The Executioner's Song

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Present-ing the 70s: A Review of Christopher Sorrentino’s Trance

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In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” the philosopher Walter Benjamin gives the old truism that all history is present history a characteristically gnomic twist. “Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns,” he writes, “threatens to disappear irretrievably.” Perhaps it’s a measure of our current concerns, then, that we’re witnessing a revival of novelistic interest in the 1960s and 1970s. In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, those tumultuous decades had come to seem almost quaint. Green Day headlined Woodstock ’94, Have A Nice Day Cafes sprouted like daisies in “revitalized” downtowns, and That ’70’s Show reimagined the Jimmy Carter era as a fashion parade, all bellbottoms and shaggy hair. Absent the context of war and Watergate, retro dessicated into kitsch. It was possible to take part without inhaling.Philip Roth’s 1996 novel American Pastoral seems, in retrospect, a turning point. Relating the saga of Swede Lvov and his bomb-wielding daughter, Merry, Roth bypassed (by and large) the aesthetic signifiers of the counterculture in favor of an investigation of its moral and ethical ambiguities. More recently, Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica, Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document, Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind, and Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke (review) have plumbed the mixed legacy of the Age of Aquarius. Even among such distinguished company, however, Christopher Sorrentino’s Trance, nominated for the National Book Award in 2005, stands out for the breadth of its historical vision and for the fearlessness of its prose. While Sorrentino keeps his radical heroine slightly out-of-focus, the book’s real protagonist – the post-Vietnam zeitgeist – comes to seem vividly present, in every sense of the word.Trance takes as its point of departure the real-life kidnapping of heiress Patricia Hearst by the violent screwballs of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Hearst took the nom de guerre Tania; Sorrentino keeps the pseudonym, but constructs behind it an alternative heroine, one Alice Galt. Like Hearst, Galt is the scion of a wealthy newspaper family. Also like Hearst, she ends up making common cause with her captors, assisting in a bank robbery, and subsequently finding herself both a fugitive from justice and the center of a media frenzy. Trance is largely the story of Tania’s cross-country flight from the law and of her eventual apprehension. Along the way, Tania crosses paths with a series of eccentrics: de facto SLA leaders Teko and Yolanda (a.k.a. Drew and Diane Shepard); an opportunistic wheeler-dealer named Guy Mock (reminiscent of Lawrence Schiller in Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song); and an ambivalent fellow traveler, Joan Shimada. An equally motley cavalcade of federal agents, journalists, and loved ones gets sucked along in her wake. Making liberal use of the free indirect style, Sorrentino offers us a variety of perspectives on Tania and the SLA: Joan’s, Guy’s, her parents’… Of course, this technique raises more questions than it answers: has Tania been brainwashed? Has she turned her back for good on bourgeois society? Or are the SLA’s politics simply an excuse to indulge in cathartic mayhem? Sorrentino is too shrewd to resolve these tensions. Instead, he portrays Tania as an antecedent to today’s culture of celebrity – the sum of the rumors she gives rise to. At his best, he manages to refract through her, as through a prism, the mingled paranoia and hope and fatuousness of an age. Here, for example, the narrative takes on the tints of Tania’s subjectivity:She has become an expert at living in closets, has developed unambiguous preferences (e.g., length is more desirable than width), has slept in them and eaten in them and read books in them and been raped in them and recorded messages to the People in them. This, just generally, is not the life she was raised to live. Here is a seizure of a kind of exquisite loneliness, a sudden shuddering. She wants to pick up the phone. She wants to go out for drinks. She wants the free fresh wind in her hair.Present-tense narration can run the risk of falling into a cinematic rut, but Sorrentino’s prose is marvelously alive to the various registers of American English, from propaganda to cant to advertising to poetry. The latter two become indistinguishable in that last phrase, “the free fresh wind in her hair” – Shelley meets Prell. Sorrentino is in love with the name brands and anagrams overtaking the landscape, and they creep into his sentences as well. Ritz, Kraft, Mr. Coffee…the resulting tension between nostalgia and irony, and even the cadences of certain paragraphs, recall the Eisenhower-era passages of Don DeLillo’s Underworld.Trance shares weaknesses, too, with DeLillo. They are chiefly weaknesses of characterization. Joan Shimada and Guy Mock are wonderfully proportioned, and even supporting players like Tania’s mother reveal hidden dimensions. Teko and Yolanda, however, seem to have infiltrated Trance from the pages of a less searching, more satirical novel. Each has one note – shrill – and, without any way to see the forces that flattened them into their present shapes, the reader finds it too easy to write them (and, in turn, the SLA) off: They are simply, in the parlance of the times, “on a power trip.”The case of Tania is more complicated. It’s clearly part of Sorrentino’s design to keep Tania a mystery, and for long stretches of the novel, that mystery draws us hypnotically in. However, in the end, we long for her character to precipitate out of the stories told about her, rather than to disperse like the airwaves that carry them. When Teko assaults her in an abandoned barn, we glimpse, suddenly, the woman she’s become, but her early days with the SLA – those weeks in a closet, her indoctrination, the rape alluded to above – remain frustratingly opaque. Perhaps this is Sorrentino’s nod to the ultimate unknowability of Patty Hearst’s motivations, even to herself.Still, in its capacious interiority, Trance recovers a time when it seemed possible, however briefly, that a new age was about to begin… and that individual actions could bring it into being. It recovers, more specifically, that time’s violent conclusion. That these 1970s – full of bank robberies and kidnappings and assassination plots and wars real and imagined – can seem, from 2007, a more innocent time only speaks to the size of their legacy.

So Long, Sweet Scientist: Norman Mailer Dies at 84

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Norman Mailer, a colossus who bestrode worlds both literary and journalistic – and, at his best, combined them – has died of acute renal failure, according to the Times. Mailer had been in poor health for some time, and, given his hospitalization last month and his advanced age, his death comes as no surprise. And yet, in another way, it seems shocking: of the celebrated Jewish-American men who remade our literature in the middle of the last century (Bellow, Roth, Malamud, Salinger), Mailer seemed the most ecstatically alive. He rarely shied from a fight, or turned down an opportunity for self-promotion on the grounds that it might be beneath his dignity. Pursuing a life that would be its own kind of art – or at least entertainment – he indulged a vast range of interests: sports commentator, filmmaker, celebrity, co-founder of the Village Voice, mayoral candidate, drunk…. And this prodigious energy, this tendency to follow it whither it led, may explain why, of the authors cited above, his ratio of dross to gold was the highest. One occupation Mailer never seriously explored, to my knowledge, was editor.That said, his death should clarify certain things about the Mailer canon, among them this: When he was good, he was brilliant. I cannot claim to have waded through Ancient Evenings, but The Executioner’s Song, in its own strange way, surpasses the journalistic achievements of Capote’s In Cold Blood, and leaves almost every other novel written in the Seventies looking morally and intellectually trivial. A writer less vainglorious – less convinced of his own ability to get all of life on the page – could never have written this book. In a way, Mailer was the last of the Romantics, more an heir to Byron than to Hemingway. Let us hope that his own heirs will be able to see through the glare of his celebrity to the writer, the sly rope-a-doper, who hid behind it.

“Turgid Waters”: Zodiac Unmasked

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When I was a kid, I read People magazine. I mean read it. As in every week. A couple of years into my subscription, I could name the husbands of Elizabeth Taylor, the number of cars owned by Jay Leno, the blood-type of every member of the house of Windsor. Weirdly, People also taught me a lot about serial killers.This was during the era of Jeffrey Dahmer and Hannibal Lecter, and in between its celebrity puff pieces and heartwarming tales of uplift, People lingered voyeuristically over every lurid detail of every serial killing, real or imaginary, from Florida to Alaska. Even now the names are coming back to me. Ted Bundy. Aileen Wuornos. You know: People. Especially compelling, for a ten-year-old (and, apparently, for everyone else who read People) was any whiff of weird sex. Of course, from a ten-year-old’s point of view, all sex is weird sex. As all violence and loneliness and pathology seem obscurely familiar. But anyway, I gobbled this serial-killer stuff up like Halloween candy, though I knew I shouldn’t. And, as with the candy I’d stashed throughout my room, my People binges would leave me feeling sick to my stomach and rotten inside.I was doing a pretty good job repressing this, my brief and shameful fascination with serial killers, until last week, when I read Robert Graysmith’s Zodiac Unmasked. I had just seen David Fincher’s scrupulous movie about the Zodiac killer who terrorized Northern California in the early 70s. My engagement with this movie was (I thought) deep, thoughtful, moral… not at all voyeuristic or creepy or weird. Then on the way home I had to go and buy Graysmith’s book, one of the sources for the movie. I read 450 pages in just over 24 hours.I cannot with any confidence say that this is not the worst book I’ve ever read. Line by line, paragraph by paragraph, Robert Graysmith’s sequel to his bestselling Zodiac is itself a crime-scene: missing transitions, felony-grade solecisms, metaphors even more overwrought than this one, interspersed with anxious self-congratulation. It is the anti-In Cold Blood. Which makes it all the more mysterious that I couldn’t put it down.One explanation is that Graysmith essentially turns the killings into a dime detective novel, gaming the material for suspense.Another possible explanation lies in all the ways the Zodiac killings do not resemble detective novels. The clues do not line up to point in a single direction (despite Graysmith’s best efforts). Every pattern is broken. The puzzle-solving part of the mind, frustrated, cannot let go of the crime, even if the moral sense longs to. Thus we run over the facts again and again, hoping that this time, they will yield some proof and we can relax again.The brilliance of Fincher’s movie is that it dramatizes this compulsion onscreen. Jake Gyllenhaal, as cartoonist-cum-gumshoe Graysmith, offers an objective portrait of our corrosive fascination with violence. In the grip of his obsession, he resembles a ten-year old (which may explain why Graysmith writes like one). In the book, by contrast, the real Graysmith effaces himself; we are left to feel the sickly fascination ourselves. Maybe this is the more honest approach. Still, I prefer the clinical lens to the pornographic one. Fincher himself, in a couple of early scenes (as in much of his earlier work), stoops to aestheticism. But if a distressingly well-crafted murder scene lowers a veil between the audience and the victim, what can we say about a sentence like “Only the most extreme adversity could prevent this prophet of death from gloating over the proliferation of his obscene word?”Ultimately, the movie Zodiac felt more like an adaptation of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song than of Graysmith’s Zodiac writings. Like Mailer, Fincher is interested in murder as a window into human nature. And like Mailer, Fincher is as interested in the traumatized bystanders as he is in his killer. It may not be easy, watching Zodiac or reading The Executioner’s Song, to get over the creepy feeling of being compelled by the suffering of others. But at least these made me think about that feeling. Zodiac Unmasked just let me feel it.

A Year in Reading: the Best, the Rest and the Disappointments


Among the people I asked to contribute to this year’s “Year in Reading,” are readers that I admire. Garth reads a great deal more than me and can digest the voluminous input impressively (just wish he’d start blogging again!). He’s also the guy responsible for the great Lawrence Weschler reading list I posted early this year. Some of his reading this year comes from that list:Top 3 Books I Read This Year:Tony Kushner – Angels in America: The Great American Drama? Kushner moves forward the form of the theater, but that’s only what lures you in. What keeps you is that no living writer engages more fully with his characters. The Mike Nichols directed miniseries isn’t bad, either.Joseph Mitchell: Up in the Old Hotel: An unparalleled raconteur. All of his New Yorker writings are compiled in this omnibus. His style lucid, compassionate, modest, wry, and charged with the wonder of being alive.Zadie Smith – On Beauty: As many have pointed out, flawed. But she rivals Kushner in her degree of empathy for her characters while, like him, never letting them off the hook.The Best of the Rest (of Stuff I Read This Year)Walter Benjamin – Illuminations: The most sensitive and elliptical and sad of 20th century philosophers. One of Benjamin’s ideas is worth a thousand of someone else’s arguments.Gertrude Stein – Alice B. Toklas: Who knew I’d like Gertrude Stein? Don’t believe the hype – read this book.Norman Mailer – The Executioner’s Song: Again, who knew? In Cold Blood on amphetamines, this is a chilling, gripping, and strangely humble work. The second half opens up to depict the media machinery of which this book is brilliant!Patrik Ourednik – Europeana: Behind a sui generis form, itself worth the price of admission, lurks a quiet anguish at the depredations of the 20th Century.E.L. Doctorow – Ragtime: All it’s said to be, and a great read to boot.Benjamin Barber – Jihad vs. McWorld: A lucid articulation of all the things you’ve ever suspected about late-capitalist globalism and factionalism but weren’t sure how to say.Jonathan Lethem – The Disappointment Artist: The most complete thing Lethem has published. Not an enduring classic, but a totally charming read.3 DisappointmentsRick Moody – The Diviners: Bummer, man. This book has so much potential – and is definitely worth reading – but needed an editor who could say, in the end, “Something more has to happen!” Concludes not with a bang but with a whimper. But has HBO optioned the TV rights to “Werewolves of Fairfield County?”Charles Chadwick – It’s All Right Now: Here, the whimper sets in after a completely fantastic first 180 pages – and continues for 400 more. You had me at hello, Chuck, and could have stopped after Part I. Again, where’s the editor?Bret Easton Ellis – Lunar Park: Underrated, my ass. This book is terrible. Everything after the introduction is embarrassing. I don’t know that an editor could have saved it, or why I read it. Avoid at all costs.

A Lawrence Weschler Reading List

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Back in March after hearing about Robert Boynton’s book of interviews with journalists called The New New Journalism, I put together a post that listed some of the books by this select group of writers. At the time, my friend Garth was taking a class at NYU taught by Lawrence Weschler (himself a “New New Journalist”), and felt that we had only scratched the surface. Weschler had introduced Garth and his fellow students to a wealth of “creative nonfiction.” Garth wrote to share his experience with the class and the marvelous list of books that was at its heart. This is long, but it’s worth it.As alluded to earlier, here’s a slightly more in-depth summary of the Weschler Literary Nonfiction Class. This was a ridiculous class, in the best sense of the word. The reading list was incredible, handouts of poems were constantly circulating, and every five minutes we were treated to a “you’ve got to read this” digression. Highly recommended; for a quick summation of the ideas treated in the class, check out the Weschler interview in Robert Boynton’s new The New New Journalism.I kept careful notes on what was being mentioned and read, and in the end, I probably had twice this many names on my list. In order not to divulge Weschler’s trade secrets, I cut a lot of stuff out, but I wanted to share with you some of my amazing discoveries from this class. The top 10 list is my actual top 10 list, though, in general, I tried to omit what we actually read, because with some of these guys – [Joseph] Mitchell, [Ryszard] Kapuscinski, [John] McPhee – it’s all amazing. What’s in parentheses may be stuff on the syllabus, or may be something that was mentioned in class that sounded fantastic, or excerpted on a handout – stuff definitely to check out. We also read maybe 25 others, but many of them ([Susan] Orlean, etc.), you’ll be familiar with. I included the four Of Note because they were relatively new to me, except for [Christopher] Hitchens, whom I loathe, but who apparently used to write pretty compelling essays. The second part of this list compiles allusions that came up in class and handouts that we received. Again, this is less than half of what we got in class, but I’ve included only stuff I couldn’t bear not to share, or stuff I had never heard of before. Divided up by genre. Hopefully, to the degree that syllabi and course materials are the instructor’s intellectual property, I’ve managed to obscure what the actual syllabus looked like, while still managing to convey a fraction of the stimulating panoply of material we were exposed to. I never knew I liked journalism so much.I. Top 10 Writers We Read, In My Humble Opinion:Joseph Mitchell (Everything This Man Ever Wrote. My Ears Are Bent (recently republished), Up in the Old Hotel)Ian Frazier (see esp. “Canal Street” (New Yorker, April 30, 1990), and the book Family)Ryszard KapuscinskiSusan Sheehan (Is There No Place On Earth for Me?)George Orwell (“Reflections on Ghandi“)David Foster WallaceJohn McPhee (Oranges, Annals of the Former World)William Finnegan (see esp. “Playing Doc’s Games,” (New Yorker, Aug. 24 and 31, 1992)Jamaica Kincaid (A Small Place)Lawrence Weschler (I especially like Calamities of Exile, Boggs, Vermeer in Bosnia)Other Writers of Note Whom We Read:Christopher Hitchens (before he became a right-winger, e.g. Prepared for the Worst)Alastair Reid (Oases)Jane Kramer (someone in class mentioned The Last Cowboy)Diane AckermanGo Look This Up:Columbia Journalism Review symposium, July (resources for radio journalists)Omnivore prototype issue at mjt.orgII. Mentioned in Passing, Piqued My InterestA. Nonfiction (Roughly in order of Interest)A.J. LieblingWalter Murch (In The Blink of An Eye, The Conversations (w/ Michael Ondaatje))John Berger (Ways of Seeing)Jonathan Schell (Observing the Nixon Years)Rebecca Solnit (River of Shadows)Susan Sontag (on Abu Ghraib in NY Times Magazine)Wendy Lesser (Nothing Remains The Same)Curzio Malaparte (Kaputt)Vijay Seshadri (essays in The Long Meadow)Norman Mailer (Executioner’s Song)Neil Sheehan (A Bright Shining Lie)Dave Hickey (Air Guitar)Jonathan Raban (Passage to Juneau)Mark Salzman (True Notebooks)Adam Menendes (80s reportage on Central America)Adam Michnik (Letters from Prison and Other Essays)B. PhilosophyNicholas of Cusa (Of Learned Ignorance)H. Vaihinger (The Philosophy of As If)C. Poetry[The Poles:]Wislawa SzymborskaCzeslaw MiloszStanislaw BaranczakeZbigniaw Herbert (Mr. Cogito)Tadeusz Rosewicz[The Rest:]Nazim HikmetChristopher Logue (translations of Homer)III. Drama/Film:Harold Pinter (A Kind of Alaska)Wallace Shawn (The Fever)Roberto Rossellini (The Rise of Louis XIV)IV. Fiction:Grace PaleyNorman MacLean (A River Runs Through It)Jose Saramago (Blindness)Barry Unsworth (Sacred Hunger)Thornton Wilder (The Bridge of San Luis Rey)Joseph Heller (Something Happened)Nicholas Mosely (Hopeful Monsters)Stanislaw Lem (A Perfect Vacuum)Bruce Duffy (The World As I Found It)Wow, a tremendous list. There’s a lot to mine here.

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