Based on a True Story, Hesh Kestin’s collection of fiction set in Africa, Polynesia and Hollywood on the eve of WWII, was recently chosen one of the ten best books of 2008 by the Kansas City Star. Writing in Perigee, Duff Brenna called it “opulent,” “heartbreaking” and “masterful,” and Cheri Parker in The Lit Life termed the novellas “hip in a manly, intellectual way.” According to Linda Rodriguez in the KC Star, “These three superb novellas by a former foreign correspondent are some of the best short fiction this reviewer has seen in years.” Kestin was European bureau chief of Forbes, covering Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and a war reporter for Newsday, the Middle East Times and the Jerusalem Post. Based on a True Story, Kestin’s first book of fiction, is published by Dzanc.For years I’ve had the extreme displeasure of throwing new fiction across the room and seeing it fall apart. Launched just right, the spine splits and signatures or – if they’re paperbacks – pages shake out like, well, like bad fiction: unconnected, insubstantial, rank. Most new writing suffers from what can only be called peanuts envy, a wish to emulate the classic New Yorker story about uninteresting people with irritating little problems doing little or nothing about them but bumping into similarly boring people doing, if possible, less – and all of it slowly.Awed by such smalliloquence, the MFA mills early on began turning out robotic imitators themselves turning out a pasteurized cross between the New Yorker story and what Hollywood calls “meeting cute” – any boffo first paragraph will do. With few exceptions it’s downhill from there. Not that there’s any there there. It’s unlikely there can be. Why?Most people writing fiction today have never done anything but write fiction. Sure, it worked for Scott Fitzgerald, but he was an empathic genius who was able to create great characters effortlessly carrying upon their backs great themes. Great writers need great themes, the normal genesis of which is in the writer’s own experience. Alas, thanks to universal college education, contemporary novelists have no experience other than being students and then – surprise! – teachers. Swathed in the classroom, they rarely know even what they don’t know.Which is why this year I found myself privileged to read once again (for the fourth time since age sixteen) Seven Pillars of Wisdom by TE Lawrence, he of Arabia. Yep, a really good movie, but – as with the Bible – you really should read the book.Ostensibly a history of the British-directed Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks in World War I, in it Lawrence layers upon a lucid history and disturbing memoir enough fiction to bury the Iowa Writers Program in Sinai sand. It is without question a masterpiece, crossing categories and blurring characterization with a perfect pitch not heard in English since Shakespeare or Twain or Auden. A natural-born liar – many of his facts aren’t – Lawrence claims to have written the book thrice, having lost earlier drafts, once in a railway station. If so, this may be the best proof ever that it pays to rewrite from scratch.Certainly it is proof that to make a great story you must have a great theme. Try this one for size: One man steps out alone into a hostile environment, befriends aliens, becomes one of them – “There seemed a certainty in degradation” is one of the book’s many great lines – before being defeated by the same night he had hoped to light. If this sounds like Heart of Darkness, you’re right. Arguably it is also the theme of The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises and Hamlet.And the writing!Seven Pillars (the title is taken, with no irony, from that of an earlier book, abandoned) makes of English a language of pure romance, full of such subtle sound and glottal fury that reading it aloud is like playing the cello really well. Yet not all the high-flying fluency in the world would have helped Lawrence if his book had been about adultery in the English department, or filial disappointment, or immigrant confusion. Pay attention: The man set out alone to conquer Arabia – note to Washington: including Iraq – and did it. Of course if the people who got us in the Iraqmire had read Seven Pillars they wouldn’t have been so much as tempted, but unfortunately our universities turn out writers, not readers. What Isaac Babel liked to say about being a writer goes as well for a president: “You must know everything.”Writers must first live, must know people who do more than sit next to them in a fiction workshop, and they must come to terms with the sanctity of creation. Yeah, it’s nice to create a phrase – but it’s magnificent to create a world. Lawrence created a universe.Of course I’m partial to Lawrence for another reason. One sentence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom got me through twenty years in the Middle East – most of them dealing [as a journalist principally] with Arabs. As Lawrence put it: “In the East they swore that by three sides is the decent way across a square.”How right he was, and is.History, memoir, fantasy all in one, Seven Pillars is in its sum greater than all three, and reason enough to limit my reading of contemporary fiction to those books that actually endeavor to be great. Lawrence failed to unite the Arabs, but his attempt was at greatness. In the end I’ll pick up more new fiction. Perhaps I’ll read some through to the end. Possibly I’ll find the gem, tomorrow’s classic. Greatness is not limited to the past. One must have hope. And a decent throwing arm.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Bryan wrote in with this question:I’m a 2007 graduate of Columbia. I majored in American Studies with a concentration in 20th century American literature. I’m a huge fan of the Millions. I’m attaching a recent reading list, if there’s any chance you’d be interested in giving a book recommendation [based on it], that would be totally awesome. Here goes:Currently reading:Heart of Darkness by Joseph ConradRecently read (sep 07 – april 08):Elementary Particles by Michel HoullebecqA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave EggersMan In The Dark by Paul AusterPortnoy’s Complaint by Philip RothWhat We Should Have Known – n+1The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLook Back In Anger by John OsborneThe Road by Cormac MccarthyPages From A Cold Island by Frederick ExleyUltramarine by Raymond CarverThe Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan KunderaThe Country Between Us by Carolyn ForcheLiterary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice by Charles BresslerA Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’ConnorGoodbye, Columbus by Philip RothWinesburg, Ohio by Sherwood AndersonThe Big Sleep by Raymond ChandlerMeditations In An Emergency by Frank O’HaraSwann’s Way by Marcel ProustThe Sound And The Fury by William FaulknerLife Studies and For The Union Dead by Robert LowellFor Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest HemingwayIncidences by Daniil KharnsJourney To The End Of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand CelineBryan’s recent reading list is an interesting one, and in discussions among Millions contributors, several interesting observations were made. Emily noted, for example, that it is a “very testosterone-y” reading list and added, “I think all testosterone diets are bad for the soul. (as are all estrogen diets).” Her prescription? Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Ben, meanwhile, noted several “upgrades” that Bryan might consider to the books above. Instead of Goodbye, Columbus, read Saul Bellow’s Herzog. If you’re going to read Exley, read A Fan’s Notes, and “Infinite Jest should be on there, probably the greatest work of 20th century literature,” Ben adds. Garth said that Bryan “needs urgently to read is Mating by Norman Rush, which is like an amalgam of Conrad, Roth, Proust, F. O’Hara, and Hemingway,” all authors featured on Bryan’s list.In thinking and discussing Bryan’s list, we also hit the idea of a “staff picks” for recent grads – a year out of school, Bryan qualifies, and with another round of graduates set to be expelled from academia, we figured that it might be both timely and useful. Below follows a handful of suggestions. This list is woefully incomplete though, so we ask you to help us out with your own reading suggestions for recent graduates in the comments.Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson recommended by EdanThis novel-in-verse is a contemporary retelling of the myth of Geryon and Herakles. In the original myth, Herakles kills Geryon, a red-winged creature who lives on a red island; Carson’s version is a kind of coming of age story, in which Geryon falls in love with Herakles. If the form intimidates you, don’t let it: this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams recommended by EdanThree teenage girls, a bitch of a ghost, and the apathetic desert. The Quick and the Dead is an odd and very funny novel that has pretty much no narrative drive but is nonetheless a joy (no pun intended!) to read because of its wondrous prose.Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy by Dave Hickey recommended by EdanThis is a fun collection of essays that will feel far more entertaining than any criticism you read in college (though maybe not as mind blowing). The best piece in the book, I think, is Hickey’s argument for why Vegas (where he lives) is so terrific.George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London recommended by AndrewSo you’re holding your degree in one hand and, with the other, you’re untangling a four-year growth of ivy from your jacket. All the while maintaining that cool, detached air that you’ve been carefully cultivating. Well, before you join the real world and settle into the routine that will destroy your soul bit by bit, each and every day FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, take a breath, find a copy of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, and shake your foundations one last time.Orwell was probably about your age – mid-twenties or so – when he found himself out of the army and living in the underbelly of Paris and then in London, living in poverty, working as a plongeur and doing other assorted subsistence-level jobs, and scraping by. A largely autobiographical account of those years, Down and Out in Paris and London exposes Orwell’s social soul. “I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny.”Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway recommended by MaxTo me, the post-college years are characterized by two often warring desires, to become a contributing member of society despite the horrifying drudgery of those first post-college jobs and to extend the second childhood of undergraduate life for as long as possible. Lucky Jim riotously encapsulates the former, as junior lecturer Jim Dixon finds himself surrounded by eccentric buffoonish professors and overeager students at a British college. He wants what many of us want: to escape the dull life before it traps us forever. The Sun Also Rises famously depicts the pitfalls of the other path. Brett and Jake and their burned out gang live life in a perpetual day-after-the-party fog. The Pamplona bullfights, aperitifs, and camaraderie may be tempting, but the attendant spiritual weariness gives pause.
I finished the book yesterday during a long afternoon spent in bed recovering from my illness. It was an especially fitting setting. The Great Fire is full of languid afternoons and young men beset by obscure diseases and weary from the war. I enjoyed the setting; the sense of war nearby, war recently ended and perhaps soon to be reignited. It was like a less bleary version of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises it also reminded me a lot of the film Casablanca, but maybe just because I happened to watch it around when I started reading the book. The book revolves around a couple of former soldiers, Aldred Leith and Peter Exley, who have been cast far and wide, to Japan and Hong Kong respectively, in the aftermath of World War II. They are surrounded on all sides by others, women and older folks, whose lives have been similarly touched by the war, and all of whom seem to be searching in vain for normalcy in the aftermath of shattering conflict. The central drama of the book concerns a budding love affair between Leith and a student of his, Helen Driscoll. Helen’s dull and menacing parents as well as the vast age difference between Aldred and Helen set up what turns out to be a fairly filmic love story. The chief drama for the reader lies both in wending one’s way through Hazzard’s elliptical, lyrical prose and in wondering whether or not the May – December romance will ever be consummated.