Mr. Sammler’s Panic

If chatter about particular novels is any kind of bellwether for the state of the world, we’re in a bad way—there have been plenty of references lately to The Grapes of Wrath and, dispiritingly, Atlas Shrugged. (If you want to romanticize the second novel’s grim brand of self-righteousness, congratulations—you’ll have a bank on your side.) But lately I’ve been more curious about what seems to be a spike in conversation about Saul Bellow‘s 1970 novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet. Last summer Myron Magnet wrote a lengthy piece on the novel’s perspective on run-down late-’60s Manhattan for City Journal; more recently, the Berkshire Review used the novel as a launchpad to discuss the construction of Lincoln Center, while both Andrew Seal and D.G. Myers smartly wrestled with the misogyny and racism baked into the novel’s protagonist, Artur Sammler. The book appeared to be symbolic of new sense that the center isn’t holding, but maybe we didn’t want to consider the matter too directly—better to read about the worries of 1968 through Bellow’s rambling intellectual than through, say, a history book like Mark Kurlansky‘s 1968.

All of which is to say that the all the discussion did what good discussions are supposed to do—it compelled me to read the book. To go from the Bellow I’d read just a couple of months ago, The Adventures of Augie March, to Sammler isn’t just to fast-forward a couple of decades in Bellow’s life—it’s like being yanked from a busy city street into a cavernous library, from life to thought. Sammler’s existence is as interior as March’s is exterior; when the Holocaust survivor steps outside it’s as a detached observer who’s had too much of people. He scrutinizes the world too much for the world to have any patience for him, Bellow seems to say, and Bellow’s chosen punishment for Sammler is what’s sparked all the discussion about racism. Early in the novel, Sammler is cornered by a black pickpocket who he’s been staring at on the bus too long; the thief exposes himself to Sammler, and it’s a vision he can’t quite shake.

It gets ugly, the way Sammler processes race, and women as well. (He’s bizarrely obsessed with how women smell.) Toward the end of the novel Sammler cops to his own shallowness, but only in the context of others’ shallowness. The names below aren’t meaningful if you haven’t read the book, but Bellow’s treatment suggests how Sammler packages the people he interacts with:

[A]t the moment of launching from this planet to another something was ended, finalities were demanded, summaries…. Thus Wallace, on the day of destiny for his father, roared and snored in the Cessna snapping photographs. Thus Shula, hiding from Sammler, was undoubtedly going to hunt for treasure, for the alleged abortion dollars. Thus Angela, making more experiments in sensuality, in sexology, smearing all with her female fluids. Thus Eisen with his art, the Negro with his penis. And in the series, but not finally, himself with his condensed views. Eliminating the superfluous. Identifying the necessary.

It may be similarly reductionist to say that Mr. Sammler’s Planet is simply a novel about fear of social change, but that’s largely what seems to drive Sammler into his interior life. The big stuff like his near-death during the Holocaust or the carnage he sees reporting on the Six Day War—the big stuff he can handle. It’s all the little changes in money and sex and race that baffle the man, which makes the novel an interesting read if you’re living, as you are, in the middle of a cultural inflection point, where much of what we’ve understood about our economy, our work, and how we get and process information, is being blown up. Bellow is brilliant at exposing the thoughts that shuttle around a busy mind in the midst of that; the bad news for the reader is that we’re not going to like every thought that moves around.

Keeping it Simple With Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem‘s forthcoming novel, Chronic City, appears to be a return to sensibilities of Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude—dense characterizations matched to a strong sense of New York’s history. According to the promotional patter on Random House’s Web site, the story focuses on Chase Insteadman and “Perkus Tooth, a wall-eyed free-range pop critic whose soaring conspiratorial riffs are fueled by high-grade marijuana, mammoth cheeseburgers, and a desperate ache for meaning.” As Lethem told Comic Book Resources last July:

[I]t’s set on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, it’s strongly influenced by Saul Bellow, Philip K. Dick, Charles Finney and Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ and it concerns a circle of friends including a faded child-star actor, a cultural critic, a hack ghost-writer of autobiographies, and a city official. And it’s long and strange.

So far so good—or at least, not You Don’t Love Me Yet, his clunky, thin 2007 novel about an LA rock band. In the latest issue of Stop Smiling magazine (packed with interviews with, among others, Roberto Bolano, Alex Ross, Paul Auster, and Junot Diaz), Lethem registers an unusual defense of that novel:

I was ready to throw off any sense that I was going to write sprawling social novels set in Brooklyn and become the Brooklyn Faulkner. Neither Motherless nor Fortress exactly fits that description, but the accumulated image of the two books seemed to project that.

I don’t know if it would have been easy or hard for someone else to follow through with it, but it was totally out of the question for me. And really, for anyone who had even glanced at the earlier work that’d be obvious. But there were a lot of people—an important critical framework—which had never glanced at the earlier work. YDLMY was a way to shrug that off with a degree of self-destructive glee, to say I’m going to disappoint people on a number of different levels so we can start over again about expectations.

Is it overly reductionist to summarize this as, “I purposefully wrote a crummy novel so critics wouldn’t expect too much from me?” Either Lethem was overthinking his reputation or thinking too little about readers; in any event, it seems like he wasted too much energy being concerned about critics.

On a related note (at least in terms of avoiding big, ambitious novels), Lethem is going to spend the month of April running a Twitter feed for Brooklyn Museum as part of an ongoing series where artists commandeer a Twitter handle operated by the museum (@1stfans). Lethem explains what he’s planning on the museum’s blog:

I’ve finished a novel, to be published in October, called Chronic City, in which the object in question is called a “chaldron.” During the years of this book’s writing I found myself by chance repeatedly drawn into collaborations with a series of other artists or art-presenters (see: Jennifer Palladino, Matthew Ritchie, and THE THING) and in each case I used it to further the foolish postulate that “chaldrons” were a part of the world outside the novel, an error shared by my book’s characters. On the 1stfans Twitter Art Feed you’ll overhear tweets from a group of deluded aspirants to chaldron-ownership, as they debate strategies for winning a chaldron in an on-line auction.

You’ll likely have to pay for the privilege of reading Lethem’s Tweets: The feed is locked, a premium of joining the museum’s 1stfans “socially networked museum membership.”

Bart Schneider’s Second Job

Bart Schneider, author of four novels—including Secret Love, a meditation on San Francisco in the 60s that’s not nearly as saccharine as the title suggests—writes a worried piece in Metro Santa Cruz about his fate as writer. In the 80s he helped launch a literary journal, Hungry Mind Review, which was distributed in independent bookstores around the country. (It later became the Ruminator Review, a journal to which I contributed; it went bust a few years ago after a rebranding as a general-interest cultural magazine failed to take off.) Pulling out a 1996 issue of the journal, dedicated to the “State of the Book,” Schneider had reasons to despair:

Glancing through the huge list of independent bookstores from that issue, I fear that more than two-thirds, along with Hungry Mind itself, have gone out of business. Most New York publishers are no longer independent companies run in the old-gentleman spirit of their founding, but are more likely the poor cousins of huge multinational entertainment corporations that demand greater returns than mere books can ever provide.

This isn’t enough to prompt Schneider to get out of the writing racket, but the experience does do some damage to his flinty midwestern demeanor. He describes what happened during the run-up to the publication of his most recent novel, The Man in the Blizzard:

Last summer, when I asked my publisher how to get the word out about my new novel, given that it had no advertising budget, he had a simple answer. Start a blog. But there was more. “You’ve got to contribute actively to other people’s blogs,” he said. In other words, become my own full-time publicist. As someone with an unfailing instinct for the dead end, I started my next novel instead.

Well, he didn’t give up entirely. And shopping an op-ed to an alt-weekly is probably as good a promotional tactic for him as any print ad in a newspaper. Nobody likes being told that a job that others used to do professionally now falls to you, an amateur. The sole comfort is that the pros no longer know the right path any better than you do—if it leads to a dead end, a least it’s your dead end. And it’s probably not a dead end anyway—if a four-time novelist knows anything, it’s that persistence counts, and audiences online have a way of rewarding persistence.

Algren at 100

Saturday marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Nelson Algren, and if you’re lucky enough to be in his native Chicago that day, the Nelson Algren Committee will host a party at St. Paul’s Church in his old West Town stomping grounds. The site notes that “Admission is $10, $7 students and seniors, less if you’re broke,” the kind of sliding scale that Algren could certainly get behind. (The rate makes me feel somewhat better about stealing a copy of The Neon Wilderness from my high-school library back when I was a cheap and irresponsible teenager.) Booklist‘s Donna Seaman has a good overview of Algren’s career to commemorate the anniversary (h/t Frank Wilson), though the piece doesn’t dive very deeply into his complicated relationship with Chicago. Few authors have had such a love-hate relationship with their home the way Algren did. Tom Wolfe could satirize New York City; William Faulkner‘s characters could despair at the transition from the old South to the new; Armistead Maupin could mock the foibles of San Francisco’s gentry. But Algren fumed at Chicago, was both angry at and helpless about it, like a guy who kept going back to a girlfriend who only takes him back to have somebody to kick around. Algren, of course, had the better romantic metaphor: Loving Chicago, he wrote, was “like loving a woman with a broken nose.”

That line comes from his 1951 prose poem, Chicago: City on the Make, which doesn’t make Seaman’s short list of “Essential Algren.” Make it second, after Wilderness, if not first. I haven’t read anything that matches Algren’s tone in the book—it’s a mash note that throws its elbows around, proud of the city but still outraged at its inherent corruption:

For Paris and London and New York and Rome are all of a piece, their tendrils deep in the black loam of the centuries; like so many all-year-round ferns tethered fast in good iron pots and leaning always, as a natural plant ought, toward what little light there is. But Chicago is some sort of mottled offshoot, with trailers only in swamp and shadow, twisting toward twilight rather than to sun; a loosely jointed sport too hardy for any pot. Yet with that strange malarial cast down its stem….

New York has taken roots as deep as the Empire State Building is tall. Detroit is a parking lot about a sports arena. New Orleans is mellow where it isn’t sear. St. Louis, albeit still green in spots after lo these many springs, has gone as far as it can go. San Francisco is complete. San Francisco appears finished.

But Hustlertown keeps spreading itself all over the prairie grass, always wider and whiter: the high broken horizon of its towers overlooks this inland sea with more dignity than Athens’ and more majesty than Troy’s. Yet the caissons below the towers somehow never secure a strong natural grip on the prairie grasses.

Why so cynical? Blame bad poker games, blame his frustrating affair with Simone de Beauvoir, blame the hustlers and low-lifes he hung out with who inspired his fiction. The newspapers, though, played an especially strong role. As Bill Beuttler‘s fine 2001 article in Chicago magazine points out, when City on the Make came out, the Tribune dismissed it: “A more distorted, partial, unenviable slant was never taken by a man pretending to cover the Chicago story.” Algren got his revenge ten years later, in an afterword to the book, giving the paper both barrels and equating its disrespect to him to the same disrespect the city as the whole gave its citizens:

This journalistic gypsy-switch, this trick of substituting counterfeit values for true ones, leaves few readers, of the multitudes who read the Tribune‘s Sunday book-review, aware that they are really reading, not book-reviews, but editorials.

Nor is the gypsy-switch, as used by the Tribune, limited to that paper. It is the tone that now dominates Chicago in the arts as well as politics. Mediocrity is wanted. Mediocrity is solicited. Mediocrity is honored. And mediocrity will not put up with originality.

To the professional mediocrity, therefore, Chicago is today a city of golden opportunity; whether he reviews books on television or for the Tribune. But to the writer seeking to work creatively, it is a kick in the palatinate.

Arrogant, to be sure—the passage would come across as sour grapes from any other author, and even Algren doesn’t look especially dignified there. But with the passage of time it’s clear that he’s in the right, and Algren was too much the Chicagoan to ever think that calling out the authorities for their mediocrity would change anything; like any good writer, he didn’t worry much about what people would think, just took pride in finding the right words to make his anger known.

Building Strawmen With Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson is a perfect fit for Yale’s Terry Lectures, in which writers, philosophers, and scientists speak about the intersection of science and religion. Few American writers of recent vintage engage with religion with as much depth and sincerity as Robinson—even a lesser novel like last year’s Home is miles ahead of other writers on the subject. Still, on the evidence of the Yale Daily Newsstory on her first lecture, she wasn’t making her arguments particularly clear. The paper reports:

In the first talk of the four-part 2009 Dwight H. Terry lecture series, Robinson dismissed the notion that humans have reached a stage where they have fully unraveled the mysteries of the human condition, an idea she called the “crossing of the threshold.”

Hands up: Who makes the argument that we have unraveled the mysteries of the human condition, or believes in anybody who says so? After coming down hard on a line of thought that nobody believes in anyway, she goes on:

Robinson also found fault with the tendency of academics to take the “intellectual high ground” and dismiss the belief systems of seemingly primitive societies. “Religion is a point of entry for anthropological inquiries whose intents are largely invidious,” Robinson said. “But that ancient religions contemplated cosmic origins should instill awe at what humans are, the mind is.”

Again, it’s hard to imagine that academics are so cavalier in their thinking about ancient/primitive/non-Western societies. If Robinson believes that the very act of an anthropological inquiry is “invidious,” she’s making a broad-brush and hard-to-respect dismissal of an entire academic discipline; if she had evidence of a particularly invidious recent anthropological pursuit, hopefully she actually cited and discussed it. Of course, it’s hard to make too much of this without seeing the text of the actual lecture, and I’m aware that all of this is being run through the filter of a college journalist on deadline. Plus, apparently the talk was a little dense: As one student told the News, “At times it seemed somewhat impenetrable.”

Update, March 29: Videos of the first two lectures are now online.

Sanora Babb’s Bad Timing

The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin has just launched a handsome online exhibition, Sanora Babb: Stories From the American High Plains, dedicated to the author’s writing and photography during the Great Depression. Babb was born in Oklahoma in 1907 and moved to LA just as the markets crashed; from 1937 to 1939 she worked with migrant farmers as part of the Farm Security Administration. During that time she wrote a novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, based on her experiences.

Sound familiar? Bennett Cerf, head of Random House, felt the same way—figuring there wasn’t room in the market for both Babb’s novel and The Grapes of Wrath, he broke the publisher’s contract with Babb. Whose Names Are Unknown wasn’t published until 2004, a year before her death. Scanning through it, it’s not hard to see what Cerf was so concerned about—Babb’s prose mirrors the same simple prose style, the same rough-hewn nobility in the characters, the same symbolism about the earth and life. One chapter ends with the burial of an infant, and Babb is no less shy about inserting melodrama than Steinbeck was:

At the last he beat the ground down hard with the back of the spade. Suddenly he began to cry. He did not lower his head but stood as he was, his shoulders jerking with hard cruel sobs. He did not know what to do. The broken sounds came out of his throat and his whole body shook. He could not stop because he felt a hard loneliness and despair breaking up in him, crashing against the walls of his being. It was the boy and it was everything unnoticed and unknown in him. “I ain’t cried since I was a boy,” he mumbled. He stopped down on his knees again and pulled loose dirt carelessly over the grave to make it look like the rest of the field. When he had finished he stood still looking at the pure circle of earth around him, the far, smooth, lonely plain. The earth was very clean and fresh after the rain. He could see the long straight fences miles away. They were frail and small so far beneath the great clear morning sky. The desperation of living came up in him again, in anger and humiliation; in anger he shook his fist, shook it hard and fierce at something in the world.

Wisconsin Depth Trip

I’ve just finished Robert Goolrick‘s debut novel, A Reliable Wife, which may not have been the best choice for airplane reading—its themes of perpetual deception and impending death doesn’t mix well with white-knuckling. But it does draw you in, and if its series of abuses, lusts, poisonings, and general debauchery occasionally seems over-the-top, Goolrick has a fearsome command, and his narration is a fine fit for the story he’s telling—simple but with a slightly demonic touch, like an issue of Tales From the Crypt written by Ernest Hemingway.

Actually, you don’t have to guess at the book’s genuine inspiration, which Goolrick discusses in an afterword, and in a recent Publishers Weekly interview:

I am largely uncomfortable with contemporary fiction. And I wanted to write a novel that had a great story and I started to think of it with the final scene of the novel—the scene in which the garden comes to life. It seemed to me a metaphor for redemption, so I needed a bleak landscape in which that scene would be miraculous. I thought of Wisconsin, which I used to visit quite often on business when I was in advertising, and then I’ve always held Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip very dear to my heart. I think it’s a brilliant book. And so I leafed around that book for probably the 500th time and decided to set it there. His book is set in 1896; I wanted it to be a little later, so there would be electricity and automobiles—a little more modern life.

If you grew up a horror fan—or, in my case, were friends with one growing up—you probably know about Wisconsin Death Trip, which had the sure-fire ability to creep you out without dealing in blood and guts. Words were enough. Lesy’s approach was to set longer stories about the brutality of Wisconsin life against Twitter-brief items from newspapers like this: “The 60 year old wife of a farmer in Jackson, Washington County, killed herself by cutting her throat with a sheep shears.” Add in black-and-white photographs of babies in coffins or headshots of people you knew later became murderers, and voila—nightmares for weeks.

If you care to revisit all this online, the Google Books version of Wisconsin Death Trip includes the words but not the photos; the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Web site has the photos but not the words.