Staff Picks

Staff Pick: E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel

Today I began teaching E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel in my first-year writing seminar at Fordham. I feel kind of bad about it. They’re nice kids, and they don’t deserve the royal butt-kicking Doctorow’s underappreciated Vietnam-era novel dishes out. Edgar Lawrence Doctorow, now 81, occupies an avuncular place in our literary culture. He has been an eminence grise in the NYU creative writing program for many years, and before his rise as a writer in his own right, he was editor-in-chief at The Dial Press where he edited the likes of Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, and William Kennedy. With his bald pate and genial, bearded countenance, the guy just looks nice. But as we know from books, looks can be deceiving. A grandchild of Russian Jewish immigrants raised in the depths of the Great Depression, Doctorow often centers his historical novels around violent insurgents bent on overturning a smug, wealthy elite. Ragtime, perhaps his best-known book, sets a white upper-middle class family that owes its fortune to the production of American flags and fireworks against a family of poor Jewish immigrants who find solace in the politics of anarchist Emma Goldman, and a fictional black jazz musician named Coalhouse Walker, who turns violent after white policemen kill his wife. The March follows General William Tecumseh Sherman on his scorched-earth March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah in the waning months of the Civil War. As good as these books are – and they are good – they keep these historical fire-breathers safely in the past, dead and buried and of no threat to us. This is what makes The Book of Daniel an outlier on the Doctorow bookshelf. Published in 1971, Daniel tells the story of accused Communist spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg – called the Isaacsons in the novel – from the perspective of their son, Daniel, who is not merely still alive, but over the course of the novel becomes deeply enmeshed in one of the principal historical movements of his day, the fight against the Vietnam War. As a literary conceit, this is in itself daring. The Rosenbergs, when they were executed in 1953, did have two children, Michael and Robert Meeropol, both still living today, and both former academics long aligned with left-wing causes. In the novel, the two brothers morph into Susan, a mentally unstable twenty-year-old college student involved in the protests against the Vietnam War, and her older brother Daniel, a twenty-four-year-old Columbia University graduate student trying to finish his dissertation. The novel is that dissertation, or rather, the crazy mishmash of autobiography, historical analysis, self-justification, and blind rage that Daniel pours out onto the page after he learns that his sister has attempted suicide after being betrayed by the anti-war New Left. Structured in this way, and set during the long hot summer of 1967, the novel poses the question: What would it be like to know that your own government, in a fit of mass political hysteria, murdered your parents? How would you relate to such a government? And, more importantly, how would you function if you saw your country entering a new phase of political hysteria against a phantom Communist menace, this time located half a world away in North Vietnam, that appears likely to consume the last remaining member of your family, your own baby sister? Daniel at first responds to this crisis by going mad, and it is this, Doctorow’s depiction of a very bright, very angry young man losing his grip on his senses, in real time, right there on the page before you, that gives the book its taut drama. But what makes the book work as fiction is that Doctorow never loses his grip, not for a second. Daniel is a horror show: cruel, vituperative, physically abusive toward his young wife, and at times just this side of clinically psychotic. The text he produces is fractured and wild, careening from first-person to third-person perspective, from engrossing family narrative to dry historical analysis, from quirkily annotated lists to long, barely coherent rantings from Daniel’s crazy Russian grandmother – and yet the whole thing, if you take the time to read it carefully, makes perfect sense. The Book of Daniel is metafiction done right, by an author who cares as much about telling stories as he does about talking about telling stories. And just as that other great modern metafictional triumph, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, is the smartest book about the experiences of soldiers in the Vietnam War, The Book of Daniel is the smartest book I know about the home front during that war.
Staff Picks

John Leonard Died for Our Sins

For John Leonard, books were nothing less than an essential source of life, every bit as important as food, or oxygen, or love. For this reason, the title of the new posthumous collection of his essays and reviews is perfect: Reading For My Life: Writings, 1958-2008. Here's Leonard, brainy, wise, and self-effacing, painting his own self-portrait of the critic as a young man: Like lonely kids everywhere, I entered into books as if into a conspiracy -- for the company, of course, and for narrative and romance and advice on how to be decent and brave and sexy. But also for transcendence, a zap to the synaptic cleft; for a slice of the strange, the shock of an Other, a witness not yet heard from, archaeologies forgotten, ignored, or despised; that radioactive glow of genius in the dark: grace notes, ghosts, and gods. It's an old story, and I won't kid you: I became an intellectual because I couldn't get a date. And here he is on the way books shaped his sensibility: I picked up my plain American style from Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, my dreaminess from Greek myths and The King James Bible, my social-justice politics from John Dos Passos and Ralph Ellison, my nose for phonies from J.D. Salinger, and my delusions of grandeur from James Joyce. At first I wanted to be Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield, not to mention Prometheus...After a fast start, I haven't published a novel in twenty years. The public has a way of letting you know that it will pay more for you to discover and celebrate excellence in other people, and rather less for your own refined feelings. So that is what he spent his life doing: discovering and celebrating excellence in others. It would be impossible for any reader to agree with all of Leonard's opinions, not because they tended to be left of center, but because he had so many of them on so many topics -- literary, political, cultural, personal -- and he didn't just hold them, he tended to brandish them. (I say that as a compliment.) He regarded Milan Kundera as a genius. I say no way, unless you equate cleverness with genius. Leonard also loved the ancients, epics, myths, fairy tales, the wisdom of primitive man. He disliked the Beats after a while ("the spoiled spawn of college literary magazines" dressed in their black turtlenecks and dirty white sneakers), and he positively loathed Richard Nixon. Reviewing Six Crises, Leonard had this to say about the slush-fund scandal that led to the Checkers speech: "The Fund was a nasty little business, a third-rate scandal, really, and rather minor all the way around. But out of it emerged Nixon the cliche machine, the mechanical dispensary: drop in your coins, and out gurgles a wet and sticky sentimentality, a poisonous brew concocted out of mother, America, dogdom, cloth coats, really folks, and all the Technicolored garbage of the boy next door." That was in 1962. I'm glad I haven't read anything Leonard wrote about Nixon after 1975. My guess is it would be like watching someone empty an Uzi into a lifeless Clydesdale. Considering how drunk he was on books -- he claimed to have imbibed 13,000 in his lifetime, and I see no reason to doubt him -- it's amazing that Leonard had the time and inclination to sip on television, which he did for many years as TV critic for New York magazine and as a regular guest on CBS Sunday Morning. This book contains a shining piece of fruit from that productive sideline, an essay called "Ed Sullivan Died for Our Sins," from Leonard's 1997 book, Smoke and Mirrors: Violence, Television, and Other American Cultures. In reading this long essay, two things become clear. First, Leonard was not only a brilliant critic, he was also a superb reporter. He tells us that Sullivan lived in a suite at New York's Delmonico Hotel, with his devoted wife, a Renoir landscape and a small Gauguin. Sullivan rose at 11 a.m. and breakfasted on sweetened pears, iced tea, and a lamb chop. He had no limo. "Ed is a regular guy," Leonard concludes. "Except...he's made somehow of air.” Second, Leonard was always writing about something larger than what he was writing about. In this case, he was using the story of a remarkable showman as a way to write about the atomization of our popular culture. The Ed Sullivan Show was democracy at its purest. "By being better at what they did than anyone else who did it, however odd or exotic, anyone could achieve his show, but nobody inherited the right," Leonard writes. "Ed's emblematic role was to confirm, validate, and legitimize singularity, for so long as the culture knew what it wanted and valued, and as long as its taste was coherent." Along came the 1960s, and out went coherence, with a subsequent shove from cable, satellites, the Internet. What we got in place of Ed Sullivan, according to Leonard, is sulfurous remorse: "Sometimes late at night, in the rinse cycle of sitcom reruns, cross-torching evangelicals, holistic chiropodists, yak-show yogis, and gay-porn cable, surfing the infomercials with burning leaves in my food-hole, I think there must be millions like me out there, all of us remote as our controls, trying to bring back Ed, as if by switching channels fast enough in a pre-Oedipal blur, we hope to reenact some Neolithic origin myth and from the death of this primeval giant, our father and our Fisher King, water with blood a bountiful harvest of civility." Reviewing Smoke and Mirrors in The New York Times, Sven Birkerts expressed admiration, surprise, and disbelief. The admiration: "John Leonard is a writer of such consummate grace, wit and provocation that it almost doesn't matter what he settles on as his subject." The surprise: "I'm surprised at how little of Mr. Leonard's invective is directed at the corporate octopus that lurks behind every wall plug." And the disbelief: "Does he really believe that the medium shows us who we are rather than what a group of mammoth corporations thinks we'll agree to pretend we are?" Good question, and I'm afraid the answer, too often, is yes. Yet Leonard's writing about television can also be almost painfully personal and acute. He tells us that while battling alcoholism he couldn't bear to watch episodes of St. Elsewhere or Cheers because he didn't ever want to see the insides of another hospital or saloon. The man knew pain and he cared about everything, even sitcoms. But let's get back to Leonard's writings about books, which is where he shines brightest. His love of good writing is not only infectious, it's also mind-expanding because his tastes were so elastic and catholic. He champions many of the usual American suspects, including Robert Stone, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Richard Powers, E.L. Doctorow (who wrote an introduction for this book), Michael Chabon, and Joan Didion. He also torches a few, including Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, and Jonathan Lethem. His boyhood delight in the shock of the Other led him to reach way beyond our razor-wired national borders to embrace Günter Grass (Germany), Jacobo Timerman (Argentina), Amos Oz (Israel), Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia), Edward Said (Palestine), Eduardo Galeano (Uruguay), and Václav Havel (Czech Republic). And before it was fashionable, Leonard was a champion of many women writers, including Maxine Hong Kingston, Cynthia Ozick, Nan Robertson, Maureen Howard, and Doris Lessing. Toni Morrison was so grateful for Leonard's support that she invited him to accompany her to Stockholm when she accepted her Nobel Prize. As Mary Gordon writes in the appreciations that close this book, "This is what John did for so many of us: He made us believe that the reader of our dreams is out there, waiting for us, listening, supporting, understanding, seeing, hoping always for our best, never relishing our missteps but cheering us on in this ridiculous enterprise in which we are involved." Edmund Wilson was often extolled as one of America's greatest critics, but he insisted he was just a working journalist. I view Leonard the same way -- not as some vaporous highbrow, but as a prolific, wide-eyed, and deeply erudite observer of the passing contemporary scene, equally at home writing about sitcoms and Nobel laureates, happy to show his face on television, and as willing to cash a paycheck from Playboy as from The New York Review of Books. For him, it was always the message, never the medium. He died of lung cancer in 2008 at the age of 69, and when I look at the blasted landscape of American book publishing and pop culture today, I can't help but think that John Leonard died for our sins. In a blurb on the back of Reading For My Life, Colum McCann calls Leonard a "national treasure." I agree with him, and I almost agree with Sven Birkerts. John Leonard was a writer of such consummate grace, wit, and provocation that it doesn't matter what he settled on as his subject. Note that I've elided Birkerts's qualifying word almost.
Staff Picks

Staff Pick: John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead

Mushy book reviews may be a breach of faith, as the late Wilfrid Sheed maintained, but in this case I can't help myself. Every word I say or write about John Jeremiah Sullivan's collection of essays, Pulphead, turns instantly to mush. Yes, he's that good. He has that rare ability to make me care deeply about things that held little or no interest before I picked up the book, including Christian rock festivals, the very real unreality of reality TV, the last surviving Southern Agrarian, Native-American cave paintings, Michael Jackson, country blues, Axl Rose, the Tea Party, and how to kill a frog and cook its legs. Sullivan has a vast range, obviously, but his success comes from something much deeper and subtler. The book's opening essay, "Upon This Rock," is a good place to begin illustrating the point. The essay tells the story of what happens to Sullivan at the biggest Christian rock festival in all of Christendom, the Creation Festival, "a veritable Godstock" held every year in rural Pennsylvania. Many reporters, wise to the ways of the world, would have helicoptered in from the coast and delivered yet another predictable let's-laugh-at-the-Clampetts bulletin from the hinterlands. Not Sullivan. He's too smart and too honest to go this lazy route. He's above being above his subjects. Instead, he opens his eyes and his heart to the people who have come to the festival, particularly a group of guys from West Virginia he falls in with – Darius, Jake, Ritter, Bub, Josh, and Pee Wee. Sullivan's empathy is made easier, he notes, by the fact that he was born in Kentucky and as a teenager went through his own "Jesus phase," which ended when he started reading books that "didn't jibe with the Bible" and caused him to question his faith. Books will do that to you. Yet Sullivan admits that he still loves Jesus Christ. "His breakthrough was the aestheticization of weakness," Sullivan writes. "Not in what conquers, not in glory, but in what's fragile and what suffers – there lies sanity. And salvation." Sullivan uses such bits of personal history to great advantage in his reporting and writing. Once we know about his "Jesus phase" – and his subsequent loss of faith, and his unwillingness to dismiss believers as fools – we see the thousands of people at the Creation Festival with fresh eyes. Such insights could come only from someone who has done the reporting and has an eye for something that lives way deeper than the much-ballyhooed "telling detail," way down in the darker sediments of the American soul. Here's Sullivan's description of something he didn't witness at the Creation Festival: "I've been to a lot of huge public events in this country during the past five years, writing about sports or whatever, and one thing they all had in common was this weird complicit enmity that American males, in particular, seem to carry around with them much of the time. Call it a laughable generalization, fine, but if you spend enough late afternoons in stadium concourses, you feel it, something darker than machismo. Something  a little wounded, and a little sneering, and just plain ready for bad things to happen." It addition to such gem-like observations, Sullivan gives us humor. Here's his description of the 29-foot whale of a rented RV he drove to the festival: "The interior smelled of spoiled vacations and amateur porn shoots wrapped in motel shower curtains and left in the sun." Here's a cute country girl: "Her face was as sweet as a birthday cake beneath spray-hardened bangs." Here's delicious food: "She made rum cakes you could eat yourself to death on like a goldfish." And here's what he hears: "There was music that sounded like a rabbit's heartbeat in the core of your brain." Sometimes the humor comes with wisdom, as in this verdict on the meaning of an entertainment phenomenon that started way back in the Paleolithic 1990s and long ago went kudzu: "My God, there have been more tears shed on reality TV than by all the war widows in the world. Are we so raw? It must be so. There are simply too many of them – too many shows and too many people on the shows – for them not to be revealing something endemic. This is us, a people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights." Yes, this is indeed us. Is it any wonder I go all mushy when I read this guy?
Staff Picks

Staff Pick: Steve Erickson’s Zeroville

Steve Erickson's Zeroville is a work of surpassing strangeness and beauty. In 1969, a little less than a week before the Manson Family massacre, an excommunicated ex-theology student arrives in Los Angeles after a six-day journey by bus from Pennsylvania. Vikar is possesed by movies, and he’s come to the promised land. He has a tattoo of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift on his shaved head, a red tear drop inked below an eye. Books, movies, television, newspapers, and radio were forbidden by his unhinged Calvinist father. At 20, Vikar summons the courage to defy his father and see his first movie, and with this he finds a new religion. Movies make sense to him in a way that nothing else ever has. On the day he’s kicked out of divinity school, he shaves his head. The tattoos come later, en route to Hollywood. Something is off about him, but it’s hard to say what. He’s on the autistic spectrum, or profoundly damaged by his upbringing, or both. He doesn’t understand comedies, and gets kicked out of horror movies for laughing. He is somewhat affectless, except when he’s violent. On his first day in Los Angeles, a hippie compliments his tattoo: …[A] hippie nods at Vikar’s head and says, “Dig it, man. My favorite movie.” Vikar nods. “I believe it’s a very good movie.” “Love that scene at the end, man. There at the Planetarium.” Vikar stands and in one motion brings the food tray flying up, roast beef and au jus spraying the restaurant-- --and brings the tray crashing down on the blasphemer across the table from him. He manages to catch the napkin floating down like a parachute, in time to wipe his mouth. Oh, mother, he thinks. “A Place in the Sun, George Stevens,” he says to the fallen man, pointing at his own head. “NOT Rebel Without a Cause,” and strides out. He lives for movies. He cares for little else, until he finds punk music and later books, and then he cares about those things too. Zeroville chronicles Vikar’s rise from handyman in the Roosevelt Hotel to set builder on the Paramount lot to visionary film editor. The story has a David Lynchian quality about it, a slow unraveling, a gradual shift from something close to realism, to improbable meetings and coincidences and patterns and signs, to a kind of dream-logic flickering surrealism. The book’s very structure -- 300 chapters ranging in length from one word to several pages -- lends the book the stutter-stop fragmentation of a film reel or a dream.
Staff Picks

Staff Pick: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

Since I became a mother four months ago, my method of choosing reading material has changed.  Firstly, the book in question must be what John Gardner called profluent; that is, readable, one page pushing me to the next and the next, until, in a rush, I'm finished.  A book that I can't put down is a book that I'll want to read even if I haven't slept, even if my nipples are sore and my hair is matted with throw-up.  (Motherhood and college aren't that different, you see.)  Because I'm severely sleep-deprived, the prose of said book can't be too dense.  I need to understand what's happening, okay?   Lastly, the book can't be too heavy.  I don't mean this figuratively, I mean that the book must be light enough to read with one hand, as I will need the other one to hold my son as he nurses.  He nurses a lot.  I tried to read The Art of Fielding and my wrist almost broke. This is how I started reading smart crime novels.  First I went on a Tana French tear, and then I ate up Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin, which added Mississippi and snakes to its tale of dead bodies and a misunderstood outcast. These were well-written, completely manageable Mom Books.  I re-read The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury, which, with its snap-shot scenes and meandering plot, didn't have profluence so much as a poetic realism that kept me in its clutches. And then I decided to try some nonfiction.  I'd recently given up reality television (er, most of it) after Rachel Zoe said "literally" for the zillionth time, and I thought reading a true story would scratch the itch of confessionals, cat fights, and the shock that the drama is all too real. I chose Christopher McDougall's Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen because it was a Word Bookstore Favorite at this year's Brooklyn Book Festival.  I didn't attend the festival, but the store listed it in their e-newsletter as the book "that can change your life." (I see now that the key word is "can"--not "will."  Oh those cagey booksellers!)  Since I'd been considering getting back into running, I figured it might help motivate me. Let me get this out of the way: I hate running.  I did it a few times a week for about six months before I got pregnant, and I was happy to stop.  I never enjoyed it: it hurt, it was boring, and I always worried about getting a sunburn.  I much prefer exercise that requires learning a routine; if there's a mirror to admire and curse myself as I do so, all the better.  However, I liked the idea of reading about running.   A well-written depiction of physical exertion is supremely satisfying; it's like watching The Biggest Loser, bowl of ice cream in hand. Born to Run is about a tribe in Mexico called the Tarahumara who run incredibly long distances with grins on their faces and nary an injury.  Like all good nonfiction, though, it's about far more.  The book seems to simultaneously dilate and contract--its scope becomes bigger as it focuses on smaller, personal stories.  As it progresses it folds in more and more information and background: we're looking for a cadaverous-looking white man who runs with the Indians, known as  Caballo Blanco; we're discovering the lifestyle, diet and outlook of the Tarahumara; we're learning the biographies of some of the best ultra-marathoners in the world, such as the keyed up and loquacious Barefoot Ted, who, you guessed it, runs without shoes; we're meeting scientists who might have figured out why we run in the first place; we're celebrating the beauty and insanity of the human race.  By the last fifty pages I couldn't wait to go to a dinner party to share some of these amazing stories and facts.  Everything I said to my husband began with: "Did you know..." My brain was aglow. I also liked McDougall's own role in the book.  At the story's opening he's a casual jogger with a bum foot, and at the end he's competing in a Tarahumara race.  Much of his struggle reminded me of novel-writing.  His trainer tells him, "Just beat the course.  No one else, just the course," and that advice helps him reach the finish line.  These are also wise words for anyone who's mired in the first (or tenth) draft of a book: put away thoughts of the larger literary world, its capricious machinations, its fellow writers, and focus on the writing itself.  And, most importantly, don't forget to smile.  McDougall argues that the runner who approaches the act with joy, and who faces the world at large with that same open heart, is better runner.  I'd say the same applies to the writer.  It's no coincidence that Anton Chekhov considered compassion a requirement of fiction writing. The fact that I haven't yet returned to running is no fault of this book. I will. I promise.  When I do, I will keep my gait and posture in mind, and I will approach the challenge as a child would--that is, like it's not a challenge at all. Until then, I'd rather be reading.
Staff Picks

Guilty Pleasures: Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy & Wendy and the Lost Boys

Today’s media machine is so consumed with Lindsay Lohan’s latest perp walk and whether Ashton really did cheat on Demi that the general moviegoing public is as functionally illiterate about the day-to-day workings of the film business as it is about the financial industry. Some day Michael Lewis may turn his sardonic eye from the business of sports to the business of Hollywood make-believe, but until then, those of us who want a smart, well-reported peek behind the camera will have to return to Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy, her classic behind-the-scenes tale of the making of The Bonfire of the Vanities, published 20 years ago next month. The magic of The Devil’s Candy is that it wasn’t conceived or written as a hit piece. The book is subtitled “The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco,” but when Salamon, then a film critic for the Wall Street Journal, began following Brian De Palma around the Bonfire set, he was riding high on the success of Scarface and The Untouchables, and he saw Bonfire as a prestige project that could boost him into the first rank of Hollywood auteurs. It didn’t turn out that way, but no one -- not the studio executives, the stars, the film crew, nor De Palma and Salamon herself -- knew just how disastrous a flop the film would be until it opened in the winter of 1990. As much as The Devil’s Candy benefits from the reader’s foreknowledge that the film everyone in the book is struggling to get made will turn out to be a notorious turkey, the true value of the book lies in Salamon’s reporting. She is blessed with that rare talent for not missing the forest for the trees while, at the same time, being able to see the trees. She places the production, a big-budget adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, a bestselling novel about the fiscal excesses of the 1980s, squarely in the age of Hollywood excess. The Studio System, with its tight budgets and cookie-cutter approach to filmmaking, was long gone, replaced by high-stakes, risk-hungry corporate culture designed to chase blockbuster hits like Jaws and Star Wars. Unlike the founding generation of immigrants who built Hollywood, she writes, the crop of executives then heading the major studios were “refugees not from Russia but from Wall Street." They were the young M.B.A.’s and lawyers who had come of age during the eighties, men and women who had never built or run a company, but who thought nothing of buying and selling them -- before they were thirty… It didn’t matter whether [their companies] made food or furniture, or if the food or the furniture was any good. The companies were merely components. The thing that mattered was the deal. Gifted financial reporter that she is, Salamon walks the reader through how this deal-centric mentality led studio executives not only to lavish multi-million dollar salaries on the movie’s director and stars, but also to squander many more millions satisfying De Palma’s every artistic whim. In one gripping sequence, De Palma’s second-unit director Eric Schwab spends hundreds of thousands of dollars choreographing a shot of the Concorde landing at JFK against a background of the sun setting over the New York skyline -- a shot that, while breathtaking, lasts all of a few seconds in the final version of the film. At the same time, Salamon allows all the book’s characters, from the most egomaniacal stars to the lowliest production assistant, to shine with real humanity. For me, the most poignant figure in the book is Melanie Griffith, who is cast as the blonde bimbo mistress of Sherman McCoy, a wealthy bond trader played by Tom Hanks. Hanks comes off as a talented, hard-working young actor skillfully climbing the ladder to stardom, but Griffith, who was 33 and coming off her second pregnancy, was already on the downslope of her career. The film’s creative team holds meetings to discuss what to do about the age lines on her face (“Use Preparation H,” one producer says. “That’ll shrink ’em.”) and everybody on the set feels free to discuss whether she is too fat to be believable as a rich bond trader’s mistress. Griffith throws diva-like hissy fits about the size of her trailer and the crowds of onlookers on the set during her scenes, but for once, in Salamon’s telling, one understands Griffith’s neurotic rage, and even sympathizes with her. This keen insight into the artistic personality, more so than her reportorial skill, is on display in Wendy and the Lost Boys, Salamon’s new biography of playwright Wendy Wasserstein, published in August. As the title implies, Salamon appears to have intended to use Wasserstein’s life story as a springboard for a group portrait of New York’s off-Broadway theater scene in the 1970s and 80s. Wasserstein, best known for her plays Uncommon Women and Others and The Heidi Chronicles, knew everyone who was anyone in New York theater and seemed to have a singular talent for falling hopelessly in love with the dreamy, driven gay men who made the theater world of that era tick. The book is very well done, and if you are a Wasserstein fan, Wendy and the Lost Boys is a must-read, but it pales in comparison to The Devil’s Candy. In part, this is because Wasserstein, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Heidi Chronicles, is just not an important or interesting enough writer to merit the attention Salamon lavishes on her. At the same time, any effort on Salamon’s part to use Wasserstein’s career as a window to the broader theater scene is eclipsed by the sheer complexity of Wasserstein’s private life. Wasserstein, the youngest daughter of a wealthy, hyper-successful Brooklyn Jewish family (her brother was billionaire investment banker Bruce Wasserstein), had a succession of tortured love affairs with gay men and finally a daughter, via artificial insemination, at age 48. In 2006, just seven years later, she died of lymphoma. The levels of secret-keeping and duplicity this life required is worthy of an Elizabethan drama, but ultimately Wasserstein comes off less poignant and plucky than self-deluded and bullheaded. In this telling, Wasserstein is a woman who simply refused to give up in the face of insurmountable odds, whether those odds were that the gay man she was in love with would return her affections or that the cancer she was hiding from the world would simply go away. This can be charming in characters of romantic comedies for whom all turns out well in the end, but for a real person, who leaves her daughter motherless and alone, it can get a trifle infuriating. None of this is Salamon’s fault, of course, but books on the entertainment industry work best as guilty pleasures, and while the pleasures of Wendy and the Lost Boys are many, for sheer guiltiness, nothing can touch the pleasures of The Devil’s Candy.
Staff Picks

Staff Pick: Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

Here, in its entirety, is the "plot" of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style: On a crowded Paris bus at around midday, the unnamed narrator observes a young man taking an older gentleman to task for deliberately pushing him and stepping on his feet. Then a vacant seat appears, and the young man rushes to occupy it, thus bringing the confrontation to an abrupt end. About an hour later, the narrator happens to pass the same young man as he is standing in front of the Gare St-Lazare, being informed by a friend that he ought to have another button sewn onto his coat. That’s it. Literally nothing else happens in the book. And it’s not as though Queneau spins this dull succession of non-events into some kind of mock epic, or crams his narrative so full of detail and description that it metastasizes into the sort of exploded view of the insignificant that Nicholson Baker trafficked in with his early fiction. By the end of the first page, you have learned everything you are ever going to know about the events on which the book focuses. What Queneau does do, however, is re-narrate this same scenario a further 98 times, in a series of distinct styles. The book is like a sequence of false starts, as though its author were attempting to begin a novel with no sense of the tone or attitude he wants to strike, and so becomes trapped in a comic holding pattern of writing and rewriting. Each of the 99 sections is given a simple and utilitarian title — “Notation,” “Hesitation,” “Precision,” “Official Letter,” “Insistence,” “Comedy,” “Philosophic,” and so on. From this at once laughably and ingeniously simple premise results one of the great high-concept show-off acts of twentieth century fiction. It’s laughable because this is, obviously, no sensible way to go about writing a book. It’s an amusing idea that you would imagine might be best left as merely that, as the kind of droll "how-about-this" notion that might be floated to other writers well into the home stretch of a night’s drinking. It’s good for a chuckle, certainly, but not something you would really want to sit down and actually knock out a book on. What’s ingenious, though, is how Queneau actually manages to transcend his own absurd restrictions by remaining punctiliously within them at all times. By being so staunchly committed to its shallowness, in other words, the book somehow contrives to seem kind of profound. (It’s very much one of those books, by the way, that steers you away from words like “novel” and “fiction” toward more generically non-committal terms like “composition” and “work” and — may God forgive me — “text”). The only way to read Exercises in Style is to just gird your loins and do it in one sitting; otherwise, its pleasures and frustrations are in danger of getting spread too thin. It should be experienced, I think, as the overwhelming imposition on the reader’s good will and patience it was surely intended to be. It also has a powerfully cumulative effect that requires compression in time in order to be fully felt, and it benefits from a mounting sense of absurdity that would be lost if you were to just pick it up intermittently. (I’ve read it both ways, I should say, and I’m convinced the single-sitter is the only way to go. Its neatly partitioned structure and its utter lack of plot or character might suggest otherwise, but don’t be fooled. It can also comfortably be read in a couple of hours.) Much of the joy of reading it, which is also a kind of exasperation, is in wondering what he’s going to do next and whether he’s going to be able to pull it off. To give a sense of what Queneau is up to here, it’s worth providing a few examples of the way he goes about it. This is how the section headed “Surprises” begins: “How tightly packed in we were on that bus platform! And how stupid and ridiculous that young man looked!” And this is from “Homeoteleuton”: “On a certain date, a corporate crate on which the electorate congregate when they migrate at a great rate, late, had to accommodate an ornate, tracheate celibate, who started to altercate with a proximate inmate, and ejaculate: ‘Oi, mate!’” The “Official Letter” section relates the entire incident as though it were the subject of a formal complaint to an office of some or other bureaucratic body: “I beg to advise you of the following facts of which I happened to be the equally impartial and horrified witness. Today, at roughly twelve noon, I was present on the platform of a bus...” One of my favorite exercises is entitled “Blurb.” It’s not just that it’s funny; it's also one of the purest examples of metafictional effrontery I’ve ever come across. It’s good enough and brief enough to warrant quoting in full: In this new novel, executed with his accustomed brio, the famous novelist X, to whom we are already indebted for so many masterpieces, has decided to confine himself to very clear-cut characters who act in an atmosphere which everybody, both adults and children, can understand. The plot revolves, then, round the meeting on a bus of the hero of this story and of a rather enigmatic character who picks a quarrel with the first person he meets. In the final episode we see this mysterious individual listening with the greatest attention to the advice of a friend, a past master of sartorial art. The whole makes a charming impression which the novelist X has etched with rare felicity. Queneau’s stochastic method might put you in mind of one of those invariably lame improvisational comedy setups whereby a performer has to switch registers according to an audience's shouted commands — delivering, say, a funeral eulogy first as infomercial sales patter, then as rap-battle braggadocio, then as bawdy Elizabethan comedy. And the book is, in an obvious sense, pure play, sheer diversion. Its effect is subtly paradoxical, like a less harrowing version of Chatroulette: you can be pretty sure what you’re going to get when you turn the page, but you have no idea in what form to expect it. A maximal level of monotony integrated, in other words, with a maximal level of variety. By turns frustrated and delighted with Queneau’s exploration of the limitless possibilities of limitation, I was reminded of a particularly memorable passage about the mathematics of tennis in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Schtitt, the quasi-mystic coach at Enfield Tennis Academy, is said to understand the sport as not a matter of reduction to pattern and order, but as one of “expansion, the aleatory flutter of uncontrolled, metastatic growth,” as a “diagnate infinity of infinities of choice and execution, mathematically uncontrolled but humanly contained, bounded by the talent and imagination of self and opponent.” Like tennis in Schtitt’s (and Wallace’s) understanding of it, Queneau’s literary game is all about the way in which an infinity of things can happen inside a finite and tightly delineated space. The book feels as though it could have been published last year, despite the occasional archaisms of Barbara Wright’s 1958 English translation (which, given the presumably immense difficulties of translating such a self-conscious piece of writing, is itself a work of playfully restricted art). The barefaced cheek of its linguistic divertissements seems to anticipate the simultaneously nifty and irritating textual gimmickry of some of Jonathan Safran Foer’s work. There’s “Pig Latin” (“Unway ayday aboutyay iddaymay anyay essyay usbay Iyay oticednay ayay oungyay anmay...”), there’s “Spoonerisms” (“One May, about didday, on the bear fatborm of a plus...”), and there’s a whole sequence of “Permutations” by groups of words and letters of increasing numbers (don’t even ask). Exercises in Style was first published in French in 1947, and so it slightly predates the Nouveau Roman. It also precedes the formation of the Oulipo group — of which Queneau was a co-founder and which numbered Georges Perec and Italo Calvino among its members — even though, with its linguistic games and its creative restrictions, it is often seen as one of the movement’s exemplary works. The closest thing I can think of to an immediate predecessor is Chapter 14 of Ulysses, the "Oxen of the Sun Episode" set in the National Maternity Hospital, which is narrated in a progression of historically advancing styles, from the birth of language, through Old and Middle English, the language of the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Dickens, right through to early 20th Century Dublin slang. The effect is quite different, however, because Joyce’s stylistic ventriloquisms are in the service of the substantial theme of gestation and birth. Queneau’s substantial theme, on the other hand, is style itself. Though it seems the slightest kind of literature imaginable, Exercises in Style in fact places a very heavy weight of significance on its seemingly inconsequential diversions. “On the surface,” as John Banville puts it in The Book of Evidence, “that is where there is depth.” Queneau’s book seems all surface; it appears, as it were, to be all stylistic mouth and no narrative trousers. But it makes, or implies, some radical claims about the relationship between form and content, not least that the former isn’t simply a vehicle for the latter, but rather the way in which it is constituted. It is not so much an exercise in the privileging of style over substance, in other words, as an argument for the consubstantiality of the two. Just as in Kantian epistemology there is no separating the act of perception from the thing perceived, what we see through Queneau’s linguistic kaleidoscope is that there is no isolating the thing expressed from the mode of expression. Or, to put it another way — which the book exhaustively establishes as something one can always do — the ediummay is the essagemay (if you’ll orgivefay the iticralcray ichéclay).
Staff Picks

Staff Pick: Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock

1. Kenneth Fearing's The Big Clock, a sharp and entrancing bit of noir published originally in 1946, concerns George Stroud, a writer at a Manhattan media conglomerate. His boss, Earl Janoth, is having an affair with a beautiful blonde woman named Pauline Delos. Stroud is introduced to Delos one evening, and they embark on a brief affair of their own. Until a pleasant evening when they go to an antiques shop together — Stroud finds a painting depicting two hands by an artist whose work he loves, Louise Patterson — and on to Gil’s, a run-down bar that Stroud frequents. He takes her home and watches, from a slight distance, as she meets Janoth in front of her building. The streetlight’s behind him. Janoth doesn’t see his face. The next morning she’s found dead, and Earl Janoth’s sinister adviser, Steve Hagen, calls George Stroud into his office. A special project has come up requiring the utmost discretion; in fact, it’s a sort of missing persons case. The organization needs to find a man, Hagen tells him, who is at the nexus of “a political and business conspiracy.” Hagen and Janoth know very little about the man they’re looking for, but they do know that he spent the previous afternoon and evening in the company of a striking blonde woman. They know that the man and woman spent some time in a dive bar called Gil’s, and that the man had earlier purchased a painting of two hands at an antiques shop — details, as it happens, that Pauline Delos mentioned to Earl Janoth shortly before he killed her. Hagen is vague on his reasons for wanting to find the man, but he’s insistent that the man absolutely must be found. Hagen and Janoth have decided that Stroud, as a trusted employee, is the perfect candidate for the job. They would like Stroud to locate the man before the police get to him, which of course makes perfect sense; what they don't mention, but what Stroud knows, is that the man who stood outside Delos' apartment is the only witness who can place Earl Janoth at the scene of the crime. 2. Who is George Stroud? He has been told to put together a team and to use any company resources he needs to find the man Earl Janoth saw in shadow in front of Pauline Delos’ apartment building, and he quickly finds himself in the strange position of listening to his employees’ reports on himself. The reports aren’t overly flattering. He used to frequent Gil’s, his employees report, almost every night of the week. He is hard-drinking, shallow, and reportedly a bit pompous. Fearing doesn’t give us much to go on either. The book has an oddly sketchy quality that captivates, and the man at the center is curiously blank. Stroud drinks too much. He loves art, specifically the paintings of Louise Patterson. He loves his young daughter. He seems fond of his wife, but he cheats on her without much in the way of apparent remorse, and a chapter from her point of view makes it clear that she experiences his infidelity as a nearly unsurvivable sorrow. He takes considerable liberties — he’s a corporate man after the Mad Men model, the sort who keeps a valise at a residence hotel in the city in case he decides on a whim to stay over, with or without female accompaniment — but even before Pauline Delos’ murder, it’s apparent that he feels trapped. He finds himself thinking of the world as a deadening and inescapable machinery, gears and cogs grinding all around him. The Big Clock is men and schedules and departments and bureaucracies, everyone a cog: One runs like a mouse up the old, slow pendulum of the big clock, time, scurries around and across its huge hands, strays inside through the intricate wheels and balances and springs of the inner mechanism, searching among the cobwebbed mazes of this machine with all its false exits and dangerous blind alleys and steep runways, natural traps and artificial baits, hunting for the true opening and the real prize. Stroud’s a ghost in the machine. It’s interesting to contemplate what Fearing might have thought of the modern world, with its endless digital footprints and paper trails and constant erosion of privacy. Stroud is a writer, but that’s only the latest in a long series of professions. (“Timekeeper on a construction gang, race-track operative, tavern proprietor, newspaper legman, and then rewrite, advertising consultant...”) His habit of switching vocations is never explained, but it seems reasonable to think of his restlessness in terms of a search for some measure of freedom. As his own investigation into himself and the police investigation into the murder of Pauline Delos begins to converge, the machine is closing in around him. He’s never been in more mortal danger, and yet the impression is of a man who’s been struggling to outrun himself all his life.
Staff Picks

Staff Pick: Daniele Mastrogiacomo’s Days of Fear

1. In the spring of 2007, the Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo arrived in Kabul. He’d been to Afghanistan often enough to have found some measure of ease there — he had good contacts in the Italian embassy and elsewhere, and was able to conduct his business with some efficiency — but his relationship with the country was complicated. He was moved by the extremity of Afghanistan’s physical landscapes, the breathtaking height of the mountains and the sweep of valleys between. And yet Afghanistan had always inspired in him a certain measure of dread. This was rooted partly, of course, in the obvious unease of life in a war zone — Mastrogiacomo had come to understand the country as a place perpetually in a state of civil war — but partly in the physical landscape itself. Even in times of relative peace, he writes, this is a landscape filled with the possibility of sudden death, “an open air prison where an estimated ten million landmines scattered throughout thirty-four provinces make free movement impossible, and it oppresses for this reason.” Ten million landmines, give or take, and no one knows exactly where they are. Accurate maps of the antipersonnel mines seem not to exist. By early 2007 the Taliban’s attacks seemed to be escalating, and Mastrogiacomo wanted to understand what was happening in the country. In January of that year he’d telephoned 23-year-old Ajmal Naqshbandi, who’d served as his interpreter on previous assignments. “We need to get [the Taliban] on tape in order to understand who they are,” he told Naqshbandi. “I can imagine their position, they’re light years away from the way we see things. But in order to really understand, we need them.” Naqshbandi, a journalist in his own right, moved quickly. He had contacts in the Taliban, although he viewed them with contempt. He managed to arrange an interview with Mullah Dadullah, commander of Helmand Province and an increasingly important Taliban leader. Mastrogiacomo met his interpreter in Kabul and they flew on to Kandahar, where they met up with their driver, Sayed Agha. Agha was a stylish man of twenty-eight in impeccable attire and brown wingtips, the interpreter’s friend. He had four children and his wife was expecting a fifth. They drive on to Lashkar Gah, deeper into the southwest, an area overrun by Taliban. “'They’re lunatics,’ Naqshbandi tells Mastrogiacomo, ‘They want our country to stay in the middle ages. They’re completely out of touch,’ he insists, barely containing his anger. ‘They’re light years away from Afghanistan. They don’t know anything, they’re not aware of anything, they’re ignorant. To us, education, knowledge, and culture are tools for life and for progress. They want to lock us away in this enormous prison and isolate us from the rest of humanity.’” There’s a wait while Ajmal Naqshbandi speaks with his contact and the interview is confirmed. A boy meets them at a gas station and directs them onward through the countryside, until all at once, vehicles surrounded them. The driver, the interpreter, and the journalist are removed from the car. Hoods are thrown over their heads. Mastrogiacomo is struck violently with a rifle butt and placed, bleeding profusely from a head wound, in the trunk of a car. They have been abducted by the Taliban. The interview was a trap. 2. Days of Fear is an unflinching account of the nightmarish fifteen days that follow. The prisoners are moved constantly, sometimes twice in a day. Long periods of waiting are punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Realizing that even if he never did get his interview, he’s been granted rare access, Daniele makes an effort to understand his abductors: “I try to converse with these boys. I ask about their lives, their habits. ...They seem open, willing to exchange ideas. But when it is time to flog me, they will feel no compunction.” At times the three captives are treated with relative kindness; at other times, beaten and humiliated. They are watched over by an ever-changing cast of captors, their detention orchestrated from afar. The mostly young men who hold them captive are unsettling in their contradictions, in their combination of innocence and cold-blooded fanaticism. In moments when there’s nothing else to do, they delight in playing soccer; when asked how this squares with the Taliban’s prohibition on sports and other recreational activities, the reply is, “But this is football!” Word comes that the captives have been sentenced to death. The negotiations drag onward, and the same boys who love playing soccer decapitate Sayed Agha. There is a gap in Mastrogiacomo’s blindfold. He sees every detail of Agha’s horrific and utterly pointless death. For the remainder of their captivity, Naqshbandi and Mastrogiacomo are convinced that they will meet Sayed’s fate at any moment. Mastrogiacomo is forced to record video and audio messages. He addresses himself to the Italian Prime Minister and begs for his life. Freedom comes eventually, but the cost is steep. It seems to me that our lives are crossed through with a series of demarcation lines. Each line marks a border between a before and an after, whether joyous or dark: before you had children / after you had children; before you suffered a terrible event / afterward. In certain memoirs the sense of immersion into the defining moment, the defining demarcation in a person’s life, is so vivid that there’s a feeling of trespassing. Days of Fear is essential as a glimpse into a terrifying political and religious movement, but it’s devastating for quieter, much more human reasons.
Staff Picks

Staff Picks: Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth

How to put this delicately? Philip Roth's fifteenth novel, Sabbath's Theater, is f@#$ing filthy. Between its covers are dispensed volumes of bodily fluids that put your average Roger Corman flick to shame, and in its frankness about the attendant pneumatics - the ins and outs, the reservoirs and receptacles - the book makes Nicholson Baker's "manstarch" look like so much marzipan, and The Rosy Crucifixion look like Make Way for Ducklings. Even Roth's own earlier work starts to seem prim by comparison. Take, for example, the treatment of that Rothian hobbyhorse, onanism. In 1969, Alexander Portnoy's violation of a piece of raw liver may well have been shocking. But in Sabbath's Theater, published 26 years later, we watch the titular Mickey Sabbath visit a moonlit cemetery to jerk off onto his mistress' grave. Not impressed? Consider that Sabbath's efforts to commune with the late Drenka Balich are interrupted by a fellow mourner who has come to do the same (in all senses of the phrase). And that Sabbath sticks around to watch, and to snatch the bouquet on which his rival has climaxed. Imagine then if someone had happened upon him that night, in the woods a quarter mile down from the cemetery, licking from his fingers Lewis's sperm and, beneath the full moon, chanting aloud, "I am Drenka! I am Drenka!" This is on page 78. The novel is 451 pages long. Sabbath's assignations may often approach the "top this" rhythm of vaudeville, but the sex in Sabbath's Theater is also, as the mortuary setting here suggests, deadly serious. As in real life, lust is tangled up in a larger complex of forces encompassing morality, mortality, politics, history, and metaphysics...not to mention personal pathology. Mickey Sabbath is, at 64, a disgraced puppeteer and the last surviving member of his nuclear family. And in the wake of Drenka's death, "Something horrible is happening." He is rapidly approaching the end of his second marriage, and perhaps of his life more broadly. In the days that follow that overture in the graveyard, he will attend one friend's funeral, proposition another friend's wife, fight with his own wife, impersonate a homeless man, and contemplate suicide, all while maintaining a vigorous schedule of self-abuse. His trajectory, roughly, is King Lear's - a comparison Sabbath's Theater invites explicitly. But Sabbath, a triple-threat manipulator (i.e., by trade, inclination, and compulsion), can't quite decide if he wants to play the potentate or the court jester. His oscillations make the book excruciatingly funny, as real transgression often is. But they also license Sabbath - as madness licenses Lear and convention licenses his Fool - to voice painful truths, of the "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods" variety. Roth is monomaniacally committed to the perspective of his protagonist, and his free indirect narration (gravitating toward stream-of-consciousness) takes as its ground-note the proposition that, in the face of death, life is meaningless. But as Sabbath tests it, again and again, he somewhat bafflingly proves the opposite. In the love the novel lavishes on even the most sordid details, that is, and in the beautiful American idiom of its ire, Sabbath's Theater amounts to a kind of perverse hymn. This is not to say it's pitched in a key all readers will respond to. Roth "goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book," publisher Carmen Callil complained earlier this year, vis-a-vis her decision to resign in protest from the panel that had awarded him the Man Booker International Prize. "It's as though he's sitting on your face and you can't breathe." She was exactly right, of course; she just couldn't hear that she was describing Roth's ambitions, rather than his shortcomings. (In a just world, all future editions of Roth's novels would carry these sentences as a blurb.) In recent years, Sabbath's Theater has tended to get lost in the shadow cast by its more respectable successors. The late-innings Roth revival people love to talk about gets dated to 1997, when he brought forth the first volume of what the folks in marketing tell us we now have to refer to as The American Trilogy. Which, by the way: yuck. Yet if we ignore Roth's self-conscious, not to say obsessive-compulsive, curation of his own oeuvre ("Kepesh Books" ; "Roth Books" ; "Nemeses" (?)), the picture is more complicated. Zuckerman Bound (1979-83) is phenomenal; William H. Gass called The Counterlife, from 1986, "a triumph." According to Leaving a Doll's House, the tell-all memoir written by his ex-wife Claire Bloom (and published in the U.K., not coincidentally, by Carmen Callil), Roth himself felt his 1993's Operation Shylock to be his masterpiece. (It's at least partly his disappointment with Shylock's reception fueling Mickey Sabbath's eloquent outrage). If there was any lull in Roth's powers, it was the six-year period between The Counterlife and Shylock - no longer than the period separating Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint. And let us not forget that Sabbath's Theater won the 1995 National Book Award. It may be easier for, say, Michiko Kakutani to empathize with American Pastoral's Swede Levov than to embrace the rebarbative Mickey Sabbath. But it would have been just as useful to group these two together as to repackage another Zuckerman troika. Levov and Sabbath are obverse sides of the same coin - the same story, approached from different angles. Indeed, Sabbath's foil Norman Cowan - "that impressive American thing...a nice rich guy with some depth" - looks very much like a sketch for the Swede. Comedy and tragedy, rectitude and blasphemy, responsibility and freedom, love and rage, meaning and meaninglessness and all the extremes that threaten to rip apart American life..."on and on and on about the same subject," yes, but what a subject! And whereas its formulation in American Pastoral feels like a departure (which, on Carmen Callil's terms, is a good thing) the savage and profane Sabbath's Theater - this face-sitting, breath-taking brute - is Roth's most Roth-y book. Which is to say, his best. Bonus Link: Sex, Seriously: James Salter Trumps the Great Male Novelists