The majestic tawdriness of L'Affaire Edwards had us scrambling for literary precedents - The Scarlet Letter?, Silas Marner? - but, amid the swirl of rumors, we almost overlooked The McInerney Connection. Luckily, our trusted fellow readers at The New York Times were there with the scoop: In the mid-1980s, John Edwards' apparent paramour, Rielle Hunter - then known (somewhat less mellifluously) as Lisa Druck - ran with New York's literary Brat Pack. Indeed, Jay McInerney based a book on her. Mr. McInerney told the Times that his 1988 novel, Story of My Life, was narrated in the first person from the point of view of an ostensibly jaded, cocaine-addled sexually voracious 20-year-old who was, shall we say, inspired by Lisa...This revelation was apparently enough to vault Story of My Life into Amazon's Top 500 books.In an impressive feat of commitment and/or masochism, Peter Miller of the Freebird Books and Goods blog actually sat down this weekend and read Story of My Life in its entirety. His findings are fascinating and suggestive. Of an older conquest, for example, Lisa/Rielle/"Allison" tells us, "I never thought he was very good-looking, but you could tell he thought he was. He believed it so much he could actually sell other people on the idea." And: "He seemed older and sophisticated and we had great sex, so why not?"
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The results of this year's Goodreads Choice Awards are in, and a debut novelist took home Favorite Book of 2011 honors. Veronica Roth, author of Divergent, thanks her fans in this video. Other notable winners include Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 and Tina Fey's Bossypants, which won the Best Fiction and Best Humor categories, respectively. (They were also reviewed on The Millions here and here, respectively.)
1. The only footnotes worth reading these days are the ones written by David Foster Wallace. Wallace made the marginalized fine print purr with energy. The typical Wallace footnote is something of a trick. It begins with what appear to be functional intentions before morphing into a linguistic stunt delivered with a sweet mixture of wit and tenderness. When it’s over (and that can take a while -- sometimes pages in 7-pt font), a single Wallace footnote creates shockwaves that reduce the dominant text, no matter how brilliant, to an afterthought. I’m speculating here, but I’m fairly certain those footnotes probably got Wallace laid. A lot. D.T. Max’s recent (and wonderful) biography is littered with anecdotes documenting the writer’s opportunistic carnality. We learn, for one, that on a fall afternoon, making his way across the quadrangle of Amherst College, Wallace turned to a friend and noted how “the smell of cunt was in the air.” Seriously. Cunt. Here was this off-the-charts brilliant man, a charming wordsmith who used words such as priapic and supperate as if they were the stuff of bathroom graffiti, reducing garden-variety lust to a word so juvenile in its offensiveness that most decent folk just refer to it, under duress, as “the c-word.” Say what you will about propriety, but such language bespeaks drive. My introductory claim here is thus that Wallace’s success with women — however fleeting and detached and cold — had something to do with those footnotes. Again, I’m aware that this sounds sort of ridiculous. But think about, as a reader, how a truly good footnote can rivet you to the page and transport you to an exotic fantasyland. It’s the verbal equivalent of wink and a nod, a secret invitation to look under the hood. Wallace footnotes are an exclusive invitation to connect over something more exciting than whatever’s happening above, at that moment, in the conventional living room of common text where words make small talk. It is, alas, an aphrodisiac. I’m a professional historian. I’m indoctrinated, not to mention professionally obligated, to wonk out on footnotes. But, after two years of studying Wallace’s trail of gems, I’ve stopped reading historical footnotes. Comparatively speaking, they’re beyond painful, about as sexy as grandma jeans, and -- as a direct result — a collective foreshadowing of my profession’s slow demise. I don’t mean to sound dramatic here. But I do mean to be clear and confessional and might as well get to it: I’ve not only stopped reading historical footnotes but, due to Wallace’s footnotes, I’ve stopped reading all academic history. Having been seduced by a real writer’s footnotes, I just can’t do it anymore. I’m well aware that there are very sensible and sober reasons for including historical footnotes, especially when you are writing about, as they are in the current issue of The American Historical Review, “the contingencies of postcolonial history-writing.” I get it. But the critical if reductive fact of the matter is that no historian in the history of writing history was writing history in order to get laid. And that’s ultimately why, I’m afraid, we’re history. Our time has come. 2. For me, an inveterate novel reader, this conclusion has been marinating for a while. Many novels that I’ve been reading over the past few years — Hilary Mantel notwithstanding -- generally express a lingering hostility toward my profession, or at least hostility to what the profession refuses to aspire to: telling accurate and relevant and entertaining stories about the past with such skill that readers want to sleep with you. My reading journal alone brims with novelistic expressions of scorn for my trade. There’s Bud’s plea to Lit to cease talking about the past in Charles Frazier’s Nightwoods. He says, “Come on, fuck this shit. What do you care about history? I thought we were friends.” Or there’s Don DeLillo’s time-obsessed narrator in Point Omega, declaring, “An eight-hundred-page biography is nothing more than dead conjecture.” Or consider Julian Barnes’s character Finn, the precocious kid in The Sense of an Ending who, to further stoke the awe of his peers, utters oracular portents such as, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” (And then he gets laid.) Add to the mix Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief, in which Macaulay, the great historian of England, is casually dismissed as a guy “who just made it up after the event.” Such is the novelistic respect for historical thought and writing. The disparagement of my profession in the pages of modern fiction doesn’t bother me at all. It shouldn’t. It can’t. It’s pretty accurate, for one. For another, it’s ultimately a kids’ gloves treatment. It doesn’t come remotely close to capturing the remarkable depth of the historian’s unmatched capacity to ask questions that evoke drool and then answer them with coma-inducing prose. I’m not exaggerating here. A professional historian (not like those successful amateurs who we simply hate for actually getting people to read history) can drag you into verbal ennui faster than an instruction manual for an Ikea bunk bed. The sad thing is that we were trained to do this. Indeed, we’re creative people dulled by the arbitrary and pinheaded imperatives of professional achievement. The sexy stimulus of storytelling has been leached out of us by comp exams and dissertation writing and Turabian. Wallace, who was smart enough to drop out of a PhD program in philosophy to keep his literary voice untainted, can write a footnote that makes you want to have sex. The historian can write about sex in a way that makes you want to read the footnotes. Who are you banking on for the future? Thing is, we’re all — historians and novelists and essayists and poets -- just weaving yarns. This is our common quest. Still, there’s something about the radically different conventions of narration and permissible flexibility of voice between professional historical writing and other forms of storytelling that turns out to be fatal for the future of history. Good novels make you want to seduce and frolic and celebrate and indulge. Good works of academic history to make you want to drink a vial of hemlock. Which is another way of saying that if novelists wanted to really go after professional historians they could mock us even higher up the ivory tower than we’ve already situated ourselves. Frankly, they should. We’ve earned our marginalization. We’ve practically begged for it: mock us. Chances are we’ll be too far up to hear you. In fact, it’s almost as if we’ve purposely gone against the grain of what works narratively, detaching ourselves from hoi polloi while posing as their champions. In the nineteenth-century you had historians like Frances Parkman telling heroic and tragic tales about explorers and adventures and nation building and Indian fighting. It was exceptional stuff (even if it was exceptionalism at its worst). If a professional historian wrote like Parkman today he’d be vilified for his attention to simple-minded storytelling and failure to analyze, to deconstruct, to complicate, to . . . ugh! . . .contextualize. Today, all the drive to be sexy has been neutralized by context. F. Scott wrote to win over Zelda. Historians write for tenure. It has been more than 70 years since Walter Benjamin, in his classic essay “The Storyteller,” lamented how “Less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a tale properly.” He complained. “It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.” He must have had historians in mind. 3. Here’s what I would suggest that every young PhD student in history currently begin doing (besides preparing yourself for not getting a job): a) skim works of history but study novels; b) never use the words complicate, contexualize, limn, framework, or rich (as in “The driving analytic motivation is to alternately complicate and contextualize the prevalent effort to limn the rich territory between fiction and fact.”); and c) read Wallace’s footnotes, paying attention to how beautifully he’s trying to seduce you. In essence, no matter what your topic is, no matter how obscure or geeky or peripheral, write as if you were telling a story to win over a romantic interest. To be blunt: write as if you were trying to get laid. You most likely won’t, but at least you will have left behind something useful. Image via Nick Douglass/Flickr
In the song “Teenage Dream”, the pop tartlet Katy Perry sings of an idealized romance, one that takes her exactly as she is, without makeup or artifice, and which allows her to let her guard down. “Let’s go all the way tonight, no regrets, just love,” she pleads. “We can dance until we die, you and I, we’ll be young forever.” While her song is branded as an ode to authentic love, what it really is a requiem to the idea of vivid fantasy. Nothing post-adolescence will ever feel as sharp or electrifying, and it is no surprise that the song has found a second life in its cover version on Glee, performed by an all-boys acapella group. Yet, as much as we’d like to mock the sincerity, any reader must recognize the impulse. By tapping into the ache of adolescent memories, Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies is a soaring ode to teenage dreams, every paradise and nightmare, and far and away the best book I’ve read in years. In constructing the world of Dublin’s Seabrook College for Boys, Murray has created a universe as rich and vibrant as any imaginary boarding school, but laced with a tart humor and bawdiness. You have Skippy, who perishes in the book’s opening scenes during a doughnut-eating contest, but more on him later. You have Skippy’s roommate Ruprecht, an Ignatius J. Reilly-esque figure obsessed with finding a portal into a parallel “multiverse.” You have the Seabrook’s boys, including both Mario, the self-proclaimed sex god of the group (whose “lucky condom” holds near mythic status, despite its never being used), and Carl, a teenage drug dealer with psychopathic tendencies who scores when he finds a buyer willing to pay him in heavy make-out sessions. Framing the stories of these lads is Howard Fallon, a history teacher and a former Seabrook student, who isn’t sure what to make of these students, as he hasn’t yet “glimpsed the secret machinery of the world, the grown-up world, in which matters arise.” While Howard may have graduated, he is just as puerile and erratic as his students. All these characters, whether they carry a pre-pubescent swagger or a middle-aged shrug—are unmoored, and they fill their time with wild delusions. Ruprecht spends hours researching the secrets of string theory, and how they might open another dimension... research that eventually requires breaking into Seabrook’s sister school, an adventure Mario treats like the quest for the Holy Grail. In dealing drugs to his fellow students, Carl comes to view himself as a kind of mythic antihero, a performance shattered when he discovers his best customer, Lori, is also Skippy’s highly improbable object of affection. Howard heads off on his own perfect quest when he meets Aurelia McIntyre, a substitute teacher whose wardrobe Howard says came from the closets of “all the preppy golden-haired princesses he yearned for hopelessly across malls and churches of his youth.” As she baits him with open-ended suggestions of sex—everything about her “remains defiantly ambiguous, including the question of whether or not she wants to be romanced”—Howard becomes as hormonally crazed as his students, and like his students, he does not handle misfortune well. He becomes, perhaps for the first time in his highly ordered life, slightly unhinged, and on the brink of dangerously behavior. Skippy most of all feels a few crayons short of a full box. Slight and easily overlooked, his voice is an ever-aware narrative of anxiety and ambition and an unspoken wish to be understood. Tormented by troubles at home—a distracted and distant father, an ill and sorely missed mother—Skippy yearns unlike any character in fiction I’ve ever read. After a particularly unsatisfying phone call home, Skippy goes through the motions of pulling it together, all while Murray shows us the unraveling: “You hang up, wipe your eyes and nose on your sleeve, hover a long time by the window taking long shuddery breaths... How can they know what it looks like way off in space, when they can’t tell what’s happening inside the body of a person that’s right there in front of them?!!... Do you feel like you’re caught in the mouth of something huge?” When he meets Lori, she becomes his entire reason for being, and his ecstasy at finally being noticed was almost too real for this reader to bear. You so desperately want him to be happy, to find someone who truly sees him for who he could be, and when that is denied, and as we hurtle towards an explanation of how Skippy reaches his tragic demise, it’s impossible not to gasp with grief. Murray is both quick and true-to-character with his dialogue, and creates hypnotic, winding meditations. He reveals every character’s perspective, even those we loathe or resent, with hyper-specific detail. Howard looks across the school’s rugby pitches as the days wane, the light deepening and reddening and flattening out, making it appear that the school is going up in flames. Skippy wanders through a Halloween dance, his eyes taking in black balloons floating overhead “like lost souls.” Carl interprets the unwanted embrace of a drug-addicted girl “like a teacher with a favorite but always naughty child.” Yet Murray never overdoses it with the purple prose; he has a uncanny ability to communicate the language of adolescence rage, lust, disappointment, and despair, and as we hurtle toward the novel’s ending, he allows these voices to layer and crash into each other, creating a massive confusion and dissonance—that never once feels sloppy. It’s a masterpiece of chaos, and a hell of a cacophonous ending. Anyone who’s had a painful adolescence—is there any other kind?—will inevitably be swept up in the agonies that Murray eloquently puts forth. The torture of a first failed romance, the quiet loathing that can be directed towards one’s supposed “best” friends, the simmering conflict between the impulse to learn one’s lines or to burn the proverbial house down. But what the novel is really about is the ways in which loneliness can undo even the most boisterous teenage blowhard. The novel is broken into three segments—Hopeland, Heartland, and Ghostland—a structure that a story of inevitable decay and reconciliation to harder, more unromantic lives. As the Automator tells Howard, “Dreaming’s not something we encourage here... Reality, that’s what we’re all about. Reality; objective, empirical truths.” The grand question that Murray poses to us is whether or not Skippy would be better off confronted with reality—with all the ugly, irreconcilable truths of adulthood—or instead being allowed to drift in his own cloud of possibilities. Even after we know why he died, it’s hard to imagine that Skippy died from anything other than a broken heart. Ultimately, Skippy Dies proves to be both suffused with regret and, quite surprisingly, great humor and hope. Seabrook is not solely the story of Skippy and his untimely end, but instead a series of voices, of wishes, of dreams. Lori tries to picture the world not as defined by a series of strings, cut or not cut by malevolent Fates, but instead [by] an infinite number of time vibrating stories; once upon a time they all were part of one big giant superstory, except it got broken up into a jillion different pieces, that’s why no story on its own makes any sense, and so what you have to do in a life is try and weave it back together, my story into your story, our stories into all the other people’s we know, until you’ve got something that to God or whoever might look like a letter or even a whole word... The great secret, dear Lori, is that even as an adult, you never quite finish weaving the stories together. And in this gem of a novel, Paul Murray has made one hell of an attempt.