party

George Orwell never thought that his work would outlive him by much. After all, he considered himself “a sort of pamphleteer” rather than a genuine novelist, and confidently predicted that readers would lose interest in his books “after a year or two.” Yet sixty years later, Orwell endures, and I am not sure that this is a good thing.

I say this as someone who not only reads Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four once a year, but who also owns collections of essays, biographies, and even a copy of Orwell’s 1936 novel Keep The Aspidistra Flying, which according to one reviewer “at times mak[es] the reader feel he is sitting in a dentist’s chair.”

But for people like me who are under 30, there will always be something remote and incomprehensible about Orwell. I was in preschool when the Berlin Wall fell, and I know perestroika and détente as answers to exam questions rather than lived experiences. I grew up fearing nuclear power plants more than ICBMs, and found LBJ’s infamous “Daisy Girl” ad far less terrifying than some of the spots from the 2008 presidential election. I think of politics in terms of individual issues and partisan planks rather than grand, historicizing political ideologies. In short, because my worldview is so different from that of Orwell and his Cold War-era readers, I have to “think” my way into their political struggles in a way that someone even twenty years ago probably did not.

In ninth grade, I was required to read Animal Farm. My class read the book over a period of three weeks, which was not that hard of a task, since it is all of 30,000 words. Our teacher gave us the barest outline of historical context, enough at least to know that Napoleon represented Stalin, Snowball represented Trotsky, and that was about it (a whole unit on allegory would have to wait until sophomore year, and Billy Budd). But because the book is a “fairy story,” I learned its themes easily: power corrupts, principles are elastic, revolutions will be betrayed, and evil’s greatest allies are the unthinking masses.

Two years later, I found myself following Winston Smith into the cabbage-smelling hallways of Victory Mansions on a bright cold day in April. This was the year of “relatable” protagonists, so after Ralph from Lord of the Flies and Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, I was primed to look for affirmations of my own worldview. And Nineteen Eighty-Four was both cynical, anti-authoritarian, and a paean to hopeless dissent in the face of inexorable conformity (its working title, after all, was “The Last Man in Europe”). To my teenage mind, Winston was both pathetic and sympathetic – a role model – even if Big Brother got him in the end. Surely, I thought, these were the only lessons that were worth keeping from the book, since nothing else was obvious.

If there is such a thing as a “right way” and a “wrong way” to read books, then my high school approach to Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four would have been the latter. But that was because I did not know exactly how these books were shaped by their times, and how contemporary audiences would have reacted to them. We never heard about Orwell’s influences, such as Arthur Koestler, Yevgeny Zamyatin, or James Burnham, because they are not part of the literary canon. We never learned about the show trials in Moscow or the Spanish Civil War, either, because that was meant for history class, not English. And any textual analysis that smacked too much of politics was strictly out of bounds: I did not, for instance, understand that the concept of “Ingsoc” was supposed to be a satire of Nazism, whereby fascism advanced under a socialist veneer, until much later. In short, I could not have known what Orwell intended his works to be, and so I understood them in the only way I knew how, as advice manuals for the American adolescent.

I’m not the only one who never quite “got” Orwell the first time around. Because few people who read Orwell’s novels in classrooms also learn about their context, most people misunderstand them, or at least half-remember them, in the same way. Sometimes, his name gets applied to topics that he never really thought about, such as the “Orwellian” investment philosophy of Goldman Sachs (at best, Orwell railed against the “sheer vulgar fatness of wealth” and the “worship of money” in general) and the “downright Orwellian” American Community Survey form for the 2010 Census (Orwell has nothing specific to say about government paperwork). Other times, this means that Orwell’s political enemies try to claim him for their own side. This is nothing new: in the 1950s and 60s, for example, Soviet publications like Kommunist and Izvestia argued that Nineteen Eighty-Four was actually a critique of American excesses and amorality, and in 1984, Norman Podhoretz famously tried to make Orwell into a pro-nuclear neoconservative hawk.

But even though Hitler and Stalin belong to the dustbin of history, people still manage to find shades of totalitarianism and organized lying – Orwell’s favorite targets – in more places than ever. During the summer of 2009, for instance, opponents of health care reform wielded Orwell’s name indiscriminately. Steven Yates, a philosophy Ph.D. and member of the John Birch Society, told us that “‘Obama-care’ would make George Orwell spin in his grave.” Bill Fleckenstein, an MSN Moneywatch columnist and hedge fund manager, also decried such an obviously “socialist” project: “For those who aren’t clear on why socialism doesn’t work, I recommend reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm.”3 And Tea Party protesters have carried signs reading STOP. YOU’RE STARTING TO SCARE GEORGE ORWELL, ORWELL WARNED US, or ORWELL WAS A VISIONARY. Never mind that, in “How the Poor Die,” Orwell criticized how the indigent had inadequate access to health care; never mind that, in The Road to Wigan Pier, he blamed inadequate government intervention for poor nutrition and squalid living conditions in northern mining towns. Never mind that, for most of his life, Orwell advocated nothing short of a socialist revolution in England! As far as these people were concerned, Orwell’s works amount to nothing more than an anti-government, anti-change screed.

Overuse on the one hand, distortion on the other: what perversely fitting tributes to a writer who underscored the dangers of reductionism, revisionism, and willful ignorance. Clearly, George Orwell is a victim of his own success, and in a peculiar way – there are no public fights over the legacy of Hemingway or Joyce or even over other midcentury political writers like Hannah Arendt that rival the ones for Orwell’s posthumous stamp of approval.

So Orwell was right to consider himself more pamphleteer than novelist. Many critics have dismissed this as a kind of false modesty, but in this case, Orwell was not merely managing expectations. Pamphlets are designed to make a specific point to a specific audience, and then to be thrown away because they can no longer serve the purpose for which they were intended. Orwell’s works are ephemeral too, in the sense that they cannot really be understood without some semblance of historical and intellectual context. It takes a lot of patience, a lot of reading, and a lot of extracurricular effort to do so, however. Obviously, many readers simply find it easier to shout down any opposite political position with Orwell’s own words – Big Brother, thoughtcrime, Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others – than to really understand what these words, in context, were supposed to represent.

And Orwell was wrong to believe that good writing alone could promote honesty. He wrote that euphemistic, dishonest, and generally bad prose “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” whereas “good prose is like a windowpane,” through which the author’s purpose can be seen clearly. All true. But good writing can still be perverted, as many of his readers have shown and continue to show. As Louis Menand observed in The New Yorker, “Orwell’s prose was so effective that it seduced many readers into imagining, mistakenly, that he was saying what they wanted him to say, and what they themselves thought.” His style, in other words, has overwhelmed his substance, and if he had not been such a good, clear, memorable writer, he would not be plagued by grave-robbers.

Clearly, literary immortality has its downsides. And as the last sixty years have shown, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are not like other canonical works of literature such as To Kill a Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby, whose messages are straightforward in comparison. Instead, they are as much pamphlet as novel, which means that it is impossible to understand his political purpose without knowing the intellectual and ideological environment in which he wrote. Until Orwell’s readers bother to do so – which, as a rule, they don’t – then we can look forward to another sixty years of use and abuse.

Holden and Middlemarch in Windhoek

“Ask her if she still keeps all her kings in the back row.” When I was sixteen, I think I would have been completely and sublimely happy if that were what a boy loved about me. After J.D. Salinger died a few months ago, I thought about this line from Catcher in the Rye, and began to feel the spectre of Holden Caulfield wandering through my life here in Windhoek, Namibia.

At the risk of sounding like a clueless college sophomore trying to piece together a pathetic seminar thesis, I saw an unlikely connection between Catcher in the Rye and a book I recently finished: George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Complete with phonies, small things that men love about women, and the mid-1800s equivalent of bathroom graffiti, Middlemarch is a book that I think Holden would have grudgingly found acceptable. The book is about people who get it and people who don’t; about the tiny, grey decisions that become vast, dark parts of a person; and about people who do and do not fill out the image they have of themselves.

I loved the Brooke sisters: the naïve and lovely Dorothea, who dreams of building affordable housing for serfs and marrying a dour clergyman, along with the practical and pretty Celia, who doesn’t mind asking for her mother’s jewels and marrying her sister’s rejected suitor, Sir James Chettam. I am a sucker for sisters in classics: the Schlegels in Howard’s End, the Brangwens in Women in Love, Delphine and Anastasie in Le Père Goriot, and of course the Bennetts in Pride and Prejudice. But I digress.

Middlemarch bled in to my next book: A Trip to the Stars by Nicholas Christopher. These two books got me through an expat funk that was inevitable as the glow of being abroad has begun to fade. A crop of NGO workers have come and gone, I no longer marvel at the baboons playing with my house alarm, my clients don’t always tell me the truth, and I think I’m getting a beer gut. It’s times like this when books can twist me, turn me, hit me– even more than usual. I feel them deep inside and when I finish the last words on the last page, it feels tragic. I can’t get away from that terrible sadness of finishing a book.

“…sadness of domesticated birds; sadness of finishing a book; sadness of remembering…” — list of sadnesses (Jonathan Safran Foer)

In A Trip to the Stars, all the characters are striking. They are knowledgeable in grand subjects like Latin, spiders, horticulture, constellations, and Atlantis. Mala Revell, the heroine, is lost for years to her lover, Geza Cassiel, while she travels on quiet islands, performs as a telepath, and searches for her lost boy-nephew. Her journey begins when she is working for a New Orleans arachnologist who collects rare spiders. Mala entices one of the spiders to bite her finger after the arachnologist tells her its venom has the effect of “reducing the human soul to its rarest elements, stripping away all that is false, illusory, or fearful.” It is a sometimes corny, mostly lovely book that inspires a desire to be tall, honorable, and fearless.

Especially in Africa, I often long for just such a spider bite, to prompt those of us who don’t belong to engage in an occasional Holden-esque inquiry. To ask why we are here, to strip away all that is false, illusory, or fearful. What am I doing? Why did I come? What happens when I leave?

On Rereading J.D. Salinger

J.D. Salinger’s books speckled New York this week, as a chorus of readers gave the author an impromptu final salute. Spotted on the subway, 11:15 on Saturday night: Nine Stories en route to  Coney Island, devoured with a pencil in hand. Monday morning on Broadway it was Catcher in the Rye in a cafe window seat, words imbibed between sips of coffee. As I write this, I imagine there’s someone seated at a dimly lit hotel bar in Midtown, downing a cocktail and keeping company with a dog-eared Holden Caulfield.

I too was reading Salinger last weekend, for a second time. I first read Catcher in the Rye in high school, and followed it with Franny and Zooey, appropriately, in college. I never experienced the Salinger epiphany that so many do, but I was compelled to continue reading his work. Holden Caulfield voiced his angst and frustration with far more insight and intelligence than any teenager I knew, and I admired his courage to escape. But he also left me somewhat estranged.

My desire to identify with Holden–and who doesn’t read Catcher in the Rye to identify with Holden?–underscored our vast differences as much as it made him a companion or guide. Literary liberation and rebellion for me, rather, took the form of Nora leaving in A Doll’s House and Margaret Atwood’s female leads. By the time I read Catcher in the Rye, its colloquialisms seemed “phony,”  to sling Holden’s favorite insult. His lingo had long ago ceded to other teenage argot. This alone I could have forgiven.

But Holden also embodied adolescent maleness so completely that he left no room for a frustrated girl of a commensurate age. To be fair, he left little room for anyone else. His alienation was the point. The female characters were colored by Holden’s conflicted desire. They were either vulnerable (like and Jane and Phoebe), a source of ambivalent attraction (Sally and the hotel prostitute), or playthings (the Pencey mother on the train and “stupid girls” who dance well). I doubt it’s a coincidence that most of the tributes to Salinger have been penned by men.

Holden’s hang-ups with shoddy suitcases also came between us. Of the ones owned by his former roommate, Dick Slagle, Holden said, “it’s really hard to be roommates with people if your suitcases are much better than theirs–if yours are really good ones and theirs aren’t. You think if they’re intelligent and all, the other person, and have a good sense of humor, that they don’t give a damn whose suitcases are better, but they do.” Perhaps it’s because I wondered how my suitcases would measure up that his complaints about privilege, phonies, boarding schools, and New York apartments seemed distant and intangible. Rereading now, though, his insights about class and wealth, and the divisions they create, strike me as more truthful than I then cared to admit.

In spite of his faults, I admired Holden for his audacity to pick up and leave and to always speak his mind. He could be clever, insolent, and charming, simultaneously. He knew he had a precious window of time on the cusp of adulthood, where he could shirk responsibility and leave, say with Sally, until the money ran out. And he was was still young enough to believe that everything would work out in the end.

It occurs to me that I’m judging Holden more like an old friend than a character in a novel. This is perhaps the largest compliment I can pay him, and Salinger, too. Holden himself said that what he most wanted from a book was the sense that “when you’re all done reading it, you wish that the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” Salinger, more than most authors, gave his readers that feeling. He implored not only Holden but every weary, cynical teenager reading his novel with Mr. Antolini’s admonition: “you’re going to have to find out where you want to go. And then start going there. But immediately.” He echoes this in Franny and Zooey, too, when Zooey tells Franny,“if you don’t at least know by this time that if you’re an actress you’re supposed to act, then what’s the use of talking?”

Salinger may have secluded himself for the second half of his life and escaped society in a way Holden only yearned to. But his voice has and will continue, in his death, to resonate through his fiction. He gently nudges his readers at times, and at others he grabs them by their lapels in an attempt to rouse them, to tell them they must decide what kind of skull you want when they’re dead. Get to it, he’s saying, don’t waste time.

J.D. Salinger, 1919-2010

One of the curses of fame in the age of mechanical reproduction is the way it renders the strange ubiquitous, the sublime habitual. There is the first time you hear “Born to Run,” and there is the umpteenth, and by the time you get to the guy drunkenly karaokeing it at 2 a.m. in Koreatown (rock on, Dave!) it’s kind of hard to remember the first time, when it still felt holy. I guess that’s called growing up, but still…

Notwithstanding his philosophical apprehensions about fame and adulthood, American style, J.D. Salinger could not quite escape this fate. It is difficult to remember, given his prominence on high school syllabi, that he was once ardently debated by college professors. It is hard to appreciate fully, now that Catcher in the Rye is a line in “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” the recklessness of Holden Caulfield’s address to the reader. After Life of Pi and The Mezzanine and Oblivion, the profound strangeness of Franny Glass’ religious epiphany and of Zooey’s endless bath and of Buddy’s recursive later mode start to seem ordinary. And it is hard to disentangle the heart-stopping endings of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” or “For Esmé, With Love and Squalor” from the clichés they would become. Esmé, recall, used to be an unusual name. So, come to think of it, did Zooey.

It is likely that Salinger, who like some keen but troubled falcon increasingly homed in on quarries too large for language – holiness, perfect truth – would have seen the domestication of his fiction as a defeat. I’d like to propose, however, on the occasion of his death at age 91, that it was a victory. It afforded him the leverage to shift, as few others have, the center of American literature. His candid introspection would liberate subsequent generations of storytellers (for better and sometimes for worse) to tackle without fear the personal, the intimate, and even the juvenile. Goodybe to the manly r-r-reticence of Hemingway. So long, even, to the social.

That, in a reduced form, is the what of Salinger’s career. Harder to talk about is the how. With each book, he drew closer to the vanishing point where candor and artifice, earnestness and irony, “literally” and literally, become indistinguishable from each other. After his last published stories, “Seymour: An Introduction” and “Hapworth 16, 1924,” (made available to subscribers in the New Yorker archive) he vanished beyond it. No one seemed able to agree on what to make of them, or of the silence that followed. Was he serious?

It is possible that further work will be unearthed posthumously. And I suppose, if we’re going to get to see The Pale King and Three Days Before the Shooting, we might as well see what Salinger left behind, in some similarly respectful edition. But the best place to start revisiting the Salinger canon – a body of work as perfect as any American has produced – may be those two final stories, those five a.m., all-stars-out productions. Their strangeness reminds us of just what distances this writer was willing to travel in pursuit of his truths.

It may also remind us afresh of how far, in the earlier works, he got. Though it has been talked about as the greatest vanishing act in the history of American letters, Jerome David Salinger’s career also turns out to be one of the major triumphs. He had something to say, he said it – beautifully – and when he couldn’t say it anymore, he stopped. Charming? Yes. Adolescent? Sometimes. But boy, reader, was he serious.

Revisiting a Literary Throwdown: Zombie Books for Free

It was a battle between an evangelizing visionary and a sage defender of the past, perhaps the first big tussle in the great sorting out of publishing’s new look in the digital age.This was 2006, when Wired Magazine technology evangelist Kevin Kelly wrote about the helter skelter future of books in the digital age. In the New York Times Magazine, Kelly looked at then still nascent book scanning efforts, and extrapolated a future that sent a shiver through writers, editors, publishers, and many readers:Turning inked letters into electronic dots that can be read on a screen is simply the first essential step in creating this new library. The real magic will come in the second act, as each word in each book is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled and woven deeper into the culture than ever before. In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages.Later he added:[Authors] can sell performances, access to the creator, personalization, add-on information, the scarcity of attention (via ads), sponsorship, periodic subscriptions – in short, all the many values that cannot be copied. The cheap copy becomes the “discovery tool” that markets these other intangible valuables.At the annual Book Expo, keynote speaker John Updike responded, heaping scorn: The economic repercussions of this paradise of freely flowing snippets are touched on with a beguiling offhandedness, as a matter of course, a matter of an inexorable Marxist unfolding.Everyone reveled in the literary throwdown at the time (Gawker called it a Crossover Nerdfight). There was no “winner,” however, and neither Kelly nor Updike was proven right, but there are some interesting new developments to contemplate.When Kelly wrote of “remixed” books, many were aghast, envisioning zombified, soulless collages, based on the desecrated works that had been co-opted for profit. They may have been right about the zombie part: At least one book remix has caused quite a stir this year. According to Publishers Weekly, there are “more than 600,000 copies in print of… Jane Austen mashup, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” A graphic novel version is in the works, as is a sequel, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Even though this recent example looms large, when you start thinking about it there is a rich history of literary remixes. At the Vromans Bookstore Blog, Patrick Brown recently compiled a thorough exploration of the topic in response to J.D. Salinger’s lawsuit over an unauthorized sequel to his novel The Catcher in the Rye. Though that remix is not looking particularly auspicious, Patrick notes the many venerable and successful remixes that have come before it, from James Joyce’s Ulysses to Gregory Maguire’s Wicked to a pair of recent books by Maile Meloy. Brown doesn’t mention it, but you can even go all the way back to the “first” novel, and look at Don Quixote’s second part as an inspired calling out of unauthorized “copycat” versions of the book. It’s entirely plausible to make the case that literary history is in many ways a history of literary “remixes,” and, as Kelly has suggested, current, ever-stricter copyright regimes are an artificial impediment to this free flow of ideas.Returning to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, silly as it may be, one wonders if the book’s success doesn’t prove there is an appetite – in our heavily remixed, mashed up culture – for freer rein to be afforded writers who want to experiment in this vein. It’s also clear that the public domain offers an unending font of material for those inclined to use it (for a more highbrow example, think of the relationship between Tom Stoppard and Shakespeare). Meanwhile, the Salinger case would seem to indicate that when it comes to books under copyright and the cross-linking, clustering, and reassembling that Kelly prophesied, we are still very much at the whim of the copyright holder.Kelly’s other point – that of a new business model for writers that relies not on selling the book but on using the book to sell “access” to the writer, has been taken up enthusiastically by another Wired guy, Chris Anderson, who has written an entire book on this topic, Free. Anderson is “selling” (read: giving away) the book under this model and his ideas have caused media types quite a bit of heartburn.Interestingly, the backlash to Anderson’s book seems to be resonating (to me, anyway) much more than the book itself. The unfortunate revelation that Anderson had lifted substantial passages for the book from Wikipedia suggests that in a world where writers don’t get paid for writing and information wants to be free, the writing itself is almost beside the point as compared to the ancillary, profit-making schemes that can surround the “author as brand” idea. This criticism would only seem to be confirmed by Anderson’s explanation that there was an oversight in citing the copied passages properly.With a new novel coming soon from our greatest literary recluse, I wonder too whether a flourishing of the idea that authors make money from selling “access” and not books would mean that we could never have another Pynchon or McCarthy or DeLillo whose works alone tower above any notion that they might experiment with alternative revenue models.In the end, there are some elements out of the Kelly/Anderson view of the future of publishing that remain compelling. The remixed book is an important idea that need not be villainized or trivialized, particularly as digitization provides new opportunities for experimentation. The notion of “free,” meanwhile, seems far more potentially damaging in that whole swathes of literary culture are not particularly compatible with the “authors selling access” model. However, if you believe that good writing is always worth something to somebody, you don’t have much to worry about.

Curiosities: The Aerosol Ebook Enhancer

One way to go green: the San Francisco Public Library is making library cards from corn.The New York Times mines the data from its integrated dictionary feature to find the words its readers most frequently look up: sui generis, solipsistic, louche…Bill Simmons talks basketball with The New Yorker (via)Inspired by the attention surrounding J.D. Salinger’s lawsuit to block an unauthorized sequel to The Catcher in the Rye, Patrick Brown at Vroman’s has put together an impressive, involved post cataloging and discussing literary remixes.It’s not too late to get in on TMN’s “Infinte Summer,” a summer-long group read of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.For those ebook fans who miss that “new book smell.”Speaking of enhancing ebooks, what happens to book signings in the age of the ebook? Sign the Kindle?!Sonya Chung’s thoughtful take on Dan Baum’s Twitter essay about being fired from The New Yorker, including a comment from Baum himself.Mark Sarvas says don’t fear the Kindle at HuffPoCarolyn Kellogg shares some satire for the bookish set.The Millions’ Collaborative Atlas of Book Stores and Literary Places has now been viewed over 500,000 times!From TMN, “A Terrifically Bad Idea: 10 cafes, 10 macchiatos, one morning, by bike.”High concept fun from The Washington Post: “We asked authors which book character they would like to accompany them for a day on the beach.” (thanks Arna)Wikipedia find of the week: List of child prodigies.Further Reading: Jeff Hobbes’ “Open Letter to Kanye West” generated many supportive comments from other proud readers.

The Best Books… Squared

You may have heard of Google Squared. It’s a new service in development from Google that, as Wikipedia puts it, “extracts structured data from across the web and presents its results in spreadsheet-like format.” Basically, it returns your results in a list-like format with some additional descriptive columns.Trying it out, we naturally entered some book-related queries. And, if you assume that Google has compiled a database of the world’s knowledge and uses that to generate its results, then these must be – definitively – the “best books” and “best novels” ever.Best Books:The Catcher in the RyeCatch-22Animal FarmThe Very Hungry CaterpillarGoodnight MoonCurious GeorgeGravity’s RainbowBest Novels:Gravity’s RainbowTo Kill a MockingbirdThe Sound and the FuryOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestThe Lord of the RingsTo The LighthouseA Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManNot bad for something computer-generated.(Google has been known to personalize and regularly adjust its results, so your lists may vary.)

Modern Library Revue: #12 The Way of All Flesh

An irreverent, ongoing treatment of the Modern Library’s 100 best novels of the twentieth century.

Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh satisfies the letter of the Modern Library’s list – “best novels of the twentieth century” – but seems to violate its spirit. The novel was published in 1903, but written entirely in the 1870s and 1880s, and the language shows its age. It’s got that sound of, I don’t know, post-chaises and swishing crinolines. That’s not a value judgment, it’s just true. Still, though the facts tether it to the Victorian Age, the novel’s narrator, Edward Overton, and its hero, Ernest Pontifex, get to the heart of our pet rebellions. The Way of All Flesh is The Catcher in the Rye, as written by Charles Dickens; it manages to anticipate the Twentieth Century, while not quite being of it.

The story begins with Ernest’s great-grandfather, who is a nice poor man. He begets a son who becomes a nasty rich man, who begets a son who becomes a nasty comfortably well-off man, who begets Ernest, who ends up being better and richer than all of them combined. Before he can get to this state of grace, he must overcome his religion, shake off his parents, and leave his awful, boring, somewhat violent childhood behind.

The real pleasure of reading this novel, though, lies in the narration. Overton, Ernest’s sardonic godfather (chronicling the story after the fact) is a disapproving contemporary of Ernest’s father. He watches more or less dispassionately as Ernest’s parents raise him without fun or affection, and then as Ernest flounders into and then out of Religion, Immorality, Prison, and Matrimony. All the while he husbands Ernest’s secret bequest from a benevolent aunt, and hands over the life-changing fortune when Ernest turns twenty-eight.

Like Holden Caulfield, Overton makes known his opinions on Phonies. In chapter four he writes of Ernest’s nasty grandfather:
Mr. George Pontifex went abroad more than once. I remember seeing . . . the diary which he kept on the first of these occasions. It is a characteristic document. I felt as I read it that the author before starting had made up his mind to admire only what he thought it would be creditable in him to admire, to look at nature and art only through the spectacles that had been handed down to him by generation after generation of prigs and impostors. The first glimpse of Mont Blanc threw Mr. Pontifex into a conventional ecstasy.
It would be so easy to turn this post into a child’s garden of Overton’s elegant take-downs, but I will just give another favorite:
I was vexed at Ernest’s having been ordained. I was not ordained myself and I did not like my friends to be ordained, nor did I like having to be on my best behaviour and to look as if butter would not melt in my mouth, and all for a boy whom I remembered when he knew yesterday and to-morrow and Tuesday, but not a day of the week more – not even Sunday itself – and when he said he did not like the kitten because it had pins in his toes.
Overton concedes that Ernest’s father Theobald’s nastiness stems from grandfather George, who insisted that his Theobald become ordained against his will. Circumstances were against Theobald to begin with, and then, as an unwilling a clergyman, says Overton, he “is expected to be a kind of human Sunday.” The end result of his upbringing and his professional requirements is nevertheless “horrid,” and poor Ernest feels the effects of Theobald’s unhappiness on his person and on his psyche.

One of Butler’s assertions is that mental and spiritual suffering are awful and against nature, just as physical suffering is. Ernest, like Holden Caulfield a hundred years later, gets plenty to eat. His parents send him to an ostensibly good school. He goes to prison for a pathetic bit of immorality, but his experience there is really quite pleasant. In the grand scheme of things, Ernest is doing okay. But his parents are assholes and his spirit is hurt and sex is confusing, and if this experience were uncommon we wouldn’t have the cult of Salinger, or most of post-War American literature.

After his prison holiday, Ernest takes a stand and cuts his parents out of his life, but once he has the money to do as he pleases he makes marginal concessions to decency without sacrificing the integrity of his dislike. He doesn’t let his mother die without seeing him. He visits his father when the old tyrant is in his dotage, as people do – even ones who don’t like their parents. Having money of his own keeps him pure, so his father doesn’t die feeling his son’s curse. Butler, whose money eventually came from his own despised father, may not have been able to claim the same purity of motive in his continued relation with his own family, but that’s conjecture. Anyone who is alive or who has read The Corrections knows that the complex and sometimes awful nature of filial piety is still part of human experience.

In that sense, and in others, The Way of All Flesh is sensible in its attacks. Although Overton makes some shocking, impious remarks about religion, they can’t have been very different from what many people were thinking. Ernest settles down to a pretty quiet middle age, and no one pays much attention to him. He doesn’t grow an unorthodox mustache, or become a performance artist. He doesn’t spit in his father’s face. If Salinger had covered a few more decades of his story we might have seen Holden drop into Pencey for an awkward but cordial sit-down with his headmaster, just like Ernest does in his middle age. Maybe he bought American, and became a Rotarian. I guess the difference is that Salinger didn’t have to write about what happened after Holden’s little voyage of discovery.

When The Way of All Flesh was published after Butler’s death, it was the posthumous making of a career that in life was marked by an eccentric mediocrity. I have not read a biography of Samuel Butler, but my limited research indicates that, while the publication of a satire called Erewhon brought him some notoriety, he remained a fairly minor figure in late Victorian letters. After his death, he became a sensation. In the century which brought us psychoanalysis, support groups, and SSIRs, people marveled at Butler’s modernity. V. S. Pritchett called The Way of All Flesh “one of the time-bombs of literature.” His point was that it sat in a drawer making quick work of a century of ideas about Children and the Church, without anyone knowing about it. Had it been published during Butler’s life it would have, one imagines, brought the house down. But it strikes me that the very fact of its Twentieth Century publication confirms, in a sense, its status as a nineteenth century novel. It is said that the novel was autobiographical. It is also suggested by some that Butler did not publish the work upon its completion because he worried it was too scathing. Of course, refraining from doing things so as not to offend one’s family and peers is not strictly a Victorian phenomenon. But it’s kind of a neat coincidence that Butler died one year after Victoria herself, and that The Way of All Flesh came out just as a new, ostensibly freer age was getting started.

Haruki Murakami in Berkeley

This past weekend, Haruki Murakami appeared at U.C. Berkeley’s Zellerbach Auditorium for a reading of his short stories and a wide-ranging conversation about his work and life. Despite my disappointment with his recent work, Murakami ranks as one of my favorite writers, and it was a pleasure to finally see the notoriously shy writer in person.Zellerbach is a big venue, at least 800 seats, and in an age when lit pundits constantly bemoan the future of literature, I was surprised when I attempted to buy tickets several weeks ago only to find they were sold out. Thanks to the timely intervention of a friend, however, I managed to get a decent seat in the mezzanine, and spent two and a half enjoyable hours laughing along with the capacity crowd at Murakami’s understated humor.During the first part of the program, Murakami read “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes” (from Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman) The story, written in the early stages of his career, is a parable about the Japanese literary world and its reception of his first novel. In classic Murakami style, the story follows a Japanese everyman whose seemingly normal life descends into the bizarre. In this case, after responding to a newspaper ad, he finds himself baking cakes for a competition that is judged by cannibalistic crows. The story, in turns hilarious and gruesome, received a warm reception from the audience, with several people, strangely, even laughing at the grim denouement.”Sharpie Cakes” was followed by a fascinating discussion on writing between Murakami and Roland Kelts, a writer and lecturer at the University of Tokyo, and questions from the audience. The conversation ranged from Murakami’s obsession with jogging to Carl Jung, hitting most of the stops in between, including hints about his newest novel. Some of the highlights (in no particular order and paraphrased in places):On Reader’s Questions: Apparently Murakami actually answers all of his fan mail personally. “I like stupid questions. A guy sent me an email about squid. He asked ‘are their tentacles hands or feet?’ I told him he should give a squid ten pairs of gloves and ten pairs of socks and see what happens.”On Inspiration: “I’m observing things, not making them up… I’m not nationalist, I don’t write for my country, but for my people… I don’t think with my brain. I like my keyboard. I think with my fingers. When I write, it’s just a simple joy… I can write about torture, about skinning someone alive. But it’s still heartwarming…”On his obsessions: “Elephants, sofas, refrigerators, wells, cats, ears. These things help me to write.”On video games: “Writing a story for me is just like playing a video game. I start with a word or idea, then I stick out my hand to catch what’s coming next. I’m a player, and at the same time, I’m a programmer. It’s kind of like playing chess by yourself. When you’re the white player, you don’t think about the black player. It’s possible, but it’s hard. It’s kind of schizophrenic.”On dreams: “I don’t dream. I use my dreams when I write. I dream when I’m awake. That’s the job of a novelist. You can dream a dream intentionally. When you’re sleeping and you have a nice dream, you’re eating or with a woman, you might wake up at the best part. I get to keep dreaming. It’s great.”On his next novel: He finished it last week. Apparently, it’s going to be a doorstop. “I hope you’re not a commuter… The new novel is in the third person, from beginning to end. I need that room, because the story is getting more complicated. I need many perspectives.”On translations of his own work: “I’m a translator myself. I believe in my translations. If the story is strong enough, it will be translated rightly. I’m a novelist, not a linguist. If the story’s good, it will move you. That’s the important thing. It’s embarrassing for me to read my own work in Japanese. I enjoy the translations of my novels in English, because it’s not what I wrote. I forget what I wrote, and I turn the pages, excited to find out what will happen next.”On Catcher in the Rye (which he translated several years ago): “It’s a dark story, very disturbing. I enjoyed it when I was seventeen, so I decided to translate it. I remembered it as being funny, but it’s dark and strong. I must have been disturbed, when I was young. J.D. Salinger has a big obsession, three times bigger than mine. That’s why I’m here tonight, and he isn’t.”On Revision: “The first draft is most important. I have to go through and adjust small things, contradictions. When I stared writing The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, I wrote for an hour, and immediately I felt something was wrong. There was too much going on, so I pulled out that part of the story and wrote another book, South of the Border, West of the Sun.”On his favorite music: “I listen to classical music in the morning, jazz in the evening. I listen to rock when I’m driving. I like Radiohead (big round of applause). I like REM, Beck, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Thome Yorke is a reader of mine. He’s in Tokyo now, and he wanted to meet me, but I had to be here. It’s a huge sacrifice for me… I sing “Yellow Submarine” while I swim. It’s sounds like bubbling. It’s great. I recommend you try it… I loved the Beach Boys when I was younger. I met Brian Wilson when he came to Tokyo. He’s strange.”On Berkeley: “Something’s wrong with this town.”Bonus Link: A Rare Treat for Murakami Fans: Pinball, 1973

The Millions Quiz: The First Time is Always the Best

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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 was the book that started it all for you?Edan: According to my mother, I could read novels before I was potty trained. I’m not contesting that mythology, but the first time I remember being totally enamored with a book was later than that, at about age 8, when my mother bought me Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. I’d read and liked other books – The Babysitters Club series, of course, and nearly everything by Judy Blume – but Anne of Green Gables felt more magical, and more mature. It took me to a faraway world, specifically, to Prince Edward Island in the early 20th century, and used big, unfamiliar words (I remember asking my mom what the word “abundance” meant on the ride home from the bookstore – I had a small tingling of fear – or was it excitement? – that this book would be difficult). I loved that the story’s protagonist had carrot red hair, and, even better, freckles like mine! I took to calling people “kindred spirits” and wondering if I could pull of puffed sleeves. I spent the next couple of years reading Montgomery’s entire oeuvre, and I started taping the following warning into my inside book covers:This book is one thingMy fist is anotherYou take thisAnd you’ll get the otherAndrew: During my senior high school year, on an otherwise unremarkable school night, my English teacher – an inspiring educator named Robert Majer – took the entire class out to Zappi’s Pizza, where, on a large screen, Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange leapt off of the wall, tossed aside plates of steaming pizza, and grabbed each one of us by the throat, commanding our attention. The next day, in a private moment following a discussion of the film, Mr. Majer brought out his own copy of the novel (we weren’t actually studying the novel in the class) and lent it to me.There had been novels that floored me before (Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye affected me as strongly as it did countless other youths) and in a matter of months I would immerse myself in American masters from Hemingway to Irving, by way of Vonnegut, not to mention all those nineteenth-century Russians. But the singular experience of reading Anthony Burgess, who contorted and then caressed the English language, made a huge impression on me and left me with a feeling that anything could be achieved with language. And that fiction is an expansive and limitless medium.Emily: The book that started it all for me was Little Black, A Pony, by Walter Farley. I, aged three, woke my parents up sobbing with the anguished announcement “I can’t read!” Thanks to my mom and trusty Little Black, I am now an accomplished reader (and a competent horsewoman). While this 1961 children’s book has recently been translated into Navajo and re-illustrated by Baje Whitethorne, Jr., the one I knew and loved had a little very blond and very crew-cutted Hardy Boys looking boy on the cover, and this original edition is still available for about five bucks (including shipping) through Amazon Marketplace. Not for the last time (ehem, cat dissertation), I found myself entranced by the animal’s eye-view.Emre: You pose a difficult question and at best I have 15 different answers. Agatha Christie and Jules Verne were my elementary school darlings, but I really turned the corner summer of junior year in high school with an unexpected choice that is brilliant in its simple collage of people, geography, life, death, love and suffering. I was high on Kemal Tahir’s Yorgun Savascı, which we had read during the school year. My father was quick to seize on my excitement about this novel, which told the story of the resistance against the occupying Allied Powers in post-World War I Istanbul and the budding independence movement in Anatolia. So, my dad casually suggested I leaf through Nazim Hikmet’s Human Landscapes from My Country. At the time a copy of Hikmet’s epic rested in our bathroom, atop the laundry machine. (Yes, laundry machines are often found in bathrooms in Turkish homes, to me it was the most normal thing growing up. And, yes, newspapers and assorted literature were always abundant in our domestic restroom.)One evening I took my seat on the porcelain throne and picked up Human Landscapes from My Country – never to put it down. My legs went numb and I forgot where I was as I dug into Hikmet’s verses, which in plain yet moving terms paint a startling picture of Turkey and its people. Starting with a traveler drinking at Haydarpasa, Istanbul’s second primary train station on the Asian side, the 17,000-line epic chronicles landscapes and people, wars and the birth of a nation. Don’t get thrown off by that latter part. Hikmet was a communist who, to the shame of the republic he loved so much, spent 12 years behind bars because of his political beliefs, eventually fleeing to the USSR. Naturally, he inserted his struggles with the republic’s authoritarian tendencies and his time in prison into Human Landscapes from My Country. But the beauty of Hikmet is his humanism, his ultimate love and trust in the brotherhood of all men. The verses reflect his deep-seated belief in people, who appear from all walks of life to provide a perfect landscape of Turkey from the bourgeois to peasants, politicians, factory workers, war veterans, struggling mothers and hopeless romantics. I still pick up Human Landscapes from My Country to reaffirm my own faith in people – it never ceases to make me weep or laugh with sadness and joy.Garth: True story: when I was in second grade, and in my second year of reading “chapter books,” I found a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird in a ballfield dugout after pee-wee league practice one day. That cryptic title haunted me, and when my mother was teaching the book to her high school class a couple of years later, I asked if I could read it, too. She agreed, provided I would promise to read it again when I was in middle school, again in high school, and again in college. It would mean something different to me each time, she said. (Years later, when I attempted Middlemarch, she would extract a similar promise… the difference being that I was actually in college at that point.) I complied with my mom’s wishes, but nothing came close to that very first reading, which may have taken me two months. The possibilities of books (to be complex, to be layered, to communicate things the characters themselves don’t know) had grown by an order of magnitude or so. To paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, and with apologies to Beverly Cleary (whom I still love): “It was bye-bye, Ramona Quimby… we were airborne.”Max: As a young insomniac, I read myself to sleep each night, and it turned out to be habit forming. My shelves bulged with Beverly Cleary, The Hardy Boys, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. I even discretely dipped into The Babysitters Club to see if I could get some intelligence on how the other half lived. (“They’re my sister’s!” I exclaimed to friends if I ever carelessly left a copy in plain sight.) Round about 7th grade I started raiding my parents’ large and haphazardly curated library. There were quite a few false starts, but one day I dipped into John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany and never looked back. It made me immediately realize that all the books I had been reading were “kids” books, and opened my eyes, ultimately, to the mind-bending (especially to a 12-year-old) possibilities of fiction. From there I read all of Irving, Kurt Vonnegut, and T.C. Boyle, acquired the hobby of haunting local bookshops, and was on my way.So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What was the book that started it all for you?

Short stories and the cell phone: An Interview with writer Barry Yourgrau

Although cell phone novels might at first appear to be a uniquely Japanese phenomenon, one of the form’s pioneers is a South African transplant to the U.S., writer Barry Yourgrau. Barry’s book “Keitai Stories,” a collection of short “flash” stories, was released for cell phones by a prominent Japanese publishing house, before making the transition to print.Currently, Barry lives and works in New York City, where he’s hard at work on a series of popular children’s books (NASTYBooks). He has also released several volumes of literary fiction, performed his short stories in venues as diverse as MTV and NPR and starred in a movie based on one of his books, The Sadness of Sex.The Millions sat down with Barry (electronically, but no cell phones were involved) to chat about his work in Japan, whether cell phone novels can work in the U.S. and how he writes short stories.The Millions: You’ve been writing short stories for cell phones in Japan. When did you start? How did you come up with the idea?BY: Got the idea when visiting In Tokyo for the first time in 2002, I saw kids surfing the Internet on cell phones (keitai). I thought my stories, which are generally very short, would be just right for cell-phone reading. Especially if I made ’em even briefer. (Which is an interesting exercise: as Woody Allen says somewhere, a general note to improve any comic writing is, Make It Shorter.)I suggested to my Japanese translator and editor that I write a book for first-serializing on keitai. They agreed enthusiastically. I figured I’d hit on a real format innovation; turns out I was part of a huge wave of keitai writing. Though my stuff is literary; most other keitai writing is pretty schematic and manga-derived – and while their individual segments are short too, they’re parts of long novels!The Millions: What has the reaction been?BY: Delightful. 100,000 readers accessed the stories (Keitai Stories) online. The book has done well, though not in those same numbers, granted; nor in the millions that best-selling “keitai novels” have sold. My translator (Motoyuki Shibata, a renowned literary figure in Japan) thought it some of my best work! My editor too… Go figure. But we just serialized my kids’ book, NASTYbook, on keitai before pubbing in Japan. It wasn’t written for keitai, a normal book. But works fine on keitai….The Millions: Do you think it could work in the U.S.? If not, what’s different about Japan that makes cell phone novels/stories viable?BY:I don’t see why it wouldn’t work in US. But there is a difference; namely, that kids and younger folk in US access the Internet on computers and use computers for online reading etc. Japanese and Asian kids use cell phones; online computer connection is costly (I believe) – and there’s not much privacy at home, homes and rooms are tiny. People don’t coop up at home like in US.The Millions: What’s different about writing for cell phones?BY: For me, not much, other than the driving imperative to go shorter. So you really get to experiment with the essentials of what makes a narrative work – from prose poems to script-like description to just dialogue. But what makes the keitai writing in Japan successful in the market place (other than subject matter, material for young girls written by young women) is interactivity – readers can comment and writers will change storylines in direct response. I was thinking of doing something like this, but it’s hard from US to Japan, and time consuming.The Millions: Your stories have a tendency to turn to the bizarre or experimental. What are your influences? Where do your ideas come from?BY: Bizarre, sure. “Experimental,” hmmm… I think of myself as a quite conventional writer, albeit with a twist…. I riff on established genres and forms the way comedians send up things. I got started writing my own pseudo-dream-journal items. I read Cocteau’s remark that in order to make fantasy work, the details have to be extra-concrete. I had been working after college as a newspaper reporter (very slow and disorganized one). So I used some “newspaper” style features in my writing, e.g., having all dialogue “tagged” by speaker, never just standing by itself. My earliest big influence was Raymond Carver, I discovered Will You Please Be Quiet Please in the library I think in 1975? Blew me away. We had a brief correspondence: I wrote a short fan letter, he wrote back a nice short reply (mentioning something about trying to give up drinking…); I cracked open a tall beer and dashed back a single-spaced page and a half outpouring of my hopes, dreams, enthusiasms. Naturally that was end of our correspondence, I never heard back.Isaac Babel I loved too, plus fine crime writing, Hammett and Chandler. And Woody Allen’s early standup routines. Lots of short poetry. The crime writing stuff is important: cause it’s such propulsive writing. Like joke-writing. Or writing for the screen. Twilight Zone made a big impact on me, I realize. Basically I write like a confessional poet, using surreal narrative and cinematic tools. On a mini scale.My ideas I just get. That’s how my brain works. I never have used my own dreams for inspiration – to me that’s “cheating.” Like I say, I riff fantastically on established things. My book, Haunted Traveller, for instance, is all my riffs on existential exotic far-flung writing, Chatwin et al. I finally read Paul Bowles after writing the book. Jeez, now I know where my ideas came from! (Actually, I had read and been much affected by his Mohammed Mrabet translations – short, semi-fabulous, and marvelously brutal). And I’ve been reading Borges a good deal recently too…The Millions: In reading other interviews with you, I’ve noticed you travel a lot. For work, fun? Do your travels provide context/inspiration for your stories?BY: I’ve traveled a lot in the past few years with my partner, Anya von Bremzen, who writes about food and restaurants around the world. (A happy gig for her, and me, indeed). These trips don’t really feed my inspiration. Ok, a bit. But I’m more Raymond Roussel type – he wrote Impressions of Africa by locking himself in a hotel room in Africa and writing without stepping outside. All in the mind.The Millions: How do you write? Is the process different when you write for cell phones?BY: I write my fiction longhand first. I need the pencil/pen in hand to connect to emotions. I then type up. For the first several books I used a typewriter, now I’m (late) on computer. But I find the computer too suited to Flow, not the weight of the individual word. I’ve half a mind to switch back to a typewriter…. I like to note that I wrote some of my little cell phone stories for Japan while staying in Madrid. I worked in the Grand National library, walking in daily to write little jokey tales about karaoke (say) or haunted vending machines (say) after passing under the big portrait of Borges in the hall.The challenge for Japan cell phone writing was connecting the work to a (1) Japanese and (2) younger audience. So I trolled the Internet for Japanese trends. Most useful.The Millions: So you were conscious that you were writing for a Japanese audience. Did that affect your writing in ways other than your choice of subject?BY: Yes, very aware. I tried to write with simple but flavorsome constructions (always a good idea, no?). And I used details of a Japanese kind. For instance, I made a wizard’s spellbinding soup not chicken soup, say, but mushroom soup with big chunks of shitake…. Also, the karaoke story: I had to figure whether Japanese young readers would know who Neil Sedaka is. (Don’t how I finally decided…). But not huge issues, as you can see.The Millions: When the recent article about cell phone novels came out in the New York Times, a lot of people suggested that this trend might represent the future of the novel. What’s your take?BY: I think it might be part of the future of the novel. Not just the format, but the interactivity. In Japan, these books emerge from pools of people on web pages, all posting and getting notes. But I for one think the “old novel” still has lots of life.The Millions: You mentioned you tend to write short (flash?) fiction. Does this “genre” have its own conventions? How is writing “flash” fiction different from writing novels or other types of short stories?BY: I started writing very short just because it suited me. Then I later discovered a trend called “flash” fiction or “sudden” fiction. I had nothing to do with any movement as such, and always use the term with fingers crossed behind my back. I’ve always enjoyed compression in writing, and in art. Among my favorite reading are commonplace readers, such as Auden’s wonderful collection. Tidbits that enfume the imagination. Regarding the genre of very short fiction, I wouldn’t begin to make general pronouncements. I only know how I work. I find the form an endlessly rich sources of possibilities, of narrative gambits. I find very short items, when good, expand in the reader’s imagination. I sometimes, say, like to break off a story right before it’s resolved – at a surging cliffhanger. Let the reader finish things up. Next step for me will be to link the stories into a larger narrative somehow – without taking away their sense that the universe is starting afresh in each story.The Millions: A lot of people would argue that this kind of fiction is much better suited for our “modern” world, with its short attention spans, etc. Any thoughts?BY: I think that, too, in a hopeful way. And I like the idea of bringing “literary” stuff into the pop world of short attention spans. Stuff based on my stories for MTV twenty years ago, for example. I think getting fiction across multiple “platforms” (pardon the media speak) is great. I always perform my work, and we did a movie version of my book The Sadness of Sex (some of it is online at I used a wonderful line from Jerome K. Jerome for one of my books: “The thoughts we can understand are very little thoughts… All greater thoughts are undefined and vast to our poor childish brains.” And just to note: I’m not a “new media” maven or a techno head, at all. I mean, when I wrote cell phone stories for Japan, I didn’t even own a cell phone (nor did my translator). But I think my sensibility works sympathetically, as it happens, with techno stuff, certainly the trend to be “short.”The Millions: Any plans to bring the cell phone stories to the States?BY: I’d like to. I’ve started talking to a company that’s begun putting a range of books online for cell phones. At this point, my book of keitai stories for Japan, Keitai (“i-mode”) Stories, only exists as such in Japan. But I tweaked some of its stories and put them in my most recent kids’ book, Yet Another NASTYbook (HarperCollins 2007). I suggested promoting the book by saying it used some cell phone stories from Japan. I was told this wasn’t a great idea, people didn’t like books that had earlier appeared elsewhere. So we didn’t mention the cell phone background. But maybe not a bad idea? Obviously I think so, I’m doing it here.The Millions: We had a review of a book of flash fiction from China on the site about a year ago. Apparently it has a huge following in China and Taiwan. Ever thought about publishing there?BY: Yes, my books (other than keitai one) are well translated in Taiwan. Looked like a mainland China publisher was going to bring one out a few years ago, but then disappeared. But may be time again. My books in general are published in Japan, in the conventional literary manner. I have a wonderful translator, Motoyuki Shibata. His “stable” includes Paul Auster, Richard Powers, Millhauser, Kelly Link, etc. He’s a friend and cohort of Haruki Murakami, who’s also an influential translator of American lit (did a hugely successful translation of Catcher in the Rye). Now I’d like to get into Korea, that’s next on my list.The Millions: And is there anything else you’d like to talk about?BY: Yeah. I just saw MacBeth at BAM. Patrick Stewart is a magnificent powerhouse. But Lady MacBeth was a letdown, to my eyes, and dragged. Emmett White, the young actor playing Banquo’s son, was super!

Now You Know: The Mysteries of NYT’s Best-Seller List (or Not)

It is a ubiquitous feature in bookstores – especially at airports: The New York Times Best Seller List. The words “From The New York Times Best-Selling Author” flash at a reader from the top of a book cover, capturing interst and, well, dollars.The Times’ Public Editor Clark Hoyt explains the selection process, why the list is more widely followed and valued than other, competing “best seller” compilations – from USA Today and Rupert Murdoch’s (ouch) Wall Street Journal – in an informative column.Apparently an NYT Best Seller sticker can drive up sales by as much as 57 percent for a first-time author. Publishers are, naturally, conscious of this priceless marketing tool and accordingly try to rig the market, Hoyt writes. Not to worry, the editors at the Times safeguard readers against such shams.But Times editors too might not fully understand the procedure, according to Hoyt. And while the Times might make sure that “evergreens” like Catcher in the Rye or an SAT study guide don’t stay on the list forever, Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point – which came out in paperback in 2002 – has been on it for a stunning 164 weeks.The column might leave you a tad confused, but at least you won’t ask yourself what the heck an “NYT Best Seller” is next time you are idling at an airport bookstore.

Ask a Book Question: The Second in a Series (More thoughts on yesterday’s question and new speculation today)

Garth and Elise had some aditional thoughts on yesterday’s question: Elise, daughter of a children’s librarian and a great afficianado of too-smart-for-kids-too-fun-for-adults fantasy, likes the Garth Nix books (Lirael, Sabriel, and something else I can’t remember). I used to love Lloyd Alexander’s Taran Wanderer. Also, the Neil Gaiman/Terry Pratchett collabo Good Omens is pretty awesome. And did anyone actually read Summerland [by Michael Chabon]? Maybe it’s good, too.Great ideas. I can’t speak to many of these picks, although they sound intriguing. I didn’t read Summerland and I didn’t have any customers rush back into the store a week after buying it saying that it changed their kid’s life, as I occasionally do with, say, the Philip Pullman books. On the other hand, Chabon is a talented writer, so it makes sense that the book is at the very least quite readable. Moving on. Garth also posed an interesting question in which we enjoy the pleasures of trying to predict the future: Here’s my book question. Who are the under-50 writers you and your readers think are capable of producing something that will be read widely and passionately 100 years from now? Here’s my extemporaneous list: Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Jeffrey Eugenides, Rick Moody, Colson Whitehead, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Peter Carey, Roddy Doyle, Nick Baker, Paul Beatty, Jhumpa Lahiri, Conor McPherson, Suzan-Lori Parks, Patrick Chamoiseau and myself. Any thoughts?This is an interesting question having to do with capabilities. I think it’s fair to say that with the possible exception of Franzen’s The Corrections, none of these writers has as of yet written something that will be read in a 100 years. I am familiar with most but not all of the writers mentioned above, having said that, here are the writers that I think have the best chance to become immortal from the above list: Franzen, Wallace, Whitehead, and Lahiri. On the other hand I’m not sure that Zadie Smith or Suzan-Lori Parks should be included at all, though that may have to do more with my personal taste than the quality of their writing. This is of course an impossible question to answer, but you have to wonder what the prevailing opinion might have been to the same question posed 50 to 100 years ago. Do Hemingway and Faulkner get mentioned? Or is everyone convinced that Sinclair Lewis wll have enduring undying popularity. At any rate, it’s clear that the most fervent current acclaim is no guarantee of canonization. (For what it’s worth, the most voraciously read books that are at least 50 years old are as follows: The Catcher in the Rye, Fahrenheit 451, Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, 1984 and Animal Farm. These will be joined by To Kill a Mockingbird in a few years when it turns 50.) I would add a few names to Garth’s list George Saunders, Gary Schteyngart, Maile Meloy, and my favorite to take the title, Jonathan Safran Foer. Finally, I would like to point out three authors who may have already written something that will be read by future generations. All three have only recently turned fifty, so I don’t mind bending the rules to include them in this discussion. They are: Denis Johnson (age 54), Ian McEwan (age 55), Haruki Murakami (age 54), and maybe I’ll throw in Paul Auster (age 55) for good measure…….. Anyone else got some ideas???Loving the Little GuysI went to a “publishing party” at Book Soup in West Hollywood the other day to celebrate the emergence of two local publishers. First Cut Books is the coolest online book store ever. Each month or so they feature a new set of great books that their dedicated staff of reviewers selects and recommends. First Cut is also a publisher and their first publication is Filthy, a quarterly about baseball pitching, to which I am a contributor. Also there was Tam Tam Books, devoted publisher of all things Serge Gainsbourg, Boris Vian, and Guy Debord. Small publishers and the devoted people who run them may be the most exciting thing about the publishing industry.A Brief ExcerptFrom the book I’m reading right now: “I watch him go not without a tinge of envy. In nearly two decades of meditation the Buddha has not told me a single joke. Surely one would laugh for eternity?”

Surprise Me!