Critical Zen

I don’t have much to add to the discussion of Alice Hoffman‘s Twitter meltdown last weekend—the Los Angeles Times‘ book blog, Jacket Copy, does an excellent job of summarizing the foofaraw, and gets some comments from the critic whose phone number Hoffman posted in a fit of pique. Truth is, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if writers were more open about how they feel about the reviews they receive; it’s just that Twitter, which is great for many things but not sustained, nuanced argument, is a lousy forum for it, and posting a critic’s phone number is both immature and pointless. (If you’re a writer who feels I’ve reviewed you unfairly, I’d be happy to give you my phone number to distribute to your readers. Now, how many angry phone calls to me will satisfy you? And how will you feel if nobody cares enough to call?)

Reif Larsen, author of the new novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, seems to have the right idea here. In a lengthy interview with the Examiner online, Larsen talks about how he responds to what critics are writing about him. He also notes that he’s a practicing Zen Buddhist, and his sensible attitude about reviewers tracks well with his beliefs:

I don’t read any of them. That’s how I handle it. (laughs) I haven’t read anything since the book came out. When a book comes out you’re in a pretty vulnerable position. During this time I wanted to be not cynical and open, and generous. I’ll read them at some point, but I don’t think now’s the best time for me to read them. I ask my agent to collect the ones that are smart. I don’t really believe any reviews. What’s more important is me talking to readers. A lot of reviews have some kind of weird agenda that’s not about the book.

But it is weird, going from being a very private person who’s working away for years and then suddenly having to talk a lot about yourself and your work. It’s a very strange transition and one of the challenges is staying normal. I’ve tried as much as possible to keep a really level head, to navigate the waters that way. I imagine it’s very easy to drive yourself crazy or believe that you’re something that you’re not. I could see how people could believe they’re the greatest or the worst. The praise will come and so will the criticism. And if you tie your self-worth to that, you’ll either be very uplifted or very crushed. And so I think it’s important to have some kind of internal compass.

Scout Goes West

One Book, One Denver has announced that its latest pick for its citywide reading effort is Harper Lee‘s To Kill a Mockingbird—which, like last year’s choice, Dashiell Hammett‘s The Thin Man, doesn’t have much to do with Denver, or Colorado, or even life west of the Mississippi River. Understandably, at least a couple of critics have spent much of the last month complaining about the reading program, ever since the list of titles for consideration (it was put up to a public vote) failed to include any books set in the state. The most notable omission was Kent Haruf‘s Plainsong; Westword editor Patricia Calhoun, an advocate for the book, also noticed that the 27 books under consideration were all part of the NEA’s Big Read program. True enough, last Friday it became clear that the city program has received $20,000 from the Big Read.

I don’t have any major issues with the Big Read concept, which seems particularly useful for communities that have little in the way of library dollars or public-arts and literacy programs. And funding is tight everywhere in cities these days, especially when it comes to the arts. But it’s a disappointing situation regardless, one that seems to negate the whole point of the enterprise—much of what these citywide reading programs have going for them is a sense of civic pride, and though the reading choices shouldn’t be boosterish, it should at least feel a little less like going back to high-school English class. (Chicago’s program at least had the good sense to select Sandra CisnerosThe House on Mango Street last spring.) Without any particular reason to feel invested in the program, it’s not much of a surprise that only 2,000 people answered the call to vote for a book the whole city can get behind.

Two Authors in Search of an Author as a Character

I recently finished I Am Not Sidney Poitier, a rambunctious comic novel by Percival Everett about the adventures of a young man, Not Sidney Poitier, who spends his childhood and early adulthood squaring off against racism in the South. Much of the book references the films of the actor whom the protagonist resembles—the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? section is a commentary on passing, not relationships between blacks and whites—but the satire is much broader, including mass media, money, and academia.

All three of those subjects—as well as race—are subjects that are ripe for that treatment, though they’re difficult to satirize effectively. Everett himself pulls it off in two ways. First, he’s good with a quick comic jab: Upon first meeting Not Sidney’s father figure, media titan Ted Turner, one character says, “I hate colorization.” Beat. “I’m not speaking metaphorically.” The second and perhaps more important way has to do with the fact that the character speaking is an academic named Percival Everett. Not Sidney first meets Everett while attending Morehouse College, where he teaches Philosophy of Nonsense and spouts smart-sounding blather like this: “Let’s consider art as a kind of desacralization, perhaps a sort of epistemological discontinuity that undoubtedly connected or a the very least traceable to an amalgam of very common yet highly unusual sociohistorical factors.” Throughout the novel, Everett is good for a non sequitur or bit of eccentric, irreverent behavior.

Why go this route? Clearly Everett (the author) means to send up academia (he teaches at the University of Southern California), but he didn’t need to name a character after himself to do that, no more than Roger Rosenblatt or Don DeLillo or Kingsley Amis did. Here, it’s a structural device that at once deepens the identity-crisis theme of the novel, yet provides an absurdist touch that keeps the novel light on its feet. That approach is riskier, but it does have the neat effect of complicating Everett’s satire even while simplifying it—if a writer is willing to poke fun at himself so openly, what’s your problem if you’re not laughing?

Everett has done this before: A 2004 novel cowritten with James Kincaid, A History of the African-American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond, As Told to Percival Everett and James Kincaid, was, as best as I can tell, designed to send up the publishing industry much in the same way the new novel tweaks the ivory tower. But overall, the writer-as-character is a device is relatively rare. Paul Auster employed it in City of Glass to help establish the book’s off-center, anti-detective-novel tone; presumably Bret Easton Ellis felt like he had good reasons to insert a Bret Easton Ellis into his 2005 novel, Lunar Park, which I haven’t read. (This is probably a richer genre than I know of, but I’m hard-pressed to think of too many examples. Is it just a guy thing? Joyce Carol Oates, who’s probably experimented with more literary gambits than any other living American writer, never gave this one a shot?)

At any rate, I Am Not Sidney Poitier pushed me directly into Philip Roth‘s 1993 novel, Operation Shylock: A Confession, in which Roth not only makes himself a part of the story but chases down somebody very like his doppelganger, who’s exploiting his good name while attending the trial in Israel of accused Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk. (My timing in picking up the book was fitting, or uncanny, or strange, or something; Demjanjuk, now in his 80s, was deported to Germany last month to face trial again.) Roth’s approach gives him a frame within which to discuss the is-he-or-isn’t-he issues that surrounded Demjanjuk, and one of most powerful and disturbing passages in the book is Roth’s conjuring of the almost erotic joy that an SS guard may have felt being so powerful and murderous. (Operation Shylock is generally regarded as the last novel Roth wrote before he published Sabbath’s Theater and “got good again,” but it’s by no means a weak novel. It may simply be that “memoirs of a horny, bitter puppeteer” is a more appealing premise than “talky metafiction about Israel.”)

But like I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Operation Shylock is a comic novel, too: The structure provides Roth cover to skewer some of the sanctimony that surrounds many discussions of Israel and Palestine, and to give voice to ideas about Israel that he’d have a hard time presenting in any other form. Roth’s double, for instance, is an advocate of “Diasporism,” which proposes reducing the role of Israel and instead reintegrating displaced Jews into central Europe. “Israel is no longer in the Jewish interest,” Roth’s doppelganger tells Roth the author (who in this moment of the book is impersonating a French journalist; it gets tricky). “Israel has become the gravest threat to Jewish survival since the end of World War II.” The punchline comes a few pages later, when Roth the author delivers an assessment of Diasporism: “With all due respect, Philip Roth, your prophecy strikes me as nonsense. It sounds to me like a farcical scenario out of one of your books.”

It’s probably foolish to hope that more authors try going down this route, which is bound to produce plenty of solipsistic junk. But it does have its uses; the hard part is finding the appropriate structure for using it. The writer-as-character device is freeing, but it puts you in a bind: It requires that you talk about yourself, but it also demands humility—a subservience to plot, a lack of ego.

Links: Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That

John Callaway, longtime host of Chicago Tonight, the news program of the city’s PBS station, died this week. Among the videos on the tribute page is an interview with John Updike, circa Terrorist.

Jim Thompson discusses his path of going from bartending in Finland to publishing his new novel, Snow Angels

Austin-based hip-hop producer David Williams makes a valid point: “You know what’s a shame about calling your band The Airborne Toxic Event? If that band’s fans haven’t read Don DeLillo, they’re just gonna think, ‘Fart.'” Discussions of Saul Bellow and Walter Benjamin ensue.

On a related note, DeLillo’s next novel comes out next year.

Ha Jin discusses writing in English as his second language.

There’s something charming about the fact that one of the people leading the charge to preserve Ernest Hemingway‘s home in Cuba is Bob Vila.

A group of Ohio University students have made a film version of Russell Banks‘ 1981 collection of interlinked stories, Trailerpark.

Parents in Litchfield, New Hampshire, are outraged that stories by Stephen King, Laura Lippman, David Sedaris, and Ernest Hemingway are being taught in high school. The story ends with a hell of a kicker: “The parents objected to satirist Sedaris’ ‘I Like Guys’ because they do not want their children learning about homosexuality in school.”

Oh, and a couple of school-board members are still blowing a gasket over Song of Solomon in Shelby, Michigan.

“No 9/11 shite”

Peter Murphy’s Blog of Revelations has an interview with Brooklyn author Colm Toibin, who delivers an admirable amount of straight talk about teaching Pride and Prejudice (“a three hour fuckin’ seminar”), his struggles as an Irish immigrant working with American writing students (“my job is to de-Ben-Marcus-ise this entire room!”), his lack of understanding of the find/replace tool in word processing programs, and more. I haven’t yet read Brooklyn (Claire Messud‘s review in the New York Review of Books, elitist lede and all, actually turned me off the book a little). But after finishing Colum McCann‘s somewhat disappointing Let the Great World Spin, in which the Twin Towers loom heavily over the story, I’m glad to see that reading Brooklyn wouldn’t mean processing two Meaningful Evocations of 9/11 from Irish-born authors in the same year:

You made a point of writing a novel set in New York without any slyly prophetic Twin Towers references.

“No 9/11 shite. No scene where she comes to that spot where the Twin Towers were going to be built and sees something for a second. I was acutely conscious of not going near that, not even a hint of it. I was going to tiptoe backwards from it right across the Brooklyn Bridge with my eyes shut. I think it’s probably the first book set in the region since 9/11 that hasn’t said something about it.”

Why the conscious avoidance?

“In those years after 9/11, everyone felt their task was to somehow make sense of this, dramatise it or deal with it. And it subsequently became an assault on the idea of the novel; that the novel somehow had to respond to 9/11, whereas I’m not sure quite what Moby Dick had to respond to. In other words, it was as though it was the novel’s job to do what the newspapers were failing to do. When I was growing up, no one told me what the novel was for, so I sort of resented that idea.”

The Great Mormon Novel

A couple weeks back Jerry Earl Johnston, a columnist for the Mormon Times, wrote about a conversation he once had with the novelist Wallace Stegner. Stegner suggested that Johnston try his hand at writing the Great Mormon Novel:

“I don’t have the scope or range to do it,” I said.

“You don’t have to make it large,” he said. “Just get things right.”

He said he thought the “Great Mormon Novel” would eventually be penned by someone who was born in the church, left the church, then made it “part way” back again. He seemed to think that would be a perfect vantage point. Being away from the church would give the writer perspective, while coming part way back would guarantee his empathy for the culture.

From there, Johnston speculates that there’s little chance that an important novel about Mormonism would be produced by somebody within the church—unlike, say, Flannery O’Connor, a devout Catholic who still felt free to explore the boundaries of her faith. This has stoked some crankiness among a couple of writers at A Motley Vision, a Mormon arts blog. William Morris makes the valid point that the Great American Novel in general is a “worn out cliche that barely anybody has the energy for anymore and for Mormons to take up the idea is for us to prove yet again our status as belated moderns. S.P. Bailey, meanwhile, notes out that Graham Greene and O’Connor “were serious Christians who refused to speak the language of their own flock. They told Christian stories in the terms of 20C fiction, and gained literary acceptance in the process.”

That’s another good point; you could combine Bailey’s and Morris’ assertions and also realize that O’Connor was free to write an excellent novel about sin and faith, Wise Blood, without feeling much pressure to write a Great Catholic Novel. What’s left undiscussed, though, is whether there’s any competition whatsoever for the title of a Great Mormon Novel, or even great Mormon novelist. Orson Scott Card is the only mainstream Mormon fiction writer I know of, but I’ve never read his work; some commenters on Morris’ post mention Brady Udall‘s The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, a novel I haven’t looked at since I read it in 2001 and evokes no strong memories of greatness. Is there a novel that addresses Mormonism with thought and care?


Housekeeping note: I’ve been away for the past few days, recovering some of my very rusty French in Montreal. I had a very good time, but that meant a few things around here have gone neglected—most prominently the D.C.-area readings listings, which should be back to normal by the end of the week. Thanks for your patience.

Q&A: Robert Goolrick on Searching for Thomas Pynchon

In a 1978 article for New Times (not to be confused with the alternative weeklies published by Village Voice Media) titled “Pieces of Pynchon,” author Robert Goolrick recounted his efforts to locate reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon. Goolrick answered a few questions about the genesis of the story, its aftermath, and his thoughts about Pynchon’s seclusion.

What was the genesis of writing this story? Was it really as simple as sitting in that Japanese restaurant one day?

I was actually having lunch with a friend of mine, and there was a lot of talk at the time about Pynchon’s mystery. Somebody at Time magazine had looked for a picture of him and couldn’t get one. So it was sort of a bet—I said, “I’ll find him.” And he was an editor at New Times, and so that’s how it started.

Did you have much in the way of leads?

I knew Nora Ephron, and Nora kind of knew everybody in publishing. In the article, if you remember, there’s somebody who says to find somebody who hates him enough to tell me where he is, and it was Nora who said that. So I just started out calling people, and finding out what I could find out. I wasn’t really a journalist. I’m not an investigative reporter, so it was kind of abstract from the beginning, and it became more abstract as it went along, as you can tell.

I was going to say that the piece is very indicative of that era of New Journalism. There are parts of it, like the conversation with the psychic, that wouldn’t appear in a magazine today, even ones that feature long-form journalism.

Yes. And I did actually go to a psychic—all of it’s true. I even at one point—It’s not in the article because the article is so long that it had to get cut, but I hired this wacky, insane private detective. I didn’t want to give him Pynchon’s name because I thought he would be relentless and really like, stalk him. But I went to him to say, “How would you find somebody who couldn’t be found?” So I got involved in this whole nightmarish thing with this crazy private detective.

Crazy how?

He kind of stalked me. He called me all the time. He wanted to stay in my apartment. I met him for drinks at the St. Regis, and was telling me all these stories from the 40s—he was this older guy—when Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra were staying at the St. Regis, and he was just full of wacky, insane stories. He had some weird office somewhere on way west 34th Street.

How did you come to decide to personalize the story the way you did?

I think I personalized it because everywhere I went I ran into these dead ends. Mostly because the people who knew him and knew where he was—if anybody knew where he was—wouldn’t talk about him. Faith Sale said it best: “I love him, and the only way to express my love is not to talk about it.” So I thought, what am I gonna do? Then I thought, you know, you spent all this time looking—you should find something. And something of value to you. That’s when I remembered this old friend of mine from college and started to find him.

The most interesting part was talking to Pynchon’s mother. His mother was as normal as apple pie, and was perfectly nice and perfectly regular. This was before the Internet, so it was a lot harder to track people down in those days. I just remember reading some article somewhere saying they lived in this little town on Long Island—Riverhead or somewhere. And I just called the phone directory and got their number, and called her up one morning. We had a long conversation, and she was really open and friendly, and kind of sweet. But she wouldn’t say anything.

The way she comes across in the story, it’s almost as if Pynchon is a long-lost son.

Candida Donadio said he wouldn’t see anybody. She said that he never saw Faith Sale anymore, which is not what Faith Sale said. It was all a big mystery, and there was no answer. When I was talking to Candida, I said, “How will I ever find him?” and she said, “You’ll never find him. If you write an article and if it gets published, and if he likes it, he will find you.”

Which begs the question: How was the story received?

Well, it made me kind of notorious for about three weeks, the way things do. And the ultimate end of the story was, I happened to be home one day—it happened to be my birthday. And I come home from work, and I was changing to go out for dinner, and the phone rang. I picked it up and said hello, and this guy said, “My name is…” I can’t remember his name. He said, “You don’t know me, but I’m a private investigator in San Francisco. And I happened to read your article about Thomas Pynchon. And he said, “In connection with some other case I’m investigating, I happened to find out where Thomas Pynchon lives. I found out everything about him, and I just thought you might want the information.” I said OK, so he gave me Pynchon’s address, Pynchon’s phone number, Pynchon’s driver’s license number. He was in California, apparently. The conversation went on for a long time. I hung up the phone, went out to dinner, and after a while I thought, “Who was that on the phone?” And it occurred to me that maybe it was Pynchon himself who called. Why would a strange private investigator call me a year later? But I was—by that time, I was so aware of Pynchon’s sensitivities that I never pursued it.

You never called, never checked out the address.

I never called or looked up the address. It seems regrettable, all these years later. But by that time I realized that there was nothing to be gotten out of him. There was nothing for him except his work. That was the only way that he was going to connect with the public.

What did it mean to be published in New Times back then?

It was filled with very young, on-the-way-up journalists. Frank Rich was there, Jesse Kornbluth was there, Nora Ephron, Richard Corliss. It was a very cool magazine, and it just didn’t take off. I wrote four or five articles for them.

Did you pursue much journalism after that?

Very little. I wrote a couple pieces for Rolling Stone, which they never published. I wrote for a magazine called Metropolitan Home—I did a lot of articles about home style. I got kind of tired of doing pieces about famous people. I wasn’t really a journalist, and my interest in them was more fictional than it was practical. I remember I was asked to write a piece about Janis Ian, and I thought, “What on earth do I really want to know about Janis Ian?” I couldn’t think of anything I really wanted to know. It seemed live a very artificial kind of form.

You mentioned in an e-mail to me that you had some advice about getting a photo of Pynchon.

I told New Times when they published the article, “I can get a picture of him. If you want a picture of him, I can get a picture of him.” They said, “The article is now about so many things other than Pynchon that to publish a picture of him would be beside the point.” But here’s a way to find a picture of him: He was the best man at Richard and Mimi Fariña’s wedding, and he was the pallbearer at Fariña’s funeral. Fariña’s funeral was a sort of public event, as well as a private event, and if you want to find a picture of him, the person who’s got one is Mimi Fariña. Because everybody’s got pictures of her wedding, and there are bound to be pictures of his funeral—it was a big deal, because he died the same day as the publication of Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. And he was kind of a romantic young guy.

I didn’t get the impression from the story that she would’ve been especially open to that, though.

She was very open in talking about him, and she had, even then, she had a kind of thinly veiled contempt for him. Mostly because he had totally abandoned his friendship with Mimi once Richard was dead. He went to the funeral, he was a pallbearer at the funeral, and then she never heard from him again.

As an author, what do you think motivates Pynchon’s isolation?

Everybody told me he’s incredibly shy. That’s the only insight I have. I know for a fact that he married, had children; his children went to a private school in New York, and people that I knew, knew his children. He is now, what, 71 years old? So the children are grown. The children exist, and probably in new York City. He could be found. My general sense was, if you choose to connect to the world only through your work, then that should be respected in some way.

For me, I kind of think that there was a moment where he kind of held the reins of the zeitgeist in his hands, and then he kind of lost it. I found his later work very disappointing and diffuse. I haven’t read the new novel—it may be brilliant. I didn’t think Vineland was great, and I didn’t think Mason & Dixon was very great. I don’t know, but there was a moment when he was completely in sync w/the tenor of the times, and was completely a genius. He is a genius in some way.

He’s an odd duck. He’s so private that he’s willing, for instance, 30 years ago to cut himself off from his own mother and father. One thing I knew was that he was by nature a scientist, a scientist and engineer. One of the most fascinating things in that story was the story about the bricks, and going to the Philadelphia and getting the clay and taking samples. He is the most obsessive writer I’ve ever come across. So he must be an incredibly obsessive person.

But, the people who I talked to liked him, said that he was entirely lovable, once you got to know him. My only regret about the whole thing is that I never called the number that the private investigator gave me. But I think by that time I relished the mystery more than the reality.