The Big Story

Writing at the Nervous Breakdown, Matt Stewart would like to know why, in a nation that’s increasingly obese, we lack novels that are about being fat, or that feature fat characters:

Nimbly presenting the moral implications of obesity, while crafting sympathetic characters, is an undeniably tall order. But not even trying is worse; obesity is an issue too commonplace to ignore…. I have to think there’s an untapped market here, that the American public hungers for perceptive insights about struggling with obesity, the sort of poignant, deep-trawling meditation that only a novel can provide.

Stewart is already aware of A Confederacy of Dunces and Jennifer Weiner‘s novels, and the article’s commenters offer a few more suggestions, including Wally Lamb‘s She’s Come Undone. The book I immediately thought of was Rick Moody‘s sprawling 2005 novel, The Diviners, which stars Vanessa, an overweight film and TV producer whose very size is intended to make her a metaphor for America’s gluttony for attention and entertainment. Which is to say that Vanessa isn’t intended to be a realistic portrait of being fat, and Moody makes that clear early on: After leaving an Overeaters Anonymous meeting, Vanessa heads to Krispy Kreme, where “she is destined to have a doughnut that melts in her mouth, a doughnut that tastes like the happy ending of a romantic comedy as purveyed by a vertically integrated multi-national entertainment provider under German ownership.” So.

But if Moody isn’t crafting a realistic portrait of obesity, what of it? Novels “about” being fat might be lacking for the same reason we don’t have many novels “about” working out a lot. (Harry CrewsBody being an exception that proves the rule.) The body, in itself, isn’t especially fascinating fictional territory. But self-consciousness is, which makes me think that the book Stewart is hoping for might be Zoe Heller‘s 2009 novel, The Believers. It’s a book that’s admirable for a whole host of reasons, but in one of its characters, Karla, Heller does a brilliant job of evoking the shame and embarrassment many overweight people are taught they ought to feel. In one scene, a casual question from a coworker about her being on a diet sends Karla crying to the restroom, where an inevitable session of self-scrutiny follows. (“Her nose was swollen and glowing, a joke-store accessory. Her blouse had ridden up, revealing several intersecting lines of pink and white crenellation where her waistband cut into her belly.”) Were Kelly just the novel’s Representative Fat Person, she wouldn’t be an especially memorable character. But Karla’s size is a way for Heller to get into questions about anxiety and belonging, and if nothing else Heller is smart enough to know that making her into a hero doesn’t involve sending her to the gym.

Back to Earth

Over the weekend Boing Boing brought the happy news that Daniel Raeburn has made all four issues of his fanzine about comics, The Imp, available online. Lavishly illustrated and built on intense research, The Imp was one of the most meticulously constructed zines I’d ever seen; if, like me, you briefly got into the habit of collecting Chick tracts, the comprehensive survey of the species in the second issue (PDF) of The Imp was essential reading.

The third issue (PDF), which is dedicated to the work of Chris Ware, is new to me, and it’s a remarkably thorough study of his excellent 2000 graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. Ware seems determined in an interview not to make too much of his accomplishment, but even his self-deprecating comments have a way of shedding light on his work:

I’d hoped to organize this stupid Jimmy Corrigan story in a way that would allow for thought and its various subspecies, such as memory, prediction, dreaming, ambition, and metaphorical association, to shape the ‘story’ rather than a traditional plot might’ve shaped it. Thought affects experience and perception, and I’ve tried to simulate this in the story with intrusions that probably seem to most people like ‘postmodern noodling,’ though that wasn’t my intent, just my fumbling, juvenile result. I dunno. It’s hard to tell a serious story with a dumb main character. I think my big mistake was approaching it as fiction.”

Raeburn has also written a book-length study of Ware’s work (though the Imp issue is pretty comprehensive in itself).

The Baker Connection

The new issue of the Quarterly Conversation includes an interesting essay by Barrett Hathcock proposing that Nicholson Baker is a kind of missing link between John Updike and David Foster Wallace. Baker, Hathcock argues, fetishized Updike’s concern with exacting detail, made that detail a fictional destination in itself, and Wallace in turn took that hyperprecision even further. Hathcock admits it’s a bit contrived to try to set the three authors up in a row, and the idea of chronological progression among the three is a bit off—Wallace’s first novel came out a year before Baker’s first novel, so who’s influencing whom here? But there’s some value in knocking the three guys against each other. A little surprisingly, Hathcock finds the clearest distinctions among the three in their nonfiction:

Updike is the great Professional of postwar letters; the man wrote everything with a postal regularity. The lesson of his career seems to be that one ought to be able to do everything all the time. Post-Baker, Wallace also writes nonfiction but does so in a way that dramatizes his unsuitability for the task at hand. Think of Wallace in “Up, Simba,” slowly scanning the political tour bus and positioning himself as anything but a professional journalist. This is the unique quality of his journalism: it offers a behind-the-scenes view of its own reportage; it dramatizes its own wrong turns, its own attempts at coherence. Where Baker sews in his own mistakes in U and I, Wallace adopts this mistaken identity as his very authorial persona.

I do think Baker and Wallace had more in common as nonfiction writers than the essay suggests, though. Both were clearly influenced by the New Journalism, which allowed the writer to step into the narrative, question the idea of narrative, and pursue unlikely angles. Both could take a topic and research it into the ground—think of Baker’s investigation of the word “lumber” or Wallace’s essay on what usage manuals might say about democracy. As stylists, both are adherents of the fussy, footnote-y school—though Hathcock suggests Wallace was a moralist in a way Baker never has been. Even so, it’s surprising Hathcock can’t dig up much evidence of one having read the other, though I don’t doubt a Baker novel or two was in Wallace’s library.

Links: Welcome! You’ve Got Weltschmerz!

Jonathan Franzen: “And AOL’s little box—the welcome screen, they call it, I guess—is so infuriating in its dopiness: ‘Surprising Leader In The Masters! Find Out Who!’ ‘Ten Things To Think About When Choosing A Hotel!’ ‘What Smart Travelers Know About X!’ It’s all in compact form, and it kind of tells me everything I need to know about the larger stupidity. It helps keep me in touch.”

Related: Lionel Shriver takes the Franzen hype as an opportunity to voice her righteous anger at the way her book covers favor girly imagery that’s out of touch with the book itself.

And related again: A few months back Shriver complained that Bret Easton Ellis‘ publisher spent too much money promoting his last novel. Ellis doesn’t disagree: “Lionel Shriver is correct in that regard. You can paint that black or find it interesting. The book business has become a bit of a dinosaur. But what is it transitioning into?

On what science fiction writers can learn from the recent spate of literary novels with science-fiction themes: “Reading through a stack of these recent literary books, you’re left with the feeling that…two themes — technological dislocation and imperial collapse — are resonating in the consciousness of the book-reading classes, and any author who manages to exploit these themes in an evocative way will make it big.”

How To Kill a Mockingbird inspired legal writer Dahlia Lithwick.

George Hitchcock, who published Raymond Carver‘s poetry in the literary journal kayak, died August 27.

The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings by James Baldwin is a bit scattershot, as the title suggests, but it has its share of provocative lines and it’s very much worth reading; the Library of America blog rounds up some of the coverage of the book.

Scott Timberg points to a couple of fine profiles he’s written on Daniel Alarcon and Yiyun Li.

Incoming college students rarely bother to read the book they’ve been assigned to read prior to their arrival on campus.

In fact, it seems like they’ll throw more energy into satirical news stories with headlines like, “Overzealous First-Year Reads Most of Summer Reading Assignment.”

The Saint Louis Library

The chatter about a certain Saint Louis-bred novelist prompted the local alt-weekly, The Riverfront Times, to do a smart thing a few weeks back: flood the zone with extensive coverage of the city’s literary history. Missouri poet laureate David Clewell praises Fielding Dawson as the city’s great unsung writer; Glenn Savan‘s 1987 novel, White Palace, is pitched as the great Saint Louis novel; and Aimee Levitt‘s main article features anecdotes about Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, Kate Chopin, and numerous others. The piece points out that William S. Burroughs, Jane Smiley, and Martha Gellhorn all attended the same high school, and how bummed Burroughs was to see how the town cleaned up its act after he graduated:

Burroughs was distressed by changes to St. Louis in his absence: “But what had happened to Market Street, the skid row of my adolescent years?” he wrote in 1965. “Where are the tattoo parlors, novelty stores, hock shops — brass knuckles in a dusty window — the seedy pitchmen — Where are the old junkies hawking and spitting on street corners under the glass lights?”

(The letters page includes a few more recommended Saint Louis authors the RFT’s coverage missed, Stanley Elkin most prominently.)