All first-person narrators are unreliable. This is less a structural feature of storytelling and more a structural feature of the human condition. We lie to ourselves, we lie to others, and even if we mean to tell our story with complete honesty, we can never fully understand it. As the saying goes, approximately: The proof that we’re unreliable narrators is the fact that everyone is the star of their own story. Certain kinds of genre storytelling, perhaps, get close to full reliability, as they are more concerned with driving plot than revealing character—we can essentially trust that Katniss Everdeen is reliable, since she exists mainly as a vehicle for telling the story of the Hunger Games she competes in. There would be no point, from Suzanne Collins’s point of view, in having her narrator fudge the truth. This is not meant as a slight—simply that the purpose of a great deal of sci-fi, fantasy, and thriller fiction is to drive plot, not to communicate hidden complexities of character. But in the realm of what we broadly consider literary fiction, character is paramount and true reliability is impossible. In fact, as many critics have remarked before, the most truly reliable literary narration is a kind of very consistent unreliable narration. The go-to example of reliably unreliable narrators is Lolita’s dissembling monster, Humbert Humbert. For the novel’s 400-plus pages, Humbert engages the reader in a pas de deux of hideous charm, seducing and repelling again and again, via his theatrical biography of child rape. The act of reading Lolita is fundamentally the act of decoding Humbert’s narration, a narration as reliably encoded as the diary he keeps in Charlotte Haze’s guest room. We are pulled in with his language until just close enough to be revulsed at the object of his language. And we understand that the project is, despite its purported intent as a confession and object of psychological study, an act of self-justification—the self-justification of pedophilia, not mainly via sympathy or historical precedent, but through a larger project of aestheticizing it, transforming assault into art. It is, finally, an act and artifact of Satanically grand egotism. Mr. Stevens, in The Remains of the Day, is another archetypally reliable unreliable narrator. The novel’s clockwork unreliability functions as a kind of equation that can be used to solve all of Mr. Steven’s statements of non-fact and pitiful delusion. Once we understand that Lord Darlington was a Nazi and that Stevens was in love with Miss Kenton, we know that for almost everything he says about them, we should believe the opposite: He is not going on his countryside jaunt to incidentally visit Miss Kenton; he does not especially want to “banter” with people; he is not proud of his service to Lord Darlington, whom he does not believe was a good man. Characters like Humbert and Mr. Stevens provide the reader a level of confidence and certainty of motivation mostly unavailable with conventional narrators. Someone who always lies, after all, is as easy to understand as someone who always tells the truth. Less intelligible might be a narrator like Holden Caulfield, who is not, from a narratological standpoint, strategically unreliable—that is, if and when he’s lying, he isn’t employing it for conscious effect or advantage. Caulfield, like most normal people, is full of flattering illusions about himself, dumb notions of how to live, unfounded prejudices, and so on, but they aren’t importantly arrayed around a guiding principle/theme/blindspot like Humbert’s pedophilia or Mr. Stevens’s professional and romantic regrets. Still, there is Holden's dead brother, and the fact that the narration is being told to a spectral psychologist. The reader, and the novel itself, understands that something is amiss even if Caulfield doesn’t, fully. While most first-person narratives are not as structurally deceitful as Lolita or Remains of the Day, most do consciously incorporate an element of uncertainty in the narrator’s telling of their story. This uncertainty has a rhythm and tone as much a part of the reading experience as the author’s descriptive tendencies, their syntax and diction. In this sense, paradoxically, while all first-person narrators may be unreliable, most first-person narratives are reliable—or, perhaps better put, intelligible. That is to say, the character’s blind spots and deceptions are congruent with the general aims and architecture of the text; more than congruent, they are an essential part of it. But there’s a rare category of book that seems to misunderstand its own narrator. Either the narrator is unreliable and the book itself doesn't understand it, or else the book understands the fact of its narrator’s unreliability, but misjudges its nature. [millions_ad] An example of the first case is The Big Sleep. Philip Marlowe is meant to be a fairly honest reporter of his own story—a bit of a haunted loner, maybe, but more or less what he seems: tough, sardonic, and scrupulous. This scrupulousness is often dramatized through his uncorruptibility vis-à-vis women, in particular, Carmen Sternwood, who throws herself at him throughout the novel to no effect. Well, to some effect, actually. After Carmen appears nude in his apartment, Marlowe relates the following: “I went back to the bed and looked down at it. The imprint of her head was still in the pillow, of her small corrupt body still on the sheets. I put my empty glass down and tore the bed to pieces savagely.” Raymond Chandler’s seeming intent here—to characterize Marlowe as a private, sexually principled man—badly overshoots his mark; still, on a surface reading, this reaction is consistent with the book’s conception of Marlowe as, fundamentally, a straight arrow. Drape a gold crucifix around his neck and he would be more recognizable as a moral crusader, a Christian brother cleaning up Sodom. Sure, he drinks quite a bit, and his crime-fighting methodology exists in a shadowland outside of regular law enforcement, but his spine is as erect as any Midwest rotarian standing at the podium. More than money, or professional curiosity, Marlowe seems motivated by a kind of prim, abiding disgust at the perverted world of the Sternwoods and Arthur Geiger and Eddie Mars. Among the many types who make Marlowe sick: the rich, pornographers, and gamblers. But mainly loose women and gay men. Gynophobia and homophobia are the twinned engines of fearful disgust that drive the novel’s emotional logic. In the Carmen scenes, we sense a narrator who is less inured to female advances than terrified and enraged by them. Likewise, gay men—a group the novel takes special pains to belittle. “A pansy,” says Marlowe, to the young man he’s preparing to wrestle, “has no iron in his bones.” A murder victim’s house has “the nasty, stealthy look of a fag party.” Homosexuality in Chandler’s 1930s Los Angeles, as it was most places in America at the time, was taboo, verboten. But even by those standards, there is a spectral seediness to depictions of homosexuality in The Big Sleep that feels unusual, accompanied by a visceral horror at vice’s general omnipresence, as though L.A. is a rotting log with maggots writhing underneath. Arthur Geiger, a gay pornographer, runs a smut library on Santa Monica Boulevard, trading in pictures of “such indescribable filth” that Marlowe—and the narrative eye—has to turn away. And yet he turns back, again and again, with a fascinated revulsion that on multiple reads seems less homophobic than bristlingly homoerotic. Again and again, he is drawn to Arthur Geiger’s house, the locus of the novel’s main motivating crime, like a moth to its hated, cherished flame. These movements hold special significant in the work of Chandler, a writer who famously did not plan his stories ahead of time and who himself claimed to be confused by his novels’ labyrinthine plots. They chart a kind of map of the narrative subconscious, and no location is more central than Geiger’s bungalow, with its frou-frou chinoiserie and bedroom occupied by Geiger’s secret young lover—Marlowe returns to this locale no fewer than seven times, mimicking The Big Sleep’s helpless attraction to its own subsumed queerness. On this point, Marlowe, and the narrative he spins, are truly unreliable, and The Big Sleep reads like nothing so much as the journal of a gay man remaining unaware of his sexuality at all costs. A different example of unreliable unreliability might be found in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. The book is aware, mightily, of its narrator Binx Bolling’s strangeness. A stockbroker in New Orleans, Binx is a flaneur and artiste at heart, a dreamy loner who spends his days in the movies, and we are given to know that he is in a kind of despair despite his protestations of enjoying the simple, all-American life. But the novel itself misjudges its main character. By my estimation, Binx revels, wallows, in an ersatz version of artistic ennui and emotional instability authentically embodied by his suicidal, bipolar cousin Kate. In habit, he is a fairly normal, privileged white man of his time who likes making money, who genially harasses a procession of his secretaries into sleeping with him, who presumes his comfortable place in the catbird seat of the social order. And yet he also wants to feel special, outside this world as well as a part of it, so he cultivates a sense of himself as a seeker via some mumbo jumbo about The Search and a related array of cutesy little mental routines. He takes full part in normal society while scorning it—no episode from the book is more illustrative of Binx’s unconscious character than his origin story as a frat boy, wherein he casually insults another pledge to mark himself as a member of the inner circle, then spends four years drinking beer by himself on the front porch while silently judging his brothers to be fools. The book ends with him sleeping with his unstable, vulnerable cousin, whom he marries and with whom he purports to have found a kind of complacent, co-dependent happiness. The epigraph of the book by Kierkegaard—“The specific quality of despair is this: it does not know it’s despair”—might be modified for Binx: “The specific quality of an asshole is this: they do not know they’re an asshole.” Neither, it seems, does The Moviegoer, or at least not to the extent it should. Binx’s narration is truly unreliable, unreliably unreliable, as the story he occupies misunderstands him much as he misunderstands himself. The reader must decode not only Binx’s misperceptions but the misperceptions of a narrative with an incomplete command of its narrator. In this sense, unreliably unreliable novels can present both the greatest challenge and the most fun as an active reading experience. Authors like Kazuo Ishiguro create texts that are gratifying puzzles, a kind of curated escape room for attentive readers to explore and solve. Most normal, less structurally unreliable narration, is more like a detective story, with the reader cast as sleuth piecing together clues about the narrator’s true self—the self as a mystery that is never fully or decisively solved. But books like The Big Sleep and The Moviegoer are more like faulty maps of the wilderness in which the reader finds herself stranded. You have to find your own way, interpreting the weather and wind and direction, charting your own course in spite—in defiance—of the book. Image: Flickr/recoverling
1. As an advocate for both books and therapy, I determined, upon first hearing the word “bibliotherapy,” that this might be my bespoke profession. I go to group therapy. I read a lot of novels. I’m constantly recommending novels to my group. Members struggling with various problems typically don’t count on me to empathize through personal experience. They count on me for book recommendations. Your adult son is an expat in Europe and is exploring his sexuality? See Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors. You feel alienated from your wealthy family but drawn to nagging spiritual questions about existence? Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer is for you. Gutted by the loss of a loved one? You could do worse than James Agee’s A Death in the Family (Men’s therapy group, by the way). The concept of bibliotherapy -- a word coined in 1916 -- long teetered on the edge of trendiness. But lately it has tilted toward truth. The highbrow media has weighed in favorably -- consider Ceridwen Dovey’s much discussed New Yorker profile on The School of Life’s bibliotherapy team. And then the books: Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously, William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education and, perhaps most notably, The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. Each book, to varying degrees, suggests connections between reading and happiness. A Google Scholar’s worth of criticism -- my obscure favorite being Keith Oatley’s “Why Fiction May Be Twice as True as Fact: Fiction as Cognitive and Emotional Simulation” (pdf) -- has lent the idea scholarly heft. To be clear: nobody is arguing that reading books is a substitute for the medication required to treat acute mental illness. But the notion that novels might have a genuine therapeutic benefit for certain kinds of spiritual ailments seems legit. 2. If we concede that books can be therapeutic, then it seems appropriate to explore the potential pitfalls of asking literature to serve that cause. Of initial concern is the inherent presumptuousness of the endeavor. When I advise my fellow group therapy members -- whom I know as intimately as I know anyone, if intimacy is defined by the sharing of anxiety, fear, and grief -- what they should read, the assumption is that I’m able to divine how my interpretation of a novel will intersect with their predicted interpretations of the same novel. If reception theory tells us anything, it’s that this kind of interpretive foretelling, especially when refracted through the radically subjectivity of a novel, is a matter of great uncertainty, and maybe even an implicit form of lit bullying (“What? You didn’t pick up on that theme? What’s the matter with you?). Plus, novels don’t work this way. They aren’t narrative prescriptions. Even when done badly, novels are artistic expressions necessarily unmoored from reality, expressions that ultimately depend on idiosyncratic characters who act, think, and feel, thereby becoming emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and even physically embodied -- quite differently -- in every reader’s mind. Yes, The Great Gatsby has universal appeal. But there’s a unique Gatsby for every reader who has passed eyes over the book. (Maybe even Donald Trump has one: "not great, not great; an overrated loser.") Given the tenuousness and variability of this personal act of translation, it’s hard not to wonder: How could anyone expect to intuit how anyone else might react to certain characters in certain settings under certain circumstances? In The Novel Cure, Berthoud and Elderkin aren’t hampered by this question. They match personal contemporary ailments with common literary themes as if they were complementary puzzle pieces. They do so under the assumption that the mere presence of a literary counterpart to a contemporary dilemma automatically imbues a novel with therapeutic agency. They advise that a person dealing with adultery in real life might want to read Madame Bovary. Or that someone who struggles to reach orgasm should read Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Does this kind of advice make any sense? Consider the adultery example. How can Berthoud and Elderkin assess exactly how novelistic adultery will be translated into thoughts and feelings about something as deeply contextualized as real life adultery? How can they assess if it will be translated at all? Think of all the possible reactions. Use your imagination. A contemporary cuckold could go off the rails at any juncture in the Bovary narrative. He could become so immensely interested in Gustave Flaubert’s intimately detailed portrait of 19th-century provincial life, and the people in it, that he eventually finds the cuckolding theme a distraction, finishes the novel, quits his high paying job, and commits himself to a graduate program in French social history. Books have driven people to do stranger things. Sure it’s unlikely, but my point is this: Telling someone precisely what to take from a novel, based on the superficiality of a shared event, isn’t therapeutic. It’s fascist. A repression of a more genuine response. More interesting would be to reverse the bibliotherapeutic premise altogether. Instead of asking “what’s wrong with you?” and assigning a book, assign a book and ask “what’s wrong with you?” When I lend books to friends outside of therapy, this strategy (upon reflection) is basically what I’m testing. I’m not trying to solve a person’s problem. I’m trying, in a way, to create one. I want to shake someone out of complacency. Great novels (and sometimes not so great ones) jar us, often unexpectedly. Ever have a novel sneak upon you and kick you in the gut, leaving you staring into space, dazed by an epiphany? Yes. Novels do this. They present obstacles that elicit the catharsis (from katharo, which means clearing obstacles) we didn’t think we needed. We should allow books to cause more trouble in our lives. But the sanguine bibliotherapeutic mission will have none of that. Its premise is to take down obstacles and march us towards happiness. Proof is how easily this genre of therapy veers into self-help territory. The New York Public Library’s "Bibliotherapy" page suggests that readers check out David Brooks’s The Road to Character, Cheryl Strayed’s Brave Enough, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. These books are assuredly smart books by smart writers, all of whom I admire. But the goal of this type of book is to help readers find some kind of stability. There’s obviously nothing wrong with that. But the problem from the perspective of literary fiction is that such “self-improvement” books seek to tamp down the very human emotions that literature dines out on: fear, insecurity, vulnerability, and the willingness to take strange paths to strange places. Imagine reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment without being at least little off kilter. You’d shut the book the moment Raskolnikov committed his murder. Being moved by fiction means being willing to be led astray a little. It helps if your rules are not ordinary. It also seems prudent to wonder how the bibliotherapeutic pharmacy would bottle up the work of certain writers. Would it do so in a way that excludes literary genius? Almost assuredly it would. Cormac McCarthy, whom many critics consider one of the greatest writers ever -- appears three times in The Novel Cure. Predictably, The Road is mentioned as a way to (a) gain insight into fatherhood and (b) achieve brevity of expression. That’s it -- all talk of apocalypse and the survival instinct as integral influences on human morality is brushed aside. Inexplicably, Blood Meridian is listed as a book that sheds light on the challenge of going cold turkey. I have no idea here. None. But I do know that if you are a reader who grasps the totality of McCarthy’s work, your literary soul, as Cormac might put it, is drowning in a cesspool of roiling bile. Because here is what bibliotherapy, as it's now defined, has no use for: darkness. Real darkness. McCarthy’s greatest literary accomplishment is arguably Suttree, the culmination of a series of “Tennessee novels” that dealt in chilling forms of deviance -- incest, necrophilia, self-imposed social alienation -- that, on every page, sully the reader’s sense of decency. McCarthy’s greatest narrative accomplishment was likely No Country for Old Men, a blood splattered thriller that features a psychopath who kills random innocent people with a captive bolt pistol. These works, much like the work of Henry Miller (none of whose sex-fueled books get mentioned in The Novel Cure), aestheticize evil -- in this case violence and misogynistic sex -- into brilliant forms of literary beauty. They are tremendously important and profoundly gorgeous books, albeit in very disturbing ways. They are more likely to send you into therapy than practice it. 3. The good news for bibliotherapy is that there are too many hardcore fiction readers who know all too well that concerted reading enhances the quality of their lives. A single book might destabilize, tottering you into emotional turmoil. But books -- collectively consumed through the steady focus of serious reading -- undoubtedly have for many readers a comforting, even therapeutic, effect. This brand of bibliotherapy, a brand born of ongoing submission to great literature -- not unlike traditional therapy -- does not necessarily seek to solve specific problems. (In my group therapy, members have been dealing with the same unresolved issues for years. We define each other by them.) Instead, what evolves through both consistent reading and therapy is a deep, even profound, understanding of the dramas that underscore the challenges of being human in the modern world. So, despite my concerns, I remain a believer in bibliotherapy. But its goal should not necessarily be to make us feel better. It should be to make us feel more, to feel deeper, to feel more honestly. In this respect, quality literature, no matter what the subject matter, slows the world down for us, gives us time to place a microscope over its defining events, and urges us to ask, what's going on here, what does it mean, why do I care, and how do I feel? That might not qualify as formal therapy, but it’s a good place to start. Image Credit: Pixabay.
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader's Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name. "Oh, March, come right upstairs with me," beckoned Emily Dickinson. "I have so much to tell." She liked March: it brings, she wrote, a light like no other time of the year, a color "that science cannot overtake / But human nature feels." But she also knew the dangers of the life that March's thaw awakens: when the "snows come hurrying in from the hills" they can flood the banks of that "Brook in your heart" that "nobody knows." We don't know quite what to do with March. We're excited and frightened by its power and variability. Do we really think that the lion it comes in as can lie down with the lamb it becomes? It seems appropriate that halfway between the month's two ends, where the lion and lamb meet, are the ides of March, full of Shakespeare's storms and portents. Julius Caesar, set in middle March, even contains one of each of the month's mascots: a "surly" lion, strolling unnaturally through Rome, and Brutus, who describes himself as a "lamb / That carries anger as the flint bears fire." Oddly, the best-known novels with "March" in their titles have nothing to do with the month: Middlemarch, though it sounds like a synonym for the day of Caesar's death, refers to a town, not a time. (It's really a fall book more than anything.) And in 2006, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction went to Geraldine Brooks's March, about the March girls' absent father in Little Women, while one of the finalists it beat out, E. L. Doctorow's The March, already the winner of the NBCC and PEN/Faulkner prizes, is the story of Sherman's sweep through the South, which took place in the fall, not the spring of 1864. Here is a selection of recommended reading for a moody month: Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (1599) There may be no literary character more famously forewarned than this would-be emperor, who, in his own play, is spoken of far more than he speaks himself and dies halfway through the action, on March 15. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847) In the early morning of March 20, a "puny, seven months' child" named Catherine is born; later that morning her sickly mother, Catherine, dies, and her true love, Heathcliff, dashes his savage brow against a tree in fury and sorrow. Sixteen years later, young Cathy celebrates her birthday with a ramble on the moors, where she meets that same Heathcliff and Brontë's tightly wound drama turns inward once again. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850) On a Friday in March at the stroke of midnight, the widow Copperfield bears a son into "a world not at all excited about his arrival," thereby beginning -- with "all that David Copperfield kind of crap" -- Dickens's favorite of his novels, and his most personal. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870) Celebrate the Southern Hemisphere's autumnal equinox with Captain Nemo, who unfurls a black flag bearing a golden N and claims the Antarctic continent in his name before resuming the undersea peregrinations that are his fate: "Disappear, O radiant orb! Retire beneath this open sea, and let six months of night spread their shadows over my new domains!" "A Scandal in Bohemia" by Arthur Conan Doyle (1891) The first Sherlock Holmes story published in The Strand contains perhaps the most memorable day in Holmes's career, a certain March 21 in which the detective finds himself outwitted by a diminutive opera singer and would-be blackmailer named Irene Adler, or, rather, as she becomes during the day, Mrs. Irene Norton, or, as Holmes begins to refer to her, "the woman." The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson (1941-45) With the first stirrings of spring, set sail from Scandia in search of plunder with Red Orm and his restless Vikings on their yearly raids in Bengtsson's epic, based on the Icelandic sagas but fully modern in its detached good humor. Rabbit, Run by John Updike (1960) Updike's Rabbit Angstrom novels grew, a book at a time, into an unplanned epic with each book tied to a season. The first one begins, appropriately, in spring, with Rabbit still young enough to feel the aches of age for the first time. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (1961) Binx Bolling's story is set in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, which comes late that year, in March, but Binx does his best to avoid the hoo-ha, distracting himself instead by driving along the Gulf Coast with his secretaries and going to the movies, whose "peculiar reality" contrasts with the potent sense of unreality he's burdened with. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume (1970) Margaret Ann Simon's twelfth birthday, on March 8, starts out perfect but ends up rotten. Sixth grade (or at least books about sixth grade) would never be the same. Flight to Canada by Ishmael Reed (1976) The novel's final page claims it was finished a minute after midnight on Fat Tuesday in New Orleans, and it is certainly a book made for Carnival, upending history while never forgetting it in a gleefully anachronistic plot that puts Lincoln and Stowe alongside fugitive slave and poet Raven Quickskill and grant-funded "ethnic dancer" Princess Quaw Quaw Tralaralara. The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (2000) To the classic March fictional birthdays above add that of six-year-old Ludo Newman, the precocious hero of DeWitt's brilliant debut, an intellectual and emotional adventure worthy of comparison with Ludo and his mom's favorite Kurosawa film, The Seven Samurai. What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman (2007) "The Bethany girls. Easter weekend. 1975." Two sisters, one fifteen and one nearly twelve, took the bus to Security Square Mall in suburban Baltimore and never came back. Until thirty years later, when one returns in a twisty and character-rich mystery that holds a solution few of its survivors thought they'd live to see. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver (2007) The Kingsolver family chose to begin their "food sabbatical" -- a year of living only on what they grew, or close to it -- in late March, with the arrival of the first Virginia asparagus. By the following March they were looking forward to reclaiming a few imported luxuries in their diet but were otherwise well fed and gratifyingly educated by the acre that had sustained them. Image via iowa_spirit_walker/Flickr
Gerard Manley Hopkins was correct: Catholicism is made of “all things counter, original, spare, strange.” In 1968, almost a decade after graduation, my father’s college roommate called. Charlie said he wanted to visit. My parents were raising my oldest brothers in Dover, New Jersey. Crucifixes hung on some walls, but this was not the seminary my father imagined he might join after studying at Jesuit-staffed Holy Cross. Charlie and my father played football there, and went together to daily morning Mass. Afterward they walked across packed snow to the mess hall. Fed by the Eucharist, and then fed with scrambled eggs. Charlie waited until after dinner to speak candidly: he had become an atheist after intensive, personal study of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He did not have his two youngest children baptized. He was finished with the Church. Then he left, as if he had only come to make that pronouncement. At this point in the story, my father always shares the Jesuits’ advice: never study the Bible on your own. Reasonable translations of the Judeo-Christian Bible are a patchwork of literary forms, written and revised in specific contexts and for specific purposes. Their literary construction does nothing to lessen their efficacy as spiritual texts, but that literary construction must be historically and aesthetically acknowledged. My father would augment my necessarily simple CCD lessons with brief explanations of context and contour: he claimed that a thinking Catholic was the best kind of Catholic. Yet I am equally drawn to the strange corners of Catholicism, where, again, my father was my guide. In one apocryphal tale, while lifeguarding at Bertrand Island Amusement Park, my father watched a man fall from a roller coaster. Mid-century coasters were wooden and clunky, and the man’s limp body dangled from the rails. My father rushed down from his high-dive perch, but stopped to see a man dressed in black climb up the boards, his preconciliar cassock flapping. A priest, determined to give the dying man his Last Rites a hundred feet in the air. My Catholicism has been defined by these intellectual and ritual modes, a dialectic of mind and soul. Unlike Charlie, the deeper I wade into Biblical and theological scholarship, the stronger my Catholic faith becomes, and the more willing I am to negotiate and accept ambiguities and paradoxes. Through liturgical celebration, adoration of saints, and celebration of sacraments, Catholic ritual is a complex interaction between the prosaic, the palpable, and the metaphysical. In the Gospels, as well as in canonical and lay writings, those dialectics become dramatic through narrative. In both classic and contemporary Catholicism, story matters. I was surprised to read Robert Fay’s 2011 article here at The Millions, where he claims a “literary vacuum” of contemporary Catholic writing. While I strongly disagree with Fay’s overall thesis that postconciliar liturgical retranslation led to a decline in Catholic art, his short essay introduces important points. Fay writes elegiacally about the postconciliar shift from Latin to English, or local, Mass: “what for centuries had seemed eternal, mysterious, and rich in symbolism — the very marrow that feeds artists — was suddenly being conducted in the same language as sitcoms, TV commercials, and business meetings.” Was Fay’s observation convenient hindsight, or lived reality? I needed Fay to ask the implicit question, and in the past year I’ve attempted to provide the answer in The Fine Delight, my new book on American Catholic writing after the Second Vatican Council. My conclusion: Catholic literature is thriving. Postconciliar Catholic literature is full of nuanced representations of faith by a litany of writers with varying Catholic identities: Ron Hansen, Andre Dubus, Paul Mariani, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, Brian Doyle, Salvatore Scibona, Kaya Oakes, J.F. Powers, Paul Lisicky, Joe Bonomo, Mary Biddinger, Patrick Madden, Amanda Auchter, Jeffrey Eugenides, Alice McDermott, John Reimringer, Erin McGraw, Tom Bailey, and Anthony Carelli. Some are Catholic, some write about Catholic themes and characters, and some react against Catholicism. As I was not writing an encyclopedia, my book coverage required abbreviation, but the list of necessary postconciliar Catholic writers is even wider: Noelle Kocot, C. Dale Young, Sarah Vap, Richard Russo, John L’Heureux, William Kennedy, Andrew McNabb, Mary Gordon, Mary Karr, Daniel Berrigan, Thomas McGuane, Annie Dillard, David Griffith, Robert Clark, Franz Wright, Jon Hassler, Luisa Igloria, R. A. Lafferty, Tobias Wolff, Ai, Jim Shepard, T.A. Noonan, Jamie Iredell, Joe Wilkins, Brian Oliu, Joseph Scapellato, Matthew Salesses, Sam Ruddick, Richard McCann, Matthew Minicucci, Mark Jay Brewin, Jr., and more, including writers who represent Catholicism on the page in sharp, brief glimpses, or whose literary and personal faiths are lapsed. I would have to take another year to build an international list. And these are only writers; consider the important work done by Gregory Wolfe at Image, and the new writing published in Dappled Things. Plus the curiously intersecting, artistic and intellectual Catholic faiths of Marshall McLuhan and Andy Warhol, as well as Andrew Sullivan’s current cultural commentary, which often returns to his Catholic faith. Add to the list Tim Padgett, Garry Wills, George Weigel. It is refreshing that I am unable to document all the variations of literary Catholicism. How to account for any possible perceived dearth of contemporary Catholic literature and art? I have learned the problem is one of definition. In the same way that paradox is endemic to Catholic doctrine, and that postconciliar Catholic writing is wrought with personal and parochial tensions, Catholic imaginative literature remains a conundrum to many critics, both Catholic and secular. In Commentary, D.G. Myers prefaces his recent meditation on “The New Catholic Fiction” with a disclaimer: “As an Orthodox Jew, I have no qualifications whatever to speak of Roman Catholic fiction,” admitting elsewhere that he knows “just how easy it is to miss the emphasis, the tone, the undercurrent, in fiction that is written from a religious perspective that is not your own.” Myers posits that this new Catholic fiction is exemplified in recent novels by two lapsed Catholics: William Giraldi and Christopher R. Beha. Their literary Catholicism is concerned with “sick soul[s]” who are “unreconcilied to heaven and grace.” The emphases of their novels are “not on the mystery and beauty of God’s creation, but on the difficulty of the skirmish with ordinary evil.” Myers ends his essay with the observation that although Giraldi and Beha “will not welcome being identified as Catholic novelists...they may speak to a new generation of Catholic readers...[and to a secular] generation of readers who never would have thought that Catholic novelists might be a serious force in literature again.” Such defining does not only occur from the outside: Catholic literature is marked by the act of self-definition. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, and The Moviegoer by Walker Percy all dramatize central characters who define and redefine their personal Catholicism. These novels are not aberrations; rather, nearly the rule. Catholic literary self-definition is even more complicated in the postconciliar era, where contemporary writers investigate Catholic ritual and culture through sometimes more jaded lenses. These considerations are applicable to dynamic, imaginative works, not devotional writing. Ron Hansen has lamented when Christian writers mistake their form: proselytizing does not belong in fiction. Dramatic tension requires action, not argument. The stereotype of simplistic Catholic-themed or influenced writing is often earned by one-note spiritual narratives with no basis in the hard work of real faith. Have writers forgotten the narrative arc of Luke, the complexities of John? Christ suffered; salvation requires sacrifice. No easy redemption in life, so why expect it on the page? Paul Elie has considered the curious absence of a contemporary Catholic critical aesthetic, which should not be confused with an absence of Catholic literature. Unfortunately, the perceived absence of the former often results in skewed discussions of the latter. The Catholic Writers Guild, an Indiana-based nonprofit founded in 2006, is “a professional group of writers, artists, editors, illustrators, and allies whose mission is to build a vibrant Catholic literary culture.” I think such a culture already exists, but can recognize the desire for artistic fraternity. What confounds me, though, is the organization’s “Seal of Approval.” A member-writer “can get your book evaluated and approved for its Catholicity with the Seal of Approval... [which] is meant to be a signal to Catholic bookstores that they can carry the book without concern about its content.” They admit the seal is simply an observation that “neither the work nor its author go against the Mageristerium (sic) authority of the Catholic Church”; the seal is not an evaluation of the work’s “writing style or quality.” Once gained, seals can be ordered in groups of 25 for 10 dollars and are affixed, by the author or publisher, on the covers. For the first half of 2012, many books receiving the group’s seal were self-published. Undercover Papist, one title that received the approval, was written by Christian N. Frank, a composite of a “team of young Catholic authors.” From the book’s synopsis: “So you've just been sent on Mission Impossible, to get the most popular girl in your school to come back to the Catholic Church...Brian goes to Bible Camp undercover to rescue Allie, but it looks like a lost cause. Allie seems to be getting on just fine: helping her new Christian friends love God, and dating the camp's hot worship leader.” I am not sure whom to pray for: Brian, Allie, the world entire. The Catholic Writers Guild also sponsors the Catholic Arts and Letters Award, an annual prize given for a work of fiction that represents Catholic tradition and values. A laudable idea, yet the award is only given to work that has the “CWG Seal of Approval or an Imprimatur”; that latter, ecclesiastical distinction is given in the form of a nihil obstat, a note declaring the text free of doctrinal or moral error, a pronouncement rarely, if ever, given to a work of fiction. Certainly any writing organization is welcome to cultivate its own aesthetic. But for an organization that bills itself as “the Rebirth of Catholic Arts and Letters,” some Christian humility is needed. I must have missed the funeral for Catholic literature. The Catholic Writers Guild’s tone is merely a symptom of a larger concern, something strange occurring in Catholic literary culture. Many have taken the fragmentation in postconciliar Catholic identity to mean an absence of that identity; somehow coloring has been mistaken for blanching. Paul Elie’s recent essay, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?”, appeared in The New York Times to much fanfare. While Elie’s essay is concerned with generally Christian writers, his Catholic lens is unmistakable. Elie’s nuance has been lost on some readers: his lament “is how Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time.” This is an extremely narrow critical focus. His concern is one genre within one writing mode, and his language intimates a proactive faith. Elie’s elegiac tone is admittedly hyperbolic. Like a good Catholic, he prefaces his words: “Forgive me if I exaggerate.” Curiously, Elie folds Catholicism into a general Protestant literary aesthetic while identifying Flannery O’Connor as an axis point. His worry that contemporary novelists are “writing fiction in which belief acts obscurely and inconclusively” is to be expected when O’Connor is the contrast. Elie prefers stories like Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”: fiction that “suggest[s] the ways that instances of belief can seize individual lives.” It sounds as if Elie is less lamenting the dearth of Catholic or Christian literature and more the cultural conversation that might provide the intellectual architecture to locate and revere such work. “Whispers of Faith in a Postmodern World” is a nuanced response to Elie’s thought-provoking essay. Gregory Wolfe notes that such “lament[s] over the decline and fall of the arts” have become an almost annual ritual. Wolfe explains that “faith takes on different tones and dimensions depending on the culture surrounding it.” There is no need for a rebirth of Catholic literature. Thankfully, it has never died. But there is a need for a wider swath of reasoned, Catholic-informed literary critics to articulate that literature to the reading public. To explain Wolfe’s observed truth that “today the faith found in literature is more whispered than shouted.” Thinkers like Denis Donoghue, Mark Bosco SJ, James Martin SJ, and Peggy Rosenthal, who allow the beauty of Catholic literature and artistry to shine without buffing away “all things counter, original, spare, strange.” It is time to be catholic in consideration of a literary Catholicism: such paradoxical inclusivity is in concert with the life, and mystery, of Christ. Image via familymwr/Flickr
In just a dozen or so paragraphs, Tim Parks's short piece in praise of ebooks -- titled "E-Books Can't Burn" -- on the NYRB blog is one of the more eloquent defenses I've read of digital reading from the side of literature, rather than, say, convenience or democracy. Some of his more offhand remarks don't hold up to much scrutiny (ebooks are indestructible? Their version of permanence is different than that of printed books, but no less vulnerable.), but the idea at the core of his piece is a fascinating one, and relatively underplayed in the ongoing conversation about our new ways of reading: that the ebook, by clearing away the physical and even fetishistic trappings of the printed book, strips reading down to its essence, "the words themselves and the order they appear in:" The e-book, by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has yet to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience. Certainly it offers a more austere, direct engagement with the words appearing before us and disappearing behind us than the traditional paper book offers, giving no fetishistic gratification as we cover our walls with famous names. It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting surrounding the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves. In this sense the passage from paper to e-book is not unlike the moment when we passed from illustrated children’s books to the adult version of the page that is only text. This is a medium for grown-ups. Now, I don't find that idea fascinating only because it was my own first reaction to the Kindle when I got to test drive one a few days before it debuted back in 2007 (second reaction, actually; my first was, "Gee, a book in 20 seconds!"). There is also a great deal of truth in it, and I still think the ebook is an ideal medium for evaluating literature: a neutral playing field like the orchestra auditions that now take place behind a curtain. Ideally, prize juries should read blind (both of authors' names as well as the works' physical attributes). But we don't only read to evaluate. We read to experience, to know, and to remember, and printed books are an aid, not a hindrance, toward those ends. One commenter on Parks's piece, before he goes off the deep end and ropes digital reading in with the soulless sexual promiscuity that's destroying our civilization, likens a relationship with a book to love: If this 'logic' is indeed true, then by extension, why commit to any woman or man? After all, strip away the aesthetic, the 'fetishistic', and leave us 'to more austere, direct engagement' with, well, any and every being. I'm not sure this "extension" entirely works (I'm certainly not a monogamist when it comes to reading.) but the comparison to an object of love is useful. However we might try to purify our love for someone down to its abstract essentials, that love is irretrievably (and wonderfully) contaminated by more quotidian, physical associations: a timbre of voice, a smell, an ear or a toe, a piece of clothing. Even a book your beloved once read. Those details might be said to merely evoke the love, but they also come to embody it, flesh it out. Your love has a body. Parks argues that it's a "core characteristic" of literature as an art form that it can exist as "pure mental material, as close as one can get to thought itself. Memorized, a poem is as surely a piece of literature in our minds as it is on the page." But if a memorized poem is the purest manifestation of literature, memory itself has a rather impure relationship to the wantonly associative materials that decorate our lives and thoughts. How do we best remember poems (and why are poems easier to memorize than prose, and song lyrics easier to remember than either)? Through details like rhythm and rhyme that bear only an apparently tangential relationship to the "pure mental material" that the words express. These sorts of secondary features of language, like alliteration and puns, sometimes feel like vestigial embarrassments to the austere quest for meaning, but they are the warp and woof of language, reminders that meaning is never separate from physical embodiment. And memory doesn't restrict its associative hunger to language. Memories survive longer, and are easier to access, when they are connected to other senses, to images, sounds, smells, tastes, and especially, as memory artists -- Joshua Foer and Tony Judt most recently among them--- have known for centuries, to spaces, to "memory palaces" that can house and organize them. Memory, in other words, thrives on fetishes, on objects that carry meaning less by essence than association. It covers the walls of its palaces with them. And so does reading. We make sensory associations -- arbitrary but meaningful -- to our reading that house the mental images it creates. This would hardly be a respectable literary essay if I didn't declare here that literature without its fetishes is like Proust without his memory-triggering madeleine -- a passage, by the way, that I first read in the 1989 Vintage International edition of Swann's Way, a book, by the way, that I associate with the warm springtime of my senior year in college, with standing in my kitchen, a place I'm sure I didn't actually read the book, but rather held on to it as an inward symbol of my control over my reading now that my last finals were done, and as an outward badge of what I thought of as the casual sophistication of my post-college self-education (yes, it's true that readers' "fetishistic gratifications" are often as shamefully self-serving and impure as Parks says -- that's part of what makes them so memorable). A physical book makes a house for its content, with pages like rooms we can pass through -- and return to -- in sequence, or jump among, taking shortcuts we can easily retrace because we hold the whole structure in our hands. It's true that a vivid piece of writing, read physically or digitally, creates its own mental spaces -- I have, for instance, a pretty extensive and durable image in my mind of Copper Canyon, the mine town ripe for the picking in Richard Stark's The Score, which I read last year on my phone -- but, perhaps because of its very tendency toward abstraction and austerity, reading thrives in the paper houses we build for it. These houses don't have to be lovely, by the way, although it helps. This isn't really an argument about beauty, about "quality paper" or "handsome masterpieces," in Parks's words. A beautiful, well-designed book is a good thing, and I am sure the pleasure of holding my smooth and nearly weightless little Avon paperback edition of The Moviegoer enhanced my headlong love affair with that novel when I read it a couple of decades ago, just as it still enhances my memory of it (at this point, I remember the cover better than the book; or, rather, my pleasure in the cover, easily recalled, has now become the repository for all the pleasure I took in the book, the specifics of which await a more thorough rereading). But I first read and loved Moby-Dick in an ugly Norton Critical Edition, and The Confidence-Man in an even uglier Meridian paperback, each of which has nevertheless proved an equally sturdy physical structure for my memories of reading. That's not to say that the works don't survive and transcend their material substrate. I could have read Melville anywhere -- even a Kindle -- and it would still have been Melville, though I'm not sure with quite as full a character in my mind as it has now. I've owned one of my favorite books, Housekeeping, in at least three editions (as well as on audio), and read it closely in all of them -- and it was, more or less, the same book each time, but the various editions gave it, and still give it, a place in my mind. When I recall Sylvie and Ruth burning their house -- and how breathtaking it was to read the first time -- I have an image in my mind of their wet, cluttered yard and the flaming curtains, but alongside I have an image of a page, and of an elongated, almost sprightly font that carried the good humor of the book even through its darker scenes. Can you get that from an ebook? I think in some ways you can, though not in the austere, neutral form that Parks celebrates. I don't mean to make a fetish out of printed books, and I'm not asking to burn (or delete) ebooks, or their devices. Maybe all I ask is that digital books be designed in ways that give them character, that help them live and survive individually in your mind, rather than being translated into a common, anonymous display that passes through your memory as quickly as you scroll. Or maybe I suggest that you read your digital books in a way that embeds them in your life and in your sensory memory: on a newly mown lawn, or in the stale surroundings of a passenger train, or with a cup of tea and a small cake for dipping, or while sitting with someone you love. Any way, really, that keeps your books from being entirely pure, gets them a little dirty and adulterated. And as for physical books: I'd just like them to survive, or at least be remembered, and not just as the playthings of a child. Image Credit: Flickr/Kodomut
She doesn't look like white trash. The author photo on the back of her debut book makes Lacy M. Johnson look more like an actress, or maybe a model, with that waterfall of golden hair, that porcelain skin, those bee-stung lips and -- her words, not mine -- "the bluest eyes you've ever seen." But the book, Trespasses: A Memoir, leaves no doubt about its author's white-trash bona fides. Johnson grew up on a farm in north central Missouri, where her people have lived marginal lives for nearly two centuries, managing to fail at nearly everything they try. A farm goes into foreclosure, a fireworks stand goes bust, a restaurant burns to the ground, her parents' marriage shambles toward divorce. When she's a young girl, Johnson's family moves into the nearest town, Macon, and town life provides the petri dish in which her white-trash DNA will buzz and bubble to raunchy, full-blown life. The girl becomes aware of a social pecking order, codified by a litany of slurs townfolk use for country people: appleknocker, cletus, clodbuster, cracker, dirt eater, hayseed, hick, slue foot, yahoo, yokel and, of course, white trash. Despite her insistence that "we are not that," by the time she's a teenager Johnson is a member of this loathed tribe. Not that her mother didn't try to prevent it. As Johnson tells it: Anytime I tried to leave the house wearing dark lipstick in high school, my mother would send me straight back to the bathroom to wash it off. That makes you look trashy, she'd say. Also: cut-off jean shorts, bleaching my hair too blond, letting my roots show, swearing, wearing a dirty t-shirt to the grocery store, wearing shoes without socks, wearing skirts without pantyhose, wearing pantyhose with runs, dirty fingernails, painted fingernails, chewed fingernails, mascara, eye shadow, overplucked eyebrows, underplucked eyebrows, dangly earrings, low-cut shirts, high-cut skirts... That's too many rules for this girl to follow, and soon she's shoplifting, vandalizing, getting drunk, having sex, piercing her own navel, giving herself a Mohawk, and -- do you need to be told this? -- getting her arms and back paved with tattoos. She will work as a cashier at Wal-Mart and she will sell steaks door-to-door, but first she must survive high school in a small town in the Midwest. It isn't easy: You walk to high school every day and you smoke cigarettes and cough down the peach schnapps your mama keeps hidden in the very back of the highest kitchen cabinet and even though it burns your stomach like hellfire you follow the kids to the one-block downtown and drive your truck in circles because it's the only thing to do. You make friends with a girl your same age and she lets you spend the night at her place sometimes and you sleep real soundly in the AIR CONDITIONING. Sometimes she sneaks her boyfriend in and they have sex in the bed right next to you. One night he brings his friend over and he kisses you and claws your clothes off and you just want to sleep but his breath is stale and sweet like the beer your daddy drinks and when you try to push him off and tell him to stop he puts a pillow over your face and jams himself right up inside you and you can hardly breathe it burns so bad but there is nothing God will do. Somehow, Johnson survives and manages to break from the tribe -- one of the acts of trespassing that gives the book its title. She becomes the first member of her family to attend college, winds up earning a Ph.D. in creative writing at the University of Houston, teaches, starts getting published, produces this book. In doing so, she breaks the first commandment in the White-Trash Bible: Don't try to rise above your raising. Because of this programming, she feels like an outsider, a fraud. "I've become a fluent speaker of standard American English," she writes, "though I tend to lapse into dialect when I go home for a visit. I've also changed my clothes and my teeth and my hair -- a slow and gradual process. I cover my tattoos any time I need to be taken seriously. I own a house in an affluent suburb and teach writing at the university. No one knows I don't belong here." I came away from Trespasses full of admiration for its gritty passages, frustrated by its lapses into precious lyricism, and wishing we had more clear-eyed depictions of this neglected subculture. But then I caught myself. Are poor rural white people really neglected in American literature? Hardly. They might be routinely scorned, marginalized, misunderstood, and reduced to caricature, but they're not neglected. In fact, the canon is larded with writers who've put the riches of white trash culture to wondrous use, including Twain, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Zora Neale Hurston, Erskine Caldwell, W.J. Cash, James Ross, Flannery O'Connor, and James Agee, to name a few. More recently, we've been blessed by unflinching explorations of white-trash worlds by the likes of Pete Dexter, Dorothy Allison, Cormac McCarthy, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Donald Ray Pollock, Daniel Woodrell and the recently departed Harry Crews. There has even been humor that rises far above such cartoonish tripe as L'il Abner and The Beverly Hillbillies and Jeff Foxworthy's You know You're a Redneck If.... In The Redneck Manifesto, Jim Goad manages to be funny, angry and in-your-face politically incorrect while defending his white-trash brethren against prevailing media stereotypes. "Multiculturalism," Goad wryly notes, "is a country club that excludes white trash." The term itself came into use before the Civil War. When the English actress Fanny Kemble visited a Georgia plantation in the 1830s, she reported, "The slaves themselves entertain the very highest contempt for white servants, whom they designate as 'poor white trash.'" The term was also in use at that time in the Washington, D.C., area, where blacks and Irish immigrants competed, viciously, for the same lowly jobs. I experienced a similar three-tiered social system while living in North Carolina in the 1970s. There was still a strong after-taste of the state's three pre-integration school systems: one for whites, one for blacks, one for Lumbee Native Americans. The fiercest fighting was never about who would reach the top because it was understood that white people, the non-trashy ones, would always run the show. The fiercest fighting was about staying off the bottom. I even saw this expressed by some unknown poet on the wall of a toilet stall in Lumberton, North Carolina: Black is beautiful. Tan is grand. But white is the color of the big bossman. I've traveled around the world, but nowhere -- not in the hills of Burma, not on the streets of Detroit, Singapore, Havana, Hamburg, Hanoi, or the New York barrio where I now live -- nowhere have I encountered people more foreign, forbidding, and fascinating than American white trash. Maybe this is because of the obvious things -- their weird food and weirder religion, their nasty drinks and drugs, their lawlessness and rococo bursts of violence. Or maybe it's because they're so familiar they can't help but seem exotic. I am, after all, a white Anglo-Saxon with Southern roots. My father's father was a shabby-genteel Virginian who made a modest living as an academic in Georgia, and my mother's father came out of the moonshine hills of southwest Virginia to become the town doctor in nearby Bluefield, W.Va., where he delivered coal miners' babies and died broke, racked by arthritis, which he treated with self-prescribed, self-injected doses of morphine. Exotic maybe, and not too far from the trailer park, but not quite pure-T trash. I grew up in the solid middle class in Detroit and made it through college, but I've always been drawn to my Southern roots and the outer precincts of the white trash world. I've baled hay with its denizens in Vermont, pounded nails with them in North Carolina, picked apples and cut grapes with them in California. I've slept with a few, gotten drunk with more than a few, had one shoot a rifle into my house, watched another (a jealous female) yank out a fistful of my sister's hair. The closer I got, the farther away I felt. In his sometimes gassy book Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness, Matt Wray writes, "White trash names a people whose very existence seems to threaten the symbolic and social order. As such, the term can evoke strong emotions of contempt, anger, and disgust. This is no ordinary slur." While it was undoubtedly coined as a slur and is usually used as one, I've always seen it as a badge of honor for people who have chosen or been forced to live outside the chalk lines of middle-class respectability. In a sense, these are the purest American outlaws, which is to say they are the purest Americans. They're people who announce, in everything they say, wear, eat, drink, think, and do, that they are not one of Tom Wolfe's "Vicks Vapo-Rub chair-arm-doilie burghers." They are, on the contrary, the poet Philip Levine's people, "the ones who live at all cost and come back for more, and who if they bore tattoos -- a gesture they don't need -- would have them say, 'Don't tread on me' or 'Once more with feeling' or "No pasaran' or 'Not this pig.'" Which brings us back to the fact that many American writers -- journalists, novelists, poets -- have mined the riches of white trash. While it would be impossible to list them all, here are a half dozen of my personal favorites, along with short samples of their prose: Marshall Frady The journalist and biographer Marshall Frady published a non-fiction collection in 1980 called Southerners. It included "The Judgment of Jesse Hill Ford," in which Frady tells about the peculiar travails of a writer in a small Tennessee town who had the effrontery to publish a novel called The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones in 1965, at the height of the civil rights movement, that dared to condemn the racial attitudes of the Jim Crow South. Jesse Hill Ford was promptly ostracized by his outraged white neighbors. Then, in a weird twist, he shot and killed two black people who were trespassing on his property. As part of his tortuous campaign to win back the sympathy of his fellow whites -- and thus acquittal for his crime -- Ford travels to a junk yard one day to plead his case to a man named Sonny Waldrop, who has a side line raising fighting dogs. Frady paints the harrowing scene: (Waldrop) was himself strikingly evocative of some overgrown bulldog, with the same brutal impacted massiveness, the clamp of his lower jaw like the prow of a tugboat. His hair was oil-combed back to fat black locks on the nape of his neck, and he was wearing corduroy trousers that drooped below his billowing belly, his thumbs hooked in the pockets. "Hell, yeah, I got a dog out back there now," he offered in his amiable wheeze. "Ain't even full-grown yet, but the goddam meanest dog I ever had -- I mean, two German shepherds jumped on him both at once while he was tied up to the doghouse, and he killed both their asses, by God. Wanna see 'im? C'mon back, I'll show 'im to you..." Beyond a battered sheet of corrugated tin roofing, they saw, still chained to his hovel of a doghouse, the form of a half-grown bulldog with a hide the dull gray of old dishwater, lying on top of the small rise in the cold sunlight -- a third of his neck gnawed away. Still, an instant or two passed before the realization registered, as Waldrop idly nudged the dog's stiff flanks with his boot, that it was a carcass -- had been lying out here a carcass, chained to the doghouse, for at least a whole day. "Greatest goddam little ole dog I ever came by," Waldrop whooped, and for some reason, no one seemed able to bring himself to note out loud that it was actually dead... James Ross Some of the best -- and funniest -- sketches of white trash come from white characters of the "better" classes trying to distance themselves from all that shiftless, inbred, violent, ignorant riffraff. In his only published novel, They Don't Dance Much, James Ross puts these words in the mouth of a wealthy small-town Southerner who's explaining the local problem to a visitor from the North: "The main problem down here is the improvidence of the native stocks, coupled with an ingrained superstition and a fear of progress. They are, in the main, fearful of new things.... I think they merely dislike the pain that is attendant to all learning." You can almost hear the man straining to keep those "native stocks" at arm's length. Walker Percy Like James Ross, Walker Percy understood that white trash offers the novelist a way into that most taboo of American topics: class. Percy’s first novel, The Moviegoer, contains what might be the greatest soliloquy on class in American literature. The novel’s disaffected hero, Binx Bolling, has a blue-blooded aunt in New Orleans who gives him this blistering lecture after he breaks the codes of his class: “I’ll make you a little confession. I’m not ashamed to use the word class. I will also plead guilty to another charge. The charge is that people belonging to my class think they’re better than other people. You’re damn right we’re better. We’re better because we do not shirk our obligations either to ourselves or to others. We do not whine. We do not organize a minority group and blackmail the government. We do not prize mediocrity for mediocrity’s sake. Oh I am aware that we hear a great many flattering things nowadays about your common man -- you know, it has always been revealing to me that he is perfectly content so to be called, because that is what he is: the common man and when I say common I mean common as hell. Our civilization has achieved a distinction of sorts. It will not be remembered for its technology or even its wars but for its novel ethos. Ours is the only civilization in history that has enshrined mediocrity as its national ideal.” Daniel Woodrell In today's Ozarks, as conjured by the wildly gifted Daniel Woodrell, meth is the new moonshine but there's really nothing new under the pitiless sun. It is, always and forever, about family, tribe, and the violence that comes with operating on the margins of society’s rules and laws. Here is a chilling thumbnail sketch from the novel Winter’s Bone: Uncle Teardrop was Jessup’s elder and had been a crank chef longer but he’d had a lab go wrong and it had eaten the left ear off his head and burned a savage melted scar down his neck to the middle of his back. There wasn’t enough ear nub remaining to hang sunglasses on. The hair around the ear was gone, too, and the scar on his neck showed above his collar. Three blue teardrops done in jailhouse ink fell in a row from the corner of the eye on his scarred side. Folks said the teardrops meant he’d three times done grisly prison deeds that needed doing but didn’t need to be gabbed about. They said the teardrops told you everything you had to know about the man and the lost ear just repeated it. He generally tried to sit with his melted side to the wall. Elmore Leonard Most of Elmore Leonard's crime novels take place in cities: Detroit, New Orleans, Miami, Las Vegas, Los Angeles. But his Detroit novels, in particular, make room for characters who've migrated from the country, in this case the white Southerners who've traveled the "Hillbilly Highway" (originally U.S. 23, now I-75), which runs from Appalachia right up to the all-devouring mouth of Henry Ford's River Rouge plant and other Detroit infernos. Leonard's white Southerner outlaws have names like Clement Mansell and Ernest "Stick" Stickley, Jr. (His black Southerner outlaws have names like Virgil Royal and Sportree and Marlys.) These white guys take a pass on the rich local music offerings, from John Lee Hooker to Aretha, Motown, The Stooges, Bob Seger, and The White Stripes. Instead they stick with Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings, and Jerry Reed, the Alabama Wild Man. Here's "Stick" doing a little down-home cooking before a big night on the town: "He fixed himself some greens with salt pork and ring baloney and Jiffy Corn Bread Mix, fell asleep watching the late movie, woke up, and went to bed." And here's Leonard, a master at picking the perfect detail, describing a Motor City street scene in Unknown Man #89 from 1977, when Detroit was on its long steep slide: He had a wonderful job taking care of the Mayflower, the actual carved-in-stone name of the apartment building on Selden, in the heart of the Cass Corridor, where he could sit in his window and watch the muggings in broad daylight and the whores go by and the people from Harlan County and East Tennessee on their way to the grocery store for some greens and cornmeal. We know Leonard' s characters by what they eat, what they wear and how they talk, as much as by what they do. Therein lies his art. John Jeremiah Sullivan While Walker Percy, Elmore Leonard, and Flannery O'Connor frequently use white-trash behavior -- and those who imagine themselves above it -- as a way to inject sly humor into their writing, John Jeremiah Sullivan goes a different route. In "Upon This Rock," the lead essay in Pulphead, his superb non-fiction collection from last year, Sullivan falls in with a group of buddies from West Virginia who have come to a Christian rock festival in rural Pennsylvania called Creation. Their names are Bub, Darius, Jake, Ritter, Josh, and Pee Wee, good country people who strum guitars, eat frog legs, and have accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior. Many writers would dismiss them as white trash and treat them with condescension or outright disdain. Sullivan treats them with such unblinking candor and respect that it seems like a small miracle: In their lives they had known terrific violence...Half of their childhood friends had been murdered -- shot or stabbed over drugs or nothing. Others had killed themselves. Darius's grandfather, great-uncle and one-time best friend had all committed suicide. When Darius was growing up his father was in and out of jail; at least once his father had done hard time... But in addition to knowing violence, these young men know, and love, the natural world: It came out that these guys spent much if not most of each year in the woods. They lived off game -- as folks do, they said, in their section of Braxton County. They all knew the plants of the forest, which were edible, which cured what. Darius pulled out a large piece of cardboard folded in half. He opened it under my face: a mess of sassafras roots. He wafted their scent of black licorice into my face and made me eat one... And: "It's fixin' to shower here in about ten minutes," Darius said. I went and stood beside him, tried to look where he was looking. "You want to know how I know?" he said. He explained it to me, the wind, the face of the sky, how the leaves on the tops of the sycamores would curl and go white when they felt the rain coming, how the light would turn a certain "dead" color. He read the landscape to me like a children's book. "See over there," he said, "how that valley's all misty? It hasn't poured there yet. But the one in back is clear -- that means it's coming our way." Minutes later it started to rain, big, soaking, percussive drops... So there you have it: peach schnapps, rape, dead dogs, fearful native stocks, angry bluebloods, disfigured crank chefs, ring baloney, the Alabama Wild man, and people who can read the natural world like a children’s book. It is any wonder my fascination is boundless? We would love to hear about your own favorite writers, along with brief passages from their writings on the riches of white trash. Feel free to include them below, in the Comments Section. Image Credit: Flickr/edenpictures
Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a new monthly feature at The Millions. Walker Percy, author of the 1962 National Book Award-winning novel The Moviegoer, believed in the power of film on many levels — as a means of escape, as the unifier of cultural experience, as a metaphor for all the ways we tell each other stories. And in fact his own life story had the kind of arc that could have been pulled straight from a movie of just about any era. Perhaps that’s why he identified with the medium, perhaps that’s why he found both hope and despair in it. Percy was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1916, the oldest of three boys. When he was 14 his father, LeRoy Walker Percy, shot himself — as had his grandfather the year after he was born. His mother took the boys to spend a year with their grandmother before moving on to Greenville, Mississippi, where they all moved in with LeRoy Percy’s cousin, William Alexander Percy. Two years later Martha Percy was killed when her car plunged into a creek, and Uncle Will, as he was known to the boys, adopted all three brothers: Walker, Leroy, and Phinizy. Will Percy was something of a Renaissance man; a lawyer, poet, plantation heir, and progressive activist, he was by all reports devoted to the boys and their education. He had an enormous library, which he encouraged them to explore, and it was in Greenville that Walker Percy developed the habit of inquisitive, investigative reading that would shape a lifetime of work. Uncle Will also introduced Walker to Shelby Foote, a neighborhood boy his own age, and the two hit it off immediately. (Foote went on to become a successful writer and historian himself; his trilogy The Civil War: A Narrative was the basis for Ken Burns’ 1990 documentary.) Their deep friendship and mutual encouragement sustained both writers’ careers and lasted until Walker’s death. Walker attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as did Foote, two years behind him. He then went on to New York, to Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, to study pathology. There he began to feel the first pricklings — a term he would use often in his fiction — of the melancholia that was the ruin of his father and grandfather. He responded by initiating several years of psychotherapy and the escapist moviegoing habit that would last a lifetime. Years later, describing his love of the movies to Robert Coles in the New Yorker, he pinpointed those days as the beginning of his consciousness as a novelist, even though he had no desire, at the time, to write: I think at the movies I was getting to know how people looked at the world, what they thought — the way a doctor does. The movies are not just fantasies; for a lot of people they provide important moments, maybe the only point in the day, or even the week, when someone — a cowboy, a detective, a crook — is heard asking what life is all about, asking what is worth fighting for, or asking if anything is worth fighting for. Percy’s medical career was cut short in 1942, when he contracted tuberculosis six months into an internship at Bellevue Hospital. He spent the next two years recovering in a sanatorium in the Adirondacks, observant and restless as ever but largely confined to bed. While both his brothers and his best friend were serving their country honorably, he was flat on his back, dramatically detached from action of any kind. Percy had always been somewhat reserved — unsurprising for a boy who had sustained such huge losses so early. In the hospital, cut off from friends and family and any feeling of connection to world events, he turned further inward, and, as always, found escape in books. Rather than medical texts, though, Percy picked up Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, and then Camus, Sartre, Thomas Mann, Kafka, and Tolstoy. The answers he was seeking, he realized, were not necessarily to be found in science, and the questions he was forming were new as well. As he would later explain in an essay titled “From Facts to Fiction” in his collection Signposts in a Strange Land, What began to interest me was not so much a different question as a larger question, not the physiological and pathological processes within man’s body but the problem of man himself, the nature and destiny of man; specifically and more immediately, the predicament of man in a modern technological society. Percy returned to Columbia in 1944 as an instructor, but relapsed within a couple of months, this time ending up at a sanatorium in Connecticut. He went home to Greenville a year later and looked for a place to settle down, driving out to Santa Fe with Shelby Foote but returning a few months later. In 1946 he married Mary Bernice Townshend, whom he had met five years earlier while working over the summer at a Greenville clinic, and the two moved to a summer place of Uncle Will’s in Sewanee, Tennessee. Percy had grown up nominally Presbyterian, but for some time had been feeling the need to solidify and centralize his faith. Six months after their marriage, he and his wife converted to Catholicism, a decision that would deeply inform his writing and thinking for the rest of his life. In 1947, when Percy was 31 years old, they moved to a furnished house in New Orleans. Its owner, the philosopher Julius Friend, had amassed a large library, and again, Percy was able to further his autodidactic ethical education. He never returned to the practice of medicine, and instead devoted himself to reading: philosophy, sociology, psychiatry, and semiotics. Percy immersed himself deeply in his studies. A modest inheritance enabled him to spend his days reading widely and methodically, living the life of a gentleman scholar. In the fall of 1954, he published his first essay in Thought, the Fordham University quarterly, titled “Symbol as Need.” It posited semiotics as a discipline more dependent on the spiritual than the scientific; that symbolization is not a biological need, but a social activity. He followed it two years later with the dense, technical, “Symbol as Hermeneutic in Existentialism: A Possible Bridge from Empiricism” in Philosophy & Phenomenological Research. Percy was 40 years old, fascinated by states of consciousness, existential anxiety, ontology and its relation to his faith, and the mystery of what he called “the zone of the other.” He began publishing scholarly articles regularly, but all the while considering other, more accessible ways to frame his thoughts. Shelby Foote had published his first novel, Tournament, in 1949, and in the course of their lively correspondence he never stopped encouraging — and goading — Percy to move on to fiction. Percy did, in fact, complete two novels that would never see print; the first collected a series of rejections, and the second he never bothered sending out. In the meantime he published philosophical essays, book reviews, and articles. But then in 1958, at age 44, he started work on what would become The Moviegoer, and suddenly everything fell into place. As Percy describes it: I can only report that something did happen and it happened all of a sudden. Other writers have reported a similar experience. It is not like learning a skill or a game at which, with practice, one gradually improves. One works hard all right, but what comes, comes all of a sudden and as a breakthrough. One hits on something... It is almost as if the discouragement were necessary, that one has first to encounter despair before one is entitled to hope. The Moviegoer narrates a few days in the life of Binx Bolling, a disaffected young New Orleans man on the eve of his 30th birthday and on the brink of growing up. Describing it in a few words is an empty exercise — this is a novel of nuance and inference, about unarticulated feelings, the fear of malaise, and the life force that simply will not be denied. Percy was thinking hard about Kierkegaard, especially his postulation in Either/Or that “Boredom is the root of all evil... The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings.” His exploration of the fault lines between alienation and engagement in The Moviegoer is both strange and exhilarating, with moments of stunning beauty. Percy sets his readers up to refute the assumptions he’s handed them: Bolling is a self-identified outsider yet he’s very much in the world, and while he goes to the movies to escape, at the same time they bring him to life. There is a moment at a drive-in when Binx is watching a Western -- sitting on the warm hood of a car in the company of a new girlfriend and his beloved, disabled half-brother Lonnie -- that made me feel as alive as any words on a page ever have: A good night. Lonnie happy (he looks around at me with the liveliest sense of the secret between us; the secret is that Sharon is not and never will be onto the little touches we see in the movie and, in the seeing, know that the other sees — as when Clint Walker tells the saddle tramp in the softest easiest old Virginian voice: "Mister, I don’t believe I’d do that if I was you" — Lonnie is beside himself, doesn’t know whether to watch Clint Walker or me), this ghost of a theater, a warm Southern night, the Western Desert and this fine big sweet piece, Sharon. He was nearly 45 when the book was published. Sales were initially slow and reviews were scattered, but the following year it went on to win the National Book Award for fiction, beating out Catch-22, Franny and Zooey, and Revolutionary Road. Five years later he published his second novel, The Last Gentleman, which introduced Will Barrett, another of what Robert Coles referred to as Percy’s “anguished pilgrims.” Barrett is also Southern, also chronically detached — the novel’s opening finds him in New York’s Central Park, spying on people through a telescope — and he’s also prone to fugue states, although his are medical in nature, not cinematically induced. He too undertakes an odyssey in the process of connecting with the world, although his covers more physical and less emotional ground than Binx Bolling’s; it’s a good book, but The Moviegoer would have been a hard act to follow. Still, Percy had become, irrevocably, a novelist. He took the job seriously, sitting down to write in his office over his daughter’s bookstore every day without fail, and when Foote, his original cheerleader, was floundering with his last novel, Percy cheerfully dispensed advice and encouragement. He never stopped writing, going on to publish four more novels — Love in the Ruins (1971), Lancelot (1977), The Second Coming (1980), and The Thanatos Syndrome (1987), and several collections of his essays, including The Message in the Bottle (1975), Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (1983), and the posthumous Signposts in a Strange Land (1991). All his work, fiction and nonfiction, was about seeking in one form or another — seeking connection, seeking involvement, seeking God in the everyday. While he never had another hit like The Moviegoer turned out to be, he was unwavering in his regard for the truth. While he complained to Foote that he had been pigeonholed as a “Christian Existentialist,” it also seemed to please him at least a little. As the real-life version of an orphan boy from some kind of dark fairy tale, Percy must have loved the promise held by the narrative arc of the movies. You entered the dark theater and two hours later all would be revealed, all would be redeemed, and the lights would go up. In fact, his life did turn out well. He discovered what he loved to do when he was old enough to do it well and realized enough success to keep at it, and was able to stay true to his precepts throughout. Nobody else important left him: he married well, his daughters and grandchildren stayed close by, Foote remained a treasured friend — and was with his family at his bedside when he died — and he seemed to remain on fine terms with his God throughout. Walker Percy’s was a good tale, well told. As he wrote in 1966, Perhaps the only moral to the story is that a serious writer, or any other artist for that matter, is a peculiar bird who has to find his own way in his own time and who had better be left alone to do so. Lights up. Bonus Link: Living Out the Day: The Moviegoer Turns Fifty
1. Sebastian Flyte, the eccentric drunkard at the heart of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, after describing the degrees of religious devotion in his English Catholic family, finally confesses to Charles Ryder: “...I wish I liked Catholics more.” “They seem just like other people.” “My dear Charles, that’s exactly what they’re not — particularly in this country, where they’re so few... everything they think important is different from other people. They try and hide it as much as they can, but it comes out all the time.” There was a time in the middle of the 20th Century when Catholic writers, many of them converts to the Church, were icons of the Anglo-American literary scene. In the U.K. writers like Waugh, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, and J. R. R. Tolkien were preeminent, while Americans Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, J.F. Powers (his novel Morte D’Urban won the National Book Award in 1963), and Thomas Merton were celebrated on this side of the Atlantic. Percy, whose novel The Moviegoer won the 1962 National Book Award, in a way articulated a Catholic artistic vision when he described his pursuit of “...A theory of man, man as more than organism, more than consumer – man the wayfarer, man the pilgrim, man in transit, on a journey.” Yet despite such a rich Catholic literary heritage with many contemporary admirers — one can’t help thinking of how passionately the MFA/Creative Writing/Workshop establishment venerates the stories of Flannery O’Connor — there has not been a new generation of Catholic writers to take up Percy’s vision, one where their inherent “otherness” is not edged to the margins, but is at the very heart of their craft. The obvious reason for this literary vacuum is that the Christian faith, and the Catholic Church in particular, have been in full-cultural retreat since the 1960s. In the wake of the sexual revolution and the women’s movement, many Catholics left the Church over its opposition to abortion, artificial contraception, and the ordination of women, to name just a few hot-button topics. And then, beginning in the late 1990s, a wave of priest sex-abuse crimes came to light that have scandalized untold numbers of Catholics. Yet there was another revolution in the 1960s — an internal Catholic one — that was in many ways as profound as the one taking place in the streets of Paris, New York, and London. It was a liturgical revolution, and it impacted each and every Catholic at that most fundamental unit of faith — Sunday morning Mass. 2. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI released the document Summorum Pontificum. Benedict’s Apostolic Letter got little attention outside of Catholic circles, but within the Church it was headline news: with the stroke of a pen, the Pope gave permission for parishes worldwide to again celebrate the so-called “Latin Mass,” or Tridentine Mass as it’s officially known. So after a four-decade absence the ancient Mass that Dante, Mozart, Montaigne, and Michelangelo knew so well, the Mass whose liturgical prayers and hymns were the well-spring of western classical music, was once more in front of Catholics. In the 1960s, when Evelyn Waugh learned of plans to alter the Latin Mass, he wrote a series of worried letters to then English Archbishop John Cardinal Heenan. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Waugh’s worst fears were realized as English replaced Latin, priests suddenly faced the people (as if to entertain them), and the reverential tradition of kneeling at the altar rail to receive communion on one’s tongue was replaced with the breezy practice of taking the host standing and in the hand. In short, what for centuries had seemed eternal, mysterious, and rich in symbolism — the very marrow that feeds artists — was suddenly being conducted in the same language as sitcoms, TV commercials, and business meetings. The German Catholic novelist Martin Mosebach in his 2003 book of essays, The Heresy of Formlessness, argues that the reform of the Latin Mass in the ‘60s left many believers, like Waugh, with a profound spiritual deficit. “All have lost something priceless,” he writes, “namely, the innocence that accepts (the Mass) as something God-given, something that comes down to man as a gift from heaven.” Mosebach believes that even James Joyce, who was no fan of the Catholic Church, owed his “rank linguistic extravagance” to the rituals and language of the Latin Mass. In the opening passages of Ulysses there is even a reference to the psalm “Judica,” which is prayed at the start of the old Mass. “Ulysses could never have been written without the old liturgy; here we sense the liturgy’s immense cultural and creative power,” Mosebach writes. “Even its opponents could not avoid being in its shadow; they actually depended for nourishment on its aesthetic substance.” During the 40-year absence of the Latin Mass it has become clear that novels — both by Catholics and non-Catholics — grappling with what used to be called “the drama of salvation” are no longer just rare, but almost unthinkable nowadays. The novelist Jonathan Lethem, who is not Catholic, brilliantly captured the attitude of contemporary writers toward “eternal questions” during a recent spat with literary critic James Wood (Lethem took issue with elements of Wood’s review of The Fortress Of Solitude): Can Wood’s own negative capability not reach the possibility that in some life dramas "God" never made it to the audition, let alone failed to get onstage? Pity me if you like, but I can’t remember even considering believing in either God or Santa Claus. In the years since the suicide of David Foster Wallace, much has been made of his personal struggles: his battle with addiction, his appetite for self-help books, as well as his desire to write in a more emotionally communicative manner, and not rely exclusively on his immense intellectual and verbal acumen, or what he called “witty arty writing” in a letter to his former girlfriend, the memoirist Mary Karr. Evan Hughes, in a New York magazine article on Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Jeffrey Eugenides, wrote that Wallace, at the end of his life, “quietly sought out spiritual answers and flirted with joining the Catholic Church.” And if this comes as a surprise, it should be noted that Karr later became Catholic, chronicling her conversion in the book Lit: A Memoir. And while it’s tempting to think of what a writer of David Foster Wallace’s caliber, like James Joyce before him, would have gleaned from the immense cultural patrimony of the Catholic Church and the Mass, it’s anyone’s guess whether the reemergence of the Latin Mass will spark a Catholic literary renaissance. In the end, searing inquiries into the nature of man and his place vis-à-vis the Divine always comes down to belief of one kind or another, and that’s precisely what puzzled Waugh’s character Charles Ryder about his friend Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited: “But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.” “Can’t I?” “I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.” “Oh yes, I believe that. It’s lovely idea.” “But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.” “But I do. That’s how I believe.” Image credit: kainr/Flickr
1. Catch-22 has been receiving a lot of press lately for its fiftieth anniversary, and why not? Joseph Heller’s masterpiece has permeated the culture in a way few novels do, its title becoming a catchphrase to readers and non-readers alike. It also happens to be a very fine book. I certainly thought so when I read it at St. Louis University High, where it had become something of a rite of passage for juniors thanks to the efforts of Mr. Jim Raterman, whose energetic classes were known to include impersonations of B-25 bombers perfected by his upbringing near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton. Heller’s genius for encasing a humanistic tale in absurdist farce made the book endlessly appealing to a bunch of seventeen-year-olds whose young intellects were fermenting in an all-male prep school environment that put a high valuation on the quick reply, the clever pun, and the high-minded non sequitur. Many of us also happened to be terribly earnest, and Catch-22, with its indictment of war and solicitude of the individual, spoke directly to the bits of Jesuit social teaching that we picked up in theology class. The book felt decidedly important to us. Unnoticed in the shadow of Catch-22's wings, another book is marking its golden anniversary this year, one that also felt and still feels terribly important to me. I don’t remember how I learned that Catch-22 — along with another favorite book of mine, Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road — had lost its bid for the 1962 National Book Award to a slim volume by a man with the strange name of Walker Percy. Literary awards obviously don’t constitute the last word on merit, but I was curious to read the book judged superior to touchstones of my young reading life. I didn’t get around to The Moviegoer for two years after finishing Catch-22, but when I did, I knew that insofar as book awards have a power of ratification, the National Book Award committee had done its job in 1962. Still, when it comes to great literature, laurels like the NBA are paltry acknowledgments of a book’s real power; I found this to be especially true of Percy’s book. Catch-22 had been important to me as a student of literature, and Revolutionary Road had been important to my early development as a writer. But The Moviegoer was important to me as a human being. Like few other books I’ve ever read, it changed me. 2. F. Scott Fitzgerald thought “the purpose of a work of fiction is to appeal to the lingering after-effects in the reader’s mind.” Other than Fitzgerald’s own works, I’ve never read a novel whose power lies so fully not in the course of being read, but in the astral glow of having been read. When I completed The Moviegoer for the first time, I was at a loss to explain the significance of the 242 pages I’d just traversed, but I knew they had been important. I felt the novel working on me in strange ways, like a slow-release drug. That so much of The Moviegoer’s effect is felt when it’s not being read can be attributed not to some defect in Percy’s prose, but rather to the nature of the novel’s moral project. That project is fixed in the book’s epigraph, a quote from Kierkegaard that Percy takes as his lodestar: “...[T]he specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.” This is the condition that the narrator, Jack “Binx” Bolling, finds himself in at the novel’s opening, and it is the condition in which Percy keeps his narrator for most of the book; only upon the book’s completion does the reader realize just how mired Binx really is. Binx’s life is characterized by a vague, not altogether unpleasant sense of discontent; he’s unsure of his purpose in life, and his inability to discern it is both sweet and enervating. He devotes most of his energy to “the search,” an ill-defined quest for an ill-defined higher truth: “What is the nature of the search? you ask. ...The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.” In this formulation of Binx’s preoccupation, Percy sounds like a contemporary who was also explicitly in search of ultimate meaning: Saul Bellow. Unlike Bellow’s characters, however, Binx makes good on his threats to stiff-arm society. Bellovian heroes like Charlie Citrine and Moses Herzog see the everydayness of life as both working against and essential to their own searches; in the end, they can never foreswear community. Binx has no such qualms. He calls himself “a model citizen” because he enjoys paying his bills and renewing his licenses on time, but he uses his conscientiousness in these matters as an excuse to avoid any other form of civic activity. His formidable aunt, who urges him to enter medical school, asks, “Don’t you feel obliged to use your brain and to make a contribution?” To which Binx responds, “No’m.” He treats his brokerage job as a game, has serial affairs with secretaries he sees as interchangeable, and, in the novel’s climax, fails to recognize the precarious mental state of his cousin Kate. He floats around in a sort of dreamlike state, bemused and terrified by the world. Fittingly, he lives on a street called Elysian Fields; like the dim realm the Greeks imagined for their deceased heroes, Binx’s New Orleans is neither perdition nor paradise. In an indeterminate world, Binx is convinced only of the importance of his search. “[N]ot for five minutes will I be distracted from the wonder,” he declares. Such an assertion sounds off-putting in its solipsism, but in the context of the work as a whole, the reader is inclined to support Binx thanks to Percy’s refusal of irony. To revive the Bellow comparison: Bellow’s characters are comically solipsistic and hapless, and even a book as tightly locked within the first person as Herzog leaves room for the reader to laugh at the narrator’s overeducated lack of self-awareness. Percy wrestles this outlet away from the reader, forcing him to perform Kierkegaard’s insight along with Binx. Against his better instincts, the reader takes pleasure in sharing Binx’s aimlessness, though it quickly becomes clear that he ought not to. Early in the novel, Binx says, “Everything is upside-down for me,” but this is inaccurate. “Upside-down” describes a state of inverted order, yes, but a state of order nevertheless. Things aren’t reversed for Binx so much as they are polysemic, freighted with too much mysterious possibility, both beautiful and alienating. Even his confusion lacks order. Speaking enviously of his aunt, who is dismayed at the deterioration of Southern gentility, Binx says: For her too the fabric is dissolving, but for her even the dissolving makes sense. ...It seems so plain when I see it through her eyes. My duty in life is simple. I go to medical school. I live a long useful life serving my fellowman. What’s wrong with this? All I have to do is remember it. But alas, Binx can only look through his aunt’s eyes for so long; when looking through his own, an action as simple as enrolling in medical school threatens the search — would pose a threat to the world’s beauty, while simultaneously risking meaninglessness amidst the vastness of the universe. “Where there is chance of gain, there is also chance of loss,” Binx says. “Whenever one courts great happiness, one also risks malaise.” Waking from the dream bears costs that Binx is unwilling to bear. The reader, too, is reluctant to awaken. Who hasn’t yearned for a life free of banality’s demands? Realizing that the search itself is what poisons Binx is one of the book’s aforementioned after-effects. Percy works to make indolence alluring, reserving some of his most lyrical writing for Binx’s paralyzing reveries. Here’s Binx, recalling his college days: ...I had spent the four years propped on the front porch of the fraternity house, bemused and dreaming, watching the sun shine through the Spanish moss, lost in the mystery of finding myself alive at such a time and place. It’s a lovely rendering of a feeling we’ve all experienced at one time or another, and it’s also an appealing description of what sounds like a fine way to spend an afternoon. What’s not so evident beneath Percy’s hushed, precise prose is that this passage points directly back to the epigraph. Here is despair, well hidden. Appropriately, it is the source of so many American dreams, the movies, that provides ready fuel for Binx’s reveries. Movies limn his reality; he claims to have no memories of his own: “What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the ground dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.” And he depends on films to confirm his existence, a phenomenon he dubs “certification”: Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere. To describe The Moviegoer’s style as “cinematic” in any conventional sense would be a stretch (unless one has the cinema of Godard in mind). But there is a way in which Percy’s novel is reminiscent of film. So tight is Percy’s control over our emotional response to his work, so closely does he make it hew to Binx’s, that reading The Moviegoer is not unlike seeing the world through the ruthless eye of the camera, the lens’s vision substituted for our own. 3. I would be remiss to discuss The Moviegoer without a word about the book’s theology; for better or for worse, Percy is first and foremost known as a Catholic writer. Here, autobiography may be helpful. I read The Moviegoer during the spring break of my freshman year of college, two-thirds of the way through a difficult year. My dad and I traveled to Jupiter, Florida to watch the Cardinals in spring training. What was only a notion during childhood visits to Florida now blossomed into a fully formed realization: with the exception of the ballpark, Florida filled me with dread. The strip malls, the prevalence of faded pastel colors, the salt-laced air that lashed everything — these all inescapably suggested decay. The crisis came on Saturday night, when we went to Mass. Unfamiliar churches are also anxiety-provoking environments for me, and Jupiter’s was worse than most: its garish white marble and overwhelmingly old congregation gave it the feel of a mausoleum for the living. Listening to the priest go on in English rendered incomprehensible by a thick accent, the brand of Catholic humanism I’d carefully crafted in the amniotic environs of high school gave way like a weak levee before a flood. Everything that could conceivably be called meaningful seemed suddenly contingent, including meaning itself. For the better part of an hour, I lost all my faith, Catholic and otherwise. Back at the hotel, I took refuge in The Moviegoer. No longer did I see Binx as a “strange man,” as I called him in several margin notes; I saw a version of myself. In the Binx who spent his college days mooning about on the fraternity porch, I saw the young man who had thus far spent college standing against the wall at parties and walking home alone, wondering why he couldn’t make his new school feel like home. In the Binx who shunned all social obligations, I saw the kid who kept his classmates at a wary length, failing to see the necessity of relationships. And in the Binx who yearns to find his role in life, I saw the young writer who could no longer see the point of writing, because some day the sun would wink out, and all the words would disappear. As melodramatic as it sounds, such was my state of mind that spring, and for most of my first two years of college. The Moviegoer didn’t heal me, but it did make me believe in healing once again, in large part because I was comforted by the fairly obvious truth that Walker Percy had traveled this lonely path before me. A Catholic convert, a medical doctor, and a devotee of Kierkegaard, Percy hardly lived by blind faith. When I wrote earlier that The Moviegoer achieves its powerful effect by shutting off all views of its offstage workings, I wasn’t being entirely precise: one senses the author’s intimate knowledge of the sort of bewilderment that Binx and the reader are made to feel. In 1987, Percy described his Christian existentialism for The Paris Review: I suppose I would prefer to describe it as a certain view of man, an anthropology, if you like; of man as wayfarer, in a rather conscious contrast to prevailing views of man as organism, as encultured creature, as consumer, Marxist, as subject to such and such a scientific or psychological understanding — all of which he is, but not entirely. It is the “not entirely” I’m interested in — like the man Kierkegaard described who read Hegel, understood himself and the universe perfectly by noon, but then had the problem of living out the rest of the day. “The problem of living out the rest of the day” — it was exactly the problem I was facing in Florida, from the second we left the ballpark; and it was exactly the problem I was facing in Chicago, from the second I finished my daily reading in Adam Smith or Plato. Percy treated this problem seriously, and I was grateful to him for this. I wouldn’t have been able to stomach, for instance, Bellow’s thumbing his nose at the problem. For Bellow, laughter is crucial to living out the rest of the day; it is a form of resistance. At the end of The Adventures of Augie March, the titular character wonders, “Or is the laugh at nature — including eternity — that thinks it can win over us and the power of hope? Nah, nah! I think. It never will.” But to Percy, laughter is a sad expression of our reluctance to go along with nature, too solemn to satirize. Thus, Binx’s wry description of his uncle is also in some ways a rueful description of himself: “He is an exemplary Catholic, but it is hard to know why he takes the trouble. For the world he lives in, the City of Man, is so pleasant that the City of God must hold little in store for him.” Binx is hardly an exemplary Catholic, but he desperately wants to believe in some higher power beyond the material world. And here is the trouble: his desire for the existence of a God figure is rooted not in any hope in an afterlife that would plug the hole of death, but in a need that this world, with its unsettling mixture of beauty and transience, have some ultimate meaning. Like most people, Binx only intermittently grasps death as a reality, and this failure lends Binx’s life its desultory quality: since he has all the time in the world, he can spend his days scanning the horizon for a signal from another world. The Moviegoer didn’t shake me from my melancholy immediately, but it did help me to recognize that I was on the same terms with my depression as Binx is with his search; inhabiting it was comfortable in the way that staying in bed all day is comfortable. When I decided to transfer after my second year of college, I wrote about The Moviegoer in my application essay, not because the book had directly spurred my decision to leave Chicago, but because the memory of it, carried around for a year, pricked me as long as I was content to simply mark time. Transferring was for me not simply a change in schools; it was the first time I’d acted out of faith in years, and I wanted Walker Percy to get his due.
Sophie's Choice is a sensational novel. I do not mean sensational in the strictly complimentary sense. Yes, this novel is a barnstormer. But when I think sensational also think tawdry, exploitative of our baser emotions. I think the storyline has percolated pretty well through the American cultural consciousness; I hadn't read the novel until this year, but I knew of the titular choice. Without giving it all away to the uninitiated, the novel is about a love triangle in Brooklyn in 1947: Stingo the callow Southerner, Nathan the manic Jew, and Sophie the beautiful Pole--a Holocaust survivor (and a Catholic). I loved the first chapter of Sophie's Choice, wonderful first-person stuff about a young Virginian trying to make it in the big city. I had just finished The Moviegoer, and I was thinking this was kind of like The Moviegoer goes to New York. I do, on occasion, love the self-deprecating, over-educated, over-sexed men of literature. It would be downright un-American not to--they are the majority of our modern literary output. I stayed up well past my bedtime to finish Sophie's Choice. I read its 500 pages in a day and a half. I was gripped, to be sure; I laughed, cried, and so forth. How could I not cry? It's about the Holocaust. But upon completing the novel and reflecting a bit, I felt a little sleazy about the whole thing. It's not just about the Holocaust, for starters. There are two main narratives at work in this sad and sensational story: Sophie's Auschwitz horrors, and Stingo's penile travails. Yes--Sophie's Choice is a My Dick novel par excellence. These two narratives trot along side by side until the final chapter, when they converge in a seedy hotel room in Washington. In this chapter Sophie reveals her horrible choice, and Stingo, hitherto afflicted with virginity, finally gets relief for his long-suffering member. And what relief! "The stiff prick slid in and out of that incandescent tunnel...Smothering for minute after minute in her moist mossy cunt's undulant swamp." I'm not a prude; I think there should be sex in novels. However, while I'm not certain how it is best achieved on the page, I feel quite certain that "mossy cunt" and "undulant swamp" are not the ideal epithets. I mean, Jesus. Also, it's just so cheesy--the release of her secrets, the release of his orgasm. It reminded me of the supremely ill-advised end of the film Munich, where the scenes of the athletes being shot to death alternate with scenes of Eric Bana in his sexual extremis. I don't wish to discount the agonizing reality of youth's frustrated desire, or of our collective tortured relationship with sex--a vivid demonstration of the expression "This is why we can't have nice things." I also know it's a trope: young, inexperienced man taken in hand by a foxy, damaged older woman--his life changed forever. I've read about it, notably in A Widow for One Year (which takes a fair number out of pages of Styron's book, I think). It just strikes me as a shame that Sophie has to go to Auschwitz, and then come to America and get raped on the subway, and then get beat up and peed on by her unhinged boyfriend, and all the time her pal Stingo gives her his sympathy and his friendship and his stupendous boner. Sophie's walking up the stairs, down the stairs, to the Maple Court bar, carrying this immense sadness, and she's also this walking amalgam of melons, peaches, hams. She's food, for God's sake. The "former starveling" with a residual iron deficiency, has got an ass like a "fantastic, prize-winning pear." I suspect that there are classier ways to express the ubiquity and complexity of sex in human experience. Through Stingo's narrative, we can't help but see Sophie making her blonde, luscious way through the concentration camp, surrounded by leering lesbians and grabby third-reichers. I am not insensible to the way that sex is tied up in everything. I know we can't put sex things in one box (ahem) and our horrors and sadness into another. And it's on the record that William Styron was not insensible to Sophie's uncomfortable position as a veritable grocery store of feminine delights. Maybe he did want to leave us thinking about the razor's edge that separates good, healthy libidinousness from the cold, rapey world. Still, in detailing Sophie's bottom, and Stingo's youthful urges, and the confused role he played in the tragedy of it all, I'm not entirely sure if the novelist is aware of how grotesque it sometimes comes across. I'm not saying Stingo is implicated in her ruin or anything. He's not a Nazi; he's a kid with a conscience and a boner. I get it. It's not wrong to have a boner. It's just that the juxtaposition of elements in this story is such that, sometimes, it serves neither Styron's art nor the gravity of his subject. I said the novel was a barnstormer and I meant it. It's an engaging read. I think the primary reason I'm hung up on all the boner stuff is that stupid ending, which really drove home the fact that half the book was about said boner. Maybe if Sophie's big finale hadn't started with that mossy swampy coitus, I wouldn't be left musing on her pear-like posterior and how much Stingo wanted to squeeze it. Maybe then I would be be thinking more about Sophie's horrible choice, which was probably some real woman's choice. But then it wouldn't have been so sensational, I guess.
Anyone unfamiliar with Pete Dexter, and anyone familiar, should have a look at his recent Spooner. It is uncharacteristic of his work in that it is blocked in by autobiography more than the other books. By that I mean large blocks of autobiography barge around, like icebergs, keeping the thing imbalanced in the way that his fictions are balanced. I worked my way through, with pleasure, a 900-page early draft. These cumbersome icebergs, troubling in the sea of smooth and coherent fiction, are pure delights in this book. This book will recommend to you his others: the NBA-winning Paris Trout, the wily and frightening Paper Boy, the ripped-off-by-HBO Deadwood (not a dime to Dexter). As I would recommend Walker Percy after his "best book" The Moviegoer, so I would recommend Pete Dexter after Paris Trout. What do Pete do? Pete writes the truth as quietly as possible. In Spooner, after his character is expelled from kindergarten for being overfond of the teacher, he wanders around town with "a crayon-sized erection," inexplicably apparently cut from the final version of the book. Pete was recently nipped by a puppy and went down for nine weeks in hospital with staph infection all the way to the spine and now is on the edge without full use of right arm so get his books and pull him through. They will pull you through. More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions
The book that has left the greatest impression on me in 2010 is not, surprisingly, a novel. It’s Tony Judt’s heartbreaking collection, The Memory Chalet. Judt died, far too young, in August from ALS. Imprisoned in a failing body, his mind turned to memories of his youth in Europe, and he wrote a series of unbearably moving essays, the majority of which were published in The New York Review of Books during the last months of his life. Judt poignantly bids farewell not just to his own life, but to a way of life that leaves us all markedly poorer for its loss. An impassioned, independent, alert thinker full of healthy skepticism and wry humor, Judt was the result of particular kind of European education, and we are unlikely to see the likes of him again. Other memorable books this year: Saul Bellow’s Letters is everything you have heard and more, an essential text for any writer, aspiring or published. I was directed to James Salter’s A Sport and A Pastime, a marvelous, haunting rendering of an erotic affair in France (sex, Paris, what’s not to like?), and now I am feverishly reading all the Salter I can get my hands on. And I returned to Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer this year as the core text for my UCLA novel students, and was amazed at how much I’d missed when I’d first read it years ago. It’s very much a novel of ideas, and it works brilliantly, distilled through the unforgettable voice of Binx Bolling. More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions
1. Once upon a time, I would not even consider quitting a book mid-read. Reading a book was not unlike a monogamous human relationship in that sense; it involved conscious commitment, and fidelity: Book, I’m going to read you. Over the years, this has changed. Recently it struck me that the list of books I’ve started and not finished has grown quite formidable. I ask myself what this “means,” if it reflects some kind of moral devolution. It’s interesting how there does seem to be a kind of morality of reading, and people express their reading values quite passionately. One of my favorite Millions Quizzes was "The Glaring Gap," a post in which regular contributors confessed which Great Books / Great Authors they’ve never read. One contributor shared that she consciously chose not to read a certain category of male writers, and the comments came a-flying: oh, but you “should” read those! Should should should. Even the word “confess” implies sheepishness, shame and guilt. I know, I know, I should read (and love) Proust! And Dickens! And Virginia Woolf! And (these days) Bolaño! My commitment to finishing books in the past was probably related to the above – fear of ensuing guilt and shame. Failure, too, I suppose. And perhaps at this point in my reading life, I’ve finished (and more than that, really ingested into my mind and emotions) enough books so that I feel a little freer in exercising the right to choose how to invest my reading time and energy; to veer from the Canonical Path – if such a thing actually exists anymore – and forge my own highly specific map of literary experience and influence. I’m not getting any younger, after all. Fifteen hours – the average it takes to read a book (and I tend to be on the slow side of this average) – is an increasingly precious chunk of time. Professional book reviewers, you have my sympathies. 2. My list of Unfinished Books breaks down into a few categories. Perusing my list – from the last 3 or 4 years – reminds me that the convergence between book and reader is so specific; of-the-moment; contextual. For me, abandoning a book often has little to do with the book’s “objective quality,” and much more to do with the nature of my reading appetite at that moment. As a writer, there are books that you need during certain seasons of your own work, and others that must be held at bay, for the time being, or perhaps, but hopefully not, forever (oh, how the Bitch Goddess Time precludes so many returns to books we’d like to try again): Books I Did Not Finish But Very Much Want to Try Again The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt 2666 by Roberto Bolano Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (out of reverence for Susan Sontag) The Moviegoer by Walker Percy The Essential Kierkegaard The Night Watch by Sarah Waters Eugene Onegin by Pushkin 3. Then there are the books that you feel you “should” like -- you’ve adored this writer’s other books, your most trusted reader-friend recommended it, etc. – and you can’t figure out what the disconnect is. You’ve tried and tried again, 50 pages, 75 pages, 120 pages, but for whatever reason… it’s like the blind date that looks perfect “on paper,” but the chemistry never happens: Books That I’ve Already Tried More Than Once But Couldn’t Engage With, I Don’t Know Why Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai The Book of Daniel and City of God by E.L. Doctorow (I am a Doctorow acolyte, these were particularly painful to abandon) Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence (I loved Women in Love so much) 4. It’s not that often that I really toss a book away and wipe my hands of it. And I know the following books are critically acclaimed and/or beloved by many. What can I say… Books That I Found Mostly Painful and Likely Will Not Revisit American Pastoral by Philip Roth The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce Twilight by Stephenie Meyer 5. The following category speaks for itself: Books Written By Friends/Acquaintances That I May Have Been Destined Not to Like in the First Place, But Gave Them a Try For Friendship’s Sake I won’t be listing these, for obvious reasons. There aren't many, but it’s an awkward thing for all of us; and I never imagine that a person who knows and supports me will necessarily like my fiction. 6. Now, onto books that I’ve nearly abandoned or considered abandoning, but actually finished. “Should” is generally a battle between instinct and logic, id and superego. An allegory of sorts: when I was in high school, I was moderately athletic, but in a limited way; I ended up as a quintessential starting JV player on all my teams, never quite attaining to Varsity level. But one year, my senior year, I thought that I really “should” push myself, to get to that next level, to pursue some kind of fullness of achievement; even though I was enjoying perfectly all the playing time I was getting and never considered athleticism a central part of my identity. So I went out for Varsity, just barely made the team, and spent the rest of the season miserably subjecting myself to the coach’s masochistic training drills and sitting on the bench during games. I had thought that if I pushed myself, it would be “worth it” in some spiritual-existential way. It absolutely was not. I think about that experience often, and the metaphor pertains to the following list: Shlogged Through and Almost Abandoned, But Kept On; No Pay-off, I Felt, In the End The Accidental by Ali Smith Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner Sweetwater by Roxana Robinson Enduring Love by Ian McEwan The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro Run by Ann Patchett 7. This final list is perhaps most significant, in terms of our moral quandary. This list keeps me from indulging appetite exclusively, from missing out on the pleasures of a difficult, not-immediately-or-obviously-gratifying read. I can’t imagine not having read these books; abandoning any one of them permanently really would have been a crying shame. In particular, Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods was an odd, and revelatory experience. I found the first 40 pages brilliant and alive and ground-shifting in that all-cylinders-firing way; then I found the next almost-150 pages tedious, repetitive, gimmicky; almost unbearable. Book, I’m going to quit you, I remember consciously thinking. But something made me pick it up again – all the acclaim, the voices of smart reader-friends in my head, my long-standing admiration of The Things They Carried; and also, I like to think, something more mysterious, my personal book fairy, who nudges me from category 3 above to this one, guiding and protecting me from tragically missed literary connections. So then, my God, those last 75 pages or so of In the Lake of the Woods - how it all comes together and wrecks you, shows you all the work that the previous 150 pages was doing. This is the novel that always pokes into my consciousness when I am considering quitting a book; but maybe this one will be another O’Brien miracle. Struggled Through, Maybe Put Down For a While, But Finished and Am Very Glad I Did In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf The Names by Don Delillo A Defense of Ardor: Essays by Adam Zagajewksi The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald I can imagine a day when the proportions of these lists begin to shift. If you’re like me – neither young nor old – you feel a pressure, like every reading minute counts, in a way that you don’t feel as much when you’re younger, and perhaps I won’t feel in quite the same way when I am older. I have no way of knowing, really, if category 3 (or even category 4), past, present or future, actually contains The One That Got Away, the book that may have changed my life. To the books and writers that I’ve broken up with, I truly am sorry it didn’t work out; it is always at least a little bit true that it’s not you, it’s me.
Brad Gooch is the author of the acclaimed biography of Frank O'Hara, City Poet, as well as other nonfiction and three novels. The recipient of National Endowment for the Humanities and Guggenheim fellowships, he earned his Ph.D. at Columbia University and is Professor of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey. His biogrpahy of Flannery O'Connor, Flannery, will be released in February.A perk of writing biographies is the stack of must-read books that pile up during research. I have my subject Flannery O'Connor to thank for two that I finally got around to in the past year: Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, an almost medieval tale of conversion in a thoroughly modern setting - and mindset - that is unrivaled, except perhaps by W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge; and William Faulkner's novella Spotted Horses, an account of a horse auction in a small town that somehow builds to an eye-popping scene of accidentally freed wild horses galloping in a blur of manic verbal energy through a Southern widow's otherwise tidy parlor floor.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Scott of Conversational Reading invited me to participate in his "Reading the World" series this month. My contribution was reading and posting about Per Petterson's In the Wake.I don't read enough fiction in translation, maybe a couple of books per year. When I do the experience elicits one of two reactions. Either the book is so rooted in its place and culture that I can't imagine it being written in another language, or the book, despite its overseas origins, shows that there are universals in literature, no matter the language in which a book was conceived. Norwegian Per Petterson's In the Wake falls mostly into the latter camp, as it draws from the grand tradition of books about ruminating, somewhat pathetic male protagonists who appear to live their lives mostly in their heads.Saul Bellow's Seize the Day comes to mind, and Richard Ford has made a career out of this type of book. But my favorite example from this crowded genre is Walker Percy's pitch perfect The Moviegoer.Read the rest of the review at Conversational reading.Also of Note: Petterson just won the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his book Out Stealing Horses. We took a look at the IMPAC shortlist in April.
Scott Esposito's excellent literature and culture blog Conversational Reading likely needs no introduction here (don't forget his Quarterly Conversation either). Lucky for us, Scott has kindly pitched in with his best reads of 2006 for our year end extravaganza at The Millions:Looking over the books I read in 2006, it seems like a banner year. I see a lot of novels that amazed me, and many that have expanded my view of what literature is and what it can be in the future.Still, one novel towers above all the rest: Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar. This is a book that is experimental is the very best ways while also providing more traditional literary pleasures like well-defined characters and beautiful prose. Anyone who hasn't read it should make an effort to tackle this masterpiece.A very close second (and it's very difficult to choose which of these two I enjoyed more) is Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry.Other books:Wittgenstein's Mistress by David MarksonBouvard And Pecuchet by Gustave FlaubertAtomik Aztex by Sesshu FosterSuite Francaise by Irene NemirovskyThe Rings of Saturn by WG SebaldThe Blue Guide to Indiana by Michael MartoneMulligan Stew by Gilbert SorrentinoThe Moviegoer by Walker PercyThe Gold Bug Variations by Richard PowersCatch-22 by Joseph HellerPale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne PorterThanks Scott!
I love finding old pocket paperbacks in thrift stores. That's how I ended up with a 1960s-era British pocket Penguin edition of Saul Bellow's Seize the Day. On the cover, the price is listed as "3'6" which, though I've been to England, I can't decipher. On the first page, in pencil is the price - 50p - wanted by some British used book dealer years ago, and in pen, the name of one of the book's former owners. I myself got the book for around fifty cents or a dollar from one of the neighborhood secondhand shops, and though I'd love to keep it on my shelf, I'm tempted to release it back into the wild so it may continue on its journey. The book does indeed fit in my pocket and so was a good one to take on my recent trip to Los Angeles. I read the book in its entirety on the plane ride home. I love reading books like that, in one sitting while in transit, because it feeds into a romantic notion I have of what I might spend my days doing if I had no other responsibilities. But, of course, I have responsibilities and so does Tommy Wilhelm, the protagonist of Bellow's book. Wilhelm, a failed Hollywood actor living in a New York hotel a few floors removed from his father, appears to be nearing the low ebb of a long downward slide. He has lost his job, owes money to his wife (who won't give him a divorce), rarely sees his children, fell out with his mistress, and is so nearly penniless that he must ask his father to cover the rent. Tommy's father, Dr. Adler (Tommy changed his name in Hollywood), sees his son as a big baby. Seize the Day reminded me of both Walker Percy's The Moviegoer and John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. All the books of ruminating, somewhat pathetic male protagonists who appear to live their lives mostly in their heads. Wilhelm ruminates mostly on sorrows of lost opportunities, yet the book is shot through with humor as well, especially as Wilhelm gets more and more wrapped up in a stock market scheme. Bellow's book is sad and funny and deserves to be read far more than it is. (Special thanks to Millions contributor Patrick who first pointed me to this book years ago - it just took a little while for me to get to it.)
I asked Michelle Richmond to share with us the best books she read this year. Michelle is the author of The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress and Dream of the Blue Room. She also keeps a blog, Sans Serif. She put together a really great post for us.The Death of a Beekeeper, by Lars Gustafsson - "Kind readers," this novel begins. "Strange readers. We begin again." And so I began this book, again, for probably the fifth or sixth time. Like Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, The Death of a Beekeeper is a book I return to every couple of years when I am in need of something quiet and beautiful. The protagonist is one Lars Lennart Westin, who once taught at "the local elementary school in Ennora on the northern shore of the lake." By the time this narrative comes into our hands, Westin is dead, but during the writing of the three notebooks that comprise the novel, he is very much alive. The Yellow Notebook is concerned with beekeeping and household expenses; the Blue Notebook is a commonplace book of sorts, containing "newspaper clippings, excerpts from Westin's readings, and his own stories;" the Damaged Notebook contains telephone numbers and brief notes about the progression of Westin's cancer.The physical and mental impact of pain, the intricate lives of bees, the frozen landscape of North Vastmanland, and the mysterious workings of a fictional galaxy called Aldebaran are detailed in equal and exquisite measure. I admire the gentle precision of Gustafsson's prose, the author's eye for odd and interesting trivia, the novel's meditative nature. This is a book of ephemera that cannot be easily categorized, a book of lists. For example, page 106 features a "Table of art forms according to their level of difficulty." Art form number one (the least difficult) is eroticism; at the other end of the spectrum is artillery (number 28). The art of the novel (number 8) is, according to our protagonist, less difficult than squash, weight lifting, high trapeze, bicycle acrobatics, and the building of fountains, but slightly more difficult than surfing and significantly more difficult than poetry, which weighs in at a humble 3.Also on my list for the year: Here is Where We Meet by John Berger; A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator by Ludvic Vaculik; Writing in Restaurants by David Mamet; Nice Big American Baby by Judy Budnitz; Total Fears by Bohumil Hrabal; and Summertime Waltz by Nina Payne and Gabi Swiatkowska (illustrator), which I've been reading to my son Oscar.As always, some of my most rewarding reading experiences have been stories and essays found unexpectedly in magazines big and small, most notably a gorgeous exploration of the secret lives of New Orleans's hardy termites, published in Harper's pre-Katrina. (The essay by Duncan Murrell warned of the devastating effects of the termite infestation on the city's historic buildings. Interestingly, the flooding may have saved the city from the worst the termites had to offer).Which brings us back, sort of, to The Moviegoer, that most perfect of books: "To become aware of the possibility of a search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair."Thanks Michelle!
[Ed. Note: Emre is back with another multi-part reading journal. Here's the first installment. Enjoy.]Hello everyone, it has been a long time since I sent a post, but I go in spurts, so here it is. When I last left off, I had just finished reading Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, after which I was thirsty for a piece of non-fiction. What better, then, to turn to Ryzsard Kapuscinski's The Soccer War, which I had knowingly put off in an effort to not finish all his works at once. Upon reading The Soccer War, I understood better why Cem Ozturk, ambassador to Japan, refused to lend me his copy. The Soccer War is Kapuscinski's most romantic work, especially with regards to the unbelievable stories he narrates and the naked truth and language with which it is related to the reader. The straightforward and brief history of the actual Soccer War is so interesting that I ended up going online and researching the event further out of sheer curiosity. Despite the title, Kapuscinski's main focus is, again, Africa, but he also touches on life in Poland and there is a brief chapter on Cyprus after the Turkish invasion. The stories are, as usual, very humane and Kapuscinski's tone and approach to his subjects is awe inspiring. I got the usual urge to go forth with the rest of Kapuscinski's works, but am - probably for the last time - putting that urge aside for later pleasures.Next I turned to Karen Heuler's Journey to Bom Goody. Forbes, the main character, is an ordinary man living in peace and harmony until one day he loses his family. As a result, he takes on a project long contemplated but never dared. When the reader meets Forbes, he is already in Latin America, traveling up the Amazon River to perform his tests. Forbes, however, is an aspiring scientist who lacks the training, and therefore makes rather ignorant and arrogant moves in the name of bold experimenting. Switching to a guide, Ping, who believes to be the love child of his mother and a dolphin and does not speak a word of English, is the first big move Forbes makes. Along the way, Forbes loses his guide and meets a white woman, supposedly doing medicinal research. While the Tina abhors the chummy, helpless white man, Forbes is both loving, and contemptuous of Tina for being comfortable and fluent in such foreign lands. One day, Forbes realizes that his experiments have long been out of control and starts observing the outcomes which weave together him, Tina, local tribes, Ping and the Amazons. Journey to Bom Goody takes a rather trite idea (what if Latin American natives examined us, instead of the opposite) and creates an interesting story around it. The novel is a mix of ordinary characters in unusual circumstances, usual ego wars in unlikely settings, and fresh viewpoints of the society that we live in.See also: Part 2, 3, 4
Posting has been light because I'm nearing the end of the quarter at school, and I am in the final stages of a very big project. And posting will probably continue to be light because I'll be heading off on vacation as soon as school is done. I'm thinking about taking my laptop with me, but even if I do, I'm not sure how close I'll be to the Internet. I'm excited about this vacation (we'll be joining my family at the beach in North Carolina) not just because it'll be a much needed break from school, but also because there's no place I'd rather read than on vacation. On a proper vacation there are seemingly endless hours to spend with your books. I also love the way certain reading experiences become associated with certain exotic locales - and by "exotic" I mean simply "not home." For example, last summer Mrs. Millions both read Walker Percy's classic The Moviegoer during our honey moon in St. Maarten. The unfamiliarity of that island paradise mingled with the humidity of New Orleans where Percy's Binx Bolling is trying to keep "despair" at bay. The book and the place where I read it combined to form a peculiar sort of dreamy memory that I love. Though I haven't even gotten the suitcase out of the closet, I already know which four books I'll be taking with me. I plan to finish The Count of Monte Cristo on the plane ride there. I've been enjoying the book immensely, by the way. After that I'm going to read Belly, a debut novel by Lisa Selin Davis that will be coming out later this summer. The publisher's publicity compares her writing to that of Jane Smiley and Richard Russo. I'm also bringing a couple of nonfiction books: David Lipsky's account of following a class of cadets through West Point, Absolutely American. Lipsky was originally assigned to write an article for Rolling Stone about the military academy but ended up sticking with the story for four years. I'm also bringing The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, the resident business writer at the New Yorker. The book's premise, which is borrowed from the world of economics, is that the collective choices of large populations of people are often correct, and that it's even possible, by setting up what amounts to a futures market for ideas, to use this effect to predict the future. A good example of this is a futures market where one can bet on who will be elected president. Such markets have been very good predictors of actual events over the years. None of these books particularly strike me as "summer reading," but I'll just be happy that it's summer and that my only obligation is to read.
In an effort to keep up with my Turkish reading, I reverted to one of my favorite authors Atilla Ilhan for the fifth book in a series of 6 titled Dersaadet'de Sabah Ezanlari (Morning Calls to Prayer in Istanbul). This novel too, unfortunately, is not translated into English. Frankly, I could have used a good translation myself as the language of the novel was embroidered in early 1900s "high" Istanbul Turkish, hence employing a lot of Persian and Arabic words, and therefore extremely difficult to follow. Nevertheless, Atilla Ilhan is a master whose historic novels reflect the power struggles among the politically significant personalities of Istanbul - as well as their indecisive nature and pitiful lack of influence - during the occupation of the city in the aftermath of World War I. I strongly recommend Dersaadet'de Sabah Ezanlari to any Turkish readers that follow the Millions. Surely, you must read the prequels first, which are Kurtlar Sofrasi volumes I and II, Sirtlan Payi and Bicagin Ucu.Next I turned to The Moviegoer by Walker Percy upon my good brother John D. Davis' recommendation. Indeed, the novel was everything that he described to me: struggles of an elite Southern gentleman about to turn thirty and seeking a meaning, goal, and career in life. The subject is deeply intriguing since I, save for the Southern part and minus a couple of years in age, battle with similar issues. What is most intriguing is Binx Bolling's ambivalence to his family's legacy. This particular quality enables Binx (Jack) to analyze everyone surrounding his life with utmost precision. There is his ever criticizing Aunt Emily, his successful, catholic and acquiescent Uncle Jules, his manic-depressive cousin Kate, his hot secretaries, a bunch of relatives that Binx cares little for, and his fraternity brothers from Tulane who are all full of advice and ideas as to the proper way of going about life, getting settled, and marrying the right woman. Binx, for his part, could care less for advice. The internal struggles of this Korean War veteran push him to resist his customary temptation to tease life and instead to take matters into his own hands. The events that subsequently shape Binx's life unfold on the eve of Mardi Gras in New Orleans in the mid-1950s, much to the self-reflective amusement of the reader. The Moviegoer is a very witty and entertaining read, with a great language and good hold on Southern culture. I look forward to reading other works of Walker Percy and have rather high hopes.You can see Max's thoughts on The Moviegoer here.
Books aren't too long, they're too big. They don't fit in your pocket or purse. You have to cram them into backpacks or shove them under your arm. And I'm not even talking about hardcovers (I can't afford those); I'm talking about these big paperbacks. Sure, some of them look pretty but wouldn't it be great to have a paperback stowed in my jacket pocket, ready for an idle moment? If you've ever been to a used book store, you've seen that they used to make books like this, small and pocket-sized. These books weren't limited to the mysteries, romances, and mega-bestsellers that garner "mass-media" releases these days. On my bookshelves I have editions of The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, for example. They aren't the editions you'll find by clicking the links I've provided, instead they fit very nearly in the palm of my hand. I've always been enamored by those little books, the Dells, the Bantams, the Penguins and the rest, but I've been thinking about these little books a lot more of late because I spend a lot of time on public transportation these days. And, frankly, it's a pain to maneuver a big book around on a crowded bus or train. It's no fun trying to extricate my book from my bag only to cram it back in hastily when I arrive at my destination. I can tell my fellow travelers experience the same difficulties, too. I would make a plea for publishers to bring back the pocket-sized books that I love, but I know that probably won't happen. I'm told that publishing company consolidation in the 1980s and an ever-growing concern for the bottom line have made that impossible. But if you want to relive the glory days of the paperback, take a look at these very cool sites: The Paperback Revolution (a stunning presentation of the glory days of the paperback book) and Edward Gorey's legendary covers for Anchor books (read the article and then click the link at the bottom to see the covers).
So, I'm back again after a week in New York. We move to Chicago in three weeks, and after a summer living out of suitcases, an apartment all our own will be a relief. Over the past few weeks I've read four books. I read them on the beach, in cafes, in cars, subways, and airplanes, and in halflit, air-conditioned rooms over the course of long, languid afternoons. This has been some serious summer reading. I plan to get to all of them this week, beginning today with the modern classic and winner of the National Book Award in 1962, The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. I had never heard of this book before I started working at the book store, and it seems to be one of those books that is half-remembered and dimly loved by those who read it decades ago. The moviegoer is Binx Bolling, a successful businessman and a member of a prominent and eccentric New Orleans family. He is unmarried and enjoys the escape that going to the movies provides. He is unable to keep himself from dating his secretaries, and he is constantly trying to hold "despair" at bay. It is an existential novel of the American suburbs where Binx tries to find meaning or hope in the midst of mundanity. But it isn't preachy or didactic, it meanders and searches, and one begins to wonder if Binx is a madman and not just a lonely bachelor. In this sense it has a lot more depth than some other books of middle-aged male suburban angst that I've read over the years, The Sportswriter and Independence Day by Richard Ford and Wheat That Springeth Green by J.F. Powers to name a few, and Binx seems far more ethereal than Frank Bascombe or Joe Hackett. It's short and cleverly written, and I recommend the book to anyone with a taste for the internal monologues of a Southern thinker.I added Adam Langer's much-praised debut, Crossing California to the reading queue, and I'm about to start reading part one of Peter Guralnick's two-part biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis. More soon!
I came to read this book because last summer I was given, unexpectedly, a review copy of Dexter's latest book, Train; (my review). I had never heard of Dexter at the time, but I loved the book, and when Dexter came to the book store to do a reading, I made sure I was in attendance (he turned out to be a very engaging guy) and had him sign a copy of Paris Trout for me. And now I've gotten around to reading that very same book. Paris Trout centers around a character of the same name. Though he is clearly a psychopath, he has money and is a business man, so his violent nature is ignored by the citizens of his small town, Cotton Point, Georgia. The book opens with an attack by Trout on a local black family. The town's white population does not want to be seen siding with a black family against a white man, so, from then on they turn a blind eye towards Trout and allow him to bully the legal system. Also involved in this hard boiled drama are Trout's wife Hanna and Harry Seagraves, Trout's good-guy lawyer. The book is framed as the story of a very bad man terrorizing a sleepy town, but the amazing thing about it is the way Dexter slowly turns the tables until it becomes clear that the complacency of the townspeople is a far greater sin than the murderousness of someone who lives among them. Though it reads like genre fiction with gripping suspense and at times remarkable violence, the subtle play on the psychology of a small town elevates the book to a remarkable literary novel. Although, I should say, if this book were not as deep and were merely a legal thriller, I would still have found it to be fantastic based on the strength of Dexter's writing. A great book. (Another Dexter post).Next UpI am now embarking upon Edith Grossman's translation of Miguel De Cervantes' classic, Don Quixote. After that I'll be reading Walker Percy's underappreciated classic The Moviegoer
I recently reorganized my bookshelves. I straightened and categorized the books, and I separated out all of the books that I haven't read and that I hope to read sooner rather than later. These are books that I've bought at the store, received as gifts, and unearthed on bookfinding expeditions. There are 31 of them. For a while now, I've had a quite large "to read" pile, and I add titles almost every week, it seems. The problem is that stacks of books are constantly getting pushed aside while I read whatever book I'm most excited about at the moment. There's not really anything wrong with this except that there are books that I really would like to read, but never seem to get around to it. So, since I obviously am not to be trusted, I have decided to take some of the decision making out of my hands: I have set aside a special shelf to hold my new "Reading Queue." On it are all of the books that I own and would like to read but haven't yet. From this shelf full of books, I will randomly select the next one to read. Before I get into that though, here's my reading queue, some of the books that will keep me occupied during the coming year:Without Feathers by Woody AllenThe Summer Game by Roger AngellOnce More Around the Park: A Baseball Reader by Roger AngellGame Time: A Baseball Companion by Roger AngellAn Army at Dawn by Rick AtkinsonThe Sheltering Sky by Paul BowlesThe Hole in the Flag by Andrei CodrescuDon Quixote by Miguel De CervantesParis Trout by Pete DexterThe Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre DumasThe Last Amateurs by John FeinsteinA Season on the Brink by John FeinsteinLiving to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia MarquezLast Train to Memphis by Peter GuralnickThe Great Fire by Shirley HazzardRound Rock by Michelle HunevenThe Known World by Edward P. JonesBalkan Ghosts by Robert D. KaplanShah of Shahs by Ryszard KapuscinskiThe Price of Admiralty by John KeeganEverything's Eventual by Stephen KingLiar's Poker by Michael LewisThe Coming of Rain by Richard MariusThe Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLooking for a Ship by John McPheeMoviegoer by Walker PercyFraud by David RakoffThe Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat by Oliver SacksEast of Eden by John SteinbeckQuicksilver by Neal StephensonMr. Jefferson's University by Garry WillsOnce I had a full shelf to pick from, the only question was how to pick randomly. I thought about writing down names and picking out of hat, but that seemed like a pain, and I would have had to go look for a hat, so instead I located a random number generator to help me make my choice. I'm going back east tomorrow for two weeks, so I picked three books to take with me: Everything's Eventual, Paris Trout, and Don Quixote. I'm guessing most folks will be pretty busy over the next couple of weeks, and so will I, so I'll probably only post a couple of times while I'm gone. They should be good, though. Look for "My Year in Books" and a post about the books I gave as gifts. Happy Holidays, all.
Bookfinding is a science of sorts. Ostensibly, it is a money issue: the goal is to find books for two dollars or less a piece. But there is another element to this exercise. When you walk into a Salvation Army store, or any non-bookstore that has a few shelves full of books at the back, you never know what you'll find. It's a real treasure hunt. Sometimes you walk out the door with arms full of books, other times you walk out with one or none. Some of the highest yield bookfinding spots that I have found so far are the Out of the Closet thrift stores that are ubiquitous in some parts of Los Angeles. Out of the Closet is a charity that raises money for AIDS, and like any charity-based thrift store it does not discriminate. Along with a vast selection of clothing, each store has a ton of housewares and furniture and a mindboggling array of random junk. Still, there's something slightly more hip about Out of the Closet. The staff is young, helpful, and fashionable. They've always got good tunes on the radio, and they put together clever displays and windows. It's only a half step away from the church basement, but that half step makes a difference. I always go straight for the shelf or two of books tucked away at the back of the store, in the dimly-lit corner behind the broken exer-cycle. Though it requires the same amount of digging, the treasures that can be found are incrementally better. At the Salvation Army, I'm pleased to find old paperback editions of classics, but at Out of the Closet, you might just as easily come upon a cult-favorite and books that are more obscurely charming. Which brings me to Monday, when I made a quick run to an Out of the Closet that I hadn't yet raided, spent ten bucks, and walked out with eight books. Good ones, too. I'm most excited about finding a hardcover edition (though it lacks its dust jacket) of Woody Allen's print masterpiece Without Feathers. You really can't go wrong with a book that in its first three pages has about two dozen gems like this one: "Play idea: a character based on my father, but without quite so prominent a big toe. He is sent to the Sorbonne to study the harmonica. In the end he dies, never realizing his one dream -- to sit up to his waist in gravy. (I see a brilliant second-act curtain, where two midgets come upon a severed head in a shipment of volleyballs.)" Genius! I also picked up Fraud by David Rackoff, the frequent contributor to This American Life. I usually recommend this one to fans of David Sedaris who have read all of Sedaris' books. I also somehow remembered that Michael Lewis is the name of the author of Moneyball, and when I saw a copy of Liar's Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street, his 1989 memoir about working in the cut-throat, 1980s Wall Street world, I snagged it. I also found another first book by an author I like: Michelle Huneven's debut Round Rock. And I picked up a slick little paperback edition of a somewhat forgotten 20th century American classic, Walker Percy's The Moviegoer. I rounded out my purchases with three classics of the Calvin & Hobbes oevre which I gleefully found sitting neatly in a row: The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book, Weirdos From Another Planet!, and Yukon Ho!... not a bad take for 10 bucks!