Jhumpa Lahiri Isn’t Doing Anything Novel

Jhumpa Lahiri‘s Unaccustomed Earth—still in the top ten of the New York Times bestseller list—isn’t out in the U.K. yet. The Guardian assembles a primer on Lahiri’s success, though I want to say that Edward Helmore is overreaching with his argument that her work signals a seachange in American fiction:

But can Lahiri’s stories—along with those of immigrant authors such as Edwidge Danticat (born in Haiti), Gary Shteyngart (from Russia) and Junot Díaz (the Dominican Republic)—supplant the white male authors who informed US culture throughout the 20th century? In the era of globalisation, are immigrant stories the more compelling, relevant and energetic? Part of the answer lies with the US education system, which is making renewed efforts to make room for authors like Lahiri, Chang-rae Lee and Khaled Hosseini.

I get the argument: There’s only so many times you can hear Updike/Roth/Chabon/McCarthy bolted to lists of great American authors before you start thinking that you’re in a world exclusive to white men. But like the “Bob Dylan Is Back!” story that gets written every time he puts out a new album, “Our Newly Diverse American Fiction!” is a story that’s been told repeatedly for decades now. You heard it with Sandra Cisneros, Maxine Hong Kingston, Oscar Hijuelos, Amy Tan, and more; the shelves of my home growing up were filled with Harry Mark Petrakis books (no Wikipedia page for him!), and he began writing in the ’50s. Were journalists writing trend pieces in 1918? If so, you might’ve heard something about My Antonia wresting American literature from the urbane fists of Henry James.

None of the authors I’ve just listed claim the place that Roth alone does, and it’s fair to speculate about why that is. But the real story isn’t about the immigrant narrative being something new, but why it’s often played a B-team role. After all, even Updike recognizes the value of the assimilation narrative, even if he wasn’t enthusiastic about my favorite novel of last year, Ha Jin‘s A Free Life. As long as those stories stay in the shadows, the ones that grab some sales heat will be extolled, wrongly, as something shockingly new.

Roundup: Looking Backward

At the Washington Post‘s Short Stack blog, Marie Arana goes hunting for books that expose unfamiliar corners of Washington D.C., “rather than grouse about how Washington has never produced a classic tome that truly nails the city the way Tom Wolfe did New York or Dashiell Hammett did San Francisco.” (Was it something I said?) Coming up empty, she calls on Christopher Buckley (Boomsday, Thank You for Smoking), who concludes his list with “any White House memoir”: “They all have two themes: 1.) It wasn’t my fault! and 2.) It would have been so much worse if I hadn’t been there. Now that really tells you something about this town.”

In the Wall Street Journal, Alexandra Fuller lists her five favorite books about the modern American West.

Romance publisher Harlequin is getting big on Web 2.0 tools—readings on Second Life, short erotic novels readable on cellphones (“because size doesn’t matter”). Says the company’s internet guru, Brent Lewis: “We chunk down most stories [designed for cellphones] so you’re only getting about 500 words per day. I believe strongly that mobile will become an important delivery mechanism for publishers in North America.”

Attention Chicagoans: The Museum of Contemporary Art is exhibiting photos of Chicago from 1949 to 1968 by Art Shay, in conjunction with a new staging of Nelson Algren: For Keeps and a Single Day at Lookingglass Theatre (which has a preview video of the show).

Love on the Rocks

My favorite line from James Frey‘s interview with the Wall Street Journal about his new novel, Bright Shiny Morning: “Most of the facts in the book are real.”

The WSJ has an excerpt from the novel, and the paper really should’ve been presented it as a quiz/reader’s guide: How many alleged facts here are accurate? What are the odds that James Frey was sneering and consulting Very Little Known Facts when he was composing this passage?

It is legal for human beings to marry rocks in the City of Los Angeles.

The first such marriage occurred in 1950, when a secretary at an autoparts factory named Jannene Swift married a large piece of granite.

The Port of Los Angeles handles almost 200 million tons of cargo every year.

For some reason that, despite extensive scientific research, remains unknown, potato chips weigh more in Los Angeles than in any other part of America.

There are sixty-five people in Los Angeles who have the legal name Jesus Christ.

There is more pornography produced in Los Angeles than in the rest of the world combined.

Dept. of Wild, Unsupportable Generalizations

Choire Sicha believes that men can’t write any more—or rather, that the latest batch of post-McSweeney’s young novelists need a pair of stones. How romanticizing the mid-’80s supports this thesis is beyond me (maybe it’s because Jay McInerney‘s Ransom had samurai swords or something?), but here you go:

The American desire for fucking has become, locally, the Brooklyn-based or -bound desire for a book deal and a brownstone. Men, finding that they cannot really get status or security from the ownership of women very often, find their very selves disparaged. Like most of us, they get their status first from consumption, and the way out is to become a maker of consumables; a high-class published author. And they are bewildered, I think, because their bewilderment shows in books that try to understand class and economic conditions even as they are being happily further ensnared by them. Their books read as if this were the first time they’d ever thought of all this.

Read it if you dare. Sicha’s argument is so stuffed with overstatement that it practically repels thought. (If there’s something to be said about the connection between getting laid and greater class understanding, an editor at the Observer might’ve compelled Sicha to articulate it.) But one thing: If you’re going to make assertions about the value, strength, and importance of women writers, maybe spell Marilynne Robinson‘s name right?

Roundup: History Lessons

Bookslut points to a great Wisconsin Public Radio feature called “Author! Author!” (not to be confused with this). Last year’s “Pulp Fiction” segment is especially rich, including Chris Ware, Tom Wolfe, John Wesley Harding, and Studs Terkel discussing Nelson Algren‘s Chicago: City on the Make, number two on my personal list of great books about Chicago. (Here’s number one, immortal.)

Kevin J. Hayes, author of American Literature: A Very Short Introduction, is back again, this time looking for advice about autobiographies. Not my bailiwick, but a few personal favorites that spring to mind: John Updike‘s Self-Consciousness, Paul Auster‘s Hand to Mouth (one of my favorite being-a-writer memoirs), Alison Bechdel‘s Fun Home, Woody Guthrie‘s Bound for Glory. Tough one. What’s the distinction between an autobiography and a memoir? Can you not write about James Frey and still claim you were comprehensive in discussing this?

Nathaniel Hawthorne‘s house doesn’t appear to be in the same dire straits as Edith Wharton‘s, but it still needs help.

In relation to its recent “What I’ve Learned” feature on Gore Vidal, Esquire dusts off Vidal’s 1962 review of Robert Gover‘s first novel, One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding:

And he has written a tragedy, for all of us; he reveals the emptiness and banality of a bored society’s emotional responses, not to mention the poverty of its dialogue. There is always a division between what a society does and what it says it does, and what it feels about what it says and does. But nowhere is this conflict more vividly revealed than in the American middle class’s attitude toward sex, that continuing pleasure and sometimes duty we have, with the genius of true pioneers, managed to tie in knots. Robert Gover unties no knots but he shows them plain and I hope this book will be read by every adolescent in the country, which is most of the population.

Another Log on the Fire

Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, Ezra Klein fusses over what the Amazon Kindle means for the future of reading. He’s not entirely sold on the device after carrying it around for a month:

Let me be clear: though the Kindle has some advantages over traditional books, for the moment, I’d stick with the low-tech option. The problem is that the Kindle tries to compete too directly with paper. It attempts to electronically mimic the experience of reading a book. But the book is very, very good at providing the experience of reading a book. In this way, the Kindle occasionally comes off as if Ford, failing to make the conceptual leap to the car, had instead built a motorized horse. Sure, there would be some advantages: the robo-steed would never grow tired, and could be outfitted with more plush seating. But horses are pretty good at being horses. And books, like horses, have evolved to maximize their advantages.

Largely, though, he’s enthused about what the digital book means for readers. (CJR’s Web site has a video of him discussing the story.) To overgeneralize his point, the Kindle (or at least digital text) makes text flexible—more free to be amended, corrected, and discussed. Fair enough, but I think Klein’s piece missed the target. There’s a hint of the straw man in his thesis: He wrestles with the question of whether the Kindle will spell the death of the book, but no sensible person is making that argument. Oddly, though, Klein never really gets at the main problem with the Kindle—the impermanence of the device itself. “If you drop it in the bathtub, you’re out $400,” he notes. But it’s deeper than that, because you need not drop the Kindle in the bathtub to have an obsolete device. Just wait five years, where it’ll take the place of all the tech devices you had five years ago and no longer use; your first-gen iPod, your iMac, your PDA. (Yes, I’ve ranted about this before, but I’m always game to bring it up again.)

The Chicago Wave

Chicagoist checks in with Aleksandar Hemon. His new novel, The Lazarus Project, is based in part on the true story of Lazarus Averbauch, a Jewish immigrant (and alleged anarchist) who was killed by Chicago police in 1908. Says Hemon, a Bosnian-born writer now living in Chicago:

[W]hat interests me as a writer is that displacement necessarily results in stories. On the one hand, you tell the story of the old land, wherever it is, whatever your attitude towards it is. But you also tell the stories to the people of the new land, and you define yourself to them. But you also tell the stories of your new land to yourself and you listen to stories of the new land to understand what it is. And then at some point you tell the stories of the new land to people from the old land. That’s very simplified (laughs). But it perpetuates stories, displacement. When you’re at home, if you’re telling stories with people you are with your whole life, then there are no new stories coming in. You keep telling the old stories. And as comforting as that can be, new stories come with displacement.

Roundup: Cutting-Room Floor

Rick Moody on studying with Angela Carter at Brown University, in the Age: “On the first day, the class was overenrolled. She basically got it down to 14 people by scaring people out of the room. Some guy raised his hand and said, ‘Well, what’s your work like anyway?’ She said, in her mild-mannered way, ‘My work cuts like a steel blade at the base of a man’s penis’.”

Kate Christensen
, on winning the PEN/Faulkner award (and being only the fourth woman to do so in 28 years), at NPR: “For writers and artists, it’s always a balancing act between wanting to be the center of attention and wanting to be invisible and watch what’s going on,” she says. “It makes you vulnerable to win an award. It’s nice to get the attention, but your neck is stuck out.”

Toni Morrison, clarifying that “first black President” statement, in Time: “People misunderstood that phrase. I was deploring the way in which President Clinton was being treated, vis-à-vis the sex scandal that was surrounding him. I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp. I have no idea what his real instincts are, in terms of race.”

When Trilling Failed

Cynthia Ozick‘s extensive but absorbing essay on Lionel Trilling in the New Republic is well worth the time it’ll take to read. The peg for the piece is Trilling’s The Journey Abandoned, an unfinished novel that was recently discovered and just published by Columbia University Press. The book is, to Ozick’s mind, a failure, but an interesting failure that allows her to delve into the tricky business of being a critic who takes on fiction. When you were a critic such as Trilling, deeply concerned with the mechanics of literary greatness, the stakes were much higher. So for him to write what what Ozick calls merely a pretty good novel, 1947’s The Middle of the Journey, was essentially to fail. Ozick writes:

Then surely it behooved him to bring forth not merely a good novel, and not merely a very good novel, but a great novel? This he had not done. Q.E.D.: since with all this capacity for greatness, he had not produced a great novel, it must follow that he had produced a bad novel–gray, bloodless, intellectual, without passion. For the lauded critic who stakes his truth on a transcendent standard, there may be a lesson in it: do not try to practice what you preach, or your admirers will gather round to pick your bones.

Sticky Wickets

On the Atlantic‘s Web site, Katie Bacon chats with Joseph O’Neill, the Dutch-born Irish-born, Dutch-raised author of Netherland, a novel that’s about (among other things) cricket and post-9/11 New York:

I think a lot of people here felt a similar passivity about the war, as if they were waiting for someone to tell them how they should think about it. So in a way Hans [the novel’s protagonist] wasn’t so different from a lot of Americans at the time.

Exactly, he wasn’t. He places his trust in the powers that be. But he confesses, in a way, that he doesn’t really care—which I think is not necessarily typical of most Americans. He’s too depressed and wrapped up in a private circuit of misery. To the degree that he does reflect America’s reaction, he’s not equipped to think politically about the world. It’s very sad to say that, after having lived ten years in America, it increasingly dawns on you how politically undereducated people in this country are. It’s a very dangerous thing, especially in combination with the power that the government has. I say this even though I’ve become anti-anti-American—one does when one starts to live here. I’ve become American; I just got naturalized a few months ago. I really do feel that Hans’s political limitations are reflective of limitations in American culture generally.