Links: Crisis Mode

Following this week’s devastating earthquake in Haiti, the main spokesperson for the nation from the world of American literary fiction has been Edwidge Danticat, who’s spoken to the Wall Street Journal about the catastrophe and provided the paper with a brief primer on Haitian culture. A little surprisingly, I’d heard nothing from fiction writer Ben Fountain, who famously visited the country more than 30 times while researching his excellent short-story collection, Brief Conversations With Che Guevara. But Texas Lawyer caught up with him:

I expect that recovery will be long, difficult, expensive and complex. It may well be that the country never recovers in this generation. On the other hand, I think there’s a possibility, however hard it may be to focus on at this point, that the earthquake provides the impetus for a sustained, concerted and well-planned effort by the international community to help Haiti overcome its problems. In any event, Haiti certainly won’t be the same country that it was on Jan. 10.

My new favorite litblog: Years of BASS, in which a Virginia researcher makes his way through the Best American Short Story series.

Films inspired by the films described in David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest will screen soon at Columbia University.

Joyce Carol Oates: “It’s very clear to me now—as I’d always supposed—that we can’t really choose what we write about in any passionate way: the material chooses us.”

Just because Twitter forces you to be concise doesn’t mean it’s going to make you an Ernest Hemingway.

Jill McCorkle goes off-Broadway.

Christopher Hitchens on Gore Vidal going off the rails.

Jaws meets Deliverance, with bears“—the elevator pitch an author needs to catch a publisher’s attention grows ever shorter.

On a related note, here’s Charles Bock on pursuing fiction writing as a career: “A teacher of mine once told me that as a writer you’ll be humiliated, then you’ll be humiliated again, and when you think you can’t be humiliated any more, they’ll find new ways to humiliate you.”

Listing

January is a period of quietude and renewal, and at least for me the pleasant hush comes in part because I’m no longer bombarded with so many damn lists. For the whole of December I seemed to be hearing about them not just daily but hourly. There was both a year and a decade to wrap up, after all, and there are so many ways to push information out to people now (and so many people pushing information) that eventually I actually made a concerted effort to avoid reading anything with a “top [number]” in the title. By the time my own list of favorite books appeared, shortly before Christmas, I felt a little ashamed, as if I were an active participant in making our culture worse.

Five Reasons Why I, Exhausted and Cynical in Advance of Christmas, Came to Feel That Compiling a List of My Favorite Books Made Our Culture Worse

1. To make a list is to be a tool in somebody else’s marketing plan. It’s shifting out of criticism and into selling, something best left to advertisers and booksellers.

2. Lists are lazy criticism. The person making the list is rarely inclined (or given the opportunity) to expound at length about a work’s virtue except to say one likes it. This offers the reader neither a window into the work or to the critic’s thought process. They’re Amazon user comments, just organized.

3. Wacky, counterintuitive lists are lazier criticism. Journalists and other writers like to use the term “first-level creativity”—the first idea that comes to your head—to describe approaches to avoid. (Think of a story about steroids accompanied by an illustration of a baseball with a syringe in it.) Publications strive so hard now to avoid that sort of behavior that second-level creativity is now itself a cliche: 20 Albums That You Think Suck But Are Really Great, 25 Bad Films That Have One Great Scene, 10 Books You Should Have Been Reading Instead of Reading the Ones You Did Read Thanks to Some Other List. Thoughtful contrarianism is an asset; knee-jerk contrarianism doesn’t move the peanut forward, intellectually speaking.

4. Lists make for overheated arguments about identity politics. At the beginning of 2009, the universal consensus among just about everybody was that men and women are equally capable of writing good books. Then Publishers Weekly published its exclusively male list of top-ten books of the year. After much fulminating, everybody’s come to agree in 2010 that men and women are equally capable of writing good books. No reasonable person argues that even the Publishers Weekly staff disagrees with this.

5. Lists contribute to a culture of filthy linkbait whoring that just plays into Arianna Huffington’s greedy goddamn hands. Every person who gets access to a Web site’s stats knows that lists bring in traffic. This is naturally seductive, but ultimately contributes to an online hivemind of short attention spans, which is death on sustained commentary.

All of which is to say that I was a tad cranky.

I might’ve calmed down a little had I read Albert Mobilio‘s consideration of Umberto Eco‘s book The Infinity of Lists before the holidays. Lists can, he argues, have a kind of art to them, if approached in the right way:

A list is an intimation of totality, a simulacrum of knowing much, of knowing the right much. We select our ten best big-band recordings, all-time basketball starting fives, mysteries to read this summer; add up the people we’ve slept with or people we wish we had; index our movie-memorabilia collection; count our blessings; list reasons for not getting out of bed. We jot these accounts on envelopes, store them on hard drives, murmur them under our breath as we ride home from work—it’s no accident that many prayers are really nothing more than lists.

One thing Mobilio doesn’t mention doing with our lists, though, is publish them. “List making is therapeutic,” he writes. “[It] offers some measure of respite from the big blooming buzzing.” But what if the lists themselves become the big blooming buzzing that we’re trying to avoid? The spirit of frivolity that can make such organizing admirable and personable can quickly become narcissistic and pointless, just part of the noise. I don’t really believe in points 2, 3, and 4 up there any longer, but I still feel pretty strongly about points 1 and 5—if lists aren’t art, they’re commerce, and as with every other discipline out there, mixing both well isn’t easy. Perhaps the smartest, most honorable thing we can do with our lists is keep them to ourselves.

Walter Benn Michaels, Way Down in a Hole

When we last checked in with literary scholar Walter Benn Michaels, he was bemoaning the lack of literature that addressed America’s brutal, caste-creating economy head-on. For some reason, books about immigrants didn’t count, nor did historical novels. The only cultural works that even came close to satisfying him back then were The Wire and Bret Easton EllisAmerican Psycho. The Baffler recently resumed publication, which has given Michaels an opportunity to revise his essay—roughly meaning he’s added passages on Ayelet Waldman‘s boots and found another entry for his doofy canon: Jonathan Littell‘s The Kindly Ones. That novel is, to the best of my understanding, a historical novel about the Nazi era, but let’s set that aside for a moment and see where he goes:

[W]hen Michiko Kakutani (also writing for the Times) attacks Jonathan Littell’s recent novel, The Kindly Ones, because its central character, the Nazi Dr. Aue, is a “cartoonish” “monster” we can neither “sympathize” with nor “understand,” and when she applauds the “appealing” central character in Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union, in whose “plight” the reader becomes completely “absorbed,” we should understand that she is invoking political as well as literary criteria of evaluation: Good novels are defined by their interest in character; neoliberal politics by their respect for individuality.

From there Michaels argues that the threadbare characterizations in The Kindly Ones are a kind of asset, because they foreground ideology—and to foreground ideology at the expense of character is no great loss to society, or to the fiction that he believes ought to do a better job serving it. It’s probably not worth attempting to figure out what he might see in The Wire when he’s done being interested in all the characterization in it. (Maybe he just reads the plot summaries on the DVDs.) At any rate, Wire creator David Simon isn’t on board. Late last year he talked with Vice magazine about his experience on a panel with Michaels after the first version of the essay was published in Bookforum:

I was on this panel with this guy Walter Benn Michaels at the New York Public Library, and I didn’t dig it because he was basically using The Wire as a cudgel to beat up on literary fiction. But I don’t want to beat up on anybody. I don’t want to generalize, because there are some good literary novels. There’s also a lot of navel-gazing—and there’s a lot of navel-gazing on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I find that stuff unreadable and a waste of my time, but there’s a lot of good stuff, too. And then there’s a lot of really smart stuff and there’s a lot of crap in crime writing…

There’s no reason to generalize. But the highest end of crime writing is doing everything right now that literary fiction claims for itself. That is true. And much of what passes for quality literary fiction is not accomplishing very much at all that I find to have merit. So that’s my opinion. But having said that, this panelist took it to an extreme where he was literally saying, “Can we just write about economics and money and politics?” He was saying that literary fiction should be like The Wire, which is nice and flattering, but then he was saying, “Can we stop writing about slavery? Can we stop writing about the Holocaust?” He was basically saying that writing about cultural identity is bullshit. But it’s like, I don’t buy that either. I couldn’t write effectively about people if these sort of core 20th-century experiences or 18th-century experiences that still influence us were not part of who we are.

(h/t Andrew Seal)

The Facts

Leon Wieseltier opens his essay on Philip Roth’s The Humbling at the New Republic‘s new book-review site with this bit of throat-clearing:

So much contemporary American fiction also seems researched, worked up, instrumentalized, by skillful minds eager to display their skills. Writers go prowling through eras of history or fields of science in search of their next project, disguising the absence of a calling as curiosity. They become experts. (And critics call the results of their expertise “richly imagined.”) A subject is needed and one is discovered, something fascinating, something exotic, something cool, and with a plentitude of information, of natty and newly acquired knowledge, it is mastered, and settled, and the career moves on.

Wieseltier doesn’t call out any specific examples to make this case, but it’s not to hard to figure out what kind of book he means to indict. It’s probably one like Samantha Hunt‘s 2008 novel The Invention of Everything Else, which foregrounded plenty of detail about the life of Nikola Tesla; it might also include what Marco Roth recently dubbed the “neuronovel” in n+1 magazine, covering books like Richard PowersThe Echo Maker or Jonathan Lethem‘s Motherless Brooklyn, both of which reflect a lot of time spent studying up on psychological disorders.

Point being, the argument goes, that we’re living in an age where too much information has swallowed up novelists’ capacity to cut through all the noise and get at something “poetical and spiritual.” Fair enough, even if you acknowledge that (contrary to Wieseltier’s suggestion) that the problem isn’t a new one—it’s hard to find readers wholeheartedly in love with novels like The Grapes of Wrath and Arrowsmith, where research and the spiritual don’t connect especially well. If only any of this actually applied to The Humbling. Wieseltier calls out Roth’s mention of the make and model of a shotgun and some medical patter as evidence that Roth has lapsed into “noisy details.” Roth also has his hero, despairing actor Simon Axler, ponder a long list of roles in which he’s triumphed, and to Wieseltier this is evidence of a “preening writer.” Why couldn’t it be evidence of a preening actor?

If it takes this little “research” for Wieseltier to damn The Humbling, I wondered what he made of Roth’s 1993 novel, Operation Shylock, which was built on plenty of homework on John Demjanjuk. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s not a fan, but the reason for his distaste is his feeling that the book is, to one important degree, actually underresearched. The Roth of the novel confesses and ignorance of Hebrew, prompting Wieseltier to retort:

Roth’s confession, if that is what it is, perfectly illustrates the complacence of American Jews, their bad faith toward their own identity. For the vast majority of American Jews, the sight of Hebrew will suffice. Its opacity does not interfere with the sensation of authenticity that it provides. Roth’s talk about this particular obsession of his consciousness is empty, because this particular obsession does not seem to impose any obligation upon him.

This writer whose novels sometimes suffer from a surfeit of smartness is, in this matter, quite content with an admission of stupidity. As usual with American Jewry, ignorance is no impediment to pride. Quite the contrary. Pride will make up for ignorance, and hide it behind the ferocity of tribal expression. The ignorance of his tradition leaves the writer not ashamed, it leaves him sentimental.

I won’t even pretend to feel qualified to address the question of how much Hebrew Roth ought to know and how it might improve his fiction. But Wieseltier’s outrage does suggest that he knows detail has its uses, even if it risks the occasional “surfeit of smartness.” To describe a shotgun as a pump-action Remington instead of just a shotgun is no crime—especially if, adhering to that old rule about introducing firearms in a play, it gets used.

Lionel Shriver’s Good Timing

I’m currently reading Lionel Shriver‘s forthcoming novel, So Much for That, which publishes in March. I’ll have more to say on it when the time comes, but for now it’s enough to say that the novel is intimately concerned with the wallet-draining powers of healthcare in America—which is to say it’s very timely. But that’s just a happy accident, Shriver writes in Standpoint magazine, and she expresses her hopes for the book in the context of recent Congressional healthcare debates with her usual dark humor:

[T]hese last few months, I’ve found myself in the perverse position of praying, in defiance of my own passionate support for legislation of this very sort, that Congressional healthcare reform would get hopelessly bogged down in internecine squabbles — just so long as no bill passed until after my release date. Sounds selfish? Hell, yes! That book was a lot of work!

Shriver’s larger point is a more considered one: It’s unfair to expect novelists to somehow “bring the news” when they need the time to think about and imagine the situation in which they’re living, not to mention go through the various time-consuming machinations required to bring a book to print. (So Much for That is mostly set in 2005.) “[I]if any budding novelists out there are searching for material that’s bound to be all too germane for years and years to come?” asks Shriver. “Here’s a tip: write about Afghanistan.”

Or write about money. Last month, Shriver was shortlisted for the BBC’s National Short Story Award, for her story “Exchange Rates.” The full story isn’t available online, but the excerpt in the video below captures some of the ranting tone that powers So Much for That. Shriver didn’t win or come in second, which means she earned £500 for her efforts. Good enough for a few pens:

Links: She’ll Never Know Your Story Like I Do

Two good links re: Roiphe and then we’ll move on: Andrew Seal uses the essay to dig into John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, while Anne Trubek argues that the foofaraw is a missed opportunity for a more serious discussion about sexism.

Cormac McCarthy had a few notes for the the director and screenwriter of The Road before it was released.

A documentary on Walker Percy is in the works.

Honeymooners: A Cautionary Tale, Chuck Kinder‘s 2001 “nonfiction novel” about his friendship with Raymond Carver, has been reissued by Carnegie Mellon University Press. The new edition includes letters that Carver wrote to Diane Cicely, now Kinder’s wife.

A appreciation of J.D. Salinger, who recently turned 91, notes that you might occasionally find him in the Baker-Berry Library at Dartmouth College.

The director of Gatz, a stage adaptation of The Great Gatsby in which the entire text of the novel is presented over six and a half-hours, discusses how and why he did it.

John Updike has an agent, finally.

“The book was no fun to write”: Anne Tyler is avoiding the hard sell for her new novel, Noah’s Compass.

The 9/11 Novel Now

The Panorama Book Review, part of Dave Eggers‘ effort to show what can be improved in the newspaper in general and the book review in particular*, includes an essay by Juliet Litman considering the evolution of the 9/11 novel. To perhaps overly reduce her thesis, novels like Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Don DeLillo‘s Falling Man used the image of a man falling from one of the Twin Towers to evoke the pain of the day’s events—they are “artifacts of the aftershock.” By contrast, novels like Colum McCann‘s Let the Great World Spin, which uses Philippe Petit’s 1974 wirewalk between the tops of the Twin Towers as a thematic device, and Joseph O’Neill‘s Netherland, suggest how much we’ve healed in the past few years. Litman writes:

Like Falling Man, [Let the Great World Spin] forces its readers to relive and rewatch the fall over and over again—but here, the man does not fall. With each vignette, we meet someone who is somehow wounded, a character who is destined for or has already experienced an untimely descent, and we feel their disquiet as they ponder the tightrope walker. Their falls have occurred all over New York, not necessarily at the site of the Twin Towers, and so much grief suffuses the story that reader can can hardly revel in Petit’s achievement. Thus, in one swift narrative, readers experience both the sadness of those already wounded and the safety of certain survival.

Positioning McCann’s book as a 9/11 novel requires a little fancy footwork; with the exception of the epilogue, all the action takes place well before the terrorist attacks. Of course, McCann knew what he was doing in writing a story that prominently featured the World Trade Center in this day and age—his passages on Petit’s walk focus on feelings of fear and helpless spectatorship among the folks on the ground. And Litman’s on to something: If the novel says something about the post-9/11 mood, it may be more about an eagerness to get past it—McCann overstuffs the narrative with character after character as if to reclaim New York as a place full of life. Netherland has a similar strategy—to focus on the living instead of the dead, and even to avoid the trauma of the day head-on. (For all its cricket chatter, the book could be considered a sports novel as easily as a 9/11 one.)

“The synecdochic falling man—the symbol for the larger, brutal aftershocks of the attacks—has given way to McCann’s metonymic, never-falling tightrope walker and to the open-to-everything eye of O’Neill,” Litman writes. In some ways that marks a reversal of critical expectations from the 9/11 novel—not so long ago Keith Gessen told NPR that he thought it would be 50 years before 9/11 was the subject of a great novel. Great or not, it may be that the project of writing novels about that day is wrapping up—moving from shock to healing in less than a decade.

* In that regard, it’s hit-and-miss. I like the idea of including original fiction in a book review, and George Saunders‘ “Fox 8” is clever. The reviews themselves introduce two good ideas: a replication of the first page of the book under consideration, which gives you a sense of the writing as well as the look of the words of the page (that’s not entirely unimportant), and a sidebar listing data about the book’s author, which keeps the boilerplate biographical stuff from clotting the review proper. A feature on male cover models for romance novels seems in concept a nice way to integrate reported stories (haven’t read it); charticles on bookstore economics and commonly mispronounced author names have good information and can be processed quickly. But if the book review of the future has to include things like James Franco and Miranda July talking at each other about the pleasures and frustrations of being actors and writers at the same time, count me out. I happily let my subscription to Interview lapse a while back; at $18 for 12 issues, it counted among the dumbest things I’ve spent money on.

Wuss 1.0

“The Naked and the Conflicted,” Katie Roiphe‘s essay in last week’s New York Times Book Review, is a little like that old cartoon of a blackboard showing the beginning of an equation and its solution, with the words “then a miracle occurs” written in between. In the 60s, Roiphe argues, writers like Philip Roth, John Updike, Norman Mailer, and Saul Bellow were proudly open about sex, their sexuality, and the kind of power they enjoyed wielding over women; today’s male authors, by contrast, write about sex as if they’re disinterested or downright scared of it. In between, feminism occurred.

I don’t reflexively disagree with the notion that consensus male fiction writers of the 60s wrote more candidly about sex; if there’s nothing shocking about the sex scenes themselves in Couples, Updike was definitely much more casual with c-bombs than most male writers would be today. I’m just not sure what feminism has to do with it, at least any more than it has to do with changing marriage patterns (you can’t be a randy adulterer in your 20s if everybody’s waiting till they’re 30 to get hitched), more explicit sex in other media, or anything else. I’m also not convinced that the division in generational attitudes is as clean as she asserts.

“Passivity, a paralyzed sweetness, a deep ambivalence about sexual appetite, are somehow taken as signs of a complex and admirable inner life” in more contemporary writers’ work, Roiphe writes, calling out Dave Eggers, Benjamin Kunkel, David Foster Wallace, and Michael Chabon for special attention. Roiphe doesn’t mention any particular moment when this shift occurred, saying only that younger writers who are “steeped in a certain kind of liberal education” produce works “denuded of a certain carnality” as a result of a “certain cultural shutting down,” so now sex has “a certain vanished grandeur.” (When a critic repeatedly opines about “a certain” anything, you can be pretty sure that something isn’t being studied closely enough.) So I wonder what she might make of novels that appeared in the middle of this timeline, like, say, Richard Ford‘s The Sportswriter.

That book came out in 1986, presumably in the heart of the moment when feminism was doing its literary damage. Ford’s a Boomer though, and at least demographically enough a part of the patriarchal past to be immune to “a certain kind of liberal education.” Yet Frank Bascombe is, by most stereotypical standards of masculinity, a bit of a wuss. He participates in a support group for divorced men like himself, likes sports but isn’t particularly interested in the manly-man aspects of it, is comfortable following instead of leading, and tends to succumb to a “dreaminess” that leaves him occasionally out of touch with the wider world. (Not without reason; he’s been mourning the death of his son for years.) Women? He’s an enthusiast, but not in any explicit way. Frank doesn’t fuck or screw or deploy any of the coarser terms for sex. He “boinks.” He “woggles.” He and a woman go “woogling around in each other’s businesses.” He refers to his ex-wife as “X,” which in most novels might have a tinge of I’ll-never-speak-her-name-again to it, but Frank’s too well-meaning for that; his use of “X” seems more an act of protection, a willingness to keep her name out of the document he’s writing. If we’re arbitrarily laying blame for Wallace’s disinterest in writing about fucking, there’s no reason not to blame Ford as much as anybody else.

But the thing is, Bellow’s and Updike’s heroes were less immune to that kind of Bascombe-y “dreaminess” than Roiphe suggests, and to deny that is to say that they were only as good as the sex scenes they wrote. The hero of, say, Updike’s Roger’s Version is so lost within himself that he plays out his wife’s ongoing affair wholly in his imagination. Regarding Bellow, Roiphe calls out his novel Herzog as a special example of the brashness with which he approached women. Yet Bellow rarely intended that to exclusively signify masculinity, virility, or even some kind of general verve; what Moses Herzog most lives with is concern about how he relates as to the world as well as women, a case that’s as true for him as it is for Rabbit Angstrom or Bascombe or any of the many well-intentioned but fearful fellas who’ve populated fiction since 2000. Why does Roiphe think Moses Herzog was writing all those letters, if not because he’s scared of something?

Two Years

Today is the second anniversary of this blog. I thought about commemorating the date by linking to my very first post, but I’d rather not embarrass myself, or waste your time—much of what I blogged about then would barely rise to the level of a Tweet now. That says something about how much about how much blogging has changed in a short 700 or so days, and indeed you don’t have to look far to find people who’ll tell you that blogging is a dying if not dead exercise.

But I persist, because doing it still satisfies the chief goal I set for myself when I started—to become a better reader. When I began, I figured I’d spend, say, six months or so minding my own business until I figured out what I was doing, then make some kind of announcement about the project. Of course, the literary blogosphere is too tightly knit to let you mind your own business for very long; I received a nice note by A Prominent Litblogger less than a week in. That’s a happily unexpected side-effect of blogging: Doing this has introduced me to a lot of smart people I wouldn’t know otherwise, and helped start a few friendships as well. That, too, is a reason to keep going.

As for “figuring out what I was doing,” nuts to that—I gave up on that along time ago. I have a few tics and routines, but as a general rule I click on “new post” not exactly sure about where I want to go. (That’s probably painfully obvious sometimes, but I make no great claims for the quality of this enterprise—these are just “notes,” remember.) What’s flattering is that so many people have shown up, and are willing to watch me work it all out in public. Thank you for reading.

DeLillo in Winter

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Richard Rayner uses a new edition of Don DeLillo‘s White Noise as an opportunity to remind us of the author’s charms:

“White Noise” posits a world, very much our world, in which TV images and a sense of déjà vu replace real events even as they’re happening. “I feel sad for people and the queer part we play in our own disasters,” Gladney says, a haunting and lovely phrase that, for a few seconds, reclaims his being from anxiety and media saturation.

“White Noise” is almost overstuffed with such moments, with deadpan dialogue and scintillating aphorisms. DeLillo’s biggest kick comes not from satire, or the evocation of the mystery and magic that course through our lives, but from making language pop and fizz.

Pop and fizz—remember when DeLillo made language do that? His concerns have become more interior and less world-encompassing in the three novels he’s published since 1997’s Underworld. Perhaps by necessity, his prose has become similarly less expansive. Few readers ever went to him strictly for laughs, but the satire and taste for irony that Rayner admires is all but absent now. I have a galley of DeLillo’s next novel, Point Omega, and though I have my hopes I also dread what’s coming; at less than 150 pages it looks light as a pamphlet but seems heavy as a concrete piling.

Of course, DeLillo’s reputation would be much smaller if he kept repeating the dryly arch tone of White Noise. The question is whether his increasing grimness has gotten him anywhere. In his book Out of the Blue, critic Kristiaan Versluys argued that 2007’s Falling Man evoked the way 9/11 fractured our capacity to tell stories in conventional forms—so the thinly drawn characters and the paragraphs soaked in vague foreboding are strategic responses to the death of comforting narratives, not failures on DeLillo’s part. I’m willing to revisit the book at some point to test the argument for myself, but I worry if it will just again feel, as I suspect, much like “Midnight in Dostoevsky,” a DeLillo short story that ran in the New Yorker last November.

The setting is again a college, but now it’s Jack Gladney’s stomping grounds in nuclear winter: The weather is gray and windy, the two characters are grimly academic college boys, and their shared class is in logic, taught by a man prone to pronouncements like, “The only laws that matter are laws of thought. The rest is devil worship.” In a certain light, the story is a mildly comic existential tale: The two young men ponder the background of the old man who wanders the campus, filling him up with more drama than he probably deserves, confident in their imaginations but too timid to actually approach the man and figure out what his deal is.

All of which is fine as far as it goes, though DeLillo never quite nails down how callow he’d like his narrator and his friend to be. On winter break he wanders the town (even more a ghost town that it’s felt like before):

On the stunted commercial street in town, there were three places still open for business, one of them the diner, and I ate there once and stuck my head in the door two or three times, scanning the booths. The sidewalk was old, pocked bluestone. In the convenience store, I bought a fudge bar and talked to the woman behind the counter about her son’s wife’s kidney infection.

Nothing in the story suggests that he’s had much capacity, let alone interest, in such casual conversation about such a serious issue. Perhaps he and the clerk have known each other a while; perhaps she volunteered the information without his encouragement. But a more assured DeLillo would’ve clarified the matter, or dispensed with the bit entirely; in any event, that’s just a minor plot hiccup compared to the ginned-up conflict between the boys that concludes the story. By the end things have moved pretty much nowhere, from a dimly felt fear of connection to a dimly felt fear of connection. It’s fine if DeLillo chooses to abandon the tone he pioneered in White Noise. What’s disappointing is the loss of sure-footedness that’s come with it.