Links: Stuffing

If you survived Thanksgiving intact, you can appreciate why the holiday gets so much traction in fiction: “It’s a perfect plot and setting device to get a family together and expose the gap between the myth of American family and the reality.”

The latest issue of Conjunctions has a city theme. Stephen O’Connor‘s fine breakup story, “‘Til There Was You,” isn’t online, but a pair of typically funny-and-sour brief stories by Etgar Keret are. The journal’s website also recently published a brief story by Barney Rosset about a Chicago dive bar in 1948.

Jay Parini, author of The Passages of H.M., on Herman Melville‘s bisexuality.

News to me: “The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston contains the world’s largest collection of Ernest Hemingway material.” (It’s true.)

Cynthia Ozick‘s Foreign Bodies, her tussle with Henry JamesThe Ambassadors, “is the most readable of her six novels, and perhaps the best thing Ozick has ever written,” writes D.G. Myers. More at his blog.

Talking to David Foster Wallace in 1998.

William Styron
‘s daughter explains the voting tally for the 1952 Pulitzer Prize in fiction:

Bill Morris uses his correspondence with another writer as a launchpad for discussing writing longhand, on typewriters, and on keyboards, and whether it makes a difference in the final product.

Stephen Burt
on what a review can do for a book: “[It can] cause others to pay attention to it. Cause others to be interested in it. Describe it accurately. Do justice to it. Indicate what, if anything, makes the book stand out, seem original or memorable, or, indeed, accurate, or [what makes it] sound good. Describe the book as a work of art rather than as simply a representation. Say, and I’m going to misquote the philosopher Arthur Danto here, what is in the book that is not reducible to its content. Cause others to talk about the book. Indicate what about the book is deeply flawed so that artists and readers with interests similar to the author of the book will do better next time. Engage in a public dialogue with the author herself about her new book and her prior books and, perhaps, her next book. Indicate, as in the case of James Wood and hysterical realism, what is, for good or for ill, and it often is for ill, typical or representative about a book, either of kinds of books, or of the age, or the culture that the book comes from. Differentiate the book from other books that seem similar. Indicate that the books has some kind of internal variety or is divided within itself in a way that other readers of the book, [if it] is widely reviewed, haven’t noticed. Bring, and this is my very favorite thing to try to do as a reviewer, bring to the attention of other readers a book, an author, or a work, that doesn’t seem to have been noticed at all, and that deserves attention.” (Follow the link for audio of the Minneapolis event where Burt, my colleague on the NBCC board, spoke these wise words.)

Mark Twain‘s autobiography suggests that “What he loathed, apparently, was dealing with the plain, old, not-necessarily-funny truth about himself,” writes Judith Shulevitz. (Also: If you buy the book, you’re doing your bit for Michigan’s manufacturing economy.)

My review of Andrew Wingfield‘s short story collection, Right of Way is in this week’s Washington City Paper. The book is the fiction winner of an annual contest held by the D.C.-area literary nonprofit Washington Writers’ Publishing House; residents of the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria and fans of Winesburg, Ohio are encouraged to investigate.

Happy Thanksgiving

Robertson Davies: I do not respond quite so immediately and warmly to writers in the United States, because their concerns are different from mine and their approach to them is different from mine. They seem to be infinitely concerned with very subtle details of feeling and life. I find this exemplified, for instance, in many stories in The New Yorker where whether the family will have pumpkin pie or something else on Thanksgiving Day is a decision with infinite psychological and sexual repercussions. I take this quite seriously. I admire their subtlety—but I get so sick of it. I wish they would deal with larger themes.

Interviewer: I hope you don’t think New Yorker writers are representative of American culture across the board.

Davies: Perhaps not. I just see their stories every week because I’ve been taking the magazine forever and I haven’t the wits to stop.

— From a Paris Review interview with Davies, Spring 1989

(Davies may be susceptible to the “typical New Yorker story” fallacy, but it’s a funny riff all the same. We celebrated Thanksgiving with Joseph Heller last year.)

All the Pretty Horses

Jaimy Gordon‘s Lord of Misrule is this year’s National Book Award winner in fiction, and there are a few obvious reasons why. It’s a finely considered portrait of a particular time and place—specifically a downtrodden West Virginia racetrack in the 1970s, where scam artists drive boatlike Cadillacs and everybody is placing too much hope on some B-list horse or other. Another part of the novel’s appeal is that its scam artists aren’t particularly artistic; Gordon has an shrewd eye for the emotional and financial clumsiness of each of her characters, and she’s skilled at exposing their foibles without holding them up to mockery. Mostly: Toward the end, when a group of two-bit mobsters and track habitues squabble over a ridiculous abduction, it’s hard not to think of William Faulkner‘s “Spotted Horses,” another horse story that featured people so thickheaded that part of the fun was recognizing that a) these scheming characters all deserved each other and b) you weren’t them.

But what’s mostly interesting about Lord of Misrule—the only thing that conceivably could have catapulted it to prizewinning status—is how it sounds. Early on, Maggie, the ostensible heroine of the novel, examines a horse:

The right front cannon bone on the black horse resembled an old ragged galosh right down to the lumpy buckles. Blister, cautery, everything had been done. And in Maggie’s eyes he had a giant prehistoric head—armor plated, scarred like a box and ugly as a rhinoceros.

That gets at Gordon’s feel for alliteration, rhythm, and (especially) simile—she has a tremendous knack for the image that exposes the rot and contempt in the world she describes. (“The game was funny, not funny ha-ha, funny like green lunchmeat.” “Natalie, the New Rochelle auto parts chainstore divorcee, with her big pink open mouth like a toilet seat.”) But those quotes don’t quite get at the dreamlike quality that Gordon strives for, how she counterbalances the petty despair of most her characters with the strangely attractive world of the track and the horses. Maggie again:

The racetrack asleep at night is a live and spooky place, especially if you think somebody might jump out at you, and she did think so—small world that ends at a fence, the dark blue restless air fragrant with medicinals, Absorbine, liniment, pine tar—everywhere light chains clanking, water buckets creaking and sloshing, round glimmers of water, horses masticating or snorting out dust, straw rustling, skinny cats glimpsed everywhere but only for a moment, always in motion, noiseless.

Better still is how she writes about the horses themselves: One stands “in his bucket of ice as cool as a Tiffany cocktail stirrer, dreaming in black jewelry eyes of emerald alfalfa and clover of Burmese jade.” But Gordon’s ambition extends beyond just crafting a prose poem about horse racing—she’s also chosen to pick up the additional task of weaving her own voice into the voices of her other characters. Chapters focused on Maggie’s boyfriend, Tommy, tend to be narrated in second person—a way to intimately show how his sense of ownership of horses extends to women as well. (“…you could get to her through her body. It was a black, rich, well-watered way, between rock faces. The word podzol came to mind. The word humus. Soil. Slut.”) With Medicine Ed, an aging black groom, Gordon plays with dialect (“And then he forgot about drinking, found he grew ponderful in the evenings on his own anymore, didn’t need no likka, no nothing”)—but tentatively, never diving so deep into his character that she has to choose between his voice and hers.

Reviewing the novel for the Washington Post, Jane Smiley suggested that this range of voices “allows for immediacy but not for perspective. The wisdom these characters offer is limited by the narrowness of their world.” But that narrowness is largely the point—Gordon’s task is to make her characters sympathetic in spite of their behavior, in spite of their lack of understanding of a world away from the track. (Only Maggie appears to have once lived a life not defined by horses, writing about food for a newspaper supplement.) What Gordon has really sacrificed in focusing so much on voice isn’t “perspective” so much as plot. Ultimately the story turns on little more than the outcomes of particular races, and Gordon herself admits to the preposterousness of the kidnapping storyline in the final third of the novel: “Nowadays you couldn’t just let some Black Bart tie you to the railroad tracks and walk away and leave you. The age demanded signs of a struggle even from a corpse.” And Black Bart-ish it is. Of course, it’s not just “the age” that demands signs of a struggle—novels demand it too. But Lord of Misrule‘s chief flaw is that it can’t quite couple a convincing struggle to the beauty of its language.

Links: Running Numbers

Aimee Bender: “I think a lot of writers do think mathematically, actually, because fiction, a made-up world, requires a lot of working through of logic. So it’s a kind of math, on the page, using words. A word problem, of sorts.”

The legal squabbling over Katherine Anne Porter‘s estate drags on.

Olga Grushin on The Line: This is not just any community; it’s a community that forms in the face of repression. On some basic level, this story, of hoping, of waiting, could have been set anywhere—say, waiting in line to audition for “The American Idol”—but the Soviet setting allowed me to explore additional aspects of oppression, danger and trust, and how the darkest times can bring out the worst and the best in ordinary people.

What is Southern lit? I don’t know. You get knocked down. Black holes burnt into a map. There is moss and gonorrhea. You scramble back up but don’t know your mind. What you were was it worth reaching fer? You can’t tell your Bad Faith actions from your authentic mind. It’s all a low fog, over soybean fields and the jawbone of a deer.” (This riff reminded me of George Singleton‘s comic short story “Which Rocks We Choose” [PDF excerpt], which sends up some of Southern culture’s best-loved cliches.)

In a Daily Rumpus email, Stephen Elliott talks about Frederick Exley‘s A Fan’s Notes with Tobias Wolff: “‘It was a writer’s book,’ Tobias said. We decided that it was better than a book that makes a big splash. Better to write a book that people are still reading 40 years later. He said Exley’s other books weren’t quite as good. Some of them were very good, but not quite to the level of A Fan’s Notes. It’s a hard well to return to. How does one write another book like that?”

Jonathan Franzen on putting current events in Freedom: “I had to cut the noise down by 99 percent, and just let that one percent trickle in.” A necessary literary strategy if you’re writing for posterity, or just evasive?

Yesterday I was a guest on Minnesota Public Radio’s Midmorning program to discuss the National Book Awards and the upset win of Jaimy Gordon‘s racetrack novel, Lord of Misrule. (More on that book soon.) Asked to suggest a couple of books the NBA judges might have considered short-listing, I put in for Yiyun Li‘s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl and James HynesNext. National Book Foundation executive director Harold Augenbraum gently noted that Li wouldn’t have qualified because she’s an American resident but not a citizen. He also noted that the foundation is giving some thought to breaking up the awards’ nonfiction category into smaller ones such as memoir, history, etc. It’ll be interesting to see if that happens, though I can’t imagine they’ll go as hog-wild with multiple categories as they did in the early 80s.

Adam Langer: “You could probably view the history of invention in storytelling as having begun all the way back in the Garden of Eden when Eve said ‘Apple? What do you mean, apple? I didn’t eat any apple.’ But, in that case, if Eve was the first fake memoirist, then it might be useful to point out that the first literary critic was a snake.”

“The majority of [Mary] Gaitskill’s lecture focused on something that creative writing courses tend to shy away from, considering that it cannot really be taught: the question of unseeable content, the form under the plot, ‘the deeper quality, the unconscious soul,’ the ‘inner weaving of a story that you can’t read—you have to feel,’ as Gaitskill put it.”

Stephen O’Connor on how he came to write the brilliant, peculiar story “Ziggurat.”

On David Foster Wallace‘s ill-fated attempt to balance a serious pursuit of philosophy and writing The Broom of the System.

Curtis Sittenfeld: “I think in general, novels by men tend to be taken more seriously than novels by women. But I also think that novels being taken seriously is kind of a nebulous concept. I mean, what does that mean? Getting multiple reviews in the New York Times? Personally, I have never wished I were a male novelist.”

Gish Jen:

Paul Auster: “All my stories are about America, they’re impregnated with American history, American literature. But… people care little about books, there’s no book culture here.”

Ed Park reviews the Chicago Manual of Style as if it were a postmodern novel.

Guess that settles it: “It is questionable whether Franny and Zooey is even a classic at all considering Wikipedia does not list it as a notable Salinger work.”

Failed State

The Daily Caller brings word that Christopher Hitchens has an article in the latest issue of City Journal bemoaning the lack of a great novel set in Washington, D.C. (The Daily Caller piece recommends William Peter Blatty‘s The Exorcist as a candidate, due to its thread of noble humanism, before the author equates pro-choice advocates with angry demons that require exorcising. Writing a great Washington novel requires getting one’s head around that kind of logic, which may help explain why the job is so difficult.) The City Journal article isn’t online, but Hitchens has registered this complaint before. Writing in the Washington Post in 1989, he held his nose while reading Allen Drury‘s Advise and Consent and damned the whole genre:

Verisimilitude…is probably not worth having. It is best to treat Washington as an idea rather than a place. In different ways, authors as various as Richard Condon and Christopher Buckley have written successful and enjoyable novels by getting this point and opting for the willing suspension of disbelief. Jeffrey Archer, who can’t write, has at least tried the same tactic, though he sets too much store by “researched” descriptions of situation rooms, Pentagon offices and other arcana. Paragraphs that tell you the exact time that so-and-so stepped out of a Foggy Bottom elevator belong in pulp journalism not pulp fiction.

In 1995 he was at it again, demolishing Charles McCarry‘s Shelley’s Heart by riffing on the Washington novel’s flaws: “Most ‘Washington novels’ still have the same cast: a President (inescapable), a British ambassador, a prominent hostess, a lobbyist or journalist, and a senator…. [S]enators have ‘manes,’ rooms are filled with smoke, party allegiances are strong and distinct, regional characteristics are heavily stressed among members of Congress, and newspapers are ruthlessly committed to breaking stories at any cost.”

Clearly Hitchens hasn’t found any worthy candidates in the 15 years since his New York Review of Books piece, and he’s not alone in his frustration, though a few candidates have cropped up. I’d be interested to see if he’s spent any time with Ward Just‘s Echo House, a George Pelecanos novel or two, or even Frederick Reussrecent A Geography of Secrets. I’ll update once I get my hands on a copy of the City Journal article. Of course, I welcome recommendations in the comments of worthy D.C. novels, or thoughts about what such a book requires to be “great.”

Links: Dead Tongues

Marilynne Robinson: “If you want your prose to be good, studying Latin is good for you.”

Pushcart Prize founder Bill Henderson remains optimistic about small presses and literary magazine.

Paul Auster: “I believe that the whole idea of the consumer society is tottering. We’ve kept ourselves going by producing more and more goods, most of which people don’t need. I’m anti-consumerism; I own four pairs of black Levis and that’s it.”

However outdated its notions about psychotherapy might be, Millen Brand‘s 1937 novel, The Outward Room, is worth revisiting.

“I don’t think [Jonathan Franzen] was literally saying that America invaded Afghanistan so that Americans could continue to drive SUVs. I think he was trying to trace a connection between American foreign policy and Americans’ own understandings of freedom, which is both a value and an emotional imperative that they understand in particular ways and struggle to achieve in their personal lives.”

This nonsense about how “[dead writer] would never use Twitter and Facebook” needs to stop.

Rick Moody on parenthood and home.

“Twenty-five years since its initial publication, White Noise feels like an important and ongoing philosophical experiment…”

In praise of Leonard Michaels‘ Nachman stories.

An excellent interview with Boston Globe literary critic Katherine A. Powers (J.F. Powers‘ daughter), covering Charles Portis, rereading, short stories, fiction in translation, and her admirably simple metric for a book’s success: “When I think of the novels I really like, I can think of only one thing that unites them: their authors proved trustworthy, that is, my suspension of disbelief was not betrayed.”

“The internet’s most ruinous effect on literacy may not be the obliteration of long-format journalism or drops in hardcover sales; it may be the destruction of the belief that books can be talked and written about endlessly. There are fewer official reviews of novels lately, but there are infinitely more pithily captioned links on Facebook, reader-response posts on Tumblr, punny jokes on Twitter. How depressing, to have a book you just read and loved feel so suddenly passé, to feel—almost immediately—as though you no longer have any claim to your own ideas about it.”

Lastly, it’s off this blog’s chosen beat, but I had run catching up with Salman Rushdie‘s work while working on my review of his new children’s book, Luka and the Fire of Life, for the New York Times Book Review. Being a new father may have more kindly attuned me to it, but I suspect I’d recommend it regardless.

Fathers and Sons

My review of Paul Auster‘s new novel, Sunset Park, is up at the Barnes & Noble Review. I’ve seen a few articles and comments about the book that suggest the novel is a kind of commentary on the foreclosure crisis, which seems sensible enough: The book’s main character, Miles, begins the novel “trashing out” abandoned homes in Florida and later moves into a squat in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood. Auster’s books have a way of containing multitudes, so it’s a fair way to read the novel. But Auster ultimately doesn’t have as much to say about the housing crisis as he does about the meaning of “home.” As I was reading Sunset Park, I kept thinking that the book didn’t resonate so much with his recent novels like as they do with his autobiographical writing—where, much as in Sunset Park, he’s trying to sort his disconnection from his father, and what it means to be part of a family when that disconnection persists. So:

It’s not unusual for Auster to litter his novels with personal detail, of course. But Sunset Park isn’t another self-referential puzzle: its power derives from how intensely its characters look into themselves and their pasts—worriedly, regretfully—in a manner that evokes the heartfelt, introspective tone of Auster’s memoirs. In Solitude, Hand to Mouth, and The Red Notebook he addressed matters of maturity and family with a directness that rarely emerges in his fiction, where he’s done his moral workouts in the context of steely Pomo eccentricities: the noirish riffing of The New York Trilogy, the dog’s-eye-view of Timbuktu, the absurdist Travels in the Scriptorium, the stories-within-stories of Oracle Night and last year’s Invisible. Sunset Park isn’t “autobiographical” so much as it’s borne of the same confessional spirit Auster has brought to his nonfiction.

Reviews of the novel generally appear mixed—if not downright dismissive in England. But I think Auster has written three of his best novels in the past few years (Man in the Dark, Invisible, and Sunset Park), and the new one reveals a depth of emotion that Auster hasn’t often allowed himself.