Labor Day Reading: Ha Jin’s First House

Looking to find something appropriate to post for Labor Day—and less grim than, say, an excerpt from The Jungle—I was drawn to a bit of an essay by Ha Jin in the new collection State by State. Inspired by the WPA guides to individual states, editors Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey tapped 50 writers to contribute an essay each. (An interview with Edward P. Jones covers Washington, D.C.) Jin’s piece is on Georgia, where he first lived when he immigrated from China. For anybody who’s read his most recent novel, A Free Life, the essay will have a familiar ring—the stubborn urge to make a living and improve one’s station, the fixation on reading and education, the candor about money. That last point is critical. Jin’s one of the few writers in the collection—maybe one of the few major American writers working today—who’s so open about it costs to live in this joint, and he’s perfectly willing to attach dollar signs to the discussion. That candor pulls double duty for Jin—it emphasizes his outsiderness, but calls attention to an urge to assimilate. Here, Jin discusses buying his home in 1993, just after taking a job at Emory University:

We paid $84,000 for our home, which had three small bedrooms, two bathrooms, a half-finished basement, and a carport. With few exceptions, my colleagues all lived in bigger houses closer to Emory. We bought such a modest place because I wasn’t sure if I could hold my job for long, and didn’t want to take out a big mortgage. I was hired to teach poetry writing, which was a position I felt I had gotten by luck. I had never attended a poetry workshop and had no idea how to fulfill my role as a poet in residence. Poets in other parts of the country often asked me, “Who’s the poet at Emory?” The could not imagine it was me. I felt I might lose my job at any time. Once, I even blurted out to my boss, Frank Manley, a tall, flat-shouldered man in his early sixties, who was the director of our creative writing program, “I will stay in Georgia even if I don’t get tenure.”

“Why?” He smiled, narrowing his eyes.

“Because life is easier down here.”

“Indeed it is.”

Frank drove a pickup truck and owned a small farm, where he didn’t grow anything. He went there every week just to write.

I’ll be taking the holiday seriously tomorrow. Back Tuesday.

David Goodis on Film

I feel mildly mortified that an entire film series dedicated to David Goodis happened and that I failed to hear about it; last week the Pacific Film Archive wrapped up “Streets of No Return,” featuring 10 films based on Goodis stories. You probably know about a pair of them: Dark Passage, which starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. Both are worth renting, though Steve Seid‘s assertion that the latter is “faithful” to the original novel is a little off. (That book was originally titled Down There, which, as I noted in a review of Goodis a while back, is one of the all-time great noir titles.)

I’m eager to see Descent Into Hell, another great noir title, which is based on Goodis’ The Wounded and the Slain. Better still, I’d like to get back to more of the man’s books. For a quick glimpse on the despairing, gritty tone that Goodis mastered, see Duane Swierczynski’s blog, which recently posted the opening passage of Goodis’ final novel, Somebody’s Done For. (Swierczynski’s blog has lots of great Goodis-related content in addition to that.)

Responding to Reviewers

Conventional wisdom has long dictated that writers aren’t supposed to respond to reviewers—except, perhaps, in cases where egregious errors of fact are involved. But Jack Pendarvis addresses a middling review of his debut novel, Awesome, in the New York Times Book Review sensibly. Which is to say he notes the complaints and preserves his sense of humor. Perhaps only satirists should get to do this:

Then the reviewer ends the paragraph like this, as if she were put up to a dare of some sort: “Fee fie foe fun!” (Exclamation point hers.) I will go out on a limb and say that “‘Fee fie foe fun!’ – The New York Times” is going to be plastered all over the cover of the paperback. So be it! The reviewer is less entranced by my “***** jokes” (WARNING: the “link” is full of racy quotations), of which she gives several examples, some of which, truth be told, appear kind of shameful when they’re laid out there cold on the slab like that. As a counterweight, I’d like to “link” here to some kind words from a feminist (she starts out suspicious but I win her over by the last paragraph) who mentioned some of the same ***** jokes and seemed to appreciate what I was “going for” in context. Why do I feel the need for a “counterweight”? It’s untoward! Nobody likes a whiny writer! No book review is ever good enough for a precious, precious writer like myself! The New York Times reviewer did a fine job!

Related to reviewers and reviewing: I have a post up on the National Book Critics Circle blog, Critical Mass, about writing about books for alternative weeklies. The timing is a bit awkward: I wrote the piece a couple of weeks back, and if I knew then what I know now, perhaps I would have changed a few things. But I do think that the basic point of making oneself flexible as a writer—yes, fine, “media producer”—still stands. If anything, that point is more critical than ever.

Ken Kesey’s Screenplay Suit

Portland, Ore., alt-weekly Willamette Week has an extensive story about the legal squabbling over Last Go Round, a screenplay about an Oregon rodeo written by Ken Kesey. Kesey was commissioned to write the script in 1983 by MiSchelle McMindes and Mike Hagen, who had done some research into the event; the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author delivered a manuscript, but the question of who owns the rights to it has been much argued-over and deposed-over in the years since.

Stories about dead writers (Kesey died in 2001) and estate battles are rarely very engaging. But the story does reveal some of the reasons why Kesey soured on writing fiction:

“Kesey abandoned prose as ‘archaic’ and set off to make The Movie,” says Mark Christensen, a Los Angeles writer and former WW staffer who’s completing a study of Kesey, Timothy Leary and other ’60s narcotics gurus titled Acid Christ for Schaffner Press. “He bought into the dream, which is the old cliché of Hollywood: What I really want to do is direct. In other words, he wanted into the movie business! This was in the wave of all that French New Wave shit, where people literally believed the novel was dead, and cinema was going to be the new medium. And Kesey bought that dream.”

The story also includes video of a feature by Oregon Public Broadcasting that captures Kesey in 2001 expounding on visual arts at the expense of more writerly ones: “So much of the writer’s effort has gone into decorating the place—setting the scene, getting the lighting just right, putting the sofa there so it frames that one area of the room,” he says at one point. “A lot of what we think of as storytelling is just window dressing.” Video here:

Let’s Save Edna St. Vincent Millay’s House

One more author’s house in need of some upkeep: The Lower Hudson Valley Journal News reports on a nascent effort to refurbish the home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. (She also wrote short stories and essays as Nancy Boyd; the Poetry Foundation has a nice biography.) As Millay’s reputation has faded, so has Steepletop, her home in Austerlitz, N.Y.:

The grounds are open, as is a trail to the Millay family grave site, but the house won’t be ready for public tours until at least 2010, [Millay Society executive director Peter] Bergman says. He reckons it will take more than $3 million to repair the house and gardens. For now, he is raising money to pay for a garden historian to document how the garden was planted and used.

More on the project is at the society’s Web site. (All of this calls to mind D.C. indie publisher Vrzhu Press’ recent “Millay Project,” in which area writers mimicked Millay’s famous pose by a dogwood tree.)

One Paragraph: Tobias Wolff, “Smorgasbord”

“Smorgasbord” is included in Tobias Wolff’s Our Story Begins, a collection of both old and new short stories, and it exemplifies his talent for subtly tracking a character’s emotional shifts. The narrator is a prep-school student on scholarship who can’t afford to go home on break; Crosley is a classmate; Linda is the stepmother of a fellow student they barely know, and who they suspect is the son of a Latin-American dictator. The smorgasbord they wind up going to is miles below Linda’s station, and she’s clearly taking it in with mild amusement. For the narrator, however, this is his big chance—to prove his virility, his classiness, his proper place in the prep-school order. In this moment you can see how his perspective on the restaurant shifts from acceptance (we know he’s gone there plenty; it’s cheap) to contempt:

Linda smoked another cigarette while we ate. She watched the other tables as if she were at a movie. I tried to eat with a little finesse and so did Crosley, dabbing his lips with a napkin between every bulging mouthful, but some of the people around us had completely slipped their moorings. They ducked their heads low to shovel up their food, and while they chewed it they looked around suspiciously and circled their plates with their forearms. A big family to our left was the worst. There was something competitive and desperate about them; they seemed determined to eat their way into a condition where they would never have to eat again. You’d have thought they were refugees from some great hunger, that outside these walls the land was afflicted with drought and barrenness. I felt a kind of desperation myself, as if I were growing emptier with every bite I took.

Roundup: The Chicago Way

Nancy Schnog, writing in the Washington Post, figures that books like Julia Alvarez‘s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents threaten to alienate teens from reading, and that high-school reading lists need a rethink. Commentaries on books have been done to death, she writes, and “Asking our students for yet another written commentary has a certain absurd ring to it, no?” Well, I didn’t think the goal of asking high-schoolers to write about a book was to extract shiny new insights about The Great Gatsby—just to test their comprehension and analytical skills. I also don’t see how it helps to further coddle an everybody-gets-a-trophy generation by wringing one’s hands over a 14-year-old boy who doesn’t like the book about Latinas because he himself isn’t Latina. But Schnog’s the teacher….

John McCain got through his ordeal in a POW camp by lecturing on the history of American literature. His cellmate Orson Swindle says McCain’s command of the facts wasn’t especially solid, though. “We only had the facts half right, but John said nobody knew the difference,” Swindle tells the Associated Press.

The Guardian‘s review of Philip Hoare‘s Leviathan makes the critical study of all things whale-related sound fantastic. (Naturally, there’s plenty of ruminating on Moby-Dick.) Alas, it’s not yet available in the United States.

The London Times interviews Paul Auster about Man in the Dark, a book I’m clanging on about more than usual because it’s one of my favorite novels of the year. Spoiler alert: the piece discloses a late-breaking plot point in the novel.

And again in the Post, crime novelist and blogger Sara Paretsky ponders the kind of bare-knuckle Chicago politics that she and Barack Obama grew to know:

[M]y real political baptism came in 1971, on a cold November election day. The city’s elections were notoriously corrupt, and I agreed to be a poll watcher in my South Side precinct. I watched the Democratic precinct captain repeatedly enter the booth with voters while the two election judges (one Republican, one Democrat) and a cop stood idly by. When I protested to the judges, the cop frog-marched me to the alley behind the polling place, slammed me against the wall and said, “Girlie, we’ve been running elections here since before you were born. You go home.”

Auster and Money

Paul Auster‘s Hand to Mouth is one of my favorite starving-artist memoirs, and it’s nice to see it come up in Ed Champion‘s interview with Auster—whose new novel, Man in the Dark, is just out. Champion asks Auster whether his fixation on the specific cost of things speaks to the money worries he chronicled in his memoir. To which he says:

[T]he only good thing about making money is that you don’t have to think about money. It’s the only value. Because if you don’t have it, you’re crushed. And for a long period in my life, I was crushed. And so maybe this is a reflection of those tough years. I don’t know. I don’t know…. I’m generous. I give good tips. It’s just — the way I live my life, ironically enough, is: I don’t want anything. I’m not a consumer. I don’t crave objects. I don’t have a car. We don’t have a country house. We don’t have a boat. We don’t have anything that lots of people have. And I’m not interested. I barely can go shopping for clothes. I find it difficult to walk into stores. The whole thing bores me so much. I guess the only thing that I spend money on is cigars and food and alcohol. Those are the main expenses.


The Shortcomings of Shortcomings

Or at least its readers. A lot of articles about contemporary American literature note the growth industry in assimilation narratives—led by Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz, and Ha Jin, to pick just three of the more obvious examples. But to hear Kenny Tanemura tell it in a piece for AsianWeek, the lessons of those stories don’t easily penetrate the minds of college students. Tanemura, who teaches composition at Purdue University, had the excellent idea of teaching Adrian Tomine‘s Shortcomings to his class. But:

One was confused and dismayed by the Asian lesbian character, and others were confused about the main character’s sway toward assimilation and about the forces that impacted this flow. Stripped of any understanding or curiosity about the intersection of race and desire in relationships, my students could only see Tomine’s characters out of context…. My students considered Ben Tanaka a one-dimensional character—merely a man who whines for no reason except to unnecessarily annoy his girlfriend. At best, a few perceptive students might say things like, “It seems like he’s ashamed of his culture and wants to be more accepted.”

Our Fascinating Russian-Americans

I’m not sure how you get away with writing a lengthy piece on big-deal Russian-American novelists without once mentioning Olga Grushin; perhaps only the Russian-American novelists living in New York count. Still, Emily Gould‘s awful-titled piece on the alleged trend for Russia! is an interesting read, even if a lot of the quotes from Gary Shteyngart and Keith Gessen suggest they’re wary of her thesis that these writers are (ironic caps Gould’s) So Hot Right Now. (Gessen, for his part, is resistant to be included in this grouping, and no agent or publisher is quoted.) And Gould’s riff on Lara Vapnyar seems to argue that Russian-American authors have truly arrived only because you can now treat them with easy condescension:

[Vapnyar] is the most authentically Russian member of the club for the simple reason that her spoken English is still somewhat wobbly. She’s been able to distill that linguistic insecurity into an emphatically plain, nearly featureless writing style the New Yorker fell in love with. It gave her a career: “I had never written fiction before, in any language, and I spoke English with a monstrous accent and tons of grammatical mistakes,” she reminisces in a recent essay. It also made her a few enemies. “When my first story appeared in the New Yorker… one of my American friends said, ‘What should I do to get published in the New Yorker? Screw up my English?’” (This magazine’s editor once opined in a public forum that Vapnyar’s fiction “gets published for the same reason Thai elephants’ paintings get exhibited in galleries”; he has since recanted, and even translated one of Vapnyar’s short stories into Russian).