The Facile Trick

B.R. Myersdismissal of Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom in the Atlantic is strange—not least Myers’ complaint that the novel’s coarse language does some kind of disservice not just to the book to but to literature. (If the casual use of the word “fucking” in a novel offends Myers so, by reading contemporary living fiction he’s doomed to be constantly offended.*) But his oddest complaint is that Franzen litters his prose with brand names to please the market:

Franzen uses facile tricks to tart up the story as a total account of American life: the main news events of the past quarter century each get a nod in the appropriate chapter. Brands are identified whenever possible; we go from Parliament butts in the first chapter to Glad-wrapped cookies in the last. Countless pop-cultural artifacts are name-checked, in the most minimal sense of the term. When Joey and a girl fly to Argentina, Pirates of the Caribbean is playing on the seat backs in front of them. Facile, yes, but Franzen knows his market. Many people who eschew great books for the latest novels do so because they want precisely this kind of thing. (Every new book we read in our brief and busy lives means that a classic is left unread.)

Franzen’s use of brand names is a literary strategy, sure—a way to give the novel an extra touch of precision and verisimilitude, and if Myers thinks he goes a little overboard with the cultural references, I won’t disagree. (Franzen rarely passes on an opportunity to smirkingly mock the authority of the New York Times, or the self-satisfaction of NPR listeners.) But that’s not a craven marketing strategy to gain readers. How could it be? A reader who’s pleased by references to Parliaments and Pirates of the Caribbean won’t find their bliss until they’re deep into the novel anyway, and if that’s the bliss they’re looking for there are shorter, more comforting novels to read. (If Myers is right, perhaps publishers have been putting the wrong stickers on their covers for years. Instead of “Winner of the National Book Award” or “Oprah’s Book Club,” there should be stickers saying, “Mentions Lady Gaga” or “Droll reference to Car Talk on page 428!”) Franzen likes those “trivial particulars” because he wants to say (not wholly successfully) that they’re not so trivial, and if those references fail to create a portrait of modern life that has “real relevance” (whatever that is), it’s not because the author cynically chasing sales.

* And this from the same critic who made his name criticizing literary prose.

Hail to the Wonks

I have a brief review of Frederick Reuss‘ new novel, A Geography of Secrets, in this week’s Washington City Paper. It’s a tricky book that doesn’t occupy any obvious genre—it’s about spying and has some of the energy of a thriller, but it spends more time insides the heads of its protagonists than such books usually do. If somebody can address the book without mentioning Graham Greene, I’d like to hear about it. I couldn’t: “[A]s the diplomats in Graham Greene novels make clear, government middle-managers involved in life-and-death decisions suffer torments all their own, and Reuss has a gift for evoking the existential tensions that give Greene novels their intellectual heft.”

Reuss’ novel also makes interesting fodder for the Washington, D.C. parlor game of whether the city has inspired a great novel, and what territory such a novel would cover. I admit I may be the only person in the parlor, but I still think it’s a fun discussion—the two other cities I’ve lived in, San Francisco and Chicago, don’t need to spend a moment wondering about their literary legacies, but D.C. is such a fractured place in terms of geography, race, class, and its political swampiness that it’s been hard to contain. (George Washington University’s website recently produced a list of D.C.-themed books, mostly fiction, that’s a good place to start. Though once again Ward Just is neglected.)

I don’t think A Geography of Secrets alters the landscape of D.C. fiction, but it is a reminder of how full the city is of people employed in the military-intelligence world, and Reuss gives those people an unusual amount of dignity, describing the quiet angst such people are working through. One of the main characters, Noel, can’t help but fantasize about tearing down the city and starting over:

He crosses the Fourteenth Street bridge, gets on the George Washington Memorial Parkway. After Arlington Cemetery, the parkway begins a steady ascent along the Potomac gorge. The river narrows here, and the banks on either side become suddenly darker. Noel is sure he is not along in imagining, from time to time, plumes and towers of smoke rising from the city behind him, or, thinking forward, seeing cows and sheep grazing once again on the Mall. Why should the equalizing force of time that has made quaint archaeological sites of other great capitals spare Washington, D.C.?

Another character observes the way the city is strangely decentralized—how the work that keeps it running is done out of view, if not actually out of town:

Washington, D.C., is built almost entirely on hidden relationships. I began seeing them, in evanescent cross-section, during my comings and goings, impressions in the human dough, each occupying a place in the collapsible distance between one and the next: standing on a Metro escalator, stuck in traffic on the Beltway, waiting in line at Safeway or Best Buy—or, since most of what happens in Washington actually transpires elsewhere, at departure gate C7 at Dulles Airport with a Starbucks coffee, a laptop, and a carry-on.

No novel about D.C. could claim to be comprehensive without addressing race, and Reuss punts on that. (“The slice of Washington, D.C., known as Ward 8 may as well be another planet,” he writes, referring to the majority-black region of the city east of the Anacostia River.) But comprehensiveness isn’t Reuss’ goal, and it may be a ridiculous goal anyway. His chosen task was to look at the wiring inside the heads of average well-meaning intel functionaries, and in that he’s wholly succeeded, making those men appear not just smart but empathetic, funny, and interesting in ways they’re rarely allowed to be.

Links: BREAKING: Book Review Outlet May Publish Review of Book

Department of Ridiculous News Story Premises: “After a summer of glowing reviews for Jonathan Franzen‘s new novel “Freedom,” in which the book was deemed a masterpiece and its author compared to great American novelists, publishing insiders say the literary lovefest may be about to end. According to those sources, Ruth Franklin, a senior editor at the New Republic, will pan “Freedom” in an issue out later this month. Judging by literary critics’ penchant for piling on, she probably won’t be the last reviewer looking to draw blood.”

Where are the novels about Hurricane Katrina?

Julia Alvarez: “I struggled early on because my first language was Spanish and when I came here I read all these great male writers whose voices sounded important, so I tried to model my own voice after them.”

According to a Bowker survey (PDF), there are many reasons why a person might purchase a book, but a book review isn’t one of them (see page 29). So, little has changed.

Jack Shafer despairs for the future of the book—though the book’s eroding cultural primacy, as he describes it, seems to apply mostly to nonfiction books, which have increasingly become lodes for data miners. As for novels, you still have to read those from start to finish.

Mystery novelist Bryan Gruley on the distinctions between writing news stories and writing fiction.

James Ellroy: “Well, sir, and this is on the record, I’ve blurbed a lot of books I haven’t read. Blurbed a lot of books I haven’t read, and have decided to drop the curtain on that.”

Inside Jennifer Egan‘s old-school day planner.

Things I’ve Overheard My Roommate Say to Her On-Again/Off-Again Boyfriend or Works by Joyce Carol Oates? (via; this gag also works for Bob Dylan and Dan Rather quotes)

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.”