As I rode the train home from work one afternoon a little over a year ago, I read the “gnostic truth of real estate” put forth by the realtor Frank Bascombe in Independence Day:
People never find or buy the house they say they want. A market economy, so I’ve learned, is not even remotely premised on anybody getting what he wants. The premise is that you’re presented with what you might’ve thought you didn’t want, but what’s available, whereupon you give in and start finding ways to feel good about it and yourself.
A moment later — timing that would have been ham-fisted had it taken place in a novel — my phone buzzed with a text from my husband. “Pack your bags” it read, accompanied by screenshot from Redfin showing a dilapidated property with a “sold” banner plastered across. We had gone to look at this house the previous week — a teardown monstrosity in an unhip San Francisco neighborhood adjacent to our own unhip San Francisco neighborhood. Listed for $338,000, at that moment the lowest price in the city, the house was called a “contractor’s special;” two of its three bedrooms were qualified on the listing agent’s half-assed flier as “legality unknown.” When we went to the open house, the same agent eyed my eight-months-pregnant stomach and advised me to cover my mouth and nose before stepping inside. My husband’s screenshot indicated that this house had been purchased by someone for $550,000, ostensibly in cash. Add to this the cost, whatever that should happen to be, of building an entirely new house in its place.
At the time, my husband and I lived in a rented, one-bedroom, 750-square-foot house that, like any standalone single-family dwelling in San Francisco, is not subject to rent control. When we learned that we were expecting a baby, we thought we should try to find something with more space (and rent control). Our landlady, who we think was born in the 1930s, cautioned us against a month-to-month lease. Her health was not good, she told us, and she mentioned, not for the first time, an ominous set of people she called “heirs” who would swoop in from the Central Valley and sell the house out from under us in the event of her death. She also told us that she had lived in the house with her parents until she was 23 years old, sleeping in the small dining room. Her counsel notwithstanding, obsessed with bourgeois aspirations of a second bedroom, we went month-to-month and began looking at Craigslist listings. The appearance of heirs, it turns out, would cast us — with baby, two cats, student loans, and no car — into a rental market where a transit-accessible two-bedroom apartment could exceed $5,000 per month in San Francisco and $3,000 in the East Bay.
Ludicrous prices are old hat to people in the Bay Area, who find themselves in the tiresome position of having thoroughly exhausted the topic of the housing situation but being nonetheless unable, most of the time, to talk about anything else. That is a feature of housing bubbles; in Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in that House, Meghan Daum’s account of her real estate travails in Los Angeles circa 2004, she wrote: “At the risk of making a perverse and offensive comparison, I truly don’t think I’d observed so much absorption with one topic since the attacks of September 11, 2001.”
We punched numbers into questionable online mortgage calculators and began touring open houses. Houses that listed for $279,000 and sold for $365,000 (East Oakland). Houses that listed for $365,000 and sold for $500,000 (West Oakland). Houses that listed for $499,000 and sold for $700,000 (San Francisco, barely). And these were the low, low prices of 2014. Median home prices reached $1.3 million at the end of last year.
People who have actually experienced home-ownership advise the uninitiated against getting romantic about it. But when you have a bun in the oven and are looking at Craigslist rentals, it is easy to invest the condition with near-sacred profundity (even before totting up the tax breaks that the government has seen fit to bestow upon the property-owning class). I began placing an outsize burden on every undistinguished property we saw; every dubious condo, every termite-eaten hovel miles from the train, none of which we could afford in any case. I pictured the dour heirs, and our growing family in one of the illegal basement in-laws listed for more than our current rent. Like V.S. Naipaul’s unforgettable Mr. Biswas, it seemed critical to find a place to call our own: “How terrible it would have been…to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth; to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and accommodated.”
Unlike that of Mr. Biswas, though, this is the housing account of an intensely privileged person, in both the local and the world-historical sense. We began our search at a time when the U.S. news was just starting to register the desperate people streaming out of Syria, when there were already one million displaced Syrians in Lebanon alone. A month before the baby was born I watched a presentation at work about an entire nation’s middle class decimated in only a couple of years — a cataclysm that will take generations to repair. And this is only the most recent and the most vivid cataclysm. There are people who have been living in camps for decades — people whose children and whose children’s children will be born outdoors.
In our local context, we are privileged because we do not live in a state of economic precarity, like many people in San Francisco and the East Bay who are being rapidly pushed out (often by people like us sniffing around for cheaper housing). Low-income people are disproportionately affected by the outlandish housing costs, and while it is a nice feature for us to live near family and friends, it’s a necessity for people who cannot afford regular childcare or do not get paid sick time. Just last Monday, activists shut down the Bay Bridge in a truly breathtaking action, protesting not only police killings of black people, but gentrification; first on their list of demands was “The immediate divestment of city funds for policing and investment in sustainable, affordable housing so Black, Brown and Indigenous people can remain in their hometowns of Oakland and San Francisco.” The housing concerns of people with a statistically high household income are not in and of themselves compelling, as this author points out, and if we have to leave the Bay Area we will find somewhere else to live.
Like everyone we know who lives in San Francisco, we have thought — we think every day — about moving away. And like everyone, we hope to stay. My husband works for the City of San Francisco and I work for UC Berkeley, which seem like important local institutions. Neither of us grew up in San Francisco, but four generations of my foremothers were born in California (although if you’re white, which I am, that just means your people were in on the ground floor of some original displacement). Even so, my baby, now a year old, has a grandmother and a great-grandmother a short train ride away. Why should we be the ones to move?, we think, just like everyone else. Self-righteous defiance is never a good feeling; add to it the knowledge of complicity in a fundamentally unequal society, evident in every public housing-adjacent Victorian flipped and sold for enormous profit, every gingerly-worded spiel from a realtor about Oakland neighborhoods, every crowd of white house-gawkers on streets where black people have lived for a century.
Our situation is not remotely dire — it is merely one of recalibration. Most Americans our age are letting go of the cherished, unexamined assumption that they will be able to give their own children the comforts — or preferably more comforts than — they themselves had. These are comforts captured in movies and books from the very recent past: I idly remember the movie Home Alone and my first thought is How the fuck did they afford that place? (Don’t get me started on Full House.) In The Sportswriter, the first of Richard Ford’s Bascombe novels, Frank is a writer and his wife doesn’t work; they have three small children and live in a house that they own:
We went on vacations…We paid bills, shopped, went to movies, bought cars and cameras and insurance, cooked out, went to cocktail parties, visited schools, and romanced each other in the sweet, cagey way of adults.
Yesterday’s magazine writer is today’s millionaire. As one of Meghan Daum’s friends lamented in her book: “…boomers live in mansions they bought for $67 in the early 1980s and we’re destined to live our lives paying rent to guys who wear tinted eyeglasses and Members Only jackets.”
The beloved children’s writer Beverly Cleary enshrined a much humbler vision of middle-class life on Klickitat street in Portland, Ore.; her characters Ramona and Beezus Quimby live in a modest but pleasant house with parents who haven’t finished college and who have a series of jobs that couldn’t comfortably support life in most urban areas today: shop clerk, office worker for a moving company, medical receptionist. Beezus and Ramona live in Portland, but many of Cleary’s less-well-known books — Mitch and Amy, Sister of the Bride, Fifteen — describe middle-class families giving their children good lives in nice Bay Area dwellings, the air scented with eucalyptus. Cleary herself was a California transplant; she attended UC Berkeley and lived around the Bay with her husband Clarence. In 1948, they bought a house in the Berkeley hills. She was a librarian-turned-writer and he was a contracts analyst at the university, a job which today commands a respectable annual salary between $49,000 and $65,000. But I’ve seen a two-bedroom, 792-foot-square-foot house in the same area list for over a million dollars.
After the news that our local wreck, the “contractor’s special,” sold for $200,000 over asking, I began to cling desperately to the rental we were in. Heavily pregnant, I lumbered around the place with loving purpose, directing my husband in the hanging of new curtains, adjusting the crib in the baby’s corner of our room, filling our closet with elaborate stacking drawers. I moved so far from my original position about the house’s size that I even schemed to buy it from our landlady, until it became clear that we couldn’t afford it at its current valuation.
There are spiritual implications for a person’s dwelling. As Frank Bascombe puts it, thinking about this anxious clients, the home they buy will
…partly determine what they’ll be worrying about but don’t yet know, what consoling window views they’ll be taking (or not), where they’ll have bitter arguments and make love, where and under what conditions they’ll feel trapped by life or safe from the storm.
I understood that the manic bursts of scrubbing and fussing and considering pillows that afflicted me during pregnancy were something called nesting, and were a known biological phenomenon. I was not expecting this mania to stick around. But, a lifetime slob, I now find myself in the kitchen making the practiced gestures of somebody else’s mother — wiping away a piece of wet fuzz or straightening a placemat, putting all of the puzzles together and stacking them in a corner at night. Some of this, I’m sure, is garden-variety patriarchy stuff that is bound to pop up after millennia of foremothers tidying up. But I am surprised by the feeling of total, whole-body well-being that comes over me when I’m in my special corner of the couch surveying the clean living room. And by the way this feeling seems obscurely connected to the panic-making wave of love that overcomes me at odd moments as I watch my daughter play on the living room rug (a rug, as it happens, that I coveted and lobbied and hoarded for and finally bought when it went on sale).
“Home is so sad,” wrote Philip Larkin, but he probably never held a baby on a soft rug on a sunny day in a nice room that he made for her. I know it’s very irritating to hear people describe the ways that having a child changed them, but this is one that really caught me off-balance: I’ve become house-proud. I think of all the other house-proud women leaving their special corners and favorite rugs in Syria and Iraq, holding close their precious children and stepping into the waves.
When we consider the people in camps, the people in the frigid sea off of Lesvos and Ayvalık, if we believe that all humans are brothers and sisters, none of us deserve stability in the broad moral sense. Aim the telescope back at America, where we have codified a national myth that if you have a good job you’ll have a nice place to live for as long as you want to live there. Articles like this one show how untrue that myth has been for vast swathes of our citizenry, and for how long it has been untrue. If you are a narcissist who was raised in a religious tradition you might feel that your own, absurdly mild housing anxiety is the opening sally of an absent-minded deity who has finally put down his paperback and noticed that things seem off-kilter. I know that I don’t deserve to have a nice place to live for as long as I want to live there, apart from the idea that all human beings deserve this. But that doesn’t mean I don’t — the we all don’t — want it real bad.
The “contractor’s special” went on the market again for $850,000, and sold for $1.1 million a couple of months ago. From the outside it’s still one of the ugliest houses in San Francisco. What ended up happening to us is the thing that you find happened to any San Franciscan who isn’t rich but has a good living situation: we got unreasonably lucky. When our baby was three months old, our next-door neighbors did the almost impossible and managed to buy a short-sale house with a special loan from the city. Our landlady, who also owns their place and is a deeply decent person, let us move in without significantly raising the rent. Deus ex machina. The people, meanwhile, who moved into our old place had been evicted from their decade-plus rental in another neighborhood; they are in their 50s or 60s and clearly paying more for less space than they used to have. Last week a woman strolling up and down our block told me she had grown up a few houses over, but that she couldn’t afford to live in the city anymore. “It should be me in there,” she said, gesturing at her old house. And begrudgingly corrected herself: “I wish it were me.”
We are favored, for now, in San Francisco’s zero-sum housing game. We dearly love our new place, even though it has wall-to-wall carpeting and it isn’t ours. We still don’t have rent control, but we hope for the best. We walk to the BART; we walk to the daycare, where our baby learns Cantonese words from her fellow sixth-generation Californians. What will the gods exact from us, for our good fortune? The twin specters of death and heirs loom all around. But death and heirs are waiting in the wings, I suppose, whether you rent or own.
It takes close to 1,300 pages of Richard Ford’s critically acclaimed Frank Bascombe novels to reach the stories’ philosophical rub. Halfway through Let Me Be Frank With You, the latest and fourth installment in the series, Frank is visiting his ex-wife Ann in hospital. “Being an essentialist, Ann believes we all have selves,” he thinks, mulling over why he still fails to connect with her. “Character to me, is one more lie of history and the dramatic arts. In my view, we have only what we did yesterday, what we do today, and what we might still do.”
For fans of these painstakingly crafted books – beginning with The Sportswriter (1986), and moving through its sequels Independence Day (1995), and The Lay of the Land (2006) – the revelation that Frank is existentially adrift might not be news, but it’s rare to see both Ford’s literary approach and Frank’s disconnection laid out with such brevity. Since we first met him 28 years ago – “My name is Frank Bascombe. I am a sportswriter,” reads the tetralogy’s opening line – Frank has defined himself by roles he’s played, whether it’s jobs (journalist, realtor) or periods of his life (the Default Period, the Existence Period). However it’s always been implicit that there is an associated void, an attraction to “mystery” ahead of facts, a detachment exacerbated by the uncontrollable nature of life and partly explained by it. To see this relinquishment to contingency spelled out so clearly goes to the heart of why Let Me Be Frank With You succeeds. Such clarity also complements the novel’s unconventional structure – the book is molded as four separate stories instead of the complete written through novel we have seen previously.
To recount the details of Frank’s life, as is usual in a review, seems somehow a betrayal of his character, since classifiers and summaries of his relationships and homes don’t quite define him the way his actions do. For the sake of context, though: Bascombe lives in New Jersey; he has variously been a short story writer, a failed novelist, a teacher, before turning to real estate; his first marriage to Ann hit the rocks when Frank indulged in serial affairs, prompted by the death of their young son, Ralph; he has two other children, the wayward Paul, who goes into the gift cards business, and the stentorian Clarissa, a vet. Frank survives prostrate cancer and is now, at the age of 68, back with his once estranged second wife, Sally.
These events, and Frank’s submission to them, have always loosely been built around set-pieces. The Sportswriter features a meal Frank has with the family of a young nurse he’s dating, Vicki, and an interview he conducts with Herb, a wheelchair-bound former footballer. Independence Day’s climax occurs after Frank spends a disastrous trip away with Paul during the titular holiday, and The Lay of the Land has him preparing for Thanksgiving. However all of them also see Frank adrift on a sea of characters, places and events that meander away from solid structural ground: Independence Day’s father-son bonding session kicks off over halfway through its 400 pages and The Lay of the Land’s ruminative digressions saw Michiko Kakutani criticize it for its “pages and pages of self-indulgent self-analysis.”
Now, in Let Me Be Frank, Ford writes just four loosely connected set-piece stories to get to the heart of what Frank is — four different events, all of them out of his control (hurricane, stranger appearing, wife’s illness, friend’s death) doing what he’s doing yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and dealing with them as best he can (there’s also a certain irony here, as Frank himself abandoned novels early in his career because he had, he says, “no talent” for the “longer form”). If there is anything essential to Frank’s character, it’s that he’s simply responding to what life throws his way. Ford heightens this by throwing in anecdotes not seen in the previous novels. There is also incredibly little about Frank’s childhood ever highlighted, something unthinkable, say, in Updike’s Rabbit books, where we feel like we have been living with Rabbit for several decades by the end of the saga. Frank, however, stays continually slippery, even if he becomes more comfortable in his discomfort.
The length of the book also gives Ford’s prose welcome precision. We still have the hallmark descriptive passages, mimetic dialogue and quotidian obsessions, but not so much in bulk. The beginning of the book’s first story, “I’m Here,” ventures into Updikean alliterative fury with its account of “fresh-cut lumber, clean white PVC, the lye-sniff of Sakrete, stinging sealants, sweet tar paper, and denatured spirits” but is mostly a detached take on the aftermath of a hurricane, a neat device for the sloughing off of previous identities. As he approaches death, Frank says he’s also “stripping back words,” which in his view “should no longer be usable”, as an aid to clearer thinking. He’s equally, he says, getting rid of old friends. “Since time invested determines the quality of a friendship, having more than five genuine friends is pretty much impossible.” Links to the past come through Proustian involuntary memory, when a Peter, Paul and Mary song heard over the phone leads to a musical potted history. “My mind fled back to the face of ultra-sensual Mary — cruel-mouthed, earthy, blond hair slashing…”
We have a persistence of the paradoxes that defined Ford’s earlier writing (“Sometimes things can seem worse just by not being better,” Frank tells Walter in The Sportswriter) as the character trudges into guilt-ridden fatalism. “I’m ready to cease and desist,” he says. “Yet somehow I feel implicated by everything’s dilapidation.” History comes to haunt him in the book’s second story, “Everything Could be Worse,” which recalls Joyce Carol Oates’s 1992 short story “Where Is Here?” when a former resident of Frank’s house in Haddam, who left in bloody circumstances, pays him a visit. This is the most formulaic narrative here, ending as it does with a momentary epiphany for Frank, and showcases the character’s obsession with phatic communication, the difference between what we say and what we really mean.
All the Frank novels have this: what he wishes he’d said instead, what he could have offered which would have achieved the same objective, the statements he considers to be lies. “It’s not that difficult to counsel the grieving,” he says. “I could’ve said, ‘Roosevelt was a far better choice than Willkie back in ‘40.’ Which would be as grief neutralizing as ‘What a friend we have in Jesus.’”
The remaining two stories zero in on Frank’s long-term adversary Ann, his first wife, who is now suffering from Parkinson’s. Most intriguingly, he has at last realized what led to the breakdown of his marriage, “what is unquenchable and absent in her,” several decades too late. Their combativeness has reached a nihilistic stalemate, where Frank dutifully visits his ex in her medically serviced apartment and the pair rehearse the same old arguments, though without the attendant wistfulness on Frank’s part that once gave frisson to their meeting. “Deaths of Others” relives the suicide of Walter in The Sportswriter with the failing health of Eddie Medley, another former member of the beleaguered, ever depleting Divorced Men’s Club. It ends with a shoehorned denouement, not unwelcome if a reduced shadow of the more nuanced treatment of Walter’s death.
To finish, it is worth dwelling where we are with Frank with respect to Rabbit Angstrom, since the former’s rise came just as the latter dwindled, and the similarities — the obsession with property, the Emersonian rhetoric, the philanderer destroyed by the trauma of a child’s death, Haddam’s copper beech replacing Brewer’s cherry blossom — should not detract from the major differences.
Updike claimed to want to structure the Rabbit novels around a Joycean Odyssey, whereas Frank is tossed on life’s tide, the significant physical events that define him transpiring as if to someone else. Partly, this is because of his estrangement from Ann, and his children, but he also lacks a spiritual anchor, any lasting moment of transcendence that elevates him above the mire. Ironically it is Updike, a lifelong agnostic towards Emerson, who channels the latter’s “transparent eyeball” much more through his fiction (though it is Frank who is always quoting Emerson). Frank views the world as if he’s in a cinema, staring at the screen, preoccupied by something else. He’s also a greatly cleverer character than Rabbit and is a lifelong Democrat, a champion of the downtrodden, and is considerably less lucky. Ann never forgives Frank in the way Janice seems to with Rabbit, though the latter is far less contrite for his misdeeds.
Both men are Emersonian in their ability to reinvent themselves, “like a cat falls on his feet” as Emerson would say, and united in their absences and angst, a void Rabbit partway fills with Updike’s spirituality. With Frank, there’s no such luck. He’s cast adrift with only that which he can carry, without the lies of history and character to shoehorn him into unreality, and all the more truthful for it. Ford has only paid passing heed to his own rules in his Frank series, and in doing so pays tribute to his character’s protean nature. Where Ford attempts to contrive epiphanies, neat metaphors and acts of God, he does Frank a disservice.
This week, Richard Ford published his first novel in a while to feature Frank Bascombe, the protagonist of his Pulitzer-winning book The Sportswriter. At Salon, our own Lydia Kiesling posits a through-line from Bascombe to a certain TV gangster, arguing that The Sopranos shares its view of manhood with Ford’s novels. You could also read our own Michael Bourne on Ford’s 2012 book, Canada.
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
Even before it became officially so in the United States, April has long been the poet’s month. “April” (or “Aprill”) is the third word of one of the first great poems in the English language, The Canterbury Tales, and the first word in The Waste Land, which does its best to feel like the last great English poem. April — “spungy,” “proud-pied,” and “well-apparel’d” April — is also the most-mentioned month in Shakespeare, along with its springtime neighbor May, and it has given a poetic subject to Dickinson, Larkin, Plath, Glück, and countless others. Why? Do we like its promise of rebirth, its green and messy fecundity? Its hopefulness is easy to celebrate — and easy to cruelly undercut, if you’re T.S. Eliot rooting his lilies in the wasteland of death.
Eliot wasn’t the only one a little tired of the ease of April’s imagery. In 1936 Tennessee Williams received a note from a poetic acquaintance, a high school student named Mary Louise Lange who had recently won “third honorable mention” in a local literary contest. “Yes, I think April is a fine month to write poetry,” she mused. “All the little spear-points of green pricking up, all the little beginnings of new poetic thoughts, all the shafts of thoughts that will grow to future loveliness.” A few days later, Williams, oppressed by the springtime St. Louis heat, despairing of his own youthful literary prospects, and perhaps distracted by all those “spear-points” and “shafts,” confessed to his diary that he was bored and lonely enough to consider calling on her: “Maybe I’ll visit that little girl poet but her latest letter sounded a little trite and affectatious — ‘little spear points of green’ — It might be impossible.”
In our man-made calendars we often celebrate Easter and baseball’s Opening Day this month, but the April date most prominent in our lives now is April 15, the American tax day since 1955. Lincoln, who died on that day, had Whitman to mourn him, but Tax Day found few literary chroniclers until David Foster Wallace’s last, unfinished novel, The Pale King, which turns the traditional, eternal rhythm of the seasons into the flat, mechanical repetition of bureaucratic boredom. In the IRS’s Peoria Regional Examination Center where Wallace’s characters toil, the year has no natural center, just a deadline imposed by federal fiat and a daily in-box of Sisyphean tasks, a calendar that in its very featureless tedium provides at least the opportunity to test the human capacity for endurance and even quiet heroism.
Here is a selection of recommended April reading, heavy on birth, death, and rebirth, and a little boredom:
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (late 14th century)
When you feel the tender shoots and buds of April quickening again, set out in the company of Chaucer’s nine and 20 very worldly devouts, in what has always been the most bawdily approachable of English literature’s founding classics.
The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville (1857)
It’s no coincidence that the steamboat in Melville’s great, late novel begins its journey down the Mississippi on April Fool’s Day: The Confidence-Man is the darkest vision of foolishness and imposture — and one of the funniest extended jokes — in American literature.
“When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d” by Walt Whitman (1865) and The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot (1922)
Whitman’s elegy, composed soon after Lincoln’s murder and the end of the Civil War, heaps bouquets onto his coffin, and a livelier, more joyful vision of death you’re not likely to find. You certainly won’t in The Waste Land, written after a war equally bloody and seemingly barren of everything but allusions (to Whitman’s funeral lilacs among many others).
On the Road: The Original Scroll by Jack Kerouac (1951)
The legend of On the Road’s frenzied composition is partly true: Kerouac worked on the novel for years, but he really did type a complete, 125,000-word draft on a 120-foot roll of paper in three frenzied weeks in April 1951, a version finally published in 2007.
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King (1963) and At Canaan’s Edge by Taylor Branch (2006)
April is both the month that King, jailed in Alabama in 1963, scribbled in the margins of newspapers an open letter to the white moderates of Birmingham who counseled patience toward segregation, and the month of his murder in Memphis five years later, a scene whose seven solemn pages close the final volume of Taylor Branch’s 3,000-page trilogy, America in the King Years.
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (1968)
Outfitted with trailer, truck, ranger shirt, tin badge, and 500 gallons of water, Abbey began his first workday, April 1, watching the sun rise over the canyonlands of Arches National Monument, the first moment recorded in this cantankerous appreciation of the wild inhumanity of nature.
Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion
In the “cold late spring of 1967,” Didion took her notebook and her eye for entropy to meet some of the young people gathering in San Francisco, where she diagnosed the end of the Summer of Love before it had even begun.
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
April in Erdrich’s North Dakota is cold enough for the sudden blizzard that opens Love Medicine and buries June Kashpaw, who had stepped out into the snow in search of a man who could be different from all the rest.
The Sportswriter by Richard Ford (1986)
Beginning with a Good Friday reunion with his ex-wife on the anniversary of their son’s death, Ford’s indelible ex-sportswriter Frank Bascombe reckons with balancing the small, heart-lifting pleasures of everydayness with the possibilities of disappointment and tragedy that gape underneath them.
The Age of Grief by Jane Smiley (1987)
Smiley’s early novella is still her masterpiece, a story of a family laid out by flu and a young marriage struggling to survive the end of its springtime that’s as close to an American version of “The Dead” as anyone has written.
My Garden (Book) by Jamaica Kincaid (1999)
“How vexed I often am when I am in the garden, and how happy I am to be so vexed.” Midway through life, Kincaid started planting in her yard in most “ungardenlike” ways, and her garden book is willful and lovely, made of notes in which she cultivates her hatreds as passionately as her affections.
The Likeness by Tana French (2008)
Ireland’s French crafted an intrigue with equal elements of the Troubles and The Secret History in her second novel, in which Detective Cassie Maddox is seduced by the mid-April murder of a student who had been playing with an identity disturbingly close to her own.
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (2011)
Don’t expect a novel when you open up The Pale King, culled from manuscripts Wallace left behind at his suicide. Read it as a series of experiments in growing human stories out of the dry soil of bureaucratic tedium, and marvel when real life, out of this wasteland, suddenly breaks through.
Image Credit: Flickr/Roger Sadler
This year the books I liked best fell into two categories: the ones I read in a rush, squeezing in pages every spare moment or staying up late to finish them; and the ones I read slowly over several months, so that the books became my faithful companions. I tend to read three or four books at a time and this year what often happened is that one book would reveal itself to be a tortoise, and would live on my nightstand for weeks, while the hares (and whatever animal is between a hare and a tortoise — a cat?) raced by. As someone who gravitates toward “slow” books and movies, my sympathies lie with the tortoises, but I have to admit it was exciting to come across so many books that I couldn’t put down.
The books that raced past were the aptly-titled This Is Running For Your Life, by Michelle Orange; See Now Then, by Jamaica Kincaid; The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud; Schroder, by Amity Gaige; Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple; The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer; and The Circle, by Dave Eggers.
Of those hares, the one that still haunts me is Schroder. (And I have to thank Kathryn Schulz, whose in-depth rave made me pick it up.) It’s a novel about a divorced father, Eric Schroder, who is so frustrated with his custody arrangements that he kidnaps his daughter, taking her on a road trip through New England. Halfway through the book I felt I had been kidnapped, too, in the way that I was won over by a narrator I didn’t completely trust.
My tortoise reads included Dear Life, by Alice Munro; Far From The Tree and The Noonday Demon, both by Andrew Solomon; and Independence Day, by Richard Ford. I am actually still reading Independence Day, and I have been reading it since September. It’s the second novel in Ford’s Frank Bascombe trilogy, after The Sportswriter, but you don’t need to have read The Sportswriter to enjoy it. (Or at least, I didn’t.) Like Schroder, Independence Day is narrated by a divorced father, concerns a road trip between a father and his child (although without the kidnapping), and takes place over just a few days. It feels a little funny to spend several months with it. A week passes by in my life, while just a few hours go by in Frank Bascombe’s. But I love the way Ford stretches time in this novel, reveling in moments of happenstance, overheard conversations, and local landscapes. Here’s the view from Frank Bascombe’s windshield in upstate New York:
“A sign by a turnout announces we have now entered the Central Leatherstocking Area and just beyond, as if on cue, the great corrugated glacial trough widens out for miles to the southwest as the highway climbs, and the butt ends of the Catskills cast swart afternoon shadows onto lower hills dotted by pocket quarries, tiny hamlets and pristine farmstead with wind machines whirring to undetectable windows…In my official view, absolutely nothing should be missed from here on, geography offering a natural corroboration to Emerson’s view that power resides in moments of transition…”
Finally, I have to mention the children’s book Ox-Cart Man, by Donald Hall, which I guess would fall in the tortoise category, since I’ve read to my one-year-old son at least twice a day for the past six months. It’s a simple story about a 19th-century farmer who travels from his small homestead to Portsmouth, N.H., where he can sell his harvest, his ox, and his cart at the market. My son loves it because it is full of lists and repetition. I love it because the language is plain and elegant and perfectly matched to the story. It’s so elegant, in fact, that I thought it would make a beautiful poem, and in a moment of procrastination I discovered that there is indeed a poem, “Ox Cart Man”, (by Donald Hall), which you can read in the Poetry Foundation’s archives. Now that I think of it, Ox-Cart Man is yet another book about a New England road trip, so perhaps that’s the true theme of my year in reading. Maybe I should close out the year with On The Road and head into the New Year looking west.
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While writing about the abiding appeal of one-word book titles here recently, I revisited an avatar of the breed, David Gates’ Jernigan. This debut novel, which I’d discovered shortly after it was published in 1991, was even better the second time around – darker, sharper, funnier. The story is narrated by Peter Jernigan, a feckless, alcoholic New Yorker who takes his wife and their doomed marriage across the George Washington Bridge to the beckoning suburbs of northern New Jersey. There, surrounded by barbered lawns and the good life, they sink into a purgatory of booze and acrimony as their marriage and their lives unravel.
While re-reading the book I stumbled on a 1995 New York Times article that argued, persuasively, that Jernigan spawned a new strain of American literature that once would have been a bad joke. This type of novel had been appearing sporadically for many years. but suddenly, after the appearance of Jernigan, it began to gather the force of a sizable wave. Since then the wave has become a tsunami.
We’ll call it The New Jersey Novel.
Though it is one of the most densely populated and lavishly polluted states in the nation, New Jersey is not home to a single place that deserves to be called a city. Camden, anyone? Or how about Trenton, Newark, Elizabeth, Hoboken, Paterson or Piscataway? Or that chancre sore by the sea, Atlantic City? New Jersey also lacks the regional peculiarities that have nourished novelists in other parts of America – the urban thrum of the Eastern seaboard and the industrial Midwest, the magnolia murk and tortured history of the South, the soul-exposing vastness of the big-sky West, the sun-dazed sprawl of southern California. Instead, New Jersey has suburbs like the one Peter Jernigan retreated to, it has shopping malls, office parks, a seashore, some serious slums, and a thruway that slices through the world’s juiciest petrochemical badlands. And, yes, the Garden State also has a few lovely bucolic pockets.
But as David Gates and other novelists began realizing about two decades ago, these shortcomings are, paradoxically, the source of rich fictional possibilities. New Jersey’s lack of defining character traits – its facelessness, its rootlessness, its lukewarmness – make it an ideal portal to get inside the soul of a nation that becomes more faceless, rootless and generic – more soulless – by the day, a nation where regional signifiers have been sanded smooth by interstate highways, franchise restaurants, big box stores, shopping malls, subdivisions, all the strangling, interchangeable links of the corporate chains. In contemporary America, anomie is a moveable feast, and its template was exported from New Jersey.
So what, beyond a New Jersey setting, makes a novel a New Jersey Novel?
“The Jersey novel is all about a fruitless attempt at finding community,” Michael Aaron Rockland told the Times. Rockland was identified as chairman of the American Studies department at Rutgers University and teacher of a class in something called “Jerseyana.” “My whole notion of New Jersey is that we live in a never-never land, where we pretend we’re living on a farm. The real centers of New Jersey are these office parks in the middle of nowhere. Life is not bad in New Jersey, not bad at all, but what every writer writes about is our trying to find a center in our lives.”
For the novelist Mark Leyner, who grew up in Maplewood, “New Jerseyness is a kind of vagueness. It’s peculiarly indeterminate.”
For David Gates, New Jersey and New York City will be forever joined at the hip. From his home in upstate New York, Gates said by telephone, “The reason I set the novel in New Jersey is because I wanted Peter Jernigan to be in the place that’s his worst snob’s nightmare. Many New Yorkers sneer at the bridge-and-tunnel crowd. As part of his scheme for undoing himself, New Jersey would be the place with the least cachet.”
Aside from its lack of cachet, was there something else about New Jersey that spoke to Gates?
“It’s a state where I easily get lost,” he said. “It’s directionless. There’s a kind of vagueness about it. And I was trying to stay away from Cheever’s turf (in New York’s Westchester County).”
Which brings us to the question: Who wrote The Great New Jersey Novel? Here is my list of nominees – personal, random, and no doubt far from exhaustive:
Peter Jernigan lives with his wife and their teenage son in a tract house with an aboveground pool on a quarter-acre of lawn in an unnamed New Jersey suburb. The place’s lack of a name is, in itself, significant. They couldn’t afford anything in Cheever country or farther upstate in New York, and the place they had to settle for is no palace. As Jernigan puts it: “This shitbox house of ours didn’t have any back door – just a blank wall with a couple of small, high windows – so you had to walk all the way around the fucking garage to get into the kitchen through the breezeway. I couldn’t imagine how the people who lived here before could have gone to the expense of putting in a pool – I hope you don’t think we’d put it in – and then not bothered to put a lousy screen door on the back side of the breezeway so you could get out to it. Then again, we’d been here, what, ten years and hadn’t bothered either.”
Like so many of his fellow Garden Staters, Jernigan must make the deadening train commute to a deadening job in New York every morning, then repeat the drill every evening. Here’s Jernigan surveying his fellow home-bound commuters: “All the men looked like me. Human basset hounds in wrinkled suits. Except they were drunk, lucky bastards, from their after-work stop-off at Charley O’s or something. Ties loosened, breathing through their mouths.”
In Jernigan’s New Jersey the indignities can be as big as a split-level shitbox or as small as a trip to buy a gallon of gas for the lawnmower. Here’s Jernigan watching the attendant do his job at a full-service gas station: “Here in the Garden State they actually don’t allow you to be a man and pump your own; some union bullshit…”
This atmosphere of vague disaffection sharpens when Jernigan’s wife dies in a drunken car accident and his son starts dating a disturbed girl. A lot of the kids in Jernigan are disturbed; some are so disturbed they shoot themselves with needles or guns. When Jernigan starts sleeping with the disturbed girl’s mother, a survivalist who breeds rabbits in her basement (for food), his descent hits full throttle. It bottoms out, at least for me, when he goes down to the bunny death chamber, presses the barrel of a pistol to the webbing between his left thumb and index finger, and squeezes the trigger. Why does Jernigan shoot himself? “To see what it would be like.”
What makes the novel great is that it’s rooted in the vivid particulars of its place – the split-level, the pool, the commuter train, the rabbits, the gas station – and then it bursts out of its skin to say something universal about the harsh dignity of surviving, even if the survivor winds up, like Jernigan, in rehab, minus a thumb. Our peculiarly American hero, battered but unbowed, utters the novel’s closing lines during a 12-step group therapy session: “But when it comes around to you, you have to give them something, if only name and spiritual disease. That’s the rule here. So what I’ve figured out is this. I stand up and say: Jernigan.”
Jane Shapiro’s debut novel, After Moondog, appeared a year after Jernigan. But beyond their age and settings, the two novels have little in common. Shapiro’s narrator, Joanne, meets her future husband William on a New York street corner commandeered by a motor-mouthed homeless person in a silver Viking helmet named Moondog. Joanne and William marry, move to the New Jersey suburbs, and raise two children. The reason they did all this, according to Joanne, was to “deepen our sense of stability and own a small green lawn.” Instead they get those durable staples of suburban life: extra-marital affairs and a divorce. We’re a long way from Jernigan’s split-level shitbox and his girlfriend with rabbits and a gun in the basement, but we’re still very much in New Jersey.
Paterson, the inspiration for William Carlos Williams’ masterpiece and the birthplace of Allen Ginsberg, will never be confused with the lush New Jersey suburbs. For this reason, among many others, it makes a fertile backdrop for Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the Dominican diaspora, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which spins around the trials and strivings of a young Dominican nerd who reads Tom Swift and is drunk on comic books and science fiction. Díaz tells the story of his title character (a bastardization of Oscar Wilde) in a breezy, muscular vernacular. It’s a story about the absorption of immigrants into the American middle class, and it’s enriched by a vivid portrait of the monstrous dictator Rafael Trujillo these immigrants left behind in their homeland. It was wise of Díaz not to set his novel in New York City’s better-known Dominican enclaves of Washington Heights or the Lower East Side. What could possibly be a grittier or more generic gateway to the American middle class than Paterson, New Jersey?
Richard Ford’s New Jersey Novel is actually a trilogy – The Sportswriter, Independence Day (the first novel to win both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize), and The Lay of the Land. All three revolve around what goes on inside the head of a New Jersey citizen named Frank Bascombe, a failed novelist who turns to sportswriting and eventually becomes a real-estate agent while weathering the storms of a young son’s death, divorce, cancer, and the quiet dwindling of expectations. Frank Bascombe, like his home state, is a poster boy for the uncelebrated. “Better to come to earth in New Jersey than not to come at all,” Franks says, in what has to be the most left-handed compliment any state ever received. Here’s another of New Jersey’s virtues: “Illusion will never be your adversary here.”
Ford, to paraphrase Emerson, seems to believe that literature consists of what a man is thinking about all day. The life that gets lived inside Frank Bascombe’s head is, in the words of one reviewer, “unassuming, ordinary, sometimes dull.” Perfect for New Jersey.
There has been no shortage of artists mining New Jersey’s marvels, heartaches, and horrors, from William Carlos Williams to Bruce Springsteen, the Feelies, the filmmakers Louis Malle (Atlantic City) and Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness), and the writer John McPhee, who in 1968 published a non-fiction classic about the state’s sandy midriff called The Pine Barrens. And let’s not forget Tony Soprano or that adorable posse from Jersey Shore. But if the state has a home-grown laureate, it is surely Philip Roth. No writer has returned more frequently or fruitfully to his New Jersey roots, particularly to working-class Jewish Newark in the years before, during and after the Second World War.
While it would be possible to argue that a handful of Roth’s works qualify as The Great New Jersey Novel, I’m going to single out American Pastoral, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. Roth’s canvas is vast, ranging from Newark as a thriving industrial city to Newark as a wreck gutted by racism, greed, and fear. We see the bloody fruit of the disillusionment spawned by the Vietnam War, and we come to know the fictional hamlet of Old Rimrock, nestled in one of New Jersey’s lovely bucolic pockets that looks much as it looked before the Revolutionary War, the implausibly pretty place where the novel’s hero, Swede Levov, is robbed of his perfect life.
Rick Moody’s first novel, Garden State, won a Pushcart Prize for its depiction of teenagers coming of age in the 1980s in a northern New Jersey hole called Haledon. They try to form a band, they do drugs, they light themselves on fire, they fall off roofs. It’s all so New Jersey.
The Feelies had a lot to do with the making of this dark novel. As Moody said in an interview (collected in The Pleasure of Influence): “I’ve always revered the Feelies and when I started writing Garden State I listened almost incessantly to this one record called The Good Earth. What I liked about it was it seemed like its ambition was to tell the truth about what it was like for someone in their twenties, sort of rattling around in the suburbs without particular ambitions to get any further than that. So it seemed to be true to me, sort of a true document. And that was what I aspired to do, in a way – add a sort of fictional analog to the record with Garden State.”
So the novel was written under the influence of the Feelies. That explains a lot.
Clockers, set in and around a thinly disguised Jersey City housing project, may be the most anthropological novel ever to come out of New Jersey. Its adversaries are Strike, the black leader of a crew of low-level cocaine dealers, and Rocco Klein, a burnt-out homicide cop looking for a little late-career redemption. Through them – through Price’s dogged reporting – we learn an encyclopedia’s worth of information about the warring tribes of street dealers and cops, their dress, language, working methods, scams, fears, hatreds, and occasional capacity for grace. Strike is a remarkable creation, a teenager who swills Yoo-Hoo to soothe an ulcer as he endures humiliations from every quarter – from his boss, his girlfriend, the cops, and the thing they’re paid to serve and protect: white society. As one reviewer put it, “So much information is disseminated that by the end of the novel the reader feels more or less ready to investigate a homicide or start up a drug operation, or both.” One thing the reader will not be ready to do is move into a Jersey City housing project.
A New Jersey native, the prolific and under-appreciated novelist P.F. Kluge spent the summer of 1962 working as a newspaper reporter in Vineland. The time and place became the backdrop for his atmospheric novel about a band of early Jersey rockers, Eddie and the Cruisers, a paean to the glory days before the British Invasion, before Springsteen and Southside Johnny. The novel was made into a movie starring Tom Berenger and Ellen Barkin.
In his first novel, The Wishbones, Tom Perrotta worked a minor miracle. His 31-year-old protagonist Dave Raymond is fitfully employed as a courier, still living at home with his parents in the New Jersey suburbs, still dating his high-school sweetheart, and moonlighting nights and weekends in a wedding band that gives the book its title. They cover hits from the ’70s and ’80s, including, yes, “Stairway to Heaven.” Dave and his bandmates call each other “Buzzmaster” and “Daverino,” and their lives are suffused with “the unmistakable odor of mediocrity.” And yet – here’s the miracle – Perrotta never condescends to these characters, or their New Jersey milieu, or their stubborn refusal to join the adult world. It’s a remarkable achievement, drawing tenderness out of mediocrity. Few writers have the courage, the compassion or the skill to pull it off.
Perrotta optioned his second novel to the movies before he could sell it to a publisher. Election, which became an Oscar-nominated movie starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon, is set in suburban Winwood, New Jersey in 1992 and revolves around the election of a high school president. The election brings out the best in the people of Winwood: raw ambition, back-stabbing, lesbian sex, sex between students and teachers, and, of course, vote stealing. If more people had read the book or seen the movie, that stolen U.S. presidential election in 2000 might not have been quite so shocking.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Princeton University doesn’t belong in New Jersey any more than Richard Nixon did, but there it sits, midway between Philadelphia and New York, an eternal beacon to the sons of daughters of privilege. Nearly a century ago, a Princeton undergraduate set out to make his literary name and woo back a southern belle who had jilted him because he didn’t have enough money. The result was This Side of Paradise (1920), the debut novel that made F. Scott Fitzgerald into an overnight literary star and helped win back Zelda Sayre. Not everyone appreciated Fitzgerald’s knowing portrayal of Princeton’s booze-marinated clubbiness. University president John Grier Hibben sniffed, “I cannot bear to think that our young men are merely living four years in a country club and spending their lives wholly in a spirit of calculation and snobbishness.”
Another novel to come out of Princeton was Geoffrey Wolff’s The Final Club, which has been called “Fitzgerald on fast-forward” because it updates the clubbiness of Paradise to the 1950s. The clubs in question are the university’s so-called eating clubs, otherwise known as fraternities. Wolff’s novel dissects the degrading rituals surrounding admission, while adding a bitter dash of anti-Semitism.
The envelope, please
And the winner is…David Gates. Those bunnies in the basement and the thumb lost to a self-inflicted gunshot wound – they tipped the scales for me.
Of course you’re free to disagree and choose someone else from the list. Or someone who’s not on the list. Or someone most of us don’t know about, but should.
Image courtesy of Triborough/Flickr
Halfway through Richard Ford’s new novel, Canada, the young narrator, Dell, having been abandoned by his family, is spirited across the border between Montana and the Canadian province of Saskatchewan in the back seat of a car driven by family friend Mildred Remlinger. The world Dell has known in Great Falls, Mont., is in ruins following the arrest of both of his parents in connection with a botched bank robbery, and the world he is about to enter is entirely unknown to him:
Ahead, where the highway was only a pencil line into the distance, two dark low bumps became visible on the horizon, backed by blue sky in which there was not a floating cloud. I wouldn’t have seen the bumps if I hadn’t looked where Mildred was looking. It was Canada there. Indistinguishable. Same sky. Same daylight. Same air. But different. How was it possible I was going to it?
The two dark low bumps cohere into huts for customs officials on this lonely border road, and once Dell passes them, the novel, which has been spinning its wheels for more than 200 pages, suddenly locks into gear and begins to cruise toward greatness. In part, this sense of velocity is literal: after weeks of hanging around waiting for his parents to commit the idiotic crime announced on the first page of the novel, Dell is finally on the move, in the back of a car driven by a near-stranger, observing the world not through the eyes of a bored and perplexed teenager, but through the eyes of a first-class novelist inhabiting the consciousness of a frightened 15-year-old boy. Buzzards hang “in the sky, curving and motionless.” The night air is “sweet as bread.” The land itself is not merely land, but in a marvelously unforced way, an indicator of the narrator’s sense of loss and lostness:
Once we were out of the hills, there were no landmarks…There were even fewer trees. A single low white house with a windbreak and a barn and a tractor could be seen in the distance, then later another one. The course of the sun would be what told you where you were — that and whatever you personally knew about: a road, a fence line, the regular direction the wind came from.
Ford’s characters, too, which in the American portions of the novel, have been largely made up of loose collections of physical description and character tics, become stranger and far more interesting once we hit Canada. The first person Dell meets in Canada is the novel’s single great achievement: a gruff, unsavory Métis Indian named Charley Quarters, who lives alone in a filthy trailer and spends his days leading Americans on geese-hunting expeditions, but also wears lipstick and eye shadow and writes poetry.
Charley Quarters is the real thing, the sort of character who could exist nowhere but in fiction, but who feels utterly alive and real on the page, and for 50 pages or so, this odd, misbegotten novel comes alive as Dell settles into his strange new world, living in a shack in the middle of ghost town in the process of being reclaimed by the surrounding prairie. And then — splat — the book dies again, never to show any more than the occasional sign of life for another hundred-odd frustrating pages.
In truth, Canada is two novels, neither of which has much to do with the other, or, for that matter, with Dell, its ostensible narrator and central character. In the first novel, set in Montana in the summer of 1960, Dell’s parents, Bev and Neeva Parsons, rob a bank in a manner so criminally inept and for reasons so lacking in basic common sense that Ford is forced to spend dozens of pages just making it sound like actual human beings might do such a thing. The second novel, set in the fictional town of Fort Royal, Saskatchewan, focuses on Arthur Remlinger, a mysterious American hotelier and one-time political hothead who is in hiding after committing a politically motivated crime in Detroit years before.
Neither of these crimes, along with a double murder that, again, Ford announces on page one, make much sense, but from the reader’s point of view, the far larger problem is how little they touch on the life of the narrator. The bank robbery, which puts his parents in jail and causes his twin sister, Berner, to run away to her own, separate fate, radically alters the trajectory of Dell’s life, but up until then, it really has nothing to do with him. For 200 pages, Dell moons around Great Falls, friendless, reading obsessively about chess and beekeeping, while his idiot father loses job after job and gets on the wrong side of some no-good local Indians, leading him to conclude that his only hope is to pack his wife in the car and rob a bank in North Dakota without bothering to wear a mask or otherwise cover his tracks.
Once in Canada, after a few chapters in which Dell finally seems to be participating in his own life, Ford loses interest in his fate and changes the subject to Arthur Remlinger’s crime, which has even less to do with Dell than the bank robbery. The reader is asked to wade through page after page of exposition about what Arthur did years ago and why he did it, largely delivered in summarized dialogue by Charley Quarters. Why is Charley telling young Dell all this? I couldn’t figure that one out, but by then, frankly, my dear, I didn’t give a damn.
One comes away from Canada feeling as though a less gifted author was trying to write a knock-off of a Richard Ford novel, and has made a hash of it. All the classic Fordisms are there: the sensitive teen at the mercy of hopelessly bad parents, the lonesome Western landscapes, the borderline clichés dressed up as prairie wisdom, the sense that all is in elegy to a lost and fallen world. But unlike in Ford’s best work — the first two Frank Bascombe novels, The Sportswriter and Independence Day, and the excellent story collection, Rock Springs — where all this stuff works, in Canada, the old Ford magic comes off as half-baked and pretentious.
Richard Ford has earned his place in the pantheon of late-20th-century American novelists, and 15 years ago, one could plausibly argue he was among the best Americans writing, but his later work — that is, most of what he’s done since he won the Pulitzer Prize for Independence Day in 1996 — has seemed of a lesser quality. Now, this new book, Canada, exhibits a degree of badness that makes one wonder if the earlier stuff was really all that good. Wasn’t Frank Bascombe always a wee bit of a gasbag? Didn’t some of the stories in Rock Springs seem a little, well, contrived?
If you have a soft spot in your heart for Frank Bascombe and the other hard-luck characters in Ford’s earlier fiction, you may well want to skip this trip across the border.
1. “Two Paths for the Novel”
It was late October, 2008, and Robert Silvers had earned a victory lap. The New York Review of Books, which he’d co-founded with the late Barbara Epstein during the New York printers’ strike of 1963, was about to observe its 45th anniversary. And equally improbably, after the tumultuous reign of Bush fils, the country seemed poised to elect a president aligned with the social-democratic politics for which the New York Review had provided life support. Interviewed by a reporter at a San Francisco restaurant, though, Silvers, 78, sounded less like an eminence grise dining out on past accomplishments than a hungry young editor on the make…or maybe the cat who ate the canary. The end of the conversation found him talking up “‘an ambitious essay’” slated to appear in the Review’s anniversary edition, “‘a daring and original piece by a brilliant mind’”—a “dismantl[ing]” (in the reporter’s paraphrase) of the literary “status quo.” “‘Some people will be slightly shaken,’ Silvers said with delight,” before “grabbing a handful of smoked almonds and making a dash for the door.”
The mind in question was the English novelist Zadie Smith’s, and the dismantling turned out to be a 9,000-word essay on two well-received recent novels: Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. Or perhaps “essay” isn’t the right word; as the title “Two Paths for the Novel” suggested, it was closer in spirit to a polemic. The rhetorical embroidery was dazzlingly multiform, but the gravamen ultimately rested on that old workhorse, compare/contrast. As Smith saw it, Netherland—at that point well on its way to bestsellerdom and President Obama’s nightstand—represented the excesses, the exhaustion, of “a breed of lyrical Realism [that] has had freedom of the highway for some time now.” McCarthy’s Remainder, meanwhile, was “one of the great English novels of the past ten years,” “an avant-garde challenge” meant to
shake the novel out of its present complacency. It clears away a little of the dead wood, offering a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward.
In the event, I’m not sure anyone apart from Joseph O’Neill was actually “shaken.” Manifestos are a dime a dozen these days—to borrow a line from Dale Peck’s manifesto-infected Hatchet Jobs, “that and $2.50 . . . will buy you a skinny mochaccino” (with adjustment for inflation)—and even before David Shields’ Reality Hunger, obsequies for “lyrical Realism” had been performed at length by Ben Marcus, the editors of N+1, David Foster Wallace, William T. Vollmann…not to mention a whole host of Continental theoreticians.
Then again, to measure the success of a literary manifesto by whether or not the status quo stays mantled is fundamentally to misapprehend the genre. Its prime object and beneficiary is not “the novel” but the critic herself, and in this sense “Two Paths for the Novel” was a triumph. To other polemically minded reviewers (particularly the vicar of capital-R Realism whose name Smith had worked into an uncharacteristically juvenile pun (see above)), the essay served notice: Your boy’s club’s been breached. “Two Paths for the Novel” (with a slight adjustment of title) would constitute the longest piece but one in Smith’s first essay collection, Changing My Mind, published in 2009.
Now ascended (or condemned) to the post of New Books columnist at Harper’s, Zadie Smith will no doubt have discovered the limited and erratic scope of the authority to which she’s laid claim. On one hand, her elegant dressing-down of Netherland seems to have had approximately zero effect on the novel’s reception, aside from giving people who didn’t like it something to point to. On the other, “Two Paths for the Novel” does appear, several years out, to have shifted the literary landscape in one very particular way: it’s positioned Tom McCarthy, who as late as 2005 couldn’t find a publisher for Remainder, as the English language’s leading avant-gardist. Indeed, so subtle were its powers of persuasion that no one seems to remember he was ever anything but.
This was most visible last summer, when Knopf published with great fanfare McCarthy’s third novel, C. Jonathan Dee, writing in Harper’s, adjudged it “an avant-garde epic” (adding, somewhat bewilderingly: “the first I can think of since Ulysses.”) “An avant-garde masterpiece,” proclaimed Meehan Crist, in The Los Angeles Times. The redoubtable Adam Kirsch went so far as to borrow Smith’s technique, putting C. in conversation with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. “[McCarthy] is the standard-bearer of the avant-garde novel,” he decided, “of fiction consumed by its own status as fiction, and of the avant-garde writer as an unassailable provocateur.” Aside from eagle-eyed Scott Esposito, who posted a sharp take on these reviews at Conversational Reading, no one seemed to question the idea of McCarthy as the keeper of the avant-garde flame.
The “Two Paths” effect even persists, albeit subtly, in the long McCarthy retrospect Amanda Claybaugh, an English professor at Harvard, published last month in N+1. Claybaugh seeks explicitly to engage with “the claims made on behalf of McCarthy: that the problem facing the contemporary novel is the persistence of realism, and that the solution is to be found, with McCarthy, among the avant-garde.” As that last phrase suggests, though, Claybaugh leaves mostly intact the claim that underpins the others: that McCarthy himself is to be found among the avant-garde. This hints at both the brilliance and the weakness of “Two Paths for the Novel”: several of its conclusions are actually smuggled in as premises, which become ours as well. Accepting “the violence of the rejection Remainder represents to a novel like Netherland” is the price of admission.
This is probably the place to declare for the record that I’m half in love with Zadie Smith’s critical voice. Also that I think Remainder is a terrific novel. But, thanks in no small part to Smith’s advocacy, what’s at stake in assessing McCarthy’s burgeoning reputation is something much more than that: “the future of the avant-garde novel.” The artistic avant-garde is, Adorno would remind us, one of the few free spaces we’ve got left. (That’s assuming there is one.) And because its future is so important—and because, if we’re lucky, we’re going to be reading Smith’s criticism for a long time to come—I think it’s worth revisiting her premises and treating them as open questions. How, specifically, is Remainder avant-garde? And also: how avant is it?
2. Language + Matter = Death…Or Something.
To the first question—how is it avant?—Smith offers one clear answer. Remainder challenges “the essential fullness and continuity of the self” that is the soul of Realism. McCarthy’s unnamed protagonist is literally discontinuous; he awakens at midlife from an unspecified accident unsure of who he’s been. This might, in run-of-the-mill amnesia fiction, inaugurate a quest: Hero Seeks to Recover Past. Remainder’s “hero,” though, mostly shrugs off concerns about identity, to subversive comic effect. Here, the comparison with Netherland is illuminating. Joseph O’Neill, too, knows better than to present his hero as a unitary psyche; one of his chief effects is the subtle altering and re-altering of perception that attend the passage of time, and the narrator, Hans van den Broek, seems troubled by a nagging lack of “fullness” in his character. Still, the debt is more to Fitzgerald and Hemingway than to Deleuze & Guattari, and so the difference between the two novels’ approach to the “self” is one more of kind than of degree. Hans van den Broek seeks communion; Remainder’s “Enactor” (as Smith calls him) seeks to secure for himself, through industry and cash on the barrelhead, those depthless sensations Frederic Jameson calls “intensities.”
Here we encounter a wrinkle, though. Jameson’s essay “Postmodernism” dates to 1984, and even then, the deposition of the Realist self was well underway. Smith’s essay is liberally sprinkled with examples from the field of literature. Just the B’s: Blanchot, Bataille, Ballard, Burroughs…. In the “Two Paths” schematic, they populate a “skewed side road.” But think of another B: Beckett. Hasn’t the postwar period more or less widened the side-road of “self”-sabotage to a superhighway?
Two novelists in particular, Alain Robbe-Grillet (whom Smith names) and Peter Handke (whom she doesn’t), seem to have anticipated Remainder’s characteristic “intensities.” Even decades on, though, each seems more genuinely “violent” in his rejection of the Realist “self” than does McCarthy. Robbe-Grillet is willing, unlike Remainder, to sacrifice the continuity and escalation of plot on the altar of a philosophical apprehension. And The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick finds Handke strategically discarding the continuity of language for the same reason. Of course, Handke himself has umlaut-ed antecedents in Döblin and Büchner, and I wouldn’t want to define “avant-gardism” as “that child which has no parents.” Instead, it might help to think of the avant-garde as what still has the power to disturb the settled order of things. At which point it becomes apparent that the schizoid depthlessness of postmodernism ain’t it. Think of Bret Easton Ellis. Play it as it Lays. Tao Lin. As with the Realist plenitude Netherland draws on, “our receptive pathways” for the discontinuous self “are solidly established.”
There’s another way in which Smith believes Remainder to be avant-garde. It’s apparent in the word “trace,” which is to “Two Paths for the Novel” what descriptions of clouds are to Netherland: almost a nervous tic. In short, Smith feels McCarthy to have assimilated the destabilizing linguistic insights of Jacques Derrida in a way O’Neill hasn’t. (Isn’t “remainder” just a synonym for “trace?”) But whenever she turns to theory as such, Smith’s native lucidity gives way to an undergraduate overeagerness. Critiques of Realism, we are told,
blossomed out into a phenomenology skeptical of Realism’s metaphysical tendencies, demanding, with Husserl, that we eschew the transcendental, the metaphorical, and go “back to the things themselves!”; they peaked in that radical deconstructive doubt which questions the capacity of language itself to describe the world with accuracy.
The novel is made out of language, the smallest units of which still convey meaning, and so they will always carry the trace of the real.
Remainder’s way turns out to be an extreme form of dialectical materialism—it’s a book about a man who builds in order to feel.
[Remainder] tries always to acknowledge the void that is not ours, the messy remainder we can’t understand or control—the ultimate marker of which is Death itself. We need not ever read a word of Heidegger to step in these murky waters.
Smith seems to be following the pronouncements McCarthy has promulgated as General Secretary of a “semi-fictitious” avant-garde network, the International Necronautical Society (INS). She offers an excerpt:
“If form…is perfection itself, then how does one explain the obvious imperfection of the world, for the world is not perfect, n’est-ce pas? This is where matter—our undoing—enters the picture. For the Greeks, the principle of imperfection was matter, hyle. Matter was the source of the corruption of form…. In short, against idealism in philosophy and idealist or transcendent conceptions of art, of art as pure and perfect form, we set a doctrine of…materialism.”
The syntax of these sentences is easy enough to follow, but, in their mingling of metaphysics, materialism, and aesthetics, these are, I think, far murkier waters than Smith realizes. I confess to being on shaky ground with Derrida; the failure to find rigor in Smith’s use of the “trace” may well be my own. But the materialism here is “dialectical” in only the loosest sense, and Smith’s gloss on being-towards-death seems reductive, even hedged. At any rate, we’d do well to read more than a word of Heidegger, for whom the kind of being “the things” have – especially in the broken, obtrusive, or useless state Remainder finds them in (e.g., the “gnarled, dirty and irregular” carrot) is most important in adumbrating the kind of Being we have…which is precisely where the Necronauts are at their glibbest.
Moreover, it’s difficult, reading Remainder’s handling of things qua things, to find anything more disruptive than what Viktor Shklovsky was doing in 1925, or William Carlos Williams in 1935, or Georges Perec, quite differently, in 1975. In fact, the hospitality of Remainder to allegorical readings might just as easily be read as a failure of its ability to resist metaphor, or to foreground language’s inability to do so—to capture materiality in the sense of “thingness.” And again, notwithstanding the artful stammerings, elisions, and self-corrections of the first-person narrator, the linguistic subject these objects encounter is still a consistent, confessional, Cartesian (if unusually estranged) “I.”
In general, then, Remainder’s formal choices seem less troubled by its theoretical convictions than Smith makes them out to be. The novel’s ideas may be novel enough, but McCarthy dramatizes them the way Cervantes did it: embody them in a character, launch him into a plot (albeit one that ends in a Borgesian loop). We might, if so inclined, read this as a conscious rejection of another of Realism’s credos: “the transcendent importance of form.” More likely, though, Remainder, like Netherland, is simply drawing on the formal vocabulary of Realism to “enact” the philosophical agenda Smith can’t quite pin down. (C. may well be another matter. I haven’t yet read it, but in Claybaugh’s account, it seems to go a step further toward assimilating theory into language and, especially, structure, with mixed results.)
That philosophical agenda may itself be somewhat incoherent; even Claybaugh doesn’t entirely clarify it. I’m struck by the possibility, which Smith only glances at, that the garbled quality of the INS’ transmissions is intentional—that the avant-garde to which McCarthy is authentically the heir is not Existentio-Deconstructo-Dialectico-Materialism, but the Situationism of Guy DeBord. As I’ve got it from Lipstick Traces, the Situationists (who their mark on the near-revolution in France in 1968) sought to expose the gaps in the seemingly solid bourgeois political and aesthetic order through acts of play and imposture—of “détournement.” You can see their legacy in attenuated form in flash mobs and Improv Everywhere and Exit Through the Gift Shop.
I don’t want to suggest that McCarthy isn’t thinking in earnest about “the melancholy impasse out of which the…novel has yet to work its way”; this weekend’s New York Times Book Review cover story on The Pale King was lucid and engaged, and, notably, offered no answers. But the iron-fisted theorizing of the General Secretary may be less a way forward for the novel than a way of having us on for the baggage we bring to it—and for the ease with which even the messiest “remainder” gets assimilated into the cultural order (Remainder the novel having been picked up for a movie deal by the U.K.’s Film4.) McCarthy alluded to these slippery possibilities in a recent essay on the Belgian novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint: “Will he turn out, ultimately, to have been deconstructing literary sentimentalism or sentimentalizing literary deconstruction?” It’s likewise possible to see Remainder’s avant-gardism as purposefully “semi-fictitious.” By positioning his novel as a work of violent rejection, rather than of pop accomplishment, McCarthy may have insinuated into the bookshop a kind of Trojan-cum-Morse horse—a container that encodes something quite different from what it is.
3. I’ll Be Your Mirror
Internally, though, Remainder is less the “antipode” of Netherland than its photo-negative. That is, each stands in exactly the same relation to its respective tradition as does the other. This is not to accuse either of mannerism, exactly, but in each case, “the obvious imperfection of the world” is brought under the government of a familiar aesthetic reflex. In Netherland’s case, the potentially meaningless gets redeemed by fine writing, in the mode of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. In Remainder, the potentially meaningful gets reduced to the narcotic flatness we enjoyed in the nouveau roman. Each is exactly as “aestheticized” as the other; it’s just that Smith likes one aesthetic better.
Borrowing her own key terms, “identity,” “authenticity,” and “anxiety,” it’s possible to reconstruct why this might be so. The “identity” reading points to the evident seduction Continental Philosophy holds for a Cambridge alum. In the heady world of literary theorizing, Derrida opens doors. But Smith thinks like a novelist, not like a philosopher. (Indeed, she may think more purely like a novelist than any other writer we have.) Consequently, her keen attunement to the nuances of Forster and Woolf, the playfulness with which she approaches Kafka and Hurston, go rigid whenever her thoughts tend toward academe. The false notes in Changing My Mind—I’m thinking here of the essay on Nabokov and Barthes, and parts of the essay on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men—are almost always a product of her desire to force the play of her intelligence into some theoretical scheme.
The “anxiety” reading points elsewhere. Smith’s shadowboxing with a certain unnamed “lapsed high Anglican,” and the NYRB’s positioning of her essay hard on the heels of a review of How Fiction Works, would seem to suggest that “Two Paths” grows out of what one blogger has called “the James Wood neurosis.” Certainly, Smith is entitled to feel that she acceded too quickly and too publicly to Wood’s criticisms from the pulpit of Realism of her own first book, the multiethnic social novel White Teeth. And it was Wood whose rapt review launched Netherland, unbothered by the considerably more conventional uses to which it put its multiethnic milieu.
But the “authenticity” reading is the most revealing. In her mid-30s, Smith is still “changing her mind,” working through what kind of novelist she wants to—and can authentically—be. As she herself has suggested, here and elsewhere, her considerable gifts for characterization, irony, description, and dialogue fall squarely within the Realist tradition. But perhaps she feels, rightly or wrongly, that even her most accomplished novel, On Beauty, sits too tidily on the bourgeois bookshelf. She channels E.M. Forster, but wants to be David Foster Wallace. “Anything, anything at all, that doesn’t sound like me,” she wrote in her response to Wood’s “Hysterical Realism.” “Sick of sound of own voice. Sick of trying to make own voice appear on that white screen. Sick of trying to pretend, for sake of agent and family, that idea of putting words on blank page feels important.” It’s as though the “existential crisis” or “nervous breakdown” she sees O’Neill’s “perfectly done” novel inflicting on “what we have been taught to value in fiction” is her own.
Fortunately for her and for us, Smith labors under a misapprehension about what it means to be avant-garde. To borrow a metaphor, she can’t quite see the forest for the “dead wood.” Here are the rhetorical questions she throws at the feet of Netherland:
Is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past?
These are, of course, the very mimetic questions that animate canonical Realism, from Austen to Dostoevsky to Proust. Smith’s avant-garde is a gradual convergence on what she insists doesn’t exist: the one true and transcendent Real. But look at the “disturb and disrupt” mandate I sketched above—hell, look at Smith’s essay—and you’ll instantly see that avant-gardism, like its dark twin kitsch, is always situational. In the mid-Nineteenth Century, Wagner’s innovations are disruptive; by the mid-Twentieth, they’re the soundtrack for Triumph of the Will.
The enemy to be rebelled against today is hardly “the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.” Rather, it is a world order that reduces form, language, and selfhood to mere options in the supermarket of aesthetic choices. And insofar as it presents an aesthetic binary—write like this tradition, rather than this other tradition, and you’re on the right path—Smith’s conception of the avant-garde is woefully insufficient. Coke or Pepsi? Mac or PC? It amounts to a game of Distinction, whose logical end is to deny that the kind of avant-garde Adorno champions is even possible.
Then again, in a less theoretical mood, Smith once wrote these sentences: “We can only be who we are…. Writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.” What we need, as readers and writers, is not to side with some particular “team,” and thus to be liberated from the burden of further thinking. Rather, we need ways of evaluating a novel’s form and language and ideas in light of, for lack of a more precise term, the novelist’s own burning. We need to look beyond the superfices and cultural hoopla that mark books as mainstream as Netherland and Remainder as “violent rejections” of each other, and to examine the deep places where private sensibility and the world as we find it collide. A true path forward for the novel—Zadie Smith’s or Tom McCarthy’s or anyone else’s—will run through those trackless spaces, and we must follow it there. Otherwise, we give the status quo the victory, no matter how ardently we might wish to dismantle it.
Vive la différance.
From Our Archives:
“Obsession, Obsessively Told: A Review of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder.”
“The Great New York Novel?: A Review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland.”
“Bulletin: Interview with Tom McCarthy, General Secretary, INS.”
It has come to my attention that a favorite interview question for authors, especially debut authors, is what you did before you were a published. There is the vague compulsion when answering that the more outlandish, the better. The idea is that the reader, and aspiring authors out there, are interested in a Susan Boyle-like rags-to-riches story. Cab driver to Best Seller? Yes! Grocery clerk to Nobel Prize winner? Cool! As if literary success — and that’s a flexible definition that would require its own essay — were akin to winning the lottery, or better yet, being struck by lightning. These lists give one the impression that deciding to write came more as a whim, that one day while cutting someone’s hair, the idea for scribbling down Anna Karenina occurred. Or while working as a short-order cook, one decided on the plot of Babette’s Feast. What is behind the fascination of such lists and what are the realities?
Which brings me to Susan Boyle. My husband dragged me to the computer to watch a YouTube video of her singing, which I frankly didn’t want to watch, and yet, I, along with 60 million other people quickly felt my heart in my throat. Why? Because, to quote the movie Jerry Maguire, we live in a cynical world, because most of us are like the snickering girl in the audience — one look at Susan, and we know lightning isn’t going to strike there. And yet, deep down, we all want the playing field to be level, for the underdog — those not well connected, pedigreed, likely — to succeed. We root for Rocky Balboa, the self-published grandmother, and the short-order cook to pen a masterpiece. These profiles feed into that fantasy as much as those commercials that promise you thin thighs in two weeks. So what happens when the writer achieves that holy grail of a published book?
What the profiles fail to reveal is that the literary apprenticeship is a lengthy one for the majority, that getting published at all is difficult, and to get paid enough to not do anything else but write is virtually a dream. The supposed average money earned by a novelist is $10,000, but if that novel takes two years to write, then cut that in half, $5,000. As one online article trenchantly stated: “Most novelists and story writers would make more money if they worked full-time at McDonald’s.” Ouch! Susan Boyle got beat by a silly dance troupe, but went on to make a bestselling CD sold round the globe. Those of us with a new book coming out? Not so much.
In fact, those jobs that are so intriguing are precisely the reason books aren’t getting written. During my own apprenticeship, I wrote in the park while working on remodeling houses, wrote in the afternoon while trading stocks in the morning, worked in an art studio doing bookkeeping, writing at night, but all through that I considered myself a writer, although I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t make my living that way. When the technology market crashed, I found myself with more time on my hands to write.
Writing as a paying profession has always been an insecure proposition. Tolstoy, born into the aristocracy, flunked out of college and lived a playboy existence running up gambling debts, escaping them by running off to join the army. All of these experiences are in his books. Later he ran his estate and wrote. Tolstoy, in short, had a trust fund. Are there any nascent epics being written in the service area of McDonald’s, I wonder?
Honoré de Balzac is a writer more of us can empathize with. According to the Wikipedia entry for him, “he turned his back on law after wearying of its inhumanity and banal routine.” Hear you there, Honoré. A key fact of Balzac’s career — he wrote 100 novels and plays, all the while trying his hand at a bunch of different jobs in order to earn his living. He failed at all these money-making pursuits. His end was particularly troubling for me: According to the favored, possibly apocryphal story, while writing to the point of exhaustion in order to pay bills, he supposedly overdosed on countless cups of very strong coffee!
The truth for most writers, then and now, is that the majority of those jobs both fuel our fiction and keep us from writing it. Richard Ford famously wrote two novels that didn’t sell well, and he gave up fiction for sports writing. When the magazine he was writing for folded and Sports Illustrated didn’t hire him, Ford had some time on his hands. Then came his breakthrough novel, The Sportswriter. The rest is history.
James Ellroy kept working as a caddie through six novels, and used his advance on the seventh to do his own promotion. Richard Russo, Michael Ondaatje, and many others kept teaching until they reached a level of readership through several books where it made more sense to write than teach. Of course, these are the success stories, authors whose names we recognize.
There are writers who shall remain nameless who gave up lucrative careers in law to go get an MFA, who are now languishing at community colleges teaching English composition. Still no big book contract. I know, I know, Honoré hated the law. Then there are the ones who failed to earn out, the chilly story of “Jane Austen Doe” in Salon and her tale of diminishing book advances. Others who wrote one book and never a second one, who gave up and went back to regular careers, or who went to graduate school. Is it Darwinian survival of the most talented, or has writing now more than ever become an avocation rather than a career? Does society owe you a living if you make a product no one is buying? Has fiction writing turned into a hobby?
Perhaps a writer like Jacob Appel is the future. With both law and medical degrees, as well as an MFA (as well as being licensed as a New York City sightseeing guide so he’s the quirky arc all ready), Jacob, while practicing medicine, has also managed to publish over one hundred short stories in almost every literary journal out there, as well as win many short story prizes. And he writes plays.
Jacob said that a windfall in writing might cause him to curtail his hours practicing medicine, but he would never quit it. “… if one spends enough time away from the world where people have to go to work every morning, one risks losing touch with the life one wants to capture on the page. Waking up at noon and writing in one’s pajamas may have worked for Samuel Johnson, but it’s a dangerous recipe for most of us.” In the interests of full disclosure, I will report that I emailed Jacob at four in the morning, and he answered within five minutes. I don’t think the guy sleeps. And I’m typing this right now at noon. In my pajamas.
The majority of writers I know have a complicated mosaic of various jobs, juggling writing, teaching, freelancing, family. It is difficult, and it is a necessity, and most of us who keep doing it can’t imagine doing anything else. When I asked Jacob about the even greater financial difficulty of being a short story writer, he said: “The people who love short fiction, I believe, are writing already, even without financial incentives.” I believe the same can be said for most novelists out there. Will some of the magic leave the author profile when it goes something like this:
student, short-order cook at McDonald’s, lawyer, novelist, teacher, short-order cook at McDonald’s
I am very grateful to have a novel coming out this year. I still work part-time with my husband, take on freelance projects when I can get them, still teach part-time. I have hopes that I might be lucky enough to sell my second novel. I will keep the want-ads close.
Bonus Link: Working the Double Shift
Poornima wrote in with an interesting question about what to do when you really want to read a book, but there are books that come before it. Her question has to do with Richard Ford’s new book The Lay of the Land, which was recently reviewed on this blog by Noah. Poornima asks,I have been very tempted to read the new Richard Ford book after reading the review on The Millions. Does one need to have read the first two to read this one?I suspect that you would enjoy The Lay of the Land without having read the other books. All three books – the first two are The Sportswriter and Independence Day – cover the life of a New Jersey everyman, Frank Bascombe, but I don’t think there’s anything in the book that is only fully explained in the previous books. On the other hand, you would likely not get the full sense of who Frank Bascombe is, since he is after all, one of the more storied characters in contemporary literature.This raises another interesting question, as well. I have read the first two Bascombe books, but I read them both more than six years ago. As such, I don’t remember much about Bascombe, though I have impressions of him left from when I did read about him. I have to wonder how much those faint impressions would affect my experience of reading the new book. My thinking, though, is go ahead and read The Lay of the Land and if you like it, go back and read the first two Bascombe books. Readers, what do you think?
Frank Bascombe, the narrator of Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land, must be the most eloquent real estate agent on God’s green earth. Indeed, he once was a writer, as those who have read the other two Bascombe books, The Sportswriter (1986) and Independence Day (1995), will recall. The latter garnered Ford some impressive hardware, both the Pulitzer and Pen/Faulkner awards, and put Frank Bascombe on the literary map. So, The Lay of the Land is like a delicate piece of urban planning, with Ford endeavoring to expand on the Bascombe legacy while avoiding the pitfalls of largess and sprawl.What is the Bascombe legacy, after all? It’s a question that Bascombe himself is forced to confront from the first pages of The Lay of the Land, because he is now 55 years old and has recently had radioactive BBs fired into his cancerous prostate. The prospect of death from within is all the more troubling because it is from within, exclusively, that Frank Bascombe’s life on the page has been recounted, with solipsistic alacrity. A great part of the Bascombe legacy, then, is his voice, honed to near perfection over the course of three books: funny with a sardonic edge, searching and unsure, eschewing lapidary truths, reveling in life’s persistent ambiguities. Wives, ex-wives, and other women have passed before his eyes, children, too, both dead and living; great professional successes and profound failures have been endured, all recounted by this voice, which in the end (and it is probably the end: Ford has said that this is the last of the Bascombe books), and like many great literary voices, is both unique, and, somehow, universal.What emerges is a struggle to separate the permanent from the protean. Frank Bascombe has now entered into what he calls life’s “permanent period,” where the forks in the road have all been taken, and what’s left is to sort out what it all means, and, simply, how, or even if, he will be remembered: “But very little about me, I realized – except what I’d already done, said, eaten, etc. – seemed written in stone, and all of that meant almost nothing about what I might do. I had my history, okay, but not really much of a regular character, at least not an inner essence I or anyone could use as a predictor. And something, I felt, needed to be done about that.”It’s soulful stuff, with a definite Eastern orientation – the enduring quality of the soul – hinted at during Frank’s often humorous interactions with his business partner, a Tibetan with the unlikely name Mike Mahoney (make money?), who has given Frank a book on the teachings of the Dalai Lama, but who also displays a framed picture of Ronald Reagan above his desk.Frank has fled the formerly idyllic township of Haddam, New Jersey, now a phantasmagoria of suburban development gone awry, for the seaside calm of the Shore. His house faces East to the open ocean, from whence he, and all others, came. Haddam is a not so shining example of change, as it’s now devoid of the less-spoiled innocence of the Shore, bloated, a mockery (The place where his ex-wife lives. In his own, old house no less.) And Frank, as a purveyor of land, is in as good a position as any to make observations about Haddam, though he sometimes sounds like he’s dictating a real estate primer. The implication is that, unlike that of the human character once it has reached the permanent period, the lay of the land, that which is observable, ownable, is in a constant state of flux. Uncertainty reigns over the American landscape. It is, finally, The Year 2000, and, after the great millennial let-down, the country must now watch the disputed presidential election play out (Frank voted for Gore, the apparent loser.)And perhaps the economic boom of the last decade is ready to go bust? And perhaps other storm clouds are brewing, misfortune of a different sort set to make landfall in the not-too-distant future? It is a deep source of interest, setting the book at this pivotal time in American history, and Ford evokes the turmoil skillfully, the problems inherent to “progress” as described by an older and undeniably crankier Frank Bascombe, with just enough veiled reference to future events to make the narrative seem retroactively prescient without being (too) smug.But, with a nod to almost every aspect of modern American life that you can name, the book is ultimately about death. And one cannot discuss America and death without discussing violence, too. Surprisingly, violence plays an important part in the narrative. As a device, its presence seems meant to allow Frank to cross that last hurdle, to allow the lay of the land around him, so troubling at times, fraught with worry and doubt and misfortune, to fall away, his body just an ephemeral shell, his essence, his greater consciousness, which is all that the reader has had all along, taking finally its proper place as all that is permanent.Frank Bascombe has always been obsessed with the notion of “disappearing into your life.” It is a condition borne in on an existential riptide that sucks men into obscurity, nothing to show for themselves at the End save for the mundane details: the family, the career, the political affiliations, the kind of car you drove (a Chevy Suburban, in Frank’s case, one of many little ironies from the sometimes impish Ford). These contours in life’s landscape, this glorious topography, is not mundane when lived, of course, only when surveyed from a distance, a process for which Frank Bascombe has a singular talent. He recognizes that this territory has been negotiated before in past American lives, where second acts are hard to come by, if for no other reason than because it is damn near impossible to lower the curtain on the first.
Dee writes in with this question:Do you know when Richard Ford’s sequel to Independence Day will be published?Richard Ford’s Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award winning Independence Day from 1995 revisits Frank Bascombe, who Ford first introduced to readers as The Sportswriter in 1986. In the novels, Ford plumbs the angst of the 1980s and 90s through the everyman character Bascombe. A third book in the series would likely place Bascombe in the current decade. I’m sure the Bascombe followers out there would like to see how he is faring.As Dee suggests, Ford is indeed working on a third Bascombe novel, to be called The Lay of the Land, and while I could find no indication that he has completed it, he has been reading from the unfinished book at readings over the last couple of years. In fact, attendees of Ford’s reading tour in the UK in fall, 2004, received a bound excerpt of the new book. As for the actual release date, I don’t think they’ve set one yet, but I did spot a note on one British Web site (see the box labeled “Also of interest”) that seemed to indicate the book will be out some time in 2006, but I couldn’t confirm it. He briefly touched on the new book in a 2002 interview with Robert Birnbaum of identity theory:Birnbaum: You leave it all on the playing field…Ford: Yes. That’s kind of how I go about doing it. I get to that frame of mind perhaps a with little more difficulty. But I’m working on the 3rd Frank Bascombe [The Sportswriter, Independence Day] book…Once I finish that…Birnbaum: I thought you said you weren’t going to do that?Ford: No I said…Birnbaum: I’m kidding, I’m kidding..Ford: I hope I didn’t say that. I might have said it. I do a lot of things to remind myself of how serious projects need to be to do them.Birnbaum: So you are working on the next Frank Bascombe novel?Ford: Yes and I will be working on it. There are moments when I feel like I can really do it. There are moments when I feel like…yesterday was a bad day. You find out things, people don’t like your book, you think to yourself, “I don’t know how I can spend the next three years writing a book when I feel so shitty about this now?” But being a novelist, it is important to average your days. It’s like Olympic diving. You throw out the high score and the low score. I threw out the low score yesterday…Another interview from 2002, with Dave Weich of Powells.com, offers more details:Ford: When I began this third book called The Lay of the Land, I asked, What could I make Frank be next? And I finally decided that he can be a realtor. It seemed to me to be both plausible and to give rise to new speculative developments of his character. Obviously you can’t have him go back and do the same kinds of things – he has to have a whole different orientation to life, which is not difficult to do, really – but it wasn’t broke in the last book, so I think I don’t have to fix that.Dave: What’s the motivation for going back to his character rather than starting fresh with someone else?Ford: To write about Frank again is truly one of the pleasurable things I’ve gotten out of writing – that is to say, palpably pleasurable – so I’m writing about Frank as a gift to myself. I think it would be fun to write about him again and to see what my imagination can turn up for him. Who knows? Maybe I can’t do it. It’s always a possibility. Because you can write two doesn’t guarantee that you can write three. If I can’t, that’ll be okay.Dave: Will Frank be in New Jersey again?Ford: On the shore this time. Married, I think. Have left Haddam. This is much more involved with his daughter, Clarissa. Taking place on Thanksgiving in the year 2000.Dave: A holiday again.Ford: I gotta do holidays. They offer me so much. In particular, for me and the reader, a whole set of associations. If you write about Easter, if you write about the Fourth of July, something as important, almost invisibly important, as the temporal setting of a book…if the reader can say, “Gee, that’s a time I know. I have a whole set of memories and associations to bring to bear on whatever’s happening then,” you’ve got a lot going for you.It may still be a while yet, before we read it, though. According to this post at TEV, by summer of 2004, Ford had “completed 380 typed pages – ‘about half’ – of The Lay of The Land.” And an interview from February of this year has Ford saying, “I’m well past the middle of it, the last fifth of it probably.”Update: In the comments, Stephan notes that an excerpt from the novel appeared in the New Yorker a few months ago. You can read it here.Update 2: Lay of the Land will be released on October 24, 2006.
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!
Back to finish things up:Bangkok 8 by John Burdett: As I was reading this murder mystery set in Thailand, I was also following the travels of my friend Cem, who happened to be in the same part of the world at the time. Cem’s back now and I keep meaning to ask him about the element of the book that I found most fascinating: a Thai brand of Buddhism that allows the main character of this book to be both resourceful and calm despite his madcap surroundings. I’ve never managed to fully engage myself in learning about Eastern religions, I think because there is a certain lifestyle associated with them in the West, but the fully modern and worldly Thai police officer who is at the center of this murder mystery cuts an interesting path through life. I left the book satisfied, though not enthralled, and wanting to know more about Thai Buddhism.Train by Pete Dexter: This book was thrown in, unasked for, with a couple of books that a contact at a publishing company gave to me. I’m really glad she did that because I’m always looking for writers whose catalog I want to read all the way through. I’ve already done this with a few and am on the cusp with a couple of others, so adding a new writer to this category is exciting. Dexter’s book really blew me away. Train is both spare and violent and there is a lot going on beneath the surface, like Hemingway but darker and with more at stake somehow. I saw Dexter read, and knowing his personality, part guffawing storyteller, part literary outlaw, lends even more depth to my experience with the book. (note: I’ll be reading Dexter’s National Book Award winner Paris Trout, next.)Wheat That Springeth Green by J. F. Powers: This book was highly recommended by a coworker as well as by Edwin Frank of the NYRB Press, and so, when I came across a hardcover copy of it on a bookfinding expedition, I snatched it up. I read it in the early fall, a perfect time of year for me to read this sort of book, as it reminded me of my early years as a student at a Catholic elementary school in the suburbs. The book follows the life of a Catholic priest named Joe Hackett who struggles with faith and politics and more than anything else the shattering mundanity of his suburban life. Tree-lined streets, shopping malls, station wagons, vinyl siding, and wall to wall carpeting are Hackett’s foils in a book that manages to be charming, melancholy, and very funny at the same time. Reading the book turned out to be a great way to spend a few September weeks. If anyone out there happened to enjoy The Sportswriter and Independence Day by Richard Ford, then you will enjoy this book as well.The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell: I read this book little by little on lunch breaks over the course of couple of months. The Tipping Point is one of those books that is so popular that it has generated its own vocabulary, and it is now not uncommon to hear people talk about tipping points when discussing trends and fads. Most books like this have a sort of hucksterish salesman’s pitch quality to them, but this one is different. Gladwell approaches the topic of how things become popular and universal scientifically, and in the process you learn a lot more about the world you live in.Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota by Chuck Klosterman: Ah, Klosterman… Like him or not, I’m afraid Chuck Klosterman is here to stay. Here’s what I had to say about this book after I read it: “The book started strong, and I found myself laughing out loud once every couple of pages; however, by the end, Klosterman’s personality, which is as much on display as the subjects about which he writes and which is an odd mix of self-effacement and shameless arrogance, began to grate on me. To make things worse, right after I finished the book, I read a couple of horrendous reviews of his new book which brought into even clearer focus what had bugged me so much about Klosterman. Nonetheless, the ranks of readers devoted to Klosterman’s absurd and witty social commentary seems to be growing, because his new book, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto seems to be selling at an ever quickening clip.”Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: After several readers of The Millions came together to help me select which book by the great Russians should be my first, I settled on and then into Crime and Punishment, and it carried me through the fall. I was deep into this one for many weeks, fully immersed really, and when I finally came up for air again, it felt as though I had been gone a long time. It had been a long time since I had read such a challenging and rewarding book. Here were my initial thoughts.Jamesland by Michelle Huneven: And then came Jamesland, another great book to add to a year of great reading. If you’ve been reading The Millions regularly you probably remember my comments well enough, so I’ll just link to them for anyone who wants a refresher.The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski: And so, with the clock striking midnight, I finished another book and the year was done. Well, not quite, but it was a great year in reading. Kapuscinski provided bookends more or less to the healthy doses of everything else that I read in between. Shadow of the Sun, I should say, was yet another amazing effort by Kapuscinski. The book covers his time in Africa over the last 40 years, and he is as illuminating as ever on the subject. As I read, it seemed to me that he had perhaps slept on a dirt floor in a hut in every village on the continent. This book is ideal for anyone who has that urge to wander around the most exotic locales. My favorite part: Kapuscinski arrives in Monrovia, Liberia, where his vaccination records, passport, and return ticket are promptly snatched from his hands the moment he steps off the plane. Though he knows no one there, Kapuscinski is soon taken under the wings of some Lebanese business men who live there and who explain to him that the “transaction” at the airport is simply a part of how business is done in the war torn country. Kapuscinski eventually leaves the country, but you’ll have to read the book to find out how.So, that was my a year in reading, and a good year it was. My goals for 2004? Well, I don’t want to put a number on it, but 50 books would be nice.