“In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.” Ever since I turned 40—that is to say, for a week now—this final sentence of Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” has been rattling around my head. When I first read it, back in college, it landed like a hard left hook, knocking me flat with recognition. (I can’t be alone in this; Cormac McCarthy nicked the phrasing for the end of Blood Meridian.) Right, I thought. Exactly. But now, revisiting the end of “Indian Camp,”‘ I see that my younger self was missing at least half the point: It’s supposed to be ironic! Of course he’s going to die! In fact, maybe that’s why the line has been on my mind, along with Dante’s “mezzo del camin di nostra vita” and Yeats’s “widening gyre” and Larkin’s “long slide.” For though I’ve managed to avoid until now the garment-rending and gnashing of teeth around birthdays (“Age ain’t nothing but a number,” right?) forty really does feel like a delineation. At 39, rocking the Aaliyah quote is still a youthful caprice. At 41, it’s a midlife crisis.
And the fact that I’m no longer immortal would seem to raise some questions about the pursuit I’ve more or less given my life to: reading. Specifically, if you can’t take it with you, what’s the point? Indeed, I now wonder whether the bouts of reader’s block I suffered in 2014 and 2017 had to do not with technological change or familial or political crisis, but with the comparatively humdrum catastrophe of getting older. Yet 2018 found me rejuvenated as a reader. Maybe there was some compensatory quality-control shift in my “to-read” pile (life’s too short for random Twitter) or maybe it was just dumb luck, but nearly every book I picked up this year seemed proof of its own necessity. So you’ll forgive me if I enthuse here at length.
First and foremost, about Halldór Laxness’s Independent People. This Icelandic classic had been on my reading list for almost a decade, but something—its bulk, its ostensible subject (sheep farming), its mythic opening—held me back. Then, this summer, I took a copy to Maine, and as soon as Bjartur of Summerhouses blustered onto the page, the stubbornest hero in all of world literature, I was hooked. As for those sheep: This is a novel about them only in the sense that Lonesome Dove is a novel about cows. And though I love Lonesome Dove, Independent People is much the better book. Laxness’s storytelling offers epic sweep and power, but also, in J.A. Thompson’s stunning translation, modernist depth and daring, along with humor and beauty and pain to rival Tolstoy. In short, Independent People is one of my favorite novels ever.
Also among the best things I read in 2018 were the shorter works that padded out my northern travels: Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and the novels of Jenny Erpenbeck. I’m obviously late arriving to the former; there’s not much I can say that you won’t have heard elsewhere, or experienced yourself. (Still: the prose!) Of the latter, I can report that The End of Days is ingenious, as if David Mitchell had attempted Sebald’s The Emigrants. And that Go, Went, Gone, notwithstanding Jonathan Dee’s careful gift-horse inspection in Harper’s, is even better. But for my money, Erpenbeck’s finest novel is Visitation, which manages to pack much of the story of 20th-century Germany into the 190-page description of a country house. In any case, Erpenbeck’s writing, like Robinson’s, seems built to endure.
On the nonfiction front, I spent a week this fall immersed in Thomas de Zengotita’s Politics and Postmodern Theory, a heady, lucid, and ultimately persuasive philosophical recasting of nearly a half-century of academic kulturkampf. Much as Wittgenstein (who gets a chapter here) claimed to resolve certain problems of philosophy by showing them to arise from elementary confusions, de Zengotita seeks to dispel muddles over the legacy of post-structuralism and the Enlightenment thought it ostensibly dismantled. He does so by giving key 20th-century thinkers—Kristeva, Derrida, Deleuze, Judith Butler—a rereading that is rigorous, respectful, accessible, and, in important ways, against the grain. As an etiology of the current cultural situation, this book belongs on a shelf with Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism and David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity. And, notwithstanding its price tag, anyone who cares deeply about issues of identity and solidarity and being-in-the-world today should heed its lessons.
This was also a year when the new-fiction tables at the bookstore seemed reinvigorated. For my money, the best American novel of 2018 was Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, whose urgent blend of social conscience and poetic vision made debates about “reality hunger” and the value of fiction seem not just quaint but fallacious. So, too, with Mathias Énard’s Compass, now in paperback in a crystalline translation by Charlotte Mandell. It would be hard to find a novel more indebted to historical reality, but in its fearless imagination, Compass turns these materials into something properly fictive, rather than factitious—and wholly Énard’s own. And I’d be remiss not to mention Deborah Eisenberg’s story collection Your Duck Is My Duck. Eisenberg writes the American sentence better than anyone else alive, and for anyone who’s followed these stories as they’ve appeared, serially, her brilliance is a given. Read together, though, they’re a jolting reminder of her continued necessity: her resistance to everything that would dull our brains, hearts, and nerves.
And then you could have made a National Book Awards shortlist this year entirely out of debuts. One of the most celebrated was Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man. What I loved about these stories, apart from the Fitzgeraldian grace of Brinkley’s voice, was their tendency to go several steps beyond where a more timid writer might have stopped—to hurl characters and images and incidents well downfield of what the story strictly required and then race to catch up. More important than being uniformly successful, A Lucky Man is uniformly interesting. As is Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry. The “unexpected” coda, in my read, put a too-neat bow on things. I’d have enjoyed it even more as an unresolved diptych. But because the novel’s range and hunger are so vast, such asymmetries end up being vital complications of its interests and themes: artifice, power, subjectivity, and truth. They are signs of a writer who aims to do more than simply write what is within her power to know.
Any list of auspicious recent debuts should also include one from the other side of the pond: David Keenan’s This Is Memorial Device (from 2017, but still). The novel presents—tantalizingly, for me—as an oral history of the postpunk scene in the Scottish backwater of Airdrie in the early 1980s, yet Keenan’s psychedelic prose and eccentric emphases make it something even more. I was reminded frequently of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, and could not fathom why this book was overlooked in the U.S. Hopefully, the publication of a follow-up For the Good Times, will change that.
It was a good year for journalism, too. I’m thinking not of Michael Wolff or (God forbid) Bob Woodward, but of Sam Anderson, the critic at large for The New York Times Magazine, and his first book, Boom Town. If there’s one thing less immediately exciting to me than sheep farming, it’s Oklahoma City, which this book promises (threatens?) to explore. On the other hand, I would read Sam Anderson on just about anything. Here, starting with the Flaming Lips, the land-rush of 1889, and the unlikely rise of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, he stages a massive detonation of curiosity, sensibility, and wonder. (Favorite sentence: “Westbrook, meanwhile, started the season Westbrooking as hard as he could possibly Westbrook.”) And as with David Foster Wallace or John Jeremiah Sullivan, he leaves you feeling restored to curiosity and wonder yourself.
I’m also thinking of Pam Kelley’s Money Rock, which focuses on the drug trade in 1980s Charlotte. It reminded me, in miniature, of a great book I’d read a few months earlier, David Simon’s sprawling Homicide. Simon and Kelley are sure-handed when sketching the social systems within which we orbit, but what makes these books live is their feel for the human swerve—for Detective Terry McLarney of the Baltimore Homicide Squad or Lamont “Money Rock” Belton, locked up behind the crack game.
This was also the year I started reading J. Anthony Lukas, who, among the ranks of New or New-ish Journalists who emerged in the ’60s, seems to have fallen into comparative neglect. I checked out Nightmare, his book on Nixon, and was edified. Then I moved on to Common Ground, about the struggle to integrate Boston’s school system, and was blown away. With little authorial commentary or judgment, but with exhaustive reporting, Lukas embeds with three families—the Waymons, the McGoffs, and the Drivers—to give us a 360-degree view of a pivotal event in American history. The book has its longeurs, but I can think of few working journalists this side of Adrian Nicole Leblanc who’d be patient enough to bring off its parallactic vision.
In talking to friends about Common Ground, I kept hearing memories of its ubiquity on the coffeetables and library shelves of the 1980s, yet no one my age seemed to have read it. Like Homicide, it hangs in that long middle age where books slowly live or die—not news anymore, but not yet old enough to fall out of print, or to become a “classic.” Recommending these books feels like it might actually make a difference between the two. So here are a few more shout-outs: 1) John Lanchester, The Debt to Pleasure, from 1996. Anyone who relishes, as I do, the fundamental sanity of Lanchester’s essays will be surprised by the demented glee of his first novel. Its prophetic sendup of foodie affectation throws Proust into a blender with Humbert Humbert and Patrick Suskind’s Perfume—and is maybe the funniest English novel since The Information. 2) Javier Cercas, Soldiers of Salamis, from 2001. I ran down a copy in preparation for interviewing Cercas and ended up thinking this may be my favorite of his books: a story of survival during the Spanish Civil War and of an attempt to recover the truth half a century later. In it, the heroic and the mock-heroic achieve perfect balance. 3) Emma Richler, Be My Wolff, from last year. Impressed by the beauty of Richler’s writing and the uncommon intelligence of her characters, I sent in a blurb for this one just under the deadline for publication, but still 50 pages from the end. When I finally got around to finishing it early this year, I found I’d missed the best part. I love this novel’s passionate idiosyncrasies.
And finally…back to Scandinavia. In August, while luxuriating in Independent People, I was asked to review CoDEX 1962, a trilogy by the Icelandic writer Sjón. This in turn forced me to put aside the introduction I’d been working on for the Danish Nobel Prize-winner Henrik Pontoppidan’s magnum opus, Lucky Per…which meant a further delay in finishing Book 6 of the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. With more than 3000 pages of Nordic writing before me, I felt certain warning signals flashing. As Knausgaard writes (of being 40), “Why had I chosen to organize my life this way?” The truth is that there was no organization involved, just a random clumping of the reading list, and I’m happy to report that things are now back to normal. But once I got past the anxiety, I actually enjoyed my two solid months of Nordic fiction. I wasn’t totally convinced by CoDEX 1962, but a couple of Sjón’s shorter novels killed me—especially Moonstone, a coming-of-age story set in Rekjavik in the cataclysmic early days of cinema. And though most of Pontoppidan’s corpus hasn’t been translated into English, the novellas The Royal Guest, The Polar Bear, and The Apothecary’s Daughters, make fascinating companions to Joyce, Conrad, and Chekhov…if you can find them. (Lucky Per will be republished by Everyman’s Library in April.) As for Knausgaard, the final volume of My Struggle is one of the more uneven of the six, and I’m still digesting the whole. But at this point almost a decade of my life is bound up with these books. All these books, really. And that strange adjacency of real, finite life and the limitless life of the imagination…well, maybe that’s been the point all along.
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Reviewing John Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries (2015) for an Irish newspaper a couple of years ago, I found myself wondering: why are the titles of novels by fictional novelists always so mysteriously unconvincing? The protagonist of Avenue of Mysteries is Juan Diego, a globetrotting writer of Irvingesque stature; his most famous book is called A Story Set in Motion by the Virgin Mary. Encountering this, I thought: No commercial publisher would ever append so clunky a title to a popular book. My suspension of disbelief was shaken. Why, I wondered, couldn’t Irving—the man responsible for titles as instantly memorable as The World According to Garp (1978) and The Hotel New Hampshire (1981)—come up with something better?
It was a feeling I’d had before. Novels by fictional novelists (and there is, as we know, no shortage of fictional novelists) always seem to be saddled with ersatz, implausible titles—so much so that I find myself doubting whether such unhappily-titled books could ever actually exist. Frequently—to compound matters—we are supposed to accept that these books have been bestsellers, or that they have become cultural touchstones, despite their awful titles. Take the case of Nathan Zuckerman: in Philip Roth’s great trilogy (The Ghost Writer , Zuckerman Unbound , and The Anatomy Lesson ), we are asked to believe that Zuckerman has published successful books entitled Mixed Emotions and Reversed Intentions. Reversed Intentions! What a terrible title!
You find similar clunkers popping up all over the literary map. In Martin Amis’s The Information (1995), the narcissistic litterateur Gwyn Barry has achieved bestsellerdom with a book unconvincingly entitled Amelior (and his rival, Richard Tull, has published novels with equally shaky titles: Aforethought and Dreams Don’t Mean Anything). In Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (1951), the fictional novelist Maurice Bendrix is supposed to have published novels called The Ambitious Host, The Crowned Image, and The Grave on the Water-Front: all of which sound like the titles of Graham Greene novels that didn’t quite make it out of a notebook. In Claire Kilroy’s All Names Have Been Changed (2009), the legendary Irish writer P.J. Glynn has published a novel with the discouraging appellation of Apophthegm. In Stephen King’s The Dark Half (1989), the haunted writer Thad Beaumont is the author of The Sudden Dancers, a title so prissily literary that you can imagine finding it on the contents page of an anthology of work by earnest high-school students (but not, surely, on the cover of a book from a major publisher).
King, in fact, is a repeat offender: Ben Mears, in ‘Salem’s Lot (1975), is allegedly the author of a novel called Billy Said Keep Going; Mike Noonan, in Bag of Bones (1998), has given the world The Red-Shirt Man and Threatening Behaviour; and Bobbi Anderson, in The Tommyknockers (1987), has produced a Western entitled Rimfire Christmas, which is my personal nomination for worst fictional title of all time—although another close contender must surely be Daisy Perowne’s imaginary collection of poetry in Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005), which is called (oh dear!) My Saucy Bark.
Even the imaginary writers created by Vladimir Nabokov are not immune to the terrible-title virus. Sebastian Knight, the elusive protagonist of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), is responsible for books entitled The Prismatic Bezel and The Doubtful Asphodel (although Success, the title of another of Knight’s fictional books, is so good that Martin Amis stole it for one of his own actual books). The bibliography of Clare Quilty, in Lolita (1955), boasts, beside The Enchanted Hunters, an unappetizingly-titled play called The Strange Mushroom. And in Look at the Harlequins! (1974), the Nabokov-avatar narrator counts among his backlist Esmerelda and her Parandrus and Plenilune—titles that a real-life publisher would surely blue-pencil the instant the manuscripts landed on her desk.
There are, of course, honourable exceptions: fictional writers whose fictional books are so convincingly titled that you can imagine chancing upon tattered mass-market paperback copies of them in the dusty corner of a used bookstore. Take Henry Bech, the self-tormented writer-protagonist of John Updike’s wonderful Bech stories. Bech’s first novel, a ’50s motorcycle epic, is called Travel Light. His second is called Brother Pig (“which is,” Bech tells a Bulgarian poet in “The Bulgarian Poetess,” “St. Bernard’s expression for the body”). And Bech’s blockbuster bestseller (Updike’s alliterative Bs are contagious) is called Think Big—a title so punchy it’s practically Presidential. In the Bech books, Updike, characteristically, pays scrupulous attention to recreating the textures of the real. The appendix to Bech: A Book (1970) supplies a complete bibliography of Bech’s published work, including such echt-realistic entries as “”Lay off, Norman,” New Republic, CXL.3 (19 January 1959), 22-3.”
In general, though, it seems as if the titles of imaginary novels will inevitably tend towards the offputtingly cheesy (Billy Said Keep Going), the ludicrously recherche (The Prismatic Bezel), or the embarrassingly portentous (like the novel embarked upon, and abandoned, by Anna Wulf in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook , which bears the dubious moniker The Shadow of the Third). It sometimes feels as if all of these novelists are writing stories set in the same alternate universe, the distinguishing feature of which is that all novels have terrible titles. What is it with this world of imaginary writers and publishers? Why can’t its inhabitants come up with better titles for their books?
Perhaps it’s simply the case that novelists greedily reserve their most inspired titles for their own actual, real-life books—which are, after all, far more important than any works ascribable to fictional characters within them. Why go for The Grave on the Water-Front when you can have The Heart of the Matter, or, indeed, The End of the Affair? Why call your book Dreams Don’t Mean Anything when you can muster a title as good as The Information? Why settle for The Shadow of the Third when you’ve got The Golden Notebook? A successful title—and all novelists know this instinctively—does much more than simply name the finished product. A successful title seduces. It creates a mood. It stakes a claim. A great title (Pride and Prejudice; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; A Clockwork Orange) will seem to have been around forever. No novelist, I suspect, would happily waste a great title on a book by an imaginary writer—even if they’ve dreamed that writer up themselves, along with all the ghostly volumes on her nonexistent shelf.
Or perhaps a certain ironic distancing is at work, when it comes to imaginary novels. In many cases, I think, we are given to understand that a fictional novelist may be perceptive, responsive, and strong-willed–but not quite as lavishly gifted as his or her creator. Clare Quilty, for instance, is hardly meant to be a genius on the Nabokovian scale (although he does collaborate with his creator’s anagrammatic alter ego, Vivian Darkbloom, on a play called The Lady Who Loved Lightning—and look at that! Another lamentable title!). Poor old Maurice Bendrix, in The End of the Affair, is certainly meant to be a second-rate novelist, and his dud titles confirm it (you can easily envision finding a copy of The Crowned Image, falling out of its old-fashioned binding, in a charity shop or hospital library: unreprinted, unread, invisible to posterity). And Thad Beaumont, in The Dark Half, doesn’t begin to tap the wellspring of his talent until he forsakes the bland lit-fic of The Sudden Dancers and gets his hands dirty writing the Stephen-King-like Machine’s Way (now that’s a title). There is also, of course, the limitation adduced by Norman Mailer, in his marvelous book on writing, The Spooky Art (2003): “Jean Malaquais [Mailer’s mentor] once remarked that you can write about any character but one. ‘Who is that?’ ‘A novelist more talented than yourself.'”
But none of these theories really offers a satisfactory explanation for the badness of so many imaginary titles. Looking more closely at some of these spectral designations, I think we can often discern a profoundly literary reason for their terribleness. The titles of Nathan Zuckerman’s early novels—Mixed Emotions and Reversed Intentions—not only camouflage Philip Roth’s own early books (respectively, Letting Go  and When She Was Good ); they also summarize a recurring theme of the Zuckerman novels themselves. Writing out of mixed emotions, Zuckerman frequently reverses his intentions—although by the time he does, of course, it’s generally too late to undo the damage his fiction has caused. Similarly, in Look at the Harlequins!, each appalling title parodies an actually existing Nabokov novel: Plenilune (i.e. a full moon) conceals The Defense (1930), and Esmerelda and her Parandrus (a parandrus being, in medieval bestiaries, a shapeshifting beast with cloven hooves) surely encodes Lolita. (Perhaps the wittiest of these parody-titles is The Red Top-Hat, which mocks Invitation to a Beheading ). These titles, in all their awfulness, alert us to fictional strategies. They invite us to examine more attentively the texts in which they appear.
Comparably, in The Golden Notebook, the title of Anna’s novel, The Shadow of the Third, points us towards one of Lessing’s central thematic concerns—the hidden ethical quandaries that bedevil any monogamous sexual relationship between a man and a woman. The titles of Richard Tull’s novels, in The Information, offer clues to his revenger’s nature, and to his eventual fate: Richard plots the destruction of Gwyn Barry with aforethought, and by the end of the novel, he has come to believe that dreams, in the sense of hopes, don’t mean anything. And the phrase “a story set in motion by the Virgin Mary” exactly describes the plot of Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries: in the form of Juan Diego’s imaginary title, this phrase lurks inside the primary text, as if to remind us, periodically, of precisely what sort of novel we are reading.
Titles of imaginary novels, then, aren’t called upon to perform the same tasks as titles of real novels. They aren’t intended to seduce, or to stake a claim. Nor are they designed, generally speaking, to be “realistic” (in the sense that Henry Bech’s book titles, in Updike’s stories, are designed to be realistic). Imaginary titles, more often than not, are items of fictional furniture, like characters or leitmotivs or symbols. They do double-duty: they name the works of a fictional writer, and they illuminate the narrative in which that fictional writer appears. For a novelist, the chance to create an imaginary title is another chance to be witty, or inventive, or amusing; more importantly, it’s another chance to enrich the texture of the work at hand.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a moment, every now and then, to be grateful that we don’t live in a world—the world of Thad Beaumont, the world of Nathan Zuckerman—in which everyone seems to think that The Sudden Dancers, or Reversed Intentions, is a perfectly acceptable title for a novel. Now—has anyone seen my copy of Rimfire Christmas?
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
It isn’t hard to see the appeal of tennis to the writer. It’s a solitary endeavor (singles at least) in which success rests on personal agency. There’s the aesthetic aspect — the spectacle at its highest level of lithe athleticism and impudent finesse. And it does convenient duty as literary device; an arena for mano-a-mano character study and conflict in which how one plays offers a window into personality. This is how tennis is characteristically treated in literature. In The Information, Martin Amis, devout hacker himself, pits rivalrous writers against one another inside the lines — the supple but showy virtuosity of Richard Tull versus the point-grubbing retrieving of Gwynn Barry. It’s also the premise of perhaps the finest work on the subject, Levels of the Game, in which John McPhee freights a play-by-play of the 1968 U.S. Open semi-final between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner with an examination of the nation’s sociopolitical fault lines, as crystallized by the players’ contrasting styles. Besides Amis, literary fans include Vladimir Nabokov (almost as adroit with racket as butterfly net), Anne Lamott, ardent Federerphile, J.M. Coetzee, Ellen Gilchrist, Abraham Verghese, and dedicated court cruiser Geoff Dyer.
All of this to say that David Foster Wallace has good company in being seduced by tennis. But he is perhaps the only author of serious literary repute to have himself wielded a racket in semi-serious competition. Back when he looked upon reading novels chiefly as a fun way to ingest facts, Wallace was, in his own words, “a near great junior tennis player,” with a dour, attritional style that took him, at 14, to 17th in the U.S. Tennis Association’s Midwestern rankings for his age bracket. Here, he stalled out amid delayed puberty and salubrious country club courts that quashed his competitive advantage: a mastery of the elements on the wind-strafed municipal courts on which lowlier tournaments are typically contested. But tennis remained a lifelong passion; a personal touchstone that, most prominently among the references to it in his fiction, supplied a backdrop for Infinite Jest. It was a topic he also returned to repeatedly in his non-fiction. Across his career, it was perhaps “his most consistent theme at the surface level,” notes John Jeremiah Sullivan in his introduction to String Theory, the new collection of Wallace’s essays on tennis issued by the Library of America.
Wallace knew his Levels of the Game — a marked-up copy is among the personal effects in his archive at the University of Texas at Austin — and he’s known to have esteemed McPhee as a writer. But his approach to the sport is altogether more technical, not to mention rambunctious and free-wheeling. These proclivities are evident from the title of String Theory’s strongest piece, published in 1996 in Esquire, “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff About Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness.” And they are on display in that essay’s opening, which, as Sullivan notes, emulates McPhee’s limpid first lines in Levels — “Arthur Ashe, his feet apart, his knees slightly bent, lifts a tennis ball into the air…” — but layers on the “thick” description:
When Michael Joyce of Los Angeles serves, when he tosses the ball and his face rises to track it, it looks like he’s smiling, but he’s not really smiling — his face’s circumoral muscles are straining with the rest of his body to reach the top of the ball at the top of the toss’s rise.
Joyce is not a member of the game’s elite a la Ashe en route to the U.S. Open title, but “the 79th best tennis player on planet earth” toiling in the pre-tournament qualifying rounds of U.S. Open warm-up event, the Canadian Open. Like McPhee, Wallace is interested in those levels of the game, but, more literally, as in the mountains beyond mountains of tennis’s pecking order. The ex-junior standout Wallace remains an avid player. He packs his racket for Montreal, fancying he can hold his own on the practice court with some “hot young U.S pros,” then documents his “awe and sad surprise” at beholding Joyce in action:
“This is a man who, at full run, can hit a fast-moving tennis ball into a one-foot square area 78 feet away over a yard-high net, hard. He can do this something like 90% of the time.”
The difference of degree is such that it is a difference of kind. “I do not play and never have played the same game as these low-ranked pros.”
Still, even this altitudinous level is a foothill compared to the game’s summit. Wallace documents the small deficits that add up to a gulf between Joyce (who made it to the second round of the main draw in Montreal and topped out as world number 62 a few months later) and then-top-ranked male Andre Agassi — the fleetness of foot that is a half-step slower, the timing a hair off, the kink in his backhand versus Agassi’s fluid stroke.
Wallace’s deploys his full shot-making repertoire throughout the piece. The expression of forbearance Joyce wears waiting out the tantrum of a player he is soundly beating reminds him of “Vegas dealers…when a gambler they’re cleaning out is rude or abusive.” He discerns an “abacus of sweat” on another player’s brow and evokes the odd grace of tennis’s rites: “ball-boys move for the ball and reconfigure complexly…” He’s particularly inspired on the idiosyncrasies of former great players — “the odd Tourettic way [Vitas] Gerulaitis used to whip his head from side to side while bouncing the ball before his toss…,” and the resemblance of John McEnroe, at serve, to “a figure on an Egyptian frieze” (anyone doubting the acuity of these observations can verify them here and here). He’s also satirical; mock-swooning over Joyce — “you can just tell by looking at him out there that he’s totally likeable and cool” — and almost epigrammatic: “the realities of the men’s professional tennis tour bear about as much resemblance to the lush finals you see on TV as a slaughter house does to a well-presented cut of sirloin.” But, finally, he is exercised by the grandeur and “grotesquery” of Joyce:
…[T]he radical compression of his attention and self has allowed him to become a transcendent practitioner of an art — something few of us get to be. It’s allowed him to visit and test parts of his psyche that most of us do not even know for sure we have, to manifest in concrete form virtues like courage, persistence in the face of pain of exhaustion, performance under wilting scrutiny and pressure.
The collection’s best-known piece “Federer Both Flesh and Not” (published in 2006 in The New York Times) opens with Wallace’s fanboy rapture at various sublime passages of play (“Federer Moments”) conjured by the Swiss maestro, and then considers the disruptive effect of the equipment arms race widely held to have reduced tennis to brutal slugfest. How then to explain the black swan of Roger Federer — his sovereignty atop modern muscular tennis with a supposedly atavistic game founded on elegance and artistry? Foremost among the capabilities conferred by larger, lighter rackets is the ability to whip them though the air more vigorously to impart ball-blurring spin, notes Wallace. This permits superior power — by lacing the ball with vicious topspin so it describes a sharper parabola over the net, players can strike the ball harder while landing it within the lines. But there are other dividends: the ability to find oblique angles — previously only possible at net — from the baseline. Federer, trafficking in power, spin, and angle, is tapping the full arsenal of possibilities opened up by advances in racket technology. He is a one-man insurgency, revolutionizing the sport “from within the modern game…showing that the speed and strength of today’s pro game are merely its skeleton, not its flesh.”
Stated thus, it sounds like a narrowly technical essay. But Wallace is collecting string for a wider point about the transfiguring effect of outsize achievement in any realm. Browsing Wimbledon’s junior tournament he observes a “variegated ballet…[d]rop shots and mixed spins, off-speed serves, gambits planned three points ahead.”
“Genius is not replicable,” he concludes. “Inspiration, though, is contagious and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.”
In Federer himself, Wallace seems less interested. Throughout this collection he gravitates to more relatable figures — the also-ran Joyce and, in the book’s most poignant essay, “the first real child star in women’s tennis,” Tracy Austin. Wallace’s review of Austin’s Beyond Center Court: My Story appears at first blush a mismatch as he skewers the fluffy inanities of a standard-issue, ghost-written ex-athlete’s autobiography. But he’s driving toward something deeper. Austin was U.S. Open champion at 16, world number one at 17, then her body rebelled. Chronically injured, she effectively retired at 21 before attempting a comeback five years later that ended before it began after a van broadsided her car smashing her knee.
“The facts of Tracy Austin’s life and its trajectory are almost classically tragic,” writes Wallace.
[Her] most conspicuous virtue, a relentless workaholic perfectionism that combined with raw talent to make her such a prodigious success turned out to be also her flaw and bane…The only thing Tracy Austin had ever known how to do, her art…was removed from her at an age when most of us are just starting to think seriously about committing ourselves to some pursuit…
This was a sports autobiography that, because of the “transcendently interesting…career” of its subject, could have lived up to its dust jacket billing, delivering a “truly inspirational” tale about adversity and the human spirit. But Wallace delves beyond the book’s platitudes — what if Austin’s anodyne account penetrates to the “essence” of great athletes; how they can “simply and superbly act” in the clutch?
What if, when Tracy Austin writes that after her 1989 car crash, ‘I quickly accepted that there was nothing I could do about it,’ the statement is not only true but exhaustively descriptive of the entire acceptance process she went through? Is someone stupid or shallow because she can say to herself that there’s nothing she can do about something bad and so she’d better accept it, and thereupon simply accept it with no more interior struggle? Or is that person maybe somehow natively wise and profound…?
“[T]he only certainty seems to be that such a person does not produce very good prose memoir,” he concludes.
This was not a problem with the thought-addled Wallace. He doesn’t wear a game face in these pieces. The sense one gets reading them is of a discovery process, the author stumbling sentence-by-sentence toward understanding — a task to which he wholly devotes his profane, fucked-up, intellectually omnivorous self.
A collection of discretely commissioned pieces for assorted magazines marshalled over 15 years might feel disjointed. But String Theory is remarkable for its cohesiveness and seamlessness with the preoccupations of Wallace’s fiction. The idea of submission to boredom as a portal to enlightenment is a keynote of Wallace’s final, uncompleted work The Pale King, his biographer D.T. Max has written. Prefiguring this by more than a decade, in the first piece in this collection from 1991, Wallace writes of the benediction he and his playing partner experience following a particularly grueling on-court workout and the impulse behind his native love for tennis:
We were both in the fugue-state that exhaustion through repetition brings on, a fugue-state I’ve decided that my whole time playing tennis was spent chasing…a mental state at once flat and lush, numbing and yet exquisitely felt.
Wallace played the game with all of his person. The same intellectually questing, sensorily hungry spirit is present in his writing about it. The result is a terrific book about a human activity and life outside the lines that trammel it.
“Feminism did not need a guilty drunk!”
For years I bought into the old saw that says the second novel is the hardest one to write. It seemed to make sense. When starting out, most writers pour everything from the first 20 (or 30, or 40) years of their lives into their debut novel. It’s only natural that on the second visit to the well, many novelists find it has gone dry.
Stephen Fry, the British writer and actor, explained it this way: “The problem with a second novel is that it takes almost no time to write compared with a first novel. If I write my first novel in a month at the age of 23 and my second novel takes me two years, which one have I written more quickly? The second, of course. The first took 23 years and contains all the experience, pain, stored-up artistry, anger, love, hope, comic invention and despair of a lifetime. The second is an act of professional writing. That is why it is so much more difficult.”
Fry made these remarks at the inaugural awarding of the Encore Prize, established in England in 1989 to honor writers who successfully navigate the peculiar perils of the second novel. Winners have included Iain Sinclair, Colm Toibin, A.L. Kennedy, and Claire Messud.
Fry’s point is well taken, but it’s just the beginning of the difficulties facing the second novelist. If a first novel fails to become a blockbuster, as almost all of them do, publishers are less inclined to get behind the follow-up by a writer who has gained a dubious track record but has lost that most precious of all literary selling points: novelty. Writers get only one shot at becoming The Next Big Thing, which, to too many publishers, is The Only Thing. Failure to do so can carry a wicked and long-lasting sting.
(Full disclosure: I’m speaking from experience. My first novel enjoyed respectable sales and a gratifying critical reception, including a largely positive review from impossible-to-please Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. But the novel failed to land on any best-seller lists or get me on Oprah. Five years later, my second novel disappeared like a stone dropped in a lake. I don’t think anyone even noticed the splash. I recently sold my third novel — 17 years after that quiet splash.)
There’s plenty of empirical evidence to support the claim that the second novel is the hardest one to write — and that it can be even harder to live down. After his well-received 1988 debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon spent years wrestling with a woolly, 1,500-page beast called The Fountain that finally defeated him and wound up in a drawer. Wisely, Chabon went in a different direction and produced Wonder Boys, a successful second novel that was, technically, his third. After getting nominated for a National Book Award for her 1973 debut, State of Grace, Joy Williams puzzled and pissed-off a lot of people with The Changeling, her unsettling second novel about a drunk woman on an island full of feral kids. Williams blamed the book’s frosty reception on the political climate of the late 1970s: “Feminism did not need a guilty drunk!” Martin Amis followed his fine debut, The Rachel Papers, with the disappointingly flippant Dead Babies. I still find it hard to believe that the writer responsible for Dead Babies (and an even worse wreck called Night Train) could also be capable of the brilliant London Fields, Time’s Arrow, The Information and, especially, Money: A Suicide Note. Then again, outsize talent rarely delivers a smooth ride. Even Zadie Smith stumbled with The Autograph Man after her acclaimed debut, White Teeth.
Sometimes a hugely successful — or over-praised — first novel can be a burden rather than a blessing. Alex Garland, Audrey Niffenegger, Charles Frazier, and Donna Tartt all enjoyed smash debuts, then suffered critical and/or popular disappointments the second time out. Frazier had the consolation of getting an $8 million advance for his dreadful Thirteen Moons, while Niffenegger got $5 million for Her Fearful Symmetry. That kind of money can salve the sting of even the nastiest reviews and most disappointing sales. Tartt regained her footing with her third novel, The Goldfinch, currently the most popular book among readers of The Millions and a few hundred thousand other people.
A handful of writers never produce a second novel, for varied and deeply personal reasons. Among the one-hit wonders we’ve written about here are James Ross, Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, and Ralph Ellison. And in certain rare cases, the second novel is not only the hardest one to write, it’s the last one that gets written. Consider Philip Larkin. He published two highly regarded novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter, back to back in the 1940s — and then abruptly abandoned fiction in favor of poetry. Why? Clive James offered one theory: “The hindsight answer is easy: because he was about to become the finest poet of his generation, instead of just one of its best novelists. A more inquiring appraisal suggests that although his aesthetic effect was rich, his stock of events was thin…Larkin, while being to no extent a dandy, is nevertheless an exquisite. It is often the way with exquisites that they graduate from full-scale prentice constructions to small-scale works of entirely original intensity, having found a large expanse limiting.” In other words, for some writers the biggest canvas is not necessarily the best one.
Of course, second novels don’t always flop — or drive their creators away from fiction-writing. Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and John Updike’s Rabbit, Run are just a few of the many second novels that were warmly received upon publication and have enjoyed a long shelf life. But until about a year ago, I regarded such stalwarts as the exceptions that proved the rule. Then a curious thing happened. I came upon a newly published second novel that knocked me out. Then another. And another. In all of these cases, the second novel was not merely a respectable step up from a promising debut. The debuts themselves were highly accomplished, critically acclaimed books; the second novels were even more ambitious, capacious, and assured.
I started to wonder: With so much high-quality fiction getting written every day in America — especially by writers who are supposed to be in the apprentice phase of their careers — is it possible that we’re entering a golden age of the second novel? Here are three writers who make me believe we are:
Rachel Kushner’s 2008 debut, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Refreshingly free of the mirror-gazing that mars many first novels, it told the story of two insulated colonies in the eastern end of Cuba in the late 1950s, where Americans were blithely extracting riches from sugar crops and nickel deposits while Fidel Castro and his rebels were getting ready to sweep away the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista — and, with it, the Americans’ cloistered world.
The novel is richly researched and deeply personal. Kushner’s grandfather was a mining executive in Cuba in the 1950s, and her mother grew up there. Kushner interviewed family members, pored over their memorabilia, even traveled to Cuba to walk the ground and talk to people who remembered life before the revolution. To her great credit, Kushner’s imagination took precedence over her prodigious research as she sat down to write. As she told an interviewer, “Just because something is true doesn’t mean it has a place.”
While her debut took place inside a hermetically sealed cloister, Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, explodes across time and space. The central character is Reno, a young woman from the West hoping to break into the 1970s downtown New York art scene, a motorcycle racer with “a need for risk.” But Reno’s artistic aspirations are merely the springboard for this ambitious novel as it moves from the 1970s to the First World War, from America to Europe to South America. It teems with characters, events, voices, ideas. It’s a big, sprawling, assured novel, and it announced the arrival of a major talent.
Dear American Airlines, Jonathan Miles’s first novel, exists in an even more tightly circumscribed space than Kushner’s American enclave in pre-revolutionary Cuba. This novel takes place inside the American Airlines terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport — or, more accurately, inside the brain of Benjamin R. Ford, who has been stranded at O’Hare while trying to fly from New York to Los Angeles to attend the wedding of his gay daughter and, just maybe, reverse the downward momentum of a magnificently botched life. The novel’s conceit is a beauty: furious and utterly powerless, Ben, a failed poet, a failed drunk, a failed husband and father — but a reasonably successful translator — decides to sit down and write a complaint letter, demanding a refund from the soulless corporation that has kept him from attending his daughter’s wedding, effectively thwarting his last chance at redemption. The conceit could have turned the novel into a one-trick pony in less capable hands, but Miles manages to make Ben’s plight emblematic of what it’s like to live in America today — trapped and manipulated by monstrous forces but, if you happen to be as funny and resourceful as Ben Ford, never defeated by them.
It was a deft performance, but Miles outdid it last year with his second novel, Want Not, a meditation on the fallout of omnivorous consumerism. It tells three seemingly unrelated stories that come together only at the novel’s end: Talmadge and Micah, a couple of freegan scavengers, are squatting in an abandoned apartment on the New York’s Lower East Side, living immaculately pure lives off the grid; Elwin Cross Jr., a linguist who studies dying languages, lives alone miserably in the New Jersey suburbs, regularly visiting the nursing home where his father is succumbing to Alzheimer’s; and Dave Masoli, a bottom-feeding debt collector, his wife Sara, whose husband was killed on 9/11, and her daughter Alexis, who brings the strands of the story together, in shocking fashion.
From the first pages, it’s apparent that the themes are large, the characters are vivid and complex (with the exception of Dave Masoli), and the prose is rigorously polished. Here’s one of many astonishing sentences, a description of what Elwin hears after he has accidentally struck and killed a deer while driving home late at night:
It took a few seconds for the panicked clatter in his head to subside, for the hysterical warnings and recriminations being shouted from his subcortex to die down, and then: silence, or what passes for silence in that swath of New Jersey: the low-grade choral hum of a million near and distant engine pistons firing through the night, and as many industrial processes, the muted hiss and moan of sawblades and metal stamps and hydraulic presses and conveyor belts and coalfired turbines, plus the thrum of jets, whole flocks of them, towing invisible contrails toward Newark, and the insectile buzz of helicopters flying low and locust-like over fields of radio towers and above the scrollwork of turnpike exits, all of it fused into a single omnipresent drone, an aural smog that was almost imperceptible unless you stood alone and quivering on a deserted highwayside in the snow-hushed black hours of a November morning with a carcass hardening in the ice at your feet.
Want Not is a profound book not because Miles preaches, not even because he understands that we are what we throw away, but because he knows that our garbage tells us everything we need to know about ourselves, and it never lies.
In 1994, Charles McNair’s weird little first novel, Land O’ Goshen, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It reads as if it were written by Faulkner on acid. It’s corn-pone sci-fi. It’s nasty and funny. It’s brilliant.
The title conjures two locales: the place in Egypt where the Israelites began their exodus to the Promised Land; and the place where the novel unfolds, a little one-blinking-light grease stain in the piney wastes of southern Alabama. The story is told by Buddy, a 14-year-old orphan who lives in the woods, dodging the Christian soldiers who are trying to subjugate the populace. This future era is called the New Times, but it’s a lot like the Old Testament — bloody tooth and bloody claw. Sometimes Buddy dresses up in animal skins and, as The Wild Thing, terrorizes the locals, trying “to wake up those tired, beaten-down old souls in every place where folks just gave up to being stupid and bored and commanded.” Buddy enjoys a brief idyll at his forest hideout with a beautiful girl named Cissy Jean Barber, but the world won’t leave them in peace. Through the nearly Biblical tribulations of his coming of age, Buddy learns the key to survival: “Sad sorrow can’t kill you, if you don’t let it.”
Last year, after nearly two decades of silence, McNair finally published his second novel, Pickett’s Charge. It’s bigger than its predecessor in every way. It traverses an ocean, a century, a continent. If Land O’ Goshen was content to be a fable, Pickett’s Charge aspires to become a myth. It tells the story of Threadgill Pickett, a former Confederate soldier who, at the age of 114 in 1964, is a resident of the Mobile Sunset Home in Alabama. As a teenage soldier, Threadgill watched Yankees murder his twin brother, Ben, a century earlier, and when Ben’s ghost appears at the nursing home to inform Threadgill that he has located the last living Yankee soldier, a wealthy man in Bangor, Maine, Threadgill embarks on one last mission to avenge his brother’s death.
Pickett’s Charge has obvious echoes – the Bible, Twain, Cervantes, Marquez, Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. But this novel’s most direct forebear might be Charles Portis’s Norwood, another story about a southerner’s quixotic journey to the North to seek justice. While Threadgill Pickett is after something big — vengeance — Norwood Pratt is simply out to collect the $70 he loaned a buddy in the Marines. Yet McNair and Portis seem to agree that folly is folly, regardless of its scale. And they both know how to turn it into wicked fun.
Of course one could argue that a half dozen books do not constitute a trend or herald a new golden age. But I’m sure I’ve missed a truckload of recent second novels that would buttress my claim. Maybe Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which has come out 15 years after her debut and is concerned, in part, with the difficulty of writing a second novel. Surely there are others that disprove the old saw. I would love it if you would tell me about them.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
We are living in a Hesiodic golden age for biographies. Name your favorite dead person, and I will give you the ISBN of a good biography of him written in the last 20 years. The obscurity of your enthusiasms be damned: I assure you that someone has written at least a short, competent life. Even the quixotic British parliamentarians Enoch Powell and Michael Foot, two of my favorite post-war politicians, have received the deluxe, 600-plus page treatment. (As I write this, a sly rogue named Rory Stewart is working on a joint biography of both men, having doubtless figured out that there are enough of us Powellite cum Footians to ensure that a few thousand copies get moved.) We now even have biographies sans bios, lives of non-living things: cities, chemical compounds, sex organs. For whatever reason people seem to read — or least purchase — biographies.
Unfortunately the biography boom has also proven the occasion of some very mean hack-work. People familiar with the facts who cannot write, and people unfamiliar with the facts who can, sign on with major publishers every day. The rise of the authorized or official biography, in which the subject or the subject’s estate cooperate, and I suspect in some cases even collaborate, with the writer producing the book, has seen a parallel phenomenon emerge: the unauthorized life. This is something like the shabby adjunct instructor to the authorized biography’s professor emeritus: it achieves what it can with it’s got, and considering the low pay, sometimes does a damn sight better than anyone would have expected. See Lord Jenkins’s 2001 biography of Churchill, which makes for much better reading than the single book abridgment of Sir Martin Gilbert’s eight-volume official epic. There are, of course, reasons (in some ways I am continuing my academic analogy here) why most unauthorized biographers never find better gigs: lack of requisite qualifications, impoverished Rolodexes, and, above all, a flooded job market.
Richard Bradford is a good example of an unauthorized biographer. He has found a sort of cottage industry writing unofficially about the lives of major figures in 20th-century British literature. Certainly one cannot blame him for having wished to improve upon Eric Jacobs’s dreadful Kingsley Amis biography, but the publication of Zachary Leader’s excellent (and authorized) life has made Bradford’s 2001 book superfluous. As for his more recent go at Philip Larkin, I can only say that, dissatisfied as I am with Andrew Motion’s sprawling (but authorized!) hatchet-job, it remains in many ways the better book, and that it is unlikely that a more successful biography of a man as private as Larkin shall ever be produced without further help from his estate.
I admit then to opening Bradford’s new biography of Martin Amis fils with some apprehension. Biographies about living people are always very suspicious affairs, especially when the subject is a writer. Amis may live to write many more novels. (Much of the preface to the American edition of Martin Amis: The Biography is devoted to Lionel Asbo, which was published shortly after Bradford’s book came out in England.) A living writer’s reputation is often far from settled. (Matt Novak recently dug up a 1936 poll that named James Truslow Adams and James Branch Cabell among the American writers we were all supposed to be reading in 2000.) Besides, the subject’s death and obsequies are usually among the most memorable parts of a great biography: see Michael Shelden’s Orwell or Churchill’s own Marlborough: His Life and Times.
Literary biographies published when their subjects are alive tend to be either hostile or overindulgent. In this case, Bradford is adulatory throughout Martin Amis: The Biography, even to the point of defending Yellow Dog (“The book is not flawless or unimprovable — nothing is — yet it is none the less ambitious and original.”) and The Information (“a novel of extraordinary complexity”), books that virtually no one liked. This is unfortunate. Amis’s reputation will eventually require sorting out, and it would be nice if The Biography (notice the authorized-sounding definite article?) offered us some kind of reasonable starting point.
While there is some excellent new material here (I was intrigued, for example, to learn that Amis did not read his father’s Lucky Jim until he was 18 years old), there is also a great deal, especially in the first half of the book, that has been handled much better elsewhere, particularly in Zachary Leader’s The Life of Kingsley Amis, in Kingsley’s Memoirs, and Martin’s Experience. Bradford also writes very badly. His first two sentences —
What makes a writer? Being born into what would strike most as a scenario suitable only for fiction might play some part.
— do an excellent job of establishing his book’s tone: awkward, overblown, imprecise. He has a strong ear for mixed metaphor (“someone whose magnetic amusing social persona belied a well-protected seam of hapless despondency”), tautology (“He was promiscuous and unfaithful”), and he tends to choose very strange adverbs (reviews of The Rachel Papers are “unflinchingly complimentary,” Northrop Frye is “quixotically impressionistic”). Even selecting the right conjunction gives him trouble: “The parallels between Martin’s and Kingsley’s first novels are tempting and misleading [italics mine].”
He is also very lazy. Paragraph after paragraph appears seemingly unaltered from conversations with Hitchens and Amis, who at one point cannot recall the name of a Kafka story. On page 63, Bradford quotes a letter from Amis to his father in which the 17 year old suggests that Gerard Manley Hopkins “doesn’t stand up to analysis” and calls Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” “almost my favourite poem”; on page 64 he tells us that “Martin at least thought ‘La Belle Dame’ a redeeming piece and enjoyed reading Hopkins despite the fact that under analysis he seemed incomprehensible.” At least a quarter of the book is given over to plot summaries, which should at least make it useful for reviewers who want to pretend that they have read all of Amis.
Bad writing often gets dressed up rather prettily: attractive cover art, “deckle edge,” a nice crisp font. A bit more work on this front might have gone a long way for Martin Amis: The Biography. First, there’s the cover. Here something is clearly wrong with Amis’s skin: either the picture was taken under a 15,000 watt lamp or the subject of this biography has a severe case of sunburn. The quote from The Spectator that appears on the back of the dust jacket has been lifted out of context from a negative review, and almost all the other blurbs refer not to Bradford’s biographical achievements but to Christopher Hitchens’s conversational prowess. (Hitchens, by the way, is mentioned as if he were still living throughout.) The paper on which the book has been printed is too thick for me to roll Gambler cigarettes out of but far too thin (and foul smelling) for a hardcover book. Type 50 or so spaces: that’s how many appear inexplicably between the words “terms” and “of” on the seventh line from the bottom of page 35. The Spectator review contains a catalogue of misspellings which I won’t bother to repeat here.
“My biography of Martin is not a hagiography,” Bradford told an interviewer. True enough, one thinks, but then again he didn’t set out to write a saint’s life, did he? Martin certainly comes across as a sort of smug jerk. But he is also treated as the author of a half-dozen great novels when one great (Money)and two very good (Time’s Arrow and Night Train) novels would be a more accurate figure. Oh, well. Better, I suppose, for Bradford to love Amis than nothing to have loved.
The British journalist Sam Leith recently opened a review of Richard Bradford’s Martin Amis: The Biography with the following question: “Where’s Invasion of the Space Invaders? That’s what I want to know.” The 418-page biography, which has been undergoing a sustained critical beatdown since its publication last year, contains no mention of a book Amis published in 1982, and which he has been avoiding talking about ever since. “Anything a writer disowns is of interest,” wrote Leith, “particularly if it’s a frivolous thing and particularly if, like Amis, you take seriousness seriously.” He’s got a point; any book so callously orphaned by its own creator has to be worth looking into. This is especially true if the book in question happens to be a guide to early 1980s arcade games.
Like most Amis fanciers, I had heard of the existence of this video game book –- the full title of which is Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines –- but knew very little about it. What I did know was that he dashed it off at some point during the time he was writing Money, one of the great British novels of the 1980s, and that it has long been out of print (a copy in good nick will cost you about $150 from Amazon). And I knew, most of all, that Amis was reluctant to talk about it or even acknowledge it. Nicholas Lezard of The Guardian once suggested to him (facetiously, surely) that it was among the best things he’d ever written, and that it was a mistake to have allowed it to go out of print. “The expression on his face,” wrote Lezard, “with perhaps more pity in it than contempt, remains with me uncomfortably.”
Invasion of the Space Invaders, then, is the madwoman in the attic of Amis’ house of nonfiction; many have heard rumors of its shameful presence, but few have seen it with their own eyes. I recently discovered a copy in the library of the university where I work, and I don’t think the librarian knew quite what to make of my obvious excitement at this coup. (“Wow,” I said, giving a low, respectful whistle as she handed it across the counter. “Would you look at that?”) It’s a deeply strange artifact: an A4-sized, full color glossy affair, abundantly illustrated with captioned photographs, screen shots, and lavish illustrations of exploding space ships and lunar landscapes. It boasts a perfunctory introduction by Steven Spielberg (“read this book and learn from young Martin’s horrific odyssey round the world’s arcades before you too become a video-junkie”), complete with full-page portrait of the Hollywood Boy Wonder leaning awkwardly against an arcade machine like some sort of geeky, high-waisted Fonz. We’re not even into the text proper, and already its cup runneth over with 100-proof WTF.
One of the most frequently remarked-upon aspects of Amis’ writing is that it’s nearly always possible to tell, within a sentence or two, when you’re reading him. (You know it when you see it, with its gimmicks, its lists, its italicized stresses. You know it when you see it, Amis’s style, with its grandstanding repetitions.) And there’s a strange cognitive dissonance that arises from seeing that style applied to what is essentially — or at any rate quickly devolves into — a player’s guide to a range of early arcade games. He starts off with a cluster of short essayistic efforts about game addiction. A few sentences in, and we’re already deep in the familiar, hyper-stylized terrain of Amis country: “What we are dealing with is a global addiction. I mean, this might all turn out to be a bit of a problem. Let me adduce my own symptoms, withdrawals, dryouts, crack-ups, benders…” It’s hard to say who his intended reader might be here. You’d imagine kids would be an obvious demographic target, but that seems unlikely given that Amis gratuitously and jarringly raises the issue of child prostitution on the very first page. (The child sex industry has apparently been given a “fillip” by arcade machine addiction. “Kids,” he assures us, “are coming across for a couple of games of Astro Panic, or whatever. More about this later.”) This slumming fascination with seediness, characteristic of much of Amis’s early and mid-period work, is evident throughout. At one point, we are treated to a series of Hogarthian prose sketches of the grotesques the author sees all around him in these arcades: “Zonked glueys, swearing skinheads with childish faces full of ageless evil, mohican punks sporting scalplocks in violet verticals and a nappy-pin through the nose […] Queasy spivs, living out a teen-dream movie with faggot overtones.” (There’s a glossary at the back that helpfully provides the following clarification: “Faggot: gay.” The word’s use in the original context makes the contemporary reader flinch, but the ugliness of the matter-of-fact definition is downright unforgivable. This is one of several potential reasons why Amis is uncomfortable enough about Invasion to want to keep it out of print.)
The medial bulk of the book is accounted for by the actual “addict’s guide to battle tactics” promised by its ungainly subtitle, and this is where it really flourishes as a bizarro-world extracanonical oddity. It’s as though Kingsley Amis’ youngest son had shied away from the family business and wound up making a living as a games reviewer with a weakness for the high literary style. Here is one of the great aesthetes of the sentence offering tips on dealing with Space Invaders’ descending alien infantry:
The phalanx of enemy invaders moves laterally across a grid not much wider than itself. When it reaches the edge of the grid, the whole army lowers a notch. Rule one: narrow that phalanx. Before you do anything else, take out at least three enemy columns either on the left-hand side or the right (for Waves 1 and 2, the left is recommended). Thereafter the aliens will take much longer to cross their grid and slip down another rung. Keep on working from the sides: you’ll find that the invaders take forever to trudge and shuffle back and forth, and you can pick them off in your own sweet time.
For what it’s worth, this is actually very solid gaming advice. I tested it out on one of those classic arcade websites, and the man knows what he’s talking about — it is all about phalanx-narrowing. (If I ever happen to pass Amis on the opposite side of the street, I’m not sure I’ll be able to prevent myself from shouting across at him like one of the garrulous yobs who populate his novels, “Oi, Mart! Narrow that phalanx!”) He’s technically correct, too, about the fact that, when the aliens descend to the very lowest rung, “you can slide around underneath them, touching them with your nozzle, and survive!” — but I’m not sure he’ll be wanting that sentence to show up in The Quotable Amis, should such a volume ever appear.
He is almost as enthusiastic about PacMan, although you get the sense that he sees it (in contrast to Space Invaders) as a fundamentally unserious endeavor. “Those cute little PacMen with their special nicknames, that dinky signature tune, the dot-munching Lemon that goes whackawhackawhackawhacka: the machine has an air of childish whimsicality.” His advice is to concentrate stolidly on the central business of dot-munching, and not to get distracted by the shallow glamor of the fruits: “Do I take risks in order to gobble up the fruit symbol in the middle of the screen? I do not, and neither should you. Like the fat and harmless saucer in Missile Command (q.v.), the fruit symbol is there simply to tempt you into hubristic sorties. Bag it.” Curiously, for a writer so deeply preoccupied with stylistic refinement and playful innovation — who elevates the pleasure principle to a sort of aesthetic moral law — Amis favors a no-frills approach to gaming. The following piece of Polonian advice pretty much encapsulates his whole arcade ethos: “PacMan player, be not proud, nor too macho, and you will prosper on the dotted screen.” I’m no expert, I’ll admit, but I’ll go out on a critical limb here and suggest that this might be the sole instance of the use of the mock-heroic tone in a video game player’s guide.
Aside from the off-the-charts weirdness of its very existence, the book offers a number of peripheral pleasures. For one thing, there’s a half-expected (but still surprising) guest appearance from what I would be willing to bet is a young Christopher Hitchens. In a diverting rant about the increasing presence of voice effects in games, Amis recalls his first exposure to such gimmickry at a bar in Paris on New Year’s Day, 1980:
I was with a friend, a hard-drinking journalist, who had drunk roughly three times as much Calvados as I had drunk the night before. And I had drunk a lot of Calvados the night before. I called for coffee, croissants, juice; with a frown the barman also obeyed my friend’s croaked request for a glass of Calvados.
Then we heard, from nowhere, a deep, guttural, Dalek-like voice which seemed to say: “Heed! Gorgar! Heed! Gorgar … speaks!
“… Now what the hell was that?” asked my friend.
“I think it was one of the machines,” I said, rising in wonder.
“I’ve had it,” said my friend with finality. “I can’t cope with this,” he explained as he stumbled from the bar.
Elsewhere in the book, he considers the possibility, raised by Paul Trachtman in the Smithsonian, of a future evolutionary strand of video games in which “You have a ten-year reign as a king and you have so much grain, so many people and so much land,” and in which “if you don’t feed your people enough, they start to die.” Trachtman is essentially prophesying the advent of hugely successful games like Civilization and Sim City here, but Amis summarily rejects the idea. “The predictions of the video eggheads are grand and stirring; at the time of writing, though, all the trends in the industry stubbornly point the other way.” Elsewhere, he rubbishes the now-iconic Donkey Kong, the first major success of Shigero Miyamoto, who went on to create Mario and Zelda. “Donkey,” he quips, “your days are numbered. The knackers’ yard awaits you.”
It’s just about possible, if you squint hard enough, to see Invasion of the Space Invaders as Money’s sickly non-fiction twin. Amis occasionally alludes to the fact that all this arcade-lurking and button-bashing is being done both as research for, and at the expense of, a novel he is supposed to be writing. And there are certain advance rumblings here of the comic juggernaut which was to arrive two years later. John Self, for instance — Money’s boorish and omnivoracious narrator — has a particular weakness for a brand of microwaved hotdogs named Blastfurters. In a desultory entry on the game Cosmic Alien, Amis mentions that he first came across it in a “kwik-food beanery on Third Avenue,” where it “looked perfectly at home among the up-ended cartons and the half-eaten blastfurters.” The novel itself features a small but crucial role for its author, whom Self first mentions as follows: “Oh yeah, and a writer lives round my way too. A guy in a pub pointed him out to me, and I’ve seen him hanging out in Family Fun, the space-game parlor, and toting his blue laundry bag to the Whirlomat. I don’t think they can pay writers that much, do you?”
Well, that would certainly be one explanation for this book’s existence; he may have been short of cash at this point, and a brief diversion into video game writing may have been an easy way to turn his coin-devouring addiction to the space-game parlor into a few quid. But there’s an argument to be made that Invasion, as powerfully strange as it looks against the setting of the author’s oeuvre, is in keeping with his perennial preoccupations. Games and game-playing are, after all, both a presiding motif in Amis’s novels and a fundamental principle of their construction. His most successful fictions are arranged around antagonisms, rivalries, and hidden maneuvers. London Fields is an elaborate trap-like construction in which three male characters (including a blocked novelist) are manipulated by a female mastermind into bringing about her own murder. The Information is about a failed writer’s increasingly malicious attempts to destroy the career of his more successful friend. The plot of Money is a Nabokovian conceit in which Self winds up the loser through failing to recognize the game. In that novel’s most bluntly metafictional moment, the character called Martin Amis lets Self in on some of the secrets of his trade: “The further down the scale [a character] is, the more liberties you can take with him. You can do what the hell you like to him, really. This creates an appetite for punishment. The author is not free of sadistic impulses.”
Amis’s characters are always playing and getting played; his books are filled with humiliating drubbings and pyrrhic victories on the tennis court, the pool table, the darts oche. Even that business about which he is most serious — the scrupulous, almost paranoiac abstention from banality at the level of the sentence — is a form of play. The title of his criticism collection, The War Against Cliché, indicates the height of the stakes, but belies the fact that it is ultimately still a game, just one that Amis is very serious about. As a reviewer, he takes a grim satisfaction in catching out his opponents in solecisms, platitudes, and pratfalls (Raymond Chandler’s celebrated hardboiled prose is actually, we are told, “full of stubbed toes and barked shins”). As a novelist, his ludic delight in finding new ways of playing with language — new ways of narrowing the ever-descending phalanx of cliché — is palpable in every sentence. So for all its contextual aberrance, this strange and disreputable book actually makes a certain kind of warped sense. And if for some reason you happen to be looking for a guide to arcade games of the early 1980s, you could probably do a lot worse.
Chabon. Obreht. Franzen. McCann. Egan. Brooks. Foer. Lethem. Eggers. Russo.
Possible hosts for Bravo’s America’s Next Top Novelist? Dream hires for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?
Nope — just the “Murderer’s Row” of advance blurbers featured on the back of Nathan Englander’s new effort, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. And what an effort it must be: “Utterly haunting. Like Faulkner [Russo] it tells the tangled truth of life [Chabon], and you can hear Englander’s heart thumping feverishly on every page [Eggers].”
As I marvel at the work of Knopf’s publicity department, I can’t help but feel a little ill. And put off. Who cares? Shouldn’t the back of a book just have a short summary? Isn’t this undignified? But answering these questions responsibly demands more than the reflexive rage of an offended aesthete (Nobody cares! Yes! Yes!). It demands, I think, the level-headed perspective of a blurb-historian…
Let’s be clear: blurbs are not a distinguished genre. In 1936 George Orwell described them as “disgusting tripe,” quoting a particularly odious example from the Sunday Times: “If you can read this book and not shriek with delight, your soul is dead.” He admitted the impossibility of banning reviews, and proposed instead the adoption of a system for grading novels according to classes, “perhaps quite a rigid one,” to assist hapless readers in choosing among countless life-changing masterpieces. More recently Camille Paglia called for an end to the “corrupt practice of advance blurbs,” plagued by “shameless cronyism and grotesque hyperbole.” Even Stephen King, a staunch supporter of blurbs, winces at their “hyperbolic ecstasies” and calls for sincerity on the part of blurbers.
The excesses and scandals of contemporary blurbing, book and otherwise, are well-documented. William F. Buckley relates how publishers provided him with sample blurb templates: “(1) I was stunned by the power of [ ]. This book will change your life. Or, (2) [ ] expresses an emotional depth that moves me beyond anything I have experienced in a book.” Overwrought praise for David Grossman’s To the End of the Land inspired The Guardian to hold a satirical Dan Brown blurbing competition. My personal favorite? In 2000, Sony Pictures invented one David Manning of the Ridgefield Press to blurb some of its stinkers. When Newsweek exposed the fraud a year later, moviegoers brought a class action lawsuit on behalf of those duped into seeing Hollow Man, The Animal, The Patriot, or Vertical Limit (Manning on Hollow Man: “One hell of a ride!” — evidently moviegoers are easy marks).
When did this circus get started? It’s tempting to look back no further than the origins of the word “blurb,” coined in 1906 by children’s book author and civil disobedient Gelett Burgess. But blurbs, like bullshit, existed long before the term coined to describe them (“bullshit,” in case you were wondering, appeared in 1915). They were born of marketing, authorial camaraderie, and a genuine obligation to the reader, three staples of the publishing industry since its earliest days, to which we will turn momentarily.
But before hunting for blurbs in the bookshops of antiquity, it’s important to get clear on what we’re looking for. Laura Miller at Salon writes: “The term ‘blurb’ is sometimes mistakenly used for the publisher-generated description printed on a book’s dust jacket — that’s actually the flap copy. ‘Blurb’ really only applies to bylined endorsements by other authors or cultural figures.” Miller can’t be completely right. For the consultants at Book Marketing Limited — and their numerous big-name clients — blurb describes any copy printed on a book, publisher-generated or otherwise, as evidenced by the criteria for the annual Best Blurb Award (ed note: as per the comment below, this is the typical British usage). So much for authorship. The term is often used of bylined endorsements that appear in advertisements. So much for physical location. And if we try to accommodate author blurbs, even Wikipedia’s “short summary accompanying a creative work” isn’t broad enough.
What a mess. In the interest of time I’m going to adopt an arbitrary hybrid definition — blurb: a short endorsement, author unspecified, that appears on a creative work. So Orwell’s example and Manning’s reviews would be disqualified if they didn’t appear on a book or DVD case, respectively. I’ll leave that legwork to someone else, because we’ve got serious ground to cover.
If you needed beach reading in ancient Rome, you’d probably head down to the Argiletum or Vicus Sandaliarium, streets filled with booksellers roughly equivalent to London’s Paternoster Row. But how to know which books would make your soul shriek with delight? There was no Sunday Times; newspaper advertising didn’t catch on for another 1,700 years, and neither did professional book reviewers. Aside from word of mouth, references in other books, and occasional public readings, browsers appear to have been on their own.
Almost. Evidence suggests that booksellers advertised on pillars near their shops, where one might see new titles by famous people like Martial, the inventor of the epigram (nice one, Martial). It’s safe to assume that even in the pre-codex days of papyrus scrolls, a good way to assess the potential merits of Martial’s book would have been to read the first page or two, an ideal place for authors to insert some prefatory puff. Martial begins his most well-known collection with a note to the reader: “I trust that, in these little books of mine, I have observed such self-control, that whoever forms a fair judgment from his own mind can make no complaint of them.” Similar proto-blurbs were common, often doubling as dedications to powerful patrons or friends. The Latin poet Catullus: “To whom should I send this charming new little book / freshly polished with dry pumice? To you, Cornelius!” For those who weren’t the object of the dedication, these devices likely served the same purpose that blurbs do today: to market books, influence their interpretation, and assure prospective readers they kept good company.
Nearly fourteen hundred years passed before Renaissance humanists hit on the idea of printing commendatory material written by someone other than the author or publisher. (Or maybe they copied Egyptian authors and booksellers, who were soliciting longer poems of praise (taqriz) from big-shot friends in the 1300s.) By 1516, the year Thomas More published Utopia, the practice was widespread, but More took it to another level. He drew up the blueprint for blurbing as we know it, imploring his good friend Erasmus to make sure the book “be handsomely set off with the highest of recommendations, if possible, from several people, both intellectuals and distinguished statesmen.” This it was, by a number of letters including one from Erasmus (“All the learned unanimously subscribe to my opinion, and esteem even more highly than I the divine wit of this man…”), and a poem by David Manning’s more eloquent predecessor, a poet laureate named “Anemolius” who praises Utopia as having made Plato’s “empty words… live anew.” What would he have written about The Patriot?
Hyperbole, fakery, shameless cronyism: though it will be another three hundred years before blurbs make their way onto the outside of a book, things are looking downright modern. In the 1600s practically everyone wrote commendatory verses, some of which were quite beautiful, like Ben Jonson’s for Shakespeare’s First Folio: “Shine forth, thou Star of Poets, and with rage / Or influence, chide or cheer the drooping stage, / Which, since thy flight from hence, hath mourned like night, / And despairs day, but for thy volume’s light.” (Interestingly, Shakespeare himself never wrote any — one can only imagine what a good blurb from the Bard would have done for sales.)
It was only a matter of time before things got out of control. The advent of periodicals in the early 18th century facilitated printing and distribution of book reviews, and authors and publishers wasted no time appropriating this new form of publicity. Perhaps the best example is Samuel Richardson’s wildly successful Pamela, an epistolary novel about a young girl who wins the day through guarding her virginity. Richardson made excellent use of prefatory puff, opening his book with two long reviews: the first by French translator Jean Baptiste de Freval, the second unsigned but likely written by Rev. William Webster, which first appeared as pre-publication praise in the Weekly Miscellany, one of Britain’s earliest periodicals.
Hyperbole? “This little Book will infallibly be looked upon as the hitherto much-wanted Standard or Pattern for this kind of writing”; “The Honour of Pamela’s Sex demands Pamela at your Hands, to shew the World an Heroine, almost beyond example…”
Fakery? The book also had a preface by the “editor,” really Richardson himself, which concluded a laundry list of extravagant praise with the following: “…An editor may reasonably be supposed to judge with an Impartiality which is rarely to be met with in an Author towards his own Works.”
Shameless cronyism? De Freval was in debt to Richardson when he wrote his review, as was Rev. Webster, whose Weekly Miscellany was funded partially by Richardson.
All of this sent Henry Fielding over the edge. Nauseated as much by the ridiculous blurbs as the content of the novel, Fielding wrote a satirical response entitled Shamela, which he prefaced with a note from the editor to “himself,” a commendatory letter from “John Puff, Esq.,” and an exasperated coda: “Note, Reader, several other COMMENDATORY LETTERS and COPIES of VERSES will be prepared against the NEXT EDITION.”
While Fielding may have been the first to parody blurbs, it was another literary giant who truly modernized them. A master of self-promotion, Walt Whitman knew exactly what to do when he received a letter of praise from Ralph Waldo Emerson. The second edition of Leaves of Grass is, as far as I know, the first example of a blurb printed on the outside of a book, in this case in gilt letters at the base of the spine: “I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career / R W Emerson.” (Emerson’s letter appeared in its entirety at the end of the book along with several other reviews — three of which were written by Whitman — in a section entitled “Leaves-Droppings.”)
Whitman’s move wasn’t completely unprecedented. The earliest dust jacket in existence (1830) boasts an anonymous poem of praise on the cover, and printers had long been in the habit of putting their device at the base of the spine. Nevertheless, the impulse to combine them with a bylined review was sheer genius, and Emerson’s blurb can be read as greeting not only Whitman, but also the great career of its own updated form.
After Whitman there were further innovations. A century ago, fantasy author James Branch Cabell (unsung favorite of Mark Twain and Neil Gaiman) prefigured self-deprecators like Chris Ware by including negative blurbs at the back of his books: “The author fails of making his dull characters humanely pitiable. New York Post.” Or, as Ware put it on the cover of the first issue of Acme Novelty Library: “An Indefensible Attempt to Justify the Despair of Those Who Have Never Known Real Tragedy.” Unlike Cabell’s, Ware’s first negative blurb was self-authored, but those featured on Jimmy Corrigan were not. Marvel Comics followed suit when it issued its new “Defenders.” (A related strategy — Martin Amis’ The Information was stickered “Not Booker Prize Shortlisted.”)
These satirical strategies highlight the increasingly common suspicion, nascent in Fielding’s parody of Richardson, that blurbs just aren’t meaningful. Publishers, however, have evidently concluded that blurbs may not be meaningful, but they sure help move merchandise. Witness the advent of two recent innovations in paperback design: the blap and the blover (rhymes with cover).
The blap is a glossy page covered in blurbs that immediately follows the front cover. In deference to its importance, the width of the cover is usually reduced, tempting potential readers with a glimpse of the blap, and perhaps even accommodating a conveniently placed blurb that runs along the length of the book.
The blover is essentially a blap on steroids, literally a second book cover, made from the same cardstock, that serves solely as a billboard for blurbs. Blovers are not yet widespread, but given the ubiquity of blaps it is only a matter of time. (For an extreme case see The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, where the blover’s edge sports a vertical banality from Entertainment Weekly — “I couldn’t put the book down.” — not to mention the 56 blurbs on the pages that follow.)
Blovers and blaps… what next? For my part, I can see where Orwell, Paglia, and Miller are coming from, and I certainly wouldn’t bemoan the disappearance of blurbs. But not everyone is like me. Some people enjoy glancing at reviews, or choosing a book based on the endorsements of their favorite authors. Blurbs sell books (maybe), and they allow established writers to help out the newbies. Those are good things. And since regulating them is as unfeasible as banning reviews, as long as blovers don’t replace covers I guess blurbs are a genre I can live with. And who knows — one day Murderer’s Row might be batting for me.
Previously: To Blurb or Not to Blurb
Image credit: wikimedia commons
My relationship with John Banville is a strange and unnatural one. In some odd sense I can’t quite identify, I often think that it might even be an unseemly one. A few months back, I finished a Ph.D., having written my thesis on Banville’s fiction. It took me about four years to complete, which means that over that period—at a rough calculation along the lines of a 42 hour working week and a 50 week working year—I spent something in the region of 8,400 hours engaged in activities that were directly Banville-related. 8,400 hours: that’s basically the equivalent of an entire calendar year spent reading his novels, thinking about them, reading and thinking about other academics’ opinions of them, formulating my own opinions, and thinking of clever things to write based on them. There’s nothing remarkable, of course, about a person spending a non-trivial portion of his or her life writing a doctoral thesis about the work of a single writer (university English departments are full of such misfits) but it is presumably fairly unusual for a person to spend four years writing a doctoral thesis on the work of someone who is not only still living and writing, but doing so within a couple of minutes’ walk from where that thesis is being written.
Dublin is a fairly small city. While I was working on my thesis in Trinity College, it wasn’t unusual for me to leave the library to go for a sandwich somewhere and to pass Banville on the street. It happened more than once that I would be having lunch and he would enter the restaurant and sit down a couple of tables away, or walk past the window with his fedora, his large and quaintly flamboyant scarf, and his mysterious canvas carrier bag. (Containing what? Groceries? Surely not. Books, most likely, but then why would Banville be carrying around books? Where would he be taking them, and to whom?) When this happened, I would usually nod casually and discretely in his direction and say to my lunch companion something like “there goes the boss man,” or “there’s the gaffer now.” It amused me, for some reason, to think of myself as a low-level functionary, labouring away obscurely for years, scrutinizing texts and producing a complex 100,000 word response unlikely to be read by more than a tiny handful of specialists, as though this were a service for which I had been engaged by an eminent and enigmatic novelist.
I had also convinced myself that it amused me to be utterly unknown to Banville, and yet to be spending my working days doing nothing but thinking about his novels. But I’m not sure it really did amuse me. I think it felt a little indecorous; even, perhaps, a little shameful. I sometimes joked about feeling a bit like a stalker, but I wasn’t always entirely sure that I was joking.
It wouldn’t have felt so strange to be writing a thesis about the work of Bellow or Dickinson or Joyce or Woolf, because these are no longer men and women, as such, but historical figures, Great Writers, bodies of work to be read and thought about and, if you’re so inclined, interpreted. Even, as we say in the lit-crit racket, “working on” a living writer like, say, Toni Morrison or Don DeLillo would not carry with it this faint but indelible stain of unseemliness, because these people are remote, semi-legendary figures, securely encased in their reputations and, more importantly, their foreignness. Even if I lived in Manhattan and were writing a thesis on Thomas Pynchon, I would be unlikely to find myself standing behind him in the queue for the ATM (and even if I did, it is highly unlikely that I would realize it).
But while I was working on him, Banville was everywhere. My period of postgraduate research coincided with his ascension to a level of fame and visibility he hadn’t previously inhabited (not long before I started writing my thesis, he won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sea). He was giving readings from as-yet-unpublished novels across the square from the library where I was writing about his published ones. He was curating exhibitions of eighteenth century etchings in galleries on the other side of town. He was getting into public squabbles with crime novelists for writing a highly successful series of mysteries under a pseudonym and bragging about how easy he found it (Banville has always seemed to enjoy mixing it up). At one point, presumably undergoing a particularly severe bout of inter-project restiveness, he was even embroiled in a weirdly out-of-character controversy over vivisection at the School of Medicine at Trinity. The spat became a minor news story, culminating in J.M. Coetzee’s weighing in on his behalf in the letters pages of The Irish Times, and involved his taking part in a small but vocal protest by animal rights campaigners outside the college, which I had to pass one day on my way to the library. Surely Richard Ellmann never had to pass Joyce on a picket line; surely Boswell was never called a scab by Dr. Johnson? (Nobody called me a scab, I should clarify—and neither am I seriously comparing myself to Boswell or Ellmann, or Banville to Johnson or Joyce—but the image is an amusing one, so I’ll let it stand).
For four years, the question I was inevitably asked by anyone who happened to express an interest in what I was doing with my life was this one: “Have you met Banville yet?” It’s a question I got slicker at answering the more I was asked it, until it became a sort of automated response. It was always some minor variation on the following basic template: “No,” I would say, “I haven’t. In fact, I’ve sort of been avoiding him. I’ve been in the same room as him quite a few times, at readings and that kind of thing. I’ve passed him on the street Christ knows how many times—Dublin is a small town, after all—but I’ve never felt inclined to speak to him, to introduce myself. To be honest, I don’t think it would do me or my work any good. I don’t think a critic should have too close a relationship with the writer he’s writing about, or better still any relationship at all. Why would Banville’s opinion of my opinion about his work have any bearing on those opinions, when you think about it? It’s not about what he thinks of me, it’s about what I think of him. Interviewing him would just compromise the integrity of my work.”
This last phrase I always delivered in an ironic, jocular staccato, as though acknowledging the pretentiousness of such a notion, as though highlighting the absurdity of the idea of my work having anything like integrity (I have this highly irritating habit of being dismissive of my own endeavours, and then immediately feeling as though I’ve slighted myself unforgivably). Like a lot of things we say to people, I suppose I both believed this and disbelieved it at the same time. Ambivalence was always the dominant affect of my thesis-writing years.
Behind the jokes about stalking Banville lay a real discomfort with the fact that I was spending so much time thinking about him and writing about him—or thinking about his fiction, at least, which may or may not amount to the same thing. He is, I think, a fascinating novelist, and among the more important presences in contemporary literature, and so it makes perfect sense for there to be a considered academic response to his work (there’s loads of it, by the way, which, given his stature and his prolificacy and the finely-textured allusiveness of his writing, isn’t surprising). It also makes sense that I, as a scholar in the early stages of my career, should choose Banville as the subject of my apprentice work, because I am provoked and perplexed by it in intellectually productive ways and, even now, after all the time I’ve spent with it, still derive real pleasure from reading it. He is, I think, a great writer, and may even turn out to be a Great Writer. But he is also just a guy, and this is something that his physical proximity to me—the fact that I kept passing him on the street—made very difficult to ignore. I often asked myself what it might feel like to know that, somewhere in your city, a person with whom you are entirely unacquainted is spending his days writing a psychoanalytic examination of your life’s work. I was eking out an existence for myself—you couldn’t quite call it a living—through government-funded scholarships that were contingent upon the value to society, however hypothetical, of my interpretation of Banville’s fiction. I did occasionally have an unpleasant image of myself as a parasite living off a large animal who was innocent of my unobtrusively, harmlessly blood-sucking presence. You can have a certain image of yourself and then reject it, but you’ve still had that image: it has come from somewhere. I would have been a lot less uncomfortable had I been working on someone who was dead. (The morticianary insinuations of that sentence were not intended, but they are discomfitingly apt. It is only now, in fact—as in right this second—that I finally fully get Banville’s biographer-as-embalmer joke in The Newton Letter.)
Strangely, when I did finally end up sitting down and having a conversation with him just a couple of months ago, his first reaction to my telling him that I had written my thesis on his work was to apologize for not being dead. I laughed, but made no comment on the spooky perceptiveness of his joke.
“You must absolutely despise me,” he said. I told him—truthfully—that I had somehow managed not to. What I didn’t tell him was that he had often, indirectly at least, given me occasion to despise myself. The awkward ambivalence of my psychological relationship with him, though, was not something I thought it wise to bring up over mini salmon vol-au-vents and room temperature white wine. I had not planned the meeting; in fact, I had had no idea that it would be happening until a couple of hours beforehand. I had received an email from my former Ph.D. supervisor, who had himself just received an email requesting, as a matter of extreme urgency, that someone—anyone—volunteer themselves to conduct a public interview with Banville that evening in a lecture hall in University College Dublin. He was due to receive an honorary lifetime membership of the university’s Law Society that evening, and whoever had initially been scheduled to handle the interview aspect of the proceedings had to cancel at the last minute, and they were now desperately looking for someone who could pull it off at short notice. I wasn’t sure that I was necessarily their guy but, deliberately denying myself any time to think about it, I rang the number anyway, and two hours later I was sitting in the UCD staff bar with the boss man, making small talk. (Against all reasonable expectations, Banville is really very good at small talk.)
While acknowledging that he would be unlikely to conceive of it in the same way, I had always imagined our eventual meeting would be a kind of lower-intensity literary version of that café sit-down scene in Michael Mann’s Heat, in which Pacino and De Niro appear on screen together for the first time. (In moments of greater clarity I understood that, at best, it would be an episode of Inside The Actor’s Studio, with me as a less polished and fulsome James Lipton). The way it panned out, though, not even I could fool myself into sensing any kind of frisson of tension or significance. Banville appeared not to have any particular interest in the topic of my thesis—or at least if he did, he managed not to betray it by asking me any questions on the matter. I was both slightly disappointed and slightly relieved by this. The thesis was entitled “Narcissism in the Fiction of John Banville”, and so there was always the slight but non-negligible possibility that he might understand the whole project to be a long-winded and tortuous accusation of self-obsession and vanity on his part. Even if he didn’t take it personally, there was a chance—far less slight and non-negligible—that he would consider the whole approach facile or wrong-headed or obtuse or in some other way completely beside the point. I had absolute confidence in my work, but—as paradoxical as this might sound (and probably is)—less than absolute confidence in my ability to maintain that confidence in the face of any degree of criticism or dismissal from of its subject. Now that I think about it, it’s likely that Banville had similar reasons for not asking me about it.
Apropos the issue of my spending (give or take) four years reading, thinking about and writing about his writing, he mentioned having interviewed Salman Rushdie for the New York Review of Books in about 1993, at the very height of the fatwa. He spent two full days transcribing their taped conversations. By the time he had finished, he said, he was consumed by an intense hatred of both Rushdie and himself. So he could, he assured me, imagine how I must feel about him after four years.
I chuckled drily and, I hoped, urbanely. It struck me that having a conversation with the man amounted to having Banville on tap. All I had to do was make a comment or ask a question and, as though I’d popped a coin in a vending machine, it would provoke an emanation from the same source that produced The Book of Evidence, Doctor Copernicus and Shroud. I felt an unaccountable, giddy compulsion to start pointing to things and people and demanding that he describe them. How would you characterize the taste of these vol-au-vents, Mr Banville?; or See that elderly man over there at the bar? Let’s have an adjective for him; or What would you say if I asked you to describe this wine? This was, after all, someone who has described the taste of gin more frequently and more variously and more vividly than probably any other novelist in history—gin, with its “silver-sweet fumes” (Eclipse), and its “cold and insidious and subtly discomposing” taste with “the faintest tinct of paraffin-blue in its depths” (The Infinities).
At this point the undergraduate from the university’s Law Society who had introduced us—and who seemed to be the main organizer of the event—had excused himself to go and check on the turnout in the lecture hall. Banville had just finished his own wine and was wondering aloud, presumably rhetorically, whether he might get away with swiping the untouched glass the Law Society guy had left behind. I gave him my blessing, though he seemed not to require it.
A large grey-bearded man with a German accent sidled up to our table and shook hands with Banville. He congratulated him on what he called his “apotheosis”—presumably he meant the lifetime membership of the Law Society—and handed over a pile of about five or six first editions and foreign translations, which Banville dutifully signed. (The man offered him a biro, but he declined, withdrawing from an inner pocket of his jacket a gracefully gold-trimmed Mont Blanc. This glamorous implement now unsheathed, the mere idea of Banville ever writing with anything else was instantly relegated to the category of the preposterous.) I thought how strange it was that the man had used this word, “apotheosis,” so enduringly associated as it was, for me, with Banville’s writing. I had, in fact, written something in my thesis about his repeated use of it. I wondered, briefly, whether the man could be making some kind of sly allusion here, but then checked this flight of obsessive fancy, realizing how unlikely it was that he would be as wonkishly preoccupied as I was with Banville’s fondness for a particular word, and what it might mean in the context of his work as a whole.
The conversation turned again, somehow, to the topic of death, specifically that of Banville’s death. We spoke briefly of the difficulties future biographers and scholars would come up against now that no one, not even novelists, wrote letters any more. He pointed out that emails were probably more useful from a future scholarship point of view, given that they were all automatically archived and organized and searchable, to which I countered that that was all well and good if you had the password. He conceded that this was a fair point, and suggested that if I played my cards right he might think to pass on his login details to me before he died. I said that I would be honored. The idea of Banville having anything as vulgar as login details, however, seemed as strangely implausible as Nabokov owning a pickup truck—he is that kind of writer. Did he use instant messaging, I wondered? (It was an odd thought, but it was not inconceivable. A few years ago, I interviewed the philosopher Peter Singer for a magazine, and he still occasionally pops up on Google Chat, an occurrence which gives rise to all kinds of inane impulses.) I speculated idly on whether Banville’s password might be something like “@pose0s1s” or, maybe, “banvillenobel2016.” Was he a Gmail man, I wondered? Probably not. Outlook Express, if anything.
The interview was less of an ordeal than I had imagined it might be. On our way down to the lecture theatre I had told him that I had agreed to it only a couple of hours previously, that I was as a consequence grossly underprepared and that he would therefore have to do a lot of the heavy lifting himself, and he had patted my arm lightly and said, “Oh, don’t worry about that, I’m a raddled old whore at this stage.” My questions seemed to me to shift from the bafflingly gnomic to the recklessly long-winded without ever occupying any intervening sweet spot of coherence and concision but, true to his word, he responded to them with an eloquence that, retrospectively, made those questions appear shrewd. Afterwards, there was a flurry of book-signings and hand-shakings, through which I stood awkwardly off to one side. There was some kind of official photograph that needed to be taken, and I allowed myself to be hustled into the shot, and then that was pretty much it for the evening.
As we walked toward the exit, Banville asked me whether I needed a lift home. I had not anticipated this; had I foreseen it as a possibility, I might well have taken the bus there instead of driving. I told him that I had my car—I think I may even, moronically, have produced my keys and held them aloft, as though some kind of proof of my having driven might be required—but almost immediately regretted doing so. It would, I thought, have been worth the trouble of getting the bus back the following morning to collect my car, had it meant getting a lift home with Banville. I found myself wishing, suddenly, to know what kind of car he drove and, above all, what kind of driver he was. Would he handle his car like he did his prose, with supreme confidence and restraint, changing lanes with suave precision, overtaking with brisk wit and style? Or would he be ill at ease behind the wheel, as I imagined his protagonists would be, constantly wrong-footed by the stubborn actuality of traffic lights and lane-mergers, the boorish incursions of other motorists? I remembered a bit in Martin Amis’s The Information about the comparative driving skills of poets and novelists. The (almost certainly spurious) jist was that Novelists are generally decent drivers, while poets don’t drive, or at least shouldn’t: “Never trust a poet who can drive. Never trust a poet at the wheel. If he can drive, distrust the poems.” And then I remembered Banville’s tendency to make grandiose-sounding claims in interviews about his aspirations of forging some sort of formal synthesis of poetry and the novel. Would he drive, I wondered, like a poet or a novelist? Would I gain some oblique insight into his mind, into his philosophical stance toward the world, by observing him negotiate the M50 and the Red Cow roundabout (that black comedy of infrastructural errors in which thousands of Dubliners play a daily role)? What would we chat about? How would he respond to questions as to fuel consumption, reliability, general performance? What radio stations, if any, would be preset on his car stereo? Would he have a SatNav, or one of those hands-free Bluetooth earpiece setups for his phone? I would now probably never know the answers to these questions. But perhaps that’s not such a terrible thing.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I successfully convinced a publisher that my thesis was worth the time and money it would cost them to publish. So I’ll be spending a further few months on Banville-related activities, hacking and thrashing the thing into a book-like shape; and then, if I’m lucky, my first monograph will afford me some sort of reputation as an academic, as, specifically, a Banville scholar. And these would all be great things, things that might—I permit myself to hope—even lead to that greatest of great things, an actual full-time job. In the meantime, I’ll just have to get over my discomfort with what seems to me to be the rank presumption of regarding oneself as an “expert” on the work of someone who is still living and writing and (who knows?) possibly using a hands-free Bluetooth earpiece while driving.
Eventually, I’ll have to come up with another topic on which to position myself as an expert. In my cockier moments, I sometimes fancy my chances with Nabokov. I would, of course, imagine him being utterly dismissive of whatever reading of his work I might decide to argue for. But that wouldn’t matter very much, because he is safely, unapproachably dead, and therefore reassuringly unlikely to sit down at the next table in a café, or offer me a lift home. I think it would be an easier relationship.
Back | 1. In a section dealing with the novel Shroud, I find that I wrote the following: “‘Apotheosis’, in its associations with ideas of self-perfection and deification, is a key term in Banville’s later work. The narcissistic content of the word as he tends to use it is connected to the notion of the self as a work of art.”